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The Valley of the Giants (Chapter3)

2006-08-22 19:41

  Chapter III

  A young half-breed Digger woman, who had suffered the loss of the latest of her numerous progeny two days prior to Mrs. Cardigan's death, was installed in the house on the knoll as nurse to John Cardigan's son whom he called Bryce, the family name of his mother's people. A Mrs. Tully, widow of Cardigan's first engineer in the mill, was engaged as housekeeper and cook; and with his domestic establishment reorganized along these simple lines, John Cardigan turned with added eagerness to his business affairs, hoping between them and his boy to salvage as much as possible from what seemed to him, in the first pangs of his loneliness and desolation, the wreckage of his life.

  While Bryce was in swaddling clothes, he was known only to those females of Sequoia to whom his half-breed foster mother proudly exhibited him when taking him abroad for an airing in his perambulator. With his advent into rompers, however, and the assumption of his American prerogative of free speech, his father developed the habit of bringing the child down to the mill office, to which he added a playroom that connected with his private office. Hence, prior to his second birthday, Bryce divined that his father was closer to him than motherly Mrs. Tully or the half-breed girl, albeit the housekeeper sang to him the lullabys that mothers know while the Digger girl, improvising blank verse paeans of praise and prophecy, crooned them to her charge in the unmusical monotone of her tribal tongue. His father, on the contrary, wasted no time in singing, but would toss him to the ceiling or set him astride his foot and swing him until he screamed in ecstasy. Moreover, his father took him on wonderful journeys which no other member of the household had even suggested. Together they were wont to ride to and from the woods in the cab of the logging locomotive, and once they both got on the log carriage in the mill with Dan Keyes, the head sawyer, and had a jolly ride up to the saw and back again, up and back again until the log had been completely sawed; and because he had refrained from crying aloud when the greedy saw bit into the log with a shrill whine, Dan Keyes had given him a nickel to put in his tin bank.

  Of all their adventures together, however, those which occurred on their frequent excursions up to the Valley of the Giants impressed themselves imperishably upon Bryce's memory. How well he remembered their first trip, when, seated astride his father's shoulders with his sturdy little legs around Cardigan's neck and his chubby little hands clasping the old man's ears, they had gone up the abandoned skid-road and into the semi-darkness of the forest, terminating suddenly in a shower of sunshine that fell in an open space where a boy could roll and play and never get dirty. Also there were several dozen gray squirrels there waiting to climb on his shoulder and search his pockets for pine-nuts, a supply of which his father always furnished.

  Bryce always looked forward with eagerness to those frequent trips with his father “to the place where Mother dear went to heaven.” From his perch on his father's shoulders he could look vast distances into the underbrush and catch glimpses of the wild life therein; when the last nut had been distributed to the squirrels in the clearing, he would follow a flash of blue that was a jay high up among the evergreen branches, or a flash of red that was a woodpecker hammering a home in the bark of a sugar-pine. Eventually, however, the spell of the forest would creep over the child; intuitively he would become one with the all-pervading silence, climb into his father's arms as the latter sat dreaming on the old sugar-pine windfall, and presently drop off to sleep.

  When Bryce was six years old, his father sent him to the public school in Sequoia with the children of his loggers and mill-hands, thus laying the foundation for a democratic education all too infrequent with the sons of men rated as millionaires. At night old Cardigan (for so men had now commenced to designate him!) would hear his boy's lessons, taking the while an immeasurable delight in watching the lad's mind develop. As a pupil Bryce was not meteoric; he had his father's patient, unexcitable nature; and, like the old man, he possessed the glorious gift of imagination. Never mediocre, he was never especially brilliant, but was seemingly content to maintain a steady, dependable average in all things. He had his mother's dark auburn hair, brown eyes, and fair white skin, and quite early in life he gave promise of being as large and powerful a man as his father.

