The water runs cold down a mountain stream, bouncing around rocks like a girl’s giggle. Usually this would be no problem for Deuce’s team. But he just got the wagon’s axle plugged and a wheel trued in Alberta. He isn’t going to chance getting stuck so close to Paydirt and his uncle.
Odd name for a jail, thinks Deuce for the hundredth time. He eases the team forward, letting the wagon creep over the rocky stream bottom. Get collared in B.C. and you hit Paydirt. He smiles, then he remembers why he’s heading for Paydirt and the smile disappears.
Deuce’s Uncle Joe has spent a year in Paydirt on a bogus charge related to a dust-up with a judge’s kin. He’s got five more years to serve. Now all Deuce has to do is sneak into Paydirt and sneak his uncle out. Then put Uncle Joe on a train to San Francisco, where he intends to put Teo Bartoli out of business.
For the moment, Deuce is focused on finding the ferry that will take him and his wagon down Okanagan Lake to Penticton, where he’ll make camp. And maybe make some money somewhere. Must be call for freight work around here, he thinks.
Deuce looks around, sees nothing but greenery. He breathes deeply the northern forest, letting the team find its own pace. A mile later, the lake comes into view. The horses perk up.
Tomorrow?”, Deuce repeats in disbelief. It took him an hour to find the ferry landing outside a muddy, desolate crossroads called Vernon. When Deuce arrived at the landing, it was empty, except for a short man with long moustaches. “Left an hour ago,” the man said without looking up. “Come back tomorrow,” he told Deuce, still not looking at him. “Best you keep that rig of yours out of sight, California,” he giggled.
The man walked off without saying another word. By evening Deuce has found a small clearing well off the road and set up his meager camp. He chances a small fire to heat some beans. How’d that old man spot me for a Californian?, he wonders. And who am I hiding my rig from?
Mae stands in an autumn cornfield, looking right through Deuce. He wants to shout, “I’m here!”, but a fierce wind rustles the corn stalks. The rustling grows louder, and Mae is lost in a dust cloud. Deuce wakes slowly and realizes the sound is emanating from a clutch of bushes near his makeshift camp. He turns his head toward the noise, expecting a skunk or raccoon to emerge from the underbrush. Instead, a small black head pops out.
Then the head pops back in and the rustling continues. A voice cries, “I got stuck.” Deuce stands, stretches, and walks over to investigate. “Stuck on what?”, he asks, still stretching, not really interested in the answer.
“This here,” the voice answers, then more rustling. Deuce crouches and peers into the underbrush, where he sees a trouser leg tangled in a branch. In a second he has freed it. Deuce starts hunting around for its mate.
“Hold still,” Deuce says as he locates the missing appendage, grabs both ankles, and pulls slowly. What emerges is five feet of animated mud spackle. The bundle rolls over and shies away from Deuce. “What are you after?”, Deuce asks him.
“Hoping for a ride down lake,” the bundle replies.
You are in serious need of a bath,” Deuce tells the bundle. He bends over to take a closer look. “You’re naught but a child,” he says. “And a black one,” he adds. The bundle sits up. “I’m 12 years old and my name is Jacob Riece,” he says. “I broke off the provy farm. I’m heading for the States, where my father is, I reckon. If he’s anywhere.”
“I’m Deuce. Why’d your father leave you up here?”
He didn’t leave me,” Jacob replies. “My mother did. When she died.” Deuce thinks, How do they find me? Tommy in Illinois, Agnes in Ontario. Now Jacob Riece in British Columbia. Is the world so full of wayward children? Or do they all find me?
Jacob hasn’t budged. Tired, hungry, dirty, thinks Deuce. “What do you say to some cold beans?”, he asks Jacob.
“Yes, sir,” he replies, showing signs of life.
“What’s a provy farm, anyway?”, Deuce asks Jacob as the youngster munches on the beans Deuce has warmed for him on the embers of last night’s fire.
“Provincial,” Jacob answers between chews. “Where we are. A province. What they call a state. The farm’s where they put you when your ma dies and your pa is off somewhere.”
Deuce thinks, strays find each other, one chasing after a father taken away, the other on a fool’s mission to break an uncle out of prison. “How are you planning on getting to the States?”, Deuce asks Jacob.
“Same way I got this far, I guess,” Jacob replies. “Head mostly south. A man up the way told me about the ferry that goes down the lake. But the ferryman sent me off for lack of fare. So I supposed I’d hitch.”
Jacob continues to work on the beans while he talks. “Not many wagons on the road, though. They’re all being requisitioned for service hauling miners and their gear north to the Yukon.”
“I heard the Klondike’s played out,” Deuce says. Jacob spoons up the last of the beans. “Mining’s a tough life,” Deuce continues. “So they say.” Jacob is eyeing the bottom of the pot, looking for one last bean. Deuce tells him, “We’re not going anywhere until you get a scrubbing.”
“What do you know,” Deuce says as a cleaned-up Jacob tucks a too-big shirt into too-big trousers. “You’re not near as ugly as I thought.”
“You thought I was ugly?”, Jacob asks Deuce, a little hurt.
Nah, not ugly,” he replies. “Just dirty as Gerty.”
“Who’s Gerty?”, Jacob asks.
You don’t know Dirty Gerty?”, Deuce asks Jacob with a laugh. “She lives with her friend Moldy Goldie.”
“They’re not real folk,” Jacob says.
Deuce asks, “How d’you know they’re not real folk?”
“Nobody’s named Dirty or Moldy.”
“You never had a nickname?”
“No,” Jacob replies quickly. “And I don’t want one.”
Deuce starts loading the wagon. “If you come with me,” he says, “you get a nickname. It’s the rules, so you think about what you want your nickname to be.”
Jacob jumps up and starts helping Deuce pack gear in the wagon bed. “How long do I have to think about it?”, he asks.
“Don’t wait too long,” Deuce replies, “or somebody’ll come up with a nickname for you. And you might not like it. Just ask Gerty and Goldie.” Jacob looks serious as they stow the last items into the wagon.
In no time the two horses are hitched and they’re on their way to the ferry landing. Deuce takes a look at Jacob in the seat beside him. Such a serious youngster, thinks Deuce. Jacob perks up suddenly. “Big Jake,” he says, looking at Deuce. “For my nickname. Or just Jake?”
Deuce makes like he’s thinking about it. “Calling you ‘Big Jake’ is a stretch, at the moment.” Deuce smiles. “You like ‘Jake’?”, he asks.
“I guess,” Jacob replies.
“Well, what name do you really like?”
“I really like ‘Jacob’.”
“There’s no rule saying your name and your nickname can’t be the same,” Deuce says. “Anyway, the best nicknames kinda happen by themselves.”
As they approach the landing, Deuce tells Jacob, “You best hunker down under the canvas ‘til we’re on our way to Penticton. Might be some constables looking for you.”
Deuce’s wagon is the second of four to board the steam ferry, a wide craft that also fit cargo and a dozen or so passengers, mostly human. Once on the lake, Deuce joins Jacob in the wagon bed for a lunch of hardtack and bacon suet. “The lake’s as flat as a pancake,” Deuce says.
Deuce thinks back to the November night he and Cy and Izzie almost made it across Lake Huron. With Mary and her son Jay in tow. Joe’s son. The same Uncle Joe he promised Mary he would break out of a British Columbia jail. A jail Deuce will get to in a few days. Without a plan.
Deuce watches a cloud crawl across a bright blue sky. He notices Jacob doing the same thing. “Nice,” Deuce says, pointing up. Jacob nods.
“Thank you, sir,” Jacob says, still looking up.
“You’re welcome,” Deuce replies. “What’s your plan for finding your father?”, Deuce asks.
“Find the Army,” Jacob replies, “ask where he is.”
Deuce considers this. “Good plan,” he says. “I have two options for you -- your choice. Option one, we part as friends in Penticton and go our separate ways. Option two, we head west for a little adventure. But before you answer, keep in mind that adventures can end badly.”
Jacob considers this for a second, then nods his head. “Think about it,” Deuce says and goes back to watching the clouds float through the sky.
“Stay with you, sir,” Jacob says, “if you please.”
“It’s settled then,” Deuce says, holding his hand out to Jacob. “We’ll retrieve my uncle and then locate your father.” They shake on it. If you promise to do one impossible thing, Deuce thinks, why not promise to do another? He looks at Jacob. What’s to become of the child?
“What’s to become of any of us?”, Deuce says. Jacob looks at him. “Some of us grow old,” he says. “And some of us die.”
Deuce nods, smiling. He stands in the wagon bed. “Well,” he says, “we’re both a good remove from either of those eventualities, God and that boiler willing.”
“What’s an ‘eventuality’?”, Jacob asks.
Deuce looks south across the water. “Something that’s gonna happen no matter what you do,” he says. “But not today, I’m betting,” he adds.
Deuce sits back down as Jacob stands up and looks south for himself. “How far to the U.S.?”, he asks.
“You’re about halfway there,” Deuce replies. “Maybe a week, maybe two.” Deuce looks at the sky. “We may be crossing the border in a hurry,” he adds.
An hour later, Penticton comes into view. Jacob is asleep in the wagon bed. Deuce watches a gray line of clouds form on the western horizon. He reconsiders his plan to ride an hour or two west of Penticton before making camp. No one will pay them much heed in the pouring rain.
