Chapter XXXVIII. An Inevitable Conflict

When Aaron King set out to follow the tracks he had found at Granite Peak, after his long, hard trip along the rugged crest of the Galenas, his weariness was forgotten. Eagerly, as if fresh and strong, but with careful eyes and every sense keenly alert, he went forward on the trail that he knew must lead him to Sibyl Andres.

He did not attempt to solve the problem of how the girl came there, nor did he pause to wonder about her companion. He did not even ask himself if Sibyl were living or dead. He thought of nothing; knew nothing; was conscious of nothing; but the trail that led away into the depths of the mountain wilderness. Insensible to his own physical condition; without food; unacquainted with the wild country into which he was going; reckless of danger to himself but with all possible care and caution for the sake of the girl he loved, he went on.

Coming to the brink of the gorge in which the cabin was hidden, the trail, following the rim, soon led him to the ledge that lay across the face of the cliff at the head of the narrow canyon. A moment, he paused, to search the vicinity with careful eyes, then started to cross. As he set foot upon the ledge, a voice at the other end called sharply, "Stop."

At the word, Aaron King halted.

A moment passed. James Rutlidge stepped from behind the rocks at the other end of the ledge. He was covering the artist with a rifle.

In a flash, the man on the trail understood. The automobile, the mirror signals from Fairlands--it was all explained by the presence and by the menacing attitude of the man who barred his way. The artist's hand moved toward the weapon that hung at his hip.

"Don't do that," said the man with the rifle. "I can't murder you in cold blood; but if you attempt to draw your gun, I'll fire."

The other stood still.

James Rutlidge spoke again, his voice hoarse with emotion; "Listen to me, King. It's useless for me to deny what brought me here. The trail you are following leads to Sibyl Andres. You had her all summer. I've got her now. If you hadn't stumbled onto the trail up there, I would have taken her out of the country, and you would never have seen her again. I might have killed you before you saw me, but I couldn't. I'm not that kind. Under the circumstances there is no possible compromise. I'll give you a fighting chance for your life and the girl. I'll take a fighting chance for my life and the girl. Throw your gun out of reach and I'll leave mine here. We'll meet on the ledge there."

James Rutlidge was no coward. Mr. Taine, also,--it will be remembered,--on the night of his death, boasted that he was game.

Without an instant's hesitation, Aaron King unbuckled the belt that held his weapon and, turning, tossed it behind him, with the gun still in its holster. At the other end of the ledge, James Rutlidge set his rifle behind the rock.

Deliberately, the two men removed their coats and threw aside their hats. For a moment they stood eyeing each other. Into Aaron King's mind flashed the memory of that scene at the Fairlands depot, when, moved by the distress of the woman with the disfigured face, he had first spoken to the man who faced him now. With startling vividness, the incidents of their acquaintance came to him in flash-like succession--the day that Rutlidge had met Sibyl in the studio; the time of his visit to the camp in the sycamore grove; the night of the Taine banquet--a hundred things that had strengthened the feeling of antagonism which had marked their first meeting. And, through it all, he seemed to hear Conrad Lagrange saying that in his story of life this character's name was "Sensual." The artist, in that instant, knew that this meeting was inevitable.

It was only for a moment that the two men--who in their lives and characters represented forces so antagonistic--stood regarding each other, each knowing that the duel would be--must be--to the death. Deliberately, they started toward the center of the ledge. Over their heads towered the great cliff. A thousand feet below were the tops of the trees in the bottom of the gorge. About them, on every hand, the silent, mighty hills watched--the wild and lonely wilderness waited.

As they drew closer together, they moved, as wrestlers, warily--crouching, silent, alert. Stripped to their shirts and trousers, they were both splendid physical types. James Rutlidge was the heavier, but Aaron King made up for his lack in weight by a more clean-cut, muscular firmness.

They grappled. As two primitive men in a savage age might have met, bare handed, they came together. Locked in each other's arms, their limbs entwined, with set faces, tugging muscles, straining sinews, and taut nerves they struggled. One moment they crushed against the rocky wall of the cliff--the next, and they swayed toward the edge of the ledge and hung over the dizzy precipice. With pounding hearts, laboring breath, and clenched teeth they wrestled.

James Rutlidge's foot slipped on the rocky floor; but, with a desperate effort, he regained his momentary loss. Aaron King--worn by his days of anxiety, by his sleepless nights and by the long hours of toil over the mountains, without sufficient food or rest--felt his strength going. Slowly, the weight and endurance of the heavier man told against him. James Rutlidge felt it, and his eyes were beginning to blaze with savage triumph.

They were breathing, now, with hoarse, sobbing gasps, that told of the nearness of the finish. Slowly, Aaron King weakened. Rutlidge, spurred to increase his effort, and exerting every ounce of his strength, was bearing the other downward and back.

At that instant, the convict and Sibyl Andres reached the cliff. With a cry of horror, the girl stood as though turned to stone.

Motionless, without a word, the convict watched the struggling men.

With a sob, the girl stretched forth her hands. In a low voice she called, "Aaron! Aaron! Aaron!"

The two men on the ledge heard nothing--saw nothing.

Sibyl spoke again, almost in a whisper, but her companion heard. "Mr. Marston, Mr. Marston, it is Aaron King. I--I love him--I--love him."

Without taking his eyes from the struggling men, the convict answered, "Pray, girl; pray, pray for me." As he spoke, he steadily raised his rifle to his shoulder.

Aaron King went down upon one knee. Rutlidge his legs braced, his body inclined toward the edge of the precipice, was gathering his strength for the last triumphant effort.

The convict, looking along his steady rifle barrel, was saying again, "Pray, pray for me, girl." As the words left his lips, his finger pressed the trigger, and the quiet of the hills was broken by the sharp crack of the rifle.

James Rutlidge's hold upon the artist slipped. For a fraction of a second, his form half straightened and he stood nearly erect; then, as a weed cut by the sharp scythe of a mower falls, he fell; his body whirling downward toward the trees and rocks below. The sound of the crashing branches mingled with the reverberating report of the shot. On the ledge, Aaron King lay still.

The convict dropped his rifle and ran forward. Lifting the unconscious man in his arms, he carried him a little way down the mountain, toward the cabin; where he laid him gently on the ground. To Sibyl, who hung over the artist in an agony of loving fear, he said hurriedly, "He'll be all right, presently, Miss Andres. I'll fetch his coat and hat."

Running back to the ledge, he caught up the dead man's rifle, coat, and hat, and threw them over the precipice, as he swiftly crossed for the artist's things. Recovering his own rifle, he ran back to the girl.

"Listen, Miss Andres," said the convict, speaking quickly. "Mr. King will be all right in a few minutes. That rifle-shot will likely bring his friends; if not, you are safe, now, anyway. I dare not take chances. Good-by."

From where she sat with the unconscious man's head in her lap, she looked at him, wonderingly. "Good-by?" she repeated questioningly.

Henry Marston smiled grimly. "Certainly, good-by What else is there for me?"

A moment later, she saw him running swiftly down the mountainside, like some hunted creature of the wilderness.