Chapter 19 The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Shannon Burke did not ride to her home after she left Custer. She turned toward the west at the road above the Evans place, continued on to the mouth of Horse Camp Cañon, and entered the hills. For two miles she followed the cañon trail to El Camino Largo, and there, turning to the left, she followed this other trail east to Sycamore Cañon. Whatever her mission, it was evident that she did not wish it known to others. Had she not wished to conceal it, she might have ridden directly up Sycamore Cañon from Ganado with a saving of several miles.

Crossing Sycamore, she climbed the low hills skirting its eastern side. There was no trail here, and the brush was thick and oftentimes so dense that she was forced to make numerous detours to find a way upward; but at last she rode out upon the western rim of the basin meadow above Jackknife. Thence she picked her way down to more level ground, and, putting spurs to Baldy, galloped east, her eyes constantly scanning the ground just ahead of her.

Presently she found what she sought—a trail running north and south across the basin. She turned Baldy into it, and headed him south toward the mountains. She was nervous and inwardly terrified, and a dozen times she would have turned back had she not been urged on by a power infinitely more potent than self-interest.

Personally, she had all to lose by the venture and naught to gain. The element of physical danger she knew to be far from inconsiderable, while it appalled her to contemplate the after effects, in the not inconceivable contingency of the discovery of her act by the Penningtons. Yet she urged Baldy steadily onward, though she felt her flesh creep as the trail entered a narrow barranco at the southern extremity of the meadow and wound upward through dense chaparral, which shut off her range of vision in all directions for more than a few feet.

At the upper end of the barranco the trail turned back and ascended a steep hillside, running diagonally upward through heavy brush—without which, she realized, the trail would have appeared an almost impossible one, since it clung to a nearly perpendicular cliff. The brush lent a suggestion of safety that was more apparent than real, and at the same time it hid the sheer descent below.

Baldy, digging his toes into the loose earth, scrambled upward, stepping over gnarled roots and an occasional bowlder, and finding, almost miraculously, the least precarious footing. There were times when the girl shut her eyes tightly and sat with tensed muscles, her knees pressing her horse’s sides until her muscles ached. At last the doughty Morgan topped the summit of the hogback, and Shannon drew a deep breath of relief—which was alloyed, however, by the realization that in returning she must ride down this frightful trail, which now, as if by magic, disappeared.

The hogback was water-washed and gravel-strewn, and as hard-baked beneath the summer’s sun as a macadam road. To Shannon’s unaccustomed eyes it gave no clew as to the direction of the trail. She rode up and down in both directions until finally she discovered what appeared to be a trail leading downward into another barranco upon the opposite side of the ridge. The descent seemed less terrifying than that which she had just negotiated, and as it was the only indication of a trail that she could find, she determined to investigate it.

Baldy, descending carefully, suddenly paused and with uppricked ears emitted a shrill neigh. So sudden and so startling was the sound that Shannon’s heart all but stood still, gripped by the cold fingers of terror. And then from below came an answering neigh.

She had found what she sought, but the fear that rode her all but sent her panic-stricken in retreat. It was only the fact that she could not turn Baldy upon that narrow trail that gave her sufficient pause to gain mastery over the chaos of her nerves and drive them again into the fold of reason. It required a supreme effort of will to urge her horse onward again, down into that mysterious ravine, where she knew there might lurk for her a thing more terrible than death. That she did it bespoke the greatness of the love that inspired her courage.

The ravine below her was both shallower and wider than that upon the opposite side of the ridge, so that it presented the appearance of a tiny basin. From her vantage point she looked out across the tops of spreading oaks to the brush-covered hillside that bounded the basin on the south; but what lay below, what the greenery of the trees concealed from her sight, she could only surmise.

She knew that the Penningtons kept no horses here, so she guessed that the animal that had answered Baldy’s neigh belonged to the men she sought. Slowly she rode downward. What would her reception be? If her conclusions as to the identity of the men camped below were correct, she could imagine them shooting first and investigating later. The idea was not a pleasant one, but nothing could deter her now.

After what seemed a long time she rode out among splendid old oaks, in view of a soiled tent and a picket line where three horses and a half dozen burros were tethered. Nowhere was there sign of the actual presence of men, yet she had an uncanny feeling that they were there, and that from some place of concealment they were watching her.

She sat quietly upon her horse for a moment, waiting. Then, no one appearing, she called aloud.

“Hello, there! I want to speak with you.”

Her voice sounded strange and uncanny in her ears.

For what seemed a long time there was no other sound than the gently moving leaves about her, the birds, and the heavy breathing of Baldy. Then, from the brush behind her, came another voice. It came from the direction of the trail down which she had ridden. She realized that she must have passed within a few feet of the man who now spoke.

“What do you want?”

“I have come to warn you. You are being watched.”

“You mean you are not alone? There are others with you? Then tell them to go away, for we have our rifles. We have done nothing. We’re tending our bees—they’re just below the ridge above our camp.”

“There is no one with me. I do not mean that others are watching you now, but that others know that you come down out of the hills with something each Friday night, and they want to find out what it is you bring.”

There was a rustling in the brush behind her, and she turned to see a man emerge, carrying a rifle ready in his hands. He was a Mexican, swarthy and ill-favored, his face pitted by smallpox.

Almost immediately two other men stepped from the brush at other points about the camp. The three walked to where Shannon sat upon her mount. All were armed, and all were Mexicans.

“What do you know about what we bring out of the hills? Should we not bring our honey out?” asked the pock-marked one.

“I know what you bring out,” she said. “I am not going to expose you. I am here to warn you.”

“Why?”

“I know Allen.”

Immediately their attitude changed.

“You have seen Allen? You bring a message from him?”

“I have not seen him. I bring no message from him; but for reasons of my own I have come to warn you not to bring down another load next Friday night.”