It was a beautiful early spring day. Bethan Davis stood watching the mighty Saint Lawrence River flow by her home on Little Ironsides Island. She was waiting for bread in the oven to finish baking before she called her daughter for breakfast. The kitchen was warm from the heat of the oven. She stepped out onto the porch to get a breath of air. Sitting down in a rocking chair she watched a pair of small sparrows build a nest in a nearby cedar bush. A slight puff of wind ruffled her graying hair. The gentle breezes of May were welcome after the harsh winter that just passed.
Bethan smiled broadly. She loved living on the river. It wasn’t an easy life but it had compensations that money could not buy. Watching the sun come up over the horizon to kiss the surface of the water with color, the changing of the seasons, the good people who worked on the river, and the wildlife all around them were simply priceless. She raised all 4 of her children on the banks of this river while her husband worked his way up to captain of a pilot boat.
Little Ironsides Island was one of three Islands in this small chain of Islands not far from Alexandria, New York. The Ironsides islands belonged to the Morgan Towing Company for whom Cecil, Bethan’s husband, worked. Bethan, Cecil and their youngest daughter Cecily had lived on the island as caretakers for the past 10 years. Mr. Morgan made sure their home had every amenity. Including a “crow’s nest” at the top of their home. A room with windows on all sides so that they could see all the beauty and at times the danger around them. Mr. Morgan wanted to make sure their most experienced boat pilot had a comfortable life and a happy wife. She was indeed happy.
It was an idyllic life but not simple. Cecil and Bethan were responsible for over 30 acres of land, which included a very large Great Blue Heron rookery. Each island had docking facilities and out buildings and of course houses. The guest house was rarely used but Bethan and Cecily were tasked with keeping it clean.
Bethan pulled the bread from the oven. The house filled with the smells of fresh baked bread. She called up the stairs to her daughter.
“Cecily, come to breakfast,” she announced.
“Cecily?” she called again
Bethan muttered as she climbed the stairs to her daughter’s room, “That child will be the death of me.”
Seeing that Cecily was gone, Bethan gave a little stomp with her foot.
She proceeded to climb the winding staircase leading to the crow’s nest atop their house to see if she could locate her daughter. Inwardly she knew that Cecily would be with her friend Robert Lafay checking on the rookery. The river currents were running fast as the Spring rains caused the water levels to rise.
“She knows she is supposed to tell me if she’s leaving even if I am busy,” she said aloud.
She reached for a leather pouch which contained a brass spyglass. She focused on the larger island. Sure enough there was Cecily’s boat. She spotted her daughter’s unruly auburn hair through the trees.
Bethan continued to mutter about her daughter’s independent streak.
“I admire your pluck, girl, but you’ve got to show a bit more sense,” Bethan stated, with a little smile.
The Great Blue Herons came back to the island every year to nest on Ironsides Island. The people who lived along the river knew these birds were an important part keeping the frog and fish populations under control. Cecil and his daughter Cecily made it their mission to see that the birds were unmolested by curious visitors. Since Prohibition, rum runners had tried to use the island to stash their illegal booze. By hook or by rookery Cecily Davis and Robert Lafay determined to keep them off that Island!
Cecily stood on the dock surveying the area. She and her father knew that Island like the back of their hand. Robert knew all the scuttlebutt about the rum runners. (His family used to own a respectable pub before Prohibition.) The two young people made an excellent team. Bethan was thankful that Robert had accompanied her daughter this morning but not at all pleased that they left without so much as a by-your-leave.
Bethan saw Robert check his pocket watch then Cecily put her hand on her forehead. Both scrambled to get into the little steam launch boat. Robert used a pole to guide the boat away from the rocks while Cecily started to steer for home. Cecil built the boat for his family from parts he salvaged. It was odd looking but very functional.
Bethan quickly descended the stairs.
Meeting her daughter at the door she said, “Cecily Caron Davis how many times?!”
“Yes mum, I’m so sorry I thought you were still asleep and I didn’t want to wake you,” Cecily implored.
“Still asleep indeed! I was taking care of the books and the correspondence. Your breakfast is getting cold, young lady,” Bethan scolded.
“Any chance of eggs mum?” Cecily gave a sassy smile.
Bethan gave a dramatic sigh, “Yes if you’ll clean up NOW. Those shoes stay outside until they’ve been properly cleaned!”
“Robert, I made your favorite oat cakes with baked apples and of course there’s soda bread made fresh. I hope it's still warm.” said Bethan dramatically.
Robert grinned at the thought of Mrs. Davis’ award winning oat cakes.
“Yes mam,” he responded emphatically, as he made his way into the house.
Cecily came down from her room ready for breakfast wearing a clean, handmade, cabled pullover, plain knickerbockers, knee length argyle socks and boots. Her hair pulled back at the nape of her neck.
