Taming Tori – Amelia Smarts

Frank Bassett gazed around the place he’d hung his hat for the last five years, a simple but comfortable bunkhouse furnished with six beds, a round table with chairs, a fireplace, and cupboards. It was clean, thanks to the ranch’s housekeeper who washed the windows and shined the hardwood floors every Thursday. Sunlight from the east window streamed into the room, causing dust in the air to glow. The only sound came from the burning logs in the fireplace, which crackled and shot sparks of fire that faded to ash before landing. Although it was early, only just dawn, the other cowhands had already ridden off to the range to start the day’s work, leaving Frank alone with his thoughts and lukewarm coffee. He took the last sip and set the mug on the table next to him. As he had done every morning for the last few weeks, he stretched out his right leg until shooting pain from his ankle to his lower back caused him to freeze. He drew a sharp breath and swore an oath until the pain receded into a dull ache. He counted to ten and stretched again, forcing his leg to extend further than the previous time. Again, he cursed. The pain was all but unbearable, but he continued the exercise until he was winded and his forehead dotted with perspiration. He didn’t complain about the pain, even to himself. Rather, he welcomed it over the terrifying numbness he’d experienced from the waist down after being dusted by a bucking bronco. The day after the accident, when he’d woken up on a cot, concussed and bruised, the town doctor had told him he might never walk again. With each day spent in a state of paralysis, that possibility had seemed more and more a certainty.

When he’d begun to feel pain in his injured leg instead of nothing, he’d celebrated even as he cursed. Now Frank could walk, albeit with trouble and a pronounced limp, but his days of lassoing mustangs, breaking studs, and driving cattle to fertile ground were over. Being crippled at just shy of thirty years old ruled out every job Frank could think to do. He was a laborer, reliable and steady, and well-suited for anything that required use of strength. He could have been a miner, a logger, or a lawman before busting his leg. Now his inability to ride, walk, build, or lift for any extended length of time left him at a loss. He didn’t know how he would put food in his belly and a roof over his head. He’d scoured the job advertisements in the newspaper, written letters to his relatives in the east, and sent messages to city employees in the town of Haverton, looking for any sort of job that required sitting at a desk. But he wasn’t educated in lawyering, doctoring, or any other such occupation where one sat more than stood, and thus far he’d had no luck at all. Sighing, he reached over and picked up the unread newspaper still rolled up on the table next to him, steeling himself for disappointment as he unrolled it.

He skimmed the usual ads—ranch and farm work, a blacksmith’s assistant, bricklayers, and miners. The next page contained ads for women’s employment, and he’d never taken the time to read that section before. But, without having anything better to do, he did so this time. “I’ll be goddamned,” he swore out loud, when he realized most of the jobs advertised for women did not require manual labor. He read requests for dressmakers, cooks, and schoolteachers. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before,” he muttered to himself. If he could convince just one of the employers to hire a man instead of a woman, he would survive. He would get significantly less pay doing any kind of women’s work, of course, but at least he wouldn’t starve. One job caught his attention: Town of Thorndale seeking schoolteacher for approx. 30 students.

$20 plus room and board. Candidate must show proficiency in education and be of upstanding moral character. Time seemed to stop. Everything suddenly made sense to Frank, as though every event and circumstance both good and bad had led him to this exact place and time. Though he’d never considered teaching before, it dawned on him how well-suited he was for it. Frank was a cowboy, and that was what nearly everyone knew him as, but he had always been a person in search of knowledge too. He attended every public theater performance in town and especially enjoyed the Chautauquas, in which poets, visiting lecturers, and musicians not only entertained but also educated people. After long days on the range, he would usually immerse himself in a novel instead of imbibing and playing cards with his friends. Since he was one to seek knowledge for himself, he thought inspiring children to do the same wouldn’t be a stretch, so he didn’t waste any time pulling out a piece of paper and a pencil to reply to the ad. It took him the entire morning to draft the perfect response.

