Authors: Zoe Matthews
As Lizzie and Jessica left the schoolhouse Monday afternoon, Jessica said, “Pa should be home tomorrow.”
“How do you know?” Lizzie was surprised at Jessica’s words. She remembered that Austin had told her he would be gone a week or a week and a half.
“It hasn’t rained. Pa said he would be back after a week of good weather. That means tomorrow. Pa is never gone any longer than he has to be.”
“Well, I guess we better plan your surprise then, shouldn’t we?” Lizzie asked.
For the rest of the walk to Jessica’s house, they talked about what Jessica could fix. While they were hanging laundry on Saturday, Lizzie remembered the remnants of a garden that had been planted and then forgotten. She investigated and found a few potatoes and carrots that could be dug up and used. Even though Austin had kept a messy house, he had kept his pantry well stocked. Lizzie had taught Jessica how to make a few easy meals, along with the biscuits and canned fruit cobbler for desserts.
Between the two of them, they decided on roast beef with the carrots and potatoes from the garden, along with biscuits and peach cobbler for dessert.
“Let’s pick up some fresh beef from the general store tomorrow,” Lizzie suggested. “I will teach you how to use fresh meat instead of canned.”
As they made their plans, Lizzie had to remind herself that she wasn’t part of this family. When Austin came back tomorrow, he was coming back for his daughter, not her. Over the last week, Lizzie had learned to love Jessica, but she knew that the child would never be hers. Austin had very definite ideas of her staying as the school teacher and he didn’t trust her. From what Jessica had told her of her mother, Lizzie knew Austin may never be able to trust another woman.
She knew that after Austin arrived home, she would need to leave and allow them to enjoy the meal Jessica prepared by themselves. She told herself she should be glad to be back in her own room at Hannah’s. Her life would be back to normal.
Austin rode his horse into his yard. It was good to be home. As he passed his house, he could see a glimpse of Jess and Lizzie in the kitchen. He wanted to jump off of his horse and see Jess immediately. He had missed her, but he had not worried about her while he was gone. He knew she had been safe and cared for by Lizzie. But he knew if he went into the house to see Jess, he would also see Lizzie, and he wasn’t sure he was quite ready for that.
He turned away and rode his horse to the barn. He unsaddled Cash and took his time to make sure the horse had been rubbed down properly and fed. Cash had worked almost as hard as Austin had in the last week and he deserved a rest. He could see that the cow had been cared for and so had the chickens. Jess had done her part.
He finally ran out of excuses and knew it was time to go and greet Jess. And Lizzie. He had done his best to ignore what his heart had been telling him all week. It hadn’t helped that Chris kept talking about the pretty school teacher. But even when he had been working alone, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Lizzie.
He figured she would be glad he was back so she could go back to her easy life with the Atkins. She probably had had enough of hard work by now. He didn’t expect anything different.
He resisted the urge to look over his land instead of heading to the house. It was time he faced what he knew he would find. He pushed away the thought that this house he had built, represented a dream that had died with Ivy. Austin pushed the door open and Jess was immediately in his arms.
“Pa!” she cried as he picked her up and swung her around. “You’re home! I have a surprise for you.”
He buried his face in her hair. He could tell she had been well cared for. Her hair was clean and looked like it had been freshly braided.
“I missed you,” he told her. “I have a surprise too,” as he thought of the small gray kitten he had picked up at a farm nearby Chris’s land. He had left it in the barn. Their old cat had been killed a few months ago, likely by coyotes, and a farm always needed a good mouser.
He looked up and saw Lizzie standing near the stove with a smile. He then noticed the house. It was spotless. All the dirty dishes were washed and stored in the cupboard. The floor had been scrubbed and the stove polished. The clothes that had been lying around were gone and he knew they had been washed and put away. This was what he had imagined when he had first built his house.
“We made dinner. Miss Carter has been teaching me how to cook,” Jess told him as she jumped up and down beside him.
Austin looked at Lizzie who glanced at him almost shyly. “Jessica has been a great help this week. She is a quick learner,” she told him.
“I’m not surprised. Jess seems to learn everything quickly,” Austin smiled down at his daughter who was still hanging onto his hand.
“That’s because I’m tough, right Pa?” Jess asked him.
