Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Something Worth Doing, Page 2

Jane Kirkpatrick

  A chill in the air moved Jenny to set the kindling to fire in the little stove. She was grateful that someone had not only chopped and stacked wood outside but had tented dry sticks over bits of pine needles and forest duff so the flame took without effort. Part of her teaching contract was that from now on, she would split the wood and stack it, start the fires, and remove the ashes as well as maintain the inside and the surrounding grounds outside, sweeping pine needles from the stairs and even the roof if necessary. Cobwebs drifted from the corners, and she grabbed the straw broom and swept them and the floors. As she worked, she remembered the interview with the board of education. She’d kept her tongue when one of the farmers asked her if she had a beau or was using this opportunity to find a husband—as though that were the only goal of a woman’s life.

  None of your business, she’d wanted to say but smiled instead. “With one woman for every one hundred men in this Territory, I doubt I’d need a schoolhouse full of other men’s—and women’s—children to attract a husband. No, I’m delighted to teach little minds and to have a few coins to call my own.” She thought her mother would be proud of her for controlling her sometimes intemperate tongue. Truth was, she was torn about marriage. She liked the idea of falling in love, being swept away, but only wished to marry a man who saw value in a partner and not just be a “hand” in the drudgery of women’s work that took so many women’s lives at such a young age. Her parents had loved each other, she felt sure—but she’d wished her father had paid more attention to her mother’s needs and waited a little longer before remarrying after her death. But he ruled the roost, as her mother often said. And because she’d let him, she accepted their journey west and it had taken her life.

  Marriage could wait. Jenny had brushed off a few offers already, determined that they were more land-based than promising love. If an Oregon man married within a year of reaching the territory, his new wife could bring 160 acres into the marriage in her own name. Of course, as soon as she married, the control of it became her husband’s. But it did expand the spouse’s holdings. She made light of most of the proposals, encouraging them to seek a less willful mate. She didn’t want to offend, but she certainly wasn’t interested in expanding a man’s wealth without at least a little love to go with it.

  Dawn pushed its way into darkness, announcing she had time yet to scan the lessons she’d prepared using the one primer she’d snuck along on the journey west. Her father had restricted what the women could bring—including books and dishes—and never knew until they arrived that her sister’s beau had bought their auctioned dishes—a set of Spode—and given them back to Fanny before they left. With tears, Fanny, her oldest sister, had sewed the butter plates, dishes, and cups into a feather bed so their father never knew that he slept on them. Jenny’s book had survived, buried in the barrel of corn meal. A woman needed a little piece of home. At least their father hadn’t broken the dishes when he discovered they’d defied his orders, as she’d heard some men had. He hadn’t complained about the schoolbook, either.

  Jenny rubbed her hands to warm them at the flame, reset the combs in her hair to control the curls. She counted the slates piled on the crude table that served as her desk. There were six, so if all the children attended, they’d have to share. With her first paycheck she’d buy two more. She’d have the students work on writing their names today so she could learn who they were and assess their skills. She planned to tell them stories and weave the lessons into them to hold their attention. It worked for her siblings. It had worked for her.

  The sound of stomping boots on the pine stairs took her from the primer. Must be an older student. She straightened her back, ignoring the pain that lived in her spine.

  She expected twelve students. At least that’s what the board had told her she’d be responsible for, though she remembered one man’s caveat. “Some days you might have more, if they bring a little brother or sister usually too young, but maybe their ma is sick and there’s no one to look after them at home. Can you adapt?”

  “I’ve six younger siblings—no, only five now.” She swallowed. Willie had died in the Blue Mountains the year before. “Like any good western woman, I can corral them without a rope.”

  Today she’d see if that was true. If students arrived this early, she’d have to rise at 4:00 a.m. to stay ahead of them in their lessons.

  “Welcome,” she said as the door opened. Now she’d see what a day in her domain would hold and what kind of a creative map she could draw.


  Courting or Confrontation

  “Harold Bunter,” the man said. He hadn’t removed his hat. “I come to press my case to you, Missy.”

  Rigid as a fence post, he was a big man, well over six feet tall, with a ruddy face and a broken front tooth. He stood too close and she backed up. “Excuse me?”

  “Time’s a-wasting, Missy. I’ve got until December to find my bride, and I hear you’re a hard worker helping at your father’s inn. He don’t serve spirits, only beer and wine, so I guess you’re a teetotaler, which is good for me. And you must have common sense or the board wouldn’t have hired ya. So I’ll court ya proper-like, but we both know the end result. Glad to see you’re punctual too, getting here long before the babes arrive. I think an August wedding would be fine, don’t you?”

  “Mr. Bunter, I am working here. I’m sure you understand the need for my full attention to be given to preparing for my students. Your offer is generous, of course, but I can’t entertain it today and likely not tomorrow or the next day either.”

  “I’ll give you time. Until August, like I said.”

  “I’m barely of age, Mr. Bunter.” Holy cow chips. What was the man thinking?

  “You’re almost nineteen. Many a girl at fourteen is marrying in these parts.”

