Chapter 26 The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Apache had taken but a few steps on the trail toward the east pasture when Custer reined him in suddenly and wheeled him about.

“I’ll settle this thing now,” he muttered. “I’ll catch her with them. I’ll find out who the others are. By God, I’ve got her now, and I’ve got them!”

He spurred the Apache into a lope along the steep and dangerous declivity leading downward into the basin. The horse was surprised. Never before had he been allowed to go down hill faster than a walk—his sound forelegs attested the careful horsemanship of his rider.

Where the trail wound around bushes, he took perilous jumps on the steep hillside, for his speed was too great to permit him to make the short turns. He cleared them, and somehow he stuck to the trail beyond. His iron shoes struck fire from half embedded bowlders.

A rattler crossing the trail ahead coiled, buzzing its warning. The hillside was steep—there was no footing above or below the snake. The Apache could not have stopped in time to save himself from those poisoned fangs. A coward horse would have wheeled and gone over the cliff; but the Morgan is no coward.

The rider saw the danger at the instant the horse did. The animal felt the spurs touch him lightly, he heard a word of encouragement from the man he trusted. As the snake struck, he rose, gathering his four feet close to his belly, and cleared the danger spot far out of reach of the needle-like fangs.

The trail beyond was narrow, rocky, and shelving—the thing could not have happened in a worse place. The Apache lit, stumbled, slipped. His off hind foot went over the edge. He lunged forward upon his knees.

Only the cool horsemanship of his rider saved them both. A pound of weight thrown in the wrong direction would have toppled the horse to the bottom of the rocky gorge; a heavy hand upon the bit would have accomplished the same result. Pennington sat easily the balanced seat that gave the horse the best chance to regain his footing. His touch upon the bit was only sufficient to impart confidence to his mount, giving the animal’s head free play, as nature intended, as he scrambled back to the trail again.

At last they reached the safer footing of the basin, and were off in a straight line for the ravine into which led the mysterious trail. The Apache knew that there was need for haste—an inclination of his master’s body, a closing of the knees against his barrel, the slight raising of the bridle hand, had told him this more surely than loud cries of the punishment of steel rowels. He flattened out and flew.

The cold rage that gripped Pennington brooked no delay. He was glad, though, that he was unarmed; for he knew that when he came face to face with the men with whom Shannon Burke had conspired against him, he might again cease to be master of his anger.

They reached the foot of the acclivity terminating at the summit of the ridge beyond which lay the camp of the bootleggers. Again the man urged his mount to the necessity of speed. The powerful beast leaped upward along the steep trail, digging his toes deep into the sun-baked soil, every muscle in his body strained to the limit of its powers.

At the summit they met Baldy, head and tail erect, snorting and riderless. The appearance of the horse and his evident fright bespoke something amiss. Custer had seen him just as he was emerging from the upper end of the dim trail leading down the opposite side of the hogback. He turned the Apache into it and headed him down toward the oaks.

Below, Shannon was waging a futile fight against the burly Bartolo. She struck at his face and attempted to push him from her, but he only laughed his crooked laugh and pushed her slowly toward the trampled dust of the abandoned camp.

“Before I kill you—” he repeated again and again, as if it were some huge joke.

He heard the sound of the Apache’s hoofs upon the trail above, but he thought it the loose horse of the girl. Custer was almost at the bottom of the trail when the Mexican glanced up and saw him. With a curse, he hurled Shannon aside and leaped toward his pony.

At the same instant the girl saw the Apache and his rider, and in the next she saw Bartolo seize his rifle and attempt to draw it from its boot. Leaping to her feet, she sprang toward the Mexican, who was cursing frightfully because the rifle had stuck and he could not readily extricate it from the boot. As she reached him, he succeeded in jerking the weapon free. Swinging about, he threw it to his shoulder and fired at Pennington, just as Shannon threw herself upon him, clutching at his arms and dragging the muzzle of the weapon downward. He struck at her face, and tried to wrench the rifle from her grasp; but she clung to it with all the desperation that the danger confronting the man she loved engendered.

