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Courting Miss Amsel
By Kim Vogel Sawyer
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2011 Kim Vogel Sawyer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWalnut Hill, Nebraska September 1882
This certainly isn't the way I imagined it.
Standing on the raised planked platform with her name—Miss Amsel—chalked in flowing script across the center of the black-painted board behind her, Edythe searched the somber faces for any small sign of enthusiasm. Row upon row of unsmiling lips and apprehensive eyes greeted her. Her stomach trembled.
Pressing her palms to the smooth front of her taffeta over-skirt, she donned a bright smile. Someone had to smile. "Now ..." Her dry mouth made her voice sound growly, and a little pigtailed girl in the front row cringed. Edythe cleared her throat. "Now that you know my name, it's time I learned yours. Each of you take up your slate and slate pencil"—the shuffle of slates sliding over worn desktops indicated instant compliance—"and print your name in your neatest penmanship on the slate. Then hold it up for me to see."
Heads bent over desks. Slate pencils created a soft skritch-skritch. A fragrant breeze flowed through the schoolroom's open windows, and Edythe filled her lungs with a satisfied breath. Ahh, her pupils following her directions. For how many years had she anticipated this moment? At least a dozen. Pa had said it would never happen, and at times she'd believed him. Yet here she was, standing before her very own class of students.
Some dreams do find fruition, Pa.
She blinked away happy tears as a second round of scuffles signaled slates being lifted. Fresh-scrubbed fingers held slates beneath chins. Opening the student log that rested on her desk, she checked the names that corresponded with those printed on the slates. Martha Sterbinz, Jane Heidrich, Andrew Bride, Henry Libolt, Louisa Bride ...
Some names were legibly written, others a bit difficult to decipher. Regardless, Edythe acknowledged each offering with a smile of approval, but not one child smiled in return. She had longed to teach in a little country school, where children from big to little mingled together like a family. Being accepted as the schoolmarm for the farming community of Walnut Hill, Nebraska, was her fondest hope come to life. But none of her imaginings had included taciturn students.
On the right-hand side of the room, two freckle-faced boys shared a desk seat and a slate. A smile quavered on Edythe's lips as she noted their names—Johnny and Robert—penned one above the other with arrows indicating which name applied to which boy. She laid her pen on the logbook and crossed to stand beside the boys' desk. In the silent room, the gentle swish of her skirts against the wood-planked floor seemed intrusive.
"Johnny ... and Robert." She looked fully into their faces as she spoke their names. Both stared at her with unblinking brown eyes. With thick, curling lashes, round, freckled cheeks, and matching cowlicks, they gave the appearance of a pair of bookends. "Are you twins?"
The one on the left shook his head. "No'm. Brothers. I'm eight." He jabbed his chest with his thumb and then jerked it toward his brother. "He's seven."
"I see." Edythe swallowed. Surely the other children in the room were boring holes through her, so intent were their gazes. "You've done a commendable job of writing your first names, but you've neglected to include your surname. Can you tell me what it is?"
She wouldn't have thought it possible, but their eyes grew even larger. The younger one—Robert—sucked in his lips. His chin quivered. What on earth had she done to frighten him so? She looked at Johnny and gentled her voice. "Do you know your surname?"
The pair exchanged a nervous glance, but neither spoke. The wall clock's heavy pendulum ticked off the advancing seconds as loudly as a gong. Then a slight movement from the back row caught Edythe's attention. A tall, slender girl with blond hair slicked away from her face held her hand in the air.
Edythe searched her memory for the girl's name. "Martha?"
The girl's shy nod indicated Edythe had guessed correctly.
"Did you have something to ask?"
Martha rose, licking her lips. She pressed her palms to the desktop as if in need of support. "Just wanted you to know, ma'am ... those're the Townsend boys. They live on a farm south of town."
"Thank you, Martha."
The girl sank into her seat, her shoulders wilting.
Edythe turned back to Johnny and Robert. "So you are Johnny and Robert Townsend."
They nodded in unison.
"Do you know how to write Townsend, boys?"
Johnny dropped the slate with a clatter and covered his face with his hands. Robert stared at her. One tear spilled from its perch on his lower lashes and rolled down his cheek. From the front row, the little pigtailed girl began to weep, filling the room with her distress. Edythe looked around in confusion. The face of every student reflected fear or resentment.
Edythe put her hand on Johnny's shoulder. "Look at me." Very slowly he lowered his hands and peered up at her. "Why are you frightened?"
