Third Sons: May 1901
Mary senses motion in the black field behind the stars. She thought Joe was crazy when he brought her out here at midnight. But it’s warm for a spring night in San Francisco, and the clear, moonless sky lets the stars put on a show. Mary notices Joe gazing up too. “Do you see it?”, Mary asks.
“I see stars,” Joe replies, “lots of ‘em.”
“Behind the stars.”
“There’s nothing behind the stars.” He squints.
Mary wraps the blanket tighter around them, puts her chin on Joe’s shoulder, her arm across his chest. “Two lovers,” she says, “like us.”
“Up there?”, Joe points and smiles, “You can see behind the stars?”
He kisses Mary before she can reply. “Like us,” she repeats. “Up there.” Mary steals another glimpse at the starry sky before turning her full attention to Joe, whose full attention is on her. The sky winks back.
Well before dawn, the fog creeps back in, the stars blink out in bunches, and the chill drives the lovers indoors, to their top-floor room. Mary lives above Washburn Fine Linen, where she works as a seamstress six days a week, ten hours a day -- longer at Christmas and Easter. Most of the first floor of the building at Washburn and Howard is the retail shop. Machinery and giant bales of cloth fill the second floor. The top floor of the building is the workers’ quarters, rooms not much larger than prison cells. A common area serves as kitchen and parlor.
Mary and Joe retreat from the cold to the room furthest from the common area and closest to the roof stairs -- Mary’s home, such as it is. Joe’s home too, as many nights as not when he is in San Francisco. He arrived from Seattle more than five months ago. Not one arrest since. And still money in his pocket. Mary wonders whether Joe could be losing his reckless streak, now that he’s past 40. Is his travel itch next?
This brings Joe’s nephew Deuce to Mary’s mind. A pair of travelers, she thinks. Always sparks when Joe and Deuce meet up. She nudges Joe. “What does your sister hear from Deuce?”, she whispers. Joe mutters something Mary can’t make out. “Would you like me to ask her myself?”
“Marysville,” Joe says too loudly. Mary nudges him again. “Asking for Mae’s hand.”
“Is Mae with him?”, Mary asks.
Joe groans in complaint. “It’s still spring,” Joe says, “Mae’s teaching at the school in Michigan.”
Mary pictures Deuce back in Ontario, remembers seeing him in the pew. She tries to remember the name of the church near her uncle’s farm in Ontario. Then her son Jay comes to mind, then her husband Anthony. Cousin Anthony, Mary corrects herself. Never husband, despite that sham ceremony, conveniently arranged by Father Laurent. Cousin Anthony.
“St. Stephen’s,” Mary says.
Joe flinches, asks, “Who?”
“Go back to sleep,” Mary replies.
“You woke me,” Joe says. “Asking about my nephew.”
“The church,” Mary explains, “in Ontario, outside Oshawa, where Deuce found me. And Jay. On your instructions. Quite an influence you have.”
“He’s a good kid,” Joe says, rolling over to face Mary.
“Good man,” Mary says.
“Soon to be married, maybe,” Joe adds. “To the teacher, Mae.”
Mary thinks about Mae finding a home teaching in St. Louis, Michigan, while Deuce, love of her life, spends years chasing fortunes of dust. “Who could blame her?”, Mary whispers. Joe rustles slightly, sleeps on. Mae has plenty of reasons to tell Deuce to ramble on without her.
Mary recalls her uncle’s farm in Ontario. Her prison, and Jay’s. Then Deuce comes to their rescue, gets them across the river to Michigan. Then that long journey back to San Francisco. Back to Joe and his deal-making to keep Fr. Laurent and Mary’s Uncle Teo at a safe distance.
“What about your promise?”, Mary asks the back of Joe’s neck. He slumbers on, or seems to. “I know you heard me,” she says. “You promised.”
“I never make promises,” Joe says sleepily.
“Your son,” Mary replies, “not raised a Bartoli.”
Joe rolls over, holds Mary in both his arms. “That promise I remember,” he says in Mary’s ear. “That promise I keep.”
“Hmmmm,” Mary replies.
“Come summer,” Joe adds, “I head east.”
“Come summer?”, Mary asks. “That’s months away.”
“It’s cold in Ontario this time of year,” Joe says. “Besides, I just got here practically.”
“I’ll write to your sister Marguerite,” Mary whispers. “I’ll tell her to expect you in July. But you must promise me something else.”
“Another promise?”, Joe protests.
“Keep Deuce out of it,” Mary says. “He’s got his hands full with Mae and those strays he’s collected.”
Joe holds Mary tighter and says, “I promise to leave Deuce to his new bride, maybe, and his adoptees.” He laughs, “That poor schoolteacher.”
“I’ll write a letter for you to give to Anthony,” Mary says.
“Won’t Jay be at your uncle’s farm?”, Joe asks.
“No,” she replies, “Toronto. That farm is no place for Jay. Anthony takes better care of him.”
Joe tries to imagine Mary’s kid cousin as a grown man. “Good thing you taught him tailoring,” Joe says.
“He took to it,” Mary replies. “He was doing good business, last I saw him. Two years ago.” Mary recalls the last time she saw her son Jay, riding off with her Uncle Teo in that big, black coach. Like a funeral car, she thinks. She knows her uncle meant it when he said he would kill Joe. She also knows Joe would kill Uncle Teo before he’d let him take Jay away.
“We can’t live here,” Mary says, “after we have Jay back.”
Joe exhales audibly. “We’ll see,” he says. “We’ll see who leaves and who stays.”
“Now look who’s talking about staying,” Mary says, trying not to let her anger show. “You’ve done nothing but leave since the day we met.”
“And who was it just asked me to leave town again not ten seconds ago,” Joe says with a laugh.
“You know that’s different,” Mary replies.
“Besides,” Joe continues, “where else would we settle down?”
“You’re done butchering trees?”, Mary asks. “How many times have I heard that? Not to mention, how do you plan on keeping a roof over our heads in the city?”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Joe says. He puts his arm around Mary, giving up any pretense of sleeping. “I know more about saloons than anybody in the city. I’d be a natural.”
“Saloonkeeper?”, Mary asks surprised. “No no no. Joe, that is a terrible idea. I’d rather you chop trees until the whole country’s cleared.” Mary continues in a rush, not giving Joe a chance to respond: “You need to be outdoors. As soon as you’re inside, all the trouble starts.”
Joe looks Mary in the eye. “I’m done swingin’ an ax,” he says softly. “You know why they won’t hire me on the docks. What does that leave?”
“You’d make a good cop,” Mary says and laughs.
“Put all my friends behind bars?”, Joe replies. “I couldn’t live with myself. Fireman maybe.”
“You don’t mind taking your friends’ money for rotgut,” Mary says, “but you won’t throw ‘em in jail when they break the law. Why is that?”
“There’s lots of laws,” Joe explains. “There’s lots of people breakin’ ‘em. Only ones who go to jail got one thing in common: No money.”
No money, thinks Mary as she ponders Joe working on the right side of the law. Having no money is something we all should be used to by now. Do you ever really get used to being poor? Mary knows the yearning for more never ends, the cupboard is never full enough. Never enough. “Talk to Madame,” Mary says sleepily.
“About what?”, Joe asks mid-yawn.
“Work,” Mary whispers. “Honest work. Just enough.” And she dreams.
In Mary’s dream, the world has become horizontal bands of gray. There isn’t enough light to see clearly. She can’t tell air from earth. Whose farm is this?, Mary asks herself as she slips into the dream. It looks deserted, but Mary knows there are people around, somewhere.
