It had been called Magic Valley for as long as anyone could remember. And when you visited the region, it quickly became obvious why. Even in the bitterest Montana winter, when cattle froze in huge drifts of snow and breath crusted into icicles on your face, the valley remained mild and temperate. When the hot summer winds came and dust blew out of the badlands to cover everything in brown grime, Magic Valley remained a cool oasis that drew people and animals for many miles around.
No one questioned why things were the way they were, just as no one questioned the name of the place. That is, until the new schoolteacher came to town.
She was very tall, thin, and not unpleasant looking. She dressed conservatively, her perennial sweater buttoned down over a dark dress whose modest hemline adhered to the fashion of the day, yet was modest enough that no one questioned it. She wore brown, battered Knickerbocker shoes that looked like they had been bought at an expensive Eastern store sometime in the very distant past. She wore no makeup, and her thick eyebrows had not been plucked for some time, if ever. And her dark hair, which might have been very luxuriously long and thick, was pulled back severely on her head. Her whole approach toward appearance was if she knew she could be a beautiful woman if she tried, and yet refused herself that luxury.
Miss Harris (no one knew any other name for her) arrived on the train from Kansas City late one January afternoon. It was a typical January day for Montana, and most people were bundled up heavily trying to stay warm against the Alberta Clipper wind that found its way into every conceivable crack and cranny. Steam from the coal locomotive filled the boarding area outside the small train station, and although not many people came off the train, Mayor Winthorpe and his small wife Anna almost missed her.
But the steam cleared away and there stood Miss Harris, a small green suitcase on one side of her, a huge stack of books wrapped in twine on the other side. Her face was pinched as if she was deep in thought, and Mayor Winthorpe hesitated in approaching her, possibly thinking of another schoolteacher that he had suffered through many years before. But then the hesitation passed, and he and Anna stepped forward to grasp the hands and smile into the face of Miss Harris.
“Welcome…welcome to Magic Valley,” the mayor said, his smile starting off artificial and forced, but then becoming sincere. “We hope you will be happy here, and will stay for many years to come.”
Anna stepped forward and started to hug Miss Harris, who stood stiffly, not responding in kind and apparently not used to such affection.
“It…it doesn’t get this cold in Kansas City,” Miss Harris finally said. Anna stepped back and for the first time they realized that Miss Harris was not wearing the heavy coat that everyone else wore. Instead, she was dressed as if she were ready to teach a class.
“You poor dear,” Anna said. “We can stop by the General Store when we get into town and get you a proper coat. We wouldn’t want you to freeze out here.”
“Nonsense,” the mayor argued. “She won’t need that coat for long. On the other side of that rise is Magic Valley. Once she gets there she won’t ever be needing a coat. And you don’t have plans to leave anytime soon, do you?” He leaned forward, a campaign smile on his thick lips.
“Come,” Anna said. “Our carriage is just over there.” She gestured down the platform and as Mayor Winthorpe and a porter struggled with her suitcase and books, Miss Harris followed Anna Winthorpe to the black two-seated carriage that stood by the platform. Two big brown horses stood champing impatiently in front of the carriage. The porter loaded the baggage into the trunk compartment while the others climbed aboard. A minute later, they were off, with Mayor Winthorpe artfully handling the reins and buggy whip.
Anna continued to chatter on about the valley and the town to the quiet Miss Harris as the carriage left the cold, windswept train station and climbed the narrow road into town. Sure enough, as the mayor had promised, they reached the rise that marked the entrance into the valley and the cold weather dropped gradually away. Miss Harris watched the phenomenon with incredulity as Anna Winthorpe continued to babble on, her words lost in the air between them.
“Amazing,” Miss Harris finally muttered, looking around her and then straight up into the sky. “Incredible.”
The mayor chuckled. “Yes, we call it our own little miracle. There’s a lot to be thankful for here in Magic Valley. It doesn’t take long for the place to grow on you.”
Miss Harris cleared her throat and stared at the floorboards. “Tell me, Mayor Winthorpe. Are all the children here attending school regularly?”
