I admit, I've always been a bit confused as to the timeline in the Christy series. This story would be set AFTER Margaret returned in Amazing Grace but BEFORE she returned at the end of the series. I'm also using the premise that, in the series, Christy came in the middle of the fall semester so this story would be set the following spring at the end of her original school year. Confused yet?
Anyway, I've always loved Doctor MacNeill's gentle interaction with the children of the cove. The idea for this story popped into my head one day and I had to set aside the longer, multi chapter story that I've been working on because this one refused to be squelched. It will be complete in two chapters, I hope you enjoy it.
Neil MacNeill looked around him as his horse, Charlie, ambled through the woods at a leisurely pace. It was the height of spring and the doctor enjoyed the sight of the earth renewing itself. The trees were full of leaves, the grass was the vibrant shade of green that only showed itself in the spring and the wildflowers were beginning to bloom, adding beautiful color to the landscape. If there was anyplace on earth that was more beautiful than the Smoky Mountains in May, Neil had yet to see it.
Approaching the river that ran just along his cabin, his eyes were drawn to a small figure sitting on a large, smooth rock along the water's edge. The little girl had a stick in her hand and was absently poking it in the pebbles at her feet. Her shoulders were slumped and her head was bowed; the child's small frame was a picture of dejection. As Neil pulled his horse to a halt just behind her, she lifted her head and he found himself looking down into the tear streaked face of Mountie O'Teale.
"Mountie?" Neil said the child's name in a concerned tone, dismounting Charlie and squatting down beside her. "What's wrong, child? Are you hurt?"
The little girl shook her head no but two large, fresh tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Well, what it is it, then? Can you tell me?" he asked, reaching out to gently stroke the little girl's arm.
"It's Teacher," Mountie said, her lower lip quivering.
"Teacher? Is something the matter with Chri…I mean…Miss Huddleston?" Neil asked, his brow furrowing in even deeper concern.
"No, nothun's wrong with her, but I don't have no present to give her," Mountie said, dropping the stick and balling her hands into two little fists which she pressed to her eyes, trying to rub away fresh tears.
Neil's face softened. He still wasn't sure what was at the heart of the matter but, being satisfied that no one was hurt or in danger, he was going to take the time to get to the bottom of it. He had a soft spot for the youngest of the O'Teale children and he couldn't bear the idea of leaving her here in tears.
"Come here, love," the large man said, sitting down next to Mountie on the rock, picking her up and setting her on his lap. He wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close then softly said, "Why don't you tell Ol' Doc all about it?"
"Everyone at school is makin' somethun' special for Miz Christy, sumethun' that'll let her know what a good teacher she was this year," Mountie sniffed, snuggling against Neil's chest. "The boys are makin' her a bookshelf for her room at the mission and the girls are makin' her a little quilt to put over her legs so they won't get cold when she's readin' in the winter. But I can't help with the bookshelf because I'm a girl and the girls won't let me help with the quilt because they said I'm too little."
The last word was accompanied by two hiccupping sobs.
"What about Lulu Spencer?" Neil asked, pulling a handkerchief from the pocket of his trousers and wiping the little girls tears. "She's about the same age as you. Do you think that the two of you could make something for Miss Huddleston?"
"Lulu said that she was gonna help her Ma make some of Miz Christy's fav'rit cookies to give to her. The kind that have oats and raisins in 'em. But, my Ma…." Mountie's voice trailed off as she shrugged her shoulders.
Neil understood. Her mother barely had enough provisions to keep her family from starving, there certainly wasn't anything left over to make something as frivolous as cookies or other treats.
"Doc, I love Teacher so much," the little girl said, her voice quivering again as she looked up into his face. "I just wish I had a present to give her."
The rugged mountain doctor's heart nearly broke for the little girl on his lap. She was wearing a dress that was made over from one of her older sister's dresses with the print being so faded in places that it was no longer discernable, the hem was frayed, it was topped by a sweater that was full of holes and she was wearing a pair of boys boots….yet her biggest concern in life was that she didn't have a gift for her teacher!
