Kian led the stallion out of the frozen straight. Melted snow glistened on his black fur, giving it the sheen of diamonds as the sun poked out from the leaden clouds. Blue sky appeared in the gaps. Glancing over his shoulder, he checked his cargo. Every piece of fire wood stuck tight as the sled breached the shore.
The children and woman he’d rescued had endured the last hour in silence.
His skin itched in warning. He hoped they weren’t consumed by fever. Fever killed. Not his problem. He stuck to his mantra, but the words skimmed his will and wouldn’t stick. He needed to take care of his own family, not some strange woman’s.
Two-story walls boxed him in like a canyon as he plowed through the fresh powder in the alley. Turning onto Main Street, his body warmed as the buildings blocked the wind off Lake Huron.
Green shutters shielded the windows of the hotels and businesses closed for the winter. Rolled up awnings hugged clapboard fronts. Icicles tinkled like wind chimes on the power lines. Black smoke chugged from the stove pipe of the Western Union shop and frost decorated the bakery display window.
His nostrils twitched at the scent of fresh bread.
The coins he’d received from selling his wife’s clothes jingled in his pocket. No point in buying any bread when they needed staples from Stephens Emporium. He passed the general store and headed for the park in the center of the island.
The bay door of the Coast Guard station hung open. The two men working on the ship inside eyed him as he passed.
Kian squared his shoulders in the woman’s coat. Another seam ripped, exposing the top of his sleeve. The nails of his ice-grippers scratched the road through the dusting of snow. His wife had stepped out with the older sailor, Miller. He’d spied them dining on roasted chicken through the window of the Ojibwa Hotel.
His stomach grumbled.
Maybe he’d pretend tonight’s canned beans were chicken. Maybe he should check his snares, see if he’d caught a rabbit. Maybe he would find them all cut like they’d been since his wife died. He shook his head. He didn’t begrudge a starving man food, but he had mouths to feed, too.
Mrs. Crawford, the banker’s wife, stepped out of the general store, spied Kian, and rushed back inside.
Head down, he trudged onward. He didn’t need anyone’s approval. But his children… His children were suffering. Maybe he should take the banker up on his offer to buy the Byrne cottage on the eastern bluff and move where no one knew his family or his troubles.
But there’d been Byrnes in Hope’s Point since the Astors trapped beavers in these lands.
And he owned the house and property now. His folks hadn’t drunk it away.
He wouldn’t let bad memories chase him from his home.
Kian slowed at the intersection.
A bundle in moss green skidded around the corner. Grinning, Phoebe Stephens set one hand over her pregnant belly and veered toward him. She hooked her arm around the stallion’s neck and stopped herself. Black eyes twinkling in her tan face, she beamed up at Kian. A jet braid snaked down the back of her fancy coat. “Don’t you just love winter?”
He always had. As a youngster, he always found a cozy barn to sleep in, usually at her grandmother Gigi’s place. He shrugged. Although he had years on the Phoebe, they’d shared the same class. Unlike the other students, she never teased him for being so far behind. He’d returned the favor by never allowing anyone to hold her mixed blood heritage against her.
Phoebe fished a white lump out of her pocket and fed the sugar to the horse. “You are such a brave thing.” She stroked the stallion’s neck. “Braving the ice to bring us wood.”
Kian was certain the creature’s eyes flickered in pleasure. Gentleness did that to a body. Not that most realized it. He stroked the scars on the stallion’s hide.
“Lenore is up at the school waiting for the wood.” Phoebe leaned to the side. Frowning, she eyed the sled. “Is the ice breaking up already?”
“Nope.” He rocked back on his ice-grippers. He was late and was gonna be later, wouldn’t hurt him none to be pleasant. Especially since Phoebe ran the store with her husband. And he had a big credit bill with the Stephens.
Plus, she always had a kind word.
His stomach clenched. Kindness wasn’t always easy to stomach.
She arched a dark eyebrow.
He sighed. Might as well get the conversation over with. Word would spread soon enough that he found a woman and children on the ice. At least, Phoebe’s version would give him the benefit of the doubt. “Found somethin’.”
She clapped her mittens. “A surprise.” Giggling, she skated to the sled. “I love surprises.”
Spying the tattered fabric, she glanced at him from the corner of her eye.
“Takin’ ’em ta see the doc.”
“Them?” Phoebe gently swept away the rags then gasped. Using her teeth, she pulled off her mittens. “She’s been injured.”
The children stared back at him with owl eyes. The faint smell of urine stung his nose. He should have stopped to check on them sooner. Let ’em know they’d be safe. The woman moaned.
“Hit her head on the ice.” Kian stared at his boots.
“I can see.” Phoebe caressed the woman’s cheek then wiggled her fingers at the children. “You rescued them just in time, I think. She doesn’t seem to be running a fever.”
Kian stood a little straighter then tapped his temple. “The head is worryin’.”
“Indeed.” Phoebe nodded. “If Doc can’t help, let me know. I’ll send for my grandmother.”
