IT WAS several weeks before Custer could ride again, and in the meantime Shannon had gone down to her own place to live. She came up every day on Baldy, who had been loaned to her until Custer should be able to select a horse for her. She insisted that she would own nothing but a Morgan, and that she wanted one of the Apache’s brothers.
“You’ll have to wait, then, until I can break one for you,” Custer told her. “There are a couple of four-year-olds that are saddle-broke and bridle-wise in a way; but I wouldn’t want you to ride either of them until they’ve had the finishing touches. I want to ride them enough to learn their faults, if they have any. In the meantime you just keep Baldy down there and use him. How’s ranching? You look as if it agreed with you. Nobody’d know you for the same girl. You look like an Indian, and how your cheeks have filled out!”
The girl smiled happily. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes dancing. She was a picture of life and health and happiness; and Custer’s eyes were sparkling, too.
“Gee!” he exclaimed. “You’re a regular Pennington!”
“I wish I were!” the girl thought to herself. “You honour me,” was what she said aloud.
“That sounded rotten, didn’t it? But you know what I meant—it’s nice to have people whom we like like the same things we do. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we think our likes are the best in the world. I didn’t mean to be egotistical.”
Eva had just entered the patio. She walked over and perched on his knee and kissed him.
“Do you know, I think I’ll go on the stage or the screen—wouldn’t it be splishous, though?—‘Miss Eva Pennington is starring in the new and popular success based on the story by Guy Thackeray Evans, the eminent author!’ “
“Oh, Eva!” cried Shannon, genuine concern in her tone. “Surely you wouldn’t think of the screen, would you? You’re not serious?”
“Oh, yes,” said Custer. “She’s serious—serious is her middle name. To-morrow she will want to be a painter, and day after to-morrow the world’s most celebrated harpist. Eva is nothing if not serious, while her tenacity of purpose is absolutely inspiring. Why, once, for one whole day, she wanted to do the same thing.”
Eva was laughing with her brother and Shannon.
“If she were just like every one else, you wouldn’t love your little sister any more,” she said, running her fingers through his hair. “Honestly, ever since I met Wilson Crumb, I have thought I should like to be a movie star.”
“Wilson Crumb!” exclaimed Shannon. “What do you know of Wilson Crumb?”
“Oh, I’ve met him,” said Eva airily. “Don’t you envy me?”
“What do you know about him, Shannon?” asked Custer. “Your tone indicated that you may have heard something about him that wasn’t complimentary.”
“No—I don’t know him. It’s only what I’ve heard. I don’t think you’d like him.” Shannon almost shuddered at the thought of this dear child even so much as knowing Wilson Crumb. “Oh, Eva!” she cried impulsively. “You mustn’t even think of going into pictures. I lived in Los Angeles long enough to learn that the life is oftentimes a hard one, filled with disappointment, disillusionment, and regrets—principally regrets.”
“And Grace is there now,” said Custer in a low voice, a worried look in his eyes.
“Can’t you persuade her to return?”
He shook his head.
“It wouldn’t be fair,” he said. “She is trying to succeed, and we ought to encourage her. It is probably hard enough for her at best, without all of us suggesting antagonism to her ambition by constantly urging her to abandon it, so we try to keep our letters cheerful.”
“Have you been to see her since she left? No, I know you haven’t. If I were you, I’d run down to L.A. It might mean a lot to her, Custer; it might mean more than you can guess.”
The girl spoke from a full measure of bitter experience. She realized what it might have meant to her had there been some man like this to come to her when she had needed the strong arm of a clean love to drag her from the verge of the mire. She would have gone away with such a man—gone back home, and thanked God for the opportunity. If Grace loved Custer, and was encountering the malign forces that had arisen from their own corruption to claw at Shannon’s skirts, she would come back with him.
“You really think I ought to go?” Custer asked. “You know she has insisted that none of us should come. She said she wanted to do it all on her own, without any help. Grace is not only very ambitious, but very proud. I’m afraid she might not like it.”
“I wouldn’t care what she liked,” said Shannon. “Either you or Guy should run down there and see her. You are the two men most vitally interested in her. No girl should be left alone long in Hollywood without some one to whom she can look for the right sort of guidance and—and—protection.”