Deuce sits in the kitchen of that very same farm, looking out the window at the same gray scene Mary pondered in her dream. The Merrill farm.
From the darkness, you’d think the day was nearly done. Deuce knows sunset is still several hours away. He moves his chair closer to the stove, thinks of his uncle, out in the cold spring afternoon, doing some farm chore or other. By rights, Deuce should be out there helping him. He laughs. That foolish Thomas out at the school with Mae, he thinks as he searches for the horizon. She’s talking about homesteading in Saskatchewan or Alberta.
Imagine winters on that Canadian prairie. Deuce shivers. Even crazier, Mae is taking to the idea of relocating. Seems she’s done with St. Louis, Michigan. Or maybe Mae’s done with teaching. She’s sure ready to pull up stakes.
Deuce stands, considers finding his uncle out in the cold, decides instead to seek out his Aunt Marguerite, who he suspects is drying clothes near the fire. He enters the house’s front room. Marguerite is scrubbing a child’s shirt on a washboard. Her daughter Audrey is stirring a large pot on the fire. Deuce pulls up a chair.
Without looking up, Marguerite slides the tub, washboard, and brush toward Deuce. He picks up scrubbing the shirt where his aunt left off. Marguerite stands, stretches, and checks the laundry drying on two wooden racks beside the hearth. Deuce scrubs, rinses, wrings, repeats.
“Cloudy weather,” Marguerite says, breaking a long silence.
“Cloudy and cold,” Deuce replies.
“Warm by the fire,” says Marguerite, smiling. Before Deuce can raise a defense, Marguerite says, “No need. There’s plenty of work inside. Your uncle won’t mind. He likes the solitude.”
“He knows how to keep busy,” Deuce says as he wrings out a union suit. His aunt takes it from him, finds a place for it on the drying rack.
“Have you heard him?”, Marguerite asks as she repositions the rack near the fire. “He sings out there when he thinks no one can hear him.” Deuce’s aunt smiles at the thought. “Church songs, mostly. Funny thing, we can’t get a peep out of him during mass. Not a single Te Deum.”
“I think he likes it here,” Deuce says.
Marguerite laughs, “He built this farm, this house. I don’t see either of us living anywhere else.” She takes over from her daughter stirring the large pot suspended over the fire. “Cloudy weather,” Marguerite repeats. “Good roads, though.”
Deuce stands, asks, “You have something for Mae and Thomas?”
“In a way,” Marguerite replies. “In Saginaw. Agnes, your friend from Ontario. She’s graduating. A year early. Even has her teaching certificate. Just 15 years old. Seems she’s quite the scholar.”
“Agnes is a teacher, my my,” Deuce says. “Why in the world is she going to St. Louis?” Marguerite continues stirring the pot in silence. “Is Agnes gonna teach out there with Mae?”, Deuce asks. His aunt stirs slowly, eyes on the roiling water washing the clothes in the pot.
“You could leave in the morning,” Marguerite says finally. “Be at Mae’s school two days later.” She scoops articles of clothes out of the pot. “Mae will be pleased to see you,” she adds.
Deuce grimaces. “She didn’t appear displeased to see me go, last we parted,” he says.
“Mae will be pleased to see you,” Marguerite repeats with a touch more emphasis. “So will Agnes. Oh!” She stands. “I have a coat for her." Marguerite retrieves a coat. "Mae has been good for St. Louis, Michigan,” she says. “The town hasn’t been all that good for Mae. Imagine a young woman passing hour after hour alone in that school house. Imagine those bitter winter nights.”
Deuce considers mentioning Thomas, Mae’s companion this past year and a half. Thomas is heart-broken herself, pining for her friend back in Gary. “I don’t suppose Agnes is waiting for me at Mrs. Blackwell’s school,” Deuce says, though he knows she is.
“Not waiting,” his aunt replies. “Hoping. I know how much she likes Mae’s school. She may even like the town, such as it is. And your company, of course.”
“I’ll do it on one condition,” Deuce says. “I get use of the team and wagon for a trip to Indiana.”
Marguerite looks puzzled, then smiles. “Gary?”, she asks. “Is Thomas joining you? Some folks in Gary may not be pleased to see her.”
“One’s all that matters,” Deuce says. He tries to remember the name of Thomas’s friend in Indiana. “Where would Mae be without Thomas?”, he says.
Marguerite stops stirring. “Have you put that question to Mae?”, Marguerite asks. “I thought not,” she says without giving Deuce time to respond. She stirs the pot.
Deuce begins to answer his aunt, but decides to join his uncle doing outside chores, once he finishes the shirt he’s scrubbing on washboard. “Don’t wait too long,” Marguerite says as she scoops laundry out of the pot.
“You’ve told me that before,“ Deuce replies.
Marguerite sighs. “Why might that be?”, she asks her nephew with mock sincerity.
“I’ll leave in the morning,” Deuce says. He heads for the back door of the farmhouse. “Any message for the lord of the manor?”, he asks as he goes.
“No word of Agnes,” his aunt replies. “Best not to mention Indiana either,” Marguerite adds. “And leave Thomas out of it, too.”
“What’s left?”, Deuce asks.
“Work,” she replies. “That’s your uncle’s favorite subject.” Marguerite wrings out a shirt. “He’s either working or getting ready to start again.”
As he laces up his boots, Deuce thinks of his uncle throwing himself into every mundane task, giving each his full attention, total effort. Deuce bundles up as best he can and heads into the frigid yard between the house and stable. He has no clue where his uncle might be found. He looks at the stable, decides to let his uncle work in peace. He heads over to check the horses and find a wagon able to make the trip.
The thought of being back behind a team puts a hop in Deuce’s step, even in this cold, even if the wagon’s destination is Gary, Indiana.
Deuce wakes the next morning to the smell of coffee and bacon. He keeps his head buried under the covers. First light is still hours away. He ponders how much time he has before his aunt rousts him. She told him the night before to start on the road to Saginaw before sun-up. Once again toting Agnes, Deuce thinks. Still an orphan, no longer a waif. Now nearly grown, and ready to depart Mrs. Blackwell’s school.
Deuce beats his aunt to the punch. He jumps out of bed, dresses quickly, and follows his nose to the kitchen. Marguerite pours him a cup. “Don’t dawdle over your breakfast,” she says. “He’ll be hitching up the team soon.”
“Guess you won’t be missing me,” Deuce replies.
“Of course we’ll miss you,” his aunt says. “There’s somewhere else you need to be right now is all.” Deuce gets it. That place is with Mae. “It’s a hard life for a young woman on her own,” Marguerite says. “The good people of St. Louis, Michigan, haven’t been very welcoming.”
“It’s like they blame Mae for Aughning running off with their school money,” Deuce says.
“Maybe,” his aunt replies, “they’re just shits.”
“Mae’s not there for the shits of St. Louis, Michigan,” Deuce says, “she’s there for their children. Rebuilt their damned school for them.”
“Mae’s there for herself,” Marguerite says under her breath, and then louder, “You said you loved her. I believed you. Now, I’m not sure.”
“Well, I’m sure,” Deuce says. He stands up from the table. “And I intend to take her back to Ontario, someday, to ask her father for her hand.”
“Promise me,” his aunt replies, “the next time you come back from Canada, no orphans, no refugees, no runaway wives.”
“Deal,” Deuce says.
Ten minutes later, Deuce exits the house, duffel over his shoulder. The wagon is loaded, the team is hitched, and his uncle has disappeared. Deuce looks back at the house. From a window, his aunt waves him on. He shrugs back, throws his duffel in the wagon, climbs into the seat.
