Authors: Zoe Matthews
“Yes, I think I like math the best.” Jessica had dropped Lizzie’s hand and was skipping beside her.
“You are a good worker.”
“Pa says everyone has to pull their weight and do what they can in these mountains.”
“I guess that is true in most of the places people live in,” Lizzie commented. She wanted to know how Jessica felt about the fact that she was a girl, so Lizzie added, “It doesn’t matter whether you are a boy or a girl. You can always do your part.”
“Pa says women have to be strong out here, that weak women won’t make it.”
Lizzie did her best to push down her disgust for the man. Didn’t he know that women exhibited strength in different ways? She wanted to be the one to show him that, but she knew she needed to do her best to avoid him. He reminded her too much of her own pa.
“Tell me, why you didn’t leave to go home with the other children?” Lizzie asked the girl, changing the subject.
Jessica stopped her skipping and almost slowed to a stop. Lizzie took the child’s hand again and squeezed it.
“It’s okay, Jessica. You can tell me.” She waited patiently while Jessica made up her mind.
“I don’t like to walk home,” she whispered, her chin hanging to her chest as if ashamed.
“Why? Haven’t you done it before?”
Jessica nodded but pulled her hand out of Lizzie’s. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I can tell something is wrong. Why don’t you tell me what it is, and maybe I can fix it.”
“You won’t be able to do anything.”
Lizzie stayed silent and just waited.
“It’s the Fosters’ dog. He’s real mean and barks a lot,” Jessica finally admitted. She said the words very soft and Lizzie almost didn’t hear them.
“I know the Fosters,” Lizzie started to walk again and was glad when Jessica followed. “I don’t like their dog very much either. They live between the Atkins’ place and yours, don’t they?”
Jessica nodded but then looked at her with a strong determination in her eyes. “I’m not afraid of him.”
Lizzie instantly made up her mind and changed her plans for the afternoon. “I am planning on visiting all of my students at their homes. Why don’t I come to your home today? This would be a good time for me to visit.”
Jessica looked at Lizzie as if she was making sure Lizzie was serious. “I would like that.”
They continued to walk along the dusty road. There was a nice breeze in the air that cooled the heat of the sun that shone down on them. It was a very pleasant day. Lizzie had only been in Montana for a short while, but already she was learning to love her new home. She loved to watch the mountains nearby. The colors on them changed according to the time of day. Sometimes she could see individual trees. At dusk, they looked almost purple. When it stormed, the clouds would cover the tips which made them look mysterious.
Jessica chattered while they walked. They passed Hannah’s farm and continued down the road. Suddenly, Jessica stopped her talking and started to walk very slowly.
“This is where the Fosters live, isn’t it?” Lizzie asked her.
Lizzie had seen the dog Jessica talked about before, but he was always tied to the barn by a rope. The dog would lunge and bark like crazy and she knew that if he was off the rope, he would be scary if he approached her. He was a very large dog, almost as big as Jessica.
Jessica started to walk very softly, almost as if she was tiptoeing. “If we are very quiet, maybe he won’t know we are here,” she whispered quietly.
Lizzie followed her, making sure her body was between the child and the Fosters’ farm. Suddenly, a large black dog ran towards them, snarling and barking. It was not tied up. Lizzie knew Jessica had a good reason to be scared of this dog, for she felt fear jump to her throat as well.
“There he is! He’s going to bite us!” Jessica hid behind Lizzie’s skirts.
Suddenly, Lizzie became angry. She wasn’t going to let this dog hurt Jessica or herself. “Stop!” She yelled, waving her hands. “Go away!”
A whistle pierced the air. “Buster, get back here right now!” Mr. Foster was standing on his porch yelling at the dog. He whistled again. The dog stopped in its tracks only about six feet away from them, still growling, but then turned and ran to his owner. Lizzie breathed a sigh of relief. She couldn’t breathe or speak. She did her best to not let Jessica know how frightened she was. She needed to be strong for the child.
