Straights of Mackinac, Michigan
Frost smoke drifted like wraiths across the frozen Great Lakes. Gretchen Foltz stomped in the snow on feet with all the feeling of wooden blocks. Blue ice jutted from the solid white landscape, and drifts collected against the frozen pillars in lopsided pyramids. White in front. White in back. White to the left. White to the right. Her breath chuffed through the torn shirt sleeves wrapped around her face and disturbed the icicles forming on the cotton near her chin.
“Cold, Gretchen.” Three-year old Johan pressed his face into Gretchen’s neck. His scrawny arms looped around her shoulders and his legs tightened around Gretchen’s waist, straining the buttons of his threadbare coat. Straw crinkled, the broken bits of insulation dropping to the ice.
Gretchen’s oversized man’s coat reeked of whiskey and body odor. But beggars couldn’t be choosey, and thieves even less so.
“Ja, I know, liebe.” Gretchen rubbed the little boy’s back, feeling the knots of his spine pressing through his second-hand coat. She flexed her fingers. The torn fabric she’d used to create mittens dug into her skin. At least she still had feeling in her hands. She trudged through the next drift. Moisture clung to her long skirts, making the two layers heavier.
Yet the cold still pricked her skin.
Balancing Johan in one hand, Gretchen twisted at the waist and tugged on the rope tethering the steamer trunk lid to her waist. The rope creaked.
Nine-month-old Ava formed a lump under the nest of moth-riddled horse blankets Gretchen had pilfered from the blacksmith’s shop. The slight rise and fall gave evidence that the babe still breathed.
Vater would be ashamed of her. But if her late father hadn’t divided the farm and business between her and her brother, she might be safe in her Missouri home. Adjusting the rope at her hips, she clomped forward. She’d been reduced to thievery. And not just things, but another woman’s name.
Gretchen headed into the wind, felt the bite of cold through her makeshift muffler and pilfered coat. Perhaps God would forgive her sin. The kleinkinder had lost their apple cheeks, their eyes were overly large, and their bones pressed eagerly against paper skin.
Only the matron, warden, and son of the workhouse remained fat.
Everyone else fought for scraps of food.
Or bartered for it.
Gretchen shuddered. She wasn’t willing to trade her virtue for a moldy piece of bread. Her teeth chattered and soft tremors shook her body. The newspaper she’s tucked into her bodice crinkled against her skin and gave off the faint odor of stewed cabbage and salted cod they’d eaten for breakfast. Her stomach cramped at the thought. Her hunger would never be satisfied, not after nine months in the workhouse.
Johan mewled, unclasped his arms to let them hang limply at his sides.
“Not long, little one. Not long.” Gott en Himmel, please don’t let it be long until they reached Saint Ignace. Gretchen placed one foot in front of the other. The man had said only two kilometers. She’d walked that far in less than an hour. But not in the snow. Tilting her head back, she stared up at the sun. After noon, but not too far after.
They would make it.
They had to make it.
Gretchen had promised. Even God would not forgive a broken promise made to Ava and Johan’s muttie on her deathbed. Gretchen would find the children’s family, then take her place as Gertrude Schliemann.
Perhaps, if she worked hard enough and was obedient, she would have a home.
Moisture crystalized on her lashes and she swiped at them.
She stepped over a drift. Her left foot slid on the ice, shooting to the side. Her right knee hit the frozen lake. The impact rattled her body and she nicked her lip. Blood flooded her mouth with a sweet, metallic warmth.
Startled, Johan stiffened and nearly pitched backward.
Gretchen’s heart pounded as she caught the little boy. “Why don’t you ride with your sister, liebe?”
She unbuttoned her coat. Cold snaked in, filling the warm places where Johan had rested against Gretchen. With stiff fingers, she burrowed into the nest of horse blankets then settled the little boy next to his sister. Johan wrapped his skinny body around his younger sibling while Gretchen buried them under the rough wool.
She checked and double checked to make certain both were well covered. Her arms floated with emptiness. Her knee popped as she used the side of the trunk lid to push to her feet.
Johan widened a hole in the blankets. One blue eye stared at her. “Sing Soldiers in Park?”
