Chapter XXXIV. The Tracks on Granite Peak
 

The searching party was already on the way over to Pine Glen, when Brian Oakley stopped at Sibyl's old home for Aaron King. The Ranger, himself, had waited to receive the morning message from the Sheriff.

When the two men, following the Government trail that leads to the neighborhood where the girl's horse had been found, reached the fire-break on the summit of the Galenas, the officer said, "Aaron, you'll be of little use over there in that Pine Glen country, where you have never been." He had pulled up his horse and was looking at his companion, steadily.

"Is there nothing that I can do, Brian?" returned the young man, hopelessly. "God, man! I must do something! I must, I tell you!"

"Steady, old boy, steady," returned the mountaineer's calm voice. "The first thing you must do, you know, is to keep a firm grip on yourself. If you lose your nerve I'll have you on my hands too."

Under his companion's eye, the artist controlled himself. "You're right, Brian," he said calmly. "What do you want me to do? You know best, of course."

The officer, still watching him, said slowly, "I want you to spend the day on that point, up there,"--he pointed to the clump of pines,--"with this glass." He turned to take an extra field-glass from his saddle. Handing the glass to the other, he continued "You can see all over the country, on the Galena Valley side of this range, from there." Again he paused, as though reluctant to give the final word of his instructions.

The young man looked at him, questioningly. "Yes?"

The Ranger answered in a low tone, "You are to watch for buzzards, Aaron."

Aaron King went white. "Brian! You think--"

The answer came sharply, "I am not thinking. I don't dare think. I am only recognizing every possibility and letting nothing, nothing, get away from me. I don't want you to think. I want you to do the thing that will be of greatest service. It's because I am afraid you will think, that I hesitate to assign you to the position."

The sharp words acted like a dash of cold water in the young man's face. Unconsciously, he straightened in his saddle. "Thank you, Brian. I understand. You can depend upon me."

"Good boy!" came the hearty and instant approval. "If you see anything, go to it; leaving a note here, under a stone on top of this rock; I'll find it to-night, when I come back. If nothing shows up, stay until dark, and then go down to Carleton's. I'll be in late. The rest of the party will stay over at Pine Glen."

Alone on the peak where he had sat with Sibyl the day of their last climb, Aaron King watched for the buzzards' telltale, circling flight--and tried not to think.

It was one o'clock when the artist--resting his eyes for a moment, after a long, searching look through the glass--caught, again, that flash of light in the blue haze that lay over Fairlands in the distant valley. Brian Oakley had said,--when they had seen it that first day of the search,--that it was a common sight; but the artist, his mind preoccupied, watched the point of light with momentary, idle interest.

Suddenly, he awoke to the fact that there seemed to be a timed regularity in the flashes. Into his mind came the memory of something he had read of the heliograph, and of methods of signalling with mirrors Closely, now, he watched--three flashes in quick succession--pause--two flashes--pause--one flash--pause--one flash--pause--two flashes--pause--three flashes--pause. For several minutes the artist waited, his eyes fixed on the distant spot under the haze. Then the flashes began again, repeating the same order: --- -- - - -- ---.

At the last flash, the man sprang to his feet, and searched the mountain peaks and spurs behind him. On lonely Granite Peak, at the far end of the Galena Range, a flash of light caught his eye--then another and another. With an exclamation, he lifted his glass. He could distinguish nothing but the peak from which had come the flashes. He turned toward the valley to see a long flash and then--only the haze and the dark spot that he knew to be the orange groves about Fairlands.

Aaron King sank, weak and trembling, against the rock. What should he do? What could he do? The signals might mean much. They might mean nothing. Brian Oakley's words that morning, came to him; "I am recognizing every possibility, and letting nothing nothing, get away from me." Instantly, he was galvanized into life. Idle thinking, wondering, conjecturing could accomplish nothing.

Riding as fast as possible down to the boulder beside the trail, where he was to leave his message, he wrote a note and placed it under the rock. Then he set out, to ride the fire-break along the top of the range, toward the distant Granite Peak. An hour's riding took him to the end of the fire-break, and he saw that from there on he must go afoot.

Tying the bridle-reins over the saddle-horn, and fastening a note to the saddle, in case any one should find the horse, he turned the animal's head back the way he had come, and, with a sharp blow, started it forward. He knew that the horse--one of Carleton's--would probably make its way home. Turning, he set his face toward the lonely peak; carrying his canteen and what was left of his lunch.

There was no trail for his feet now. At times, he forced his way through and over bushes of buckthorn and manzanita that seemed, with their sharp thorns and tangled branches, to be stubbornly fighting him back. At times, he made his way along some steep slope, from pine to pine, where the ground was slippery with the brown needles, and where to lose his footing meant a fall of a thousand feet. Again, he scaled some rocky cliff, clinging with his fingers to jutting points of rock, finding niches and projections for his feet; or, with the help of vine and root and bush, found a way down some seemingly impossible precipice. Now and then, from some higher point, he sighted Granite Peak. Often, he saw, far below, on one hand the great canyon, and on the other the wide Galena Valley. Always he pushed forward. His face was scratched and stained; his clothing was torn by the bushes; his hands were bloody from the sharp rocks; his body reeked with sweat; his breath came in struggling gasps; but he would not stop. He felt himself driven, as it were, by some inner power that made him insensible to hardship or death. Far behind him, the sun dropped below the sky-line of the distant San Gabriels, but he did not notice. Only when the dusk of the coming night was upon him, did he realize that the day was gone.

