Chapter XXXII. The Mysterious Disappearance
 

By the time Aaron King had found a saddle-horse and was ready to start on his ride, it was six o'clock.

Granting that Conrad Lagrange was right in his supposition that the girl had left with the intention of going to Brian Oakley's, the artist could scarcely, now, hope to arrive at the Ranger Station until some time after Sibyl had reached the home of her friends--unless she should stop somewhere on the way, which he did not think likely. Once, as he realized how the minutes were slipping away, he was on the point of reconsidering his reply to Myra Willard's suggestion that he take an automobile. Then, telling himself that he would surely find Sibyl at the Station and thinking of the return trip with her, he determined to carry out his first plan.

But when he was finally on the road, he did not ride with less haste because he no longer expected to overtake Sibyl. In spite of his reassuring himself, again and again, that the girl he loved was safe, his mind was too disturbed by the situation to permit of his riding leisurely. Beyond the outskirts of the city, with his horse warmed to its work, the artist pushed his mount harder and harder until the animal reached the limit of a pace that its rider felt it could endure for the distance they had to go. Over the way that he and Conrad Lagrange had walked with Czar and Croesus so leisurely, he went, now, with such hot haste that the people in the homes in the orange groves, sitting down to their evening meal, paused to listen to the sharp, ringing beat of the galloping hoofs. Two or three travelers, as he passed, watched him out of sight, with wondering gaze. Those he met, turned their heads to look after him.

Aaron King's thoughts, as he rode, kept pace with his horse's flying feet. The points along the way, where he and the famous novelist had stopped to rest, and to enjoy the beauty of the scene, recalled vividly to his mind all that those weeks in the mountains had brought to him. Backward from that day when he had for the first time set his face toward the hills, his mind traveled--almost from day to day--until he stood, again, in that impoverished home of his boyhood to which he had been summoned from his studies abroad. As he urged his laboring horse forward, in the eagerness and anxiety of his love for Sibyl Andres, he lived again that hour when his dying mother told her faltering story of his father's dishonor; when he knew, for the first time, her life of devotion to him, and learned of her sacrifice--even unto poverty--that he might, unhampered, be fitted for his life work; and when, receiving his inheritance, he had made his solemn promise that the purpose and passion of his mother's years of sacrifice should, in him and in his work, be fulfilled. One by one, he retraced the steps that had led to his understanding that only a true and noble art could ever make good that promise. Not by winning the poor notice of the little passing day, alone; not by gaining the applause of the thoughtless crowd; not by winning the rewards bestowed by the self-appointed judges and patrons of the arts; but by a true, honest, and fearless giving of himself in his work, regardless alike of praise or blame--by saying the thing that was given him to say, because it was given him to say--would he keep that which his mother had committed to him. As mile after mile of the distance that lay between him and the girl he loved was put behind him in his race to her side, it was given him to understand--as never before--how, first the friendship of the world-wearied man who had, himself, profaned his art; and then, the comradeship of that one whose life was so unspotted by the world; had helped him to a true and vital conception of his ministry of color and line and brush and canvas.

It was twilight when the artist reached the spot where the road crosses the tumbling stream--the spot where he and Conrad Lagrange had slept at the foot of the mountains. Where the road curves toward the creek, the man, without checking his pace, turned his head to look back upon the valley that, far below, was fast being lost in the gathering dusk. In its weird and gloomy mystery,--with its hidden life revealed only by the sparkling, twinkling lights of the towns and cities,--it was suggestive, now, to his artist mind, of the life that had so nearly caught him in its glittering sensual snare. A moment later, he lifted his eyes to the mountain peaks ahead that, still in the light of the western sun, glowed as though brushed with living fire. Against the sky, he could distinguish that peak in the Galena range, with the clump of pines, where he had sat with Sibyl Andres that day when she had tried to make him see the train that had brought him to Fairlands.

He wondered now, as he rode, why he had not realized his love for the girl, before they left the hills. It seemed to him, now, that his love was born that evening when he had first heard her violin, as he was fishing; when he had watched her from the cedar thicket, as she made her music of the mountains and as she danced in the grassy yard. Why, he asked himself, had he not been conscious of his love in those days when she came to him in the spring glade, and in the days that followed? Why had he not known, when he painted her portrait in the rose garden? Why had the awakening not come until that night when he saw her in the company of revelers at the big house on Fairlands Heights--the night that Mr. Taine died?

It was dark before he reached the canyon gates. In the blackness of the gorge, with only the light of a narrow strip of stars overhead, he was forced to ride more slowly. But his confidence that he would find her at the Ranger Station had increased as he approached the scenes of her girlhood home. To go to her friends, seemed so inevitably the thing that she would do. A few miles farther, now, and he would see her. He would tell her why he had come. He would claim the love that he knew was his. And so, with a better heart, he permitted his tired horse to slacken the pace. He even smiled to think of her surprise when she should see him.

It was a little past nine o'clock when the artist saw, through the trees, the lights in the windows at the Station, and dismounted to open the gate. Hiding up to the house, he gave the old familiar hail, "Whoo-e-e." The door opened, and with the flood of light that streamed out came the tall form of Brian Oakley.

