Deuce stands on a Port Huron pier waiting to take the ferry across the St. Clair River to Sarnia, Ontario, and then a train to St. Thomas. As the passengers arriving from Canada debark, Deuce's attention is drawn to a young woman whose long, dark hair livens the river breeze.
Mae Hanrahan stumbles slightly as she steps off the gangway onto the pier, almost losing her grip on one of the two valises she's carrying. It's the most natural thing in the world for Deuce to step up and relieve Mae of her bags. They face each other, smiling like old friends.
The departing passengers stream around the couple standing at the foot of the gangway. Deuce sets down Mae's bags, tips his hat, and nods. "Deuce Laffingstock," he says.
"Mae Hanrahan," she replies with a quick curtsy.
Deuce picks up the bags and leads Mae into town. "Where to?"
Mae replies, "The train station, please. Did Mr. Aughning send you?"
Deuce asks, "Where's the train station, and who's this Mr. Awning?"
Mae stops walking. "Mr. Aughning is the man in St. Louis who hired me as the new teacher."
"I think you got on the wrong boat," says Deuce.
"St. Louis, Michigan," Mae says, "near Alma."
Deuce shakes his head. "I'm not from these parts," he says.
Mae folds her arms. "Who are you?"
"I'm the guy who's escorting you to St. Louis. The one in Michigan, somewhere," replies Deuce. "I'm sure it won't be too difficult to find."
"Perhaps someone at the train station will know," says Mae as she points to a prominent building ahead. After a few steps, Mae stops again. "If you don't know Mr. Aughning, why are you escorting me to St. Louis?" she asks. "And what kind of a name is 'Deuce'?" She refolds her arms.
Deuce sets down Mae's bags. "My father named me Alphonsus Januarius," he says, "and my mother named me Deuce. Which name would you choose?"
Deuce continues: "I'm escorting you to St. Louis because I can think of no place I'd rather be than wherever you are." He picks up her bags.
Mae watches Deuce walk off with her bags. "I don't think I can go with you," she says.
Deuce stops again. "Why not?"
Mae considers this. "Mr. Aughning said he would send someone for me. I thought it was you."
Deuce smiles. "I think it's me too. Now let's go find St. Louis."
Mae steps tentatively toward Deuce. By the time she reaches him, her confidence has returned. "Maybe I was right the first time," she says.
An hour later, Mae is comforted by the jostling of the train. She prefers the irregularity of the iron rails to the boat's bounce and roll. She doesn't know who this tall young man is, but she's doesn't mind Deuce following her like a stray. He seems tame, and he doesn't bark. In fact, he hasn't spoken much since they settled into their third-class seats. From California, he said, and visiting family near Saginaw.
Deuce explained his presence at the ferry by telling Mae he was on his way to Chatham, Ontario, to purchase a team of horses for his uncle. "My uncle won't mind the seller feeding the team for a couple more days," Deuce told Mae. "Besides, I've always wanted to see St. Louis."
Two hours later, not long before twilight, St. Louis appears out the train window. "Maybe it looks better close up," says Deuce cheerily.
Well, I knew it wasn't Toronto, thinks Mae as the train stops. Deuce rises and offers Mae his hand. Mae takes it as naturally as breathing.
The sun is nearly set as Mae and Deuce stand in front of the house they were told is the residence of Mr. Aughning. It appears to be vacant. A horse pulling a small wagon approaches slowly down the dirt lane. An old woman in a floppy hat holds the reins. "Gone," she says to them.
The horse keeps walking slowly down the path. "Where?" asks Mae. The woman doesn't answer. Deuce and Mae watch the wagon creak around a bend.
Mae had followed Mr. Aughning's instructions exactly: the train from Belleville to Sarnia, the ferry to Port Huron, the train to St. Louis.
"Are you sure you have the right St. Louis?" Deuce asks half-seriously. Mae regards Mr. Aughning's house as it disappears in the twilight. Now what? she thinks.
Deuce shrugs at her, walks up to the house's front door, and gives it a good yank. The latch comes off in his hand. Then the door comes off its hinges and lands with a bang at Deuce's feet. Deuce stands the door up and leans it against the clapboard house.
