IT WAS four o’clock the following morning before she awoke. The craving awoke with her. It seized her mercilessly; yet even as she gave in to it, she had the satisfaction of knowing that she had gone without the little white powders longer this time than since she had first started to use them. She took but a third of her normal dose.
That day she went with Custer and Eva and Guy to the country club, returning only in time for a swim before dinner; and again she fought off the craving while she was dressing for dinner. After dinner they danced, and once more she was so physically tired when she reached her rooms that she could think of nothing but sleep. The day of golf had kept her fully occupied in the hot sun, and in such good company her mind had been pleasantly occupied, too, so that she had not been troubled by her old enemy.
Again it was early morning before she was forced to fight the implacable foe. She fought valiantly this time, but she lost.
And so it went, day after day, as she dragged out her dwindling supply and prolonged the happy hours of her all too brief respite from the degradation of the life to which she knew she must soon return. Each day it was harder to think of going back—of leaving these people, whom she had come to love as she loved their lives and surroundings, and taking her place again in the stifling and degraded atmosphere of the Vista del Paso bungalow. They were so good to her, and had so wholly taken her into their family life, that she felt as one of them. They shared everything with her. There was not a day that she did not ride with Custer out among the brown hills. She knew that she was going to miss these rides—that she was going to miss the man, too. He had treated her as a man would like other men to treat his sister, with a respect and deference that she had never met with in the City of Angels.
And now the time had come when she must definitely set a date for her departure. She had determined to retain the orchard, not alone because she had seen that it would prove profitable, but because it would always constitute a link between her and the people whom she had come to love. No matter what the future held, she could always feel that a part of her remained here, where she would that all of her might be; but she knew that she must go, and she determined to tell them on the following day that she would return to the city within the week.
She passed that night without recourse to the white powders, for she must be frugal of them if they were to last through the week. The next morning she rode with the Penningtons and the Evanses as usual. She would tell them at breakfast.
When she came to the table she found a pair of silver spurs beside her plate, and when she looked about in astonishment they were all smiling.
“For me?” she cried.
After that she simply couldn’t tell them then that she was going away. She would wait until tomorrow; but she laid her plans without reference to the hand of fate.
That afternoon, immediately after luncheon, they were all seated in the patio, lazily discussing the chief topic of thought—the heat. It was one of those sultry days that are really unusual in southern California. The heat was absolutely oppressive, and even beneath the canvas canopy that shaded the patio there was little relief.
“I don’t know why we sit here,” said Custer. “It’s cooler in the house. This is the hottest place on the ranch a day like this!”
“Wouldn’t it be nice under one of those oaks up the canyon?” suggested Shannon.
He looked at her and smiled.
“Phew! It’s too hot even to think of getting there.”
“That from a Pennington!” she cried in mock astonishment and reproach.
“Do you mean to say that you’d ride up there through this heat?” he demanded.
“Of course I would. I haven’t christened my new spurs yet.”
“I’m game, then, if you are,” Custer announced.
She jumped to her feet.
It was very hot. The dust rose from the shuffling feet of their horses. Even the Apache shuffled today. His head was low, and he did not dance. The dust settled on sweating neck and flank, and filled the eyes of the riders.
“Lovely day for a ride,” commented Custer.
“But think how nice it will be under the oak,” she reminded him.
“I’m trying to.”
Suddenly he raised his head as his wandering eyes sighted a slender column of smoke rising from behind the ridge beyond Jackknife Canyon. He reined in the Apache.
“Fire!” he said to the girl. “Wait here. I’ll notify the boys, and then we’ll ride on ahead and have a look at it. It may not amount to anything.”
Presently the “boys”—a wagon full of them—came with four horses, two walking ploughs, shovels, a barrel of water, and burlap sacks. They were of all ages, from eighteen to seventy. Some of them had been twenty years on the ranch, and had fought many a fire. They did not have to be told what to bring or what to do with what they brought.
The wagon had to be left in Jackknife Canyon. The horses dragged the ploughs to the ridge, and the men carried the shovels and wet burlaps and buckets of water from the barrel. Custer dismounted and turned the Apache over to an old man to hold.
“Plough down the east side of the ravine. Try to get all the way around the south side of the fire and then back again,” he directed the two men with one of the teams. “I’ll take the other, with Jake, and we’ll try to cut her off across the top here!”
