Chapter 25 The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Half an hour later Custer Pennington swung into the saddle and headed the Apache up Sycamore Cañon.

The trail to the east pasture led through Jackknife. As he passed the spot where he had been arrested on the previous Friday night, the man made a wry face—more at the recollection of the ease with which he had been duped than because of the fact of his arrest. Being free from any sense of guilt, he could view with a certain lightness of spirit that was almost levity the mere physical aspects of possible duress. The reality of his service to Eva could not but tend to compensate for any sorrow he must feel because of the suffering his conviction and imprisonment might bring to his family, so much greater must be their sorrow should Eva be permitted to learn the truth.

When Shannon had broken their engagement for the morning, he had felt a disappointment entirely out of proportion to its cause—a thing which he had realized himself, but had been unable to analyze. Now, in anticipation of seeing her at noon and riding with her after lunch, he experienced a rise in spirits that was equally unaccountable. He liked her very much, and she was excellent company—which, of course, would account for the pleasure he derived from being with her. To-day, too, he hoped for an explanation of her ride into the mountains the week before, so that there might be no longer any shadow on his friendship for her.

The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that this afternoon she would explain the whole matter quite satisfactorily, and presently he found himself whistling as if there were no such places as jails or penitentiaries in the whole wide and beautiful world.

Just then he reached the summit of the trail leading out of Jackknife Cañon toward the east pasture. As was his wont, the Apache stopped to breathe after the hard climb, and, as seems to be the habit of all horses in like circumstances, he turned around and faced in the opposite direction from that in which his rider had been going.

Below and to Custer’s right the ranch buildings lay dotted about in the dust like children’s toys upon a gray rug. Beyond was the castle on the hill, shining in the sun, and farther still the soft-carpeted valley, in grays and browns and greens. Then the young man’s glance wandered to the left and out over the basin meadow, and instantly the joy died out of his heart and the happiness from his eyes. Straight along the mysterious trail loped a horse and rider toward the mountains, and even at that distance he recognized them as Baldy and Shannon.

The force of the shock was almost equivalent to an unexpected blow in the face. What could it mean? He recalled her questions. She had deliberately sought to learn his plans, as she had that other day, and then, as before, she had hastened off to some mysterious rendezvous in the hills.

Suddenly a hot wave of anger surged through him. Quiet and self-controlled as he usually was, there were times when the Pennington temper seized and dominated him so completely that he himself was appalled by the acts it precipitated. Under its spell a Pennington might commit murder. Now Custer did what was almost as foreign to his nature—he cursed the girl who rode on, unconscious of his burning eyes upon her, toward the mountains. He cursed her aloud, searching his memory for opprobrious epithets and anathemas to hurl after her.

This was the end. He was through with her forever. What did he know about her? What did any of them know about her? She had never mentioned her life or associations in the city—he recalled that now. She had known no one whom they knew, and they had taken her in and treated her as a daughter of the house, without knowing anything of her; and this was their reward!

She was doubtless a hireling of the gang that had stolen the whisky and disposed of it through Guy. They had sent her here to spy on Guy and to watch the Penningtons. It was she who had set the trap in which he had been caught, not to save Guy, but to throw the suspicion of guilt upon Custer.

But for what reason? There was no reason except that he had been selected from the first to be the scapegoat when the government officers were too hot upon their trail. She had watched him carefully. God, but she had been cunning and he credulous! There had been scarce a day that she had not been with him. She had ridden the hills with him, and she had kept him from following the mysterious trail—so he reasoned in his rage, though as a matter of fact she had done nothing of the sort; but anger and hate are blind, and Custer Pennington was angry and filled with hate.

He believed that he never had hated before as he hated this girl now, so far to the other extreme had the shock of her duplicity driven his regard for her. He would see her just once more, and he would tell her what he thought of her, so that there might be no chance that she would ever again enter the home of the Penningtons. He must see to that before he went away, that Eva might not be exposed to the influence of such a despicable character.

But he could not see her to-day. He could not trust himself to see her, for even in his anger he remembered that she was a woman, and that when he saw her he must treat her as a woman. If she had been within reach when he first discovered her, a moment since, he could have struck her, choked her.

With the realization, the senseless fury of his anger left him. He turned the Apache away, and headed him again toward the east pasture; but deep within his heart was a cold anger that was quite as terrible, though in a different way.

Shannon Burke rode up the trail toward the camp of the smugglers, all unconscious that there looked down upon her from a high ridge behind eyes filled with hate and loathing—the eyes of the man she loved.

She put Baldy up the steep trail that had so filled her with terror when she first scaled it, and down upon the other side into the grove of oaks that had hidden the camp; but now there was no camp there—only the débris that always marks the stopping place of men.