Mae stands in the house's front yard and watches Deuce walk through the doorless entry. For the first time all this long day she's afraid. A second later the fear is gone, swept away by Deuce's big, happy grin as he pokes his head through the doorway and motions Mae to enter.
Deuce is trying to light an oil lamp when Mae steps inside the darkened house. "The wagon lady was right about Mr. Aughning," Deuce says.
An hour later Deuce has started a fire in the abandoned house's fireplace, fetched water from the well, and laid out a modest picnic supper. "I can't stay here," says Mae as she takes the last bite of the pear Deuce saved from their lunch on the train.
"Sure you can," says Deuce.
Mae tries again: "We can't stay here. Together."
Deuce replies: "Sure we can. Oh." He scratches the stubble on his chin. "I see," he says.
Deuce stands, bows comically to Mae, and says, "If you need me I'll be on the porch." He doffs his cap and heads for the doorless doorway.
When Mae wakes the next morning, she walks out to the house's porch ready to wish Deuce a good morning. The porch is empty. Her heart drops. Mae knows she'll look for Deuce inside and outside the house, but she knows she won't find him. She's certain she'll never see Deuce again.
Chuck never imagined his mother so young as the image of 16-year-old Mae Hanrahan, recent teacher-college graduate, standing on that porch.
Mae thinks, Alone in a strange town, heart breaking for a young man I've known for less than a day, dirty, hungry, cold. So this is life.
Two days later, Deuce is looking over the horses he was sent to Canada to retrieve, but he's thinking about Mae Hanrahan, alone in St. Louis. Deuce spent his night on Mr. Aughning's porch, staring at the clouds and trees, calculating what it would take to deserve a woman like Mae.
The eastern sky was nearly lit when the solution came to Deuce, coalesced in a single word that tolled in his head like a church bell: land.
Deuce realizes the horse trader has asked him a question. He nods his head noncommittally, but the man persists: "Will you, sir?" he repeats.
"Yes. What?" says Deuce.
"Thank you, sir. My niece to Mrs. Evenrudd in Saginaw," the horse trader replies.
"Your what to where?"
"As I said," the horse trader says politely, "she lost her parents as a baby and has lived from family to family hereabouts." He pauses.
Deuce waits for the man to continue. "It's her chance," he says, almost pleading. "To get away from here. To a real school." He looks up. "She's a smart girl, this one," the horse seller says. "But she can't make the trip alone, and we can't spare anyone presently to take her."
The horse trader sounds urgent: "If she's not there next week, her spot will go to another girl."
Deuce waits a beat and says, "Five bucks."
An hour later, Deuce boards the Port Huron ferry in a wagon drawn by two middle-aged, gray horses. On the seat next to him is a suitcase. In the back of the creaky wagon crouches a tall young girl in an oversized cotton dress. She looks ready to spring out of the wagon bed.
Deuce sets the wagon brake and alights to calm the horses. He struggles to remember the girl's name without having to ask her for the fourth time. Ann? Abigail? Easiest three dollars I ever made, he thinks.
The girl's name comes to Deuce. "You okay back there, Agnes?" he asks as he leans into the wagon bed. Agnes nods and reaches for her bag. It's a badly worn carpetbag held shut by a length of frayed rope. Agnes unties the rope's knot and pulls from the bag a thin cotton sweater.
Deuce feels the cool wind blowing off Lake Huron to the north. He takes a jar of water from under the wagon seat and hands it to Agnes. Agnes takes the jar from Deuce, removes the lid, and hands it back to him. "Aren't you thirsty?" Deuce asks. Agnes looks at him curiously. "Drink!" Deuce says, a little more forcefully than he intended. Agnes empties a good portion of the jar and then offers it back to Deuce.
Deuce takes the jar from Agnes and drinks deeply. He wonders about this girl, who has barely spoken since they left Chatham that morning. "We'll have us a picnic lunch in Port Huron," Deuce tells Agnes, who hasn't budged from the back of the wagon. Like freight, thinks Deuce.
Deuce leans against the wagon. "Your uncle says you're heading to school." Agnes doesn't respond. "Didn't take to schooling myself," he adds. Agnes gives Deuce a sideways glance, starts to say something, and then thinks better of it. Deuce shrugs and climbs onto the wagon's seat.
"Not really a school," Agnes says several seconds later.
