Chapter 16 The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs

It was four o’clock the following morning before she awoke. The craving awoke with her. It seized her mercilessly; yet even as she gave in to it, she had the satisfaction of knowing that she had gone without the little white powders longer this time than since she had first started to use them. She took but a third of her normal dose.

When Eva knocked at half past five, Shannon rose and dressed in frantic haste, that she might escape a return of the desire. She did not escape it entirely, but she was able to resist it until she was dressed and out of reach of the little black case.

That day she went with Custer and Eva and Guy to the country club, returning only in time for a swim before dinner; and again she fought off the craving while she was dressing for dinner. After dinner they danced, and once more she was so physically tired when she reached her rooms that she could think of nothing but sleep. The day of golf had kept her fully occupied in the hot sun, and in such good company her mind had been pleasantly occupied, too, so that she had not been troubled by her old enemy.

Again it was early morning before she was forced to fight the implacable foe. She fought valiantly this time, but she lost.

And so it went, day after day, as she dragged out her dwindling supply and prolonged the happy hours of her all too brief respite from the degradation of the life to which she knew she must soon return. Each day it was harder to think of going back—of leaving these people, whom she had come to love as she loved their lives and their surroundings, and taking her place again in the stifling and degraded atmosphere of the Vista del Paso bungalow. They were so good to her, and had so wholly taken her into their family life, that she felt as one of them. They shared everything with her. There was not a day that she did not ride with Custer out among the brown hills. She knew that she was going to miss these rides—that she was going to miss the man, too. He had treated her as a man would like other men to treat his sister, with a respect and deference that she had never met with in the City of Angels.

Three weeks had passed. She had drawn out the week’s supply that Crumb had doled out to her to this length, and there was even enough for another week, to such small quantities had she reduced the doses, and to such lengths had she increased the intervals between them. She had gone two whole days without it; yet she did not once think that she could give it up entirely, for when the craving came in full force she was still powerless to withstand it, and she knew that she would always be so.

Without realizing it, she was building up a reserve force of health that was to be her strongest ally in the battle to come. The sallowness had left her; her cheeks were tanned and ruddy; her eyes sparkled with the old fire, and were no longer wild and staring. She could ride and walk and swim and dance with the best of them. She found interest in the work of her orchard, where she went almost daily to talk with the caretaker, to question him and to learn all that she could of citrus culture. She even learned to drive the light tractor and steer it in and out about the trees without barking them.

Every day that she was there she went to the sunny bedroom in the bungalow—the bedroom that had been her mother’s—and knelt beside the bed and poured forth her heart in blind faith that her mother heard. She did not grieve, for she held that sublime faith in the hereafter which many profess and few possess—the faith which taught her that her mother was happier than she had ever been before. Her sorrow had been in her own loss, and this she fought down as selfishness. She realized that her greatest anguish lay in vain regrets; and such thoughts she sought to stifle, knowing their uselessness.

Sometimes she prayed there—prayed for strength to cast off the bonds of her servitude. Ineffectual prayers she knew them to be, for the only power that could free her had lain within herself, and that power the drug had undermined and permanently weakened. Her will had degenerated to impotent wishes.

And now the time had come when she must definitely set a date for her departure. She had determined to retain the orchard, not alone because she had seen that it would prove profitable, but because it would always constitute a link between her and the people whom she had come to love. No matter what the future held, she could always feel that a part of her remained here, where she would that all of her might be; but she knew that she must go, and she determined to tell them on the following day that she would return to the city within the week.

It was going to be hard to announce her decision, for she was not blind to the fact that they had grown fond of her, and that her presence meant much to Eva, who, since Grace’s departure, had greatly missed the companionship of a girl near her own age. Mrs. Pennington and the colonel had been a mother and father to her, and Custer a big brother and a most charming companion.

She passed that night without recourse to the white powders, for she must be frugal of them if they were to last through the week. The next morning she rode with the Penningtons and the Evanses as usual. She would tell them at breakfast.

