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Irene Delaney wrote an arithmetic problem on the blackboard and turned to face the three students seated on the bench at the front of the one-room school. "Martha, can you?"
Bang. Pop. Bang.
A hand flew to her chest, sending the chalk sailing to the rough pine floor, where it shattered.
Children shrieked and ducked down in their desks, hands over their ears.
Another explosion rattled the door of the potbellied stove that occupied the center of the west wall. Eyes peered over desks at it.
Irene fought to control her rapid breathing. Moments later the hammering of her heart slowed as her brain figured out that one of the students had put some kind of ammunition in the stove. And there could be little, if any, doubt as to which student had done it.
The students seemed to reach the same conclusion just as Irene did. All eyes turned toward Wesley Boz-eman.
"Miss Delaney," said eight-year-old Pansy Murdock. "Yes, Pansy."
"I saw Wesley put something in the stove."
This was the last straw. Fear that had quickly turned to exasperation now became anger. Irene turned to face the lanky thirteen-year-old boy. He wore an expression of studied innocence, but it changed to defiance as her accusing stare bored into him.
"Little Miss Tattletale," he mocked, aiming a glare at Pansy. "Always making up tales."
"She may be a tattletale," another student piped up, "but she tattles the truth."
Irene drew a deep, steadying breath. "Wesley, you may stay after school to discuss this."
Lord, please give me patience. Help me guard my tongue.
Too angry to deal with the perpetual troublemaker in front of the students, she strove for calmness and continued the lesson. "Okay, Martha, can you show us how to do this problem?" She indicated the blackboard.
"Yes, ma'am." The twelve-year-old went to the board and began to write.
Wesley shot out of his seat, nearly knocking the desk over, and made for the side of the room lined with coats hanging from hooks. He snagged his and went out the door, slamming it hard behind him.
Irene did a quick assessment. Going after Wesley would mean leaving the other students unsupervised, and she doubted she could catch him anyhow. He would go home and that was fine with her. She directed her attention back to her pupils.
Irene's stomach tumbled as she peered through the windshield at the thickening snow. It was a relief when she arrived at the Bozeman farmhouse, a small single-story structure that had been painted white, and pulled her old Model T to a stop. She knew that Mrs. Bozeman had been widowed about a year ago and had four children to raise by herself, which was why Irene had delayed so long in bothering the woman about Wesley's disruptive behavior.
After school today she had offered the three younger Bozeman children a ride home if they would wait until she was ready to go. Knowing the purpose of her visit to their house, they had declined her offer and walked home as usual.
Irene pushed her hair back from her face and took several deep breaths as she walked up onto the small front porch and knocked at the door. Mrs. Bozeman was hardly a person who would eat her alive, but Irene hated conflict and dreaded the encounter. She liked teaching well enough but hated the discipline part. She wanted to find a job related to music after this school year ended. It scared her to think of leaving the familiarity of home, but she would do it to get to work full-time in a musical ministry.
Her sister, Jolene, would be ready by next fall to resume her position as teacher of the school where she had taught for the past seven years. Irene had graduated from high school and completed enough teacher training to be able to temporarily step into Jolene's shoesas if that could truly be donein time for her and Riley's first baby to be born. Schools had become less rigid about women continuing to teach after marriage, but the community did not want them to teach while expecting a child. But by the end of the school year Irene would be ready to move on to a job where she could use her musical ability.
When Nell Bozeman opened the door, she didn't act surprised to see Irene. A tall woman with salt-and-pepper hair, she wore a faded brown cotton dress and looked as though she might have been sick. Hands rough from hard outdoor work held a long-handled spoon. She stepped back and widened the door opening. "Come in," she said, her voice soft.
Irene brushed the snowflakes from her gray wool skirt and entered the tidy living room. She followed the woman to her kitchen, where twelve-year-old Cassie was setting the table and eleven-year-old Jenny stirred a pot at the stove. Irene didn't see ten-year-old Lonnie. Or Wesley.
"Have a seat." Nell motioned to the table and took the chair across from Irene. She glanced at the girls, then back to Irene. "Is Wes in some kind of trouble?"
Irene swallowed and then stated the blunt truth in a rush. "Someone put bullets in the stove, and they exploded. Other students say they saw Wesley do it. I asked him to stay after school, but he grabbed his coat and left."
Nell Bozeman emitted a long sigh. "He stomped into the house about two o'clock. All he would say was that Miss Delaney doesn't like him, and he wants to quit school."
Irene gasped. "That's not so. I like all my students. I just can't allow potentially harmful behavior. He has played a number of pranks that disturbed the classroom, and I've made him miss recess and copy pages from the dictionary. But today's incident was dangerous, and someone could have been hurt. I don't want to add to your burdens, but I had no choice. You need to know what's going on, and I need your help."
The woman shook her head in weary frustration. "I don't know what to do with him. He never liked school much, but since his dad died, he's been unhappy and hard to deal with."
The door opened, and the subject of their conversation entered, accompanied by Lonnie and a man in his twenties, each carrying a full milk bucket. Wesley came to an abrupt halt and glared at Irene.
Her gaze locked on the man as memory kicked in. She had seen Gavin Mathis only a couple of times since his return to Deer Lick a few months ago. With his name being different, she tended to forget that Mrs. Boze-man was his mother. No longer a scrawny, overworked boy, he was well built with broad shoulders and neatly trimmed sandy-brown hair and stood about six feet tall. Startling eyes of brilliant aquamarine, made even more dramatic by his blue shirt and black coat, beamed a heat ray at her.
