"Why did I leave San Francisco?", the man asks himself. "Why did I leave Michigan? Why can't I go back?" Three questions, one answer: Mae. Then she's there, smiling, spinning in the sunlight. He imagines taking her hand to help her step down from a train car rolling to a stop.
Mae smiles sadly. "You're late," she tells Deuce.
"I'm still broke," he replies, long miles and much time away.
"I don't care," Mae says.
"I know," Deuce says. "But I do. I won't ask for your hand until I can assure you the life you deserve."
Mae says, "We have all we need."
Deuce repeats the promise he made to himself months before: I won't go back to Mae with empty pockets. The thought chills him even worse. Now Deuce is shivering in an empty boxcar heading north, chasing another rumor of money to be made, this time working on a canal in Chicago. Deuce senses the train coming to a stop. This can't be Chicago, he thinks. Looking through a crack in the boxcar wall, he sees a train yard.
Not just any train yard. It's the widest expanse of tracks and cars Deuce has ever seen. His eye catches the glimmer of a torch approaching. They'll walk right by, thinks Deuce a second before the boxcar door bounces open. Deuce is set to dash through it when two faces appear.
The figure holding the torch throws a bundle into the corner of the boxcar opposite where Deuce is huddling in the dark. Then a smaller one. Then a third bundle larger than the first two. The man with the torch slams the boxcar door shut. Deuce's eyes slowly readjust to the dark.
Deuce is weighing the possibility that any of the piles tossed onto the boxcar floor contain food when he notices the largest one moving. The train jolts to a start. The large bundle jumps up. Deuce sits still in his dark, cold corner and watches. The bundle looks right at him.
Deuce can't make out arms, legs, or any body features -- just a head atop a pile of shapeless material. They stare at each other in silence. The staring goes on. The train car sways on the track. Finally, the bundle retreats to the corner opposite Deuce and resumes staring at him.
"Do you talk?", Deuce asks the bundle. No response. "I guess not," he says. "Do you eat? Do you have any food?" Deuce hears faint rustling.
Something lands at Deuce's feet. He reaches out and finds the heel of a stale loaf of bread. With much effort, he takes a bite and chews. And chews. And chews. Deuce eventually manages to swallow, but nearly chokes. "Thanks," he coughs. "What's your name? You have one, right?"
The figure stares back at Deuce without expression. "That's fine," Deuce says. "'What's in a name,' eh? Shakespeare? You ever hear of him?" Still no response from across the boxcar. "My Uncle Joe gave me a book by him once," Deuce says. "I think he said he won it in a card game. He's up in Canada now, I think. Things can get rough up there, believe me. Have you been to Canada?" Still no response.
"Well, I have," Deuce says. "Nearly didn't make it out. They got OPPs up there'll arrest you for making a joke."
"Guelph," the figure says.
"Guelph!", Deuce repeats. "I've been there. Twice. Is that where you're from?" I hope it's not her name, he thinks. At least she can talk. Sounds like a "she," anyway. Could be a child. What the heck is she doing in this boxcar? "Who was that tossed you in here?", Deuce asks.
No response from across the nearly empty boxcar. "Where did you say you were headed?", Deuce asks. "I'm jumping out at the Chicago yard, which shouldn't be far." Deuce tries to peer through a crack in the boxcar wall. "So you'll have the place all to yourself, friend."
The face across the boxcar brightens at the word "friend." Deuce decides to try again: "You must have a name, eh?" The head nods vigorously. Deuce asks, "Are you going to make me guess?" The head keeps nodding. "Well, it was nice knowing you, whoever you are." He rises unsteadily.
Deuce's boxcar doppelganger stands right along with him. "No, no," Deuce says. "You stay. I go." The figure nods even more enthusiastically. "You can't-- oh, forget it." Deuce opens the boxcar door a crack, looks for lights up the track, sees only a train disappearing into night
Watching the train roll north, Deuce thinks about a winter spent dredging the Chicago River. Left my gloves at my uncle's farm, he recalls. Deuce fights the temptation to recount the coins in his pocket. Still $1.82. Three hundred miles from the farm. Could be done, he thinks.
Suddenly Deuce realizes his boxcar mate is standing right next to him. "Who do you know in Chicago?", Deuce asks her. "Somebody? Anybody?"
