EVA was still breathing faintly as the sun dropped behind the western hills. Shannon had not left the house all day. She felt that Custer needed her, that they all needed her, however little she could do to mitigate their grief. There was at least a sense of sharing their burden, and her fine sensibilities told her that this service of love was quite as essential as the more practical help that she would have been glad to offer had it been within her power.
She was standing in the patio with Custer, at sunset, within call of Eva’s room, as they all had been during the entire day, when a car drove up along the south drive and stopped at the patio entrance. Three of the four men in it alighted and advanced toward them.
“You are Custer Pennington?” one of them asked.
“And you are Miss Burke—Miss Shannon Burke?”
“I am a deputy-sheriff. I have a warrant here for your arrest.”
“Arrest!” exclaimed Custer. “For what?”
He read the warrant to them. It charged them with the murder of Wilson Crumb.
“I am sorry, Mr. Pennington,” said the deputy sheriff; “but I have been given these warrants, and there is nothing for me to do but serve them.”
“You have to take us away now? Can’t you wait—until—my sister is dying in there. Couldn’t it be arranged so that I could stay here under arrest as long as she lives?”
The deputy shook his head.
“It would be all right with me,” he said; “but I have no authority to let you stay. I’ll telephone in, though, and see what I can do. Where is the telephone?”
Pennington told him.
“You two stay here with my men,” said the deputy sheriff, “while I telephone.”
He was gone about fifteen minutes. When he returned, he shook his head.
“Nothing doing,” he said. “I have to bring you both in right away.”
“May I go to her room and see her again before I leave?” asked Custer.
“Yes,” said the deputy; but when Custer turned toward his sister’s room, the officer accompanied him.
Dr. Baldwin and one of the nurses were in the room. Young Pennington came and stood beside the bed, looking down on the white face and the tumbled curls upon the pillow. He could not perceive the slightest indication of life, yet they told him that Eva still lived. He knelt and kissed her, and then turned away. He tried to say good-bye to her, but his voice broke, and he turned and left the room hurriedly.
Colonel and Mrs. Pennington were in the patio, with Shannon and the officers. The colonel and his wife had just learned of this new blow, and both were stunned. The colonel seemed to have aged a generation in that single day. He was a tired, hopeless old man. The heart of his boy and that of Shannon Burke went out to him and to the suffering mother from whom their son to be taken at this moment in their lives when they needed him most. In their compassion for the older Penningtons they almost forgot the seriousness of their own situation.
At their arraignment next morning, the preliminary hearing was set for the following Friday. Early in the morning Custer had received word from Ganado that Eva still lived, and that Dr. Baldwin now believed they might hold some slight hope for her recovery.
At Ganado, despair and anxiety had told heavily upon the Penningtons. The colonel felt that he should be in Los Angeles, to assist in the defence of his son; and yet he knew that his place was with his wife, whose need of him was even greater. Nor would his heart permit him to leave the daughter whom he worshipped, so long as even a faint spark of life remained in that beloved frame.
Mrs. Evans returned from Los Angeles the following day. She was almost prostrated by this last of a series of tragedies ordered, as it seemed, by some malignant fate for the wrecking of her happiness. She told them that Guy appeared to be hopelessly insane. He did not know his mother, nor did he give the slightest indication of any recollection of his past life, or of the events that had overthrown his reason.
At ten o’clock on Wednesday night Dr. Baldwin came into the living room, where the colonel and his wife were sitting with Mrs. Evans. For two days none of them had been in bed. They were tired and haggard, but not more so than the old doctor, who had remained constantly on duty from the moment when he was summoned. Never had man worked with more indefatigable zeal than he to wrest a young life from the path of the grim reaper. There were deep lines beneath his eyes, and his face was pale and drawn, as he entered the room and stood before them; but for the first time in many hours there was a smile upon his lips.
“I believe,” he said, “that we are going to save her.”
The others were too much affected to speak. So long had hope been denied that now they dared not even think of hope.
