Chapter XV. The Forest Ranger's Story
 

Perhaps the motive that, in Fairlands, had restrained the artist from seeking to know his neighbor was without force in the mountains. Perhaps it was that, in the unconventional freedom of the hills, the man obeyed more readily his impulse. Aaron King did not stop to question. As though in answer to the call of that spirit which spoke in the tones of the violin, he moved in the direction from which the music came.

Climbing out of the bed of the stream to the bench that slopes hack--a quarter of a mile, perhaps--to the foot of the canyon wall, he found himself in an old road that, where it once crossed the creek, had been destroyed by the mountain floods. Wonderingly he followed the dimly marked track that led through the chaparral toward a thicket of cedars, from beyond which the music seemed to come. Where the road curved to find its way through the green barrier he paused--the musician, undoubtedly, now, was just beyond. Still acting upon the impulse of the moment, he cautiously parted the boughs and peered through into a little, open glade that was closed in on every side by the rank growth of the mountain vegetation, by the thicket of dark cedars and by tangled masses of wild rose-bushes. Opposite the spot where he stood, and half concealed by great sycamore trees, was a small, log house with a thread of blue smoke curling lazily from the chimney. The place was another of those old ranches that had been purchased by the Power Company and permitted to go back to the wilderness from which it had been won by some hardy settler. The little plot of open ground--well sodded with firm turf and short-cropped by roving cattle and deer--had evidently been, at one time, the front yard of the mountaineer's home. A little out from the porch, and in full view of the artist,--her graceful form outlined against the background of wild roses,--stood Sibyl Andres with her violin.

As the girl played,--her winsome face upturned to the mountain heights and her body, lightly poised, swaying with the movement of her arm as easily as a willow bough,--she appeared, to the man hidden in the cedars, as some beautiful spirit of the woods and hills--a spirit that would vanish instantly if he should step from his hiding place. He was so close that he could see her blue eyes, wide and unmindful of her surroundings; her lips, curved in an unconscious smile; and her cheeks, flushed with emotion under their warm brown tint--as she appeared to listen for the music that she, in turn,--seemingly with no effort of her will,--gave forth again in the tones of the instrument under her chin.

Aaron King was moved by the beauty of the picture as he had never been stirred before. The peculiar charm of the music; the loveliness of the girl herself; the setting of the scene in the little glade with its wild roses, giant sycamores, dark cedars, and encircling mountain walls, all in the soft mystery of the twilight's beginning; and, withal, the unexpectedness of the vision--combined to make an impression upon the artist's mind that would endure for many years.

Suddenly, as he watched, the music ceased. The girl lowered her violin, and, with a low laugh, said to some one on the porch--concealed from the painter by the trunk of a sycamore--"O Myra, I want to dance. I can't keep still. I'm so glad, glad to be home again--to see old 'San Berdo' and 'Gray Back' and all the rest of them up there!" She stretched out her arms as if in answer to a welcome from the hills. Then, whirling quickly, she gave the violin to her companion on the porch. "Play, Myra; please, dear, play."

At her word, the music of the violin began again--coming now, from behind the trunk of the sycamore. In the hands of the unseen musician, the instrument laughed and sang a song of joyous abandonment--of freedom and rejoicing--of happiness and love--while in perfect harmony with the spirit and the rhythm of the melody, the girl danced upon the firm, green carpet of grass. Here and there, to and fro, about the little glade shut in from the world by its walls of living green, she tripped and whirled in unstudied grace--lightly as if winged--unconscious as the wild creatures that play in the depths of the woods--wayward as the zephyr that trips along the mountainside.

It was a spontaneous expression of her spiritual and physical exaltation and was as natural as the laughter in her voice or the flush upon her cheeks. It was a dance that was like no dance that Aaron King had ever seen.