The smile disappeared from Mayor Winthorpe’s face, and Miss Harris noticed Anna glancing at her husband. The man paused, then nodded.
“Those that need schooling are getting it.”
“You do know, Mr. Mayor, that the state law went into effect with the new calendar year. Every child between the ages of six and sixteen are required to be in school. Missing is not an option.”
He nodded, still looking quite serious. “Like I said, those that need the schooling….”
“Are getting it, yes I heard,” Miss Harris said. “But the implication was quite clear. There are some who fall within the age group identified by the law, and yet you believe they do not need schooling.”
The mayor did not respond, and Anna continued to stare at her husband as if willing him to say the right thing.
“Mr. Mayor, it is the law,” Miss Harris said, taking on a tone quite similar to one she would use for a petulant schoolboy. “As as the law, you are duty bound to obey it.”
The mayor paused a long time before responding.
“Perhaps we need to visit the local constable,” he said quietly. “We’ll do that right after we get you settled in.”
Magic Valley was no Kansas City, and Miss Harris was not that impressed by the modest buildings around her. She was amazed, however, by how many people were walking around in shirtsleeves, taking care of their personal business as if a Montana winter were not taking place just on the other side of the hills into town.
She stared at those around her, even as the Winthorpes took her to the local boarding house on Main Street and led her to her room on the second floor. They agreed to meet an hour later at Sally’s across the street for dinner, at which time they would introduce her to the local constable.
Anna and the mayor expected Miss Harris to change from her traveling clothes when she arrived for dinner, but apparently her choices were limited. Her face was scrubbed, her hair was apparently brushed, but she still wore the same drab dress and sweater that she had arrived in. The mayor and a large, young man with dark, penetrating eyes stood at a distant table as she entered the restaurant, and Miss Harris took the hand that was offered her.
“Miss Harris, this is Sam Crenshaw, local sheriff. He also serves as constable around these parts.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Crenshaw.”
“Call me Sam, please,” he said. “I understand you want me to enforce state law.”
“That is exactly what I desire, Mr. Crenshaw. And I am amazed at the reluctance of Mayor Winthrope—and apparently you—to do what the law requires.”
“Sit down, Miss Harris. We need to explain a few things.”
“I don’t believe any explaining is necessary,” she said. “The law is the law.”
“Sit down,” Crenshaw repeated, this time with a commanding voice, which then softened. “Please.”
Miss Harris, apparently not used to be spoken to in such a manner, stared at him for a long moment, then surrendered, sitting down in the closest chair. As dinner was brought to them, Sam Crenshaw began to speak.
“You are right, Miss Harris,” he said. “There is state law, but there are other laws as well. Magic Valley, as you have already seen, is not a normal place, and we do not have normal laws here. We have a bargain going on with the valley, what some people call a Covenant. For its part, the valley gives us good weather and fertile soil. But it also requires things of us.”
“What kind of things?” Miss Harris asked.
Crenshaw looked at the mayor, who nodded for him to go ahead. “The first white men came here about 60 years ago. My grandfather was one of the first farmers here. Most of Montana is too harsh for farming, it’s since all gone over the either ranching or mining. But it was like the valley knew that farmers work with the land and don’t try to take things away from the land. Granddad knew that this valley was special. It wasn’t until a few boys started missing that they realized there was a cost for all of this paradise.”
“Why? What happened to the boys?”
A small smile came onto Crenshaw’s lips. “They’re fine, perfectly fine. Just not with us.”
“What do you mean? Where are they?”
“They’re at the Grove,” Crenshaw said, the words dropping like lead onto the table. Both men looked at each other as if they had committed some sin by sharing the information. Miss Harris sat there, mystified, until he began again.
“As far as we can tell, it’s some sort of magical place, if you believe in such stuff….”
“I don’t, Mr. Crenshaw,” Miss Harris said, sharply. “I teach science, among other things, not magic. And I don’t like the idea of some big muscle-bound sheriff trying to persuade me with talks of magic, even if this is the Magic Valley.”