Gretchen tweaked his finger. The song had quickly become their mother’s favorite while Gretchen tended her. Music tied her to the children, let them trust her when so few adults in the workhouse were worthy of trust. “If you promise to stay covered and warm.”
“Ja.” The little boy melted back into the blankets.
Stomping on the snow, Gretchen hummed the lively tune. Once finished she started again, then again. Please, God, show me a sign. Her insides stiffened. What if she’d turned around to get around the taller drifts? What if she was headed back to the lower peninsula, and not toward the upper peninsula?
And anyone who searched for her.
Nein. Her brother would think her dead and buried. He would have her inheritance and be happy. And she would start fresh with a new family. Besides, the matron had sworn that Gretchen and the children would be safer traveling south along the railways instead of heading north through Minnesota. The matron wanted Gretchen away from her son’s attention, lest she get notions above her lot.
A ball of light glowed like a golden disc on the horizon.
She focused on the light, trudging forward, kicking her skirt aside.
Soon they would cross this frozen wasteland and reach the railway station. It would be warm. Train tickets pressed against her belly, along with her few remaining coins. Perhaps, someone would sell soup and a bit of bread for the kleinkinder. Her mouth watered.
Heat and food.
She and the children would eat while warming themselves next to the station’s pot belly stove.
Something hard slammed against the toe of her boot. The white and blue landscape blurred as she pitched forward. Points jutted from the ice and rushed up to meet her. Raising her arms, she tried to protect herself. Dummkopf! She had been lost in fairy dreams instead of paying attention.
Packed snow drove into her hip. Pain blitzed her nerves. Then something hard collided with her head. Darkness swarmed her vision. Nein! She struggled agains the morass, but couldn’t break free. What would happen to the children?
Kian Byrne held tight to the horse’s bridle with his fleece-lined gloves and clomped across the frozen straight. Blowing snow and frost smoke obliterated the ice-locked shores of Hope’s Point. Nails attached to his homemade ice-grippers bit into the slippery surface, and the wind whistled through the traces lashing the horse to the sleigh. Holding his compass up to the lantern light hanging from the pole, Kian got his bearings. He tapped the glass top of the worn brass casing. The needle jiggled a bit before settling down.
A quick eyeball at the fuzzy yellow sun and he estimated the time at nearly two. His shoulders sagged. His son Rory had missed a day of school. Again. Just to watch his little brother and sisters.
“But this is the last one.” Kian patted the horse and led it around an ice drift.
The black stallion snorted a white cloud.
Aye, Kian had promised his son that before. Many times. But his late wife’s debts were high. And jobs were scarce. He glanced back at the elm, birch, pine and cedar piled high on the sleigh. Even with the mix of woods, the load would be burnt in a week, two if the school teachers were careful.
Cold burrowed through the holes in his muffler. For a moment he glanced back at Saint Ignace and pictured the yellow string of lights in the harbor. Perhaps, he could make another trip. His children where growing, they’d need new things.
In the distance, Lake Huron tore at her skin of ice. The crackling noise rippled across the straight like thunder. The ice bridge wouldn’t last much longer. And he couldn’t risk his children losing another parent.
Kian increased his pace. “This load should see us clear.”
It had to.
His stomach grumbled. Maybe he could even afford something more than canned beans. His children would love a loaf of bread from the Bakers. Maybe some hard cheese from Stephens Emporium. There were bound to be a few moldy pieces left in stock since the harbor froze over in January.
The stallion shook its head. Droplets flung off its black mane before it nuzzled the sack at Kian’s side.
“Easy, boy.” He patted the animal’s head while shifting the sack to the side. He’d snagged three mealy apples from his mother-in-law’s stash. The fruit should have been dried or canned last autumn. Cooking skills didn’t run in his wife’s family. But then they had servants. “You’ll get your treat once we reach the stables.”
The other two, he’d chop and boil on the stove. His baby James could use the nourishment. All of this children could. He turned the horse’s head away from the blowing snow.
A cry scratched his ears.