  It bothered her that he knew her age. It was true that young girls were being handed over by their parents to willing men to help expand their farms and be extra hands. She prayed that some of those girls found love in the process. “You’ve done your homework, Mr. Bunter.”

  “I know how to woo a woman.” When he grinned, that broken tooth gaped at her.

  “Oh, I see another early bird may have arrived.” She looked beyond him to the misty dawn. “If you’ll excuse me, I must get to work and make my students welcome.” She’d looked out through the open door and hadn’t seen anyone but hoped she had distracted Mr. Bunter enough for him to at least stop talking about marriage.

  “I’ll come back after class and we can confer more,” he said. “That’s a good educated word, isn’t it—‘confer’? My farm’s not too far away, so I can get here easy. I know all the board members. They can vouch for me. I’ll let ’em know they’ll need to be looking for a new schoolmarm, as they won’t let a married woman work out, you know. A woman’s place is in the house.”

  She turned back to him. “Mr. Bunter, I’m sure you’re a very fine citizen and your farm is very fine too. But I’m new to the territory, I’ve just begun my job, and I really can’t think about marriage at this time. With you or anyone. So please don’t speak for me to the board.”

  “Now, don’t get too frazzled, Missy. I can wait. I got ’til December for my year to be up. Only April now.”

  “Mr. Bunter, you’re not listening to me.” Am I being too rude? No, I must be firm. “I am not interested in marriage—to anyone at this time. So please, spread your charms to another missy, as you’ll be wasting your time with this one.”

  He took a step closer, inhaled deeply through his nose like he was trying to inhale her. She moved back. Her heart pounded like a butter churn. He was big and could hurt her if he chose to. She shouldn’t give him any fuel for his fire by suggesting they would discuss it later. That would only lead him on. But she couldn’t think of anything else to do. “Let’s talk about it over the weekend,” she said. “I’ll do my homework too. And find out about you.”

  “Good for you, Missy. I’ll come by your father’s inn on Saturday. W
e can confer then. I’ll be sure to tell the board about what a loyal teacher you are, not wanting to mix pleasure with work.” He grinned, showing a mouth of tobacco-stained teeth, touched his hat brim, turned his back to her, and clomped down the steps.

  She’d deal with him on Saturday. She couldn’t think about it now. She took a deep breath, inhaling the new-lumber scent of the building and the desks.

  Before she’d returned to her chair, more step noise, and a man’s voice, singing. “Holy cow chips,” she said out loud. She stood to confront Mr. Bunter once again.

  But instead a small child appeared, holding the hand of a tall man with sky-blue eyes and curly hair that matched the child’s, with just a hint of ginger to the brown. He’d been the singer. He removed his hat and nodded to her. “Ben Duniway, ma’am.”

  “And this is . . . ?”

  “Josie. It’s her first day.”

  “Welcome, Josie. I’m Miss Scott. How old are you, sweetie?”

  “I’m six. We’re having a sister or brother. Momma said she could tell me which it is when I got home. I guess she went to town to pick it up.”

  “That’s lovely.”

  “Her mother would have brought her, but she’s, uh, feeling poorly today.”

  “Yes, I can see how she might be.” To the child, she said, “Would you like to put your lunch pail on the entry shelf?”

  “Uncle Ben bringed me. He and Momma are sister and brother. Like I’m gonna be.”

  “Ah,” Jenny said.

  “I see you’ve already met Harold,” Ben said. “Courting, is he?”

  Jenny felt her face grow warm. “He might call it that. I wouldn’t.”

  “Discouraging him could be a full-time occupation. He’s made many a proposal, and I hear he’s getting desperate to find a wife before his year is up.” He let Josie’s hand loose, and the child stood beside him, a thumb in her mouth, lunch pail in her other hand, her eyes moving back and forth between the adults. “I brought a slate for Josie. Figured you might be short.”

  “Thank you, Mr. Duniway.”

  He removed the chalkboard from his loose shirt.

  “I appreciate that thoughtfulness. Josie, would you like to pick one of the front desks? You’ll sit with another student, but since you’re early, you get first choice. After you put your pail away.”

  “Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.” She scampered to the entry.

  “If you need a rescuer from Harold, let me know,” Ben said. “He can be as cantankerous as a green broke horse. And for the record, not that you’ve asked, I’ve got my 320 acres and didn’t need a woman’s 160 acres to make it so. When I come courting, it’ll be for the woman’s heart and not her land.”

  “You’re right, I didn’t ask.”

  “But you don’t mind knowing, now do you?” His grin slid across his attractive face, and she felt a glow inside.

  I believe he’s flirting. She’d keep this professional. “I’m an educator, Mr. Duniway, a seeker of information for its own sake,” she said. “One never knows when one will need it to advance a cause or carve a path forward.”

  He grinned as he put his hat back on. “I’ll be back at three to bring you home, Josie. You be good now and mind Miss Scott.”

  “I will.” The child reached up to him, and he squatted down to let her wrap her arms around his neck. Children like him. And he bent to them, didn’t stand above them. That was a good sign. “Bye, Unc,” Josie said.