"What is it really?" Deuce asks. Agnes holds her carpetbag tighter.
"A workhouse," she says softly. Deuce wonders what he got himself into.
A half-hour later the wagon has reached the outskirts of Port Huron. "How about some lunch?" Deuce asks Agnes as he pulls the wagon off the dirt track heading north. "Then we'll go see about this workhouse."
Deuce's Aunt Marguerite happens to be on the low porch as he arrives at the Merrill farm. She smiles when she spots Deuce and the horses. Aunt Marguerite's smile disappears when she sees Agnes in the seat next to Deuce. Agnes looks just as disappointed back at Aunt Marguerite.
Her smile has returned by the time Aunt Marguerite greets her nephew and his unexpected companion. She reaches out to help the two down from the seat.
"Wash up, dinner's waiting," Aunt Marguerite tells them. "I'll have the boys get the team settled." She directs them into the farmhouse.
After dinner, Aunt Marguerite makes Agnes a pallet for the night and then joins Deuce on the porch. "Whatever possessed you?" she asks him.
"The prospect of an easy three dollars possessed me," replies Deuce.
"Maybe not so easy as you think," his aunt warns. "Mind those strays."
Deuce explains, "She's a 13-year-old orphan I'm taking to school in Saginaw."
Aunt Marguerite asks, "What do you know about this school?"
"Run by Mrs. Evenrudd," says Deuce. "Across from Sts. Peter and Paul Church. Arrive by Friday." Agnes's workhouse remark goes unmentioned.
"If your Uncle Bernard gets back tomorrow I might just tag along with you to Saginaw," says Aunt Marguerite. "Get this girl delivered safe."
Deuce ponders the trip with his aunt and his young charge. Sure would improve the victuals, he thinks. Might even perk Agnes up a smidgen. "It would be an honor," Deuce says and tips his hat.
Aunt Marguerite raises an eyebrow. "Just hope your uncle doesn't crown you," she says.
Deuce hadn't considered that his Uncle Bernard would object to his deviations from the plan. But this uncle was unlike his mother's brother. This one sometimes listened to reason.
Deuce is roused before dawn by the sound of his Uncle Bernard working in the yard. Seconds later there's stirring throughout the house. Lying on his billet in the farmhouse's pantry, Deuce had been dreaming of a field of shining wheat that stretched to the horizon. The grain is transformed into rows of dried corn stalks poking out of a Michigan autumn: the forlorn homestead of his mother's sister Marguerite and her husband Bernard Merrill.
Deuce is certain his Uncle Bernard commenced working the moment he returned. The man slept an hour or two at midday, only rarely at night. Giving in to the bustle around him, Deuce begins the day hours before dawn. He finds his pants and boots and carries them into the kitchen.
"Let me explain Agnes's presence," Aunt Marguerite says before Deuce is through the door. "Best to steer clear of your uncle this morning." Aunt Marguerite hands Deuce a cup of coffee. "You busy yourself in the barn until breakfast," she says. "Bernard'll be done fuming by then."
A couple hours pitching hay doesn't sound so bad to Deuce. Keep the morning chill at bay, he thinks. The city kid took quickly to farming.
"Breakfast!" Aunt Marguerite's call interrupts Deuce's revery of Mae in sunlight, Mae in evening shadow, Mae tickled by sarsaparilla fizz. Deuce parks his pitchfork in a hay bale and heads for the ladder down from the barn loft. At the foot of the ladder stands Uncle Bernard.
Uncle Bernard glances around the barn floor strewn with hay. "Eat a hearty breakfast," he tells Deuce. "We have a long fence line to walk. Let's hope you're better with a post-hole digger than you are with a pitchfork," Uncle Bernard mumbles as he heads for the farmhouse kitchen.
Deuce is surprised to see Agnes in the midst of the breakfast bustle. A large, odd-shaped table resting on saw horses dominates the kitchen. In quick succession, three adults and four children take their places at the table. Deuce fills the penultimate open spot. No one speaks.
Agnes looks surprised when Aunt Marguerite motions her to sit in the last vacant chair. She sits as if she expects the chair to give away. Agnes watches the others fill their plates from the large bowls of food on the table. Uncle Bernard reaches for her plate and serves her.
