Chapter XXXV. A Hard Way
 

When Sibyl Andres left the studio, after meeting Mrs. Taine, her mind was dominated by one thought--that she must get away from the world that saw only evil in her friendship with Aaron King--a friendship that, to the mountain girl, was as pure as her relations to Myra Willard or Brian Oakley.

Under the watchful, experienced care of the woman with the disfigured face, only the worthy had been permitted to enter into the life of this child of the hills. Sibyl's character--mind and heart and body and soul--had been formed by the strength and purity of her mountain environment; by her association with her parents, with Myra Willard, and with her parents' life-long friends; and by her mental comradeship with the greatest spirits that music and literature have given to the world. As her physical strength and beauty was the gift of her free mountain life, the beauty and strength of her pure spirit was the gift of those kindred spirits that are as mountains in the mental and spiritual life of the race.

Love had come to Sibyl Andres, not as it comes to those girls who, in the hot-house of passion we call civilization, are forced into premature and sickly bloom by an atmosphere of sensuality. Love had come to her so gently, so naturally, so like the opening of a wild flower, that she had not yet understood that it was love. Even as her womanhood had come to fulfill her girlhood, so Aaron King had come into her life to fulfill her womanhood. She had chosen her mate with an unconscious obedience to the laws of life that was divinely reckless of the world.

Myra Willard, wise in her experience, and in her more than mother love for Sibyl, saw and recognized that which the girl herself did not yet understand. Satisfied as to the character of Aaron King, as it had been tested in those days of unhampered companionship; and seeing, as well, his growing love for the girl, the woman had been content not to meddle with that which she conceived to be the work of God. And why not the work of God? Should the development, the blossoming, and the fruiting of human lives, that the race may flower and fruit, be held less a work of divinity than the plants that mature and blossom and reproduce themselves in their children?

The character of Mrs. Taine represented those forces in life that are, in every way, antagonistic to the forces that make the character of a Sibyl Andres possible. In a spirit of wanton, selfish cruelty, that was born of her worldly environment and training, "The Age" had twisted and distorted the very virtues of "Nature" into something as hideously ugly and vile as her own thoughts. The woman--product of gross materialism and sensuality--had caught in her licentious hands God's human flower and had crushed its beauty with deliberate purpose. Wounded, frightened, dismayed, not understanding, unable to deny, the girl turned in reluctant flight from the place that was, to her, because of her love, holy ground.

It was impossible for Sibyl not to believe Mrs. Taine--the woman had spoken so kindly; had seemed so reluctant to speak at all; had appeared so to appreciate her innocence. A thousand trivial and unimportant incidents, that, in the light of the worldly woman's words, could be twisted to evidence the truth of the things she said, came crowding in upon the girl's mind. Instead of helping Aaron King with his work, instead of truly enjoying life with him, as she had thought, her friendship was to him a menace, a danger. She had believed--and the belief had brought her a strange happiness--that he had cared for her companionship. He had cared only to use her for his pictures--as he used his brushes. He had played with her--as she had seen him toy idly with a brush, while thinking over his work. He would throw her aside, when she had served his purpose, as she had seen him throw a worn-out brush aside.

The woman who was still a child could not blame the artist--she was too loyal to what she had thought was their friendship; she was too unselfish in her yet unrecognized love for her chosen mate. No, she could not blame him--only--only--she wished--oh how she wished--that she had understood. It would not have hurt so, perhaps, if she had understood.

In all the cruel tangle of her emotions, in all her confused and bewildering thoughts, in all her suffering one thing was clear; she must get away from the world that could see only evil--she must go at once. Conrad Lagrange and Aaron King might come at any moment. She could not face them; now that she knew. She wished Myra was home. But she would leave a little note and Myra--dear Myra with her disfigured face--would understand.

Quickly, the girl wrote her letter. Hurriedly, she dressed in her mountain costume. Still acting under her blind impulse to escape, she made no explanations to the neighbors, when she went for the horse. In her desire to avoid coming face to face with any one, she even chose the more unfrequented streets through the orange groves. In her humiliation and shame, she wished for the kindly darkness of the night. Not until she had left the city far behind, and, in the soft dusk, drew near the mouth of the canyon, did she regain some measure of her self-control.

