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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCavanaugh, Forest Ranger: A Romance Of The Mountain West - Chapter 6. The Voice From The Heights
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Cavanaugh, Forest Ranger: A Romance Of The Mountain West - Chapter 6. The Voice From The Heights Post by :salonmar Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :1835

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Cavanaugh, Forest Ranger: A Romance Of The Mountain West - Chapter 6. The Voice From The Heights

CHAPTER VI. THE VOICE FROM THE HEIGHTS

LEE VIRGINIA was not entirely without experience as regards respectful courtship. Her life in the East had brought her to know a number of attractive lads and a few men, but none of these had become more than good companions, or friends; and though she wrote to one or two of these youths letters of the utmost friendliness, there was no passion in them, and she felt, as yet, the sting of nothing more intense in her liking for Cavanagh; but he meant more to her, now that she was lonely and beleaguered of those whose eyes were cruel and hot.

Then, too, he had come to represent a new world to her--this world of the forest, this region toward the sunset, which was quite as mysterious to her thinking as it was to the eyes of any plains-dweller. Her imagination went with the ranger on his solitary march into those vague, up-billowing masses of rocks and trees. To her there were many dangers, and she wondered at his courage, his hardihood.

That he had ridden all that long, rough way merely to see her she was not vain enough to believe; but she had, nevertheless, something of every woman's secret belief in her individual charm. Cavanagh had shown a flattering interest in her, and his wish to be her protector filled her with joy and confidence.

She heard a good deal more about this particular forest ranger next morning at breakfast. "He is throwing himself away," Mrs. Redfield passionately declared. "Think of a man of Ross's refinement living in a mountain shack miles from anybody, watching poachers, marking trees, and cooking his own food. It's a shameful waste of genius."

"That's as you look at it, my dear," responded Redfield. "Ross is the guardian of an immense treasure-chest which belongs to the nation. Furthermore, he is quite certain--as I am--that this Forest Service is the policy of the future, and that it offers fine chances for promotion--and then, finally, he likes it."

"That is all well enough for a young man; but Ross is at least thirty-five, and should be thinking of settling down. I can't understand his point of view."

"My dear, you have never seen the procession of the seasons from such a point of view as that which he enjoys."

"No, and I do not care to. It is quite lonely enough for me right here."

Redfield looked at Lee with comic blankness. "Mrs. Redfield is hopelessly urban. As the wife of a forest supervisor, she cares more for pavements and tram-cars than for the most splendid mountain park."

"I most certainly do," his wife vigorously agreed. "And if I had my way we should be living in London."

"Listen to that! She's ten times more English than Mrs. Enderby."

"I'm not; but I long for the civilized instead of the wild. I like comfort and society."

"So do I," returned he.

"Yes; the comfort of an easy-chair on the porch and the society of your forest rangers. This ranch life is all very well for a summer outing, but to be tied down here all the year round is to be denied one's birthright as a modern."

All this more or less cheerful complaint expressed the minds of many others who live amid these superb scenes. When autumn comes, when the sky is gray and the peaks are hid in mist, they long for the music, the lights, the comfort of the city; but when the April sun begins to go down in a smother of crimson and flame, and the mountains loom with epic dignity, or when at dawn the air is like some divine flood descending from the unstained mysterious heights, then the dweller in the foot-hills cries out: "How fortunate we are! Here is health and happiness! Here poverty is unknown!" One side of the girl was of this strain, the other was of the character described by her hostess. She began to see that Ross Cavanagh was fitted for higher duties than those of forest guard.

Mrs. Redfield was becoming more and more interested in this child, who had not merely the malodorous reputation of her mother to contend with, but the memory of a traitorous sire to live down; and when Lee Virginia went to her room to pack her bag, the wife turned to her husband and said: "What are we to think of heredity when we see a thoroughly nice girl like that rise out of the union of a desperado with a vixen?"

Redfield answered: "It is unaccountable. I knew her father well; he was a reckless daredevil, with less real courage in him than there is in old Lize; but I can't tell the girl that. She is sufficiently humiliated by her mother; she takes comfort in the thought that her father at least was brave and heroic."

"I don't believe in heredity as I did once," his wife resumed. "Aren't scientific men rather divided about it?"