“Does that dog run at you every time you walk by?” she was finally able to ask, trying to keep her voice steady.
Jessica shook her head. “Sometimes he’s tied up.”
Lizzie made up her mind to talk to Jessica’s father. It was obvious she was very afraid of the dog. In her opinion, no child should have to be afraid of walking home from school. They continued walking, although Jessica was very subdued.
“There’s my farm,” Jessica said with pride in her voice, pointing to a well-kept house.
The house was larger than Lizzie had expected, although it was smaller than Hannah’s home, especially since they had just added onto their house. She was glad to see Jessica wasn’t living in a shack or even a sod home. As they walked closer, she could see a hen house and a fenced area that she guessed was a garden, although all she could see growing were weeds. She noticed a fenced field with a few horses in it, with a smaller field nearby that had a couple cows. She could tell that the farm had potential.
Seeing Jessica’s farm brought back memories of her past. She remembered following her brother around on their farm in Ohio, and Debbie following her. Her father’s farm was larger than this one. She remembered as a child avoiding her father as much as possible because she knew he didn’t want her or Debbie around. After all, they weren’t boys and couldn’t grow up to do work on the farm. But she watched her father constantly, hoping that he would smile at her like he had before her mother died, that he would somehow say something to let her know he still loved her and Debbie, even though they were girls. She quickly pushed away the past. What good does it do, remembering what couldn’t be changed?
“Why don’t you show me your house?” Lizzie suggested to Jessica. The child smiled at her, grabbed her hand and started to run, leaving Lizzie no choice but to run quickly after her.
When they entered the house, Lizzie did her best to stifle a gasp at the mess she saw before her. The house was small in size. The largest room seemed to be the living, kitchen, and dining area all in one. Dirty dishes covered every space of the table and counters. The stove had various pots and pans that were blackened with burnt food. In the living area, clothing was draped over the sofa and floor surfaces. She could see overalls and plaid shirts that were Jessica’s size, along with a large winter coat and dirty boots in the corner.
Lizzie wondered how they were even managing to live in such a mess. How did they prepare meals? At the back of the large room, she saw a small hallway that had two doors which she assumed opened into bedrooms. Even though she couldn’t see inside the rooms, she would bet that the bedrooms were as messy as the rest of the small house.
Lizzie immediately wanted to start cleaning up the mess. One thing that she had been taught by “The Sisters” was “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Their boarding house had been extremely clean at all times. Dust was never allowed to settle longer than a few hours and a dirty dish was washed almost immediately after use. Maybe she could show Jessica how to do a few things, especially how to cook a simple meal. She knew without asking that Jessica’s father would object if she started to clean up the mess without his permission.
“Jess,” she heard a deep voice calling from the yard outside.
“Remember, don’t tell Pa about the dog,” Jessica whispered as she grabbed Lizzie’s hand. Lizzie didn’t say anything for she felt Austin needed to be aware of what was going on with the neighbor’s dog.
“You need to tell him, Jessica, so he can do something about it,” Lizzie told her.
“I can’t. Pa says I need to be strong. If I tell him, I won’t be strong. Promise me you won’t tell.”
Lizzie shook her head. “I promise I won’t tell him if you promise you will. I really think he needs to know.”
Jessica fiercely shook her head, but then slowly nodded when she could tell Lizzie wasn’t going to give in. “Okay, I’ll tell him.”
Austin came into the house almost at a run. “Why are you so late? Where have you been?” he asked Jessica but he looked at Lizzie as if accusing her that Jessica being late was her fault. “Why are you here?”
“She wants to visit all the families of the children who go to school. I get to be first,” Jessica announced proudly.
Austin looked suspicious at his daughter’s words. “That still doesn’t explain why Jess is late.”
Lizzie glanced at Jessica, but the girl refused to look at her, keeping her head down. What was she going to do if Jessica didn’t tell her father about the dog? She looked around the room and thought now was a good time to offer to help clean up the house, but there was a sound outside and she could hear a rider coming into the yard.