Deuce thinks again about finding some freighting work. If all the wagons are in the miners’ hands up north, there could be money to be made. The wind is picking up as the ferry approaches the Penticton dock. The horses smell the change in the weather. Deuce reaches into the wagon and retrieves a canvas jacket from the bed. “Here,” he says as he hands it to Jacob. “We’ll get you properly accoutered in town.”
Jacob puts the jacket on. It’s far too large for him. “Then what?”, he asks Deuce.
“What?”, Deuce replies.
“After I get a cootard,” Jacob says.
“Like I said,” Deuce says, “Paydirt to get my uncle out.”
"Soon enough,” Deuce answers. “If the weather holds.”
Deuce pokes at what’s left of the campfire. He and Jacob found a makeshift shelter for the night in a hollowed-out hillside a mile west of the Penticton ferry. Jacob is admiring the boots Deuce bought for him at the general store in Penticton as part of the boy’s accoutrement. Deuce shakes his head. “This fire is done for,” he says as the last flames flicker and die. The rain pours off the tarp that serves as their roof.
Deuce looks around their small shelter. “That spot looks pretty dry,” he says, pointing to a piece of ground. He tosses Jacob a blanket. “Why don’t you try to get some sleep? I’m gonna bring this fire back to life.”
Deuce turns around when Jacob doesn’t answer. He sees him curled up in the blanket, fast asleep. Deuce turns back to the remnants of the fire and dozes as best he can.
When first light appears through the clouds to the east, Deuce pulls his jacket over his head and runs to the wagon, where he scrounges inside the tarp-covered bed for some wood dry enough to catch a flame. He comes up with a couple of promising sticks. Tucking the wood pieces inside his coat to keep them out of the rain, Deuce scampers back to their makeshift lean to. He hears Mae’s voice. “Keep him safe,” Mae tells him.
The boy’s sleeping on the cold ground in the pouring rain, and not even broth to warm him. “I will get this fire going again,” Deuce says out loud, which surprises him. This is nothing, he thinks. More like a heavy mist than rain.
It takes nearly an hour, but Deuce gets a small fire going well enough to get a pot warmed. Whatever scent it raises gets Jacob stirring. “Warm yourself young fellow,” says Deuce. He looks at the gray sky. “Sun’ll be out soon,” he adds.
Jacob stays under the blanket. “I had a dream,” he says. “A lady teacher. Not like the teachers on the farm. She was young. And pretty. She tried to tell me something, but I couldn’t hear her.”
“Did she have dark hair?”, Deuce asks. Jacob nods. “You couldn’t hear her because she was talking to me.”
Jacob stands and makes a face. “What did she say?”, Jacob asks.
Deuce motions for him to come by the small fire. “She said, ‘Jacob needs more pork and beans,’” he replies. “Her name is Mae Hanrahan. She’s from Ontario but she teaches in Michigan.” And I miss her more each day, he almost adds.
“She didn’t say anything about my father?”, Jacob asks.
Deuce shakes his head. “Just the bit about the pork and beans,” he says and smiles. “Like you said,” Deuce continues, “How many U.S. Army forts can there be? Your father’s bound to turn up at one of them.”
Deuce pokes at the fire, which is holding steady. “Mae didn’t offer any suggestions about getting my uncle out of Paydirt, either,” he says.
“How about some dynamite?”, Jacob offers.
Deuce makes like he’s considering it. “I was thinking of something a little more subtle,” he says.
“I hope I dream about her again,” Jacob says as he sits by the fire. Deuce spoons some pork and beans into a tin pan and hands it to him.
“I’m counting on it,” Deuce tells Jacob. “Dreaming about Mae is the best part of sleeping.”
“How does she do it?”, Jacob asks between bites.
“Do what?”, Deuce asks.
“Get in people’s dreams.”
“I know how she got in mine,” says Deuce. “I don’t know how she got in yours.”
“I’m glad other teachers can’t get in your dreams,” Jacob says as he spoons up some beans. “I might never go to sleep again.”
By noon the clouds have broken up and the day starts to warm. “We might make Princeton by dinner after all,” Deuce tells Jacob. “Worth a try.”
“Then what?”, Jacob asks. Deuce starts to pack up the wagon. Jacob joins him. “Then we ride down to Paydirt, break into the jail, and sneak my uncle out,” Deuce says.
“I never heard of breaking into jail,” Jacob says.
“That’s why it’ll work,” Deuce replies. “They’ll think nobody’s crazy enough to do that.”
“But we are, right?”, Jacob says with a smile.
“That’s us,” Deuce replies. He thinks, three crazy Americans trying to break out of Canada.
A few hours later, Deuce and Jacob are a mile outside Princeton, basking in the warm afternoon sun. “Yep, things are looking up,” Deuce says.
“They are?”, Jacob asks.
“Sure,” Deuce replies. “That merchant in Penticton said there’s freight piling up in Princeton, overdue for Paydirt. We ride right into that prison, make our delivery, take a look around, and then we ride back to Princeton. We pick up another load, deliver that one, go back for another. Before you know it, we’re regulars and the guards don’t pay us any mind.”
It’s evening when Deuce and Jacob ride into Princeton. “Keep a lookout for the mercantile,” Deuce says as the wagon rolls slowly along.
A minute later they see a man in a long apron standing in the middle of the road. As the wagon approaches him, the man squints up at Deuce. “You’re not Howe,” the man says.
“You are correct,” Deuce replies, “I am not Howe, I’m Laffingstock. And this is Riece.” He points at Jacob.
Now the man squints at the wagon. “Your rig for hire?”, he asks.
“It is,” Deuce replies, “for everything save rendering, swine, and manure.”
“Chickens,” the man says, still squinting. “To Kamloops. And molasses, four barrels, back here in Princeton by Sunday.” He looks at Jacob. “Ten dollars, plus provisions,” he says as he waves Deuce toward his dry goods store. “Fresh horses here and in Kamloops,” he adds.
“What are you shipping to Paydirt?”, Deuce asks as he parks the wagon in front of the store.
“Quarantined,” the man replies. “Typhus hit.”
“How long?”, Deuce asks as he jumps down from the wagon.
“Weeks, months,” the man says. “Who knows? Not many people in a rush to get there.”
“They still need chickens and molasses in Paydirt, don’t they?”, Deuce asks the merchant. Jacob joins them as they walk into the dark store.
“They need a sight more than that,” the man replies. “Who might you be, and how long have you been in Canada?”
“Laffingstock,” Deuce says. He offers his hand, which the man shakes.
“Harlan James,” he says. “New to these parts, I take it.”
Deuce nods and motions toward Jacob. “I was sent to retrieve this young one for his father,” he explains. “After his mother passed. The father’s an officer in the U.S. Army.”
The grocer asks, “Why are you freighting? Shouldn’t you be getting this youngster to his kin?”
“Well, sir, there’s a tale,” Deuce replies.
“Maybe someday I’ll want to hear it,” Harlan says. “Right now I have a store to run, and you have chickens to load around back,” he motions.
“About those provisions,” Deuce asks. “You see, the child has the appetite of a stevedore, and we’ve had naught but beans since Penticton.”
“Get those chickens loaded,” Harlan tells Deuce. “Then we’ll see to your victuals.”
Deuce nods quickly and motions for Jacob to follow him.
An hour later, the wagon is loaded, Deuce and Jacob have dined on a decent rabbit stew, and a fresh team of horses is hitched and watered. The grocer exits the back of his store carrying a wooden bucket. He places the bucket under the wagon seat. “This is all you need,” he says.
Deuce peers into the bucket. “Looks like paper,” he says. The grocer removes the sheet of paper covering the top of the bucket, holds it up. He points to the paper. “All you need,” he repeats. “Where to camp, who to deliver to in Kamloops, what to keep yourself away from. Get these pullets up there alive,” the grocer tells Deuce. “And get that molasses back here by Sunday.”
Deuce nods and folds the paper. The grocer turns and heads back into his store. Deuce motions Jacob to climb into the wagon seat, then he checks the crates one more time. Deuce climbs onto the wagon seat next to Jacob, releases the brake, and starts the team. The horses prance as the big wheels begin to roll. “Molasses,” Deuce says, shaking his head. “Only one thing you need that much sugar for.” Jacob looks over at him. “Whiskey,” Deuce explains.
It’s well into the evening but there’s still plenty of daylight when Deuce spots a sheltered space off the road. “Let’s make camp,” he says.
Jacob had been dozing on the seat next to Deuce. “Where?”, he asks, a little startled.
Deuce heads the wagon into the spot beside the road. “I’ll see to the horses,” he says to Jacob as he jumps down from the wagon. “You water the birds and start on the fire.” This Jacob does.
Two hours later, Deuce and Jacob are sitting beside the fire, digesting their supper. It’s still light out. Jacob says, “Hope I see her.”
“Who do you hope to see?”, Deuce asks.
“The nice teacher,” Jacob replies.
Deuce asks him, “Miss Hanrahan?” Jacob nods. “Me too,” Deuce says. As he beds down next to the fire, Deuce sees Mae in her makeshift classroom in the church basement, in the roofless ruins of the old school. He sees Mae standing on Mr. Aughning’s dilapidated front porch, but mainly he sees her stepping off the ferry in the Port Huron sunshine.
Twenty-five hundred miles to the east, Mae is dreaming of milled wood -- the last of the planks for the renovated schoolhouse’s new roof.
