Authors: Zoe Matthews
Austin turned away, unwilling to see the accusation on Lizzie’s face. What was wrong with him? It was his job to protect Jess as her father, and he had failed. He was so worried about making her strong and tough, he forgot that she was just a small child. He hadn’t protected her and he hadn’t tried to understand her fear of this dog when she had come to him. And she had come to him only because Lizzie had insisted. He knew that if she hadn’t, Jess wouldn’t have ever come to him with this problem.
The doctor soon arrived and cleaned the wound the best he could. Even though the wound looked deep, he didn’t think it needed stitches. He gave instructions to Austin to watch for infection and to send for him if there were any concerns. The doctor gave Jess some medication so she could rest, and then left.
As soon as the doctor left, Austin jumped on his horse and rode down the dusty road to the Fosters’ farm, anger building in his chest with every gallop of his horse. When he rode into the Fosters’ yard, the large dog immediately ran towards him growling and snarling. The dog was larger than he remembered. He could see that Jess was only a bit taller. No wonder she was so scared.
“Mr. Foster!” he thundered, staying on the horse and hoping the dog would be smart enough to not come closer. The screen door to the house opened and the man stepped out.
“Yes, Austin?” he called out. “Is there a problem?”
“Your dog bit my little girl this morning while she was on her way to school.” He growled out to the heavy-set man. “Evidently he threatens her almost every day. If you don’t keep your dog tied up and if I ever see him loose again, I will shoot him.” Austin stared at the man for a moment to make sure he understood he was serious, then he turned his horse around and rode back to his daughter.
Austin insisted Lizzie leave after he returned, making sure she knew he could take care of his daughter. He could tell she wanted to argue, but then she nodded her assent and after smoothing his daughter’s hair from her face, she left to go back to the schoolhouse to finish the rest of the school day even though it was almost over.
He sat by Jess’s bedside for the rest of the day and during the night. Jess slept until the early morning hours when she started to toss and turn, moaning in her sleep. He did what he could, following the doctor’s instructions, but when morning came, he was starting to get scared. The leg did not look good.
When Lizzie woke up the next morning, she was relieved that it was Saturday and there was no school. Even though Austin had sent her away, she was determined to at least go and visit Jessica. She needed to make sure the child was doing all right.
She helped Hannah with some chores around the house, and then set out to Austin’s farm. When she arrived and knocked on the door, Austin answered it with relief written all over his face.
“I am so glad you are here,” he said as he pulled her inside. “I need to go for the doctor. Can you stay with Jessica?”
“Why? How is Jessica doing?” Lizzie stammered as she let him pull her into the house.
“She slept well enough until a few hours ago. She hasn’t woken up and has been moaning as if she is in pain. The leg looks very red and swollen. I am thinking it is infected. I need to go for the doctor.”
“Of course I can stay,” Lizzie told him and he quickly put on his hat and left the house. She soon heard him ride off on his horse towards town.
Lizzie immediately took off her wrap and hurried to Jessica’s room. What she saw scared her. Jessica appeared to be asleep but she was moving and moaning. Lizzie lifted the blanket that covered her and gasped when she saw the wound. It looked very red and swollen. She could see drainage coming from it.
“Oh, Jessica,” she murmured with tears in her eyes. What should she do? She had fallen in love with this child. She would do everything she could to help her get better.
She left the room and put on some water to boil. She knew the doctor would want some fresh water when he arrived. She then took an old sheet and tore it into strips for bandages. By the time she tore the last strip, she heard a horse ride into the yard and she sighed with relief.
The doctor spent the morning with Jessica, and by the time he left, she was doing much better. The doctor had needed to clean out the wound again and lance it, but when he left, he told Austin she would be fine. They would need to keep her quiet for a few days, but she should be her usual active self by the end of next week.
Jessica slept for a few hours and Lizzie sat near her bed while Austin did some chores that couldn’t wait. Jessica woke up later that afternoon and asked for some food. Lizzie had prepared a thin beef soup and gladly gave her some. It was good to see the child eating.
Austin came back into the house and smiled when he saw his daughter sitting in her bed eating the soup.
