For the Strength of the Hills
By Mabel Harmer
Synopsis: Camilla Fenton, an orphan who lives with an aunt in Santa Monica, California, arrives at the railroad station near Crandall, Idaho, where she is employed as the new schoolteacher. Stanley Rodgers, a farmer, takes her in his jeep to the home of Mrs. Whipple, a widow who takes boarders. Camilla finds out that Stanley is unmarried and that he is going out with Marcia Ellertson. At a dance, Stan dances with her.
The first week of school passed somehow, much to Camilla’s surprise. Twenty-five students in four different grades, she decided, was something only a paragon should be required to cope with, and she readily admitted to herself that she was far from being a paragon – as far as schoolteaching was concerned, anyway.
At any rate I have today and tomorrow in which to catch my breath, she thought gratefully as she ate breakfast on Saturday morning. By noon she had not only caught her breath but had become thoroughly bored even with reading and letter writing.
“I’ll go sketching,” she announced, with sudden inspiration. “It would be a shame to waste this lovely day indoors.”
She dug out paper and crayons, put on a woolen suit and Oxfords, and started out for the foothills, where the yellow aspens were interspersed with clumps of crimson scrub oak and maple.
There was absolutely no reason, she told herself, why she shouldn’t go by way of the Rodgers farm. The road there was as good as any, probably better. The view from the hill would also be as good, or better than any.
There were men working out in the fields when she passed, but at such a distance she couldn’t tell one from another. Her boredom of the morning vanished, and she felt happy all through. The contrast of the purple sage and yellow aspens was fascinating, and she sketched with the most genuine pleasure she had felt in months.
It is absurd, she told herself, to spend all of one’s life in the same place. Maybe next year I’ll go to Alaska or Canada, well, Puget Sound, anyway.
Her pleasant daydreaming was interrupted by a faint rustle, and she looked up to see a grayish brown animal watching her from a short distance away. For a moment she sat paralyzed with fright. She supposed it was a coyote – it just couldn’t be a wolf – and people said that coyotes weren’t dangerous. But it could probably tell that she was scared to death and would come right at her. She knew that the proper thing to do would be to stand her ground and act defiant, but she couldn’t. Picking up her things, she fled down the hillside as fast as she could go, not even looking behind to see if the beast was following her.
Even when she had reached the edge of the Rodgers farm she couldn’t slow down, although she was so weak from fright that she all but dropped in the road.
She had another fright when Stan popped up from behind a clump of bushes and called, “What’s your hurry, lady? going to catch a train?”
“No,” she replied, her fright melting away, “but I’d like to, at the moment. I went up on the hill to sketch, and I was surrounded by wild beasts.”
“You don’t say!” he drawled. “How many and what species?”
“Only one, that I actually saw,” she admitted. “But I’m sure that he had a whole pack right behind him.”
“Cougar?” he asked.
She was tempted to let it go at that, but after a moment’s pause, confessed, “No, it was a coyote, I think, although it might have been a wolf.”
“There aren’t any wolves around here,” he scoffed, “and I didn’t think that a big girl like you would be afraid of a coyote. All you’d have to do is throw one rock and he’d hightail it for the peaks so fast you couldn’t see him for dust.”
“Well, I didn’t happen to know that, so I did the hightailing instead.”
He grinned tolerantly and offered, “Wait until I get the jeep and I’ll run you down.”
She accepted his offer gratefully, for the hills were much farther away than they had looked, and the run had tired her considerably. When they stopped in front of Mrs. Whipple’s house he produced a pair of apples from somewhere and handed her one, which she sat munching with a curious sense of elation. At the moment she could think of no pastime more desirable than sitting in a jeep and eating apples.
“Would you like to go to a barn dance tonight?” he asked, throwing his core across the road.
“A real barn dance! Oh, I’d love it!” she exclaimed, her eyes glowing.
“Okay. I’ll pick you up about eight – if I can get the chores done by then. And listen,” he cautioned, “don’t let on to anyone else that you ran away from a poor little old coyote.”
She laughed as he helped her out and ran up the path to the house. A barn dance! It would be lots of fun. What should she wear? A cotton print, probably. She had a very nice paisley print with a wide skirt.
She put away her drawing materials and brought out the dress to give it a pressing. She really would have liked to check with Mrs. Whipple to be sure that it was appropriate, but her landlady had gone into town, as the next place was known, and had left supper out on the table.
It won’t matter anyway, she thought. People wear prints everywhere now. I can’t go wrong. She tied a yellow ribbon around her auburn curls and waited impatiently for Stan to come. “The chores!” she grumbled as the clock hands moved around to eight-thirty. “What a country. Even a Saturday night date has to wait on the chores.”
He came whistling up the walk and made no apologies when she opened the door. Instead, he handed her a white kitten and said amiably, “Here’s something to take the place of your beau back home.”
“Thanks very much,” she said. “It won’t be quite the same, but it will help.” She held it up to her cheek as she added, “It really is sweet. I had a kitten once long before, before –” she stopped. It was hard to explain Aunt Lillian, who believed in so few of the things that Camilla herself believed in.
She set the kitten on the floor and asked, “Do I look all right? I mean – the other girls will be wearing dresses, won’t they?”
“To a barn dance? You’re all right. You look good enough to eat.”
“That should be good enough,” she smiled.
