ON the following Monday a pock-marked Mexican appeared at the county jail in Los Angeles, during visitor’s hours, and asked to see Slick Allen. The two stood in a corner and conversed in whispers. Allen’s face wore an ugly scowl when his visitor told him of young Pennington’s interference with their plans.
“It’s getting too hot for us around there,” said Allen. “We got to move. How much junk you got left?”
“About sixty cases of booze. We got rid of nearly three hundred cases on the east side, without sending ’em through Evans. There isn’t much of the other junk left—a couple of pounds altogether, at the outside.”
“We got to lose the last of the booze,” said Allen; “but we’ll get our money’s worth out of it. Now you listen, and listen careful, Bartolo.”
He proceeded very carefully and explicitly to explain the details of a plan which brought a grin of sinister amusement to the face of the Mexican. It was not an entirely new plan, but rather an elaboration and improvement of one that Allen had conceived some time before in the event of a contingency similar to that which had now arisen.
“And what about the girl?” asked Bartolo. “She should pay well to keep the Pennington’s from knowing.”
“Leave her to me,” replied Allen. “I shall not be in jail forever.”
During the ensuing days of that late September week, when Shannon and Custer rode together, there was a certain constraint in their relations that was new and depressing. The girl was apprehensive of the outcome of his adventure on the rapidly approaching Friday, while he could not rid himself of the haunting memory of her solitary and clandestine ride over the mysterious trail that led into the mountains.
At last Friday came. Neither had reverted, since the previous Saturday, to the subject that was uppermost in the minds of each; but now Shannon could not refrain from seeking once more to defer Custer from his project. She had not been able to forget the sinister smile of the Mexican, or to rid her mind of an intuitive conviction that the man’s final statement had concealed a hidden threat. They were parting at the fork of the road—she had hesitated until the last moment.
“You still intend to try to catch those men tonight?” she asked.
“I had hoped you would give it up. I am afraid something may happen. I—oh, please don’t go, Custer!” She wished that she might add: “For my sake.”
He laughed shortly. “I guess there won’t be any trouble. If there is, I can take care of myself.”
She saw that it was useless to insist further.
“Let me know if everything is all right,” she asked. “Light the light in the big cupola on the house when you get back—I can see it from my bedroom window—and then I shall know that nothing has happened. I shall be watching for it.”
“All right,” Custer promised, and they parted.
When he reached the house, the ranch bookkeeper came to tell him that the Los Angeles operator had been trying to get him all afternoon.
“Somebody in L. A. wants to talk to you on important business,” said the bookkeeper. “You’re to call back the minute you get here.” Five minutes later he had his connection. An unfamiliar voice asked if he were the younger Mr. Pennington.
“I am,” he replied.
“Some one cut your fence last Friday. You like to know who he is?”
“What about it? Who are you?”
“Never mind who I am. I was with them. They double-crossed me. You want to catch ’em?”
“I want to know who they are, and why they cut my fence, and what the devil they’re up to back there in the hills.”
“You listen to me. You sabe Jackknife Canyon?”
“To-night they bring down the load just before dark. They do that every Friday, and hide the burros until very late. Then they come down into the valley while every one is asleep. To-night they hide ’em in Jackknife. They tie ’em there an’ go away. About ten o’clock they come back. You be there nine o’clock, and you catch ’em when they come back. Sabe?
“How many of ’em are there?”
“Only two. You don’t have to be afraid—they don’t pack no guns. You take gun an’ you catch ’em all alone.”
“But how do I know that you’re not stringing me?”
“You listen. They double-cross me. I get even. You no want to catch ’em, I no care—that’s all. Goodbye!”
Custer turned away from the phone, running his fingers through his hair in a characteristic gesture signifying perplexity. What should he do? The message sounded rather fishy, he thought; but it would do no harm to have a look into Jackknife Canyon around nine o’clock. If he was being tricked, the worst he could fear was that they had taken this method of luring him to Jackknife while they brought the loaded burros down from the hills by some other route. If they had done that, it was very clever of them; but he would not be fooled a second time.
Custer Pennington didn’t care to be laughed at, and so, if he was going to be hoaxed that night, he had no intention of having a witness to his idiocy. For that reason he did not take Jake with him, but rode alone up Sycamore when all the inmates of the castle on the hill thought him in bed and asleep.
When he turned into Jackknife, he reined the Apache in and sat for a moment listening. From farther up the canyon, out of sight, there came the shadow of a sound. That would be the tethered burros, he thought, if the whole thing was not a trick; but he was certain that he heard the sound of something moving there.
He rode on again, but he took the precaution of loosening his gun in its holster. There was, of course, the bare possibility of a sinister motive behind the message he had received. As he thought of it now, it occurred to him that his informant was perhaps a trifle too insistent in assuring him that it was safe to come up here alone. Well, the man had put it over cleverly, if that had been his intent.