As she reached the foot of the trail, she saw Bartolo standing beneath a great oak, awaiting her. His pony stood with trailing reins beneath the tree. A rifle butt protruded from a boot on the right of the saddle. He came forward as she guided Baldy toward the tree.

“Buenos dias, señorita,” he greeted her, twisting his pock-marked face into the semblance of a smile.

“What do you want of me?” Shannon demanded.

“I need money,” he said. “You get money from Evans. He got all the money from the hootch we take down two weeks ago. We never get no chance to get it from him.”

“I’ll get you nothing!”

“You get money now—and whenever I want it,” said the Mexican, “or I tell about Crumb. You Crumb’s woman. I tell how you peddle dope. I know! You do what I tell you, or you go to the pen. Sabe?”

“Now listen to me,” said the girl. “I didn’t come up here to take orders from you. I came to give you orders.”

“What?” exclaimed the Mexican, and then he laughed aloud. “You give me orders? That is damn funny!”

“Yes, it is funny. You will enjoy it immensely when I tell you what you are to do.”

“Hurry, then; I have no time to waste.”

He was still laughing.

“You are going to find some way to clear Mr. Pennington of the charge against him. I don’t care what the way is, so long as it does not incriminate any other innocent person. If you can do it without getting yourself in trouble, well and good. I do not care; but you must see that there is evidence given before the grand jury next Wednesday that will prove Mr. Pennington’s innocence.”

“Is that all?” inquired Bartolo, grinning broadly.

“That is all.”

“And if I don’t do it—eh?”

“Then I shall go before the grand jury and tell them about you, and Allen—about the opium and the morphine and the cocaine—how you smuggled the stolen booze from the ship off the coast up into the mountains.”

“You think you would do that?” he asked. “But how about me? Wouldn’t I be telling everything I know about you? Allen would testify, too, and they would make Crumb come and tell how you lived with him. Oh, no, I guess you don’t tell the grand jury nothing!”

“I shall tell them everything. Do you think I care about myself? I will tell them all that Allen or Crumb could tell; and listen, Bartolo—I can tell them something more. There used to be five men in your gang. There were three when I came up last week, and Allen is in jail; but where is the other?”

The man’s face went black with anger, and perhaps with fear, too.

“What you know about that?” he demanded sharply.

“Allen told Crumb the first time he came to the Hollywood bungalow that he was having trouble among his gang, that you were a hard lot to handle, and that already one named Bartolo had killed one named Gracial. How would you like me to tell that to the grand jury?”

“You never tell that to no one!” growled the Mexican. “You know too damn much for your health!”

He had stepped suddenly forward and seized her wrist. She struck at him and at the same time put the spurs to Baldy—in her fear and excitement more severely than she had intended. The high-spirited animal, unused to such treatment, leaped forward past the Mexican, who, clinging to the girl’s wrist, dragged her from the saddle. Baldy turned, and feeling himself free, ran for the trail that led toward home.

“You know too damn much!” repeated Bartolo. “You better off up here alongside Gracial!”

The girl had risen to her feet and stood facing him. There was no fear in her eyes. She was very beautiful, and her beauty was not lost upon the Mexican.

“You mean that you would kill me to keep me from telling the truth about you?” she asked.

“Why not? Should I die instead? If you had kept your mouth shut, you would have been all right; but now”—he shrugged suggestively—“you better off up here beside Gracial.”

“They’ll get you and hang you for it,” she said.

“Who will know?”

“The boy who brought me the message from you.”

“He will not tell. He my son.”

“I wrote a note and left it in my desk before I came up here, telling everything, for fear of something of this sort,” she said.

“You lie!” he accused, correctly; “but for fear you did, I go down and burn your house to-night, after I get through with you. The ground pretty hard after the hot weather—it take me long time to dig a hole beside Gracial!”

The girl was at her wits’ end now. Her pitiful little lie had not availed. She began to realize that nothing would avail. She had made the noose, stuck her head into it, and sprung the trap. It was too late to alter the consequences. The man had the physique of a bull—she could not hope to escape him by recourse to any power other than her wits, and in the first effort along that line she had failed miserably and put him on his guard.

Her case appeared hopeless. She thought of pleading with him, but realized the futility of it. The fact that she did not do so indicated her courage, which had not permitted her to lose her head. She saw that it was either his life or hers, as he saw the matter, and that it was going to be hers was obvious.

The man stood facing her, holding her by the wrist. His eyes appraised her boldly.

“You damn good-looking,” he said, and pulled the girl toward him. “Before I kill you, I—”

He threw an arm about her roughly, and, leaning far over her as she pulled away, he sought to reach her lips with his.