It all started a few days after Mrs. Haighton passed away in late April of last year.
Mrs. Haighton had been 74 years old at the time of her passing. She was born three days after Christmas in 1942.
I guess she'd been around to watch as the world changed in ways she may not have been able to understand, but we'll never know now. I do have to say that Mrs. Haighton was a firm but fair woman. As long as you gave her respect, respect would be returned to you.
Well, about ten years ago, shortly before I entered the school system in Raleigh, North Carolina where we lived, Mom was hired by Mrs. Haighton, who had been thinking about how she could help young girls and women who were either orphaned, abused or flat out ignored.
Mom ended up being the principal and headmistress of the new school, which was never very large.
When Mrs. Haighton passed away, seventeen girls were currently attending the school. About half of them, according to my mom, were orphans who otherwise might have been lost in the system. Another five came from abuse situations, four of those situations having involved either the original father or a step-father. The fifth was the exception that proves the rule, I guess, as the abuser in that case was the girl's mother. The last three were young teens who were seen as being nuisances or intrusions in their own homes, so they were sent to the school.
As for why many of these girls were sent to the Haighton school, I suppose it was because it had an absolutely excellent reputation for having only been open for about ten years. If a girl was sent there, you knew darn well that girl was going to be learning, not lollygagging.
Anyway, three days after old Mrs. Haighton passed away, her eldest daughter, Mrs. Regina Browne called my mom into the office and with no niceties or civility, flatly informed her that she was no longer required, as Mrs. Browne would be closing the school permanently.
Mrs. Browne apparently had been offended somehow by seeing the girls living and learning in the mini-mansion near the back of the property. By mini, I mean in comparison to the main house, which had something like fifteen bedrooms, a salon, three parlours, a den, a receiving room, etc. etc. If I remember correctly, the total number of rooms in the main house is just over a hundred, spread over three huge stories.
Well, the 'mini' was perhaps a sixth of the size of the main house, having only six bedrooms on the upper floor and four large rooms on the main floor that were used for various school activities, i.e. a classroom, a music room, a small gymnasium and a fairly extensive library.
There were also two full washrooms on the upper floor and a toilet, bidet and sink on the main floor. I would think that a fair number of the girls were surprised at the bidets in the washrooms, but according to what mom told me at one point, they were there when she was hired.
Let's just say that mom lit into Mrs. Browne like a well-maintained Gatling gun at short range. To be blunt, mom went up one side of the woman and down the other, using only her tongue. That ended with an agreement that mom would finish the rest of the year first. There was no way in hell that she would just up and walk away from the girls like that when the school year still had another six or seven weeks to go.
When mom came home that evening, she was still quite upset. She calmed down a bit as we made dinner and relaxed over the meal.
It wasn't anything special, macaroni and cheese with some hot dogs cut into small pieces and mixed in once they were fully cooked. Along with that, we had some broccoli and a small salad that I had mixed while mom watched the pots on the stove. I also set the table.
Mom made sure to turn the burners off before we sat down and enjoyed our modest repast.
It wasn't until after we had finished eating, and had washed and dried the small amount of dishes, that she told me what had happened. It's a darn good thing that our home is a good four miles from the Haighton place because I wanted to go there and slap that woman silly.
Oh, dear me, I forgot to introduce myself. I'm Angelo deSalveris, I'm 5'6" tall, 117 pounds, green eyes, brown hair, nearly fifteen years old. I'm not feminine in appearance, but there are times when I dearly wish that I could be like my dad, tall and buff, not short and slim like I am.
My father was a police officer for the Raleigh force and died in the line of duty a few months after my ninth birthday. I still miss him a lot.
My father's name was Valentino, he was supposed to have been born on Valentine's day, but didn't arrive until nearly noon the day after that. His parents decided it wasn't worth the hassle of changing the name they had chosen for him, then gave him the middle name of Ricardo.
He had just celebrated his 33rd birthday a week before he died. I know that he meant the world to my mom; she still misses him, too.
I have to admit it just hasn't been the same at home since he was killed. We're not as talkative now as we were back then. I guess it's that it is just the two of us now and no close family at all since all four grandparents have passed on, the last one just two years ago.
