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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Forester's Daughter: A Romance Of The Bear-tooth Range - Chapter 7. The Walk In The Rain
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The Forester's Daughter: A Romance Of The Bear-tooth Range - Chapter 7. The Walk In The Rain Post by :sesam Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :1365

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The Forester's Daughter: A Romance Of The Bear-tooth Range - Chapter 7. The Walk In The Rain

CHAPTER VII. THE WALK IN THE RAIN

Norcross, with his city training, was acutely conscious of the delicacy of the situation. In his sister's circle a girl left alone in this way with a man would have been very seriously embarrassed; but it was evident that Berrie took it all joyously, innocently. Their being together was something which had happened in the natural course of weather, a condition for which they were in no way responsible. Therefore she permitted herself to be frankly happy in the charm of their enforced intimacy.

She had never known a youth of his quality. He was so considerate, so refined, so quick of understanding, and so swift to serve. He filled her mind to the exclusion of unimportant matters like the snow, which was beginning again; indeed, her only anxiety concerned his health, and as he toiled amid the falling flakes, intent upon heaping up wood enough to last out the night, she became solicitous.

"You will be soaked," she warningly cried. "Don't stay out any more. Come to the fire. I'll bring in the wood."

Something primeval, some strength he did not know he possessed sustained him, and he toiled on. "Suppose this snow keeps falling?" he retorted. "The Supervisor will not be able to get back to-night--perhaps not for a couple of nights. We will need a lot of fuel."

He did not voice the fear of the storm which filled his thought; but the girl understood it. "It won't be very cold," she calmly replied. "It never is during these early blizzards; and, besides, all we need to do is to drop down the trail ten miles and we'll be entirely out of it."

"I'll feel safer with plenty of wood," he argued; but soon found it necessary to rest from his labors. Coming in to camp, he seated himself beside her on a roll of blankets, and so together they tended the fire and watched the darkness roll over the lake till the shining crystals seemed to drop from a measureless black arch, soundless and oppressive. The wind died away, and the trees stood as if turned into bronze, moveless, save when a small branch gave way and dropped its rimy burden, or a squirrel leaped from one top to another. Even the voice of the waterfall seemed muffled and remote.

"I'm a long way from home and mother," Wayland said, with a smile; "but--I like it."

"Isn't it fun?" she responded. "In a way it's nicer on account of the storm. But you are not dressed right; you should have waterproof boots. You never can tell when you may be set afoot. You should always go prepared for rain and snow, and, above all, have an extra pair of thick stockings. Your feet are soaked now, aren't they?"

"They are; but your father told me to always dry my boots on my feet, otherwise they'd shrink out of shape."

"That's right, too; but you'd better take 'em off and wring out your socks or else put on dry ones."

"You insist on my playing the invalid," he complained, "and that makes me angry. When I've been over here a month you'll find me a glutton for hardship. I shall be a bear, a grizzly, fearful to contemplate. My roar will affright you."

She laughed like a child at his ferocity. "You'll have to change a whole lot," she said, and drew the blanket closer about his shoulders. "Just now your job is to keep warm and dry. I hope you won't get lonesome over here."

"I'm not going to open a book or read a newspaper. I'm not going to write to a single soul except you. I'll be obliged to report to you, won't I?"

"I'm not the Supervisor."

"You're the next thing to it," he quickly retorted. "You've been my board of health from the very first. I should have fled for home long ago had it not been for you."

Her eyes fell under his glance. "You'll get pretty tired of things over here. It's one of the lonesomest stations in the forest."

"I'll get lonesome for you; but not for the East." This remark, or rather the tone in which it was uttered, brought another flush of consciousness to the girl's face.

"What time is it now?" she asked, abruptly.

He looked at his watch. "Half after eight."

"If father isn't on this side of the divide now he won't try to cross. If he's coming down the slope he'll be here in an hour, although that trail is a tolerably tough proposition this minute. A patch of dead timber on a dark night is sure a nuisance, even to a good man. He may not make it."

