CUSTER’S gait showed no indication of the amount that he had drunk. He was a Pennington of Virginia, and he could carry his liquor like a gentleman. Even though he was aflame with the heat of vengeance, his movements were slow and deliberate. At the door he paused, and, turning, retraced his steps to the table where stood the bottle and the glass. The bottle was empty. He went to the closet and got another. Again he drank, and as he stood there by the table he commenced to plan again.
The colonel and Mrs. Pennington were away somewhere down in the valley. Eva and Shannon were the first to return. In passing along the arcade by Custer’s open window, Eva saw him lying on his bed. She called to him, but he did not answer. Shannon was at her side.
“What in the world do you suppose is the matter with Custer?” asked Eva.
They saw that he was fully dressed. His hat had fallen forward over his eyes. The two girls entered the room, when they could not arouse him by calling him from the outside. The two bottles and the glass upon the table told their own story. What they could not tell Shannon guessed—he had overheard the conversation between Wilson Crumb and herself.
Eva removed the bottles and the glass to the closet.
“Poor Cus!” she said. “I never saw him like this before. I wonder what could have happened! What had we better do?”
“Pull down the shades by his bed,” said Shannon, and this she did herself without waiting for Eva. “No one can see him from the patio now. It will be just as well to leave him alone. I think, Eva, He will probably be all right when he wakes up.”
They went out of the room, closing the door after them, and a little later Shannon mounted the Senator and rode away toward home.
When the colonel and Mrs. Pennington arrived at the ranch house, just before dinner, Eva told them that Custer was not to be disturbed. They did not go to his room at all, and at about half past eight they retired for the night.
Eva was very much excited. She had never before experienced the thrill of such an adventure as she was about to embark upon. As the time approached, she became more and more perturbed. The realization grew upon her that what she was doing might seem highly objectionable to her family; but as her innocent heart held no suggestion of evil, she considered that her only wrong was the infraction of those unwritten laws of well regulated homes which forbid their daughters going out alone at night. She would tell about it in the morning, and wheedle her father into forgiveness.
Quickly she changed into riding clothes. Leaving her room, she noiselessly passed through the living room and the east wing to the kitchen, and from there to the basement, from which a tunnel led beneath the driveway and opened on the hillside above the upper pool of the water gardens. To get her horse and saddle him required but a few moments, for the moon was full and the night almost like day.
As she passed the mouth of Jackknife she glanced up the canyon toward the site of K.K.S. camp, but she could not see any lights, as the camp was fairly well hidden from the main canyon by trees. As she approached El Camino Largo, she saw that all was darkness. There was no sign of the artificial lights she imagined they would use for shooting night scenes, nor was there anything to indicate the presence of the actors.
She continued on, however, until presently she saw the outlines of a car beneath the big sycamore. A man stepped out and hailed her. “Is that you, Miss Pennington?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Aren’t you going to take the pictures tonight?” She rode up quite close to him. It was Crumb.
“I am just waiting for the others. Won’t you dismount?”
As she swung from the saddle, he led her horse to his car and tied him to the spare tire in the rear; then he returned to the girl. As they talked, he adroitly turned the subject of their conversation toward the possibilities for fame and fortune which lay in pictures for a beautiful and talented girl.
So unsophisticated was Eva, and so innocent, that she did not realize from his conversation what would have been palpable to one more worldly wise; and because she did not repulse him, Crumb thought that she was not averse to his advances. It was not until he seized her and tried to kiss her that she awoke to a realization of her danger, and of the position in which her silly credulity had placed her.
She carried a quirt in her hand, and she was a Pennington. “How dare you?” she cried, attempting to jerk away.
When he would have persisted, she raised the heavy quirt and struck him across the face. “My father shall hear of this, and so shall the man I am to marry—Mr. Evans.”
“Go slow!” he growled angrily. “Be careful what you tell! Remember that you came up here alone at night to meet a man you have known only a day. How will you square with that your assertions of virtue, eh? And as for Evans—yes, one of your men told me today that you and he were going to be married—as for him, the less you drag him into this the better it’ll be for Evans, and you, too!”
She was walking toward her horse. She wheeled suddenly toward him.
“Had I been armed, I would have killed you,” she said. “Any Pennington would kill you for what you attempted. My father or my brother will kill you if you are here tomorrow, for I shall tell them what you have done. You had better leave tonight. I am advising you for their sakes—not for yours.”
He followed her then, and, when she mounted, he seized her reins. “Not so damned fast, young lady! I’ve got something to say about this. You’ll keep your mouth shut, or I’ll send Evans to the pen, where he belongs!”
“Get out of my way!” she commanded, and put her spurs to her mount. The horse leaped forward, but Crumb clung to the reins, checking him. Then she struck Crumb again; but he managed to seize the quirt and hold it.
