Chapter VII
 

Along the well-remembered streets of Sequoia Bryce Cardigan and his father walked arm in arm, their progress continuously interrupted by well-meaning but impulsive Sequoians who insisted upon halting the pair to shake hands with Bryce and bid him welcome home. In the presence of those third parties the old man quickly conquered the agitation he had felt at this long-deferred meeting with his son, and when presently they left the business section of the town and turned into a less-frequented street, his emotion assumed the character of a quiet joy, evidenced in a more erect bearing and a firmer tread, as if he strove, despite his seventy-six years, not to appear incongruous as he walked beside his splendid son.

"I wish I could see you more clearly," he said presently. His voice as well as his words expressed profound regret, but there was no hint of despair or heartbreak now.

Bryce, who up to this moment had refrained from discussing his father's misfortunes, drew the old man a little closer to his side.

"What's wrong with your eyes, pal?" he queried. He did not often address his parent, after the fashion of most sons, as "Father," "Dad" or "Pop." They were closer to each other than that, and a rare sense of perfect comradeship found expression, on Bryce's part, in such salutations as "pal," "partner" and, infrequently, "old sport." When arguing with his father, protesting with him or affectionately scolding him, Bryce, with mock seriousness, sometimes called the old man John Cardigan.

"Cataracts, son," his father answered. "Merely the penalty of old age."

"But can't something be done about it?" demanded Bryce. "Can't they be cured somehow or other?"

"Certainly they can. But I shall have to wait until they are completely matured and I have become completely blind; then a specialist will perform an operation on my eyes, and in all probability my sight will be restored for a few years. However, I haven't given the matter a great deal of consideration. At my age one doesn't find very much difficulty in making the best of everything. And I am about ready to quit now. I'd like to, in fact; I'm tired."

"Oh, but you can't quit until you've seen your redwoods again," Bryce reminded him. "I suppose it's been a long time since you've visited the Valley of the Giants; your long exile from the wood-goblins has made you a trifle gloomy, I'm afraid."

John Cardigan nodded. "I haven't seen them in a year and a half, Bryce. Last time I was up, I slipped between the logs on the old skid-road and like to broke my old fool neck. But even that wasn't warning enough for me. I cracked right on into the timber and got lost."

"Lost? Poor old partner! And what did you do about it?"

"The sensible thing, my boy. I just sat down under a tree and waited for George Sea Otter to trail me and bring me home."

"And did he find you? Or did you have to spend the night in the woods?"

John Cardigan smiled humorously. "I did not. Along about sunset George found me. Seems he'd been following me all the time, and when I sat down he waited to make certain whether I was lost or just taking a rest where I could be quiet and think."

"I've been leaving to an Indian the fulfillment of my duty," Bryce murmured bitterly.

"No, no, son. You have never been deficient in that," the old man protested.

"Why didn't you have the old skid-road planked with refuse lumber so you wouldn't fall through? And you might have had the woods-boss swamp a new trail into the timber and fence it on both sides, in order that you might feel your way along."

"Yes, quite true," admitted the old man. "But then, I don't spend money quite as freely as I used to, Bryce. I consider carefully now before I part with a dollar."

"Pal, it wasn't fair of you to make me stay away so long. If I had only known--if I had remotely suspected--"

"You'd have spoiled everything--of course. Don't scold me, son. You're all I have now, and I couldn't bear to send for you until you'd had your fling." His trembling old hand crept over and closed upon his boy's hand, so firm but free from signs of toil. "It was my pleasure, Bryce," he continued, "and you wouldn't deny me my choice of sport, would you? Remember, lad, I never had a boyhood; I never had a college education, and the only real travel I have ever had was when I worked my way around Cape Horn as a foremast hand, and all I saw then was water and hardships; all I've seen since is my little world here in Sequoia and in San Francisco."

"You've sacrificed enough--too much--for me, Dad."

"It pleased me to give you all the advantages I wanted and couldn't afford until I was too old and too busy to consider them. Besides, it was your mother's wish. We made plans for you before you were born, and I promised her--ah, well, why be a cry-baby? I knew I could manage until you were ready to settle down to business. And you have enjoyed your little run, haven't you?" he concluded wistfully.

"I have, Dad." Bryce's great hand closed over the back of his father's neck; he shook the old man with mock ferocity. "Stubborn old lumberjack!" he chided.

John Cardigan shook with an inward chuckle, for the loving abuse his boy had formed a habit of heaping on him never failed to thrill him. Instinctively Bryce had realized that to-night obvious sympathy copiously expressed was not the medicine for his father's bruised spirit; hence he elected to regard the latter's blindness as a mere temporary annoyance, something to be considered lightly, if at all; and it was typical of him now that the subject had been discussed briefly, to resolve never to refer to it again. He released his hold on the old man's neck and tapped the latter's gray head lightly, while with his tongue he made hollow-sounding noises against the roof of his mouth.