The horses start on their own the moment Deuce releases the brake. It’s as if they’re in a bigger hurry to get on the road than he is. Deuce is thankful the wind is down this cold, May morning. The eastern horizon he’s heading toward shows not a sign of dawn’s arrival.
Deuce notices someone has secured a large jar under the wagon seat. He removes it, feels the heat of the jar’s contents through his glove. He uncaps the jar and smells the aroma of strong tea. He drinks just a bit, returns the cap, and places the jar inside his heavy coat. The feel of the jar’s contents sloshing against his belly as the wagon rolls along reminds Deuce of the steamship ride south out of Seattle.
The memory gets Deuce wondering about Jacob Riece. Almost a year has passed since Deuce left the lad with Madame Bouchet. Jacob from Alberta has something Agnes from Ontario never will: The certainty that eventually he will be reunited with his long-lost father.
Deuce lifts the collar of his coat, pulls his hat low in an attempt to keep his ears from freezing off. The horse hooves thud a cadence. Gray splotches on the eastern horizon announce the day, one Deuce will spend battling frostbite as he bounces on a stiff wooden wagon seat. Time will pass faster once Agnes is politely ignoring him while seated next to him, or more likely, propped up in the wagon bed, observing.
Deuce tries to picture the waif he delivered to Mrs. Blackwell’s school two years ago taking charge of a classroom full of unruly children. Mae pulled it off, he thinks. That and more. Rebuilt the school house, with Thomas’s help. She made it through two winters on her own. Deuce hears his Aunt Marguerite’s words again: A young woman gets lonely. “Last one,” Deuce says aloud. Mae won’t pass another winter alone. Not even if Mae goes through with her cockamamie plan to follow Thomas up to Saskatchewan or wherever. That’s after a foolhardy stop in Gary, Indiana.
By the time Deuce rolls his uncle’s wagon up to Mrs. Blackwell’s school in Saginaw, he’s ready for lunch even though it’s only mid morning. After watering and feeding the horses, Deuce makes his way to the back door of the large, gabled building, once a mansion, now a school. A young woman meets Deuce at the back door. She cracks open the door and says, “Mrs. Blackwell asks please chop wood for your luncheon.”
“Who are you?”, Deuce asks.
The young woman looks confused, then says through the cracked door, “Lorraine Heise Drummond. Why do you ask?”
“Why wouldn’t I ask?”, Deuce replies, a little taken aback. “Do you know Agnes Day?”
“Sure,” the young woman replies. “We both live here. It’d be hard not to know her, though meek she may be,” Lorraine says.
“Where is she?”, Deuce asks.
“Preparing to cook your luncheon,” says Lorraine. She closes the back door, nearly taking off the tip of Deuce’s nose. Deuce glances around the yard, spots the woodpile, heads for it.
Fifteen minutes later, Deuce is back at the door with his arms full of freshly chopped firewood. The door opens without him having to knock. Deuce expects to find Agnes in the large, uncluttered kitchen. Instead he sees two teenage girls seated on stools at a long, tall table. Neither of the girls is Lorraine, who met him at the door earlier. One is snapping the tips off green beans, the other is stirring batter. The girls give Deuce a quick glance when he enters, then they turn back to their work. Deuce sets the wood in a large box next to the stove.
“Do you know where I might find Agnes?”, Deuce asks the girls. “Or Mrs. Blackwell, perhaps?”
The girl stirring the batter points behind him. Deuce turns to find Mrs. Blackwell standing next to the door he just passed through. “We were wondering,” she says.
“Ma’am?” Deuce asks.
“When you would arrive,” Mrs. Blackwell continues.
“I didn’t know I was expected,” Deuce says.
“Of course we expected you,” she replies. “Agnes does her best to track your wanderings. She considers you her liberator, first from her family, now from me.”
“I thought Agnes liked it here,” Deuce says. “She never complained that I know of.”
“It has become Agnes’s prison,” Mrs. Blackwell replies. “She is sure her happiness lies in St. Louis, Michigan, teaching farm children. Paid leavings, or paid not at all.”
“She knows what she’s getting into, I guess,” Deuce says. “Agnes will take that beat-down schoolhouse over what she left in Ontario, I bet.” Mrs. Blackwell stares at Deuce in reply. Deuce looks around the kitchen, claps his hands, and says, “Something sure smells good in here.”
“Agnes has prepared a basket,” Mrs. Blackwell says. “She will join you in the barn.”
“Barn?”, Deuce asks. “It’s mighty cold this morning.”
“The barn,” Mrs. Blackwell repeats sternly. She points to the back door. “Start a fire. Agnes will join you.”
Deuce looks at her sideways, then he squares up. “You’re nice enough when my aunt and uncle are here,” he says. “Me you send to the barn. Why is that?”
“Where were you?”, Mrs. Blackwell asks quietly but accusingly.
“Working for freighters, mostly,” Deuce replies.
“Where was Mae?”, she asks.
“Teaching,” Deuce says, “so I’ve been told.” Mrs. Blackwell frowns at him. Deuce continues, “I suppose you think I belong here with Mae.”
“On this point,” Mrs. Blackwell says quietly, slowly, “what I think matters much less than what Mae believes.” Deuce flinches, steadies. “Mae believes,” Mrs. Blackwell continues, her voice tightening, “you promised to marry her. Twice. And then left immediately thereafter. Twice,” Mrs. Blackwell repeats. “Mysteriously, Mae persists in believing you. I persist in believing in Mae, and hoping you weigh anchor.”
Deuce eyes the door, wishing he was on the other side of it. “Thank you for your concern,” He says. “I’ll wait for Agnes in the barn." He slips past Mrs. Blackwell and exits the kitchen, hungrier than ever. A cold wind smacks him as he walks the thirty yards to the barn. When he enters through the wide barn door, he is surprised by the warmth. His uncle’s mules are happily munching hay in one large stall.
In a back corner of the tall, wide structure Deuce sees Agnes standing next to a small potbelly stove. She looks back at him, smiling shyly. “Hello, young lady,” Deuce says as he walks quickly to her. “So nice to see a friendly face.”
Agnes’s smile widens. “Likewise,” she says.
“As nice and toasty as it is in this barn,” Deuce says with a grin, “and as cold as it is out there, would you object to dining al fresco?”
Without a word, Agnes returns to the stove and transfers the contents of the skillet into a large pie tin. She covers the tin with a cloth. Deuce begins hitching the mules to his uncle’s wagon. He notices Agnes has already placed her two carpet bags in the back. He looks around. “Where’s your coat?”, he asks. Agnes points at the wagon seat. Deuce notices two folded blankets. “You don’t have a coat?”, he asks her.
“I outgrew it,” Agnes says apologetically.
Deuce looks at her, smiles. “You have grown some.” He raises his eyebrows, says, “Aunt Marguerite must've known.” From under the wagon seat Deuce retrieves the coat his aunt had given him the day before. He holds it open for Agnes, who puts it on tentatively. Deuce regards Agnes and the coat, which appears to have been assembled from the remnants of two or three different garments. "That's no teacher's coat," he says finally.
Five minutes later, the mules are hitched and the wagon is parked outside the large house’s back door. Deuce jumps down from the wagon seat. He gives Agnes a comical salute and runs into the house through the back door. Agnes holds Aunt Marguerite's hand-made coat tightly around her.
Agnes keeps her gaze on the back door. Deuce reappears in no time, carrying a large burgundy bundle. He bounds toward the wagon, laughing. He tosses the big bundle to Agnes and jumps onto the wagon seat next to her, chuckling in the cold. “It’s the old ladies’ coat,” he says. “Plenty big enough for you to grow into,” he cackles as he hies the mules on and gets the wagon rolling. Agnes looks back at the house.