As she was overtaking the Power Company's team and wagon of supplies, she turned in her saddle, for the first time, to look back. A mile away, on the road, she could see a cloud of dust and a dark, moving spot which she knew to be an automobile. One of the Company machines, she thought; and drew a breath of relief that Fairlands was so far away.

It was quite dark as she entered the canyon; but, as she drew near, she could see against the sky, those great gates, opening silently, majestically to receive her. From within the canyon, she watched, as she rode, to see them slowly close again. The sight of the encircling peaks and ridges, rising in solemn grandeur out of the darkness into the light of the stars, comforted her. The night wind, drawing down the canyon, was sweet and bracing with the odor of the hills. The roar of the tumbling Clear Creek, filling the night with its deep-toned music, soothed and calmed her troubled mind. Presently, she would be with her friends, and, somehow, all would be well.

The girl had ridden half the distance, perhaps, from the canyon gates to the Ranger Station when, above the roar of the mountain stream, her quick ear caught the sound of an automobile, behind her. Looking back, she saw the gleam of the lights, like two great eyes in the darkness. A Company machine, going up to the Head-Work, she thought. Or, perhaps the Doctor, to see some one of the mountain folk.

As the automobile drew nearer, she reined her horse out of the road, and halted in the thick chaparral to let it pass. The blazing lights, as her horse turned to face the approaching machine, blinded her. The animal restive under the ordeal, demanded all her attention. She scarcely noticed that the automobile had slowed down, when within a few feet of her, until a man, suddenly, stood at her horse's head; his hand on the bridle-rein as though to assist her. At the same instant, the machine moved past them, and stopped; its engine still running.

Still with the thought of the Company men in her mind, the girl saw only their usual courtesy. "Thank you," she said, "I can handle him very nicely."

But the man--whom she had not had time to see, blinded as she had been by the light, and who was now only dimly visible in the darkness--stepped close to the horse's shoulder, as if to make himself more easily heard above the noise of the machine, his hand still holding the bridle-rein.

"It is Miss Andres, is it not?" He spoke as though he was known to her; and the girl--still thinking that it was one of the Company men, and feeling that he expected her to recognize him--leaned forward to see his face, as she answered.

Instantly, the stranger--standing close and taking advantage of the girl's position as she stooped toward him from the saddle--caught her in his powerful arms and lifted her to the ground. At the same moment, the man's companion who, under cover of the darkness and the noise of the machine, had drawn close to the other side of the horse, caught the bridle-rein.

Before the girl, taken so off her guard could cry out, a softly-rolled, silk handkerchief was thrust between her lips and skillfully tied in place. She struggled desperately; but, against the powerful arms of her captor, her splendid, young strength was useless. As he bound her hands, the man spoke reassuringly; "Don't fight, Miss. I'm not going to hurt you. I've got to do this; but I'll be as easy as I can. It will do you no good to wear yourself out."

Frightened as she was, the girl felt that the stranger was as gentle as the circumstances permitted him to be. He had not, in fact, hurt her at all; and, in his voice, she caught a tone of genuine regret. He seemed to be acting wholly against his will; as if driven by some power that rendered him, in fact, as helpless as his victim.

The other man, still standing by the horse's head, spoke sharply; "All right there?"

"All right, sir," gruffly answered the man who held Sibyl, and lifting the helpless girl gently in his arms he seated her carefully in the machine. An automobile-coat was thrown around her, the high collar turned up to hide the handkerchief about her lips, and her hat was replaced by an "auto-cap," pulled low. Then her captor went back to the horse; the other man took the seat beside her; and the car moved forward.

The girl's fright now gave way to perfect coolness. Realizing the uselessness of any effort to escape, she wisely saved her strength; watchful to take quick advantage of any opportunity that might present itself. Silently, she worked at her bonds, and endeavored to release the bandage that prevented her from crying out. But the hands that had bound her had been too skillful. Turning her head, she tried to see her companion's face. But, in the darkness, with upturned collar and cap pulled low over "auto-glasses," the identity of the man driving the car was effectually hidden.

