Harold Bell Wright.

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Lifting her face for another good-by kiss, the girl answered, "Of course,
dear mother heart." Then, with a laugh - "I'll agree to shoot the first man
I meet, and identify him afterwards - if it will make you easier in your
mind. You won't worry, will you?"

Myra Willard smiled. "Not a bit, child. I know how Brian Oakley loves you,
and he says that he has no fear for you if you are armed. He takes great
chances himself, that man, but he would send us back to Fairlands, in a
minute, if he thought you were in any danger in your rambles."

Beside the roaring Clear Creek, Sibyl seated self upon a great
boulder - her rod and flies neglected - apparently unmindful of the purpose
that had brought her to the stream. Her eyes were not upon the swirling
pool at her feet, but were lifted to a spot, a thousand feet up on Oak
Knoll, where she knew the pipe-line trail lay, and where Croesus had made
the momentous decision that had resulted in her comradeship with Aaron
King. Following the canyon wall with her eyes - as though in her mind she
walked the thread-like path - from Oak Knoll to the fire-break a mile from
the reservoir; her gaze then traced the crest of the Galenas, resting
finally upon that clump of pines high up on the point that was so clearly
marked against the sky. Once, she laid aside her rod, and slipped the
creel from her shoulder. But even as she set out, she hesitated and turned
back; resolutely taking up her fishing-tackle again, as though, angry with
herself for her state of mind, she was determined to indulge no longer her
mood of indecision.

But the fishing did not go well. To properly cast a trout-fly, one's
thoughts must be upon the art. A preoccupied mind and wandering attention
tends to a tangled line, a snarled leader, and all sorts of aggravating
complications. Sibyl - usually so skillful at this most delicate of
sports - was as inaccurate and awkward, this day, as the merest tyro. The
many pools and falls and swirling eddies of Clear Creek held for her, now,
memories more attractive, by far, than the wary trout they sheltered. The
familiar spots she had known since childhood were haunted by a something
that made them seem new and strange.

At last, - thoroughly angry with her inability to control her mood, and
half ashamed of the thoughts that forced themselves so insistently upon
her; with her nerves and muscles craving the action that would bring the
relief of physical weariness, - she determined to leave the more familiar
ground, for the higher and less frequented waters of Fern Creek. Climbing
out of the canyon, by the steep, almost stair-like trail on the San
Bernardino side, she walked hard and fast to reach Lone Cabin by noon.
But, before she had finished her lunch, she decided not to fish there,
after all; but to go on, over the still harder trail to Burnt Pine on
Laurel Creek, and, returning to the lower canyon by the Laurel trail, to
work down Clear Creek on the way to her home, in the late afternoon and
twilight.

The trail up the almost precipitous wall of the gorge at Lone Cabin, and
over the mountain spur to Laurel Creek, is one that calls for a clear head
and a sure foot. It is not a path for the city bred to essay, save with
the ready arm of a guide. But the hill-trained muscles and nerves of Sibyl
Andrés gloried in the task. The cool-headed, mountain girl enjoyed the
climb from which her city sisters would have drawn back in trembling fear.

Once, at a point perhaps two-thirds of the height to the top, she halted.
Her ear had caught a slight noise above her head, as a few pebbles rolled
down the almost perpendicular face of the wall and bounded from the trail
where she stood, into the depths below. For a few minutes, the girl, on
the little, shelf-like path that was scarcely wider than the span of her
two hands, was as motionless and as silent as the cliff itself; while,
with her face turned upward, she searched with keen eyes the rim of the
gorge; her free, right hand resting upon the butt of the revolver at her
hip. Then she went on - not timidly, but neither carelessly; not in the
least frightened, but still, - knowing that the spot was far from the more
frequented paths, - with experienced care.

As her head and shoulders came above the rim, she paused again, to search
with careful eyes the vicinity of the trail that from this point leads for
a little way down the knife-like ridge of the spur, and then, by easier
stages, around the shoulder and the flank of the mountain, to Burnt Pine
Camp. When no living object met her eye, and she could hear no sound save
the lonely wind in the pines and the faint murmur of the stream in the
gorge below, she took the few steps that yet remained of the climb, and
seated herself for a moment's well-earned rest. Some small animal, she
told herself, - a squirrel or a wood-rat, perhaps, - frightened at her
approach, and scurrying hastily to cover, had dislodged the pebbles with
the slight noise that she had heard.