His application would have to stand out above all others, since the employer might be quick to find reason to dismiss it due to the peculiarity of a man applying. He wrote first of his education in the structured setting of a Philadelphia schoolhouse and of his love for learning. To demonstrate, he included a short poem from memory about how curiosity and reading are the two ingredients required for wisdom and knowledge. He then spoke briefly about his character, citing his church attendance. Lastly, he explained his injury and how it prevented him from finding usual employment for a laborer. Once he finished, he read the letter several times to ensure it was free from errors and written in the right tone. He found some fault with it—his exuberance over learning was a bit long-winded, for one—and he wondered whether he should have given more detail about his injury. In the end, he decided to leave it as it was. He knew it would likely never seem perfect to him, considering the high stakes. The other ranch hands returned to the bunkhouse at the end of the day, bringing with them the scent of cattle and sweat.

He was glad to see them. Going from spending all day in other people’s company to being by himself for hours at a time was an unanticipated but vivid source of pain from his injury, and he looked forward to the time when he could join the workforce once again. “Any luck finding a job, Frank?” a cowboy by the name of Joe asked, plopping down with exhaustion on the stool next to him. Frank watched as Joe stretched out his legs with ease and propped them up on the wooden frame of a bunk. He felt a twinge of jealousy toward his friend of five years. He would have given a lot to be able to move in such a manner again. He squashed the thought, knowing he must accept his new circumstances with dignity. It was impossible to live a full life without misfortune. His just so happened to come in the way of an injury, and it could be much worse. Chet, the newest ranch hand, had seen his father shot and his mother die of consumption.

Frank was lucky in that respect. His parents were alive and well in Philadelphia, and though he couldn’t see them often, knowing they were still kicking on this green earth gave him comfort. “I did have some luck,” Frank replied. “I’m fixin’ to send this letter tomorrow.” He held up the envelope in which he’d enclosed his application. “I’m going to see about being a schoolteacher in Thorndale. Figure there’s nothin’ wrong with my head or my tongue, and a bum leg shouldn’t stop me from being able to teach young’uns how to read and write.” A glint of amusement entered Joe’s eyes. Frank could tell he was about to rib him about doing women’s work. But Joe must have thought it best to refrain after seeing the serious intent on Frank’s face.

He nodded once, respectfully. As was standard during the couple of hours after work before bed, the room bustled with activity. Glasses full of beer clinked together, and Billy played ‘Skip to My Lou’ on the fiddle. Frank rubbed knitbone on his leg while Joe dealt cards for a game of jackpots, and soon everyone was playing but Adam, who was too sluiced to pay attention. Chet wasn’t focusing much on the game either. In between staring at the wall with a smile and drawing cards, he announced, “You’ll be the first to hear, amigos. I finally got up the nerve to ask Daisy to the barn dance. She said she’d be tickled pink. I can hardly wait until Saturday.” Joe and Billy let out whoops and whistles, and Frank offered his friend a smile.

Daisy Moon, a local farmer’s daughter, could best be described as tenacious, with a sarcastic sense of humor that was almost as striking as her beauty. Chet was in for an adventure, if nothing else. Frank’s only desire upon meeting Daisy and listening to her sharp tongue was to give her a good spanking. She was opposite the kind of woman Frank wanted. He pictured himself with someone sweet, with a spackle of freckles across her nose and a perk to her step. After a long day, he would like to find comfort in a kind woman with a soft voice, not to exchange wisecracks with a woman as gritty and windblown as he was. Frank placed the winning cards on the table. He endured the hard slap on his back from the effusive Chet. “You got all the luck today, Frank.” “I hope you’re right.

I need luck on my side to get that teaching position.” “It won’t be the same here without you,” Chet said. “I haven’t left yet,” Frank pointed out. Chet, his eyes aglow with the newfound hope of a man in love, could not fathom that Frank might not get hired. “I’ve got a feeling about this. You’ve as good as got the job, I’m sure as a gun.” “Hear, hear,” Joe responded, holding up his glass of beer. “To Frank, who will make the best cowboy schoolteacher Texas ever saw.” Frank raised his glass and thanked his friends for their votes of confidence. Sometimes, it was all a man needed to keep his spirits high.

Chapter Two Victoria Davis placed a full spool of thread on the table of her sewing station. She trudged from the back of the store to the front, grumbling under her breath about the early morning heat. After unlocking the front door and flipping around the sign so that the word ‘Open’ faced out, she silently ordered everyone in Thorndale to leave her alone for another hour. She made her way back to her sewing, stopping to refold gingham and calico fabrics, tie off ribbons, and arrange the selection of hats. Sole owner of the only clothing and fabrics store in town, the seamstress had a reputation of order and perfection to maintain, even when she woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Lately, it didn’t matter on which side of her bed she awoke. Both sides were equally wrong and lonely. At nineteen years old, Victoria had hoped to be married and expecting her first child by now, but she hadn’t even succeeded at attracting an eligible bachelor. She paused to peer at the full-length looking glass and take stock of her appearance. What she saw pleased her.