Dad had a brother who went into the Army and served in Afghanistan; Roberto was killed in a battle there a couple years before dad died. Mom had been an only child, so when my uncle was killed, she did what she could for my dad until he was so brutally taken from us.
I love my mom, but it had to have been hard on her even before dad died, working every weekday and raising me. I can remember many times before dad died where mom would be going to bed at night and dad would be just getting up to get ready for work on night patrol.
We've managed to keep going after losing Roberto and then dad. This would just be one more hard time for us to overcome.
Once mom knew her time at the Haighton school was running out, she started calling around to any school she could find whenever she wasn't actually teaching a class. Day after day, she came home looking sad and discouraged by the imminent loss of her source of income.
We could get by for a few months with what mom had in the bank, I suppose, but she didn't want to use those funds if it could be avoided. As the school year wound down, she kept calling first within North Carolina, then elsewhere, but she couldn't find any teaching jobs anywhere.
I could see the frustration building in her as time passed. She's had steady employment for ten years, this was a very big change.
Then, about twenty minutes after mom walked in the door one afternoon in early June, the phone rang. We both stared at it for a moment. Calls coming into the tiny two bedroom house where we lived had become so rare as to be almost non-existent since dad's death.
We were stunned enough that the phone stopped ringing and passed over to the answering service just as mom went to grab it.
It was another macaroni and cheese with hot dogs night, so I dug out the fixings and started preparing the meal. I chose corn this time.
I guess mom had found something on the answering service, as I could hear her talking in the living room as I continued to cook the meal. The phone call ended just as I was about to transfer everything to the table, the mac pot was sitting on a board and the corn was in a bowl.
We sat down and mom served up portions of the mac and the corn, then we ate as we often did, with only minimal conversation.
When we were both finished eating, mom looked over at me with a faint smile on her face, the first I'd seen since the end of April.
"We're going to be just fine, Angelo, my boy. That was the mayor of a tiny place in northwestern New Mexico. Their last schoolmistress passed away about a week ago, and they had no idea where to find a replacement. He said that he heard from a friend that lives around here somewhere that I was in need of work soon, and that the friend had passed my number on to him so that he could offer me the job there.
"We're going to be out in the middle of nowhere, or it will seem like it. The nearest town to that one is about eight miles as the crow flies. The really odd part is that the mayor offered us a small ranch on the edge of the town. The previous owner had fallen off a horse about a year ago. The guy broke his neck when he hit the ground, never recovered but hung on for nearly five months. He had no family at all.
"So I'll have two jobs, I guess, running a small town schoolhouse and keeping that ranch going. The ranch hands stayed on all this time. The owner of the ranch died about four months back and the townsfolk paid the hands out of the limited reserves they had available.
"The mayor also said he had already talked to the four ranch hands, and their reply was 'As long as we have work here to do, we'll stay.'"
"What kind of ranch, mom?" I asked. I was fairly excited, living on a ranch would be completely different than living in this tiny house.
"I don't know, Angelo, probably cattle, that seems to be a big industry out that way. Maybe some horses, too," she replied.
I found out the next evening that mom had been calling around for a while to find places for some of the girls at the Haighton school. By what mom said after dinner that night, the ones most in need were the orphaned and abused girls, and mom knew some social workers in the area.
It turned out that places for all but one of the girls had been found. That was when mom asked me a very serious question.
"Angelo," she was looking at me rather intently, "How would you feel if we took in Chantel? She's thirteen, a bit younger than you."
"Is Chantel the girl that you haven't been able to find a foster home for yet, Mom?" I enquired.
"Yes, Angelo. Ever since I was told that I would be let go, I've been trying to find homes for those girls. I'm not sure why, but no one would take her, and I don't want to see a young girl like that end up on the streets if there is any way that I can stop it from happening," Mom said.
"Then bring her home, mom. It may take a while for us to get used to each other, but I'd rather she be with us than on the streets."
At that point, there was slightly more than a week left of the school year for me. Haighton's classes ended the day before mine.
Mom brought Chantel home that weekend. Gods, that poor girl was scared! She was worried we would abandon her like everyone else had.
Mom and I soon set her straight about that. It took most of the weekend for Chantel to realize that we really, truly meant it.
Come Monday morning, I was about to head out the door to catch the city bus to my school when I stopped in the hallway as I could hear mom talking to Chantel. "Look, sweetie, we're moving out west in a couple of weeks, and you'll be coming with us, okay?"
