Stories of the Foot-hills, by Margaret Collier Graham

Stories of the Foot-hills, by Margaret Collier Graham

There was another long silence. The noonday air seemed to pulsate, as if
the mountain were sleeping in the sun and breathing regularly. The
weeds, which the weight of the sled had crushed, gave out a fragrance of
honey and tar. A pair of humming-birds darted into the stillness in a
little tempest of shrill-voiced contention, and the mule, aroused from
dejected abstraction by the intruders, shook his tassel-like tail and
yawned humanly.

Sterling lifted his hat with a winsome smile that seemed to illuminate
the twilight of poor Melissa's wilted sunbonnet, and the three men
started up the canon, the bay that they pushed aside on the path sending
back a sweet, spicy fragrance.

The sun rose higher, and the warm dullness of a California summer day
settled down upon the little mountain ranch. Heat seemed to rise in
shimmering waves from the yellow barley stubble. The orange-trees cast
dense shadows with no coolness in them, and along the edge of the
orchard the broad leaves of the squash-vines hung in limp dejection upon
their stalks. The heated air was full of pungent odors: tar and honey
and spice from the sage and eucalyptus, with now and then a warmer puff
of some new wild fragrance from far up the mountain-side.

The sun rose hot and pitiless, and the dust and stones of the road grew
more and more scorching to her feet. The leaves of the wild gourd, lying
in great star-shaped patches on the ground, drooped on their stems, and
the spikes of dusty white sage by the road hung limp at the ends, and
filled the air with their wilted fragrance. The sea-breeze did not come
up, and in its stead gusts of hot wind from the north swept through the
valley as if from the door of a furnace. People talked of it afterward
as "the hot spell of 18--," but in Melissa's calendar it was "the day I
walked to Loss Anjelus,"--a day so fraught with hopes and fears, so full
of dim uncertainties and dread and longing, that the heat seemed only a
part of the generally abnormal conditions in which she found herself.

The afternoon was steeped in the warm fragrance of a California spring.
Every crease and wrinkle in the velvet of the encircling hills was
reflected in the blue stillness of the laguna. Patches of poppies blazed
like bonfires on the mesa, and higher up the faint smoke of the
blossoming buckthorn tangled its drifts in the chaparral. Bees droned in
the wild buckwheat, and powdered themselves with the yellow of the
mustard, and now and then the clear, staccato voice of the meadow-lark
broke into the drowsy quiet--a swift little dagger of sound.


The Southern winter blossomed royally. Bees held high carnival in the
nodding spikes of the white sage, and now and then a breath of perfume
from the orange groves in the valley came up to mingle with the wild
mountain odors. Brice worked every moment with feverish earnestness, and
the pile of gnarled roots on the clearing grew steadily larger. With all
her loveliness, Nature failed to woo him. What was the exquisite languor
of those days to him but so many hours of patient waiting? The dull eyes
saw nothing of the lavish beauty around him then, looking through it all
with restless yearning to where an emigrant train, with its dust and
dirt and noisome breath, crawled over miles of alkali, or hung from
dizzy heights.


The sea-breeze had died away, and the wind was blowing in cooler gusts
from the mountain; breezes laden with the aromatic sweetness of the
bay-tree and the heavy scent of the shade-loving bracken wandered from
far up the canon into the cabin and out again, only to find themselves
profaned and sordid with the smell of frying bacon.


A fog had drifted in during the night, and was still tangled in the tops
of the sycamores. The soft, humid air was sweet with the earthy scents
of the canon, and the curled fallen leaves of the live oaks along the
flume path were golden-brown with moisture. Beads of mist fringed the
silken fluffs of the clematis, dripping with gentle, rhythmical
insistence from the trees overhead.


Sterling had idled along, crossing and recrossing the restless stream
that appeared to be hurrying away from the quiet of the mountains. He
was really not a very enthusiastic hunter, as the Chinaman had
discovered. He liked the faint, sickening odor of the brakes and the
honey-like scent of the wild immortelles that came in little warm gusts
from the cliffs above far better than the smell of powder. He stopped
where the men had been at work the day before, and looked about with
that impartial criticism that always seems easier when nothing is being
done.

The man turned and took off the brake, and the mules, without further
signal, resumed their journey. Boulders began to thicken by the
roadside. The sun went down, and the air grew heavy with the soft,
resinous mountain odors. Some one stepped from the shadow of a scraggy
buckthorn in front of the team.

Some years afterwards, when Mr. Frederick Sterling's girth and dignity
had noticeably increased, he saw among his wife's ornaments a gaudy
trinket that brought a curious twinge of half-forgotten pain into his
consciousness. He was not able to understand, nor is it likely that he
will ever know, how it came there, or why there came over him at sight
of it a memory of sycamores and running water, and the smell of sage and
blooming buckthorn and chaparral.


The song of the hay-balers and the whir of the threshing-machine had
died out of the valley, and the raisin-making had come on. The trays
were spread in the vineyards, and the warm white air was filled with the
fruity smell of the grapes, browning and sweetening beneath the October
sun.