Disclaimer is in part one.


On Friday afternoon, all of the parents and assorted townspeople filed into the schoolhouse eager to see the children's Christmas program. By one o'clock, there wasn't an empty seat in the place, and more than a dozen men were standing along the walls. Genie plunged into the opening notes of Silent Night as the two youngest children slowly pulled open the curtain that had been made from an old pair of muslin curtains that Gerta had been saving.
The program was a huge success, judging by the enthusiastic applause from the audience. As everyone was milling around getting ready to leave, Tommy, one of the poetry reciters, pointed out the window saying excitedly "Look, look, it's started to snow."
Sure enough, while the program was going on, it had started to snow, the first real snow of the season and the ground was already covered with a layer of fluffy white. This sight inspired most of the parents to hurry their children into coats and galoshes so that they could reach home before it got too deep outside. Within thirty minutes, Betty, Genie and Gerta were the only three left in the classroom. They set about straightening things, picking up bits of discarded costumes and props and taking down the curtains. The backdrop was left for some of the men to fold up and store since it was quite heavy and over six feet tall. Betty invited her friends into the teacherage for a hot drink before they headed out into the storm, but they demurred and decided to head for home.
All alone now, Betty turned off the lamps and went into her house and after stoking up the stove, put a kettle of water on to heat. Here it is the week before Christmas, she thought, and I'm all alone. Its not so much my family that I miss, I've had to be away from them on holidays before… Now you stop that, Betty Roberts, you stop this childish whining and grow up. Maybe you don't understand how you got here or why, but you have to believe that you'll get home soon. The shrill whistle of the teakettle startled her out of her morbid thoughts and she hurried over to pour the boiling water over the tea leaves in her cup. Adding a few drops of milk, she settled down in her rocker with a worn copy of Jane Eyre that one of the previous teachers had left behind and allowed the storm to swirl around outside.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny all traces of the previous night's storm gone except for the glittering whiteness that covered the landscape as far as the eye could see. Bundling up in her warm coat and mittens, Betty set off for the center of town to run her Christmas errands. Next to the livery stable, she found a man selling Christmas trees and purchased a small one which he agreed to deliver later. Entering Mr. Folton's store, she nodded and exchanged greetings with the folks she knew and browsed while she waited her turn. When she got up to the counter, she was surprised to see Genie standing there assisting Mr. Folton with the customers.
"Genie!" She exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm just lending a helping hand. When I came in about an hour ago, poor Mr. Folton was simply swamped with customers, so I offered to help. Poor dear, he was simply being overrun."
"That's a very nice thing for you to do, Genie. I'll take these things as well as some of those dried apples, a pound of sugar, and some cinnamon. I'm going to make a pie."
Efficiently, Genie measured out the requested ingredients and added up the total on a small notepad. "The total comes to four dollars and twelve cents. Do you want me to put it on your account?"
"No, I'll pay for it now," Betty replied as she fished in her reticule for the proper bills and coins. Bidding Genie goodbye, she picked up her parcel and departed the crowded store.
As she walked along the snow covered sidewalk deep in thought, Betty was surprised by a male voice by her left ear saying, "Merry Christmas, Betty. Can I help you with that package?"
It was Shawn Sherman, and before she could protest, he had plucked the package out of her arms and tucked it under his own. "It's a lovely day to be out and about, isn't it? I was sorry to have missed your program yesterday but I had something that came up unexpectedly. Everybody said it was a masterpiece though, and the kids were good."
"Thank you." Betty replied, pleased. "All of my students worked very hard."
"Do you have plans for the day? If not, could I entice you to have lunch with me over at Grace's."
"Well, I don't know, Mr. Sherman. I really shouldn't. The Marshall and I are sort of engaged, you know." Betty told him doubtfully.
"Betty I just want to share a meal with you, not run off to the nearest preacher." Sherman told her exasperated. At least not today anyhow. He thought to himself. "Besides, Cornstalk isn't even here and I don't think he'd mind."
"All right." She decided swiftly. Perhaps this was just the thing to take her mind off how worried she was about Victor's long absence. "I'd be pleased to have lunch with you today."
"Wonderful! You can drop off your package, then we'll head right over to Grace's Café. I hear she's got pumpkin pie today."
