Beyond All Measure - Dorothy Love



June 1871

Holding tightly to her worn travel satchel, Ada Wentworth stepped through a cloud of billowing steam and scanned the rain-slicked railway platform, looking for the woman who had promised to meet her. Smartly-dressed travelers folded their black umbrellas and pushed through a knot of farm wives, mill workers, and station peddlers hawking candy and magazines. A line of buggies and wagons waited in the heat, the placid horses swishing their tails against a cloud of flies. A group of schoolboys jostled Ada roughly as they passed, their languid, high-pitched accents falling strangely on her ear.

She pulled her handkerchief from her cuff and blotted her face, her gaze traveling from one person to the next. People aplenty, but no red-haired woman carrying a white parasol.

She skirted a mound of baggage and wound her way toward the agent’s office, trying to quell her growing apprehension. She’d known Hickory Ridge wouldn’t be anything like New England, but this bustling village rimmed with fog-shrouded mountains was unlike any place she’d ever been.

Outside the station agent’s office, she paused to get her bearings. A steady stream of travelers flowed around her like water around a stone. She swallowed the hard lump forming in her throat. What on earth had she done?

“Purty little town, Hickory Ridge, ain’t it?” The salesman who had slept away the entire morning’s journey leaning against her shoulder grinned at her, exposing a mouthful of rotted and tobaccostained teeth. “Hotter’n blazes, though. Rain didn’t do a bit of good if you ask me.”

Ada moved farther down the platform and brushed the cinders from her traveling dress. The salesman followed, his battered sample case banging against his knee. He tipped his hat, a brown felt bowler that had seen better days. “Name’s Cyrus McNeal, ma’am. From the Southern Medicinal Supply Company. Any type of curative, preventative, or tonic you may require, I’m yer man.”

Opening his case, he produced two small brown vials. “Would you like some free samples? One’s fer yer stummick ailments, and t’other calms yer nerves.”

“Thank you. No.”

“Suit yerself. There’s more’n two hours before my train to Nashville. I figger to have me a good hot meal at Miss Hattie’s. You care to join me?”

The station agent, a lanky man with a thick walrus mustache and graying hair parted in the middle, made his way to her side. “Is this here feller botherin’ you, Miss?”

The salesman dropped his samples into his pocket. “I was just leaving.”

Ada nodded to the agent as the salesman disappeared into the crowd. “Thank you. That tiresome man made a nuisance of himself all the way from Knoxville.”

He gestured toward the far end of the platform. “That your trunk?”

“Yes.” She suppressed a long sigh. Twenty-six years old, and all her worldly possessions fit into one moldering trunk. Given half a chance, the auctioneer would have taken it too. As it was, she had nothing, not even a proper mourning dress. But mourning clothes were of no consequence here at the edge of the livable world.

The agent wiped his forehead with a wrinkled blue handkerchief. “Is someone supposed to meet you?”

“Miss Hannah Fields. She wrote that she’d carry a white parasol so I could recognize her. I don’t suppose you know her.”

“Hickory Ridge is growin’ these days, but I pretty much know everybody around here. Miss Hannah should be along directly. That is, if Old Starch and Vinegar hasn’t thought up somethin’ else for her to do.”

“Starch and vinegar?”

“Mrs. Willis. The woman Miss Hannah works for. Folks call her Starch and Vinegar, but not to her face, o’ course.” He grinned. “No ma’am. Not to her face.”

A piercing whistle sounded. The engine heaved, belching smoke and cinders, and lumbered down the tracks. Another shower of sparks rained down. Ada brushed the ashes off her skirt. Now she regretted having worn her best dress for travel, but she needed this job desperately. First impressions were important.

Her stomach rumbled. Although there had been plenty of good food aboard the train, it had come at a price. Mindful of her swiftly dwindling resources, Ada had made do with bowls of lukewarm soup and cups of bitter hot chocolate as the train lumbered southward, taking her farther away from all that was familiar. She couldn’t remember when she’d last enjoyed a full, hot meal. Hungry and dazed with summer heat, she swayed on her feet.

“Careful, ma’am!” The agent took her arm and led her to a wooden bench on the shady side of the platform. “You just sit tight, and