As published by Montana Mouthful Sept 27, 2019

My Dad grew up in a little town outside Butte. If he ever told us its name, I’ve forgotten. He claimed it was the toughest town in the state, populated mostly by copper miners, with a one-room schoolhouse that was the terror of educators.

When he was in second grade, Dad said, the then schoolmaster was insistent they learn to spell words right: If one misspelled a word, he snatched the mandatory wood ruler off the child’s desk and delivered a thwack! on the knuckles.

Dad wasn’t much of a speller. After a time in the mines himself, he got to college and became a pioneer in powder metallurgy – a career that lifelong required little writing. He came home from spelling lessons one day with a broken ruler.

“How’d you break that?” his father asked.

“Sat on it by accident,” Dad lied.

“Be more careful,” his father said. “Here’s another.”

He came home a few weeks later with another broken ruler, with another lie about how it happened. This time, the replacement his father provided was an engineer’s rule, one of those triangular sticks you couldn’t break across your knee if you tried.

At that point, Dad said, “I learned to spell.”

Believe it or not, that schoolmaster didn’t last long. He could bully eight-year-olds into spelling better, but he couldn’t manage their older brothers, who made his life hell with heavy-handed pranks, including several involving the outdoor privy that need not be described here in detail. He quit, and was succeeded by a veritable parade of men who could only stick it out a few weeks.

The school board despaired, and advertised the job more widely.

Along came a little man whose thick handlebar moustache, tall black Stetson and heavy black wool cape could not disguise that he stood barely five feet and couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds. He sought out the board chairman at his general store.

“I’m Bruno O’Reilly. I’m here to take your school job.”

Thank you, the chairman said, but this was a pretty tough school, and those kids would have him for breakfast.

“I don’t think so,” the diminutive candidate said. “You have anyone else applying?”

No, the chairman admitted.

“Then give me a chance.”

The chairman convened the board in the back of the store, and they reluctantly agreed to hire the fellow for however long he might last. That was Monday evening; they put out word that school would reopen Wednesday.

The new schoolmaster spent Tuesday making quiet preparations, starting at the livery stable. “I want a horse and buggy for tomorrow morning.”

Easy enough, the stableman said.

“I want a horse that’s deaf.”

The stableman had that too. “He’s pretty old, though, and a bit lame. How far you goin’?”

“Just as far as the schoolhouse.”

“I guess he can manage that, all right.”

So the new schoolmaster rented the horse and buggy for the next day, and made a few other arrangements. “What time’ll you be here?” the liveryman asked.

“Say 8:30.”

“I dunno. School usually starts at eight.”

“That’s just fine.”

As Bruno O’Reilly obviously intended, the entire student body had been in front of the schoolhouse for a half-hour when he hove into view in his oversized black Stetson and cape, and the older boys were getting pretty frisky. Everyone stopped whatever they’d been doing and watched his approach, the old horse barely managing a slow trot.

Whoa!” he hollered, maybe twenty yards from the schoolhouse. Everyone but the horse heard him, of course, although it’s unlikely anyone noticed that he hadn’t pulled up the reins. The horse kept shambling along.

WHOA!” He belted it out, this time. The deaf old horse kept coming.

WHOA, goddammit!” This time Bruno O’Reilly pulled up on the reins, and the horse came to a stop right in front of the school. Out of the buggy in a flash, he stepped up to grab the bridle with one hand. With the other, he reached under his cape to produce a very large, bright steel revolver, which he rammed into the horse’s ear.

BAM! A single shot, and the horse fell dead in the traces.

Ignoring his audience, the new schoolmaster blew the smoke away from the gun barrel and looked down.

NEXT TIME I tell you to do something, goddammit,” he shouted at the equine corpse, “I guess you’ll PAY ATTENTION!

At last he looked up at his waiting students. He manipulated the revolver visibly to chamber another round, then tucked the gun into whatever holster lay his under the cape.

“All right,” he said to a very attentive audience. “Never mind the horse. All of you get into the schoolhouse right now, and take your proper seats. NOW!

Bruno O’Reilly was still schoolmaster, Dad said, when he graduated. That’s the story he told. Said every word of it was true.




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