Wish I took the blanket Mae offered, thinks Deuce as his horse walks down the Saginaw road. I'll make the Merrill farm by sundown or freeze. The day started warm for November, but Deuce knows better than to trust Michigan weather. He distracts himself by thinking about spring.
Come spring, everything changes, Deuce tells himself yet again. The school in St. Louis now has a roof, four walls, and most of its windows. Once Tommy got her hands on Uncle Bernard's spare tools, all she needed was the material, which Mae scrounged from her students' parents. Tommy will soon turn her attention to what's left of Mr. Aughning's house next to the school. That's where Mae's replacement will reside. A graduate of Mrs. Blackwell's school in Saginaw will arrive in St. Louis as soon as the house is habitable. Deuce can't recall her name. She and Mae will teach side-by-side through the end of the school year. Mrs. Blackwell secured a promise from the town to pay the teacher.
Elmira. The name of the new teacher finally comes to Deuce. Her last name is French, flowery -- LaViolette?, thinks Deuce. Another Canuck? A picture flashes in Deuce's mind of another Canadian: Cyrus Duprey standing in an Ontario field, mud up to his knees, pointing to Waterloo.
Deuce is so distracted by the memory of his whiskey-running partner that he doesn't notice the two figures shuffling toward him on the road. In the evening light Deuce can't see their faces. As Deuce's horse passes by, the first walker says, "Mary says you're to fetch your uncle. There. I've said it. Now I can go home." The dusty figure looks around. "Which way is home, Deuce?"
"Cy?", Deuce asks quietly.
"Yeah?", Cy answers.
Deuce wonders if he's dreaming, decides he isn't. "What are you doing here?", Deuce asks.
"Telling you," Cy replies. He repeats impatiently, "Mary says fetch your uncle. She says you know what."
"Mary sent you?", Deuce asks.
"Yeah," Cy says, looking around. "Which way back to San Francisco?" Cy's companion suddenly sits in the road. "Uh-oh," says Cy. "Ezy, not yet. Ezy. Uh-oh."
"Well," says Cy, "This spot's as good as any." He begins to drag his companion off the road.
"Good for what?", Deuce asks.
"Camp," says Cy.
"I'm a mile from the Merrill farm," says Deuce. "Why would I camp here?"
Cy heaves his companion up a small rise at the side of the road. "Uncle Ezy isn't going nowise," he says and sits next to his inert uncle. "Not till daybreak, anywhich. He's kinda stubborn that way."
"How many uncles you got, Cy?", Deuce asks.
"I don't even know 'em all," Cy answers.
Deuce squints. "This one's quieter, at least," he says. "Smells better too." He takes a close look at Uncle Ezy's face, most of which is covered in hair. "Is he breathing?", he asks.
"Not much," Cy replies. "Says he doesn't like the air here."
"So he talks then," Deuce says.
"Not much," Cy repeats. Glory be, thinks Deuce. He looks up at the darkening sky. "You can tell me how you both came to be here tomorrow," he says. "After you walk back to my uncle's." Deuce reaches into his saddlebag for the last of his provisions. He tosses them to Cy. "Water you'll find yonder," he says, waving vaguely.
Deuce stops the horse after 100 feet and turns around. He rides to where Cy and his uncle are sitting in the grass and asks, "How's Mary?"
Cy thinks for a minute. "Jay they sent to the Jesuits, poor fellow," he says finally. "Over off Van Ness." He coughs. "Mary's sad," he adds.
Deuce stops himself from asking why Mary is sad. He turns the horse around and heads for the Merrill farm. Fetch my Uncle Joe, he thinks, from a British Columbia jail, just like that. His horse walks slowly down the Saginaw Road. Fetch him where? San Francisco? Not a chance.
Deuce reminds himself: Uncle Joe will go where he will and not ask anyone's opinion. Once he's been liberated from the provincials, that is.
