Hume merely lifted his heavy shoulders.
"And," Leland added, a little more sharply, "I want you to know also that there is a woman here, a Miss Hazleton, whom we don't know anything about excepting that she went to Shandon's last night, and after her talk with him he rushed out to Garth demanding to be told about the mortgage. Just where she fits in I don't know. She might be anything from a chorus girl to a Reno widow."
"Oho," cried Hume, his brows suddenly drawn blackly. "He's getting a woman mixed up in his affairs, is he? That shows how much sense he has. Where is she now?"
"Here. She has asked to go out with us tomorrow."
Hume made no answer but shoving his hands into his pockets strode after Leland into the living room. He stopped at the door, a little startled by the vision which confronted him as Helga Strawn turned quickly from the window, where she had been frowning at the blinding glare of the snow without, and faced him.
She wore the clothes in which she had gone through the storm, but a hot iron had taken the wrinkles out and they fitted her superb figure admirably. Hume did not notice the clothes, he saw only the woman. She inclined her head just a little to her host, with no softening of the cold features. Upon Hume she bestowed a casual glance that came and went indifferently.
"Miss Hazleton," said Martin curtly, "this is Mr. Hume."
The eyes of the two men were keen upon her as the name was spoken. As Martin had said they did not know where this woman fitted in; it was their business to find out.
Again she bowed, very slightly. If she felt any flicker of interest, of surprise, that Hume was here, she did not betray it.
"How do you do, Mr. Hume?" was what she said, as indifferently as though in reality she had no interest in the man or knowledge of him.
Martin left the room and went to the kitchen in search of Mrs. Leland. Hume came to the window where Helga was standing.
"So you are a friend of Red Shandon's, are you?" he said bluntly.
"Am I?" The lift of her brows asked him very plainly what he meant by that and what business it was of his.
"Yes," he retorted a little warmly, perhaps for the mere reason that her very carriage hinted at a will ready to cross swords with his, and Sledge Hume was not a man to tolerate opposition in a woman. "You told him that the mortgage had been foreclosed."
"Did I?" coolly.
"And, if you care to know," he went on roughly, "you have thereby piled up a lot of trouble for your friend Shandon."
There was rare impudence in the laughter with which she answered him.
"I have a way of judging a man when I first see him," she said, her smile now flashing her amusement at him. "I didn't think that you were going to be as stupid as the rest."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean," and she turned back to the window, "that what happens to Shandon or any other man in the world is absolutely immaterial so far as I am concerned. Please don't think that I'm a tender hearted little thing who is going to cry if you slap another man's face."
"You mean that you are not a friend of Shandon?" cynically.
"Your way of opening a conversation with a woman you have just met is charmingly unique! If you are trying to get something out of me you are going the wrong way about it, aren't you? You have already let out twice as much as I have!"
"Yes. You have told me that there was a mortgage of which I knew nothing; that it has been concealed from Shandon; that he has learned about it; that it upsets your kettle of fish in some way; that you are going to make things hot for him because of it. All that is a good deal of information to give a stranger in less than a minute's time, don't you think, Mr. Hume?"
He laughed and yet his eyes hardened and narrowed upon her.
"You are welcome to what I have told you," he retorted. "It will be common talk in twenty-four hours."
She gave no sign of having heard. Her indifference vaguely irritated him.
"Look here, Miss Hazleton," he said significantly. "I'll tell you something else as long as I am pouring out my heart to you," a sneer under the words. "Before I'm done with Shandon he won't have a boot for his foot or a leg to walk on. And anybody who ties up with him is going to get smashed the same way!"
"It is very kind of you to warn me beforehand," she laughed softly. "The fact that I have no interest whatever in Mr. Shandon certainly should not lessen my gratitude to you, should it?"
"You want me to believe that?"
"Really there is only one thing which I do want you to believe," she said in return. "Just that it would be very strange if I should care one way or the other what you think. Isn't it perfectly glorious the way the sun strikes the snow?"
Helga Strawn's keen womanly perception had in no way misled her concerning her relative's nature. A compelling, masterful disposition like Sledge Hume's grows accustomed to having its way. She was coolly treating him as it was his role to treat others; and he did not like the change of roles. He realised that the conversation had come to an end. At the same time he knew that if he turned and left her, his usual way when all had been said, he would be taking his dismissal like a schoolboy. And he knew that as she looked out over the snow she would be smiling.
"I have heard," he went on stubbornly, "of a woman going to see Ettinger and Norfolk. It was you. Now you come to see Shandon. Do you think that I am fool enough to believe that you are not interested in the same thing I am?"
"Ah!" she said, turning swiftly. "But I did not say that I was not interested in the irrigation of Dry Valley. I am!"
"And," his old weapon, a sneer, coming back, "you are not interested in Shandon?"
"Not that much." She snapped her white fingers and Hume saw the sparkle of rings. "Shandon is a fool. So is Ettinger. I am not interested in fools." She paused a moment, her brilliant eyes meeting his. "Are you a fool like the rest, Sledge Hume?"
She puzzled him, this woman who should have been that weak, inefficient thing which Hume's conceit pictured all of her sex. He began to be a little more upon his guard in talking with her.
"No." He contented himself with the one word, only his eyes demanding an explanation.
"I don't think much of your associates," she informed him.
"You mean Leland?"
"He is bad enough. Garth Conway is worse. They are poor sort of men to swing a big deal."
"They are not swinging it," he said bluntly.
Again she paused, her tapering fingers drumming idly upon the glass through which once more she was looking out upon the shining snow.
"I was coming to talk with you anyway in a day or so," she said after a little. "I have fifty thousand dollars available. Can you use it?"
In spite of him he started. She spoke of the matter so coolly, so indifferently. And there had never been the time yet when Sledge Hume could not use fifty thousand dollars very readily.
"Go on," he said.
"I saw the other side first," she returned. "They have a bigger chance than you. But there is not a man among them. If you know what you are doing, if you know how to do it, you will make and they will break. I want to get in on the winning side. That's all."
"And if we can't make a place for you?"
"Then I'll make one for myself. I'll see the farmers again. I'll make them organise instead of bickering. I'll swing the controlling vote myself. If fifty thousand won't do it I'll put the rest in. And then we'll buy you and your crowd out or we'll sell you water or you'll go to pieces so badly that the sheriff will sell you out!"
Hume laughed. And yet he recognised swiftly that here was a woman to reckon with, that a fresh element had entered the game he was playing.
"You have a wonderful amount of confidence," he said.
"In myself," she retorted meaningly.
"I think," he said thoughtfully, passing over her remark without answer, "that I can make a place for you, if you've really got the money."
"I think that you can," she assured him.
And so Helga Strawn played the first card in the game with her relative, Sledge Hume.
The sheriff, armed with a warrant for the arrest of Wayne Shandon, and accompanied by two deputies arrived at the Echo Creek a little before noon. They had left their horses at the same ranch house where Hume had stayed last night, coming on up the valley on snowshoes. They went immediately to Martin's study, from there to the dining room, then back to the study. Martin, Hume and Garth Conway remained with them, their voices coming in a low drone to the three women in the other part of the house. The nervousness and anxiety of both Mrs. Leland and Julia did not escape the sharp eyes of Helga Strawn.
"Hume is beginning his dirty work," she mused. "A trumped up charge of some kind to get Shandon out of the way for a while."
"I got your message," MacKelvey told Hume half angrily. "And I got busy because it's my sworn duty, not because I hankered after the job. Your man in El Toyon swore out the warrant as you said he would. But it looks damn' funny to me that if you fellows believe that Shandon killed his brother you had to wait until now to say so. And you can take my word for it I'd have taken my time about getting here if I hadn't known that Mr. Leland was with you in the matter."
A little after noon, the sheriff with his men left for the Bar L-M. Garth assured them that Wayne could hardly get away before the late afternoon or the following morning, for the reason that when he left the ranch there had been a number of things yet to do before the place was closed up for the winter. MacKelvey and one of the men with him went on webs; Hume and the other man on skis.
A hundred yards from the house they came upon Willie Dart. He had travelled thus far on a pair of skis which he had found in the attic, had struggled manfully but hopelessly to manage the narrow strips of wood which pigeon toed and tripped him or interfered with each other behind him, refusing the parallelism to which Mr. Dart strove wildly to restrain them. He had fallen when they reached him and was standing to his waist in the snow, his face red, the perspiration trickling down his cheeks.