He had attended the rural Deer Creek School, but he was Jolene's age. They had both finished eighth grade at the rural school and gone on to high school in town about the time Irene started school. She remembered him, but not well.
He was handsome, and he carried himself with an easy assurance that had developed in the eight or nine years he'd been gone.
Irene remembered that Gavin's dad had died when Gavin was just a small boy. His mother had remained single for several years before she married Roy Bozeman when Gavin was approaching his teens, which was why he was so much older than the four children who now attended the rural school. Gavin had left home as soon as he finished high school. The younger kids mentioned him now and then, but not often.
"Hello, Mr. Mathis," she greeted him, uneasy at that piercing glower.
"Wes says he came home early today because you pick on him. What's your problem?" His tone was biting.
Irene's hackles shot sky-high, and she sprang to her feet. "I do not pick on him, Mr. Mathis. In fact, it's the opposite. He plays pranks and constantly disrupts the class, leaving me no choice but to punish him. Which I hate," she added.
"Today's prank was not funny." Mrs. Bozeman spoke gently, directing a look of censure at Wesley. "He put live ammunition in the stove, and it blew up."
Gavin hesitated a moment. Then he put his milk bucket down and turned to Wesley. "That doesn't match what you've been telling me. What's the truth?"
Silence reigned as the boy shuffled his feet and stared down at them.
"He did it, Mom."
All eyes turned to Cassie. Standing by the table, her hands clenched at her sides, she stood firm. "Miss Delaney has to talk to him nearly every day. A lot of his tricks are funny, but what he did today scared us."
Irene could almost hear Mrs. Bozeman deflate. The woman glanced at Wesley and then at Gavin, her mouth tight.
Gavin's face turned grim. As he studied his mother's expression, Irene recognized what she thought was a silent request for approval to act. When Nell nodded, he refocused on Wesley. "I think there are some barn stalls that need mucking, and this place could use a few other cleanup jobs. I'll check when I get home from work every day to see how much you've gotten done, so you'd better come straight home from school and get to work."
Wesley's face turned red, but he didn't argue.
"Son," Mrs. Bozeman said sternly, "I expect you to behave properly in school. I don't want to hear about this kind of thing again."
Irene almost felt sorry for the boybut not quite. She had to consider the well-being and safety of all her students. "Thank you for your support. I'll see you in the morning." She encompassed all four of her students in the farewell.
Deep in thought, Gavin vaguely comprehended the barren winter landscape as he turned off the blacktopped highway onto a rough country road. Electricity had been available in cities for yearsin their own little town for over a yearbut only about 10 percent of rural farms had power. Since the Rural Electric Administration was established in 1935, they'd made headway, but much work still lay ahead of them.
Skepticism abounded and created problems for the REA and the crews he managed. Fear of the unknown made farmers think twice about going into something so mysterious as power that hummed over lines and could not be seen or touched. His job as a field man was to plot a map of the homes that had been signed up and pick up as many new members as possible. Most rural people wanted electricity desperately, but the demand for it was not universal. Some worried about getting in debt to the government, and even the five dollars to sign up was not a sum to be taken lightly.
A line had to be financially worthwhile, which meant there had to be at least three hookups per mile. He needed one more hookup in that mile up ahead, and Sam Delaney was the holdout he needed.
The name resurrected his recent encounter with the man's daughter. A dainty thing, the young teacher was a far cry from the rough-and-tumble tomboy he remembered riding up and down the road on an old bicycle day and night. Her delicate mouth, high cheekbones, black hair and glinting black eyes rimmed by long black lashes filled his mind, as they had all last night and this morning. She had a soft, natural prettiness that he liked better than if she had been flashy. He remembered the older sister, Jolene, well, but Irene had been just a kid when he left home nine years ago. She certainly wasn't a kid now.
In light of the reason for yesterday's visit, he should beware of her, but it didn't seem to dim the effect she had on him. If he was not mistaken, she had not been indifferent to him either. And he was insane to be thinking along these lines. He had a widowed mother and four younger siblings to take care ofand electric lines to get constructed to many homes, including that of his own family.
A glance at his watch told him he was making good time, so he yielded to an impulse and turned onto the road that went past the school. About a mile down the road, he parked in the open space alongside the building and slipped through the door.
Miss Delaney stood with her back to the door, writing on the blackboard. He spotted a chair at the right of the doorway and slid silently onto it. From everything he had heard on visits home over the years, Jolene was a good teacher. Could the little sister be that capable? He did a visual scan of the students and located Wesley in a desk near the back of the row to his right.
When the teacher turned and spotted him, her eyes widened in recognition. She started to speak, but he shook his head and placed a finger across his lips to signal that she should continue and ignore him. After a brief pause she went on with the lesson.
He studied the room with an eye to wiring logistics. Schools, churches, filling stations, grain elevators and stores were given priority for getting electricity. He did a quick assessment and returned his attention to the classroom activities.
He found that he liked the way Miss Delaney interacted with the students. She presented the facts without chasing rabbits and corrected mistakes without scolding or talking down to the children. And she treated each student equally.
He knew the moment Wesley detected his presence. The boy had made a furtive move that bespoke mischief, but when he turned in his seat and spotted Gavin, he jerked back around.
Gavin's gut rolled. The young teacher truly did have her hands full with an angry young man. His respect for her went up a notch as he realized she had handled things herself a long time before coming to talk to Mom. He observed for a few more minutes. Then he put his gloves back on and slipped out the door. Now he had to deal with Mr. Delaney.