Riding at a steady, climbing walk up a winding road cut into the wooded mountainside; with a pack-horse loaded with food and new, cheap bedding which Jack had bought; with chipmunks scurrying over the tree trunks that had gone crashing down in some storm and were gathering moss on their rotting bark; with the clear, yellow sunlight of a mountain day in spring lying soft on the upper branches, Jack had a queer sense of riding up into a new, untroubled life that could hold no shred of that from which he had fled. His mother, stately in her silks and a serenely unapproachable manner, which seemed always to say to her son that she was preoccupied with her own affairs, and that her affairs were vastly more important than his youthful interests and problems, swam vaguely before his consciousness, veiled by the swift passing of events and the abrupt change from city to unspoiled wilderness.
When his companion stopped to let the horses "get their wind," Jack would turn in the saddle and look back over the network of gulches and deep canyons to where the valley peeped up at him shyly through the trees, and would think that every step made him that much safer. He did not face calmly the terror from which he had fled. Still mentally breathless from the very unexpectedness of the catastrophe, he shrank from the thought of it as if thinking would betray him. He had not so far concerned himself with his future, except as it held the possibility of discovery. So he quizzed his companion and got him talking about the mountains over which he was to play guardian angel.
He heard a good deal about hunting and fishing; and when they climbed a little higher, Hank Brown pointed out to him where a bear and two half grown cubs had been killed the fall before. He ought to have a rifle, said Hank. There was always the chance that he might get a shot at a bear; and as for deer, the woods were full of them. Then he told more stories and pointed out the very localities where the incidents had occurred.
"See that rocky peak over there? That's where the bears hole up in the winter. Network of caves, up there. King Solomon's the name the people that live here call it—but it's down on the map as Grizzly Peak. Ain't any grizzlies, though—black bear mostly. They're smaller and they ain't so fighty."
It was on the tip of Jack's tongue to observe that a man might hide out here for months and months and never be seen, much less caught; but he checked himself, and remarked only that he would certainly have to get a gun. He would like, he declared, to take home some good heads, and maybe a bear skin or two. He forced himself to speak of home in the careless tone of one who has nothing to hide, but the words left an ache in his throat and a dull heaviness in his chest.
Hank Brown went on talking and saw nothing wrong with his mood. Indeed, he never saw anything wrong with a man who would listen to Hank's hunting and fishing stories and not bore him with stories of his own prowess. Wherefore, Jack was left alone in peace to fight the sudden, nauseating wave of homesickness, and in a little while found himself listening to the steady monotone of Hank Brown's voice.
So, they came to a tiny, sunken meadow, one side of which was fenced with poles, rimmed round with hills set thick with heavy timber. On the farther side of the meadow, almost hidden from sight, was a square log cabin, solid, gloomily shaded and staring empty-eyed at a tiny, clear stream where the horses scared an eight-inch trout out of a pool when they lowered eager noses to drink thirstily.
After that they climbed up into a more open country, clothed with interlaced manzanita bushes and buck brush and thickets of young balsam fir. Here, said Hank Brown, was good bear country. And a little farther on he pulled up and pointed down to the dust of the trail, where he said a bear had crossed that morning. Jack saw the imprint of what looked like two ill-shaped short feet of a man walking barefooted—or perhaps two crude hands pressed into the dirt—and was thrilled into forgetfulness of his trouble.
Before they had gone another mile, he had bought Hank's rifle and all the cartridges he happened to have with him. He paid as much as a new rifle would have cost, but he did not know that—though he did know that he had scarcely enough money left in his pocket to jingle when the transaction was completed. He carried the rifle across the saddle in front of him and fingered the butt pridefully while his eyes went glancing here and there hopefully, looking for the bear that had crossed the trail that morning. The mere possession of the rifle bent his mood toward adventure rather than concealment. He did not think now of the lookout station as a refuge so much as a snug lair in the heart of a wonderful hunting ground.
He wanted to hear more about the bear and deer which Hank Brown had shot on these slopes. But Hank was no longer in the mood for recounting his adventures. Hank was congratulating himself upon selling that rifle, which had lately shown a tendency to jam if he worked the lever too fast; and was trying to decide just what make and calibre of rifle he would buy with the money now in his pocket; and he was grinning in his sleeve at the ease with which he had "stung" this young tenderfoot, who was unsuspectingly going up against a proposition which Hank, with all his love for the wild, would never attempt of his own free will.
