Authors: Zoe Matthews
Austin really didn’t need to pick up Jess from school. She knew how to get home as she had been walking home by herself for the last year, but he admitted to himself that he wanted to see the new school teacher again. For some reason, he couldn’t get her out of his thoughts. Was she really as beautiful as he remembered? He had to remind himself that being beautiful was useless out here in the mountains of Montana.
He stayed on his horse and waited as all the children ran out of the building as school ended for the day. Jess was not among them. After a minute, he started to feel concerned until finally Jess burst through the door, smashing the large hat on her head as she ran. He noticed that Miss Carter was right behind her.
She was as beautiful as he remembered. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a bun. He couldn’t remember what color her eyes were, but he knew they were kind. He tried to harden his heart. He would give her until Christmas before she decided life was a little too difficult here in the mountains and head back to where she came from. It took a hardy woman to survive the mountain life, especially when winter hit early and lasted for almost eight months out of the year.
He didn’t glance at his daughter, but helped her swing up behind him. He touched his hand to his hat, his way of greeting Miss Carter. He didn’t say anything, but tugged the horse’s reins to turn him around and head towards home. As he left, he wondered why she had given him a disapproving look.
“How was your first day at school?” he asked Jess.
“It was fun.”
“Do you like your new teacher, Miss Carter?”
“Yes, Pa. She’s real nice.”
He tried to push thoughts of Miss Carter out of his mind and think about what he wanted to get done around his farm before night fell. But before he knew it, he was thinking about the pretty new teacher again. Now, if they were living in a fancy city back East, maybe he’d think about courting her, but he wouldn’t think about such a foolish idea here. He’d give her two months, he decided, instead of until Christmas. She won’t last any longer than that. Most likely, they would have already had their first snow storm by the end of October.
As they neared their neighboring farm, he felt Jess stiffen behind him. A huge animal that looked more like a wolf than a dog, ran towards them, barking and snarling.
“It looks like Mr. Foster let his dog out,” he commented, trying to keep Jess calm.
Most of the time, Mr. Foster kept the dog in his barn, but sometimes he allowed the big animal to wander at will. He stopped his horse and yelled, “Get out of here!” He took his whip and snapped it into the air. The whip didn’t hit the dog, but he yelped like it had and ran back to the barn.
“See how he is running away? He is more afraid of us than we are of him,” he told Jess, hoping to set her mind at ease about the dog. He knew she was afraid of it, but he wanted her to learn to face her fears, not run from them.
“Yes, Pa.” Her fingers were still holding onto his waist as if she were afraid if she let go, the dog would come back.
“You aren’t afraid of him, are you?” he asked Jess.
“Good, because he is just all bark and bluff.” When they had ridden passed the Fosters’ farm, Austin decided to divert Jess’s attention from the dog. “Tell me more about school.”
“I think I like math the best. Miss Carter gave me some math problems and I did them all. She told me I am very smart.”
“Of course, you’re smart. You’re my daughter, aren’t you?”
“Pa…,” Jess said, dragging out his name, but he could hear the smile in her voice. “I like Miss Carter.” Her voice was soft.
Austin didn’t like what he was hearing. He knew Jess missed having a mother, even though she didn’t have many memories of her own mother. He hoped she wouldn’t become close to Miss Carter. Jess was only going to be hurt when she left in two months.
“She’s very pretty.”
“Yes, she is, but is she tough?” Austin asked as he encouraged his horse to go a bit faster. He had to help Jess face the facts. “How many times have I told you that there isn’t any use in being pretty?”
“Yes, Pa, I know. A person has to be strong to survive on this land.”
Austin was glad she understood what he was trying to teach her. They turned towards their property. He loved this farm. He would do anything to keep this place going and he would teach Jess how to handle the hard things in life. “Why don’t you go into the house? I need to unsaddle Cash.”
A few minutes later, he went into the house, wanting to grab a snack before heading out to finish his work in the fields. He noticed that his daughter was sitting at the kitchen table drinking a glass of milk. She had taken off her cowboy hat and she looked at him as if asking him if he noticed anything.
And he did notice that his daughter had her hair done up in two braids with red ribbons at each end. For the first time, even though Jess was only nine years old, he could see hints of beauty given to her by her mother.
“Hair ribbons. Where did you get them?” he asked her.
“Miss Carter gave them to me. She gave some ribbons to all the girls. Helen braided my hair.”
“Do you like your hair braided?”
Jess nodded. “They help keep my hair out of my face.”
“I’m sorry, Jess, but tomorrow you need to give the hair ribbons back.” His heart dropped when Jess’s face fell in disappointment.
“Do I have to?”
“How many times do I have to tell you? You will only survive out here if you are strong. Don’t you want to be strong?”
“We are going to succeed out here, you and I.”
Now put those ribbons with your school books so they don’t get dirty. Hurry and do your chores.”