“Please, please, Miss Harris,” Mayor Winthorpe said, holding up his hand as if in surrender. “Sam, maybe it would be best if you take Miss Harris out to the Grove to see for herself tomorrow.”
“I can’t,” Miss Harris said, the edge still in her voice. “I have classes. And I won’t interrupt them for something as frivolous as what you call ‘magic’.”
“Well, I’m the mayor and he’s the sheriff,” Winthorpe said. “Between us, I believe we have the power to shut your school down for a day. Believe me, Miss Harris. You need to see this.”
And so it was decided that school would wait one more day for the new teacher, and Sam Crenshaw would take Miss Harris on a local field trip to the Grove. He borrowed the Winthorpe’s carriage and had Sally pack them a lunch. Despite protests by Miss Harris that they were wasting valuable time, he met her outside the boarding house at 9 a.m. instead of the 7:30 she had suggested. Sam played the gentleman, and jumped down from the carriage to assist Miss Harris into her side of the vehicle. While he held out his hand and helped her into the carriage, he looked at Miss Harris and began to realize that under all the bluster and straight-laced approach toward life was a young, possibly beautiful, woman.
“Mr. Crenshaw, it is rude to stare,” she said under her breath as he got back into the driver’s seat. He noticed that a red tinge had come to her cheeks.
He turned and looked straight ahead and clicked the horses into forward movement. “Sorry,” he said after a pause. “You just seem a bit different than last night.”
She smiled thinly. “I believe the Montana air agrees with my complexion.”
“Maybe that’s it,” he said, nodding. But inside he thought, She’s fixed herself up. Was it for him?
On the road out of town and into the woods, Sam Crenshaw told her more about the community, including the names of all the original settlers. He showed her the homes where some of her students lived, and pointed out the grist mill that stood next to the perennially running stream.
“Don’t be surprised if we run into others from town while we’re out here,” Sam said.
“Why is that?” she said. “It’s a regular workday. Don’t they have jobs to do?”
“Farmers come out here to get advice. Besides, there are more important things than work.”
“That’s contrary to what I have always heard about farming. Farmers are always painted as people who work from before dawn till way after dark. When do they have time to play?”
“Well, they’re not really here to play, although we do have our share of fun.”
He pulled on the reins, and the two roan mares came to a stop, acting as if they had stopped in that very spot many times before. Miss Harris looked around her and realized that there were other carriages and a few lone horses tied up to trees surrounding them. Before she could step out of the carriage, Sam was again at her side, holding his hand out to help her get out. She blushed, but took his hand again and stepped down.
She followed Sam into a clearing that was surrounded by a circle of flowering trees. Other people were coming into the clearing as well, many of them carrying food and what appeared to be gifts. Miss Harris noticed that Sam carried their basket of food that he had ordered from Sally’s.
“The food…wasn’t for us, was it?” she asked quietly.
Sam smiled and shook his head. “Just watch and listen.”
Miss Harris listened. Above the sound of the wind and the murmur of the visitors around her, she heard a sound that she was very familiar with. It was the sound of children…boys to be exact.
Sam stopped and they watched as a farmer stood talking into the branches of the nearest flowering tree. Miss Harris strained to listen to the conversation:
“Peas is the way to go,” a voice said from branches. “Peas and carrots.”
“But the Farmers Almanac says…” the farmer objected.
“You gonna believe a book or me?” the voice said, rising in pitch.
The farmer looked down, apparently embarrassed. “You, of course.”
“What you bring me?”
The farmer raised up a covered basket, lifting the cloth on top. “The missus fixed up some fried chicken for all y’all.”
“FRIED CHICKEN!” the voice echoed, now loud enough for everyone in the grove to hear. “Bobby, you want fried chicken?”
Another voice was heard from the other side, but the words were cheerfully indecipherable.
“Like I said, Mr. Dewey. Peas and carrots. That’s what the grove tells me, and that’s what I recommend. Others be planting wheat, but this is the year for blight.”
“Many thanks,” the farmer muttered and bowed, stepping backwards and out of the clearing. Sam wasted no time, but stepped forward to take the man’s place.
