A Prairie Christmas Collection: 9 Historical Christmas Romances from America's Great Plains
by Tracie Peterson
A Prairie Christmas Collection
By Tracey V. Bateman
Take Me Home
Coon’s Hollow, Iowa—1887
A frigid wind assaulted Kathleen Johnson the second she stepped off the train onto the boardwalk in front of the Coon’s Hollow station. A shiver began at the base of her spine and worked its way to a full-bodied shudder. Apparently Pa’s prediction of an unusually frigid winter was coming true. Here it was barely mid-October and the gray clouds overhead seemed suspiciously plump. She wouldn’t be surprised if it snowed overnight. Gripping her valise tight with one hand, she pulled her scarf closer about her head with the other and braved the few feet of cold wind until she reached the depot.
The smell of sawdust hung in the air, tickling her nose and throat. She gave a little cough and glanced about, looking for someone who might be looking for her. The telegram from Reverend Nelson had promised that someone would be at the station to collect her upon her arrival. But though she received numerous curious glances, no one seemed inclined to offer her a ride.
With a sigh, she made her way to the ticket booth and placed a gloved hand on the tall counter. “Excuse me, please.”
The man glanced up. His brow rose, and his face split into a leer at the sight of her. “Well, well. How can I help you, little lady?”
Barely containing her revulsion at the lecherous tone, she swallowed hard, wishing that Pa or one of her four brothers were here to put this man in his place. Fact that she was on her own now for the first time ever washed over her with startling clarity.
She forced the deepest frown she could muster and raised her chin. “am looking for someone—”
“Look no farther, beautiful girl,” he shot back, his eyes traveling over her face and neck. Kathleen had never been more grateful for her petite height, which in this instance kept everything below her shoulders hidden from his view.
“No, I’m not looking for someone like that.” Her face burned, and she wished she could think of a crushing retort, thereby reducing his cocky exterior to a puddle of shame. But as usual, when faced with conflict, words failed her.
He leaned on the counter, his elbow supporting him. His hand shot out and covered hers before she could anticipate the move and pull back. “Don’t break my heart, honey. I’m looking for someone just like you.”
A gasp escaped her lips at his boldness, and she snatched her hand away. He was bordering on more than rudeness. Before she could conjure a thought, rescue came in the form of a puff of smoke and a declaration. “Abel Coon, I’ve half a mind to tell your pa what I just overheard. Bet your ma’d beat the tar outta ya, iffen she was still kickin’, God rest her soul.”
“Mind your own business.” The man scowled over Kathleen’s shoulder.
Kathleen whipped around and nearly passed out at the sight of her savior. Woman—at least she guessed it was a woman—wore a man’s overcoat that hung open, revealing an ill-fitting brown dress. A fat cigar hung from thin lips, and a wide-brimmed hat rested on her mop of gray hair. Her broad forehead and large nose made her look rather masculine and sagging jowls reminded Kathleen of her family’s bulldog, Toby.
Abel gave a loud, pointed cough. “No smoking in the depot, Mary.”
“It’ll take someone a lot tougher than you to stop me, you little pip-squeak.”
Though Kathleen was a bit taken aback by Mary’s habit as well, she couldn’t help but be glad the woman didn’t obey the despicable flirt behind the counter.
Mary snatched the cigar from her lips and held it between her fingers as she sized Kathleen up. “You the new teacher?”
“Thought so.” She gave a curt nod. “Reverend sent me to take you over to the school, though why do favors for the likes of him. . .”
Relief coursed through Kathleen. “Oh, thank you, Mrs. . . .”
Without asking, the woman reached out and took Kathleen’s valise. “Miss Bilge, for now.”
“Are you soon to be wed, Miss Bilge?”
Abel’s laughter echoed through the station. “In a pig’s eye.”
Miss Bilge’s manly face turned scarlet, and she scowled at the ill-mannered young man. “Shut up, Abel. Don’t see no gals takin’ you up on any offers lately.”
He reddened, and Mary Bilge nodded her satisfaction as she turned her attention back to Kathleen. “Ain’t engaged, formally. But that don’t mean ain’t willin’ if the right fella came along. That’s why said a miss for now.”
“See.” Bewildered, Kathleen left her response there. Fortunately, Miss Bilge seemed ready to move on. She glanced about the floor, then looked back to Kathleen. “This your only bag?”
She gave a loud snort, adding to her already unladylike demeanor. “Must not be plannin’ to stay very long.”
Kathleen once again felt her cheeks grow warm. “Well, was. . .” What could she say? Astute lady was pretty much right. Her presence in Coon’s Hollow was a trial run. First time teaching. First time away from home. Biting her lip, she fought the approach of hot tears. Thankfully, Miss Bilge nodded in understanding, making it unnecessary for Kathleen to elaborate. “Ya want to make sure a town like Coon’s Hollow is where you want to hang your hat permanently before you bring anything more than can fit in this here bag? Can’t say as I blame a young thing like you. The last gal barely stayed a month.”