A distant hammering intrudes on Mae’s dream. She imagines Tommy carefully placing each shingle and pounding nails in the top two corners. Mae stirs, sees the day’s first light behind the makeshift curtains in Mr. Aughning’s house -- or what’s left of it after Tommy’s salvaging.
Mae thinks of the school. She was certain its classroom days were over. That was before Tommy arrived, who claimed to be 18 but looked 13. Deuce found her somewhere -- a young girl who dresses like a boy and who goes by a boy’s name. A girl who’s a natural with any kind of tool.
Mae thinks, in a week Tommy will finish repairing the school’s roof. Then she’ll have the rest of the summer to finish the interior work. This is not an entirely positive development for Mae. Having an actual school to teach in will make it harder to leave St. Louis, Michigan. Mae’s even starting to get paid her teacher’s salary on a semi-regular basis. Still, she has no doubt Deuce will return for her in no time.
Mae wraps a blanket around her shoulders and exits to a cool early morning. She walks toward the schoolhouse to investigate the hammering. When she gets there, she watches Tommy shingling the roof, lining them in a neat row, pounding nails rhythmically -- so focused Mae hesitates to interrupt.
Mae considers going back to the house but decides she prefers company to warmth at the moment. "Tommy!", she shouts between hammer strokes. Tommy stops hammering but doesn't turn around. "Did you sleep at all?", Mae asks her.
Tommy puts her hammer down and heads for the ladder. "Sorry," Tommy says as she steps down the ladder.
"You can't be working all day and all night," Mae tells her when she reaches the ground. Tommy stands at the foot of the ladder, looks off in the distance. “Some breakfast, at least?”, Mae asks her. Tommy frowns, shakes her head. “Tell me,” Mae says.
Tommy looks at the ground. “I have a friend,” she replies. “In Indiana. And I don’t know.” Mae waits. “If she’s okay. Gary.”
“Do all the girls in Indiana have boys’ names?”, Mae asks.
“Gary’s where she is,” Tommy says. “Millie’s her name.”
“Do you want to go back to Indiana?”, Mae asks. Tommy shakes her head, still looking at the ground. “You could write to her,” Mae suggests.
“No,” Tommy says. “She won’t get it. There was some trouble and I was run out.”
“That’s where Deuce found you?”, Mae asks. Tommy nods once. Tommy has a friend, thinks Mae. “Is that who I see you praying for at St. Mary’s?”, Mae asks her.
“I’m not supposed to say,” she replies. “It’s like wishes, right?”, Tommy asks. “If you tell your wish it won’t come true.”
“Whoever told you that bunch of malarkey?”, Mae replies. Mae regrets saying it the moment she sees Tommy’s face drop. “Unless you believe it,” Mae says. “Then it’s not malarkey at all, I guess.” Mae feels her cheeks reddening. “I’ll pray for Millie, and I don’t mind telling you.” She thinks, and I’ll thank Him again for directing you this way.
Tommy looks at the half-shingled roof. “You’re not going back up that ladder until you’ve had your breakfast, young lady,” Mae tells her.
Mae and Tommy walk toward what’s left of Mr. Aughning’s house. “She’ll be 18 in September,” Tommy says suddenly. “Then she can leave home. We were planning.” Tommy hesitates. “You can homestead in Alberta. Millie read all about it. We’re working up a stake.” Her voice trails off.
“Tough country up there,” Mae tells Tommy. Mae thinks of her Uncle Del, who broke prairie in Saskatchewan for 10 years before it killed him.
“Millie can’t stay in Indiana,” Tommy says as they reach what’s left of Mr. Aughning’s front porch. “Alberta can’t be tougher than Gary.”
An hour later, breakfast is over and Tommy is ready to return to her shingling. Sitting across the small table, Mae asks, “What if I write?”
“What if you write what?”, Tommy asks.
“A letter to Millie, or perhaps to her parents,” Mae replies. “We can invite Millie to visit us.”
“I’m forbid,” Tommy replies. “They said, ‘We forbid you.’ That was after.”
Mae waits. Then she asks, “After what?” Tommy doesn’t budge.
“He was hurting her, or trying to,” Tommy says after a time. “The sheriff’s oldest. I guess I cracked his skull a little, they said anyway. That’s why they run me out.”
Mae tries to imagine Tommy riled up enough to fracture someone’s noggin. “Millie,” she says.
“Millie,” Tommy repeats. A minute passes before Mae says, “The roof’s near completed. You’re a talented carpenter. Where did you learn it?”
“Just picked it up, I guess,” Tommy replies. “I always been handy, so.”
Mae sees Tommy eyeing the door. “I’ll call you for lunch,” she says.
Tommy heads straight out the door. Mae wishes once again that Deuce were nearby, wonders yet again whether he’ll ever stop his wandering. She looks at the empty plates on the small table. Deuce said he’d be back, she thinks, and he knew better than to say when. Mary Bartoli. If Mary asked Deuce to dig a hole to China, he’d be shopping for the world’s biggest shovel a minute later.
Mae’s ashamed of herself. Jealousy doesn’t become you, she admonishes herself. Deuce’s no-good Uncle Joe is in trouble, and Mary asked Deuce to help him. Granted, the help Deuce is offering entails breaking his uncle out of a prison in Canada and getting him back to San Francisco, where even more trouble awaits.
California seems unreal to Mae. She had never been more than 30 miles from the family farm in eastern Ontario until she left for Michigan. As Mae thinks about California, Deuce is sleeping under his wagon in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, dreaming about the Merrill farm outside Saginaw.
In his dream Deuce is stuck in the loft of his Uncle Bernard’s barn. Someone made off with the ladder. Deuce is waiting for them to return it. He thinks about jumping to the ground, then finds himself pushed. Rather than falling, he’s running through the air, unsure where to go. Something catches Deuce’s foot and sends him tumbling head over heels. Then he splash-lands and starts to sink. I’m in the Bay, he thinks.
The harder Deuce flails, the faster he sinks. When he stops struggling, he floats to the surface. He finds himself back in cold Lake Huron. The frigid water starts Deuce shivering. He shakes so hard he wakes up to find he’s lying in a puddle.
More rain, he thinks. It never stops. Deuce rolls from under the wagon, which he hoped would keep him dry through the night. “Not a stitch of dry clothing left,” he says to no one. I’ve never seen a place with so much rain, he thinks. No wonder the trees are so big. He looks up through the drops at a stand of firs. Still a few left that Uncle Joe hasn’t leveled, he thinks.
Deuce has been in British Columbia for two weeks and isn’t any closer to an escape plan. He checks the ropes securing the molasses barrels in the wagon. He’s a half day out of Princeton and Harlan’s mercantile, where Jacob has been working for a week or so. Jacob’s better off sweeping the floor at Harlan’s grocery than he is riding these muddy trails. Deuce has to admit, Harlan sure pays well.
But summer’s getting on. Deuce knows it’s past time to break his uncle out of that jail in Paydirt and get him and Jacob back to the States. Then get Jacob back to his father in the Army. Somewhere. Not impossible, but damn close. Finally, load his uncle on a Frisco-bound train.
And then what? Deuce ponders that question as he hitches the team to the wagon. East. To Mae. And then what? Perhaps Mae has some thoughts. Deuce climbs onto the wagon seat. No hot food or dry clothes ‘til Princeton, he thinks as he starts the horses walking in the misty rain. The jostle of the ambling wagon relaxes him. Moving makes him feel at home. Deuce thinks, you can’t just keep rolling forever, can you?
Deuce knows, settling down with Mae means no more rambling. That’s why he’s been avoiding it. Then it hits him: how he’ll spring his uncle.
By midafternoon, Deuce has arrived in Princeton, unloaded the molasses, taken a bath, changed into dry clothes, and eaten a teamster lunch. The sun has even started to break through the overcast as Deuce sits on a bench behind Harlan’s store. Not a bad day after all, he thinks. Deuce smiles as he thinks about his plan to liberate his Uncle Joe. Harlan exits the grocery and takes a seat on the bench next to Deuce.
A full minute of silence passes before Deuce says to Harlan, “I’ve been thinking about them quarantined prisoners in Paydirt.” More silence.
Two days later, Deuce is securing a wagonload of emergency provisions for Paydirt’s typhus-stricken inmates from the good people of Princeton. Harlan joins Deuce beside the wagon, which is parked outside Harlan’s store. “I don’t know,” Harlan says. “Paydirt may not be safe for him.”
Young Jacob has found a home at Harlan James’s mercantile. In a day he went from sweeping up and stocking shelves to working the register. When Deuce first proposed taking Jacob with him on the humanitarian run to Paydirt, Harlan hemmed and hawed. “I can’t handle it alone,” Deuce explained. “Who knows what I’m going to find there? Might not be anyone well enough to lend a hand to unload all these goods.”
What Deuce didn’t tell Harlan was that if all went according to plan, Deuce and Jacob would soon be saying their goodbyes to Princeton, BC. “If it’s that bad in Paydirt,” Harlan told Deuce, “bring this load right back with you. No sense wasting it on a bunch of dying convicts.”
Deuce signals Jacob to take his seat in the wagon. Harlan regards the crates stacked in the wagon bed. “Saturday?”, he asks. Deuce shrugs.
There are still two hours of daylight when the Paydirt Provincial Penitentiary comes into view. The mud track leads straight toward the gate. As the wagon nears the prison’s large wooden gate, Deuce asks Jacob, “Where is everybody?”