Only when they were passing the Ranger Station and Sibyl saw the lights through the trees, did she, for a moment, renew her struggle. With all her strength she strained to release her hands. One cry from her strong, young voice would bring Brian Oakley so quickly after the automobile that her safety would be assured. On that mountain road, the chestnut would soon run them down. She even tried to throw herself from the car; but, bound as she was, the hand of her companion easily prevented, and she sank back in the seat, exhausted by her useless exertion.

At the foot of the Oak Knoll trail the automobile stopped. The man who had been following on Sibyl's horse came up quickly. Swiftly, the two men worked; placing sacks of supplies and blankets--as the girl guessed--on the animal. Presently, the one who had bound her, lifted her gently from the automobile "Don't hurt yourself, Miss," he said in her ear, as he carried her toward the horse. "It will do you no good." And the girl did not again resist, as he lifted her to the saddle.

The driver of the car said something to his companion in a low tone, and Sibyl heard her captor answer, "The girl will be as safe with me as if she were in her own home."

Again, the other spoke, and the girl heard only the reply; "Don't worry; I understand that. I'll go through with it. You've left me no chance to do anything else."

Then, stepping to the horse's head and taking the bridle-rein, the man who seemed to be under orders, led the way up the canyon. Behind them, the girl heard the automobile starting on its return. The sound died away in the distance. The silence of the night was disturbed only by the sound of the man's hob-nailed boots and the horse's iron-shod feet on the road.

Once, her captor halted a moment, and, coming to the horse's shoulder, asked if she was comfortable. The girl bowed her head. "I'm sorry for that gag," he said. "As soon as it's safe, I'll remove it; but I dare not take chances." He turned abruptly away and they went on.

Dimly, Sibyl saw, in her companion's manner, a ray of hope. That no immediate danger threatened, she was assured. That the man was acting against his will, was as evident. Wisely, she resolved to bend her efforts toward enlisting his sympathies,--to make it hard for him to carry out the purpose of whoever controlled him,--instead of antagonizing him by continued resistance and repeated attempts to escape, and so making it easier for him to do his master's bidding.

Leaving the canyon by the Laurel Creek trail, they reached Burnt Pine, where the man removed the handkerchief that sealed the girl's lips.

"Oh, thank you," she said quietly. "That is so much better."

"I'm sorry that I had to do it," he returned, as he unbound her arms. "There, you may get down now, and rest, while I fix a bit of lunch for you."

The girl sprang to the ground. "It is a relief to be free," she said. "But, really, I'm not a bit tired. Can't I help you with the pack?"

"No," returned the other, gruffly, as though he understood her purpose and put himself on his guard. "We'll only be here a few minutes, and it's a long road ahead. You must rest."

Obediently, she sat down on the ground, her back against a tree.

As they lunched, in the dim light of the stars, she said, "May I ask where you are taking me?"

"It's a long road, Miss Andres. We'll be there to-morrow night," he answered reluctantly.

Again, she ventured timidly; "And is, is--some one waiting for--for us, at the end of our journey?"

The man's voice was kinder as he answered, "no, Miss Andres; there'll he just you and me, for some time. And," he added, "you don't need to fear me."

"I am not at all afraid of you," she returned gently. "But I am--" she hesitated--"I am sorry for you--that you have to do this."

The man arose abruptly. "We must he going."

For some distance beyond Burnt Pine, they kept to the Laurel Creek trail, toward San Gorgonio; then they turned aside to follow some unmarked way, known only to the man. When the first soft tints of the day shone in the sky behind the peaks and ridges, while Sibyl's friends were assembling at the Carleton Ranch in Clear Creek Canyon, and Brian Oakley was directing the day's search, the girl was following her guide in the wild depths of the mountain wilderness, miles from any trail. The country was strange to her, but she knew that they were making their way, far above the canyon rim, on the side of the San Bernardino range, toward the distant Cold Water country that opened into the great desert beyond.

