From the Relief Society Magazine, 1937 —
The Lotus Eater
By Mabel S. Harmer
Helen’s heart sank as she stood and watched the train speeding rapidly on in the distance. She had so hated to leave it. There had been a sense of security and well-being within its handsomely finished interior that had deserted her the minute she had stepped out onto the station platform.
When the train had finally gone around a curve and out of sight, she looked about in her more immediate vicinity. The little town lay close to some towering mountains, the largest she had ever seen. She wondered if her destination lay beyond them or out west over the plain that seemed to stretch on barren and most uninteresting.
Only two other passengers had left the train at the little wayside town, and they had already disappeared, apparently lucky folk knowing where they were going and how to get there. Deciding that she had best be making some attempts to find out where she herself was going she walked into the station and up to the ticket window. The station agent was enjoying his lunch and had an abundance of thick sandwiches and a bottle of milk spread before him. Helen coughed politely a second time before he turned around and said, “Yeah? What kin I do fer you, sister?”
“I’m going to Medford,” she answered, “and I’d like to know how to get there.”
“Well, I dunno now. The mail’s gone. Leaves at nine in the morning. Guess maybe you’ll have to stay here over night. There’s a good hotel in town.”
“But I don’t want to stay here over night,” objected Helen. “Isn’t there anyone else going out?”
“Billy’s outside with a load of freight. He might take you if you don’t mind riding on a truck.” The agent turned back to his lunch with an air of having done his full duty, and Helen went outside. She found the truck with the driver industriously piling it high with boxes. She scrutinized him carefully for a minute, but finally decided to take her chances with the truck rather than spend a night in Junction City, and began pleasantly. “Are you –” She hesitated. She couldn’t very well say, “Are you Billy?” when she had never seen the man before. “Are – are you going to Medford?” she finally managed to say.
Billy stopped loading and looked around at her. He was a man about fifty, short and spry and just escaped being grizzled looking. He beamed on Helen affably and sad, “Sure thing. Just about ready to go. Want to send somethin’ along?”
Helen smiled back at him. “I’d like to go myself if you can make room for me.”
Billy looked dubiously at the pile of luggage over on the platform. “I might put you in,” he said, “but I don’t know about your stuff over there. I guess you’d want to be taking that along.”
“I’d have to take my traveling bag and I wouldn’t dare leave my violin,” she answered; “but the rest can wait.”
“Wall, jest to show you that my heart’s in the right place,” said Billy cheerfully, “I’ll unload some of this stuff and put yourn on. I told Pete I’d bring out this canned goods if I had room. Well – I ain’t got room,” and suiting his action to his words, Billy began taking the boxes out.
“I don’t like to inconvenience anyone,” laughed Helen, “but I imagine that I need my clothes just as much as Pete needs canned tomatoes.”
“Sure you do,” agreed Billy. “Now you climb right up there in the driver’s seat and I’ll have this stuff out in no time.”
Helen climbed up in front, taking her violin case along for safe keeping, while Billy packed her trunk and suitcase into the space recently occupied by Pete’s canned tomatoes. When he had made everything secure, Billy got in beside her and started off with a jerk.
“Old Bertha here do hate to start,” he said half apologetically, “but she’s a good nag onct she gits goin’.”
Helen decided to reserve judgment on Bertha’s prowess for the time being but hoped for the best.
As they drove through the main street of the town she noticed some eating houses and suddenly remembered that she had had no lunch, but decided that she couldn’t very well ask Billy to wait for her while she stopped to appease her appetite. It prompted her, however, to ask how far the distance was to Medford.
“Just fifty miles,” answered Billy. “We can make it easy in two or three hours if all goes smooth.”
Helen fervently hoped that all would go smooth and wished that she had had the forethought to take the box of chocolates out of her handbag before Billy had tucked it away so securely behind. It occurred to her that she ought to introduce herself, and she raised her voice above the noise of the truck to say, “My name is Helen Burt.”
“Oh, sure,” nodded Billy in apparent satisfaction. “You’re the new schoolteacher.”
“Yes, I am,” replied Helen. “How did you know?”
“Wall, today’s Friday, an’ school starts Monday, an’ you’re young and pretty, so that wa’n’t so hard to figure out.”
“Are all school teachers young and pretty?” asked Helen in amusement.
“All the ones that come out here are, but they mostly only teach about a year or so,” chuckled Billy.
“Why? What happens to them?”
“They marries and settles down.” Billy nodded for emphasis.
“Out here?” queried Helen.
“Sure. Why not?” demanded Billy. “This is a fine country out here.”
“I’m sure it is,” agreed Helen.
“Where’s your home town?” asked Billy in a tone wherein Helen thought she detected a bit of a challenge.
“Long Beach, California,” she answered.
“Hm – you don’t have any snow down there, do you?” Billy was mildly scornful.
“No,” admitted Helen. “At least none that ever stays on the ground.”
“Wall, you’ll see plenty of it out here in Wyoming.” Billy waxed eloquent. “Sometimes it covers all the fences and gits so deep here in these mountains that the mail can’t git through for a week at the time. You can’t go anyplace ‘cept in a bobsleigh and the thermometer drops to 40 below.”
Helen gave him a sidelong glance. “You are just teasing me,” she said smiling.
“Not on your life, I ain’t,” Billy asserted vigorously. “There’ll be six months when you won’t see anything but snow on the ground as fer as you kin look.
“How long have you lived here?” asked Helen.
“Fifty years. ever sence I was born.”
“Well, then, I guess I can stand it for one year,” and Helen settled back philosophically to enjoy the scenery about her.
They were well into the canyon now, and although “Bertha” protested at the extra effort the climb required of her she nevertheless kept going stoically on.