Like her late mother, Victoria had been blessed with shining red hair, a flawless complexion, and a trim and well-proportioned figure. The dress she wore, a light blue frock with lace collar and wool braid stitched around the hem, brought out the blueness of her eyes. And her necklace, a string of pink pearls, gave her an appearance of both elegance and innocence—two traits most desirable in a young maiden. It baffled Victoria why no man of her caliber had sought to court her. To her way of thinking, few men in the town of Thorndale were good enough for her. She would never speak those words out loud, of course, knowing how conceited they made her sound, but that was how she felt. Her parents had left her well-off by establishing and bequeathing her with the store and living space above it, and she was well-versed in not only sewing, but also piano, poetry, and French. She kept herself tidy and fragrant. And yet she was alone as could be. Victoria sank down on her chair next to a window and scooted it up to her Singer New Family sewing machine.

Composed of more than a hundred pounds of cast iron, it was her most prized and expensive possession. She threaded the needle with strands of white cotton to match the shirt she was in the middle of sewing and got to work stitching the button holes. Longing for the day when she would sew a shirt for her husband, she pretended she was doing just that, and not merely adding to the men’s clothing section for strangers and acquaintances. Heath Wolfe and Willow McAllister’s recent marriage made an unwelcome intrusion into her daydream. Their nuptials entered her mind often because she couldn’t make any sense of the match. Victoria had been smitten with Heath, and had even gone out of her way to make that clear to him, giving him every opportunity to woo her. Arguably the richest rancher in the county, Heath was just the kind of man Victoria wanted. Tall, handsome, and well-spoken, with a deep drawl and serious mannerisms, he’d lit a spark in Victoria just by tipping his hat and saying ‘howdy.’ And of all people, Heath had chosen to marry the town troublemaker, Willow McAllister, a penniless street urchin who drank whiskey, vandalized property, and stole food; that is, until she went to work for Heath at his ranch and somehow convinced him she was a person worth loving. She shook her head, trying to expel the nonsense from her mind, but the unfairness of it lingered.

Why had Willow been able to find love, but Victoria hadn’t? She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t hear the jingle of the door’s bell or the footsteps that approached her. “Good morning, miss,” a deep voice said, from right beside her. She nearly jumped out of her chair. “Lordy!” She held her hand over her heart, which fluttered as fast as a frightened bird’s. “You scared the daylights out of me,” she exclaimed as she looked up. The owner of the voice was a tall man. He took a step back and removed his hat and the shadow it cast, revealing a tanned, bearded face with an apologetic expression. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” “But you did,” Victoria snapped. “Are your boots made of feathers?” “Pshaw.

My boots are as loud as anyone else’s. Louder, I suspect, seeing as how I drag one foot a little more than the other.” It was then that Victoria noticed he favored one leg and rested most of his weight on the other with the assistance of a crudely carved cane. She drew a deep breath as her heartbeat slowed. “I must have been distracted by my thoughts.” He chuckled. “I’d say so. Never have I seen a woman look quite so intense-like. You were scowling at that machine like it had done you wrong.” Victoria shifted in her chair, annoyed that someone had observed her in her candor.

She felt exposed and off-kilter, and she didn’t like being scrutinized. “Can I help you with something, sir?” she asked. He looked with an uncertain gaze around her shop. “I hope so. My first day of work is in a week, and my shirt has seen better days. I’m looking to buy a new one, like the shirt you’re sewing there.” He nodded down at her work. Victoria scooted her chair back and stood, glancing with veiled disdain at his clothing. His shirt was indeed worn out. It was a long-sleeved, button-front pullover of a dingy beige color, though she guessed at some point of time in the distant past it had been white.

