Chapter 24 The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The next morning he saw Shannon, who came to ride with them, the Penningtons, as had been her custom. She looked tired, as if she had spent a sleepless night. She had—she had spent two sleepless nights, and she had had to fight the old fight all over again. It had been very hard, even though she had won, for it had shown her that the battle was not over. She had thought that she had conquered the craving; but that had been when she had had no troubles or unhappiness to worry her mind and nerves. The last two days had been days of suffering for her, and the two sleepless nights had induced a nervous condition that begged for the quieting influence of the little white powder.

Custer noticed immediately that something was amiss. The roses were gone from her cheeks, leaving a suggestion of the old pallor; and though she smiled and greeted him happily, he thought that he detected an expression of wistfulness and pain in her face when she was not conscious that others were observing her.

There was a strange suggestion of change in their relations, which Custer did not attempt to analyze. It was as if he had been gone a long time, and, returning, had found Shannon changed through the natural processes of time and separation. She was not the same girl—she could never be the same again, nor could their relations ever be the same.

The careless freedom of their association, which had resembled that of a brother and sister more than any other relationship between a man and a woman, had gone forever. What had replaced it Custer did not know. Sometimes he thought that it was a suspicion of Shannon that clung to his mind in spite of himself, but again and again he assured himself that he held no suspicion of her.

He wished, though, that she would explain that which was to him inexplicable. He had the faith to believe that she could explain it satisfactorily; but would she do so? She had had the opportunity, before this thing had occurred, and had not taken advantage of it. He would give her another opportunity that day, and he prayed that she would avail herself of it. Why he should care so much, he did not try to reason. He did not even realize how much he did care.

Presently he turned toward her.

“I am going to ride over to the east pasture after breakfast,” he said, and waited.

“Is that an invitation?”

He smiled and nodded.

“But not if it isn’t perfectly convenient,” he added.

“I’d love to come with you. You know I always do.”

“Fine! And you’ll breakfast with us?”

“Not to-day. I have a couple of letters to write that I want to get off right away; but I’ll be up between eight thirty and nine. Is that too late?”

“I’ll ride down after breakfast and wait for you—if I won’t be in the way.”

“Of course you won’t. It will take me only a few minutes to write my letters.”

“How are you going to mail them? This is Sunday.”

“Mr. Powers is going to drive in to Los Angeles to-day. He’ll mail them in the city.”

“Who looks after things when Mr. and Mrs. Powers are away?”

“Who looks after things? Why, I do.”

“The chickens, and the sow, and Baldy—you take care of them all?”

“Certainly, and I have more than that now.”

“How’s that?”

“Nine little pigs! They came yesterday. They’re perfect beauties.”

The man laughed.

“What are you laughing about?” she demanded.

“The idea of you taking care of chickens and pigs and a horse!”

“I don’t see anything funny about it, and it’s lot of fun. Did you think I was too stupid?”

“I was just thinking what a change two months have made. What would you have done if you’d been left alone two months ago with a hundred hens, a horse, and ten pigs to care for?”

“The question then would have been what the hens, the horse, and the pigs would have done; but now I know pretty well what to do. The two letters I have to write are about the little pigs. I don’t know much about them, and so I am writing to Berkeley and Washington for the latest bulletins.”

“Why don’t you ask us?”

“Gracious, but I do! I am forever asking the colonel questions, and the boys at the hog house must hate to see me coming. I’ve spent hours in the office, reading Lovejoy and Colton; but I want something for ready reference. I’ve an idea that I can raise lots more hogs than I intended by fencing the orchard and growing alfalfa between the rows, for pasture. There’s something solid and substantial about hogs that suggests a bank balance even in the years when the orange crop may be short or a failure, or the market poor.”

“You’ve got the right idea,” said Custer. “There isn’t a rancher or an orchardist, big or little, in the valley who couldn’t make more money year in and year out if he’d keep a few brood sows.”

“What’s Cus doing?” asked Eva, who had reined back beside them. “Preaching hog raising again? That’s his idea of a dapper little way to entertain a girl—hogs, Herefords and horses! Wouldn’t he make a hit in society? Regular little tea pointer, I’ll say!”

“I knew you were about to say something,” remarked her brother. “You’ve been quiet for all of five minutes.”

“I’ve been thinking,” said Eva. “I’ve been thinking how lonely it will be when you have to go away to jail.”

“Why, they can’t send me to jail—I haven’t done anything,” he tried to reassure her.

“I’m so afraid, Cus!” The tears came to her eyes. “I lay awake for hours last night, thinking about it. Oh, Cus, I just couldn’t stand it if they sent you to jail! Do you think the men who did it would let you go for something they did? Could any one be so wicked? I never hated any one in my life, but I could hate them, if they don’t come forward and save you. I could hate them, hate them, hate them! Oh, Cus, I believe that I could kill the man who would do such a thing to my brother!”

