The School Marm: A Western Serialby Winslow Parker and Joan Myles
“I need to visit all the parents of my students. Would you like to come with me aunt Birdie?” Lucy asked one Sunday afternoon.
“Yes, that would be a capital idea. I need to get out of the house. Let’s hook up the buggy. It will give our feet a bit of a rest.”
“Howdy ma’am,” Lucy said after knocking on the door of a neat frame house. “I’m the new school teacher and want to meet the parents of my students. Are you Martha’s mother?”
“Yes, I am. Come in, come in! I’ve been wanting to meet you. I saw you in church last week, but there were too many people around to say anything to you. Is Martha in any kind of trouble?” she asked as they settled themselves around the kitchen table.
“Oh, no, not at all. She’s a sweet little girl. No trouble at all. She could use some help with her alphabet because she writes some of her letters backwards. It’s not uncommon for a first grader. Could you do some practice with her at home?”
The woman flushed red. “Well, miss, I’m not sure I can help. I have no book learning. Never went to school. That’s why I’m so glad you’re here to give Martha a chance I never had.” She lowered her eyes, appearing to be ashamed.
“How about this,” Lucy said. “I’m sure there are others in town who have never attended school. There is no shame in that. This world isn’t always a fair place. How about if you and others who never went to school get together at Aunt Bir… I mean Aunt Beatrice’s house one evening a week? I’d be glad to help you so you could help Martha.”
“Oh! Would you? Could we? That would be so wonderful. I’ve always envied those who can read the Bible and the newspaper when one finds its way this far into the wilderness.”
“Certainly. Aunty, what would be a good evening?”
“Well, the knitting circle meets on Monday and prayer meeting is on Wednesday, how about Thursday evenings at 7?”
“Would that work for you?” she asked the woman.
“I’ll make it work. My Fred will watch Martha for an hour or so. He’s a good man.”
“It’s settled then. See you Thursday at seven. Invite anyone you like to join us.”
They said their farewells and returned to the buggy.
“That’s right nice of you,” Lucy’s aunt said.
“It’s not all out of the kindness of my heart,” said Lucy. “I figure I can get a lot of information from the women as we talk, but I do love to teach, so it certainly won’t be wasted time. Besides, the mothers will be making my teaching a lot easier by coaching the children at home.”
They met three other families, with seven of her pupils among them.
“I’d like to meet Billy’s father. Billy is such a precocious child. I’ve wondered what his father is like. Also curious about some bruises I’ve seen on his face and arms. He’s fidgety in class though he absorbs information like a sponge.”
“Oh, no! Poor child. His father took a tumble after his mother died. He quit coming to church and the gossip mill says that he is often inebriated.”
“that would explain a lot.”
“Here it is,” announced Beatrice.
They left the buggy and approached the house. It was surrounded by the detritus of the town. Two broken buggies without wheels, a splintered ox-bow, a door, odds and ends of furniture, a bicycle’s twisted frame.. The shack itself was made of warped and splintering wood planks. Gaps between boards let wind and occasional rain into the interior which they could no longer protect.
Lucy knocked on the door frame next to the cowhide-covered opening from which the discarded door had obviously been taken. There was no answer to her knock.
Billy suddenly poked his head around the side of the house, squinting at them, puzzled.
“You lookin’ for me?”
“No,” Lucy said, “I see enough of you all week long.” Her grin told him she was teasing. “Looking for your pa.”
“He’s asleep. Don’t want to wake him. Sunday is his only day off.”
“Who’s that, Billy?” came slurred words from within.
“It’s and her aunt. Tain’t nuthin. Go on back to sleep.”
A moment later, a red-eyed unshaven man pushed aside the hanging cowhide and poked his head out. “Howdy miss,” he slurred.
“Hello, Mr. Bushnell. As Billy said, I’m Miss Phillips and you probably already know my Aunt, Beatrice Krane.”
“That I do. I’m still grateful for the kind words Reverend Krane said over my wife after she died. He wouldn’t take nuthin’ for his services neither. Never known a reverend to not take money for his services.” His voice faded into silence and he seemed a bit perplexed at his own observation.
“Jonathan was a wonderful husband and human being,” she said. “I miss him, but the community misses him too.”
“Yer right there,” he replied. “what can I do for you ladies?”
“Well, I’m the new school teacher and I’m trying to meet the parents of all my students,” explained Lucy. “I only have Sunday afternoons, so am trying to meet as many as I can each week until I’ve met them all.”
“Billy tells me a lot about school. Seems he takes to it right well.” His voice was less slurred now.
“He’s a bright boy. He’ll be head of his class before long. He’s eating it up. He’s also a very talented artist.”
“Didn’t know that,” mused Billy’s father. “The chestnut doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess.” His smile revealed his pride.
“Are you an artist too?”
“Used to be. I was close to a major exhibition in New York City, then got consumption and had to move to Arizona Territory for my lungs. It worked, but haven’t painted since. ‘sides, too tired. Blasting is tiring and dangerous work. Don’t have much energy left over for frills.”
“Do you have any of your paintings? If so, I’d like to see them,” said Aunt Birdie.