Custer had thrown himself from the saddle and was running toward them. Bartolo saw that he could not regain the rifle in time to use it. He struck the girl a terrible blow in the face that sent her to the ground. Then he turned and vaulted into his saddle, and was away across the bottom and up the trail on the opposite side before Pennington could reach him and drag him from his pony.

Custer turned to the girl lying motionless upon the ground. He knelt and raised her in his arms. She had fainted, and her face was very white. He looked down into it—the face of the girl he hated. He felt his arms about her, he felt her body against his, and suddenly a look of horror filled his eyes.

He laid her back upon the ground, and stood up. He was trembling violently. As he had held her in his arms, there had swept over him an almost irresistible desire to crush her to him, to cover her eyes and cheeks with kisses, to smother her lips with them—the girl he hated!

A great light had broken upon his mental horizon—a light of understanding that left all his world in the dark shadow of despair. He loved Shannon Burke!

Again he knelt beside her, and very gently he lifted her in his arms until he could support her across one shoulder. Then he whistled to the Apache, who was nibbling the bitter leaves of the live oak. When the horse came to him, he looped the bridle reins about his arm and started on foot up the trail down which he had just ridden, carrying Shannon across his shoulder. At the summit of the ridge he found Baldy grazing upon the sparse, burned grasses of late September.

It was then that Shannon Burke opened her eyes. At first, confused by the rush of returning recollections, she thought that it was the Mexican who was carrying her; but an instant later she recognized the whipcord riding breeches and the familiar boots and spurs of the son of Ganado. Then she stirred upon his shoulder.

“I am all right now,” she said. “You may put me down. I can walk.”

He lowered her to the ground, but he still supported her as they stood facing each other.

“You came just in time,” she said. “He was going to kill me.”

“I am glad I came,” was all that he said.

She noticed how tired and pinched Custer’s face looked, as if he had risen from a sick bed after a long period of suffering. He looked older—very much older—and oh, so sad! It wrung her heart; but she did not question him. She was waiting for him to question her, for she knew that he must wonder why she had come here, and what the meaning of the encounter he had witnessed; but he did not ask her anything, beyond inquiring whether she thought she was strong enough to sit her saddle if he helped her mount.

“I shall be all right now,” she assured him.

He caught Baldy and assisted her into the saddle. Then he mounted the Apache and led the way along the trail toward home. They were halfway across the basin meadow before either spoke. It was Shannon who broke the silence.

“You must have wondered what I was doing up there,” she said, with a backward nod of her head.

“That would not be strange, would it?”

“I will tell you.”

“No,” he said. “It is bad enough that you went there to-day and the Saturday before I was arrested. Anything more that you could tell me would only make it worse. Do you remember that girl I told you about—that friend of Cousin William—who visited us?”

“Yes.”

“I followed you up here to-day to tell you the same thing I told her.”

“I understand,” she said.

“You do not understand,” he snapped, almost angrily. “You understand nothing. I only said that I followed to tell you that. I have not told you, have I? Well, I don’t intend to tell you; but my shame that I don’t is enough without you telling me any more to add to it. There can be no honorable excuse for your having come here that other time, or this time, either. There is no reason in the world why a woman should have any dealings with criminals, or any knowledge that would make dealings with them possible. That is the reason I don’t want you to tell me more. Oh, Shannon”—his voice broke—“I don’t want to hear anything bad about you!”

She had been upon the verge of just anger until then. Even now she did not understand—only that he wanted to believe in her, however much he doubted her, and that their friendship had meant more to him than she had imagined.

“But I must tell you, Custer,” she insisted. “Now that you have learned this much, I can see that your suspicions wrong me more than I deserve. I came here the Saturday before you were arrested to warn them that you were going to watch for them on the following Friday. Though I did not know the men, I knew what sort they were, and that they would kill you the moment they found that they were discovered. It was only to save your life that I came that other time, and this time I came to try to force them to go before the grand jury and clear you of the charge against you; but when I threatened the man, and he found what I knew about him, he said that he would kill me.”