As they head down the path to the street, Deuce notices Agnes looking warily at the gabled mansion. “She won’t show her face,” Deuce says. He continues under his breath, “She has no right to send you off in the world so ill-prepared.” Then he’s back to cackling, “Put it on!”
Agnes unbundles the coat. It’s bigger than she is. She tries fit herself inside it as the wagon bounces along the icy path toward the road. After he coaxes the mules onto the Saginaw Road and points them west, Deuce looks over at Agnes on the seat next to him. She’s disappeared.
All but the top of her head has vanished inside a pile of thick burgundy wool. “Can you see?”, Deuce asks. The patch of brown hair nods.
The coat turns toward Deuce. One brown eye peers at him between the top two buttons. “Better?”, Deuce asks.
Agnes nods, says, “Thank you.” The coat turns the other way as Agnes looks back at the gabled mansion housing Mrs. Blackwell’s school.
“How about that luncheon?”, Deuce asks. Agnes ignores Deuce at first, then she climbs out of the oversized coat, retrieves a basket from under the wagon seat, takes out a pie tin. Deuce takes the tin from Agnes and waits for her to crawl back inside the big burgundy coat. Once she’s situated, he hands her the reins. “Don’t worry,” Deuce says as he takes the cloth off the pie tin and starts spooning up eggs and potatoes. “The mules know their business.”
After Deuce has downed his second meal of the day and they’re clear of Saginaw, Agnes curls up in the wagon bed under the burgundy coat. Deuce sighs as he watches the mules make their slow, steady way down the road. He was looking forward to catching up with his young charge. Let Agnes sleep, he thinks. The poor girl will need to be rested and wary for her interrogation this afternoon by his Aunt Marguerite.
Deuce knows the first thing his aunt will ask about is Agnes’s oversized coat. He decides he’ll just go with the truth and take his lumps.
To Deuce’s surprise, once they’re at the Merrill’s farm, his Aunt Marguerite’s only concern is the coat’s poor fit, not its dubious origin. After looking Agnes up and down twice, Marguerite pronounces Agnes fit, if underfed. “They finally found you some decent boots,” she adds.
Marguerite serves Deuce and Agnes an impromptu dinner, after which she puts them to work helping prepare the family’s evening meal. As he chops vegetables for the stew, Deuce says to his aunt, “Might make sense for us to spend a few days helping you out around here, eh?”
“It makes no sense at all,” Marguerite shoots back. “You and Agnes will be on the road west before daybreak. This is not where you belong.” Marguerite continues, still facing the stove: “I’ll let you puzzle out where it is you do belong, though I suspect Agnes has a good notion.”
“Saskatchewan,” Deuce says under his breath, “by way of Gary, Indiana.”
“You think distance is your friend,” Marguerite says. “It’s not.”
“Did you get another letter from my mother?”, Deuce asks his aunt. “You’re both making too much of this. I just don’t want us to starve.”
“Mae would never let that happen,” Marguerite replies, keeping her attention on the stew pot. “Saskatchewan, St. Petersburg, Cincinnati.”
Agnes looks up, surprised. “You’re going to all those places, Mr. Deuce?”, she asks.
“I just might,” Deuce says with a smile. “Me and Mae.”
“Mae and I,” Agnes corrects him.
“You’re going with Mae too?”, Deuce laughs. “She’ll be busy.” Agnes’s serious expression doesn’t change.
“He’s a frivolous fellow, eh?”, Marguerite says to Agnes. “Uneducated to boot.”
“I know my Pater Noster,” Deuce replies, feigning insult.
“Agnes is the educated one,” Marguerite says, turning to smile at Agnes chopping vegetables at the crowded kitchen table. “A certificate. The youngest graduate of Sts. Peter and Paul Teachers College,” she adds. “A regular protege.” Agnes squirms a bit in her chair.
“That explains why they all but ran her off,” Deuce says, “with no proper coat to boot.”
“She got her coat’s worth,” Marguerite says. All three of them laugh at that. “We’ll wait a long time for Agnes to grow into that purple monstrosity,” Marguerite says. Agnes blushes. “I trust Mae will leave you well provisioned at that school,” she says to Agnes. “Deuce won’t leave until he’s sure you’re settled.”
“Settled?”, Deuce asks. “That might--” Marguerite cuts him off with a glance over her shoulder. “--be fun,” Deuce finishes with a smile.
“Sure,” Deuce says to Agnes, “gangs of fun. We’ll get you all settled in St. Louis, Michigan, before we head for Indiana and parts unknown.” Now Deuce shoots his aunt a look. She keeps her gaze on the contents of the pot she’s stirring. Agnes has stopped chopping, looks confused.
“I don’t need anyone to settle me,” Agnes says quietly. “I settle myself just fine. I know the school, the town, well enough, I do believe.”
The kitchen is quiet after Agnes’s statement. Just the sounds of the meal being prepared. In ones and twos, the Merrill children come in. Marguerite fills a big bowl with stew, adds a spoon, covers it with a cloth, and hands it to Deuce. “Take this out to your uncle,” she says.
As he reaches for his coat, Deuce asks, “Any idea where he may be?”
“It’s not that big a farm,” his aunt replies. “You’ll find each other.”
Before Deuce has taken a dozen steps from the farmhouse’s back door, he spots his uncle, walking straight at him. Deuce holds up the stew. His uncle takes the bowl out of Deuce’s hand and asks, “Where’s your gloves?” He starts in on the stew while he waits for Deuce’s answer.
Deuce shrugs, puts his ungloved hands in his coat pockets. “Can’t get much done in this cold with no gloves,” his uncle says between gulps.
“We’re heading out before light tomorrow,” Deuce says. “Thought I’d help Aunt Marguerite with indoor work, enjoy the fire while I’m able.” Deuce’s uncle looks at him over the edge of the bowl as he spoons the stew into his mouth. Deuce looks away. “I’ll get my gloves,” he says.
Early the next morning, Deuce is roused from a deep, dreamless sleep by Agnes poking him in the butt. “We leave in 30 minutes,” she says.
“Wuh,” Deuce replies.
“Your aunt says to eat and help your uncle hitch the wagon,” Agnes replies. “I’m not to leave until you are upright.”
“The man never sleeps,” Deuce grumbles. He sits up on his low pallet bed. “This upright enough for you?”, he asks Agnes.
She considers this. “Thirty minutes,” Agnes repeats as she turns and heads for the kitchen.
Deuce lays back down, pulls the blankets to his chin, sighs deeply. He hears Mae’s voice in his head, saying, “My waiting days are over.” He sighs again, thinks, I’m not my Uncle Joe, I’m not my father. The nomad life is not for me, he thinks as he sits up, stretches, stands, begins to dress. I’m going to find me a place to settle down. Preferably a place with a little warmth and sunshine, Deuce thinks as he ponders spending another day bouncing on that cold, hard wagon seat.
Thirty-two minutes later, Deuce and Agnes have made their perfunctory adieus to Deuce’s Aunt Marguerite and are headed for the Saginaw Road. In the dim light of the lantern lashed to the side of the wagon, Deuce notices Agnes is no longer swimming in Mrs. Blackwell’s purple coat. “Now you will certainly make an impression on the young people of St. Louis, Michigan,” Deuce says. Agnes smiles shyly for just a second. Deuce thinks of his aunt, all night beside the fire, fitting Agnes’s coat. “Hat and mittens too,” he says. Agnes holds up one foot proudly. “Look it there,” Deuce says, admiring Agnes’s shiny blue boots.
