Authors: Zoe Matthews
Lizzie stayed away from the farm for almost a week. She knew she was starting to fall in love with Austin, and she couldn’t allow that to happen. She knew Austin would never think of her in that way. He had so much bitterness in his heart towards his late wife, she didn’t know if he would ever be able to get beyond it. And she also knew he still believed she was a weak woman who was going to decide living in the mountains of Montana was too hard and would leave.
She began to plan a Christmas program with her students even though Christmas was many weeks away. She needed something else to focus her thoughts on besides Austin and Jessica. One of the older boys enjoyed writing stories, so she had asked him to write up a short Christmas story that the children could act out, along with singing some carols.
She wrote a long letter to Debbie and told her everything that had been going on in her life, except for her interaction with Austin. She briefly described the progress Jessica was making on learning the basic skills she had been teaching her.
One day after school, she told Jessica she would go with her to her farm. She knew the child was hurt she had been staying away.
“I have washed all the dirty dishes every night and put all our stuff away,” Jessica assured Lizzie as if thinking that was why she had stayed away.
“That’s great, Jessica,” Lizzie praised her. “It sounds like you are doing a terrific job.”
The child started to run ahead, giving Lizzie time to gather her thoughts. She had to get her thoughts under control. She realized she was foolish to think that Austin would see her in a new light after she roped the horse. She knew she had somehow thought if he approved of her, it would erase her past.
Jessica stopped her running and waited until Lizzie caught up with her. “I thought you were too mad at Pa to come back.”
“I’m sorry that you thought that. I am not mad at your Pa.”
“That’s good. I don’t want anything to stop you from coming,” Jessica said as she slipped her small hand into Lizzie’s.
Lizzie didn’t say anything, but she knew that someday, probably in the near future, she would need to stop her visits. She felt a prick of tears at the thought. She had developed a love for Jessica, much more than a teacher should love a student. She wished she could always be a part of the child’s life.
“What has your Pa been doing?” Lizzie asked, trying to change the subject.
“He’s working on the barn. He says the roof needs to be replaced before winter gets here.”
“Is he working on it by himself?”
Jessica shrugged her shoulders. “I guess. He says he doesn’t need any help.”
Lizzie suddenly had a vision of Austin getting seriously hurt falling off of the roof. The roof of the barn was very steep, shaped in a sharp V. Why would he be trying to fix the roof on his own?
Just then a snarling dog ran towards them. The Fosters’ dog had not been tied up. For the past month, the Fosters had kept him tied up or in their barn, and Lizzie had stopped worrying about the dog, but obviously it was still a concern. She pushed Jessica behind her.
“Don’t run,” she instructed the trembling child. “Just walk quickly beside me. If you run, he will chase after you.”
A shout came from the Fosters’ house, calling the dog back, but the animal ignored his owner. He called again, louder. This time, the dog slowed down and soon stopped, but he was still growling and snarling at Lizzie and Jessica. The man ran towards the dog and grabbed his collar, pulling him towards the barn.
“Sorry about that, ma’am,” Mr. Foster called. If Lizzie was alone, she would have raked him over the coals for allowing his ferocious dog to get loose, but because Jessica was still trembling beside her, she just nodded at the man and they quickly moved on.
“Did you tell your pa about the dog?” Lizzie asked when they were a safe distance from the Fosters’ farm.
Jessica shook her head.
Lizzie stopped her and bent down so she was at the child’s level. “Jessica, you must tell your father. If Mr. Foster hadn’t been around, that dog could have bitten us. You walk by their farm by yourself every day to school. He needs to know.”
“I can’t. Pa will think I’m not tough. He says the dog is a coward and really wouldn’t hurt me.”
Lizzie didn’t believe that for a second. “Well, I for one, don’t want to see if it’s true. There are some things you should be afraid of. This is one of those things.”
Jessica kept shaking her head.
Lizzie stood, trying to decide what she should do. She instantly made a decision. “Jessica, if you don’t tell your father, then I will need to tell him.”
She waited while Jessica shuffled her feet in the dirt, trying to decide what was more important, her fear of the dog or her desire to be tough for her father. She sighed in defeat. “Will you be with me when I tell him?”
Lizzie nodded, feeling relieved that Jessica finally agreed. “Yes, I will be with you the entire time.”
When they arrived at the farm, Lizzie could see the floor needed to be swept and mopped and the stove wiped down. She also saw that Jessica had done her best to keep things clean. All the dishes were washed and the table was clean.
She showed Jessica how to make a simple meal of fried potatoes and scrambled eggs. When Austin came into the house, she made sure her nerves were steady before she turned to face him.
He was very dusty and sweaty. She could tell he had been working hard all day. He removed his cowboy hat to reveal a rim on his hair. “Hello, Lizzie.”
She almost whispered a hello back to him and tried to look away from his gaze, but could not. This was one of the reasons she had stayed away so long, this pull she seemed to have towards him.
“Dinner smells good,” he said as he hung his hat on a hook by the door.
