From the Children’s Friend, 1912 –
Christmas in Bowlder Gulch
By Mabel Earle
Sixteen compositions, in various grades of handwriting, lay upon the teacher’s table at the close of the afternoon session. The teacher cast a weary glance upon them as his last pupil departed, then slipped them unceremoniously into a drawer. “No more of you today!” he said. “This high-souled instructor of youth is too nearly done for. Queer how a slip of a girl can stand this sort of thing, year in and year out. It’s the hardest work I ever tried. I’m going forth to breathe a little of our bracing mountain atmosphere – fifteen below zero, and still going down! Nice weather for December, but it doesn’t go with this sort of sedentary occupation. Think I’ll resign when the board meets again, and take a pick and shovel.”
He closed the stove carefully, made sure that the windows were fastened, and put on his overcoat, drawing the collar up about his ears. The stinting air nipped his fingers as he locked the door.
“Bracing mountain atmosphere!” he repeated, his face relaxing into boyish lines of amusement as he struck off down the road. “Nothing like teaching school in the log cabin of our ancestors! Good thing to take the conceit out of college graduates. now for our tramp up Mulligan’s Hill, and good-by to the cobwebs of erudition!”
More than one passer-by on the streets of the mining town turned to look after him as he strode along, square-shouldered and athletic, with the flicker of fun still lingering in his brown eyes. “The school teacher” was a problem which even the western keenness of Bowlder Gulch had not yet solved to its own satisfaction. That a “right-down smart young man,” with “a real down-East college diplomy,” should take up his residence contentedly in their midst, when he failed to get a position as assayer in either mill, and engage to tech school for the winter instead of moving on to another camp, was a course of action beyond the comprehension of Bowlder Gulch. John Ellis himself, perhaps, could not have given his reasons, if it had ever occurred to him that explanations were necessary. scarcity of funds and discouraging reports from other mining centers had influenced him more or less, and a whimsical, kindly interest in Bowlder gulch itself, coupled with a notion of writing it up sometime if he should ever take up his work in sociology again, had made him not unwilling to study its life and conditions for a few months longer. He had many friends in the odd little town already, but no intimate associates, and occasionally the isolation of his life, in the midst of all the hearty good will that surrounded him, struck him as something at once comical and pathetic.
He was really very lonely on this December afternoon, beneath all the cheerfulness which he tried to maintain. A blockade on the railroad had delayed his home letters for several days; the school work had vexed and wearied him, in spite of his genuine interest in his pupils. As he walked down the snowy street, the sight of Christmas evergreens and preparations about the small shops and cabins added to his sense of isolation. There would be hospitality and friendliness in abundance for him, in all the festivities of Bowlder Gulch; but he felt a touch of homesickness, and a longing for the college crowd and his mother’s petting. In spite of his six feet, twenty-three years, and big-sealed diploma, John Ellis was still very much of a boy.
A group of men in front of one of the larger cabins attracted his notice, as he passed beyond the row of stores and the blacksmith’s shop. Drawing nearer, he saw that it centered about an ore wagon, from which three of the men were lifting a limp figure wrapped in blankets.
“Somebody hurt?” John asked.
“In the shaft of the Silver Star,” one of the men answered, concisely. “The other one was killed. This one’s pretty well smashed up. Brought him down to the hospital, to see if Doc Roberts can pull him through.”
John remembered, with a sudden thrill of surprise and disgust, that the rough building by which he stood, whose uninviting interior showed through the open door, was the only approach to a hospital known in Bowlder Gulch. Just then Doctor Roberts, a gray-haired man whom he had met once or twice before, hurried through the crowd and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Ellis, I wish you’d come in here a few minutes and help me,” the doctor said. “The attendants here aren’t very efficient at any time, and one of them is away today.”
John wished himself out of the situation, but there was no escape. he followed the doctor into the building, which was as different as possible from any hospital he had ever seen or imagined. There were no “rows of white beds,” or trim nurses in spotless uniforms. Half a dozen rough pine bunks in the main room, covered with cheap gray and brown blankets, represented the ward accommodations. There was a kitchen at the rear, none too clean, where a Chinese cook was kneading bread; and a smaller room at one side, with a long table constructed of boards, on which the unfortunate miner was laid.
John had always had a hearty reverence for the medical profession, but it deepened incalculably in the next hour. He almost forgot the gruesome aspects of the work at which he assisted to the best of his ability, watching the doctor’s deft movements, and the sure skill and trained precision which failed not once under all the hampering conditions of poor equipment and assistance. When the work was done, and the injured man laid, still unconscious, on one of the bunks in the outer room, Doctor Roberts turned to John with a word of thanks.
“Glad you happened to be here today,” he said. “I don’t really see how I could have managed without you. Great hospital this! Don’t you like my operating room?”
“I suppose it’s no worse than war hospitals,” John answered. ‘You do contrive to patch your patients up and send them out to work again. Four – five of them in here now?”
“Just one vacant bunk. Two of them will be sitting up by Christmas.”
“Christmas in this place!” John ejaculated. “Doctor, how can they stand it?”
“Oh! Sam Wah will roast them a turkey, and the Star Company always sends in a lot of good things for those who can eat them.”