Breakfast winds down, the table thins out. Only Agnes, Uncle Bernard, and Deuce remain. "Heading for Saginaw, eh?" Uncle Bernard asks Agnes.
Agnes nods once. Uncle Bernard taps the table with two fingers. He turns to Deuce and asks, "Do you know how to find this Mrs. Blackwell?"
"Agnes's uncle gave me her address," Deuce replies.
Aunt Marguerite stands next to her husband. "Your aunt'll join you," Uncle Bernard says.
"Look into this school," Uncle Bernard continues as he stands and motions Deuce to follow him. Agnes begins clearing the rest of the table.
Agnes stands on the sloping lawn of Mrs. Blackwell's house looking up at the many-gabled roof. It's right out of a fairy tale, she thinks.
Deuce and his Aunt Marguerite both notice Agnes's smile. Deuce hardly recognizes her without the dour expression. Agnes leads them forward.
A young woman in an apron answers the doorbell and ushers them into the house's wide foyer. "The missus asks that you wait here," she says. With a shallow curtsy the young woman scampers down the carpeted hallway. Agnes's attention is drawn to a portrait of an American Indian.
"Must be a northern Plains tribe," says Agnes under her breath.
She's startled to hear a woman's voice behind her say softly, "Niitsitapi."
"Blackfoot," Mrs. Blackwell says even more quietly. She leans in to look more closely at the portrait. Agnes steps back to give her room.
Still taking in the painting, Mrs. Blackwell asks, "Where did you learn about Indians?" Agnes doesn't answer. Mrs. Blackwell doesn't move.
Agnes eventually replies, "I lived with an Ojibway family in Barrie." Mrs. Blackwell remains motionless. "Near Lake Simcoe," Agnes explains.
"Did you like living with an Ojibway family in Barrie near Lake Simcoe?" Mrs. Blackwell asks Agnes. The young girl nods, her eyes downcast.
Mrs. Blackwell addresses Aunt Marguerite and Deuce: "May I offer you luncheon whilst your young lady teaches me about the Ojibway culture?"
Luncheon sounds like a great idea to Deuce, but Aunt Marguerite takes Agnes's hand. "Due respect," she tells Mrs. Blackwell, "no, ma'am."
Aunt Marguerite continues: "This youngster came into our care," she gives Deuce a sideways glance. "And she remains our responsibility."
Mrs. Blackwell reaches over and pulls a thick velvet rope hanging from the ceiling. "May I recognize your kindness?" she asks Deuce's aunt.
"No recognizing accepted, ma'am," Aunt Marguerite replies, keeping hold of Agnes's hand. "My husband, you see, he was orphaned himself. So I hope you'll oblige his thoughts concerning her wherewithal," Aunt Marguerite continues. After a moment, she adds, "And mine as well."
The girl in the apron reappears. Mrs. Blackwell points at a door off the foyer. "Join me, please." Mrs. Blackwell leads them into the room.
The parlor is cluttered with odd, shiny artifacts. The four of them are seated in mismatched chairs spaced feet apart and facing odd angles. The girl in the apron stumbles in with a tray, sets it on a table, and begins to serve tea. Deuce looks for anything resembling a luncheon.
Deuce is seated roughly between Mrs. Blackwell and his Aunt Marguerite. Agnes peeks at him nervously from a chair situated behind his aunt. Once the tea is served, Mrs. Blackwell addresses Aunt Marguerite: "Your concerns are laudable but unwarranted. The danger is now past."
Aunt Marguerite turns to Agnes. "I wasn't aware you were in danger," she says. Agnes looks at Mrs. Blackwell. Deuce's stomach makes a noise.
Mrs. Blackwell asks Agnes, "Where do you live?"
"Nowhere," Agnes answers.
"When were you last in school?" Agnes looks down, doesn't answer. Mrs. Blackwell continues: "Who taught you to read?" Agnes is silent. "Didn't you teach yourself? What happened when they found your book?"
Deuce is certain Agnes has turned to stone. Mrs. Blackwell says softly, "The doctor said the lacerations were made by a metal belt buckle."
Deuce's wail is more of a gasp. It stuns everyone in the room -- especially Deuce. Agnes merely shudders. Aunt Marguerite's jaw clenches. Mrs. Blackwell continues in the same even tone. "Mrs. Evenrudd and I were informed of the incident and arranged a special scholarship for Agnes."
