"Pop" by Alice Hegan Rice

The gloomy corridor in the big Baltimore hospital was still and deserted save for a nurse who sat at a flat-topped desk under a green lamp mechanically transferring figures from one chart to another. It was the period of quiet that usually precedes the first restless stirring of the sick at the breaking of dawn. The silence was intense as only a silence can be that waits momentarily for an interrupting sound.

Suddenly it came in a prolonged, imperative ring of the telephone bell. So insistent was the call that the nurse's hand closed over the transmitter long before the burr ceased. The office was notifying Ward B that an emergency case had been brought in and an immediate operation was necessary.

With prompt efficiency the well-ordered machinery for saving human life was put in motion. Soft-footed nurses emerged from the shadows and moved quickly about, making necessary arrangements. A trim, comely woman, straight of feature and clear of eye, gave directions in low decisive tones. When the telephone rang the second time she answered it.

"Yes, Office," she said, "this is Miss Fletcher. They are not going to operate? Too late? I see. Very well. Send the patient up to No. 16. Everything is ready."

Even as she spoke the complaining creak of the elevator could he heard, and presently two orderlies appeared at the end of the corridor bearing a stretcher.

Beside it, with head erect and jaw set, strode a strangely commanding figure. Six feet two he loomed in the shadows, a gaunt, raw-boned old mountaineer. On his head was a tall, wide-brimmed hat and in his right hand he carried a bulky carpet sack. The left sleeve of his long-tailed coat hung empty to the elbow. The massive head with its white flowing beard and hawklike face, the beaked nose and fierce, deep-set eyes, might have served as a model for Michael Angelo when he modeled his immortal Moses.

As the orderlies passed through the door of No. 16 and lowered the stretcher, the old man put down his carpet sack and grimly watched the nurse uncover the patient. Under the worn homespun coverlet, stained with the dull dyes of barks and berries, lay an emaciated figure, just as it had been brought into the hospital. One long coarse garment covered it, and the bare feet with their prominent ankle bones and the large work-hardened hands might have belonged to either a boy or a girl.

"Take that thar head wrappin' off!" ordered the old man peremptorily.

A nurse carefully unwound the rough woolen scarf and as she did so a mass of red hair fell across the pillow, hair that in spite of its matted disorder showed flashes of gleaming gold.

"We'll get her on the bed," a night nurse said to an assistant. "Put your arm under her knees. Don't jar the stretcher!"

Before the novice could obey another and a stronger arm was thrust forward.

"Stand back thar, some of you-uns," commanded a loud voice, "I'll holp move Sal myself."

In vain were protests from nurses and orderlies alike, the old mountaineer seemed bent on making good use of his one arm and with quick dexterity he helped to lift her on the bed.

"Now, whar's the doctor?" he demanded, standing with feet far apart and head thrown back.

The doctor was at the desk in the corridor, speaking to Miss Fletcher in an undertone:

"We only made a superficial examination down-stairs," he was saying, "but it is evidently a ruptured appendix. If she's living in a couple of hours I may be able to operate. But it's ten to one she dies on the table."

"Who are they, and where did they come from?" Miss Fletcher asked curiously.

"Their name is Hawkins, and they are from somewhere in the Kentucky mountains. Think of his starting with her in that condition! He can't read or write; it's the first time he has ever been in a city. I am afraid he's going to prove troublesome. You'd better get him out of there as soon as possible."

But anyone, however mighty in authority, who proposed to move Jeb Hawkins when he did not choose to be moved reckoned unknowingly. All tactics were exhausted from suggestion to positive command, and the rules of the hospital were quoted in vain.

In the remote regions where Jeb lived there were no laws to break. Every man's home was his stronghold, to be protected at the point of a pistol. He was one of the three million people of good Anglo-Saxon stock who had been stranded in the highlands when the Cumberland Mountains dammed the stream of humanity that swept westward through the level wilderness. Development had been arrested so long in Jeb and his ancestors that the outside world, its interests and its mode of living, was a matter of supreme and profound indifference. A sudden and unprecedented emergency had driven him to the "Settlements." His girl had developed an ailment that baffled the skill of the herb doctors; so, following one bit of advice after another, he had finally landed in Baltimore. And now that the terrible journey was ended and Sal was in the hands of the doctor who was to work the cure, the wholly preposterous request was made of him that he abandon her to her fate!