"Oho!" laughed Hume loudly. "So you were on your way to warn him, were you?"
"You big boob, you!" shrieked Dart. "Get down and I'll shove your face in for you!"
So they left him to struggle his way back to the house, Hume's laughter booming back above the shrill imprecations of the little man. There were tears, genuine tears in Willie Dart's eyes.
THE SHORT CUT
Wanda Leland, her lithe body bending gracefully and easily as she drove her light skis over the glistening crust of the snow, shot down the last long slope in a sort of ecstasy inspired by the exhiliration of silent speed and the crisp brightness of the early afternoon. Stooping forward a little she took the short leap across the three foot wide gulch at the base of the knoll upon which the house stood, and laughed aloud as she landed and with gathered impetus sped a score of feet up the knoll itself.
She had left Wayne happy in the two things which mattered: He loved her even as she loved him; he was a strong man and a true. There was still sadness in her breast but it was but a sunspot in the great glory of her happiness. But now suddenly, even while her lips curved redly to her gay laughter, was the gladness to go out of her.
She saw Willie Dart upon the porch, saw him start towards her in an eagerness little less than frantic. He fairly hurled himself from the steps into the deep snow, floundered helplessly, and progressing by hard fought inches came on to meet her. As her skis, running up hill, came slowly to a stop she watched him with amused eyes. But when she saw his face, twisted with despair, she grew suddenly afraid.
"They've gone to arrest Red!" he wailed. "The sheriff and Hume and two other guys. Where is he?"
"He has gone back to the Bar L-M," she answered swiftly. "What do you mean?"
"I mean them crooks have gone to arrest him for murder," he called to her. "They left nearly an hour ago. It's a skin game of the worst kind. They want him tied up so they can work some sneaking gag and rob him of his land. Hume wants him where he can't ride a race in the spring so he'll grab Red's five thousand. The money's already up. God knows what else they've got up their dirty sleeves."
For one dizzy moment the girl grew faint with fear. And when that moment passed she saw clearly that as matters stood Wayne Shandon had a man's work ahead of him. Thrown into jail, charged with so serious a crime as fratricide, with Hume, and perhaps her own father, doing everything in the world that they could do to hamper him, he would be carrying a handicap to break the back of a man's hope.
"They mustn't do this thing!" she cried passionately, the eyes that had been tender a moment ago growing fierce. "Does my father know this?"
"Sure," grunted Dart disgustedly. "He's one of the combine."
"And they left an hour ago?"
"Seems like a million years. It must be awful close to an hour. Say, Wanda, I tried, honest to God, I did—"
She did not hear. She had turned away from him and was staring at the long billowing sweep of snow lying between her and those men who had gone to arrest Wayne Shandon. She saw the broken imprints of the Canadian snowshoes, the smooth tracks of the skis, and demanded sharply:
"Which men wore the webs?"
"Them tennis racket things? MacKelvey and one of his thieves."
He looked at her wonderingly. What difference did that make? But Wanda took no time for explanations. She was thinking swiftly that MacKelvey would be the man to make the arrest, that the others would accommodate their gait to his, that upon a crust like this the Canadian shoes could make no such speed as a pair of skis.
"Tell mamma, no one else, where I have gone," she cried.
And, swinging about, she took the side of the knoll in a long sweep, shot down into a hollow, rose upon the far side, crossed the trail that the four men had made, seemed to Mr. Dart's staring eyes to be balancing a moment upon a line where snow and sky met and then was gone from him, dropping out of sight into the wilderness of snow.
"She's some game little kid," he moaned, shaking his head and making a slow retreat back to the house. "But with them cutthroats an hour ahead of her, she ain't got a show. Poor old Red."
But Wanda's heart was beating steadily now, her muscles were obeying the calm command of her will, and she was telling herself resolutely that she did have a chance. MacKelvey and Hume and the others would see no imperative need for a wild burst of speed; they would travel swiftly but they would not know that she was moving more swiftly behind them. Up and down hill they would go step by step while she, following the way she knew so well, the trails she had followed winter after winter, would find the long slopes down which she would shoot like a flash of light. It was more than possible that they would take over two hours in making the trip; she must make it in less than an hour.
"If I had only come home half an hour sooner," she cried as she fought her oblique way up a ridge she must top, "I could have laughed at them. God be with me and I'll laugh at them yet!"
She was going too fast; she came to the crest of the ridge panting, her heart beating wildly, her body shaking. She sought to relax her muscles as she took the long racing ride down upon the far side. She went more slowly as she climbed the next ridge. She was thinking coolly now, she saw the need both of speed and of a conservation of energy. She felt no fatigue from the trip of the forenoon; she had rested long at the cave with Wayne; and yet she knew that unless she saved her strength she would be unfit for the last burst of speed at the end.
She did not follow the track the four men had left. She knew these woods too well to lose a precious yard now. Where they had turned here and there to avoid thick clumps of firs the girl, looking far ahead, economised strength and shortened distances.
"I must get there first," she cried over and over again. "If these men will do the sort of thing Wayne says that they have done, if they will stop at nothing to gain their ends, what hope has he if they arrest him and charge him with Arthur's murder? There will be evidence, they will make evidence, and he will be in jail where he can not help himself."
Once she heard a faint cracking sound under her feet and her heart stopped. If a ski had broken now— But it was only a dead brush, snow covered, and one of the lifeless twigs had snapped. She became more careful of the way, wary of being tricked by the blinding snow that appeared level when there were mounds and hollows that might have broken a ski had she been careless and unlucky. The sudden hideous fancy leaped out upon her that the breaking of a ski now might mean the death of a man, the only man in the world for her.
At last, from the crest of the highest ridge, the one from which each year she took her favourite ride down to the river, she caught sight of the little party that menaced Wayne Shandon's liberty. The men had been making better time than she had let herself believe they would; evidently MacKelvey wanted to get the thing over with, to get back to the Echo Creek that night. Beyond them, straight ahead, was the bridge.
"I can't do it! I can't do it!" she cried aloud, her voice broken with hopelessness.
Even as she hesitated, poising upon the top of the rise, one of the men far ahead turned and saw her. It was Sledge Hume. She saw his quick gesture; she almost fancied that she could hear his laugh. He would know why she followed them. He would be mocking her. Oh, how she hated the man then!
"They will leave one of the deputies at the bridge," she thought in despair. "He won't let me across. Oh, God, if there were only another crossing!"
There was another crossing; a snowshoe rabbit had shown it to her. He had sought to leap it just to save the little flame of life in the tiny furred breast. He had gone to his death valiantly, but he had shown her the place, the short cut, the way that was full of menace and yet that was possible.
Her face whitened; she hesitated just a fraction of a second, balancing. Now the men were following the wide crescent of the curve which would lead them to the bridge. There was another course lying straight between the two tips of that crescent, and a great gap filled with the thunder of raging water against crags that were like the horrible teeth of a monster, broke the short cut in two.
Again Hume had turned; she noted even across the distance the contemptuous carriage of his big body and she knew that he was laughing. And again, as though it were already just before her, she fancied that she saw the chasm of the river.
"It is Wayne's ruin, it maybe Wayne's death, if they take him now!"
It seemed to her that it had not been her voice, that whispered the words. It seemed that they had come to her from the air, that some one else had spoken them. And as, hesitating no longer, she stooped forward and sped down the long slope, she swerved still further from the track the four men had made, heading straight to the river above them, opposite the Bar L-M ranch house, straight toward the only way that was left her.
She had made up her mind. She was resolute now and yet she was frightened. In a little while the roar of the river smote her ears and it seemed at once to call to her and jeer at her. She fancied that it was like Hume's voice, mocking her. She remembered just how the banks fell straight down to the whirlpools; she remembered again the splash of the falling snow when she had come so close to her death. The very feeling that had gripped her then, like ice against the beatings of her heart, gripped her now. She was as one in a nightmare, drawn on, rushing on to the peril from which she shrank.
She lost sight of Hume and the rest as she left the straight, cleared roadway and the trees came between her and them.
"They're all the same," Sledge Hume was laughing as he turned and waited a moment for MacKelvey to come up with him. "I never saw a woman yet who wasn't willing to tackle the impossible in a flash and then go to pieces with hysterics in the middle of the job."
