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Western Short Story
Annabelle Parsons was sixty-eight years old and had lived her entire life in Tucson. More specifically, she had lived her entire life at the St. Joseph’s Orphanage.
She was born at St. Joseph’s in 1801, along with her twin sister, Abigail. They both lived there until their sixteenth birthday. They were usually fed, usually warm and usually happy. They received some education, though not very much, and certainly not formal, but they could read and write and do a little of their numbers.
The twins had other friends at the orphanage, but they spent most of their time together, as sisters often did, and as twins almost always did. They looked alike and sounded alike, and unless they were both there for you to take a look at at the same time, it was hard to tell who was who. The girls often amused themselves by “trading places” and easily confused their friends and even those adults who ran or worked at the orphanage.
In April of 1817, the girls were only a couple of months away from their sixteenth birthday, which fell on June 2. This was significant, because it was the age when all children had to leave St. Joseph’s. And this was the one area where the girls were completely different. Annabelle had absolutely no desire to leave, and Abigail couldn’t wait to be gone. Annabelle wished there was a way she and her sister could stay—she hated the idea of being apart—but she couldn’t convince her to try and spend even one day past her sixteenth birthday at St. Joseph’s. Abigail dearly wished Annabelle would leave, but knew she wouldn’t. And Abigail couldn’t imagine stayed “penned up” at St. Joseph’s for even a day past when she had to. She had never been treated poorly in her sixteen years there, but she had dreamed her entire life about what there was outside of that huge front gate and felt she would burst if she didn’t get out there and start exploring.
Mrs. Rapin, who, even though her husband had passed almost twenty years ago, insisted on being called Mrs. Rapin, sat the girls down one evening after dinner and chores. She had been running St. Joseph’s since it opened, which was only a couple of years before the twins were born.
“Girls, you know your sixteenth birthday is coming up in a couple of months?”
Annabelle answered, “Yes, Mrs. Rapin.”
“And you know what means?”
They both nodded yes.
“Do you have plans for what you’re going to do?”
Abigail answered immediately. “Yes! I am going to get a job right away, until I can earn enough money to travel to New York. I want to see the world, and that’s where I’m going to start!” She was smiling from ear to ear, and Mrs. Rapin could hear the enthusiasm and commitment in her voice. She also noticed that Annabelle didn’t share the same excitement, but she didn’t say anything.
Abigail raced on for the next few minutes, excitedly sharing all of her dreams and plans, uninterrupted by Mrs. Rapin or Annabelle. When she finally began to wind down, Mrs. Rapin turned to Annabelle and asked what her plans were.
Head down, she answered, “I don’t have any plans. I don’t want to travel the world. I don’t want to travel anywhere. I want to stay here.”
Mrs. Rapin reached gently across and lifted Annabelle’s chin, not surprised to see tears streaming down her face. She offered her the handkerchief she always carried and asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to go with your sister?”
“I want to be with her, but I do not want to travel all the way to New York. I like it right here.” Her head dropped back down, and she stared at the floor.
“What if it could be arranged that you stayed here?”
This time, it took no help from Mrs. Rapin for Annabelle’s head to pop up, with both hope and doubt showing through her eyes.
“As you girls know, we’re growing here, and I think there are more children on the way soon. It is too much work for me and Mr. Johnson, so I’m thinking about hiring an assistant. It wouldn’t pay very much at all, but you could keep living here and eating here, and you would even have one day off every week if you wanted to visit town.”
“Yes, yes! Many times, yes!” Annabelle was relieved and excited at the same time, and even though she knew it meant her and Abigail would be apart, everything else in her life would stay the same, which is what she very much wanted. She took turns hugging Mrs. Rapin and Abigail, and after a couple of minutes, she was finally able to settle down.
“Girls, I’m glad for both of you, but now there’s more I want to tell you—about your parents.”
The girls were surprised, since Mrs. Rapin had never told them anything about their parents and had shushed them and told them there was nothing to tell the two times they had asked.
“I don’t know if it’s a story you’ll like, but you’re almost sixteen and maybe you should know, or maybe I just need to tell you. I met your mother and your father.”
The girls gasped at the same time.