With dogged determination he sat beside the bed, and chewed silently and stolidly through the argument.

"You gals mought ez well save yer wind," he announced at last. "Ef Sal stays, I stay. Ef I go, Sal goes. We ain't axin' favors of nobody."

He was so much in the way during the necessary preparations for the possible operation that finally Miss Fletcher was appealed to. She was a woman accustomed to giving orders and to having them obeyed; but she was also a woman of tact. Ten minutes of valuable time were spent in propitiating the old man before she suggested that he come with her into the corridor while the nurses straightened the room. A few minutes later she returned, smiling:

"I've corralled him in the linen closet," she whispered; "he is unpacking his carpet sack as if he meant to take up his abode with us."

"I am afraid," said the special nurse, glancing toward the bed, "he won't have long to stay. How do you suppose he ever got her here?"

"I asked him. He said he drove her for three days in an ox-cart along the creek bottom until they got to Jackson. Then he told the ticket agent to send them to the best hospital the train ran to. Neither of them had ever seen a train before. It's a miracle she's lived this long."

"Does he realize her condition?"

"I don't know. I suppose I ought to tell him that the end may come at any time."

But telling him was not an easy matter as Miss Fletcher found when she joined him later in the linen closet. He was busy spreading his varied possessions along the shelves on top of the piles of immaculate linen, stopping now and then to refresh himself with a bite of salt pork and some corn pone that had been packed for days along with Sally's shoes and sunbonnet and his own scanty wardrobe.

"I suppose you know," Miss Fletcher began gently, trying not to show her chagrin at the state of the room, "that your daughter is in a very serious condition."

He looked at her sharply. "Shucks! Sal'll pull through," he said with mingled defiance and alarm. "You ain't saw her afore in one of them spells. Besides, hit meks a difference when a gal's paw and grandpaw and great-grandpaw was feud-followers. A feud-follower teks more killin' then ordinary folks. Her maw was subjec' to cramp colic afore her."

"But this isn't cramp colic," Miss Fletcher urged, "it's her appendix, and it wasn't taken in time."

"Well, ain't they goin' to draw it?" he asked irritably. "Ain't that whut we're here fer?"

"Yes; but you don't understand. The doctor may decide not, to operate."

The old man's face wore a puzzled look, then his lips hardened:

"Mebbe hit's the money thet's a-woriyin' him. You go toll him that Jeb Hawkins pays ez he goes! I got pension money sewed in my coat frum the hem clean up to the collar. I hain't askin' none of you to cure my gal fer nothin'!"

Miss Fletcher laid her hand on his arm. It was a shapely hand as well as a kindly one.

"It isn't a question of money," she said quietly, "it's a question of life or death. There is only a slight chance that your daughter will live through the day."

Someone tapped at the door and Miss Fletcher, after a whispered consultation, turned again to the old man:

"They have decided to take the chance," she said hurriedly. "They are carrying her up now. You stay here, and I will let you know as soon as it is over."

"Whar they fetching her to?" he demanded savagely.

"To the operating-room."

"You take me thar!"

"But you can't go, Mr. Hawkins. No one but the surgeons and nurses can be with her. Besides, the nurse who was just here said she had regained consciousness, and it might excite her to see you."

She might as well have tried to stop a mountain torrent. He brushed past her and was making his way to the elevator before she had ceased speaking. At the open door of the operating-room on the fourth floor he paused. On a long white table lay the patient, a white-clad doctor on either side of her, and a nurse in the background sorting a handful of gleaming instruments. With two strides the old man reached the girl's side.

"Sal!" he said fiercely, bending over her, "air ye wuss?"

Her dazed eyes cleared slightly.

"I dunno, Pop," she murmured feebly.

"Ye ain't fixin' to die, air ye?" he persisted.

"I dunno, Pop."

"Don't you let 'em skeer you," he commanded sternly. "You keep on a-fightin'. Don't you dare give up. Sal, do you hear me?"

The girl's wavering consciousness steadied, and for a moment the challenge that the old man flung at death was valiantly answered in her pain-racked eyes.