Yep, very tough,” Austin agreed.
“Dinner is ready,” Lizzie’s voice cut into their conversation. Austin couldn’t detect any disapproval in her tone about his encouragement that Jess be tough, but he wouldn’t look at her. He didn’t want to deal with her disapproval tonight. He wanted to enjoy his clean house and the meal Jess had helped make.
“I will leave you two to your meal,” Lizzie said as she started to remove her apron.
Austin was surprised. “Why? Don’t you want to eat this meal you helped Jess prepare?”
Lizzie shrugged. “I thought you might like to enjoy dinner alone with each other, since you haven’t seen Jessica for over a week.”
He shook his head. “Please join us.”
Lizzie hesitated, but Austin saw her look at Jess’s hopeful face, and he knew she would be staying.
He quickly washed up and sat in his usual chair at the end of the table. After Jess and Lizzie took their places, he reached for the plate of roast beef that sat in front of him when Lizzie stopped him.
“Shall we say grace first?” she suggested.
He quickly pulled his hand back to his lap and nodded. He admitted to himself that it had been a long time since he wanted to thank God about anything. He did feel grateful. As much as Lizzie irritated him, he was grateful she had been willing to stay with Jess while he was gone. He was grateful for the food she had taught Jess how to prepare. He was grateful that she had been able to clean up the house that he had spent so many hours building.
He bowed his head and felt Jess’s hand slide into his own. He looked up again and noticed that Jess was also holding Lizzie’s hand. Her other hand was resting on the table near him and he put his other hand into hers, almost without thinking. The contact of their hands brought on a small tingle that surprised him. His eyes shot to Lizzie and he saw her eyes widen as if she had felt the same. He quickly bowed his head again.
“Our Father in Heaven, we thank thee for the food we are about to eat. Thank you for providing your protection to Jess and Miss Carter while I was gone. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”
“Amen,” Lizzie echoed as she quickly removed her hand from his. She met his gaze again then looked away and reached for the bowl of carrots. “Jessica has told me what your favorite foods are and I did my best to teach her how to prepare what you like to eat.”
“I see you went to the general store for meat,” he commented as he took a bite of the beef. It had been cooked to perfection and was so tender it almost melted in his mouth.
Lizzie had an alarmed look on her face.” Jessica said that was where you bought your meat, but maybe I shouldn’t have…”
Austin shook his head and interrupted her. “Jess is right. I have made arrangements with Mrs. Clements. Jess can buy any supplies she needs and I always settle the account at the end of the month. “
“That’s good, because Jessica really wanted to make a good meal for you to welcome you home,” Lizzie confessed.
Austin grinned at Jess. “Are you getting tired of my cooking?”
“Pa, you just open up cans,” Jess giggled.
For some reason Austin felt embarrassed. “You have never complained.”
Jess continued to giggle. “That’s because I’m usually hungry.”
“The carrots look good. Did you purchase those at the store, too?” he asked.
“We found them and the potatoes in the garden,” Jess explained as she ate a forkful of carrots.
He looked up in surprise. “I totally forgot about the garden. Remember Jess? We planted it last spring, but I got so busy with the rest of the farm, I forgot to take care of the vegetables.”
Lizzie nodded. “There are actually more carrots and potatoes than you might think. There might be enough for a few more meals.”
Austin filed his plate twice before he finally pushed it away with satisfaction. “That was a mighty fine meal,” he looked at Jess and then at Lizzie. “Thank you for preparing it. It was a nice surprise.”
Jess smiled at his praise. “Miss Carter taught me how to make some other meals.”
“Jessica is old enough to prepare some simple meals. I am sure what she can fix will be better than canned goods. I would be happy to continue to teach her if you would like,” Lizzie offered.
Austin started to shake his head automatically. He was so used to handling everything himself, it was second nature for him to refuse any type of help. Sometimes it was better to just handle things on his own. But in the few hours since he had returned, he had to admit he liked having a clean house and a good meal to come home to after a hard day’s work in the fields. Maybe Jess was old enough to start handling some of the house cleaning and cooking.
“He turned to his daughter. “Would you like to keep learning how to cook, Jess?”
“Oh, yes, Pa,” Jess said as she clapped her hands in excitement.
