Chapter XIV. In The Mountains

In the gray of the early morning, hours before the dwellers on Fairlands Heights thought of leaving their beds, Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange made ready for their going.

The burro, Croesus--so named by the novelist because, as the famous writer explained, "that ancient multi-millionaire, you know, really was an ass"--was to be entrusted with all the available worldly possessions of the little party. An arrangement--the more experienced man carefully pointed out--that, considering the chief characteristics of Croesus, was quite in accord with the customs of modern pilgrimages. Conrad Lagrange, himself, skillfully fixed the pack in place--adjusting the saddle with careful hand; accurately dividing the weight, with the blankets on top, and, over all, the canvas tarpaulin folded the proper size and neatly tucked in around the ends; and finally securing the whole with the, to the uninitiated, intricate and complicated diamond hitch. The order of their march, also, would place Croesus first; which position--the novelist, again, gravely explained, as he drew the cinches tight--is held by all who value good form, to be the donkey's proper place in the procession. As he watched his friend, the artist felt that, indeed, he was about to go far from the ways of life that he had always known.

When all was ready, the two men--dressed in flannels, corduroys, and high-laced, mountain boots--called good-by to Yee Kee, respectfully invited Croesus to proceed, and set out--with Czar, the fourth member of the party, flying here and there in such a whirlwind of good spirits that not a shred of his usual dignity was left. The sun was still below the mountain's crest, though the higher points were gilded with its light, when they turned their backs upon the city made by men, and set their faces toward the hills that bore in every ridge and peak and cliff and crag and canyon the signature of God.

As Conrad Lagrange said--they might have hired a wagon, or even an automobile, to take them and their goods to some mountain ranch where they would have had no trouble in securing a burro for their wanderings A team would have made the trip by noon. A machine would have set them down in Clear Creek Canyon before the sun could climb high enough to look over the canyon walls. "But that"--explained the novelist, as they trudged leisurely along between rows of palms that bordered the orange groves on either side of their road, and sensed the mystery that marks the birth of a new day--"but that is not a proper way to go to the mountains.

"The mountains"--he continued, with his eyes upon the distant heights--"are not seen by those who would visit them with a rattle and clatter and rush and roar--as one would visit the cities of men. They are to be seen only by those who have the grace to go quietly; who have the understanding to go thoughtfully; the heart to go lovingly; and the spirit to go worshipfully. They are to be approached, not in the manner of one going to a horse-race, or a circus, but in the mood of one about to enter a great cathedral; or, indeed, of one seeking admittance to the very throne-room of God. When going to the mountains, one should take time to feel them drawing near. They are never intimate with those who hurry. Mere sight-seers seldom see much of anything. If possible,"--insisted the speaker, smiling gravely upon his companion,--"one should always spend, at least, a full day in the approach. Before entering the immediate presence of the hills, one should first view them from a distance, seeing them from base to peak--in the glory of the day's beginning, as they watch the world awake; in the majesty of full noon, as they maintain their calm above the turmoil of the day's doing; and in the glory of the sun's departure, as it lights last their crests and peaks. And then, after such a day, one should sleep, one night, at their feet."

The artist listened with delight, as he always did when his friend spoke in those rare moods that revealed a nature so unknown to the world that had made him famous. When the novelist finished, the young man said gently, "And your words, my friend, are almost a direct quotation from that anonymous book which my mother so loved."

"Perhaps they are, Aaron"--admitted Conrad Lagrange--"perhaps they are."

So it was that they spent that day--in leisure approach--the patient Croesus, with his burden, always in the lead, and Czar, like a merry sprite, playing here and there. Several times they stopped to rest beside the road, while provident Croesus gathered a few mouthfuls of grass or weeds. Many times they halted to enjoy the scene that changed with every step.

