Despite the harsh scrutiny of others, Grace Cantrell has a passion for teaching and so accepts a one-year assignment as a schoolmistress in a small Texas town.
She loves her students, and must learn to get along with their parents--even the cold and unloving blacksmith who has taken in two adorable orphans.
Can Grace find love and a permanent home when everything else has failed her?
Jedidiah Green never expected that amount of commotion. Loud chatter and shuffling feet echoed across the large opera house in Wellington, Texas. More noise and chaos than a small-town fellow was accustomed to. And especially since Jed liked nothing shy of simple solitude.
A lady in a brown, pleated dress struggled to assemble fifty or more confused and frightened waif-like “street urchins.” Ugly words, but that was how the editorials in the Sheldon Tribune had described the pitiable orphans who’d just stepped off the early morning train.
Advertisements posted around town encouraged families to show brotherly affection to the needy, but Jed wasn’t convinced that’s why some of them arrived. Most of the folks lived some distance away from town and rarely set foot there.
A group of men in worn overalls and dusty work boots boasted about getting a free farm hand at the price of an extra mouth to feed. Clusters of unruly citizens in the balcony voiced outrage that filth from New York would be allowed to litter the honorable state of Texas. Jed recognized one or two of the protesters but refused to look at them. A downright shameful side of his town.
Reluctant children filed into the room, the boys dressed in new tan trousers and white shirts and the girls in gray dresses. They walked across the stage as if being sentenced to a crime they had committed but now wished they hadn’t.
Jed’s throat constricted.
A curious spectator brushed past Jed to get a closer look and snickered to another man next to him. “Look at the one with the red hair and the big ears.”
A middle-aged couple, arm-in-arm, directed a girl with long, thick, wavy hair and gangly arms to turn around. Without speaking, the man pointed to the right side of the platform. The girl’s knees shook as she walked the width of the room. The woman turned abruptly to him. “I think she’d look nice with her hair in braids. And she has such a pretty face.” She leaned closer. “She doesn’t look as rough as the others. Let’s take her.”
“I don’t care how she looks.” His voice became gruffer than necessary. “It’s the laundry, cookin’, and cleanin’ you ought to be concerned about.”
The woman motioned the girl to step forward. “Can you iron, child? And mend with needle and thread?”
The girl nodded. Her lips trembled.
Jed couldn’t tell if she was worried she wouldn’t be picked or worried she would be.
Another woman in a gray cape ran her fingers through a boy’s dark locks. Her husband inched toward her. “Make sure to check that scalp good.” Finally, she nodded. The man squeezed the boy’s biceps and forearms, and then made him open his mouth while he poked a finger inside to examine the child’s teeth.
Another couple pushed past Jed.
Two boys stood across the stage in the back. Their shoulders slumped as if not expecting to be chosen.
The older one’s head lifted, and he looked right at Jed. His eyes appeared dark—like the bottom of a well. Jed sensed his pain plunged twice as deep. A younger boy huddled next to him, his face angled to the floor as if he couldn’t wait for the torture to be over.
Remarkably, over the din of voices, Jed heard his name called. A well-dressed man in a black suit and felt hat hollered for him again. Jed lifted his hand to acknowledge the greeting. The gray-bearded man stepped toward him. A stocky, older lad trudged behind him, barely lifting his feet as though he walked in shackles.
“Jedidiah Green, I’m Howard Duffy from the Children’s Aid Society.” Mr. Duffy’s firm handshake and broad smile reminded Jed of a salesman who’d come through his town as a child. He’d stop by the home, and his parents had a heck of a time getting rid of him. “I understood you made the trip all the way from Sheldon,” the man said.
Mr. Duffy placed his hand on the boy’s muscular shoulder. “Here’s your future apprentice. Griffin is his name. I got your letter and delivered what you requested. He’s not docile by any means, but he’s strong. Although you’ll have to feed him more than others his age.” He chuckled. “But he’ll make a fine bellow pumper and nail driver for your blacksmith shop.”