“I’m starved,” she said.
Robert smiled the kind of smile a young man gives when his feelings are slightly more than admiration.
“You’re always starving,” He quipped.
Cecily laughed, “That’s true!”
Bethan put the breakfast spread out on the table. She said grace over the food before they ate.
“I see by your clothes that you read the list of chores your Da left for you on the table Cecily?” She asked.
“Yes, and Da asked if Robert could stay to help,” said Cecily.
“Will that be acceptable Robert?” asked Bethan.
“Yes Mrs. Davis. I appreciate the work,” replied Robert as he tucked into another baked apple.
Robert Lafay and Cecily had been friends literally since birth. Robert was born one day before Cecily. Bethan was the midwife that brought him into the world. The very next day Margarite Lafay was right there holding Bethan’s hand while Cecil delivered Cecily. There was no time to wait for a midwife. Her youngest daughter was impatient from the day she was born.
Cecil and Bethan watched Prohibition ruin many of the businesses on the river, including the Lafay family pub. The rum runners and the revenuers didn’t seem to care who they hurt or what happened to innocent people. The villains would run, the revenuers, often just guns for hire, would shoot indiscriminately. Spraying everything with gunfire.
Cecily and Robert helped to clean up after breakfast. Bethan definitely detected a few more looks of admiration from Robert toward Cecily. She had to stifle a giggle. Her daughter was a strong willed 19 year old with dreams for her future. However, she couldn’t blame him. Cecily was a beauty.
Cecily Davis, a tall young woman with a strong build and fierce brown eyes, was equally strong minded. Her wavy auburn hair matched the freckles across her nose making her look much younger than her 19 years.
Intensely independent even as a little girl, she wanted to do everything herself. It annoyed her that she wasn’t allowed to be a river pilot like her Da. Women weren’t permitted to do that kind of work. She vowed she would learn all there was to know about the Ironsides Islands on her own if she must. She was as capable as the boys her age. Though this headstrong nature made her a challenge to raise both Cecil and Bethan were incredibly proud of their daughter. She was as intelligent as she was beautiful.
Cecily and Robert were about to step out the door when Bethan called to them. “Children, I’ve got a message from Mr. Morgan, a party is coming to stay at the big house we’ll need to clean and put out fresh linens,” she said.
Cecily rolled her eyes and blew a lock of hair away from her forehead. She muttered “Of course guests want to come this week. The herons are coming back to the island”.
“Yes, mum we’ll get right on to it,” she announced.
“I guess I’ll look around the house to make sure everything is up to standard. I have to tend the window box flowers,” said Robert.
“Wait just a minute. I’ll get the basket with the linens,” Cecily said in an offhand way.
Robert looked off into the distance at the herons. The big birds weigh a mere five and one half pounds. Their dagger-like bills searched the water for fish and other water creatures.
Cecily appeared from the house, her hair tied in a kerchief, carrying a basket with bright, clean, linens.
“Ready,” asked Robert?
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Cecily answered in a flat tone.
They walked across the little island to the main house when Cecily stopped in her tracks. Her cheeks turned bright red as a shiver ran up her spine.
“What’s wrong,” said Robert?
She put her finger to her lips. In a hoarse whisper she said,
“Someone has been here,” she said as she looked at the remnants of a small campfire.
Robert stopped, his eyes as wide as saucers as he looked at the ground. He pointed to a footprint in the sandy soil.
“These are shoe prints, not boot prints,” he said quietly.
“No one here wears shoes like that!” replied Cecily.
Cecily removed a stout rug beater from the basket. While Robert snatched a short but thick branch that had fallen from a nearby tree.
She pointed to the back door of the house. Robert, holding the branch like a baseball bat, stood to the side of the door so he could be ready if someone suddenly ran out the back. Cecily proceeded to put the basket she was carrying on a tree stump.
With both hands wrapped tightly around the rug beater until her knuckles turned white, she made her way through the trees to the main door of the house. The curtains were parted slightly. Neither she nor her mother would have left the curtains in that position. Ducking down below the window she unlocked the front door.
“Is anyone here? You best just come out. We’re not leaving and you don’t have a way off the island. We can have a posse here in ten minutes,” Cecily yelled at the top of her lungs.
With no reply, she snuck across to the back door. Robert stepped into the house as quietly as possible.
“Lets go room by room to see if anything was taken from the house,” said Cecily.
Robert walked into the kitchen, “Ces, they didn’t take anything, they left something!”
Cecily stepped to the kitchen quickly, “What?”
Robert pointed to several large cases of beer in the corner of the room.
Her hands balled up into a fist Cecily growled, “Rum runners,” under her breath. Her face turned bright red. She stalked out of the kitchen like a caged tigress.
