THE pock-marked Mexican stepped close to Shannon and took hold of her bridle reins.
“You think,” he said in broken English, “we are damn fool? If you do not come from Allen, you come for no good to us. You tell us the truth, damn quick, or you never go back to tell where you find us and bring policemen here!”
His tone was ugly and his manner threatening.
“I have come to warn you because a friend of mine is going to watch for you next Friday night. He does not know who you are, or what you bring out of the hills. I do, and so I know that rather than be caught you might kill him, and I do not want him killed. That is all.”
“How do you know what we bring out of the hills?”
“Allen told me.”
“Allen told you? I do not believe you. Do you know where Allen is?”
“He is in jail in Los Angeles. I heard him telling a man in Los Angeles last July.”
“Who is the friend of yours that is going to watch for us?”
“You have told him about us?”
“I have told you that he knows nothing about you. All he knows is that some one comes down with burros from the hills, and that they cut his fence last Friday night. He wants to catch you and find out what you are doing.”
“Why have you not told him?”
“That can make no difference,” she said presently.
“It makes a difference to us. I told you to tell the truth, or—”
The Mexican raised his rifle that she might guess the rest.
“I did not want to have to explain how I knew about you. I did not want Mr. Pennington to know that I knew such men as Allen.”
“How did you know Allen?”
“That has nothing to do with it at all. I have warned you so that you can take steps to avoid discovery and capture. I shall tell no one else about you. Now let me go.”
She gathered Baldy and tried to rein him about, but the man clung to her bridle.
“Not so much of a hurry, senorita! Unless I know how Allen told you so much, I cannot believe that he told you anything. The police have many ways of learning things—sometimes they use women. If you are a friend to Allen, all right. If you are not, you know too damn much for to be very good for you health. You had better tell me all the truth, or you shall not ride away from here—ever!”
“Very well,” she said. “I met Allen in a house in Hollywood where he sold his ‘snow’, and I heard him telling the man there how you disposed of the whisky that was stolen in New York, brought here to the coast in a ship, and hidden in the mountains.”
“What is the name of the man in whose house you met Allen?”
The man raised his heavy brows.
“How long since you been there—in that house in Hollywood?”
“Not since the last of July. I left the house the same time Allen did.”
“You know how Allen he get in jail?” the Mexican asked.
The girl saw that a new suspicion had been aroused in the man, and she judged that the safer plan was to be perfectly frank.
“I do not know, for I have neither seen Crumb nor Allen since; but when I read in the paper that he had been arrested that night, I guessed that Crumb had done it. I heard Crumb ask him to deliver some snow to a man in Hollywood. I know that Crumb is a bad man, and that he was trying to steal your share of the money from Allen.”
The man thought in silence for several minutes, the lines of his heavy face evidencing the travail with which some new idea was being born. Presently he looked up, the light of cunning gleaming in his evil eyes.
“You go now,” he said. “I know you! Allen tell me about you a long time ago. You Crumb’s woman, and your name is Gaza. You will not tell anything about us to your rich friends the Penningtons—you bet you won’t!”
The Mexican laughed loudly, winking at his companions.
Shannon could feel the burning flush that suffused her face. She closed her eyes in what was almost physical pain, so terrible did the humiliation torture her pride, and then came the nausea of disgust. The man had dropped her reins, and she wheeled Baldy about.
“You will not come Friday night?” she asked, wishing some assurance that her sacrifice had not been entirely unavailing.
“Mr. Pennington will not find us Friday night, and so he will not be shot.”
She rode away then; but there was a vague suspicion lurking in her mind that there had been a double meaning in the man’s final words.
Custer Pennington, occupied in the office for a couple of hours after lunch, had just come from the house, and was standing on the brow of the hill looking out over the ranch toward the mountains. His gaze, wandering idly at first, was suddenly riveted upon a tiny speck moving downward from the mouth of a distant ravine—a moving speck which he recognized, even at that distance, to be a horseman, where no horseman should have been. For a moment he watched it, and then, returning to the house, he brought out a pair of binoculars. Now they were clearly revealed by the powerful lenses, the horse and its rider—Baldy and Shannon!
After a while he saw her emerge from Horse Camp Canyon and follow the road to her own place. Custer ran his fingers through his hair in perplexity. He was troubled not only because Shannon had ridden without him, after telling him that she could not ride that afternoon, but also because of the direction in which she had ridden—the trail of which he had told her that he thought it led to the solution of the mystery of the nocturnal traffic. He had told her that he would not ride it before Saturday, for fear of arousing the suspicions of the men he wished to surprise in whatever activity they might be engaged upon; and within a few hours she had ridden deliberately into the mountains on that very trail.
The more Custer considered the matter; the more perplexed he became. At last he gave it up in sheer disgust. Doubtless Shannon would tell him all about it when he called for her later in the afternoon. He tried to forget it; but the thing would not be forgotten.
