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By Alana Church
Copyright 2015 Alana Church
Artwork by Moira Nelligar
~~ All characters in this book are 18 or over. ~~
Lake Ithaca, Minnesota. May 8, 1919
At the happy shout, the young man turned around on the train platform. He squinted through the bellowing clouds of steam from the huffing engine, glimpsing a familiar cloud of black hair through the tangled clots of people disembarking from the passenger cars.
With a shout, his older sister threw herself into his arms, her arms wrapping around him tight enough to cut off his breath. “You're back!”
“Obviously,” he said with a tired smile. He took in his sister, his first glimpse of family in nearly two years.
She looked almost the same as she had when he left for Europe. A little heavier, maybe. Her thick black hair, a gift from their Chippewa grandmother, was the same shade as his own. It was shorter than it had been, a victim of the ever-changing fashions of women. But her skin was still pale and clear, her eyes the same dark blue he remembered. He glanced around. “Is Carl here?”
She shook her head. “Too far to walk. He's waiting by the automobile with Mama,” she said.
Charles raised his brows. “So you got one of those things?” he said, his tone not completely approving.
His sister smacked him lightly on the upper arm. “I wrote to you six months ago and said so, didn't I? And don't look so grumpy about it. You won't believe how much easier it makes our lives. No horses to feed, no hitching up whenever we need to go someplace-”
“Right,” her brother grunted, lifting up his kit-bag. “And can this automobile get you through six inches of Minnesota mud in the spring? Or two feet of snow in the winter?”
“Not yet,” Maggie said breezily as they walked through the lobby of the small train station, her heels clicking on the polished tiles. “But Carl says the city council is planning on paving some of the streets, just like they have in Minneapolis. Then we can drive whenever we want.” She pushed open the front door, holding it open so her brother could walk through. She took a few steps toward her husband's vehicle, then paused and turned around, no longer sensing Charlie behind her.
He was standing at the edge of the sidewalk, his green eyes wide and hungry as he took in the familiar sight of the town square. The early May sun, high in a sky of robin's-egg blue, picked out an idyllic scene of small-town life, from the tall, graceful elm trees lining the streets to the businesses that bordered the square on three sides. In the middle of the square, a grassy park with a burbling fountain at the center formed a playground for several small children who were playing a game of tag, their indulgent mothers watching from nearby benches.
Margaret hurried back to her brother as he sank, shaking, to the steps that led into the train station.
“Charlie? Are you all right?” She darted a look over her shoulder to where her husband and mother waited, then moved to his side. Suddenly he looked thirty years older, his face a skeletal mask. It reminded her, frighteningly, of how their father had looked just before he died.
As quickly as it came, it went, and her brother was back, a tired young man sitting on the steps of a train station in a rumpled uniform.
He ran a shaking hand over his face, his shoulders hunched. “Give me a minute, Maggie. I can't face them like this.” He looked at the playing children as his sister sat down beside him, a comforting presence. “I never thought I would see this again,” he said. “I was sure I would die over there. Even when I got on the train in St. Paul to come home, I never really believed I would get here safely.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, shaking one out. Before he could light it, however, it was struck from his hand and ground into the dirt.
“You're not smoking one of those filthy things around me,” Maggie said, her voice firm.
Despite himself, his lips quirked. “God save me from my family,” he sighed. Tilting his head back, he closed his eyes, savoring the warm morning sun on his face, the gentle breeze, so different from the mud and stink and terror of the trenches. “This must be heaven.”
“No, Charlie. It isn't. It's Lake Ithaca, Minnesota. And I don't know why you are carrying on so much.”
“Because this is heaven. I know. Because I've seen hell. It's over there.” He waved an arm in a vaguely easterly direction. “In Europe. Where I saw men slaughtered by the thousands. So many I got used to it.” He shuddered.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked. In that moment, he was a little boy and she was the all-powerful older sister again. Friend, confidant, co-conspirator in a hundred different adventures. He smiled grimly, shaking his head.
“Tonight. One time. Then never again. Until I have to tell my children about it, so they can make sure another war like this never happens.” He heaved himself to his feet and picked up his bag. “Let's go.”
As they approached the automobile, a tall, lanky figure stepped away from it, leaning on a cane. A smaller form followed behind him. The man snapped off a jaunty salute.
“Corporal,” he said, nodding at the stripes on Charlie's sleeve.
“Councilman,” he replied, taking in Carl's well-tailored suit. Carl grinned.
“By God, it's good to have you back, you old devil!” he said, limping forward to gather his brother-in-law in a crushing embrace. He pounded Charlie's back with his fist. When he pulled away, his cheeks were wet. “Here's someone else who's been waiting for you.”
Charlie stumbled forward, weeping unashamedly. “Mama.” Dropping the bag, he bent and folded his mother in his arms.
“There, there,” her soft voice soothed him. Gentle hands which had eased him through a dozen childhood hurts cupped his cheeks. When they pulled apart, Edith Schuler's eyes were bright. “My poor boy,” she whispered. “It must have been bad.”
He nodded, swallowing through a throat gone suddenly thick with emotion. “It was.”
“Well,” she said briskly. “The sooner we're home, the happier we'll all be. Charles, get in the automobile. Carl, get this infernal contraption moving.”
“You'll be happy to know some things haven't changed,” his sister whispered to him as she went to help their mother into the back seat.
“I heard that, Margaret Mary!”
“God, it's good to be back,” Charlie sighed. It was a few hours later and he was sitting in the parlor of Maggie and Carl's small, comfortable house. He had washed and changed into civilian clothes, which Maggie had thoughtfully brought from the farmhouse, and he felt he had shed ten years as he folded away his uniform.