For an hour and a half the surgeons worked. The case, critical enough at best, was greatly complicated by the long delay. Twice further effort seemed useless, and it was only by the prompt administration of oxygen that the end was averted. During the nerve-racking suspense Pop not only refused to leave the room, he even refused to stand back from the table. With keen, suspicious eyes he followed every movement of the surgeons' hands. Only once did he speak out, and that was in the beginning, to an interne who was administering the anæsthetic:

"Lift that funnel, you squash-headed fool!" he thundered; "don't you see hit's marking of her cheek?"

When the work was finished and the unconscious patient had been taken down to her ward, Pop still kept his place beside her. With his hand on her pulse he watched her breathing, watched the first faint quivering of her lids, the restlessness that grew into pain and later into agony. Hour after hour he sat there and passed with her through that crucifixion that follows some capital operations.

On his refusal at luncheon time to leave the bedside Miss Fletcher ignored the rules and sent him a tray; but when night came and he still refused to go, she became impatient.

"You can't stay in here to-night, Mr. Hawkins," she said firmly. "I have asked one of the orderlies, who lives nearby, to take you home with him. We can send for you if there is any change. I must insist that you go now."

"Ain't I made it cl'ar from the start," cried Pop angrily, "thet I ain't a-goin' to be druv out? You-uns kin call me muley-headed or whatever you've a mind to. Sal's always stood by me, and by golly, I'm a-goin' to stand by Sal!"

His raised voice roused the patient, and a feeble summons brought Miss Fletcher to the bedside.

"Say," plead the girl faintly, "don't rile Pop. He's the—fightenest man—in—Breathitt—when his blood's—up."

"All right, dear," said Miss Fletcher, with a soothing hand on the hot brow; "he shall do as he likes."

During that long night the girl passed from one paroxysm of pain to another with brief intervals of drug-induced sleep. During the quiet moments the nurse snatched what rest she could; but old Jeb Hawkins stuck to his post in the straight-backed chair, never nodding, never relaxing the vigilance of his watch. For Pop was doing sentry duty, much as he had done it in the old days of the Civil War, when he had answered Lincoln's first call for volunteers and given his left arm for his country.

But the enemy to-night was mysterious, crafty, one that might come in the twinkling of an eye, and a sentry at seventy is not what he was at twenty-two. When the doctor arrived in the morning he found the old man haggard with fatigue.

"This won't do, Mr. Hawkins," he said kindly; "you must get some rest."

"Be she goin' to die?" Pop demanded, steadying himself by a chair.

"It is too soon to tell," the doctor said evasively; "but I'll say this much, her pulse is better than I expected. Now, go get some sleep."

Half an hour later a strange rumbling sound puzzled the nurses in Ward B. It came at regular intervals, rising from a monotonous growl to a staccato, then dying away in a plaintive diminuendo. It was not until one of the nurses needed clean sheets that the mystery was explained. On the floor of the linen closet, stretched on his back with his carpet sack under his head and his empty sleeve across his chest, lay Pop!

From that time on the old mountaineer became a daily problem to Ward B. It is true, he agreed in time to go home at night with the orderly; but by six in the morning he was sitting on the hospital steps, impatiently awaiting admission. The linen closet was still regarded by him as his private apartment, to which he repaired at such times as he could not stay in Sally's room, and refreshed himself with the luncheon he brought with him each day.

During the first week, when the girl's life hung in the balance, he was granted privileges which he afterward refused to relinquish. The hospital confines, after the freedom of the hills, chafed him sorely. As the days grew warmer he discarded his coat, collar, and at times his shoes.

"I 'low I'm goin' to tek Sal home next week!" became his daily threat.

But the days and weeks slipped by, and still the girl lay with a low, consuming fever, and still Pop watched by her side, showing her no affection by word or gesture but serving her and anticipating her every want with a thoroughness that left little for the nurses to do.

In some way Miss Fletcher had gained his confidence. To her he intrusted the bills which he ripped from his coat at the end of each week with the instruction that she "pay off them boys down in the office fa'r an' squar', but not to 'low 'em to cheat her." It may have been her growing interest in the invalid that won his favor, for she came in often to chat awhile with Sally and sometimes brought up a handful of flowers to brighten the sick room.

