AFTER Custer left her, Shannon entered the bungalow and sat for a long time before the table on which stood a framed photograph of her mother. Never before had she felt the need of loving counsel so sorely as now. In almost any other emergency she could have gone to Mrs. Pennington, but in this she dared not.
Her only hope lay in avoiding discovery by Wilson Crumb during his stay at Ganado. Her love, and the weakness it had induced, permitted her to accept the happiness from which an unkind fate had hitherto debarred her, and to which even now her honour told her she had no right.
She wished that Custer had not loved her, and that she might have continued to live the life that she had learned to love, where she might be near him, and might constantly see him in the happy consociation of friendship; but with his arms about her and his kisses on her lips she had not had the strength to deny him, or to dissimulate the great love which had ordered her very existence for many months.
In the brief moments of bliss that had followed the avowal of his love, she had permitted herself to drift without thought of the future; but now that the sudden knowledge of the approaching arrival of Crumb had startled her into recollection of the past and consideration of its bearings upon the future, she realized only too poignantly that the demands of honour required that sooner or later she herself must tell Custer the whole sordid story of those hideous months in Hollywood. There was no other way. She could not mate with a man unless she could match her honour with his. There was no alternative other than to go away forever.
It was midnight before she arose and went to her room. She went deliberately to a drawer which she kept locked, and, finding the key, she opened it. From it she took the little black case, and, turning back the cover, she revealed the phials, the needles, and the tiny syringe that had played so sinister a part in her past.
With almost fanatical savagery she destroyed it, crushing the glass phials and the syringe beneath her heel and tearing the little case to shreds. Then, gathering up the fragments, she carried them to the fireplace in the living room and burned them.
On the following day the horses and several loads of properties from the K.K.S. studio arrived at Ganado, and the men who accompanied them pitched their camp well up in Jackknife Canyon. Eva was very much excited, and spent much of her time on horseback, watching their preparations. She tried to get Shannon to accompany her, but the latter found various excuses to remain away, being fearful that even though Crumb had not yet arrived, there might be other employees of the studio who would recognize her.
Crumb and the rest of the company came in the afternoon, although they had not been expected until the following day. Eva, who had made Custer ride up again with her in the afternoon, recalled to the actor-director the occasion upon which she had met him, and they had danced together, some year and a half before.
As soon as he met her, Crumb was struck by her beauty, youth, and freshness. He saw in her a possible means of relieving the tedium of his several weeks’ enforced absence from Hollywood—though in the big brother he realized a possible obstacle, unless he were able to carry on his purposed gallantries clandestinely.
In the course of conversation he took occasion to remark that Eva ought to photograph well. “I’ll let them take a hundred feet of you,” he said, “some day when you’re up here while we’re working. We might discover an unsung Pickford up here among the hills!”
“She will remain unsung, then,” said Custer curtly. “My sister has no desire to go into pictures.”
“How do you know I haven’t?” asked Eva.
“After Grace?” he asked significantly.
She turned to Crumb.
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t make much of an actress,” she said; “but it would be perfectly radiant to see myself in pictures just once!”
“Good!” he replied. “We’ll get you all right some day that you’re up here. I promise your brother that I won’t try to persuade you into pictures.”
“I hope not,” said Custer.
As he and Eva rode back toward the house, he turned to the girl.
“I don’t like that fellow Crumb,” he said.
“Oh, you’re prejudiced! I’ll bet anything he’s just perfectly lovely!”
Next morning, finding no one with the leisure or inclination to ride with her, Eva rode up again to the camp. They had already commenced shooting. Although Crumb was busy, he courteously took the time to explain the scene on which they were working, and many of the technical details of picture making. He asked her to stay and lunch with them. When she insisted that she must return home, he begged her to come again in the afternoon. Although she would have been glad to do so, for she found the work that they were doing novel and interesting, she declined his invitation, as she already had made arrangements for the afternoon.
He followed her to her horse, and walked beside her down the road a short distance from the others.
“If you can’t come down this afternoon,” he said, “possibly you can come up this evening. We are going to take some night pictures. I hadn’t intended inviting any one, because the work is going to be rather difficult and dangerous, and an audience might distract the attention of the actors; but if you think you could get away alone, I should be very glad to have you come up for a few minutes about nine o’clock. We shall be working in the same place. Don’t forget,” he repeated, as she started to ride away, “that for this particular scene I really ought to not have any audience at all; so if you come, please don’t tell any one else about it.”
“I’ll come,” she said. “It’s awfully good of you to ask me, and I won’t tell a soul.”
Crumb smiled as he turned back to his waiting company.
After lunch that day Custer went to his room, and, throwing himself on his bed with a book, with the intention of reading for half an hour, fell asleep.
Shortly afterward Shannon Burke, feeling that there would be no danger of meeting any of the K.K.S. people at the Pennington house, rode up on the Senator to keep her appointment with Eva. As she tied her horse upon the north side of the house, Wilson Crumb stopped his car opposite the patio at the south drive. He had come up to see Colonel Pennington for the purpose of arranging for the use of a number of the Ganado Herefords in a scene on the following day. Not finding Eva in the family sitting room, Shannon passed through the house and out into the patio, just as Wilson Crumb mounted the two steps to the arcade. Before either realized the presence of the other they were face to face, scarce a yard apart.
Shannon went deathly white as she recognized the man beneath his make—up, while Crumb stood speechless for a moment. “My God, Gaza. You!” he presently managed to exclaim. “What are you doing here? Thank God I have found you at last!”
