SHANNON BURKE after a restless night, rose early in the morning to ride. She always found that the quiet and peace of the hills acted as a tonic on jangling nerves, and dispelled, at least for the moment, any cloud of unhappiness that might be hovering over her.
The first person to see her that morning was the flunky from the K.K.S. camp who was rustling wood for the cook’s morning fire. So interested was he in her rather remarkable occupation that he stood watching her from behind a bush until she was out of sight. As long as he saw her, she rode slowly, dragging at her side a leafy bough, which she moved to and fro, as if sweeping the ground. She constantly looked back, as if to note the effect of her work; and once or twice he saw her go over short stretches of the road a second time, brushing vigorously.
It was quite light by that time, as it was almost five o’clock, and the sun was just rising as she dismounted at the Ganado stables and hurried up the steps toward the house. The iron gate at the patio entrance had not yet been raised, so she went around to the north side of the house and knocked on the colonel’s bedroom door.
“Colonel,” she cried, “Wilson Crumb has been killed. I rode early this morning, and as I came into Sycamore over El Camino Largo I saw his body lying under the big tree there.”
They were both thinking the same thought, which neither dared voice—where was Custer?
“Did you notify the camp?” he asked.
“No—I came directly here.”
“You are sure that it is Crumb, and that he is dead?” he asked.
“I am sure that it is Crumb. He was lying on his back, and though I didn’t dismount I am quite positive that he was dead.”
Mrs. Pennington had joined them, herself dressed for riding. “How terrible!” she exclaimed.
“Terrible nothing,” exclaimed the colonel. “I’m damned glad he’s dead!”
Shannon looked at him in astonishment, but Mrs. Pennington understood, for the colonel had told her all that Eva had told him.
“He was a bad man,” said Shannon. “The world will be better off without him.”
“You knew him?” Colonel Pennington asked in surprise. “I knew him in Hollywood,” she replied.
She knew now that they must all know sooner or later, for she could not see how she could be kept out of the investigation and the trial that must follow. In her heart she feared that Custer had killed Crumb. The fact that he had drunk so heavily that afternoon indicated not only that he had overheard, but that what he had heard had affected him profoundly—profoundly enough to have suggested the killing of the man whom he believed to have wronged the woman he loved.
“The first thing to do, I suppose,” said the colonel, “is to notify the sheriff.” He left the room and went to the telephone. While he was away Mrs. Pennington and Shannon discussed the tragedy, and the older woman confided to the other the experience that Eva had had with Crumb the previous night.
“The beast!” muttered Shannon. “Death was too good for him!” Presently the colonel returned to them.
“I think I’ll go and see if the children are going to ride with us,” he said. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t ride as usual.”
He went to Eva’s door and looked in. Apparently she was still fast asleep. Her hair was down, and her curls lay in soft confusion upon her pillow. Very gently he closed the door again, glad that she could sleep. When he entered his son’s room he found Custer lying fully clothed upon his bed, his belt about his waist and his gun at his hip. His suspicions were crystallized into belief. But why had Custer killed Crumb? He couldn’t have known of the man’s affront to Eva, for she had seen no member of the family but her father, and in him alone had she confided.
He crossed to the bed and shook Custer by the shoulder. The younger man opened his eyes and sat up on the edge of his bed. He looked first at his father and then at himself—at his boots and spurs, and breeches, and the gun about his waist. “What time is it?” he asked.
“I must have fallen asleep. I wish it was dinner time! I’m hungry.”
“Dinner time! It’s only a matter of a couple of hours to breakfast. It’s five o’clock in the morning.”
Custer rose to his feet in surprise.
“I must have loaded on more than I knew,” he said with a wry smile.
“What do you mean?” asked his father.
“I had a blue streak yesterday afternoon, and I took a few drinks; and here I have slept all the way through to the next morning!”
“You haven’t been out of the room since yesterday afternoon?” asked the colonel.
“No, of course not. I thought it was still yesterday afternoon until you told me that it is the next morning,” said Custer.
The colonel ran his fingers through his hair.
“I am glad,” he said.
Custer didn’t know why his father was glad.
“Riding?” he asked.
“I’ll be with you in a jiffy. I want to wash up a bit.”
He met them at the stables a few minutes later. The effect of the liquor had entirely disappeared. He seemed his normal self again, and not as all like a man who had the blood of a new murder on his soul. He was glad to see Shannon, and squeezed her hand as he passed her horse to get his own.