“I believe I’ll do it,” said Custer. “I can’t get away right now; but I’ll run down there before I go on to Chicago with the show herds for the International.”
As a small boy, it had been Custer’s duty, as well as his pleasure, to “ride fence.” During his enforced idleness, while recovering from his burns, the duty had devolved upon Jake. On the first day that Custer took up the work again, Jake had called his attention to a matter that had long been a subject of discussion and conjecture on the part of the employees.
“There’s something funny goin’ on back in them hills,” said Jake. “I’ve seen fresh signs every week of horses and burros comin’ and goin’. Sometimes they trail through El Camino Largo and again through Corto. An’ they’ve even been down through the old goat corral once, plumb through the ranch, an’ out the west gate. But what I can’t tell for sure is whether they come in an’ go out, or go out an’ come in. Whoever does it is foxy. Their two trails never cross, an’ they must be made within a few hours of each other, for I’m not Injun enough to tell which is freshest—the one comin’ to Ganado or the one goin’ out. An’ then they muss it up by draggin’ brush, so it’s hard to tell how many they be of ’em. It’s got me.”
“They head for Jackknife, don’t they?” asked Custer.
“Sometimes, an’ sometimes they go straight up Sycamore, an’ again they head in or out of half a dozen different little barrancos comin’ down from the east; but sooner or later I lose ’em—can’t never follow ’em no place in particular. Looks like as if they split up.”
“Maybe it’s only greasers from the valley coming up after firewood at night.”
“Mebbe,” said Jake; “but that don’t sound reasonable.”
“I know it doesn’t; but I can’t figure out what else it can be. I found a trail up above Jackknife last spring, and maybe that had something to do with it. I’ve sure got to follow that up. The trouble has been that it doesn’t lead where the stock ever goes, and I haven’t had time to look into it. Do you think they come up here regularly?”
“We got it doped out that it’s always Friday nights. I see the tracks Saturday mornings, and some of the boys say they’ve heard ’em along around midnight a couple of times.”
“What gates do they go out by?”
“They use all four of ’em at different times.”
“H—m! Padlock all the gates tomorrow. This is Thursday. Then we’ll see what happens.”
They did see, for on the following Saturday, when Custer rode fence, he found it cut close by one of the padlocked gates—the gate that opened into the mouth of Horse Camp Canyon. Shannon was with him, and she was much excited at this evidence of mystery so close to home.
“What in the world do you suppose they can be doing?” she asked.
“I don’t know; but it’s something they shouldn’t be doing, or they wouldn’t go to so much pains to cover their tracks. They evidently passed in and out at this point, but they’ve brushed out their tracks on both sides, so that you can’t tell which way they went last. Look here! On both sides of the fence the trail splits.
It’s hard to say which was made first, and where they passed through the fence. One track must have been on top of the other, but they’ve brushed it out.”
He had dismounted, and was on his knees, examining the spoor beyond the fence.
“I believe,” he said presently, “that the fresher trail is the one going toward the hills, although the other one is heavier. Here’s a rabbit track that lies on top of the track of a horse’s hoof pointed toward the valley, and over here a few yards the same rabbit track is obliterated by the track of horses and burros coming up from the valley. The rabbit must have come across here after they went down, stepping on top of their tracks, and when they came up again they crossed on top of his. That’s pretty plain, isn’t it?”
“Yes; but the tracks going down are much plainer than those going up. Wouldn’t that indicate that they were fresher?”
“That’s what I thought until I saw this evidence introduced by Brer Rabbit—and it’s conclusive, too. Let’s look along here a little farther. I have an idea that I have an idea.” He bent close above first one trail and then another, following them down toward the valley.
“I think I’ve got a line on it,” he said presently. “Two men rode along here on horses. One horse was shod, the other was not. One rider went ahead, the other brought up the rear, and between them were several burros. Going down, the burros carried heavy loads; coming back, they carried nothing.”
“How do you know all that?” she asked rather incredulously.
“I don’t know it, but it seems the most logical deduction from these tracks. It is easy to tell the horse tracks from those of the burros, and to tell that there were at least two horses, because it is plain that a shod horse and an unshod horse passed along here. That one horse—the one with shoes—went first is evident from the fact that you always see the imprints of burro hoofs, or the hoofs of an unshod horse, or both superimposed on his. That the other horse brought up the rear is equally plain from the fact that no other tracks lie on top of his. Now, if you will look close, and compare several of these horse tracks, you will notice that there is little or no difference in the appearance of those leading into the valley and those leading out; but you can see that the burro tracks leading down are more deeply imprinted than those leading up. To me that means that those burros carried heavy loads down and came back light. How does it sound?”