“Well, mebbe. Let me think.” He turned back into the house. After a few moments, he returned, holding a cardboard tube. He thumped one end, then pulled out a rolled canvas. Spreading it with his hands, he turned it to them and held it open.
“Beautiful!” exclaimed Lucy.
“It’s my wife,” he said, his voice gruff with emotion. “She was right pretty.”
“You captured her very nicely. It looks like she is about to pull a prank or say something funny. Look at the corners of her mouth, just ready to break into a grin.”
That was her most of the time…” his voice trailed off into silence.
“Can I see, Pa?”
He tilted the picture toward the boy. Tears welled in Billy’s eyes, but he blinked them away and stared. He raced inside and returned with the sketchpad Lucy gave him on her first day in town. Quickly, he sketched his mother’s image, then turned and ran back inside.
“He does have the gift,” said Mr. Bushnell.
“I plan to foster that talent in the classroom.”
“Thank you. Maybe one of us will succeed.”
He turned away.
“Do you have others?” asked Beatrice.
“Yeah, several. Can’t do nuthin’ with them, though. No one out here in this hellish place…pardon me ma’am, miss.”
“I’d be interested in seeing them sometime,” she said. “Could you bring them by my house, maybe next Sunday afternoon?”
“Why sure, ma’am. Only I couldn’t charge you for ‘em.”
“We’ll make some kind of a deal if I like them,” Beatrice assured him.
“Thanks,” he said and turned back into the hovel.
“Just one more thing, Mr. Bushnell,” Lucy said, voice firm.
He turned to face her.
“Billy has come to school several times with bruises on his face and arms.”
“Probably accidents,” dismissed his father. “You know how squirrely he is. Always running and jumping. More energy than any three other kids I know.”
“That may be, except that twice the bruises on his face were those of a hand print. Have you any idea of anyone who would do that?”
Mr. Bushnell’s face colored.
“No, but I’ll kill anyone who lays a hand on the kid. He’s all I have.”
“If there is anything I can do to help find the person responsible, let me know,” Lucy said.
“I will,” he promised, gruffly and turned away.
The bruises stopped. Billy’s classroom restlessness diminished.
The next Sunday, Mr. Bushnell was in church. He nodded to Lucy as he passed her on the street after the service. He wore a patched but clean suit. His fingernails were stained with a rainbow of colors.
Lucy Phillips spent what little time she had to herself during the next week, carefully copying out the alphabet for the small group of adult learners she expected to collect. But the news of her evening classes spread quickly among the townswomen, passing from house to house like the good tidings it was, evolving as it went to meet whatever gap the ladies felt in their lives.
“You’ll want to come,” one young mother of six called to her neighbor over the fence, “so’s you can read your Bible at home, ‘stead of only hearin’ it read at Sunday meetin’”
“And we’ll be learning all about the scholars–Emerson and even Locke from over in England,” another informed her sister as they rocked their babes at dusk.
“And when women finally get the vote,” Lizzie Grandbush put it to Lucy, who stood openmouthed with surprise to find her alive and walking about the world beyond her deathbed, not to mention at the threshold of Aunt Birdy’s the opening session, “we’ll be ready, since we’ll know all about American history and governance.”
“Well,” Lucy took a deep breath and gathered her thoughts as she closed the door, then turning to face the dozen or so smiling women scattered about the parlor , said softly, “it certainly is a delight to welcome so many eager students. I hope what I have to offer is worth all the trouble you’ve put yourself to this evening.”
“Pshaw, it’s Ben who’s got the trouble–our twin boys are teethin something fierce,” one plump lady assured.
The group chuckled good-naturedly, knowingly.
Lucy scooped up her alphabet charts and handed them around as she explained, “It was my intention to offer basics in reading, you know, for beginning students, but of course we don’t need to stop there, and many other topics will likely enter the discussion–”
“Like Emerson,” a voice offered boldly.
“Yes, and maybe– women’s suffrage,” Lizzie chimed in.
“First things first,” Lucy took her place on the piano bench, and tried to assert her usual confidence as a teacher, “do you all know one another?”
A dozen heads bobbed up and down amid soft giggles.
“Of course, I’m the newcomer,” Lucy smiled sweetly, “Please be patient, won’t you, as I learn your names and all?”
More nodding and quiet agreement.
A sudden thud from the front porch sent the ladies to gasping and chattering, and everyone’s attention jerked to the door, frantic with pounding.
“Miss Lucy, Miss Lucy,” the voice squawked breathlessly, “somebody, help…”
Lucy pulled the door open, and the terror-stricken woman fell into her arms.
“Oh, come in, let me help you, whatever is wrong…?”
“I’m Miranda Burns,” the woman panted, “my Rosa is in your school…oh my Rosa, my beautiful Rosa…” she clutched Lucy tight as she wept.
The women all flocked close, reaching out to soothe and comfort, their eyes filled with empathy and concern.
As she collapsed into a chair, Miranda swallowed hard to fight her tears, straining to push past her faulty English, her growing fear, “I’ve been keeping her home, to keep her safe, hid away, sometimes in the barn, sometimes the chicken house, sometimes the root cellar, but she’s gone, really gone this time, and I know,” she was dissolving into tears as she spoke, I know they–they have her–those hombres–wicked devil men–have my beautiful–my Rosa–”