Our Rim-Rock School

I

SCHOOL, in our district of the Far West, was a hit-or-miss affair for several years, owing to lack of funds and poor accommodations. We finally secured as teacher a young girl who stayed on season after season, doing the best she could with what we had to offer; and if there is a special reward in the hereafter for school-teachers — as I am sure there must be — she certainly cannot be less than runner-up for the cup. This, however, is not the story of the teacher alone, but of the building, the equipment, the scholars, and anything else connected with the enterprise that happens to stick in my memory.

There was no other school in our whole section of sparsely settled country. The building had been an old prospector’s cabin, erected some thirty years before. It stood as if in the palm of a gigantic hand, the wrist represented by the main draw, and the thumb and fingers by five smaller draws which spread out from the palm opposite the main draw. In front of the cabin door a large cold spring bubbled up; its waters, joining with those of other springs and small creeks, gathered volume and momentum until they finally became a rushing mountain stream.

The cabin was built of huge logs, with a window in each of its four walls. Beside each window there were loopholes — reminders of the old days when it was sometimes necessary to hold what one had by force of arms. The door was made of rough boards and hung on crude iron strap hinges, no doubt forged by the original builder himself. The flooring had been whipsawed from logs on the spot; the boards were uneven in thickness, and no two were of the same width. They were full of knotholes, which served as intakes for fresh air, and this system, accidental though it was, was more effective than it might seem, for ventilation, consciously planned, was held by certain of our neighbors to be the foible of unbalanced minds.

A long box stove, with its pipe run up through the roof, had replaced the flatrock and mud fireplace of the original owner. The stove needed watching. On being filled with four-foot wood and given its head, as it were, by opening the damper, it would sound as if it were actually galloping. An occasional puff of smoke from the stove door added to the illusion that it was a running horse, flinging its tail about in an excess of spirits.

What exciting stories this old stove could have told if, in addition to its other accomplishments, it had had the gift of speech — stories of travelers caught out as night came on, of the old days when rustlers were abroad on the range, of round-ups when the Hand was used as a collecting point and the finger draws as corrals, of election days when the school house served as a polling place for our precinct and a rendezvous for the inevitable poker games that accompanied the voting and lasted long after political issues had been settled and forgotten.

To visit the school and find the stove hung round about with various garments of the scholars, drying after a rain or after the almost daily fall in the creek at recess, would leave one in doubt whether the young woman in charge was teaching school or taking in washing. It was not at all uncommon to see some Wee Willie wrapped in a larger boy’s coat while his own shirt and overalls were drying. Mountain trout, caught by the pupils, were frequently cooked at noon. An occasional milk cow, wandering down some draw with the stock cattle as they went to water, often furnished milk for the midday meal. The scholars were far more apt at reading cattle brands than the words in their spellers; the flying E, the lazy K (so-called because it lay on its back), the oval M, the O bar 4 — these and many others the children would rattle off, identifying the owners without hesitation.

The desks in the school represented attempts at copying an illustration of regular school desks from a mail-order catalogue, but some genius had conceived the idea of making them long enough to seat five full-sized scholars in a row. In the beginning there had been four of these extraordinary pieces of furniture, each made by a different rancher who had had his own notions about the length of children’s legs; but the property of the Rim-Rock School was subject to peculiar casualties, and at the time of which I write three of the desks had vanished beyond recovery. During a violent storm, one winter, a couple of cowpunchers had had to ‘hole up’ for the night in the schoolhouse, and had been under the urgent necessity of using all but one of the desks for fuel. It did n’t much matter. The next year there were only six pupils, — all, incidentally, from one family, — and since the remaining desk had been constructed to provide ample space for five, it was found possible, without too much crowding, to squeeze in another.