On, gathering speed with the flinging of each yard behind her, her polished skis singing as they leaped downward, hardly seeming to touch the brittle crust of snow underfoot, standing erect that she might see far ahead and turn in time for a mound that spoke of a boulder, Wanda was rushing on toward the river. Its shouting voices, like the voices of many giant things In brutal laughter, swelled and thundered ever more distinct, ever more jeering. It seemed to her that there were ten thousand Sledge Humes taunting her, sneering at the blind recklessness of a mere woman. She knew that the blood had crept out of her face and that she was afraid. And she knew that there is one thing in the world, God-created, that is greater, stronger than fear.
"I have leaped distances greater than that before," she told herself stubbornly.
"With certain death dragging at you if you missed?" the rude laughter of the river through its rocky way taunted her.
Her skis were running slowly again; she had come to the level land once more. She must make a little turn to avoid the thick grove through which she had gone slowly last year after the rabbit. She must turn upstream a little too. There were ten minutes of driving one ski after the other, then the steep climb of another ridge, the last ridge lying between her and the river. She climbed it swiftly, stubbornly and unhesitatingly.
"If Wayne were coming to me would he hesitate?" she asked herself angrily. "Because I am not a man am I a coward? Shall I fail him the first time in our lives that he has need of me? Is a woman like that a fit thing to be a strong man's wife?"
At the top of this last climb she paused. She was not afraid now. The colour had come back into her face, her blood was running steadily. She might be going to her death. Was death then so great a thing? Was it as great as her love?
"If I were afraid now," she told herself quietly, "I should know that I do not love Wayne as other women have loved other men. Then I should not deserve to live to love him weakly."
From here she could not see MacKelvey, Hume and the others. She knew that by this time they would have crossed the bridge. Then she tried not to think of them. Briefly she studied the steep sloping sweep of the snow, trying to mark the way she must go. She found the spot the rabbit had chosen, the narrowest place with the far bank three or four feet lower than the near bank. Frowningly seeking the detail of a sheet of glaring white which seemed without mound or hollow but which she knew was full of uneven ridges and sinks, she made out at last such a ridge lying parallel to the river's edge and close to it. A log had fallen there; she remembered having seen it in the summer. With the little hollow this side, with the short upward slope that would give her a natural take-off, she would make it help her.
She would strike this low up-sloping mound in a moment when she swept down upon it from the crest of the ridge upon which she now stood; she would take the tiny dip in a fraction of a second too brief to have a name; she would rise, leaping as she rose—
The supreme moment came.
She loosened the band about her waist, breathing deeply. She bent her slender body this way and that, straightening up, stooping, twisting from side to side. She felt that every individual muscle must be made ready, keyed up to the work that was to be done in a flying moment. She must be steady, she must be sure. Not a fibre of her being must weaken or tremble or be uncertain.
"Dear God," she whispered, "make me strong and worthy and unafraid."
Then she lifted her hands a little, holding them out from her sides, her fingers outstretched, her arms taking the place of the pole she had tossed away. Her skis clung to the snow. She slipped the right foot back and forth, making sure that it had gathered none of the feathery stuff that lay just under the thin crust. When it ran smoothly she tested the left ski. And then slowly she stooped forward, her hands still out. She felt a little stir, knew that she was moving, just barely moving. She stooped further forward now, quickly. The shifting of her weight had its instantaneous effect. The slow, scarcely perceptible moving was changed into a smooth glide that grew in a yard to a swiftly accelerating speed. Then she straightened up, balancing with taut muscles, rushing downward.
Now she was flying as a bird flies that skims the snow. Only the little whine of the ski song over the crust, the flying particles from before the upturned ends, a dust of diamonds, told that the speeding body was not in reality defying gravity, scorning the earth beneath. The pitch steepened before her, the skis rose and dipped over the little uneven places, the air cut at her face, stung her eyes. Half way down, when the skis struck a little mound from which she dared not try to swerve, she in sober truth flew, not touching the crust again for five or six feet. She landed easily, crouching a little, tensing her already taut muscles, steadying herself, plunging onward at a speed that was like an eagle's dip. And then another second, another and she heard the whine of the air about her ears, saw the black gulf from which the roar of the river boomed up at her and her skis rose to the take-off she had chosen.
As never before in all her life did the girl's will call upon the muscles of her body. Her hands far out now, like the still pinions of some strange being of a strange white world, her lithe body as tense as wire, she gathered her strength, felt her body rising as the skis slipped up the short slope of the mound, knew that in one flying second there lay both success and death. At the very instant, when, had she let herself go, she would be slipping down to the water that was grinding at the rocks, she leaped.
Higher and higher she rose in the air, carried onward, upward by the impetus of her wild race and by the slight aid of her take-off had given her. Higher yet and further out although it seemed to her still heart that her body was hanging motionless, that it was the earth leaping beneath her, flying backward, rushing away, hurling the chasm of the river under her. She did not look down; it might have meant death to look down. She kept her eyes fastened now upon the far bank, the place where she sought to land, where she must throw herself forward to avoid slipping back.
And yet she saw the black gulf under her. It was too black, too wide, too full of shrieking menace for her not to see it even while she did not look at it. She was hanging still in air, it was rushing at her, there was an instant filled with eternity. And then, Wayne's name upon her lips, she had described the great arc, she had struck six feet from the treacherous margin on the far side, her skis were running smoothly under her, at first swiftly, then slowly, and a glad cry of thankfulness broke from her lips.
She had not even fallen, she did not have to hurl herself prone to clutch at the snow with her fingers. She sped on, came slowly to a standstill and then her heart leaping, her blood racing, her eyes bright and wet she was over the ridge and speeding forward again, the roar of the river lost to her ears, the form of a man bringing a horse out of a snow surrounded barn in her eyes.
He cried out as he saw her racing across the snow to him, cried out in wonder. He dropped his horse's rope and turned to meet her. She saw that he was still on his skis, saw too that not a thousand yards beyond the house four men were coming on swiftly.
"Wayne." She had come close enough to call now and lifted her voice clearly. "MacKelvey and Hume and two more men are there, right there. They are going to arrest you for Arthur's murder. They mean to keep you shut up in jail until they ruin you. They will make evidence to hang you. You must go, go quick."
He swung about quickly, caught sight of the four men who had seen Wanda and who were lessening the distance by quick strides. His face blackened to a great anger. Then he turned back to her and his face flushed with a great happiness. For in the man as in the woman love was stronger than fear or hatred.
"You golden hearted, wonderful woman!" he cried softly. He reached out his arms as she swept by and gathered her into them. He kissed her softly. And then, swiftly, he turned away.
"After a few days, come to the cave," he said eagerly. "If I let them take me now it would mean more than my ruin, more than my death, Wanda. They won't take me. When a man is arrested for Arthur's murder it is going to be the right man."
And striking out mightily, steadily he left her, driving his straight way toward the broken country of the upper end of the valley.
When they came to where she lay, Hume first, they found Wanda Leland very still and white, motionless save for the little sobs shaking her. Hume's anger broke out into a wordy fury. He shook his fist at her prostrate body and cursed. But he did not sneer. There was too deep a wonder in his heart. He knew, they all knew, what it meant to have done what she had done. And MacKelvey, a hard man robbed by her of his prey, took off his hat and lifted her gently and said simply, and in full reverence:
"You are no longer daughter of mine!" cried Martin Leland sternly in the first heat of his anger. "You have turned against your own blood like a traitress. You have forsaken your father to ally yourself with a drunken brawler, a man so sunken in depravity that he has murdered his own brother for mere money. You have shamed yourself and your mother and me. You have bared your heart for the world to look at and laugh at, that men may link your name and the name of a common fugitive from justice. You would be held up to less shame had you merely uncovered your body and gone out naked for men to jeer at!"
Wanda, lying white and lax upon the couch near the fireplace, suddenly dropped her mother's hand and sprang to her feet, her body quivering with a quick anger that leaped out to meet her father's.
"Papa!" Her head was thrown up in defiant pride, her vibrant voice, her blazing eyes were as hard as his own. "I won't listen to such things, not even from you. They are untrue. You say that Wayne ran away because he is guilty and a coward. You know better than that! He is not a fugitive from justice; he is forced by the things you have done to become a fugitive from injustice and persecution. Oh, how can you stand there and denounce him after you have set your hand against him as you have? Or don't you think that I know how you and the rest have sought to rob him and ruin him!"
"What!" stormed Leland. "Is the girl mad?"
