The School Marm: A Western Serial
by Winslow Parker and Joan Myles
Dawn stained the eastern sky rose-quartz pink. Lucy snuggled under the covers, wishful for a few more moments of sleep. Then she remembered it was Monday and the first day of school. She hurried to the kitchen, to find her aunt already busy at the stove.
“Good morning, dear, how did you sleep?”
“I slept fine.” After a pause, she asked, “Um Auntie, May I know the reason for the sheriff’s late-night visit. It didn’t sound too savory to me.”
Aunt Birdie sighed. “He’s had an eye for me ever since we came into town.”
“You don’t mean he had Uncle Jonathan killed to get you?” Lucy paled.
“No, no, just that he is taking advantage of the situation. I’m not sure if he was involved in Jonathan’s murder or not.”
She skewered a thick slice of bread, opened the stove door and held the bread near the coals to toast. “Here, Lucy, take this while it’s hot. Butter’s in the cupboard there,” she said, pointing. “There should be some prickly pear cactus jam there, too.”
“Prickly pear cactus jam?”
“Yes, good stuff. Jonathan loved it. We pick it with tongs because it’s covered with tiny spines, then hold it over an open fire to burn off the spines and loosen the skin. Then we make jam from it like any other fruit. Very sweet and tasty”
Lucy took a bite. “Delicious! You’ll have to take me prickly pear picking, perhaps…her attempt at a tongue twister dissolved into laughter. “Can’t keep that one going, I guess,” she said, still chuckling.
As she ate, Lucy asked, “Why would you have questions about the sheriff’s involvement in Uncle Jonathan’s shooting?”
“I guess it’s no secret. He’s involved with the mine, somehow. Not sure what it is. I’d keep my nose out of it if I were you, though I am dreadfully sad for the poor women who are trapped out there.”
Lucy absorbed this new piece of information. It jibed with the odd behavior of the sheriff the day before. She sighed. “Guess I’d better be getting to school. Billy didn’t get his pictures to me on Friday so I haven’t hung them yet. I need to see how the room is laid out. Probably have to move some furniture around too.” She slid from her role as a Federal marshal into that of a school teacher.
“I’ll come with you. I can help out.”
“thanks Aunt Birdie. I’d appreciate it.”
The sound of bare feet hitting wooden stairs turned their attention to the door. Billy stood in the doorway, out of breath.
“Sorry Ma’am. I didn’t get the pictures done until just now. Here they are.” He handed a sheaf of paper to Lucy and turned to go.
“Just a minute, Billy. Here’s your commission.” She handed him a silver half dollar.
He stood speechless, as if he had never seen that much money in his life.
“thank you, ma’am!” he exclaimed and turning, leaped off the porch, legs windmilling. “See you in school!”
“Hey Billy! Would you like to help mount them on the wall?” Lucy called after him. “If so, come a few minutes early.”
“He’s a real firecracker. I’ll bet he’ll be a handful for you.”
“Probably so, but I like a challenge.”
A few minutes later, Aunt Beatrice inserted her key, then swung the door back to admit them both into the church transformed into school.
“Oh, my! The deacons have already arranged everything. How nice. Everything is in neat rows. Slates are already on the desks.”
“Please thank them for me, Aunty. They saved us a lot of work.”
She hefted her bag of books to the desk in front of the room and let them fall with a thud. “This is going to be fun!”
Billy poked his head in the door. “Am I too early?”
“Not at all. Here are the pictures. Oh, wait, I’ve not had a chance to look at them yet. Grab a chair and the pins in that little box on top of my desk. Put one pin in each corner of the picture. Space them as evenly as you can across the front of the room, above the alphabet.”
She looked at each picture as she handed it to him. “Impressive,” she breathed. “A real artist, he is. I will have to encourage this one.”
“Billy, do you draw things for your mother?”
He stiffened. “Nah, she’s gone.”
“Gone? How do you mean, ‘gone?’”
“She died a year ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Needn’t be. Things are better around the house without her.”
“Do you draw for your father, then?” Lucy changed the subject.
“Sometimes, but he’s just too tuckered to really look at them. He works in the mine. He’s a powder monkey.”
What’s a powder monkey?”
“Oh, you know, the one who packs in the black powder into holes drilled in the mine walls. They string a fuse from the powder to a safe place then light it and run like hell. Oh, pardon me ma’am. Just slipped out.”
Lucy smiled. “Next time I’ll wash your mouth out with soap, so be careful there young man with your language.”
“Well, I hope I can meet your father sometime. Perhaps at parent-teacher meeting.”
“I dunno, he’s pretty tired when he gets home.”
Two other children entered. Lucy began her day.
Three weeks passed before Miss Phillips felt she had a sense of just how much her 32 students did and did not know. Like Billy, six of the boys and four of the girls knew their alphabet letters, but were not altogether clear about how to put them together to read properly. The older students only knew the most meager history and mathematics. And the youngest children barely knew what school was about.
“It has been such a long time since we’ve had a proper teacher in town,” Aunt Birdie told her again and again.
“Well it’s high time folks realized just how valuable an education is, not just for the boys either, for the girls, and I mean all the girls,” Lucy stated firmly.
She designated a corner of the classroom “Lending Library” and filled the school’s only bookshelf with every volume she could locate: two well-worn Bibles from Uncle Jonathan’s study; Aunt Birdie’s dictionary and beloved Shakespeare sonnets; her own copies of Emerson’s Nature, Thoreau’s Walden; Oliver Twist and Great Expectations; Aesop’s fables and Grimm’s Fairy Tales; and the poetry of Poe and Whitman. Wordsworth and Blake. She pleaded with store owners and townsfolk alike on behalf of the “Lending Library”, and managed to gather additional volumes, an assortment of almanacs and periodicals, not to mention a few more under-utilized Bibles.
“Just be sure to sign your name and to bring the book back in two days,” she instructed the class, “everyone needs a chance to read.”
She enlisted the help of the top three students to spend time each day reading to the little ones, and required every student to keep a journal.
“It doesn’t matter what you write,” she told them as she handed around note-books and pencils, “just be sure to record the date–the month and day–and what you are thinking about. Do your best to spell things properly, but I’ll help you with that. You can also check with Beth or Rita, they spell as well as anyone. The main thing is to write your thoughts, to use words to express your feelings and ideas.”
She didn’t plan to read the entries herself, but saw the exercise as a meaningful way for the children to learn the value of words, and to practice whatever skills they acquired.
But one early November morning, when Billy showed up sporting yet another facial bruise, and Rita‘s younger sister started crying when asked about the older girl’s ongoing absence, Lucy realized she would have to read them.