Still no response. Deuce realizes she's wearing rags. He thinks, Aunt Marguerite would skin me if I brought another stray back to Saginaw. "You've got no clothes. You won't tell me your name, where you're from, or where you're going. I think you're a girl, but I'm not sure."
Deuce sits in the boxcar door. His ragged companion sits next to him. They stare into the pitch-black night, rocked by the train wheels. Deuce thinks, to hell with Chicago. He asks the girl, "Have you ever been to Michigan?" No response. "I think you might like it there."
"We'll have to find you some proper clothes," Deuce says looking out the door. The girl stands up, grabs one of her bags, and dumps it out. A white bundle rolls to Deuce's feet. He picks it up and starts to unfold it. "Wait a minute -- Is this a wedding dress?", he asks the girl.
She reaches down and empties the contents of her second sack. Out pour a rain slicker, scraps of food, a small leather pouch, and a book. Deuce picks up the book and thumbs through the pages. "What language is this?", he asks her before forgetting that he won't get an answer.
The girl takes the book from Deuce and hands him the pouch. Inside it are sewing needles and thread, polished rocks, and 20 silver dollars. A small piece of paper falls out of the pouch. Deuce picks it up. On one side is written an address. "1351 West 11th Ave.," Deuce reads. "Gary, Indiana?", Deuce asks the girl. "Is this where you're going?" She just looks at him. It strikes Deuce. That's where the girl got on.
"Are these the people who put you on the train?", Deuce asks the girl. She stares back at him. "You're not helping any." She nods her head. "Say something! Other than 'Guelph'," Deuce tells her. She keeps nodding her head. "Deuce," she says. "What?", Deuce replies automatically.
"Hey! That's my name! How do you know my name?", Deuce asks her. She holds out the book to him and repeats: "Deuce." He takes it from her. The book is open to page 12. Deuce doesn't understand the language of the text, but in the page margin he makes out some faint handwriting. "Our Saviour, Thunder Bay," Deuce reads with difficulty. He asks the girl, "Is this where you're from? Thunder Bay?" He gets no response.
Deuce reflects: I was hoboing to Chicago for work digging up a river, this girl lands in my boxcar, and now I'm obliged to ensure her safety? Not this time. "Maybe we should look in on these people in Gary," Deuce says to himself more than to the girl. "Sure don't want to trek up to Thunder Bay."
"Somebody put you in this cold freight car with naught but rags to wear and a box of Double Eagles," Deuce says. "Coulda kilt ya, I'm sure. First thing, we gotta get turned around." Deuce looks out a gap in the boxcar door. "Morning soon," he says. "We'll need to find a flop."
The girl is sprawled on the boxcar floor, curled around her bags, sleeping. Something keeps bringing me back to Michigan, thinks Deuce. Mae.
Day is near breaking when the train slows. "Are you coming?", Deuce asks the sleeping girl. No response. "Guelph!", he says. She shoots up. "Time to go," says Deuce. "Are you coming or staying?" The girl nods. "Okay then, you follow me and I'll catch you. Don't forget your bags."
Deuce didn't need to remind her. The girl holds the two cloth sacks tight against her rib cage. Deuce sits the girl in the boxcar's door. The train has slowed to a fast trot. Deuce gets a handhold and foothold outside the door and jumps. The girl follows right on his heels. Deuce and the girl miraculously avoid tripping each other though they land in nearly the same spot. They come to a stop beside the track.
They watch the last car of the train go past. As silence settles in, Deuce says to the girl, "Next time we're on a train we'll have a seat."
Deuce proves correct. The station is less than a half-mile from the point they detrained abruptly. They're on an eastbound car by noon. Comfortably seated, well fed, and nearly asleep. The cost of the train tickets and late breakfast is paid out of the girl's small cash box.
Deuce finds a general store near the Gary train station. "Time to burn those rags you're wearing," he says to the girl as they walk inside. On a table in the corner are piles of gingham dresses. Deuce watches the girl walk up to another table that holds folded denim dungarees. Deuce picks a dress off one table and a pair of heavy denim trousers off the other. "Put these on," he tells the girl. She takes the pants.
"Both," Deuce tells her, holding out the dress. The girl takes it, sets it on the ground near the dungarees, and starts to remove her rags. "Not here," Deuce tells the girl. She stops disragging. Deuce positions her behind a barrel and turns his back to her. "Go ahead," he says.