Deuce ponders Mrs. Blackwell as she pauses to sip her tea. She fills her armchair but doesn't seem large. She appears to be lost in thought. "The arrangements," Mrs Blackwell says seconds later, "included payment in advance for transportation from Ontario. For two. First class."
"You paid the horse trader?" Deuce asks Mrs. Blackwell. He calculates how long it would take to find the man who said he was Agnes's uncle.
Mrs. Blackwell addresses Deuce directly: "Garret Tolle was married to Agnes's guardian, Beryl Hoft, who was some sort of cousin of Agnes." She turns to Aunt Marguerite. "Her mother disappeared not long after Agnes was born," she says. "Her father was unaccounted for."
"According to Mr. Tolle," Mrs. Blackwell continues, "Agnes was taken in by her mother's aunt." Deuce glances at Agnes, who sits very still. "And now she's here," Mrs. Blackwell says as she rises from her chair. "And hungry, I assume." She smiles at Agnes, who still hasn't budged.
Deuce gets up and holds his hand out to Agnes. "Let's eat," he says. She takes his hand and follows him out, her expression warming a bit.
"Patience, young man," Aunt Marguerite says to her nephew. Deuce and Agnes stop. She asks Mrs. Blackwell, "May we refresh ourselves, ma'am?"
"Iris," Mrs. Blackwell waves at the girl in the apron, who nods and signals Aunt Marguerite to follow her. Aunt Marguerite nods at Deuce.
"What's to become of you?" Aunt Marguerite asks Agnes in the house's small lavatory. Agnes stands next to the basin, her boots in her hands.
Aunt Marguerite looks at the boots Agnes is holding. Agnes sets them down on the floor. "Too small," she says quietly and steps back again.
Aunt Marguerite takes Agnes by the hand. "Let's see about getting you properly shod," she says, "before Deuce and I take our leave of you."
Waiting for them outside the lavatory is Iris, who leads them down the hallway. After a few steps, Agnes gives Aunt Marguerite a long hug.
On the evening train from Saginaw back to his uncle's farm, Deuce is nodding off, the result of Mrs. Blackwell's substantial luncheon fare. Deuce is roused by the memory of Agnes turning away without a word when they parted a few hours earlier. A second later he's dozing again.
Sitting across from Deuce in the bumpy train, his Aunt Marguerite is glad for the time off the farm. She'd stay another day if she could. Marguerite has always trusted her instincts about people, but she's second-guessing her immediate leeriness of Mrs Blackwell and her school.
Agnes stands in her stocking feet in front of a bookshelf. Mrs. Blackwell stands beside her, perusing the titles. "Just one?" Agnes asks.
"Just one to start," Mrs. Blackwell answers. "The rest will be here when you're ready for them," she tells Agnes. A volume catches her eye. Mrs. Blackwell retrieves a book from a high shelf and hands it casually to Agnes. After regarding the cover, she asks, "The Deerslayer?"
"Leatherstocking Tales," Mrs. Blackwell says reassuringly. "Natty Bumppo. Chingachgook." In Agnes's ears the names echo like an incantation.
That evening, Deuce and his Uncle Bernard are replacing a fence post in the day's last light. His uncle hasn't mentioned Agnes or Saginaw.
Twenty miles to the east, Agnes sits at a table in Mrs. Blackwell's library, lost in the woods of Lake Otsego, hiding from marauding Hurons.
Twenty-five miles to the west of the Merrill farm, Mae Hanrahan concedes she's made little progress in preparing for the first day of class.
In the failing light, the schoolhouse looks no less the shambles Mr. Aughning left it following his hurried departure three weeks earlier. Mae travels the 100 yards between Aughning's dilapidated house and the axle-bent school. Neither building will last the winter, she thinks. At least the schoolhouse has a working door. That's one of the reasons Mae has taken up residence there. She even found a handful of books.
Most of two McGuffey Readers, The Pilgrim's Progress, and a Latin catechism: not much of a curriculum, thinks Mae as she waits for the fire. Mae's evening stew will be the remnants of the basket of vegetables dropped off three days before by one of her new neighbors, the Demers.
