THAT NIGHT Shannon insisted upon taking her turn at Custer’s bedside, and she was so determined that they could not refuse her. He was still suffering, but not so acutely. The doctor had left morphine, with explicit directions for its administration should it be required. The burns, while numerous, and reaching from his left ankle to his cheek, were superficial, and, though painful, not necessarily dangerous.
He slept but little, and when he was awake he wanted to talk. He told her about Grace. It was his first confidence—a sweetly sad one—for he was a reticent man concerning those things that were nearest his heart and consequently the most sacred to him. He had not heard from Grace for some time, and her mother had had but one letter—a letter that had not sounded like Grace at all. They were anxious about her.
“I wish she would come home!” he said wistfully. “You would like her, Shannon. We could have such bully times together! I think I would be content here if Grace were back; but without her it seems very different, and very lonely. You know we have always been together, all of us, since we were children—Grace, Eva, Guy, and I; and now that you are here it would be better, for you are just like us. You seem like us, at least—as if you had always lived here, too.”
“It’s nice to have you say that; but I haven’t always been here, and, really, you know I don’t belong. “
“But you do belong!”
“And I’m going away again pretty soon. I must go back to the city.”
“Please don’t go back,” he begged. “You don’t really have to, do you?”
“I had intended telling you all this morning; but after the spurs, I couldn’t.”
“Do you really have to go?” Custer insisted.
“I don’t have to, but I think I ought to. Do you want me to stay—honestly?”
“Honest Injun!” he said, smiling.
“Maybe I will.”
He could have voiced no higher praise.
He asked about the fire, and especially about the horses. He was delighted when she told him that a man had just come down to say that the fire was practically out, and the colonel was coming in shortly; and that the veterinary had been there and found the team not seriously injured.
“I think that fire was incendiary,” he said; “but now that Slick Allen is in jail, I don’t know who would set it.”
“Who is Slick Allen,” she asked, “and why should he want to set fire to Ganado?”
He told her, and she was silent for a while, thinking about Allen and the last time she had seen him. She wondered what he would do when he got out of jail. She would hate to be in Wilson Crumb’s boots then, for she guessed that Allen was a hard character.
While she was thinking of Allen, Custer mentioned Guy Evans. Instantly there came to her mind, for the first time since that last evening at the Vista del Paso bungalow, Crumb’s conversation with Allen and the latter’s account of the disposition of the stolen whisky. His very words returned to her.
“Got a young high-blood at the edge of the valley handling it—a fellow by the name of Evans.”
She had not connected Allen or that conversation or the Evans he had mentioned with these people; but now she knew that it was Guy Evans who was disposing of the stolen liquor. She wondered if Allen would return to this part of the country after he was released from jail. If he did, and saw her, he would be sure to recognize her, for he must have had her features impressed upon his memory by the fact that she so resembled some one he had known.
If he recognized her, would he expose her? She did not doubt but that he would. The chances were that he would attempt to blackmail her; but, worst of all, he might tell Crumb where she was. That was the thing she dreaded most—seeing Wilson Crumb again, or having him discover her whereabouts; for she knew that he would leave no stone unturned and hesitate to stoop to no dishonourable act, to get her back again. She shuddered when she thought of him—a man whose love, even, was a dishonourable and dishonouring thing.
Then she turned her eyes to the face of the man lying there on the bed beside which she sat. He would never love her; but her love for him had already ennobled her.
Custer moved restlessly. Again he was giving evidence of suffering. She laid a cool palm upon his forehead, and stroked it. He opened his eyes and smiled up at her.
“It’s bully of you to sit with me,” he said; “but you ought to be in bed. You’ve had a pretty hard day, and you’re not as used to it as we are.”
“I am not tired,” she said, “and I should like to stay—if you would like to have me.”
He took her hand from his forehead and kissed it.
“Of course I like to have you here, Shannon—you’re just like a sister. It’s funny, isn’t it, that we should all feel that way about you, when we’ve only known you a few weeks? It must have been because of the way you fitted in. You belonged right from the start—you were just like us.”
She turned her head away suddenly, casting her eyes upon the floor and biting her lip to keep back the tears.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I am not like you, Custer; but I have tried to be.”
“Why aren’t you like us?” he demanded.
“I—why, I—couldn’t ride a horse,” she explained lamely.
“Don’t make me laugh, please; my face is burned,” he pleaded in mock irony. “Do you think that’s all we know, or think of, or possess—our horsemanship? We have hearts, and minds, such as they are—and souls, I hope. It was of these things that I was thinking. I was thinking too, that we Penningtons demand a higher standard in women than is customary nowadays. We are a little old-fashioned, I guess. We want the blood of our horses and the minds of our women pure. Here is a case in point—I can tell you, because you don’t know the girl and never will. She was the daughter of a friend of Cousin William—our New York cousin. She was spending the winter in Pasadena, and we had her out here on Cousin William’s account. She was a pippin of a looker, and I suppose she was all right morally; but she didn’t have a clean mind. I discovered it about the first time I talked with her alone; and Eva asked me a question about something that she couldn’t have known about at all except through this girl. I didn’t know what to do. She was a girl and so I couldn’t talk about her to any one, not even my father or mother; but I didn’t want her around Eva. I wondered if I was just a narrow prig, and if, after all, there was nothing that any one need take exception to in the girl. I got to analyzing the thing, and I came to the conclusion that I would be ashamed of mother and Eva if they talked or thought along such lines. Consequently, it wasn’t right to expose Eva to that influence. That was what I decided, and I don’t just think I was right—I know I was.”
“And what did you do?” Shannon asked in a very small voice.
“I did what under any other circumstances would have been unpardonable. I went to the girl and asked her to make some excuse that would terminate her visit. It was a very hard thing to do; but I would do more than that—I would sacrifice my most cherished friendship—for Eva.”
“And the girl—did you tell her why you asked her to go?”
“I didn’t want to, but she insisted, and I told her.”
“Did she understand?”
“She did not.”
They were silent for some time.
“Do you think I did wrong?” he asked.
“No. There is mental virtue as well as physical. It is as much your duty to protect your sister’s mind as to protect her body.”
“I knew you’d think as I do about it; but let me tell you it was an awful jolt to the cherished Pennington hospitality. I hope I never have to do it again!”
“I hope you never do.”
He commenced to show increasing signs of suffering, presently, and then he asked for morphine.
“I don’t want to take it unless I have to,” he explained.
“No,” she said, “do not take it unless you have to.”
She prepared and administered it, but she felt no desire for it herself. Then Eva came to relieve her, and she bade them good night and went up to bed. She awoke about four o’clock in the morning, and immediately thought of the little black case; but she only smiled, turned over, and went back to sleep again.