It was a lovely arrangement, this of seating all the pupils in a row. When one in the middle was sent to the blackboard, only two others had to get out to let him pass. The scramble which always attended this manœuvre soon made it clear to the little teacher that she would have to devise some other arrangement, and she did it with a talent which has not always been displayed by our General Staff in the face of a similar problem — that of moving troops without confusion. Her plan, like all great plans, was simple. When the family — I mean, the pupils — arrived in the morning, she put the oldest boy on the aisle seat nearest the blackboard, and the others took their places in rank according to their grade. As Chuck was summoned to the board, the others slid over one space, leaving the next pupil ready for the call; then when Chuck was through he would simply take his seat at the other end of the row.

II

School terms with us were exactly the reverse of the usual schedule. Because of the deep snows of winter, that was the season of vacation. School opened the middle of April and ran till the middle of November. The scholars were poor in everything but health and happiness. Their parents raised food enough, but, even with only twelve children in the family (six were not yet ripe for formal education), they could not begin to keep them all in store clothes, and had to depend in part upon other ranchers for their cast-offs. Clothes or no clothes, they were the happiest youngsters I ever saw.

Tessie, the twelve-year-old, had worn her red skirt so long it was almost stiff with dirt. The teacher asked if her mother could not manage, somehow, to have it cleaned. The next morning Tess appeared before the teacher, her face beaming. The teacher complimented her upon having the skirt washed; it did look a trifle better. ’Oh, ’ said Tess, ‘Ma said just turn it back to front and I did.’

One wet April morning two of the girls came sloshing in to school, each wearing one overshoe. Each had one foot dry and one sopping wet. On being pressed for an explanation, Edna said, ‘Well, Bena said it was her turn to wear the overshoes, and I said it was my turn, — and it was, too, — but Ma said, “Wear one each and get along with you. ” ' So there they sat, each on a piece of firewood, holding out one wet foot to the stove while school went on.

The family had a spare horse for the children to ride to school on, and to see him coming out of the canyon near the schoolhouse at a slow, jarring trot, shedding children, books, lunch pails, and everything else that was loose as he neared his resting place for the day, would have made a young bonesetter’s face brighten at the prospect of a sudden increase in his practice. Nothing, however, seemed able to injure those young limbs.

The children’s idea of safe play was anything they wanted to do. Crackthe-whip was a favorite game with them when there was snow on the ground. Not as you and I have played it, by taking hands and running; that would have been too tame. Chuck would get astride of the old horse, a forty-foot cow rope tied to his saddle horn and the other end fastened to a homemade sleigh. The others would pile on the sleigh — all of the scholars and several of the younger children. Down the meadow Chuck would go, pouring leather into the old horse until he got him in high, the sleigh following at top speed, bounding from the top of one ridge to the top of the next. Suddenly Chuck would swerve to the right or left — then the deluge! Children of both sexes cast higgledy-piggledy in one glorious spill, — legs, arms, and heads intermingling with skirts, trousers, underwear (made from flour sacks), jackets (made from seamless grain sacks), boots, hats, mittens, — to the accompaniment of screams, laughter, and shrill cries.

‘Well,’ you gasp, ‘they won’t do that again!’ But look! They are loading up once more, this time with Bena in the saddle. ‘Gosh, it’s fun!’ yells everyone — except the old horse.

III

The only time we ever had a real political fight in our district was when I ran for the office of chairman of the school board on a platform of more salary for the teacher and a library for the children. The teacher was getting very little more than an ordinary cow hand. The library consisted of five long shelves, empty except for a very old edition of the dictionary and a small-child’s book entitled Charlie the Elephant.

To leave the trail for a moment, this book of Charlie the Elephant was one of those ‘educational’ volumes intended to teach small readers the habits of personal cleanliness. There were fascinating pictures of Charlie washing his ears, brushing his hair, cleaning his teeth. The interest it held for me was that I had known the illustrator some ten years before while I was abroad, and had seen his original drawings. Yet here was the book four thousand miles from the place where it had been published, in a thinly settled ranch country where the children may have heard of a toothbrush, but would certainly have been bewildered to know what to do with a pair of military hairbrushes.