Obviously, Chantel was still worried. I quietly moved up close behind her and wrapped her in a hug. "You may not be my biological sister, Chantel, but I swear to you right now, I will treat you as if you were. Not only that, but mom and I will show you what love is, sis."
Uh oh, my calling her sis opened the flood gates, and Chantel started crying like I'd never seen. She held on to me like I was a lifeboat. The tears eventually slowed as I kept holding her; when they were down to a trickle, Chantel turned and pecked me on the cheek. "Thanks, bro."
I smiled and hugged her tighter for a moment, then let her go. "You and mom need to head out to the car, I need to leave soon myself."
Mom smiled at Chantel and said, "Go clean your face, then come back out here and grab your pack, sweetie."
Chantel 'eeped' and ran to the nearest bathroom, reappearing several minutes later wearing minimal make-up.
I waved and headed out to the bus stop, then watched as they climbed into mom's bottle green 2010 Ford Taurus and drove away.
There wasn't much left for me to do at school. The last few days were for those doing make-up exams, the rest of us just lounged around.
The days passed fairly quickly, with mom handing out diplomas to the Haighton girls on the final Wednesday of the school year and then showing up at 2:15 PM on the following afternoon to pick me up so I could change into a decent set of clothes for watching the graduation ceremonies at my school. Chantel was in the front passenger seat, wearing a nice dress, obviously lost in thought as she only responded to my being there when the car door shut as I entered the car. I put my seatbelt on and we headed for what would be home for a few more days.
Mom had been busy for a while today, picking up Chantel's belongings and transferring them over to the house.
I found out, once we were in the house, that she had been talking with the 'boss' ranch hand at the ranch earlier that afternoon.
"We won't need the beds or the dressers, Angelo. It seems the previous owner had intended to start a family after buying the ranch, but hadn't found a woman who wanted to live with him out there before he died. Five bedrooms, one with a king size bed, the others with queens.
"Every bedroom there has a huge dresser, a sixteen drawer model about five feet long and four feet high, plus a large wardrobe. I'm not sure about this, but from something the ranch hand said in the call, those pieces might be custom items, a limited run, so quite valuable.
"The rest of the ranch house is already furnished, including an eight burner range and double oven, a very large refrigerator, a pantry that, if I heard the boss hand right, is 100 square feet in size, plus a large freezer room with internal door that is on the outside of the kitchen.
"The dining room table can seat up to sixteen comfortably, but has two extensions that would allow eight more to use it.
"There's a big living room with a forty inch TV and a fairly recent high quality sound system. Not only that, but the previous owner liked to make music sometimes too, so there is a soundproof room next to the living room where he could make as much noise as he wanted."
"From what I heard, there is a piano in there, two acoustic guitars, a bass guitar, a baby grand piano, a lovely drum set and an alto saxophone.
"The ranch hands share a twelve bed bunkhouse near the main barn. It has air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter.
"According to the mayor, the ranch has been under town ownership since the previous owner's death. The bank was considering foreclosing on it, but with the low population around there and the cost of running it, no one was interested, so the bank left it alone until now.
"The mayor said that the back taxes on the ranch are quite low, so it won't cost us much to take over and keep it running."
By the time that mom finished describing that place, my eyes and Chantel's were as big as saucers. It sounded totally awesome!
I shook my head, smiled and asked mom, "Can we afford to cover the back taxes and any future payments on the ranch?"
"I should think so. There's still a few thousand in the bank right now that should be enough to cover the back taxes. That's the minor part, this small town apparently wants a schoolmistress and teacher enough that they offered me $25k a year more than Haighton's paid."
I sighed, then walked over and hugged mom as I said to her, "The only reason Haighton paid you what they did was because Mrs. Haighton always liked you and your style of teaching and administrating the school. So $25k a year more than Haighton's paid you? Great!"
Mom nodded, smiling back at me, "I'm not sure, but I think some of that is to cover basic monthly costs for running the ranch. You already know that we were managing fairly well on my not quite $55k this year from Haighton's, but with Chantel living with us, we'll need more."