“Marguerite gave ‘em to me,” Agnes replies. “Rose hardly wore ‘em, I guess.” Before she grew out of ‘em,” Agnes continues. “Rose’s got feet the size of gunboats, your aunt says. About her own daughter. Just imagine!”
Deuce is happy to hear Agnes is back in a talkative mood. Her voice droning on helps pass the many hours spent on the hard wooden seat. Dinner tonight with Mae and Thomas, thinks Deuce. That will be an interesting experience, depending on the condition of their school house.
The sound of Agnes’s voice as she recounts the history of her boots puts Deuce in mind of another talkative travel companion, Cyrus Duprey. The last time Deuce saw Cy he was on his way to becoming an institution at Madame Bouchet’s mission in San Francisco. How did that happen? Nobody scavenges like Cy. With that dilapidated wagon he pieced together in Madame’s barn.
Deuce feels Agnes tugging gently at his sleeve. “You’re not listening,” Agnes says matter-of-factly.
“You’re correct,” Deuce says, “I was not. You put me in mind of an old friend. Cyrus.”
“I remember Cyrus Duprey,” Agnes says. “I met him at Thanksgiving dinner with Mary and Jay.”
“So you did,” Deuce replies, “I had forgotten. Cy is doing very well. He scavenges for a mission.”
“How are Mary and Jay faring?”, Agnes asks.
Deuce ponders her question. “I’m sure Jay is doing well in school,” Deuce lies. “Mary works as a seamstress. She’s a whiz with a needle.” He doesn’t mention his uncle.
As the wagon rolls slowly westward, Deuce pictures his Uncle Joe driving a rig very much like this one on a road through towering forests.
Twenty-five hundred miles to the west, Joe is wondering about his nephew Deuce. So long as he’s not spending his time freighting orphans. “I believe I’ll pay my sister a visit,” Joe whispers to Mary, who he’s holding in his arms. First light is sneaking past the drawn shade.
“Stop by the store and bring her some groceries,” Mary replies. She leans into Joe gently. “Don’t mention Jay. Or my uncle. Or her husband.”
“That doesn’t leave much to converse about,” Joe replies.
“Ask her if she’s heard from Deuce,” Mary says. “He better marry that teacher.”
“I don’t know,” Joe replies. “Marry her and then leave her again while he hauls freight all over tarnation?”
“It’s your fault,” Mary says. “Deuce got his rambling ways courtesy of his favorite uncle. You.” She can’t help smiling, though it makes her sad. Poor Mae.
“I’m settled in now,” Joe replies. He holds Mary tighter. “Maybe I can start setting some good examples.”
“The damage is done,” Mary says. Mary knows Joe is not as settled as he claims to be. She knows she’ll never be settled until she has her son back. Joe won’t be, either. She sits up in the narrow bed, daylight peeking through the window shade. “Thought I might visit the store on Sunday,” Mary says.
Now Joe sits up next to her. “Let’s go,” he says.
“You visiting the store? That’s a bad idea,” says Mary.
Joe replies, “It’s an excellent idea. We’ll bring crabs.”
“Crabs?”, Mary laughs.
“With fresh sourdough.” Joe growls.
“I have to go,” she adds but stays snug in Joe’s arms. “So do you. Give Alice my regards.”
“Mary sends her regards,” Joe tells his sister six hours later. He and Alice are preparing the vegetables Joe brought for Alice’s stew. It’s a cool, half-cloudy afternoon on the south slope of Rincon Hill.
“Jay’s fine for now in Toronto,” Alice says, “for now.”
“A young boy belongs with his mother,” Joe says.
“And his father?”, Alice asks.
“I guess that depends on the father,” Joe replies.
“I should say it does,” Alice replies, a little angry. Joe stops cutting up the vegetables.
“We just want to take them some stew,” he says.
“You two are cooking up something,” Alice says, “and it won’t end well for Jay. Or for you.” Now there’s a little concern in Alice’s voice.
Joe stands. “Mary and I are going to visit her family at their store this Sunday,” he says. “Nothing's cooking.” Joe picks up the bowl of vegetables. “Where do you want these?”, he asks.
Alice points into the big pot on the stove and asks, “Where else?”
Joe pours the chopped vegetables into the stew pot as Alice stirs them into the broth. “Thought I’d take a walk,” he says. “Visit Madame.”
“Have you and Mary thought about relocating?”, Alice asks.
“First I travel too much,” Joe replies, “then I don’t travel enough. Can’t win.”
“All it takes to build a home is love.”
“Here all this time I thought wood and nails were involved,” says Joe flatly.
“Do you want your boy back or don’t you?”, Alice asks sincerely. “If you do, you’ll work with Madame as your go-between with the Bartoli’s.”
“That didn’t work out so well last time,” Joe replies, “Remember?”
“That was the priest’s doing as much as anyone,” Alice says. “He’s out of St. Pat's, out of the diocese." She bangs the large spoon on the rim of the pot. "If you’re serious about getting Jay back, you’ll take a job. The in-one-place kind of job.” Joe starts to speak, is cut off. “Not a job involving the sale of liquor,” Alice adds.
“In this town, that throttles my opportunities measurably,” Joe says.
Alice frowns. “When it comes to family,” she says, “you do what you have to. If you haven’t learned that, you haven’t learned anything.”
Now Joe frowns. He is tempted to remind his sister that what her husband has to do is leave his family for months at a stretch. That’s not Alice’s fault. “Nothing’s anybody’s fault,” Joe says under his breath.
“What?”, Alice asks.
“We have to pass some test before we can live as a family.”
“What do you know about family?”, Alice asks. “What do you know about putting what’s best for Jay first? Or Mary, for that matter. If you did, you’d keep Jay in Toronto.”
Joe exits his sister’s flat without another word. He thinks about stopping for a beer before visiting with Madame, but decides against it. Madame would smell the beer on his breath before he drank it. Joe tries to think of another way to tamp down the anger he feels rising up. He reconsiders what his sister Alice said about making a good home for Jay and Mary. The only good home Joe’s ever known is Alice’s flat.
Most of Joe’s adult life has been spent in lumber camps and saloons. So far, so good, eh? Joe realizes he’s angry because Alice is right. Jay’s doing great with Anthony in Toronto, so everybody says. Joe doesn’t buy it for a second. Teo Bartoli is calling the shots.
Joe feels himself walking faster as he thinks about Mary’s uncle, the head of the Bartoli family. He shanghai’d Joe, banished Mary and Jay. By the time Madame’s broad front porch comes into view, Joe has worked himself into a lather. It’s time he had a palaver with Teo Bartoli.
Joe decides to sit on Madame’s front step for a bit to cool off. Visits with Madame require a calm disposition, lest she talk you into knots. Seconds after Joe sits down, a voice from the porch says, “Weighty thoughts.”
Joe turns, sees no one. “Good afternoon, Madame,” he says. “Remembrance of broken pledges will darken a fellow’s mood on occasion,” he adds.
“You give them power,” Madame says as she steps forward. “When you take their word.” Now she’s standing on the top step, regarding the quiet courtyard. “You give trust, they take you.” Better to let them go.” Madame looks at Joe on the stoop below her. “Get yourself back.”
“They take, alright,” Joe grumbles.
“Teo will never stop taking,” Madame says. She and Joe look toward the bay, Madame standing on the top step, Joe seated on the bottom step. “Until he is dead.” Madame turns and walks toward the front door. Joe sits for a minute, then stretches and joins Madame inside.
“She never did,” Mary says in disbelief.
“She did indeed,” Joe replies. They’re on the Howard street car, heading for the flat on Bryant.
“Go get him?”, Mary says quietly.