  Bryce's boyhood was much the same as that of other lads in Sequoia, save that in the matter of toys and, later guns, fishing-rods, dogs, and ponies he was a source of envy to his fellows. After his tenth year his father placed him on the mill pay-roll, and on payday he was wont to line up with the mill-crew to receive his modest stipend of ten dollars for carrying in kindling to the cook in the mill kitchen each day after school.

  This otherwise needless arrangement was old Cardigan's way of teaching his boy financial responsibility. All that he possessed he had worked for, and he wanted his son to grow up with the business to realize that he was a part of it with definite duties connected with it developing upon him——duties which he must never shirk if he was to retain the rich redwood heritage his father had been so eagerly storing up for him.

  When Bryce Cardigan was about fourteen years old there occurred an important event in his life. In a commendable effort to increase his income he had laid out a small vegetable garden in the rear of his father's house, and here on a Saturday morning, while down on his knees weeding carrots, he chanced to look up and discovered a young lady gazing at him through the picket fence. She was a few years his junior, and a stranger in Sequoia. Ensued the following conversation: “Hello, little boy.”

  “Hello yourself! I ain't a little boy.”

  She ignored the correction. “What are you doing?”

  “Weedin' carrots. Can't you see?”

  “What for?”

  Bryce, highly incensed at having been designated a little boy by this superior damsel, saw his opportunity to silence her. “Cat's fur for kitten breeches,” he retorted——without any evidence of originality, we must confess. Whereat she stung him to the heart with a sweet smile and promptly sang for him this ancient ballad of childhood:

  “What are little boys made of?

  What are little boys made of?

  Snakes and snails,And puppy dog's tails,And that's what little boys are made of.“

  Bryce knew the second verse and shrivelled inwardly in anticipation of being informed that little girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Realizing that he had begun something which might not terminate with credit to himself, he hung his head and for the space of several minutes gave all his attention to his crop. And presently the visitor spoke again.

  “I like your hair, little boy. It's a pretty red.”

  That settled the issue between them. To be hailed as little boy was bad enough, but to be reminded of his crowning misfortune was adding insult to injury. He rose and cautiously approached the fence with the intention of pinching the impudent stranger, suddenly and surreptitiously, and sending her away weeping. As his hand crept between the palings on its wicked mission, the little miss looked at him in friendly fashion and queried:

  “What's your name?”

  Bryce's hand hesitated. “Bryce Cardigan,” he answered gruffly.

  “I'm Shirley Sumner,” she ventured, “Let's be friends.”

  “When did you come to live in Sequoia?” he demanded.

  “I don't live here. I'm just visiting here with my aunt and uncle. We're staying at the hotel, and there's nobody to play with. My uncle's name is Pennington. So's my aunt's. He's out here buying timber, and we live in Michigan. Do you know the capital of Michigan?”

  “Of course I do,” he answered. “The capital of Michigan is Chicago.”

  “Oh, you big stupid! It isn't. It's Detroit.”

  “'Tain't neither. It's Chicago.”

  “I live there——so I guess I ought to know. So there!”

  Bryce was vanquished, and an acute sense of his imperfections in matters geographical inclined him to end the argument. “Well, maybe you're right,” he admitted grudgingly. “Anyhow, what difference does it make?”

  She did not answer. Evidently she was desirous of avoiding an argument if possible. Her gaze wandered past Bryce to where his Indian pony stood with her head out the window of her box-stall contemplating her master.

  “Oh, what a dear little horse!” Shirley Sumner exclaimed. “Whose is he?”

  “'Tain't a he. It's a she. And she belongs to me.”

  “Do you ride her?”

  “Not very often now. I'm getting too heavy for her, so Dad's bought me a horse that weighs nine hundred pounds. Midget only weighs five hundred.” He considered her a moment while she gazed in awe upon this man with two horses. “Can you ride a pony?” he asked, for no reason that he was aware of.

  She sighed, shaking her head resignedly. “We haven't any room to keep a pony at our house in Detroit,” she explained, and added hopefully: “But I'd love to ride on Midget. I suppose I could learn to ride if somebody taught me how.”