"Well, I'll tell you what, Mountie," Neil said in a gentle voice, leaning over to dampen his handkerchief in the water and wiping the streaked dirt and tears from the child's face. "Why don't you come with me and let's see what we can come up with, hmm? Now blow."
The last was said as he held the handkerchief to her nose and she obediently blew the last of her sniffles into it. Neil then picked her up and lifted her into the saddle and then swung up behind her. Although he told most people that he didn't believe that God had any part in his life, he found himself asking for a bit of divine guidance in the matter of what to do for this little girl in front of him. Suddenly, finding an answer literally in front of his face, he smiled.
"Mountie, do you know what kind of tree this is?" he asked, pointing to a branch just above them.
"Syc'more," Mountie responded, looking up.
"That's very good!" Neil said, smiling in surprise. She was apparently becoming versed in the mountain flora and fauna by her mother!
"Now, I happen to know that Miss Huddleston had a big sycamore tree just outside of her room when she was growing up in Asheville. She's told me that one of her favorite things to do was to climb it when she was a little girl just your age. Why don't you pick three of the best leaves from this branch and then….then….we'll go back to my house and …make a card…yes, we can put the leaves inside a card for her. Maybe you can draw a picture of her house in Asheville so that she won't miss home so much. What do you think of that idea?"
Neil couldn't imagine that the fact that he was making the idea up as he went along would escape the notice of even a child as small as Mountie O'Teale, but she looked up at him with such trust that he knew otherwise. So he held onto the little girl as she stood up on the saddle and considered nearly every leaf on the branch before she picked the three that were, to her eyes, the most perfect. Then they crossed the river, put Charlie in the barn and climbed the small hill to Neil's cabin, hand in hand.
"Here, you sit here," Neil said, clearing his fly tying gear from a small table on the porch and pulling two chairs close to it. Seeing that Mountie was going to have to kneel on the chair to be able to work on the table, he went inside and came back with several of his thickest medical books to boost her up to the right height. He then went back inside and returned with a sheet of paper and pencil and sat down on the chair next to Mountie's. "Now, do you think that you can draw a picture of a big house with a tree beside it on the front?"
"I think so," the little girl nodded, picking up the pencil and biting her tongue as she pulled the piece of paper closer to her.
Neil watched her concentrate on making the first few lines of the drawing when, suddenly, he remembered something that was tucked away in an old trunk that he had used as a student when he was in medical school in Scotland.
"Wait just a moment, Mountie. I'll be right back," he said, going back inside and taking the stairs that led up to his bedroom two at a time.
He knelt on one knee in front of the trunk and shoved the lid up, rummaging through the contents and lifting out one item after another, things that he hadn't used in years. Finally, at the very bottom, he found the flat tin box that he'd been looking for, along with a pad of thick white paper. He quickly tossed the rest of the contents back in the trunk, making a mental note to go through it soon and see if there was anything that the school or mission might be able to use. He then made his way back downstairs, grabbed a cup and went back out to the front porch where Mountie was patiently waiting.
"I'd forgotten that I had these, they were left over from an art class that I was forced to take while I was in college," Neil said, opening the lid on the flat metal box to reveal eighteen different colored squares and two paintbrushes inside. He went to the bucket of water that he'd drawn from the well earlier and dipped the cup in and then sat it down on the table within the little girl's reach. "I was afraid that I was going to be denied entrance to medical school because I couldn't paint a passable cardinal with watercolors in college."
The last was said in a wry tone which made Mountie smile as she watched his every move.
"I don't know if these are still any good, but let's give it a go. What do you say?" Neil asked, tearing a thick sheet of paper from the pad and then dipping one of the brushes in the water in the cup. He tapped the excess water off and touched the brush to the first square in the top row of the paintbox and then made a short stroke on the piece of paper. Mountie's eyes widened at the crimson squiggle of color that the brush left. The doctor rinsed the brush and then continued to the next color, making a stroke with it as well and then repeating the process until there were three rows of colored squiggles on the piece of paper….a guide for Mountie to use to pick the colors for her picture.
"Looky at all them colors, Doc!" the little girl breathed in wonder. "Teacher makes paints for us ta use out of berries and other things, but they's only six or seven colors. Can I really use all these ta paint a picture for her?"
