THE APACHE had taken but a few steps on the trail toward the east pasture when Custer reined him in suddenly and wheeled him about.
“I’ll settle this thing now,” he muttered. “I’ll catch her with them. I’ll find out who the others are. By God, I’ve got her now, and I’ve got them!”
The cold rage that gripped Pennington brooked no delay. He was glad, though, that he was unarmed; for he knew that when he came face to face with the men with whom Shannon Burke had conspired against him, he might again cease to be master of his anger.
At the summit they met Baldy, head and tail erect, snorting and riderless. The appearance of the horse and his evident fright bespoke something amiss. Custer had seen him just as he was emerging from the upper end of the dim trail leading down the opposite side of the hogback. He turned the Apache into it and headed him down toward the oaks.
Below, Shannon was waging a futile fight against the burly Bartolo. She struck at his face and attempted to push him from her, but he only laughed his crooked laugh and pushed her slowly toward the trampled dust of the abandoned camp.
“Before I kill you—” he repeated again and again, as if it were some huge joke.
He heard the sound of the Apache’s hoofs upon the trail above but he thought it was the loose horse of the girl. Custer was almost at the bottom of the trail when the Mexican glanced up and saw him. With a curse, he hurled Shannon aside and leaped toward his pony.
At the same instant the girl saw the Apache and his rider, and in the next she saw Bartolo seize his rifle and attempt to draw it from its boot. Leaping to her feet she sprang toward the Mexican, who was cursing frightfully because the rifle had stuck and he could not readily extricate it from the boot. As she reached him, he succeeded in jerking the weapon free. Swinging about, he threw it to his shoulder and fired at Pennington, just as Shannon threw herself upon him, clutching at his arms and dragging the muzzle of the weapon downward. He struck at her face, and tried to wrench the rifle from her grasp; but she clung to it with all the desperation that the danger confronting the man she loved engendered.
Custer had thrown himself from the saddle and was running toward them. Bartolo saw that he could not regain the rifle in time to use it. He struck the girl a terrible blow in the face that sent her to the ground. Then he turned and vaulted into his saddle, and was away across the bottom and up the trail on the opposite side before Pennington could reach and drag him from his pony.
Custer turned to the girl lying motionless upon the ground. He knelt and raised her in his arms. She had fainted, and her face was very white. He looked down into it—the face of the girl he hated. He felt his arms about her, he felt her body against his, and suddenly a look of horror filled his eyes.
He laid her back upon the ground, and stood up. He was trembling violently. As he had held her in his arms, there had swept over him a almost irresistible desire to crush her to him, to cover her eyes and cheeks with kisses, to smother her lips with them—the girl he hated!
A great light had broken upon his mental horizon—a light of understanding that left all his world in the dark shadow of despair. He loved Shannon Burke.
Again he knelt beside her, and very gently he lifted her in his arms until he could support her across one shoulder. Then he whistled to the Apache, who was nibbling the bitter leaves of the live oak. When the horse came to him, he looped the bridle reins about his arm and started on foot up the trail down which he had just ridden, carrying Shannon across his shoulder. At the summit of the ridge he found Baldy grazing upon the sparse, burned grasses of later September.
It was then that Shannon Burke opened her eyes. At first, confused by the rush of returning recollections she thought that it was the Mexican who was carrying her; but an instant later she recognized the whipcord riding breeches and the familiar boots and spurs of the son of Ganado. Then she stirred upon his shoulder.
“I am all right now,” she said. “You may put me down. I can walk.”
He lowered her to the ground, but he still supported her as they stood facing each other.
“You came just in time,” she said. “He was going to kill me.”
“I am glad I came,” was all that he said.
She noticed how tired and pinched Custer’s face looked, as if he had risen from a sick bed after a long period of suffering. He looked older—very much older—and oh, so sad! It wrung her heart; but she did not question him. She was waiting for him to question her, for she knew that he must wonder why she had come here, and what the meaning of the encounter he had witnessed; but he did not ask her anything, beyond inquiring whether she thought she was strong enough to sit her saddle if he helped her mount.
“I shall be all right now,” she assured him.
He caught Baldy and assisted her into the saddle. Then he mounted the Apache and led the way along the trail toward home. They were halfway across the basin meadow before either spoke. It was Shannon who broke the silence.
“You must have wondered what I was doing up there,” she said, with a backward nod of her head.
“That would not be strange, would it?”
“I will tell you.”
“No,” he said, “it is bad enough that you went there today and the Saturday before I was arrested. Anything more that you could tell me would only make it worse.”
“But I must tell you, Custer.” she insisted. “Now that you have learned this much, I can see that your suspicions wrong me more than I deserve. I came here the Saturday before you were arrested to warn them that you were going to watch for them on the following Friday. Though I did not know the men, I knew what sort they were, and that they would kill you the moment they found they that were discovered. It was only to save your life that I came that other time, and this time I came to try to force them to go before the grand jury and clear you of the charge against you; but when I threatened the man, and he found what I knew about him, he said that he would kill me.”
“You did not know that I was going to be arrested that night?”
“Oh, Custer, how could you believe that of me?” exclaimed Shannon.
“I came into all this information—about the work of this gang—by accidentally overhearing a conversation in Hollywood, months ago. I know the names of the principals, I know Guy’s connection with them. To-day I was trying to keep Guy’s name out, too, if that were possible; but he is guilty and you are not. I cannot understand how he could come back from Los Angeles without telling them the truth and removing the suspicion from you.”
“I would not let him,” said Pennington.
“You would not let him? You would go to the penitentiary for the crime of another?”
“Not for him, but for Eva. Guy and I thrashed it all out. He wanted to give himself up—he almost demanded that I should let him; but it can’t be done. Eva must never know.”
“But, Custer, you can’t go! It wouldn’t be fair—it wouldn’t be right. I won’t let you go! I know enough to clear you, and I shall go before the grand jury on Wednesday and tell all I know.”
“No,” he said. “You must not. It would involve Guy.”
“I won’t mention Guy.”
“But you will mention others, and they will mention Guy—don’t doubt that for a minute.” He turned suddenly toward her. “Promise me, Shannon, that you will not go—that you will not mention what you know to a living soul. I would rather go to the pen for twenty years than see Eva’s life ruined.”
“Perhaps you are right, but it seems to me she would not suffer any more if Guy went than if her brother went. She loves you very much.”
“But she will know that I am innocent. If Guy went, she would know that he was guilty.” Shannon had no answer to this, and they were silent for a while. “You will help me to keep this from Eva?” he asked. “Yes.”
Shannon felt his eyes upon her, and looked up.
“You have been so good to me, Custer, all of you—you can never know how I have valued the friendship of the Penningtons, or what it has meant to me, or how I have striven to deserve it. I would have done anything to repay a part, at least, of what it has done for me. That was what I was trying to do—that is why I wanted to go before the grand jury, no matter what the cost to me; but I failed, and perhaps I have only made it worse. I do not even know that you believe me.”
“I believe you, Shannon,” he said. “There is much that I do not understand; but I believe that what you did was done in our interests. There is nothing more that any of us can do now but keep still about what we know, for the moment one of those actually responsible is threatened with exposure Guy’s name will be divulged—you may rest assured of that. They would be only too glad to shift the responsibility to his shoulders.”
“But you will make some effort to defend yourself?”
“I shall simply plead not guilty, and tell the truth about why I was up there when the officers arrested me.”
“You will make no other defence?”
“What other defence can I make that would not risk incriminating Guy?” Custer asked her.
She shook her head. It seemed quite hopeless.