Jacob stares and says, “It looks like a castle.” The horses stop in front of the gate. Deuce jumps down from wagon seat, walks to the gate, and pushes. It opens a crack. He pushes harder. The gate rolls open halfway. Deuce pokes his head inside, then he opens the gate all the way. “C’mon in,” he says to Jacob and steps aside.
Jacob drives the wagon through the gate and stops in the middle of a large courtyard. He looks at Deuce. “Where are the inmates?”, he asks.
Deuce looks back at Jacob. “Where are the guards?”, he asks him.
Jacob shrugs. “You think everybody is dead?”
“No bodies,” Deuce replies. As Jacob alights from the wagon, Deuce sees a man walk into the yard through the open gate. He’s carrying a pickax. Another man follows him. Then another, then two more. Soon they’re streaming in, paying their two visitors no mind. One of the last men in looks familiar to Deuce.
When the man spots Deuce, he stops in his tracks. “What are you doing here?”, he asks. Deuce recognizes the voice, but not the bearded face.
“Uncle Joe,” Deuce says in a loud whisper, “I’m here to fetch you back.”
“Well, what if I don’t want to be fetched back?”, Joe replies. He looks at the wagon. “What’s all this?”, he asks Deuce.
“Supplies,” his nephew answers. “From Princeton. For the typhus.”
Joe laughs. “Canadians,” Joe says, still laughing. “Such nice folks.” Joe spots Jacob standing next to the wagon. “Who’s the black kid?”, he asks.
Deuce waves for Jacob to step forward. “May I introduce Jacob Riece.” He looks at the youngster. “Jacob, meet my uncle, Joseph McCready.”
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, young fellow,” says Joe, extending his hand.
Jacob shakes the big Irishman’s hand. “Yes, sir,” he says. Jacob looks into Joe’s face. “You don’t look like a prisoner,” he tells him.
“Nor should I,” Joe replies, “since I’m as free as a bird.”
Deuce looks around. “This is still a prison, isn’t it?”, he asks.
“In name only,” Joe answers. “You might say we were liberated by grace.”
“Where’s the typhus?”, Deuce asks his uncle.
“Long gone,” says Joe. “There’s the grace. The only two deaths were the warden and the doc.” Joe gets a big laugh out of this. “The assistant warden, he’s a sport,” he says. “And he knows a good thing when he sees it, money wise. Good laborers are hard to come by in these parts lately. They’re all chasing the gold up north. Plenty right here, I tell ya.”
“So they just closed down the prison and freed all the inmates?”, Deuce asks.
“Decommissioned, more like,” Joe replies. “Due to no workers. After the warden died, half the guards lit out for Nome. The rest joined our crew at Silver Creek.” Joe looks past Deuce. “Say, why don’t I tell you about it over a plate of pork and beans? Canteen’s opening soon, and you don’t want to arrive late. Then you can tell me what brings you to this lost corner of the world.” Joe points Deuce and Jacob toward a low yellow building.
“You go eat,” Deuce tells his uncle. “Jacob and I’ll see to the horses.” He reaches under the wagon seat and retrieves a small burlap sack, which he tosses to his uncle.
Joe reaches in and removes a dark brown bottle, then he puts the bottle back and returns the sack to Deuce. “Best you hold onto that for now,” he tells Deuce. “Taking a bottle into the canteen might cause a ruckus. Some free thinkers in there. Not noted for their self-control. Good workers though, mostly.” He looks at Deuce. “It’s good to see you!”, he tells him.
Deuce smiles back at his uncle. “Go eat,” Deuce tells him. “Before all those free thinkers scarf up the last of the gopher stew.” He signals Jacob. “Let’s stash this wagon and find a stable for the horses,” he tells him as his uncle strides off. “We may be bunking there ourselves.”
“Better the stables than a jail cell,” Jacob replies as he and Deuce climb into the wagon seat.
“Not much of a jail, is it?” Deuce says. The wagon rolls slowly out of the courtyard into the main prison yard. It’s deserted. Deuce points the wagon toward a line of low buildings. “Go figure,” he says. “The guards break out of the prison and the inmates stick around.” He shakes his head. “Canada,” he laughs.
“What’s strange about it?”, Joe asks his nephew. It’s past 10 o’clock, yet a trace of light lingers on the northwest horizon.
Deuce waits. He and Joe are sitting on the porch of the recently vacated guards’ barracks. They’re working on the bottle Deuce brought from Princeton. Several minutes pass before Joe continues his explanation: “The warden gets back from Victoria, falls ill, dies, takes the doc with him.”
“Typhus,” Joe says and takes a drink. “Quarantined. Our forgers send Victoria updates from the doc and the warden. Guards take off north. We’d been sending crews to work dredging out by Silver Creek, and the warden was helping himself to our pay, such as it was.” Deuce’s uncle smiles at the memory. “Once the warden passed on, his number two, Harold’s his name, he sets us up with a right fair bargain. Most of these guys,” Joe waves randomly, “are making more legit money in prison than they ever did as crooks on the outside.” He laughs.
“You’re not really thinking of sticking around, are you?”, Deuce asks his uncle.
Joe looks up at the early night sky. “Indeed,” he replies.
“What about Mary?”, Deuce asks his uncle. “And Jay?”
“It’s not like I’m homesteading,” Joe replies. “Just ‘til the work dries up is all.”
“When might that be?”
“A month,” Joe replies. “Six weeks, end of summer at the latest.”
“What do I do until then? And Jacob?”
“You could pitch in with us and make some damn good money is what you could do until then.”
Deuce shakes his head in disbelief. “You don’t see Mary for ten years,” he says, “then you’re with her for two weeks, then the cops and Bartolis ship you up here for a year. Now you decide you like it up here, serving time in a Canadian prison on a trumped-up charge.”
Joe laughs. “Yep,” he says. “Life just happens. You can’t plan it. And you sure can’t figure it out. So you just let it happen and have some fun.”
“While you’re up here having fun in prison,” Deuce tells his uncle, “there’s people down there who need you.”
Joe looks up at the night sky. “Sometimes I wonder about that,” Joe says to Deuce. “They need my help like they need a typhoid epidemic.” He sloshes the whiskey bottle.
“Helping,” Deuce says. “You should try it sometime.” He stands up. “Tomorrow morning, Jacob and I unload the wagon and head for the states.” He faces his uncle. “You said, ‘Fetch Mary,’ and I did,” he says. “Mary said, ‘Fetch Joe.’ You’d rather dredge a creek.” He walks away.
The bunk in the abandoned guardhouse makes Deuce miss sleeping on the cold, hard ground. It’s no wonder the guards all took off, he thinks. He wonders why he’s such a sap.
Joe helps no one but himself. I help everyone but myself. We’re both thousands of miles from the women we love. A couple of fools.
In his fitful sleep, Deuce dreams not of Mae but of Mary. She sits at a table next to a small window. Atop the table lies a swath of fabric. Mary is embroidering a figure on the shiny white cloth. Deuce strains to identify it. A dragon? A horse? Deuce smiles: It’s a sleeping lamb. In his dream, Deuce tries to get Mary’s attention. She ignores him. He hears someone behind him say, “Too late, he’s gone.” Deuce wonders, Who’s gone? As soon as he asks himself the question, Deuce knows the answer: Jay’s gone. Mary has lost a lover, a husband (of sorts), and now a son.
The dream wakes Deuce up with a shiver. In the pitch dark, he wonders what has become of Mary’s son Jay. Almost a teenager now, he thinks. Deuce stares into the dark for 10 minutes, then decides to check the wagon. He looks in on Jacob, who’s sleeping soundly on a bunk nearby.
Dawn is still an hour away when Deuce walks through the yard to the spot where the wagon is parked. He spies a figure sitting atop the load. “You got any more of that whiskey,” Joe asks as Deuce approaches the wagon. “We got a long ride to Frisco.”
“Jay’s gone,” Deuce tells him.
“Gone where?”, Joe replies as he jumps down from the wagon.
“Just gone,” Deuce answers.
“What about Mary?”
“Let’s go find out,” Deuce says.
“What about the kid?”, Joe asks.
“Jacob says his father’s in the Army,” Deuce replies. “I told him I’d help him find the guy.”
Joe laughs. “Whatever possessed you to make such a statement?”, he asks.
“The Canadians put him on a Provy farm after his mother died,” Deuce replies. “Jacob’s a good kid. Smart as a whip, works hard.” Joe just stares at him. “Maybe his father’s a general,” Deuce laughs.
Joe looks at the wagon, then he turns to Deuce. “Come fall,” he says, “you’ll be crossing back into Michigan with another orphan in tow.”
“It’s not like I planned any of it,” Deuce tells him. “They find me. What am I to do, leave them to the elements? To the marshals?”
“As long as you don’t leave this one with my sister Marguerite and her husband,” Joe says. He signals Deuce. “Let’s get this wagon rigged.”
Jacob joins Deuce and Joe just as they’re unloading the last crate of supplies from the wagon bed. “We’re leaving?”, Jacob asks. “Good.”
“Good,” Joe repeats. “The sooner we’re out of here, the better.”
“And the quieter,” Deuce adds. “Let’s get the team hitched and head south.”
Jacob notices three men approaching the wagon while Deuce and Joe are hitching the horses. The men are wearing mismatched woolen uniforms. “Where you fellas heading, eh?”, the shortest of the three men asks.
