HALF AN HOUR later Custer Pennington swung into the saddle and headed the Apache up Sycamore Canyon.
The trail to the east pasture led through Jackknife. As he passed the spot where he had been arrested on the previous Friday night, the man made a wry face—more at the recollection of the ease with which he had been duped than because of the fact of his arrest.
Below and to Custer’s right the ranch buildings lay dotted about in the dust like children’s toys upon a grey rug. Beyond was the castle on the hill, shining in the sun, and farther still the soft-carpeted valley, in greys and browns and greens. Then the young man’s glance wandered to the left and out over the basin meadow, and instantly the joy died out of his heart and the happiness from his eyes. Straight along the mysterious trail loped a horse and rider toward the mountains, and even at that distance he recognized them as Baldy and Shannon.
This was the end. He was through with her forever. What did he know about her? What did any of them know about her?
She was doubtless a hireling of the gang that had stolen the whisky and disposed of it through Guy. They had sent her here to spy on Guy and to watch the Penningtons. It was she who had set the trap in which he had been caught, not to save Guy, but to throw the suspicion of guilt upon Custer.
With the realization, the senseless fury of his anger left him. He turned the Apache away, and headed him again toward the east pasture; but deep within his heart was a cold anger that was quite as terrible, though in a different way.
Shannon Burke rode up the trail toward the camp of the smugglers, all unconscious that there looked down upon her from a high ridge behind eyes filled with hate and loathing—the eyes of the man she loved.
As she reached the foot of the trail, she saw Bartolo standing beneath a great oak, awaiting her. His pony stood with trailing reins beneath the tree. A rifle butt protruded from a boot on the right of the saddle. He came forward as she guided Baldy toward the tree.
“Buenos dias, senorita,” he greeted her, twisting his pock-marked face into the semblance of a smile.
“What do you want of me?” Shannon demanded.
“I need money,” he said. “You get money from Evans. He got all the money from the hootch we take down two weeks ago. We never get no chance to get it from him.”
“I’ll get you nothing!”
“You get money now—and whenever I want it,” said the Mexican, “or I tell about Crumb. You Crumb’s woman. I tell how you peddle dope. I know! You do what I tell you, or you go to the pen. Sabe?”
“Now listen to me,” said the girl. “I didn’t come up here to take orders from you. I came to give you orders.”
“What?” exclaimed the Mexican, and then he laughed aloud. “You give me orders? That is damn funny!”
“Yes, it is funny. You will enjoy it immensely when I tell you what you are to do.”
“Hurry, then; I have no time to waste.” He was still laughing.
“You are going to find some way to clear Mr. Pennington of the charge against him. I don’t care what the way is, so long as it does not incriminate any other innocent person. If you can do it without getting yourself in trouble, well and good. I do not care; but you must see that there is evidence before the grand jury next Wednesday that will prove Mr. Pennington’s innocence.”
“Is that all?” inquired Bartolo, grinning broadly.
“That is all.”
“And if I don’t it—eh?”
“Then I shall go before the grand jury and tell them about you, and Allen—about the opium and the morphine and the cocaine—how you smuggled the stolen booze from the ship off the coast up into the mountains.”
“You think you would do that?” he asked. “But how about me? Wouldn’t I be telling everything I know about you? Allen would testify, too, and they would make Crumb come and tell how you lived with him. Oh, no, I guess you don’t tell the grand jury nothing!”
“I shall tell them everything. Do you think I care about myself? I will tell them all that Allen and Crumb could tell; and listen, Bartolo—I can tell them something more. There used to be five men in your gang. There were three when I came up last week, and Allen is in jail; but where is the other?”
The man’s face went black with anger, and perhaps with fear, too.
“What you know about that?” he demanded sharply.
“Allen told Crumb the first time he came to the Hollywood bungalow that he was having trouble among his gang, that you were a hard lot to handle, and that already one named Bartolo had killed one named Gracial. How would you like me to tell that to the grand jury?”
“You never tell that to no one.”’ growled the Mexican. “You know too damn much for your health!”
He had stepped suddenly forward and seized her wrist. She struck at him and at the same time put the spurs to Baldy—in her fear and excitement more severely than she had intended. The high-spirited animal, unused to such treatment, leaped forward past the Mexican, who, clinging to the girl’s wrist, dragged her from the saddle. Baldy turned, and feeling himself free, ran for the trail that led toward home.
“You know too damn much!” repeated Bartolo. “You better off up here alongside Gracial!”
The girl had risen to her feet and stood facing him. There was no fear in her eyes. She was very beautiful, and her beauty was not lost upon the Mexican.
“You mean that you would kill me to keep me from telling the truth about you?” she asked.
The man stood facing her, holding her by the wrist. His eyes appraised her boldly.
“You damn good-looking,” he said, and pulled the girl toward him. “Before I kill you, I—”
He threw an arm about her roughly, and, leaning far over her as she pulled away, he sought to reach her lips with his.