A minute later the girl walks from behind the barrel. Deuce sees that she has tucked the dress inside the dungarees. "Fair enough," he says. Deuce finds a thick wool coat, a scarf, and hat. He checks the girl's shoes. "They'll have to do," he says and hands her the new clothes.
The woman behind the counter gives them both a dirty look. "Kindly dispose of those..." she points at the pile of rags "...those outdoors." Deuce pays the clerk from the girl's coin pouch. He's about to ask the woman for directions when she says, "Never thought she'd be back."
"Her?", Deuce asks. "You know her?"
"Bernadette," the clerk replies. "Just don't try calling her that. Right, Missy?", she asks the girl. "Not fond of the name, are you?", the clerk continues. The girl stares straight ahead. "After the fight, they packed her off to family up north."
"Packed her off by throwing her into an empty boxcar?", Deuce asks her. "Who did the packing?" He calms down. "After what fight?", he asks.
"What's this about a boxcar?", the woman asks Deuce.
"That's where we met last night," he answers. "What fight made her leave?", he asks.
"She nearly killed a boy she said was hurting her friend," the woman says. "The town paid for her uncle to come bring her back north to Ontario. And not in any cold boxcar. They took up a collection."
Deuce looks at the girl, who's still staring straight ahead. "What do you want to be called?", Deuce asks her.
"My name is Thomas,", she replies, looking him full in the eye.
"Thomas," he repeats. "How about 'Tommy'?", Deuce asks the girl.
She thinks about it for a second, then nods. "Tommy it is," he says. "Now, where's this society?"
"A mile south, turn right on Eleventh," the woman answers flatly. Deuce tips his hat to her and follows Tommy out the store's front door.
"I know the way, but I don't want to go there," Tommy tells Deuce as they walk side-by-side.
"Who put you on that train?", Deuce asks her.
Tommy shrugs. "He said I would do fine on my own," she says. "Said he had family to look after himself."
"How old are you?", Deuce asks.
Tommy just shakes her head. "I could find my way to Thunder Bay if I wanted to," she says. "But I don't." She and Deuce walk on in silence. They turn right on Eleventh. In the middle of the block is 1351. Deuce and Tommy stand in the street looking at the boxy two-story building. Deuce walks toward the bare wooden stairs leading to the front door. Tommy doesn't move. "Coming?", Deuce asks her. She stares at the door.
Deuce shrugs. "Suit yourself," he says and heads up the stairs. A man opens the door before Deuce gets to the top step. "Go away," he says. "She's dangerous," the man says from the door. "We sent her on her way."
"You dumped her on a train," says Deuce as he reaches the stairs.
"One of her kin, he said, come for her," the man says. "Summoned by the sheriff."
Deuce steps up. "He left the girl in a boxcar," he says.
Deuce takes the second step. "What is this place?", he asks. "Did she live here?"
The man steps back inside. "Talk to the sheriff," he says.
"First I'll talk to you," Deuce says as he reaches the penultimate step. "How do you know her?", he asks the man. The door shuts on him. Deuce pushes the door open and steps into a dark, nearly empty room. The man has retreated down a hallway. A woman enters from another door.
"You must leave," the woman tells Deuce. "And take the girl with you."
"Her bum relation ditched her in a northbound boxcar," he replies. "She can't be more than 13 years old," Deuce continues.
"Bernadette is 15 years old," the woman says. "And capable of fending for herself."
"How do you know her?", Deuce asks the woman.
"Her family rented her out to old Mrs. Robb," she answers. "Pneumonia took the old lady last month. She wore out her welcome here soon enough. Beat up the sheriff's son. Said he was troubling her friend, which he was."
Deuce leans against the wall as the woman drones on. "Sheriff had her in the jail. Wired her family in Thunder Bay. They said, 'Keep her.' Or words to that effect, according to Sheriff Lee." The woman contemplates the floor. Deuce waits for her to continue. She just stares on.
Deuce says, "Sheriff Lee arranged her transport home, I take it."
The woman nods. "She didn't live here but a month, after her lady passed."
Deuce looks around the dark anteroom. "What is this place?", he asks the woman.
"It's a church," she says. "Was a church, anyway. Once."
The woman continues. "Now we're a boarding house of sorts, I guess you could say."
Deuce has heard enough. "Where's the sheriff?", he asks.