"Yummy, one of my favorite desserts." Betty replied. Shawn escorted her to the schoolhouse, where she quickly unpacked her groceries and put them away. Then they headed for the popular café at the far end of Main Street. The restaurant was owned and operated by Grace Callender, a thirty-something widow who had come from New York City originally. She met them at the door, and showed them to one of her best tables in the center of the dining room. Handing them a pair of menus, the petite redhead said, "The lunch special is chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy and green beans. And I've got pumpkin pie or chocolate cake for dessert."
After a moment's deliberation, Betty and Shawn both opted for the special and Grace hurried away to the kitchen.
"You aren't really planning to marry that Marshall, are you?" Shawn asked as soon as they were alone again.
"Yes, I am," Betty replied. "We've been seeing each other for the past few months, and I happen to be in love with him."
"But he's so ordinary." Shawn said to her, not wanting to say the word he was really thinking, which was boring. "And what about this disappearing act that he's pulled? I mean, no one has heard from him in weeks."
"You haven't had any letters, have you?" He continued as a thought occurred to him that maybe Betty knew where he was and was keeping it a secret for some reason.
"No," Betty replied slowly, "I haven't heard from him in nearly two months. I'm hoping that he'll be back in time for Christmas, though."
Just then, Grace arrived bearing two large dinner plates loaded with steaming food that she set down in front of them. "Here's your lunch, folks, enjoy."
While they were enjoying Grace's wonderful cooking, Shawn tried to further his case with Betty by being his most sparkling and wittiest self. By the time he escorted her back to the schoolhouse, Shawn thought that he had made some headway because she was smiling and even laughing at some of his stories.
Over the weekend, Betty spent most of her time decorating her small home. This served a two-fold purpose, first to take her mind off of Victor's prolonged absence and second to cheer her up since she was all alone far from her family.
Finally, it was Christmas Eve. There was to be a dinner at the church, followed by the traditional church service. Against her better judgment, Betty had accepted Shawn Sherman's invitation to escort her there and back. He was stopping for her at five o'clock. When he arrived, he quickly took the large round basket that held her contributions for the dinner and offering his other arm, walked with her down the street towards the brightly lit church.
Once inside, Betty shed her coat and, taking the basket back, headed towards the kitchen saying, "I'll see you soon, Mr. Sherman."
The dinner was a big success, with everyone bringing something hot and delicious for the potluck table. Shortly before seven, Reverend Phillips began urging people towards the sanctuary so they could start the service.
Somehow in the crush of moving people, Shawn found his way to Betty's side and, taking her arm again, escorted her to a pew near the front of the church. Sitting down next to her, he leaned back and grinned slightly beneath his moustache as he handed her a hymnal. Betty's falling in love with me now, I just know it, he thought to himself. Marshall Cornstalk won't know what hit him when he comes back. If he comes back, and that doesn't look too likely. I think he's gone for good, and after Christmas, maybe I should try and get the folks around here to elect a new Marshall. Marshall Sherman. That's got a nice ring to it. And I'd better think about ordering a ring for Betty as well. I can't get it here, or everyone… His thoughts broke off as Betty jabbed him in the ribs. Hastily he stood up to sing the first hymn, Joy to the World.
A light flurry of snow was starting to fall when the service ended and the two of them were heading back to the teacherage. Shawn reluctantly left Betty at the front door after securing a tentative invitation to have dinner with him the next day.
As she undressed and got ready for bed, Betty couldn't help thinking about the two men in her life and her conflicting feelings for both of them. Wandering back into the front room, she looked over at the tiny lavishly decorated Christmas tree on the table and the five wrapped presents underneath it. She had presents for all of her friends, Genie, Gerta, and Mr. Folton. The other two packages were for Victor and Shawn but she didn't know if she would dare to give anything to Shawn Sherman. I don't want him to get the wrong idea about him and me, Betty thought to herself as she fingered the soft rectangular package. It was only a dark green wool scarf, but it was still not the kind of gift an unmarried woman usually gave to a man.
A thumping sound at the kitchen door made Betty sit straight up in the bed eyes wide with fright and darting around the pitch black room. "Who's out there?" She asked in a high pitched voice quivering with fear as she got out of bed and slowly made her way into the other room. Stopping long enough to grab a good sized chunk of firewood from the box near the stove, she made her way to the back door and repeated, "Who's out there?"
"Betty" A man's voice came weakly through the door. "Let me in. Please."
