0N the day when Custer was to be sentenced, Colonel Pennington and Shannon Burke were present in the court room. Mrs. Pennington had remained at home with Eva, who was slowly convalescing. Shannon reached the court room before the colonel. When he arrived, he sat down beside her, and placed his hand on hers.
“Whatever happens,” he said, “we shall still believe in him. No matter what the evidence—and I do not deny that the jury brought in a just verdict in accordance with it—I know that he is innocent. He told me yesterday that he was innocent, and my boy would not lie to me. He thought that you killed Crumb, Shannon. He overheard the conversation between you and Crumb in the patio that day, and he knew that you had good reason to kill the man. He knows now, as we all know, that you did not. Probably it must always remain a mystery. He would not tell me that he was innocent until after you had been proven so. He loves you very much, my girl!”
“After all that he heard here in court? After what I have been? I thought none of you would ever want to see me again.”
The colonel pressed her hand.
“Whatever happens,” he said, “you are going back home with me. You tried to give your life for my son. If this were not enough, the fact that he loves you, and that we love you, is enough.”
Two tears crept down Shannon’s cheek—the first visible signs of emotion that she had manifested during all the long weeks of the ordeal that she had been through. Nothing had so deeply affected her as the magnanimity of the proud old Pennington, whose pride and honour, while she had always admired them, she had regarded as an indication of a certain puritanical narrowness that could not forgive the transgression of a woman.
When the judge announced the sentence, and they realized that Custer Pennington was to pay the death penalty, although it had been almost a foregone conclusion, the shock left them numb and cold.
Neither the condemned man nor his father gave any outward indication of the effect of the blow. They were Penningtons, and the Pennington pride permitted them no show of weakness before the eyes of strangers. Nor yet was there any bravado in their demeanour. The younger Pennington did not look at his father or Shannon as he was led away toward the cell, between two bailiffs.
As Shannon Burke walked from the court room with the colonel, she could think of nothing but the fact that in two months the man she loved was to be hanged. She tried to formulate plans for his release—wild, quixotic plans; but she could not concentrate her mind upon anything but the bewildering thought that in two months they would hang him by the neck until he was dead.
She knew that he was innocent. Who, then, had, committed the crime? Who had murdered Wilson Crumb?
Outside the Hall of Justice she was accosted by Allen, whom she attempted to pass without noticing. The colonel turned angrily on the man. He was in the mood to commit murder himself; but Allen forestalled any outbreak on the old man’s part by a pacific gesture of his hands and a quick appeal to Shannon.
“Just a moment, please,” he said. “I know you think I had a lot to do with Pennington’s conviction. I want to help you now. I can’t tell you why. I don’t believe he was guilty. I changed my mind recently. If I can see you alone, Miss Burke. I can tell you something that might give you a line on the guilty party.”
“Under no conceivable circumstances can you see Miss Burke alone,” snapped the colonel.
“I’m not going to hurt her,” said Allen. “Just let her talk to me here alone on the sidewalk, where no one can overhear.”
“Yes,” said the girl, who could see no opportunity pass which held the slightest ray of hope for Custer.
The colonel walked away, but turned and kept his eyes on the man when he was out of earshot. Allen spoke hurriedly to the girl for ten or fifteen minutes, and then turned and left her. When she returned to the colonel the latter did not question her. When she did not offer to confide in him, he knew that she must have good reasons for her reticence, since he realized that her sole interest lay in aiding Custer.
For the next two months the colonel divided his time between Ganado and San Francisco, that he might be near San Quentin, where Custer was held pending the day of execution. Mrs. Pennington, broken in health by the succession of blows that she had sustained, was sorely in need of his companionship and help. Eva was rapidly regaining her strength and some measure of her spirit. She had begun to realize how useless and foolish her attempt at self-destruction had been, and to see that the braver and nobler course would have been to give Guy the benefit of her moral support in his time of need.
The colonel, who had wormed from Custer the full story of his conviction upon the liquor charge, was able to convince her that Guy had not played a dishonourable part, and that of the two he had suffered more than Custer. Her father did not condone or excuse Guy’s wrong-doing, but he tried to make her understand that it was no indication of a criminal inclination, but rather the thoughtless act of an undeveloped boy.
During the two months they saw little or nothing of Shannon. She remained in Los Angeles, and when she made the long trip to San Quentin to see Custer, or when they chanced to see her, they could not but note how thin and drawn she was becoming. The roses had left her cheeks, and there were deep lines beneath her eyes, in which there was constantly an expression of haunting fear.
As the day of the execution drew nearer, the gloom that had hovered over Ganado for months settled like a dense pall upon them all. On the day before the execution the colonel left for San Francisco, to say good-bye to his son for the last time. Custer had insisted that his mother and Eva must not come, and they had acceded to his wish.
On the afternoon when the colonel arrived at San Quentin, he was permitted to see his son for the last time. The two conversed in low tones, Custer asking questions about his mother and sister, and about the little everyday activities of the ranch. Neither of them referred to the event of the following morning.
“Has Shannon been here today?” the colonel asked.
Custer shook his head.
“I haven’t seen her this week,” he said. “I suppose she dreaded coming. I don’t blame her. I should like to have seen her once more, though!”
Presently they stood in silence for several moments.
“You’d better go, dad,” said the boy. “Go back to mother and Eva. Don’t take it too hard. It isn’t so bad, after all. I have led a bully life, and I have never forgotten once that I am a Pennington. I shall not forget it tomorrow. “
The father could not speak. They clasped hands once, the older man turned away, and the guards led Custer back to the death cell for the last time.