Now Custer saw a dark mass beneath a sycamore. He rode directly toward it, and in another moment he saw that it represented half a dozen laden burros tethered to the tree. He moved the Apache close in to examine them. There was no sign of men about.
He examined the packs, leaning over and feeling one. What they contained he could not guess; but it was not firewood. They evidently consisted of six wooden boxes to each burro, three on a side.
He reined the Apache in behind the burros in the darkness of the tree’s shade, and there he waited for the coming of the men. He did not like the look of things at all. What could those boxes contain?
As he sat there waiting, he had ample time to think. He speculated upon the identity and purpose of the mysterious informant who had called him up from Los Angeles. He speculated again upon the contents of the packs. He recalled the whisky that Guy had sold him from time to time, and wondered if the packs might not contain liquor. He had gathered from Guy that his supply came from Los Angeles, and he had never given the matter a second thought; but now he recalled the fact, and concluded that if this was whisky, it was not from the same source as Guy’s.
Then from the mouth of Jackknife he heard the sound of horses’ hoofs. The Apache pricked up his ears, and Custer leaned forward and laid a hand upon his nostrils. “Quiet boy!” he admonished, in a low whisper.
The sounds approached slowly, halting occasionally. Presently two horsemen rode directly past him on the far side of the canyon. They rode at a brisk trot. Apparently they did not see the pack train, or, if they saw it, they paid no attention to it. They disappeared in the darkness, and the sounds of their horses’ hoofs ceased. Pennington knew that they had halted. Who could they be? Certainly not the drivers of the pack train, else they would have stopped with the burros.
He listened intently. Presently he heard horses walking slowly toward him from up the canyon. The two who had passed were coming back—stealthily.
“I sure have got myself in a pretty trap!” he soliloquized a moment later, when he heard the movement of mounted men in the canyon below him. He drew his gun and sat waiting. It was not long that he had to wait. A voice coming from a short distance down the canyon addressed him.
“Ride out into the open and hold up your hands!” it said. “We got you surrounded and covered. If you make a break, we’ll bore you. Come on, now, step lively—and keep your hands up!”
It was the voice of an American.
“Who in thunder are you?” demanded Pennington.
“I am a United States marshal,” was the quick reply.
Pennington laughed. There was something convincing in the very tone of the man’s voice—possibly because Custer had been expecting to meet Mexicans. Here was a hoax indeed; but evidently as much on the newcomers as on himself. They had expected to find a lawbreaker. They would doubtless be angry when they discover that they had been duped.
Custer rode slowly out from beneath the tree.
“Hold up your hands, Mr. Pennington!” snapped the marshal.
Custer Pennington was nonplussed. They knew who he was, yet they demanded that he should hold up his hands like a common criminal.
“Hold on there!” he cried. “What’s the joke? If you know who I am, what do you want me to hold up my hands for? How do I know you’re a marshal?”
“You don’t know it; but I know that you’re armed, and that you’re in a mighty bad hole. I don’t know what you might do, and I ain’t taking no chances. So stick ’em up, and do it quick. If anybody’s going to get bored around here it’ll be you, and not none of my men!”
“You’re a damned fool,” said Pennington succinctly; but he held his hands before his shoulders, as he had been directed. Five men rode from the shadows and surrounded him. One of them dismounted and disarmed him. He lowered his hands and looked about at them.
“Would you mind,” he said, “showing me your authority for this, and telling me what in hell it’s all about?”
One of the men threw back his coat, revealing a silver shield. “That’s my authority,” he said; “that, and the goods we got on you.”
“Well, we expect to get ’em when we examine those packs.”
“Look here!” said Custer. “You’re all wrong. I have nothing to do with that pack train or what it’s packing. I came up here to catch the fellows who have been bringing it down through Ganado every Friday night, and who cut our fence last week. I don’t know any more about what’s in those packs than you do—evidently not as much.”
“That’s all right, Mr. Pennington. You’ll probably get a chance to tell all that to a jury. We been laying for you since last spring. We didn’t know it was you until one of your gang squealed; but we knew that stuff was somewhere in the hills above L. A., and we aimed to get it and you sooner or later.”
“Well, not you particularly, but whoever was bootlegging it. To tell you the truth, I’m plumb surprised to find who it is. I thought all along it was some gang of cheap greasers; but it don’t make no difference who it is to your Uncle Sam.”
“You say some one told you it was I?” asked Custer.
“Sure! How else would we know it? It don’t pay to double-cross your pals, Mr. Pennington.”
“What are you going to do with me?” he asked.
“We’re going to take you back to L. A. and get you held to the Federal grand jury.”
“We’re going to take you back to-night.”
“Can I stop at the house first?”
“No, We got a warrant to search the place, and we’re going to leave a couple of my men here to do it the first thing in the morning. I got an idea you ain’t the only one around there that knows something about this business.”