Chapter VI
 

It was on the day that John Cardigan received the telegram from Bryce saying that, following four years at Princeton and two years of travel abroad, he was returning to Sequoia to take over his redwood heritage--that he discovered that a stranger and not the flesh of his flesh and the blood of his blood was to reap the reward of his fifty years of endeavour. Small wonder, then, that he laid his leonine head upon his desk and wept, silently, as the aged and helpless weep.

For a long time he sat there lethargic with misery. Eventually he roused himself, reached for the desk telephone, and pressed a button on the office exchange-station. His manager, one Thomas Sinclair, answered. "Thomas," he said calmly, "you know, of course, that Bryce is coming home. Tell George to take the big car and go over to Red Bluff for him."

"I'll attend to it, Mr Cardigan. Anything else?"

"Yes, but I'll wait until Bryce gets home."

George Sea Otter, son of Bryce Cardigan's old half-breed nurse, was a person in whose nature struggled the white man's predilection for advertisement and civic pride and the red man's instinct for adornment. For three years he had been old man Cardigan's chauffeur and man-of-all-work about the latter's old-fashioned home, and in the former capacity he drove John Cardigan's single evidence of extravagance--a Napier car, which was very justly regarded by George Sea Otter as the king of automobiles, since it was the only imported car in the county. Upon receipt of orders, therefore, from Sinclair, to drive the Napier over to Red Bluff and meet his future boss and one-time playfellow, George Sea Otter arrayed himself in a pair of new black corduroy trousers, yellow button shoes, a blue woollen shirt with a large scarlet silk handkerchief tied around the neck, a pair of beaded buckskin gloves with fringe dependent from the gauntlet, and a broad white beaver hat with a rattlesnake-skin band. Across the windshield of the Napier he fastened an orange-coloured pennant bearing in bright green letters the legend: MY CITY--SEQUOIA. As a safety-first precaution against man and beast en route, he buckled a gun-scabbard to the spare tires on the running-board and slipped a rifle into the scabbard within quick and easy reach of his hand; and arrayed thus, George descended upon Red Bluff at the helm of the king of automobiles.

When the overland train coasted into Red Bluff and slid to a grinding halt, Bryce Cardigan saw that the Highest Living Authority had descended from the train also. He had elected to designate her thus in the absence of any information anent her Christian and family names, and for the further reason that quite obviously she was a very superior person. He had a vague suspicion that she was the kind of girl in whose presence a man always feels that he must appear on parade--one of those alert, highly intelligent young women so extremely apt to reduce an ordinarily intelligent young man to a state of gibbering idiocy or stupid immobility.

Bryce had travelled in the same car with the Highest Living Authority from Chicago and had made up his mind by observation that with a little encouragement she could be induced to mount a soap-box and make a speech about Women's Rights; that when her native State should be granted equal suffrage she would run for office or manage somebody's political campaign; that she could drive an automobile and had probably been arrested for speeding; that she could go around any golf links in the country in ninety and had read Maeterlinck and enjoyed it.

Bryce could see that she was the little daughter of some large rich man. The sparsity of jewellery and the rich simplicity of her attire proved that, and moreover she was accompanied by a French maid to whom she spoke French in a manner which testified that before acquiring the French maid she had been in the custody of a French nurse. She possessed poise. For the rest, she had wonderful jet-black hair, violet eyes, and milk-white skin, a correct nose but a somewhat generous mouth, Bryce guessed she was twenty or twenty-one years old and that she had a temper susceptible of being aroused. On the whole, she was rather wonderful but not dazzling--at least, not to Bryce Cardigan. He told himself she merely interested him as a type-- whatever he meant by that.

The fact that this remarkable young woman had also left the train at Red Bluff further interested him, for he knew Red Bluff and while giving due credit to the many lovely damsels of that ambitious little city, Bryce had a suspicion that no former Red Bluff girl would dare to invade the old home town with a French maid. He noted, as further evidence of the correctness of his assumption, that the youthful baggage-smasher at the station failed to recognize her and was evidently dazzled when, followed by the maid struggling with two suit-cases, she approached him and in pure though alien English (the Italian A predominated) inquired the name and location of the best hotel and the hour and point of departure of the automobile stage for San Hedrin. The youth had answered her first question and was about to answer the second when George Sea Otter, in all his barbaric splendour, came pussy-footing around the comer of the station in old man Cardigan's regal touring-car.