They were mounted, and had started out, when the colonel reined to Custer’s side.
“Shannon just made a gruesome find up in Sycamore,” he said, and paused.
If he had intended to surprise Custer into any indication of guilty knowledge, he failed.
“Gruesome find!” repeated the younger man. “What was it?”
“Wilson Crumb has been murdered. Shannon found his body.”
“The devil!” ejaculated Custer. “Who do you suppose could have done it?”
Then, quite suddenly, his heart came to his mouth, as he realized that there was only one present there who had cause to kill Wilson Crumb. He did not dare to look at Shannon for a long time.
They had gone only a hundred yards when Custer pulled up the Apache and dismounted.
“I thought so,” he said, looking at the horse’s off forefoot. “He’s pulled that shoe again. He must have done it in the corral, for it was on when I put him in last night. You folks go ahead. I’ll go back and saddle Baldy.”
The stableman was still there, and helped him.
“That was a new shoe,” Custer said. “Look about the corral and the box, and see if you can find it. You can tack it back on.” Then he swung to Baldy’s back and cantered off after the others.
A deputy sheriff came from the village of Ganado before they returned from their ride, and went up the canyon to take charge of Crumb’s body and investigate the scene of the crime.
Eva was still in bed when they called to breakfast. They insisted upon Shannon remaining, and the four were passing along the arcade past Eva’s room.
“I think I’ll go in and waken her,” said Mrs. Pennington. “She doesn’t like to sleep so late.”
The others passed into the living room, and were walking toward the dining room when they were startled by a scream.
“Custer! Custer!” Mrs. Pennington called to her husband.
All three turned and hastened back to Eva’s room, where they found Mrs. Pennington half lying across the bed her body convulsed with sobs. The colonel was the first to reach her, followed by Custer and Shannon. The bedclothes lay half thrown back, where Mrs. Pennington had turned them. The white sheet was stained with blood, and in Eva’s hand was clutched a revolver that Custer had given her the previous Christmas.
“My little girl, my little girl!” cried the weeping mother. “Why did you do it?”
The colonel knelt and put his arms about his wife. He could not speak. Custer Pennington stood like a man turned to stone. The shock seemed to have bereft him of the power to understand what had happened. Finally he turned dumbly toward Shannon. The tears were running down her cheeks. Gently she touched his sleeve.
“My poor boy!” she said.
The words broke the spell that had held him. He walked to the opposite side of the bed and bent close to the still, white face of the sister he had worshipped.
“Dear little sister, how could you, when we love you so?” he said.
Gently the colonel drew his wife away, and, kneeling, placed his ear close above Eva’s heart. There was no outward indications of life, but presently he lifted his head, and expression of hope relieving that of grim despair which had settled upon his countenance at the first realization of the tragedy.
“She is not dead,” he said. “Get Baldwin! Get him at once!” He was addressing Custer. “Then telephone Carruthers, in Los Angeles, to get down here as soon as God will let him.”
Custer hurried from the room to carry out his father’s instructions.
It was later, while they were waiting for the arrival of the doctor, that the colonel told Custer of Eva’s experience with Crumb the previous night.
“She wanted to kill herself because of what he told her about Guy,” he said. “There was no other reason.”
Then the doctor came, and they all stood in tense expectancy and mingled dread and hope while he made his examination. Carefully and deliberately the old doctor worked, outwardly as calm and unaffected as if he were treating a minor injury to a stranger; yet his heart was as heavy as theirs, for he had brought Eva into the world, and had known and loved her all her brief life.
At last he straightened up, to find their questioning eyes upon him.
“She still lives,” he said, but there was no hope in his voice.
“I have sent for Carruthers,” said the colonel. “He is on his way now. He told Custer that he’ll be here in less than three hours.”
“I have arranged to have a couple of nurses sent out, too,” said Custer. Dr. Baldwin made no reply.
“There is no hope?” asked the colonel.
“There is always hope while there is life,” replied the doctor: “but you must not raise yours too high.”
They understood him, and realized that there was very little hope.
“Can you keep her alive until Carruthers arrives?” asked the colonel.
“I need not tell you that I shall do my best,” was the reply.
Guy had come, with his mother. He seemed absolutely stunned by the catastrophe that had overwhelmed him. There was a wildness in his demeanour that frightened them all. It was necessary to watch him carefully, for fear that he might attempt to destroy himself when he realized at last that Eva was likely to die.