Austin knew that Jess not only wanted to learn new skills, but she also wanted to keep spending time with Miss Carter. Part of him really wanted to tell Lizzie thanks, but no thanks. But he knew that if he said that, Jess would be very disappointed. He looked at Lizzie. “It looks like Jess wants to keep learning.”
Austin agreed that Lizzie would walk home with Jess after school two times a week. Lizzie would have been happy to come to their home every day, but Austin was insistent that they not take advantage of her time. He didn’t want her to neglect her teaching job and the other children.
He only made one request. “I only agree to this plan if you promise to not interfere in my teaching Jess to be tough.”
Lizzie quietly agreed, but she also had a plan to show him that a girl, or a woman for that matter, can handle living in this mountain land but still be what God made her to be. She wanted Austin to accept Jessica as a girl that God had created, while helping the child learn how to take care of a home.
She told herself their arrangement had nothing to do with a growing desire to be around Austin and to get to know him better. After all, he barely showed tolerance for her and he continually made comments that he didn’t think she would stay once the first snow fell. She was helping Jessica and that was the only thing that mattered.
The Saturday after their agreement, Lizzie had spent the afternoon showing Jessica how to make a vegetable stew. When dinner time arrived Austin didn’t come in, and after waiting for almost 30 minutes, Lizzie was starting to feel concerned.
“Sometimes Pa doesn’t come in at the normal time,” Jessica explained when Lizzie finally asked her. “It means he has to finish up a job.”
The child spoke as if she wasn’t concerned, as if this happened all the time.
“How often does this happen?” Lizzie knew it was probably normal for Jessica to be alone out of necessity sometimes, but she was starting to have visions of Jessica wandering the farmland after dark, looking for her father and becoming lost.
“Not often, just sometimes.”
Lizzie decided they should start to eat and she did her best to not show concern. She tried to take her cue from Jessica, but she couldn’t help the feeling of dread that came over her. Even though Austin had been firm that Lizzie leave after dinner was over, she made up her mind to stay until Austin came.
As they ate, she tried to keep her own childhood memories in the back of her mind, but they pushed themselves forward. She remembered being alone with Debbie. It was dark. Papa was gone. Her older brother, Owen, was gone. They had been gone a long time. She couldn’t remember if Papa had said they were coming back. She could hear Papa tell her, “Your Mama is never coming back.” Why? What had happened to Mama? Would Papa leave her and Debbie too, just like Mama had?
She remembered that she had huddled in a corner of the kitchen with her arms around Debbie, doing her best to be brave, certain they had been abandoned. Then the door opened and Owen came in. “Lizzie, Debbie,” he called. He found them in the corner. He picked them up and held them on his lap. “We had to go to work on the Smith farm, remember? I told you we’d be home after dark.”
Then Papa had come in and witnessed the scene. “It’s too bad they aren’t boys. Then they could go with us.”
“It doesn’t matter that they are girls,” Owen told their father. “I am taking them with me tomorrow.”
Pa shrugged as if he didn’t care. “It doesn’t matter much to me. I don’t have time to babysit them anyway. I just hope Mr. Smith doesn’t mind.”
Lizzie looked up as she heard the sound of boots stomping on the porch through her memories. Austin had returned.
“Pa’s back!” Jessica jumped from the table to look out the window. “See, he always comes back.” Jessica’s voice showed confidence in her father’s words.
For the first time, Lizzie admitted to herself, perhaps Austin is right. Perhaps it is good to teach Jessica to be strong, even when she is alone.
Later that evening, after the dishes were done, Austin insisted on walking Lizzie back to Hannah’s house.
“It’s not really necessary,” Lizzie protested. “I will be fine.” She didn’t want to take Austin away from any time he might spend with Jessica. For some reason, it also made her heart soften towards him, that he cared about her safety. She wasn’t ready for those type of thoughts towards him. “I’m used to the walk and it’s not far.”
“It’s my fault you have to walk home in the dark,” he insisted. The three of them put on their coats and started towards Hannah’s home.
“Miss Carter was worried about you, Pa, because you were late,” Jessica informed him and then started to skip ahead of them.
Austin swung his head towards her. “You were worried about me? Why?”
Lizzie hesitated. How much did she want him to know about her past? “I just remember what it was like to be alone in a house after dark.”
