From the Relief Society Magazine, 1951
For the Strength of the Hills
By Mabel Harmer
Camilla stood on the platform in front of the little station and watched the train grow small in the distance. It finally disappeared around a hill and left her feeling very much a stranger in a strange land. What if Idaho was just a thousand miles from California? To all purposes, for the time being, it might just as well have been a hundred thousand. Well, she had insisted upon coming and here she was.
She picked up her bag and walked around to the other side of the station where a short, plump station master was hauling some express packages into the side room. “You stoppin’ here?” he paused to ask.
She resisted an impulse to answer, “Obviously,” and said instead, “I’m going to Crandall. Can you tell me how to get there?”
“On shanks’ ponies, unless you can catch a ride with Stan Rodgers,” he said cheerfully. “He came in for a piece of machinery, but I reckon he could make room for you. Or you can wait and go out with the mail in the morning.”
“Where would I be able to find Mr. Rodgers?” she asked, brushing aside the suggestion of a ride with the mail.
“Hard to say. Maybe over at Peebles’ store. Most everyone who comes in goes there sooner or later.”
“Thank you. I’ll just put this bag with the others, if you don’t mind, until I’m ready to leave.”
“Not at all,” he replied, picking up the bag and placing it on top of the two that she had checked. “The store is at the other end of the block. You can’t miss it.”
Not until Camilla had started down the unpaved sidewalk did she begin to wonder how she would identify Mr. Rodgers. She hadn’t even asked his approximate age. Well, she could always ask his name.
Peebles’ store had the combined odors of practically everything from leather goods to candy. There were half a dozen customers, but only two of them were men, so she took a chance on the younger and said, “I’m looking for a Mr. Rodgers.”
“Speaking,” he answered briefly and to the point. “What can I do for you?”
“My name is Camilla Fenton, and I’d like a lift to Crandall, if you can manage the room. I have three bags.”
“I can manage if you can,” he countered. “I only have a jeep. Think you want to ride in that?”
“I want to ride in anything that will take me where I’m going,” she said with a faint smile.
“Okay. I’ll be leaving in about a quarter of an hour. Want me to pick you up over at the station?”
“If you will, please,” she answered gratefully. “I’ll have my luggage ready.”
She walked back, feeling very much cheered and, this time, took occasion to look around at the town. There were half a dozen stores, including a movie house that advertised shows Wednesdays and Saturdays, and a few groups of houses, each with lawn and flowers in front and a vegetable garden at the rear. There seemed to be sunflowers everywhere, and over to the east rose a high range of purple mountains.
“I’m going to like it,” she promised herself defiantly. “It will be high adventure.”
The defiance was to her aunt in California, who had “raised the roof” at her proposal to teach school in Idaho, and to her friends, who had expressed skepticism and disapproval by everything from raised eyebrows to open scoffing.
“Did you get ’im?” asked the plump station master.
“Yes, thank you. He’ll be around in a few minutes.”
She brought out her checks and assembled her luggage at the end of the platform so that it could be easily picked up. Then she waited while a quarter hour passed and dragged into a half hour, standing first on one foot and then the other. She had to remind herself very forcefully that the man was doing her a favor to take her at all, and that if his business kept him longer than he had thought, it was up to her to make the best of it.
The jeep finally rattled up and the young man jumped out. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he called with a grin, piling her bags in the rear of the jeep alongside his purchases. He helped her into the seat beside him and, with a couple of jerks, they started down the road.
“Schoolteacher,” he said above the clatter.
“Yes, how did you know?”
“Oh, the time of the year and general get-up. They’re not hard to figure out. Where do you come from?”
“Santa Monica, California,” she replied, trying not to say it boastfully.
To her satisfaction, he was properly impressed. “Well, we’ve had them from most everywhere else, but you’re the first I ever heard of coming from California. I don’t suppose that anyone ever left there of his own free will. Or is that only Chamber of Commerce publicity?”
“I guess not many people leave,” she agreed. “Not for very long, anyway.”
She had no intention of explaining why she herself had come. It wasn’t something that one could explain to a complete stranger. “I think it’s fun to go different places,” she said, “and I’m sure that I’m going to like it here.”