“Same place as you, Lunny,” Joe replies. “Back to dredging that creek.”
“That’s not how it looks to me,” says another of the men. “Who are these two, now?” He motions to Deuce and Jacob.
“Teamsters,” Joe replies. “They brought these provisions from Princeton. For all our poor typhoid sufferers,” he laughs. The men look annoyed.
“McCready,” the shortest of the three men says, “the truth has never passed your lips. That child is no teamster, and you’re done dredging.”
“We are teamsters,” Deuce tells the man. “We are from Princeton. And we’re taking my uncle out of this sorry excuse for a prison. Today. If you’re lucky, we won’t stop in Victoria on our way back home and tell them they got a prison up here with no warden.”
The short man snarls and signals to his two compadres, who are on Deuce in a flash. Joe is on them just as quickly. A shot rings out. The horses bolt. Jacob holds onto the wagon seat for dear life. Deuce and Joe hightail it for the runaway wagon. A voice cries out, “Halt!”
The horses tear through the wide prison yard, Deuce and Joe in pursuit, both ignoring the shoeless man with the rifle calling out, “Stop!” By the time the team has settled down they’re nearly back where they started. Jacob is still clinging to the seat. The man points his rifle.
“Put that rifle down, Harold,” Joe shouts as he and Deuce catch up with the runaway team. “Don’t you see there’s a child in that wagon?”
“Well,” Harold answers, lowering the rifle, “he worked his way in here, him and t’other,” pointing at Deuce. “They can work their way out.”
“You can’t keep a child in prison,” Joe says. “Besides, they’re due back in Princeton today.”
“Where you off to, McCready?”, Harold asks.
“Where do you think?”, Joe replies, “Back to hauling rocks out of that creek bed.”
“Back to the States, don’t you mean?”, Harold snorts.
“When I’m ready,” Joe tells Harold. “I’ll not turn my back on Ludby’s silver, the madman.”
Deuce retrieves Jacob from under the wagon seat. “He’s shaking like a leaf,” he says as he places Jacob on the ground. “The youngster is free to go whenever he wishes to. And so am I.”
“You’ll have a good long walk back to Princeton,” Harold tells Deuce. “Your wagon and your team are hereby confiscated, by emergency order.”
Joe whispers something to Harold, and the two of them walk toward a corner of the prison yard. They talk for a few minutes, then walk back.
“You best be out that gate in one hour,” Harold tells Deuce.
“I’ll see to that,” Joe says.
“Say your good-byes now,” Harold says to Joe. “You’ve got a long day ahead of you, McCready,” he adds as he leads the three other men back to the barracks, limping in his bare feet.
Deuce waits for his uncle to explain. Joe smiles. “Twenty dollars that cost me,” he says. Deuce waits for more. “He thinks I’m staying. Ha!” Joe whispers, “You and the youngster head south, follow the river, but go slow, and stop an hour out. I’ll catch up with you at Laidlaw.” He hands Deuce a small leather pouch. “I best be traveling light,” he says. Joe heads back to the jail, then turns and repeats, “Laidlaw.”
Deuce puts the pouch inside his shirt, its contents jingling. “Ready?”, he asks Jacob, who’s mostly recovered from his wild ride. He nods.
“We’re not coming back here,” Jacob says as the wagon rolls out the prison gate.
“Only at gunpoint,” Deuce replies. “Maybe not even then.”
“Canada hasn’t been kind to either of us,” Deuce tells Jacob as they take the road south. “Or to my uncle.” He looks around as they creep along. “Nice scenery, though.”
It’s nearly midday when Deuce sees the town of Laidlaw up ahead. Jacob is drowsing in the seat next to him. The horses keep their slow pace. Deuce looks for a shady spot a bit off the road where they and the wagon can stay out of sight until his Uncle Joe catches up with them.
How long shall I wait?, Deuce asks himself once they’re settled in a clearing fifty yards off the trail. His uncle rarely does as he says. Deuce spots the remnants of a fire near the edge of the small clearing. Jacob follows his gaze and says, “We’re not staying here, are we?”
Before Deuce can answer, he sees his Uncle Joe running down the track he and Jacob just left. “Wait here,” he tells Jacob and runs after. “Hey!”, Deuce shouts. His uncle turns and runs towards him.
“Where’s the wagon?”, Joe asks, out of breath.
“You passed it,” Deuce replies.
“They’re not far behind,” Joe says as he runs past Deuce. “C’mon, we need to get hunkered down.” Deuce doesn’t have to ask who’s coming. He catches up with Joe and directs him to the clearing. Jacob stands next to the wagon, wide eyed. “Grab the horses,” Joe shouts to him.
Joe helps Jacob lead the team and wagon deeper into the woods. Deuce follows, asking Joe, “Didn’t you say you paid your way out of there?”
“I said I paid your way out,” Joe replies. “You and Jacob. They weren’t quite ready to see me go, it seems.” He signals them to be quiet. Deuce hears the sound of hooves approaching. Two horses tear down the trail, passing them in a flash. Then silence, then the sound returns.
The two riders stop on the trail across from where Deuce, Joe, and Jacob are hiding. Two seconds later, the horses head straight for them. Joe jumps out of the brush to meet the riders. “That’s far enough, boys,” he says, holding up his hands. “Turn around now. Back to Paydirt.”
“Heading home, McCready?”, one of the riders asks. “So soon?” Joe walks closer. Deuce can no longer hear what Joe and the man are saying. Deuce recognizes the rider as one of the guards from this morning’s romp around the prison yard. The man’s companion stares, motionless. The rider talking to Joe dismounts. Deuce gets ready to spring once the second man alights. He gestures for Jacob to stay put in the wagon.
You’d think they were old friends, thinks Deuce as he watches his Uncle Joe palaver with the guard. In an instant the second guard alights. Deuce bolts out of the brush straight toward the three figures and two horses in the clearing. His uncle is swinging away with both fists.
Deuce’s plan is to go for the legs of the second guard. He doesn’t see the short club in the guard’s hand until it’s too late to hold up. Deuce decides his best chance of avoiding a cracked skull is to bull rush the guard and hope the guy can’t aim. Half of the plan works well.
There’s nothing wrong with the guard’s aim, but he’s falling backward when the club lands, so Deuce’s noggin is spared, for the most part. Deuce holds the guard down while trying to grab his club hand. He’s making some progress when Joe and the other guard topple onto them both. The guard with the club ends up on top of Deuce. He’s winding back for another swing at Deuce’s melon when something knocks him sideways.
From his spot on the ground Deuce sees Jacob with the guard’s club in his hand, poised to let loose on the man, who’s half up, half down. Before Jacob can brain the guard with the club, Deuce stumbles to his feet, lunges, and pushes the guard over. Deuce falls on top of him. Jacob piles atop Deuce, still waving the club in one hand. “Knock ‘em both good, son,” Joe says. He’s holding the first guard in a headlock.
Deuce manages to shake Jacob off his back and get a good hold on the second guard, who’s woozier than Deuce is. “Bring him here,” Joe says.
“I’ll stay here for a moment, if you don’t mind,” Deuce replies.
Joe laughs. “Join us near the wagon at your first convenience,” he says.
A minute later, Deuce catches his breath enough to drag the guard to the wagon. Joe has secured his companion to the wagon’s front wheel. Jacob follows Deuce, still clutching the club. “A great mess we’ve made of these two,” Joe says. He turns to Jacob. “Much due to this one.”
“How is it you came to bring them along with you?”, Deuce asks.
“I was doing alright,” his uncle replies, “then my ride dropped from under. Just dropped,” like the legs come off at once. Damned poor thing. Then it’s shank’s mare for me, and listening for hooves.”
Deuce interrupts his uncle’s story. “What do you plan for these two?”, he asks.
“We’ll loose ‘em ‘fore we go,” Joe replies. “Let ‘em walk.”
“We’ll leave their horses in Laidlaw,” Joe continues. “By the time they get there, we’ll be two jurisdictions away.” You hope, Deuce thinks.
“Unless a Samaritan passes and brings them to town on our heels,” Deuce whispers.
“You took that road,” Joe replies. “See any Samaritans?”
Whatever gets us moving south fastest, thinks Deuce. “Jacob and I will collect the horses while you tend to your Paydirt friends,” he says.
“In all these years,” Joe says, “when have I ever steered you wrong?” This starts Deuce cackling. Soon Jacob and the guard are laughing too.
Joe ties up the guards just well enough to ensure a half-hour head start. “Retrieve your horses in Laidlaw,” he tells them when he’s done.
A minute later, Deuce heads the wagon back to the road. Jacob is on the seat next to Deuce. Joe reclines in the wagon bed, already dozing.
As the wagon makes its slow roll down the path, Deuce thinks, the way our plans have gone, it’s probably better to proceed planless for awhile.
As they approach Laidlaw, Joe breaks the silence: “I’m thinking, there’s no need for us announcing our presence to these good people, eh?” We would be remarkable, Deuce thinks. Two Yanks and a black child ride up in one of the last wagons in all of southern British Columbia.
“What about their horses?”, Deuce asks Joe. His uncle looks ahead and points at a wide spot in the road. “There’s a good spot,” he says.
An hour later, they’re clear of Laidlaw. There’s no sign of pursuers. “Can’t make the border today,” Joe says, “but we might make the lake.”