“You can’t do it, Cus,” said one of the older men. “It’s too steep.”
“We’ve got to try it,” said Pennington. “Otherwise we’d have to go back so far that it would get away from us on the east side before we made the circle. Jake, you choke the plough handles—I’ll drive!”
Jake was a short, stocky, red-headed boy of twenty, with shoulders like a bull. He grinned good-naturedly.
“I’ll choke the tar out of ’em!” he said.
“The rest of you shovel and beat like hell!” ordered Custer.
They were more than halfway back when it happened. The off horse must have stepped upon a loose stone, so suddenly did he lurch to to the left, striking the shoulder of his mate just as the latter had planted his left forefoot. The ton of weight hurled against the shoulder of the near horse threw him downward against the furrow. He tried to catch himself on his right foot, crossed his forelegs, stumbled over the ridge of newly turned earth, and rolled down the hill, dragging his mate and the plough after him toward the burning brush below.
Jake at the plough handles and Custer on the lines tried to check the horses’ fall, but both were jerked from their hands, and the two Percherons rolled over and over into the burning brush. A groan of dismay went up from the men. It was with difficulty that Shannon stifled a scream; and then her heart stood still as she saw Custer Pennington leap deliberately down the hillside, drawing the long, heavy trail-cutting knife that he always wore on the belt with his gun.
The horses were struggling and floundering to gain their feet. One of them was screaming with pain. The girl wanted to cover her eyes with her palms to shut out the heart-rending sight, but she could not take them off the figure of the man.
As Shannon watched, a great light awoke within her, suddenly revealing the unsuspected existence of a wondrous thing that had come into her life—a thing which a moment later dragged her from her saddle and sent her stumbling down the hill into the burning ravine, to the side of Custer Pennington.
He had cut one horse free, seized its headstall, dragged it to its feet, and then started it scrambling up the hill. As he was returning to the other, the animal struggled up, crazed with terror and pain, and bolted after its mate. Pennington was directly in its path on the steep hillside. He tried to leap aside, but the horse struck him with its shoulder, hurling him to the ground, and before he could stop his fall he was at the edge of the burning brush, stunned and helpless.
Every man of them who saw the accident leaped down the hillside to save him from the flames; but quick as they were, Shannon Burke was first to his side, vainly endeavouring to drag him to safety. An instant later strong hands seized both Custer and Shannon and helped them up the steep acclivity, for Pennington had already regained consciousness, and it was not necessary to carry him.
Custer was badly burned, but his first thought was for the girl, and his next when he found she was uninjured, for the horses.
Then he turned to Shannon.
“Why did you go down into that?” he asked. “You shouldn’t have done it—with all the men here.”
“I couldn’t help it,” she said. “I thought you were going to be killed.”
Custer looked at her searchingly for a moment.
“It was very brave thing to do,” he said, “and a very foolish thing. You might have been badly burned.”
“Never mind that,” she said. “You have been badly burned, and you must go to the house at once. Do you think you can ride?” He laughed.
“I’m all right,” he said. “I’ve got to stay here and fight this fire.”
“You are not going to do anything of the kind.” She turned and called to the man who held Pennington’s horse. “Please bring the Apache over here,” she said. “These men can fight the fire without you,” she told Custer. “You are going right back with me. You’re never seen any one badly burned, or you’d know how necessary it is to take care of burns at once.”
He was not accustomed to being ordered about, and it amused him. Grace would never have thought of questioning his judgment in this or any other matter; but this girl’s attitude implied that she considered his judgment faulty and his decisions of no consequence. She evidently had the courage of her convictions, for she caught up her own horse and rode over to the men, who had resumed their work, to tell them that Custer was too badly burned to remain with them.
“I told him that he must go back to the house and have his burns dressed; but he doesn’t want to. Maybe he would pay more attention to you, if you told him.”
“Sure, we’ll tell him,” cried one of them. “Here comes Colonel Pennington now. He’ll make him go, if it’s necessary.”
Colonel Pennington reined in a dripping horse beside his son, and Shannon rode over to them. Custer was telling him about the accident to the team.
“Burned, was he?” exclaimed the colonel. “Why damn it, man, you’re burned!”