"Hello! Seems to me I ought to know that voice."

The artist laughed nervously. "It's me, all right, Brian--what there is left of me."

"Aaron King, by all that's holy!" cried the Ranger, coming quickly down the steps and toward the shadowy horseman. "What's the matter? Anything wrong with Sibyl or Myra Willard? What brings you up here, this time of night?"

Aaron King heard the questions with sinking heart. But so certain had he come to feel that the girl would be at the Station, that he said mechanically, as he dropped wearily from his horse to grasp his friend's hand, "I followed Sibyl. How long has she been here?"

Brian Oakley spoke quickly; "Sibyl is not here, Aaron."

The artist caught the Ranger's arm. "Do you mean, Brian, that she has not been here to-day?"

"She has not been here," returned the officer, coolly.

"Good God!" exclaimed the other, stunned and bewildered by the positive words. Blindly, he turned toward his horse.

Brian Oakley, stepping forward, put his hand on the artist's shoulder. "Come, old man, pull yourself together and let a little light in on this matter," he said calmly. "Tell me what has happened. Why did you expect to find Sibyl here?"

When Aaron King had finished his story, the other said, still without excitement, "Come into the house. You're about all in. I heard Doctor Gordan's 'auto' going up the canyon to Morton's about an hour ago. Their baby's sick. If Sibyl was on the road, he would have passed her. I'll throw the saddle on Max, and we'll run over there and see what he knows. But first, you've got to have a bite to eat."

The young man protested but the Ranger said firmly, "You can eat while I saddle; come. I wish Mary was home," he added, as he set out some cold meat and bread. "She is in Los Angeles with her sister. I'll call you when I'm ready." He spoke the last word from the door as he went out.

The artist tried to eat; but with little success. He was again mounted and ready to go when the Ranger rode up from the barn on the chestnut.

When they reached the point where the road to Morton's ranch leaves the main canyon road, Brian Oakley said, "It's barely possible that she went on up to Carleton's. But I think we better go to Morton's and see the Doctor first. We don't want to miss him. Did you meet any one as you came up? I mean after you got within two or three miles of the mouth of the canyon?"

"No," replied the other. "Why?"

"A man on a horse passed the Station about seven o'clock, going down. Where did the Doctor pass you?"

"He didn't pass me."

"What?" said the Ranger, sharply.

"No one passed me after I left Fairlands."

"Hu-m-m. If Doc left town before you, he must have had a puncture or something, or he would have passed the Station before he did."

It was ten o'clock when the two men arrived at the Morton ranch.

"We don't want to start any excitement," said the officer, as they drew rein at the corral gate. "You stay here and I'll drop in--casual like."

It seemed to Aaron King, waiting in the darkness, that his companion was gone for hours. In reality, it was only a few minutes until the Ranger returned. He was walking quickly, and, springing into the saddle he started the chestnut off at a sharp lope.

"The baby is better," he said. "Doctor was here this afternoon--started home about two o'clock. That 'auto' must have gone on up the canyon. Morton knew nothing of the man on horseback who went down. We'll cut across to Carleton's."

Presently, the Ranger swung the chestnut aside from the wagon road, to follow a narrow trail through the chaparral. To the artist, the little path in the darkness was invisible, but he gave his horse the rein and followed the shadowy form ahead. Three-quarters of an hour later, they came out into the main road, again; near the Carleton ranch corral, a mile and a half below the old camp in the sycamores behind the orchard of the deserted place.

It was now eleven o'clock and the ranch-house was dark. Without dismounting, Brian Oakley called, "Hello, Henry!" There was no answer. Moving his horse close to the window of the room where he knew the rancher slept, the Ranger tapped on the sash. "Henry, turn out; I want to see you; it's Oakley."

A moment later the sash was raised and Carleton asked, "What is it, Brian? What's up?"

"Is Sibyl stopping with you folks, to-night?"

"Sibyl! Haven't seen her since they went down from their summer camp. What's the matter?"

Briefly, the Ranger explained the situation. The rancher interrupted only to greet the artist with a "howdy, Mr. King," as the officer's words made known the identity of his companion.

When Brian Oakley had concluded, the rancher said, "I heard that 'auto' going up, and then heard it going back down, again, about an hour ago. You missed it by turning off to Morton's. If you'd come on straight up here you'd a met it."

"Did you see the man on horseback, going down, just before dusk?" asked the officer.

"Yes, but not near enough to know him. You don't suppose Sibyl would go up to her old home do you, Brian?"

"She might, under the circumstances. Aaron and I will ride up there, on the chance."

"You'll stop in on your way back?" called the rancher, as the two horsemen moved away.

"Sure," answered the Ranger.

An hour later, they were back. They had found the old home under the giant sycamores, on the edge of the little clearing, dark and untenanted.

Lights were shining, now, from the windows of the Carleton ranch-house. Down at the corral, the twinkling gleam of a lantern bobbed here and there. As the Ranger and his companion drew near, the lantern came rapidly up the hill. At the porch, they were met by Henry Carleton, his two sons, and a ranch hand. As the four stood in the light of the window, and of the lantern on the porch, listening to Brian Oakley's report, each held the bridle-reins of a saddle-horse.