Mae spots Venus shining through a schoolhouse window. She imagines giving her students a tour of the evening sky. She thinks, so wonderful.
An hour later, Venus has set, a half-moon is rising, and Mae is dropping asleep beside the free-standing stove in a corner of the school's lone classroom.
To Mae it seems just a moment passes from closing her eyes in the dark glow of the stove to opening them to a classroom brimming with light. Morning is full on, and Mae is wide awake in an instant.
Mae thinks, I must have been dreaming of biscuits. I can smell them. Her gaze follows her nose to a basket sitting just inside the doorway. The folks of St. Louis, Michigan, were in the midst of the late-summer harvest, so they barely noticed their new schoolmarm, Miss Hanrahan.
Before his untimely departure, Mr. Aughning told Mae not to expect many students until mid-October. Now Mae wonders, Where would I put them?
Mae is surprised to hear the school's door creak open. A boy and girl walk in. Siblings, Mae thinks. She puts their ages at six and eight. The girl is holding her younger brother by the wrist rather than by the hand. "We're to retrieve the basket and fetch you," the girl says.
"Fetch me where?" Mae replies. The girl stares back, says nothing. Her younger brother strains to break free of her grasp of his wrist. Mae persists: "Fetch me where, young lady?"
The girl tugs her brother's arm. "Back home, ma'am." She points and adds, "With the basket."
Must be the Demers children, thinks Mae. "I am Miss Hanrahan," she says. "Who might you be?"
"Sally and Richard," the girl answers flatly.
Mae hands Sally the empty basket. "Thank your mother for me and tell her I will visit at my next opportunity."
The girl just stares at her. "She says to fetch you," Sally explains. Her brother has stopped struggling and is now moping beside her. "And the basket, ma'am," she adds.
Mrs. Demers must love that basket, thinks Mae. She decides the cleanup can wait. She fetches her hat and smiles at the prospect of company.
Mrs. Demers stands at the top of the porch stairs, hands on her hips. "Hightailed it out of here two steps ahead of the sheriff," she says.
Mae stands at the bottom of the Demers front-porch stairs and holds out the empty basket. "Thank you," she says. The children have vanished.
"Now how to keep you," Mrs. Demers wonders aloud. "Don't you know not to return a basket empty? Them Canucks teach you anything?" she asks.
Mrs. Demers takes the basket from Mae and walks into the house. "Come inside," she tells Mae. "Time we got to seeing our teacher situated."
Mae isn't sure she's interested in being "situated" by Mrs. Demers or anyone else, but it's her best chance for a cup of tea this morning.
"You better start introducing yourself to folks if you don't want to freeze this winter," Mrs. Demers tells Mae across the kitchen table. Mae does her best to look interested but is focused on hearing the kettle boil. She's already planning her escape from St. Louis, Michigan.
By Mae's reckoning, no books, no desks, no chalkboard, no maps, no pointer, no pay, and no students add up to no school and no teacher. She made up her mind on the walk over to the Demers' farm. How difficult could it be to find someone named Alphonsus Januarius Laffingstock?
Mrs. Demers walks over to the stove two seconds before the kettle whistles. "Miss Annamarie," she says to Mae, "She's the one to start on. Parson Ristelhueber's wife," Mrs. Demers continues. "Teaches Sunday school in the church basement. Not fond of Catholics, either of 'em."
Mrs. Demers places Mae's teacup in front of her at the table and waits for Mae's response. There is none. Mae sips her tea, stares blankly. She's thinking back on her day with Deuce: arriving at the dock, riding on the train, walking through St. Louis, picnicking in a dark house.
"Annamarie Ristelhueber," Mrs. Demers repeats.
Mae replies, "Yes, ma'am. Where may the Catholic church be?"
"A good piece," says Mrs Demers. "In Alma. St. Mary's. Near the Presbyters' college."
For the first time, Mae feels homesick. She pictures her desk back at Holy Name of Mary Catholic School in Marysville, Sister Joseph at the blackboard. She remembers why she came all the way west to Michigan.
"Does Miss Annamarie's church basement have a blackboard?" Mae asks.
"Knowing her," Mrs. Demers says, "the biggest, blackest board in town."
Copyright 2014-2017 - Dennis Richard O'Reilly - all rights reserved