Chapter XXXIII
 

Quite oblivious of her uncle's departure for San Francisco, Shirley lay awake throughout the remainder of the night, turning over and over in her mind the various aspects of the Cardigan-Fennington imbroglio. Of one thing she was quite certain; peace must be declared at all hazards. She had been obsessed of a desire, rather unusual in her sex, to see a fight worth while; she had planned to permit it to go to a knockout, to use Bryce Cardigan's language, because she believed Bryce Cardigan would be vanquished--and she had desired to see him smashed--but not beyond repair, for her joy in the conflict was to lie in the task of putting the pieces together afterward! She realized now, however, that she had permitted matters to go too far. A revulsion of feeling toward her uncle, induced by the memory of Bryce Cardigan's blood on her white finger-tips, convinced the girl that, at all hazards to her financial future, henceforth she and her uncle must tread separate paths. She had found him out at last, and because in her nature there was some of his own fixity of purpose, the resolution cost her no particular pang.

It was rather a relief, therefore, when the imperturbable James handed her at breakfast the following note:

Shirley, Dear

After leaving you last night, I decided that in your present frame of mind my absence for a few days might tend to a calmer and clearer perception, on your part, of the necessary tactics which in a moment of desperation, I saw fit, with regret, to pursue last night. And in the hope that you will have attained your old attitude toward me before my return, I am leaving in the motor for San Francisco. Your terrible accusation has grieved me to such an extent that I do not feel equal to the task of confronting you until, in a more judicial frame of mind, you can truly absolve me of the charge of wishing to do away with young Cardigan. Your affectionate Uncle Seth.

Shirley's lip curled. With a rarer, keener intuition than she had hitherto manifested, she sensed the hypocrisy between the lines; she was not deceived.

"He has gone to San Francisco for more ammunition," she soliloquized. "Very well, Unkie-dunk! While you're away, I shall manufacture a few bombs myself."

After breakfast she left the house and walked to the intersection of B with Water Street. Jules Rondeau and his crew of lumberjacks were there, and with two policemen guarded the crossing.

Rondeau glanced at Shirley, surprised, then lifted his hat. Shirley looked from the woods bully to the locomotive and back to Rondeau.

"Rondeau," she said, "Mr. Cardigan is a bad man to fight. You fought him once. Are you going to do it again?"

He nodded.

"By whose orders?"

"Mr. Sexton, he tell me to do it."

"Well, Rondeau, some day I'll be boss of Laguna Grande and there'll be no more fighting," she replied, and passed on down B Street to the office of the Cardigan Redwood Lumber Company. Moira McTavish looked up as she entered.

"Where is he, dear?" Shirley asked. "I must see him."

"In that office, Miss Shirley," Moira replied, and pointed to the door. Shirley stepped to the door, knocked, and then entered. Bryce Cardigan, seated at his desk, looked up as she came in. His left arm was in a sling, and he looked harassed and dejected.

"Don't get up, Bryce," she said as he attempted to rise. "I know you're quite exhausted. You look it." She sat down. "I'm so sorry," she said softly.

His dull glance brightened. "It doesn't amount to that, Shirley." And he snapped his fingers. "It throbs a little and it's stiff and sore, so I carry it in the sling. That helps a little. What did you want to see me about?"

"I wanted to tell you," said Shirley, "that--that last night's affair was not of my making." He smiled compassionately. "I--I couldn't bear to have you think I'd break my word and tell him."

"It never occurred to me that you had dealt me a hand from the bottom of the deck, Shirley. Please don't worry about it. Your uncle has had two private detectives watching Ogilvy and me."

"Oh!" she breathed, much relieved. A ghost of the old bantering smile lighted her winsome features. "Well, then," she challenged, "I suppose you don't hate me."

"On the contrary, I love you," he answered. "However, since you must have known this for some time past, I suppose it is superfluous to mention it. Moreover, I haven't the right--yet."

She had cast her eyes down modestly. She raised them now and looked at him searchingly. "I suppose you'll acknowledge yourself whipped at last, Bryce?" she ventured.

"Would it please you to have me surrender?" He was very serious.