Kian’s chest tightened. What would a child be doing out here? He slowed his horse and stopped near a drift. “Whoa, boy.”
The horse stamped his hooves impatient with the wait.
Ears strained to hear over the whistle of the wind. Had he imagined it? Cold pricked his skin through his deer hide leggings. Metal scraped metal as he removed the lantern from the pole on the sled. He shoved the light into the wintry lace.
The horse fidgeted in the traces.
Kian returned the lantern. The cold was causing him to hear things. “Let’s go home, boy.”
A quick check of his compass and he started forward again.
Leather creaked as the stallion dug into the snow and moved the load of wood.
Kian’s head whipped to the right. His heart stuttered in his chest. It was a child! Ripping the lantern off the hook, he thrust it ahead of him. The light penetrated the white gauze but revealed nothing. “Where are you?”
The left. He heard the noise on the left. He tugged the horse after him. “Keep calling. I’ll find you.”
The stallion snorted, jerked his head toward his warm stable.
The wind settled for a moment. The blowing snow thinned. The curtain of frost smoke parted. Ahead, near a jutting column of blue ice lay a dark lump.
Please don’t let me be too late. Please… Fisting the reins, Kian darted forward.
The horse clomped sullenly behind him. The sled swished through the drifts.
Kian’s ice-grippers gouged the snow when he skidded to a stop.
A woman sprawled on the ground. Scarlet streaked the ice column at a jagged edge. A moth-riddled coat draped over her thin frame. Brown hair escaped the remnants of a shirt wrapped around her head, and a button nose appeared over the half sleeve covering her mouth. Straw crumbled from the worn soles of her boots, revealing the hole underneath.
With a shaking hand, he pushed her onto her back. “Miss. Miss?”
Ice crusted the blood weeping from her temple. She moaned, but her lashes lay like black crescent moons against her cheek.
He patted her cheek, soft at first, then harder. “Can you hear me, miss?”
She threw up her hand, blocking him. “No—”
He shook her shoulder. “Miss, you need to wake up.”
She curled into herself and covered her head protectively.
Dropping his hand, he stared at his gloves. He couldn’t leave her here. Yet, the sled was out of the question. He needed the money from selling the wood. A hard knot pressed against his thigh. The little money selling his late wife’s fancy clothes branded his flesh. He could unload some of the wood, stretched her out on the rest of the logs.
Or he could lay her on his horse, use the animal’s heat to keep her warm.
He glanced at the stallion.
As if sensing his thoughts, the stallion shook his head and fixed one brown eye on Kian.
Stupid horse. That money would keep the ungrateful equine in oats. After hanging the lantern on the hook, he returned to the woman’s side.
The wind kicked up, bringing with it the stench of vomit and alcohol.
He reared back. Had the woman gotten drunk and wandered onto the ice? He chuffed clouds of irritation. He couldn’t take her back. His children where home alone. He had to return before they got into trouble.
But he couldn’t leave her here either.
Bending over, he sniffed her breath. No demon drink. Perhaps, it was just the clothes. He stuffed his hands through the snow and tucked his arms under her body. Holding his breath, he lifted her. Bones dug through the thin fabric of her coat. When was the last time she had a hearty meal?
Not his problem.
Don’t think about it, man. You have two cans of beans for dinner. Two, to feed five mouths. And the debts… He pictured the sacks of staples—sugar and flour, then dismissed them. His neighbors had tried teaching him to cook. And he’d almost burnt the house down. He’d stick with stews in the fireplace. Adjusting his hold, he locked his knees. “I’ll take ya to the doctor, then I’m done with ya.”
Her head lulled against his chest. Blue tinged her fingertips above the strips of fabric binding her skin.
His grip tightened. Whatever she was running from must have been powerfully bad to force her out in this storm. A drunken father maybe?
Not his problem.
Or a husband? Too bad Kian had always suffered from a thick skull. He turned toward his horse.
The stallion stepped back.
The woman’s body jerked in his grip.
He glanced down. A rope tethered her to a mound of snow. What in all that’s holy? Crouching, he balanced her weight on his lap then reached for the knife in his boot.