"Yes, there are those who deny that there is any inheritance of the spirit, of character, insisting that the laws of transmission affect the body only. Lee is certainly like her father in looks. He was a handsome rascal."

"Ross is terribly smitten with her."

Redfield coughed, uneasily. "I hope not. Of course he admires her, as any man must. She's physically attractive, very attractive, and, besides, Ross is as susceptible as a cow-puncher. He was deeply impressed the first time he saw her, I could see that."

"I didn't like his going out on the veranda with her last night," continued Mrs. Redfield, "and when they came in her eyes and color indicated that he'd been saying something exciting to her. Hugh, Ross Cavanagh must not get involved with that girl. It's your duty as his superior to warn him."

"He's fully grown, my dear, and a bit dictatorial on his own part. I'm a trifle timid about cutting in on his private affairs."

"Then I'll do it. Marriage with a girl like that is out of the question. Think what his sisters would say."

Redfield smiled a bit satirically. "To the outsider a forest ranger at $900 a year and find himself and horses is not what you may call a brilliant catch."

"Oh, well, the outsider is no judge. Ross Cavanagh is a gentleman, and, besides, he's sure to be promoted. I acknowledge the girl's charms, and I don't understand it. When I think of her objectively as Lize Wetherford's girl I wonder at her being in my house. When I see her I want her to stay with me; I want to hug her."

"Perhaps we've been unjust to Lize all along," suggested Redfield. "She has remained faithful to Ed Wetherford's memory all these years--that is conceded. Doesn't that argue some unusual quality? How many women do we know who are capable of such loyalty? Come, now! Lize is a rough piece of goods, I'll admit, and her fly-bit lunch-counter was a public nuisance; but she had the courage to send her girl away to be educated, denying herself the joy of seeing her develop by her side. We mustn't permit our prejudices to run away with us."

The girl's return put a stop to the discussion, which could end in nothing but confusion anyway.

Lee Virginia said good-bye to Mrs. Redfield with grateful appreciation of her kindness, and especially of her invitation to come again, and the tears in her eyes profoundly affected the older woman, who, with a friendliness which was something more than politeness, invited her to come again. "Whenever Roaring Fork gets on your nerves we'll be very glad to rescue you," she said in parting.

Hugh Redfield the girl thoroughly understood and loved, he was so simple-hearted and so loyal. His bitter criticisms of the West were not uttered in a destructive mood--quite the contrary. His work was constructive in the highest degree. He was profoundly impatient of America's shortcomings, for the reason that he deeply felt her responsibility to the rest of the world. His knowledge of other republics and "limited monarchies" gave his suggestions power and penetration; and even Bridges, besotted in his provincial selfishness, had advised his selection as Supervisor. Of his own fitness for the work, Redfield himself took a dispassionate view. "I am only filling the place till the right man comes along," he said to his friends. "The man before me was a half-hearted and shifty advocate. I am an enthusiast without special training; by-and-by the real forester will come to take my place."

On the way to the office, he said to Lee: "I will talk to the doctor if you like."

"I wish you would," she responded, fervently.

She remained in the machine while he went in, and as she sat there a train passed on its downward eastward run, and a feeling of loneliness, of helplessness, filled her heart. She had written many brave letters to her Eastern friends, but the vital contests, the important factors of her life, she had not mentioned. She had given no hint of her mother's physical and moral degeneration, and she had set down no word of her longing to return; but now that she was within sight of the railway the call of the East, the temptation to escape all her discomforts, was almost great enough to carry her away; but into her mind came the thought of the ranger riding his solitary way, and she turned her face to her own duties once more, comforted by the words of praise he had spoken and by the blaze of admiration in his eyes.

Redfield came out, followed by a small man carrying a neat bag. He was of surpassing ugliness, and yet she liked him. His mouth had a curious twist. He had no chin to speak of, and his bright eyes protruded like those of a beetle. His voice, however, was surprisingly fine and resonant.

"You'd better sit behind, Doctor," said Redfield. "I shall be very busy on this trip."

"Very well," replied the other, "if Miss Wetherford remains beside me; otherwise I shall rebel." He was of those small, plain men whose absurd gallantry is never taken seriously by women, and yet is something more than pretence.