“What lake?”, Deuce asks.
“Cultus,” his uncle replies. “That’s the first one. The second is Silver.” Joe settles back in the wagon bed. “Between them is the smugglers’ track. That’s our crossing, gents.”
“You’ve taken it?”, Deuce asks.
“Almost.” Joe replies. Deuce waits for his uncle to explain. “Got chased off a mile short,” Joe says finally. “Not sure by which side. Doesn’t much matter, eh?” Deuce waits. A half-minute later, Joe continues: “Maybe the Canucks, maybe the Yanks. It was dark. We didn’t stop to ask for their badges. That was back a ways ago,” Joe says as the wagon ambles along the double-rutted path. “The summer I worked a camp up the Nooksack River.”
“Rain for days,” Joe continues, though Deuce and Jacob are paying him no attention. “So we decide on a whiskey run, of course.” Joe laughs.
Sunset’s more than an hour away when the north shore of Cultus Lake comes into view. “I’ll wager there’s some fish in that lake,” Joe says. “You bring a reel with you from Princeton?”, he asks Deuce.
“We can fashion hook, line, and pole,” Deuce replies. “And use Jacob for bait.” Jacob scowls at the thought of being dipped in a lake. “Worms might work better,” Deuce says, nudging Jacob on the wagon seat next to him.
“I like fishing,” Jacob says. “I caught a trout once.”
“Well,” Joe says from the wagon bed, “I’ll wager this lake is chock-full of trout.”
To Deuce’s surprise, they make it to the lake in time to set up camp and drop a line in the water while there’s still some light in the sky. Deuce is astonished when Jacob wrestles a fish out of the lake using their makeshift line -- a big, beautiful trout, half as big as he is.
“We won’t leave Canada hungry,” Joe says as he picks at the last of the trout. Deuce looks up at the starry sky behind the campfire smoke. He thinks, if Canada had more nights like this, I might not be in such a hurry to leave. He looks over at Jacob and Joe, two fugitives. One an orphan runaway from a Provy farm, the other an escapee from a prison he was sent to on trumped-up charges by a crooked magistrate. You wouldn’t know it from looking at them, thinks Deuce. His Uncle Joe sits licking trout juice off his fingers, and Jacob is nearly asleep.
“Now what?”, Deuce asks his uncle.
Joe leans back and takes a deep breath. “Sleep,” he says, “soon enough. Then breakfast. Then fishing.”
Deuce looks over at Jacob, who’s asleep next to the fire. “He’ll like that,” he says to Joe. “Shouldn’t we be getting on?” He points south. “You don’t appear concerned about those guards chasing you earlier today.”
Joe smiles, “I get tired just thinking about it. They’re back in Paydirt by now. They wouldn’t find us here anyway.” He closes his eyes. “Tomorrow night we make our way home.”
Jacob and Joe spend the next day knee-deep in Cultus Lake casting their makeshift line. Deuce spends much of it looking over his shoulder. By nightfall, the three have had their fill of fish and are getting the team hitched to the wagon. Deuce is happy to see clouds to the west.
“Are you sure we can make the crossing by sunrise?”, Deuce asks his uncle as the wagon follows a trail along the lake’s eastern shoreline.
“There’s nothing stopping us from crossing in daylight,” Joe replies.
“Nothing except armed border agents for two countries,” Deuce says.
“Why would they bother with the likes of us?”, Joe asks.
“Because it’s their job?”, Deuce replies. “To watch for escapees and lost orphans?”
“And wayward teamsters,” Joe adds.
“No law against driving a wagon,” Deuce says, “most cases, anyway.”
Joe laughs and slams his foot down. “You’ve been running from the law since before you could run,” Joe says, “same as me.” He looks at Jacob. “Same as this kid, too, probably.”
“Jacob’s a good kid,” Deuce says. “He shouldn’t need to run from anybody.”
“I didn’t start running ‘til they started chasing,” Joe replies.
“I reckon they had their reasons for chasing you,” Deuce says. “Usually they were trying to get back whatever it was you took from them.”
“You know that’s not true,” his uncle replies. “I never took anything I didn’t earn flat out. They just don’t like seein’ a fella have fun. Especially the priests,” Joe laughs. “I just rub the clergy the wrong way.”
“And cops,” Deuce adds.
Joe nods, “Don’t know which is worse.”
“I’d say cops are worse,” Deuce says as the wagon rolls along the track. “Cops got jails. All priests got is that eternal damnation thing.”
“I got no quarrel with God,” Joe says. “Look how handsome he made me.” Joe laughs harder when he sees his nephew’s scowl. Jacob joins in.
“He sure skimped on the brains,” Deuce replies. This gets Joe laughing so hard he nearly bounces out of the wagon. Deuce tries not to smile. “For a fugitive from justice,” he says, “you’re sure in a lively mood.”
Joe laughs on. “Everybody’s running from something,” he replies. “What you’re running from teaches school in Michigan.”
Deuce’s scowl returns. “Runs in the family, it seems,” he says. “You’ve been on your way somewhere since I can remember. You were talking about settling in San Francisco with Mary and Jay.”
From the wagon bed, Joe watches the trail recede behind them as they roll along. “Two times those Bartolis got me,” he says. “Two times.”
By the time they reach the southern end of the lake, the day has warmed up and promises to be a scorcher. Joe leans between Jacob and Deuce. “What do you say,” Joe says, “we find a shady spot and make our way across the line once things cool down?”
“No hurry, right?”, Deuce says.
“When are you due back in Michigan?”, Joe asks his nephew. Deuce doesn’t answer. Joe stands in the wagon bed, stretches, and claps once. “Plenty of time to reunite Jacob with his father in the Army, somewhere,” Joe says. He pats Deuce’s shoulder. “Maybe,” Joe adds, smiling.
Deuce scowls at his uncle. “If he hasn’t been discharged, is all I’m saying,” Joe tells him, still smiling. Now he pats Jacob’s shoulder. “Where did you say your family’s from, young man?”, Joe asks.
“I didn’t,” Jacob replies. “They’re not from anywhere special. Just around.”
“Who besides your father?”, Joe asks Jacob.
The boy looks up the track for a time. “My mother’s kin,” he says finally. “Somewhere in Ohio.”
Joe pats Jacob on the shoulder. “What was your mother’s name?”, Joe asks him. “Elizabeth,” Jacob replies. “Olivia. Corliss. Wells. Riece.”
Joe smiles. “With all those names,” he says, “You must have whole towns full of family.”
“I never met any relations,” Jacob says flatly.
Deuce nudges his uncle and signals him to lay off. Joe nods. “I’m about ready to climb off this wagon and sit under yonder tree,” he says.
Deuce steers the wagon off the trail, trying his best to avoid the worst of the boggy spots. “Tell me I’ll be out of Canada soon,” he says.
“It’s not so bad,” Joe says from the wagon bed. “If you don’t mind the weather. And the crooked magistrates.”
“I don’t like it,” Jacob says. “Here,” he clarifies. “It was better in the Army, my mom and father and me.”
“What happened?”, Deuce asks as the wagon rolls to a stop.
“He had to go somewhere we couldn’t, my father,” Jacob answers. “He took us up here, me and my mother. She got sick. They took me and she died.”
Joe gives Jacob a shoulder hug. “That’s the saddest story I ever heard,” he says. “But after a start like that, your luck is ready to turn."
Deuce alights from the wagon. “When the sun comes up tomorrow,” Joe tells Jacob, “we’ll be watching it from the United States of America.”
Deuce looks at his uncle. “I just hope we’re not looking at that sunrise through the bars of a jail cell,” Deuce says.
Joe looks shocked. “This is a milk run,” he says to Deuce as he jumps down. “Besides, they’d probably just shoot us for smugglers and forgo the legalities.”
The three wayward Americans pass the evening watching clouds roll in from the west. “Rain,” Joe says, looking skyward. “Perfect,” he smiles. Deuce looks at his uncle. “The heavier the rain,” Joe explains, “the fewer patrols.”
“The more mud, too,” Deuce replies.
Joe waves him off. “Everything’s breaking our way,” he says. “We’ll be home by the next full moon.” He looks at Deuce. “Where is home these days?”, he asks.
“Lately,” Deuce replies, “that wagon.” He looks it over. “I’ve had worse homes.”
Joe stands up. “Time to get your home rolling,” he says.
An hour later Deuce has the wagon heading southwest on a bumpy trail along a slit valley. The rain has held off but the wind is picking up. Joe pokes his head forward from the wagon bed. “You must be taking in the scenery,” he says.
“It’s night,” Jacob replies. “Can’t see t’all.”
“He means we’re going too slow,” Deuce explains to Jacob. “He wants the experience of fixing a busted wagon wheel on a smugglers’ track,” he says, “in the dark.” Deuce looks up. “In the rain.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Joe says. “Though never when I was this damn sober."
On cue, the first fat drops of rain fall, adding percussion to the wagon’s melodious creaking. Jacob pulls his hat down, folds his arms. He looks at the clouds and smiles. “Smooth sailing,” he says. “All the way to Silver Lake.” Jacob looks confused. “The States,” Joe adds.
Deuce looks at Joe. “Is it?”, he asks.
“Naught there but tree stumps,” Joe answers. “Our best bet for finding your father,” Joe tells Jacob, “is to head for the Presidio.” This nearly causes Deuce to fall out of the wagon.