“Come, dear, don’t worry about it. The chances are that they’ll free me. Even if they don’t, you mustn’t feel quite so bitterly against the men who are responsible. There may be reasons that you know nothing of that would keep them silent. Let’s not talk about it. All we can do now is to wait and see what the grand jury is going to do. In the meantime I don’t intend to worry.”

Shannon Burke, her heart heavy with shame and sorrow, listened as might a condemned man to the reading of his death sentence. She felt almost the degradation that might have been hers had she deliberately planned to ensnare Custer Pennington in the toils that had been laid for him.

She determined that she would go before the grand jury and tell all she knew. Then she would go away. She would not have to see the contempt and hatred they must surely feel for her after she had recited the cold facts that she must lay before the jury, unmitigated by any of those extenuating truths that must lie forever hidden in the secret recesses of her soul. They would know only that she might have warned Custer, and did not; that she might have cleared him at his preliminary hearing, and did not. The fact that she had come to his rescue at the eleventh hour would not excuse her, in their minds, of the guilt of having permitted the Pennington honor to be placed in jeopardy needlessly; nor could it explain her knowledge of the crime, or those associations of her past life that had made it possible for her to have gained such knowledge.

No, she could never face them again after the following Wednesday; but until then she would cling to the brief days of happiness that remained to her before the final catastrophe of her life, for it was thus that she thought of it—the moment and the act that would forever terminate her intercourse with the Penningtons, that would turn the respect of the man she loved to loathing.

She counted the hours before the end. There would be two more morning rides—to-morrow and Tuesday. They would ask her to dinner, or to lunch, or to breakfast several times in the ensuing three days, and there would be rides with Custer. She would take all the happy memories that she could into the bleak and sunless future.

Their ride that morning was over a loved and familiar trail that led across El Camino Corto over low hills into Horse Camp Cañon, and up Horse Camp to Coyote Springs; then over El Camino Largo to Sycamore Cañon and down beneath the old, old sycamores to the ranch. She felt that she knew each bush and tree and bowlder, and they held for her the quiet restfulness of the familiar faces of old friends. She should miss them, but she would carry them in her memory forever.

When they came to the fork in the road, she would not let Custer ride home with her.

“At eight thirty, then,” he called to her, as she urged Baldy into a canter and left them with a gay wave of the hand that gave no token of the heavy sorrow in her heart.

As was her custom, she ate breakfast with Mr. and Mrs. Powers at the little tenant cottage a couple of hundred yards in rear of her own bungalow—a practice which gave her an opportunity to discuss each day’s work in advance with her foreman, and at the same time to add to her store of information concerning matters of ranching and citrus culture. Her knowledge of these things had broadened rapidly, and was a constant source of surprise to Powers, who took great pride in bragging about it to his friends; for Shannon had won as great a hold upon the hearts of these two as she had upon all who were fortunate enough to know her well.

After breakfast, as she was returning to her bungalow to write her letters, she saw a Mexican boy on a bicycle turn in at her gate. They met in front of the bungalow.

“Are you Miss Burke?” he asked. “Bartolo says for you to come to his camp in the mountains this morning, sure,” he went on, having received an affirmative reply.

“Who is Bartolo?”

“He says you know. You went to his camp a week ago yesterday.”

“Tell him I do not know him and will not go.”

“He says to tell you that he only wants to talk to you about your friend who is in trouble.”

The girl thought for a moment. Possibly here was a way out of her dilemma. If she could force Bartolo by threats of exposure, he might discover a way to clear Custer Pennington without incriminating himself. She turned to the boy.

“Tell him I will come.”

“I do not see him again. He is up in his camp now. He told me this yesterday. He also told me to tell you that he would be watching for you, and if you did not come alone you would not find him.”

“Very well,” she said, and turned into the bungalow.

She wrote her letters, but she was not thinking about them. Then she took them over to Powers to take to the city for her. After that she went to the telephone and called the Rancho del Ganado, asking for Custer when she got the connection.

“I’m terribly disappointed,” she said, when he came to the telephone. “I find I simply can’t ride this morning; but if you’ll put it off until afternoon—”

“Why, certainly! Come up to lunch and we’ll ride afterward,” he told her.

“You won’t go, then, until afternoon?” she asked.

“I’ll ride over to the east pasture this morning, and we’ll just take a ride any old place that you want to go this afternoon.”

“All right,” she replied.

She had hoped that he would not ride that morning. There was a chance that he might see her, even though the east pasture was miles from the trail she would ride, for there were high places on both trails, where a horseman would be visible for several miles.

“This noon at lunch, then,” he said.