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The Teacher's Rescue: A story of the 1925 Tri-State Tornado (Finding Love in Disaster) (Volume 2)

By Cynthia Hickey

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Chapter 1
“Are you sure you’ll be all right staying home alone?” Emma Larson, the new school teacher in the small town of Oakton, Missouri, bent and peered into her grandmother’s face. Having recently moved in with her grandmother in order to help the poor dear who had a tendency to get lost in a town of only one thousand people, Emma feared leaving her while she headed to work.
“I managed just fine before you got here.” Grandma pulled the knitted shawl tighter around her shoulders. “I think I can manage not to die in the next few hours.”
Emma wasn’t so sure, but grabbed her new leather purse, pinned a jaunty blue hat on her head, and sailed out the door anyway. Her new navy crepe silk dress with streamer tie left her feeling confident enough to face the one room schoolhouse and twenty students.
With a bounce to her step, she headed down the road and toward the end of town where the white washed building shone like a diamond in the sky. She’d have her work cut out for her since the school had lacked a teacher for over a month, but she could do this with God’s help. That and her sheer will not to fail.
She passed a storefront where a man swept the walk under a shingle that said, “Doctor Baxter.” He glanced up at her with eyes as blue as the sun and hair the color of ripened wheat. She returned his smile, her cheeks heating. It had been a long time since a handsome man looked at her like that. Not since her former fiancé, anyway. That was another reason she’d chosen to come live with Grandma. Why stay in St. Louis, where heartache lived?
“You must be the new schoolteacher,” the man said, setting aside his broom. “I’m Doc Baxter.”
“How can you tell by looking at me that I’m the schoolteacher?” Emma cocked her head.
“I can tell a lot by looking at you.” A dimple winked in his cheek.
Well, Emma could flirt with the best of them. She tilted her head back to get a better look at him. “Such as?”
He chuckled. “You’re excited about your first day, much like most of your students I’ve talked to. You’re courageous for one so young.” He stared harder.
Her pulse raced.
“And, I’d give my best hat if you didn’t have a heart as big as the Ozarks.”
“You’re only saying that because I’ve come to take care of my grandmother.” She clutched her purse tighter. “Thank you for the compliment, but I don’t want to be late on my first day. I’m Emma Larson, by the way.” She strolled down the walk, the grin never fading from her face.
The sun dappled the sidewalk through branches emerging with spring green. Birds serenaded from a large oak tree in the schoolyard. While the air still carried a tiny bite from winter, the first day of teaching in a new school could not be more beautiful.
Emma dug the key out of her purse, climbed seven steps, and unlocked the door. Inside, twenty desks sat in neat rows. A wood burning stove occupied the back corner next to a large chalkboard behind the teacher’s desk. Another door, open to reveal hooks and shelves for students to hang coats and store lunch pails, was on the other side. An American flag stood proudly beside the door. Windows lined both outside walls. Emma couldn’t ask for anything better. It was perfect.
She walked across the floor. Boards in the center of the room echoed her footsteps. She glanced down. A trap door had been set in the middle of the room. They were in the Ozarks, after all. Most likely the town founders thought it necessary to install a storm cellar. She shrugged. Most people built the entrances to cellars on the outside of buildings, but it reassured her to know the school had one.
After storing her purse in a drawer of her desk, she grabbed a piece of chalk and wrote Miss Larson in big scrawling letters. Under that, she listed the day’s spelling words and math problems, putting each grade in a separate column. When she finished, she had ten minutes to spare and stepped outside in preparation of ringing the bell. At five minutes before the beginning of school, she rang it to give the five minute warning.
Students, ranging in age from six to fifteen, dashed into the yard. Emma’s heart swelled. For eight hours a day, they were hers to teach, nurture, and protect. There was no greater responsibility outside of being a mother. She glanced heavenward and gave a prayer of thanks before ringing the final bell to start the day.
The students sat according to grade level, starting with the youngest in front. Emma moved to the front of the room and stood, hands folded in front of her, until the room quieted. “Good morning. I am Miss Larson, your teacher. Each morning, your spelling words and math problems will be written on the board. First thing, once you’re seated, is to copy these in your notebooks. Then, we will proceed with reading.”
A little blond girl in the front row raised her hand. “I can’t read.”
Emma smiled. “I will help the younger students. Now, let’s proceed with roll call so I can acquaint myself with you.”