When she came to the table she found a pair of silver spurs beside her plate, and when she looked about in astonishment they were all smiling.

“For me?” she cried.

“From the Penningtons,” said the colonel. “You’ve won ’em, my dear. You ride like a trooper already.”

The girl choked, and the tears came to her eyes.

“You are all so lovely to me!” she said. Walking around the table to the colonel, she put her arms about his neck, and, standing on tiptoe, kissed his cheek. “How can I ever thank you?”

“You don’t have to, child. The spurs are nothing.”

“They are everything to me. They are a badge of honor that—that—I don’t deserve!”

“But you do deserve them. You wouldn’t have got them if you hadn’t. We might have given you something else—a vanity case or a book, perhaps; but no one gets spurs from the Penningtons who does not belong.”

After that she simply couldn’t tell them then that she was going away. She would wait until to-morrow; but she laid her plans without reference to the hand of fate.

That afternoon, immediately after luncheon, they were all seated in the patio, lazily discussing the chief topic of thought—the heat. It was one of those sultry days that are really unusual in southern California. The heat was absolutely oppressive, and even beneath the canvas canopy that shaded the patio there was little relief.

“I don’t know why we sit here,” said Custer. “It’s cooler in the house. This is the hottest place on the ranch a day like this!”

“Wouldn’t it be nice under one of those oaks up the cañon?” suggested Shannon.

He looked at her and smiled.

“Phew! It’s too hot even to think of getting there.”

“That from a Pennington!” she cried in mock astonishment and reproach.

“Do you mean to say that you’d ride up there through this heat?” he demanded.

“Of course I would. I haven’t christened my new spurs yet.”

“I’m game, then, if you are,” Custer announced.

She jumped to her feet.

“Come on, then! Who else is going?”

Shannon looked around at them questioningly. Mrs. Pennington shook her head, smiling.

“Not I. Before breakfast is enough for me in the summer time.”

“I have to dictate some letters,” said the colonel. “And I suppose little Eva has to stay at home and powder her nose,” suggested Custer, grinning at his sister.

“Little Eva is going to drive over to Ganado with Guy Thackeray Evans, the famous author,” said the girl. “He expects an express package—his story’s coming back again. Horrid, stupid old editors! They don’t know a real story when they see one. I’m in it—Guy put me in. You all ought to read it—oh, it’s simply radiant! I’m Hortense—tall and willowy and very dignified—” Eva made a grimace.

“Yes, that’s you, unmistakably,” said Custer. “Tall and willowy and very dignified—Guy’s some hot baby at character delineation!”

Eva ignored the interruption.

“I swoon when the villain enters my room and carries me off. Then the hero—he’s Bruce Bellinghame, tall and slender, with curly hair—”

“Is he very dignified, too?”

“And then the hero pursues and rescues me just as the villain is going to hurl me off a cliff—oh, it’s gorgeristic!”

“It must be,” commented Custer.

“You’re horrid,” said Eva. “You ought to have been an editor.”

“Tall and slender, with curly hair,” gibed Custer. “Or was it tall and curly, with slender hair? Come on, Shannon! I see where we are the only real sports in the family.”

“Hot sports is what you’re going to be!” Eva called after them.

“The only real sports in the family—in the family!” The words thrilled her. They had taken her in—they had made her a part of their life. It was wonderful. Oh, God, if it could only last forever!

It was very hot. The dust rose from the shuffling feet of their horses. Even the Apache shuffled to-day. His head was low, and he did not dance. The dust settled on sweating neck and flank, and filled the eyes of the riders.

“Lovely day for a ride,” commented Custer.

“But think how nice it will be under the oak,” she reminded him.

“I’m trying to.”

Suddenly he raised his head as his wandering eyes sighted a slender column of smoke rising from behind the ridge beyond Jackknife Cañon. He reined in the Apache.