The injured woman shivered.
“Thank ya.” He smoothed the rags back over her and the little ones. He trusted Phoebe’s grandmother more than the doc, but the Ojibwa woman lived on the other side of the island. He wouldn’t risk her frail old bones, not when there was an alternative.
“You are a good man, Kian Byrne.” With a wink, she skated toward her husband’s store.
With the new fangled telephone inside, he’d bet the whole town would know about the woman and her children before he finished with the doctor.
Good. The family would be the town’s concern then. Grabbing the reins, he pulled the stallion through the intersection.
Beyond the white velvet blanketing Father Marquette Park stood the two-story white schoolhouse. The red doors flung open. A handful of children hurled themselves into the snow. Teachers crouched near the door, bundling the littler ones inside their coats.
His children should be there. He sighed and hurried forward. Snow swished under the runners of the sled. Tracks marred the virgin powder, revealing the ugly, dead grass underneath.
Decked out in a long blue coat with fur trim, Lenore Lubeck waved from the stoop of the schoolhouse. She nodded to the children, murmuring to each one as they passed.
The school children whispered as he guided the horse up the rise and through the park. Only a year ago, he’d have offered some of them a ride home.
A year ago, his wife had been alive.
Then it had been their parents whispering about her affairs and spending habits.
He kept his attention on the school doors and Lenore. She sat on the board. She’d persuaded the others to purchase wood from him when the coal ran low.
Stopping in front of the steps, Kian scraped his cap off his head and squeezed it in his hands. “I got the order for ya.”
The other two teachers disappeared inside.
“And your timing is perfect, too.” She smiled at him.
Phoebe and Lenore always smiled at him. Maybe it was their kindness that made them best friends.
Rising on the toes of her polished boots, Lenore gripped the iron railing of the stairs. She pursed her lips at the half load. “Are we your second delivery of the day?”
“There was trouble.” Kian wrung his hat.
The horse lipped at the snow.
“The ice?” Lenore’s attention flew to the Coast Guard station where her husband worked.
Kian squeezed his eyes closed. He’d gone and set her to worrying that her husband was off rescuing some folks on the breaking ice. He searched for the words, dredging them up from his toes to ease her fears. “Not… Not with the ice.” Screwing his cap back on his head, he adjusted the ear flaps then exposed the woman’s face. The scab at her temple glittered like an exotic jewel. “She fell.”
“Oh. Oh, I see.” Miss Lenore clapped her hand over her mouth. “Lucky for you Doctor Wingate had to check the pupils to see if any caught Minnie’s measles.” She clasped her hands as if in prayer. “We are free for the moment.”
“Had ’em.” Kian scooped the woman out of the sled. She hadn’t gained any weight. Not that he expected it, but he didn’t want to break her.
The two children whimpered. Hands like pinchers, they reached for their mother.
“Here now.” Lenore bustled forward, holding out her arms. “There’s no need to cry. Come to me, and you can see your ma.”
The two scooted away from the teacher.
So it wasn’t just him they feared. He paused at the top of the stoop. “Wrap ’em up. Be back for ’em.”
Warm air cascaded over his skin when he crossed the threshold. The scent of beeswax, burning coal, and chalk overrode everything else.
One of his old teachers, Mrs. McAdams, threw open the door to her classroom and ushered him inside. “Put her on the desk. Abigail is fetching the doctor.”
Kian settled the woman on the pine planks that served as the teacher’s desk. Despite not weighing much, without her his empty arms were unbearably light.
“No. No.” The injured woman batted at his hands.
“None of that young lady.” Mrs. McAdams caught the fluttering hands and laid them on the table. “We’re here to help you. Help.”
Kian shifted. Should he leave?
“Are you still here, Mr. Byrne?” Mrs. McAdams skimmed her fingers over the woman’s injured temple then glanced up at him. “Unload that wood near the boiler. I don’t like to walk far to stoke it, and I don’t have you as a helper anymore.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Pivoting on his heel, he strode toward the hallway. He paused in the doorway and peeked back.
Mrs. McAdams clucked over her charge.
Kian’s fingers bit into his mittens. Mrs. McAdams had always been stern, but never mean. He could leave the woman with her. This was what he wanted, nay, needed to happen. He crossed the foyer and exited the schoolhouse.
Lenore met him on the steps juggling an armload of wood. “I do not know what horrors those children have endured, but they won’t let me near them.” She shook her head. “One even tried to bite me.”
“Scared.” Kian had bitten a few adults in his time. So many refused to listen to children. “I’ll get ’em.”
“I know you will.” She nodded. “After I deliver this load to the basement, I’ll see if there’s any clothing that will fit them in the Belgium Relief Fund collection. It’s a wonder they don’t catch their death in those clothes. I don’t think they’re fit for summer.”
Not everyone had a choice of clothing. He raced down the steps and clomped through the snow. Across the park, the dark silhouettes of townspeople drifted into the streets.