“I hope so. I wouldn’t trade our town for the whole State. It gets sort of cold, though,” he ended cheerfully.
“How cold?” she asked curiously.
“Oh, sometimes ten below. There’s a good stove in the schoolhouse,” he grinned.
She couldn’t tell if he was joking, so she let it pass and asked instead, “What’s growing in the fields? It looks like all the same crop.”
“It is. Spuds – you know, the famous Idaho potato. That’s all we eat out here. That and a bit of bacon once in a while.”
“That will be a nice change,” she replied airily. “At home we eat nothing but oranges and avocados.”
From an occasional glance she could see that he was quite good looking – that he just escaped being handsome, in fact. He was very tanned, and his hair seemed to be just a shade lighter than his skin. In contrast, his eyes were a very deep gray, set off by black eyebrows and lashes. He wore a broad-brimmed hat and a blue plaid shirt in best western style.
They rode along in silence for a time until she ventured, “How far is it to Crandall?”
“Thirty miles. Getting tired?” he asked. “Old Betsy here sure bumps along.”
“No, not at all. I just wondered.”
They swung into a small ravine lined with aspen trees, and when they came up again he exclaimed, “That’s it.”
Camilla saw farms here and there, the barns usually larger than the houses. There was a small center with a church, schoolhouse, and one or two other buildings. The mountains seemed very close, and it reminded her of what Uncle Evan called “a jumping off place.”
He gave her a moment and then asked, “Well, what do you think of it?”
“It looks very pretty and – peaceful,” she replied, trying to think of something nice to say.
“It’s peaceful all right,” he agreed. “I guess you want to go to Mrs. Whipple’s?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“She always boards the schoolteacher. There’s a different one every year.”
“Don’t they ever come back a second year?” asked Camilla in vague concern.
“Nope, but some of them stay. The good-looking ones always get married.”
“Then I’m safe,” she said, and immediately wanted to bite her tongue. It was exactly as if she were inviting him to say that she was good-looking.
Unexpectedly, however, he answered, “Oh, I don’t know about that. We hang on to the red-headed ones whether they’re good-looking or not.”
And, with feminine contrariness, Camilla found that she was annoyed with him now instead of with herself.
They stopped in front of a small weatherbeaten cottage, and he said, “This is it. I’ll carry your things in.”
Camilla wasn’t at all sure just what she had expected, but she knew that it wasn’t this. For a fleeting moment she contrasted the gracious white stucco house in Santa Monica, and once more she reminded herself very vigorously that this was what she had asked for.
Mr. Rodgers was already on his way up the walk with the two larger pieces, and she followed with the smaller. Before they reached the door it was opened, and a small, wiry woman, looking almost as weatherbeaten as the house, was smiling at her.
“Miss Fenton,” she said, reaching out a hand, “I’m real glad to see you. It’s nice you were in town today, Stan. Bring the things right in here. How’s your digging coming along?”
“Okay, I guess,” he answered easily. “We’ll be through in a couple of weeks if the weather holds out.”
Camilla stifled an impulse to inquire if the weather sometimes gave out, and instead asked, a trifle self-consciously, how much she owed him for the ride. She could see at once that the comment on the weather would have been more in order.
“Forget it,” he said with a slight shrug.
“Then, thank you very much indeed,” she said stiffly. Why did he have to make her sound like a nitwit for asking a perfectly natural question? She wished that he would get out before he made her feel even more ill at ease.
He might have done so had not Mrs. Whipple invited him to have a look at the big squash she was sending to the county fair and sample the blueberry pie she had just finished making. That, together with a string of lively chatter, made Camilla sure of one thing. Her landlady was decidedly social-minded and would be good company.
He finally left, with the piece of pie in one hand, and Mrs. Whipple took Camilla into her own room, a front bedroom just off the living room.
“I’ll set on supper and call William,” she said. “I guess you must be hungry and tired, too.”
Camilla was more confused than ever, but she smiled and Mrs. Whipple went out.
She hung up her clothes and put her toilet articles out on the dresser, along with Boyd’s picture. He looked handsome and even more correct than usual. Maybe I am in love with you and just don’t know it, she thought. Anyhow, this should be one way of finding out.
