Chapter XXXIII. Beginning the Search
 

Aaron King lay with closed eyes, but not asleep. He was thinking, thinking, thinking In a weary circle, his tired brain went round and round, finding no place to stop. The man on horseback, the automobile, some accident that might have befallen the girl in her distraught state of mind--he could find no place in the weary treadmill of conjecture to rest. While it was still too dark to see, Brian Oakley called him. And the call was a relief.

As the artist pulled on his boots, the Ranger said, "It'll be light enough to see, by the time we get above Carleton's. We know the automobile went that far anyway."

At the Carleton ranch, as they passed, they saw, by the lights, that the mountaineer's family were already making ready for the gathering of the riders. A little beyond, they met two men from the Company Head-Work, on their way to the meeting place. Soon, in the gray, early morning light, the tracks of the automobile were clearly seen. Eagerly, they followed to the foot of the Oak Knoll trail, where the machine had stopped and, turning around, had started back down the canyon. With experienced care, Brian Oakley searched every inch of the ground in the vicinity.

Shaking his head, at last, as though forced to give up hope of finding any positive signs pointing to the solution of the puzzle, the officer remounted, slowly. "I can't make it out," he said. "The road is so dry and cut up with tracks, and the trail is so gravelly, that there are no clear signs at all. Come, we better get back to Carleton's, and start the boys out. When Milt returns from Fairlands he may know something."

With the rising of the sun, the mountain folk, summoned in the night by the Ranger's messengers, assembled at the ranch; every man armed and mounted with the best his possessions afforded. Tied to the trees in the yard, and along the fence in front, or standing with bridle-reins over their heads, the horses waited. Lying on the porch, or squatting on their heels, in unconscious picturesque attitudes, the mountain riders who had arrived first and had finished their breakfast were ready for the Ranger's word. In the ranch kitchen, the table was filled with the later ones; and these, as fast as they finished their meal, made way for the new arrivals. There was no loud talk; no boisterous laughter; no uneasy restlessness. Calm-eyed, soft-voiced, deliberate in movement, these hardy mountaineers had answered Brian Oakley's call; and they placed themselves, now, under his command, with no idle comment, no wasteful excitement but with a purpose and spirit that would, if need be, hold them in their saddles until their horses dropped under them, and would, then, send them on, afoot, as long as their iron nerves and muscles could be made to respond to their wills.

There was scarce a man in that company, who did not know and love Sibyl Andres, and who had not known and loved her parents. Many of them had ridden with the Ranger at the time of Will Andres' death. When the officer and his companion appeared, they gathered round their leader with simple words of greeting, and stood silently ready for his word.

Briefly, Brian Oakley divided them into parties, and assigned the territory to be covered by each. Three shots in quick succession, at intervals of two minutes, would signal that the search was finished. Two men, he held to go with him up Oak Knoll trail, after his messenger to the Sheriff had returned. At sunset, they were all to reassemble at the ranch for further orders. When the officer finished speaking, the little group of men turned to the horses, and, without the loss of a moment, were out of sight in the mountain wilderness.

A half hour before he was due, young Carleton appeared with the Sheriff's answer to the Ranger's letter. "Well done, boy," said Brian Oakley, heartily. "Take care of your horse, now, and then get some rest yourself, and be ready for whatever comes next."

He turned to those he had held to go with him; "All right, boys, let's ride. Sheriff will take care of the Fairlands end. Come, Aaron."

All the way up the Oak Knoll trail the Ranger rode in the lead, bending low from his saddle, his gaze fixed on the little path. Twice he dismounted and walked ahead, leaving the chestnut to follow or to wait, at his word. When they came out on the pipe-line trail, he halted the party, and, on foot, went carefully over the ground either way from the point where they stood.

"Boys," he said at last, "I have a hunch that there was a horse on this trail last night. It's been so blamed dry, and for so long, though, that I can't be sure. I held you two men because I know you are good trailers. Follow the pipe-line up the canyon, and see what you can find. It isn't necessary to say stay with it if you strike anything that even looks like it might be a lead. Aaron and I will take the other way, and up the Galena trail to the fire-break."