Phoebe Stephens had been on the phone, spreading the word about the new arrivals.
He paused by the sled, puffing clouds of white. He must turn the woman and little ones over to the town’s care. Some would gawk, but others would help. And he could go home to his children. Peering inside the sled, he spied his lumpy coat. Good, the two children were inside it. Gathering the edges, he pinched them closed and lifted it free.
The two squirmed inside.
But they didn’t cry.
Someone had taught them not to.
Kian hummed the same tune he had on the ice, and they settled down. Music had soothed him, too. He reached the top step.
Two older boys stepped out, brushing Kian’s shoulders. Without a word of apology, they headed for the sled.
Gritting his teeth, Kian entered Mrs. McAdams’s room.
Doc Wingate hovered over the injured woman. Lanky and effeminate, his soft hands fluttered over her body.
On his right, the young teacher Abigail held a kerosene lamp.
The light winked off the black hair strapped to the doc’s egg-shaped head and caught the glass of his wire spectacles. He caressed her cheek, traced the curve of her neck then unbuttoned her blouse. Parting the fabric with blunt fingers, he exposed the swell of her breasts.
Kian’s muscles tightened. Why did the man have to undress the woman to check her head?
Mrs. McAdams cleared her throat.
The doc’s hands stilled. “What I thought was a bruise, is actually a birthmark.” He pulled out folded up newsprint from her shirtwaist. A few slips of paper tumbled to the floor. “Looks like she was headed for Copper Harbor.”
Copper Harbor? That was on the other side of the upper peninsula. She must have kin there. Not his problem. Kian set his coat near the radiator and peeled back the layers.
The two children cowered before him. Yellowing marked the presence of old bruises on young flesh. The wispy blond hair on their heads had been cropped short. Their clothes were patched in places, worn clean through in others.
Kian crept back, then pointed to their mother. “See ma. Doc is checkin’ her.”
Tears streamed from their eyes. Tiny lips quivered.
Kian’s heart cracked at their silent misery. He fished in his bag for one of his prized apples. Brown patches marred the red skin. Pulling his knife from his boot, he peeled off the skin and exposed the withered flesh underneath. He cut off a slice and held it out to the children.
The three-year old snatched it from his hand, broke it in half and shared with his sibling. Juice ran from their mouths as they chewed.
“Honestly, Mr. Byrne, that apple is not fit for human consumption.” Mrs. McAdams nudged him out of the way. She set a tea cup with purple violets painted on the delicate china in front of the children. Inside, broken cookies floated on milk. “Here you two go. Eat up.”
The little ones stared at him then Mrs. McAdams before eying the teacup.
Nodding, Kian slid the cup closer to them. The first time Mrs. McAdams had shared her cookies and tinned milk, he hadn’t eaten them until she’d turned her back. He had feared she’d take them away just as he reached for them. “Eat.”
Once the older one picked up the cup, Kian rose. He’d done his duty. The little family was safe. Tucking the remains of the apple inside his pocket, he headed outside. He’d unload the wood then head home. He had his own children to feed. Cold slammed against him as he stepped onto the stoop.
The stallion rolled his eyes as men and older boys unloaded the sled, taking the split wood into the basement of the schoolhouse.
Kian stroked the animal’s muzzle, humming softly. Soon he would leave the woman and children to the care of the townsfolk.
Townswomen hovered behind the men. Some with blankets, a couple with baskets of canned food. Mrs. Stephens carried a lopsided cake. The Bakers carried two loaves of bread wrapped in a plaid napkin.
He blinked his horse into focus. They’d come with food when his wife had passed. He’d thought he’d have to replace his door. After that first week, no one showed up again. Then the whispers had started. And folks had turned to others to do their odd jobs.
“Rühr mich nicht an!” A woman screamed.
A child cried.
Heart pounding, Kian raced into the schoolhouse.
Boots thumped on the staircase behind him.
Doc Wingate stormed out of the classroom, shaking his hand. A red crescent marked where tiny teeth had sunk into his skin. “I will not treat that… that German and her evil spawn!”
Kian pushed him aside and rushed into the classroom. The children huddled under the desk.
Mrs. McAdams buttoned up the woman’s blouse. Red colored her cheeks. “I think she mistook the doctor’s examination for something else.”
In the foyer behind him, the townspeople hissed like riled asps. “Germans! On our island?”
“The nerve!” Abigail sneered at the unconscious woman. “Call the sheriff. Have her arrested.”
“We don’t want their kind here.”
Kian stiffened at the older Coast Guardsman’s voice. Turning, he faced the crowd.
Under the banner calling for good Christians to donate to the Relief of the Belgians, the townspeople gathered. Anger colored their faces in broad strokes. Some of the women turned away, taking with them their blankets and baskets of food.
The Coast Guardsman slammed his fist into his palm. “Let’s treat her like them Huns have treated them poor Belgians. Let’s put that Jezebel and her spawn back on the ice.”
“No.” Kian planted himself between the tiny family and the townspeople.