As the light grew stronger, Sibyl saw her companion a man of medium height, with powerful shoulders and arms; dressed in khaki, with mountain boots. Under his arm, as he led the way with a powerful stride that told of almost tireless strength, the girl saw the familiar stock of a Winchester rifle. Presently he halted, and as he turned, she saw his face. It was not a bad face. A heavy beard hid mouth and cheek and throat, but the nose was not coarse or brutal, and the brow was broad and intelligent. In the brown eyes there was, the girl thought, a look of wistful sadness, as though there were memories that could not be escaped.

"We will have breakfast here, if you please, Miss Andres," he said gravely.

"I'm so hungry," she answered, dismounting. "May I make the coffee?"

He shook his head. "I'm sorry; but there must be no telltale smoke. The Ranger and his riders are out by now, as like as not."

"You seem very familiar with the country," she said, moving easily toward the rifle which he had leaned against a tree, while he busied himself with the pack of supplies.

"I am," he answered. "I have been forced to learn it thoroughly. By the way, Miss Andres,"--he added, without turning his head, as he knelt on the ground to take food from the pack,--"that Winchester will do you no good. It is not loaded. I have the shells in my belt." He arose, facing her, and throwing open his coat, touched the butt of a Colt forty-five that hung in a shoulder holster under his left armpit. "This will serve in case quick action is needed, and it is always safely out of your reach, you see."

The girl laughed. "I admit that I was tempted," she said. "I might have known that you put the rifle within my reach to try me."

"I thought it would save you needless disappointment to make things clear at once," he answered. "Breakfast is ready."

The incident threw a strong light upon the character with which Sibyl had to deal. She realized, more than ever, that her only hope lay in so winning this man's sympathies and friendship that he would turn against whoever had forced him into his present position. The struggle was to be one of those silent battles of the spirit, where the forces that war are not seen but only felt, and where those who fight must often fight with smiling faces. The girl's part was to enlist her captor to fight for her, against himself. She saw, as clearly, the need of approaching her object with caution. Eager to know who it was that ruled this man, and by what peculiar power a character so strong could be so subjected, she dared not ask. Hour after hour, as they journeyed deeper and deeper into the mountain wilds, she watched and waited for some sign that her companion's mood would make it safe for her to approach him. Meanwhile, she exercised all her womanly tact to lead him to forget his distasteful position, and so to make his uncongenial task as pleasant as possible.

The girl did not realize how far her decision, in itself, aroused the admiring sympathy of her captor. Her coolness, self-possession, and bravery in meeting the situation with calm, watchful readiness, rather than with hysterical moaning and frantic pleading, did more than she realized toward accomplishing her purpose.

During that long forenoon, she sought to engage her guide in conversation, quite as though they were making a pleasure trip that was mutually agreeable. The man--as though he also desired his thoughts removed as far as might be from his real mission--responded readily, and succeeded in making himself a really interesting companion. Only once, did the girl venture to approach dangerous ground.

"Really," she said, "I wish I knew your name. It seems so stupid not to know how to address you. Is that asking too much?"

The man did not answer for some time, and the girl saw his face clouded with somber thought.

"I beg your pardon," she said gently. "I--I ought not to have asked."

"My name is Henry Marston, Miss Andres," he said deliberately. "But it is not the name by which I am known these days," he added bitterly. "It is an honorable name, and I would like to hear it again--" he paused--"from you."

Sibyl returned gently, "Thank you, Mr. Marston--believe me, I do appreciate your confidence, and--" she in turn hesitated--"and I will keep the trust."

By noon, they had reached Granite Peak in the Galenas, having come by an unmarked way, through the wild country around the head of Clear Creek Canyon.

They had finished lunch, when Marston, looking at his watch, took a small mirror from his pocket and stood gazing expectantly toward the distant valley where Fairlands lay under the blue haze. Presently, a flash of light appeared; then another and another. It was the signal that Aaron King had seen and to which he had called Brian Oakley's attention, that first day of their search.

