The Whispering Hills
YEARS ago I was taught that ‘very’ is a very bad word to use; nevertheless I can find no better way of describing Amzi Miller than as a very good man.
I discovered his rock-bottom worth one day when we slaved side by side to quench a woods fire, and again when he presented an insufficient bill for threshing our wheat and oats.
‘That wheat,’ he said, ‘was so bad it would n’t pay for threshing. Still, it would n’t have been right to throw it out, and you not here to say yes or no. So I threshed her anyhow.’
But the full measure of Amzi’s virtue came home to me when I saw, on a subscription paper circulated to bring a resident pastor to our hamlet’s sole church, the sum of fifty dollars opposite his signature. Now fifty dollars is probably a tenth of Amzi’s total income, none of which comes in of its own accord. Moreover, Amzi is not a member of the church; and, being a bachelor, he has a relatively small stake in the godliness of the community.
When I congratulated him on his public spirit, he said: ‘It’s this way. I might not get fifty dollars’ worth of good out of any preacher; but maybe my neighbors would. They’re raising the children around here, and that’s almighty expensive, so I thought I could go some stronger than they in raising this money.’
‘In addition to which,’ I replied, ‘maybe you’ll be needing a preacher some day to remedy your wifeless and childless condition.’ Joking Amzi on the subject, of his bachelorhood is one of the favorite local sports.
‘I admit,’ he replied with a grin, ‘that baching it on a farm has drawbacks. At the time most farmers marry I had Ma to look out for. Later my brother and his wife lived with me. After they went to town I was too set in my ways to risk matrimony, even if a woman would have had me.'
‘There’s more than that to it, Amzi. A steady man like you, with a farm paid for, could find a wife in a week without ever setting foot outside this township. ’
‘Maybe so,’ said he, ‘but I’m choosey. And, ’ he added mysteriously, ‘I got good reason to be.’ With which my curiosity had to be satisfied, although it did not quite explain why the most dependable and, in a roughhewn, granitic, hard-bitted sort of way, the handsomest of my neighbors should stay unmarried in a region where marriage remains popular.
Some months later Amzi was helping me fill the ice house. While we were leveling the cakes and packing them in rows, with sawdust between, the other men would drive to the pond for another load; and as they had to go some distance we had plenty of time for conversation. Half an hour of work with pick and shovel and then fifteen minutes or so of loafing.
‘ I wish folks around here, ’ remarked Amzi, ‘would quit marrying me off to this one or that. They talk about it, but they can’t do it. ’
‘Perhaps they can, Amzi. Public opinion is mighty and may prevail. ’ ‘They can’t do it,’ repeated Amzi, stubbornly. ‘They can’t do it nohow. Because,’ he added, ‘I’m waiting for a certain party to make a move. But, mind you, never mention that, or I ’d never hear the last of it.’
‘I’ll promise,’ I replied, ‘if you’ll tell me about her.’
Though itching to talk, he was characteristically cautious. ‘Not her name; I won’t tell you her name. But I will tell you the circumstances, short and brief.
‘My father was a great hand for moving from one farm to another. Before I was twenty I’d lived on a dozen farms. Then we moved on to the place that lies just under the Whispering Hills. You know the look of them from the road — just three small rounded hills, too steep for the plough, but carrying plenty grass for sheep. They’re called the Whispering Hills because of the echoes. Whisper in certain places and the sound will carry to other places clean out of sight. There was some ploughland, but not much, because the sand plains begin right there at the hills.
‘One rough night in March — after a sunny day the wind had come sudden, bringing snow flurries — I was up and around the hills well after dark to see that the ewes and lambs were all in shelter. When I was striking out for home I thought I heard above the wind someone sighing and moaning. The sound seemed right at my feet, but the ground was clear all round as far as I could see by lantern light. So I shouted, “I’m a-coming,” and started to search. Maybe you’ve guessed it was a girl. You’re right. She was lying in a gully, with the snow eddying and dancing round her. It seems she’d been thrown while riding through the sand plains about sundown: the city folks did a good deal of horseback riding out that way, because fences are so few there. Once down, she made for the road and, night coming on, headed for our lights. But her ankle had twisted and the going was plenty rough, so she had fainted from pain more than once on the way.
’I carried her home like she was a child, and Ma tucked her in our best bed, with hot towels around the ankle and hot sage tea inside her. Ma’s first thought in trouble was always hot sage tea. Then I hitched up and drove three miles to a telephone to tell her folks she was safe. They came out in the morning, bringing a doctor. All the time I was on the road I couldn’t seem to think of anything else but that I had carried her in my arms a right, long spell, and I was mighty proud of the strength that let me do it.
‘That summer she rode over our way pretty often. When she came it was like Heaven opening and an angel dropping through. Her name was Marjorie, and she seemed to get real enjoyment by sending me to the right places to whisper “Marjorie, Marjorie,” while she stood like a statue agin’ the sky, listening. She tried whispering “Amzi, ” too, but that name ain’t exactly made for whispering. Sometimes she’d bring a fiddle and play little tunes; the echoes did strange things to them. And other times we’d just set there, she making conversation and I watching her and the sheep.
‘Winters she’d be away at school or college, but every summer she’d ride over now and then. Often talked to me about education, and how I ought to be going to agricultural school; but I thought not, Pa being restless and me having Ma on my mind. One summer Marjorie did n’t come at all, but crossed the ocean to study music. When she finally showed up, she told me she was going to be married.
‘“Well,” I says to her, “it’s a risk any way you look at it. I used to think maybe we could be married some day; but I see it’s not to be, and rightly so, we being so different circumstanced and all. But there’s no harm in my keeping on thinking about you, is there?”
‘“No, Amzi,” she answered, “there’s no harm in that; only good.”
‘“What’s more,” I says, “I’ll be tied to Ma and the family for quite some while, so it ain’t likely I’ll marry till I’m well along, if ever. So if this marriage of yours misses fire anywhere or anyhow, Amzi Miller will be working somewhere round this country, wishing you well and asking no questions, ever. ”
‘That’s about all. She got a good man, worth quite a bit of money, and between them they’ve raised a family that’s most grown up now. I see the young’uns’ pictures in the paper one time or another. Last year she got her husband to buy the old farmhouse at Whispering Hills for a summer place; and after they’ve ’sperimented with the trash help you find in the country nowadays I expect they’ll be after me to work it for them. So you can set it down that Amzi Miller ain’t taking no wife just yet, nor otherwise loading himself down so that he can’t make a quick jump. I would n’t ask nothing better than to labor for that woman till I drop, even though hers is the worst farm, for farming purposes, in the country.’