Where is she?, Deuce asks himself as he stands outside the church/boarding house. He looks up and down the street. No sign of her anywhere. Then Deuce spots her sitting in a maple tree across the street. He walks over and asks her, "Where do you want to go?" The girl climbs down.
"With you," the girl says. Deuce considers this, replies "Okay, but first we need to find this guy Sheriff Lee. Get the law on our side. Then I'll attempt to explain you to Aunt Marguerite and Uncle Bernard." Tommy nods seriously. Deuce looks left and right. "Which way to the sheriff's office?", Deuce asks Tommy.
She points back the way they came. "But I don't want to go there, either," she says.
"It's not my preferred destination," Deuce replies. "But I need his assurance I won't be run in for a kidnapper." They start down the road.
"Can I say good-bye to my friend Millie, please?", the girl asks as she and Deuce walk back toward downtown Gary. "She's just over yonder."
"Is this the friend you got in a squabble over?", Deuce asks Tommy. She doesn't respond, but she leads him to a small house on a back lot.
"Wait here," Tommy says, pushing Deuce behind an elm tree. Deuce watches her disappear behind the house. A minute later, he follows her. Deuce peers around the back of the house. He sees Tommy hugging a much taller girl. He returns to the tree. Tommy reappears soon enough.
Deuce and Tommy walk in silence for several minutes. Then Deuce turns to her and says, "I'm hungry. You?" Tommy thinks about it, nods once.
"C'mon," Tommy says and takes hold of Deuce's coat sleeve. "Czarnicki's got pierogis today, I bet."
"What's a purroggy?", Deuce asks her.
"Polish eat 'em," Tommy says. "With cream and butter."
"Doesn't sound too poisonous," Deuce tells her. "Then we'll visit this Sheriff Lee."
Tommy leads Deuce to a pathway between two low-slung buildings. The path ends at a small, dark courtyard where six chickens peck at the dirt. Tommy reaches into her big canvas sack and removes the small wooden box holding her silver coins. She gives the bag to Deuce and says, "Wait."
"I'd like to see what else Mr. Czarnicky has on the bill of fare," Deuce tells her.
Tommy repeats, "Wait," and heads for a small doorway.
A few minutes later Tommy returns with a paper bundle, a jug, and her money box. "He don't sell to strangers," she tells Deuce. "Let's go." Tommy leads Deuce down the alley and across a cobblestone street to a small field. In the middle of the field stands a tall, broad oak tree.
Deuce and Tommy sit with their backs against the tree, eating the pierogis and listening to the wind rustle the oak's rust-colored leaves. "Why won't Czarnicky sell these purr-doggies to strangers?", Deuce asks Tommy.
"Religion," she answers as she chews. "Only for Catholics."
"I'm a Catholic," Deuce replies. "Of a sort."
"I took Mrs. Robb to Mass each Sunday," Tommy says. "We went for pierogis after. I miss her."
Deuce waits for Tommy to continue, but she just munches on her pierogi. "Warmer today," he says after awhile.
"Where we going?", Tommy asks.
"She attached herself to me," Deuce explains to his Aunt Marguerite. "Plopped right into my boxcar. Did I mention the rags she was wearing?"
"You did," Aunt Marguerite replies. She and Deuce are sitting in the kitchen of the Merrill farmhouse outside Saginaw. "Thrice," she adds. "That's three strays you've brought to Michigan."
"Mae I first encountered in Port Huron," Deuce points out.
Aunt Marguerite continues. "Who named her 'Tommy'?"
"I asked, 'What's your name?'," Deuce says. "She said 'Thomas'. We settled on 'Tommy'."
"Tommy what?", Aunt Marguerite asks Deuce. "The sheriff in Gary said Robb, but that was the name of the woman she was tending," he answers. "She claims to be from Thunder Bay. Sheriff said nobody up there would claim her." He doesn't mention the girl's arrest.
Aunt Marguerite asks, "She doesn't know her own name?"
Deuce shrugs. "She won't say," he replies just as Tommy appears outside the window.
"She's not afraid of work, I'll say that for her," Aunt Marguerite says. "She had a pick in her hand not an hour after she first got here."
Deuce's Uncle Bernard enters the kitchen whistling. He slices a piece of bread. "How's the new hand working out?", Aunt Marguerite asks him.
"We could work the whole west side fence if the weather holds," Uncle Bernard answers.