"No, I am not mad," she flung back at him hotly, all facts and considerations swept away before the rush of her furious indignation except the one vital matter that she was fighting for a thing as dear as her lover's life. "You can find no name too bad for him, just because you hate him! You have always hated him just because he is his father's son. You and his own cousin, two men whom he has trusted, have tricked him and betrayed him. You have hidden from him all knowledge of the mortgage you held upon the Bar L-M. Even now you are trying to steal his ranch from him. Wayne has never done a thing so vile as that in all his life. Oh! I am ashamed."
Her voice grew harsh in her throat; her face was no longer white, two spots of anger burned in her cheeks. She broke off panting, her eyes growing harder, brighter as they challenged his.
"Martin," cried Mrs. Leland, coming swiftly to the girl's side. "Be careful."
"Careful!" shouted Leland, his face red with his fury. "When one of my blood loses her last shred of decency, when she takes up with a low, dissolute unprincipled Shandon? The worst of a bad lot. May God curse him, may God curse her if she clings to him!"
"You have never spoken to me like this before," cried Wanda passionately. "You will never do it again."
"Listen to me," thundered Leland, his heavier voice drowning the girl's words. "If your father does a thing which your untrained, woman's brain cannot rightly understand are you the one to judge and condemn him? Because a lying Shandon has cast his cursed spell over your romantic fancies are you to leap to these ridiculous conclusions? Am I the man to do a dishonourable thing? Ask other men out in the world where my dealings are an open book. Ask your mother. If, to you, who have gone hungering for lies to a man amply competent to tell them to you, it has seemed that I have done a mean thing for selfish purposes is it your place to judge me? Listen, I tell you. I have known for a year and a half that Wayne Shandon murdered his brother and robbed the dead body. I have seen, although all men know this fact as well as I do, that he has been trickster enough to cover his bloody tracks; that it would be hard to convict him in court. I have seen that it lay within my power, that it has become my duty, to punish him in another way. Not a thing have I done that is not just, that the law courts will not sanction. And yet, when I had wrested from him the thing his red hands took with his brother's life, I should have punished him a little as he deserves. Is a man like him deserving of any other treatment?"
"How do you know all this?" she demanded, all that dormant fierceness of the female heart Hashing from the depths to the surface. "Did you see him kill Arthur?"
"Don't be a fool," he retorted.
"Or were you over ready to believe because you hated him, and because the tool you would lay your hand to would not only punish him but enrich you? And you call me traitress!"
For a moment Martin Leland, his face convulsed, his hands clenched, his great body towering over her, looked as though he were going to strike her down. Then, without a word, he left the room and returned swiftly to the study where MacKelvey and Hume were waiting for him.
Wanda stood looking after him, her body stiff and erect, her face lifted, her eyes unchanging. Her mother laid a quick hand upon the girl's arm. Then, suddenly the tired body relaxed, the flaming spirit softened, and Wanda, white and trembling, dropped sobbing upon the couch.
"Wanda, Wanda," whispered her mother softly, kneeling and putting her hands gently upon the shaking shoulders. "I am sorry. And yet, Wanda, I am proud of what my daughter has done to-day."
The mother heart comforted. And even before the storm of sobs, shaken from the girl by strained and jangling nerves, had ceased, Mrs. Leland was trying to make excuses for her husband.
"He has just been blinded by hate," she said bravely. "Some day he will see the light."
"Gee," commented Willie Dart, outside the door, resuming his pacing up and down upon the front porch. "If Red turns that girl down I'll marry her myself!"
Had Martin Leland's iron nature asked such a thing as sympathy it would have received little satisfaction from the interview that night in his study. MacKelvey's greeting to him was, "Martin, that girl of yours is a wonder! There's not a man in the country would have tackled the thing she did to-day."
"Pshaw," grunted Hume, his sneering manner having come back to him with his growing displeasure. "It was simple enough for all of its spectacular staging."
"Was it?" MacKelvey asked sharply. "I'll bet you five hundred dollars, Mr. Hume, that you're not the man to do it!"
Hume lifted his shoulders for answer and kicked viciously at the andirons on the hearth.
"So you let him get clean away?" demanded Martin, flinging himself into his chair at the table and glowering at MacKelvey. "Why didn't you follow him up?"
"Because I wasn't a fool. Wouldn't I cut a pretty picture slipping around on a pair of sticks trying to catch up with the strongest ski man in the county! He'd double up on me every mile. And with the night coming on I'd stand a great chance finding him, wouldn't I?"
"What are you going to do about it then?"
MacKelvey spat thoughtfully at the fire.
"I'm going to nab him the first chance I get. And I'm not in the habit of carrying a warrant around in my pocket until I wear it out, either."
"You are going out after him in the morning?"
MacKelvey again attacked the fire with more thoughtfulness, truer precision than before.
"Nope. I'm going back to El Toyon while I can get out. There's about ten feet more snow due in the next two weeks, Martin."
"So," cried Hume. "That's the way you serve a warrant, is it? You are going to let the man get away if he wants to, and he has shown us already how he feels about that! You are going to let him slip down to Mexico or work up to the Canadian line."
"Easy, Mr. Hume," said MacKelvey slowly. "I've been sheriff in this county for seventeen years. Name me the name of any man who's been wanted and who hasn't been brought in. If I stuck here, running around like a rabbit in the snow, Shandon would have the chance to get out, if he wanted it. And I don't believe that he does want it. But if I'm back in El Toyon to-morrow with the wires busy there won't be a hole in the web for a blue bottle to buzz through. He can't eat snow, you know. I'll put a man up here to see he don't slip back to the Bar L-M. And I don't say I won't go myself or send Johnson and Crawford out in the morning to try and pick up his tracks if it don't snow during the night and cover them up."
But long before midnight it came on to snow again, so heavily that they all knew that a fresh ski track would not have lasted an hour. Early the next morning Leland, Garth Conway, Sledge Hume and MacKelvey with his deputies went out of the valley upon skis or snow shoes. Helga Strawn went with them, shrugging her shoulders at Leland's blunt assurance that it would be a good ten miles of hard work before they could expect to take to the horses waiting beyond the heavy snow line.
Mr. Dart did not go with them. He had settled that fact for himself very positively before going to bed the night before.
"In the first place," he decided, "Red might need me to smuggle him some grub or something and I got to be on hand. In the second place I had enough trying to ride two slippery sticks yesterday. Split myself in two for ten miles on a pair of devil's toboggans? Thanks awfully. I'll stay here and split stovewood for Julia."
"Where's Dart?" demanded Leland when the men were pushing back their chairs from the breakfast table.
Nobody knew. He had not been seen since last evening. Julia, hastily returning from quest of him, brought back word that he was in bed and that she was afraid that he was unwell. She had heard him groaning.
"The little fool is faking," cried Martin, ready this morning to fly into a rage over trifles. "Does he think I'm going to have him sticking around the place all winter?"
He flung himself from the table and went heavily up the stairs to Dart's room in the attic.
"Come out of that," he said roughly, throwing the door open. "We are going to start right away. You'd better get some breakfast in a hurry if you want any."
"Breakfast?" moaned Dart weakly. "Good God, Mart. Don't say breakfast to me or I'll die."
"What's the matter?" asked Martin roughly and suspiciously. "You weren't sick last night."
He came closer to the huddled figure. Dart's hands were shaking, his face was as white as a sheet.
"It came on sudden," he said faintly. "I—I've had it before. I—I think I'm dying this time. Has Mamma Leland got a Bible?"
Suddenly, before Leland's astonished eyes, the little man began a violent retching and vomiting. Leland went back down the stairs, swearing, and sent Julia with word to Mrs. Leland that Dart was really sick.
Dart got out of bed, his legs trembling under him, and crept to the window, peering out cautiously. Only when he had seen the party leave the house upon skis and webs did he go back to his bed, snatch a bit of plug cut chewing tobacco out from under his pillow and hurl it venemously into the snow.
"A man that will chew that stuff for fun," he groaned creeping back into bed, "ain't safe to have around. Good God, I wonder if I am dying? I might have took too much!"
* * * * * *
Thus it happened that almost at the very beginning of the hard winter Wayne Shandon was a hunted man, forewarned that his hunters would spare neither unsleeping vigilance nor expense to secure his arrest and conviction. During the first night and the first day he never went far from the Bar L-M range house. From behind a screen of timber less than a quarter of a mile from his pursuers he had watched them turn back towards the Echo Creek. The darkness was already dimming the landscape but he could count the figures, five of them, with the horse Wanda had insisted that MacKelvey bring out with them. As they went toward the bridge he came down toward them, moving swiftly among the trees, keeping well out of sight.