"I figured that the chance of her being up there was so mighty slim that we'd better be ready to ride when you got back," said the mountain ranchman. "What's your program, Brian?" Thus simply he put himself and his household in command of the Ranger.

The officer turned to the eldest son, "Jack, you've got the fastest horse in the outfit. I want you to go down to the Power-House and find out if any one there saw Sibyl anywhere on the road. You see," he explained to the group, "we don't know for sure, yet, that she came into the mountains. While I haven't a doubt but she did, we've got to know."

Jack Carleton was in the saddle as the Ranger finished The officer turned to him again. "Find out what you can about that automobile and the man on horseback. We'll be at the Station when you get back." There was a sharp clatter of iron-shod hoofs, and the rider disappeared in the darkness of the night.

The other members of the little party rode more leisurely down the canyon road to the Ranger Station. When they arrived at the house, Brian Oakley said, "Make yourselves easy, boys. I'm going to write a little note." He went into the house where, as they sat on the porch, they saw him through the window, his desk.

The Ranger had finished his letter and with the sealed official envelope in his hand, appeared in the doorway when his messenger to the Power-House returned. Without dismounting, the rider reined his horse up to the porch. "Good time, Jack," said the officer, quietly.

The young man answered, "One of the company men saw Sibyl. He was coming up with a load of supplies and she passed him a mile below the Power-House just before dark. When he was opening the gate, the automobile went by. It was too dark to see how many were in the machine. They heard the 'auto' go down the canyon, again, later. No one noticed the man on horseback. Three Company men will be up here at daybreak."

"Good boy," said Brian Oakley, again. And then, for a little, no sound save the soft clinking of bit or bridle-chain in the darkness broke the hush that fell over the little group. With faces turned toward their leader, they waited his word. The Ranger stood still, the long official envelope in his hand. When he spoke, there was a ring in his voice that left in the minds of his companions no doubt as to his view of the seriousness of the situation. "Milt," he said sharply.

The youngest of the Carleton sons stepped forward. "Yes, sir."

"You will ride to Fairlands. It's half past one, now. You should be back between eight and nine in the morning. Give this letter to the Sheriff and bring me his answer. Stop at Miss Willard's and tell her what you know. You'll get something to eat there, while you're talking. If I'm not at your house when you get back, feed your horse and wait."

"Yes, sir," came the answer, and an instant later the boy rider vanished into the night.

While the sound of the messenger's going still came to them, the Ranger spoke again. "Henry, you'll ride to Morton's. Tell him to be at your place, with his crowd, by daylight. Then go home and be ready with breakfast for the riders when they come in. We'll have to make your place the center. It'll be hard on your wife and the girls, but Mrs. Morton will likely go over to lend them a hand. I wish to God Mary was here."

"Never mind about my folks, Brian," returned the rancher as he mounted. "You know they'll be on the job."

"You bet I know, Henry," came the answer as the mountaineer rode away. Then--"Bill, you'll take every one between here and the head of the canyon. If there's a man shows up at Carleton's later than an hour after sunup, we'll run him out of the country. Tom, you take the trail over into the Santa Ana, circle around to the mouth of the canyon, and back up Clear Creek. Turn out everybody. Jack, you'll take the Galena Valley neighborhood. Send in your men but don't come back yourself until you've found that man who went down the canyon on horseback."

When the last rider was gone in the darkness, the Ranger said to the artist, "Come, Aaron, you must get some rest. There's not a thing more that can be done, until daylight."

Aaron King protested. But, strong as he was, the unusual exertion of his hours in the saddle, together with his racking anxiety, had told upon muscles and nerves. His face, pale and drawn, gave the lie to his words that he was not tired.

"You must rest, man," said Brian Oakley, shortly. "There may be days of this ahead of us. You've got to snatch every minute, when it's possible, to conserve your strength. You've already had more than the rest of us. Jerk off your boots and lie down until I call you, even if you can't sleep. Do as I say--I'm boss here."

As the artist obeyed, the Ranger continued, "I wrote the Sheriff all I knew--and some things that I suspect. It's that automobile that sticks in my mind--that and some other things. The machine must have left Fairlands before you did, unless it came over through the Galena Valley, from some town on the railroad, up San Gorgonio Pass way--which isn't likely. If it did come from Fairlands, it must have waited somewhere along the road, to enter the canyon after dark. Do you think that any one else besides Myra Willard and Lagrange and you know that Sibyl started up here?"

"I don't think so. The neighbor where she borrowed the horse didn't know where she was going."

"Who saw her last?"

"I think Mrs. Taine did."

The artist had already told the Ranger about the possible meeting of Mrs. Taine and Sibyl in his studio.

"Hu-m-m," said the other.

"Mrs. Taine left for the East at four o'clock, you know," said the artist.

"Jim Rutlidge didn't go, you said." The Ranger spoke casually. Then, as if dismissing the matter, he continued, "You get some rest now, Aaron. I'll take care of your horse and saddle a fresh one for you. As soon as it's light, we'll ride. I'm going to find out where that automobile went--and what for."