The orphan rested his hands on his hips and stared across the room without meeting Jed’s gaze.
Jed looked him over. Griffin must’ve been nearly six feet tall, only a few inches shorter than him. Hair the color of coarse sand had been parted down the middle and combed to the side, a hairstyle the boy had probably been coerced into getting before the train ride. He’d already scuffed his new britches, and his collared shirt remained unbuttoned at the top. A square jaw and sideburns set him apart from the younger orphans.
“With his age and size, why isn’t he working already?” Jed asked. “This boy could earn his keep somewhere.”
Mr. Duffy looked down and pressed his lips into a hard, thin line. “Truth be told, he’s been in trouble with the law. A tad bit rebellious. An angry young man without proper guidance. His first placement didn’t work out. He’ll turn eighteen years of age in less than a year and won’t be eligible for the train rides, so this here is a chance for this young boy. He’s had a rough road in life. But I’m sure he can be tamed with care and discipline.”
Griffin looked away as if uninterested.
Mr. Duffy continued. “I assure you, you’ll be the envy of every farmer and rancher in Central Texas. I’ve had inquiries about him from other stops in Dowagiac, Michigan; Iowa City; and Kirksville, Missouri. But I saved him for you as promised.”
Jed kept his eyes on the young man with the firmly set jaw. “Have you ever used a hammer, Son?”
“I’ve picked one up a time or two.”
Mr. Duffy’s face paled as if he might get sick.
A slight smile emerged. “Knocked out a window one time. And bashed the head of a rooster who wouldn’t shut up. Does that count?”
Jed searched the crowd. He inclined his head toward the stage. “What about them two over yonder?”
Mr. Duffy turned. “Where?”
“The boys in the back corner. Near the far end.”
Mr. Duffy turned reluctantly, as if the conversation had strayed from his script. “Oh.” He frowned as if he’d been reminded of a sad story. “Well, they haven’t been so blessed. This is the fourth stop for both of them.”
“I’d have to check their paperwork to be sure. But I imagine so. Never seen them apart since they were found huddled next to garbage pails outside a market in New York. We know a little bit about them, the younger one was a survivor of a fire. But neither go anywhere without the other, not even the latrine.”
“They don’t look alike.” The small boy’s hair was light blond, the closest Jed had ever seen to white. The other one had coal-black hair and thick eyebrows.
He spoke quickly as if the matter was of little importance. “Different fathers often account for that.”
Jed folded his arms across his chest. “Who will take them?”
“Good Lord willing, two fine families. Doubt they’ll be going to the same place, though. They’re both frail. The younger one coughs a lot. Probably still some smoke in his lungs. His family burned to death leaving him as the only survivor. Got an ugly scar on the right side of his face and all down his arm.” Mr. Duffy shook his head. “I hate to say it, but folks often see these types as more trouble than they’re worth. Most families don’t want another body to care for. They need healthy workers.”
Something in his gut stirred. “What happens if they aren’t chosen?”
Mr. Duffy shrugged. “They’ll get back on the train and do it again at the next stop. If they are still unplaced, they’ll return to New York and stay in a local mission until the train departs again. Several churches in the area help the mission see they get fed.”
“None of these children have any family?”
Mr. Duffy shook his head. “Their parents could be dead or they could’ve been abandoned. Things have been so bad, sometimes parents give up their children, especially if they have several. New York City is overpopulated with immigrants, Mr. Green. Men can’t find work. Homeless, abandoned children run wild, stealing food and breaking into places to find shelter. The town crawls with hundreds of children just like these.”
“Did these two boys tell you anything?”
Mr. Duffy shook his head as his words grew more hurried. “Not much. The younger one rarely speaks. And the older one does so only when confronted. The Children’s Aid Society maintains records as best they know.” He sighed, stepped back, and rubbed his forefinger across his chin. “Seems to me like I remember the dark-haired boy claimed his mother was alive, but a property owner said she had passed on. But I can’t be too sure on that. I can look it up for you in the ledger if you like. First, your apprentice—”