“Fire!” he said to the girl. “Wait here. I’ll notify the boys, and then we’ll ride on ahead and have a look at it. It may not amount to anything.”

He wheeled about and was off at a run—the heat and the dust forgotten. She watched him go, erect in the saddle, swinging easily with every motion of his mount—a part of the horse. In less than five minutes he was back.

“Come on!” he cried.

She swung Baldy in beside the Apache, and they were off. The loose stones clattered from the iron hoofs, the dust rose far behind them now, and they had forgotten the heat. A short cut crossed a narrow wash that meant a jump.

“Grab the horn!” he cried to her. “Give him his head!” They went over almost stirrup to stirrup, and he smiled broadly, for she had not grabbed the horn. She had taken the jump like a veteran.

She thrilled with the excitement of the pace. The horses flattened out—their backs seemed to vibrate in a constant plane—it was like flying. The hot wind blew in her face and choked her; but she laughed and wanted to shout aloud and swing a hat.

More slowly they climbed the side of Jackknife, and just beyond the ridge they saw the flames leaping in a narrow ravine below them. Fortunately there was no wind—no more than what the fire itself was making; but it was burning fiercely in thick brush.

“There isn’t a thing to do,” he told her, “till the boys come with the teams and plows and shovels. It’s in a mean place—too steep to plow, and heavy brush; but we’ve got to stop it!”

Presently the “boys”—a wagon full of them—came with four horses, two walking plows, shovels, a barrel of water, and burlap sacks. They were of all ages, from eighteen to seventy. Some of them had been twenty years on the ranch, and had fought many a fire. They did not have to be told what to bring or what to do with what they brought.

The wagon had to be left in Jackknife Cañon. The horses dragged the plows to the ridge, and the men carried the shovels and wet burlaps and buckets of water from the barrel. Custer dismounted and turned the Apache over to an old man to hold.

“Plow down the east side of the ravine. Try to get all the way around the south side of the fire and then back again,” he directed the two men with one of the teams. “I’ll take the other, with Jake, and we’ll try to cut her off across the top here!”

“You can’t do it, Cus,” said one of the older men. “It’s too steep.”

“We’ve got to try it,” said Pennington. “Otherwise we’d have to go back so far that it would get away from us on the east side before we made the circle. Jake, you choke the plow handles—I’ll drive!”

Jake was a short, stocky, red-headed boy of twenty, with shoulders like a bull. He grinned good-naturedly.

“I’ll choke the tar out of ’em!” he said.

“The rest of you shovel and beat like hell!” ordered Custer.

Shannon watched him as he took the reins and started the team forward, slowly, quietly. There was no yelling. They were horsemen, these men of Ganado. The great Percherons moved ponderously forward. The plow point bit deep into the earth, but the huge beasts walked on as if dragging an empty wagon.

When the girl saw where Custer was guiding them she held her breath. No, she must be mistaken! He would turn them up toward the ridge. He could not be thinking of trying to drive them across the steep, shelving side of the ravine!

But he was. They slipped and caught themselves. Directly below them the burning brush had become a fiery furnace. If ever they failed to catch themselves, nothing could save them from that hell of heat.

Jake, clinging to the plow handles, stumbled and slid, but the plow steadied him, and the furrow saved his footing a dozen times in as many yards. Custer, driving, walked just below the plow. How he kept the team going was a miracle to the girl.

The steep sides of the ravine seemed almost perpendicular in places, with footing fit only for a goat. How those heavy horses clung there was beyond her. Only implicit confidence in these men of Ganado, who had handled them from the time they were foaled, and great courage, could account for it.

What splendid animals they were! The crackling of burning brush, the roaring of the flames, the almost unbearable heat that swept up to them from below, must have been terrifying; and yet only by occasional nervous side glances and uppricked ears did they acknowledge their instinctive fear of fire.