“Your father was Mexican, a slightly built man, with black hair and black eyes and a very dark complexion. Your mother had blond hair and blue eyes and was very pretty. She never said, but I think she was about fifteen years old, and your father wasn’t much older. They came here two days before you were born. They were nice—to each other and to me. I think they were in love. But they never told me their names or their story. I don’t know where they went after you were born, though I overheard them talking one time and I think they were going somewhere in Old Mexico. I never heard from them after they left. On the day they left, your mother was holding both of you and crying uncontrollably, and it was very hard for her to let you go. But your father held her gently while she handed both of you to me. A few minutes after they left, your father returned and handed me these.”
Mrs. Rapin opened her hand, and sitting inside were five $20 gold pieces, a small fortune.
“He said to give these to you when the time was right. I’m afraid it was all the money he and your mother had, but he insisted I take it. I kept it locked away until now. Abigail, your half will give you a good start on your trip to New York. Annabelle, you can use this to buy almost anything you want, or I will keep it for you until one day when you need it.”
Annabelle looked at Mrs. Rapin, then at her sister and then back to Mrs. Rapin.
“I want to give my share of the money to Abigail.”
Abigail started to protest, but Annabelle stopped her. “I have everything I need here, except for you. At least this way, you will have enough money to go to New York right away and start your new life. Please.”
Now it was Abigail’s turn to cry, which she didn’t like doing. Without a word, she hugged Annabelle and then turned and ran back to their room.
“That was a very nice thing you did, Annabelle. I’m glad we have a moment alone, because there is something I have wanted to tell you for a long time.”
Annabelle sat quietly, still reeling from everything that had happened in the past few minutes.
“I never told you or Abigail where your names came from. At St. Joseph’s we are often given children who have no names and, as far as we know, no family. When that happens, it becomes my job to name the children. This is what happened with you and your sister. I picked your last name, Parsons, because when I was a little girl, living in St. Louis, my schoolteacher was named Mrs. Parsons. She was very kind to me and helped me when things weren’t so good at home. I loved her very much, and it was my way of honoring her.
I named your sister Abigail because I heard your father call your mother Abigail. It’s a beautiful name, and I thought it should carry on.”
Annabelle looked at Mrs. Rapin.
“And what about my name?”
Now it was Mrs. Rapin’s turn to look down. “Annabelle, your entire life, since you could speak, you have called me Mrs. Rapin, which all of the children do. That is my way of teaching you to be respectful and of honoring my husband, who, even though he has been dead for a very long time, is still my husband. But in all this time, no one has ever asked what my given name is.”
She looked up as Annabelle asked, “Mrs. Rapin, what is your given name?”
For the next fifteen years, Annabelle worked for Mrs. Rapin. Her responsibilities grew over time, and she eventually started teaching some of the classes for the kids and counseling many of those, especially the girls, who were troubled. And when it came time for the kids to move on, she spoke to all of them. She explained how the choices they made were theirs to make and shared how different her path was from her twin sister’s, but how they were both happy now.
Abigail, as she had dreamed, had traveled the world. She lived in New York with her husband, but had been to Europe three times and as far as Africa once. Annabelle had not seen her sister since the day she left twenty-five years previously, but they did write each other three or four times every year, and Annabelle looked forward to—and saved—every letter.
In her forty-one years, Annabelle had seen many changes. Tucson, which was founded by Spanish soldiers in 1775 as the Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón, had remained part of the Spanish empire until 1821 when Mexico gained its independence from Spain. The change from being a part of the Spanish empire to being a part of Mexico had no real impact on St. Joseph’s or most of the citizens of Tucson—many of whom generously supported St. Joseph’s.
And for Annabelle herself, there had been almost no change over the past twenty-five years. She still lived in the same small room she had shared with Abigail when they were growing up. Her life was predictable, safe and comfortable, and Annabelle, who had never known anything else, was happy.
One morning, early in 1842, Mrs. Rapin—Annabelle still called her Mrs. Rapin—asked Annabelle to come to her office. Annabelle arrived at 9:30, after getting the morning students working on their studies and making sure the afternoon students were doing their morning chores. She was curious about why they were meeting, since it was rare that she was invited to Mrs. Rapin’s office, even though the two were friendly and usually ate at least one meal a day together.
