"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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"Sal!" he said fiercely, bending over her, "air ye
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
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
"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
"I 'low I'm goin' to tek Sal home next week!" became his
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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