Their road led always upward, with a gradual, easy grade; and by noon they had left the cultivated section of the lower valley for the higher, untilled lands. The dark, glossy-green of the orange and the lighter shining tints of the lemon groves, with the rich, satiny-gray tones of the olive-trees, were replaced now by the softer grays, greens, yellows, and browns of the chaparral. The air was no longer heavy with the perfume of roses and orange-blossoms, but came to their nostrils laden with the pungent odors of yerba santa and greasewood and sage. Looking back, they could see the valley--marked off by its roads into many squares of green, and dotted here and there by small towns and cities--stretching away toward the western ocean until it was lost in a gray-blue haze out of which the distant San Gabriels, beyond Cajon Pass, lifted into the clear sky above, like the shore-line of dreamland rising out of a dream sea. Before them, the San Bernardinos drew ever nearer and more intimate--silently inviting them; patiently, with a world old patience, bidding them come; in the majestic humbleness of their lofty spirit, offering themselves and the wealth of their teaching.

So they came, in the late afternoon, to that spot where the road for the first time crosses the alder and cottonwood bordered stream that, before it reaches the valley, is drawn from its natural course by the irrigation flumes and pipes.

The sound of the mountain waters leaping down their granite-bouldered way reached the men while they were yet some distance. Croesus pointed his long ears forward in burro anticipation--his experience telling him that the day's work was about to end. Czar was already ranging along the side of the creek--sending a colony of squirrels scampering to the tree tops, and a bevy of quail whirring to the chaparral in frightened flight. The artist greeted the waters with a schoolboy shout of gladness. Conrad Lagrange, with the smile and the voice of a man miraculously recreated, said quietly, "This is the place where we stop for the night."

Their camp was a simple matter. Croesus asked nothing but to be released from his burden--being quite capable of caring for himself. A wash in the clear, cold water of the brook; a simple meal, prepared by Conrad Lagrange over a small fire made of sticks gathered by the artist; their tarpaulin and blankets spread within sound of the music of the stream; a watching of the sun's glorious going down; a quiet pipe in the hush of the mysterious twilight; a "good night" in the soft darkness, when the myriad stars looked down upon the dull red glow of their camp-fire embers; with the guarding spirit of the mighty hills to give them peace--and they lay down to sleep at the mountain's feet.

There is no sleeping late in the morning when one sleeps in the open, under the stars. After breakfast, the artist received another lesson in packing, and they moved on toward the world that already seemed to dwarf that other world which they had left, by one day's walking, so far below. A heavy fog, rolling in from the ocean in the night, submerged the valley in its dull, gray depths--leaving to the eye no view but the view of the mountains before them, and forcing upon the artist's mind the weird impression that the life he had always known was a fantastically unreal dream.

And now,--as they approached,--the frowning entrance of Clear Creek Canyon grew more and more clearly defined. The higher peaks appeared to draw back and hide themselves behind the foothills, which--as the men came closer under their immediate slopes and walls--seemed to grow magically in height and bulk. A little before noon, they were in the rocky vestibule of the canyon. On either hand, the walls rose almost sheer, while their road, now, was but a narrow shelf under the overhanging cliffs, below which the white waters of the stream--cold from the snows so far above--tumbled impetuously over the boulders that obstructed their way--filling the hall-like gorge with tumultuous melody. Soon, the canyon narrowed to less than a stone's throw in width. The walls grew more grim and forbidding in their rocky nearness. And then they came to that point where, on either side, great cliffs, projecting, form the massive, rugged portals of the mountain's gate.

First seen, from a point where the road rounds a jutting corner on the extreme right, the projecting cliffs ahead appear as a blank wall of rock that forbids further progress. But, as the men moved forward,--the road swinging more toward the center of the gorge,--the cliffs seemed to draw apart, and, through the way thus opened, they saw the great canyon and the mountains beyond. It was as though a mighty, invisible hand rolled silently back those awful doors to give them entrance.