The Highest Living Authority, following the gaze of the baggage- smasher, turned and beheld George Sea Otter. Beyond a doubt he was of the West westward. She had heard that California stage-drivers were picturesque fellows, and in all probability the displacing of the old Concord coach of the movie-thriller in favour of the motor-stage had not disturbed the idiosyncrasies of the drivers in their choice of raiment. She noted the rifle-stock projecting from the scabbard, and a vision of a stage hold-up flashed across her mind. Ah, yes, of course--the express messenger's weapon, no doubt! And further to clinch her instant assumption that here was the Sequoia motor-stage, there was the pennant adorning the wind-shield!

Dismissing the baggage-smasher with a gracious smile, the Highest Living Authority approached George Sea Otter, noting, the while, further evidence that this car was a public conveyance, for the young man who had been her fellow-passenger was heading toward the automobile also. She heard him say:

"Hello, George, you radiant red rascal! I'm mighty glad to see you, boy. Shake!"

They shook, George Sea Otter's dark eyes and white teeth flashing pleasurably. Bryce tossed his bag into the tonneau; the half-breed opened the front door; and the young master had his foot on the running-board and was about to enter the car when a soft voice spoke at his elbow:

"Driver, this is the stage for Sequoia, is it not?"

George Sea Otter could scarcely credit his auditory nerves. "This car?" he demanded bluntly, "this--the Sequoia stage! Take a look, lady. This here's a Napier imported English automobile. It's a private car and belongs to my boss here."

"I'm so sorry I slandered your car," she replied demurely. "I observed the pennant on the wind-shield, and I thought--"

Bryce Cardigan turned and lifted his hat.

"Quite naturally, you thought it was the Sequoia stage," he said to her. He turned a smoldering glance upon George Sea Otter. "George," he declared ominously, but with a sly wink that drew the sting from his words, "if you're anxious to hold down your job the next time a lady speaks to you and asks you a simple question, you answer yes or no and refrain from sarcastic remarks. Don't let your enthusiasm for this car run away with you." He faced the girl again. "Was it your intention to go out to Sequoia on the next trip of the stage?"

She nodded.

"That means you will have to wait here three days until the stage returns from Sequoia," Bryce replied.

"I realized, of course, that we would arrive here too late to connect with the stage if it maintained the customary schedule for its departure," she explained, "but it didn't occur to me that the stage- driver wouldn't wait until our train arrived. I had an idea his schedule was rather elastic."

"Stage-drivers have no imagination, to speak of," Bryce assured her. To himself he remarked: "She's used to having people wait on her."

A shade of annoyance passed over the classic features of the Highest Living Authority. "Oh, dear," she complained, "how fearfully awkward! Now I shall have to take the next train to San Francisco and book passage on the steamer to Sequoia--and Marcelle is such a poor sailor. Oh, dear!"

Bryce had an inspiration and hastened to reveal it.

"We are about to start for Sequoia now, although the lateness of our start will compel us to put up tonight at the rest-house on the south fork of Trinity River and continue the journey in the morning. However, this rest-house is eminently respectable and the food and accommodations are extraordinarily good for mountains; so, if an invitation to occupy the tonneau of my car will not be construed as an impertinence, coming as it does from a total stranger, you are at liberty to regard this car as to all intents and purposes the public conveyance which so scandalously declined to wait for you this morning."

She looked at him searchingly for a brief instant: then with a peculiarly winning smile and a graceful inclination of her head she thanked him and accepted his hospitality--thus:

"Why, certainly not! You are very kind, and I shall be eternally grateful."

"Thank you for that vote of confidence. It makes me feel that I have your permission to introduce myself. My name is Bryce Cardigan, and I live in Sequoia when I'm at home."

"Of Cardigan's Redwoods?" she questioned. He nodded. "I've heard of you, I think," she continued. "I am Shirley Sumner."

"You do not live in Sequoia."

"No, but I'm going to hereafter. I was there about ten years ago."

He grinned and thrust out a great hand which she surveyed gravely for a minute before inserting hers in it. "I wonder," he said, "if it is to be my duty to give you a ride every time you come to Sequoia? The last time you were there you wheedled me into giving you a ride on my pony, an animal known as Midget. Do you, by any chance, recall that incident?"

