This is the first of an 11-part short story based on the characters of author Susan K. Marlow’s Circle C Adventures and is posted on her blog https://circlecadventures.blogspot.com/
San Joaquin Valley, California, Late September 1884
Moving to a new school is always a little frightening. I hope the Fresno County School Board is more understanding than the last school board.
Ellianna Coulter twirled her pencil between her fingers, then pressed the blunt end against her chin and watched the flat, brown pasture racing away outside of the train window. Up close, the ground flashed by, making her dizzy; but far away, the mountains stood still, reaching the sky.
The steady thrum of the train had become white noise long ago.
Dropping her gaze to the small journal open in her lap, Ellie pondered her next words.
I wonder if anyone will be at the station to meet me. Jem sent his old friend Chad Carter a telegram, saying I was coming, and, of course, the school board knows I’m arriving today.
Jem kept insisting that Chad will remember us, but I doubt it. It has been at least fifteen years since he and Jem have met, probably nearer twenty. Besides, he is Jem’s friend. Not really mine.
“Next stop, Fresno! Twenty minutes!”
At the conductor’s call, Ellie started. Her stomach flipped. She shut the journal carefully, wrapping a piece of soft cloth around it and pushing it into the carpetbag at her feet. Ellie glanced at her hands; they were shaking. She forced them to stop and leaned back in her seat. Take a deep breath. Ellie told herself. You’re fine. Relax; take another deep breath. You can do this, there’s nothing to it.
She tilted her head back and looked at the ceiling. God, I’ve done this so many times; why do I still feel so nervous?
A few minutes later, the train began to slow. The steady thrum of the wheels became an agonized chug, as the train ground it’s way slowly to a stop.
“Here we are, folks! Fresno!”
Ellie grabbed her carpetbag and made her way to the door. As soon as she set foot on the platform, the busyness and noise struck her. People hurried back and forth, coming and going. Conductors called, the train whistled, the engine roared; people talked to each other loudly.
She scanned the platform, brushing a curl of auburn hair aside. A well-dressed man in his mid thirties caught her attention. His black hair was combed neatly back, and his eyes were also searching the crowd.
He noticed her and after a moment, made his way over.
Ellie cleared her throat. “Yes?”
The man held out his hand. “Justin Carter. I’m a member of the school board. I came to welcome you and help you get settled in your boarding house.”
Ellie shifted her carpetbag to her other hand and shook Justin’s hand. “I’m pleased to meet you.”
She felt a twinge of disappointment. So Chad Carter didn’t come. I thought so. Poor Jem. He thought for sure Chad would turn up.
Justin broke into her thoughts. “Can I take your bag?”
“Oh, I can carry it. I will need to pick up my luggage, though.” Ellie said.
Justin waved a hand, dismissing that thought. “I’ll have someone send it over later.” He led the way to a buggy and helped her in. “I’ll be right back.” He went to find a porter.
Justin was back in no time. He untied the horse and climbed in beside Ellie. As he shook the reins and they drove away from the station, Ellie drew a breath. Stage one of her arrival was complete. Stage two was ahead: getting established in a boarding house. Ellie groaned inwardly. She was not overly fond of boarding houses. They tended to be dark, and drafty, and full of oozy smells and squeaking mice. At least the ones she had stayed in. She frowned.
“What’s the matter?” Justin asked.
Ellie flushed slightly. Not happy that a member of the school board had noticed her frowning over the prospect of staying in his hometown. He probably thought she was dissatisfied with the town or the boarding house the school board had recommended.
“I was…to be honest, I was thinking about boarding houses.” Ellie admitted reluctantly.
Justin nodded sympathetically. “I can imagine. From your resume, I assume you’ve stayed in some pretty repulsive places.”
Ellie laughed suddenly. “You have no idea.”
“You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you see Mrs. Stewart’s boarding house. She keeps it as neat as a new pin.” He let out a chuckle. “You can’t imagine how glad my youngest sister was when I told her I had found a teacher to replace Miss Hall. Our Mother wanted her to take the position.”
