DURING the long ride to Los Angeles, and later in his cell in the county jail, Custer Pennington had devoted many hours to seeking an explanation of the motives underlying the plan to involve him in a crime of which he had no knowledge, nor eyen a suspicion of the identity of its instigators. To his knowledge, he had no enemies whose hostility was sufficiently active to lead them to do him so great a wrong. He had had no trouble with any one recently, other than his altercation with Slick Allen several months before; yet it was obvious that he had been deliberately sacrificed for some ulterior purpose. What that purpose was he could only surmise.
The most logical explanation, he finally decided, was that those actually responsible, realizing that discovery was imminent, had sought to divert suspicion from themselves by fastening it upon another. That they had selected him as the victim might easily be explained on the ground that his embarrassing interest in their movements had already centered their attention upon him, while it also offered the opportunity for luring him into the trap without arousing his suspicions.
It was, then, just a combination of circumstances that had led him into his present predicament; but there still remained unanswered one question that affected his peace of mind more considerably than all the others combined. Who had divulged to the thieves his plans for the previous night?
Concurrently with that question there arose before his mind’s eye a picture of Shannon Burke and Baldy as they topped the summit above Jackknife from the trail that led across the basin meadow back into the hills, he knew not where.
“I can’t believe that it was she,” he told himself for the hundredth time. “She could not have done it. I won’t believe it! She could explain it all if I could ask her; but I can’t ask her. There is a great deal that I cannot understand, and the most inexplicable thing is that she could possibly have had any connection whatever with the affair.”
When his father came with an attorney, in the morning, the son made no mention of Shannon Burke’s ride into the hills, or of her anxiety, when they parted in the afternoon, to learn if he was going to carry out his plan for Friday night.
“Did any one know of your intention to watch for these men?” asked the attorney.
“No one,” he replied; “but they might have become suspicious from the fact that the week before I had all the gates padlocked on Friday. They had to cut the fence that night to get through. They probably figured that it was getting too hot for them, and that on the following Friday I would take some other steps to discover them. Then they made sure of it by sending me that message from Los Angeles. Gee, but I bit like a sucker!”
“It is unfortunate,” remarked the attorney, “that you had not discussed your plans with some one before you undertook to carry them out on Friday night. If we could thus definitely establish your motive for going alone into the hills, and to the very spot where you were discovered with the pack train, I think it would go much further toward convincing the court that you were there without any criminal intent than your own unsupported testimony to that effect!”
Colonel Pennington snorted.
“The best thing to do now,” said the attorney, “is to see if we can get an immediate hearing, and arrange for bail in case he is held to the grand jury.”
“I’ll go with you,” said the colonel.
They had been gone but a short time when Guy Evans was admitted to Custer’s cell. The latter looked up and smiled when he saw who his visitor was.
“It was bully of you to come,” he said. “Bringing condolences, or looking for material, old thing.”
“Don’t joke, Cus,” exclaimed Evans, “It’s too rotten to joke about, and it’s all my fault.”
“I am the guilty one. I’ve come down to give myself up.”
“Just what the devil are you talking about?” inquired Pennington.” Do you mean to tell me that you have been mixed up in—well, what do you know about that?” A sudden light had dawned upon Custer’s understanding. “That hootch that you’ve been getting me—that I joked you about—it was really the stuff that was stolen from a bonded warehouse in New York? It wasn’t any joke at all?”
“You can see for yourself now how much of a joke it was,” replied Evans.
“I’ll admit,” returned Custer ruefully, “that it does require considerable of a sense of humour to see it in this joint!”
“What do you suppose they’ll do to me?” asked Guy. “Do you suppose they’ll send me to the penitentiary?”
“Tell me the whole thing from the beginning—who got you into it, and just what you’ve done. Don’t omit a thing, no matter how much it incriminates you. I don’t need to tell you, old man, that I’m for you, no matter, what you’ve done.”
“I know that, Cus; but I’m afraid no one can help me. I’m in for it. I knew it was stolen from the start. I have been selling it since last May—seven thousand seven hundred and seventy-six quarts of it—and I made a dollar on every quart. It was what I was going to start housekeeping on. Poor little Eva!” Again a sob half choked him. “It was Slick Allen that started me. First he sold me some; then he got me to sell you a bottle, and bring him the money. Then he had me, or at least he made me think so; and he insisted on my handling it for them out in the valley. It wasn’t hard to persuade me, for it looked safe, and it didn’t seem like such a rotten thing to do, and I wanted the money the worst way. I know they’re all bum excuses. I shan’t make any excuses—I’ll take my medicine; but it’s when I think of Eva that it hurts. It’s only Eva that counts!”
