Danger was approaching the one room schoolhouse and the young teacher inside would soon learn of the courage she possessed. Growing up in the city, Jennie had felt as though she had been sent to the end of the world when she came here to teach. She had shed many tears about leaving her life in the bustling city. It had taken three different trains to get here, and on each leg of the journey her heart had become more weighed down with all that she felt she was losing by moving to this small western town. When Jennie arrived, there were fields as far as the eye could see, with the small town seemingly plunked down in the middle. Yet, the road that led Jennie to teach here had seemed to be her fate.
As it turned out, Jennie discovered that teaching was her calling. She was surprised to learn how fulfilling the job was. She had fourteen students, and she could truly say that she loved each of them. At the same time, she had come to feel a part of this small town. The people were kind and hospitable, and they made Jennie feel welcome and needed right from the start. Although she continued to miss her family and the things she loved about city life, she also began to feel as though she belonged in this small community and in this lovely little schoolhouse.
Sitting on the benches and working on their reading lessons, the students, along with their teacher, heard footsteps landing heavily on the wooden stairs outside. They turned toward the direction of the noise and felt the breeze as the door was fiercely slung open. The stranger entered the schoolhouse. Jennie looked at the man and quickly discerned that he was a threat to her students. Her heart began to beat fiercely as her instinct to protect the children enveloped her. She must find a way to shield them from the imminent danger that had just walked into the room. She immediately called the students to the front of the room. She wanted to get them as far away as possible from this intruder while she urgently tried to form a plan to protect them. "Children, please get behind me," she instructed, her voice slightly quivering. The smaller children sat down against the wall, directly behind the larger students who were acting as barriers. Although the idea of a threat inside the building had never been discussed, the children seemed to know what to do hoping that Jennie would protect them. Jennie felt small hands grasping her skirts as the children standing behind her made themselves as inconspicuous as possible. She could hear several of them begin to cry from fear. The fear being displayed by the children sparked a fierce determination inside Jennie to protect them no matter the consequences to her own well-being.
Although the day was cool, perspiration was dripping down the sides of the man's face. The smell of the man wafted throughout the small room and hit Jennie, as she noticed his dirty appearance. His long hair was stringy, there were pieces of some unknown food in his beard, and his clothes were caked with mud. But Jennie's attention was drawn to his hands, which were holding a rifle that he had pointed at her. His hands were scratched and full of abrasions. His ragged nails were caked with dirt, and she noticed the gun shaking, as the trembling from his hands passed through it.
The man looked over the students in the room. His eyes landed upon eleven-year-old Elise. Her long blond hair hung down in two braids, the freckles on her cheeks covered with tears that streamed from her pale blue eyes. She was partially concealed by Jennie's long skirts, but he still saw her.
A gravelly deep voice announced, "I'll take that one," as his filthy finger pointed at Elise. Elise let out an audible gasp and tried to get further behind her teacher and out of sight of this horrible person. Jennie knew she needed to do something, but she couldn't surmise what would work to protect her precious students. She also knew she wasn't about to let this nightmarish person take young Elise. She realized she was not going to be able to stop this large man from getting to the children, she was too small to fight him off. She knew she may have to sacrifice her own safety and become a distraction to lure him away. She took a deep breath to steady herself and thought of her mother's resiliency and astuteness which also pulsed in her Irish blood. They had served her mother well and now she needed these characteristics to help her through this situation. She whispered to her students, "Stay here." She managed to release the hands from her skirts, smiling down at the little girls who had been holding onto her so tightly and giving their hands a little squeeze. "Sit down behind my desk," she said motioning to the children. The first part of her plan was to distract this man and to keep his gun pointed away from the children.
Then Jennie began to approach the man as she firmly said, "Why don't we get you something to eat?" He snarled and smirked, the gun still pointed at her torso. "That's not what I'm needing now." Jennie's stomach was in knots, and she hoped she wouldn't pass out from fear. But somehow, she managed to appear calm. She would not let him see her fear. She took another step towards this man, the smell of whiskey mingling with his body odor. She could see that the drink had taken hold of his senses and thought that maybe she could distract him from the idea of taking the girl or harming any of the children.
In her peripheral vision, Jenny realized that two large figures were moving stealthily towards the man. She recognized these figures as the Miller twins. The two large 13-year-old boys were often tardy or absent from school. They must have come up the road behind the stranger and snuck into the school building behind him. These two boys were fearless and could communicate with each other without using words. They must have perceived that something was terribly wrong when they saw the stranger enter the schoolhouse. And without thought for their own safety, they jumped to action.