Abruptly, upon the inner side of the narrow passage the canyon widens to many times the width of the outer vestibule; and the road, crossing the creek, curves to the left; so that, looking back as they went, the two men saw the mighty doors closing again, behind them--as they had opened to let them in. It was as though that spirit sentinel, guarding the treasures of the hills, had jealously barred the way, that no one else from the world of men might follow.

Aaron King stopped. Drawing a deep breath, and removing his hat, he turned his face from that mountain wall, upward to the encircling pine-fringed ridges and towering peaks. He had, indeed, come far from the world that he had always known.

Conrad Lagrange, smiling, watched his friend, but spoke no word.

Clear Creek Canyon is a deep, narrow valley, some fifteen miles in length, and approaching a mile in its greatest width; lying between the main range of the San Bernardinos and the lower ridge of the Galenas. The lower end of the canyon is shut in by the sheer cliff walls, and by the rugged portals of the narrow entrance; the upper end is formed by the dividing ridge that separates the Clear Creek from the Cold Water country which opens out onto the Colorado Desert below San Gorgonio Pass and the peaks of the San Jacintos. Perhaps two miles above the entrance the canyon widens to its greatest width; and in this portion of the little valley,--which extends some five miles to where the walls again draw close,--located on the benches above the boulder-strewn wash of Clear Creek, are the homes of several mountain ranchers, and the Government Forest Ranger Station.

At the Ranger Station, they stopped--Conrad Lagrange wishing to greet the mountaineer official, whom he had learned to know on his former trip. But the Ranger was away somewhere, riding his lonely trails, and they did not tarry.

Just above the Station, they left the main road to follow the way that leads to the Morton Ranch in the mouth of Alder Canyon--a small side canyon leading steeply up to a low gap in the main range. Beyond Morton's, there is only a narrow trail. Three hundred yards above the ranch corral, where the road ends and the trail begins, the buildings of the mountaineer's home were lost to view. Except for the narrow winding path that they must follow single file, there was no sign of human life.

For three weeks, they knew no roads other than those lonely, mountain trails. At times, they walked under dark pines where the ground was thickly carpeted with the dead, brown needles and the air was redolent with the odor of the majestic trees; or made their camps at night, feeding their blazing fires with the pitchy knots and cones. At other times, they found their way through thickets of manzanita and buckthorn, along the mountain's flank; or, winding zigzag down some narrow canyon wall, made themselves at home under the slender, small-trunked alders; and added to the stores that Croesus packed, many a lusty trout from the tumbling, icy torrent. Again, high up on some wind-swept granite ridge or peak, where the pines were twisted and battered and torn by the warring elements, they looked far down upon the rolling sea of clouds that hid the world below; or, in the shelter of some mighty cliff, built their fires; and, when the night was clear, saw, miles away and below, the thousands of twinkling star-like lights of the world they had left behind. Or, again, they halted in some forest and hill encircled glen; where the lush grass in the cienaga grew almost as high as Croesus' back, and the lilies even higher; and where, through the dark green brakes, the timid deer come down to drink at the beginning of some mountain stream. At last, their wanderings carried them close under the snowy heights of San Gorgonio--the loftiest of all the peaks. That night, they camped at timber-line and in the morning,--leaving Croesus and the outfit, while it was still dark,--made their way to the top, in time to see the sun come up from under the edge of the world.

So they were received into the inner life of the mountains; so the spirit that dwells in that unmarred world whispered to them the secrets of its enduring strength and lofty peace.

From San Gorgonio, they followed the trail that leads down to upper Clear Creek--halting, one night, at Burnt Pine Camp on Laurel Creek, above the falls. Then--leaving the Laurel trail--they climbed over a spur of the main range, and so down the steep wall of the gorge to Lone Cabin on Fern Creek. The next day, they made their way on down to the floor of the main canyon--five miles above the point where they had left it at the beginning of their wanderings.