At first it had seemed to Shannon a mad thing to attempt, but as she watched and realized what Custer sought to accomplish, she understood the wisdom of it. If he could check the flames here with a couple of furrows, he might gain time to stop its eastward progress to the broad pastures filled with the tinder-dry grasses and brush of late August.

Already some of the men were working with shovels, just above the furrow that the plow was running, clearing away the brush and throwing it back. Shannon watched these men, and there was not a shirker among them. They worked between the fierce heat of the sun and the fierce heat of the fire, each one of them as if he owned the ranch. It was fine proof of loyalty; and she saw an indication of the reason for it in Custer’s act when he turned the Apache over to the oldest man, in order that the veteran might not be called upon to do work beyond his strength, while young Pennington himself undertook a dangerous and difficult part in the battle.

The sight thrilled her; and beside this picture she saw Wilson Crumb directing a Western scene, sending mounted men over a steep cliff, while he sat in safety beside the camera man, hurling taunts and insults at the poor devils who risked their lives for five dollars a day. He had killed one horse that time and sent two men to hospital, badly injured—and the next day he had bragged about it!

Now they were across the ravine and moving along the east side on safer footing. Shannon realized the tension that had been upon her nerves when reaction followed the lessening of the strain—she felt limp and fagged.

The smoke hid them from her occasionally, as it rose in cloudlike puffs. Then there would be a break in it, and she would see the black coats of the Percherons and the figures of the sweating men. They rounded well down the east side of the ravine and then turned back again; for the other team, with easier going, would soon be up on that side to join its furrow with theirs. They were running the second furrow just above the first, and this time the work seemed safer, for the horses had the first furrow below them should they slip—a ridge of loose earth that would give them footing.

They were more than halfway back when it happened. The off horse must have stepped upon a loose stone, so suddenly did he lurch to the left, striking the shoulder of his mate just as the latter had planted his left forefoot. The ton of weight hurled against the shoulder of the near horse threw him downward against the furrow. He tried to catch himself on his right foot, crossed his forelegs, stumbled over the ridge of newly turned earth, and rolled down the hill, dragging his mate and the plow after him toward the burning brush below.

Jake at the plow handles and Custer on the lines tried to check the horses’ fall, but both were jerked from their hands, and the two Percherons rolled over and over into the burning brush. A groan of dismay went up from the men. It was with difficulty that Shannon stifled a scream; and then her heart stood still as she saw Custer Pennington leap deliberately down the hillside, drawing the long, heavy trail-cutting knife that he always wore on the belt with his gun.

The horses were struggling and floundering to gain their feet. One of them was screaming with pain. The girl wanted to cover her eyes with her palms to shut out the heart-rending sight, but she could not take them from the figure of the man.

She saw that the upper horse was so entangled with the harness and the plow that he could not rise, and that he was holding the other down. Then she saw the man leap into the midst of the struggling, terrified mass of horseflesh, seeking to cut the beasts loose from the tangled traces and the plow. It seemed impossible that he could escape the flying hoofs or the tongued flames that licked upward as if in hungry greed to seize this new prey.

As Shannon watched, a great light awoke within her, suddenly revealing the unsuspected existence of a wondrous thing that had come into her life—a thing which a moment later dragged her from her saddle and sent her stumbling down the hill into the burning ravine, to the side of Custer Pennington.

He had cut one horse free, seized its headstall, dragged it to its feet, and then started it scrambling up the hill. As he was returning to the other, the animal struggled up, crazed with terror and pain, and bolted after its mate. Pennington was directly in its path on the steep hillside. He tried to leap aside, but the horse struck him with its shoulder, hurling him to the ground, and before he could stop his fall he was at the edge of the burning brush, stunned and helpless.

Every man of them who saw the accident leaped down the hillside to save him from the flames; but quick as they were, Shannon Burke was first to his side, vainly endeavoring to drag him to safety. An instant later strong hands seized both Custer and Shannon and helped them up the steep acclivity, for Pennington had already regained consciousness, and it was not necessary to carry him.