Austin looked surprised at her words. He glanced at his daughter. “Jess isn’t afraid of the dark.” His voice sounded proud of her.
Jessica nodded her agreement at her father’s words. “I am afraid of some things, but not of the dark.”
Lizzie knew that Austin was not like her own father and she again admitted this to herself. She could tell he loved Jessica. He was raising her the best he knew how. She might not agree with some of his methods, but she could tell he loved his daughter very much.
Lizzie could see that Jessica had stopped ahead of them and had bent down to look at the ground.
“Did you find something?” Austin asked her as they walked to her side.
“Look, Pa. It’s a puppy.”
Jessica scooped up the small dog and Lizzie could instantly see that it was too small to be on its own. It was whining and crying and its eyes were barely opened.
“It’s lost, Pa.” Jessica cuddled the small puppy to her chest. “I bet it’s hungry.”
“It’s too small, Jess,” Austin told her. “It probably won’t survive. Give it to me and I will take care of it.”
“No!” Jessica told her father firmly.
Lizzie could tell that Jessica knew exactly what her pa meant when he said that he would take care of it. “I will feed it and care for it. It will live. Maybe when it grows up it will be a good farm dog.”
Lizzie could see that Austin wanted to argue and insist on “taking care of it.” Obviously, Jessica could also tell. “Tell him, Miss Carter. Don’t you think I can take care of it?”
Lizzie didn’t want to come in between father and daughter, but she felt she needed to voice her opinion. “It is small, but it could grow up to be a nice dog to have around. I have noticed that you don’t have a dog on the farm. I think all farms should have at least one guard dog.”
She held her breath when it appeared Austin was thinking about Jessica’s request. He finally nodded.
“All right, you may keep it and see if you can keep it alive, but I don’t want a lot of moaning and crying if it dies.”
“It won’t die,” Jessica told her father firmly. “And I don’t cry.” She turned from Austin and held out the puppy to Lizzie. “Do you want to hold it?”
Lizzie hesitated and then reached out and took the puppy. It was so small, she could almost hold it in one hand. “It’s very cute. Look at its markings. Brown all over, with tips of white on its feet and ears. What are you going to name it?” She gave the small puppy back to Jessica.
“I wouldn’t name it, yet. See if it lives first before you get attached to it.” Austin warned.
“I am going to name it Brownie,” Jessica announced, ignoring her father’s words, and he groaned. Jessica ran ahead of them with the dog cuddled in her arms.
Lizzie tried not to laugh at his frustration, but Austin noticed. “You won’t think this is funny when she comes to school on Monday sad that it died.”
“She is familiar with death, Austin. After all, her mother died.”
Austin was quiet for a moment and she wished she could take back her words. What if Jessica had heard them? She breathed a sigh of relief when she noticed the child had ran far enough ahead that she couldn’t have heard her words.
“I’m not sure she remembers much about her mother. She never talks about her.”
“She remembers,” Lizzie told him quietly.
“Did she talk to you?” Austin asked.
“She only told me that she was starting to forget her.”
“She needs to forget. It’s useless to hold onto the past,” Austin told her with a growl.
Lizzie stopped walking. “Austin, she will never forget. And if she does, it will hurt her more than if she remembers.”
“How do you know that?” Austin demanded in a harsh voice.
“I know from experience. My mother died when I was a small child. I have very few memories of her. I can’t remember what she looked like, how she talked. I can’t even remember when she held me, although I do remember her holding my younger sister.” Her voice cracked as she spoke her words.
Austin touched her arm. “I’m sorry. I sometimes tend to forget that everyone has experienced some loss in their lives.” He pulled his hand away and they kept walking.
Lizzie wanted to rub her arm where he touched her. There was that tingling sensation again. It confused her how she reacted to a simple touch from him.
Austin called out to Jessica to wait for them. The three of them walked in silence the rest of the way to Hannah’s house. Soon Lizzie was in her room after waving goodbye to Austin and Jessica. As she readied herself for bed, she promised herself that she needed to keep up the boundaries that she had created. She couldn’t let herself feel close to anyone, especially Austin. It would only create heartache. He didn’t even believe she was strong enough to stick out the entire year of teaching. He was teaching his daughter to be tough. She needed to be tough, too.