She sat down in the chair right in front of Mrs. Rapin’s desk, accepting the offered cup of hot tea, as much to have something to do with her nervous hands as for the warmth it offered against the morning chill.
Mrs. Rapin asked about the children first, as she did almost every morning, and was pleased that there were no problems. With twenty-nine kids they were quite full—perhaps even one or two children over what should be the comfortable maximum—but Mrs. Rapin had never been able to turn a child away, and the community leaders were generous enough to ensure that each child had a roof, clothes and food.
“Annabelle, do you still enjoy your work here?”
Surprised by the question, Annabelle answered, “Of course. Why would you ask?”
“Annabelle, there’s no easy way to say this, so here goes. I’m going to be leaving at the end of the year.”
Annabelle could hardly have been more surprised and accidently dropped her tea, the cup shattering on the tile floor and hot tea splashing all over her chair and the desk. Before Annabelle could move or speak, Mrs. Rapin rose quickly, took a hand towel from one of her cabinets and started to clean up the mess. Finally, gathering herself, Annabelle joined Mrs. Rapin on her knees and started to pick up the pieces of the broken tea cup.
After a couple minutes of silence, Annabelle asked, “Why?”
“It’s time. I’ve been doing this for almost forty-five years, and I haven’t been home since I first came to Tucson.”
Annabelle had to think about that for a moment, since the only home she’d ever known was right here at St. Joseph’s. “Where is home?”
“Ohio. Both my parents have died in the past couple of years, but I still have two brothers and a sister, and they all have nieces and nephews. You children have all been like family to me—you actually have been family—but now I want to go back and be with my Ohio family.”
Still not understanding, Annabelle asked, “What will we do?”
“Annabelle, that is really up to you. I spoke with our largest donors a couple of times over the past week, and they are all in agreement with me—you would make the perfect replacement for me and the best possible person to run St. Joseph’s.”
If Annabelle had been holding another cup of tea, she would have dropped that one too. Just as it was twenty-five years ago, when she was completely unprepared to leave St. Joseph’s, or at least felt she was, she was absolutely certain that she wasn’t ready—and never would be—to run St. Joseph’s. She said as much to Mrs. Rapin.
Mrs. Rapin laughed and said, “That’s exactly what I told everyone you would say. It’s also why I’m telling you now, almost a year before I plan on leaving. I know you can do the job. I know there’s nobody who loves the children more than you do, or loves St. Joseph’s as much as you do, or will do a better job than you will do.”
And so, having never said no to Mrs. Rapin before, Annabelle agreed to take over at the end of the year. She spent the rest of the year learning everything she could. She met with the donors and people who supplied St. Joseph’s with everything they needed: food, clothing, medicine—everything. She learned how to pay bills, how to raise money and how to manage employees. And at the end of 1842, Mrs. Rapin left St. Joseph’s, moved to Ohio and spent her last five years living happily with one of her brothers, though she thought often of Annabelle and St. Joseph’s.
They wrote each other once a month until close to the end when Mrs. Rapin could no longer write. And even then, her brother sent letters. The day she received the letter that Mrs. Rapin—she never did learn to call her Annabelle—had died was the saddest of her life. After writing a letter to Mrs. Rapin’s brother to thank him for letting her know and offer her condolences, as well as those of everyone at St. Joseph’s, she wrote a long letter to Abigail and told her everything she was feeling about losing Mrs. Rapin.
During those five years, as odd as it was, Annabelle felt she was running St. Joseph's until Mrs. Rapin returned, always believing that she would one day. But now that she knew that was never going to happen, she worked even harder, just in case Mrs. Rapin was checking in from heaven to see how she was doing.
The year before Mrs. Rapin died, there was some excitement. In 1846, the Mexican-American War began, and a small part of it spilled into Tucson. The American Army sent a force of approximately five hundred riflemen and officers, mostly Mormons, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, toward Tucson to help establish a wagon road from Santa Fe to New Mexico. As they approached Tucson, Mexican Captain Antonio Comaduron, with less than two hundred men in his command, abandoned Tucson and marched almost ten miles south to San Xavier. Comaduron strongly recommended the citizens of Tucson do the same, but very few did and certainly no one from the orphanage did.