"Ha! I thought so," he declared. "After your fifty-odd years in the lumber business your head has become packed with sawdust--"

"Be serious and talk to me, Bryce."

"I ought to send you to bed without your supper. Talk to you? You bet I'll talk to you, John Cardigan; and I'll tell you things, too, you scandalous bunko-steerer. To-morrow morning I'm going to put a pair of overalls on you, arm you with a tin can and a swab, and set you to greasing the skidways. Partner, you've deceived me."

"Oh, nonsense. If I had whimpered, that would only have spoiled everything."

"Nevertheless, you were forced to cable me to hurry home."

"I summoned you the instant I realized I was going to need you."

"No, you didn't, John Cardigan. You summoned me because, for the first time in your life, you were panicky and let yourself get out of hand."

His father nodded slowly. "And you aren't over it yet," Bryee continued, his voice no longer bantering but lowered affectionately. "What's the trouble, Dad? Trot out your old panic and let me inspect it. Trouble must be very real when it gets my father on the run."

"It is, Bryce, very real indeed. As I remarked before, I've lost your heritage for you." He sighed. "I waited till you would be able to come home and settle down to business; now you're home, and there isn't any business to settle down to."

Bryce chuckled, for he was indeed far from being worried over business matters, his consideration now being entirely for his father's peace of mind. "All right," he retorted, "Father has lost his money and we'll have to let the servants go and give up the old home. That part of it is settled; and weak, anemic, tenderly nurtured little Bryce Cardigan must put his turkey on his back and go into the woods looking for a job as lumberjack ... Busted, eh? Did I or did I not hear the six o'clock whistle blow at the mill? Bet you a dollar I did."

"Oh, I have title to everything--yet."

"How I do have to dig for good news! Then it appears we still have a business; indeed, we may always have a business, for the very fact that it is going but not quite gone implies a doubt as to its ultimate departure, and perhaps we may yet scheme a way to retain it."

"Oh, my boy, when I think of my years of toil and scheming, of the big dreams I dreamed--"

"Belay all! If we can save enough out of the wreck to insure you your customary home comforts, I shan't cry, partner. I have a profession to fall back on. Yes, sirree. I own a sheep-skin, and it says I'm an electrical and civil engineer."

"What!"

"I said it. An electrical and civil engineer. Slipped one over on you at college, John Cardigan, when all the time you thought I was having a good time. Thought I'd come home and surprise you."

"Bu-bu-but--"

"It drives me wild to have a man sputter at me. I'm an electrical and civil engineer, I tell you, and my two years of travel have been spent studying the installation and construction of big plants abroad." He commenced to chuckle softly. "I've known for years that our sawmill was a debilitated old coffee-grinder and would have to be rebuilt, so I wanted to know how to rebuild it. And I've known for years that some day I might have to build a logging railroad--"

"My dear boy! And you've got your degree?"

"Partner, I have a string of letters after my name like the tail of a comet."

"You comfort me," the old man answered simply. "I have reproached myself with the thought that I reared you with the sole thought of making a lumberman out of you--and when I saw your lumber business slipping through my fingers--"

"You were sorry I didn't have a profession to fall back on, eh? Or were you fearful lest you had raised the usual rich man's son? If the latter, you did not compliment me, pal. I've never forgotten how hard you always strove to impress me with a sense of the exact weight of my responsibility as your successor."

"How big are you now?" his father queried suddenly.

"Well, sir," Bryce answered, for his father's pleasure putting aside his normal modesty, "I'm six feet two inches tall, and I weigh two hundred pounds in the pink of condition. I have a forty-eight-inch chest, with five and a half inches chest-expansion, and a reach as long as a gorilla's. My underpinning is good, too; I'm not one of these fellows with spidery legs and a barrel-chest. I can do a hundred yards in ten seconds; I'm no slouch of a swimmer; and at Princeton they say I made football history. And in spite of it all, I haven't an athletic heart."

"That is very encouraging, my boy--very. Ever do any boxing?" "Quite a little. I'm fairly up in the manly art of self-defence."

"That's good. And I suppose you did some wrestling at your college gymnasium, did you not?"

"Naturally. I went in for everything my big carcass could stand."

The old man wagged his head approvingly, and they had reached the gate of the Cardigan home before he spoke again. "There's a big buck woods-boss up in Pennington's camp," he remarked irrelevantly. "He's a French Canadian imported from northern Michigan by Colonel Pennington. I dare say he's the only man in this country who measures up to you physically. He can fight with his fists and wrestle right cleverly, I'm told. His name is Jules Rondeau, and he's top dog among the lumberjacks. They say he's the strongest man in the county." He unlatched the gate. "Folks used to say that about me once," he continued wistfully. "Ah, if I could have my eyes to see you meet Jules Rondeau!"

The front portal of the quaint old Cardigan residence opened, and a silver-haired lady came out on the porch and hailed Bryce. She was Mrs. Tully, John Cardigan's old housekeeper, and almost a mother to Bryce. "Oh, here's my boy!" she cried, and a moment later found herself encircled by Bryce's arms and saluted with a hearty kiss.

