Chapter XXV. On the Pipe-Line Trail
 

James Rutlidge spent the day following his experience with Sibyl Andres, 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 Andres 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 Andres 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 by inheritance and training. The brutal desire, the mood and purpose that had brought him to that spot where with the aid of his glass he could watch Sibyl Andres, were not denied by his impulse to kindly service. Under all his thinking, as he considered how he could help the convict to a better life, there was the shadowy suggestion of a possible situation where a man like the one before him--wholly in his power as this man would be--might be of use to him in furthering his own purpose--the purpose that had brought about their meeting.

Studying the object of his pity, he said slowly, "I suppose the most of us are as deserving of punishment as the majority of those who actually get it. One way or another, we are all trying to escape the penalty for our wrong-doing. What if I should help you out--make it possible for you to live like other men who are safe from the law? What would you do if I were to help you to your freedom?"

The hunted man became incoherent in his pleading for a chance to prove the sincerity of his wish to live an orderly, respectable, and honest life.

"You have a safe hiding place here in the mountains?" asked Rutlidge.

"Yes; a little hut, hidden in a deep gorge, over on the Cold Water. I could live there a year if I had supplies."

James Rutlidge considered. "I've got it!" he said at last. "Listen! There must be some peak, at the Cold Water end of this range, from which you can see Fairlands as well as the Galena Valley."

"Yes," the other answered eagerly.

"And," continued Rutlidge, "there is a good 'auto' road up the Galena Valley. One could get, I should think, to a point within--say nine hours of your camp. Do you know anything about the heliograph?"

"Yes," said the man, his face brightening. "That is, I understand the general principle--that it's a method of signaling by mirror flashes."

"Good! This is my plan. I will meet you to-morrow on the Laurel Creek trail, where it turns off from the creek toward San Gorgonio. You know the spot?"

"Yes."

"We will go around the head of Clear Creek, on the divide between this canyon and the Cold Water, to some peak in the Galenas from which we can see Fairlands; and where, with the field-glass, we can pick out some point at the upper end of Galena Valley, that we can both find later."

"I understand."

"When I get back to Fairlands, I will make a night trip in the 'auto' to that point, with supplies. You will meet me there. The day before I make the trip, I'll signal you by mirror flashes that I am coming; and you will answer from the peak. We'll agree on the time of day and the signals to-morrow. When you have kept close, long enough for your beard and hair to grow out well, everybody will have given you up for dead or gone. Then I will take you down and give you a job in an orange grove. There's a little house there where you can live. You won't need to show yourself down-town and, in time, you will be forgotten. I'll bring you enough food to-morrow to last you until I can return to town and can get back on the first night trip."

The man who left James Rutlidge a few minutes later, after trying brokenly to express his gratitude, was a creature very different from the poor, frightened hunted, starving, despairing, wretch that Rutlidge had halted an hour before. What that man was to become, would depend almost wholly upon his benefactor.

When the man was gone, James Rutlidge again took up his field-glass. The old home of Sibyl Andres was deserted. While he had been talking with the convict, the girl and Myra Willard had started on their way back to Fairlands.

With a peculiar smile upon his heavy features, the man slipped the glass into its case, and, with a long, slow look over the scene, set out on his way to rejoin his friends.