He began by asking a few questions about her mother's way of life, but as Lee was not very explicit, he became impersonal, and talked of whatsoever came into his mind--motor-cars, irrigation, hunting, flowers--anything at all; and the girl had nothing to do but to utter an occasional phrase to show that she was listening. It was all rather depressing to her, for she could not understand how a man so garrulous could be a good physician. She was quite sure her mother would not treat him with the slightest respect.

After all, he talked well. His stream of conversation shortened the way for her, and she was surprised when they topped the last ridge and the Fork could be seen lying before them in the valley. Soon they were rolling quietly up the street to the door of the Wetherford House.

Springing out unaided, Lee hurried in, hoping to prepare her mother for the shock of the little physician's unimposing appearance, while Redfield remained behind to arm the physician for his encounter. "Now, Doctor, Mrs. Wetherford is a very singular and plain-spoken person. She's quite likely to swear like a man, but she will perform like a woman. Don't mind what she says; go ahead in your own way. Will you wait till after dinner, or shall I--"

"No, I shall make the examination first--while I'm hungry. My mind works quicker. I can't diagnose properly on a full stomach."

"Very well; line up with me, and together we'll beard the old grizzly in her den."

They found Lize on duty behind the counter as usual. Her face was dejected, her eyes dull, but as she caught sight of the strange little man, she cried out: "Lord God, Reddy, why didn't you bring me a _man_?"

"Hush, mother," cautioned Lee, "this is the famous Eastern physician."

"You can't be famous for your beauty--you must be brainy," she remarked to herself in the stranger's hearing.

Redfield presented "Doctor Fessenden, of Omaha."

She started again on contemptuous ways, but was stopped by the little man. "Get down out o' that chair!" he commanded. "My time is money!"

Lize flushed with surprise and anger, but obeyed, and Lee Virginia, secretly delighted with the physician's imperative manner, led the way into the lodging-house. "I'll look after the cash, mother," she said. "Don't worry."

"I'm not worryin'," she replied; "but what does that little whelp mean by talking to me like that? I'll swat him one if he isn't careful!"

"It's his way. Please don't anger him. You need his help."

The doctor interfered. "Now, madam, strip, and let's see what's the matter with you," whereupon he laid off his coat, and opened his box of instruments.

Lee fled, and Redfield, who had remained standing beside the counter, could not repress a smile. "She's caught a tartar this time. He's a little tiger, isn't he? I had prepared him for war, but I didn't expect him to fly at her that way."

"Poor mother! how dreadfully ill she looks to-day. I hope the doctor will order her to rest."

"But will she obey? I've argued that with her. She keeps saying she will, but she won't."

It was nearly one, but the customers were coming in, and the girl, laying aside her hat and veil, took her seat at the cash-register, while Redfield went out to put his machine in order for the return trip. She realized that she was now at close-hand grapple with life. For the most part she had been able, up to this time, to keep in the background, and to avoid the eyes of the rough men who came and went before her mother's seat. But now she was not merely exposed to their bold glances; she was in a position where each man could make excuse to stop and demand a word what time his change was being counted.

Her glowing cheeks, her pretty dress, made her a shining mark, and the men began at once to improve their opportunity by asking, "Where's Lize?" And this embarrassed her, for the reason that she did not care to go into the cause of her mother's temporary absence, and, perceiving her confusion, one of them passed to coarse compliment. "There's nothing the matter with you," he said, with a leer. Others, though coarse, were kindly in their familiarity, and Sifton, with gentle face, remained to help her bear the jests of the more uncouth and indelicate of her admirers.

Perceiving her nervousness, Neill Ballard raised loud outcry over a mistake she made in returning change, and this so confused and angered her that her eyes misted with tears, and she blundered sadly with the next customer. His delight in her discomfiture, his words, his grin became unendurable, and in a flush of rage and despair she sprang to her feet and left them to make triumphant exit. "I got her rattled!" he roared, as he went out. "She'll remember me."

The diners were all smiling, and Gregg took a malicious satisfaction in her defeat. She had held herself haughtily apart from him, and he was glad to see her humbled.

Leaving her place behind the counter, she walked through the room with uplifted head and burning eyes, her heart filled with bitterness and fire. She hated the whole town, the whole State, at the moment. Were these "the chivalrous short-grass knights" she had heard so much about? These the large-souled "Western founders of empire"? At the moment she was in the belief that all the heroes of her childhood had been of the stamp of Neill Ballard--selfish, lustful, and cruel.