The pines and quaking aspen made a picture of vivid greenness that was new and refreshing to Helen after the brown autumn of southern California that she had just left. She felt some of the enthusiasm returning that she had felt when she first started out on her journey. She was young and there was adventure ahead. What if the snow did get four feet deep and the thermometer drop to 40 below? It might be ever so much fun and would certainly be something to tell her grandchildren about when she was old.
Right now, however, she could think of nothing more delightful than eating a good square meal. She had eaten her breakfast way back in another state and hadn’t expected that it would have to sustain her halfway across the country.
“Have we much further to go?” she finally asked Billy, hoping that he might urge the truck to a little greater speed.
“Nope. We’re well over half way. Why – gettin’ tired?”
“No, not especially,” said Helen, although she had long since decided that there were other things more conducive to comfort than jolting over fifty miles of canyon road in a truck, “but I am hungry.”
“Shucks! Is that all? Well, I kin soon fix that. Ma allus puts in a few extry sandwiches in my lunch in case I git stalled on the way. Here they are” – and reaching down under the seat, Billy brought forth a paper bag and placed it in Helen’s lap.
She found the sandwiches to be of true western proportions, but they were neatly wrapped in clean wax paper so she accepted them gratefully.
Half an hour later Billy turned around a curve in the mountain road and said triumphantly, “There’s the valley. Ain’t she purty?”
Helen leaned forward breathlessly. Ever since she had received her contract to teach in the little Wyoming town she had tried to visualize it, but the scene before her was entirely different from her mental picture. Instead of the broad sagebrush-covered plains of her imaginings she saw a valley etched in delicate green. Several small towns were scattered about at almost precise intervals with ranches covering every other available bit of space. There were very few trees except the quaking aspen that clung to the lower part of the hills.
Helen smiled back at Billy. “It’s awfully pretty,” she agreed. “I know I am going to like it. Which town is Medford?”
“The first one comin’ up,” he answered, nodding at the village just below them. “Do you want to go to Mis’ Riley’s?”
“Well, I don’t know. Isn’t there a hotel of some sort?”
“That’s Mis’ Riley. She usually keeps the teacher an’ anyone else that happens to be passin’ through.”
Helen was not much taken with the idea of moving into a home for the winter, unsight and unseen, but there seemed to be no other choice so she agreed that Billy should leave her at Riley’s.
He stopped in front of a large frame house and honked unceremoniously at a woman working out in a sketchy garden. “Hi, Ellen!” he called as the woman straightened u slowly and began walking toward them. “Here’s the new teacher.”
As this was apparently meant to be some sort of introduction Helen acknowledged it with a smile.
“Come right in,” Mrs. Riley said affably, quite as if she had been expecting Helen – which perhaps she had. “If you’ll unload her things, Billy, I’ll get Pa to help carry them in. Oh, Johnny!” she called to a fair haired boy standing on the porch, “Go tell your pa the teacher’s come.”
Helen descended from the truck and walking toward Mrs. Riley, held out her hand. “My name is Helen Burt,” she said. She was beginning to think that if she didn’t soon give them something else to call her she would be known permanent as “the teacher.”
Mrs. Riley hastily wiped her hands on her kitchen apron before she took Helen’s and then she led the way into the house and up a narrow stairway. “This front room will be yours,” she said, ushering Helen into a small low-ceilinged room. “Make yourself to home.”
Billy and Mr. Riley were just behind with her trunk and the three Riley children brought up the rear. When Helen was duly installed and Billy had been paid, the whole retinue departed, leaving her what she was tempted to describe as “alone at last.”
She took off her hat and looked around her. The room held a large double bed, a table, two chairs, a dresser and a small black heating stove. Helen gazed at the latter almost in amazement. She hadn’t realized that such things were still in use or at least that she would ever be called on to use one herself.
She unpacked a few clothes and then went downstairs as the room was chilly and there was no fire as yet in the black stove. She wandered into what was undoubtedly the parlor since it contained a piano, but it was cold here, too. There were sounds of activity and odors of cooking food issuing from the kitchen, but Helen wasn’t sure that she would be welcome there so she went back upstairs for a sweater and went outside.
The air was crisp and invigorating and she walked rapidly down the road. She passed a few houses with their invariably larger barns at the rear and herds of cattle standing in nearby fields.
Suddenly she espied a red brick building a short distance away that was unmistakably the school house. A sharp thrill of anticipation ran through her. She simply must see it closer. Perhaps the door would be unlocked or if not, she could at least take a peek through a window. By cutting through the field she could reach it in a few minutes.
She hesitated a moment and then climbed the fence and jumped down with an ability of which she was rather proud. She was half way across the field when a masculine voice called to her, “Hey, you! Get out of there!”
Helen, who had been picking her way rather carefully over the uneven field glanced up to see the owner of the voice standing near a gate made of log bars. She gave him only a cool glance. She wasn’t going to hurt his old field by walking on it.
“Hurry up, you little fool!” he called again, apparently noticing that she was being deliberately slow. “Can’t you see that critter watching you?”
She glanced around and noticed an unusually large animal eyeing her with distrust and suspicion. For a brief second Helen thought that she would take her chances with the animal rather than obey the command to run, but a sudden snort behind her changed her mind in a hurry and she fled with all her energy to the gate where the waiting man seized her and pulled her over.
He set her down on the ground and gave her an extra shake for good measure as he demanded, “Haven’t you got any sense? Don’t you know that’s where Jed Mason keeps his bull?”
Helen released herself from his none too gentle grasp, and glared back at him. “No, of course I don’t know. Why should I?” she asked indignantly.
“Oh, I beg your pardon, Ma’am,” the young man was suddenly embarrassed. “I didn’t notice before you was a stranger.”
Helen let him squirm a few moments for punishment and then smiled as she said, “It’s quite all right, and thanks for jerking me over the danger line.”