“It’s wonderful!” she exclaimed. “It is all that I can do to see that anything has been along here.”
“There is nothing very remarkable about it. Just look at the Apache’s hoofprints, for instance. See how the hind differ from the fore.” Custer pointed to them as he spoke, calling attention to the fact that the Apache’s hind shoes were squared off at the toe.
“And now compare them with Baldy’s,” he said. “See how different the two hoofprints are. Once you know them, you could never confuse one with the other. But the part of the story that would interest me most I can’t read—who they are, what they were packing out of the hills on these burros, where they come from, and where they went. Let’s follow down and see where they went in the valley. The trail must pass right by the Evanses’ hay barn.”
The Evanses’ hay barn! A great light illuminated Shannon’s memory. Allen had said, that last night at the bungalow, that the contraband whisky was hauled away on a truck, that it was concealed beneath hay, and that a young man named Evans handled it.
What was she to do? She dared not reveal this knowledge to Custer, because she could not explain how she came into possession of it. Nor, for the same reason, could she warn Guy Evans, had she thought that necessary—which she was sure it was not, since Custer would not expose him. She concluded that all she could do was to let events take their own course.
She followed Custer as he traced the partially obliterated tracks through a field of barley stubble. A hundred yards west of the hay barn the trail entered a macadam road at right angles, and there it disappeared. There was no telling whether the little caravan had turned east or west, for it left no spoor upon the hard surface of the paved road.
“Well, Watson!” said Custer, turning to her with a grin. “What do you make of this?”
“Nothing? Watson, I am surprised. Neither do I.” He turned his horse back toward the cut fence. “There’s no use looking any farther in this direction. I don’t know that it’s even worth while following the trail back into the hills, for the chances are that they have it well covered. What I’ll do is to lay for them next Friday night. Maybe they’re not up to any mischief, but it looks suspicious; and if they are, I’d rather catch them here with the goods than follow them up into the hills, where about all I’d accomplish would probably be to warn them that they were being watched. I’m sorry now I had those gates locked, for it will have put them on their guard. We’ll just fix up this fence, and then we’ll ride about and take all the locks off.”
“You’ll not wait for them alone?” she asked, for she knew what he did not—that they were probably unscrupulous rascals who would not hesitate to commit any crime if they thought themselves in danger of discovery.
“Why not?” he asked. “I only want to ask them what they are doing on Ganado, and why they cut our fence.”
“Please don’t!” she begged. “You don’t know who they are or what they have been doing. They might be very desperate men, for all we know.”
“All right,” he agreed. “I’ll take Jake with me.”
“Why don’t you get Guy to go along, too?” she suggested, for she knew that he would be safer if Guy knew of his intention, since then there would be little likelihood of his meeting the men.
“No,” he replied. “Guy would have to have a big camp fire, an easy chair, and a package of cigarettes if he was going to sit up that late out in the hills. Jake’s the best for that sort of work.”
“Guy isn’t a bit like you, is he?” she asked. “He’s lived right here and led the same sort of life, and yet he doesn’t seem to be a part of it, as you are.”
“Guy’s a dreamer, and he likes to be comfortable all the time,” laughed Custer.
“But perhaps Guy would like the adventure of it,” she insisted. “It might give him material for a story. I’m going to ask him.”
“You won’t mention it to him, please?” Custer insisted.
“Not if you don’t wish it,” she said.
They were silent for a time, each absorbed in his or her own thoughts. The girl was seeking to formulate some plan that would prevent a meeting between Custer and Allen’s confederates, who she was sure were the owners of the mysterious pack train; while the man indulged in futile conjectures as to their identity and the purpose of their nocturnal expeditions.
“That trail above Jackknife Canyon is the key to the whole business,” he declared presently. “I’ll just lay low until after next Friday night, so as not to arouse their suspicions, and then, no matter what I find out, I’ll ride that trail to its finish, if it takes me clear to the ocean!”