This is the eighth 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/

Part 8.

I feel safe here.  I never want to leave.

“It started the first day I arrived in Searles Valley.”  Ellie began.  “A man named Mr. Stark picked me up from the train station.  I could tell at once that he was …too friendly.”  Ellie clenched her jaw in anger at the memory.

“He told me as soon as he could that he was a widower with two children in the school I would be teaching.  I was as cold as I could possibly be without being entirely rude.  When he left me at the boarding house, he expressed a wish to see me again soon.   I gave him a negative answer, and went inside.”

Ellie shivered.

“The boarding house was horrible.  I’ve stayed in many, but this one was the worst.  Cold drafts whistled through chinks in the walls at night, and it was infested with rats.  The couple that ran the boarding house were old drunks.  I told the school board, but they did nothing, even though several of them lived in fairly nice homes

“The children were unruly, and they played nasty tricks behind my back.  I got into the habit of brushing my chair off before I sat down after a couple of episodes with a tack.  I could have handled them, but the stubborn school board refused to listen to any of my ideas!” She pounded her fist on the table.

Ellie lost her far-away look and met Chad’s disgusted gaze. “And then one evening after supper, Mr. Stark came to call.  I crawled out of a window and hid in the pigpen until I thought he had left.  I went back inside, but when I went upstairs, I saw him prowling around the house.  I stayed awake for the rest of the night, watching and listening, ready to hide at the slightest noise.  I prayed more during that term of school than I had prayed in my entire life, and God protected me.

“As soon as the fall term ended, I quit.  I went home and Pa, Jem and cousin Nathan exploded when they heard about it.  They made me take a break, so I rested at home for the rest of the year, until it was time to find a new school to teach.  Jem insisted that I apply for the Fresno Grammar School; he claimed that it would be safer, and made me promise to write him when I had news about you. I think he wanted to know that I had someone I could go to if anything happened.”

Ellie smiled.  “Your family has been so welcoming.  I feel like I’m at home.  I can’t thank you enough for befriending me.”

Chad cleared his throat.  “Don’t mention it.  It was my pleasure.”

Ellie pushed her chair back.  “Well, I should go put Magic away.  I left her standing in the sun.”

Chad’s feet hit the floor with a thud as he stood up. “I’ll come with you and take care of Sky.”

As Ellie unsaddled and rubbed Magic down, Andi tore into the barn again.

“Chad, tell Mother you have a job for me next Saturday, please.”  She begged.

Chad shook his head.  “Not a chance, little sister.”

Andi blew out an exasperated breath and threw her long braid over her shoulder.  “Chad I don’t mind a barn dance, but an engagement party?  Please give me an excuse not to go.”

Chad shook his head again.  “Sorry, Andi, the invitation is to the Carter family, Mother accepted, and we all have to go.”

“Kitty Powers is an acquaintance of the family.”  He explained to Ellie.

Ellie nodded as recognition dawned.  “Ohhh, yes.  I received an invitation also.”

Andi slumped against a stall door.  “It’s going to be awful.”

Ellie smiled.  “Come on, Andi, it won’t be that bad.”

Andi’s head snapped up.  “Oh, yes it will be.”

“I promise I’ll take you around the dance floor at least once, then you should be fine.”  Chad turned to Ellie.  “Are you going?”

Ellie shook her head. “It was considerate of them to invite me, but I don’t dance.”

Andi’s mouth dropped open in surprise.  “You don’t dance?”

Ellie flushed.  Even Andi, a self-proclaimed tomboy danced. She shook her head.  “No, I never learned.  My Aunt Rose wanted to teach me, but I begged and cried until she gave up.” A wistful expression hovered over her face for a moment.  ”I sometimes wish I had learned, but I don’t have very many social engagements, so I’ve never seen the use of learning.”

Andi looked at Ellie enviously.  “I wish I had that excuse.”

Ellie laughed. “Don’t.  Enjoy avoiding potential suitors.”

Her good mood partially restored, Andi grinned mischievously.  “Maybe Chad could teach you how to dance.”  She suggested.

“You might want to ask Chad before you volunteer him for a potentially challenging task.”  Ellie joked.

Andi chuckled.   “Oh, well.  Maybe Johnny Wilson will take the job.”  She started for the house.

Ellie ran the brush in her hand over Magic’s back once more, and then dropped it into the grooming box.  “There!”  She kissed Magic’s nose, let herself out of the stall, and turned to Chad.  “Thank you so much for inviting me to spend the day, and for taking the time to show me around the ranch.  It is beautiful.”

Chad folded his arms and looked at her strangely, as if wondering why she felt she should thank him.  “Really, Ellie, it was nothing.  I wouldn’t do any less for a friend.  Don’t mention it.”

Ellie let out a big sigh of contentment and clasped her hands in front of her.  She walked slowly toward the barn door and stopped.  She looked out at the ranch, feeling the sense of home that overwhelmed her, and wishing she could stay here forever.  Her eyes burned as tears welled up.  She tried to stop them, but one escaped and rolled down her cheek.

“Are you alright?”  Chad asked in a low voice.

Ellie wiped the wet drop off quickly and tried vainly to pretend nothing had happened.  “Yes. It’s just so beautiful,” her voice broke and she cleared her throat.  “It’s so beautiful.”  She repeated.

As Ellie left the barn, the sun caught her full in the face, making her blink.  “I should probably go home.”  She said regretfully.

“Stay for supper.”  Chad pressed.

Ellie winced.  “I’d love to, but Chad, I’m not part of the family, and I don’t want to be a burden or an irritation.  I don’t think I should, honestly.”

“Ellie, the family would love to have you.”  Blue sparks shot from Chad’s eyes and Ellie was startled by his intensity.  “You will never be unwelcome.”  He calmed down a bit and his eyes twinkled.  “Honestly.”