The Americans took control of the city without a shot being fired, but after two days of rest and gathering up supplies, they left Tucson in exactly the same condition they had found it in and continued their march toward San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. Captain Comaduron, assured that the Americans had left, marched his troops triumphantly back into town and settled back into their undamaged compound as if they had never left and the Americans had never been there. So ended what came to be known as the Capture of Tucson—the only real event of the past five years.
From 1847 through 1861, life at St. Joseph’s and for Miss Parsons remained almost unchanged. The community was still supportive, and the orphanage usually had between twenty and thirty children at any one time, rarely above thirty and never below twenty. Miss Parsons changed the “leaving” age to eighteen, still remembering how unprepared she felt when she turned sixteen.
She continued to exchange letters with her sister, though less frequently than she had before, and even exchanged letters, on occasion, with some of the children who had moved on from St. Joseph’s. She still cried every time a child turned eighteen, or was adopted, even though she knew those were good things. She left St. Joseph’s only when she needed to and had even convinced some of her donors and suppliers to meet her on the property, reducing even further the number of times she had to leave.
Things began to change in 1861. The Civil War was underway, and in the summer of that year, Lieutenant Colonel John Baylor, with a combined force made up of Texas cavalry and Arizona militia, took control of the southern New Mexico Territory, which included Tucson. He declared Tucson as the capital of what he called the Confederate Arizona Territory and also appointed himself as governor, which lasted for less than a year before he was unceremoniously ousted by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Tucson quickly came under the control of the United States and became a part of the new New Mexico Territory, which lasted until 1863 when Tucson became part of the new Arizona Territory. And eventually, in 1867, it became the territorial capital.
But for Annabelle Parsons, since none of this had really impacted St. Joseph’s, the bigger news in 1861 was the arrival of a baby girl. She was brought in by a man named Dusty, who neither confirmed he was the father, nor gave his last name. He said the baby was less than a day old and that the mother had died giving birth. He didn’t give the name of the mother either. He left after only a couple of hours, but before he did, he made a sizable donation to Miss Parsons and received her assurance that the baby would be well taken care of. He left quickly, even before Miss Parsons could explain that while she appreciated his generosity, all of the children were treated the same and well taken care of.
In her sixty years of being a part of St. Joseph’s, Miss Parsons had seen and cared for hundreds of children, infants and older, healthy and weak, adopted and not. And she had loved every single one of them. But for some reason, maybe known only to God, this little girl was different. Somehow, she had crawled quicker and deeper into Miss Parson’s heart than any child who had come before her. Her story wasn’t that different than the stories of many of the infants that had come under her care, orphaned or abandoned. They were alone in the world at a time when they most needed somebody, and Miss Parsons, as often as she could be, was that somebody.
But for reasons she never could explain to herself, this child had a hold on her. Like many, she had no name when she came, and it was Miss Parsons’ responsibility, as it had been Mrs. Rapin’s before her, to give her a name. For the first time since she had been in charge, she couldn’t settle on a name before retiring for the evening, so the baby spent her second night in the world without parents or a name.
In the morning, when Miss Parsons walked into the small nursey and saw the baby again, the name came to her quickly and easily, as if it had been there all the time—and maybe it had.
She named her Annabelle Rapin.
For the next eight years, Miss Parsons watched Annabelle grow up. She was a good child, better than average in school, pretty enough, friendly and kind, but Miss Parsons knew there was really nothing unique or spectacular about Annabelle. But it didn’t matter. Young Annabelle had a hold on Miss Parsons’ heart and just wouldn’t let it go.
Miss Parsons had always convinced herself, and maybe it was true, that with all of the children she had at St. Joseph’s, she didn’t have a need for a husband or children of “her own.” Annabelle was the first child that challenged that and got Miss Parsons thinking that maybe she should have considered a different course. More than once, when she was younger, men in town had shown an interest in her, sometimes even calling on her at St. Joseph’s. But, while always polite, she never let it go further and had, in fact, never had what one would call a date.
