For the Strength of the Hills
By Mabel Harmer
Synopsis: Camilla Fenton, an orphan from Santa Monica, California, comes to Crandall, Idaho, to teach, and marries Stanley Rodgers in the spring when school is out. Camilla is disappointed in their big, ugly farmhouse, but all summer she cans fruits and vegetables, and in the fall she and Stanley go to California for a visit with Camilla’s Aunt Lillian.
They arrived home from California on a gray day in early November, when there was neither the majestic whiteness of winter nor the green and purple of summer to relieve the monotony of the landscape.
“I guess it looks sort of bleak to you, after all the sunshine and flowers,” suggested Stan as they drove along the country road.
“Sort of,” Camilla admitted. “It really is the worst time of the year, isn’t it? But we’ll have plenty to do to take our minds off the landscape – if they need taking off. I’m simply bursting with plans for the house, now that I don’t have to grow a million things and then stick them in cans. And another thing, you can start paying me proper attention. You’ve hardly looked at me all summer while you had those spuds on your mind.”
“Lady, I’m certainly going to make up for lost time,” he asserted, putting one arm around her shoulders.
The rosy glow that enveloped her lasted until they stepped into the cold, dismal kitchen.
“I guess that I should have sent a note to the folks and had someone come over and make fires,” decided Stan, poking paper and wood into the range, “or we could have stopped there for dinner.”
“Yes, we could,” she agreed. Now that he had put the idea into her head, she decided that he had been extremely thoughtless to bring her into the house cold and hungry when they could so easily have stopped in at his mother’s for a hot meal.
And the house looked so awful with two week’s dust on the furniture, especially in the gray November light, or half-light. Maybe they should have stayed in California for the rest of the winter. Aunt Lillian would have been glad to have them. Maybe they would do that next winter. The thought cheered her somewhat, although she knew well enough that Stan and her aunt couldn’t possibly spend several months in the same house. Two weeks had been enough of a strain.
After a dinner of thick steaks which Stan fried, and string beans and peaches from their own store, she felt in a happier frame of mind. Especially when he had built a fire in the grate and pulled up two shabby chairs, shutting out the rest of the room.
“I must be an awfully primitive creature,” she said. “Warmth and food seem to make all the difference between being happy and contented or feeling like a banshee.”
“I’m attracted to some of the same myself,” he agreed, stretching out his long legs to the fire. “Give me three good meals a day, plenty of firewood, the most beautiful red-headed wife in the world, and I don’t ask for much else.”
“Modest creature,” she laughed. then looking around at the shadows flickering on the walls, she proposed, “Let’s go to town tomorrow and buy paint. I think that I want light blue for this room and bright flowered chintzes for the furniture. The window will have to go until next summer, of course. We can’t go cutting holes in the house in this weather.
“You talk of paint and chintzes at a moment like this?” he sighed. “All right, if you have a one-track mind I suppose you have a one-track mind, and I’ll have to get used to it. We’ll go shopping for paint tomorrow.”
She went to bed glowing with enthusiasm and plans for working on the house through all the winter months. When she put her feet to the floor the next morning, a wave of nausea sent her back under the blankets. The odor of frying bacon, which ordinarily would have brought her out with a bound, only made her turn her face to the wall, as if by so doing she could also cut out the smell.
A minute later Stan appeared in the doorway to announce, “Breakfast is served, madam. And if you don’t get the heck out of there, I’ll put a glass of cold water down your neck.”
His gaiety made her feel even worse and she muttered, “Stop it! I’m sick.”
“Sick,” he repeated. “You can’t be. Those steaks weren’t as bad as that.”
“Please don’t joke,” she begged. “And shut the door so that I can’t smell that bacon.”
He shut the door quickly and came to her bed. “What is it, then?” he asked anxiously. “Shall I phone for a doctor?”
“No, we can see him when we go into town for the paint. Anyway, there’ll be all kinds of time. I’m probably going to have a baby.”
“A baby!” he shouted. “Jumping grasshoppers! You don’t mean it!”
“I rather think I do. And I thought that prospective fathers greeted such an announcement with considerable sentiment and not with ‘jumping grasshoppers.’”
“Jumping grasshoppers!” he repeated. “Imagine us with a red-headed boy! Blackie’s colt will be just right for him to ride in a year or two. What do you think you’d like to eat? Name it and I’ll get it, if I have to go to China.”
“Some fruit perhaps and a couple of soda crackers,” she smiled. “We’ll send to China later.”