“Stop asking permission,” Joe says. “That’s what Madame said. Teo will only take, never give. So....”
“And then what?”, Mary asks as the street car approaches their stop at Second.
“Then we live as a family,” Joe replies, “the three of us.”
“Where? Doing what? You haven’t thought this through,” Mary says. She steps off the car just before it stops, leads Joe south down Second. Mary continues, walking faster. Joe stays a half step behind. Mary stops suddenly. “I can always find a tailor who needs a needle worker.” She regards Joe. “You can find work in a brewery,” she says with a straight face. She resumes her quick pace down Second. “Some place not too far,” she adds.
Joe knows better than to interrupt Mary when she’s latched onto an idea. “Some place not too cold and not too hot,” Mary says.
Joe thinks, Teo may not be so obliging. “Once we get settled,” he echoes, “needlework and breweries.”
The Laffingstock flat comes into view. “Don’t say anything to Alice,” Mary adds.
“That’s not going to be easy,” Joe says, “considering we’re going to Alice’s for that reason.”
“I mean, don’t talk about Jay,” Mary adds.
They reach Alice’s front steps. “Again,” Joe says, getting impatient, “the reason for the visit? Talk to my aunt about Jay?”
Mary looks up. “Jay stays in Ontario,” Mary says, almost whispering, “for now.” She starts up the steps. Joe follows, mumbling a vow of silence.
Two hours later, Joe and Mary are walking down the same steps, arm in arm. “See what you can do when you keep your mouth shut?”, Mary asks.
Joe smiles in response, though he feels the low hum of anger building. Madame’s right, he thinks. Teo’s never going to give them anything. But Mary is so happy at the prospect of the three of them finally living as a family, Joe just smiles along. “Let’s get some grub,” he says.
“We just ate at your sister’s,” Mary replies.
“My appetite just kicked in,” Joe says. “I have a yen for some of your mother’s rigatoni.”
Mary stops in her tracks. Across Federal Street, her cousin Frank Albani stands next to a coach. She grabs the front of Joe’s shirt. “We need to leave,” she says. “Tonight.”
"Frank Albani is your cousin?", Joe asks again. He and Mary are sitting on Madame Bouchet's back porch. "You never told me he was your cousin."
“His mother is my father’s sister,” Mary replies. ”And Teo’s. They’re out of the family.”
“Frank Albani’s mother is a Bartoli?”, Joe nearly shouts. “Don’t tell me, your aunt married somebody your Uncle Teo didn’t approve of.”
Mary hesitates. She starts to speak, hesitates again. Finally, she says, “Yes, but with Frank there’s something more.” She hesitates again.
“You don’t expect me to guess, do you?”, Joe says after seconds of silence. Mary doesn't respond. “What happened to your aunt?”, he asks.
“She died,” Mary says flatly. “When I was just a girl. Frank stayed with us a good long time, after some trouble with his father.” Joe waits. “Nearly killed him,” Mary adds. "That's not it. We were friends back then, Frankie and me, just kids, getting in trouble together."
"He likes you," Joe says. Madame comes out of the back door onto the porch as Mary replies, "Yeah."
"Your Uncle Teo is dead," Madame says to Mary. "That is what your cousin wanted to tell you. So you owe your cousin a favor to repay the favor he did you." She stands between the chairs Joe and Mary are sitting in. "I don't know what the favor is. You must disappear before he can ask. Say yes, Albani owns you. Say no, he kills you."
Joe and Mary look at each other. "Frank killed him," Mary says.
"More or less," Madame replies.
"As a favor to Mary?", Joe asks.
"Frank sees it that way," Mary says. "We benefit along with him, so we owe him."
Madame looks at them both in the evening light of her sprawling back porch.
Joe marvels at how matter-of-fact Madame sounds when she delivers bad news. "So, if we hadn't taken off the other way when Mary spotted him, and he got to ask us his favor, our gooses would be cooked?", he asks Madame.
"They're cooked anyway," Mary interrupts, "Unless we get out of San Francisco." She stands suddenly and asks, "What happens to Jay?"
Joe and Madame Bouchet stare back at her in reply. "Frank would," Joe says finally. Madame nods slowly.
"Go south," Madame says softly. "Safer," she smiles. "Get to Ontario soon enough."
"Will Jay be there?", Mary asks, a little scared.
"Frank won't bring him here," Madame replies. "Not yet."
"Frank wants Jay?", Joe asks, a lot angry.
"Of course he does," says Madame, "That's what this is all about."
"Jay?" Joe asks.
"Power," she replies.
Joe tries to make sense of Teo Bartoli and Frank Albani and Anthony Joseph (Jay) McCready as he looks to Mary, then Madame, then back to Mary. The two women regard each other with looks equally grave. Joe thinks, wherever Deuce is, I'm glad he's not here.
Deuce is in Gary, Indiana, wondering whether the police will charge him with kidnapping or violation of the Mann Act. He looks around again. Still no sign of Thomas. The mules are as calm as Deuce is nervous. He thinks, Thomas better be right about her friend Millie being eighteen.
What happens once Deuce and Thomas spirit Millie out of Indiana? They meet Mae in St. Joseph and steam north up Lake Michigan to Sheboygan. From Sheboygan the four of them ride the train to Calgary. There they’ll provision for the homestead outside Drumheller. Deuce’s head swims. That’s just the beginning, Deuce reminds himself. Once Thomas and Millie are settled on the Canadian prairie, it’s on to Vancouver with Mae.
Deuce shivers at the thought of returning to that long road through the Canadian Rockies. The sound of running feet brings him back to Gary. When he looks up, Deuce sees Millie running toward him down the narrow dirt lane. Millie’s arms, legs, and smile are all going full bore. Yards behind Millie, Thomas does her best keep the two large suitcases she’s hauling from dragging in the dirt as she trundles down the path.
Deuce looks to see who is chasing the two young women, hoping they won’t have to leave Gary in a rush. But there’s only Millie and Thomas. Millie bolts into the wagon seat, disturbing the mules. Thomas catches up, secures the two large suitcases in the wagon bed, looks behind. Deuce follows Thomas’s gaze back down the narrow lane. “All clear,” he says.
Thomas climbs into the wagon bed. “I’m not so sure,” she says. Thomas points over her shoulder with her thumb. “Let’s go back that way,” she says.
“The way you just came from?”, Deuce asks. “Brilliant!”
“They’ll try to nab us on the Dunes road,” Thomas says as she helps Deuce turn the mules and wagon around. “We’ll head south, for Central. East on Central for five miles, then north to the Chicago road. They won’t chase us farther than that.”
Deuce marvels. “When did you plan all this out?”, he asks as they join Millie on the wagon seat.
“About a year ago,” Thomas replies. “Except the mules. I planned it for a team of horses,” she explains as the wagon rolls south, “but these mules are a fine pair.”
Deuce looks back at Millie, who is looking warily back the way they came. All is still. “How are you, young lady?”, he asks.
Millie shrugs, sighs, happy, dazed. “I don’t know,” she replies. “Scared, mostly. No, happy mostly, scared some, relieved a lot. Because Thomas came for me, like she said.”
Thomas keeps her eyes on the empty road ahead. Deuce wants to pay her a compliment, but he’s not sure how. One year since the railroad car. “That wedding dress is for Millie, isn’t it?”, he asks. “The one in the boxcar?”
Thomas waits before replying, “It was the old lady’s., who I was tending to, before she died. She said ‘Take it,’ though I told her I’m never marrying. Not in no dress, anyway.” Thomas takes a quick look over her shoulder at Millie, who smiles back from her perch among the bags and baggage packed into the wagon bed.