The rain picks up as the trail widens. “A return to San Francisco was not in my plans,” Deuce tells his uncle. “I’m expected back east.”
“Mary wouldn’t hear of it,” Joe replies. “If you’re serious about looking for the lad’s father, the Presidio’s not a bad place to start.”
Deuce hears a crack to his left, like a tree branch snapping. His uncle grabs the reins from his hands and hies the horses, who jump ahead. “Stow the lad, will you?”, Joe asks Deuce as the wagon bounces along the track. Another crack sounds behind them. “Two of ‘em,” Joe says.
“So I heard,” Deuce says as he lifts Jacob off the seat and places him in the wagon bed. They both nearly bounce out on multiple occasions.
“Two shooters is what I mean,” Joe says as he drives the team. “Each as lousy a shot as t’other, lucky for us.” He takes a quick look back. “They’re not much better at riding,” Joe adds, “also lucky for us.” The track widens and drops. “Half a mile to the border,” Joe shouts.
Soon the valley becomes a gorge down which the wagon careens at full speed. As the narrow trail veers left, another crack sounds up ahead. “No turning back now,” Joe shouts. Deuce is surprised to see him smiling. Joe looks over at him. “Keep that youngster’s head down,” he says.
“Don’t get us all killed, eh?”, Deuce asks as the wagon bounces down the path.
“We’re in the clear,” Joe replies, yanking the reins. “Almost,” Joe adds, just as another shot rings out, this one from high above them. “These guys shoot worse than the Canucks do,” he says.
When the trail straightens, Deuce notices something ahead. “That looks like a wall,” he says.
“Where did that thing come from?”, Joe asks. The team comes to a stop well in front of the makeshift barrier that blocks the trail. The rain has let up, but the wind is still howling. Deuce looks back the way they came, sees no sign of life. Joe looks intently at the barricade, like it’s a chess board and it’s his move.
Jacob pops his head out of the wagon bed and looks to the right. “There’s a gap,” he says, pointing to a patch of gray.
Deuce squints at it and nudges his uncle in the wagon seat. “Huh?”, Joe asks, a little startled.
Deuce points along with Jacob. “Jacob sees a gap,” he says.
“Oh yeah?”, Joe replies. “That’s nice.” He goes back to staring at the obstruction. “Something about that there,” Joe says under his breath. He jumps down from the wagon seat and walks to the blockage. Deuce looks back nervously. Joe pushes the makeshift wall, and then pulls it. The barrier crumbles around Joe’s feet. The resulting pile of rubble blocks the trail almost as well as the wall did. Deuce grabs the reins.
“Joe!”, Deuce shouts to his uncle, who’s clearing away the largest pieces of the rubble. Deuce starts the horses as a bullet whistles by.
The shot gets the horses galloping. Joe jumps out of the wagon’s way, then he chases it as the team blasts through the remnants of the wall. The trail makes a sharp right turn and heads downhill. Joe is losing ground as Deuce works the brake, fighting to slow the fired-up horses.
Another shot rings out, which sets Joe flying. Soon the trail levels and the wagon slows. Joe catches up with it and dives into the back. Joe is sprawled in the wagon bed, panting, laughing, trying to say something. Deuce keeps the horses cantering. Jacob joins him on the seat. “Another warm welcome,” Joe says between gasps for air, “by your faithful public servants.”
“We’re back in America now?”, Jacob asks Deuce.
Deuce looks over his shoulder at his uncle, who’s still panting for breath and laughing. “Who was that shooting at us?”, Deuce asks him.
Joe waves off the question. “Naught but highwaymen,” he says. “Call themselves deputies, but they’re common thieves.” He looks up the track. “We’ll come to the Silver Lake trail ahead,” he tells Deuce. “Then we’ll ford a creek. Right there’s a good place to celebrate our return.”
Jacob repeats his question: “We’re in America?”
Deuce looks over his shoulder at his uncle. “Unless they moved the line we are,” Joe says.
“Good,” Jacob says. “How far to the Army?”
“You mean, how long until you see your father?”, Deuce asks. “It will take some time,” he adds.
Jacob thinks about this. “Do we have to celebrate?”, he asks Deuce.
“Yes we do,” Joe says from the wagon bed. “First celebrate, then sleep.”
“What about those deputies who aren’t?”, Deuce asks Joe.
Joe waves off the question as another shot rings out. “Celebrate later,” Joe says. The horses jump at the sound of the rifle firing. Deuce spurs them on anyway. Joe looks back. “They must think we’re someone else,” he says.
“They must want you back in that jail,” Deuce tells his uncle as the wagon careens on.
“That’s somebody else,” Joe says, still looking back. “Let’s find out who,” Joe says. “Get off the trail so we can set up an ambush.”
“Ambush!?”, Deuce shouts. “Did you notice who has the guns?”
“Did you notice they can’t shoot worth a lick?”, Joe replies. “Besides, we can always just let ‘em blow on down the track and then lay low.”
“You’re betting those guys are as bad at tracking as they are at shooting,” Deuce says.
His uncle peers down the trail, paying him no mind. “There!”, Joe shouts a few seconds later. He points at a clump of trees on a hillside off to the right. “Just perfect,” he adds and cackles.
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” Deuce asks as he slows the team.
“Why wouldn’t I?”, Joe replies. “Now that’s the way to cross a border.” Joe jumps down from the wagon bed. “Follow me,” he shouts to Deuce and runs ahead of the horses.
“Where is he off to?”, Jacob asks Deuce. Deuce doesn’t answer. He’s watching his uncle jog along the trail ahead, and listening for horses - or gunshots - behind.
Joe stops, points. He signals for Deuce to drive the wagon off the right side of the trail.
Deuce sees a bumpy footpath. “We’ll never fit,” he shouts, but Joe keeps waving and smiling. The team ease the wagon off the trail onto the path. Tall grass and tree branches envelop them on both sides.
Joe jumps into the back of the wagon, still laughing. “We’re home free, fellers,” he says. “This path was made to be missed.” Deuce frowns. “I’ll warrant we find a nice campsite on this track ‘fore long,” Joe says, looking up at the clouds. “Some grub, some rest, and we’re off.”
Deuce starts to think his uncle might pull this off when Jacob asks Joe, “Why were you in prison?”
“Simple,” Joe says. “I was railroaded.”
Jacob looks over at Deuce. Deuce shrugs. “Tell him the rest,” Deuce says to Joe.
“No point,” Joe replies.
Deuce says to Jacob, “Saloons. You meet all the wrong kind of people in ‘em. My uncle met two of the judge’s nephews, and knocked ‘em both senseless.”
“After they both tried to relieve me of my gold,” Joe explains to Jacob. “Much of which had been their gold earlier that evening,” he adds. “Won fair and square, mostly. Some people just have no business sitting down at a poker table.” He laughs.
Deuce looks at him. “You paid quite a price for winning that pot,” Deuce tells his uncle.
Joe is about to answer when he stops and says, “Campfire up ahead.”
Deuce stops the wagon. He, Joe, and Jacob peer down the narrow trail, see nothing. Joe jumps down from the wagon bed and trots up the path. He disappears into the brush. A half-minute later he returns and waves for Deuce to follow him in the wagon. “What is it?”, Deuce shouts.
“Like I said,” Joe answers, “campfire.” He disappears again. Deuce looks at Jacob on the seat next to him. Jacob is staring straight ahead.
Deuce hands Jacob a small jug of water. Jacob takes it, drinks, and hands it back. “Whose campfire?”, he asks Deuce.
“Ours now,” Deuce replies. The horses stop when the trail grows too narrow for the wagon to pass. Deuce jumps down, and Jacob follows him. “Stay close,” Deuce says.
Deuce and Jacob haven’t taken more than 20 steps down the path when they meet Joe coming the other way. “Jackpot,” he says and claps once. “We musta spooked some runners heading north. They got off with most of the whiskey, it appears, but there’s plenty other left.”
Joe leads Deuce and Jacob a short way down the trail. They head around a low hill to a swale with a still-smoldering campfire in its center. A short distance from the fire, Deuce spots a jumble of crates, some open and some closed. An assortment of merchandise lies on the ground. “Not what you’d call a high-class smuggling racket,” Deuce says.
“Amateurs,” Joe replies. “Who else would be run off by the likes of us?”
“You don’t think whoever’s chasing us won’t track us up here?”
Joe looks back. “They’ll find someone else to trouble soon enough,” he says.
Deuce looks around the small clearing. “We’re not staying here,” he says.
“Somebody’s bound to drop in soon enough. No one I want to meet. I’ll take my chances on that dirt path we were chased off.”
“What about all of that?”, Joe says and points to the crates.
“They left it here for a reason,” Deuce says. “It’s not worth hauling out. Think of the poor horses.”
Joe looks at the crates, frowns. Jacob asks Deuce, “Can we go now?”
“Yes,” Deuce replies and walks with him down the path to the wagon. Joe follows, glancing at the crates.
“I know there’s whiskey,” Joe mumbles as he walks. “I can smell it.”
“We’ll pick you up a jug in Silver Lake.” Deuce tells him. Joe snorts.
“Obviously,” Joe replies, “you have never been to Silver Lake.” He catches up with Deuce. “I got a plan gets us to San Francisco in style.”