“It’s nothing,” replied the younger man.
“It is something, colonel,” cried Shannon. “Please make him go back to the house. He won’t pay any attention to me, and he ought to be cared for right away. He should have a doctor just as quickly as we can get one.”
“Can you ride?” snapped the colonel at Custer.
“Of course I can ride!”
“Then get out of here and take care of yourself. Will you go with him, Shannon? Have them call Dr. Baldwin.”
As the horses moved slowly along the dusty trail, Shannon, riding a pace behind the man, watched his profile for signs of pain, that she knew he must be suffering. Once, when he winced, she almost gave a little cry, as if it had been she who was tortured. They were riding very close, and she laid her hand gently upon his right arm, in sympathy.
“I am so sorry!” she said. “I know it must pain you terribly.”
He turned to her with a smile on his face, now white and drawn.
“It does hurt a little now,” he said.
By the time they reached the house she could see that the man was suffering excruciating pain. The stableman had gone to help the fire fighters, as had every able-bodied man on the ranch, so that she had to help Custer from the Apache. After tying the two horses at the stable, she put an arm about him and assisted him up the long flight of steps to the house. There Mrs. Pennington and Hannah came at her call and took him to his room, while she ran to the office to telephone for the doctor.
When she returned, they had Custer undressed and in bed, and were giving such first aid as they could. She stood in the doorway for a moment, watching him, as he fought to hide the agony he was enduring. He rolled his head slowly from side to side, as his mother and Hannah worked over him; but he stifled even a faint moan, though Shannon knew that his tortured body must be goading him to screams. He opened his eyes and saw her, and tried to smile.
Mrs. Pennington turned then and discovered her.
“Please let me do something, Mrs. Pennington, if there is anything I can do.”
“I guess we can’t do much until the doctor comes. If we only had something to quiet the pain until then!”
If they only had something to quiet the pain. The horror of it! She had something that would quiet the pain; but at what a frightful cost to herself must she divulge it! They would know then, the sordid story of her vice. There could be no other explanation of her having such an outfit in her possession. How they would loathe her! To see disgust in the eyes of these friends, whose good opinion was her one cherished longing, seemed a punishment too great to bear.
And then there was the realization of that new force that had entered her life with the knowledge that she loved Custer Pennington. It was a hopeless love, she knew; but she might at least have had the happiness of knowing that he respected her. Was she to be spared nothing? Was her sin to deprive her of even the respect of the man she loved?
She saw him lying there, and saw the muscles of his jaws tensing as he battled to conceal his pain; and then she turned and ran up the stairway to her rooms. She did not hesitate again, but went directly to her bag, unlocked it, and took out the little black case. Carefully she dissolved a little of the white powder—a fraction of what she could have taken without danger of serious results, but enough to allay his suffering until the doctor came. She knew that this was the end—that she might not remain under that roof another night.
She drew the liquid through the needle into the glass barrel of the syringe, wrapped it in her handkerchief, and descended the stairs. She felt as if she moved in a dream. She felt that she was not Shannon Burke at all, but another whom Shannon Burke watched with pitying eyes; for it did not seem possible that she could enter that room and before his eyes and Mrs. Pennington’s and Hannah’s reveal the thing that she carried in her handkerchief.
Ah, the pity of it! To realize her first love, and in the same hour to slay the respect of its object with her own hand! Yet she entered the room with a brave step, fearlessly. Had he not risked his life for the two dumb brutes he loved? Could she be less courageous? Perhaps though, she was braver, for she was knowingly surrendering what was dearer to her than life.
Mrs. Pennington turned toward her as she entered.
“He has fainted,” she said. “My poor boy!”
Tears stood in his mother’s eyes.
“He is not suffering, then?” asked Shannon, trembling.
“Not now. For his sake, I hope he won’t recover consciousness until after the doctor comes.”
Shannon Burke staggered and would have fallen had she not grasped the frame of the door.
It was not long before the doctor came, and then she went back up the stairs to her rooms, still trembling. She took the filled hypodermic syringe from her handkerchief and looked at it. Then she carried it into the bathroom.
“You can never tempt me again,” she said aloud, as she emptied its contents into the lavatory. “Oh, dear God, I love him!”