  “Don’t forget to sing when you leave to go outside,” Ben told her as he stood and brushed the top of her head with his wide hands. Two honey-colored pigtails poked out on either side of her head.

  “I won’t,” she said.

  He turned back to Jenny. “Singing when they face the world is a good way to calm the stomach wiggles. There’s lots of them when you’re a child.”

  “And when you’re a grown-up too,” Jenny said.


  He replaced his hat and headed out, singing a song Jenny didn’t recognize, about “seeing Nellie home.” It was a happy tune, and Josie giggled as she skipped her way past Jenny and found a front desk. Jenny watched as the man patted her horse’s neck and checked her grain bag. Jenny had her mount at the hitching post where other children’s ponies would soon be tied. Her horse nickered to him. Animals and children like him. He turned and waved at her and she blushed. He had known she’d be watching, the scamp.

  She witnessed horses and their child riders coming up the trail, dismounting and tying their animals to the post, filling grain bags, then walking up the stairs.

  She was the queen of her domain here, and as she greeted each child, she felt a lifting of her spirit. She didn’t know if her joy came from this being her first day as a teacher or if the meeting of Ben Duniway played a part. She couldn’t be sure. She just hoped he wasn’t a diversion on her map to independence.


  The Hesitating Heart

  Ben Duniway had returned to pick up his niece and continued to bring her back and forth the entire week.

  “This is the longest child-birthing in history,” Jenny had joked to him on Friday.

  “I figured she told you she has a little brother. I’m still helping my sister out. And I’m hoping we might have a conversation longer than a blink one day. Perhaps while riding to the dance at Lafayette this Saturday night. Would you consider going with me?”

  Her independent self was a bit annoyed that she was so easily swayed by those blue eyes looking right into her heart and the way he listened without interrupting when she spoke. The man asked questions and didn’t give orders, though they had only short opportunities with her students her priority. “I’d be pleased. Of course, my sisters would need to come along.”

  “Understood. I wouldn’t want to tarnish your fine reputation.”

  Thoughts of knowing she’d be seeing him twice a day distracted her studies, and she had to force herself to concentrate on reading and arithmetic rather than his warming smile. She wasn’t ready for love. She had too much to prove about taking care of herself and being there for her sisters and youngest brother, Little Toot. Her brother Harvey seemed well able to care for himself. She wasn’t sure she could trust Ben’s courting kindness, either. People changed. Husbands became domineering once they’d won over their wives. Ben’s presence gave her comfort now, but would he always? Her heart hesitated. Back to her lessons. When in doubt, work.

  “Put the creamer on the table,” Fanny told Jenny. “I’ll get the biscuits. You’d think there was a wedding going on with all the people here today.” She winced at her own words.

  “Travelers,” her father said. “Though a good wedding would be in order. Right, Fanny?” He held the door open so Jenny could use both hands to carry the heavy ironstone pitcher to the table.

  “It’s too heavy, Papa. Let’s put it into two smaller jugs.”

  “Ah, you’re right. Give it here, Jenny.” He turned to the pantry to make the exchange, and Fanny mouthed “Thank you.”

  Jenny had wanted to rescue her sister from any wedding discussions. Fanny had been forced to leave the love of her life behind in Illinois. He’d proposed but had an ill mother he needed to care for, and then John Tucker Scott—the family patriarch—said his entire family was heading west, true love left behind. Fanny still reeled from the heartache she carried from their arrival last fall. Work at the inn had not taken the pain away. The tavern, as inns were often called, had been operated by an uncle looking to farm instead, so Tucker Scott had taken over the duties. It provided a good space for his children and his new wife and her two young ones. For Jenny and Fanny, his remarriage seemed hasty, not giving much grieving time to their mother and little brother who had died on the trail. And his new wife was already with child. That their father had also insisted that Fannie consider marrying a well-known man in the territory twenty years older than she was had added to the family strain. “I want you girls married and safe so there are no reputational issues. Unmarri
ed women can be the heart of scorn without even trying. Safety is when you’re under the roof of a husband.”

  Jenny wasn’t so certain of that. She had argued that if she married, she wouldn’t be able to teach and there’d be fewer coins to help meet the family’s needs. They’d left Illinois with a cache of money, but it had been stolen on the trail, the culprit never found nor confessed to it. Jenny had decided she needed an untarnished reputation, and she’d do that by focusing on slates and schoolwork. When she thought of introducing Ben to the family, she found her stomach hurt the tiniest little bit. The feelings she had for him had deepened in such a short time and they’d never even been alone. She hadn’t spoken to her father yet about the dance, but she’d told her sisters and they were ready to chaperone.

  Ben’s introduction would come later—if he even showed up. And how would she feel about that if he didn’t? She set her mind on cooking, serving, splashing suds on plates, and scrubbing linens for the guests who had spent the night.

  She’d just swirled her skirts through the dining room door to bring out a platter of ham and eggs when she saw Harold Bunter standing at a table. She made a quick turn back into the heat of the kitchen where she told Fanny, “You need to rescue me now. That farmer I told you about is out there.”