Crossing the canyon at the Clear Creek Power Company's intake, they took the company trail that follows the pipe-line along the southern wall. From the headwork to the reservoir two thousand feet above the power-house at the mouth of Clear Creek Canyon, this trail is cut in the steep side of the Galena range--overhanging the narrow valley below--nine beautiful miles of it. At Oak Knoll,--where a Government trail for the Forest Ranger zigzags down from the pipe-line to the wagon road below,--they halted.

Conrad Lagrange explained that there were three ways back to the world they had left, nearly a month before--the pipe-line trail to the reservoir and so down to the power-house and the Fairlands road; the Government trail from the pipe-line, over the Galenas to the valley on the other side; or, the Oak Knoll trail down to Clear Creek and out through the canyon gates--the way they had come.

"But," objected Aaron King, lazily,--from where he lay under a live-oak on the mountainside, a few feet above the trail,--"either route presupposes our wish to return to Fairlands."

The novelist laughed. "Listen to him, Czar,"--he said to the dog lying at his feet,--"listen to that painter-man. He doesn't want to go back to Fairlands any more than we do, does he?"

Rising, Czar looked at his master a moment, with slow waving tail, then turned inquiringly toward the artist.

"Well," said the young man, "what about it, old boy? Which trail shall we take? Or shall we take any of them?"

With a prodigious yawn,--as though to indicate that he wearied of their foolish indecision,--Czar turned, with a low "woof," toward the fourth member of the company, who was browsing along the edge of the trail. Whenever Czar was in doubt as to the wants of his human companions he always barked at the burro.

"He says, 'ask Croesus'," commented the artist.

"Good!" cried the older man, with another laugh. "Let's put it up to the financier and let him choose."

"Wait,"--said the artist, as the other turned toward the burro,--"don't be hasty--the occasion calls for solemn meditation and lofty discourse."

"Your pardon,"--returned the novelist,--"'tis so. I will orate." Carefully selecting a pebble in readiness to emphasize his remarks, he addressed the shaggy arbiter of their fate. "Sir Croesus, thy pack is lighter by many meals than when first thou didst set out from that land where we did rescue thee from the hands of thy tormenting trader; but thy responsibilities are weightier, many fold. Upon the wisdom of thy choice, now, great issue rests. Thou hast thy chance, O illustrious ass, to recompense the world, this day, for the many evils wrought by thy odious ancestor and by all his long-eared kin. Choose, now, the way thy benefactors' feet shall go; and see to it, Croesus, that thou dost choose wisely; or, by thy ears, we'll flay thy woolly hide and hang it on the mountainside--a warning to thy kind."

The well-thrown pebble struck that part of the burro's anatomy at which it was aimed; the dog barked; and Croesus--with an indignant jerk of his head, and a flirt of his tail--started forward. At the fork of the trail, he paused. The two men waited with breathless interest. With an air of accepting the responsibility placed upon him, the burro whirled and trotted down the narrow path that led to the floor of the canyon below. Laughing, the men followed--but far enough in the rear to permit their leader to choose his own way when they should reach the wagon road at the foot of the mountain wall. Without an instant's hesitation, Croesus turned down the road--quickening his pace, almost, into a trot.

"By George!" ejaculated the novelist, "he acts like he knew where he was going."

"He's taking you at your word," returned the artist. "Look at him go! Evidently, he's still under the inspiration of your oratory."

The burro had broken into a ridiculous, little gallop that caused the frying-pan and coffee-pot, lashed on the outside of the pack, to rattle merrily. Splashing through the creek, he disappeared in the dark shadow of a thicket of alders and willows, where the road crosses a tiny rivulet that flows from a spring a hundred yards above. Climbing out of this gloomy hollow, the road turns sharply to the left, and the men hurried on to overtake their four-footed guide before he should be too long out of their sight. Just at the top of the little rise, before rounding the turn, they stopped. A few feet to the right of the road, with his nose at an old gate, stood Croesus. Nor would he heed Czar's bark commanding him to go on.