In the hall her pride, her sense of duty, came back to her, and she halted her fleeing feet. "I will not be beaten!" she declared, and her lips straightened. "I will not let these dreadful creatures make a fool of me in that way!"

Thereupon she turned and went back, pale now, but resolved to prove herself the mistress of the situation. Fortunately Redfield had returned, and his serene presence helped her to recover complete control of herself. She remained coldly blank to every compliment, and by this means she subdued them. "Why doesn't the doctor return for his dinner?" she asked, after the room had cleared. The desire to know her mother's real condition at last quite subordinated her own besetments. To some of the older men whom she knew to be neighbors and friends she gladly explained the situation, and their sympathy did something to restore her faith in humankind. Nevertheless, this hour of unprotected intercourse with the citizens of the town was disturbing, humiliating, and embittering.

* * * * *

The doctor appearing suddenly in the door beckoned to her, and, leaving her place, she crossed to where he stood. "Your mother needs you," he said, curtly. "Go to her, and keep her quiet for an hour or two if you can."

"What is the matter, doctor?"

"I can't tell you precisely, but you must get her on a diet and keep her there. I will write out some lists for you after my luncheon."

Lee found her mother sitting in such dejection as she had never known her to display, though she fired up sufficiently to say: "That cussed little thimble-rigger has been throwing a great big scare into me. He says I've got to get out-doors, live on raw meat and weak tea, and walk five miles a day. That's what he says!" she added, in renewed astonishment at the man's audacity. "Who's at the cash?"

"Mr. Redfield," replied Lee. "I'll go right back."

"No you won't, I'm no dead horse yet." She struggled to her feet and started for the cash-register. "I won't let no little Omaha doughgie like that put me out o' business."

Despite all warnings, she walked out into the dining-room and took her accustomed seat with set and stern face, while her daughter went to the table where the doctor sat, and explained her inability to manage her mother.

"That's _your problem," he replied, coolly. Then rapidly, succinctly, and clearly he went over the case, and laid out a course of treatment. Out of it all Lee deduced that her mother was very ill indeed, though not in danger of sudden death.

"She's on the chute," said Fessenden, "and everything depends upon her own action whether she takes the plunge this winter or twenty years from now. She's a strong woman--or has been--but she has presumed upon her strength. She used to live out-of-doors, she tells me, during all her early life, and now, shut in by these walls, working sixteen hours a day, she is killing herself. Get her out if you can, and cut out stimulants."

As he rose and approached the counter, Lize shoved a couple of gold pieces across the board. "That wipes you off my map," she grimly declared. "I hope you enjoyed your ride."

"It's up to you, madam," he replied, pocketing the gold. "Good-day!"

Lee followed him out to the car, eager to secure all she could of his wisdom. He repeated his instructions. "Medicine can't help her much," he said, "but diet can do a great deal. Get her out of that rut she's in. Good-bye."

"I'll be down again in a day or two!" called Redfield.

The machine began to purr and spit and the wheels to spin, and Lee Virginia was left to face her mother's obstinate resistance alone. She felt suddenly very desolate, very weak, and very poor. "What if mother should die?" she asked herself.

Gregg was standing before the counter talking with Lize as Lee returned, and he said, with a broad smile: "I've just been saying I'd take this hotel off your mother's hands provided you went with it."

In the mouths of some men these words would have been harmless enough, but coming from the tongue of one whose life could only be obscurely hinted at the jest was an insult. The girl shuddered with repulsion, and Lize spoke out:

"Now see here, Bullfrog, I'm dead on the hoof and all that, but neither you nor any other citizen like you can be funny with my girl. She's not for you. Now that's final! She ain't your kind."

Gregg's smile died into a gray, set smirk, and his eyes took on a steely glint. He knew when the naked, unadorned truth was spoken to him. Words came slowly to his lips, but he said: "You'll be glad to come to me for help some day--both of you."

"Oh, get along! You don't hold no mortgage on me," retorted Lize, contemptuously, and turned to Lee. "I'm hungry. Where's that grub chart o' mine?"

Lee brought the doctor's page of notes and read it through, while her mother snorted at intervals: "Hah! dry toast, weak tea, no coffee, no alcohol. Huh! I might as well starve! Eggs--fish--milk! Why didn't he say boiled live lobsters and champagne? I tell you right now, I'm not going to go into that kind of a game. If I die I'm going to die eating what I blame please."