  He looked at her again. At that period of his existence he was inclined to regard girls as a necessary evil. For some immutable reason they existed, and perforce must be borne with, and it was his hope that he would get through life and see as little as possible of the exasperating sex. Nevertheless, as Bryce surveyed this winsome miss through the palings, he was sensible of a sneaking desire to find favour in her eyes——also equally sensible of the fact that the path to that desirable end lay between himself and Midget. He swelled with the importance of one who knows he controls a delicate situation. “Well, I suppose if you want a ride I'll have to give it to you,” he grumbled, “although I'm mighty busy this morning.”

  “Oh, I think you're so nice,” she declared.

  A thrill shot through him that was akin to pain; with difficulty did he restrain an impulse to dash wildly into the stable and saddle Midget in furious haste. Instead he walked to the barn slowly and with extreme dignity. When he reappeared, he was leading Midget, a little silverpoint runt of a Klamath Indian pony, and Moses, a sturdy pinto cayuse from the cattle ranges over in Trinity County. “I'll have to ride with you,” he announced. “Can't let a tenderfoot like you go out alone on Midget.”

  All aflutter with delightful anticipation, the young lady climbed up on the gate and scrambled into the saddle when Bryce swung the pony broadside to the gate. Then he adjusted the stirrups to fit her, passed a hair rope from Midget's little hackamore to the pommel of Moses' saddle, mounted the pinto, and proceeded with his first adventure as a riding-master. Two hours of his valuable time did he give that morning before the call of duty brought him back to the house and his neglected crop of carrots. When he suggested tactfully, however, that it was now necessary that his guest and Midget separate, a difficulty arose. Shirley Sumner refused point blank to leave the premises. She liked Bryce for his hair and because he had been so kind to her; she was a stranger in Sequoia, and now that she had found an agreeable companion, it was far from her intention to desert him.

  So Miss Sumner stayed and helped Bryce weed his carrots, and since as a voluntary labourer she was at least worth her board, at noon Bryce brought her in to Mrs. Tully with a request for luncheon. When he went to the mill to carry in the kindling for the cook, the young lady returned rather sorrowfully to the Hotel Sequoia, with a fervent promise to see him the next day. She did, and Bryce took her for a long ride up into the Valley of the Giants and showed her his mother's grave. The gray squirrels were there, and Bryce gave Shirley a bag of pine-nuts to feed them. Then they put some flowers on the grave, and when they returned to town and Bryce was unsaddling the ponies, Shirley drew Midget's nose down to her and kissed it. Then she commenced to weep rather violently.

  “What are you crying about?” Bryce demanded. Girls were so hard to understand.

  “I'm go-going h-h-h-home to-morrow,” she howled.

  He was stricken with dismay and bade her desist from her vain repinings. But her heart was broken, and somehow——Bryce appeared to act automatically——he had his arm around her. “Don't cry, Shirley,” he pleaded. “It breaks my heart to see you cry. Do you want Midget? I'll give her to you.”

  Between sobs Shirley confessed that the prospect of parting with him and not Midget was provocative of her woe. This staggered Bryce and pleased him immensely. And at parting she kissed him good-bye, reiterating her opinion that he was the nicest, kindest boy she had ever met or hoped to meet.

  When Shirley and her uncle and aunt boarded the steamer for San Francisco, Bryce stood disconsolate on the dock and waved to Shirley until he could no longer discern her on the deck. Then he went home, crawled up into the haymow and wept, for he had something in his heart and it hurt. He thought of his elfin companion very frequently for a week, and he lost his appetite, very much to Mrs. Tully's concern. Then the steelhead trout began to run in Eel River, and the sweetest event that can occur in any boy's existence——the sudden awakening to the wonder and beauty of life so poignantly realized in his first love-affair——was lost sight of by Bryce. In a month he had forgotten the incident; in six months he had forgotten Shirley Sumner.

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