"She's getting better," she said one morning as she held the girl's big bony hand and looked down at the thin bright face in its frame of shining hair. "We'll have her sitting up now before long."

Pop's whole aspect brightened.

"Ef Sal onct begins to git well, can't none of 'em beat her," he said proudly.

"Have you any other children?" Miss Fletcher asked.

"Lord, yes," said Pop, "heaps of 'em. Thar's Ted an' Larkin, an' Gus,—they wuz all kilt in feud fights. An' Burt an' Jim,—they're in jail in Jackson fer moonshinin'. Four more died when they wuz babies. An' they ain't nary a one at home now but jes' Sal."

"How old is she?"

"Seventeen or eighteen, mebbe."

"And she tells me she has never been to school."

"Thar warn't no needcessity," said Pop complacently, taking a long twist of tobacco from his pocket. "Sal don't need no larnin'. She's pearter then most gals thet's got book sense. You show me ary one of these gals round here thet kin spin an' weave the cloth to mek ther own dresses, thet kin mold candles, an' mek soap, an' hoe terbaccy, an' handle a rifle good ez a man."

"But, Mr. Hawkins," insisted Miss Fletcher, "there are better things than those for us to learn. Haven't you ever felt the need of an education yourself?"

Pop looked at her suspiciously: "Look a-here, young woman. I'm nigh on to seventy. I never hed a doctor but onct in my life, an' then he chopped my arm off when it might hev got well whar it wuz. I kin plow, an' fell trees, an' haul wood. Thar ain't a log-rollin' ner a house-raisin' in our neck of the woods thet Jeb Hawkins ain't sent fer. I kin h'ist a barrel with the best of 'em, and shake up Ole Dan Tucker ez peart ez the next one. Now how about yer scholards? This here horspittle is full of 'em. Pale-faced, spindly-legged, nerve-jerking young fellows thet has spent ther fust twenty years gittin' larnin', an' ther next twenty gittin' over hit. Me an' Sal will keep to the open!"

But Sally was not so confident. As her strength began to return she took a growing interest in all that went on around her, asking eager, intelligent questions and noting with wistful curiosity the speech and manners of the nurses who served her. She was a raw recruit from Nature, unsophisticated, illiterate. Under a bondage of poverty and drudgery she had led her starved life in the mountain fastnesses; but now she had opened her eyes on a new and unexpected world.

"How do you go about gittin' a larnin'?" she ventured at last to ask one of the friendly nurses. "Can't you fetch me up some of them thar picter books?"

For hours after this she pored over her new treasures, until one day Miss Fletcher brought her a primer, and the seventeen-year-old girl grappled for the first time with the alphabet. After that she was loath to have the book out of her hand, going painfully and slowly over the lessons, mastering each in turn with patient perseverance.

Pop viewed this proceeding with disfavor. He seemed to sense the entering wedge that was to separate her from him. His pride in her accomplishment was overshadowed by his jealousy, and when she was able to read a whole page and attempted to explain the intricate process to him, he was distinctly cast down. He left the hospital that afternoon for the first time, and was gone until dusk. When he returned he carried a bunch of faded wild flowers that he had tramped two miles in the country to get for his girl.

May dragged into June, and still they were kept at the hospital. The old man became as restless as a caged animal; he paced the corridors for hours at a time and his eyes grew furtive and defiant. He, who had lived out of sight of the smoke from his nearest neighbor's chimneys, who had spent his life in the vast, still solitudes of the hills, was incredibly lonely here among his fellow men.

"If Pop has to stay here much longer, I'm afraid he'll smash the furniture," said the night nurse who, like everybody else in the ward, had grown interested in the old man. "He packs his things every morning before the doctor comes, only to unpack them after he leaves."

"The confinement is telling on him," said Miss Fletcher. "I wish for his sake they could start home to-day. But I do hate to see Sally go! The girl is getting her first taste of civilization, and I've never seen anyone so eager to learn. We have to take the books away from her every day, and when she can't study she begs to be allowed to roll bandages. The third day she sat up she wanted to help nurse the other patients.