"Shall I fire my gun?"

"What for?"

"As a signal to him."

This amused her. "Daddy don't need any hint about direction--what he needs is a light to see the twist of the trail through those fallen logs."

"Couldn't I rig up a torch and go to meet him?"

She put her hand on his arm. "You stay right here!" she commanded. "You couldn't follow that trail five minutes."

"You have a very poor opinion of my skill."

"No, I haven't; but I know how hard it is to keep direction on a night like this and I don't want you wandering around in the timber. Father can take care of himself. He's probably sitting under a big tree smoking his pipe before his fire--or else he's at home. He knows we're all right, and we are. We have wood and grub, and plenty of blankets, and a roof over us. You can make your bed under this fly," she said, looking up at the canvas. "It beats the old balsam as a roof. You mustn't sleep cold again."

"I think I'd better sit up and keep the fire going," he replied, heroically. "There's a big log out there that I'm going to bring in to roll up on the windward side."

"It'll be cold and wet early in the morning, and I don't like to hunt kindling in the snow," she said. "I always get everything ready the night before. I wish you had a better bed. It seems selfish of me to have the tent while you are cold."

One by one--under her supervision--he made preparations for morning. He cut some shavings from a dead, dry branch of fir and put them under the fly, and brought a bucket of water from the creek, and then together they dragged up the dead tree.

Had the young man been other than he was, the girl's purity, candor, and self-reliance would have conquered him, and when she withdrew to the little tent and let fall the frail barrier between them, she was as safe from intrusion as if she had taken refuge behind gates of triple brass. Nothing in all his life had moved him so deeply as her solicitude, her sweet trust in his honor, and he sat long in profound meditation. Any man would be rich in the ownership of her love, he admitted. That he possessed her pity and her friendship he knew, and he began to wonder if he had made a deeper appeal to her than this.

"Can it be that I am really a man to her," he thought, "I who am only a poor weakling whom the rain and snow can appall?"

Then he thought of the effect of this night upon her life. What would Clifford Belden do now? To what deeps would his rage descend if he should come to know of it?

Berrie was serene. Twice she spoke from her couch to say: "You'd better go to bed. Daddy can't get here till to-morrow now."

"I'll stay up awhile yet. My boots aren't entirely dried out."

As the flame sank low the cold bit, and he built up the half-burned logs so that they blazed again. He worked as silently as he could; but the girl again spoke, with sweet authority: "Haven't you gone to bed yet?"

"Oh yes, I've been asleep. I only got up to rebuild the fire."

"I'm afraid you're cold."

"I'm as comfortable as I deserve; it's all schooling, you know. Please go to sleep again." His teeth were chattering as he spoke, but he added: "I'm all right."

After a silence she said: "You must not get chilled. Bring your bed into the tent. There is room for you."

"Oh no, that isn't necessary. I'm standing it very well."

"You'll be sick!" she urged, in a voice of alarm. "Please drag your bed inside the door. What would I do if you should have pneumonia to-morrow? You must not take any risk of a fever."

The thought of a sheltered spot, of something to break the remorseless wind, overcame his scruples, and he drew his bed inside the tent and rearranged it there.

"You're half frozen," she said. "Your teeth are chattering."

"It isn't so much the cold," he stammered. "I'm tired."

"You poor boy!" she exclaimed, and rose in her bed. "I'll get up and heat some water for you."

"I'll be all right, in a few moments," he said. "Please go to sleep. I shall be snug as a bug in a moment."

She watched his shadowy motions from her bed, and when at last he had nestled into his blankets, she said: "If you don't lose your chill I'll heat a rock and put at your feet."

He was ready to cry out in shame of his weakness; but he lay silent till he could command his voice, then he said: "That would drive me from the country in disgrace. Think of what the fellows down below will say when they know of my cold feet."