Deuce smiles as he gently encourages the mules down the deserted road. The June night is warm and still. They could make St. Joe’s by dawn. Deuce realizes no one in Gary is liable to miss Millie. Thomas could’ve knocked on the front door and helped herself. More fun to run away.
“Get some sleep now,” Deuce tells Thomas, pointing with his thumb at the wagon bed. “I’ll wake you when I start nodding off.” Thomas climbs gingerly into the wagon bed, where Millie lies in a pile of blankets and quilts, feigning sleep. “Sleep,” Deuce repeats. “Catch up tomorrow.”
The mules show no signs of tiring, and neither does Deuce as they cross the state line into Michigan. The summer night air is like a tonic. Deuce’s favorite roads are the ones that lead to Mae, who is now waiting for them near the St. Joseph ferry terminal, if the schedule holds.
As Deuce rambles north on the Chicago road, Mae is silently cursing the ineptitude of certain railroad conductors. There was no reason for the westbound train from Saginaw to make not one, not two, but three unscheduled stops to allow the conductor to conduct his side business.
Now Mae is stuck at the St. Joseph train station with two large trunks and no way to get herself and them to the dock until morning, still six hours away. An hour ago, the station agent booted Mae to a bench on the sidewalk outside the small building. Mae looks left, then right. The town appears lifeless.
Mae looks up. Between the tree branches she sees stars floating in black sea turned upside down. The leaves are tickled by a soft breeze off the lake a mile away, setting them to murmur. Mae considers breaking into the hard cider she brought for Deuce. She reaches instead for her nearly empty jar of tea. She listens to a nearby cricket chirp a metronome. A melody occurs to her. As it plays in her head to the raspy trill, Mae thinks of Ireland, a place she’s been only while listening to her grandmother’s tales back in Ontario.
Mae tries to recall an Irish tune her grandmother used to sing to her. Instead, the cricket serenade echoes in her ears, becoming the sound of wagon wheels. In her dream, Mae is bouncing in the bed of a wagon that’s so loaded with crates, they’re all she can see. She looks up, sees Deuce’s smiling face looking down on her from the top of the tallest crate. “Did you say train station?”, he asks. “I thought we were to rendezvous at the St. Joseph wharf?”
Mae wakes with a start. Millie, Thomas, and Deuce regard her from the wagon stopped in the road. Mae stands unsteadily. Deuce jumps down from the wagon seat and takes her in his arms. “My apologies for keeping you waiting,” he says. “I should’ve known better than to trust to a train schedule.”
“That bench is remarkably comfortable,” Mae replies. “Saved the price of a room.”
Lake Michigan is a fuzzy gray slate in the early morning light. Mae exchanges pleasantries with Millie. They appear to be nearly the same age, yet Millie defers to Mae the way she would to a favorite aunt. Millie insists on referring to Mae as “Miss’m,” which makes Thomas wince a little. Deuce is barely aware of anyone else in the wagon as it rolls slowly toward St. Joe’s pier. Exhaustion jumped all over Deuce’s shoulders the moment first light showed in the eastern sky. Deuce intends to sleep on the ferry, all the way to Wisconsin. Then he remembers: the mules.
“Thomas,” Deuce says, a little too loud for the quiet morning. “Have you an opinion about our livestock?”
Thomas points at the team. “You mean them?”, she asks. “They’re good animals.”
“Shall we bring them or sell them?”
“You mean to Alberta?” Mae interjects. “On the railroad?” She reverts to her calm, firm teacher’s voice: “It’s more economical to sell these fine animals to a respectable party who will treat them kindly, and use those funds to purchase a new team once we reach our destination. The cost of—“
“Those Canadian mules,” Deuce interrupts. “I just don’t know about them. Wasn’t much mule flesh to choose from, last time I was up there.”
“Wasn’t there a gold rush going on 500 miles from you at the time?”, Mae asks. “The mines are busts now, so mules galore.”
“The ones that ain’t been et,” Deuce adds. “Besides,” he continues before Mae can get a word in, “this team here has become kinda like family. Right, Thomas?”
“Nah,” Thomas replies right away. “They’re just good animals. I don’t know about them Canadian mules either, and I’m a Canuck.”
“So am I,” Mae says, “Remember?”
Thomas nods her head. “You got better mule stock in Toronto than we got in Thunder Bay, goes without saying,” she says.
Deuce perks up. “Now that you mention it,” he says, “Cyrus Duprey always had a line on livestock for hundreds of miles around that town.” Deuce thinks of Mary.
“The mules of Alberta are noted for their stamina and agreeable nature,” Mae says. “Every Canuck knows that.”
Deuce brings the wagon to a stop at the end of a line alongside the wharf. “Let me see what I can work out with the captain,” he says as he climbs down from the seat. “We can fetch as fair a price for these mules in Wisconsin as we can in Michigan,” he adds as he walks backward towards the wharf. “We could get enough for the wagon alone to pay to freight the team west with us.” He turns and scuttles off.
“He’s up to something,” Mae says.
“Good,” Thomas replies.
“Why good?”, Mae asks.
Thomas answers, “When Deuce is up to something, it gets better. Look at this?”
“Look at what?”, Mae asks, swiveling her head.
Thomas holds out her arms. “Where we are. Where we’re going. Deuce’ll get us there.”
“He will,” Millie adds. Mae turns toward Millie, who is in the wagon bed, leaning over the back of the seat. “Thomas said she and Deuce’d come for me soon as I was of age,” Millie says with a smile. “Here we are, like Thomas said.” Thomas looks down shyly.
“How old are you?”, Mae asks.
Millie hesitates. She looks to Thomas, who looks back warmly. “Fourteen, almost,” she replies finally.
Mae tries to hide her surprise. “Thirteen years old and nearly as tall as Deuce,” she says. “The look of a full-grown woman to boot.” Mae looks at Thomas and smiles, as if to say, Now I get it. She thinks, Millie never would’ve lasted in that town.
Mae elbows Thomas gently, says, “Toronto mules,” and laughs.
“These ones are good,” Thomas replies, “wherever they’re from.”
“Michigan, I imagine,” Mae says.
“They’ll like it in Alberta well enough.” Thomas looks up and smiles.
Mae spots Deuce approaching the wagon far down the wharf. “We have a detail to attend to in Wisconsin,” Mae says to Thomas in the wagon seat next to her. “Getting you two hitched.”
Millie sinks down in the wagon bed. Thomas asks, “Who?”
“Why, you and Millie of course,” Mae replies.
Millie pops up, balances on the back of the wagon seat. Thomas asks, “How?”
Deuce is nearly to the wagon. Mae knows he’s going to tell her about the great deal he got for ferrying the mules across the lake. She cuts him off: “We’ll need to see a justice of the peace in Wisconsin.”
“Why in heaven’s name would we do such a thing?”, Deuce asks. He stops next to the mules, who are sleeping in their traces. Then it dawns on him. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” he says, “That’s illegal how many different ways?”
“Nonsense,” Mae replies from the wagon seat, smiling broadly. “The only way for Millie to travel without a guardian is if she is married. Thomas and Millie are in love, clearly.” Thomas looks down. Millie smiles. “The solution is obvious.”
Deuce whispers, “Apart from Thomas being—“
“It’s of absolutely no consequence,” says Mae.
“The Wisconsin Justice of the Peace might beg to differ, consequence-wise,” Deuce replies.
Mae ignores him and asks Thomas, “Are you ready to be Millie’s husband? For life? Her man?” She emphasizes the last word.
Thomas is silent. Deuce whispers, “Thomas, do you want to be a boy?”