“You did not know that I was going to be arrested that night?”

“Oh, Custer, how could you believe that of me?” exclaimed Shannon.

“I didn’t want to believe it.”

“I came into all this information—about the work of this gang—by accidentally overhearing a conversation in Hollywood, months ago. I know the names of the principals, I know Guy’s connection with them. To-day I was trying to keep Guy’s name out, too, if that were possible; but he is guilty and you are not. I cannot understand how he could come back from Los Angeles without telling them the truth and removing the suspicion from you.”

“I would not let him,” said Pennington.

“You would not let him? You would go to the penitentiary for the crime of another?”

“Not for him, but for Eva. Guy and I thrashed it all out. He wanted to give himself up—he almost demanded that I should let him; but it can’t be done. Eva must never know.”

“But, Custer, you can’t go! It wouldn’t be fair—it wouldn’t be right. I won’t let you go! I know enough to clear you, and I shall go before the grand jury on Wednesday and tell all I know.”

“No,” he said. “You must not. It would involve Guy.”

“I won’t mention Guy.”

“But you will mention others, and they will mention Guy—don’t doubt that for a minute.” He turned suddenly toward her. “Promise me, Shannon, that you will not go—that you will not mention what you know to a living soul. I would rather go to the pen for twenty years than see Eva’s life ruined. You don’t know her. She’s gay and happy and frivolous on the outside; but deep within her is a soul of wondrous sensitiveness and beauty, which is fortified and guarded by her pride and her honor. Strike down one of these, and you will have given her soul a wound from which it may never recover. She can understand neither meanness nor depravity in men and women. Should she ever learn that Guy had been connected with this gang, and that the money upon which they were to start their married life was the fruits of his criminality, it would break her heart. I know that Guy isn’t criminally inclined, and that this will be a lesson that will keep him straight as long as he lives; but she wouldn’t look at it that way. Now do you see why you must not tell what you know?”

“Perhaps you are right, but it seems to me she would not suffer any more if Guy went than if her brother went. She loves you very much.”

“But she will know that I am innocent. If Guy went, she would know that he was guilty.”

Shannon had no answer to this, and they were silent for a while.

“You will help me to keep this from Eva?” he asked.

“Yes.”

She was thinking of the futility of her sacrifice, and wondering what explanation he was putting upon her knowledge of the activities of the criminals. He had said that there could be no reason in the world why a woman should have any dealings with such men, or any knowledge that would make dealings with them possible. What would he think of her if he knew the truth?

The man’s mind was a chaos of conflicting thoughts—the sudden realization of a love that was as impossible as it was unwelcome—recollection of his vows to Grace, which were as binding upon his honor as the marriage vows themselves would have been—doubts as to the character and antecedents of this girl who rode at his side to-day, and whose place in his life had suddenly assumed an importance beyond that of any other.

Then he turned a little, his eyes rested upon her profile, and he found it hard to doubt her.

Shannon felt his eyes upon her, and looked up.

“You have been so good to me, Custer, all of you—you can never know how I have valued the friendship of the Penningtons, or what it has meant to me, or how I have striven to deserve it. I would have done anything to repay a part, at least, of what it has done for me. That was what I was trying to do—that is why I wanted to go before the grand jury, no matter what the cost to me; but I failed, and perhaps I have only made it worse. I do not even know that you believe me.”

“I believe you, Shannon,” he said. “There is much that I do not understand; but I believe that what you did was done in our interests. There is nothing more that any of us can do now but keep still about what we know, for the moment one of those actually responsible is threatened with exposure Guy’s name will be divulged—you may rest assured of that. They would be only too glad to shift the responsibility to his shoulders.”

“But you will make some effort to defend yourself?”

“I shall simply plead not guilty, and tell the truth about why I was up there when the officers arrested me.”

“You will make no other defense?”

“What other defense can I make that would not risk incriminating Guy?” Custer asked her.

She shook her head. It seemed quite hopeless.