"I am afraid we have spoiled her for hoeing tobacco, and planting corn," said the night nurse.

"I hope so," Miss Fletcher answered fervently.

It was nearly the last of June when the doctor dismissed his patient. "This doesn't mean that she is well," he warned Pop. "You will have to be careful of her for a long time. She has worked too hard for a growing girl, and she's not as strong now as she was."

"She will be!" Pop responded confidently. "That thar gal is made outen iron! Her maw was afore her. Liza wuz my third wife, an' she'd borned six or seven children, when she died at thirty-five, an', by Joshuy, she'd never once hed a doctor in all her life!"

Pop's joy over their dismissal was slightly dimmed by Sally's reception of the news. He saw her draw a long breath and bite her lips; then he saw what he had never seen since she was a baby, two large tears gather slowly in her eyes and roll down on the pillow. He watched them in amazement.

"Sal, whut ails ye?" he asked anxiously, after the doctor was gone.

"I want to git a larnin'!" she broke out. "I don't want to go back to the hills."

Instantly the old man's face, which had been tender, hardened to a mask of fury.

"That passel of fool women's been workin' on ye," he cried hoarsely, "larnin', larnin', thet's all they know. Ain't the Fork good enough fer ye? Ain't the cabin whar yer paw, an' yer grandpaw, an' yer great-grandpaw was borned good enough for ye?"

"Yes, Pop, yes!" she gasped, terrified at the storm she had raised. "I'm a-goin' back with you. Don't tek on so, Pop, I'm a-goin'!"

But the tempest was raging, and the old man got up and strode angrily up and down the small room, filling the air with his indignation.

"I should say you wuz goin' back! I'd like to see any of 'em try to keep you. They'd like to make one o' them dressed-up doll women outen you! You're goin' back with me to the Fork, an' ef thar's ever any more nussin' er doctorin' to do, I'm a-goin' to do hit. I've nussed three women on their deathbeds, an' when your time comes I 'low I kin handle you too."

Then his mood changed suddenly, and he sat down by the bed.

"Sal," he said almost persuasively, "you'll git over this here foolishness. Ag'in' fall you'll be a-cappin corn, an' a-roastin' sweet pertatoes, an' singin' them ole ballarts along with the Hicks gals, an' Cy West, an' Bub Holly. An' I'll tote you behind me on the beast over the Ridge to the Baptist Meetin' House the very next feet-washin' they hev. Jes' think how good hit's goin' to be to see the sun a-risin' over Ole Baldy, an' to hev room to stretch an' breathe in. Seems ez if I hain't been able to git my lungs full of wind sense I left Jackson."

"I know it, Pop," Sally said miserably. "You growed old in the hills afore you ever seen the Settlements. But sence I got a sight of whut folks is a-doin' down here, 'pears like I can't be reconciled to goin' back. 'Tain't the work back home, nor the lonesomeness, tho' the Lord knows the only folks thet ever does pass is when they're totin' deads down the creek bottom. Hit's the feelin' of bein' shet off from my chanct. Ef I could git a larnin' I wouldn't ask nothin' better then to go back an' pass it along. When I see these here gals a-larnin' how to holp the sick, an' keer fer babies, an' doctor folks, I lay here an' steddy 'bout all the good I could do back home ef I only knowed how."

"You do know how," Pop declared vociferously; "ain't you bin a-lookin' after folks thet's ailin' around the Fork fer a couple of years or more? Ez fer these new-fangled doctorin's, they won't nary one ov 'em do the good yarbs will. I'd ruther trust bitter-goldenseal root to cure a ailment than all the durn physic in this here horspittle. I ben a-studyin' these here doctors, an' I don't take much stock in 'em; instid of workin' on a organ thet gets twisted, they ups and draws hit. Now the Lord A'mighty put thet air pertickler thing in you fer some good reason, an' ther's bound to be a hitch in the machinery when hit's took out. Hit's a marvel to me some of these here patients ain't a amblin' round on all fours from what's been did to their insides!"

"But think whut the doctor did fer me," urged Sally.

"I ain't fergittin'," Pop said suddenly, "an' I've paid 'em fer hit. But ef they calkerlate on yer takin' root here, they're treein' the wrong possum. You're a-goin' home along o' me to-morrow."