"Tommy'll hammer through a blizzard," Deuce says.
"Where'd you find this one?", Uncle Bernard asks him. Deuce starts to answer, but his uncle cuts him off. "Better, where're you taking her?"
"My first thought," Deuce replies, "was to see if Mrs. Blackwell's school has an opening." His Aunt Marguerite half snorts, half laughs. Deuce continues: "But Tommy may not be Mrs. Blackwell's type. So I thought, Tommy's a handy type, and Mae Hanrahan might like some company."
"You don't need an excuse to visit Mae," Aunt Marguerite tells Deuce. "Her school is coming along, no thanks to those St. Louis folks."
"We might ride over there on Sunday," Deuce says. "That'd give us time to get her scrubbed up, maybe even a new shirt and fresh dungarees."
Uncle Bernard finishes his ladle of water and goes back outside. Aunt Marguerite asks Deuce, "What in blazes are you doing here?"
"Well," Deuce begins, "I brought Mary and Anthony Jr. home to San Francisco, but I was asked to leave."
"So I heard," says Aunt Marguerite.
Deuce continues: "I spent the summer working in a dry goods store in Denver, where I heard about a project in Chicago looking for laborers."
"You were going to pass the winter in Chicago doing manual labor?", Aunt Marguerite asks.
Deuce shakes his head. "You know better," he says. "I figured I could get work driving a team, though," Deuce says. "Enough maybe to buy a piece of land to farm. Make myself up a homestead."
Aunt Marguerite looks past Deuce out the kitchen window. "You make the home, the home makes you," she says.
"Excuse me, ma'am?", Deuce asks.
Aunt Marguerite looks Deuce in the eye. "Mae deserves better than that tumble-down schoolhouse in St. Louis," she says. "Don't you think?"
Mae deserves better, thinks Deuce. Better than I can offer. For now, anyway. "Have you written to tell her you're coming?", his aunt asks.
"There wasn't time," Deuce says. "Until Tommy got dumped in my boxcar, I was heading to Chicago. That was--" Deuce counts, "three days ago."
"Go on your own first," Aunt Marguerite tells Deuce. "See how Mae is doing. Leave Tommy here to work with your uncle. She has a knack. And you can help me with the laundry."
Deuce stands up. "Shouldn't I be off to St. Louis?", he asks half-seriously.
"Mae's been waiting nigh on a year for the pleasure of your company," Aunt Marguerite tells Deuce. "She'll survive another day without you."
"I would be delighted to assist you with the wash," Deuce tells his aunt with a slight bow. "Perhaps we can find some clothes for Tommy."
Aunt Marguerite smiles. "Seems she favors denim over gingham," she says. "Promise me, Deuce, no more forlorn Canadians on your next visit."
"They find me," Deuce says as he follows his aunt to the washbasins. "I'm not looking for any travel mates. Who else is going to help them?"
Aunt Marguerite half-fills a tub with water. My nephew's no homesteader, she thinks. Probably not much of a teamster, if he'd ever admit it. She watches Deuce fill the second tub. He'd make a good constable, she thinks to herself. But he dislikes the profession so.
It's a blessing Deuce doesn't take after his Uncle Joe, Marguerite thinks as she washes. "You haven't asked about your brother," Deuce says.
"Coincidently," Aunt Marguerite says, "I was just thinking about him."
"I think it's the price he paid to the Bartoli's," Deuce tells her. "Going back to B.C. to face that crooked judge, I mean," Deuce continues.
"The price for what?", his aunt asks.
"Mary and Jay," Deuce says. "Joining our family, I mean. Her Uncle Teo wasn't sorry to see Mary go. Her husband's in Toronto, Uncle Joe's in jail."
"What put him in jail?", Marguerite asks her nephew.
Deuce sighs. "Theft of an animal, they said. But Uncle Joe paid for that dog, he said."
"A dog?", Marguerite asks.
"A work dog at the camp run by the judge's nephews, it turns out," Deuce says. "But Uncle Joe didn't know that. Uncle Joe took offense at the dog's ill treatment at their hands. Offered to buy the animal. They declined his offer. So Uncle Joe forced the sale."
Aunt Marguerite says, "At least he didn't beat up the nephews."
"He did that, too," Deuce adds.