Ellie raised her eyebrows. “She doesn’t like children?”
Justin laughed. “Oh, no. She loves my son, Samuel, and will play with him for hours, but when she turned sixteen, Andi put school behind her for good. She would much rather race her horse, or help Chad on the ranch.”
“You are related to Chad Carter, then?” Ellie asked.
“Yes. My brother runs the Circle C Ranch.” He snapped his fingers as if remembering something. “Speaking of Chad, he received your brother’s telegram. He was going to come with me, but he was called away at the last minute on ranch business. I’m sorry he couldn’t be here, but I’m sure he’ll think of an excuse to ride into town and renew your acquaintance. I’m sure he’s anxious to hear how Jem is doing.”
Ellie smiled. “I’m surprised to hear he hasn’t forgotten us. It has been so long since we met last, I’d expected him to. I am glad, especially for Jem’s sake. He made me promise to write to him when I had news about Chad, and I would hate to tell him the old friendship had been forgotten.”
Justin glanced at Ellie out of the corner of his eye. “No chance of that, Miss Coulter. Chad has never forgotten either you or Jem. He’ll be pleased to meet you again.”
Justin checked the horse. “Here we are.”
They had stopped at the corner of Mono and K Streets, in front of a tidy looking brick house. A wooden sign above the door proclaimed: Mrs. Stewart’s Boarding House.
Ellie smiled dryly. “Not a very imaginative name is it?”
Justin shrugged. “It doesn’t need to be. Everyone knows it’s the best boarding house around. Besides, as Mrs. Stewart says: “Decent folks don’t need a fancy name to bring them in, and I don’t have time to search my brain for any highfalutin’, sinful sounding lies.”
Ellie choked back a laugh at his imitation of Mrs. Stewart. She immediately sobered when a stout woman, around sixty years old, appeared in the doorway of the establishment. Ellie let Justin help her down before retrieving her carpetbag and advancing toward the older woman. Justin introduced them. “Mrs. Stewart, this is Miss Ellianna Coulter, she is the new teacher taking over from Miss Hall.”
He turned to Ellie. “Miss Coulter, Mrs. Stewart.”
Ellie held out her hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. Stewart.” The woman took her hand and Ellie could feel the rough calluses formed through years of hard work. “That remains to be seen.” Mrs. Stewart remarked, without a smile.
Ellie’s brow furrowed. What remains to be seen? Whether or not I’m pleased to meet her?
“Well, I’d better be going.” Justin shook hands once more with Ellie, climbed into the buggy, and left.
Mrs. Stewart pushed the front door open and led Ellie through a spotless hall, up some stairs and to a narrow white door.
“This will be your room. Breakfast is at eight o’clock; I assume you will be taking your lunch at school. Supper is at five thirty. If you miss a meal, I will not be held responsible. Your must keep your room clean, you will do your own laundry, and you will behave with propriety.”
Ellie set her jaw, looking impassively down at the older woman. Inside, Ellie wanted to snap at her, but she didn’t. “Yes, ma’am.” Ice coated her polite words. How could she be so rude to a newcomer? Ellie wondered. Is she always like this? Never mind. For now, as long as the woman stayed out of Ellie’s personal business, she could overlook Mrs. Stewart’s impolite manner and hostile demands.
“Thank you, Mrs. Stewart. I’m sure we will work something out that gives satisfaction to both of us.”
Mrs. Stewart nodded curtly and thumped down the stairs.
Ellie watched her go, then turned back to the door and opened it.
A neatly made bed took up the far wall. To the left, the only window looked out over Blake’s Livery Stable. A small writing desk was placed beneath the window. There was only room for her trunk and a dressing table. Nothing more. The tiny room was papered with an old, faded-gold pattern.
Ellie closed the door behind her and leaned against it. The carpetbag clutched in front of her. She smiled in relief. Small: but clean. It will be a pleasure. Ellie thought. Then one corner of her mouth turned down. As long as I don’t get into an argument with Mrs. Stewart.