Jennie realized that the students at the front of the room would be in grave danger and unwittingly become targets if the man lost control of his gun and it suddenly went off. With the gun still pointed directly at her, she moved steadily toward the window in the opposite direction of the Miller boys, causing the man to turn away from the students, his beady eyes now focused on her. She peered out the window and looked back at the man. "The road is clear, but soon people will be passing through to get to town. If you leave now, no one has to be hurt."
He laughed this time, his laugh caught in his thick throat. "Now why would I want to leave by myself?" Jennie shivered at this statement. Knowing that the Miller brothers were clever she surmised that they had come up with a plan. Noticing that the stranger was once again looking at the children, she quickly glanced at the Millers. It was in that instant that Jennie saw the signal from one of them. She clapped her hands to bring the stranger's attention back to her and as he turned back, she dropped quickly to the ground. The two boys seemed to appear from thin air as they tackled the man, his gun firing randomly, shattering the window above Jennie's head. Jennie instinctively covered her head, while small pieces of glass rained down from the windowsill. The blast reverberated throughout the schoolroom, leaving Jennie's ears ringing. The Miller boys had not only knocked the man to the ground, but they had also wrestled his gun away and now had it pointed directly at him.
The sound of the gunshot was heard throughout the town. The sheriff and several men were suddenly approaching the schoolhouse, the sound of rapid hoofbeats announcing their arrival. As the sheriff slid off the horse, and burst into the room, Jennie stood up, brushing pieces of glass from her clothing and hair. As she did so, she noticed the sheriff and the other men taking in the scene, looking at the young school teacher standing away from her students, while the Miller boys stood over a deranged looking man, their concern mixed with large grins on their faces. Suddenly Elise ran towards Jennie, her arms wrapping around her teacher with a fierce grip. She began to sob with relief and a sense of gratitude toward the teacher who had saved her, along with the two Miller boys. Little did she know that one day she would marry one of these hero twins.
The sheriff quickly took the man into custody. He handcuffed him, and grabbing him roughly by the arm, handed him to the other men in the room telling them to take him back to the jail and lock him in. Jennie knew he needed to find out the details of what had happened and make sure everyone was okay. Turning toward the Miller boys he thanked them, telling them he was proud of them and clapping each of them on the back while he retrieved the gun still in the hands of one of the boys. The sheriff then asked Jennie is she was alright. He seemed to understand that the teacher was pulling from deep in her reserves to appear calm in front of her students.
"I will be, Sheriff," she replied.
He walked over to Jennie and could see small cuts on her face and hands from the shattered window. "You are bleeding," he said, taking out his clean handkerchief to dab at the small line of blood running down her temple.
Jennie looked up at the man, appreciating the tenderness he was showing her.
The sheriff had been courting Jennie and had come to know how strong and resilient she was. The daughter of Irish immigrants, she was taught to be strong and independent, but he knew that even she had to be rattled by what had just taken place. Jennie wished that he could hold her in his arms and comfort her, but they both knew this wasn't the place. A look of fondness passed between the two.
The sheriff and Jennie went to the children to see if they were okay. Elise held tight to Jennie's hand as they went forward, still shaking with fear at the thought that the man had wanted to take her. This was a trauma that would stay with Elise for quite a while. None of the children were physically hurt, and Jennie sent up a prayer of thanks for them staying safe. Many of the children would have nightmares, and a couple of them would have behavior problems stemming from this incident. But over time, all the children would be fine.
The sheriff spoke once again with the Miller twins to hear their side of what had happened. The father of these boys was a hard-working farmer, and he knew the boys worked hard as well. They were large and muscular for their age, and the sheriff, with a smile on his face, expressed that he was grateful that they were once again tardy for school. Jennie dreaded to think of what could have happened to all of them if they hadn't been. The sheriff spoke for a short time to Jennie and the rest of the children, and then went back to process his prisoner. On the way out he promised Jennie he would return later.
After the parents came to gather their children and to thank their brave teacher, Jennie sat alone at her desk in the schoolroom. As she thought about what had occurred, she laid her head on her desk as she suddenly broke down crying. Somehow, she had managed to remain calm and composed during the very frightening incident. Now that she was alone, she could not control the river of tears as the stress so tightly holding her together, unwound inside of her. Suddenly, Jenny could hear her father's voice inside her head saying, "Ná caill do mhisneach," meaning, "Don't lose courage."
"I won't Daddy, I promise!" she said out loud.
Jennie had known that coming out west to teach would have many challenges. She just never imagined that the greatest challenge of her teaching career would be in the form of a dirty stranger.