She picked up the roll sheet from her desk and read the names out loud, committing each face and name to memory. A young red-haired boy in the front row, Tommy Baxter, grinned impishly up at her. She wondered whether he might be the doctor’s son, and felt shame that she might have flirted with a married man. She shook off the humiliating thought, took a deep breath, and continued.
“Tommy Baxter!” The little imp plunged his neighbor’s pigtail into his inkwell. “Come up here and face the chalkboard. You’ll remain after school for your behavior, and I’ll be speaking with your father.”
Tommy stuck his tongue out at the other students and ran to the board. Emma handed him a piece of chalk. “Start writing, I will not bother the other students, fifty times.” She wrote the sentence at the top for him to copy.
He sighed. “I don’t care. I can write a hundred if you want.”
She had no idea how to respond to such a comment. Hopefully, his parents could give her guidance. Handing out discipline was not strange to her, she’d been teaching for five years, but to have a student, even one so young, openly defy her, was not something she had dealt with before.
“You will also stay in for recess.” She turned to the rest of the class. “As spring quickly approaches, I thought it might be fun for us to put on a spring recital. As we disperse for lunch and recess, I hope you will be thinking of ideas. We will continue in thirty minutes.”
The class stampeded for their lunch pails and headed outside, leaving Emma with a sullen six-year-old boy. “Sit at your desk and eat, Tommy.” Emma took her own seat and unwrapped a simple cheese sandwich.
Tommy fetched his pail and set out a thermos, an apple, and a sandwich with cheese and meat. Obviously, his doctor father could provide well in the food department. Hopefully, Tommy’s lack of discipline was not the absence of parental concern, but rather the testing of a new teacher.
Lunchtime inside passed in silence, the only sound, the laughter of children playing outside. Tommy glanced at the window a couple of times, but resumed his eating without comment. What type of child did not beg to go outside and play?
Sadness clouded his features, wrenching at Emma’s heart. “Tommy, is there something you want to tell me? Is there a reason for your misbehavior?”
Without glancing up, he said, “My mama is dead.”
*
Jesse stood outside his office and watched the town’s children parade past, lunch pails swinging, but no Tommy. He groaned. Either his son had wandered off daydreaming or had been held after school. He was going with the latter. He flipped a sign on the window to back in a few minutes, then locked the door before marching down the street and to the school house.
Sure enough, his son wiped down the chalkboard, using a stool in order to reach the top. Somehow, he doubted Tommy did so out of the kindness of his heart.
Miss Larson glanced up from her desk. “Mr. Baxter, thank you for coming. This is better than me bringing Tommy home. Please, have a seat.”
Jesse squeezed his six-foot four bulk into one of the desks. “What’s he done?”
She frowned. “You don’t seem surprised.”
“I’m not. My son is a rascal.”
She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it and took a deep breath. She glanced at her hands, then back up at him. “He told me his mother died. I’m sorry. Was it recent?”
“Almost two years ago.” While the pain of her passing had lessened, Jesse’s heart still lurched when someone mentioned his loss. “Tommy hasn’t been the same since.”
His son turned and glared at him. Jesse shrugged. He would deal with the behavior when they returned home. He again asked what his son did to warrant being held after school.
“It started with him dipping Sarah’s pigtails in ink. Then, he back-talked me when I ordered him to write sentences. He has been punished, Mr. Baxter. I don’t feel further discipline is needed, but I did want you to be aware of the behavior and to let me know that you support my discipline procedures.”
“I support you wholeheartedly.” Jesse could use all the help he could get. “My office hours leave Tommy bored and restless a lot of the time. I’m hoping that regular schooling will help curb some of his energy.”
“That is a temporary fix, Mr. Baxter.” She frowned. “There are only a few more months of school left. What will you do in the summer? Allow him to run free at will?”
Jesse scratched his head. “I’ll have to hire someone to watch him. Are you insinuating that my son doesn’t take priority in my life?”
“Not at all. I’m not familiar enough with either of you to make such assumptions.” She stood and halted Tommy’s wiping of the board. “You may go home now.” She bent to put herself at his eye level. “Tomorrow is a new day. I hope it is a better one.”
Jesse admired her ability to forgive, but he still intended to merit discipline of his own once he got his son home. “Let’s go. Thank you for your time, Miss Larson.”
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Baxter.” She walked them to the door.
“I’m very disappointed in you, son.” Jesse took Tommy’s hand. “Because of your disobedience, I have chores for you at the office. What’s the matter? Don’t you like Miss Larson?”
“She’s nice enough.”
“Then what is it?”
