Although April Fool's Day, has been celebrated for centuries, its origins remain a mystery. Some say it dates back to 1582 when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian Calendar. News traveled slowly and people who continued to celebrate the New Year during the last week of March through April 1st became the butt of jokes and hoaxes.
Slow communication is a novel concept today. We live in a world where we have news at our literal fingertips twenty-four hours a day. By the 19th century, news traveled more quickly. First by horse-and-carriage mail carts, trains and of course The Pony Express. Electricity combined with the telegraph transformed communication forever. The news could be relayed between telegraph stations almost instantly. The telegraph also had a profound economic effect, allowing money to be "wired" from great distances.
|Telephone and Telegraph Office, Arts and Industries Building, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 1886. Smithsonian Institution Archives|
Hardworking, twenty-seven-year-old, Leo Weaver, is a man of many talents. He's helped his father develop a successful farm. Loyal to Carrie Town, he volunteers as a deputy sheriff. Handsome and charming, Leo's become the target of several well-meaning ladies in the community who have submitted his name for a new matchmaking venture. Willow craves the outdoors. Leo loves the community and wants to live in town.
Willow’s Worth by Kimberly Grist
Alliance, Tennessee – September 1891
“Best be yourself, imperial, plain, and true.”
~ Robert Browning
The engineer activated two long whistles with the pull cord, and clouds of steam and fire shot up from the engine as it began its departure from the station. The windows in the telegraph office rattled, and twenty-year-old Willow Graham experienced the illusory motion of riding on the train away from Alliance, Tennessee. Perhaps the illusion was prophetic. There was a choice to make
The familiar sound of irregular clicks, then successive ticks interrupted her, a signal from another office. She let out a sigh as she deciphered the message from another female telegraph operator about fifty miles north. Willow submitted a series of dots and dashes via morse code. “No decision. Will reply tomorrow.”
The creaking of the door and the appearance of the rotund stationmaster interrupted her thoughts. His plump cheeks rose in a smile. “Any messages?”
Willow rose from her wooden chair and retrieved a paper from her desk. “I have communication about Number 9. The train will arrive approximately fifteen minutes late.”
Mr. Randolph removed his pocket watch attached with a T-bar and silver chain to his vest pocket. “Seems to be the norm lately.” His dark eyebrows drew together at the sight of a gangly youth speaking to the baggage handler.
“Harold is excited about starting his training as a telegraph operator tomorrow. The young man is determined to do well. He took the morse code manual home last week and comes in every morning with questions.” Willow forced a smile. Is it possible to be truly happy about training someone who is slated to take your position? Her solace was the young man would do an excellent job, and his earnings would support him and his widowed mother.
“I’m sorry about your position, Miss Graham. It certainly is not a reflection of your work ethic.”
Willow studied the smoke-colored eyes of the middle-aged stationmaster. They both knew her uncle’s extended arm of influence was the reason for the replacement operator. Her father’s brother wanted her to return to his home to live the life of a socialite—attending parties and marrying someone from a carefully crafted list of suitors. “Thank you, Mr. Randolph. I’ve enjoyed working for the railroad.” Willow busied herself, removing her long apron. “I suppose I should be grateful my uncle and aunt want me to live with them. But this town is home to me.”
The stationmaster followed her gaze toward the livery stable and stockyard property, aligning the railyard once belonging to her grandfather. A soft breeze whooshed. The familiar creaks and groans of the windmill reminded her of years past.
“You and your grandfather shared some wonderful memories in Alliance over the years. I believe you spent almost as much time here as you did in the livery. What do you think he would want you to do?”
“Since he left my inheritance in the hands of my uncle, my grandfather trusted him to direct me. But a few days in a large city is about all I can stand.” Willow blew out a breath. “I must sound extremely spoiled and ungrateful.”
“Perhaps your next visit will go better.” The stationmaster returned his hat to his head and winked. “You might meet some handsome young man who will change your mind about city life.”
“They’re all a bunch of dandies who are more interested in my money than what I think or feel.” Willow shuddered. “Although I’m in no hurry. My desire is to wed someone who enjoys simple things. Perhaps a farmer or a rancher, a man who knows what it’s like to earn his living and not one who wants to marry so he won’t have to.”
The stationmaster removed his hat and rubbed a hand along his receding hairline. “For the first time in my life, I’m happy I won’t be providing my daughters with anything substantial to inspire a greedy fellow to come courting.”
“My inheritance is a double-edged sword.” Willow squared her shoulders. “Wish me luck. I’m headed over to the church to see if I can get my cousin to plead my case to his father.”
Willow retrieved her shawl and reticule and stepped on to the platform. She shivered as a gust of wind ruffled her skirts, hinting at the approach of cooler temperatures. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she followed a whirlwind of leaves bouncing along the boardwalk past the bank, post office, and town hall.
She reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out her few coins. After paying for her room at the boardinghouse, there wasn’t much left. She’d have no choice but to ask her cousin for approval to withdraw money from her trust fund. Squaring her shoulders, she glanced toward the mercantile and the roof of the new hotel which faced the church. I’d best get this over with.