The artist--watching through the screen of cedar boughs beside the old wagon road and scarcely daring to breathe lest the beautiful vision should vanish--forgot his position--forgot what he was doing. Fascinated by the scene to which he had been led, so unexpectedly by the music he had so often heard while at work in his studio, he was unmindful of the rude part he was playing. He was brought suddenly to himself by a heavy hand upon his shoulder. As he straightened, the hand whirled him half around and he found himself looking into a face that was tanned and seamed by many years in the open.

The man who had so unceremoniously commanded the artist's attention stood a little above six feet in height, and was of that deep-chested, lean, but full-muscled build that so often marks the mountain bred. He wore no coat. At his hip, a heavy Colt revolver hung in its worn holster from a full, loosely buckled, cartridge belt. Upon his unbuttoned vest was the shield of the United States Forest Service. From under the brim of his slouch hat, he gazed at Aaron King questioningly--in angry disapproval.

Instinctively, neither of the men spoke. A word would have been heard the other side of the cedars. With a gesture commanding the artist to follow, the Ranger quietly, withdrew along the wagon road toward the creek.

When they were at a distance where their voices would not reach the girl in the glade, the Ranger said with angry abruptness, "Now, sir, perhaps you will tell me who you are and what you mean by spying upon a couple of women, like that."

The other could not conceal his embarrassment. "I don't blame you for calling me to account," he said. "If it were me--if our positions were reversed I mean--I should kick you down into the creek there."

The cold, blue eyes--that had been measuring the painter so shrewdly--twinkled with a hint of humor. "You do look like a gentleman, you know," the officer said,--as if excusing himself for not following the artist's suggestion. "But, all the same, you must explain. Who are you?"

"That part is easy, at least," returned the other. "Though the circumstance of our meeting is a temptation to lie."

"Which would do you no good, and might lead to unpleasant complications," retorted the Ranger, sharply.

The man under question, still embarrassed, laughed shortly, as he returned, "I really was not thinking of it seriously. My name is Aaron King. I am an artist. You are Mr. Oakley, I suppose."

The officer nodded--beginning to smile. "Yes, I am Brian Oakley."

The artist continued, "A month ago, Conrad Lagrange and I came into the mountains for an outing. We stopped at the Station, but there was no one at home. Most of the time, we have been just roaming around. Now, we are camped down there, back of that old apple orchard."

The Ranger broke into a laugh. "Mrs. Oakley was visiting friends up the canyon, the day you came in; but Morton told me. I've crossed your trail a dozen times, and sighted you nearly as many; but I was always too busy to go to you. I knew Lagrange didn't need any attention, you see; so I just figured on meeting up with you somewhere by accident like--about meal time, mebbe." He laughed again. "The accident part worked out all right." He paused, still laughing--enjoying the artist's discomfiture; then ended with a curious--"What in thunder were you sneaking around in the brush like that for, anyway? Those women won't bite."

Aaron King explained how he had heard the music while fishing; and how, following the sound, he had acted upon an impulse to catch a glimpse of the unknown musician before revealing himself; and then, in his interest, had forgotten that he was playing the part of a spy--until so rudely aroused by the hand of the Ranger.

Brian Oakley chuckled; "If I'd acted upon impulse when I first saw you peeking through those cedars, you would have been more surprised than you were. But while I was sneaking up on you I noticed your get-up--with your creel and rod--and figured how you might have come there. So I thought I would go a little slow."

"And you wear rather heavy boots too," said the artist suggestively. Then, more at ease, he joined in the laugh at himself.

"Catch any fish?" asked the Ranger--lifting the cover of the creel. "Whee!" as he saw the contents. "That's bully! And I'm hungry as a she wolf too! Been in the saddle since sunup without a bite. What do you say if I make that long deferred social call upon you and Lagrange this evening?"

"I say, good! Mr. Oakley," returned the artist, heartily. "I guess you know what Lagrange will say."

"You bet I do." He whistled--a low, birdlike note. In answer, a beautiful, chestnut saddle-horse came out of the chaparral, where it had not been seen by the painter. "We're going, Max," said the officer, in a matter-of-fact way. And, as the two men set out, the horse followed, with a business-like air that brought a word of admiring comment from the artist.