He knew he would be doing the thing upon which MacKelvey would not count. Besides it was sheer madness to think of spending the night without shelter of any kind and he did not dare go immediately to Wanda's cave. Already he had come to think of that place, high above the treetops and as safely hidden as if it were below the earth's surface, as a place of refuge. If he went there now they would track him to-morrow—unless it snowed. He must wait somewhere until the snow came to wipe out the track he would leave behind him.
He entered the house by the back door, got his rifle and a belt of cartridges, made into a compact pack such blankets, tobacco, coffee, sugar, salt and condensed foods as he could carry. The cave was already well stocked but he could not guess now how long he must lie hidden there. He had no time to decide upon the course ahead of him beyond the immediate future. He knew only that he must not let them take him until he had done the work he would be unable to do from the inside of a jail. He was preparing carefully for such needs as he could foresee.
He slept that night in his own bed, waking at each little noise, ready to spring up fully dressed and armed, prepared equally for defence or a hasty retreat. Going to the window shortly after midnight he saw that the snow was falling heavily. He made a hasty cold meal, then strapped on his pack, took up his rifle and left the house. Now was the time to go to the cave; the snow might cease by morning.
In the darkness he deemed it wiser to go down by the bridge than to attempt the steeper passage beyond the head of the lake. They would not be out in this sort of night watching for him; they would not know where to expect him. And even if he came within twenty paces of a man his swift, silent passage in the dark would be unnoticed.
To a man knowing the broken range country a whit less intimately than Shandon knew it, the trip that night down to the bridge, across it, across the Leland ranch and to the cliffs where the cave was would have been a sheer impossibility. The storm, howling and snatching at him, would have taken the heart out of a man less grimly determined than he had grown to be. The snow, while it befriended him, covering his trail in the rear, drove its shifting wall of opposition across his way in front. The darkness tricked him and baffled him again and again. But still, head down and dogged, he pushed on, certain always of his general direction, confident of being under the cliffs in the first faint glow of the new day.
It was an endless night, torturous with cold and uncertainty. But at last, before the day broke, he made his heavy way up the great cedar, climbing perilously with numbed hands. He knew that if his pursuers came here now they would see where he had knocked the thick pads of snow from the wide horizontal branches. But he knew, too, that before they could arrive the steadily falling snow would have hidden the signs he had left behind him. And at last, wearily, he threw himself down before a crackling fire, and went to sleep.
For upwards of two weeks his life was like that of a rat in a cellar. Silence, monotony, darkness, loneliness. Already the snowfall was as great as that of most winters. He could guess that by this time the fences about Wanda's home were hidden under a smooth covering that thickened day by day, night after night. When he looked out from the screen across his doorway he saw that the smaller trees were blotted out and reckoned that upon the level floor of the valley the snow lay ten feet deep. Now and again, when he went out in the early dawn or the last glimmering light of dusk for wood or for a break in the monotony that was horrible in itself to a man of his type, he saw how the winter was piling higher and higher its white heaps along the cliffs above. He spent hours on the cliffs, working his way slowly upward along the seam in the rocks which he discovered led out above, digging with his hands for dead branches to replenish his dwindling stock of firewood. He must choose days for this when the snow so thickened the air that a man within shouting distance could not have seen him.
Two weeks, and Wanda did not come to him. Two weeks of inactivity, of waiting, the hardest trial in the world for a man tingling with energy, with his work calling to him through every moment of his waking hours. He had planned that work, going over and over his plans, every step. He knew just what he should do—when Wanda came.
He could not know why she did not come. He began to fear that she had left the valley. Then, when he assured himself that she would not have gone without a word he began to fear that she was ill; that the day when she took the short cut had been too much for any woman's endurance.
But she was not ill, he was certain of that. During the two weeks there were only two days when the air cleared enough for him to see the Leland house. The first came when he had been in hiding three days; the other two days later. Both times Wanda had come out upon the porch where with the spy-glass in the cave he could see her plainly. She had signalled him, using the first few signals of that code they had made together so merrily. She lifted both hands up to her face and he knew that her heart was repeating his words, "I love you, dear, with my whole heart." She loitered on the porch in apparent carelessness, but as eager as the man watching her, yearning for her, she had lifted her hood lightly from her head, flashing the message across the miles: "Be careful. We are being watched." She turned her back and stood for a long time looking in at the open living room door: "Something has happened to prevent our meeting to-day."
Several times during the two clear days she repeated her signals. But for more than a week afterward he had no sight of her. He did not know, he could only guess vaguely at the truth. One of MacKelvey's men had come back to the Echo Creek, unexpected by Wanda and Mrs. Leland, and while he was apparently concerned only in making frequent trips toward the Bar L-M, Wanda had the uneasy feeling that she was never long out of his sight.
But at length Wanda risked coming to him, choosing a time when the danger was least. Johnson, the deputy sheriff, had said in the morning that he was going to take a run over to the Bar L-M, to look things over. It was by no means the first time he had said this, and the girl felt that he had no particular reason to suspect her to-day. It was still snowing, not too heavily for one to venture out, but steadily enough to obliterate ski tracks entirely in less than an hour. Johnson left the house, and a little later Wanda set forth, her preparations swiftly made. Johnson was out of sight. She drove on swiftly to a hilltop due east of the house from which she would be able to see him before he came to the bridge.
She waited anxiously there until she saw him, pushing steadily onward. One sharp glance at the way she had come showed her that unless Johnson returned very much faster than he had gone out there would be no sign to tell him where she had gone. And then, her eyes suddenly brighter than they had been for many a day, she hastened on, still eastward, not daring even now to turn directly toward the cliffs until she had passed into the deeper forest.
It was like bringing new life to Wayne Shandon. He swept the girl up hungrily into his arms, crying out softly as she came through the snow blocked entrance to the cave. And she, when he brought a candle and her eyes caught sight of his face, bearded and worn, must shut her lips tight and fight hard to keep back the tears.
It was only a brief half hour allowed them, leaving them both happier and sadder at the parting. But she had brought the few little things she could smuggle out to him, had assured herself from a close examination of his store that he was in no danger of freezing or starving; and he had entrusted to her the carrying out of the work he had hit upon.
"I have scribbled a letter in your little note book, dear. It is to Brisbane, a lawyer in San Francisco. He is a friend of mine and I can trust him. It tells him everything, about the mortgage and the foreclosure, about the trouble I am in. He's the man to advise us now. There's not a keener criminal lawyer in the State. I'm going to give him my power of attorney. I'll take chances on slipping down to the city, somehow, if it's necessary. Or I can get down into White Rock at night, meet him there, and get back here before morning. The letter tells him, too, that I am dead certain that Sledge Hume is the man the law wants; it explains why, and authorises him to hire a detective agency to run Hume down. Dear heart of mine, you are too brave to be afraid for me now. You will get this letter out somehow? You will get it to Brisbane for me? Once he is at work things are going to right themselves. A man can't kill another and rob him of twenty-five thousand dollars and not leave some sort of a trail behind him. Then there is another message. I have not written it. Can you get word to Big Bill to keep a close watch on Little Saxon? I'll ride him in the spring."
"And you, Wayne? You can't stay here all winter!"
"I can, if there is anything to be gained by it. But we'll wait until we hear from Brisbane. He'll find the evidence we want, dear. And until then hadn't you rather think of me waiting here than lying in jail?"
When she left him to take a devious way home the tears lay glistening upon her cheek until the snow, beating in her face, washed them away.
HELGA STRAWN PLAYS THE GAME
The winter which had begun unusually early, battled fiercely for eight weeks in the mountain fastnesses, and went down in grumbling defeat before an early spring. And, as the stern face of the Sierra was hidden under the snow that robed the higher peaks in royal ermine and drifted sixty feet in the deeper canons, so was the vital thing in the lives of Wayne Shandon and Wanda Leland covered by silence and secrecy. Each day was tense and eager to them; to the world whose prying eyes could not penetrate through the barricade of winter it was as though those lives were stagnating.