“She ain’t ma.” Tommy’s chin quivered. “She don’t have the right to tell me what to do.”
Jesse stopped and knelt, forcing his son to look at him. “You’re right. She isn’t your mother, she’s your teacher. That gives her the right to tell you what to do.” He pulled Tommy close, tucking his head under his chin. He closed his eyes and exhaled deeply, wanting to take away his son’s pain, but had no idea how.
“Don’t you think your ma would want you to be good at school?”
“Yes, sir.” Tommy sniffed.
“Then, you owe it to her to be the best you can be.” He held him at arm’s length. “Can you do that?”
Tommy nodded. “I’ll try. But Sarah told me I was a dummy because I spelled my name wrong.”
“Did you tell Miss Larson that?”
“No.”
“Well, you should have, but it still doesn’t make your own actions okay.” He resumed leading his hurting child home. “Tell me something good that happened at school today.”
“We’re going to have a spring recital. I need to find something to do.”
“Any ideas what?”
“I’m going to write a poem to ma.” Tommy grinned up at him. “Won’t she like that?”
Jesse blinked back tears. “She would have loved it.” He might not be the best father in the world, but he must be doing something right. He swung Tommy onto his shoulders and continued their walk to his office.
A woman and small child sat on the bench out front, the child holding a large bowl on his lap. “Run next door and do your homework, son. The garbage can wait. Mrs. Morrison, what can I do for you?”
“Leroy won’t stop throwing up, Doc. I don’t know what else to do.”
Jesse opened the door. “Come in. Let’s see if we can figure out the problem.” He motioned for the boy to sit on the examining table in the back room. “Have you eaten anything today that didn’t sit right with you?” He took the child’s temperature, only to find it normal.
“My brother and I wanted to see who could eat the most raw eggs. I won.” He retched.
“Looks to me like you lost, son.” Jesse straightened and pulled a dark-colored bottle from his cabinet. “Give him a teaspoon of this every four hours until he feels better.”
“I don’t have much money,” Mrs. Morrison said. “Will you take a chicken in trade?”
“Pay me when you can. I can set up an installment plan. Don’t worry.” Jesse led them back to the front room where he wrote down the amount of the doctor’s visit.
“I can give you a quarter now, and a quarter a week. Will that be enough?”
Jesse smiled. “That’s plenty.” He ruffled the boy’s hair. “No more raw eggs. You could get more than an upset stomach.”
“Yes, sir.”
They left, leaving Jesse the rest of the late afternoon to fill out patient reports. At five o’clock, he locked the door, and headed to the house he lived in with Tommy.
“Son?”
“In here.” Tommy lay sprawled across his bed, drawing on a pad of paper.
Jesse looked over his son’s shoulder to see a picture of a woman lying on top of a patch of grass, flowers clutched in her hands. While the drawing was the rough work of a young child, it wasn’t hard to decipher that the picture was of Tommy’s mother.
“Son, you’ve got to let her go. Mommy is in heaven now. She isn’t sick anymore.”
“I want her here.” Tommy tacked the picture to the wall with others of the same. “God doesn’t need her. I do.”
Jesse sat on the edge of the bed. “You still want her here, knowing how sick she was? How much pain she was in?”
“Yes. I could make her better. You could make her better.”
“I couldn’t. I tried.” The cancer had beaten every doctor’s attempts at ridding Maureen of it. “Your mother wouldn’t want you focusing on things this way. No more drawing pictures of her dead. You want to draw your mother, then draw her alive and smiling in heaven.” Jesse marched from the room.
He was failing as a single father. Perhaps, keeping it just the two of them since his wife’s death had been the wrong decision. Maybe it was time for Jesse to look for a wife.
He banged pots in the small kitchen and reached for a crock of soup left by a patient the day before. At the very least, he needed a housekeeper. Someone to cook and clean for them and to mend Tommy’s clothing. Jesse had thought he could do it all. How foolish he was. His son needed a woman in his life, even if that woman was only a caretaker.
Lighting the flame on the stove, he straightened, dumped the soup into a pan, and then stared out the window to see Miss Larson making her way home, the setting sun casting highlights on her auburn hair. She was a very lovely woman to lay eyes on, with eyes as dark as coffee and skin that showed she didn’t spend a lot of time in the sun.
Maureen had been a fiery redhead, like Tommy, but the new teacher seemed to have an inner fire that simmered like the soup on the stove. He guessed she could explode if pushed far enough, but she had handled Tommy’s behavior like a champ.
What would it be like to court a woman like her?

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