That afternoon he left the hospital, and several hours later was seen walking up Monument Street with his arm full of bundles.

"I believe he's been buying clothes to take Sally home in!" said one of the nurses, who was watching him from an upper window. "He asked me this morning if I knew a place where he could buy women's togs."

"It's a shame he won't let the girl stay," said Miss Fletcher. "I have been talking to the superintendent, and she is quite willing to let her do light work around the hospital and pick up what training she can. I should be glad enough to look after her, and there's a good night school two blocks over."

"Why don't you talk to the old man?" urged the nurse. "You are the only one who has ever been able to do anything with him. Perhaps you could make him see what an injustice he is doing the girl."

"I believe I'll try," said Miss Fletcher.

The next morning, when she came on duty, she found Sally's bed the repository of a strange assortment of wearing apparel. A calico dress of pronounced hue, a large lace jabot, and a small pair of yellow kid gloves were spread out for inspection.

"I knowed they wuz too leetle," Pop was saying, as he carefully smoothed the kid fingers, "but I 'lowed you could kerry 'em in yer hand."

There was an unusual eagerness in his hard face, an evident desire to make up to Sally in one way for what he was depriving her of in another. He was more talkative than at any time since coming to the hospital, and he dilated with satisfaction on the joys that awaited their home-coming.

"May I have a little talk with you before you go?" asked Miss Fletcher.

He flashed on her a quick look of suspicion, but her calm, impassive face told him nothing. She was a pretty woman, and Pop had evidently recognized the fact from the start.

"Wal, I'll come now," he said, rising reluctantly; "but, Sal, you git yer clothes on an' be ready to start time I git back. I ain't anxious to stay round these here diggin's no longer'n need be. Besides, that thar railroad car mought take a earlier start. You be ready ag'in I git back."

For an hour and a quarter Miss Fletcher was shut up in the linen closet with the old man. What arguments and persuasions she brought to bear are not known. Occasionally his voice could be heard in loud and angry dissent, but when at last they emerged he looked like some old king of the jungle that has been captured and tamed. His shoulders drooped, his one arm hung limply by his side, and his usually restless eyes were bent upon the floor.

Without a word he strode back to the room where Sally in her misfit clothes was waiting for him.

"Come along o' me, Sal," he commanded sternly as he picked up his carpet sack. "Leave your things whar they be."

Silently they passed out of the ward, down the stairway, through the long vaultlike corridor to the superintendent's room. Once there he flung back his rusty coat and ripped the last bill but one from its hiding place.

"That thar is fer my gal," he said defiantly to the superintendent. "She'll git one the fust day of every month. Give her the larnin' she's so hell-bent on, stuff her plumb full on it. An' ef you let ennything happen to her"—his brows lowered threateningly—"I'll come back an' blow yer whole blame' horspittle into eternity!"

"Pop!" Sally pleaded, "Pop!"

But his emotions were at high tide and he did not heed her. Pushing her roughly aside, he strode back to the entrance hall, and was about to pick up his carpet sack when his gaze was suddenly arrested by the great marble figure that bends its thorn-crowned head in pity over the unhappy and the pain-racked mortals that pass beneath its outstretched hands.

"You ain't goin' to leave me like this, Pop?" begged Sally. "Ef you take it so hard, I'll go back, an' I'll go willin'. Jus' say the word, Pop, an' I'll go!"

The old mountaineer's one hand closed on the girl's bony arm in a tight clasp, his shoulders heaved, and his massive features worked, but his gaze never left the calm, pitying face of the Saviour overhead. He had followed his child without a tremor into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but at the entrance of this new life, where he must let her go alone, his courage failed and his spirit faltered. His dominant will, hitherto the only law he knew, was in mortal combat with a new and unknown force that for the first time had entered his life.

For several minutes he stood thus, his conflicting passions swaying him, as opposing gales shake a giant forest tree. Then he resolutely loosened his grip on the girl's arm and taking up his burden, without a word or a backward glance, set his face toward the hills, leaving an awkward, wistful girl watching him with her tears only half obscuring the vision that was already dawning for her.