“I’m so glad you are doing better,” he placed a kiss on Jessica’s head. “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you when you tried to tell me about the dog. If I had listened, you never would have gotten hurt.”
“I tried to be tough and strong, just like you said,” she told her father.
“You were very brave, Jess,” Austin took a nearby cloth and wiped some soup she had spilled on her chin. “But it is my job to protect you, especially from things that you can’t handle. I promise I will do better.”
“Okay, Pa,” Jessica grinned at her father. Lizzie admired the instant forgiveness the child gave her father. Watching them, she could see the strong bond between them.
“Promise me that if you ever feel scared of something in the future, you tell me, and I promise I will do everything to help you.”
Jessica threw her arms around Austin. “I promise, Pa.”
After Jessica finished her soup, she looked tired again and soon fell asleep. Lizzie had gone to the kitchen to start the dinner meal. She turned when she felt Austin’s presence behind her.
“You did a great job making her feel special,” Lizzie told him with a smile.
“She is very special to me. I hope she always knows that, even when I make mistakes, I will never put her in a position to be hurt again.”
“I’m sure she knows that. You are very blessed to have her.”
Lizzie prepared a quick meal of roast beef sandwiches from some of the beef she had used to make the soup and soon they were sitting at the kitchen table eating. She had been very quiet while she prepared the meal and Austin had left her to her thoughts and sat next to Jessica in her room until the meal was ready. After Austin said a prayer, he immediately took a big bite of his sandwich, but Lizzie sat there, still deep in thought.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Austin asked her as he took another bite.
“Can I ask you something?” she asked him instead of answering his question.
“Have you ever wished Jessica was a boy?”
Austin frowned at her. “What do you mean? Why would I want her to be a boy? What makes you ask that?”
Lizzie ducked her head, wishing she could take back her words. “I was just wondering.”
Austin shook his head. “I have never regretted she is a girl. From the moment when she was born and she grabbed my finger with her little hand for the first time, I have loved her.”
Lizzie nodded her head at his words and took a small bite of her own sandwich. “My Papa wished that I was a boy.”
Austin frowned at her again in concern. “Did he actually tell you that?”
“Well, not to me, but I heard him tell my older brother, Owen. He said he wished my younger sister and I were boys. He didn’t want to take care of us after Mama died.”
“I’m sorry, Lizzie,” he finally said after a period of silence. “No child should be rejected like that. Have you had any contact with your father or brother since you left the orphanage?”
Lizzie shook her head. “Papa owned a small farm in Ohio. The farm had been in his family for generations. They probably still live there, although Owen is most likely married now. He was about eight years older than me. He would be taking over the farm.”
Austin studied Lizzie as he finished his sandwich and started on a second. He had learned many things about Lizzie in the last few days. The most important thing was that Lizzie loved Jessica and was starting to treat her like her own daughter. A few weeks ago, this would have bothered Austin greatly, but now as he remembered how Lizzie smoothed the hair from Jessica’s face when she was asleep and did everything she could to make sure the child was comfortable, he started to think of her in a new light.
He could see tension on Lizzie’s face. He wished he could help her because he cared how she felt. He could see that each of them had made decisions with Jessica, both based on their individual pasts. He tried to teach Jessica to be tough and that that was more important than anything else. Lizzie tried to give Jessica all the love she could give her because she was rejected by her own father.
Lizzie had also shown him that she wasn’t a weak woman. She had spent hours teaching Jessica how to cook meals and keep his small house clean. She had showed him she knew her way around horses and was willing to help when she was needed. And she had definitely proved herself that she was a strong woman by immediately taking care of Jessica when she found out the child had been hurt. She had also stood up to him about the dog.
He suddenly realized he had fallen in love with her. The realization was so startling and so strong, he didn’t know what to say. Should he just blurt it out now, while they were both eating the simple meal she had prepared? Then he knew what he could do.
“I think you should write to your father.”
“What?” Lizzie looked at him as if she couldn’t believe what she had just heard. “Why would I want to write to him?”
“So you can find out what really happened.”
“I don’t think he would want to hear from me or Debbie. He abandoned us at the orphanage, remember?”
“Maybe he wouldn’t. If you don’t want to write him, at least write to your brother.”