Lizzie quickly helped Jessica get the food to the table. After a prayer was said, they all enjoyed the simple meal, although Jessica had been quieter than usual. When the meal was over, Lizzie looked at Jessica and then at Austin.
“Before you go back out to work, Jessica has something to tell you,” Lizzie nodded towards the child who was sitting on a kitchen chair swinging her feet. She wouldn’t look at either her pa or Lizzie.
“Tell me what, Jess? What’s up?” Austin asked.
“It’s about the Fosters’ dog,” Jessica almost whispered the words.
“That crazy dog? What about him?”
Jessica lifted her head to look at Lizzie who nodded her head in encouragement. “I’m scared of him, Pa. I’m afraid he’s going to bite me.”
Austin glared at Lizzie. “Is this your idea? You are encouraging her to be afraid of him.”
Lizzie glared right back. “Jessica, why don’t you go outside and play with your puppy for a few minutes.”
Jessica looked at her pa and then at Lizzie, then sighed and picked up the dog and left the house, letting the screen door slam behind her.
Lizzie opened her mouth to talk, but Austin cut her off.
“I told you I don’t want her afraid of things. That dog is all bluff. He’s the type that makes a lot of noise but runs at the first opportunity.”
“I’m not teaching her to be afraid of him. That’s happening all on her own. When we passed the farm, he ran straight for us. If Mr. Foster hadn’t called him back…”
They glared at each other. She knew she needed to leave and not come back.
She walked towards to door and started to open it, then turned back to him to try one last time. “Everyone is afraid of something. Even you.”
“Oh, really? What am I afraid of?” he demanded.
“You are afraid of weakness.” She turned and left. She quickly looked around, but couldn’t see Jessica to say goodbye, so she headed home.
Austin stared at the closed door, then at the dinner dishes on the table. Fine. He didn’t need a fancy schoolteacher telling him what he should do with his house, his meals, his daughter, his life. He should have told Lizzie not to come back weeks ago.
“Pa, did Miss Carter leave?” Jessica was at his side looking up at him. “Is she mad again?”
Austin chose to not answer her questions. “Jess, you need to remember you can’t let fear rule your life. You have to face it, and then you can conquer it.
“I know, Pa.”
“Don’t let that dog see that you’re afraid. I’ll get you a big stick to take with you and it will help you look big. He’ll leave you alone.”
“Please do the dishes while I finish up some chores.”
“I will, Pa.”
He went out to the wood pile and found a long branch. He quickly shaped it into a large bat. This will help Jessica see she is strong. She needed to believe in herself.
He went back into the house to find the dishes washed and put away. Jessica was sitting at the kitchen table doing her schoolwork. He gave her the stick.
“Take this with you. Wave it around when the dog comes. He’ll leave you alone.”
Jessica took the stick. “Thanks, Pa.” She stood up and started to wave the stick around.
“What are you doing?” he asked her.
“I’m practicing, so I can be ready.”
“That’s a good idea,” he told her with a smile.
The next morning, Lizzie had started school and ten minutes later, Jessica still hadn’t shown up. Was something wrong? She hoped not and that Austin had just kept the child home for some reason. Then she saw Jessica slip into her seat.
“Good morning, Jessica. Is everything okay?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jessica responded, but she wouldn’t look at Lizzie. Lizzie wanted to keep asking questions but decided to back off. Maybe she was just embarrassed about being late to school.
At recess, she dismissed the children and then sat at her desk. Jessica had been very quiet all morning and had not looked at her once. She hadn’t been able to answer Lizzie’s questions about a math problem. Lizzie hoped everything was okay at her house. It seemed obvious to her that Austin had driven a wedge between her and Jessica.
Well, I did what I could for her
, she whispered to herself.
That will have to be enough
. She went outside to make sure the children were okay when Helen, one of the oldest girls, came up to her.
“Miss Carter, you need to look at Jessica’s leg,” the girl whispered to her.
Lizzie instantly felt concern. She looked around and saw Jessica sitting on a log away from the other children. Usually Jessica was in the thick of things during recess, running around and not stopping for a second.
She headed towards Jessica, but the child saw and instantly went into the outhouse. Lizzie could see she was slightly limping. What was going on? She called Helen back to her.
“Please ring the bell and get all the children started on their spelling words. I need to take care of something and will be back in a moment.” She knew Helen would be able to handle things if she needed to be gone for a while. Helen had expressed her desire to be a teacher when she graduated next spring and so Lizzie had been giving her opportunities to teach small lessons to the other children.
Helen nodded her understanding and went to ring the bell. Lizzie waited by the outhouse. She knew Jessica would come out soon, especially if she thought everyone had gone into the schoolhouse, including Lizzie.
When Jessica opened the door to the outhouse, she froze when she saw Lizzie, who looked down at the leg Jessica seemed to be favoring. She could see her overall pants were torn and she could see some blood.
“Oh, Jessica,” Lizzie breathed as she moved closer to the child. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” Jessica tried to move away, but Lizzie caught her arm.
“Let me see your leg. It looks like you hurt it.” Lizzie waited until Jessica finally nodded her assent. Lizzie lifted her pant leg and saw a flap of ragged skin that gaped open, and quite a bit of blood was running down her leg into her shoe, although some of it had dried.