“Take it easy Ces,” whispered Robert. Putting his finger to his lips, they may still be around someplace.
“I think we should stay together,” she said, continuing to whisper.
“Suits me right down to the ground,” replied Robert, trading his stick for a large rolling pin.
Rug beater firmly in hand Cecily ascended the stairs to the second floor with Robert close on her heels. In each room upstairs there was a sign that someone had been in the house. The beds were mussed, cigarette butts floating in cups of cold coffee, a half eaten sandwich had been left on a writing desk. The bathroom was filthy.
Robert touched the bread used to make the sandwich, “It’s only slightly dry. They were here just hours ago.”
Cecily’s face registered shock. “I don’t know how I’m going to tell mum! They even used the fine china,” she snarled quietly.
Robert pointed down the stairs. This time he led the way. He wanted to be absolutely certain that no one was lurking in the house.
Cecily’s eyes were wide as Robert walked to the basement door. They each grabbed a lantern from the wall. After he lit the lamps with a pack of matches he took from his pocket, Robert nodded towards the basement door. Though her hands trembled, there was a look of determination on her face. Robert took a deep breath then opened the door quickly. The hinges squealed like a banshee with the weight of the door being flung open.
Cecily yelled, “If there is anyone down here, you can bet your bottom dollar we will find you!”
Robert rolled his eyes, “Cecily they could have guns!”
There was a sound of scuffling coming from the basement. Robert, rolling pin in one hand, lantern in the other, rushed down the stairs.
“Who is here?” he yelled.
As if to return the call, a cat gave a forlorn yowl.
Both Robert and Cecily were startled by the sound.
“Hazard!” Cecily cried out when she finally caught her breath.
Robert lifted the cat into his arms.
“Poor little guy, they must have shut him down here when they broke into the house,” said Robert as he pointed to the broken door that led to the outdoors.
“He must have yowled his head off. Especially if the men who broke in here had food. Look, there are a few more cases of beer down here,” Cecily pointed to the wood boxes in the corner.
Robert nodded his head toward the stairs, “I’ll grab Hazard. We’d best check on the Herons too. If they’ve hidden beer among the birds it might be dangerous for everyone. They don’t take too well to their nests being disturbed.”
Cecily and Robert fixed the broken door to the basement with what they had available then left the house through the backdoor. Cecily made sure that all the doors were locked from the outside.
They ran all the way back to Bethan. Cecily told her mum what they’d found, while Robert climbed the stairs to the crow’s nest to look for signs that the birds had been disturbed. Seeing no indication, he returned to Cecily and Bethan.
“Praise be the two of you weren’t hurt!” Bethan said upon hearing the story.
“I’m sure, once the police see the place, they’ll know who broke into the house and who owns that beer,” said Robert adamantly!
Bethan said, “I hear it's always easier to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission. I don’t think we’ll involve the police just yet. Here’s what we will do. Robert, you round up as many volunteers as you can to come help us look after the grounds. We will need a small navy, if-you-will, to protect Ironsides Island. Mr. Morgan will pay them, I’m sure of that. The Lord knows I’m all for doing things legally but we don’t want the revenuers here shooting up the place, especially not with the herons on the island. The way they shoot first and ask questions later won’t do! Take the launch. It will be faster.”
Robert said a snappy, “Yes ‘mam”.
“Cecily you go with Robert, find one of the tugboat captains down by the docks, ask them to get this message to Da. He’s aboard the Lady Sault Ste. Marie,” She scribbled a message on a piece of paper, handing it to her daughter.
“Mum, you shouldn’t be here by yourself! What if they come back?” Cecily said anxiously
“Then I’ll send them off with a flea in their ear. Now scoot. It will be getting dark soon. I want everything organized before nightfall. I best get to baking. We’ll need food for our volunteers,” said Bethan.
“Yes Mum. We’ll be back as soon as we can,” said Cecily warily
Cecily ran towards the launch with tears streaming down her face. She didn’t want to leave her mum alone. Rum runners could be dangerous.
Bethan watched as Robert patted Cecily’s shoulder in a reassuring manner. Smiling to herself she turned her attention to baking.
By dusk the Davis home was bustling with men and women ready to do their part to protect their friends and the beautiful Herons on Ironsides Island. Rum Runners didn’t have a fight with the locals. Often these were just regular men looking to feed their family and willing to take a risk to do it. Bethan knew some of these men, as a midwife she brought their children into the world. She knew runners wouldn’t cross the flotilla of small boats. Especially since Bethan had quietly arranged for the beer to be returned to the owner, no questions asked.
Bethan, Cecily and Cecil Davis along with Robert Lafay were hailed as local heroes for outsmarting both the revenuers and the rum runners. Cecily knew it wasn't heroism, simply a bit of cunning along with strength in numbers.