Naturally enough, I launched my campaign among the women, for the men knew that my election would mean a small increase in the school levy. School affairs were the only matters upon which women were allowed to vote, and I made as much of that fact as I could. I rode the range, ate some rare dinners, and never failed to compliment the cooks. All in all, it was a fine, good-natured campaign, although it hardly seemed fair for me to be eating so much of a man’s food and at the same time doing everything in my power to persuade his womenfolks to vote against him. For the sake of the children, however, I made up my mind to get elected by fair means or foul; so I kept at it, and almost ruined everything by coming down with the gout from eating such good meals.

On the day of election everyone assembled at the schoolhouse. When the votes were counted, it was found that there was a tie between the two tickets. What to do? Quick thinking on the part of Happy Frank, one of my punchers, saved the day. A Norwegian neighbor of ours had recently returned from a visit to the Old Country, and had brought a new wife over with him. She was at the meeting, but could n’t understand a word that was said. Fortunately Mrs. Jenks was a countrywoman of hers, so I got her to translate for me, and the newcomer said she would vote for my ticket. To this the husband objected, and the retiring school board, in its last official act, sustained him, saying that she could n’t vote because she was a foreigner. I contended that she took the same citizenship as her husband, and was therefore entitled to the franchise.

The opposition called for proof. The school clerk was a clever girl, and favored my ticket; so I asked her to look through the teacher’s books and see if she could find anything bearing upon the vital point at issue. She searched and could find nothing, but, as I said, she was clever. Marking a paragraph in one imposing volume, she wrote something on a piece of paper and handed both the book and the note to me. The note read: ‘I know you are right. Bluff the board. They can’t read. ’ This was true; neither member of the board could read.

Knowing that a strong offensive movement is the best defense, I passed the book to the retiring chairman and requested him to read the marked paragraph to the assembled electors. He was a man of quick decisions, and replied that he was sorry but he did not have his glasses with him. Bill, the other member, to whom I next turned, frankly confessed that he could n’t read. I then asked the clerk to read it. This was a pretty mean thing to do, and it served me right that she was taken with a violent fit of coughing, so that I had to read it myself. Clearing my throat, I improvised a high-sounding declaration in which the Government of the United States very graciously bestowed upon foreign-born wives of American citizens all the privileges of the ballot, warning them at the same time that they should not let themselves be influenced by the way their husbands voted, but should safeguard their independence by making up their own minds on all questions. This carried the day. The foreign element voted for me and my ticket was declared elected.

I may say in passing that I did not forget either plank in my platform when I assumed my new duties. This was the first and only time I ever held public office, and I have made it clear that I was elected by the usual method — that of fooling the voters. The only unusual feature about it was that my sin was not long in finding me out. The school clerk shared my guilty secret, but I knew that she was loyal and would not disclose it. Imagine my surprise, then, when I met Bill, the former member of the board, a short time after the election and was greeted with, ‘How’s the school coming, Slicker?’

‘Slicker?’

‘Yes, Slicker. I remembered the book and page you read from at the election, and yesterday I stopped at the schoolhouse and had the teacher read the whole thing to me. There’s not a word about women voting. It’s about wild birds — grouse — the kind we call fool-hens. I guess we were, all right. But let it slide. It’s probably a good thing all around.’

Ever afterward, as long as I lived on that range, the neighbors’ term of endearment for me was ‘Slick.’ And, to tell the truth, I was rather proud of it when the women would boast to outsiders about our school library and how well the children could read; but they always added: ‘Of course, we don’t expect they will ever do as well as Slick here. He can even read what is n’t in the book.’

I don’t suppose the children at the Rim-Rock School really did get very much of the three R’s, as they are commonly understood. But there were three others which the little teacher instilled into them: those were to know right, shun wrong, and be ready for whatever came their way. For the life to which these children were destined, the set they got was more useful, I suspect, than the set they missed.