“She regained consciousness a few moments ago. She looked up at me and smiled, and then she fell asleep. She is breathing quite naturally now. She must not be disturbed, though. I think it would be well if you all retired. Mrs. Pennington, you certainly must get some sleep—and you too, Mrs. Evans, or I cannot be responsible for the results. I have left word with the night nurse to call me immediately, if necessary, and if you will all go to your rooms I will lie on the sofa here in the living room. I feel at last that it will be safe for me to leave her in the hands of the nurse, and a little sleep won’t hurt me.”
The colonel took his old friend by the hand.
“Baldwin,” he said, “it is useless to try to thank you. I couldn’t, even if there were words to do it with.”
“You don’t have to, Pennington. I think I love her as much as you do. There isn’t any one who knows her who doesn’t love her, and who wouldn’t have done as much as I. Now, get off to bed all of you, and I think we’ll find something to be very happy about in the morning. If there is any change for the worst, I will let you know immediately.”
In the county jail in Los Angeles, Custer Pennington and Shannon Burke, awaiting trial on charges of a capital crime, were filled with increasing happiness, as the daily reports from Ganado brought word of Eva’s steady improvement, until at last that she was entirely out of danger.
The tedious preliminaries of selecting a jury were finally concluded. As witness after witness was called, Pennington came to realize for the first time what a web of circumstantial evidence the State had fabricated about him. Even from servants whom he knew to be loyal and friendly the most damaging evidence was elicited. His mother’s second maid testified that she had seen him fully dressed in his room late in the evening before the murder, when she had come in, as was her custom, with a pitcher of iced water, not knowing that the young man was there. She had seen him lying upon the bed, with his gun in its holster hanging from the belt about his waist. She also testified that the following morning, when she had come in to make up his bed, she had discovered that it had not been slept in.
The stableman testified that the Apache had been out on the night of the murder. He had rubbed the animal down earlier in the evening, when the defendant had come in from riding. At that time the two had examined the horse’s shoes, the animal having just been reshod. He said that on the morning after the murder there were saddle sweat marks on the Apache’s back, and that the off fore shoe was missing.
One of the K.K.S. employees testified that a young man, whom he partially identified as Custer, had ridden into their camp about nine o’clock on the night of the murder, and had inquired concerning the whereabouts of Crumb. He said that the young man seemed excited, and upon being told that Crumb was away he had ridden off rapidly toward Sycamore Canyon.
Added to all this were the damaging evidence of the detective who had found the Apache’s off fore shoe under Crumb’s body, and the positive identification of the shoe by Allen. The one thing that was lacking—a motive for the crime—was supplied by Allen and the Penningtons’ house man.
The latter testified that among his other duties was the care of the hot water heater in the basement of the Pennington home. Upon the evening of Saturday, August 5, he had forgotten to shut off the burner, as was his custom. He had returned about nine o’clock, to do so. When he had left the house by the passageway leading from the basement beneath the south drive and opening on the hillside just above the water gardens, he had seen a man standing by the upper pool, with his arms about a woman, whom he was kissing. It was a bright moonlight night, and the house man had recognized the two as Custer Pennington and Miss Burke. Being embarrassed by having thus accidentally come upon them, he had moved away quietly in the opposite direction, among the shadows of the trees, and had returned to the bunk house.
The connecting link between this evidence and the motive for the crime was elicited from Allen in half an hour of direct examination, which constituted the most harrowing ordeal that Shannon Burke had ever endured; for it laid bare before the world, and before the man she loved, the sordid history of her life with Wilson Crumb. It portrayed her as a drug addict and a wanton; but, more terrible still, it established a motive for the murder of Crumb by Custer Pennington.
Owing to the fact that he had lain in a drunken stupor during the night of the crime, that no one had seen him from the time when the maid entered his room to bring his iced water until his father had found him fully clothed upon his bed at five o’clock the following morning, young Pennington was unable to account for his actions, or to state his whereabouts at the time when the murder was committed.