With his mirror, the man on Granite Peak answered and the girl, watching and understanding that he was communicating with some one, saw his face grow dark with anger. She did not speak.

They had traveled a half mile, perhaps, from the peak, when the man again stopped, saying, "You must dismount here, please."

Removing the things from the saddle, he led the horse a little way down the Galena Valley side of the ridge, and tied the reins to a tree. Then, slapping the animal about the head with his open hand, he forced the horse to break the reins, and started him off toward the distant valley. Again, the girl understood and made no comment.

Lifting the pack to his own strong shoulders, her companion--his eyes avoiding hers in shame--said gruffly, "Come."

Their way, now, led down from the higher levels of peak and ridge, into the canyons and gorges of the Cold Water country. There was no trail, but the man went forward as one entirely at home. At the head of a deep gorge, where their way seemed barred by the face of an impossible cliff that towered above their heads a thousand feet and dropped, another thousand, sheer to the tops of the pines below, he halted and faced the girl, enquiringly. "You have a good head, Miss Andres?"

Sibyl smiled. "I was born in the mountains, Mr. Marston," she answered. "You need not fear for me."

Drawing near to the very brink of the precipice, he led her, by a narrow ledge, across the face of the cliff; and then, by an easier path, down the opposite wall of the gorge.

It was late in the afternoon when they arrived at a little log cabin that was so hidden in the wild tangle of mountain growth at the bottom of the narrow canyon as to be invisible from a distance of a hundred yards.

The girl knew that they had reached the end of their journey. Nearly exhausted by the hours of physical exertion, and worn with the mental and nervous strain, she sank down upon the blankets that her companion spread for her upon the ground.

"As soon as it is dark, I will cook a hot supper for you," he said, regarding her kindly. "Poor child, this has been a hard, hard, day for you. For me--"

Fighting to keep back the tears, she tried to thank him. For a moment he stood looking down at her. Then she saw his face grow black with rage, and, clenching his great fists, he turned away.

While waiting for the darkness that would hide the smoke of the fire, the man gathered cedar boughs from trees near-by, and made a comfortable bed in the cabin, for the girl. As soon as it was dark, he built a fire in the rude fire-place, and, in a few minutes, announced supper. The meal was really excellent; and Sibyl, in spite of her situation, ate heartily; which won an admiring comment from her captor.

The meal finished, he said awkwardly, "I want to thank you, Miss Andres, for making this day as easy for me as you have. We will be alone here, until Friday, at least; perhaps longer. There is a bar to the cabin door. You may rest here as safely as though you were in your own room. Good night."

Before she could answer, he was gone.

A few minutes later, Sibyl stood in the open door. "Mr. Marston," she called.

"Yes, Miss Andres," came, instantly, out of the darkness.

"Please come into the cabin."

There was no answer.

"It will be cold out there. Please come inside."

"Thank you, Miss Andres; but I will do very nicely. Bar the door and go to sleep."

"But, Mr. Marston, I will sleep better if I know that you are comfortable."

The man came to her and she saw him in the dim light of the fire, standing hat in hand. He spoke wonderingly. "Do you mean, Miss Andres, that you would not be afraid to sleep, if I occupied the cabin with you?"

"No," she answered, "I am not afraid. Come in."

But he did not move to cross the threshold. "And why are you not afraid?" he asked curiously.

"Because," she answered, "I know that you are a gentleman."

The man laughed harshly--such a laugh as Sibyl had never before heard. "A gentleman! This is the first time I have heard that word in connection with myself for many a year, Miss Andres. You have little reason for using it--after what I have done to you--and am doing."

"Oh, but you see, I know that you are forced to do what you are doing. You are a gentleman, Mr. Marston.--Won't you please come in and sleep by the fire? You will be so uncomfortable out there. And you have had such a hard day."

"God bless you, for your good heart, Miss Andres," the man said brokenly. "But I will not intrude upon your privacy to-night. Don't you see," he added savagely, "don't you see that I--I can't? Bar your door, please, and let me play the part assigned to me. Your kindness to me, your confidence in me, is wasted."

He turned abruptly away and disappeared in the darkness.