"They won't hear of it; and, besides, it is better to carry a hot-water bag than to be laid up with a fever."

Her anxiety lessened as his voice resumed its pleasant tenor flow. "Dear girl," he said, "no one could have been sweeter--more like a guardian angel to me. Don't place me under any greater obligation. Go to sleep. I am better--much better now."

She did not speak for a few moments, then in a voice that conveyed to him a knowledge that his words of endearment had deeply moved her, she softly said: "Good night."

He heard her sigh drowsily thereafter once or twice, and then she slept, and her slumber redoubled in him his sense of guardianship, of responsibility. Lying there in the shelter of her tent, the whole situation seemed simple, innocent, and poetic; but looked at from the standpoint of Clifford Belden it held an accusation.

"It cannot be helped," he said. "The only thing we can do is to conceal the fact that we spent the night beneath this tent alone."

In the belief that the way would clear with the dawn, he, too, fell asleep, while the fire sputtered and smudged in the fitful mountain wind.

The second dawn came slowly, as though crippled by the storm and walled back by the clouds. Gradually, austerely, the bleak, white peaks began to define themselves above the firs. The camp-birds called cheerily from the wet branches which overhung the smoldering embers of the fire, and so at last day was abroad in the sky.

With a dull ache in his bones, Wayland crept out to the fire and set to work fanning the coals with his hat, as he had seen the Supervisor do. He worked desperately till one of the embers began to angrily sparkle and to smoke. Then slipping away out of earshot he broke an armful of dry fir branches to heap above the wet, charred logs. Soon these twigs broke into flame, and Berrie, awakened by the crackle of the pine branches, called out: "Is it daylight?"

"Yes, but it's a very _dark daylight. Don't leave your warm bed for the dampness and cold out here; stay where you are; I'll get breakfast."

"How are you this morning? Did you sleep?"

"Fine!"

"I'm afraid you had a bad night," she insisted, in a tone which indicated her knowledge of his suffering.

"Camp life has its disadvantages," he admitted, as he put the coffee-pot on the fire. "But I'm feeling better now. I never fried a bird in my life, but I'm going to try it this morning. I have some water heating for your bath." He put the soap, towel, and basin of hot water just inside the tent flap. "Here it is. I'm going to bathe in the lake. I must show my hardihood."

He heard her protesting as he went off down the bank, but his heart was resolute. "I'm not dead yet," he said, grimly. "An invalid who can spend two such nights as these, and still face a cold wind, has some vitality in his bones after all."

When he returned he found the girl full dressed, alert, and glowing; but she greeted him with a touch of shyness and self-consciousness new to her, and her eyes veiled themselves before his glance.

"_Now_, where do you suppose the Supervisor is?" he asked.

"I hope he's at home," she replied, quite seriously. "I'd hate to think of him camped in the high country without bedding or tent."

"Oughtn't I to take a turn up the trail and see? I feel guilty somehow--I must do something!"

"You can't help matters any by hoofing about in the mud. No, we'll just hold the fort till he comes, that's what he'll expect us to do."

He submitted once more to the force of her argument, and they ate breakfast in such intimacy and good cheer that the night's discomforts and anxieties counted for little. As the sun broke through the clouds Berrie hung out the bedding in order that its dampness might be warmed away.

"We may have to camp here again to-night," she explained, demurely.

"Worse things could happen than that," he gallantly answered. "I wouldn't mind a month of it, only I shouldn't want it to rain or snow all the time."

"Poor boy! You did suffer, didn't you? I was afraid you would. Did you sleep at all?" she asked, tenderly.

"Oh yes, after I came inside; but, of course, I was more or less restless expecting your father to ride up, and then it's all rather exciting business to a novice. I could hear all sorts of birds and beasts stepping and fluttering about. I was scared in spite of my best resolution."

"That's funny; I never feel that way. I slept like a log after I knew you were comfortable. You must have a better bed and more blankets. It's always cold up here."