"You ... you gonna"-his shoulders jerked as he fought back tears—"whomp me if I spell it wrong?"
Edythe frowned, confused. "Whomp you?"
"Yes'm." Johnny's lips quavered so wildly his words came out in a squeak. "I ain't wrote my second name all summer long, an' now I can't 'member how to do it. Please don't whomp me." Another tear rolled down Robert's face. The boys clutched hands.
Edythe looked around the room, meeting the gaze of each student in turn. So much trepidation-and now she understood why. Catching her skirts, she whirled to the front of the room, stopping directly in front of the bench where the little pigtailed girl continued to wail.
"Children, what means did your former teacher use as discipline in the classroom?"
A sullen-looking boy on the second row shot one hand in the air and yanked up his slate with the other. William Sholes, the slate read in precise block letters.
Edythe said, "Please tell me, William."
William bolted from his desk. "If we made mistakes, Mr. Shanks bent us over his knee an' whupped us good with that stick." He bobbed his head toward the tray at the front of the room.
Edythe stepped onto the teaching platform and lifted a slim, peeled hickory stick perhaps three feet in length. When she had discovered it lying in the tray the evening before as she'd readied the classroom for the first day of school, she'd assumed it was intended as a pointer. She held it aloft. "Are you referring to this stick?"
The little pigtailed girl's wails changed to frantic, hiccupping sobs. The child, so small her legs stuck straight out rather than bending toward the floor, couldn't possibly have experienced the sting of the switch—perhaps the older students had warned her of its threat. If Mr. Shanks had been in the room at that moment, Edythe would have told him what she thought of his discipline methods. Teachers should inspire more than hysteria in small children.
Edythe stomped to the front edge of the platform. Curling her fists around opposite ends of the stick, she held it chest-high. "I assure you, the only thing going over my knee is this."
Raising her knee slightly, she smacked the stick across her thigh. Gasps sounded across the room as the stick snapped in two. The pigtailed girl's cries ceased with a startled gulp. Edythe marched to the window and tossed the useless halves onto the playground. Then she faced the students, swishing her palms together. "From this day forward, no one in this room will be whomped for mistakes. Making mistakes is part of learning, and we're here to learn. All I ask is that you always do your very best. Will you promise me that?"
The little pigtailed girl stared at Edythe in wonder. All across the classroom, heads nodded. Voices rang. "Yes'm. I promise."
"Good." Edythe raised her chin and sent a serious look across the classroom. "And I promise to do my best, as well." Her heart gave a happy skip. At last, her students were smiling.
* * *
"Then she busted it—boom!—right acrost her knee an' threw it out the window!" Johnny gestured with his fried chicken leg, his eyes bright. "Said nobody's gonna get whomped again."
Joel Townsend paused with his fork stabbed into a chunk of boiled potato. He'd be the first to acknowledge no sorrow at seeing the former teacher go. The prune-faced man had terrorized the boys with his overzealous use of the hickory switch. But the new teacher might be making a mistake by giving the rod of discipline a toss.
He sent Johnny a thoughtful look. "Your new schoolmarm say how she plans to keep order?"
Johnny chomped off a bite of chicken and chewed, his forehead all crinkled. "No, sir."
"Just no more whompin'." Robert lined up his peas on the edge of his plate with his stubby fingertip. "I like 'er, Uncle Joel. Like 'er a lot."
Joel tapped the top of Robert's head. "Quit playin' there and eat."
"Yes, sir." The boy grabbed his fork, poked one pea, and carried it to his mouth. He shuddered.
Joel swallowed a chuckle. "You two make sure you mind your manners. Miss Amsel might not be usin' a switch on you, but I won't spare it if I find out you've caused trouble at school."
Both boys looked at him with wide, innocent eyes. Johnny said, "I won't cause her no trouble, Uncle Joel. Honest."
"Me neither," Robert vowed. "She's just so nice." He propped his chin on one hand, a crooked grin creasing his cheek.
If Joel hadn't known better, he'd have thought the boy was smitten. But he did know better. Robert missed his ma. Johnny did, too. Having a female teacher would be good for the boys. He could father them-he'd had no trouble stepping into their pa's shoes two years ago when the boys were deposited on his doorstep-but mothering was a whole different thing.
"Oh!" Robert dropped the gnawed-clean chicken bone and shoved a hand into his dungaree pocket. "Miss Amsel sent a note home."