From where she sat with her back against the trunk of a great pine, she
could see - far below, and beyond the immediate spurs and shoulders of the
range, on the farther side of the gorge out of which she had just
come - the lower end of Clear Creek canyon, and, miles away, under the
blue haze of the distance, the dark squares of the orange groves of
Fairlands.

Somewhere between those canyon gates and the little city in the orange
groves, the girl knew that Aaron King and his friend were making their way
back to the world of men. With her eyes fixed upon the distant scene, as
if striving for a wholly impossible strength of vision to mark the tiny,
moving spots that she knew were there, the girl upon the high rim of the
wild and lonely mountain gorge was lost to her surroundings, in an effort,
as vain, to see her comrade of the weeks just past, in the years that were
to come. Would the friendship born in the hills endure in the world beyond
the canyon gates? Could it endure away from those scenes that had given it
birth? Was it possible for a fellowship, established in the free
atmosphere of the mountains, to live in the lower altitude of Fairlands?
Sibyl Andrés, - as she sat there, alone in the hills she loved, - in her
heart of hearts, answered her own questions, "No." But still she searched
the years to come - even as her eyes so futilely searched the distant
landscape beyond the mighty gates that seemed, now, to shut her in from
that world to which Aaron King was returning.

The girl was aroused from her abstraction by a sound behind her and a
little to the left of the tree against which she was leaning. In a flash,
she was on her feet.

James Rutlidge stood a few steps away. He had been approaching her as she
sat under the tree; but when she sprang to her feet and faced him, he
halted. Lifting his hat, he greeted her with easy assurance; a confident,
triumphant smile upon his heavy features.

White-faced and trembling, the mountain girl - who a few moments before,
had been so unafraid - stood shrinking before this cultured representative
of the arts. Returning his salutation, she was starting hurriedly away
down the trail, when he said, "Wait. Why be in such a hurry?"

As if against her will, she paused. "It is growing late," she faltered; "I
must go."

He laughed. "I will go with you presently. Don't be afraid." Coming
forward, with an air of making himself very much at home, he placed his
rifle against the tree where she had been sitting. Then, as if to calm her
fears, he continued, "I am camped at Burnt Pine, with a party of friends.
I was up here looking for deer sign when I noticed you below, at the cabin
there. I was just starting down to you, when I saw that you were going to
come up; so I waited. Beautiful spot - this - don't you think? - so out of
the way, too. Just the place for a quiet little visit."

As the man spoke, he was eyeing her in a way that only served to confuse
and frighten her the more. Murmuring some inaudible reply, she again
started to go. But again he said, peremptorily, "Wait." And again, as if
against her will, she paused. "If you have no scruples about wandering
over the mountains alone with that artist fellow, I do not see why you
should hesitate to favor me."

The man's words were, undoubtedly, prompted by what he firmly believed to
be the nature of the relation between the girl and Aaron King - a belief
for which he had, to his mind, sufficient evidence. But Sibyl had no
understanding of his meaning. In the innocence of her pure mind, the
purport of his words was utterly lost. Her very fear of the man was not a
reasoning fear, but the instinctive shrinking of a nature that had never
felt the unclean touch of the world in which James Rutlidge habitually
moved. It was this very unreasoning element in her emotions that made her
always so embarrassed in the man's presence. It was because she did not
understand her fear of him, that the girl, usually so capable of taking
her own part, was, in his presence, so helpless.

James Rutlidge, by the intellectual, moral, and physical atmosphere in
which he lived, was made wholly incapable of understanding the nature of
Sibyl Andrés. Secure in the convictions of his own debased mind, as to her
relation to the artist; and misconstruing her very manner in his presence;
he was not long in putting his proposal into words that she could not fail
to understand.

When she _did_ grasp his meaning, her fears and her trembling nervousness
gave place to courageous indignation and righteous anger that found
expression in scathing words of denunciation.