On the other side of the fence, an old and long neglected apple orchard, a tumble-down log barn, and the wreck of a house with the fireplace and chimney standing stark and alone, told the story. The place was one of those old ranches, purchased by the Power Company for the water rights, and deserted by those who once had called it home. From the gate, ancient wagon tracks, overgrown with weeds, led somewhere around the edge of the orchard and were lost in the tangle of trees and brush on its lower side.

The two men looked at each other in laughing surprise. The burro, turning his head, gazed at them over his shoulder, inquiringly, as much as to say, "Well, what's the matter now? Why don't you come along?"

"When in doubt, ask Croesus," said the artist, gravely.

Conrad Lagrange calmly opened the gate.

Promptly, the burro trotted ahead. Following the ancient weed-grown tracks, he led them around the lower end of the orchard; crossed a little stream; and, turning again, climbed a gentle rise of open, grassy land behind the orchard; stopping at last, with an air of having accomplished his purpose, in a beautiful little grove of sycamore trees that bordered a small cienaga.

Completely hidden by the old orchard from the road in front, and backed by the foot of the mountain spur that here forms the northern wall of the little valley, the spot commanded a magnificent view of the encircling peaks and ridges. San Bernardino was almost above their heads. To the east, were the more rugged walls of the upper and narrower end of the canyon; in their front, the beautiful Oak Knoll, with the dark steeps and pine-fringed crest of the Galenas against the sky; while to the west, the blue peaks of the far San Gabriels showed above the lower spurs and foothills of the more immediate range. The foreground was filled in by the gentle slope leading down to the tiny stream at the edge of the old orchard and, a little to the left, by the cienaga--rich in the color of its tall marsh grass and reeds, gemmed with brilliant flowers of gold and scarlet, bordered by graceful willows, and screened from the eye of the chance traveler by the lattice of tangled orchard boughs.

Seated in the shade of the sycamores on the little knoll, the two friends enjoyed the beauty of the scene, and the charming seclusion of the lovely retreat; while Croesus stood patiently, as though waiting to be rewarded for his virtue, by the removal of his pack. Even Czar refrained from charging here and there, and lay down contentedly at their feet, with an air of having reached at last the place they had been seeking.

A few days later found them established in a comfortable camp; with tents and furniture and hammocks and books and the delighted Yee Kee to take care of them. It had been easy to secure permission from the neighboring rancher who leased the orchard from the Company. Conrad Lagrange, with the man and his big mountain wagon, had made a trip to town--returning the next day with Yee Kee and the outfit. He brought, also, things from the studio; for the artist declared that he would no longer be without the materials of his art.

The first day after the camp was built, the artist--declaring that he would settle the question, at once, as to whether Yee Kee could cook a trout as skillfully as the novelist--took rod and flies, and--leaving the famous author in a hammock, with Czar lying near--set out up the canyon. For perhaps two miles, the painter followed the creek--taking here and there from clear pool or swirling eddy a fish for his creel, and pausing often, as he went, to enjoy--in artist fashion--the beauties of the ever changing landscape.

The afternoon was almost gone when he finally turned back toward camp. He had been away, already longer than he intended; but still--as all fishermen will understand--he could not, on his way back down the stream, refrain from casting here and there over the pools that tempted him.

The sun was touching the crest of the mountains when he had made but little more than half the distance of his return. He had just sent his fly skillfully over a deep pool in the shadow of a granite boulder, for what he determined must be his last cast, when, startlingly clear and sweet, came the tones of a violin.

A master trout leaped. The hand of the unheeding fisherman felt the tug as the leader broke. Giving the victorious fish no thought, Aaron King slowly reeled in his line.

There was no mistaking the pure, vibrant tones of the music to which the man listened with amazed delight. It was the music of the, to him, unknown violinist who lived hidden in the orange grove next door to his studio home in Fairlands.