It was Victor! Flinging open the door, Betty found Marshall Cornstalk leaning against the doorframe clutching at his side. Dropping her stick of wood, Betty reached out to help him into the kitchen. He towered over her as they slowly made progress across the room. It was only after he'd dropped limply into a chair that Betty realized he was bleeding and had left bloody streaks on the sleeve of her nightgown where he had gripped her arm for balance.
"Oh my God, Victor, you're bleeding!" She exclaimed. "What happened to you?"
"I was waylaid on the trail yesterday." He told her quietly. "There were four of them, that much I know. They ambushed me from behind a bluff and killed my gelding."
While he was talking, Betty had stoked up the fire and put the kettle on to boil. "Where did this happen?" she asked as she began ripping up a sheet into long strips. Placing them on the table, she reached for his vest and shirt carefully easing both garments over his injured right side. "Oh Victor, this looks pretty bad, I think we ought to get the doctor."
"No!" He replied vehemently, then continued in a softer tone, "No one else can know that I'm here right now. If anyone knew I had made my way back to Wennville, I'd be a dead man. And so would all of you."
"Victor, you're scaring me. If who knew you were here?" Betty asked as she carefully brought a basin of hot water over to the table and began bathing his side. "What if the bullets are still in you? I can't do surgery."
"Don't worry Betty, They both passed clean through." He then sat silently as she carefully washed and dried the wound. It wasn't until she started wrapping the torn strips of sheeting tightly around him that he flinched and groaned a little. Startled, Betty stopped but he told her, "No, go on and finish bandaging me up. Then, I need to find a place to hide for a while."
"You'll stay right here, of course." Betty replied firmly as she tied off the last strip of bandage in the middle of his bare chest.
"No, I won't put you in any more danger, Betty. I probably shouldn't have come here at all."
"Yes, you will. School's out for the rest of the week, and no one will be around here but me. I'll take care of you until you're better." She stated flatly staring down at him, hands on her hips.
"You do realize that you will be dismissed by the school board if anyone finds me under your roof?" Victor told her, but she could see that he was on the verge of giving in.
"No more arguments," she told him firmly. "Let me help you to the bedroom, where you can get some sleep."
"But where will…" He started to reply as she put an arm around his waist and hauled him to his feet.
"Don't worry about that," Betty replied, straining a little as he sagged against her slight body. "I'll just curl up in the chair for a couple of hours. It's nearly time to get up anyway."
By the time she managed to get him into the bedroom, Victor was nearly unconscious and was soon tucked under the blankets. Betty stood next to the bed for a few minutes watching him sleep then spoke softly as she reached out to tug the quilt higher around him, "Oh Victor, I don't know what kept you away for so long, but I am just so glad you're back." Then she turned and went back into the kitchen to clean up the mess.
By midday, Marshall Cornstalk was still dead to the world, so Betty cautiously crept around the teacherage doing her morning chores and trying to be as quiet as possible.
Betty was so worried about Victor, that she totally forgot that it was Christmas day and was startled to hear a knock at the door about midafternoon. Hurrying over and opening the door a crack, she was greeted by Shawn Sherman's grinning face.
"Merry Christmas, Betty! I'm here for that dinner you promised to have with me." Sherman caroled out merrily his arms full of packages.
"Mr. Sherman, I never promised to have dinner with you today. I told you I'd think about it, and I'm afraid I can't today."
His face fell in disappointment. "Oh. Can you at least tell me why you changed your mind?"
Betty could hear the Marshall starting to stir, and knew she needed to get rid of Sherman fast so she hastily improvised, "I'm sorry, Mr. Sherman, but I'm really not feeling well, I think I may even be running a fever so I just plan to stay in today and rest. I'll see you either tomorrow or the next day." Then she shut the door and went back into the bedroom where Victor was restlessly tossing and turning, his angular face bathed with sweat.
Leaning down to touch his forehead, Betty could feel the heat rising from his skin. Oh dear Victor, she thought uneasily to herself, You're running a fever. I really think we need a doctor.
"But you promised him you wouldn't tell anyone he was here." Betty said out loud as she went to get some cold water and a rag to bathe his flushed skin with. For the rest of the afternoon, Betty sat by the bed carefully wiping down Victor's face and neck, willing him to get better so that she wouldn't have to break her promise to him. Please, God, she prayed silently from time to time, Please help him to get better. Don't let him die on me now. Not when I just got him back.
End of Part Three
Will Betty's prayers be answered?
Will Shawn Sherman's?
Who does Marshall Cornstalk need
to hide from and why?