“I think Uncle Chris is here,” Austin told Jessica and the child squealed with delight and ran out the door, shouting her uncle’s name.
Lizzie wanted to follow Jessica, but for some reason she looked at Austin again. She could see from looking at his face that he really was worried about Jessica. She could tell he really cared about her, even though he treated her like a boy. Would she be able to explain to him how it felt to be treated like someone you weren’t?
Lizzie heard a deep voice greet Jessica and saw a man pick her up and throw her in the air. She could hear the child’s laughter and the joy of seeing her uncle was in her voice.
“I guess ‘Uncle Chris’s is your brother?” Lizzie asked with a smile, hoping to let him know she wasn’t a threat to his daughter.
“Yep, my younger brother.”
“I think I’ll head back to Hannah’s house,” Lizzie started to say, but before she could start to leave, Jessica entered the house, pulling a man behind her by his hand.
The man’s eyes widened when he saw Lizzie and he quickly took off his cowboy hat. “Sorry, ma’am. I didn’t realize Austin had company.” He grinned at Austin as if he was thinking Austin and Lizzie were courting.
“It’s about time Austin decided there is more to life than work,” the man said with amusement in his eyes.
Austin just grunted. “Miss Carter is Jess’s new school teacher.” He glanced at Lizzie. “Obviously this is my brother, Chris Perry.” He made the introductions reluctantly.
“Pleased to meet you ma’am,” Chris told her.
Lizzie nodded. “It is nice to meet you. I’ll be on my way. Have a good evening.”
She walked out of the house with long strides and hurried down the dusty path towards Hannah’s home. She was angry with herself for letting Austin bring back bad memories of her past. She was walking so quickly, she knew she would have to polish her shoes when she got home because dust covered them from her quick movements. She couldn’t stop the words.
It’s too bad you are both girls.
The words of her own father still caused pain in her heart.
“Lord”, she silently prayed. “Please help me keep the past in the past. Help me figure out a way to help Jessica recognize her true potential.”
That evening, after she had helped Hannah with the dinner dishes, she retired early to her room to write a letter to Debbie. She wrote about her first week teaching and gave some details about some of her students. She gave an update on Hannah and her pregnancy. In her last paragraph, she told her sister about Jessica. “She reminds me of us when we lived with Pa. She doesn’t have a mother and her father encourages her to dress and act like a boy, although he doesn’t seem to be unkind to her. I am hoping I can figure out a way to make a difference in her life and help her see what a joy it is to be a girl. Please pray for me that I will be able to be guided to do the right thing for her.”
Writing about Austin inadvertently made her think of him and she was filled with confusion. When she first met him, she had automatically assumed he didn’t really care about his daughter, but his actions today when he was questioning her about being late told Lizzie that he loved his daughter very much. Lizzie just needed to figure out a way to handle the issue about the dog. She sealed the letter and set it aside to be mailed the next day.
Austin watched silently as Lizzie walked quickly away. He heard his brother, Chris, give a low whistle. “Why aren’t you going after her?”
Austin grunted. “She is Jess’s teacher. That’s all there is to it.” He took a deep breath as he felt relief that Jess was home safely. He had grown very tense as he watched from a nearby field for his daughter to arrive home and she had never shown. Then suddenly, he saw Jess and her teacher. Had Jess gotten hurt? He had run across the field as fast as he could, only to learn that Miss Carter wanted to check up on them.
When he knew she had seen the awful state of his home, he felt a deep embarrassment, along with defensiveness that he was doing the best he could. But he also felt a loneliness that he quickly shoved aside, although he had to admit as he saw her standing in his house, he had a sudden thought of what life would be like if he had someone to share the load.
He quickly mentally kicked himself at this thought. He had learned the hard way to not expect a beautiful woman to be able to live in the mountains. After Ivy’s death, he had promised himself, and God, that he would never ask or expect help from any woman ever again.
