Rebekah Lee Jenkins

In The Company of Men

Oakland’s high school teacher – Mrs. Rose Ellice – is missing without a trace. 

Rumours and suspicions are tearing the town apart. 

The vacant job position must be filled, but will the new teacher face the same fate?

The Great War is over and Etta Lynne is left destitute with a sick mother and a pregnant, widowed sister.

With the weight of responsibility crushing her, she is desperate for the one teaching position available in Oakland, Manitoba.

As Etta battles for a chance at the job, shocking concerns come to light during the interview. 

Taking the job in Oakland means she can afford care for her mother, but at what price?

In This Series...

Chapter 1

Etta Lynne’s heart sank as she sized up the competition in front of her. In the waiting room of the Manitoba Teachers’ Federation, every woman needed this one job in Oakland—desperately.

They knew the Federation slated this job for a soldier who had returned from the Great War.

Grinding poverty forced their hands — they tried anyway.

Etta carefully pleated her skirt so the tattered edge wasn’t so obvious. A young teacher across the hallway watched her and when their eyes met, Etta saw sympathy there. 

Finally, Miss Little appeared in the hallway and called Etta in.

Plastering a big, insincere smile on her face, Etta followed her into her office. Together, they sat down and reviewed the requirements for the position.

“This job opening, this offer, is not the kindness you think it is.” Miss Little fixed Etta with a fierce look of concern, cleared her throat, fidgeted with the pearls at her neck, blinked and continued. “When Miss Ford left in a flood of tears, we chalked it up to the theory she was young and inexperienced. Now, Rose Ellice has disappeared. Without a trace.” Miss Little’s voice dropped ominously. “All her belongings are still in Oakland, and the police can’t find her…”

“I have a family to feed.” Etta leaned forward and cut her off.  Her gaze locked with Miss Little’s. “I just admitted my mother to the hospital and if I don’t get this job, I can’t afford her care.”

Etta remembered a flood of guilty shame as the doctors said she should have sought treatment earlier for her mother’s advanced pneumonia.

“My sister is seven months pregnant. She lost her husband to the Spanish Flu, and her pregnancy is delicate, but she still works as hard as she can to make ends meet.  We have sold the house to pay for the doctor’s bills.” Etta choked on the partial truth.

Even now she couldn’t say the truth about the house.

The house was bad enough, but selling all of her precious art supplies had opened a chasm of despair Etta couldn’t crawl out of. Whatever had compelled her to pick up a pencil and draw, or mix oils together to paint, had smoldered and died as the man at the pawn shop turned up his nose at the brushes and gave her an insulting price.

That derisive sniff at the bristles caused something inside Etta to snap. As he bundled her paints and tossed them behind the counter, her heart broke into pieces. Cali had held her hand tightly, murmuring that as soon as Mother was well, they wouldn’t have to pay doctor’s bills, and they would have enough to buy them back.

Etta knew, deep down, they would never have enough. She had kept the letter of acceptance to the Toronto School of Art, a letter she had carried with her since before the war started, even though she was certain there was no possibility of school now.

No, just endless teaching to catch up for the mess their father had left for his daughters and wife. Her body trembled with worry as she thought of facing Santini, her landlord, without enough rent money. She couldn’t afford both the rent and hospital fees.

She would have to owe the hospital because Santini’s stakes were much higher.

Shaking those thoughts away, her eyes sharpened as she looked at Miss Little across the desk.

“Between the war and the flu; it left us with nothing.” Etta’s voice darkened.

Not even our dreams.

“I am very sorry. I know things have been difficult.” Miss Little spoke with sincerity.

Etta rubbed her forehead in an attempt to calm down.

“I wanted to be clear about the risk. I have not forgotten the kindness… your word… that… saved me…” Miss Little dropped her voice, worried someone would overhear.

“Miss Little, please.” Etta shook her head and took a deep breath. “That was a different world, before the Great War, a different time. I have forgotten all about it.”

“I never will. I have to be sure you understand; the work environment in Oakland is less than ideal.” Miss Little’s lips tightened as she spoke. There was more to this than she was letting on. Etta wondered whom she was protecting. “As I mentioned… Mrs. Ellice… a seasoned veteran of a teacher… well…” Miss Little’s voice trailed away.

Etta lost the last reserve of her patience.

“What do you know?” Etta demanded.

“Mrs. Ellice…”

“Never mind Mrs. Ellice. What did Miss Ford say? The first teacher forced to quit.” Etta cut straight to the point. A backbreaking shift in a laundry on Pacific Avenue started in an hour. She had to be at work within the hour or they would dock her pay.

“She would only say some men on the board were… how should I put this delicately… well… not kind.” Miss Little dropped her voice for the last two words.

Etta rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Good grief.”

“As in, quite inappropriate…” Miss Little dropped her voice further as if someone might overhear. “She felt that one of the board members was too harsh and demanding. A trustee was upset that she wore a purple skirt.”

Etta shook her head. “The code is clear; teachers aren’t to wear colour. What was she thinking?”