Mr. Shanks had sent notes when there'd been mischief in the classroom. Joel scowled at each boy in turn. "You sure you didn't cause trouble?"
"No, sir!" Robert began jabbing his fork tines into the peas with gusto.
Johnny added, "She sent 'em with all the kids—everybody got a note."
Puckering his forehead, Joel peeled open the paper and scanned the graceful, slanted script that covered the top fourth of the page.
Johnny tipped forward, his fingertips on the edge of the table, and tried to peek over the top of the paper. "What's she say?"
Joel pinched his chin. "It appears your new teacher intends to make the rounds beginning next week and visit all the families with schoolchildren." This Miss Amsel was sure different from Shanks—he hadn't even attended Sunday services with the townsfolk.
Robert bounced in his seat. "Can she come at suppertime an' eat with us? Huh, Uncle Joel, can she?"
"Settle down there, boy, and let me think." Joel looked again at the note. Please indicate a convenient day and time, and I shall do my utmost to honor what best fits your schedule. She sure had a fancy way of stringing words together. Old Mr. Shanks had used some highfalutin' words-and he'd also expected the kids to know them. Joel hoped this new teacher wouldn't expect too much from the kids in Walnut Hill. Mostly offspring of lowly dirt farmers, they wouldn't be comfortable spouting words like utmost. And neither would he.
"Johnny, fetch me the pen and ink."
The boy dashed to the bowfront secretary that had belonged to Joel's mother and pulled down the drop leaf. Johnny held the pen and bottle of ink as carefully as if he were carrying a king's crown. "When you gonna tell 'er to come? Tomorrow?"
"Now, didn't she say next week? Is tomorrow next week?"
Johnny scratched his head. "Reckon not." He leaned close, bumping Joel's elbow as he dipped the pen into the uncorked bottle. "How 'bout next Monday, then? Can she come next Monday? Huh?"
"Johnny, if you're done eating, start clearing the table."
The boy huffed, but he moved to obey.
Joel hunkered over the letter, his thoughts flitting here and there like a moth around a lantern's glow. Most of the families would probably invite Miss Amsel to come for supper and stay afterward to drink coffee, eat cake, and chat a bit. Social gatherings were limited to twice-a-year church socials and a rollicking barn dance when harvest ended. Folks hankered for time to visit, and they'd be eager to host the new teacher, show her a pleasant time. And give her a good look-see.
With a critical eye, he examined the cozy room that served as parlor, kitchen, and dining room in his log house. Not as clean as it could be, since a bachelor man and two rowdy boys occupied it. He had no pretty cloth or fine dishes to put on the table, the way his ma used to do when company came. Considering the teacher's grand words, she'd probably expect to eat off something more than speckled tin plates laid out on an old oilcloth. As much as he hated to disappoint the boys, he couldn't serve up supper to the new schoolmarm. Johnny and Robert would have to be satisfied having her come for an evening visit.
He held the tip of his tongue between his teeth and carefully penned a reply. Miss Amsel, you can visit us any school day after seven o'clock. Compared to her neat penmanship, his lines of print looked like a squirrel had dunked its tail in the ink bottle and then flopped it around on the page. But there was nothing he could do about that—he had a hand for coaxing corn from the soil, not putting pretty words on paper.
After dipping the pen again, he continued: Let Johnny and Robert know which night. He nibbled the end of the pen, thinking. If he got some forewarning, he'd have time to ask Mrs. Jeffers in town to bake a cake or pie. Then at least he'd have something to serve when the teacher visited. Maybe Mrs. Jeffers would even lend him some nice dishes if he promised to be extra careful with them. He started to sign his name, but the note looked too short. Like it was missing something. Tapping his chin with his knuckles, he sought an appropriate way to end it.
At the dish basin, Johnny teasingly splashed Robert, and both boys giggled. Joel smiled, remembering their exuberance when they'd returned from school that afternoon. He set the pen nib on the paper and scrawled, Thank you for giving the boys a good first day back to school. We look forward to hosting you. He blew on the ink until it looked dull instead of shiny, then started to refold the note.
But he paused, taking in her neatly scripted lines and pompous wording. His gaze drifted across his closing sentence. Nervousness churned his belly. Sure hope the good Lord'll forgive me for writin' down a little white lie.
Excerpted from Courting Miss Amsel by Kim Vogel Sawyer Copyright © 2011 by Kim Vogel Sawyer. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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