At this point, Chantel dropped to the floor just inside the kitchen, we could hear her sobbing and quickly wrapped her in hugs. We knelt and sat on that linoleum floor until Chantel finally stopped crying. She raised her head, looked at us with her eyes still damp and asked, "Why?"
Mom, still smiling even though she was a bit worried about Chantel, asked her "Why what, Chantel?"
Chantel held on tight to both of us. We'd only known her for several days and already we were becoming her anchors in life.
"Why, Mrs. deSalveris, did you and Angelo take me into your home? Why are you so willing to help me? I'm a nobody!" Chantel whimpered.
"We took you in because both of us couldn't live with ourselves if we just let you be lost in the system here, Chantel. We're willing to help you because every child deserves to have a place that they can call home and a family that loves them. Chantel, you're a somebody."
I smiled, pulling Chantel in toward my shoulder, "My mom said it quite well, Chantel. We did it because we could and because we care."
My saying that we care about her caused Chantel to begin crying again, her head still tucked into my shoulder. I held on to her as she cried, gently rubbing her back in an effort to calm her down. A few minutes later, the flood of tears slowed, then became a trickle and stopped.
Chantel hiccoughed a couple of times before she was able to speak again. "You... care... about me? You barely know me!"
I nodded, then spoke, "That may be true, but mom and I have watched you while you have been here, you can say what you like, but you know that you like being here with us. Mom and I have both seen you looking around at the various things in the house. It's easy enough to see, just by watching you closely, that you want so much to be part of a home and a family rather than being stuck in the orphanage, hmmm?"
Chantel nodded into my shoulder, then whined, "It's... it's... different when you feel that people really care. It's new to me, ya know?"
"I've never been in your position, Chantel, so no, I don't know what that is like. Even after Uncle Roberto was sent back from Afghanistan when I was seven, I had mom and dad with me to help me get through it. When dad was killed, mom was there whenever I needed her.
"Some of the kids at school were jerks about my uncle and my dad being killed, but I stood up to them and asked how many of their close relatives were serving in places like Afghanistan or Iraq to help protect our freedoms and fight against terrorism and other injustices, then whether any of their relatives worked for the police or fire departments that strove to keep all of us safe in our homes and communities.
"At that point, you could have heard a pin drop in that school room as the kids sat there thinking about what I had just asked them.
"I got a bit of a surprise that day, as kid after kid got up to say that they had a relative in the Forces or working for police or fire departments. Fourteen kids stood up in front of that class. I then asked those kids if they had lost a relative in war or as a police officer or fireman.
"Out of the fourteen kids, two stood there saying they'd lost a relative in war, one in Iraq, the other in Afghanistan, one had lost a cousin who was a police officer in the line of duty like my dad, the last had an aunt who was a fireman who perished pulling kids from a burning house."
If you thought you could have heard a pin drop when I asked my question, it was even quieter after those four kids said their piece. One by one, ten of the fourteen kids returned to their seats as the four who had lost family members walked over and wrapped me up in a group hug.
"I could have let the kids in school just harass me, but instead, I stood up to them and a classroom full of young kids learned a valuable lesson.
"I've been friends with Bob, James, Stacy and Shasta for the last five years. Perhaps I'll introduce you to them before we leave.
"Of the kids in that class, seven are now planning to go into the military once they graduate from high school, five are going into law to find ways to protect and help kids, eleven are thinking of applying to work for either the police or fire departments, the rest haven't decided yet."
Chantel looked up at me with a stunned expression. "All that is happening because you asked those questions that day in school?"
I smiled down at her as she lay curled into my shoulder, "Yep, I just wanted to stop the harassment, it all just snowballed from there. I heard about a week after that day that two of the boys who had harassed me the most were now talking to kids in other classes about that day. The upshot is that, within a month, there was no more harassment of kids whose parents were military or in the police or fire departments."
"Wow! I'll bet school has been a lot easier for you since then without the harassment all the time, right?" Chantel enquired.
"You could say that. It meant I could focus my energy on my studies and my grades have showed steady improvement. That wasn't quite the end of it, though; by the end of that school year, harassment of ANY student there was a thing of the past, and that hasn't changed.
"It gets better, though. All of those kids are going to high school this fall, and that attitude of no harassment will continue there."
We found out later that evening that mom had been sent pictures of the ranch through her private email account.