“She is awful pretty for a teacher,” Chris teased with his usual grin.
“I think she is pretty, too,” Jess pulled on Chris’s arm.
Austin glared at both of them. “Pretty does not get things done.” He strode outside, hoping Chris will drop the subject, but of course he didn’t. His brother just followed him.
“Pretty is also nice to have around when a man returns from the fields tired and hungry, who has a good meal waiting, and a clean house.”
Austin instantly dismissed Chris’s reminder of what he is missing. “I don’t see you courting a woman and bringing her to your home.”
Chris instantly sobered. “Actually, I have met someone. Her name is Jenny. I figure as soon as I get my barn up, I am going to ask her to marry me.”
Austin looked at his brother with interest. “We can do that as soon as my fields are in.” He wanted to ask Chris if he was sure he really wanted to get married, but he also knew his brother wouldn’t listen to his counsel.
“What I want to know is why Miss Carter came to visit,” Chris said, changing the subject back to the school teacher.
“She said she feels she needs to visit all of her students’ families.” Austin stomped toward the field that he had been working in before Jess had returned home. “Jess, go do your chores.”
“Okay, Pa,” Jess smiled and skipped towards the barn.
Chris quickly caught up with him. “Since school has only been in session for a week, how many other homes has Miss Carter visited?”
“My guess is we’re the first,” Austin said dryly.
“I think it is interesting she chose to visit Jess’s family first.”
“It doesn’t mean anything.” Austin stopped walking, almost forcing Chris to run into him. “I’m not interested in the school teacher. Do you really think she is the type to be able to handle the mountain life?”
“I doubt anyone forced her to come here,” Chris shrugged.
“And I bet she will be gone by Christmas,” Austin predicted.
Chris sighed. “Not everyone is like Ivy. It’s not fair to lump all pretty women into what Ivy was like. Jenny isn’t like Ivy.”
“How do you know for sure?”
“For one thing, Jenny grew up in the mountains.”
Austin sighed, took his cowboy hat off and ran his hand through his hair, and then put it back firmly in place. “I need to get my fields harvested. Are you going to help me?”
Chris looked like he was going to continue to argue, but then backed off. “That’s why I’m here. Let’s see how much we can get done before dark.”
They worked hard all the next day, which was Saturday, and with Chris helping, Austin got quite a bit done. On Sunday, Chris took Jess to church while Austin continued to work on the harvest. Over the next two days, Jess was able to finagle a ride to and from school from Chris. Austin hated interrupting his work day to take and pick Jess up, and he knew Chris would do anything for his niece. But he wondered why Jess wanted a ride so badly. Was she just wanting her uncle’s attention or was something else going on? Did Miss Carter say something to make Jess think she needed a ride to and from school every day?
On Wednesday, he decided to do something about it. “Jess, you will need to get yourself to school and back home today.”
“All right, Pa,” Jess said as she skipped off toward the schoolhouse. She didn’t seem at all upset at going off by herself.
By the end of the week, they finally finished the last of his crops. The hard work kept him from thinking about Lizzie.
“We should be able to work on your barn now,” Austin told his brother. “That is, if you are serious about marrying this Jenny girl.”
“Yep, I sure am,” Chris told him. “She knows about the cold winters and has made quite a few quilts.”
Austin could picture them sharing the cold winter months together. He glanced at his own house a distance away. Chris followed his gaze.
You know, I have been able to speak to Miss Carter a bit when I was taking Jess to and from school. She seems like a fine woman. She does a good job handling all those children. I think you should give her a chance, get to know her.”
Austin didn’t say anything, but walked away towards the barn to start the evening chores. That night they had another meal of opening up cans and heating up the contents. He found three plates and gave them a quick cleaning while Jess did her best to clear a spot on the table so that they had space to eat their meal. Chris hadn’t complained about the meals Austin had offered him the entire week, but he knew his brother had to be tired of canned food. He sure was.
“I will be out to your place as soon as I can make arrangements for Jess while I’m gone,” Austin told his brother.