Boats, thinks Deuce as the wagon rolls slowly toward the setting sun. Can’t be trusted. He’s thinking about his uncle’s steamship proposal. It would get us to San Francisco faster, no doubt, Deuce admits to himself. He looks over at Jacob, who’s dozing on the seat next to him.
Deuce leans into the wagon bed and says to his uncle in a loud whisper, “These horses need watering and a day or two out of the harness.”
“So water the horses,” Joe replies gruffly, “and let me get back to dreamin’ about whiskey.” But whiskey wasn’t what Joe was dreaming about.
In Joe’s dream, Mary looks as young as ever, but what is she doing in St. Patrick’s church, at the altar no less? Why is she ignoring him? Mary’s black hair is tied back. She’s wearing a threadbare coat over flower print apron. It’s daytime, but the church is near dark as night. Joe tries to get closer to make sure it’s really Mary, but he gets tangled in a maze of pews. Mary’s hands are smoothing the altar cloth. Joe feels like he’s shouting in the church, but no sound is coming out. Whichever direction he goes, Mary is further away, floating, dimmer. Even though Joe’s the one shouting in St. Patrick’s, it’s his nephew Deuce’s voice he hears: “You’re scaring the youngster.”
Joe jumps up. “Jay?”, Joe asks before he realizes he’s not in St. Patrick’s. “Jacob,” Deuce replies. “Remember him? Your fishing buddy?” Joe looks around.
“First light,” Joe says as he alights from the wagon bed he was napping in. “Three days to Seattle.”
“Now you’re in a hurry?”, Deuce asks.
“Two days from there to San Francisco,” Joe continues, ignoring Deuce’s question. Deuce thinks, that must have been one hellacious dream.
Jacob’s eyes are the size of silver dollars as he gazes up at the steamer docked at the pier. “This goes to San Francisco?”, he asks Deuce.
“That’s what the ticket says,” Deuce replies. He scans the wharf, looking for his uncle. No way this ship departs without Joe, he thinks. Deuce has never seen his uncle so serious, so determined, ever since he woke up from that nap three days ago. He won’t even talk about it. Then an hour from debarking, Joe disappears, saying only, “Don’t board yet.” Their belongings now fit in a trunk and two musty carpet bags.
Jacob stands next to Deuce on the pier, taking in the bustle all around them. “What if it fills up too much?”, Jacob asks. “Will it sink?”
“They won’t fill it up too much,” Deuce tells Jacob. He looks up and down the pier. “It won’t sink. Not on this trip, anyway.”
Jacob frowns. “Can I sit with you and Mr. Joe on there?”, Jacob asks. “Where else would you sit?”, Deuce asks him.
“Because of my dark skin,” he replies. “My mother told me in America I have to stay with other black people,” Jacob says.
“Some places, that’s true,” Deuce replies. “Not here.” Deuce regards Jacob, who’s still focused on the bustling steamship. “You don’t remember America?”, he asks him.
“Only stories,” Jacob says.
Deuce starts to ask Jacob whether he remembers his Army-officer father, then decides against it. “America’s not all that bad,” he tells him. “Though it can be a hard place sometimes. For poor people, Indians, women, and especially for black folks.”
Jacob nods. “She said.”
“Your mother?”, Deuce asks.
Jacob nods again. “Family, she said. Find them. Ask the Army, because they might leave Ohio. Don’t go there.”
“Don’t go to Ohio?”, Deuce asks.
Jacob nods. “She didn’t like it there,” he answers. “She liked it better in Canada, until she got sick.”
Deuce gives Jacob’s shoulder a hug. “Well, I agree with your mother about Ohio,” he says. “Plenty of better places. San Francisco, for one.”
“My kind of town,” Joe says, hugging them both at once. “Let’s get aboard before they sail off without us.” He grabs one end of the trunk. Deuce is happy to see his uncle’s disposition so much improved. He picks up the other end of the trunk and shoulders one of the carpet bags. Jacob lifts the second carpet bag with both hands and follows Deuce and Joe down the pier. Joe sets a fast pace, causing Deuce to stumble.
“That tub isn’t going anywhere in the next 30 seconds,” Deuce tells his uncle. “What’s the rush?”
“No rush,” Joe smiles. Then he speeds up.
Jacob is 10 yards back and falling further behind. He risks losing sight of Deuce and Joe on the crowded pier. Deuce stops suddenly, turns. Joe cries out and grabs his shoulder. “You about broke my arm off,” he tells his nephew. Deuce ignores him. He waits for Jacob to catch up.
Deuce puts his end of the trunk down. “What’s the rush, Joe?”, he asks.
“I’ll tell you as soon as we’re aboard,” Joe replies. Deuce scowls. “Some fellers might come looking for me,” Joe says. “Fellers I recently transacted business with. They may feel I slightly misrepresented.”
Jacob has joined Deuce. “Misrepresented how?”, Deuce asks Joe.
“In the sense that I may not have owned the sale items completely,” Joe says. “Or at all,” Joe adds, “as the case may be.” He tugs at the trunk. “Can we board, please? I’ll tell you the whole tale once we’re underway.”
Deuce lifts his end of the trunk, and he and Joe continue walking toward the gangplank leading onto the ship. Jacob is a step behind them. “Not sure I want to hear that story,” Deuce says as they queue up to board.
“Not sure I want to tell you,” Joe replies. “But I’m faultless.”
“Faultless?”, Deuce laughs. “You make trouble while you’re sleeping. There’s something crooked about everything you do, steamers included.”
Joe looks at Jacob. “That’s not true,” he says. “Not entirely.” Joe looks at Deuce and shrugs. “I’m just sociable is all,” he tells him.
The three have shown their tickets and are steps from boarding when they hear shrill whistles rolling down the pier straight toward them. Joe nearly bowls over a large family ahead of them as he pulls the trunk out of Deuce’s grip and drags it onto the ship. “Jacob,” he says. Deuce turns around, sees Jacob standing frozen on the plank, clutching a carpet bag half as big as he is. Deuce tosses the bag he’s been carrying to Joe and is about to reach for Jacob and the second bag when he notices Joe has disappeared. Jacob is shaking like a tambourine. Deuce notices two policemen talking to the steward who just stamped their tickets. Behind them are a half-dozen men in floppy hats and heavy coats.
“Swedes,” Deuce says to himself. He puts Jacob down, looks around quickly for Joe, doesn’t see him. Jacob keeps clutching the second carpet bag.
“Can we go now?”, Jacob asks Deuce. He boards without waiting for an answer. Deuce looks back at the policemen, who are looking back at him. Deuce follows Jacob aboard. He opens the trunk, grabs as many items as he can carry, and looks for the quickest way to get below deck.
Deuce spots a stairway leading down. He nudges Jacob towards it. “Why not?”, he tells him. Jacob enters, holding tight to the carpet bag. The stairs lead to a narrow hallway. Doors on either side are spaced about 12 feet apart. The last door on the left reads “Do Not Enter.”
“This one looks good,” Deuce says as he leads Jacob through the door.
“Wow!”, Jacob says when he sees the rows of shelves inside the room. The shelves are overflowing with machine parts, tools, and jars filled with mysterious substances.
“This’ll do nicely,” Deuce says to Jacob.
Deuce and Jacob settle into a gap between the shelves. “It stinks,” Jacob says.
“We’re out the second this tub departs,” Deuce tells him.
“Where’s Mr. Joe?”, Jacob asks.
“Hiding out like us, I suspect,” Deuce replies.
“Why are we hiding?” “I’m not 100-percent sure,” Deuce says. “I bet my uncle’s gonna have a doozy of a story to tell us.” He thinks, I hope he doesn’t do the telling from a jail cell.
“He gets in trouble a lot,” Jacob says. “Are the police always after him?”
“Not just the police,” Deuce tells him. “But they top the list.”
“Why does he get in trouble so much?”, Jacob asks.
Deuce thinks about it. “I guess he can’t help himself,” he says finally. “It’s just him. I think he gets bored living in a logging camp half the year. He dreams about how much fun he’ll have after he gets paid.”
“Until he gets into trouble,” Jacob says.
“To Joe,” Deuce replies, “fun and trouble are kinda the same thing.”
Deuce thinks about Mary Bartoli. “When we get to San Francisco,” he says, “there’s someone I want you to meet.”
“At the fort?”, Jacob asks.
“No, at a church,” he replies. Deuce and Jacob sit among the machine parts and mystery fluids, listening to the people passing and scraping against the closed metal door. Finally, Deuce hears the sound he’s been waiting for. The ship’s whistle lets loose with three long, guttural blasts. He breathes a sigh.
“Not long now,” Deuce says. He claps Jacob on the shoulder.
“We don’t have to stay here?”, Jacob asks.
“‘Course not,” Deuce says. He stands. Deuce takes something out of his shirt pocket and waves it at Jacob. “Two third-class tickets,” he says. “We’re no stowaways. We’re legit.”
“Then why are we hiding in here?”, Jacob asks.
Deuce thinks about it, shrugs, and says, “Out of habit, I suppose. You see coppers, you run.” Especially when you’re with my Uncle Joe, Deuce thinks. He hears his mother’s voice in his head, warning repeatedly, “Steer clear of Joey. You don’t want to pick up his bad habits.”
April 1886, coming soon
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Copyright 2014-2017 - Dennis Richard O'Reilly - all rights reserved
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Copyright 2014-2017 - Dennis Richard O'Reilly - all rights reserved