Never Say Goodbye
by Dianne Price
True friendship lasts a lifetime,
no matter the distance between …
Never Say Goodbye
Rob and Maggie Savage, busy with their growing family and never-ending sea rescues, welcome the return of Rob’s former Air Forces mate, Den Anderson. However, the person Den missed the most on storm-tossed Innisbraw–the very reason for his move to the Scots isle from America–is sweet Fern. She’s determined to close her heart to any man who doesn’t share her beliefs, while Den has no use for a distant, overbearing God.
Isle of Innisbraw, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Early September, 1947
Rob Savage wiped raindrops from his face and shambled across the stubbled ground.
The devastation wrought by a night of pounding rain and gale-force winds was unbelievable. Sheaves of machair hay—most broken apart into sodden clumps—lay scattered across the vast expanse like uprooted graves.
He’d been on the island six years and never beheld such destruction—even the hurricane little more than a year ago had not occurred during harvest time. And the oats and barley in the nearby fields … They were used for coo and cuddy feed, aye, but the oats also provided a hearty breakfast and grain for bread. Granted, this was the second oat crop, but how many would suffer empty bellies before spring?
Alec MacDonald and Lachlan MacCrae, waxed jackets and breeches stiff with sandy mud, laboured nearby, tying the least-damaged sheaves together with string and draping them carefully over a drystone dyke.
Och, how would they feed their Hieland coos this winter with no hay? Substitute cut-up neeps?
The thundering surf pounding on the western shore like the tolling of the death knell, and the rain tasted as salty as the tears of defeat.
Rob scooped up an almost-intact sheaf and carried it to the men, his wellies sucking against the drenched soil with each step.
“Hoy, Rob.” Alec grunted and wiped rain from his forehead with his arm, rivulets of water darkening the white in his hair. “Told Lachlan you’d show up to help.”
The younger crofter wore a grim smile. “Didn’t argue with him, for I knew you would too. We could use a hand.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
The three were soon joined by other crofters, all dour-faced, the light of hope dead in their eyes. They worked in teams, one to hold the sodden sheaf together, the second to snip and tie the towie. After hours, the top of the large, square dyke was covered with stacks of sheaves, tied side by side to keep them from being blown off the jagged capstones.
Alec kneaded the small of his back. “No reason to try to save the oats and barley. Once they’re wet, they rot.” He raised his face to the dreich sky. “If this rain stops, we’ve a glimmer of hope for saving the hay. If no’, ’tis all for nowt anyway.”
Rob nodded. “Have you a guid supply of neeps laid by?”
A long, ragged sigh. “Aye, sacks of neeps, just no’ …” He waved his hand over the sheaves of hay.
The crofters all thanked Rob for his help, bringing a flush to his cold cheeks.
Why did they still treat him as somebody special? He put his breeks on the same way they did.
A disaster, that’s what it was. Skailwind and plomping rain had fallen on the meadow hay, barley, and late oats which lay cut but not yet carted to sheltered byres. Maggie Savage dropped the corner of the lace curtain and sat at the kitchen table, worrying her lower lip. Just yesterday morning, word had gone out across the island that the machair hay and grain crops, ripened early by a warmer-than-usual summer, were ready for the cutting.
Last night’s gale struck the island with the stealth and fury of a horde of banshees, rain soaking the stacked sheaves and winds toppling and grinding them into the sandy soil of the machair. How many island folk would go hungry this winter?
Sighing, she rummaged through the pile of laundry on the table and pulled out all the hippens to fold. Rob would surely be home after dark if the pounding rain on the slate roof was any indication. She dropped the cloths back into the pile, rested her chin in her cupped palms, and closed her eyes. How could she tell him what a midden the day had been, especially their laddie’s part in it?
A tentative knock on the door brought her to her feet.
“Come away in,” she called, raising a warning hand to Shep, who leaped up from the rug in front of the fireplace. “No bowf,” she commanded.
Though the dog didn’t bark, he reached the door before her.
Neighbours Fern MacNeill and her lass, Katie, hurried inside, brushing the rain from their hair and scrubbing the soles of their shoes on the rag rug.
“Where are your coats?”
Fern wiped a wet strand of black hair from her cheek. “On the entry. They’re soaked almost through.”
“Och, bring them in and hang them in the coat closet. I’ve already laid a towel on the floor to catch the rain from Rob’s waxed jacket.”
“Can you hold this dish, then?”
Maggie took the plate from Fern, pulled aside the damp tea towel, and sniffed the spicy aroma. “Your only day off work all week and you steamed a clootie dumpling?” Her nose wrinkled with delight at the dessert. “And I have just enough clotted cream to go with.”
Her friend winked conspiratorially. “And if we want any of Rob’s favourite, we’d best have ours before he puts a fork to it.”