Lizzie sat back in her chair and stared at him, not saying anything. Austin stayed silent and allowed her to think about his suggestion. “I can do that. But what if…”
“I can’t promise you that what you will find out about your father or your brother will be good. But at least you might know the reasons behind your father putting you and your sister in an orphanage.”
“He abandoned us because we weren’t boys,” Lizzie insisted.
“You were a child when he left you there. You are remembering childhood memories. Maybe there was another reason, a reason you might understand now that you are an adult.”
Lizzie pushed her plate away with a half-eaten sandwich on it. “I will have to think about this,” she finally told him.
She stood up and started to clear the table and wash the dishes. Austin walked over to her and placed a hand on her shoulder and she froze under his touch.
He turned her so he could look at her face. “I want to thank you for all you have done for Jessica. “
“You don’t need to thank me,” Lizzie told him and he noticed that she looked flustered.
Lizzie stood before him and she couldn’t look away from his eyes. They pulled her deep into his own. She saw his strength, his independence, and what she also wanted, acceptance and belonging.
His gaze seemed to search her deepest thoughts. Did he see in her what she saw in him? She wanted him to know that she even though she had weaknesses, they just made her who she was.
She watched him as he slowly bent towards her and placed a kiss on her cheek. He then gently kissed her lips. He eased her back slightly and held her in his arms. For a moment, she enjoyed his attention. It was as if she had been waiting just for him. But then she inadvertently stiffened and pulled away. Austin let his hands fall to his sides, but continued to look at her very intently.
“I…I should go now,” Lizzie stuttered. She turned and quickly left the house.
Lizzie walked quickly towards Hannah’s house. She inadvertently touched her lips with her fingers. She felt as if she was in a daze. He had kissed her, and when he did, she couldn’t stop the instant flood of feelings towards him. She was starting to recognize that she had feelings for him, but she had no idea he would feel the same. Up until the last few days, he had been insistent that he didn’t trust her, that she was going to be gone by Christmas. Did the kiss mean he had changed his mind?
She shifted her thoughts to her conversation about Jessica. Austin had loved Jessica since the day she was born.
Had Lizzie’s father ever loved her? She couldn’t remember.
Austin was glad that Jessica was a girl.
Lizzie had heard very clearly that her father wished she had been born a boy.
She quickly stopped her thoughts. She shouldn’t compare Austin to her father. Her feelings toward him had nothing to do with her father. Or did it? She acknowledged to herself that she had been angry with Austin and that he had been insisting that Jessica not be weak. But it was very obvious that Austin loved his daughter. She couldn’t remember her father ever hugging her when she was a child. Even when he dropped Debbie and herself at the orphanage, he hadn’t hugged them goodbye. He had just told them to be good and not cause any problems.
She had experienced a taste of the love between Austin and Jessica as she watched him care for her. Then he had kissed her. But most likely, after Jessica’s leg had healed, Austin would realize that the feelings he had towards her were temporary. He would go back to insisting Lizzie was going to leave Pine Valley soon and then things would be back to the way they were before Jessica got hurt.
When she entered the small home of Hannah’s, she saw her friend at the kitchen sink finishing up the last of the dinner dishes. Hannah turned and smiled at her when she entered the kitchen.
“How is Jessica doing?” she asked Lizzie.
“She is doing much better,” Lizzie responded. “The doctor thinks she will make a full recovery.”
“That’s great to hear,” Hannah said as she turned back to the dishes.
“Can I help you?” Lizzie offered. Hannah was in the last few weeks of her pregnancy and she could tell her friend looked tired.
“I’m almost finished, but thank you for the offer,” Hannah responded.
Lizzie wasn’t surprised that Hannah refused her help. Hannah seemed to like to take care of her own dishes. Lizzie turned to head into her room when Hannah’s voice stopped her. “I have some spice cake that I made today. Would you like to join me and eat a piece?”
Lizzie nodded. “That sounds nice.” She took some plates down from the cupboard and watched as Hannah sliced two pieces of the delicious looking cake. They both sat at the small kitchen table together.
“This is very good,” Lizzie complimented her friend after she took her first bite.
