Authors: Zoe Matthews
A few days later it was Sunday and Jess let Austin know that she wanted to go to church.
“It’s not Christmas for a few more months,” he teased her, but he hoped she would change her mind. He only went to church twice a year, Christmas and Easter.
“I know, but Miss Carter took me while you were gone, and I liked it,” Jess told him.
Austin couldn’t think of a good reason to not go, so he agreed. “I’m caught up on chores. I guess we can go today.”
Jess disappeared into her bedroom and reappeared a few minutes later wearing a dress.
Austin wanted to tell her to immediately take it off. Why would she put on a dress? He didn’t think God cared much what a person wore to church. “Where did you get that dress?”
Grandma gave it to me for my birthday, remember?”
He faintly remembered a package arriving from Ivy’s parents last spring, but he didn’t remember there being a dress in it. He looked at Jess carefully and noticed she had done her best to brush her hair and had tied it back with a ribbon.
He suddenly knew he needed to stop Lizzie from coming around. A few days ago he had come in from working and saw a jar full of wild flowers decorating the kitchen table. Lizzie had encouraged him to allow Jess to keep the puppy which had woken them both up twice the night before to eat. And now he realized Lizzie was teaching Jess how to act and dress like a girl.
He kept his opinions to himself. “We need to go. I hope you can ride a horse in that dress.”
“I can,” Jess assured him and sure enough, she had no problem getting up behind him on his horse. At the church she just as easily jumped to the ground. Jess had run ahead of him while he tied his horse to a post, so when he went inside the church, she had already chosen seats for them, right beside Lizzie.
When he slid into the pew, Lizzie smiled at him, but immediately turned her attention to Jess. He quickly took in Lizzie’s appearance. She had on a fancy bonnet that had no practical use except to be pretty. Her dress was light blue with lace on the collar and tiny buttons. What she wore today was not practical for a farmer’s wife. But who was asking her to be his wife? Certainly, not him.
She looked at him again and he could read a softness in her brown eyes. She wasn’t fit to be a farmer’s wife, but at the moment he wished she was. The reverend started the service with a hymn and Austin turned his attention to the front of the small church. He made an instant decision that she no longer needed to come out to the farm to teach Jess. He figured she had learned enough.
But the sermon the reverend gave changed his mind. The reverend talked about God’s love for all people and that He was always there for people who needed guidance in their lives. What if it was God’s direction that Lizzie had come into their lives? To help Jess learn some skills he couldn’t teach her?
The next Saturday, Lizzie arrived at the farm with plans to stay the entire day. As soon as she arrived, she told Jessica her plans.
“I think we should see how many carrots and potatoes we can find in the garden. It probably will freeze soon and we should get them out of the ground before then.”
Jess happily agreed and did her best to help as much as she could with the garden, her puppy, Brownie, at her side. The puppy had thrived under Jessica’s care and was no longer the thin small animal they had first found.
Lizzie showed her how to make sure all the dirt was dusted off each root vegetable and then put in a gunny sack while Lizzie pulled up the carrots and potatoes. She had to cut huge weeds out of the way every so often to get at the vegetables, but in the end they had been able to fill two gunny sacks.
One time, she had straightened and looked around, wiping sweat from her brow, when she saw Austin had also stopped and was wiping his face with a red cloth. They looked at each other for a moment, then she waved, and he waved back. She turned back to her job and called to Jessica who had stopped to play with the puppy.
“We are almost done. Finish dusting off these last carrots,” Lizzie instructed her and Jessica willingly obeyed. Every few minutes, Lizzie glanced towards Austin working in the distant field, but Austin didn’t look at her again.
Right before dinner, Austin came in from the fields. “You have two sacks of vegetables,” she told him. “Not bad for a neglected dry garden.”
Austin met Lizzie’s eyes and smiled. “Thanks for taking care of that chore.”
She nodded and tried not to stare at Austin. There was something about a hardworking man that appealed to her. She glanced at Jessica who was sitting on the floor by the stove cuddling her puppy. She enjoyed being part of this small family, helping Jessica make the meals, cleaning the small home. But she needed to remember this was only temporary.
A few days later, Austin ran into the house. “Jess, I need your help. One of the horses has a bad cut on his leg, but I can’t get him out of the field he is in to isolate him.” Lizzie looked out of the kitchen window as Jessica ran after her father. The horse was in a field near the house and she watched as Jessica followed her father into the field. Austin had a rope he was trying to toss into the air while Jessica waved her arms in front of the horse. The horse raised up on his hind legs, and as his front legs waved in the air, the horse neighed in anger, or fear. Lizzie didn’t know which. She gasped and ran out the door after Jessica. Was Austin really going to let the child near what looked to be a wild horse?
Austin shouted something at Jessica and she ran to an entrance of a small pen, ready to shut the gate as soon as the horse entered it.
Lizzie saw the rope Austin held. “Let me help.”
He snickered. “What are you going to do? Sweet-talk him?”