William turned out to be a twelve-year-old-son, and during the course of the evening she learned that Mr. Whipple had passed away five years ago. Since that time the widow had made her own way by running the small farm as best she could, and boarding the schoolteacher.
Camilla wished that she could think of some subtle way to find out whether or not Stan Rodgers was married. Not that it mattered, really, but the winter would pass much more happily if there were some congenial young people about. Finally the talk came around to the school, and she asked casually, “Does that Mr. Rodgers have any children in school?”
“He doesn’t have any, period,” answered William helpfully.
“He isn’t married yet,” Mrs. Whipple added, “although he goes quite a bit with Marcia Ellertson. I expect she’ll get him, in time.”
Not married yet, but had a steady girl – or almost. The picture, on the whole, was not too bad, Camilla decided.
Later, as she lay in bed in the sparsely furnished little room, she had the first real misgiving about her venture. Since her parents’ death, almost ten years before, her home with Aunt Lillian had been more pleasant than otherwise. If only Aunt Lillian weren’t so domineering and so determined to shape every detail of one’s life. There had been times when Camilla felt that she would stifle unless she got away. Then there was Boyd. He was everything that a sensible girl could want, as her aunt had pointed out many times, good looking, proper background, a rising young architect, and their interests, on the whole, were the same. What more could a girl want? She wasn’t sure, but she had a vague idea that there was something – at least a feeling that it mattered whether or not he came or went. Maybe that was the trouble. He was always coming. Well, she would have a wonderful opportunity now to find out if she missed him, and the chances were that she would.
The next day was Saturday, and she awakened to leaden skies, a steady downpour of rain, and a case of appalling homesickness.
All the reasoning of the past night was swept away. She had been every kind of an idiot to come out here, and she would give her front teeth to be back among the palms and flowers of Santa Monica. Even Aunt Lillian assumed the role of a charming, solicitous guardian, and Boyd was a paragon among young men who would surely be plucked off before she could get back to him again. The odor of frying bacon was of some consolation, and she got up and dressed.
Mrs. Whipple was bustling about and the table in the kitchen was set for one.
“I’m glad you could sleep late,” she said. “It will help the time to pass away, because I guess there isn’t much you can do in this rain. There’s a dance in the recreation hall tonight, though, and I asked Emery to come and take us over. I thought it would be a good chance for you to get acquainted with some of our young people. Emery’s my brother,” she explained in answer to Camilla’s look of surprise. “He’s never married, and he isn’t much to step out, but he’ll take us over tonight.”
It seemed like an odd arrangement for a dance date, but it sounded better than nothing. One thing she was sure of, she couldn’t sit around letting this drizzle nurture her homesickness or she wouldn’t last the month out.
She wondered what to wear to the dance, and finally decided on a kelly green crepe that contrasted well with her auburn hair. She supposed that she would be looked over rather carefully by old and young alike.
Emery drove up about nine, and they left – William included – for the dance. Mrs. Whipple instructed her brother to dance with Camilla first and then to bring over some of the young folks. He did his duty with some slight embarrassment, and she danced with one boy after another, acknowledging to each that she was having a very good time, thank you, and that she was sure she was going to like teaching in Crandall. All the time she was searching each new group that came in to see if Stan Rodgers was among the crowd.
It was ten o’clock before he came, bringing a pretty, fair-haired girl – probably the Marcia Ellertson Mrs. Whipple had mentioned. He danced twice with his partner and once with another girl before he came over. Then he said easily, “Good evening, Miss Fenton. May I have a dance with visiting royalty?”
“If you happen to mean me – yes,” she answered, hoping that she looked much calmer than she felt.
She slipped into his arms, trying to decide whether it was his manner that made her temperature appear to rise, or if it was all within herself. Were her pulses really throbbing, or did she only imagine it? No country boy, she decided haughtily, was going to make her act like a stammering schoolgirl. No, indeed. To her chagrin, she was practically a silent schoolgirl, while he quipped and wise-cracked, and left her at the end of an all-too-brief dance with an absurd feeling of standing about in a vacuum.