And during those eight years, an average of once or twice a year, the man called Dusty would come back and visit, usually staying for a day or two and watching Annabelle, though he never allowed Miss Parsons to introduce him to any of the children and especially not to Annabelle. He always left a contribution, though by now he understood that Annabelle would receive no special treatment. Sometimes the contribution was large, which he said was a result of his luck running strong, and sometimes it was small, which he said was the result of a bad streak.
In the spring of 1869, Miss Parsons received a letter from Abigail that explained how her husband had died suddenly the month before. After all these years together, she still loved him and missed him terribly. Abigail went on to explain that she had been left quite a bit of money, more than she, or they, would ever need, but the one thing she really needed was her sister. At nearly sixty-eight years old, they did not have that many years left, and Miss Parsons wondered if maybe it was time to turn St. Joseph’s over to the next person and come back east and live with Abigail.
At first, Miss Parsons dismissed it as impossible, but the thought kept creeping into her mind over the next couple of days. She was getting older, and if she was honest with herself, she was getting tired. And maybe it was a little selfish of her to keep going. It wouldn’t be good if one day she suddenly passed, and St. Joseph’s was left without a leader. Having no one else to talk to, she brought the idea to three of her favorite, and most important, donors. They assured her that she was still doing a great job, but admitted that there was some concern about how long, and how effectively, she could do the job as she rapidly approached seventy years of age.
With everything happening faster than she could have possibly imagined, Miss Parsons agreed to leave on June 2, 1869, her sixty-eighth birthday. She went back to St. Joseph’s, almost in a state of shock, and did something she had never done before. She invited Annabelle to stay in her room for the night. Quite simply, she didn’t want to be alone. Annabelle thought it was a grand adventure and slept very comfortably in the second bed in Miss Parsons room, the one that had gone unused since June 2, 1817, when Abigail last slept there.
The next day, Miss Parsons went back to her donors to discuss who would be taking over when she left. Though she loved her small staff, she did not feel any were qualified, or even trainable, to take over. One of the donors assured her that it wouldn’t be a problem, since she had a cousin, Miss Grossman, who ran an orphanage in Baltimore and wanted to move to a warmer climate.
It seemed that everything was settled, and even though Miss Grossman would be unable to arrive for almost a month after Miss Parsons left, the donors assured her that, working with the staff, they could take care of everything for the month. Anxious to see her sister, Miss Parsons agreed and made plans to leave.
Before she left, she prepared a file on each of the children, explaining their likes and dislikes, their special needs, if any, and a bit of their background. She also left a detailed report on each of the donors, suppliers and community leaders who were important to get to know.
And on June 2, 1869, at sixty-eight years of age, Miss Parsons walked out of St. Joseph’s Orphanage of Tucson, never to return. She lingered for a long time at the gate,
seemingly unable to let go of young Annabelle. She looked back only once, but the sound of the huge gate clanging closed and the tears streaming down young Annabelle’s face stopped her from looking back again. She was comforted knowing that the report on Annabelle contained the information on how she received her name, her suspicion that Dusty was actually her father and could be expected to visit any time soon, and Miss Parsons’ address in New York in case Annabelle wanted to write.
Sadly, Annabelle Parsons never reached New York. She died of stroke, alone in a hotel room in St. Louis, waiting to catch a train to see her sister. Abigail received a letter from the hotel explaining what happened, but St. Joseph’s never did.
Which meant—and maybe it was a good thing—that Miss Parsons would never know that the first thing Miss Grossman did upon her arrival was to throw out the reports and files so carefully prepared by Miss Parsons and announce to her shocked assistant that these children would no longer be coddled.
This also meant that young Annabelle would never receive the promised letters from Miss Parsons and would never know why. And she would never learn how and why she was given her name. Life at St. Joseph’s was very different for all the children, not just Annabelle, with Miss Parsons gone and Miss Grossman in charge.
And so, when Brock, Sophie, Huck and Ray showed up a month after Miss Grossman and asked Annabelle if she wanted to leave with them, she jumped at the chance.
Miss Annabelle Parsons would have been thrilled for her.