“Yes,” said Pennington, laying his hand affectionately on the other’s shoulder. “It is only Eva who counts; and because of Eva, and because you and I love her so much, you cannot go to the penitentiary.”
“What do you mean—cannot go?”
“Have you told any one else what you have just told me?”
“Don’t. Go back home, and keep your mouth shut,” said Custer.
“You mean that you will take a chance of going up for what I did? Nothing doing! Do you suppose I’d let you, Cus, the best friend I’ve got in the world, go to the pen for me—for something I did?”
“It’s not for you, Guy. I wouldn’t go to the pen for you or any other man; but I’d go to the pen for Eva, and so would you.”
“I know it, but I can’t let you do it. I’m not rotten, Cus!”
“You’ve got to—it’s the easiest way. We’ve all got to be punished for what you did—those who love us are always punished for our sins; but let me tell you that I don’t think you are going to escape punishment if I go up for this. You’re going to suffer more than I. You’re going to suffer more than you would if you went up yourself; but it can’t be helped. The question is, are you man enough to do this for Eva? It is your sacrifice more than mine.”
“My God, Cus, I’d rather go myself!”
“I know you would.”
Evans walked slowly from the jail, entered his car, and drove away. Of the two hearts his was the heavier; of the two burdens his the more difficult to bear.
Custer Pennington appearing before a United States commissioner that afternoon for his preliminary hearing, was held to the Federal grand jury, and admitted to bail. The evidence brought by the deputies who had searched the Pennington home, taken in connection with the circumstances surrounding his arrest, seemed to leave the commissioner no alternative. Even the colonel had to admit that to himself, though he would never had admitted it to another. The case would probably come up before the grand jury on the following Wednesday.
That night, at dinner, Custer made light of the charge against him, yet at the same time he prepared them for what might happen, for the proceedings before the commissioner had impressed him with the gravity of his case, as had also the talk he had had with his attorney afterward.
“My boy’s word is all I need,” replied his mother.
Eva came and put her arms about him.
“They wouldn’t send you to jail, would they?” she demanded. “It would break my heart.”
“Not if you knew I was innocent.”
“N-no, not then, I suppose; but it would be awful. If you were guilty, it would kill me. I’d never want to live if my brother was convicted of a crime, and was guilty of it. I’d kill myself first!”
Her brother drew her face down and kissed her tenderly.
“That would be foolish, dear,” he said. “No matter what one of us does, such an act would make it all the worse—for those who were left.”
“I can’t help it,” she said. “It isn’t just because I have had the honour of the Penningtons preached to me all my life. It’s because it’s in me—the Pennington honour. It’s a part of me, just as it’s a part of you, and mother, and father. It’s a part of the price we have to pay for being Penningtons. I have always been proud of it, Custer, even if I am only a silly girl.”
“I’m proud of it, too, and I haven’t jeopardized it; but even if I had, you mustn’t think about killing yourself on my account, or any one’s else.”
“Well, I know you’re not guilty, so I don’t have to.”
“Good! Let’s talk about something pleasant.”
“Why didn’t you see Grace while you were in Los Angeles?”
“I tried to. I called up her boarding place from the lawyer’s office. I understood the woman who answered the phone to say that she would call her, but she came back in a couple of minutes and said that Grace was out on location.”
“Did you leave your name?”
“I told the woman who I was when she answered the phone.”
“I’m sorry you didn’t see her,” said Mrs. Pennington. “I often think that Mrs. Evans, or Guy, should run down to Los Angeles occasionally and see Grace.”
“That’s what Shannon says,” said Custer. “I’ll try to see her next week, before I come home.”
“Shannon was up nearly all afternoon waiting to hear if we received any word from you. When you telephoned that you had been held to the Federal grand jury, she would scarcely believe it. She said there must be some mistake.”
“Did she say anything else?”
“She asked whether Guy got there before you were held and I told her that you said Guy visited you in the jail. She seems so worried about the affair—just as if she were one of the family. She is such a dear girl! I think I grow to love her more and more every day.”
“Yes,” said Custer, non-committally.
“She asked me one rather peculiar question,” Eva went on.
“What was that?”
“She asked if I was sure that it was you who had been held to the grand jury.”
“That was odd, wasn’t it?”
“She’s so sure of your innocence just as sure as we are,” said Eva.
“Well, that’s very nice of her,” remarked Custer.