Custer was badly burned, but his first thought was for the girl, and his next, when he found she was uninjured, for the horses. They had run for only a short distance and were standing on the ridge above Jackknife, where one of the men had caught them. One was burned about the neck and shoulder; the other had a bad cut above the hock, where he had struck the plow point in his struggles.

“Take them in and take care of those wounds, Jake,” said Pennington, after examining them. “You go along,” he told another of the men, “and bring out Dick and Dave. I don’t like to risk them in this work, but none of the colts are steady enough for this.”

Then he turned to Shannon.

“Why did you go down into that?” he asked. “You shouldn’t have done it—with all the men here.”

“I couldn’t help it,” she said. “I thought you were going to be killed.”

Custer looked at her searchingly for a moment.

“It was a very brave thing to do,” he said, “and a very foolish thing. You might have been badly burned.”

“Never mind that,” she said. “You have been badly burned, and you must go to the house at once. Do you think you can ride?”

He laughed.

“I’m all right,” he said. “I’ve got to stay here and fight this fire.”

“You are not going to do anything of the kind.” She turned and called to the man who held Pennington’s horse. “Please bring the Apache over here,” she said. “These men can fight the fire without you,” she told Custer. “You are going right back with me. You’ve never seen any one badly burned, or you’d know how necessary it is to take care of your burns at once.”

He was not accustomed to being ordered about, and it amused him. Grace would never have thought of questioning his judgment in this or any other matter; but this girl’s attitude implied that she considered his judgment faulty and his decisions of no consequence. She evidently had the courage of her convictions, for she caught up her own horse and rode over to the men, who had resumed their work, to tell them that Custer was too badly burned to remain with them.

“I told him that he must go back to the house and have his burns dressed; but he doesn’t want to. Maybe he would pay more attention to you, if you told him.”

“Sure, we’ll tell him,” cried one of them. “Here comes Colonel Pennington now. He’ll make him go, if it’s necessary.”

Colonel Pennington reined in a dripping horse beside his son, and Shannon rode over to them. Custer was telling him about the accident to the team.

“Burned, was he?” exclaimed the colonel. “Why damn it, man, you’re burned!”

“It’s nothing,” replied the younger man.

“It is something, colonel,” cried Shannon. “Please make him go back to the house. He won’t pay any attention to me, and he ought to be cared for right away. He should have a doctor just as quickly as we can get one.”

“Can you ride?” snapped the colonel at Custer.

“Of course I can ride!”

“Then get out of here and take care of yourself. Will you go with him, Shannon? Have them call Dr. Baldwin.”

His rough manner did not conceal the father’s concern, or his deep love for his boy. That he could be as gentle as a woman was evidenced, when he dismounted, in the way that he helped Custer to his saddle.

“Take care of him, my dear,” he said to Shannon. “I’ll stay here and help the boys. Ask Mrs. Pennington to send the car out with some iced water or lemonade for them. Take care of yourself, boy!” he called after them as they rode away.

As the horses moved slowly along the dusty trail, Shannon, riding a pace behind the man, watched his profile for signs of pain, that she knew he must be suffering. Once, when he winced, she almost gave a little cry, as if it had been she who was tortured. They were riding very close, and she laid her hand gently upon his right arm, in sympathy.

“I am so sorry!” she said. “I know it must pain you terribly.”

He turned to her with a smile on his face, now white and drawn.

“It does hurt a little now,” he said.

“And you did it to save those two dumb brutes. I think it was magnificent, Custer!”

He looked at her in mild surprise.

“What was there magnificent about it? It was my duty. My father has always taught me that the ownership of animals entails certain moral obligations which no honorable man can ignore—that it isn’t sufficient merely to own them, and feed them, and house them; but to serve and protect them, even if it entailed sacrifices to do so.”