That Aaron King had won the approval of the Ranger was evidenced by the mountaineer's inviting himself to supper the camp in the sycamores. The fact that the officer considerately told Conrad Lagrange only that he had met the artist with his creel full of trout, and so had been tempted to accompany him, won the enduring gratitude of the young man. Thus the circumstances of their meeting introduced each to the other, with recommendations of peculiar value, and marked the beginning of a genuine and lasting friendship. But, while, out of delicate regard for the artist's feelings, he refrained from relating the--to the young man--embarrassing incident, Brian Oakley could not resist making, at every opportunity, sly references to their meeting--for the painter's benefit and his own amusement. Thus it happened that, after supper, as they sat with their pipes, the talk turned upon Sibyl Andres and the woman with the disfigured face.

The Ranger, to tease the artist, had remarked casually,--after complimenting them upon the location of their camp,--"And you've got some mighty nice neighbors, less than a mile above too."

"Neighbors!" ejaculated Conrad Lagrange--in a tone that left no doubt as to his sentiment in the matter.

The others laughed; while the officer said, "Oh, I know how you feel! You think you don't want anybody poaching on your preserves. You're up here in the hills to get away from people, and all that. But you don't need to be uneasy. You won't even see these folks--unless you sneak up on them." He stole a look at the artist, and chuckled maliciously as the painter covertly shook his fist at him. "You may hear them though."

"Which would probably be as bad," retorted the novelist, gruffly.

"Oh, I don't know!" returned the other. "You might be able to stand it. I don't reckon you would object to a little music now and then, would you?--real music, I mean."

"So our neighbors are musical, are they?" The novelist seemed slightly interested.

"Sibyl Andres is the most accomplished violinist I have ever heard," said the Ranger. "And I haven't always lived in these mountains, you know. As for Myra Willard--well--she taught Sibyl--though she doesn't pretend to equal her now."

Conrad Lagrange was interested, now, in earnest He turned to the artist, eagerly--but with caution--"Do you suppose it could be our neighbors in the orange grove, Aaron?"

Brian Oakley watched them with quiet amusement.

"I know it is," returned the artist.

"You know it is!" ejaculated the other.

"Sure--I heard the violin this afternoon. While I was fishing," he added hastily, when the Ranger laughed.

The novelist commented savagely, "Seems to me you're mighty careful about keeping your news to yourself!"

This brought another burst of merriment from the mountaineer.

When the two men had explained to the Ranger about the music in the orange grove, Conrad Lagrange related how they had first heard that cry in the night; and how, when they had gone to the neighboring house, they had seen the woman of the disfigured face standing in the doorway.

"It was Miss Willard who cried out," said Brian Oakley, quietly. "She dreams, sometimes, of the accident--or whatever it was--that left her with those scars--at least, that's what I think it is. Certainly it's no ordinary dream that would make a woman cry like that. The first time I heard her--the first time that she ever did it, in fact--she and Sibyl were stopping over night at my house. It was three years ago. Jim Rutlidge had just come West, on his first trip, and was up in the hills on a hunt. He happened along about sundown, and when he stepped into the room and Myra saw him, I thought she would faint. He looked like some one she had known--she said. And that night she gave that horrible cry. Lord! but it threw a fright into me. My wife didn't get over being nervous, for a week. Myra explained that she had dreamed--but that's all she would say. I figured that being upset by Rutlidge's reminding her of some one she had known started her mind to going on the past--and then she dreamed of whatever it was that gave her those scars."

"You have known Miss Willard a long time, haven't you, Brian?" asked Conrad Lagrange, with the freedom of an old comrade--for men may grow closer together in one short season in the mountains than in years of meeting daily in the city.

"I've known her ever since she came into the hills. That was the year Sibyl was born. All that anybody knows is what has happened since. Sibyl's mother, even--a month before she died--told me that Myra's history, before she came to them, was as unknown to her as it was the day she stopped at their door."

"I can't get over the feeling that I ought to know her--that I have seen her somewhere, years ago," said the novelist, by way of explaining his interest.