Kian’s hand stilled. No. No, it couldn’t be. Laying her on the ice, he wrapped his gloves around the rope and tugged.
The mound of snow moved.
His throat tightened. He pulled again. Snow tumbled off the mound. Something ground against the ice.
The wind carried away a startled yelp.
“I’ve got you. Just hang on.” The lid of a steamer trunk bumped over the ridge in the ice. He brushed off the snow, uncovering a pile of rags. His nose twitched at the stench of horse and barn. Hand shaking, he pushed aside the tattered fabric.
Two children were curled around each other. The oldest was three; the other was not even a year. Eyes widened above hollow cheeks and bruised skin.
They shrank away from him.
Yes. Kian understood now. His twin brother had worn that look until the day he’d died. Kian ground his back molars. Drunk fathers weren’t the only ones to speak with their fists. He’d have to check the woman’s hands. “Easy now. I’ll just cover ya up and get ya and yar ma someplace warm.”
He smoothed the fabric over the children, then patted it in place. Balancing on one knee, he lifted the woman’s right hand. Calluses roughened the cold pads. Her nails were broken down to the quick. He pushed back the strips. The skin on her knuckles was rough but intact. Not the hitter, then. He checked the other hand.
The cuff of her sleeve fell away. Raw, abraded skin circled her wrist. She’d been restrained recently.
Kian squeezed his eyes closed. Not his problem. Not his problem.
The stallion nickered and snuffled Kian’s hat.
“I know, boy. I know.” He patted the horse’s muzzle, then trudged to the sled. He’d unload half, put it into a neat pile, then retrieve it later. Pulling the bits off the top, he whittled his load. Ten cents. Twenty cents. How many meals stood on the ice? His oldest son could use a pair of shoes. Boys of eight grow like weeds. “I’m only doing this because the Kerrigans gave me and my brother scraps from their table.”
Kian worked steadily, careful not to break a sweat. He had no place to warm up, no fire waiting for him.
“The Monpetites always had fresh milk and eggs, and if I did chores, I got a piece of penny candy from Stephen’s Emporium.” If his Pa didn’t beat him for it.
He cleared a two by four foot space in the center of the sled. Propping pieces up on the edge, he hoped the ridge would shield the family from the worst of the wind.
“Okay, let’s get you tucked in.” After cutting the tether line, he lifted the woman into the sleigh.
She moaned and shivered, but didn’t wake.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get your children.” Kian hoped they didn’t bite when he removed them from their bed. Their momma needed the warmth, too. And maybe, she would be comforted by their presence. He’d heard some women were like that. But first… Removing one glove he made quick work of the two buttons and rope holding her coat closed then slipped it off her.
She shivered in a thin cotton dress that was worn at the elbows and was two sizes too large.
“I don’t know what you’re running from, but I’ll get you someplace safe.” He quickly shucked his lined coat and draped it over her. An icy gust sliced through the cabling of his sweater. He quickly threw her coat around his shoulders, winced as seams tore.
After dragging the trunk lid closer to the sleigh, he raked aside the remnants, unearthing the children.
They curled back at the sight of him. The older one bared his teeth.
Definitely biters. At least, their tiny teeth shouldn’t be able to rip through his leather coat. Too bad Kian wasn’t wearing it. “I’ll no harm ya.”
The child growled.
Kian hummed the tune old Gigi Monpetite sang while she skinned hides.
The child’s forehead wrinkled and his lips clamped shut.
Kian would take it. He scooped both of them out, with as many rags as he could, then gently laid them into the sled.
The children clung to each other and whimpered.
Chest tight, Kian gathered the rest of the rags. Some folks just shouldn’t be parents. With his arms piled high in rags, he turned back to the sled.
The woman had wrapped her body around the children’s and had given them most of his coat. Her hand protected the biter’s head
Kian stared at them for a heartbeat. Then two. Then three. This was a family.
He shook himself then dispersed the rags so all were covered by at least one layer of material. “I’ll get you to help, but that’s it.”
The stallion snorted and stamped his hooves.
After consulting his compass, Kian headed for his island home. He had enough troubles waiting him there, he didn’t need to add to them.
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