A few minutes later when they arrived at the dance she saw that her outfit was definitely not all right. She was the only girl there not wearing a pair of levis, and she was very much afraid they would think she was acting “high hat.” She was almost sure that there was a noticeable coolness towards her, although she couldn’t determine whether it was due to her clothes or the fact that she had taken Stan away from a local girl.
She did her very best to be friendly with everyone and had a good time in spite of the undercurrent of disapproval. It was impossible not to have a good time with Stan, she decided.
The thought crossed her mind that perhaps it was just because she was away form home that he seemed so fascinating and that it might be different in her familiar background. Then she remembered that Boyd had seemed uninteresting for the very same reason and that she had hoped to make up her mind by going away. What kind of a mugwump was she, anyway, she asked herself? Did she have to get her friends against a particular background to know what kind of feelings she had towards them? She had no answer. All she knew was that she enjoyed every minute of the time she spent with Stan.
The first real snowstorm of the winter came early in December and she donned the galoshes that Mrs. Whipple had warned her to buy. She hadn’t dreamed that the mere matter of keeping warm could be such a problem. At Mrs. Whipple’s the only heat came from the kitchen range and a heatrola in the front room, while at school there was only a stove in the middle of the room that roasted one side while the other practically froze.
She was sitting at her desk one Friday afternoon correcting papers when she happened to glance up and see little Aline Wakely still in her seat.
“Why didn’t you go in the school bus?” she asked.
“Daddy said that he might come into town and that if he did he would pick me up.”
“Oh, dear, you shouldn’t have waited,” said Camilla, very much disturbed. “I’m ready to go home now, and I can’t leave you here. I suppose that I had best walk down the road with you until we meet him.”
They put on their wraps and hurried out. As they started down the road Camilla called to one of the school children, “Will you please go over and tell Mrs. Whipple that I’m walking home with Aline Wakely. I’ll get back as soon as I can.”
She was hopeful that she wouldn’t have to go any great distance, for Mr. Wakely surely was on the way. She noticed the clouds were getting very dark and the wind was beginning to rise. It might even storm before she got back, she worried. In fact, she’d be awfully lucky if it didn’t. She really shouldn’t have let herself in for this, she reasoned, now that it was too late to turn back. She should have insisted that the child come home with her. She had just about given up hope now that Mr. Wakely would meet them. If he had been coming into town, he would have come long before this.
They tramped along, the wind whipping against them, and at last Aline said, “That’s our house over there.”
“Then I’ll stand here and watch until you reach the door,” said Camilla. “In that way I’ll know that you are getting home all right.” There was no need, she told herself, to struggle through any more of that snow than she had to.
Aline left, and Camilla waited impatiently, thumping her cold feet one against the other to try to work up the circulation. When the child had reached the house and disappeared inside, she turned to go back down the road.
The snowflakes were beginning to fall now, and the wind was rising. She would have to hurry or she might be in for a serious time. She couldn’t get caught in a storm out here. It was all of a mile to the house – maybe more. It certainly seemed like more. In a few minutes the storm broke in earnest, and she couldn’t even see the farm houses along the way, otherwise she would have turned into one of them and phoned for help or asked someone to take her on home.
The wind had risen now so that the snow stung her face and drifted about her feet. Why hadn’t someone warned her, she thought bitterly, what a terrible thing a blizzard could be? But then, who would ever have supposed that she would take off into one by herself? Oh, to be back in California where, in spite of earthquakes or floods, you could always see where you were going! At this very moment her aunt might be sitting out on the patio enjoying the sunshine. Boyd might be driving along the ocean front, without a coat, and with the top of his convertible rolled down, while she was stumbling along in a blinding snowstorm.
Once she fell and had to force herself to get back on her feet again. She had a feeling that if it happened once more she wouldn’t be able to get up. She was so weary from struggling against the wind and drifting snow that she could hardly push one foot in front of the other. I can’t possibly drag myself all the way back, she thought. I might just as well give up now.
But she found that she couldn’t give up – that she had to fight on as long as she had an ounce of energy left. Another gust of snow-laden wind hit her with such force that she cried out and thought that she must have been imagining when she heard Stan’s voice call, “Camilla! Where are you?”
“Here! Here!” she cried, sinking down into the snow, now that she no longer had to rely on her own efforts.
The next minute his arms were around her, and he was helping her into the jeep.
“What in the world were you thinking of to go out in this storm?” he scolded as he wrapped blankets around her. “I never saw anyone so crazy. You’re scared of a coyote, but you tackle a blizzard.”
The scolding was too much for Camilla, on top of everything else, and she started to cry.
“I’m sorry, honey,” he said, taking her in his arms. “It’s just because I was nearly crazy myself. When Mrs. Whipple phoned that you had gone to take that kid home in this storm I was scared to death.”
He tucked the blankets more closely around her and started up the jeep.
Camilla sat in a daze. I can’t be in love, she thought. I can’t be tingling with joy at the thought of spending my life in a place like this. It must be that I’m only half-conscious. But, in spite of her bewildered questioning, the fact remained that nothing in her whole life before had ever stirred her as his words had done.
They were at the house in a few minutes, where Mrs. Whipple was waiting anxiously with hot water bottles, hot broth, and everything else that she had been able to lay her hands on.
Stan stayed just long enough to see that she was going to be all right, but before he left he took her hand for a moment and whispered, “I told you that we always keep the red-headed ones.”