CUSTER’S long hours of loneliness had often been occupied with plans against the day of his liberation. That Grace had not seen him or communicated with him since his arrest and conviction had been a source of wonder and hurt to him. He recalled many times the circumstances of the telephone call, with a growing belief that Grace had been there, but had refused to talk with him. Nevertheless, he was determined to see her before he returned to Ganado.
The woman who answered his ring told him that Grace no longer lived there. At first she was loath to give him any information as to the girl’s whereabouts; but after some persuasion she gave him a number on Circle Terrace, and in that direction Pennington turned his car.
As he left his car before the bungalow, and approached the building, he could see into the interior through the screen door, for it was a warm day in April, and the inner door was open. As he mounted the few steps leading to the porch, he saw a woman cross the living room, into which the door opened. She moved hurriedly, disappearing through a doorway opposite and closing the door after her. Though he had but a brief glimpse of her in the darkened interior, he knew that it was Grace, so familiar were every line of her figure and every movement of her carriage.
Crossing the living room, Custer rapped on the door through which he had seen Grace go, calling her by name. Receiving no reply, he flung open the door. Facing him was the girl he was engaged to marry.
With her back against the dresser, Grace stood at the opposite end of the room. Her dishevelled hair fell about her face, which was overspread with a sickly pallor. Her wild, staring eyes were fixed upon him. Her mouth, drooping at the corners, tremulously depicted a combination of terror and anger. “Grace!” he exclaimed.
She still stood staring at him for a moment before she spoke.
“What do you mean,” she demanded at last, “by breaking into my bedroom? Get out! I don’t want to see you. I don’t want you here!”
He crossed the room and put a hand upon her shoulder.
“You mean that you don’t want me here, Grace? That you don’t love me?” he asked.
“Love you?” She broke into a disagreeable laugh. “Why you poor rube, I never want to see you again!”
He stood looking at her for a moment longer, and then he turned slowly and walked out of the bungalow and down to his car. When he had gone, the girl threw herself face down upon the bed and burst into uncontrollable sobs. For the moment she had risen triumphant above the clutches of her sordid vice. For that brief moment she had played her part to save the man she loved from greater torture and humiliation in the future—at what a price only she could ever know.
Custer found them waiting for him on the east porch as he drove up to the ranch house.
Eva was the first to reach him. She fairly threw herself upon her brother, laughing and crying in a hysteria of happiness. His mother was smiling through her tears, while the colonel blew his nose violently, remarking that it was “a hell of a time of year to have a damned cold!”
Custer was surprised that Guy and Mrs. Evans had not been of the party that welcomed his return. When he mentioned this, Eva told him that Mrs. Evans thought the Penningtons would want to have him all to themselves for a while, and that their neighbours were coming up after dinner. And it was not until after dinner that he asked after Shannon.
“We have seen very little of her since you left,” explained his mother. “She returned Baldy soon after that, and bought the Senator from Mrs. Evans.”
“Eva has missed her company very much,” said Mrs. Pennington “I was afraid that we might have done something to offend her, but none of us could think what it could have been.”
“I thought she was ashamed of us,” said Eva.
“Nonsense!” exclaimed the colonel.
“Of course that’s nonsense,” said Custer. “She knows as well as the rest of you that I was innocent. “
He was thinking how much more surely Shannon knew his innocence than any of them.
During dinner Eva regained her old-time spirit. More than once the tears came to Mrs. Pennington’s eyes as she realized that once more their little family was united, and that the pall of sorrow that had outweighed so heavily upon them for the past six months had at last lifted, revealing again the sunshine of the daughter’s heart, which had never been the same since their boy had gone away.
“Oh, Cus!” exclaimed Eva. “The most scrumptious thing is going to happen, and I’m so glad that you are going to be here too. They’re going to take a picture on Ganado.”
Custer turned toward his father with a look of surprise.
“You needn’t blame papa,” said Eva. “It was all my fault—or, rather, I should say our good fortune is all due to me. You see, papa wasn’t going to let them come at first, but the cutest man came up to see him—a nice, snort, fat little man, and he rubbed his hands together and said ‘Vell, colonel?’ Papa told him that he had never allowed any picture companies on the place; but I happened to be there, and that was all that saved us, for I teased and teased until finally papa said that they could come, provided they didn’t take any pictures up around the house. They didn’t want to do that, for they’re making a Western picture, and they said the scenery at the back of the ranch is just what they want. They’re coming up in a few days, and it’s going to be perfectly radiant, and maybe I’ll get in the pictures!”
“What outfit is it?” asked the son.
“It’s a company from the K. K. S., directed by a man by the name of Crumb.”
It was after eight o’clock when the Evanses arrived. Mrs. Evans was genuinely affected at seeing Custer again, for she was as fond of him as if he had been her own son. In Guy, Custer discovered a great change. The boy that he had left had become suddenly a man, quiet and reserved, with a shadow of sadness in his expression. His lesson had been a hard one, Custer knew, and the price that he had had to pay for it had left its indelible mark upon his sensitive character.
The first greetings over; Mrs. Evans asked Custer if he had seen Grace before he left Los Angeles.
“I saw her,” he said, “and she is not all well. I think Guy should go up there immediately and try to bring her back. I meant to speak to him about it this evening.