When the aroma of his aunt's stew reaches him in the dark, Deuce realizes he's glad to be leaving. Even with winter close. Even without Mae. Mae says she just wants my company, he thinks. That's about all I can offer her. Almost 25 years old and nothing to show but blisters. And a permanently sore bum from the years spent in a saddle or on a wagon seat.
Deuce shifts from left butt cheek to right.
"That fool brother of mine will get you killed," says Marguerite McCready Merrill as Deuce starts in on his second bowl of his aunt's stew.
"I'm safe," Deuce says between bites of stew. "Uncle Joe I'm not so sure about."
"Safety and your uncle are unacquainted," says Marguerite.
"I'll be back for Mae by late summer," Deuce tells his aunt. "Tommy is happy with her in St. Louis, and Mae's replacement arrives in January."
"Yes, the young lady from Alpena," Marguerite says. "The three of them alone in that drafty school through the winter. Will they be safe?"
Deuce smiles. "Mrs. Blackwell made an impression on the good people of St. Louis," he says. "They'll take better care of their teachers."
Marguerite isn't smiling. "Mrs. Blackwell will pass the winter sitting beside a well-tended fire in her big house in Saginaw," she says. "Mae, Tommy, and the new teacher will be forgotten by the people of St. Louis with the first big snow, mark my words."
Deuce peers into his bowl of stew. "What if I asked Cy to winter in St. Louis?", he asks his aunt. "Camp near the school, watch things?"
“What I think of the idea,” Marguerite tells Deuce, “matters less than what Mae and Cy think of the idea.”
“I’ll persuade Cy,” says Deuce. “Mae, well, she will likely require some convincing.”
Good for her, thinks Marguerite. “Sounds like something your Uncle Joe would say,” she says.
“The difference,” Deuce tells his aunt with a smile, “is when I say I’ll do something, I do it. Uncle Joe says one thing and does another.”
Marguerite says in a low voice, “Yet you both spend long stretches of time far away from the women you claim to love. Why might that be?”
Deuce lets the sting of his aunt's question pass before answering. "Apart from it being the wrong time and place? For Mae and for me both? Or May being a 17-year-old Teacher's College graduate?" Deuce reminds himself to maintain a respectful tone with his aunt. Near whispering, he adds, "Not to mention the condition of my estate, which consists of whatever loose change is jangling in my pocket."
"Late summer, you say?", Marguerite asks her nephew. "Everything will be different by then, eh? Tommy and your Canadian friend will keep Mae company while you run off to Vancouver on a fool's mission." Marguerite rises from the kitchen table. "And you'll manage to amass an estate in the bargain. Clever fellow."
Two young Merrills, Celia and Theresa, scamper through the kitchen. Marguerite takes Deuce's empty bowl and rinses it in a shallow basin. "You might give your Uncle Bernard a hand digging the new privy," she tells Deuce. "The girls and I will be canning the last of the fruit."
"You might not think so," says Deuce, "but I'm confident I can spring Uncle Joe and make it back before harvest with a purse full of gold."
Marguerite prays, Lord let this misguided young man return with a heart full of humility. To Marguerite, gold was worthless, or nearly so. She prized time, strength, kindness, and will. Marguerite knows Deuce is willful, but he's also kind. First her younger brother Joe, and now Mary Bartoli have taken advantage of his kindness.
Celia and Theresa are attempting to balance pears on their heads when their mother joins them in the canning shed next to the barn. They stop their game immediately. Marguerite takes two crab apples from a basket and places them on her head, laughing as they fall to the ground. Her daughters laugh along.
As she and her daughters work their way through the fruit baskets, Marguerite thins about Deuce's father Andrew, a decidedly unkind person. She says another prayer, hoping her young nephew Jay differs from his father as much as Deuce is unlike sad, old Andrew Laffingstock. What kind of father will Deuce make?, Marguerite wonders. What kind of husband for poor Mae? If ever he loses the rambling itch, that is.
Marguerite pictures a tall young man not unlike Deuce standing beside a wide, shining road on a gray morning. He's more school-boyish than Deuce. He looks pensive as he gazes down the road, a little fearful, but also eager. What is he looking at?, she wonders.
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