Chapter XXIV. James Rutlidge Makes a Mistake
 

When Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange had said, "good-by," to their friends, at Sibyl Andres' home, that evening; and had returned to spend their last night at the camp in the sycamores; the girl's mood was again the mood of one oppressed by a haunting, foreboding fear.

Sibyl could not have expressed, or even to herself defined, her fear. She only knew that in the presence of James Rutlidge she was frightened. She had tried many times to overcome her strange antipathy; for Rutlidge, until that day in the studio, had never been other than kind and courteous in his persistent efforts to win her friendship. Perhaps it was the impression left by the memory of Myra Willard's manner at the time of their first meeting with him, three years before, in Brian Oakley's home; perhaps it was because the woman with the disfigured face had so often warned her against permitting her slight acquaintance with Rutlidge to develop; perhaps it was something else--some instinct, possible, only, to one of her pure, unspoiled nature--whatever it was, the mountain girl who was so naturally unafraid, feared this man who, in his own world, was an acknowledged authority upon matters of the highest spiritual and moral significance.

That night, she slept but little. With the morning, every nerve demanded action, action. She felt as though if she could not spend herself in physical exertion she would go mad. Taking her lunch, and telling her companion that she was going for a good, full day with the trout; she was starting off, when the woman called her back.

"You have forgotten Mr. Oakley's warning, dear. You are not to go unarmed, you know."

"Oh, bother that old convict, Brian Oakley is so worried about," cried the girl. "I don't like to carry a gun when I am fishing. It's only an extra load." But, never-the-less, as she spoke, she went back to the porch; where Myra Willard handed her a belt of cartridges, with a serviceable Colt revolver in the holster. There was no hint of awkwardness when the girl buckled the belt about her waist and settled the holster in its place at her hip.

"You will be careful, won't you, dear," said the woman, earnestly.

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 Andres 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 Andres,--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 Andres. 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.