"Be my guest," the doctor smiled, delighting in the look of amazement on the child's face. "Here, let me get some fresh water and you can paint for as long as you want."
He tossed out the murky water and brought a fresh cup and then tore a fresh piece of paper from the art pad. He folded it in half neatly to make a card and then flattened it back out, showing Mountie that she'd want to paint on the right side of the paper so that it would be the front of the card after it dried.
Mountie practiced by painting a dog on the bottom of the paper that was the color guide so that she could get used to the paints and the brush, which was much smaller than the ones that she used at school. Feeling a little more sure of herself, she then began to paint a big blue house with a tree beside it.
Neil went back inside and retrieved the newest copy of the National Geographic Magazine that Ben Pentland had delivered last week. The doctor hadn't had much time to himself this week and hadn't looked through it. So he relaxed in the chair beside Mountie and began to read an article about the wilds of South America, stopping every now and again when asked for his opinion on what color flowers should be in front of the house and if he thought that there was a swing in Teacher's "syc'more" tree back in Asheville. A half hour later, Mountie showed him the finished product.
Neil smiled at the painting of the big blue house with yellow shutters by the windows, the tree beside it and all the colorful flowers in front of it. There was a swing that a little girl with long brown hair who was wearing a purple dress was swinging on. Mountie had even painted a little squirrel in the tree and birds flying overhead. She had used as many colors as possible and it was clear that she was enjoying the paints. A sudden question popped into Neil's mind.
"Mountie, how did you know to draw the house that way?" he wondered. It was clearly a city house and Mountie O'Teale had never seen any kinds of homes besides the cabins in Cutter Gap.
"Teacher showed us drawin's that she did of her house," Mountie explained, rinsing the brush out and setting it aside. "And she showed us a book that had pictures of different kinds of houses that different kinds of folks live in. It had pictures of city houses and farm houses and even them round tents that Injuns live in out west. I saw a picture of a big, blue house and thought it was the purtiest house that I ever did see."
"Ah, I see," he smiled. He had also noticed her reluctance when she sat the paintbrush down; it was clear that she was sorry that her fun with the paints was coming to an end. Glancing back at the pictures that accompanied the article that he'd been reading, he was struck with another inspiration.
"How would you like to make another picture on the inside of the card?" Neil asked, his eyes twinkling as the little girl eagerly picked up the brush again and nodded. "Do you remember Miss Huddleston's father, William? Well, Teacher has told me that they used to play something called 'Lions and Tigers' in front of the fireplace at home. There's a picture of a lion and a tiger in this magazine that I'm reading; do you think that you could paint a picture of Teacher and her father in front of the fireplace? Then I could cut the lion and tiger out of the magazine and you could paste them on your picture."
The idea was clearly met with Mountie's hearty approval so, after flipping the paper over and once again showing her which side to paint on, Neil went inside to retrieve a bottle of rubber cement from his laboratory. He was about to leave when he hesitated and then opened one of the drawers to the desk that his microscope sat upon. Reaching towards the back, he pulled out a small round tin and pulled the lid off. Inside rested the two rings that Margaret had left behind, a small gold brooch that had belonged to his mother and a carefully wound length of blue satin ribbon. Reaching inside he removed the piece of ribbon then replaced the lid on the box and put it back in the desk drawer. He also found a flat paper sack to put Mountie's card in so that it wouldn't get dirty before she gave it to Christy.
Returning to the porch, Neil looked over Mountie's shoulder and saw that she was doing a fine job. She had already finished the fireplace, complete with yellow, orange and red flames, and was currently working on painting a man with dark wavy hair and blue eyes who was wearing a black suit. Neil removed his pocket knife from his trouser pocket and set about folding the magazine page so that it was flat against the table. Then, using the sharp tip of the knife blade, he traced around the edges of the lion and the tiger. At that point he realized that he hadn't finished the article, so he pressed the animals back into place and quickly read the rest of the next page!
"Do ya think this looks right, Doc?" Mountie asked, bringing him back from the South American expedition that he was reading about.