The sunlight was short-lived. The clouds settled over the peaks, and ragged wisps of gray vapor dropped down the timbered slopes of the prodigious amphitheater in which the lake lay. Again Berrie made everything snug while her young woodsman toiled at bringing logs for the fire.

In truth, he was more elated than he had been since leaving school, for he was not only doing a man's work in the world, he was serving a woman in the immemorial way of the hewer of wood and the carrier of water. His fatigue and the chill of the morning wore away, and he took vast pride in dragging long poles down the hillside, forcing Berrie to acknowledge that he was astonishingly strong. "But don't overdo it," she warned.

At last fully provided for, they sat contentedly side by side under the awning and watched the falling rain as it splashed and sizzled on the sturdy fire. "It's a little like being shipwrecked on a desert island, isn't it?" he said. "As if our boats had drifted away."

At noon she again prepared an elaborate meal. She served potatoes and grouse, hot biscuit with sugar syrup, and canned peaches, and coffee done to just the right color and aroma. He declared it wonderful, and they ate with repeated wishes that the Supervisor might turn up in time to share their feast; but he did not. Then Berrie said, firmly: "Now you must take a snooze, you look tired."

He was, in truth, not only drowsy but lame and tired. Therefore, he yielded to her suggestion.

She covered him with blankets and put him away like a child. "Now you have a good sleep," she said, tenderly. "I'll call you when daddy comes."

With a delicious sense of her protecting care he lay for a few moments listening to the drip of the water on the tent, then drifted away into peace and silence.

When he woke the ground was again covered with snow, and the girl was feeding the fire with wood which her own hands had supplied.

Hearing him stir, she turned and fixed her eyes upon him with clear, soft gaze. "How do you feel by now?" she asked.

"Quite made over," he replied, rising alertly.

His cheer, however, was only pretense. He was greatly worried. "Something has happened to your father," he said. "His horse has thrown him, or he has slipped and fallen." His peace and exultation were gone. "How far is it down to the ranger station?"

"About twelve miles."

"Don't you think we'd better close camp and go down there? It is now three o'clock; we can walk it in five hours."

She shook her head. "No, I think we'd better stay right here. It's a long, hard walk, and the trail is muddy."

"But, dear girl," he began, desperately, "it won't do for us to camp here--alone--in this way another night. What will Cliff say?"

She flamed red, then whitened. "I don't care what Cliff thinks--I'm done with him--and no one that I really care about would blame us." She was fully aware of his anxiety now. "It isn't our fault."

"It will be _my fault if I keep you here longer!" he answered. "We must reach a telephone and send word out. Something may have happened to your father."

"I'm not worried a bit about him. It may be that there's been a big snowfall up above us--or else a windstorm. The trail may be blocked; but don't worry. He may have to go round by Lost Lake pass." She pondered a moment. "I reckon you're right. We'd better pack up and rack down the trail to the ranger's cabin. Not on my account, but on yours. I'm afraid you've taken cold."

"I'm all right, except I'm very lame; but I am anxious to go on. By the way, is this ranger Settle married?"

"No, his station is one of the lonesomest cabins on the forest. No woman will stay there."

This made Wayland ponder. "Nevertheless," he decided, "we'll go. After all, the man is a forest officer, and you are the Supervisor's daughter."

She made no further protest, but busied herself closing the panniers and putting away the camp utensils. She seemed to recognize that his judgment was sound.

It was after three when they left the tent and started down the trail, carrying nothing but a few toilet articles.

He stopped at the edge of the clearing. "Should we have left a note for the Supervisor?"

She pointed to their footprints. "There's all the writing he needs," she assured him, leading the way at a pace which made him ache. She plashed plumply into the first puddle in the path. "No use dodging 'em," she called over her shoulder, and he soon saw that she was right.