Lizzie tried to not look too alarmed, but the wound looked quite bad. “Let’s get this cleaned up.”
Jessica whimpered but followed her willingly into the schoolroom. Lizzie had Jessica sit in the small room where the coats and lunch boxes were held and she did her best to clean the wound, but she knew it needed more attention than she could give it at that time.
“What happened?” she asked Jessica.
Jessica shook her head and kept her head down.
“You need to tell me, Jessica.”
“I can’t tell you. It’s all my fault. I wasn’t tough enough.”
Lizzie gazed at Jessica for a moment, then made another instant decision. She let the children know that she was leaving Helen in charge while she took care of a problem. She then got a clean handkerchief and water and went back to Jessica who she had left sitting on the floor in the coat room.
“Jessica, did the dog do this to you?”
The child remained silent and Lizzie started to feel frustrated. “Jessica, this is a serious wound. We need to get this cleaned up and get you home.”
“I tried to wave the stick like Pa told me to, to make me look big and tough, but it just made the dog madder,” Jessica finally confessed as she broke out into sobs.
Lizzie gathered her into her arms. “It’s okay. You’re safe now. I will make sure something is done about that dog, I promise.”
“You can’t tell Pa,” she cried.
“Oh, honey, you can’t hide something like this from your Pa. He needs to know what happened.”
“I wasn’t tough like he wanted me to be. What if he sends me away?”
The words hit Lizzie in her heart. She had been sent away because she wasn’t good enough. Would Austin really do that? Lizzie immediately knew the answer. Austin loved his daughter. He wouldn’t ever send Jessica away.
“I don’t think he will sent you away,” Lizzie told her. “He loves you very much.”
But Austin must face some hard truths about expecting a small child to be strong and face a fierce dog who was almost as large as she was. She was definitely going to have another talk with Austin, even if it meant he would never allow her to spend time with Jessica ever again. Someone needed to stand up for the child and that someone was going to be her.
Lizzie remembered that Hannah had told her she was going to the general store that morning, and so Lizzie was able to meet her there. Hannah made arrangements with her husband, Chase, for Jessica to be taken home in their buggy. A woman who had also been in the general store offered to take over the school class for the rest of the day, which Lizzie accepted very gratefully, especially when she remembered that this woman had been a teacher before she married her husband.
When they arrived at Austin’s farm, she asked Chase to carry Jessica to her bed. After thanking Chase as he left to let the doctor know he needed to come, she helped Jessica remove her overalls. The wound looked very red and deep. She placed Jessica’s leg on a pillow, then went to boil some water. She knew the cleaning she had done at the schoolhouse had not been enough. It needed to be cleaned better immediately.
Austin burst into the kitchen. “What’s going on? I saw Chase come into the yard and then drive off.”
“We need to talk, Austin,” Lizzie told him firmly. “Sit down, please.”
He looked at her sharply, but sat down as requested.
“Jessica was late for school today. She wouldn’t talk to anyone and did hardly any schoolwork. I found out why at recess when I realized she wasn’t playing with the other children like she usually does.”
“Why? What happened?” he demanded.
“She was bitten severely by the Fosters’ dog on the leg.”
“What? Are you sure? I told her all she needed to do was swing that big stick around and he wouldn’t touch her.”
“Of course I’m sure. I wouldn’t lie to you about this.” Lizzie couldn’t believe that he thought she was making this up.
“Where is she?”
“I am not finished,” Lizzie told him in her best schoolteacher’s voice.
“We can talk later. Where is she?” he stood up as if to look around for his daughter.
“We will talk now, Austin.” She waited until he looked at her and then sat down again.
“Okay, talk.” He looked resigned as if he had to sit there until she was done talking.
“No child should have to prove to her father that she is tough.”
“I guess I was wrong about the dog, but I never thought Jess had to prove anything to me.”
“Well, she obviously did. That dog is almost as big as she is. She is just a small child. It doesn’t mean she isn’t of value.”
Austin looked at her in shock. “I never have thought that. Never. Now, where is she?”
Lizzie sighed. She had let something slip about herself to him that had nothing to do with Jessica and her relationship to her father, but everything about herself and her own father. “She is in her room.”
She sighed again as Austin left the room. Once again she wasn’t able to get Austin to understand, and in the process she had allowed her past to get tangled up with the present. She followed Austin and saw him sit next to his daughter on her bed.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I tried to be tough, just like you wanted,” Jessica said to her father in a small voice.
“I’m the one who is sorry, Jess. I really didn’t think he’d bite.” He lifted the cloth Lizzie had covered the wound with and then turned away. He stood up quickly.
“I’m going to go get the doctor. And then I am going to have a talk with Mr. Foster. That dog will never bother you again,” he promised Jessica.
He turned to leave the room and saw Lizzie. “Can you watch her until I return?”
Lizzie nodded. “Chase has already gone for the doctor. I am sure he will be here soon.”
Austin nodded. “I will wait until the doctor gets here, then.”