“She was used to the city, I think.”

“Well, Oakland is hardly a city.” Etta shook her head. “She is twenty?” She tried and failed to take the contempt from her voice.

“Nineteen.”

“Young and inexperienced,” Etta declared. “I’m twenty-eight with eight years of experience; I can handle a nasty school board. Nothing I haven’t seen before. I’ll nip it all in the bud and get it sorted. I’ll send you a full report.” Etta’s tone frosted with impatience.

Miss Little fidgeted with the perfectly stacked papers on the desk. “Etta, please remember that whatever happened with Mrs. Ellice, sadly, she did not contact the Manitoba Teachers’ Federation, or they prevented her from doing so. Don’t make that mistake. Even though the Federation is only months old, we are here to help.”

 “If I get the position, you mean.” Etta dared to hope.

“You are up against Mr. Merritt.” Miss Little’s voice dropped.

“Well, this is a waste of gas, then.” Disappointment dropped Etta’s heart to her feet.

“I have it on good authority that Mr. Merritt was just hospitalized with shell shock.” Miss Little arched an eyebrow. “While I am not unsympathetic to Mr. Merritt, it is to you I owe a favour. You will be the only one they are interviewing on Friday.”

Etta took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“We’re even then?”

“You never owed me. I expected nothing for telling the truth.” Etta straightened up. “You were innocent of the charges.”

“You and I both know, sometimes that doesn’t matter.” Miss Little’s jaw tightened. “I’ve been waiting a long time to clear this debt to you.”

“A debt only in your head, but I’ll take it and thank you.” Etta held her hand out to Miss Little to shake it before she left. Miss Little stood up and took the proffered hand. Miss Little’s felt small and dainty, soft in her own. “Miss Little, I appreciate this very much.”

“There is one last thing.”

“Oh?” Etta’s eyes searched Miss Little’s.

“The school board… a Mr. Jackson Nash, who is on the board and the mayor… well...” Her voice was so high she squeaked.

“Well what, Miss Little?” Etta crossed her arms over her chest.

“Yes. He… just a moment, I can read the letter.” Miss Little cleared her throat. “I will just read the part that applies…” Her eyes flicked up to Etta’s and then dropped down again. “The war is over, and it is time to restore the returning soldiers to their rightful places. Two female teachers leaving in one year is unacceptable. We have no time or patience left for hysterics. Send a soldier — forthwith!”

 “Hysterics! Forthwith!” Etta’s jaw dropped at the rudeness of the mayor of Oakland. She stiffened her spine and clenched her jaw as she thought of how to handle this new threat to a job she desperately needed.

“They need the position filled immediately. You will get it and you will do well.” Miss Little spoke with a confidence neither of them felt.

“Right.” Etta tried to agree, but failed to sound sincere.

“Mr. Merritt is not going to show up. You’ll get it.” Miss Little’s eyes softened in sympathy.

Etta turned the door handle to put an end to the meeting. No time for pity and regret. She had work to do and a job interview to prepare for.

“Hysterics.” Etta snorted. “Mayor Jackson Nash better be battle ready. I will do this job, and I will do it well. I will not leave in tears.”

Miss Little swallowed hard. “You might find you catch more flies with honey than vinegar…”

“I don’t want to catch flies, Miss Little. I want to provide for my family.” Etta’s eyes blazed with intensity.

Miss Little looked at her in alarm.

“However, thank you for this. I appreciate it very much.” Etta forced her tone to be gentle since Miss Little looked as though she were on the verge of tears.

“Before you go, Miss Lynne... do you have anything… well… anything to wear?” Miss Little asked delicately.

Etta’s face flamed with humiliation. This dress was her very best. Cali had spent an hour mending and taking it in. Unfortunately, the hem was so badly tattered it couldn’t be taken up.

“Of course,” Etta lied through her teeth. “I will wear something more appropriate.”

“Hang on.” Miss Little scurried around the desk and pulled open a trunk near the door. “This is a donation.” Her eyes flicked up as if checking for evidence of pride in Etta’s stance that would show offense at being offered the charity. “I grabbed it in case a teacher needed a new cloak. Maybe your sister could work her magic.”

Etta took the caramel-coloured worsted wool from Miss Little’s hands. With her one last ivory lace blouse, she might look presentable.

“Thank you.” Etta said simply. “Since the letter says send a soldier… will you send word that I’m not a man? Or how do we proceed?”

“I have sent your application as E. Lynne.” Miss Little bit her lip. “I am banking on the fact that when no one else shows up, they will have no choice. I couldn’t think of any other way to get you an interview.”

Etta jaw tightened.

“You must charm them,” Miss Little implored her. “If anyone can, you can.”

“I appreciate what you are trying to do here, Miss Little.” Etta placed the length of fabric under her arm. “But, sadly, I’m fresh out of charm.”

Read the rest here:

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So enthralling to lose myself in the story of Nash and Etta and all the residents of Oakland! I tried to make it last longer but couldn’t put it down to get the feels of the ending I know wouldn’t disappoint me.

Amazon Reviewer