THE six months that had just passed had been months of indecision and sadness for Shannon Burke. Constantly moved by the conviction that she should leave the vicinity of Ganado and the Penningtons, she was held there by a force that she had not the power to overcome.
Never before since she had left her mother’s home in the Middle West had she experienced the peace and content and happiness that her little orchard on the highway imparted to her life. The friendship of the Penningtons had meant more to her than anything that had hitherto entered her life; and to be near them, even if she saw them but seldom, constituted a constant bulwark against the assaults of her old enemy, which still occasionally assailed the ramparts of her will.
Never, in the hills, could her mind dwell upon depressing thoughts. Only cheerful reflections were her companions of those hours of solitude. She thought of the love that had come into her life, of the beauty of it, and of all that it had done to make life more worth the living; of the Penningtons and the example of red-blooded cleanliness that they set-decency without prudery; of her little orchard and the saving problems it had brought to occupy her mind and hands; of her horse and her horsemanship, two never-failing sources of of companionship and pleasure which the Penningtons had taught her to love and enjoy.
On the morning after Custer’s return, Guy started early for Los Angeles, while Custer—Shannon not having joined them on their morning ride—resaddled the Apache after breakfast and rode down to her bungalow. He both longed to see her and dreaded the meeting; for, regardless of Grace’s attitude and of the repulse she had given him, his honour bound him to her.
Custer had realized, in that brief interview of the day before, that Grace was not herself. What was the cause of her change he could not guess, since he was entirely unacquainted with the symptoms of narcotics. Even had a suspicion of the truth entered his mind, he would have discarded it as a vile slander upon the girl, as he had rejected the involuntary suggestion that she might have been drinking. His position was distressing for a man to whom honour was a fetish, since he knew that he still loved Grace, while at the same time realizing a still greater love for Shannon.
She saw him coming and came down the driveway to meet him, her face radiant with the joy of his return, and with that expression of love that is always patent to all but the object of its concern.
“Oh, Custer!” she cried. “I am so glad that you are home again! It has seemed years and years, rather than months, to all of us.”
“I am glad to be home, Shannon. I have missed you, too. I have missed you all—everything—the hills, the valley, every horse and cow and little pig, the clean air, the smell of flowers and sage—all that is Ganado. “
“You like it better than the city?”
“I shall never long for the city again,” he said. “Cities are wonderful, of course, with their great buildings, their parks and boulevards, their fine residences, their lawns and gardens. The things that men have accomplished there fill a fellow with admiration; but how pitiful they really are compared with the magnificence that is ours!” He turned and pointed toward the mountains. “Just think of those hills, Shannon, and the infinite, unthinkable power that uplifted such mighty monuments. Think of the countless ages that they have endured, and then compare with them the puny efforts of man. Compare the range of vision of the city dweller with ours. He can see across the street, and to the top of some tall buildings, which may look imposing; but place it beside one of our hills, and see what becomes of it. Place it in a ravine in the high Sierras, and you would have difficulty in finding it; and you cannot even think of it in connection with a mountain fifteen or twenty thousand feet in height. Any yet the city man patronizes us country people, deploring the necessity that compels us to pursue our circumscribed existence.”
“Pity him,” laughed Shannon. “He is as narrow as his streets. His ideals can reach no higher than the pall of smoke that hangs over the roofs of his buildings. I am so glad, Custer, that you have given up the idea of leaving the country for the city!”
“I never really intended to,” he replied. “I couldn’t have left on father’s account; but now I can remain on my own as well as his, and with a greater degree of contentment. You see that my recent experience was a blessing in disguise.”
“I am glad if some good came out of it; but it was a wicked injustice, and there were others as innocent as you who suffered fully as much—Eva especially.”
“I know,” he said. “She has been very lonely since I left, with Grace away, too; and they tell me that you have constantly avoided them. Why? I cannot understand it.”
He had dismounted and tied the Apache, and they were walking toward the porch. She stopped, and turned to look at Custer squarely in the eyes.
“How could I have done otherwise?” she asked.
“I do not understand,” he replied.
She could not hold her eyes to his as she explained, but looked down, her expression changing from happiness to one of shame and sadness.
“I am sorry, Custer. I would not hurt them. I love them all; but I thought I was doing the thing that you wished. There was so much that you did not understand—that you can never understand—and you were away where you couldn’t know what was going on; so it seemed disloyal to do the thing I thought you would rather I didn’t do.”
“It’s all over now,” he said. “Let’s start over again, forgetting all that has happened in the last six months and a half.”
Again, as his hand lay upon her arm, he was seized with an almost uncontrollable desire to crush her to him. Two things deterred him—his loyalty to Grace, and the belief that his love would be unwelcome to Shannon.