He insisted that they should tell him all the circumstances that had led up to the pitiful tragedy. For a time they sought to conceal a part of the truth from him; but at last, so great was his insistence, they were compelled to reveal all that they knew.
Of a nervous and excitable temperament, and endowed by nature with a character of extreme sensitiveness and comparatively little strength, the shock of the knowledge that it was his own acts that had led Eva to self-destruction proved too much for Guy’s overwrought nerves and brain. So violent did he become that Colonel Pennington and Custer together could scarce restrain him, and it became necessary to send for two of the ranch employees.
When the deputy sheriff came to question them about the murder of Crumb, it was evident that Guy’s mind was so greatly affected that he did not understand what was taking place around him. He had sunk into a morose silence broken at intervals by fits of raving. Later in the day, at Dr. Baldwin’s suggestion he was removed to a sanatorium outside of Los Angeles.
Guy’s mental collapse, and the necessity for constantly restraining him, had resulted in taking Custer’s mind from his own grief, at least for the moment; but when he was not thus occupied he sat staring straight ahead of him in dumb despair.
It was eleven o’clock when the best surgeon that Los Angeles could furnish arrived, bringing a nurse with him, and Eva was still breathing when he came. Dr. Baldwin was there, and together the three worked for an hour while the Penningtons and Shannon waited almost hopelessly in the living room, Mrs. Evans having accompanied Guy to Los Angeles.
Finally, after what seemed years, the door of the living room opened, and Dr. Carruthers entered. They scanned his face as he entered, but saw nothing there to lighten the burden of their apprehension. The colonel and Custer rose.
“Well?” asked the former, his voice scarcely audible.
“The operation was successful. I found the bullet and removed it.”
“She will live, then!” cried Mrs. Pennington, coming quickly toward him.
He took her hands very gently in his.
“My dear madam,” he said, “it would be cruel of me to hold out useless hope. She hasn’t more than one chance in a hundred. It is a miracle that she was alive when you found her. Only a splendid constitution, resulting from the life she has led, could possibly account for it.”
The mother turned away with a low moan.
“There is nothing more that you can do?” asked the colonel.
“I have done all that I can,” replied Carruthers.
“She will not last long?”
“It may be a matter of hours, or only minutes,” he replied. “She is in excellent hands, however. No one could do more for her than Dr. Baldwin.”
The two nurses whom Custer had arranged for had arrived, and when Dr. Carruthers departed he took his own nurse with him.
It was afternoon when deputies from the sheriff’s and coroner’s offices arrived from Los Angeles, together with detectives from the district attorney’s office. Crumb’s body still lay where it had fallen, guarded by a constable from the village of Ganado. It was surrounded by members of his company, villagers, and near-by ranchers, for word of the murder had spread rapidly in the district in that seemingly mysterious way in which news travels in rural communities. Among the crowd was Slick Allen, who had returned to the valley after his release from the county jail.
When the body was finally lifted from its resting place, and placed in the ambulance that had been brought from Los Angeles, one of the detectives picked up a horseshoe that had lain underneath the body. From its appearance it was evident that it had been upon a horse’s hoof very recently, and had been torn off by force.
As the detective examined the shoe, several of the crowd pressed forward to look at it. Among them was Allen.
“That’s off young Pennington’s horse,” he said.
“How do you know that?” inquired the detective.
“I used to work for them—took care of their saddle horses. This young Pennington’s horse forges. They had to shoe him special, to keep him from pulling off the fore shoe. I could tell one of his shoes in a million. If they haven’t walked all over his tracks I can tell whether that horse had been up here or not.”
He stooped and examined the ground close to where the body had lain.
“There!” he said, pointing. “There’s an imprint of one of his hind feet. See how the toe of that shoe is squared off? That was made by the Apache, all right!”
The detective was interested. He studied the hoofprint carefully, and searched for others, but this was the only one he could find.
“Looks like some one had been sweeping this place with a broom,” he remarked. “There ain’t much of anything shows.”
A pimply-faced young man spoke up.
“There was some one sweeping the ground this morning,” he said. “About five o’clock this morning I seen a girl dragging the branch of a tree after her, and sweeping along the road below here.”
“Did you know her?” asked the detective.
“No—I never seen her before.”
“Would you know her if you saw her again?”
“Sure I’d know her! She was a pippin. I’d know her horse, too.”