Chantel and I sat by the computer for nearly two hours, looking through the photos, going back to specific ones several times. The ones that seemed to resonate with us the most were of the 'music room', the soundproofed one with the instruments spread around the room.
Chantel seemed to be entranced by the sax. Me, I found myself staring at the baby grand, its polished cherry wood surface mesmerized me.
Mom wandered into the small den/office space, found us sitting there staring at the photos of the instruments and promptly broke into giggles.
She came closer and asked us which instruments we found interesting, Chantel said the sax, I whined a bit when I asked about the piano.
Mom nodded and replied, "If you two really want to learn to play those instruments, I'll find you a teacher somewhere."
Chantel and I turned to face each other, broke into broad grins and exchanged a high five amidst bouts of giggles.
We sorted out everything that we would be taking with us. Since furniture wasn't necessary, we only needed a small trailer for the move.
Five days after school ended, we ate a quick breakfast of toast and cereal, then we were on our way, leaving everything we knew behind.
Because Mom was the only one of us able to operate the car legally, we would be taking our time travelling to New Mexico.
We wound our way across the southern part of the country, making our overnight stop at a small motel in Oklahoma City. We made regular stops as we traveled, for bathrooms and to get some food now and then, so it was after ten PM when we pulled into the motel.
Mom paid for a room with two beds. Chantel would sleep with mom, I would have the other bed all to myself.
To be honest, after we had all had quick showers and had settled into bed, I found myself feeling jealous of Chantel without knowing why. That feeling of jealousy without an explanation kept me awake until nearly 2:30 AM, when utter exhaustion finally overwhelmed me.
Mom had a hard time waking me up, I know I was rather groggy and unsteady on my feet as I stumbled out of the bed.
Mom doesn't usually allow me to have coffee, but that morning, she did. We stopped in a diner in Weatherford and had a nice breakfast.
By the time we finished eating, I was feeling a bit better. That coffee helped a lot, but only for a while, I guess.
We were back on the road just after 8:30 AM and I dozed off as we crossed into northwestern Texas about forty minutes later.
We kept going through most of the day, with occasional stops as needed and reached Gallup, New Mexico just after 4 PM.
The little 'town' we were going to up was north of Gallup, on the western edge of the Navajo Nation Off-Reservation Trust Lands.
The town had the odd name of Felson's Hell, supposedly because of an early settler's many mishaps that occurred there. It seems the man had accidents like many people had bowel movements. According to one story, the 'doc' in town treated him 43 times for broken bones.
Another story about Reginald Felson offered the possibility that perhaps Reggie was being tormented by a ghost, a poltergeist of sorts.
In any case, the town was renamed on the eve of Felson's death in 1923 when he muttered, "This town has been my hell on earth!"
It was almost 9 PM when we finally reached the town. Mom had called ahead and the town's banker met us by the small schoolhouse.
We all stepped out of the car to stretch our legs, we had been on the move since finishing a quick meal in Gallup.
The banker, Elijah Randall, walked up to mom, shook her hand vigorously for a moment, then handed over keys and a folder of papers.
He was a big man, standing a bit over six feet, running to fat somewhat. We could see the edge of a bald spot under his Stetson.
Ma'am," he said, "The ranch is a mile down the road to the south, you likely passed the gate just before you got here."
Mom nodded, asking if the ranch hands knew they would be arriving tonight. Elijah stated that yes, they knew and were waiting for us.
Mom nodded again, shook his hand one last time, then walked over to the door to the schoolhouse and tried keys until the door opened.
Chantel and I followed her inside, the place wasn't very big, perhaps eighty feet long by thirty wide. The space was largely split into two classrooms, one for younger students around grade school age, the other for kids around middle school or high school age.
At the very back of the building was a third room, the office area that Mom would share with the only other teacher. Mom was surprised to find the woman sitting in the office, looking through files as we entered the room. "Hello, I'm Alexandra deSalveris, the new headmistress."
Well, I guess we startled her, as she looked up and then let out a brief squeak before settling back into the chair.
"Ummm, hello, ma'am, ummm, headmistress, ummm... oh, dear, I'm sorry, I'm Pollyanna Evans, I teach the younger kids here."
Mom nodded, saying, "I noticed the main area of the building was split into two schoolrooms as we walked through here."