At first sight, the odd little glass observatory, perched upon the very tip-top of all the wilderness around, fascinated Jack. He had never credited himself with a streak of idealism, nor even with an imagination, yet his pulse quickened when they topped the last steep slope and stood upon the peak of the world—this immediate, sunlit world.
The unconcealed joy on the face of the lookout when they arrived did not mean anything at all to him. He stood taking great breaths of the light, heady air that seemed to lift him above everything he had ever known and to place him a close neighbor of the clouds.
"This is great!" he said over and over, baring his head to the keen breeze that blew straight out of the violet tinted distance. "Believe me, fellows, this is simply great!"
Whereupon the fireman who had spent two weeks there looked at him and grinned.
"You can have it," he said with a queer inflection. "Mount Lassen's blowing off steam again. Look at her over there! She's sure on the peck, last day or so—you can have her for company. I donate her along with the sun-parlor and the oil stove and the telescope and the view. And I wish you all kinds of luck. How soon you going back, Hank? I guess I better be showing this fellow how to use the chart; maybe you'd like something to eat. I'm all packed and ready to hit the trail, myself."
In the center of the little square room, mounted on a high table, was a detail map of all the country within sight of the station—and that meant a good many miles of up and down scenery. Over it a slender pointer was fitted to a pin, in the center of the map, that let it move like a compass. And so cunningly was the chart drawn and placed upon the table that wherever one sighted along the pointer—as when pointing at a distant smudge of smoke in the valley or on the mountainside—there on the chart was the number by which that particular spot was designated.
"Now, you see, suppose there's a fire starts at Massack—or along in there," Ed, the lookout fireman, explained, pointing to a distant wrinkle in the bluish green distance, "you swing this pointer till it's drawing a bead on the smoke, and then you phone in the number of the section it picks up on the chart. The lookout on Claremont, he'll draw a bead on it too, and phone in his number—see? And where them two numbers intersect on the chart, there's your fire, boy."
Jack studied the chart like a boy investigating a new mechanical toy. He was so interested that he forgot himself and pushed his hair straight back off his forehead with the gesture that had become an unconscious mannerism, spoiling utterly the plastered effect which he had with so much pains given to his hair. But Hank and the fireman were neither suspicious nor observing, and only laughed at his exuberance, which they believed was going to die a violent death when Jack had spent a night or two there alone.
"Is that all I have to do?" he demanded, when he had located a half dozen imaginary fires.
"That's all you get paid for doing, but that ain't all you have to do, by a long shot!" the fireman retorted significantly. But he would not explain until he had packed his bed on the horse that had brought up Jack's bedding and the fresh supplies, and was ready to go down the mountain with Hank. Then he looked at Jack pityingly.
"Well—you sure have got my sympathy, kid. I wouldn't stay here another month for a thousand dollars. You've got your work cut out for you, just to keep from going crazy. So long."
Jack stood on a little jutting pinnacle of rock and watched them out of sight. He thought the great crater behind the station looked like a crude, unfinished cup of clay and rocks; and that Crystal Lake, reflecting the craggy slope from the deeps below, was like blueing in the bottom of the cup. He picked up a rock the size of his fist and drew back his arm for the throw, remembered what the supervisor had told him about throwing stones into the lake, and dropped the rock guiltily. It was queer how a fellow wanted to roll a rock down and shatter that unearthly blue mirror into a million ripples.
He looked away to the northwest, where Mount Lassen sent a lazy column of thin, grayish vapor trailing high into the air, and thought how little he had expected to see this much-talked-of volcano; how completely and irrevocably the past two days had changed his life. Why, this was only Tuesday! Day before yesterday he had been whooping along the beach at Venice, wading out and diving under the breakers just as they combed for the booming lunge against the sand cluttered with humanity at play. He had blandly expected to go on playing there whenever the mood and the bunch invited. Night before last he had danced—and he had drunk much wine, and had made impulsive love to a girl he had never seen in his life until just before he had held her in his arms as they went swaying and gliding and dipping together across the polished floor, carefree as the gulls outside on the sand. Night before last he had driven home—but he winced there, and pulled his thoughts back from that drive.
