Chapter XXI. The Last Climb
 

That first visit of Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange to the old home of Sibyl Andres was the beginning of a delightful comradeship.

Often, in the evening, the two men, with Czar, went to spend an hour in friendly intercourse with their neighbors up the canyon. Always, they were welcomed by Myra Willard with a quiet dignity; while Sibyl was frankly delighted to have them come. Always, they were invited with genuine hospitality to "come again." Frequently, Brian Oakley and perhaps Mrs. Oakley would be there when they arrived; or the Ranger would come riding into the yard before they left. At times, the canyon's mountain wall echoed the laughter of the little company as Sibyl and the novelist played their fantastical game of words; or again, the older people would listen to the blending voices of the artist and the girl as, in the quiet hush of the evening, they sang together to Myra Willard's accompaniment on the violin; or, perhaps, Sibyl, with her face upturned to the mountain tops, would make for her chosen friends the music of the hills.

Not infrequently, too, the girl would call at the camp in the sycamore grove--sometimes riding with the Ranger, sometimes alone; or they would hear her merry hail from the gate the other side of the orchard as she passed by. And sometimes, in the morning, she would appear--equipped with rod or gun or basket--to frankly challenge Aaron King to some long ramble in the hills.

So the days for the young man at the beginning of his life work, and for the young woman at the beginning of her womanhood, passed. Up and down the canyon, along the boulder-strewn bed of the roaring Clear Creek, from the Ranger Station to the falls; in the quiet glades under the alders hung with virgin's-bower and wild grape; beneath the live-oaks on the mountains' flanks or shoulders; in dimly lighted, cedar-sheltered gulches, among tall brakes and lilies; or high up on the canyon walls under the dark and fragrant pines--over all the paths and trails familiar to her girlhood she led him--showing him every nook and glade and glen--teaching him to know, as he had asked, the mountains that she herself so loved.

The time came, at last, when the two men must return to Fairlands. With Mr. and Mrs. Oakley they were spending the evening at Sibyl's home when Conrad Lagrange announced that they would leave the mountains, two days later.

"Then,"--said the girl, impulsively,--"Mr. King and I are going for one last good-by climb to-morrow. Aren't we?" she concluded--turning to the artist.

Aaron King laughed as he answered, "We certainly seem to be headed that way. Where are we going?"

"We will start early and come back late"--she returned--"which really is all that any one ought to know about a climb that is just for the climb. And listen--no rod, no gun, no sketch-book. I'll fix a lunch."

"Watch out for my convict," warned the Ranger. "He must be getting mighty hungry, by now."

Early in the morning, they set out. Crossing the canyon, they climbed the Oak Knoll trail--down which the artist and Conrad Lagrange had been led by the uncanny wisdom of Croesus, a few weeks before--to the pipe-line. Where the path from below leads into the pipe-line trail, under the live-oaks, on a shelf cut in the comparatively easy slope of the mountain's shoulder, they paused for a look over the narrow valley that lay a thousand feet below. Across the wide, gray, boulder-strewn wash of the mountain torrent's way, with the gleaming thread of tumbling Clear Creek in its center, they could see the white dots that marked the camp back of the old orchard; and, farther up the stream, could distinguish the little opening with the cedar thicket and the giant sycamores that marked the spot where Sibyl was born.

Aaron King, looking at the girl, recalled that day when he and Conrad Lagrange, in a spirit of venturesome fun, had left the choice of trails to the burro. "Good, old Croesus!" he said smiling.

She knew the story of how they had been guided to their camping place, and laughed in return, as she answered, "He's a dear old burro, is Croesus, and worthy of a better name."

"Plutus would be better," suggested the artist.

"Because a Greek God is better than a Lydian King?" she asked curiously.

"Wasn't Plutus the giver of wealth?" he returned.

"Yes."

"Well, and wasn't he forced by Zeus to distribute his gifts without regard to the characters of the recipients?"

She laughed merrily. "Plutus or Croesus--I'm glad he chose the Oak Knoll trail."

"And so am I," answered the man, earnestly.

Leisurely, they followed the trail that is hung--narrow thread-like path--high upon the mountain wall, invisible from the floor of the canyon below. At a point where the trail turns to round the inward curve of one of the small side canyons--where the pines grow dark and tall--some thoughtful hand had laid a small pipe from the large conduit tunnel, under the trail, to a barrel fixed on the mountainside below the little path. Here they stopped again and, while they loitered, filled a small canteen with the cold, clear water from the mountain's heart. Farther on, where the pipe-line again rounds the inward curve of the wall between two mountain spurs, they turned aside to follow the Government trail that leads to the fire-break on the summit of the Galenas and then down into the valley on the other side. At the gap where the Galena trail crosses the fire-break, they again turned aside to make their leisure way along the broad, brush-cleared break that lies in many a fold and curve and kink like a great ribbon on the thin top of the ridge. With every step, now, they were climbing. Midday found them standing by a huge rock at the edge of a clump of pines on one of the higher points of the western end of the range. Here they would have their lunch.

As they sat in the lee of the great rock, with the wind that sweeps the mountain tops singing in the pines above their heads, they looked directly down upon the wide Galena Valley and far across to the spurs and slopes of the San Jacintos beyond. Sibyl's keen eyes--mountain-trained from childhood--marked a railway train crawling down the grade from San Gorgonio Pass toward the distant ocean. She tried in vain to point it out to her companion. But the city eyes of the man could not find the tiny speck in the vast landscape that lay within the range of their vision. The artist looked at his watch. The train was the Golden State Limited that had brought him from the far away East, a few months before.