Pollyanna looked up briefly, then sighed, "There's a bit of a problem, I honestly don't know what to do. I know that you have been given the old Morgan ranch down the road. Well, the ranch next to yours on the south side belongs to Barton Plummer, or I should say it did.
"See, Barton was out on his ranch tending to it three days ago when his horse was startled by a rattler. The horse threw Barton head first into a cottonwood a few feet from a tiny stream that wanders though that ranch. Barton's neck was broken, killing him almost instantly.
"The problem is Barton's only boy, Barton, Jr. We haven't been able to locate any relatives and we don't know what to do with the boy."
The moment I heard that, I looked over at mom, she looked back at me, then both of us looked at Chantel. I have to say that was probably one of the eeriest things I had seen up to that time. With no more than a few brief glances, the three of us had decided to help this boy.
Mom smiled briefly, then said, "We'll take him, the boy needs a family." Pollyanna was stunned, but obviously relieved by our help. She picked up a phone, tapped in a number, waited as it rang, then said when the call was answered, "Hi, Joe, bring Barton, Jr. to the schoolhouse."
Joe asked her why he would need to do that, Pollyanna replied that the new schoolmistress would take in the boy as her own.
Joe responded that he would have the boy there in about fifteen minutes if we would be willing to wait. We would.
It was actually a bit over twenty minutes later that a big pick-up truck rumbled into the small lot next to the schoolhouse.
By that time, we were all waiting on the front steps of the building, Pollyanna standing behind us on the top step.
She introduced us to to Joe Potterland, the top hand of the Plummer ranch, then to the small boy beside him, Barton Plummer, Jr.
I'm not all that big on biology and stuff, but I'll swear he didn't look to be more than eight, yet we were informed he was nearly twelve now. To say that this kid was small would be polite, I'd be shocked if he was even close to four feet tall and he was very skinny, almost gaunt.
There was something seriously wrong here somewhere, even I could see that, even if only in a vague way at the moment.
Mom held her hand out, smiled at young Barton and that was all it took. Seconds later, he was in her arms, bawling all over the place. Mom just held on to him, keeping him snug in her arms without squashing him as he wept his heart out against her breast.
Chantel, after a brief nod from me, joined me in creating a gentle but firm group hug around the apparently grieving boy.
We were standing like that in the dry and slightly dusty summer evening air for a fair while before his tears finally came to a stop. He looked up at Mom, then turned to look first at Chantel, then me, before he whispered, "I need a doctor, dad... daddy beat me almost every day."
Oh, shit, just what we don't need, but hell, this kid deserves to get whatever help he needs right now.
A quick chat with Joe and Pollyanna had us driving down the street to the home and clinic of the town's only doctor.
I admit to being surprised to see that the doctor was a middle-aged, tall, lean woman with half-silvered hair.
We were ushered into the building with young Barton demanding that Mom be present while he was examined.
The physical examination took a bit over an hour to finish. Barton was lucky, there were no broken bones but bruises were everywhere.
Mom told me she almost lost her dinner when she saw the extent of the bruising on Barton's body, it was not a pretty sight.
At some point, Joe or Pollyanna had called Elijah. Just as the examination was ending, he came into the house, hat in hand.
He looked shocked and worried, no, he was afraid to admit that he had not seen it happening, nor had anyone else in the small town.
It was Pollyanna who asked the critical question. "What will happen to the Plummer ranch? It's his now," she said as she briefly pointed at young Barton, "But I doubt he has any idea of what to do or what would be needed to manage a property like that."
Mom erupted in a brief burst of giggles, then said, "That's easy. Since he'll be with me, combine the ranches, I'll manage them through the hands on the two ranches and make sure that the boy has something that will be his when he is old enough to be involved."
Elijah nodded, that would sort things out for now, yet give the option for the ranch to be passed on to Barton eventually.
A quick handshake round between Mom, Joe and Elijah was all that was needed. Elijah would sort out the financial stuff for her. He pulled mom aside at one point, with Barton still hanging on to her, and stated, "We'll boost your pay to help you be able to manage both ranches."
Now it was mom's turn to be shocked, she hadn't asked for anything and here was the town banker saying she would be helped by the town.
Once Barton had settled down a bit, we drove to the Plummer ranch, grabbed the items Barton wanted, then headed to our new home.
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