The man, still, could not understand the truth of the situation. To him,
there was nothing more in her refusal than her preference for the artist.
That this young woman - to him, an unschooled girl of the hills - whom he
had so long marked as his own, should give herself to another, and so
scornfully turn from him, was an affront that he could not brook. The very
vigor of her wrath, as she stood before him, - her eyes bright, her cheeks
flushed, and her beautiful body quivering with the vehemence of her
passionate outburst, - only served to fan the flame of his desire; while
her stinging words provoked his bestial mind to an animal-like rage. With
a muttered oath and a threat, he started toward her.

But the woman who faced him now, with full understanding, was very
different from the timid, frightened girl who had not at first understood.
With a business-like movement that was the result of Brian Oakley's
careful training, her hand dropped to her hip and was raised again.

James Rutlidge stopped, as though against an iron bar. In the blue eyes
that looked at him, now, over the dark barrel of the revolver, he read no
uncertainty of purpose. The small hand that had drawn the weapon with such
ready swiftness, was as steady as though at target practice.
Instinctively, the man half turned, throwing up his arm as if to shield
his face from a menacing blow. "For God's sake," he gasped, "put that
down."

In truth, James Rutlidge was nearer death, at that instant, than he had
ever been before.

Drawing back a few fearful paces, his hands still uplifted, he said again,
"Put it down, I tell you. Don't you see I'm not going to touch you? You
are crazy. You might kill me."

Her words came cold and collected, expressing, together with her calm
manner, perfect self-possession "If you can give any good reason why I
should not kill you, I will let you go."

The man was carefully drawing backward toward the tree against which he
had placed his rifle.

She watched him, with a disconcerting smile. "You may as well stop now,"
she said, in those even, composed tones. "I shall fire, the moment you are
within reach of your gun."

He halted with a gesture of despair; his face livid with fear at her
apparent indecision as to his fate.

Presently, she spoke again. "Don't worry. I'm not going to kill
you - unless you force me to - which I assure you will not be at all
difficult for you to do. Move down the trail until I tell you to stop."
She indicated the direction, along the ridge of the mountain spur.

He obeyed.

"That will do," she said, when he was some twenty paces away.

He stopped, turning to face her again.

Picking up his Winchester, she skillfully and rapidly threw all of the
shells out of the magazine. Then, covering him again with her own weapon,
she went a few steps closer and threw the empty rifle at his feet. "Now,"
she said, "put that gun over your left shoulder, and go on ahead of me
down the trail. If you try to dodge or run, or if you change the position
of your rifle, I'll kill you."

"What are you going to do?" he asked.

"I'm going to take you down to your camp at Burnt Pine."

James Rutlidge, pale with rage and shame, stood still. "You may as well
kill me," he said. "I will never go into camp, this way."

"Don't be uneasy," she returned. "I am no more anxious for the world to
know of this, than you are. Do as I say. When we come within sight of your
camp, or if we meet any one, I will put up my gun and we will go on
together. That's why I am permitting you to carry your rifle."

So they went down the mountainside - the man with his empty rifle over his
shoulder; the girl following, a few paces in the rear, with ready weapon.

When they had come within sight of the camp, James Rutlidge said, "There's
some one there."

"I see," returned Sibyl, slipping her gun in its holster and stepping
forward beside her companion. And there was a note of glad relief in her
voice, for it was Brian Oakley who was bending over the camp-fire "Come,"
she continued to her companion, "and act as though nothing had happened."

The Ranger, on his way down from somewhere in the vicinity of San
Gorgonio, had stopped at the hunters' camp for a belated dinner. Finding
no one at home, he had started a fire, and had helped himself to coffee
and bacon. He was just concluding his appropriated meal, when Sibyl and
James Rutlidge arrived.

In a few words, the girl explained to her friend, that she was on her way
over the trail from Lone Cabin, and had accidentally met Mr. Rutlidge who
had accompanied her as far as the camp. James Rutlidge had little to say
beyond assuring the Ranger of his welcome; and very soon, the officer and
the girl set out on their way down the Laurel trail to Clear Creek canyon.
As they went, Sibyl's old friend asked not a few questions about her
meeting with James Rutlidge; but the girl, walking ahead in the narrow
trail, evaded him, and was glad that he could not see her face.

