I ran across a cute story by Ernestine Chesser Williams the other day that I felt I just had to share here. Ernestine was a schoolteacher, rancher’s wife, historian, writer and artist. Our archives store many treasures left to us by Ernestine. I have shared others, and following is yet another.
It was Friday afternoon on a beautiful spring day in the early 1930s in the one-room Penasco School where I was teaching. The school was located in the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains and southeastern New Mexico. The last recess was over and I was making preparation for our usual end of the week surprise, a piece of artwork, when I noticed one little first grader slumped in his seat with his head resting on his desk. I hurried to him, felt his forehead, picked up his hand and spoke to him.
“What’s the matter Hezzie J.?” I asked quietly, but he didn’t answer.
I was alarmed. I slid him out of his seat, picked him up in my arms and laid him on the big table in the back of the school room. He was very pale.
“Get me some water!” I commanded in a trembling voice. One of the big girls hurried to the water keg and returned with a wash pan half full of cold water and a rough paper towel. I washed Hezzie J.’s ashen-gray face and brushed back his blonde wavy hair. I then felt his tiny wrist for his pulse but could feel nothing. I wasn’t sure whether there was no pulse or whether my hand was trembling too much to feel it. Quickly, I unbuttoned his blue and white striped overalls, jerked up his undershirt and placed my ear on his bare chest to see if I could detect a heartbeat. Nothing! His eyes were closed and there wasn’t the slightest movement in his lifeless body. The other 20 or so pupils, who were normally noisy and boisterous, stood at a respectful distance, struck dumb by the sudden tragedy.
“What happened to him?” I demanded, but no one uttered a sound. The class just stood there gaping.
Hezzie J. was the youngest of the Powells, one of the oldest and best-known ranching and farming families on the Penasco. Hezzie had come late into the lives of his parents Hez and Millie. His two older sisters, who were my age, were still living at home. I boarded with the Powells, so that made five grownups and then Hezzie J. He was the joy of our lives, everybody’s little darling.
It was a mile or so to the nearest house. We had no car or telephone, and it was a full hour until bus time.
Robert was Hezzie J.’s cousin, a lanky 11-year-old. Like a flash he was out the door and running across the school yard when he came running back.
“A car is coming! It’s the sheriff!” He yelled then wheeled around and ran to open the gate.
“Hurry! Hurry!” he called out even before the car stopped.
The deputy sheriff was a dear friend of mine who often stopped at the school house as he went from his sheriff’s duties in town to his sheep ranch farther up in the mountains. I was always glad to see him. He was tall and lean, a striking figure in his polished boots, leather jacket and western hat. At the end of the school day it was good to laugh at his jokes, his flattering complements and his version of the news from down the valley.
I ran to the door. What a relief to see the sheriff as he crossed the schoolyard in long strides and bounded up the steps three at a time.
“What’s the matter?” He asked excitedly.
“It’s Hezzie J.!” I exclaimed.
He hurried to the back of the room and started making a quick examination of the tiny form lying motionless on the table. His hands were quick and deft. His knowledge of first aid was far greater than mine, but if he found any sign of life he didn’t say so.
“I’ll take him home,” he said as he carefully lifted the small child in his arms. I grabbed Hezzie J.’s blue denim jacket and lunch bucket and hurried along with the sheriff to his car. A girl came running in poking a little “Dick and Jane” reader in my hand.
“Don’t forget his book!” she exclaimed excitedly.
“Who could have thought of a book at a time like that?” I wondered, but knowing the million times I had said, “ Don’t forget your book!” made this a reflex action.
The pupils, who ranged in age from 6 to 16 years, came closer to me now as we stood in the dusty schoolyard in shocked silence. We watched the shiny black car as it climbed the rocky hill to the big road and then sped away, throwing gravel in every direction. When the car could no longer be seen, we turned our steps toward the school house, dragging our feet in the dirt as there was no need to hurry now. I wearily climbed the steps, but when I reached the top, I sat down totally exhausted. The pupils came slowly one by one and sat on the steps next to me. There we sat until bus time, saying little and doing nothing. As we sat, I tried to say a prayer under my breath, but never got past the first line, so I repeated it over and over.
The remainder of the story I got straight from the sheriff.
When he drove up to the two-story weathered farmhouse, he saw Mrs. Powell and her two daughters, Hazel and Rachel, doing some work in the shade of the back porch. When he stopped and got out of the car, they stood and gazed at him wonderingly. But when he hurried around the car and opened the door to get Hezzie J., they gasped and came running. Mrs. Powell was a frail little thing. She turned deathly pale when she saw her little son lying limp in the sheriffs arm’s. The sheriff wanted to be reassuring, but there really wasn’t much he could say.
“He sick!” he said as he carried the child into the house and laid him on the bed. They began immediately to make preparations to take him to the doctor in Artesia, some 65 miles down the valley.
“I’ll get daddy,” Rachel called as she ran out the gate, across the lane and into the field where Mr. Powell was plowing. Her hair was blowing in the spring breeze as she didn’t take time to get her bonnet. Walking was difficult in the plowed field. Sometime she ran down the furrows and sometimes she stumbled and fell as she tripped on her long skirt. Mr. Powell had turned at the end of the row and didn’t see Rachel until she was nearly to him.
“Daddy! Hezzie J. is real sick!” she panted.
He blanched, even under his leathery, weatherbeaten skin, but with fingers quick and sure he unfastened the team from the plow, slapped the horses down the sides with long reins and urged them into a brisk trot toward the corral. There he unbuckled the harness and let it lay where it fell. He hurried into the old blacksmith shop where the Model A was kept. He climbed in and tramped the starter again and again. The motor groaned, coughed, spit a couple of times and then begin a steady hum. Mr. Powell backed it out of the shop and drove up to the yard gate.
He ran into the bedroom to see Hezzie J. and barely took time to dash his dust covered face with cold water and to put on the clean shirt Hazel was holding for him. Mrs. Powell had changed quickly into a street dress, smoothed her hair down and stuffed her handbag with a few necessities.
Mr. Powell tenderly and lovingly picked Hezzie J. up in his arms. A little color had returned to the child’s ashen-gray face, and he was no longer quite so limp. As Mr. Powell stood on the back porch one last minute for Rachel and Hazel to see their little brother before starting on the long trip to Artesia, Hezzie J. moved and weakly spoke, “I think it might have been that chew of tobacco the big boys gave me at the last recess.” He was just fine!
Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at email@example.com.