"I think it's just right, Mountie," he smiled, looking at the completed picture. There was once again a picture of a little girl with long brown hair, but this time you could also see big blue eyes, dark brows and lashes and a smiling rosy mouth. The little girl was wearing a blue dress with puffy sleeves in this picture. She was standing on the right side of the fireplace while her father was on the left. "Now, let's add these."
The doctor put the rubber cement on the back of the animal pictures and then let Mountie place them on the paper, watching as she carefully pressed them into place so that it looked like they were standing on the rug in front of the fire.
"Doc, how do ya play 'Lions and Tigers'?" she asked as she pressed down on the lion's tail to hold it in place while the rubber cement did its work.
"I'm not quite sure about that myself,' the doctor admitted, having wondered the same thing when Christy had mentioned it to him previously. "Maybe you could ask her when you give her the card."
Mountie nodded and then, picking up the pencil, she carefully printed out "I love you Teacher" and then printed out her name at the bottom of the picture of the fireplace. Setting the pencil down, she picked up the piece of paper and looked at the picture on the inside of the card and then folded it so that the picture of the house was on the front.
Neil watched as the biggest smile that he'd ever seen grace this little girls face spread across her lips. She looked up at him with her big, sparkling blue eyes and he suddenly realized how truly beautiful this child was. He thought back to just a year ago, remembering the sad little girl whom he'd never heard talk … until a young teacher, an "outsider", had come to these mountains and freely given her love to a school full of children. He'd been so hard on Christy when she'd first arrived but now, seeing the transformation of just this one child, he was humbled.
"Doc, do you think that Teacher will like this as much as them other presents?" Mountie asked, suddenly becoming anxious again.
"Come here, Mountie, I'm going to tell you something," Neil said, once again pulling the little girl onto his lap. "I think that Miss Huddleston will love this card because it's beautiful and because it will remind her of her home in Asheville, but the biggest reason that she'll love it is because it came from you. Now, I'm going to tell you a secret but you have to cross your heart and promise me that you won't tell a soul. If you did, it might hurt some of your friend's feelings and Miss Huddleston might not like it if she knew I told you. Do you promise?"
"Cross my heart, Doc," Mountie said solemnly, making the motion across her heart.
"Do you remember when Teacher first came here to teach?" At the child's nod, the doctor continued. "Well, many of the people here didn't make her feel very welcome. She was an outsider from the city and some folks didn't like that. And some folks didn't like being told that the way they were making their money was wrong….even though it was…and they were mad at Teacher and Reverend Grantland and Miss Alice and did some very bad things to them. Do you remember when all of the new books and maps that were sent to the school were destroyed? And then when someone set the school on fire and Teacher was hurt?"
Mountie continued to watch him talk, soberly, nodding her head.
"Well, Teacher was very sad and was going to leave. But do you know why she didn't?" Neil asked, continuing when the little girl shook her head. "It was because of you, Mountie."
"Me?" she asked, her eyes as big as saucers.
"Yes, you. She was all set to go, had packed her bags and was going to leave without telling anyone. You see, she was so sad about all the things that had happened and she felt like she wasn't doing any good for anyone here in the Cove. But she wanted to see the school one more time and, while she was there, you came in and started talking to her. No one had ever heard you talk before," he said, smiling down into her upturned face.
"She was sewin' buttons onta my coat so's I wouldn't be so cold. I hadn't never seen buttons that purty before," Mountie remembered, unconsciously playing with the buttons on the doctor's vest.
"Well, once she heard you speak, she changed her mind about leaving. She thought that maybe…God….had put her here for a reason and that she could do some good after all. So, you see, Mountie," Neil finished, giving her a small squeeze. "Miss Huddleston would have left if it wasn't for you. And, ever since then, she's had a special place in her heart for you. Teachers aren't supposed to have a favorite, that's why you can't tell anyone. But if you're still afraid that she won't like your present as much as the others, then you need to remember that she wouldn't have been here this past year if it weren't for you."
"Honest, Doc?" asked the child who had never felt special to anyone before Teacher came. It was clear that she was having a hard time believing that someone as wonderful as Teacher stayed in Cutter Gap just because of her.