“Now listen to me,” he said. “If you tell what happened here tonight, I’ll tell what I know about Evans, and he’ll go to the pen as sure as you’re a silly little fool!”
“You know nothing about Mr. Evans. You don’t even know him.”
“Listen—I’ll tell you what I know. I know that Evans let your brother, who was innocent, go to the pen for the thing that Evans was guilty of.” The girl shrank back.
“You lie!” she cried.
“No, I don’t lie, either. I’m telling you the truth, and I can bring plenty of witnesses to prove what I say. It was young Evans who handled all that stolen booze and sold it to some guy from L.A. It was young Evans who got the money. He was getting rich on it till your brother butted in and crabbed his game, and then it was young Evans who kept still and let an innocent man do time for him. That’s the kind of fellow you’re going to marry. If you want the whole world to know about it, you just tell your father or your brother anything about me!”
He saw the girl sink down in her saddle, her head and shoulders drooping like some lovely flower in the path of fire, and he knew that he had won. Then he let her go.
It was half past nine o’clock when Colonel Pennington was aroused by some one knocking on the north door of his bedroom—the door that opened upon the north porch. “Who is it?” he asked. It was the stableman.
“Miss Eva’s horse is out, sir,” the man said. “I heard a horse pass the bunk house about half an hour ago. I dressed and come up here to the stables, to see if it was one of ours—somethin’ seemed to tell me it was—an’ I found her horse out. I thought I’d better tell you about it, sir. You can’t tell, sir, with all them pictur’ people up the canyon, what might be goin’ on. We’ll be lucky if we have any horses or tack left if they’re here long!”
“Miss Eva’s in bed,” said the colonel. “but we’ll have to look into this at once. Custer’s sick tonight, so he can’t go along with us; but if you will saddle up my horse, and one for yourself, I’ll dress and be right down. It can’t be the motion—picture people—they’re not horse thieves.”
While the stableman returned to saddle the horses, the colonel dressed. So sure was he that Eva was in bed that he did not even stop to look into her room. As he left the house, he was buckling on a gun—a thing that he seldom carried, for even in the peaceful days that have settled upon southern California a horse thief is still a horse thief.
As he was descending the steps to the stable, he saw some one coming up. In the moonlight there was no difficulty in recognizing the figure of his daughter.
“Eva!” he exclaimed, “Where have you been? What are you doing out at this time of night, alone?”
She did not answer, but threw herself into his arms, sobbing.
“What is it? What has happened, child? Tell me!”
Her sobs choked her, and she could not speak. Putting his arm about her, her father led her up the steps and to her room. There he sat down and held her, and tried to comfort her. Little by little, word by word, she managed at last to tell him. “You mustn’t cry dear,” he said. “You did a foolish thing to go up there alone, but you did nothing wrong. As for what that fellow told you about Guy, I don’t believe it.”
“But it’s the truth,” she sobbed. “I know it is the truth now. Little things that I didn’t think of before come back to me, and in the light of what that terrible man told me I know that it’s true. We always knew that Custer was innocent. Think what a change came over Guy from the moment that Custer was arrested. He has been a different man since. And the money—the money that we were to be married on. I never stopped to try to reason it out. He had thousands of dollars. He told me not to tell anybody how much he had; and that was where it came from.
“It couldn’t have come from anything else. Oh, popsy, it is awful, and I loved him so! To think that he, that Guy Evans, of all men, would have let my brother go to jail for something he did!” Again her sobs stifled her.
“Crying will do no good,” the colonel said, “Go to bed now, and tomorrow we will talk it over. Good night, little girl. Remember, we’ll all stick to Guy, no matter what he has done.” He kissed her then and left her, but he did not return to his room. Instead, he went down to the stables and saddled his horse, for the stableman, when Eva came in with the missing animal, had put it in its box and returned to the bunk house.
The colonel rode immediately to the sleeping camp in Jackknife Canyon. His calls went unanswered for a time, but presently a sleepy man stuck his head through the flap of a tent. “What do you want?” he asked.
“I am looking for Mr. Crumb. Where is he?”
“I don’t know. He went away in his car early in the evening, and hasn’t come back. What’s the matter, anyway? You’re the second fellow that’s been looking for him. Oh, you’re Colonel Pennington, aren’t you? I didn’t recognize you. Why, some one was here a little while ago looking for him—a young fellow on horseback. I think it must have been your son. Anything I can do for you?”
“Yes,” said the colonel. “In case I don’t see Mr. Crumb, you can tell him, or whoever is in charge, that you’re to break camp in the morning and be off my property by ten o’clock.”
He wheeled his horse and rode down Jackknife Canyon toward Sycamore.
“Well, what the hell!” ejaculated the sleepy man to himself, and withdrew again into his tent.