“But their minds, I mean,” John explained, lamely. “Why, see here, doctor, I thought I was homesick thinking about Christmas a bit ago. That isn’t a circumstance to this.”
“True enough,” Doctor Roberts answered as they stepped out into the cold dusk. “Our old professor used to say, ‘Young gentlemen, does any corollary occur to you?’”
“Corollaries in plenty,” John muttered. “You wait and see.”
John was very sure of his footing among the storekeepers and housewives of Bowlder gulch, and he had no doubt whatever that the plan which had occurred to him could be carried out successfully.
When the doctor walked into the hospital on Christmas morning, he beheld the accomplishment of one portion of the plan.
“Hello, Ellis!” he called to John, whose broad shoulders appeared beyond the door of the operating room. “This is your corollary?”
Two motherly women in big white aprons were moving about the ward, beaming approval on the young teacher and the patients alike. An unwonted cleanliness and order pervaded the room; there were fresh quilts on all the bunks, and a white spread on the table in the window. Wreaths and festoons of evergreen had been tacked about the walls, and a pile of daintily wrapped parcels on the table suggested further delightful surprises.
“You’re an interloper, Ellis,” the doctor said, bringing his hand down heavily on one of the broad shoulders. “I never authorized this!”
“Yes, you did,” John answered. ‘You suggested it yourself. Grandmother Brown is out there in the kitchen, superintending Sam Wah. These boys are going to have a home-and-mother Christmas this time if they are laid up in Bowlder Gulch hospital.”
“It’s all Mr. Ellis’s doing,” Grandmother Brown explained, appearing at the kitchen door, white-haired and white-aproned, with a world of peace and good will shining in her broad, rosy face. “He came up last Tuesday night and talked to me and Emma about these poor fellows down here until we just naturally felt ashamed that we hadn’t looked after them better.
“‘Why, Mis’ Brown,’ he says, ‘if it was your Jim a-laying there, or my mother’s boy, for that matter, you’d just see that he had the best Christmas of anybody in town’ – and of course we would; and so Emma’s taking care of the children up yonder today, and Mis’ Peters, and Mis’ Collier and me has adopted these boys here – two apiece, just, isn’t it? and we’re going to celebrate.”
The miner who had been injured on Tuesday turned a wan but smiling face toward the kitchen door, and waved his one sound hand in the air.
“Three cheers for grandmother and the teacher!” he said, and the response drove John, blushing like a girl and protesting ineffectually, into the farthest recesses of the kitchen.
That was a memorable Christmas for the patients of the Bowlder Gulch hospital. Two of them were well enough to partake, together with John, the doctor, and the ladies, of Mrs. Peters’ unparalleled mince pies and Mrs. Collier’s turkey stuffing. It grieved Grandmother Brown to the heart that any of the boys whom she had adopted were of necessity excluded from some portions of the feast; but she sat beside them and mothered them in a fashion that they pronounced better than mince pies, and in the afternoon a brilliant device for their entertainment occurred to her.
“Let’s have a sing!” she exclaimed with enthusiasm. “It’ll not hurt any of ‘em, will it, doctor, if we sing real nice Christmas songs? Mr. Ellis does sing beautiful, and you can help, too.”
The doctor gave his consent, and the dear old Christmas carols rang out again, carried on voices untrained but loving, and sweet as ever int heir strange surroundings. Grandmother wiped her eyes as she finished “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.”
“I haven’t sun that for ten years,” she said. “It just came back to me, somehow. I declare this is the most Christmasy Christmas I’ve had for ages!”
“It isn’t going to stop with this, Doctor Roberts,” John said as the two men walked away together over the snow in the starlight that evening. “Several of the business men here have been talking …”
“You started it, I warrant,” the doctor interposed.
“… have been talking about the hospital, and they’re going to work it up with both of the mining companies, and raise a fund to have a better building and something like a hospital equipment. There’ll always be the need of such a place here, and the need will grow as the town grows. They said – and, I can tell you, I agreed with them – that we have a good surgeon here, and he deserved a chance to work.”
“Good!” the doctor said; ‘and thanks for that last part of it – but it’s your doing, young fellow. I’ve been after these people for two years, and couldn’t get them to lift a hand. now, see here. You’ve given me one piece of good news – call it a Christmas present. I believe I have one for you.”
“What is it?” John asked. The doctor laughed a little at the eagerness of his tone. “The girls don’t have a monopoly on curiosity, do they?” he said. “Well, this is my news. Perhaps you didn’t know I have a brother who is superintendent of the Griffin mill over here in Griffin – biggest plant in this part of the country – and perhaps you didn’t know that I knew two or three of your old professors back East, and heard all a bout you before you came out here. They want an assayer over at Griffin, right away, and it’s a big salary, too. I rather imagine you’ll get the place if you go over there this week.”
John turned in the snowy path and wrung the doctor’s hand.
“I can’t say a thing,” he stammered. “You don’t know what it means to me.”
“No, thanks – not a word!” the doctor ordered, peremptorily. “I wouldn’t have recommended you if I hadn’t known you were capable – not even if you have made these men give me my hospital. No speech-making, sir!”
“I’ll not,” John promised. “Only – I was going to say that this has been pretty good for a lonesome Christmas.”