Lizzie enjoyed talking to Hannah while they ate the cake. She had been so busy with teaching school and helping Austin with Jessica, that she hadn’t had time to spend with Hannah very much. She found herself telling Hannah how sorrowful Austin was that Jessica had been hurt by the dog.
“It sounds to me he was trying to teach Jessica what he thought was the right thing to do,” Hannah commented.
“Yes, I realize that now. It’s just that when I first met him, he reminded me of my father.”
Hannah was familiar with her and Debbie’s history. “I don’t think Austin would ever abandon Jessica,” she said.
“No, I never had thought that. I was just worried that he wished Jessica was a boy. You know, because he encouraged her to dress in overalls instead of a dress. He has her do a lot of chores around the farm, but I know that is just part of being raised on a farm.”
Hannah nodded. “It’s not unusual for young girls to wear overalls now-a-days, at least while they are at home.”
Lizzie was quiet for a minute. “Austin thinks I should write to my brother.”
Hannah looked at Lizzie closely. “What do you think?”
“I think it might be a good idea. If Pa didn’t sell the farm, I should be able to find him easily enough. I know Owen didn’t mind having Debbie and me around. He was a good brother. He taught me how to do a lot of things,” Lizzie said, smiling to herself as she thought of how she had roped the horse for Austin, something her brother had taught her.
“When are you going to write him?” Hannah asked.
“Maybe I will tonight. I am a bit scared. What if he doesn’t write me back? He probably has his own family now.”
“I guess you will need to cross that bridge when you come to it. It may be he is waiting for you to contact him. After all, since your pa left you and Debbie at the orphanage, and then we traveled to Texas on the train, he might not know where you both are.”
Lizzie hadn’t thought of that. “It would be good to see him. And maybe I can ask him some questions. Austin said that maybe some of my memories of Pa might not be what really happened. He says that even though I am an adult, my memories are still what I experienced as a young child. Maybe if I can contact my brother, I can find out what really happened, the real reason why Pa took us to the orphanage.”
“Austin has a good point,” Hannah told her and then she smiled gently at her. “I saw how he looked at you when he came to church a few weeks ago.”
“What do you mean?” Lizzie looked at her sharply.
“I think he is starting to care for you,” Hannah replied, her smile still in place.
Lizzie felt her face warm as she thought of the kiss she had just shared with Austin. “He might just be feeling gratitude for all I have done for Jessica.”
“Or he might be ready to move on from the death of his wife,” Hannah remarked.
Lizzie stood up and carried her plate to the sink to rinse. She didn’t want to talk about Austin with Hannah at the moment. “Tell me if you need me to help with anything. You are looking tired. Can I help you with your laundry this Saturday?”
Hannah accepted the change of subject gracefully. “I would love that. Laundry is getting harder to do, and Chase dirties his clothes so quickly with his job.”
Lizzie made plans with Hannah to help her the following Saturday and then escaped to her room. She sat down at her small desk to write the letter to her brother, but she couldn’t think of anything to say. She decided to pray, so she bowed her head and asked the Lord for the right words to say in this letter. Then she picked up her pen and wrote a simple letter, that she hadn’t ever forgotten him and would like to write him if he was agreeable.
She quickly sealed the letter in an envelope and wrote her brother’s name on the front. She couldn’t remember the address of her father’s farm, but she did remember the name of the town that was nearby and she hoped the postmaster there would know how to get the letter to her brother.
Lizzie then wrote another letter, letting Debbie know she had written their brother and would let her know if she heard from him. Debbie had never been as bitter as Lizzie was about their past. Debbie seemed to accept changes easier than Lizzie did.
Lizzie found out that Hannah was planning on going to the general store the following day, so she promised Lizzie she would mail both letters for her.
Lizzie continued to teach during the days, but as soon as school was over, she would hurry to Austin’s home. Jessica was doing much better, but Austin didn’t want her walking on her leg for a few more days, so she spent much of her time laying on the sofa. Lizzie would bring her schoolwork to keep her busy during the day and when she arrived in the afternoons, Jessica kept her company with her chatter as Lizzie straightened the small home and made the evening meal. By the end of the week, Jessica was almost back to normal and Lizzie finally let herself breathe a sigh of relief. She was so grateful that Jessica came through this and would probably end up with only a small scar on her leg.