"You don't need to be doing your Uncle Joe any more favors," Aunt Marguerite tells Deuce as they scrub clothes on washboards side-by-side. Deuce works in silence. After a time, Aunt Marguerite says, "We'll bake some loaves for you to take to Mae tomorrow. You best leave early."
Before Deuce can ask, his aunt says, "Tommy will be fine staying with us for now. Bernard will keep her busy. Always plenty of work to do." It's a miracle Mae Hanrahan hasn't hightailed it back to that little town in Ontario, thinks Marguerite. "Best take the wagon," she adds.
Deuce stops the wagon in front of what was once the St. Louis schoolhouse. The place looks even more run down than it did a year earlier. There's no one in sight. Deuce turns the wagon around and heads back across the Pine River toward the center of town. A woman stops him.
"You're lookin' for the school teacher, no?", she asks Deuce. "You're the one what brung her, I remember. Look to the Presbyterian's place."
"Where might the Presbyterian's place be located?", Deuce asks the woman.
She waves vaguely. "Back across, around, down, and up," she says.
That about covers the options, thinks Deuce. "Thank you, ma'am," he says and tips his hat. How hard could it be to find some Presbyterians?
An hour later Deuce and wagon have crisscrossed the village of St. Louis, Michigan, a half-dozen times and found not a single Presbyterian. Deuce considers knocking on random farmhouse doors in search of Mae. Then he notices a small group of children walking toward his wagon. "Do you attend Miss Hanrahan's school?", Deuce asks the children when they get within earshot.
One child answers, "It's not her school. It belongs to the Ristelhuebers."
Deuce asks, "Do you know where Miss Hanrahan is?"
"The school where she lives," he replies.
"Or the church where she teaches," another taller boy adds.
"Did you say she lives in the school and teaches at the church?" Deuce asks.
"With a hole in the roof," a young girl says. "The school, not the church," the tall boy adds. "The church don't even have a broke window."
Deuce recalls the broken-down structure next to Mr. Aughning's house. Mae can't be living in that rock pile. "Where's the church?", he asks.
Deuce spots Mae walking toward him before she sees him in the wagon. She's nearly past it before she looks up, then she nearly falls over. Deuce jumps down from the wagon seat to steady her. Mae shifts quickly from shock to surprise to elation to anger to relief to exhaustion.
Mae stammers but is unable to speak. Deuce helps her climb into the wagon seat. He takes the reins and asks, "Where to?"
"Home," she says.
"You scared me," Mae says after they've ridden awhile.
"I'm sorry," Deuce says.
After another while, she adds, "Don't disappear again."
"I won't," Deuce replies.
As the wagon approaches Mr. Aughning's abandoned house, Mae asks, "Why did you leave?"
"I missed you," Deuce says.
"You left because you missed me?", Mae asks.
"I left because I have nothing for you," Deuce replies. "I've missed you every moment since."
They sit in the stopped wagon. Mae playfully swipes at Deuce's shoulder. "You took away the only thing I wanted," she says. "Your company."
"My company?", Deuce asks. "What good can that do you?"
Mae smiles. It's done me a world of good already, she thinks.
Deuce drops the reins. "What you need," he says as he jumps down from the wagon, "is four walls, a roof, and a floor."
"How about a window?", Mae asks him.
"One of those, too," Deuce adds. "With panes." He helps Mae down from the wagon seat. They walk toward the partially collapsed schoolhouse.
"It came down late winter," Mae says looking at the crooked roof. "Folks said they'd fix it over the summer." She pauses. "Never happened."
"It's been a cold autumn," Deuce says softly.
"It has been," Mae agrees.
After a pause, Deuce adds, "This is no home."
"It is," Mae says.
"It doesn't lack fresh air," Mae explains. "I stay warm and dry, mostly. And I always have a view of the sky. Each day tells a new story."
Deuce looks around the ramshackle school. Roof missing or sagging over all but the northwest corner. A stove, a pallet, a basin on a stand. Mae's living quarters are confined to a space no larger than the back of a dray wagon, a life mashed into one corner of a tumbledown school.
Deuce asks Mae, "Where do you draw your water?"
She doesn't answer right away, then says quietly, "Aughning's well, now that I have a bucket."
She's been living here a year, thinks Deuce. He looks all around -- not a soul in sight. "Do they even pay your salary?", Deuce asks Mae.
"A bit," Mae replies. "I get some board at the Ristelhuebers. They're good folks. They let me stay in the church basement on cold nights." Mae adds, "I think they're hoping to convert me, loose my immortal soul from the clutches of the Papists."