“Hi Dewey,” Sam said. “I have someone I want you to meet.” He turned to Miss Harris, who was carefully entering from behind him. “Dewey, this is Miss Harris. Miss Harris, this is my Uncle Dewey.”
Miss Harris looked up into the tree branches to see a red-haired freckled-face boy of about 12 hanging from the nearest limb.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Dewey,” she said, holding out her hand to shake his.
“What’d you bring me?” Dewey said, interrupting.
Sam started to raise his basket, but Miss Harris quickly stepped in front of him.
“Dewey, it’s rude to interrupt. Tell the Sheriff that you are sorry.”
Dewey laughed loudly. “Sheriff? Sam and I have known each other for a long time. Didn’t he say that I was his uncle?”
“He did, but I don’t see how that is possible,” Miss Harris said.
“Dewey, Miss Harris is the new school teacher for Magic Valley.” Sam said. “She’s new, so be kind to her.”
“Why? Why do I gots to be kind to her? What’s she gots that I need?”
“Knowledge,” Miss Harris said. “I am here to help you learn things.”
“Why’s do I gots to have knowledge? The Grove tells me everything I need to know. Heck, people come to me to know stuff. We tell them when to plant, what to plant, even when to shear their sheep. And they feeds us. That’s all we needs.”
“What about someday when you leave this place? The world is a big place, Dewey. You might want to learn about other places and know how to talk to people before you go visit them.”
Dewey laughed hard at this. “Fool woman, I ain’t never leaving this place. Don’t you know? Don’t you understand? Me and my six brothers are part of the Grove, part of the Valley. I came here—how many years ago was it, Sam?”
“I was three, so it was just about 30 years ago.”
“Thirty years, and to me it is like it was yesterday. Others here have been even longer. Shoot, Arnold over there—” he pointed to a tree about 30 feet away, “he’s been here since the beginning. He was here when it all started.”
Confused, Miss Harris turned to Sam, who nodded.
“It’s true. One of the children from the first settlement is playing over in that tree over there. He should be over 70 by now, but they never grow older. But they also can’t leave. They are called by the Grove, and they have to stay here. It’s what we give up in order for the magic to happen.”
“We never die,” Dewey said, his words suddenly sounding more mature. “But we can’t never leave either.” The three of them stared at each other for a long minute before Dewey started laughing again. “But heck, there ain’t nothing out there for us anyway.”
Miss Harris stared at Dewey for a long minute, the wheels evidently turning in her head.
“Dewey, how tall would you say this tree is?”
Dewey shrugged, and turned to look up at the top branches. “I don’t know. Eighty feet? A hundred?”
“How about if I told you about a tree that was ten times taller than this tree?”
“Nahh,” he said, but Miss Harris could see that he was interested.
“It’s called a Giant Sequoia Redwood, and it lives in a place called California.”
“Is it the biggest tree?” Dewey asked, suddenly interested. “Biggest in the world?”
Miss Harris shrugged. “Maybe, but the world is the big place. Dewey, what if I came back to visit you and told you about strange places and far away lands. Would that be ok?”
“You been to these faraway lands?”
“Some of them. The rest of them we learn about through those things called books.”
“Books,” he echoed, not quite as critical of the word as had been earlier. “What’ll you bring me?”
Miss Harris looked at Sam. “Well, I can bring you food on occasion, but more importantly I will bring you—and your brothers—something much more valuable.”
Sam walked Miss Harris back to the carriage, watching her as she smiled to herself.
“This is important to you,” Sam said. “This teaching thing.”
She nodded. “Very. It’s my chance to open up the world to young minds.”
Sam helped her back into the carriage, holding her hand as she stepped up. He started to move away from her, but she held on to his hand.
“I know you won’t always be able to come with me out here, Sam, but I would appreciate you coming whenever you can.” She smiled and he noticed that the hard edges in her face had disappeared.
“It would be my pleasure, Miss Harris.”
“And Sam,” she said, smiling slightly and raising an eyebrow. “Call me Katherine.”