“I would hope so,” his mother said tartly from across the room. She was sitting on a sofa, eying him carefully. “You weren't hurt over there, were you, Charles?” she asked anxiously. “You never said anything in your letters, but...”
“No, Mama,” he said gently. After losing four children before they reached adulthood, and her husband to the Spanish Flu only a few months before, he knew how much he and Margaret's safety meant to her. “Not so much as a scratch. I suffered more from bad food than from the Germans.”
“Speaking of which,” his mother muttered. Raising her voice, she turned towards the kitchen. “Margaret, where's your brother's food?”
“At your command, Mama,” Maggie said, sailing through the doorway. She set a loaded plate on the table by Charlie. “Eat up.”
Charlie eyed the meal with undisguised relish. Thick brown bread slathered with butter, two slices of good home-cured ham, a large wedge of cheese, pickled vegetables, a glass of buttermilk...his mouth watered. He picked up a slice of bread and bit down, his eyes closing in ecstasy.
He opened them to see his sister and mother staring at him. “What's the matter?” he asked with a crooked smile. “Never seen a man eat before?”
His mother sniffed. “Never saw a man attack an innocent piece of bread like it might run away and hide,” she said. She looked him over as his sister and Carl joined them in the parlor. “Except when your father was busy with the harvest, of course. You're too thin, Charles,” she continued. “Doesn't the army believe in feeding the soldiers?”
Charlie snorted. “There's three ways of doing things, Mama. The right way, the wrong way, and the army way.” He cut off a bite of ham and chewed. “The army believes in feeding the soldiers. But not in overfeeding them. And if the food is good, that's an unintended bonus.” He changed the subject, not wanting to dwell on his time in France. Later. Tonight. Then never again, God help me. “So what's new in town? How's the farm?”
Edith Schuler rolled her eyes. “The farm. Always the farm. There must be something in the Schuler blood that makes the farm the most important thing in the wide green world. The farm's fine, Charles. The Gustaffsons and the Websters have been taking care of the stock since your father died. The cows and pigs are doing well. We're selling the milk to the dairy, just as we always have. And we're collecting the eggs from the chickens to sell in town. Our neighbors helped get the planting in. We just got the last of the barley sowed last week. And the winter wheat is already coming up in the north fields.”
“Good.” Charles took a long swallow of milk, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “What else is going on?”
“Well,” his mother said, with some exasperation, “if you would look at your sister instead of stuffing your face, you might notice something.”
Charles blinked. “I have to say, Maggie, that town life agrees with you.” He eyed her thickening middle. “You look like a cow about to be taken to market.”
“Charles!” his sister exclaimed, turning red. Beside her, Carl laughed.
“Lord, you are slow today, Charlie. Did the army take away what little smarts you had? She's not getting fat, she's-”
“Oh, God. Oh, Maggie, I'm sorry. You're expecting?” She nodded, proudly standing to show him her growing profile.
“Sometime in late October, from what the doctor says. You're going to to be an uncle, Charlie.”
He smiled in unalloyed happiness. Standing, he caught her in a gentle embrace, mindful of the small life within her. “Congratulations,” he whispered into her ear. “And to you, sir,” he said, turning to Carl. “Looks like the polio didn't do anything to your-”
“Charles!” their mother snapped. “That will be quite enough. We do not tolerate lewdness in this household.”
“We don't?” he asked quizzically. “Oh, right. We don't. Sorry, Grandma,” he said with an unapologetic grin. His mother sniffed, not taking his bait.
“You always were a rotten little boy,” she said. She patted down her graying hair, caught in a bun at the nape of her neck.
“I know, I know,” Charlie said. “And you should have let me fall down the well when I was three. I know how this lecture ends.”
“Well,” she sniffed. “If you know it so well I shouldn't have to repeat it.” She eyed her only surviving son.
Thank you, God, for sparing him, she thought. I have lost so much already. Three sons to sickness, a daughter in the cradle, a husband to that ghastly influenza epidemic. If he had been taken away, I don't know how I could have borne it.
He grinned at her unrepentantly, taking a bite of cheese, for all the world as if he was nine years old again and she had caught him stealing a slice of the pie she had prepared for dessert. With shaking hands she smoothed the folds of her best Sunday dress, worn just for him, grateful beyond words that he was alive to see it.
He is too thin, though. Hopefully he will stay here in town where Margaret and I can feed him up. Nothing like a woman's cooking to keep a man around.
Otherwise, though, her son was the image of her husband at the same age. The black hair that all of her children shared was cut high off his forehead, and his grass-green eyes were clear and piercing, keen with intelligence. Not a tall man, but well made, with strong shoulders, a broad chest, and narrow hips.
Once the girls in town see he's back, he'll have to hide in the outhouse to avoid them, she thought with satisfaction. The entire county is marriage-crazy right now. As soon as Johnny comes marching home a girl snatches him up and marches him to the altar.
While she was caught up in her thoughts, Carl, Margaret, and Charles had been discussing the small changes in town. Edith glanced up as a familiar name caught her ear.
“A dam?” Charles asked. “For a sawmill? Where on earth did Malcolm McGill find a place on his land to set up a dam? If he tried he'd flood out his entire property. It's all meadowland. Crystal Creek doesn't carve a deep enough valley to make a dam practical until it is well into our side of the property line.” He drummed his fingers on the table, the remains of his meal forgotten for the moment, and glanced at his mother. “Mama, didn't Malcolm try to buy a couple dozen acres on the east side a few years back? Over where the creek runs?”
“He surely did,” she replied promptly. “Offered your father a good price, too. He wanted the woodlot and a strip all the way down the east side. Including the creek. Josiah turned him down, of course. Easier to pull a tooth out of an angry bull than to pry land out of a Schuler.”
“I wonder,” Charles said. He looked at Maggie and Carl. “Has anyone actually seen this dam?”