“I don’t want to be nothin’ but what I am,” Thomas answers. “If marryin’ Millie means we can stay together, I’ll be whatever you say.”
Mae looks from Thomas to Millie to Deuce. “That makes perfect sense,” she smiles. “Although we are getting ahead of ourselves.” She nudges Thomas. “It is customary to ask your intended for her hand,” Mae says in a stage whisper.
“It is?”, Thomas replies. “How do I do that?”
“Ask Deuce,” Mae laughs.
“You are having a wonderful time,” Deuce says to her mock-seriously. He turns to Thomas and says flatly, “Take Millie’s hand.” Thomas does as he’s told, causing Millie to let out an excited squeak. Deuce notices the day’s first light giving Millie a kind halo around her dark brown hair. “Now on one knee,” Deuce says. Millie and Thomas look at him surprised. “Just Thomas,” Deuce clarifies.
Thomas looks down. “There’s no room,” Thomas says, pointing at the floorboards of the wagon seat.
Deuce smiles, points at the seat, says, “That’ll do.”
Now Thomas is kneeling on the wagon seat, facing Millie, who is standing in the wagon bed just behind the seat. Their hands are clasped together. “Now what?”, Thomas asks.
Mae holds up her hand to stop Deuce from answering, says, “Use your imagination.”
“I’d rather use Deuce’s,” Thomas replies.
“Do you love Millie?”, Deuce asks. Thomas nods. “Tell her,” Deuce says.
“I love you.” Thomas says to Millie.
“And...,” Deuce prompts.
Thomas looks uncertainly at Deuce, then back at Millie, whose eyes are wide as saucers. Thomas begins, “I’m glad you’re coming with me to—“
“Will you,” Deuce interrupts.
“Will I what?”, Thomas asks.
Deuce points at Millie, repeats, “Will you.”
Mae laughs nearly off the wagon seat.
“Oh,” Thomas offers, still clinging tightly to Millie’s hands. “Will you marry me, I guess.”
Mae laughs all over again but looks embarrassed, tries to stifle it.
“Yes!”, Millie shouts. She takes Thomas’s head in both her hands and gives him a big kiss. Thomas looks surprised, happy.
The kiss is interrupted by a shout from the wagon behind: “Hey, line’s movin’. Wake your damn mules.” Deuce waves to the man, takes Thomas’s place on the wagon seat after Thomas joins Millie in the back among the crates. Deuce and Mae share a laugh as the wagon jerks to a start.
“Awkward,” Mae laughs, “yet romantic, in it’s way.”
Deuce gets serious as the wagon nears the ferry entrance. “You’re sure about this marriage idea?”, he asks quietly.
Mae points to the couple hugging tightly, smiling brightly in the back. “I’m as serious as they are,” she says.
“Well then,” Deuce says, half-turning to face Thomas and Millie in the wagon bed. “Thomas, you’ve officially switched teams.” He holds out his hand. “Congratulations, brother.”
Thomas shakes his hand but looks confused. “Can I just be my own team?”, he asks.
“Perfect,” Mae laughs. “Thomas,” she continues, “you’ve always been your own team. The world’s just slow at catching on to that fact.” She notices Millie and Thomas both look dazed.
Deuce guides the mules to their spot on the ferry. “These mules are as done in as we are,” he says. “We’ll take a day, eh?”
“We’ll take two,” Mae replies. “One to get the bride and groom ready for their big day, and one to celebrate.” She looks over her shoulder at Millie and Thomas in the wagon bed, sees they’re leaning against each other, fast asleep. “Wisconsin’s as good a place as any,” she says.
“Can’t be worse than Indiana,” Deuce replies as he climbs off the wagon seat and calms the mules.
“I thought it was Ontario you didn’t like,” Mae says. She stands, stretches, starts down from the seat.
Deuce intercepts her, lifts her off, places her down. “Ontario’s ok,” he says. “It’s just that, every time I’m in Ontario, I’m breaking every kind of law.” Mae looks puzzled. “My uncle sent me there to kidnap Mary and Jay, for one. I bring Agnes from Ketchum to that school in Saginaw. Not to mention Cy Duprey and his crazy murdering uncle. That’s three or four things right there. Not to mention Izzie and me stealing our own whiskey three times.”
Mae looks at the lake, shrouded in low-lying mist. “I wouldn’t call what you did for Mary and Jay kidnapping,” she says. “I doubt they were missed by those farmers.”
“The three of them certainly weren’t welcomed back to San Francisco,” Deuce says. He stops himself from adding, even my mother was telling her brother that it wasn’t safe for him or Mary.
Mae watches Deuce calm the mules. “These animals will take to Alberta just fine,” she says.
“Sure they will,” Deuce replies, “but what about the mules?”
Mae peeks into the wagon bed, where Millie and Thomas sleep arm-in-arm. “Do you think they will?”, she whispers to Deuce, pointing at the couple in the wagon.
Deuce shrugs. “Thomas could homestead the dang moon,” he says. “Millie’s young, strong,”
"Fourteen-year-old girls like her belong in school,” Mae interrupts. “Not much chance of that happening in Alberta.”
“She’ll be your first student,” Deuce says. “You’ll teach her better than any school in Alberta or Indiana ever could.”
“I have no intention of remaining in Alberta any longer than necessary to get these two settled,” Mae says. Deuce looks at her sideways. “Nor of teaching anywhere, for that matter,” she adds matter-of-factly.
“I thought all the books you have packed in those crates are for insulation against the Canadian winds,” Deuce says, “or kindling, maybe.”
“I’ll have you know,” Mae replies, quietly but pointedly, “my books don’t fill even one of those crates.” With a wave of her hand she breaks off Deuce’s attempt to speak. “While several contain nothing but random machine parts, broken tools, and objects with no discernible use.”
“That’s what’s left of Thomas’s workshop,” Deuce explains. “Give him some planed lumber, sand, and gravel, and he’ll build you a town.”
Mae looks at the gray clouds covering the lake, imagines the Wisconsin shore ahead. “Do they know?”, she asks. “Your uncle and Mary. About us.”
“About us going to Alberta with Thomas and Millie?”, Deuce asks. “Not unless my Aunt Marguerite told my mother who then told them. But I’d say no.”
“How will they know where to find us?”, Mae asks.
Deuce looks dazed. “Why would they be looking for us?”, he asks, shrugging his shoulders. “Last I heard they were doing fine in San Francisco.”
Mae raises an eyebrow. “This is your uncle we’re talking about,” she says. “Whenever those two get together, there’s trouble, especially in that town.”
“I don’t think they’ve ever been together anywhere but that town,” Deuce replies. He’s too tired to be thinking about his uncle and Mary. They’re the reason he hasn’t gone back to San Francisco. One of the reasons, anyway. Deuce knows Mae is thinking about Mary’s rotten family.
Mae keeps staring ahead, into the gray clouds hovering just above the lake. Deuce puts his jacket around her shoulders. “They’ll never leave so long as Mary's uncle has Jay,” he says as he puts his arms around her. “Tio Bartoli never gives anything away for free,”
Mae replies. “That won’t stop Joe.”
“The Bartoli’s have done everything but shoot him,” Deuce adds.
“That’s coming,” Mae says softly, “you know it.” She turns and faces him. “Promise me you’ll stay out of it,” she says.
“I promise I’ll stay out of San Francisco until the matter is settled for good,” Deuce answers.
Deuce’s last statement hovers in the air as he and Mae peer into the gray mist that blocks their view of the western shore, where a westbound train awaits.
September 1946, coming soon
January 1967, continued
January 1974, continued
June 1900, continued
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