"Indeed it would, Bryce."

"Why?"

"Because I'm tired of fighting. I want peace. I'm--I'm afraid to let this matter go any further. I'm truly afraid."

"I think I want peace, too," he answered wearily. "I'd be glad to quit--with honour. And I'll do it, too, if you can induce your uncle to give me the kind of logging contract I want with his road."

"I couldn't do that, Bryce. He has you whipped--and he is not merciful to the fallen. You'll have to--surrender unconditionally." Again she laid her little hand timidly on his wounded forearm. "Please give up, Bryce--for my sake. If you persist, somebody will get killed."

"I suppose I'll have to," he murmured sadly. "I dare say you're right, though one should never admit defeat until he is counted out. I suppose," he continued bitterly, "your uncle is in high feather this morning."

"I don't know, Bryce. He left in his motor for San Francisco about one o'clock this morning."

For an instant Bryce Cardigan stared at her; then a slow, mocking little smile crept around the corners of his mouth, and his eyes lighted with mirth.

"Glorious news, my dear Shirley, perfectly glorious! So the old fox has gone to San Francisco, eh? Left in a hurry and via the overland route! Couldn't wait for the regular passenger-steamer to-morrow, eh? Great jumping Jehoshaphat! He must have had important business to attend to." And Bryce commenced to chuckle. "Oh, the poor old Colonel," he continued presently, "the dear old pirate! What a horrible right swing he's running into! And you want me to acknowledge defeat! My dear girl, in the language of the classic, there is nothing doing. I shall put in my crossing Sunday morning, and if you don't believe it, drop around and see me in action."

"You mustn't try," protested Shirley. "Rondeau is there with his crew--and he has orders to stop you. Besides, you can't expect help from the police. Uncle Seth has made a deal with the Mayor," Shirley pleaded frantically.

"That for the police and that venal Mayor Poundstone!" Bryce retorted, with another snap of his fingers. "I'll rid the city of them at the fall election."

"I came prepared to suggest a compromise, Bryce," she declared, but he interrupted her with a wave of his hand.

"You can't effect a compromise. You've been telling me I shall never build the N.C.O. because you will not permit me to. You're powerless, I tell you. I shall build it."

"You shan't!" she fired back at him, and a spot of anger glowed in each cheek. "You're the most stubborn and belligerent man I have ever known. Sometimes I almost hate you."

"Come around at ten to-morrow morning and watch me put in the crossing--watch me give Rondeau and his gang the run." He reached over suddenly, lifted her hand, and kissed it. "How I love you, dear little antagonist!" he murmured.

"If you loved me, you wouldn't oppose me," she protested softly. "I tell you again, Bryce, you make it very hard for me to be friendly with you."

"I don't want to be friendly with you. You're driving me crazy, Shirley. Please run along home, or wherever you're bound. I've tried to understand your peculiar code, but you're too deep for me; so let me go my way to the devil. George Sea Otter is outside asleep in the tonneau of the car. Tell him to drive you wherever you're going. I suppose you're afoot to-day, for I noticed the Mayor riding to his office in your sedan this morning."

She tried to look outraged, but for the life of her she could not take offense at his bluntness; neither did she resent a look which she detected in his eyes, even though it told her he was laughing at her.

"Oh, very well," she replied with what dignity she could muster. "Have it your own way. I've tried to warn you. Thank you for your offer of the car. I shall be glad to use it. Uncle Seth sold my car to Mayor Poundstone last night. Mrs. P. admired it so!"

"Ah! Then it was that rascally Poundstone who told your uncle about the temporary franchise, thus arousing his suspicions to such an extent that when he heard his locomotive rumbling into town, he smelled a rat and hurried down to the crossing?"

"Possibly. The Poundstones dined at our house last night."

"Pretty hard on you, I should say. But then I suppose you have to play the game with Uncle Seth. Well, good morning, Shirley. Sorry to hurry you away, but you must remember we're on a strictly business basis--yet; and you mustn't waste my time."

"You're horrid, Bryce Cardigan."

"You're adorable. Good morning."