Wanda delivered Wayne's letter safely and promptly to Brisbane, the San Francisco lawyer. She took her mother into the secret, she told her mother everything now, for the close companionship of last winter had borne its fruit of warm sympathy, and the two women went out of the valley, ostensibly to spend a few weeks shopping and visiting in San Francisco. The letter never left the girl's person until, in a private room, it was placed in the hands of Brisbane.
Brisbane's wise old eyes looked at her shrewdly from behind the mask of his clean shaven face, the greatest poker face, men said, that had ever gone its inscrutable way up and down the city of fogs and wet winds. He had asked his few questions in an absent-minded sort of fashion which disappointed and distressed the girl. He evinced not a whit more interest than he would have done in watching a stranger stamp the mud off his feet, or, for that matter, than he would have shown had the roof broken into flames over his head. But he took the case.
Upon a storm filled night, as black as ebony, Brisbane met Wayne Shandon in White Rock. A man lived there, whom Shandon could trust, an old friend of his father, and at his house the meeting was held with little difficulty or danger. In less than two hours Brisbane had put himself in possession of all the facts which Shandon could give him that bore upon the matter in hand. There was the germ of a case against Hume he admitted, but it would have to grow considerably to be worth anything to a jury. Yes, the crooked work in the foreclosure of the mortgage would help a little; not much though. He would attend to the mortgage, taking Shandon's note for the amount, and would see that it was paid off immediately. As to advising Shandon as to the best thing to do now, the lawyer smiled one of his rare, noncommittal smiles.
"By avoiding arrest in the first place," he said drily, "you put yourself in wrong with any jury in the world. But you've done it already. I can't see now that it makes much difference whether you go and give yourself up or whether you keep on the dodge. If you prefer this sort of thing to a nice warm jail, why suit yourself my boy!"
He would see further that the shrewdest detective in the City was fully instructed and put on the case immediately. Finally he gave Shandon a letter from Wanda in which she promised to return to the valley as soon as possible, shook hands as warmly as his absent minded manner would permit and went to bed.
Through the winter the various threads of men's destinies, golden and black, gay and sombre, too fine for human eye to see, too strong for human might to break, were being woven into the intricate pattern of life and fate. Though miles lay between the many men whose lives were unalterably mingled, though each man went selfishly or unselfishly about his own pursuits, although each fashioned daily his life for the day, still the mills of God were grinding, the looms were weaving, and grist and kernel, warp and woof found their way from the individual existences into the scheme of the whole.
Dart had left with Mrs. Leland and Wanda and made a straight line to Big Bill and Little Saxon. He made it his own special business in life to see that no knockout stuff was slipped into the horse's oats, that no slippery gent got the show to put Little Saxon out of the game. He even took the precaution to partition off a tiny room for himself in the hay loft above Little Saxon's stall, where he spent the nights dozing and snatching up the ancient shot gun down the muzzle of which his enthusiastic fingers had rammed enough buck shot to explode the piece and blow himself as well as any unhappy intruder into that land from which there is no return.
Big Bill, acting foreman now, took upon himself the unremitting work of making the racehorse fit. Nearly as good a man as Shandon with animals, he continued through the winter the task that had been little more than begun. The fact that the man who had first proposed the races which were to be run off in the Spring, was a fugitive, accused of a grave crime, had aroused much sensational talk and newspaper babble, but it had increased rather than lessened interest and new entries were being daily arranged. Big Bill assured those who cared to ask that the race would be run, that Shandon would have come in and been cleared of any charges against him long before June, and that there would be no change in plans. And though he sometimes doubted the statement he made so bluntly he let no single day pass without adding to Little Saxon's education.
MacKelvey was taciturn. But he was not the man to give up a quest once begun. He grew irritable under the sting of Sledge Hume's sneers and Martin Leland's regular weekly enquiries; but he pushed his work tirelessly. As is always the case when the law wants a fugitive there were many conflicting and empty reports, that would have aided had they been true but which only hampered since they were not. A report that Wayne Shandon had been seen boarding a train in Reno was followed three days later by two other rumours, one claiming that he was on a ranch just out of San Jose, the other that he had been recognised ten days ago in Los Angeles. Each report with the vaguest hint of truth in it MacKelvey hunted down doggedly, and the wires into El Toyon from both directions were kept busy. It was the opinion of many people that Shandon had long ago made good his escape and had gone abroad; it was held by many a mild mannered man or timid old maid that he was even now the head of a lawless gang terrorising whatever near or distant city or countryside the most lurid headlines came from; not a few people shook their heads and prophesied that when the Spring thaw came the body of a reckless, blood tainted monster would be found where it had been hurled in desperation from a high cliff. The sheriff's own personal opinion, known only to the sheriff, perhaps came as close to the truth as any man's.
Of all the men and women who knew him, perhaps none evinced less concern in Wayne Shandon's fate than Helga Strawn. She had something else to do. Looking ahead far and carefully, doing nothing hastily, planning and shaping her way, with Sledge Hume and her lost interest in the Dry Lands always looming large in the foreground of her thoughts, she was already supplying her quota of grist to the great invisible mills. She bought, upon her own initiative, a small farm just on the edge of Hume's land, investing ten thousand dollars in it, and came there to live. She bought conservatively at twenty dollars an acre. If the project, now involved in uncertainty, were perfected her land would be worth from two to five times what she had paid for it. On the other hand, if nothing came of the campaign for irrigation, it was always worth twenty dollars. It was Helga Strawn's way to play safe.
She saw much of Sledge Hume. Or rather she allowed Sledge Hume to see much of her. The same thing with a variation, and that variation important in the woman's shrewd eyes. Hume had no means of knowing how much money she possessed, but he did know that she had paid out ten thousand dollars in cash. He knew also that she was a woman. In his eyes, never clearsighted from the mote of conceit and the dust of arrogant superiority, a woman was a fool. He needed money, he wanted money, her money as well as another's. He had gone far already in the project that would make him a rich man if it succeeded; he was going further. If litigation now were to raise its long wall against him he meant to surmount the wall or tunnel under it. He had gone too far to stop; his money was invested; he wanted more money to invest with it.
While he made the woman his study she coolly dissected his character, not satisfied with the composite, both patient and shrewd in her analysis. While he sought to read her, handicapped by his prejudice, she spelled the letters of the man's soul.
She came to see, after the first few days, that Hume's one working theory of life was that of the survival of the fittest. Eminently fit himself, capable physically in strong, clean body, mentally in cool, calculating, single purposed brain, morally in a code of ethics which resolved all considerations to his working theory of life, he looked down upon other lives than his own from the passionless heights of a supreme impudence. In most things he was unusually frank, bluntly honest. Wanting no man to give him a place in the world which he felt thoroughly competent to secure for himself, he curried favour nowhere, fawned upon no one. Frankly satisfied with himself as he had made himself, he had no desire, seeing no need, to pretend to be other than he was. Egotism, approximating the absolute, made him careless, even contemptuous, of the opinion of others. His mental attitude might perhaps be likened to that of the colossally mad man of Europe, the only man of whom he was ever known to speak in words of approval. "I and God did this thing!" the Emperor had said. So Hume might have said, "I and the rest of the world."
The free stride of his activities was not restricted by any form of what he would have called squeamishness. The means were incidental, intrinsically negligible; he justified them by the end for which he strove. That end was unvarying. From this grew the man's power, such as it was.
That end took him, in moments which otherwise would have been empty, to Helga Strawn. She had made her little home cosy and comfortable, the living room almost luxurious. She wore rare gowns, painstakingly chosen; she kept him waiting when he called; she received him with indifference. She seemed to grow as frank with him as he with her, and often enough the frankness was genuine. She told him coolly at the outset that she knew he would swindle her out of her money if he got the chance and that he was not going to get the chance. She informed him that she did not trust him but that that need make no difference in their relations; if she became convinced that the project were safe she would go into it as deeply as any one.
She treated Sledge Hume very much as he treated the rest of the world; and she noted with keen relish that her treatment irritated him. She already knew the man well enough to be sure that he would come again the sooner, and more frequently, to force her by the very dominance of his virile personality to see him as he saw himself, in a word as her superior.
As only a very clever woman could have done she drew him out to talk about himself, about his motives. She listened always in apparent cool indifference, always in keen, hard interest under the surface she chose to wear. She never forgot that she had sold to him for twenty-five thousand dollars property for which she would not now accept twice that amount and which he would not relinquish for such a sum. She never forgot that, legally, she had no hope of regaining it. But there would be a way, when she came to know the man utterly, when she came to feel out every nerve of his moral being. She tried to make him talk freely about himself by the one method which must remain infallible as long as Sledge Hume was Sledge Hume, by cool criticism of him.