He realized what the effect of the evidence must be upon the minds of the jurors when he himself was unable to assert positively, even to himself, that he had not left his room that night. Nor was he very anxious to refute the charge against him, since in his heart he believed that Shannon Burke had killed Crumb. He did not even take the stand in his own defence.
The evidence against Shannon was less convincing. A motive, had been established in Crumb’s knowledge of her past life and the malign influence that he had had upon it. The testimony of the camp flunky, who had seen her obliterating what evidence the trail might have given in the form of hoofprints constituted practically the only direct evidence that was brought against her. It seemed to Custer that the gravest charge that could justly be brought against her was that of accessory after the fact, provided the jury was convinced of his guilt.
Many witnesses testified, giving evidence concerning apparently irrelevant subjects. It was brought out, however, that Crumb died from the effects of a wound inflicted by a forty-five calibre pistol, that Custer Pennington possessed such a weapon, and that at the time of his arrest it had been found in its holster, with its cartridge belt, thrown carelessly upon the bed.
When Shannon Burke took the stand, all eyes were riveted upon her. They were attracted not only by her youth and beauty, but also by the morbid interest which the frequenters of court rooms would naturally feel in the disclosure of the life she had led at Hollywood. Even to the most sophisticated it appeared incredible that this refined girl, whose, soft well modulated voice and quiet manner carried a conviction of innate modesty, could be the woman whom Slick Allen’s testimony had revealed in such a role of vice and degradation.
Allen’s eyes were fastened upon her with the same intent and searching expression that had marked his attitude upon the occasion of his last visit to the Vista del Paso bungalow, as if he were trying to recall the identity of some half forgotten face.
Though Shannon gave her evidence in a simple, straightforward manner, it was manifest that she was undergoing an intense nervous strain. The story that she told, coming as it did out of a clear sky, unguessed either by the prosecution or by the defence, proved a veritable bombshell to them both. It came after it had appeared that the last link had been forged in the chain that fixed guilt upon Custer Pennington. She had asked, then, to be permitted to take the stand and tell her story in her own way.
“I did not see Mr. Crumb,” she said, “from the time I left Hollywood on the 30th of July last year, until the afternoon before he was killed; nor had I communicated with him during that time. What Mr. Allen told you about my having been a drug addict was true, but he did not tell you that Crumb made me what I was, or that after I came to Ganado to live I overcame the habit. I did not live with Crumb as his wife. I was afraid of him, and did not want to go back to him. When I left, I did not even let him know where I was going.
“The afternoon before he was killed I met him accidentally in the patio of Colonel Pennington’s home. The Penningtons had no knowledge of my association with Crumb. I knew that they wouldn’t have tolerated me, had they known what I had been. Crumb demanded that I should return to him, and threatened to expose me if I refused. I knew that he was going to be up in the canyon that night. I rode up there and shot him. The next morning I went back and attempted to obliterate the tracks of my horse, for I had learned from Custer Pennington that it is sometimes easy to recognize individual peculiarities in the tracks of a shod horse. That is all, except that Mr. Pennington had no knowledge of what I did and no part in it.”
Momentarily her statement seemed to overthrow the State’s case against Pennington; but that the district attorney was not convinced of its truth was indicated by his cross-examination of her and other witnesses, and later by the calling of new witnesses. They could not shake her testimony, but on the other hand she was unable to prove that she had ever possessed a forty-five-calibre pistol, or to account for what she had done with it after the crime.
During the course of her cross-examination many apparently unimportant and irrelevant facts were adduced, among them the name of the Middle Western town in which she had been born. This trivial bit of testimony was the only point that seemed to make any impression on Allen. Any one watching him at the moment would have seen a sudden expression of incredulity and consternation overspread his face, the hard lines of which slowly gave place to what might, in another, have suggested a semblance of grief.
For several minutes he sat staring at Shannon. Then he crossed to the side of her attorney, and whispered a few words in the lawyer’s ear. Receiving an assent to whatever his suggestion might have been, he left the court room.
