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Colonel Pennington's discovery at San Francisco that Bryce Cardigan had stolen his thunder and turned the bolt upon him, was the hardest blow Seth Pennington could remember having received throughout thirty-odd years of give and take. He was too old and experienced a campaigner, however, to permit a futile rage to cloud his reason; he prided himself upon being a foeman worthy of any man's steel.
On Tuesday he returned to Sequoia. Sexton related to him in detail the events which had transpired since his departure, but elicited nothing more than a noncommittal grunt.
"There is one more matter, sir, which will doubtless be of interest to you," Sexton continued apologetically. "Miss Sumner called me on the telephone yesterday and instructed me formally to notify the board of directors of the Laguna Grande Company of a special meeting of the board, to be held here at two o'clock this afternoon. In view of the impossibility of communicating with you while you were en route, I conformed to her wishes. Our by-laws, as you know, stipulate that no meeting of the board shall be called without formal written notice to each director mailed twenty-four hours previously."
"What the devil do you mean, Sexton, by conforming to her wishes? Miss Sumner is not a director of this company." Pennington's voice was harsh and trembled with apprehension.
"Miss Sumner controls forty per cent. of the Laguna Grande stock, sir. I took that into consideration."
"You lie!" Pennington all but screamed. "You took into consideration your job as secretary and general manager. Damnation!"
He rose and commenced pacing up and down his office. Suddenly he paused. Sexton still stood beside his desk, watching him respectfully. "You fool!" he snarled. "Get out of here and leave me alone."
Sexton departed promptly, glancing at his watch as he did so. It lacked five minutes of two. He passed Shirley Sumner in the general office.
"Shirley," Pennington began in a hoarse voice as she entered his office, "what is the meaning of this directors' meeting you have requested?"
"Be seated, Uncle Seth," the girl answered quietly. "If you will only be quiet and reasonable, perhaps we can dispense with this directors' meeting which appears to frighten you so."
He sat down promptly, a look of relief on his face.
"I scarcely know how to begin, Uncle Seth," Shirley commenced sadly. "It hurts me terribly to be forced to hurt you, but there doesn't appear to be any other way out of it. I cannot trust you to manage my financial affairs in the future--this for a number of reasons, the principal one being--"
"Young Cardigan," he interrupted in a low voice.
"I suppose so," she answered, "although I did think until very recently that it was those sixteen townships of red cedar--that crown grant in British Columbia in which you induced me to invest four hundred thousand dollars. You will remember that you purchased that timber for me from the Caribou Timber Company, Limited. You said it was an unparalleled investment. Quite recently I learned--no matter how--that you were the principal owner of the Caribou Timber Company, Limited! Smart as you are, somebody swindled you with that red cedar. It was a wonderful stand of timber--so read the cruiser's report--but fifty per cent. of it, despite its green and flourishing appearance, is hollow-butted! And the remaining fifty per cent. of sound timber cannot be logged unless the rotten timber is logged also and gotten out of the way also. And I am informed that logging it spells bankruptcy."
She gazed upon him steadily, but without malice; his face crimsoned and then paled; presently his glance sought the carpet. While he struggled to formulate a verbal defense against her accusation Shirley continued:
"You had erected a huge sawmill and built and equipped a logging-road before you discovered you had been swindled. So, in order to save as much as possible from the wreck, you decided to unload your white elephant on somebody else. I was the readiest victim. You were the executor of my father's estate--you were my guardian and financial adviser, and so you found it very, very easy to swindle me!"
"I had my back to the wall," he quavered. "I was desperate--and it wasn't at all the bad investment you have been told it is. You had the money--more money than you knew what to do with--and with the proceeds of the sale of those cedar lands, I knew I could make an investment in California redwood and more than retrieve my fortunes-- make big money for both of us."
"You might have borrowed the money from me. You know I have never hesitated to join in your enterprises."
"This was too big a deal for you, Shirley. I had vision. I could see incalculable riches in this redwood empire, but it was a tremendous gamble and required twenty millions to swing it at the very start. I dreamed of the control of California redwood; and if you will stand by me, Shirley, I shall yet make my dream come true--and half of it shall be yours. It has always been my intention to buy back from you secretly and at a nice profit to you that Caribou red cedar, and with the acquisition of the Cardigan properties I would have been in position to do so. Why, that Cardigan tract in the San Hedrin which we will buy in within a year for half a million is worth five millions at least. And by that time, I feel certain--in fact, I know-- the Northern Pacific will commence building in from the south, from Willits."
She silenced him with a disdainful gesture. "You shall not smash the Cardigans," she declared firmly.
"I shall--" he began, but he paused abruptly, as if he had suddenly remembered that tact and not pugnacity was the requirement for the handling of this ticklish situation.
"You are devoid of mercy, of a sense of sportsmanship. Now, then, Uncle Seth, listen to me: You have twenty-four hours in which to make up your mind whether to accept my ultimatum or refuse it. If you refuse, I shall prosecute you for fraud and a betrayal of trust as my father's executor on that red-cedar timber deal."
He brightened a trifle. "I'm afraid that would be a long, hard row to hoe, my dear, and of course, I shall have to defend myself."
"In addition," the girl went on quietly, "the county grand jury shall be furnished with a stenographic report of your conversation of Thursday night with Mayor Poundstone. That will not be a long, hard row to hoe, Uncle Seth, for in addition to the stenographer, I have another very reliable witness, Judge Moore. Your casual disposal of my sedan as a bribe to the Mayor will be hard to explain and rather amusing, in view of the fact that Bryce Cardigan managed to frighten Mr. Poundstone into returning the sedan while you were away. And if that is not sufficient for my purposes, I have the sworn confession of the Black Minorca that you gave him five hundred dollars to kill Bryce Cardigan. Your woods-boss, Rondeau, will also swear that you approached him with a proposition to do away with Bryce Cardigan. I think, therefore, that you will readily see how impossible a situation you have managed to create and will not disagree with me when I suggest that it would be better for you to leave this county."
His face had gone gray and haggard. "I can't," he murmured, "I can't leave this great business now. Your own interests in the company render such a course unthinkable. Without my hand at the helms, things will go to smash."
"I'll risk that. I want to get rid of that worthless red-cedar timber; so I think you had better buy it back from me at the same figure at which, you sold it to me."
"But I haven't the money and I can't borrow it. I--I---"
"I will have the equivalent in stock of the Laguna Grande Lumber Company. You will call on Judge Moore to complete the transaction and leave with him your resignation as president of the Laguna Grande Lumber Company."
The Colonel raised his glance and bent it upon her in cold appraisal. She met it with firmness, and the thought came to him: "She is a Pennington!" And hope died out in his heart. He began pleading in maudlin fashion for mercy, for compromise. But the girl was obdurate.
"I am showing you more mercy than you deserve--you to whom mercy was ever a sign of weakness, of vacillation. There is a gulf between us, Uncle Seth--a gulf which for a long time I have dimly sensed and which, because of my recent discoveries, has widened until it can no longer be bridged."
He wrung his hands in desperation and suddenly slid to his knees before her; with hypocritical endearments he strove to take her hand, but she drew away from him. "Don't touch me," she cried sharply and with a breaking note in her voice. "You planned to kill Bryce Cardigan! And for that--and that alone--I shall never forgive you."
She fled from the office, leaving him cringing and grovelling on the floor. "There will be no directors' meeting, Mr. Sexton," she informed the manager as she passed through the general office. "It is postponed."
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