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The Voice From The Heights








From: Cavanaugh: Forest Ranger

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.





Next: The Poachers

Previous: Two On The Veranda



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