On the following day the defence introduced a new witness in the person of a Japanese who had been a house servant in the bungalow on the Vista del Paso. His testimony substantiated Shannon Burke’s statement that she and Crumb had not lived together as man and wife.
Then Allen was recalled to the stand. He told of the last evening that he had spent at Crumb’s bungalow, and of the fact that Miss Burke, who was then known to him as Gaza de Lure, had left the house at the same time he did. He testified that Crumb had asked her why she was going home so early; that she had replied that she wanted to write a letter; that he, Allen, had remarked “I thought you lived here,” to which she had replied. “I’m here nearly all day, but I go home nights.” The witness added that this conversation took place in Crumb’s presence, and that the director did not in any way deny the truth of the girl’s assertion.
Why Allen should have suddenly espoused her cause was a mystery to Shannon, only to be accounted for upon the presumption that if he could lessen the value of that part of her testimony which had indicated a possible motive for the crime, he might thereby strengthen the case against Pennington, toward whom he still felt enmity, and whom he had long ago threatened to “get.”
The district attorney, in his final argument, drew a convincing picture of the crime from the moment when Custer Pennington saddled his horse at the stables at Ganado. He followed him up the canyon to the camp in Jackknife, where he had inquired concerning Crumb, and then down to Sycamore again, where, at the mouth of Jackknife, the lights of Crumb’s car would have been visible up the larger canyon.
He demonstrated clearly that a man familiar with the hills, and searching for some one whom sentiments of jealousy and revenge were prompting him to destroy, would naturally investigate this automobile light that was shining where no automobile should be. That the prisoner had ridden out with the intention of killing Crumb was apparent from the fact that he had carried a pistol in a country where, under ordinary circumstances, there was no necessity for carrying a weapon of self-defence. He vividly portrayed the very instant of the commission of the crime—how Pennington leaned from his saddle and shot Crumb through the heart; the sudden leap of the murderer’s horse as he was startled by the report of the pistol, or possibly by the falling body of the murdered man; and how, in so doing, he had forged and torn off the shoe that had been found beneath Crumb’s body.
“And,” he said, “this woman knew that he was going to kill Wilson Crumb. She knew it, and she made no effort to prevent it. On the contrary, as soon as it was light enough, she rode directly to the spot where Crumb’s body lay, and, as has been conclusively demonstrated by the unimpeachable testimony of an eye witness, she deliberately sought to expunge all traces of her lover’s guilt.”
He derided Shannon’s confession, which he termed an eleventh hour effort to save a guilty man from the gallows.
“If she killed Wilson Crumb, what did she kill him with?”
He picked up the bullet that had been extracted from Crumb’s body.
“Where is the pistol from which this bullet came? Here it is, gentlemen!”
He picked up the weapon that had been taken from Custer’s room.
“Compare this bullet with those others that were taken from the clip in the handle of this automatic. They are identical. This pistol did not belong to Shannon Burke. It was never in her possession. No pistol of this character was ever in her possession. Had she had one, she could have told where she obtained it, and whether it had been sold to her or to another; and the records of the seller would show whether or not she spoke the truth. Failing to tell us where she had disposed of it. She can do neither, and the reason which she cannot is because she never owned a forty-five calibre pistol. She never had one in her possession, and therefore she could not have killed Crumb with one.”
When at length the case went to the jury, Custer Pennington’s conviction seemed a foregone conclusion, while the fate of Shannon Burke was yet in the laps of the gods. The testimony that Allen and the Japanese servant had given in substantiation of Shannon’s own statement that her relations with Wilson Crumb had only been those of an accomplice in the disposal of narcotics, removed from consideration the principal motive that she might have had for killing Crumb.
And so there was no great surprise when, several hours later, the jury returned a verdict in accordance with the public opinion of Los Angeles—where, owing to the fact that murder juries are not isolated, such cases are tried largely by the newspapers and the public. They found Custer Pennington, Jr., guilty of murder in the first degree, and Shannon Burke not guilty.