"You'll be sorry for this," she warned him. "Good morning." She passed out into the general office, visited with Moira about five minutes, and drove away in the Napier. Bryce watched her through the window. She knew he was watching her, but nevertheless she could not forbear turning round to verify her suspicions. When she did, he waved his sound arm at her, and she flushed with vexation.

"God bless her!" he murmured. "She's been my ally all along, and I never suspected it! I wonder what her game can be."

He sat musing for a long time. "Yes," he concluded presently, "old Poundstone has double-crossed us--and Pennington made it worth his while. And the Colonel sold the Mayor his niece's automobile. It's worth twenty-five hundred dollars, at least, and since old Poundstone's finances will not permit such an extravagance, I'm wondering how Pennington expects him to pay for it. I smell a rat as big as a kangaroo. In this case two and two don't make four. They make six! Guess I'll build a fire under old Poundstone."

He took down the telephone-receiver and called up the Mayor. "Bryce Cardigan speaking, Mr. Poundstone," he greeted the chief executive of Sequoia.

"Oh, hello, Bryce, my boy," Poundstone boomed affably. "How's tricks?"

"So-so! I hear you've bought that sedan from Colonel Pennington's niece. Wish I'd known it was for sale. I'd have outbid you. Want to make a profit on your bargain?"

"No, not this morning, Bryce. I think we'll keep it. Mrs. P. has been wanting a closed car for a long time, and when the Colonel offered me this one at a bargain, I snapped it up. Couldn't afford a new one, you know, but then this one's just as good as new."

"And you don't care to get rid of it at a profit?" Bryce repeated.

"No, sirree!"

"Oh, you're mistaken, Mr. Mayor. I think you do. I would suggest that you take that car back to Pennington's garage and leave it there. That would be the most profitable thing you could do."

"Wha--what--what in blue blazes are you driving at?" the Mayor sputtered.

"I wouldn't care to discuss it over the telephone. I take it, however, that a hint to the wise is sufficient; and I warn you, Mayor, that if you keep that car it will bring you bad luck. To-day is Friday, and Friday is an unlucky day. I'd get rid of that sedan before noon if I were you."

There was a long, fateful silence. Then in a singularly small, quavering voice: "You think it best, Cardigan?"

"I do. Return it to No. 38 Redwood Boulevard, and no questions will be asked. Good-bye!"

When Shirley reached home at noon, she found her car parked in front of the porte cochere; and a brief note, left with the butler, informed her that after thinking the matter over, Mrs. Poundstone had decided the Poundstone family could not afford such an extravagance, and accordingly the car was returned with many thanks for the opportunity to purchase it at such a ridiculously low figure. Shirley smiled, and put the car up in the garage. When she returned to the house her maid Thelma informed her that Mr. Bryce Cardigan had been calling her on the telephone. So she called Bryce up at once.

"Has Poundstone returned your car?" he queried.

"Why, yes. What makes you ask?"

"Oh, I had a suspicion he might. You see, I called him up and suggested it; somehow His Honour is peculiarly susceptible to suggestions from me, and--"

"Bryce Cardigan," she declared, "you're a sly rascal--that's what you are. I shan't tell you another thing."

"I hope you had a stenographer at the dictograph when the Mayor and your uncle cooked up their little deal," he continued. "That was thoughtful of you, Shirley. It was a bully club to have up your sleeve at the final show-down, for with it you can make Unkie-dunk behave himself and force that compromise you spoke of. Seriously, however, I don't want you to use it, Shirley. We must avoid a scandal by all means; and praise be, I don't need your club to beat your uncle's brains out. I'm taking his club away from him to use for that purpose."

"Really, I believe you're happy to-day."

"Happy? I should tell a man! If the streets of Sequoia were paved with eggs, I could walk them all day without making an omelette."

"It must be nice to feel so happy, after so many months of the blues."

"Indeed it is, Shirley. You see until very recently I was very much worried as to your attitude toward me. I couldn't believe you'd so far forget yourself as to love me in spite of everything--so I never took the trouble to ask you. And now I don't have to ask you. I know! And I'll be around to see you after I get that crossing in!"

"You're perfectly horrid," she blazed, and hung up without the formality of saying good-bye.