One day as they idled in her living room she told him abruptly that he was the most selfish man she had ever known. Her smile, as near a sneer as a smile may be and not become unlovely, the tapping of her French slipper, did not cease during his rather lengthy rejoinder.
"Selfish?" he had answered roughly. "Of course I am. Who isn't? You mean that I am the only man you know who isn't afraid to say so! All creation is selfish; selfishness is the keynote of progress, of evolution, of any sort of success. It begins with the lowest forms of life where each single celled unit takes what it needs for its own good; it is the thing which keeps life in the four footed world; it is the highest concern of the priest who while he pretends to serve mere man and a mythological Saviour never loses sight of his own reward at the end of it. It is the basic principle underlying all religion; take out of it the personal, selfish consideration, 'Be good and you can go to Heaven! be bad and go to Hell!' and your whole religion falls to pieces. Take selfishness out of the world and the world will stagnate and rot."
"I have never heard you wax so eloquent in your own defence!"
"I am not defending myself, I am explaining. I am showing you the difference between yourself and me. I see things as they are; you look at them obliquely. You wouldn't admit it, but you are as selfish as I am."
"The difference is that you are the more honest?"
"Both with myself and the world, yes."
"You pride yourself on your honesty?"
"I don't take the trouble to dissimulate."
"You have never done anything which you have kept hidden?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"I have never found it necessary to make the world my father confessor."
"Do you wish me to regard you as what people call an honest man, Mr. Hume? Aren't you telling me that to put money in your own pocket you would do what people call a dishonourable act?"
"You are the only woman I have ever met who has any claim to brains," he answered, paying the compliment in his blunt, rough fashion. "Don't you know me well enough to realise that I don't ask people to set my standards for me? Don't you know a man, when you see him, big enough to set his own standards?"
She came to see that the man was not without a rough hewn sort of greatness, that in his way as he had said, he was a big man. He bred in her strange, dual emotions. In the beginning she had felt for him only the cold hatred of which the woman was thoroughly capable; gradually and begrudgingly she began to feel an equally cold admiration for the strength of the man. She told herself that that admiration was utterly impersonal, that it arose from the fact that Hume was in reality stronger than other men she knew, that it was possible for her to acknowledge it because she did have brains, as he had said. It was an admiration which, she judged coolly, need in no way lessen her hatred for him, which rather would intensify it.
Throughout the winter she strove with single purpose to slip into the man's confidence. Having recognised Hume's peculiar strength, having sought his weaknesses, knowing that he was no man's or woman's fool, she did not make a fool of herself by giving him an inkling of her intentions. When she was most interested it was her role to appear most indifferent; here was the one vulnerable point her searching fingers had found in the shell of his egoism. Indifference piqued him.
It was as though she had gathered three armies and hurled them at him. From the centre she attacked with indifference, striving to draw his attention from other points. She massed two distinct flanking movements stealthily. Upon one side she brought to bear upon a keen brain a brain as keen; upon the other she calmly deployed the charm of her regal beauty. The man had seemed a machine, emotionless. But since he was human, since blood, Hume blood though it was, ran through his veins, he must have emotions like other men. They might be hidden, they might be of stunted, pale growth. In one case she would uncover them, in another she would develop. Already she admired him as a vital, compelling force. She would make him admire a similar force In her; she would make him admire the physical perfection of her. She was a woman, she was amply endowed with brain and instinct and beauty. And she was far too shrewd to overlook a single weapon which lay at her hand.
The eternal looms were weaving, the warp of her being, the woof of his being were drawn into the intricate pattern of human destiny. Smiles and tears, hopes and fears, emotions of which a man is unconscious, ambitions and failures, achievements—all go into the invisible fabric. Already Sledge Hume and Helga Strawn had come to find something to admire in each other. The short sight of a clever man and a clever woman could not discern what lay at the end. And the end was rushing upon them with tremendous speed.
UNDER THE SURFACE
Early in January there arrived in El Toyon a gentleman with a scrubbing brush moustache, a pleasant, portly personality, a pair of twinkling black eyes, a seemingly limitless amount of leisure, discriminating taste for liquors and cigars, a fountain pen and a check book. The name he wrote upon the hotel register was Edward Kinsell. He disabused the mind of the proprietor, Charlie Granger, by assuring him that he was not a drummer. In his genial way he was quite ready to tell all about himself. He was an old bachelor, counting upon becoming the husband of a great little woman just as soon as the courts had disposed of the present incumbent. He had been rolling down the rocky trail at a pretty swift gait in town, and his doctor had warned him that the lady In question would have been set free and would no doubt have chosen and elected another life partner before Mr. Kinsell found his way to the church unless he took up the simple life.
So Mr. Kinsell, having availed himself for a week or two of Charlie Granger's hospitality, found at last a vine twined cottage not too far from the hotel kitchen and barroom, and leased it forthwith. He played many games of poker, apparently possessed of a rare ability to play good hands badly and poor hands well so that while he generally lost he lost but little; he took up sleighing with great delight, usually taking a small boy along with him to drive; he amused himself writing daily letters or picture postcards to the great little woman; he became a friend of all the dogs in town; he bought drinks for the village vagabonds; altogether he disported himself harmlessly and pleasantly quite as a portly old bachelor with a scrubbing brush moustache should do while seeking rejuvenation and awaiting a decree. He was always upon the verge of entering some local project which he never entered. He made more friends in the six months of his stay—he left in June,—than any other man in El Toyon had made in a year.
He dined with the preacher and talked infant psychology with the teacher; he bet Charlie Granger ten dollars on a dog-fight over which he waxed red faced and enthusiastic; he got himself catalogued by the saloon loungers as a hot sport; he evinced a warm interest in the country races to be run in the Spring. In that connection he learned that Granger held stakes amounting to ten thousand dollars on a single race that would never be run; he was informed that the money was already as good as Sledge Hume's. He became interested in Hume and in Red Reckless; he even went to the length of travelling into the Dry Lands to get a squint at Endymion, and then sought out Big Bill and studied Little Saxon's good points. Everything in the world seemed to interest Edward Kinsell.
The winter slipped by and the herds went back to the mountain ranges. The Lelands were again at the Echo Creek. Time and a natural strong affection had cooled the heat of passion in father and daughter. Love and consanguinity narrowed the breach which lay between them, although the rupture, if it ever healed completely, would leave its scar. Each nature came to make certain allowances for the other; their intercourse, though not intimate, was amicable. Neither made any reference before the other to Wayne Shandon. And, as naturally as this condition arose, Wanda and her mother drew closer together.
Upon the Bar L-M Big Bill was competent, hard working foreman. He still hoped for the impossible, he still obeyed orders and sought tirelessly to make Little Saxon all that Shandon could have done. Willie Dart, growing as time wore on hollow eyed from his nocturnal vigils, slept in a hay loft with a shot gun perilously near his eager right hand.
Shandon was yet in the mountains, his headquarters Wanda's cave. It seemed at times to his impatient desires that Brisbane was doing nothing; that just the evidence he himself had told the lawyer that night in White Rock should have led long before now to the arrest of Sledge Hume. But he refused to brood over it, telling himself doggedly that if Brisbane were doing nothing there was nothing to be done. He knew his man. And already Shandon had found an occupation which was to keep him busy and far from unhappy day and night.
News of the outside world came to him in the few meetings with Wanda which were bright highlights in his life. She dared not come too often for MacKelvey himself or one of his deputies was a frequent and unheralded guest at Leland's. But she came when she could, meeting him below the cliffs, her camera serving as her reason for going into the forests, bringing him books, little delicacies surreptitiously prepared by her own hands, a newspaper now and then rescued from Julia's wood box, prints of the pictures she had taken. Wanda still saw Dart frequently, and from his gossiping lips brought word of what occurred upon the Bar L-M. Garth Conway, she had not seen. Her father heard from him by post, saw him now and then in the outside world; she did not know what Conway was doing but imagined that he was keeping in touch with Leland for the sake of the irrigation scheme which seemed a still born failure.