She felt better after she had eaten. There was an exuberance, in fact, that she had never imagined even the prospects of a baby would bring. They would have lots of children – sons and daughters who would grow up fine and splendid, like the country about them. The old house would not be too big, and it must not be ugly. It was the beginning of new and wonderful things all the way through.
After lunch they rode into town and bought the bright colors to paint the “Mexican” kitchen.
“There’s no need of getting more at one time than we can use,” she said, “as long as the store is only a couple of hours away.” Later on she was to find she had made a most fortunate decision.
The next morning Stan brought her breakfast to bed, and she felt reasonably well after she had eaten and dressed. “Bring on your paint,” she said, after the dishes were washed, “I can’t believe that we are really starting.”
“I bought two brushes,” he announced. “You get to do all the medium places, and I do the high and low. That’s to prove that I love you and that I can reach the farthest.”
“Nobility at its finest flower,” she agreed as he handed her a can of paint. She took three strokes across the wall by the side of the window and put the can down quickly. “O-o-oh, I can’t bear it!” she cried, running to the door. “Another whiff of this paint and I’d die without a struggle.”
Stan closed up the cans. “You take the car and go down to mother’s,” he suggested. “I’ll do the painting. I’ll have at least two walls done by the time you get back. Shall I do one yellow and the other red?”
“I don’t care,” she flung back at him, as she grabbed her coat and went out.
When she returned, just about dinner time, the smell of paint was worse than ever. Almost as hard to bear was the thought that this meant further postponements of her dreams for doing anything to the house.
“First it’s too much summer work and no money. Now it’s this,” she wailed. “Next summer it will be too much work again. Do you think we’ll ever get it done?”
“You might go away for a month while I do it,” he suggested.
Camilla considered it briefly, then shook her head. “No, I’m afraid that wouldn’t work. Where would I go? I can’t go chasing back to California again. Anyway I don’t want to. Maybe we can do it later in the year. And, in the meantime, I can work on some slip covers. They’ll make a big difference in the living room.”
They agreed that he would at least have to finish the kitchen. “And the back bedroom must be made into a pink and white nursery, no matter what,” she declared. “I can go down to Mother Rodgers while you do that. You can do a few dabs each day and air it out good before I come back.”
Following this method he managed to get the kitchen and nursery done, and that was all. Camilla made slip covers for the lumpy couch and two chairs in the living room and then couldn’t decide whether they looked better or worse against the nondescript walls. She finally concluded that anything would be an improvement over the way the room looked when they first moved in.
She felt better as winter gave way to spring and took considerable pleasure in working out in the flower garden. Stan never went to town or to one of the neighbors that he didn’t bring back a start of something or other, and by May she had pansies and iris blooming, with many other plants showing great promise.
Stan took over the vegetable garden, with the help of his young brother Mickey, and as for canning, he said curtly, “We’ll just forget it,” although she suspected that his mother was doing theirs along with her own.
Camilla was extremely grateful for having such a wonderful mother-in-law. She had boundless energy and an efficiency that almost anyone would have envied. She thought nothing of coming over for an hour or two to help with the work in spite of her own numerous duties. If she had been at all superior about it, there could easily have been hurt feelings, but she never was. “I’ve always worked hard,” she said once with a slight shrug. “I guess I’m happiest that way.”
One day, early in July, Camilla watched in some anxiety as the sky darkened and great black thunderclouds began rolling in from the west. “I hope that it doesn’t lightning,” she said to Stan, who was in for his lunch. “I’ll never get used to these awful thunderstorms.”
“If it does I’ll have an excuse to stay in here and hold your hand,” he remarked cheerfully. “I was going to do some weeding in the lower field, but that can always wait.”
Half an hour later the thunder was crashing about them as if it would bring down the very mountains, and she sat huddled close in his arms. The accompanying rain began coming down in torrents, and Stan remarked, “I’m sure glad that I don’t have to get out in this.”
Camilla turned to him with a look of deep concern on her already pale face and said slowly, “I’m afraid that we’re going to have to go to the hospital. I thought there’d be two weeks yet – but there isn’t.”
Both of them were remembering that the hospital was fifty miles away, and that she had been warned not to lose any time in coming before she became too uncomfortable.
“We just can’t leave in a cloudburst like this,” he said, “I’ll get you there in plenty of time. Just take it easy and relax.”