On a narrow shelf, in the lee of a great cliff, he hastily gathered material for a fire, and, with his back to the rock, ate a little of the food he carried. Far up on that wind-swept, mountain ridge, the night was bitter cold. Again and again he aroused himself from the weary stupor that numbed his senses, and replenished the fire, or forced himself to pace to and fro upon the ledge. Overhead, he saw the stars glittering with a strange brilliancy. In the canyon, far below, there were a few twinkling lights to mark the Carleton ranch, and the old home of Sibyl, where Conrad Lagrange and Myra Willard waited. Miles away, the lights of the towns among the orange groves, twinkled like feeble stars in another feeble world. The cold wind moaned and wailed in the dark pines and swirled about the cliff in sudden gusts. A cougar screamed somewhere on the mountainside below. An answering scream came from the ledge above his head. The artist threw more fuel upon his fire, and grimly walked his beat.

In the cold, gray dawn of that Friday morning, he ate a few mouthfuls of his scanty store of food and, as soon as it was light,--even while the canyon below was still in the gloom,--started on his way.

It was eleven o'clock when, almost exhausted, he reached what he knew must be the peak that he had seen through his glass the day before. There was little or no vegetation upon that high, wind-swept point. The side toward the distant peak from which the artist had seen the signals, was an abrupt cliff--hundreds of feet of sheer, granite rock. From the rim of this precipice, the peak sloped gradually down and back to the edge of the pines that grew about its base. The ground in the open space was bare and hard.

Carefully, Aaron King searched--as he had seen the Ranger do--for signs. Beginning at a spot near the edge of the cliff, he worked gradually, back and forth, in ever widening arcs, toward the pines below. He was almost ready to give up in despair, cursing himself for being such a fool as to think that he could pick up a trail, when, clearly marked in a bit of softer soil, he saw the print of a hob-nailed boot.

Instantly the man's weariness was gone. The long, hard way he had come was forgotten. Insensible, now, to hunger and fatigue, he moved eagerly in the direction the boot-track pointed. He was rewarded by another track. Then, as he moved nearer the softer ground, toward the trees, another and another and then--

The man--worn by his physical exertion, and by his days of mental anguish--for a moment, lost control of himself. Clearly marked, beside the broad track of the heavier, man's boot, was the unmistakable print of a smaller, lighter foot.

For a moment he stood with clenched fists and heaving breast; then, with grim eagerness, with every sense supernaturally alert, with nerves tense, quick eyes and ready muscles, he went forward on the trail.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was after dark, that night, when Brian Oakley, on his way back to Clear Creek, stopped at the rock where the artist had left his note.

Reaching the floor of the canyon, he crossed to tell Myra Willard and the novelist the result of the day's search. The men riding in the vicinity of Pine Glen had found nothing. It had been--as the Ranger expected--impossible to follow back for any distance on the track of the roaming horse, for the animal had been grazing about the Pine Glen neighborhood for at least a day. Over the note left by Aaron King, the mountaineer shook his head doubtfully. Aaron had done right to go. But for one of his inexperience, the way along the crest of the Galenas was practically impossible. If the young man had known, he could have made the trip much easier by returning to Clear Creek and following up to the head of that canyon, then climbing to the crest of the divide, and so around to Granite Peak. The Ranger, himself, would start, at daybreak, for the peak, by that route; and would come back along the crest of the range, to find the artist.

At Carleton's, they told the officer that Aaron's horse had come in. Jack Carleton and his father arrived from the country above Lone Cabin and Burnt Pine, a few minutes after Brian Oakley reached the ranch. It was agreed that Henry should join the searchers at Pine Glen, at daybreak--lest any one should have seen the artist's camp-fire, that night, and so lose precious time going to it--and that Jack should accompany the Ranger to Granite Peak.

Henry Carleton had gone on his way to Pine Glen, and Brian Oakley and Jack were in the saddle, ready to start up the canyon, the next morning, when a messenger from the Sheriff arrived. An automobile had been seen returning from the mountains, about two o'clock that night. There was only one man in the car.

"Jack," said the Ranger, "Aaron has got hold of the right end of this, with his mirror flashes. You've got to go up the canyon alone. Get to Granite Peak as quick as God will let you, and pick up the trail of whoever signalled from there; keeping one eye open for Aaron. I'm going to trail that automobile as far as it went, and follow whatever met or left it. We'll likely meet somewhere, over in the Cold Water country."

A minute later the two men who had planned to ride together were going in opposite directions.

Following the Fairlands road until he came to where the Galena Valley road branches off from the Clear Creek way, three miles below the Power-House at the mouth of the canyon, Brian Oakley found the tracks of an automobile--made without doubt, during the night just past. The machine had gone up the Galena Valley road, and had returned.

A little before noon, the officer stood where the automobile had stopped and turned around for the return trip. The place was well up toward the head of the valley, near the mouth of a canyon that leads upward toward Granite Peak. An hour's careful work, and the Ranger uncovered a small store of supplies; hidden a quarter of a mile up the canyon. There were tracks leading away up the side of the mountain. Turning his horse loose to find its way home; Brian Oakley, without stopping for lunch, set out on the trail.

       *       *       *       *       *

High up on Granite Peak, Aaron King was bending over the print of a slender shoe, beside the track of a heavy hob-nailed boot. Somewhere in Clear Creek canyon, Jack Carleton was riding to gain the point where the artist stood. At the foot of the mountain, on the other side of the range, Brian Oakley was setting out to follow the faint trail that started at the supplies brought by the automobile, in the night, from Fairlands.