The struggle had begun. With desperate courage Lee fought, standing squarely in the rut of her mother's daily habit. "You must not hive up here any longer," she insisted; "you must get out and walk and ride. I can take care of the house--at least, till we can sell it."

It was like breaking the pride of an athlete, but little by little she forced upon her mother a realization of her true condition, and at last Lize consented to offer the business for sale. Then she wept (for the first time in years), and the sight moved her daughter much as the sobs of a strong man would have done.

She longed for the presence of Ross Cavanagh at this moment, when all her little world seemed tumbling into ruin; and almost in answer to her wordless prayer came a messenger from the little telephone office: "Some one wants to talk to you."

She answered this call hurriedly, thinking at first that it must be Mrs. Redfield. The booth was in the little sitting-room of a private cottage, and the mistress of the place, a shrewd little woman with inquisitive eyes, said: "Sounds to me like Ross Cavanagh's voice."

Lee was thankful for the booth's privacy, for her cheeks flamed up at this remark; and when she took up the receiver her heart was beating so loud it seemed as if the person at the other end of the wire must hear it. "Who is it, please?" she asked, with breathless intensity.

A man's voice came back over the wire so clear, so distinct, so intimate, it seemed as if he were speaking into her ear. "It is I, Ross Cavanagh. I want to ask how your mother is?"

"She is terribly disheartened by what the doctor has said, but she is in no immediate danger."

He perceived her agitation, and was instantly sympathetic. "Can I be of use--do you need me? If you do, I'll come down."

"Where are you?"

"I am at the sawmill--the nearest telephone station."

"How far away are you?"

"About thirty miles."

"Oh!" She expressed in this little sound her disappointment, and as it trembled over the wire he spoke quickly: "Please tell me! Do you want me to come down? Never mind the distance--I can ride it in a few hours."

She was tempted, but bravely said: "No; I'd like to see you, of course, but the doctor said mother was in no danger. You must not come on our account."

He felt the wonder of the moment's intercourse over the wilderness steeps, and said so. "You can't imagine how strangely sweet and civilized your voice sounds to me here in this savage place. It makes me hope that some day you and Mrs. Redfield will come up and visit me in person."

"I should like to come."

"Perhaps it would do your mother good to camp for a while. Can't you persuade her to do so?"

"I'm trying to do that--I mean, to stop work; but she says, 'What can we do to earn a living?'"

"If nothing happens I hope to spend an hour or two at the Forks next Sunday. I hope to find your mother better."

Their words were of this unemotional sort, but in their voices something subtler than the electrical current vibrated. He called to her in wordless fashion and she answered in the same mysterious code, and when she said "Good-bye" and hung up the receiver her world went suddenly gray and commonplace, as if a ray of special sunlight had been withdrawn.

The attendant asked, with village bluntness: "It _was Ross, wasn't it?"

Lee Virginia resented this almost as much as if it were the question of an eavesdropper; but she answered: "Yes; he wanted to know how my mother was."

She turned as she reached the street and looked up toward the glorious purpling deeps from which the ranger's voice had come, and the thought that he was the sole guardian of those dark forests and shining streams--that his way led among those towering peaks and lone canons--made of him something altogether admirable.

That night her loneliness, her sense of weakness, carried her to bed with tears of despair in her eyes. Lize had insisted on going back to her work looking like one stricken with death, yet so rebellious that her daughter could do nothing with her; and in the nature of fate the day's business had been greater than ever, so that they had all been forced to work like slaves to feed the flood of custom. And Lize herself still kept her vigil in her chair above her gold.

Closing her mind to the town and all it meant to her, the girl tried to follow, in imagination, the ranger treading his far, high trails. She recalled his voice, so cultivated, so rich of inflection, with dangerous tenderness. It had come down to her from those lofty parapets like that of a friend, laden with something sweeter than sympathy, more alluring than song.

The thought of some time going up to the high country where he dwelt came to her most insistently, and she permitted herself to dream of long days of companionship with him, of riding through sunlit aisles of forest with him, of cooking for him at the cabin--what time her mother grew strong once more--and these dreams bred in her heart a wistful ache, a hungry need which made her pillow a place of mingled ecstasy and pain.

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