Through Wanda and Dart a meeting between Shandon and Big Bill was arranged. The two men met after dark near the head of Laughter Lake; Shandon gave his detailed orders to his foreman, assuring him that Brisbane was at work upon the case and that before long word would come from him for the fugitive to give himself up; there would be a quick preliminary hearing and he would be released. Shandon's optimism glowed into warmer life with the warming of the spring sun. Little Saxon must be kept in condition; arrangements must be made for the open handed welcome and hospitality to be afforded the crowds that would come up for the races in June. There would be much for Big Bill to superintend: choice beeves must be brought up for the barbecue; a rude platform must be constructed for the dance which was to conclude the day of festivity. In every detail Big Bill took his orders gravely and obeyed them to the letter.
In another matter Big Bill had long ago acted, having been informed in the early winter of Shandon's wishes. Ettinger was told that sooner or later the man whose property controlled the upper waters of the river flowing from Laughter Lake would come back. When he did return he was going to do just the thing Ettinger himself had suggested. Ettinger was to hold out, and induce the others to hold out with him if he could. And, since Leland was stubborn, since the whole matter was in the air just now, Ettinger saw nothing better to do than accept the tip which Big Bill gave him. A similar message went to Helga Strawn.
May came in, radiant and glowing, and men from many miles away visited the Bar L-M to look over the course upon which the race meet was to be held. MacKelvey spent weary days and nights driving his relentless quest; Sledge Hume seemed sullenly idle; Helga Strawn coolly Indifferent to the world about her; and still Wayne Shandon received no encouraging word from Brisbane. May ran through half its allotted days of thaw and bursting seeds; the day for the race was less than a month away, and still Shandon clung to his solitudes, wondering, beginning to doubt.
And then one day he had a visitor.
It was after sunset. He had been out all day, upon the higher table land where he had set rudely constructed traps for rabbits. He had returned in the early dusk, finding his way down the fissure from the rocks above to his cave. And as he made his fire and began the preparations for his evening meal, he heard a very discreet cough at the entrance of the cave.
The cough was repeated, and then there entered the cavern a portly, pleasant looking gentleman with a scrubbing brush moustache.
"Howdy-do, Mr. Shandon?" he said genially, removing his hat to mop his moist forehead and then coming closer to extend his hand. "I was passing and thought I'd drop in."
Shandon who had been squatting by the fire got to his feet and stared.
"Well?" he demanded sharply. He fully expected to hear other voices in a moment, MacKelvey's voice, perhaps Sledge Hume's.
"My card," smiled the genial gentleman pleasantly. "One of my various cards, rather." He extended it, adding, "I thought I'd run in and bring you a handful of cigars. You must be in sad need of them, eh?"
The card explained that its owner was Mr. Edward Kinsell. The name meant nothing to Shandon and he said so bluntly.
"To be sure," acknowledged Mr. Kinsell. He extended the other hand with the cigars, took a stool by the fire, crossed his knees and added drily, "I've been on the lay, though, for pretty close to six months. Great chap, Brisbane, isn't he? By the way here is a note from him."
The note, dated several months earlier, simply stated that Edward Kinsell could be depended upon to do all that any man could in the matter of gathering up the evidence he was being paid by Shandon to get. Shandon's eyes, suddenly bright, an eager note in his voice, he shot out his hand warmly, and cried,
"You have found something?"
"My dear Mr. Shandon," smiled Kinsell, "I have found out so many things that it's a wonder I don't have a continual headache. You'll pardon my not having called upon you sooner? I have really been so busy—"
"You knew where to find me all the time?" incredulously.
Kinsell nodded and smiled approvingly as Wayne lighted a cigar.
"Of course. I always make it a point to be in a position to get into close touch with my principal in case of urgent need."
"Then there is urgent need now?" eagerly. "You have got the deadwood on Hume?"
"Not exactly. But I've got the old kettle boiling and she's due to bubble over most any old time."
"For God's sake," cried Shandon, "tell me something. I didn't know that you were at work even, I don't know a thing that has happened, that is happening."
"And quite naturally you are interested? Just so." Kinsell very carefully placed the finger tips of one hand against those of the other, apparently giving his whole attention to the action. "Let me see. Presently, in a few weeks at most, I'll be putting in a little bill and you'll want to know what I've been doing to earn my money. That's businesslike and proper. In most matters to be thorough, Mr. Shandon, one must begin at the beginning. In my business it is different; I have to begin in the middle and go back to a point before the beginning. Having availed myself of Mr. Brisbane's knowledge of the subject it became up to me to do one thing: find the man who, before your brother's murder, was in a position to be benefitted by the commission of the crime, or the man with a strong emotional reason for committing it."
He paused, looking thoughtfully at the steep pitched roof his fingers had constructed, shifted quick, measuring glance at Shandon and turned his attention again to his fingers.
"There are three men," he resumed, "who occupy positions demanding investigation. First, you. Your brother's heir, a man with a hot temper, a man who had recently quarrelled with the murdered man; you would benefit financially, you had the reputation of generally needing money, you had the name of being a reckless, headlong sort of devil. Second, Sledge Hume. A man as smooth running as a machine ordinarily, cool headed, emotionless. But investigation shows that he had knowledge of the fact that your brother was carrying on his person the twenty-five thousand dollars; research also discloses there are times when the man's nature changes, when he flies into a towering rage that might well become violent; and finally, we have found that shortly after the crime he paid the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars to Helga Strawn for her interest in the Dry Lands. Third, there is Martin Leland."
"Martin Leland!" cried Shandon.
Kinsell nodded thoughtfully.
"Martin Leland is the man who advanced the money," he said drily. "He has shown himself in the matter of the mortgage and foreclosure a man to be reckoned with. You see all three men mentioned were in positions to have previous knowledge that your brother was in possession of that sum of money; all three were in positions to menace his life for merely sordid reasons; and, strangely enough, all three were men whose tempers are such that in a moment of rage, in a hot quarrel, they might have committed such a crime. Six months ago, Mr. Shandon, I think that it would have gone very hard with you at a trial. The concensus of opinion was pretty strong against you. Making a fugitive of yourself made matters worse. But since then I think things have changed. There are many men who, having learned of the deal Leland and Hume tried to put over on you, have come to look upon them as crooks, and are willing to suspect either of them of having killed Arthur Shandon."
"But Martin Leland suspected," muttered Shandon. "It seems—"
"Exactly," smiled Kinsell. "It seems rather like the finger of God, doesn't it? Now we'll go on. I have learned that Sledge Hume bought Helga Strawn's interest in the Dry Lands about two weeks after the murder. At that time Hume had something like five thousand dollars in the bank. I have had the record of the deed looked up. The deed is noncommittal in the matter in which I was interested. Like so many documents of its nature it says merely that in consideration of the sum of ten dollars, the receipt of which is herein acknowledged, and so forth, Helga Strawn deeded the property to Hume. That's common enough. All right. Next, I find that Hume doesn't take the world into his confidence ordinarily but that he has been free enough to tell a good many people sneeringly that a woman is a fool and that he bought from a woman for five thousand dollars. I find that the five thousand dollars in his bank had been drawn out, a draft for that amount having been sent to Helga Strawn, New York. That looked all right, didn't it? But then you told Brisbane that Helga Strawn told you that Hume had paid her twenty-five thousand. Eh?"
"Yes," Shandon returned. "Have you asked her?"
Kinsell laughed softly.
"I don't do business that way. Usually in this sort of a game if you want to catch nice fat lies fish with question marks for hooks. She is one of the cleverest women I ever knew, is Helga Strawn, almost as clever as Jeanette Compton. Quite as clever, perhaps, but Jeanette has the bulge on her in that she's got her eyes on Helga all the time that Helga has her eyes on Hume."
"Who's Jeanette Compton?"
"She's Helga Strawn's new maid. The old one quit; bribed her myself. You'll find the item in the bill later on. Also Jeanette Compton is the finest little girl on our staff."
"And you're watching Helga Strawn too?"
"With both of Jeanette's bright little eyes, all the time. To go on: we've found through our men in New York that fifteen days after the death of your brother, Helga Strawn placed on deposit in her bank in New York two drafts. One for five thousand dollars, one for twenty thousand. We have found that after Sledge Hume had drawn his five thousand here he was out of the country for two days. We have questioned every bank, Wells Fargo office and post office within a day's range of El Toyon. Last week I got what I wanted from a bank in Reno. A man, evidently a mining man, claiming to be in town from a strike in Tonopah, deposited twenty-five thousand dollars at the Merchants' and Citizens' Bank. It was in cash. The depositor gave his name as—what do you guess?"