“Why can’t I go with you?” Jess whined.
“Because I will be gone a few weeks and you can’t miss so much school,” Austin explained.
Jess opened her mouth to argue, but then her face lit up. “What if Miss Carter came and stayed with me? I could walk with her to school and come home when she does.”
“No!” the word exploded from Austin’s mouth. “I don’t think that is a good idea,” he added, trying to soften his words when Jess’s face fell in disappointment. He didn’t want to picture Lizzie in his home, making meals at his stove, sweeping his floor.
“Why not?” she questioned. “She doesn’t have anything else to do besides teach, like chores or a family.”
“No,” he said again. “I’ll figure something else out.”
Chris chuckled as he swallowed a spoonful of canned stew. “I think you are overreacting. I think you are interested in her, you just don’t want to admit it.”
“I don’t think so,” Austin denied Chris’s teasing words.
“Then it shouldn’t be a problem to ask her.”
“Please, Pa.” Jess chimed in her two cents and Austin knew he was going to give in when he saw the hope in his daughter’s eyes.
“All right. I will ask her, but I don’t think she will agree.”
Lizzie had been glad to see Jessica’s uncle bring her to and from school, but that only lasted two days. When Lizzie saw that Jessica was walking on her own, she had asked Jessica about the neighbor dog. The girl had told her that its owners had been keeping the dog tied up near their barn.
“Did you tell your pa about what happened with the dog last week?” she asked Jessica.
“I don’t need to because they tied him up.”
“What if they forget to tie him up?” Lizzie tried to point out to her that the dog had been loose before.
Jessica had shrugged. “I don’t think they will.” Lizzie had to be content with that, but it didn’t stop her from looking down the road in the mornings in concern, until she saw the girl coming towards the schoolhouse skipping along the dusty road, swinging her lunch pail at her side.
She did her best to not feel disappointed that Austin hadn’t brought his daughter to school. She had to remind herself that he was too much like her own father. She forced herself to ignore the unfamiliar response she felt when she saw Austin, or even thought about him for that matter.
One evening, she sat on her bed in Hannah’s house to read a letter she had received from her sister. She missed Debbie very much and was glad for the contact she had with her. Debbie told of different events that were happening in the boarding house. One of the men who had been staying there for a few years decided to marry and had left. The sisters were trying to decide if they should take in another boarder to replace him. Miss Sarah, the eldest of the two, was starting to have a lot of problems with arthritis and was wanting to stop taking in so many people. Nothing was said about Lizzie’s last letter she had written about Jessica and her father, so she knew Debbie hadn’t received it yet when she had written this letter.
On Friday morning before school, Jessica arrived with her father. When they reached the school yard, Jessica immediately jumped down and ran over to her with excitement.
“Pa wants to talk to you,” she announced breathlessly.
Lizzie did her best to look calm even though she was feeling nervous to speak with Austin, a man who was inadvertently affecting her heart. She walked across the school yard as calmly as she could.
“Jessica told me you wanted to speak to me.” She was proud of herself for how she kept her voice calm even though she was trembling inside.
Austin glanced at Lizzie and then at his daughter as she kicked a ball with some other children. “I have to go to Chris’s farm and help him with his harvest. I’ll be gone for about a week or so.”
“You must have finished yours, then.” She wondered what his going to his brother’s farm had to do with her.
“Jess can’t go with me.”
“That’s probably not a good idea. She would miss too much school,” Lizzie agreed. She watched as Austin looked at his daughter again.
“I was wondering if you would be willing to stay with her, until I return,” he said as quickly as he could. During this entire conversation, Austin hadn’t looked directly at her until now. Lizzie tried to not feel too excited. Did he really want her to stay with Jessica while he was gone? This must be an answer to her prayers for Jessica, that Lizzie could make a difference in the child’s life.
“Like I said, I would only be gone for about a week, maybe part of the next.”
“I’ll stay with her, but on one condition.”