“I don’t believe he meant that you should give your life for them,” she said.

“No, of course not; but I am not giving my life.”

“You might have.”

“I really didn’t think there would be any danger to me,” he said. “I guess I didn’t think anything about it. I saw those two beautiful animals, who had been working there for me so bravely, helpless at the edge of that fire, and I couldn’t have helped doing what I did under any circumstances. You don’t know, Shannon, how we Penningtons love our horses. It’s been bred in the bone for generations. Perhaps it’s silly; but we don’t think so.”

“Neither do I. It’s fine.”

By the time they reached the house she could see that the man was suffering excruciating pain. The stableman had gone to help the fire fighters, as had every able-bodied man on the ranch, so that she had to help Custer from the Apache. After tying the two horses at the stable, she put an arm about him and assisted him up the long flight of steps to the house. There Mrs. Pennington and Hannah came at her call and took him to his room, while she ran to the office to telephone for the doctor.

When she returned, they had Custer undressed and in bed, and were giving such first aid as they could. She stood in the doorway for a moment, watching him, as he fought to hide the agony he was enduring. He rolled his head slowly from side to side, as his mother and Hannah worked over him; but he stifled even a faint moan, though Shannon knew that his tortured body must be goading him to screams. He opened his eyes and saw her, and tried to smile.

Mrs. Pennington turned then and discovered her.

“Please let me do something, Mrs. Pennington, if there is anything I can do.”

“I guess we can’t do much until the doctor comes. If we only had something to quiet the pain until then!”

If they only had something to quiet the pain. The horror of it! She had something that would quiet the pain; but at what a frightful cost to herself must she divulge it! They would know, then, the sordid story of her vice. There could be no other explanation of her having such an outfit in her possession. How they would loathe her! To see disgust in the eyes of these friends, whose good opinion was her one cherished longing, seemed a punishment too great to bear.

And then there was the realization of that new force that had entered her life with the knowledge that she loved Custer Pennington. It was a hopeless love, she knew; but she might at least have had the happiness of knowing that he respected her. Was she to be spared nothing? Was her sin to deprive her of even the respect of the man whom she loved?

She saw him lying there, and saw the muscles of his jaws tensing as he battled to conceal his pain; and then she turned and ran up the stairway to her rooms. She did not hesitate again, but went directly to her bag, unlocked it, and took out the little black case. Carefully she dissolved a little of the white powder—a fraction of what she could have taken without danger of serious results, but enough to allay his suffering until the doctor came. She knew that this was the end—that she might not remain under that roof another night.

She drew the liquid through the needle into the glass barrel of the syringe, wrapped it in her handkerchief, and descended the stairs. She felt as if she moved in a dream. She felt that she was not Shannon Burke at all, but another whom Shannon Burke watched with pitying eyes; for it did not seem possible that she could enter that room and before his eyes and Mrs. Pennington’s and Hannah’s reveal the thing that she carried in her handkerchief.

Ah, the pity of it! To realize her first love, and in the same hour to slay the respect of its object with her own hand! Yet she entered the room with a brave step, fearlessly. Had he not risked his life for the two dumb brutes he loved? Could she be less courageous? Perhaps though, she was braver, for she was knowingly surrendering what was dearer to her than life.

Mrs. Pennington turned toward her as she entered.

“He has fainted,” she said. “My poor boy!”

Tears stood in his mother’s eyes.

“He is not suffering, then?” asked Shannon, trembling.

“Not now. For his sake, I hope he won’t recover consciousness until after the doctor comes.”

Shannon Burke staggered and would have fallen had she not grasped the frame of the door.

It was not long before the doctor came, and then she went back up the stairs to her rooms, still trembling. She took the filled hypodermic syringe from her handkerchief and looked at it. Then she carried it into the bathroom.

“You can never tempt me again,” she said aloud, as she emptied its contents into the lavatory. “Oh, dear God, I love him!”