The trees were dripping, the willows heavy with water, and the mud ankle-deep--in places--but she pushed on steadily, and he, following in her tracks, could only marvel at her strength and sturdy self-reliance. The swing of her shoulders, the poise of her head, and the lithe movement of her waist, made his own body seem a poor thing.

For two hours they zigzagged down a narrow canyon heavily timbered with fir and spruce--a dark, stern avenue, crossed by roaring streams, and filled with frequent boggy meadows whereon the water lay mid-leg deep.

"We'll get out of this very soon," she called, cheerily.

By degrees the gorge widened, grew more open, more genial. Aspen thickets of pale-gold flashed upon their eyes like sunlight, and grassy bunches afforded firmer footing, but on the slopes their feet slipped and slid painfully. Still Berea kept her stride. "We must get to the middle fork before dark," she stopped to explain, "for I don't know the trail down there, and there's a lot of down timber just above the station. Now that we're cut loose from our camp I feel nervous. As long as I have a tent I am all right; but now we are in the open I worry. How are you standing it?" She studied him with keen and anxious glance, her hand upon his arm.

"Fine as a fiddle," he replied, assuming a spirit he did not possess, "but you are marvelous. I thought cowgirls couldn't walk?"

"I can do anything when I have to," she replied. "We've got three hours more of it." And she warningly exclaimed: "Look back there!"

They had reached a point from which the range could be seen, and behold it was covered deep with a seamless robe of new snow.

"That's why dad didn't get back last night. He's probably wallowing along up there this minute." And she set off again with resolute stride. Wayland's pale face and labored breath alarmed her. She was filled with love and pity, but she pressed forward desperately.

As he grew tired, Wayland's boots, loaded with mud, became fetters, and every slope greasy with mire seemed an almost insurmountable barricade. He fell several times, but made no outcry. "I will not add to her anxiety," he said to himself.

At last they came to the valley floor, over which a devastating fire had run some years before, and which was still covered with fallen trees in desolate confusion. Here the girl made her first mistake. She kept on toward the river, although Wayland called attention to a trail leading to the right up over the low grassy hills. For a mile the path was clear, but she soon found herself confronted by an endless maze of blackened tree-trunks, and at last the path ended abruptly.

Dismayed and halting, she said: "We've got to go back to that trail which branched off to the right. I reckon that was the highland trail which Settle made to keep out of the swamp. I thought it was a trail from Cameron Peak, but it wasn't. Back we go."

She was suffering keenly now, not on her own account, but on his, for she could see that he was very tired, and to climb up that hill again was like punishing him a second time.

When she picked up the blazed trail it was so dark that she could scarcely follow it; but she felt her way onward, turning often to be sure that he was following. Once she saw him fall, and cried out: "It's a shame to make you climb this hill again. It's all my fault. I ought to have known that that lower road led down into the timber."

Standing close beside him in the darkness, knowing that he was weary, wet, and ill, she permitted herself the expression of her love and pity. Putting her arm about him, she drew his cheek against her own, saying: "Poor boy, your hands are cold as ice." She took them in her own warm clasp. "Oh, I wish we had never left the camp! What does it matter what people say?" Then she broke down and wailed. "I shall never forgive myself if you--" Her voice failed her.

(Illustration: SHE FOUND HERSELF CONFRONTED BY AN ENDLESS MAZE OF BLACKENED TREE-TRUNKS)

He bravely reassured her: "I'm not defeated, I'm just tired. That's all. I can go on."

"But you are shaking."

"That is merely a nervous chill. I'm good for another hour. It's better to keep moving, anyhow."

She thrust her hand under his coat and laid it over his heart. "You are tired out," she said, and there was anguish in her voice. "Your heart is pounding terribly. You mustn't do any more climbing. And, hark, there's a wolf!"

He listened. "I hear him; but we are both armed. There's no danger from wild animals."

"Come!" she said, instantly recovering her natural resolution. "We can't stand here. The station can't be far away. We must go on."

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