"Truly, Mountie. I wouldn't lie to you," Neil said, smoothing the hair away from her face. "And here, I thought of one more thing that you can do for Miss Huddleston. Here's a bit of blue ribbon that I found in the house. On the way to school tomorrow, pick a pretty bunch of spring flowers and tie them at the bottom with this ribbon. If you need help tying the bow, your sister Becky can help you with it. Then you can give her the flowers and the card with the leaves in it."
It was a transformed child that sat in front of him on the saddle as he rode her home. She clutched the paper sack with the precious card, leaves and ribbon in it as if it held diamonds and rubies inside. As they rode through the woods, Neil subtly quizzed her about some of the trees and bushes that they passed, impressed when she was able to name most of them without hesitation.
"You're a very clever girl, Mountie. Did you know that?" he said, smiling down at her as she pointed out a Sassafras tree. "The next time I teach a science lesson for Miss Huddleston, I'll talk to you about botany."
"What's bot'ny?" she asked, looking up at him curiously.
"It's the science of trees and plants. I think you might enjoy it," he said, pulling Charlie to a halt at the bottom of the hill by the O'Teale cabin and dismounting. He reached up for Mountie and set her on the ground, kneeling when she kept ahold of his hand.
"You know what I wish, Doc?" she asked, running a small finger along one of the lines at the corner of his eye.
"What's that, Miss Mountie?" he smiled.
"I wish that you'd marry Teacher," she said, watching his eyebrows shoot up.
"Now, what makes you say that?" he inquired, trying no to appear as nonplussed as he was feeling.
"I think that Teacher's the nicest, purtiest, lady that I ever did see. And I think you're about the nicest feller I know, Doc. I just think that it would be nice if you was ta get married and have babies," Mountie finished, smiling innocently at her friend.
"Well, I thank you, Mountie. But Miss Huddleston is much too young and pretty to want to marry a homely old mountain doctor like me," he smiled.
"If I was older, I'd marry ya, Doc," she said, shyly. "I'll betcha Miss Christy would too, if ya just asked her."
Neal had never been as happy to see Swannie O'Teale as he was at that moment. The thin woman emerged from the cabin in her threadbare clothes and started down the path to greet him.
"Doc, I'm sure glad ta see ya, I was startin' ta get right worried 'bout Mountie," the mountain woman said.
"I'm sorry, Swannie," the doctor said, extending his hand to her. "I came across Mountie by the river on my way home and we've been having a nice talk on my front porch. I lost track of time and didn't realize it was this late."
"Well, it's all right, seein' as she was with you," Swannie said, looking uneasily at the sack that was in her daughter's hands. It was clear that she thought there was something inside that Mountie shouldn't have accepted. Before she could say anything else, Mountie happily drew out the card and showed it to her mother.
"Looky, Ma. Doc helped me make a card for Teacher," she said. "He let me use his special paints. Ain't it purty? And look, I got leaves from a syc'more tree like the one she used to climb when she was little. And, see, I even got a ribbon to tie around some flowers that I'm gonna pick for her tomorra' Dontcha think that Miz Christy will like it, Ma?"
Swannie had never seen her daughter as excited about anything as she was at this moment. She knew that her youngest daughter had been sad about not being able to help with the quilt that the older girls were making for their teacher and it had troubled her because she had nothing else for Mountie to give. But it seemed that the doctor had solved the problem in a way that prevented Swannie from being too much in his debt. Maybe she shouldn't allow Mountie to accept the ribbon but since it wasn't for herself but was part of a gift for someone else, she wouldn't make a fuss about it this time.
"Why, I think that's right purty," Swannie nodded. "I think it'll make a right nice present for Miz Christy. I thank ya, Doc MacNeill."
"It was my pleasure, Swannie. I truly enjoyed spending the afternoon with Mountie," the doctor said, sincerely. "But, I must be heading home now. I have to fix dinner and then get some things together before I make my rounds tomorrow."
"Bye Doc, thank ya," Mountie said, running over and pulling him down for one last hug. "I cain't hardly wait till tomorra!"
Neil returned her hug and then mounted Charlie, waving goodbye before he turned towards home.