AS the weeks passed, the routine of ranch life weighed more and more heavily on Custer Pennington. The dull monotony of it took the zest from the things that he had formerly regarded as the pleasures of existence. The buoyant Apache no longer had power to thrill. The long rides were but obnoxious duties to be performed. The hills had lost their beauty.
The frequent letters that came from Grace during her first days in Hollywood had breathed a spirit of hopefulness and enthusiasm that might have proven contagious, but for the fact that he saw in her success a longer and probably a permanent separation. If she should be speedily discouraged she might return to the foothills and put the idea of a career forever from her mind; but if she received even the slightest encouragement, Custer was confident that nothing could wean her from her ambition. He was the more sure of this because in his own mind he could picture no inducement sufficiently powerful to attract any one to return to the humdrum existence of the ranch. Better be a failure in the midst of life, he put it to himself, than a success in the unpeopled spaces of its outer edge.
Ensuing weeks brought fewer letters, and there was less of enthusiasm, though hope was still unquenched. She had not yet met the right people, Grace said, and there was a general depression in the entire picture industry.
The little gatherings of the neighbours at Ganado continued. Other young people of the valley and the foothills came and danced, or swam, or played tennis. Their elders came, too, equally enjoying the hospitality of the Penningtons; and among these was the new owner of the little orchard beyond the Evans ranch.
As she came oftener, and came to know the Penningtons better, she depended more and more on the colonel for advice in matters pertaining to her orchard and her finances. Of personal matters she never spoke. They knew that she had a daughter living in Los Angeles; but of the girl they knew nothing, for deep in the heart of Mrs. George Burke, who had been born Charity Cooper, was a strain of Puritanism that could not look with aught but horror upon the stage and its naughty little sister, the screen—though in her letters to that loved daughter there was no suggestion of the pain that the fond heart held because of the career the girl had chosen.
While life upon Ganado took its peaceful way, outwardly unruffled, the girl whose image was in the hearts of them all strove valiantly in the face of recurring disappointment toward the high goal upon which her eyes were set.
She was interviewing, for the dozenth time, the casting director of the K. K. S. Studio, who had come to know her by sight, and perhaps to feel a little compassion for her—though there are those who will tell you that casting directors, having no hearts, can never experience so human an emotion as compassion.
“I’m sorry, Miss Evans,” he said; “but I haven’t a thing for you to-day.” As she turned away, he raised his hand. “Wait!” he said. “Mr. Crumb is casting his new picture himself. He’s out on the lot now. Go out and see him—he might be able to use you.”
A few minutes later she found the man she sought. She had never seen Wilson Crumb before, and her first impression was a pleasant one, for he was courteous and affable. She told him that she had been to the casting director, and that he had said that Mr. Crumb might be able to use her. As she spoke, the man watched her intently, his eyes running quickly over her figure without suggesting offence.
“What experience have you had?” he asked.
“Just a few times as an extra,” she replied.
He shook his head.
“I am afraid I can’t use you,” he said; “unless”—he hesitated—“unless you would care to work in the semi-nude, which would necessitate making a test—in the nude.”
“Is that absolutely essential?” she asked.
“Quite so,” he replied.
Still she hesitated. Her chance! If she let it pass, she might as well pack up and return home. What a little thing to do, after all, when one really considered it! It was purely professional. There would be nothing personal in it, if she could only succeed in overcoming her self-consciousness; but could she do it?
Two hours later Grace Evans, left the K.K.S. lot. She was to start work on the morrow at fifty dollars a week for the full period of the picture. Wilson Crumb had told her that she had a wonderful future, and that she was fortunate to have fallen in with a director who could make a great star of her. As she went, she left behind all her self-respect and part of her natural modesty.
Wilson Crumb, watching her go, rubbed the ball of his right thumb to and fro across the back of his left hand, and smiled.
The Apache danced along the wagon trail that led back into the hills. He tugged at the bit and tossed his head impatiently, flecking his rider’s shirt with foam. He lifted his feet high and twisted and wriggled like an eel. He wanted to be off, and he wondered what had come over his old pal that there was no more swift gay gallops, and that washes were crossed sedately by way of their gravelly bottoms, instead of being taken with a flying leap.
It was Friday. From the hill beyond Jackknife a man had watched through binoculars his every move. Three other men had been waiting below the watcher along the new-made trail.
“It was young Pennington,” he said. The speaker was Allen. “I was thinking that it would be a fool trick to kill him, unless we have to. I have a better scheme. Listen—if he ever learns anything that he shouldn’t know, this is what you are to do, if I am away.”
Very carefully and in great detail he elaborated his plan. “Do you understand?” he asked.
They did, and they grinned.
The following night, after the Penningtons had dined, a ranch hand came up from Mrs. Burke’s to tell them that their new neighbour was quite ill, and that the woman who did her housework wanted Mrs. Pennington to come down at once as she was worried about her mistress.
“We will be right down,” said Colonel Pennington.
They found Mrs. Burke breathing with difficulty, and the colonel immediately telephoned for a local doctor. After the physician had examined her, he came to them in the living room.
“You had better send for Jones, of Los Angeles,” he said. “It is her heart. I can do nothing. I doubt if he can; but he is a specialist. And,” he added, “if she has any near relatives, I think I should notify them—at once.”
The housekeeper had joined them, and was wiping tears from her face with her apron.
“She has a daughter in Los Angeles,” said the colonel; “but we do not know her address.”
“She wrote to her to-day, just before this spell,” said the housekeeper. “The letter hasn’t been mailed yet—here it is.”
She picked it up from the centre table and handed it to the colonel.
“Miss Shannon Burke, 1580 Panizo Circle, Hollywood,” he read. “I will take the responsibility of wiring both Miss Burke and Dr. Jones. Can you get a good nurse locally?”
The doctor could, and so it was arranged.