She looked up at him wonderingly. "Why--why you're the boy with the beautiful auburn hair," she declared. He lifted his hat and revealed his thick thatch in all its glory. "I'm not so sensitive about it now," he explained. "When we first met, reference to my hair was apt to rile me." He shook her little hand with cordial good-nature. "What a pity it wasn't possible for us to renew acquaintance on the train, Miss Sumner!"

"Better late than never, Mr. Cardigan, considering the predicament in which you found me. What became of Midget?"

"Midget, I regret to state, made a little pig of herself one day and died of acute indigestion. She ate half a sack of carrots, and knowing full well that she was eating forbidden fruit, she bolted them, and for her failure to Fletcherize--but speaking of Fletcherizing, did you dine aboard the train?"

She nodded. "So did I, Miss Sumner; hence I take it that you are quite ready to start."

"Quite, Mr. Cardigan."

"Then we'll drift. George, suppose you pile Miss Sumner's hand- baggage in the tonneau and then pile in there yourself and keep Marcelle company. I'll drive; and you can sit up in front with me, Miss Sumner, snug behind the wind-shield where you'll not be blown about."

"I'm sure this is going to be a far pleasanter journey than the stage could possibly have afforded," she said graciously as Bryce slipped in beside her and took the wheel.

"You are very kind to share the pleasure with me, Miss Sumner." He went through his gears, and the car glided away on its journey. "By the way," he said suddenly as he turned west toward the distant blue mountains of Trinity County, "how did you happen to connect me with Cardigan's redwoods?"

"I've heard my uncle, Colonel Seth Pennington, speak of them."

"Colonel Seth Pennington means nothing in my young life. I never heard of him before; so I dare say he's a newcomer in our country. I've been away six years," he added in explanation.

"We're from Michigan. Uncle was formerly in the lumber business there, but he's logged out now."

"I see. So he came West, I suppose, and bought a lot of redwood timber cheap from some old croaker who never could see any future to the redwood lumber industry. Personally, I don't think he could have made a better investment. I hope I shall have the pleasure of making his acquaintance when I deliver you to him. Perhaps you may be a neighbour of mine. Hope so."

At this juncture George Sea Otter, who had been an interested listener to the conversation, essayed a grunt from the rear seat. Instantly, to Shirley Sumner's vast surprise, her host grunted also; whereupon George Sea Otter broke into a series of grunts and guttural exclamations which evidently appeared quite intelligible to her host, for he slowed down to five miles an hour and cocked one ear to the rear; apparently he was profoundly interested in whatever information his henchman had to impart. When George Sea Otter finished his harangue, Bryce nodded and once more gave his attention to tossing the miles behind him.

"What language was that?" Shirley Sumner inquired, consumed with curiosity.

"Digger Indian," he replied. "George's mother was my nurse, and he and I grew up together. So I can't very well help speaking the language of the tribe."

They chattered volubly on many subjects for the first twenty miles; then the road narrowed and commenced to climb steadily, and thereafter Bryce gave all of his attention to the car, for a deviation of a foot from the wheel-rut on the outside of the road would have sent them hurtling over the grade into the deep-timbered canons below. Their course led through a rugged wilderness, widely diversified and transcendently beautiful, and the girl was rather glad of the opportunity to enjoy it in silence. Also by reason of the fact that Bryce's gaze never wavered from the road immediately in front of the car, she had a chance to appraise him critically while pretending to look past him to the tumbled, snow-covered ranges to their right.

She saw a big, supple, powerful man of twenty-five or six, with the bearing and general demeanour of one many years his elder. His rich, dark auburn hair was wavy, and a curling lock of it had escaped from the band of his cap at the temple; his eyes were brown to match his hair and were the striking feature of a strong, rugged countenance, for they were spaced at that eminently proper interval which proclaims an honest man. His nose was high, of medium thickness and just a trifle long--the nose of a thinker. His ears were large, with full lobes--the ears of a generous man. The mouth, full-lipped but firm, the heavy jaw and square chin, the great hands (most amazingly free from freckles) denoted the man who would not avoid a fight worth while. Indeed, while the girl was looking covertly at him, she saw his jaw set and a sudden, fierce light leap up in his eyes, which at first sight had seemed to her rather quizzical. Subconsciously he lifted one hand from the wheel and clenched it; he wagged his head a very little bit; consequently she knew his thoughts were far away, and for some reason, not quite clear to her, she would have preferred that they weren't. As a usual thing, young men did not go wool- gathering in her presence; so she sought to divert his thoughts to present company.