His trousers were the thick wool worn by cowboys, and his scuffed boots and Stetson were also indicative of a man who spent much of his time in the saddle. His apparel, along with his ruddy complexion and muscled arms, gave him the look of a man who was out of doors more often than not. “Come with me, please. There’s a selection of men’s shirts over here.” He followed her to the west side of the store. Hearing his boot drag along the floor made her realize she must have been very deep in thought not to have heard him earlier. She was curious about what he was doing for work, considering his injury. Sweeping her hand across the shirts hung in a neat row along the wall, she said, “As you can see, I have all the latest styles. Dark shirts seem to be popular with lawyers and traveling salesmen. The red and blue flannel shirts are generally preferred by the homesteaders.

I suppose which shirt you should get will depend on what your job is…” She gave him a pointed look, inviting him to tell her what he did for a living. He frowned thoughtfully at the garments and reached out to feel a shirt composed of linseywoolsey, which she had infused with goldenrod to produce a yellow tint. “Lots to choose from,” he said. “I suppose I’m looking for something sturdy and easy to clean. I’m unmarried, so I’ll be doing my own washing.” She noticed that the large hand he used to touch the fabric was clean, with not a speck of dirt to be found. He’d either scrubbed up very well or hadn’t wrangled cattle in some time, if her guess was right that he was a cowboy. “They’re all easy to wash. If you opt for striped silk, you’ll need to take an iron to it occasionally. If you buy cotton or wool twill, though, it’ll stay free from wrinkles.

It depends on the time of day you’ll be finished with your work whether you’ll still have light to do the ironing…” Her voice trailed off, providing him for a second time with the opening to reveal his profession. Again, he didn’t take the hint. “Land’s sake! I didn’t even think about ironing. I’ll take a cotton shirt for sure. I’ve never even touched an iron. Wouldn’t know what the devil to do with one.” Victoria pulled out a dark blue shirt and held it up to him. “This will fit you. It’s broad enough in the shoulders.” As she held it in front of his dingy clothing, she confirmed that it was indeed a good match for him, both in color and cut.

The man nodded and smiled at her. “Thanks for your help, miss. Do you have a name?” His smile was handsome, accompanied by twinkling eyes that made it appear as though he were sharing a joke with her, though nothing humorous had been said. She was astonished to feel herself blushing. “Victoria,” she answered, a bit breathlessly. One eyebrow rose slowly, and his eyes seemed to twinkle even more. “Pleased to meet you, Victoria. Since you’ve been so friendly as to offer me your given name, will you call me by mine?” She could hardly believe her faux pas. What was she thinking, giving a stranger her Christian name? It had been done naturally, as though she and this stranger were meant to be friends. She blushed harder.

“I’ll call you whatever you like.” “Frank,” he said, his smile broadening. “You know, Victoria, I only just arrived in Thorndale yesterday evening, and you’re the first person I’ve spoken to other than Mrs. Fairfax, the widowed landlady of the boardinghouse. I must say I’ve a very good impression of the town thanks to you. You’ve been helpful and kind.” “Ha,” she scoffed, and turned on her heel. Striding toward the back of the store with the shirt draped over her arm, she said, “I’m a businesswoman, Frank. I’m kind to anyone who might line my pockets.” She was glad to be turned away from him so that she might regain her senses.

For some reason, his mere presence was causing all sorts of butterflies in her belly. Frank followed her and remained silent as she folded the shirt and wrapped brown paper around it. “That’ll be two-and-a-quarter dollars,” she said. As he reached into the pocket of his trousers, she noticed that all merriment was gone from his expression. His brows were furrowed instead of lifted in amusement, and when he handed her the money, his serious eyes met hers. He held her gaze even as she took the money. “It’s not my place to ask,” he said, his voice low and gentle, “but do you always act in that manner, Victoria?” She blinked. “How do you mean?” She hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about, and it seemed odd that his demeanor had so quickly changed from jovial to serious. “I gave you a compliment, and your response was to insult both of us. I can’t help but wonder if you do that often.

” Victoria’s jaw dropped. Never in her adult life had anyone, least of all a stranger, dared to comment on her behavior. She suddenly felt like she was a child again, getting a scolding for not minding her tongue. “I don’t see how… how I insulted you, or myself for that matter,” she stammered. “Don’t you?” He quirked his head and his dark eyes studied her. She squirmed, uncomfortable at once again being scrutinized by this imposing stranger. “No, I don’t,” she confirmed, scowling.

.

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