While Brian Oakley had been searching for signs in the little path, and the artist, with the others, was waiting, Aaron King's mind went back to that day when he and Conrad Lagrange had sat there under the oaks and, in a spirit of irresponsible fun, had committed themselves to the leadership of Croesus. To the young man, now, that day, with its care-free leisure, seemed long ago. Remembering the novelist's fanciful oration to the burro, he thought grimly how unconscious they had been, in their merriment, of the great issues that did actually rest upon the seemingly trivial incident. He recalled, too, with startling vividness, the times that he had climbed to that spot with Sibyl, or, reaching it from either way on the pipe-line, had gone with her down the zigzag path to the road in the canyon below. Had she, last night, alone, or with some unwelcome companions, paused a moment under those oaks? Had she remembered the hours that she had spent there with him?

As he followed the Ranger over the ground that he had walked with her, that day of their last climb together, it seemed to him that every step of the way was haunted by her sweet personality. The objects along the trail--a point of rock, a pine, the barrel where they had filled their canteen, a broken section of the concrete pipe left by the workmen, the very rocks and cliffs, the flowers--dry and withered now--that grew along the little path--a thousand things that met his eyes--recalled her to his mind until he felt her presence so vividly that he almost expected to find her waiting, with smiling, winsome face, just around the next turn. The officer, who, moving ahead, scanned with careful eyes every foot of the way, seemed to the artist, now, to be playing some fantastic game. He could not, for the moment, believe that the girl he loved was--God! where was she? Why did Brian Oakley move so slowly, on foot, while his horse, leisurely cropping the grass, followed? He should be in the saddle! They should be riding, riding riding--as he had ridden last night. Last night! Was it only last night?

Where the Government trail crosses the fire-break on the crest of the Galenas, Brian Oakley paused. "I don't think there's been anything over this way," he said. "We'll follow the fire-break to that point up there, for a look around."

At noon, they stood by the big rock, under the clump of pines, where Aaron King and Sibyl Andres had eaten their lunch.

"We'll be here some time," said the Ranger. "Make yourself comfortable. I want to see if there's anything stirring down yonder."

With his back to the rock, he searched the Galena Valley side of the range, through his powerful glass; commenting, now and then, when some object came in the field of his vision, to his companion who sat beside him.

They had risen to go and the officer was returning his glass to its case on his saddle, when Aaron King--pointing toward Fairlands, lying dim and hazy in the distant valley--said, "Look there!"

The other turned his head to see a flash of light that winked through the dull, smoky veil, with startling clearness. He smiled and turned again to his saddle. "You'll often see that," he said. "It's the sun striking some bright object that happens to be at just the right angle to hit you with the reflection. A bit of new tin on a roof, a window, an automobile shield, anything bright enough, will do the trick. Come, we'll go back to the trail and follow the break the other way."

In the dusk of the evening, at the close of the long, hard day, as Brian Oakley and Aaron King were starting down the Oak Knoll trail on their return to the ranch, the Ranger uttered an exclamation. His quick eyes had caught the twinkling gleam of a light at Sibyl's old home, far below, across the canyon. The next instant, the chestnut, followed by his four-footed companion, was going down the steep trail at a pace that sent the gravel flying and forced the artist, unaccustomed to such riding, to cling desperately to the saddle. Up the canyon road, the Ranger sent the chestnut at a run, nor did he draw rein as they crossed the rough boulder-strewn wash. Plunging through the tumbling water of the creek, the horses scrambled up the farther bank, and dashed along the old, weed-grown road, into the little clearing They were met by Czar with a bark of welcome. A moment later, they were greeted by Conrad Lagrange and Myra Willard.

"But why don't you stay down at the ranch, Myra?" asked the Ranger, when he had told them that his day's work was without results.