“Don’t!” she begged. “Please don’t speak to me. I am living a decent life here.”
He laughed in a disagreeable manner.
“Decent!” he scoffed. “Where are you getting the snow? Who’s putting up for it?”
“I don’t use it any more,” she said.
“The hell you don’t! You can’t put that over on me! Some other guy is furnishing it. I know you—you can’t get along two hours without it. I’m not going to stand for this. There isn’t any guy going to steal my girl!”
“Hush, Wilson!” she cautioned. “For God’s sake keep still! Some one might hear you.”
“I don’t give a damn who hears me. I’m here to tell the world that no one is going to take my girl away from me. I’ve found you, and you’re going back with me, do you understand?”
She came very close to him, her eyes blazing wrathfully.
“I’m not going back with you, Wilson Crumb,” she said. “If you tell, or if you ever threaten me again in any way, I’ll kill you. I managed to escape you, and I have found happiness at last, and no one shall take it away from me!”
“What about my happiness? You lived with me two years. I love you, and, by God, I’m going to have you, if I have to—” A door slammed behind them and they both turned to see Custer Pennington standing in the arcade outside his door, looking at them. “I beg your pardon,” he said, his voice chilling. “Did I interrupt?”
“This man is looking for some one, Custer,” said Shannon, and turned to re-enter the house.
Confronted by a man, Crumb’s bravado had vanished. Intuitively he guessed that he was looking at the man who had stolen Gaza from him; but he was a very big young man, with broad shoulders and muscles that his flannel shirt and riding breeches did not conceal. Crumb decided that if he was going to have trouble with this man, it would be safer to commence hostilities at a time when the other was not looking.
“Yes,” he said. “I was looking for your father, Mr. Pennington.”
“Father is not here. He has driven over to the village. What do you want?”
“I wanted to see if I could arrange for the use of some of your Herefords to-morrow morning.”
“You can find out about that,” he said, “or anything else that you may wish to know, from the assistant foreman, whom you will usually find up at the other end, around the cabin. If he is in doubt about anything, he will consult with us personally; so that it will not be necessary, Mr. Crumb, for you to go to the trouble of coming to the house again.”
Custer’s voice was level and low. It carried no suggestion of anger, yet there was that about it which convinced Crumb that he was fortunate in not having been kicked off the hill physically rather than verbally—for kicked off he had been, and advised to stay off, into the bargain.
He wondered how much Pennington had overheard of his conversation with Gaza. Shannon Burke, crouching in a big chair in the sitting room, was wondering the same thing.
As a matter of fact, Custer had overheard practically all of the conversation. The noise of Crumb’s car had awakened him, but almost immediately he had fallen into a doze, through which the spoken words impinged upon his consciousness without any actual, immediate realization of their meaning, of the identity of the speakers. The moment that he became fully awake, and found that he was listening to a conversation not intended for his ears, he had risen and gone into the patio.
When finally he came into the sitting room, where Shannon was, he made no mention of the occurrence, except to say that the visitor had wanted to see his father. It did not seem possible to Shannon that he could have failed to overhear at least a part of their conversation, for they were standing not more than a couple of yards from the open window of his bedroom, and there was no other sound breaking the stillness of the August noon. She was sure that he had heard, and yet his manner indicated that he had not.
She waited a moment to see if he would be the first to broach the subject, but he did not. She determined to tell him then and there all that she had to tell, freeing her soul and her conscience of their burden, whatever the cost might be.
She rose and came to where he was standing, and, placing a hand upon his arm, looked up into his eyes.
“Custer,” she said. “I have something to tell you. I ought to have told you before, but I have been afraid. Since last night there is no alternative but to tell you.”
“You do not have to tell me anything that you do not want to tell me,” he said. “My confidence in you is implicit. I could not both love and distrust at the same time.”
“I must tell you,” she said. “I only hope—”
“Where in the world have you been, Shannon?” cried Eva, breaking suddenly into the sitting room. “I have been away down to your place looking for you. I thought you were going to play golf with me this afternoon.”
“That’s what I came up for,” said Shannon, turning toward her.
“Well, come on, then! We’ll have to hurry, if we’re going to play eighteen holes this afternoon.”
Custer Pennington went back to his room again after the girls had driven off in the direction of the Country Club. He wondered what it had been that Shannon wished to tell him. Round and round in his mind rang the words of Wilson Crumb:
“You lived with me two years—you lived with me two years—you lived with me two years!”
Custer went to his closet and rummaged around for a bottle. It had been more than two weeks since he had taken a drink. The return to his old intimacy with Shannon, and the frequency with which he now saw her had again weaned him from his habit; but today he felt the need of a drink—of a big drink, stiff and neat.
He swallowed the raw liquor as if it had been so much water. He wished now that he had punched Crumb’s head when he had had the chance. The cur! He had spoken to Shannon as if she were a common woman of the streets—Shannon Burke—Custer’s Shannon!
Feeling no reaction to the first drink, he took another.
“I’d like to get my fingers on his throat!” he thought. “Before I choked the life out of him, I’d drag him up here and make him kiss the ground at her feet!”
But no, he could not do that. Others would see it, and there would have to be explanations; and how could he explain it without casting reflections on Shannon?
For hours he sat there in his room, nursing his anger, his jealousy, and his grief; and all the time he drank and drank again. He went to his closet, got his belt and holster, and from his dresser drawer took a big, ugly-looking forty-five—a Colt’s automatic. For a moment he stood holding it in his hand, looking at it. Almost caressingly he handled it, and then he slipped it into the holster at his hip, put on his hat, and started for the door.