Well, that explained the need for a quick replacement. Head of the Rosewood school board happened to be brothers with a member of Coon’s Hollow’s school board. Coon’s Hollow had need of a teacher to fill in for the rest of the term. Kathleen’s father, who sat on the Rosewood school board, had approached her with the suggestion. Though she hated the thought, she’d agreed to take the teacher’s exam and left the results in God’s hands. Two weeks later, here she was, shaking from head to toe from nerves and cold, feeling for all she was worth as though she’d bitten off more than she could chew in a million years.
Kathleen swallowed hard as Miss Bilge tossed her valise into the back of a wagon and offered her a hand up.
The woman walked around to the other side of the wagon and swung herself up, forcing Kathleen to avert her gaze at the flash of a hairy calf as the patched skirt hiked. “Oops.” Mary sent her an embarrassed grin and quickly righted her skirt. Kathleen couldn’t help but return the smile.
Slapping the reins, Miss Bilge nodded in approval. “You’ll do just fine. Don’t worry about that Abel Coon. He’s all talk. I’m thinking his pa regrets ever teaching him to speak.”
Gathering all the bravado she could muster, Kathleen sat up a little straighter. “He didn’t bother me. Was just about to put him in his place when you walked up.”
“Sure you were. But right proud of you for trying to be brave.” She waved to a passerby. “Last gal nearly fainted every time she saw a mouse.”
“You scared of those furry little critters, too?”
Kathleen cleared her throat. “should say not.” She should say so! “A–are there any in the teacherage?”
“Tons of ’em. They come in from the field out back of the building. But don’t worry. Ain’t gonna hurt you. Just trying to get out of the cold.”
Kathleen shivered as the wind whipped up and shook the wagon. “Well, certainly can’t blame them for that. Wouldn’t mind getting out of this cold myself. Are we almost there?”
“It’s just at the edge of town.”
Kathleen followed the point of Miss Bilge’s cigar. Her heart sank as she observed the clapboard structure. She’d expected a whitewashed building with a bell and a porch, like the school in Rosewood. She was sorely disappointed. Roof was straight across over one portion of the building, then slanted downward as though in an afterthought another room had been added. She assumed the after thought would be her quarters.
Another gust of wind shook the structure, and Kathleen felt her spirits plummet further. It must be freezing inside with walls so thin. How would she ever stay warm? And it was only October. The term ended in two months, so she’d be home for Christmas. She could be brave that long. She hoped.
“Looks like someone built a fire.” Miss Bilge’s gruff voice broke through Kathleen’s thoughts.
“There’s smoke comin’ from the chimney.”
“Oh, that’s a mercy. My fingers are nearly frozen off.”
The woman chuckled as she halted the team and hopped down. After wrapping the reins around the hitching post, she grabbed Kathleen’s bag from the back. Kathleen stared. “Need help getting down?” the woman asked.
Heat warmed her cheeks. “I–Ican do it.”
She climbed down, careful to keep her skirt covering her legs. She stumbled a little as she touched the ground. Kathleen gathered her composure and followed Miss Bilge, who was almost to the door.
Suddenly, she was very glad that she’d decided against bringing a trunk. She’d already made up her mind. Coon’s Hollow wasn’t the town for her. She most definitely would not be accepting a certificate for another term. Lecherous train station men, crazy women who looked and talked more like men, mice in the schoolhouse. She shuddered.
How she wished she’d never agreed to this venture. Mama had warned her that she’d regret it, and as usual, Mama was right. Why had she ever listened to Caleb? Her favorite brother had been wrong in this instance. “Kat,” he’d said. “Don’t make the same mistake I did. You might find that you don’t want to stay in Rosewood forever.” At her gasp, he’d hurried on. “Now, don’t think I’m not happy with Deborah and my girls, because am. But maybe would have liked the chance to make a choice. You have that chance. Take it.”
And against her better judgment, Kathleen had taken his advice. Now she missed her family so fiercely it was all she could do to keep herself from bursting into tears. Though they’d said good-bye only this morning, her stomach tightened at the thought of them. Ma would be starting to fix supper, and the two younger boys would be finishing up chores while the two older boys helped Pa in the family-owned livery stable.
“Ya comin’, gal?”
Kathleen jerked her gaze from the frigid ground to find Miss Bilge filling the doorway, her cigar a mere stub between her lips.
“Ain’t much to look at, but we can get it fixed up in no time.”
Kathleen couldn’t stifle a gasp at her first sight of the schoolhouse. Every desk, including hers, was overturned, and many were broken. Dirt and mice droppings layered the floor, along with scattered books and tablets.
“What on earth happened?”
“Ain’t no tellin’. My guess is a pack of ornery young ’uns with too much time on their hands since there ain’t been no school. You can straighten ’em out in no time.”
A sigh pushed from Kathleen’s lungs. She would need at least a week to ready this room for school, and how would she ever control a group of students who were rowdy enough to cause this sort of damage?
Miss Bilge clucked her tongue and snatched up her valise once more. “Come on, gal.”
“Wh–where are we going?”
“Back to the train station. This town ain’t for the likes of you.”