“Relax yourself,” she managed to say with a smile. “You have the look of a man about to enter a tiger’s cage.”
“Okay, so we’ll both relax,” he agreed. “Only, I’ll get your things here by the door so that we’ll be ready to scat the minute this lets up.”
The last of his sentence was drowned in a terrific crash of thunder, and he looked out of the window apprehensively as the rain beat still harder upon the panes.
“It would have to happen today,” he scowled, “the worst rain of the year and it has to come today.”
“Maybe it’s the other way around,” she suggested, trying to keep her voice normal. “I’ve heard that electrical storms help fill up the hospitals, but I thought it was just an old wives’ tale. Only, I’m not an old wife, and I’m so scared of lightning that I could almost die – and not be struck either.”
They waited tensely for another quarter of an hour, and then Stan said hopefully, “It’s beginning to let up a little now. I think that I can get the car up to the door in just a few minutes.”
She put on a light coat and a scarf and stood by the window looking into the yard where small rivers were running about and forming into great puddles in all the low spots.
“We could get stuck in the mud on that old dirt road,” she said to herself, then tried to put the thought away, deciding that there was no need of borrowing more trouble than she already had.
Stan had the same thought, however, so she knew it wasn’t entirely a matter of borrowed trouble. “I’m going to take the jeep,” he announced. “I know that it sounds awful to go to a hospital in a jeep, but I’m just a little afraid of this road. Maybe we’ll trade to the folks’ car when we get down there where the road is better.”
He drove the jeep up to the door and held an umbrella over her while she got in. Then they splashed their way out of the yard and onto the dirt road. The rain was still coming down, and they splashed through one great puddle after another.
“It’s a good thing that I know this road so well,” he remarked with forced cheerfulness. “We’ll be at dad’s place in a few minutes. Then we’ll trade to their car and have it easy. I’m doing my best to avoid the bumps, honey. It’s not always easy to locate them when they’re covered with water.”
She gave a sigh of relief as they drove into the driveway of the Rodgers home. “You’d best go in the house until I get the car out,” he said. “Mother will likely want to go with us, anyway.”
“Oh, yes,” she answered gratefully. “I’ll be so glad to have her.”
Her mother-in-law was at the door now and she exclaimed, “What in the wide world are you doing out in all this storm?”
“I think that maybe we’re out because of the storm,” answered Camilla. “Just because I’m so terrified of the thunder and lightning. Anyway, with fifty miles to go, we didn’t dare wait any longer.”
“I know how it goes,” said Mrs. Rodgers in a matter-of-fact tone. “Babies don’t show the least bit of consideration as to their time of arrival. I had one on Christmas eve when I was terribly busy – or should have been. Come in and sit down. You probably have a lot more time than you think.”
Her calmness and casual attitude did more to allay Camilla’s fears than she would have thought possible. She sank down into a chair and thought with something akin to amazement of all the babies that had been born in the world while time and tide went on about as usual.
It seemed that for the first time in her life her mother-in-law was slow getting ready to leave, but the delay brought one great blessing. By the time they were ready to go the rain had almost entirely stopped.
They had just turned out of the yard and started down the road when Sam Mickelson, a neighbor, waved at them frantically.
Stan stopped the car, much to Camilla’s annoyance, for she thought that nothing a neighbor could want, was of any possible importance now.
“You folks going to town?” Sam yelled.
“Yes,” answered Stan briefly.
“Well, you can’t go that way,” he continued. “The bridge is out. Went down just a few minutes ago. The bank gave way with this cloudburst.”
Camilla sat stunned. Now what? she asked herself. Aloud she said, “Surely there’s another bridge.”
“Yes,” answered Stan slowly, “but it’s twenty miles further down and it’s worse than this one. I’d hate to cross it even in good weather, and the road down to it is likely to be bad. We’d have to change back to the jeep, and even then …”
He seemed to be merely thinking aloud, and his mother cut in decisively, “Come back into the house. There’s no need of gallivanting all around the country just to have a baby. Stan can go and fetch Dr. Bramwell in the jeep. How about it?”
“Oh, yes,” answered Camilla, feeling that nothing in all the world mattered except to find herself safe in a bed.
Stan left at once for the doctor. Several hours later her mother-in-law smiled at her and said, “You have a beautiful boy.”
“Red-headed, too, by cracky.” Stan spoke in a shaky voice.
“Then I guess we’ll keep him,” said Camilla, with a slight smile. “We always keep the red-headed ones.”