Aaron King remembered how, from the platform of the observation car, he had looked up at the mountains from which he now looked down. He remembered too, the woman into whose eyes he had, for the first time, looked that day. Turning his face to the west, he could distinguish under the haze of the distance the dark squares of the orange groves of Fairlands. Before three days had passed he would be in his studio home again. And the woman of the observation car platform--From distant Fairlands, the man turned his eyes to the winsome face of his girl comrade on the mountain top.

"Please"--she said, meeting his serious gaze with a smile of frank fellowship--"please, what have I done?"

Smiling, he answered gravely, "I don't exactly know--but you have done something."

"You look so serious. I'm sure it must be pretty bad. Can't you think what it is?"

He laughed. "I was thinking about down there"--he pointed into the haze of the distant valley to the west.

"Don't," she returned, "let's think about up here"--she waved her hand toward the high crest of the San Bernardinos, and the mountain peaks about them.

"Will you let me paint your portrait--when we get back to the orange groves?" he asked.

"I'm sure I don't know," she returned. "Why do you want to paint me? I'm nobody, you know--but just me."

"That's the reason I want to paint you," he answered.

"What's the reason?"

"Because you are you."

"But a portrait of me would not help you on your road to fame," she retorted.

He flinched. "Perhaps," he said, "that's partly why I want to do it."

"Because it won't help you?"

"Because it won't help me on the road to fame. You will pose for me, won't you?"

"I'm sure I cannot say"--she answered--"perhaps--please don't let's talk about it."

"Why not?" he asked curiously.

"Because"--she answered seriously--"we have been such good friends up here in the mountains; such--such comrades. Up here in the hills, with the canyon gates shut against the world that I don't know, you are like--like Brian Oakley--and like my father used to be--and down there"--she hesitated.

"Yes," he said, "and down there I will be what?"

"I don't know," she answered wistfully, "but sometimes I can see you going on and on and on toward fame and the rewards it will bring you and you seem to get farther and farther and farther away from--from the mountains and our friendship; until you are so far away that I can't see you any more at all. I don't like to lose my mountain friends, you know."

He smiled. "But no matter how famous I might become--no matter what fame might bring me--I could not forget you and your mountains."

"I would not want you to remember me," she answered "if you were famous. That is--I mean"--she added hesitatingly--"if you were famous just because you wanted to be. But I know you could never forget the mountains. And that would be the trouble; don't you see? If you could forget, it would not matter. Ask Mr. Lagrange, he knows."

For some time Aaron King sat, without speaking, looking about at the world that was so far from that other world--the world he had always known. The girl, too,--seeming to understand the thoughts that he himself, perhaps, could not have expressed,--was silent.

Then he said slowly, "I don't think that I care for fame as I did before you taught me to know the mountains. It doesn't, somehow, now, seem to matter so much. It's the work that really matters--after all--isn't it?"

And Sibyl Andres, smiling, answered, "Yes, it's the work that really matters. I'm sure that must be so."

In the afternoon, they went on, still following the fire-break, down to where it is intersected by the pipe-line a mile from the reservoir on the hill above the power-house; then back to Oak Knoll, again on the pipe-line trail all the way--a beautiful and never-to-be-forgotten walk.

The sun was just touching the tops of the western mountains when they started down Oak Knoll. The canyon below, already, lay in the shadow. When they reached the foot of the trail, it was twilight. Across the road, by a small streamlet--a tributary to Clear Creek--a party of huntsmen were making ready to spend the night. The voices of the men came clearly through the gathering gloom. Under the trees, they could see the camp-fire's ruddy gleam. They did not notice the man who was standing, half hidden, in the bushes beside the road, near the spot where the trail opens into it. Silently, the man watched them as they turned up the road which they would follow a little way before crossing the canyon to Sibyl's home. Fifty yards farther on, they met Brian Oakley.

"Howdy, you two," called the Ranger, cheerily--without stopping his horse. "Rather late to-night, ain't you?"

"We'll be there by dark," called the artist And the Ranger passed on.

At sound of the mountaineer's voice, the man in the bushes drew quickly back. The officer's trained eyes caught the movement in the brush, and he leaned forward in the saddle.

A moment later, the man reappeared in the road, farther down, around the bend. As the Ranger approached, he was hailed by a boisterous, "Hello, Brian! better stop and have a bite."

"How do you do, Mr. Rutlidge?" came the officer's greeting, as he reined in his horse. "When did you land in the hills?"'

"This afternoon," answered the other. "We're just making camp. Come and meet the fellows. You know some of them."

"Thanks, not to-night,"--returned Brian Oakley,--"deer hunt, I suppose."

"Yes--thought we would be in good time for the opening of the season. By the way, do you happen to know where Lagrange and that artist friend of his are camped?"

"In that bunch of sycamores back of the old orchard down there," answered the Ranger, watching the man's face keenly. "I just passed Mr. King, up the road a piece."

"That so? I didn't see him go by," returned the other. "I think I'll run over and say 'hello' to Lagrange in the morning. We are only going as far as Burnt Pine to-morrow, anyway."

"Keep your eyes open for an escaped convict," said the officer, casually. "There's one ranging somewhere in here--came in about a month ago. He's likely to clean out your camp. So long."

"Perhaps we'll take him in for you," laughed the other. "Good night." He turned toward the camp-fire under the trees, as the officer rode away.

"Now what in hell did that fellow want to lie to me like that for," said Brian Oakley to himself. "He must have seen King and Sibyl as they came down the trail. Max, old boy, when a man lies deliberately, without any apparent reason, you want to watch him."