She looked at him with frustration and grabbed the rope. Talking softly, she approached the horse, who was still running around in the small fenced field. She quickly made the rope into a lasso and swung it out. The rope went over the horse’s head and she immediately tightened it. Austin came up behind her, grabbed the rope, and quickly pulled him in. Suprisingly, once the horse knew he had been captured, he calmed down. Quickly, Austin had him in the pen, and Lizzie continued to quietly talk to him until she could see he was no longer agitated.
“I think he will let you work on him now,” Lizzie told him with a twinkle in her eyes. She was glad she had been able to show him that some women could do more than just cook and clean. She knew that Austin could have roped the horse on his own, but she was glad that she could show him that she had some skills.
Austin seemed too shocked to move.
“Austin?” she questioned, trying not to smile. She had taken great delight in showing him up.
He glanced at her, but gathered up some medical supplies and walked toward the now calm horse.
“Do you still need my help?” she tried to ask him innocently, but she knew her twinkling eyes gave her away.
“No, thanks anyway,” he muttered and climbed into the pen to look at the wound.
She returned to the house and finished the dinner preparations. An hour later, both Austin and Jessica returned and she watched as both of them washed up for dinner.
“Will the horse be all right?” Lizzie asked. She noticed that Austin refused to look at her, but Jessica nodded.
“Pa cleaned the wound real good. He says he will be like new in a few days.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Lizzie responded. She didn’t like to see any animal suffer.
Dinner was eaten quickly, with Jessica the only one who talked. Austin didn’t say a word and left the house as soon as he ate the last bite. Lizzie quickly did the dishes and then directed Jessica to do her homework.
“I’m going to go talk to your pa,” Lizzie told her. “I also would like to see the horse.”
Jessica nodded her agreement and scooped up the puppy. She settled him on her lap and started to write out her spelling words.
Lizzie walked towards the barn, keeping her eye out for Austin nearby, but she couldn’t see him. When she reached the barn, she called out. “Austin?”
“Right here,” he responded and she jumped because he had been behind her. He was leaning against a wall. “So, where did you learn to do that with a horse?”
His tone was flat, almost as if he was upset, and Lizzie’s heart plummeted. “Does it matter?” she finally asked him.
“Not many women would know how to do that.”
“I know that you think that all women are weak, that there is no place for them on your farm, or in these beautiful Montana mountains. You think that pretty things have no value.”
Austin turned away at her words. “I don’t think all women are weak. But a woman needs to be strong and sturdy to live out here.”
Lizzie felt greatly disappointed. She had been hoping she had proved to him otherwise, about herself. “It doesn’t seem fair to judge all women by what your wife did.”
To judge me against his wife
, she thought.
He turned to her angrily. “You don’t know anything about her.”
“I know what I see, what you expect out of Jessica. What she has told me is that she can’t be weak, only tough.”
“She’s right. She knows there is no room in these mountains for weakness.”
“Pretty things, a pretty child, does not signify weakness,” Lizzie insisted.
“What good are they when it is more important to survive?” Austin asked as if he truly wanted to know.
“I think that anyone can face almost anything life throws at them when their heart is happy. Pretty things brighten our days. A pretty girl can also be a strong girl,” she said firmly.
Austin changed the subject. “Where did you learn how to rope a horse?”
Lizzie hesitated. She didn’t want to tell him about her past. She didn’t want to admit that her father hadn’t wanted her or her younger sister and that he had taken both of them to a New York orphanage because they weren’t boys.
“Are you hiding something?” His voice was demanding, but he touched her shoulder gently, and it instantly made her want to lean towards him. For the first time, she suddenly wanted to tell him everything.
She sighed and looked down at the ground. “My older brother taught me. My younger sister, Debbie, and I used to follow him around on our farm as he worked. He raised and trained horses, and he taught me.”
Austin turned her to him and lifted her face so she was looking at him. “It sounds like he was a good brother to you.”
Lizzie couldn’t think, couldn’t move, and couldn’t speak. She moved away from him so he couldn’t touch her, but a part of her wanted to move closer to him.
“I don’t think your brother taught you how to teach,” he commented.
Lizzie shook her head. “No. I was given that opportunity by the women who took Debbie and me in.”
He frowned at her words. “What happened to your brother and your father?”
Lizzie hesitated again, then made a sudden decision. She might as well tell him everything.
“When I was about Jessica’s age, Pa took Debbie and me to an orphanage in New York. He decided it was too hard to care for two girls and he didn’t have a wife. About a year later, Debbie and I traveled on a train to Maple Grove, Texas. We were taken in by two spinster sisters who owned a boarding house. They finished raising us. When I graduated from the town school, one of the sisters gave me the opportunity to get my teaching certificate. When Hannah Atkins heard that there was an opening here in Pine Valley, I applied for the job. And here I am.”
“So you haven’t seen your brother or your father since you were nine?”
Lizzie shook her head and backed away. She already regretted telling him. He now had another reason to think she would leave by Christmas. She had never really had a stable home life.
“I…I better go now,” she stuttered and quickly ran out of the barn and down the lane towards Hannah’s home.