Willow’s eyes wandered from the arched entry door and windows to the bell tower of the white weatherboard-sided building. She removed her compact. Her blue eyes stared back at her above a cheek marked with soot. She removed the dust with a handkerchief and smoothed her light brown hair. Taking a deep breath, she entered the church. Her boots made quick taps across the wooden floors to her cousin's office.
Luke Graham, an attractive man in his late twenties, wore tailored trousers and a dark vest. His fashionably-styled hair was smoothed into place, except for one lock of hair at the crown of his head, which waved in protest. His thick eyebrows flew upward. “Afternoon, Willy. This is a surprise.”
“Have I come at an inopportune time?” Willow raised one eyebrow at the sight of the papers covering his desk. A discarded suit coat hung on the hat rack in the corner. His rolled-up sleeves and slightly disheveled look were sure signs he was troubled about something.
He smoothed his sleeves back in place and buttoned the cuffs. “Believe it or not, your timing is perfect. Have a seat.”
Willow lowered herself onto an upholstered bench and bit her lip to conceal a smile at the sight of her cousin’s unruly lock of hair. Luke sorted some papers on his desk and retrieved a file. “For weeks, I’ve been thinking and praying over your situation. As compelling as my father’s argument is, I agree with you. Forcing you to move to St. Joseph is unfair. My wife believes I’ve lost my mind, but I have another opportunity for you to consider.”
“Opportunity? Do you mean a job?” Willow squirmed in her seat.
Luke shook his head and chuckled. “Cousin, while I appreciate your desire to remain independent and understand the restraint of your purse at the moment. In a few months, you will have at your disposal a yearly income which would satisfy many a young woman with an appetite for a lavish lifestyle.”
Willow scrunched her nose in protest. “You know I’m much too practical for anything of the sort. There are many other things I could do with my inheritance than shop and give parties.”
Her cousin tapped his pencil on the edge of his desk. “You forget, I know your weakness. Your money will undoubtedly go toward rescuing horses, dogs, and various animals who lost their usefulness.”
“Point made.” Willow’s mouth twitched. “All the more reason for me to remain in the country where I won’t need to purchase fashionable outfits and can continue my obsession of misfit animals.”
Her cousin nodded absently and began pacing. “Several years ago, when Grandfather’s health began to decline, my father and I took on various responsibilities. I was asked to take his place on the board of directors for the Counting Star Children’s Home.”
Willow swallowed. “I’ve heard you mention the orphanage from time to time.”
Luke paused mid-step, then retrieved a chair and positioned himself across from her. “When Grandfather brought you from the children’s home, the family thought it would be best not to mention the days you spent there. I didn’t question the reasoning at the time, but in retrospect, I believe we did you a disservice, not encouraging you to talk about the loss of your home and parents and your time at the orphanage.”
Willow clenched the edge of the bench. “My memories are vague. I don’t even know how long I was there before Grandpa came for me.”
“The communication we received came during the height of the yellow fever epidemic. It was months before the quarantine lifted. Even then, information was sketchy. If it hadn’t been for the diligence of your father’s solicitor, we might not have known of your survival. By the time he tracked you down, you’d been in the care of the orphanage for more than a year.” Luke rubbed the back of his neck.
Willow fidgeted with the heart-shaped locket hanging from a chain around her neck. “Thankfully, there are photos, letters, and other items in my mother’s trunk. Otherwise, I don’t know if I could recall anything about my parents. I have few memories before coming here.”
“Other than being extremely thin, you were healthy. We were shocked by your cheerful demeanor and tendency to burst into song.” He shook his head. “You were barely old enough to start school but could read and do simple math problems.”
“There was a young teacher with long blond hair who taught us. She was very kind and would make up songs and games to pass the time.” Willow stared out the window and took in the assorted colors of gold and amber beginning to break out amongst the trees. She tapped her finger along her cheek. “I recall having friends too. There was a girl named Daisy and another we called Bees.”
Luke rubbed his chin. “Bees? Maybe it was short for Beatrice.”
“Maybe.” Willow straightened. “The most vivid memory I have is punching someone in the mouth, who attempted to take my rag doll from me. One of the older girls came to my aid and took the blame.” She stared into the distance. Memories of a young girl with dark hair holding her hand and reading her stories flooded her mind. “Victoria was a fierce protector.”
Her cousin’s Adam’s apple jumped, and he swallowed hard. “If I didn’t already have a wife, I would find this young woman and marry her on the spot.”
“Sight unseen?” Willow inclined her head. “I wonder what became of her and the other children? Do you think their families came for them?”
“Unfortunately, once children arrive at the orphanage, most spend the rest of their childhood there.” Luke returned to his desk and scribbled something on his notepad. “Grandfather was not only grateful but impressed by the care you received under the supervision of Mrs. Shelby. Which is why after his business became more profitable, he provided for the orphanage monetarily and ultimately took on responsibilities by serving on its board over the years.” Luke resumed his pacing. “Which brings me back to a possible solution and a way to avoid returning to live in St. Joseph with my parents.”
Her eyebrows narrowed. “If the children’s home was not so far away, I’d love to volunteer there.”
Luke moved closer. “What I have in mind is a more permanent solution.”
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