As he stepped into the familiar entrance-hall, Bryce paused, raised his head and sniffed suspiciously, like a bird-dog. Mrs. Tully, arms akimbo, watched him pleasurably. "I smell something," he declared, and advanced a step down the hall for another sniff; then, in exact imitation of a foxhound, he gave tongue and started for the kitchen. Mrs. Tully, waddling after, found him "pointing" two hot blackberry pies which had but a few minutes previous been taken from the oven. He was baying lugubriously.

"They're wild blackberries, too," Mrs. Tully announced pridefully. "I remembered how fond you used to be of wild-blackberry pie--so I phoned up to the logging-camp and had the woods-boss send a man out to pick them."

"I'm still a pie-hound, Mrs. Tully, and you're still the same dear, thoughtful soul. I'm so glad now that I had sense enough to think of you before I turned my footsteps toward the setting sun." He patted her gray head. "Mrs. T.," he declared, "I've brought you a nice big collar of Irish lace--bought it in Belfast, b'gosh. It comes down around your neck and buckles right here with an old ivory cameo I picked up in Burma and which formerly was the property of a Hindu queen."

Mrs. Tully simpered with pleasure and protested that her boy was too kind. "You haven't changed a single speck," she concluded proudly.

"Has the pie?"

"I should say not."

"How many did you make?"

"Two."

"May I have one all for myself, Mrs. Tully?"

"Indeed you may, my dear."

"Thank you, but I do not want it for myself. Mrs. Tully, will you please wrap one of those wonderful pies in a napkin and the instant George Sea Otter comes in with the car, tell him to take the pie over to Colonel Pennington's house and deliver it to Miss Sumner? There's a girl who doubtless thinks she has tasted pie in her day, and I want to prove to her that she hasn't." He selected a card from his card- case, sat down, and wrote:

Dear Miss Sumner:

Here is a priceless hot wild-blackberry pie, especially manufactured in my honour. It is so good I wanted you to have some. In all your life you have never tasted anything like it.

Sincerely, BRYCE CARDIGAN.

He handed the card to Mrs. Tully and repaired to his old room to remove the stains of travel before joining his father at dinner.

Some twenty minutes later his unusual votive offering was delivered by George Sea Otter to Colonel Pennington's Swedish maid, who promptly brought it in to the Colonel and Shirley Sumner, who were even then at dinner in the Colonel's fine burl-redwood-panelled dining room. Miss Sumner's amazement was so profound that for fully a minute she was mute, contenting herself with scrutinizing alternately the pie and the card that accompanied it. Presently she handed the card to her uncle, who affixed his pince-nez and read the epistle with deliberation.

"Isn't this young Cardigan a truly remarkable young man, Shirley?" he declared. "Why, I have never heard of anything like his astounding action. If he had sent you over an armful of American Beauty roses from his father's old-fashioned garden, I could understand it, but an infernal blackberry pie! Good heavens!"

"I told you he was different," she replied. To the Colonel's amazement she did not appear at all amused.

Colonel Pennington poked a fork through the delicate brown crust. "I wonder if it is really as good as he says it is, Shirley."

"Of course. If it wasn't, he wouldn't have sent it."

"How do you know?"

"By intuition," she replied. And she cut into the pie and helped the Colonel to a quadrant of it.

"That was a genuine hayseed faux-pas," announced the Colonel a few moments later as Shirley was pouring coffee from a samovar-shaped percolator in the library. "The idea of anybody who has enjoyed the advantages that fellow has, sending a hot blackberry pie to a girl he has just met!"

"Yes, the idea!" she echoed. "I find it rather charming."

"You mean amusing."

"I said 'charming.' Bryce Cardigan is a man with the heart and soul of a boy, and I think it was mighty sweet of him to share his pie with me. If he had sent roses, I should have suspected him of trying to 'rush' me, but the fact that he sent a blackberry pie proves that he's just a natural, simple, sane, original citizen--just the kind of person a girl can have for a dear friend without incurring the risk of having to marry him."

"I repeat that this is most extraordinary."

"Only because it is an unusual thing for a young man to do, although, after all, why shouldn't he send me a blackberry pie if he thought a blackberry pie would please me more than an armful of roses? Besides, he may send the roses to-morrow."

"Most extraordinary!" the Colonel reiterated.

"What should one expect from such an extraordinary creature? He's an extraordinary fine-looking young man, with an extraordinary scowl and an extraordinary crinkly smile that is friendly and generous and free from masculine guile. Why, I think he's just the kind of man who would send a girl a blackberry pie."

The Colonel noticed a calm little smile fringing her generous mouth. He wished he could tell, by intuition, what she was thinking about-- and what effect a hot wild-blackberry pie was ultimately to have upon the value of his minority holding in the Laguna Grande Lumber Company.