Several times he realized, with surprise, that he was hurt because she had ridden without him. He tried to argue that he was not hurt, that it made no difference to him, that she had a perfect right to ride with or without him as she saw fit, and that he did not care a straw one way or the other.
Yet, argue as he would, the fact remained that it had made a difference, and that he was considering Shannon now in a new light. Just what the change meant he probably could not have satisfactorily explained, had he tried; but he did not try. He knew that there was was a difference, and that his heart ached when it should not ache. It made him angry with himself, with the result that he went to his room and had another drink.
Shannon, too, felt the difference. She thought that it was her own guilty conscience, though why she should feel guilt for having risked so much for his sake she did not know. Instinctively she was honest, and so to deceive one who she loved, even for a good purpose, troubled her.
At dinner that night Eva was unusually quiet until the colonel, noticing it, asked if she was ill.
“There!” she cried. “You all make life miserable for me because I talk too much, and then, when I give you a rest, you ask if I am ill. What shall I do? If I talk, I pain you. If I fail to talk, I pain you; but if you must know, I am too thrilled to talk just now—I am going to be married!”
“All alone?” inquired Custer.
Guy grinned sheepishly, and was about to venture an explanation when Eva interrupted him. The others at the table were watching the two with amused smiles.
“You see, momsy,” said Eva, addressing her mother, “Guy has sold a story. He got a thousand dollars for it—a thousand!”
“Oh, not a thousand!” expostulated Guy.
“Well, it was nearly a thousand—if it had been three hundred dollars more it would have been—and so now that our future’s assured we are going to be married. I hadn’t intended to mention it until Guy had talked with popsy, but this will be very much nicer, and easier for Guy.”
They were all laughing now, including Eva and Guy. The tears were rolling down Custer’s cheeks.
“That editor was guilty of grand larceny when he offered you seven hundred berries for the story. Why the gem alone is easily worth a thousand. Adieu, Mark Twain! Farewell, Bill Nye! You’ve got ’em all nailed to the post, Guy Thackeray!”
The colonel wiped his eyes.
“I gather,” he said,. “that you two children wish to get married. Do I surmise correctly?”
“Oh, popsy, you’re just wonderful!” exclaimed Eva.
“Yes, how did you guess it, father?” asked Custer. “Marvellous deductive faculties for an old gentleman, I’ll say!”
“That will be about all from you, Custer,” admonished the colonel.
“Any time that I let a chance like this slip!” returned young Pennington. “Do you think I have forgotten how those two imps pestered the life out of Grace and me a few short years ago? Nay, nay!”
“I don’t blame Custer a bit,” said Mrs. Evans.
“Guy and Eva certainly did make life miserable for him and Grace.”
“That part of it is all right—it is Guy’s affair and Eva’s; but did you hear him refer to me as an old gentleman?”
They all laughed.
“But you are a gentleman,” insisted Custer.
The colonel, his eyes twinkling, turned to Mrs. Evans.
“Times have changed, Mae, since we were children. Imagine speaking thus to our fathers!”
“I’m glad they have changed, Custer. It’s terrible to see children afraid of their parents. It has driven so many of them away from home.”
“No danger of that here,” said the colonel.
“It is more likely to be the other way around,” suggested Mrs. Pennington. “In the future we may hear of parents leaving home because of the exacting tyranny of their children.”
“My children shall be brought up properly,” announced Eva, “with proper respect for their elders.”
“Guided by the shining example of their mother,” said Custer.
“And their Uncle Cutie,” she retorted.
“Come now,” interrupted the colonel, “let’s hear something of your plans. When are you going to be married?”
“Yes,” offered Custer. “Now that the seven hundred dollars has assured their future, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be married at once and take a suite at the Ambassador. I understand they’re as low as thirty-five hundred a month.”
“Aw, I have more than the seven hundred,” said Guy. “I’ve been saving up for a long time. We’ll have plenty to start with.”
Shannon noticed that he flushed just a little as he made the statement, and she alone knew why he flushed. It was too bad that Custer’s little sister should start her married life on money of that sort!
Shannon felt that at heart Guy was a good boy—that he must have been led into this traffic without any adequate realization of its criminality. Her own misfortune had made her generously ready to seek excuses for wrongdoing in others; but she dreaded to think what it was going to mean to Eva and the other Penningtons if ever the truth became known. From her knowledge of the sort of men with whom Guy was involved, she was inclined to believe that the menace of exposure or blackmail would hang over him for many years, even if the former did not materialize in the near future; for authorities, they would immediately involve him, and would try to put the full burden of responsibility upon his shoulders.
“I don’t want the financial end of matrimony to worry either of you,” the colonel was saying. “Guy has chosen a profession in which it may require years of effort to produce substantial returns. All I shall ask of my daughter’s husband is that he shall honestly apply himself to his work. If you do your best, Guy, you will succeed, and in the meantime I’ll take care of the finances.”