He watched as she ran out the door, her eyes telling him that she was determined to be strong, just as he was teaching her.
“Hold on, Jess,” he called out to her as he followed her. “I have to finish the crops in the far field. Uncle Chris is going to be coming any day now to help. I won’t be in until dark. Will you be okay by yourself?”
“Of course, Pa,” Jess scoffed as if offended that he would ask that question.
“Good.” Austin reached out and hugged her.
“Just remember to tell me good night, even if I am already sleeping,” she reminded him.
“I won’t forget. Remember to bang on the old tin pan if you need me.”
“I know, Pa,” she scoffed again at the daily reminder, but she smiled up at him, shading her eyes from the sunshine.
He hated leaving her for so long, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped. He had so much to do before winter hit. He watched as Jess walked towards the hen house to gather eggs. He felt very blessed that he had Jess in his life.
Late that evening, after dark had covered the entire valley, he went into the house. Jess had already gone to bed. He shook her awake to tell her good night as promised. She smiled at him, then snuggled back under the covers. Her hair was still in the braids. He pulled the covers up around her and looked around her room.
Dirty clothes were strewn on the floor. Most likely the clothes she had worn today had been dirty before she even put them on that morning. He knew his own room looked the same. He just didn’t have time to do laundry. It would have to wait until after the crops were in. The house was a mess. From what he could tell, Jess had eaten some bread and an apple for dinner. He wondered if a neighboring woman would be willing to teach Jess a few things about cooking and bread baking. After all, she was nine years old, old enough to learn a few things about keeping a house and making meals.
Right before school started the following day, Lizzie saw Jess and her father ride into the school yard again. He rode right up to her and helped Jess drop to the ground. Lizzie noticed that she still had her braids in from the day before, although the ribbons were not tied to the ends.
“Give them back to her, Jess,” he gruffly ordered his daughter.
She watched as Jessica stuck her hand into her pants pocket and pulled out the ribbons. She held them out to Lizzie. “Here are your ribbons. Thanks for letting me borrow them.” Jessica said the words softly and glanced at Lizzie as if hoping she would understand.
Lizzie didn’t take them from Jessica, but she did look up at her father. “I gave them to Jessica. I gave ribbons to all the girls yesterday. “
“Jess doesn’t need ribbons. Ribbons aren’t needed in mountain country. Not if she wants to be strong.”
Lizzie couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “How does ribbons in a girl’s hair make her weak?” she challenged him.
“It’s what they mean, what they represent.”
“I am not sure what you are saying,” Lizzie admitted.
“Ribbons are useless things.”
“Ribbons are pretty. They aren’t useless. They make someone feel beautiful, like a rainbow or a flower.”
Mr. Perry looked confused, as if trying to figure out how a rainbow could be useful. “You can’t eat ribbons.” He nodded to Jessica. “Give her the ribbons, Jess, and go on and play.”
Lizzie accepted the ribbons, knowing Jessica was being put in the middle of their argument, and she didn’t want the child to be put in that uncomfortable position. After Jessica left, she looked at Austin square in the eyes. “Are you saying a rainbow, which is a creation from God, is useless?”
Mr. Perry looked squarely back at her. “Me and Jess, we are survivors.” He turned his horse and galloped off towards his home.
Lizzie watched as he left, her fists clenched at her sides. Survivors! Is that why he treated Jessica like a boy? She made a vow to herself she would help Jessica as much as she could while she was in her classroom. She would do her best to teach Jessica, among all her academic subjects, that it was a joy to be a girl.
For the rest of the week, Mr. Perry brought Jessica to school and picked her up afterwards. Every time he picked her up, he would look at Lizzie as if warning her to not interfere with the raising of his daughter. But it only made her more determined to help Jessica any way she could. Every morning when Lizzie said her prayers, she asked for an opening, knowing that God would provide one in His own time.
On Friday, that opening happened. After school was over, Lizzie stayed late and cleaned the school house. After sweeping it and wiping down the chalkboard, she gathered her things and locked the door until Monday. When she started towards Hannah’s place, she noticed a small form sitting under a tree. Lizzie saw that it was Jessica, with her arms wrapped around her legs as if trying to make herself as small as she could.
“Jessica, why are you still here? Isn’t your father picking you up today?” she asked the child.
Jessica shook her head. “Pa said I should walk home today.”
“Where do you live?” Lizzie asked her.
“A ways past the Fosters’ farm.”
Lizzie smiled. “Well, you are in luck. I live at the Atkins’ farm.”
“Really?” Jessica asked curiously.
“Yes, I am friends with Hannah and Chase.” She held out her hand. “So, since I am heading that direction, we can walk together.”
Jessica’s face split into a large grin. They started down the dirt road.
“Are you enjoying school this year?” Lizzie asked after a few minutes of silence.