"Listen, Mr. Oakley," returned the woman with the disfigured face. "I know Sibyl too well not to understand the possibilities of her temperament. Natures, fine and sensitive as hers, though brave and cool and strong under ordinary circumstances, under peculiar mental stress such as I believe caused her to leave us, are easily thrown out of balance. We know nothing. The child may be wandering, alone--dazed and helpless under the shock of a cruel and malicious attempt to wreck her happiness. Only some terrible stress of emotion could have caused her to leave me as she did. If she is alone, out here in the hills, there is a chance that--even in her distracted state of mind--she will find her way to her old home." The woman paused, and then, in the silence, added hesitatingly, "I--I may say that I know from experience the possibilities of which I speak."

The three men bowed their heads. Brian Oakley said softly, "Myra, you've got more heart and more sense than all of us put together." To Conrad Lagrange, he added, "You will stay here with Miss Willard?"

"Yes," answered the novelist, "I would be little good in the hills, at such work as you are doing, Brian. I will do what I can, here."

When the Ranger and the artist were riding down the canyon to the ranch, the officer said, "There's a big chance that Myra is right, Aaron. After all, she knows Sibyl better than any of us, and I can see that she's got a fairly clear idea of what sent the child off like this. As it stands now, the girl may be just wandering around. If she is, the boys will pick her up before many hours. She may have met with some accident. If that's it, we'll know before long. She may have been--I tell you, Aaron, it's that automobile acting the way it did that I can't get around."

The searchers were all at the ranch when the two men arrived. No one had a word of encouragement to report. A messenger from the Sheriff brought no light on the mystery of the automobile. The two men who had followed the pipe-line trail had found nothing. A few times, they thought they had signs that a horse had been over the trail the night before, but there was no certainty; and after the pipe-line reached the floor of the canyon there was absolutely nothing. Jack Carleton was back from the Galena Valley neighborhood, and, with him, was the horseman who had gone down the canyon the evening before. The man was known to all. He had been hunting, and was on his way home when Henry Carleton and the Ranger had seen him. He had come, now, to help in the search.

Picking a half dozen men from the party, Brian Oakley sent them to spend the night riding the higher trails and fire-breaks, watching for camp-fire lights. The others, he ordered to rest, in readiness to take up the search at daylight, should the night riders come in without results.

Aaron King, exhausted, physically and mentally, sank into a stupor that could scarcely be called sleep.

At daybreak, the riders who had been all night on the higher trails and fire-breaks, searching the darkness for the possible gleam of a camp-fire's light, came in.

All that day--Wednesday--the mountain horsemen rode, widening the area of their search under the direction of the Ranger. From sundown until long after dark, they came straggling wearily back; their horses nearly exhausted, the riders beginning to fear that Sibyl would never be found alive. There was no further word from the Sheriff at Fairlands.

Then suddenly, out of the blackness of the night, a rider from the other side of the Galenas arrived with the word that the girl's horse had been found. The animal was grazing in the neighborhood of Pine Glen. The saddle and the horse's sides were stained with dirt, as if the animal had fallen. The bridle-reins had been broken. The horse might have rolled on the saddle; he might have stepped on the bridle-reins; he might have fallen and left his rider lying senseless. In any case, they reasoned, the animal would scarcely have found his way over the Galena range after he had been left to wander at will.

Brian Oakley decided to send the main company of riders over into the Pine Glen country, to continue the search there. He knew that the men who found the horse would follow the animal's track back as far as possible. He knew, also, that if the animal had been wandering several hours, as was likely, it would be impossible to back-track far. Late as it was, Aaron King rode up the canyon to tell Myra Willard and Conrad Lagrange the result of the day's work.

The artist's voice trembled as he told the general opinion of the mountaineers; but Myra Willard said, "Mr. King, they are wrong. My baby will come back. There's harm come to her no doubt; but she is not dead or--I would know it."

In spite of the fact that Aaron King's reason told him the woman of the disfigured face had no ground for her belief, he was somehow helped, by her words, to hope.