"Then it was before she got those scars," returned the Ranger. "No one could ever forget her face as it is now."

"At the same time," commented the artist, "the scars would prevent your identifying her if she received them after you had known her."

"All the same," said Conrad Lagrange,--as though his mind was bothered by his inability to establish some incident in his memory,--"I'll place her yet. Do you mind, Brian, telling us what you do know of her?"

"Why, not at all," returned the officer. "The story is anybody's property. Its being so well known is probably the reason you didn't hear it when you were up here before.

"Sibyl's father and mother were here in the mountains when I came. They lived up there at the old place where Myra and Sibyl are camping now, and I never expect to meet finer people--either in this world or the next. For twenty years I knew them intimately. Will Andres was as true and square and white a man as ever lived and Nelly was just as good a woman as he was a man. They and my wife and I were more like brothers and sisters than most folks who are actually blood kin.

"One day, along toward sundown, about a month before Sibyl was born, Nelly heard the dogs barking and went to see what was up. There stood Myra Willard at the gate--like she'd dropped out of the sky. Where she came from God only knows--except that she'd walked from some station on the railroad over toward the pass. She was just about all in; and, of course, Nelly had her into the house and was fixing her up in no time. She wanted to work, but admitted that she had never done much housework. She said, straight out, that they should never know more about her than they knew, then; but insisted that she was not a bad woman. At first, Will and I were against it for, of course, it was easy to see that she was trying to get away from something. But the women--Nelly and my wife--somehow, believed in her, and--with the baby due to arrive in a month and any kind of help hard to get--they carried the day. Well, sir, she made good. If twenty years acquaintance goes for anything, she's one of God's own kind, and I don't care a damn what her history is.

"We soon saw that she was educated and refined, and--as you can see for yourself--she must have been remarkably beautiful before she got so disfigured. When the baby was born, she just took the little one into her poor, broken heart like it had been her own, until Sibyl hardly knew which was her own mother. When the girl was old enough for school, Myra begged Will and Nelly to let her teach the child. She was always sending for books and it was about that time that she sent for a violin. The girl took to music like a bird. And--well--that's the way Sibyl was raised. She's got all the education that the best of them have--even to French and Italian and German--and she's missed some things that the schools teach outside of their text-books. She has a library--given to her mostly by Myra, a book at a time--that represents the best of the world's best writers. You know what her music is. But, hell!"--the Ranger interrupted himself with an apologetic laugh--"I'm supposed to be talking about Myra Willard. I don't know as I'm so far off, either, because what Sibyl is--aside from her natural inheritance from Will and Nelly--Myra has made her.

"When Will was killed by those Mexican outlaws,--which is a story in itself,--Nelly sold the ranch to the Power Company, and bought an orange grove in Fairlands--which was the thing for her to do, as she and Myra could handle that sort of property, and the ranch had to go, anyway. Before Nelly died, she and I talked things over, and she put everything in Myra's hands, in trust for the girl. Later, Myra sold the grove and the house where you men live, now, and bought the little place next door--putting the rest of the money into gilt-edged securities in Sibyl's name; which insures the girl against want, for years to come. Sibyl helps out their income with her music. And that's the story, boys, except that they come up here into the mountains, every summer, to spend a month or so in the old home place."

The Ranger rose to go.

"But do you think it is safe for those women to stay up there alone?" asked Aaron King.

Brian Oakley laughed. "Safe! You don't know Myra Willard! Sibyl, herself, can pick a squirrel out of the tallest pine in the mountains with her six-shooter. Will and I taught her all we knew, as she grew up. Besides, you see, I drop in every day or so, to see that they're all right." He laughed meaningly as he added,--to Conrad Lagrange for the artist's benefit,--"I'm going to tell them, though, that Sibyl must be careful how she goes dancing around these hills--now that she has such distinguished but irresponsible neighbors."

He whistled--and the chestnut horse was at his side before the echo of their laughter died away.

With a "so-long," the Ranger rode away into the night.