"What a perfectly glorious country!" she exclaimed. "Can't we stop for just a minute to appreciate it?"

"Yes," he replied abstractedly as he descended from the car and sat at her feet while she drank in the beauty of the scene, "it's a he country; I love it, and I'm glad to get back to it."

Upon their arrival at the rest-house, however, Bryce cheered up, and during dinner was very attentive and mildly amusing, although Shirley's keen wits assured her that this was merely a clever pose and sustained with difficulty. She was confirmed in this assumption when, after sitting with him a little on the porch after dinner, she complained of being weary and bade him good-night. She had scarcely left him when he called:

"George!"

The half-breed slid out of the darkness and sat down beside him. A moment later, through the open window of her room just above the porch where Bryce and George Sea Otter sat, Shirley heard the former say:

"George, when did you first notice that my father's sight was beginning to fail?"

"About two years ago, Bryce."

"What made you notice it?"

"He began to walk with his hands held out in front of him, and sometimes he lifted his feet too high."

"Can he see at all now, George?"

"Oh, yes, a little bit--enough to make his way to the office and back."

"Poor old governor! George, until you told me this afternoon, I hadn't heard a word about it. If I had, I never would have taken that two-year jaunt around the world."

George Sea Otter grunted. "That's what your father said, too. So he wouldn't tell you, and he ordered everybody else to keep quiet about it. Myself--well, I didn't want you to go home and not know it until you met him."

"That was mighty kind and considerate of you, George. And you say this man Colonel Pennington and my father have been having trouble?"

"Yes--" Here George Sea Otter gracefully unburdened himself of a fervent curse directed at Shirley's avuncular relative; whereupon that young lady promptly left the window and heard no more.

They were on the road again by eight o'clock next morning, and just as Cardigan's mill was blowing the six o'clock whistle, Bryce stopped the car at the head of the street leading down to the water-front. "I'll let you drive now, George," he informed the silent Sea Otter. He turned to Shirley Sumner. "I'm going to leave you now," he said. "Thank you for riding over from Red Bluff with me. My father never leaves the office until the whistle blows, and so I'm going to hurry down to that little building you see at the end of the street and surprise him."

He stepped out on the running-board, stood there a moment, and extended his hand. Shirley had commenced a due and formal expression of her gratitude for having been delivered safely in Sequoia, when George Sea Otter spoke:

"Here comes John Cardigan," he said.

"Drive Miss Sumner around to Colonel Pennington's house," Bryce ordered, and even while he held Shirley's hand, he turned to catch the first glimpse of his father. Shirley followed his glance and saw a tall, powerfully built old man coming down the street with his hands thrust a little in front of him, as if for protection from some invisible assailant.

"Oh, my poor old father!" she heard Bryce Cardigan murmur. "My dear old pal! And I've let him grope in the dark for two years!"

He released her hand and leaped from the car. "Dad!" he called. "It is I--Bryce. I've come home to you at last."

The slightly bent figure of John Cardigan straightened with a jerk; he held out his arms, trembling with eagerness, and as the car continued on to the Pennington house Shirley looked back and saw Bryce folded in his father's embrace. She did not, however, hear the heart-cry with which the beaten old man welcomed his boy.

"Sonny, sonny--oh, I'm so glad you're back. I've missed you. Bryce, I'm whipped--I've lost your heritage. Oh, son! I'm old--I can't fight any more. I'm blind--I can't see my enemies. I've lost your redwood trees--even your mother's Valley of the Giants."

And he commenced to weep for the third time in fifty years. And when the aged and helpless weep, nothing is more terrible. Bryce Cardigan said no word, but held his father close to his great heart and laid his cheek gently against the old man's, tenderly as a woman might. And presently, from that silent communion of spirit, each drew strength and comfort. As the shadows fell in John Cardigan's town, they went home to the house on the hill.