Here were no girls to listen to foolish speeches; no wine, no music, no boom of breakers, no gulls. There never would be any. He was as far from all that as though he had taken flight to the moon. There was no sound save the whispering rush of the wind that blew over the bare mountain top. He was above the pines and he could only faintly hear the murmur of their branches. Below him the world lay hushed, silent with the silence of far distances. The shadows that lay on the slope and far canyons moved like ghosts across the tumbled wilderness.
For a minute the immensity of silence and blue distance lulled his thoughts again with the feeling of security and peace. He breathed deep, his nostrils flared like a thoroughbred horse, his face turned this way and that, his eyes drinking deep, satisfying draughts of a beauty such as he had never before known. His lips were parted a little, half smiling at the wonderful kindness of fate, that had picked him up and set him away up here at the top o' the world.
He glanced downward, to his right. There went two objects—three, he counted them a moment later. He stepped inside, snatched up the telescope and focussed it eagerly on the slow-moving, black specks. Why, there went Hank Brown and the fireman, Ed somebody, and the pack horse with Ed's bedding lashed on its back. For perhaps a mile he watched them going down through the manzanita and buck brush toward the massed line of balsam firs that marked the nearest edge of the heavy timber line.
So that was the trail that led up to his eyrie! He marked it well, thinking that it might be a good plan to keep an eye on that trail, in case an officer came looking for him here.
He watched Hank and Ed go down into the balsam firs. Dark shadows crept after them down the slope to the edge of the thicket where they had disappeared.
He watched the shadows until they gave him a vague feeling of discomfort and loneliness. He turned away and looked down into the bottom of the mountain's cup. The lake lay darkling there, hooded with shadows like a nun, the snow banks at the edge indicating the band of white against the calm face. It looked cold and lonesome down there; terribly cold and lonesome.
Mount Lassen, when he sent a comfort-seeking glance that way, sent up a spurt of grayish black smoke with a vicious suddenness that made him jump. With bulging eyes he watched it mount higher and higher until he held his breath in fear that it would never stop. He saw the column halt and spread and fall… .
When it was over he became conscious of itching palms where his nails had dug into them and left little red marks. He discovered that he was shaking as with a nervous chill, and that his knees were bending under him. He sent a wild-eyed glance to the still, purple lake down there where the snowbanks lingered, though it was the middle of May; to the far hills that were purpling already with the dropping of the sun behind the high peaks; to the manzanita slope where the trail lay in shadow now. It was terribly still and empty—this piled wilderness.
He turned and hurried into his little glass-sided house and shut the door behind him. A red beam of the sinking sun shone in and laid a bar of light across the chart like a grin.
The silence was terrible. The emptiness pressed upon him like a weight that crushed from him his youth and his strength and all his youthful optimism, and left him old and weak and faded, a shadow of humanity like those shadows down there in the canyon.
Stealthily, as if he were afraid of some tangible shape reaching out of the silence, his hand went to the telephone receiver. He clutched it as drowning fingers clutch at seaweed. He leaned and jerked the receiver to his ear, and waited for the human voice that would bring him once more into the world of men. He did not know then that the telephone was the kind that must be rung by the user; or if he had been told that he had forgotten. So he waited, his ears strained to catch the heavenly sound of a human voice.
Shame crept in on the panic of his soul; shame and something that stiffened it into the courage of a man. He felt his cheeks burn with the flush that stained them, and he slowly lowered the receiver into its hook.
With his hands thrust deep into his pockets and his mouth pulled down at the corners, he stood leaning back against the desk shelf and forced himself to look down across the wooded slopes to the valley, where a light twinkled now like a fallen star. After a while he found that he could see once more the beauty, and not so much the loneliness. Then, just to prove to himself that he was not going to be bluffed by the silence, he began to whistle. And the tune carried with it an impish streak of that grim humor in which, so they tell us, the song was born. It is completely out of date now, that song, but then it was being sung around the world. And sometimes it was whistled just as Jack was whistling it now, to brace a man's courage against the press of circumstances.
"It's a long way to Tipperary," sang Jack, when he had whistled the chorus twice; and grinned at the joke upon himself. After that he began to fuss with the oil stove and to experiment with the food they had left him, and whistled deliberately all the while.
In this wise Jack Corey lost himself from his world and entered into his exile on a mountain top.