"How's the school?", Deuce asks.
Mae considers the question. "The students are doing well," she says. "There is no school, as you can see."
"How's the teacher?", Deuce asks.
Mae ignores Deuce's question. She walks to the back of the wagon and peeks at the boxes under the canvas tarp. "What's all this?", she asks.
"Aunt Marguerite sends her regards," Deuce says as he loosens the tarp. "And enough provisions to see you through the holidays," he adds.
Mention of the holidays causes Mae to blanch. She spent the previous Christmas with a dour German family who pass the day in silent prayer. Nothing like the many noisy holidays with her family in Marysville. The thought of the Hanrahan farm in Ontario nearly brings Mae to tears.
Deuce stops unloading the wagon when he notices Mae, standing slightly slumped, her back to him. His heart sinks. "Mae," he says and pauses. What can I tell her?, Deuce thinks. Everything's going to be alright? We both know better. "Mae," he says again as he walks to her. "Mae."
Mae turns and tries to smile. Deuce takes her in his arms and kisses her. Mae's worries fly off her shoulders. She feels her heart beating. For the first time since Deuce disappeared on her a year earlier, Mae feels happy. Deuce whispers in her ear, "My company you shall have."
Mae has Deuce's company for all of three days. Deuce bunks on the porch of Aughning's abandoned house. The schoolhouse corner suits Mae fine. Deuce drives Mae to and from school in the wagon. They amaze each other as they recount their adventures over the year they spent apart.
While Mae teaches in the cramped basement of the Presbyterian church, Deuce fashions two walls and a door for her corner of the schoolhouse. Deuce scrounges the material for Mae's shelter from the remnants of Aughning's house, which looks ready to fold up in the next strong wind.
"Did they really throw you out of San Francisco?", Mae asks Deuce. The question breaks a long, post-dinner silence. Deuce is almost dozing.
Deuce responds deliberately: "It was strongly suggested by someone whose suggestions warrant careful consideration." Mae wrinkles her nose.
"You'll be back," Mae says. "The moment your Uncle Joe breaks out of that B.C. jail."
Deuce shakes his head. "No more favors," he says. "I got off easy. Uncle Joe paid the price for Mary and Jay leaving Ontario. And leaving Anthony."
Another silence descends as Mae and Deuce watch the fire burning in pot-belly stove. "I have to get Tommy settled," Deuce says suddenly.
"You do," Mae agrees. Then she adds, "I'll be fine,"
Deuce sits up. "It shouldn't take but a few days," he says. "I'll be back by Friday."
"Then what?", Mae asks.
Deuce smiles. "Then I'll see about that window you requested," he says. "Maybe look for someone in need of a hand."
Mae blushes. "I'll be needing a new ride to Alma for church each Sunday once the Germans get wind of you."
"You won't miss mass," Deuce says.
Mae stands up. "This town wants a teacher but won't pay for a school," she says. "There are plenty of schools without teachers in Ontario."
"You left Ontario once," Deuce tells Mae. "There must've been a reason."
Yankee dollars, thinks Mae. Dollars that departed with Mr. Ahning. "See to Tommy," Mae says. "See to Agnes, see to Mrs. Blackwell, see to your Aunt Marguerite. While you are, I'll be seeing to my students."
Deuce stands and stretches. "That's a lot of seeing to," he says. "Good night, Mae. The people of St. Louis, Michigan, don't deserve you."
The next morning, Mae is in a wagon full of Germans heading west to Sunday Mass in Alma. Deuce is alone in his uncle's wagon heading east. Mae doesn't wait for church to start praying. She wishes she were more certain about what to pray for. A roof? A horse? A train ticket home?
As he drives his Uncle Bernard's wagon down the Saginaw road, Deuce thinks about all his see-to's. First see to Tommy, or see to that roof? An image pops into Deuce's head: Tommy's standing on the completed roof. She's wearing dungarees, holding a hammer, smiling from ear to ear.
Deuce catches himself just before he falls asleep in the wagon seat. The fragments of a half-dream linger: a man standing atop a dark tower. The man's face is hidden, yet he looks familiar to Deuce. He's standing next to a machine that's dumping dark material down a wide chute.
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Copyright 2014-2017 - Dennis Richard O'Reilly - all rights reserved