Sibyl had spoken the literal truth when she said to Rutlidge, that she did
not want any one to know of the incident. She felt ashamed and humiliated
at the thought of telling even her father's old comrade and friend. She
knew Brian Oakley too well to have any doubts as to what would happen if
he knew how the man had approached her, and she shrank from the inevitable
outcome. She wished only to forget the whole affair, and, as quickly as
possible, turned the conversation into other and safer channels.

The Ranger could not stop at the house with her, but must go on down the
canyon, to the Station. So the girl returned to Myra Willard, alone; and,
to the woman's surprise, for the second time, with an empty creel.

Sibyl explained her failure to bring home a catch of trout, with the
simple statement that she had not fished; and then - to her companion's
amazement - burst into tears; begging to return at once to their little
home in Fairlands.

Myra Willard thought that she understood, better than the girl herself,
why, for the first time in her life, Sibyl wished to leave the mountains.
Perhaps the woman with the disfigured face was right.




Chapter XXV

On the Pipe-Line Trail



James Rutlidge spent the day following his experience with Sibyl Andrés,
in camp. His companions very quickly felt his sullen, ugly mood, and left
him to his own thoughts.

The manner in which Sibyl received his advances had in no way changed the
man's mind as to the nature of her relation to Aaron King. To one of James
Rutlidge's type, - schooled in the intellectual moral and esthetic tenets
of his class, - it was impossible to think of the companionship of the
artist and the girl in any other light. If he had even considered the
possibility of a clean, pure comradeship existing between them - under all
the circumstances of their friendship as he had seen them in the studio,
on the trail at dusk, and in the artist's camp - he would have answered
himself that Aaron King was not such a fool as to fail to take advantage
of his opportunities. The humiliation of his pride, and his rage at being
so ignominiously checked by the girl whom he had so long endeavored to
win, served only to increase his desire for her. Sibyl's resolute spirit,
and vigorous beauty, when aroused by him, together with her unexpected
opposition to his advances, were as fuel to the flame of his passion.

His day of sullen brooding over the matter did not improve his temper;
and the next morning his friends were relieved to see him setting out
alone, with rifle and field-glass and lunch. Ostensibly starting in the
direction of the upper Laurel Creek country he doubled back, as soon as he
was out of sight of camp, and took the trail leading down to Clear Creek
canyon.

It could not be said that the man had any definite purpose in mind. He was
simply yielding in a purposeless way to his mood, which, for the time
being, could find no other expression. The remote chance that some
opportunity looking toward his desire might present itself, led him to
seek the scenes where such an opportunity would be most likely to occur.

Crossing the canyon above the Company Headwork he came into the pipe-line
trail at a point a little back from the main wagon road and, an hour
later, reached the place on Oak Knoll where the Government trail leads
down into the canyon below, and where Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange had
committed themselves to the judgment of Croesus. Here he left the trail,
and climbed to a point on a spur of the mountain, from which he could see
the path for some distance on either side and below, and from which his
view of the narrow valley was unobstructed. Comfortably seated, with his
back against a rock, he adjusted his field-glass and trained it upon the
little spot of open green - marked by the giant sycamores, the dark line of
cedars, and the half hidden house - where he knew that Sibyl Andrés and
Myra Willard were living.

No sooner had he focused the powerful glass upon the scene that so
interested him, than he uttered a low exclamation. The two women,
surrounded by their luggage and camp equipment, were sitting on the porch
with Brian Oakley; waiting, evidently, for the wagon that was crossing the
creek toward the house. It was clear to the man on the mountainside, that
Sibyl Andrés and the woman with the disfigured face were returning to
Fairlands.

For some time, James Rutlidge sat watching, with absorbing interest, the
unconscious people in the canyon below. Once, he turned for a brief glance
at the grove of sycamores behind the old orchard, farther down the creek.
The camp of Conrad Lagrange and Aaron King was no longer there. Quickly he
fixed his gaze again upon Sibyl and her friends. Presently, - as one will
when looking long through a field-glass or telescope, - he lowered his
hands, to rest his eyes by looking, unaided, at the immediate objects in
the landscape before him. At that moment, the figure of a man appeared on
the near-by trail below. It was a pitiful figure - ill-kempt ragged,
half-starved, haggard-faced.

Creeping feebly along the lonely little path - without seeing the man on
the mountainside above - crouching as he walked with a hunted, fearful
air - the poor creature moved toward the point of the spur around which the
trail led beneath the spot where Rutlidge sat.

As the man on the trail drew nearer, the watcher on the rocks above
involuntarily glanced toward the distant Forest Ranger; then back to
the - as he rightly guessed - escaped convict.

There are, no doubt, many moments in the life of a man like James Rutlidge
when, however bad or dominated by evil influences he may be, he feels
strongly the impulse of pity and the kindly desire to help. Undoubtedly,
James Rutlidge inherited from his father those tendencies that made him
easily ruled by his baser passions. His character was as truly the
legitimate product of the age, of the social environment, and of the
thought that accepts such characters. What he might have been if better
born, or if schooled in an atmosphere of moral and intellectual integrity,
is an idle speculation. He was what his inheritance and his life had made
him. He was not without impulses for good. The pitiful, hunted creature,
creeping so wearily along the trail, awoke in this man of the accepted
culture of his day a feeling of compassion, and aroused in him a desire to
offer assistance. For the legal aspect of the case, James Rutlidge had all
the indifference of his kind, who imbibe contempt for law with their
mother's milk. For the moment he hesitated. Then, as the figure below
passed from his sight, under the point of the spur, he slipped quietly
down the mountainside, and, a few minutes later, met the convict face to
face.

At the leveled rifle and the sharp command, "Hands up," the poor fellow
halted with a gesture of tragic despair. An instant they stood; then the
hunted one turned impulsively toward the canyon that, here, lies almost a
sheer thousand feet below.

James Rutlidge spoke sharply. "Don't do that. I'm not an officer. I want
to help you."

The convict turned his hunted, fearful, starving face in doubtful
bewilderment toward the speaker.

The man with the gun continued, "I got the drop on you to prevent
accidents - until I could explain - that's all." He lowered the rifle.

The other went a staggering step forward. "You mean that?" he said in a
harsh, incredulous whisper. "You - you're not playing with me?"

"Why should I want to play with you?" returned the other, kindly. "Come,
let's get off the trail. I have something to eat, up there." He led the
way back to the place where he had left his lunch.

Dropping down upon the ground, the starving man seized the offered food
with an animal-like cry; feeding noisily, with the manner of a famished
beast. The other watched with mingled pity and disgust.

Presently, in stammering, halting phrases, but in words that showed no
lack of education, the wretched creature attempted to apologize for his
unseemly eagerness, and endeavored to thank his benefactor. "I suppose,
sir, there is no use trying to deny my identity," he said, when James
Rutlidge had again assured him of his kindly interest.

"Not at all," agreed the other, "and, so far as I am concerned, there is
no reason why you should."

"Just what do you mean by that, sir?" questioned the convict.

"I mean that I am not an officer and have no reason in the world for
turning you over to them. I saw you coming along the trail down there
and, of course, could not help noticing your condition and guessing who
you were. To me, you are simply a poor devil who has gotten into a tight
hole, and I want to help you out a bit, that's all."

The convict turned his eyes despairingly toward the canyon below, as he
answered, "I thank you, sir, but it would have been better if you had not.
Your help has only put the end off for a few hours. They've got me shut
in. I can keep away from them, up here in the mountains, but I can't get
out. I won't go back to that hell they call prison though - I won't." There
was no mistaking his desperate purpose.

James Rutlidge thought of that quick movement toward the edge of the trail
and the rocky depth below. "You don't seem such a bad sort, at heart," he
said invitingly.

"I'm not," returned the other, "I've been a fool - miserably weak fool - but
I've had my lesson - only - I have had it too late."

While the man was speaking, James Rutlidge was thinking quickly. As he had
been moved, at first, by a spirit of compassion to give temporary
assistance to the poor hunted creature, he was now prompted to offer more
lasting help - providing, of course, that he could do so without too great
a risk to his own convenience. The convict's hopeless condition, his
despairing purpose, and his evident wish to live free from the past, all
combined to arouse in the other a desire to aid him. But while that truly
benevolent inclination was, in his consciousness, unmarred with sinister
motive of any sort; still, deeper than the impulse for good in James
Rutlidge's nature lay those dominant instincts and passions that were his


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Online LibraryHarold Bell WrightThe Eyes of the World → online text (page 16 of 27)