Katie brought in their coats, and Fern hung them in the closet. The lass knelt and hugged the dog’s neck, then jumped up, wiping her cheeks. “Och, Shep, you slubbered all over me.” She looked around the room. “Where’s Robbie, Aunt Maggie?”
“Abed?” Fern asked. “Is he sick, then?”
“Only a nap.”
“But he gave up napping no’ long after you birthed Annie.”
“This is his first in months, but he had a tantrum after I paddled his bum for biting Annie’s finger.” Maggie busied herself setting a fresh pottle of tea to steep.
Fern put the cosy over the teapot and led Maggie to a chair. “I thought he was over being jealous. He usually ignores the lassie.”
“That’s true, he does. He was full of himself, pressing me to go ootside and play on the entry like a big lad, but I told him it was too wet. He was in a rare fash from then on.”
“You mean he bit Annie when he really wanted to take a bite oot of you?”
All Maggie could manage was a weak, “Aye.”
Fern squeezed her hand. “We’d best come up with something to keep the bairns busy. You can’t watch Katie while I work if Robbie’s going through another bout of giving you fits.”
There was no one else nearby to watch Katie while Fern saw patients at the infirmary, plus, having Katie to distract Robbie made a big difference in his behavior. “The day got off to a bad start, that’s all. When we woke later than usual and found it storming, Rob threw on his clothes and dashed off to help the crofters, only twa scones in his pocket for breakfast. Then Annie and Robbie both fussed when he wasn’t here to kiss them when they woke, and I burned the brose and had to start all over, making their breakfast late, and it was just porridge, no’ proper brose since the oats hadn’t soaked overnight.”
Mischief sparkled in Fern’s blue eyes. “You’re no’ biggen, are you?”
Maggie gasped. “Och, of course no’. Twa bairns in hippens is more than enough. Three would have me cairted off and committed as a daftie.”
Katie skipped up, copper curls bouncing across her back, dimples dancing in her rosy cheeks. “But I’d help you like I did with Wee Annie, Aunt Maggie. I promise.”
“I know you would, lassie. And a big help you were. I missed you this morning.”
“Mither!” Robbie shouted.
Followed by a wail from Annie’s room.
“I’ll get the lass,” Fern said. “You see if you can settle things with your laddie before Rob gets home. I’ve seen his patience, but even a saint can slip in the face of Robbie on a tear.”
Rob turned his steps toward home. He shouldn’t have taken the time, but after helping the crofters and checking the thatched cottage roofs of the widows who lived alone, he’d stopped in his office at the shed and telephoned each of his volunteer rescue lads, reminding them to be on alert. With the seas running high, they could be called out to a rescue at any time. Then he’d looked at the progress on the two rescue boats being built for Barra and Harris Islands, though he needn’t have bothered.
As always, the keels were taking shape a few days ahead of schedule. Taking Graham MacDonald on as a partner was turning out better than Rob had ever thought possible.
Crossing to the side of the path, he peered through the rain at the shore. Almost high tide and only a few feet before the water reached the main path and threatened to flood the boatshed, the howff, the post office, and the Cottage Weavers—the newest industry on the island. He’d have to keep an eye on that, rounding up a crew to fill bags with sand at the next high tide, if needed.
He climbed the hill quickly, stomping an inch of wet sand from the soles of his wellies every few metres. What a midden of a day. A few of the smaller crofters had cairted their grain to coo houses the een it was cut but no’ near enough of them. And if this storm kept up, he’d have to delay production in the shed and send some of his lads around to help repair the leaking thatched roof. He’d found no major damage and had hung water buckets ’neath each leak to catch the intermittent drips. He grinned. One advantage of being six-five? No need for a ladder.
The lamp Elspeth NicAllister kept lit all night to guide those climbing the path to the top of Innis Fell cast a fractured, hazy glow through the rain. Guid, she was abed and safe. Despite her spirited arguments it wasn’t needed, he’d had a few rotten thatches replaced after the hurricane.
I ken at over one hundred she’s the auldest on Innisbraw, but let her bide a while longer on earth, Faither. We still need her prayers and wise words, and I can’t imagine living without the luve and encouragement she gives so freely.
The infirmary windows were dark, but a light shone in Doctor John McGrath’s wee cottage. Maggie’s faither was probably poring over medical journals, or writing up some new ground-breaking orthopaedic procedure. Though running the infirmary often kept John too busy to take supper with them, he spent Sabbath afternoons playing with his grandbairns and exchanging news over cups of tea and Maggie’s shortbread or a rare clootie dumpling.
Home. He eased the gate open, fastened the latch, and stepped along the flagged walkway. Lights blazed from the front window. Pray God Maggie was still up. He’d waited all day to feel her tiny body pressed to his, to tangle his fingers in the black hair slipping down her back, to taste her soft, sweet lips. He crossed the flagged entry, toed out of his boots, and peeled off his waxed jacket. His hand was on the latch when the door flew open.
“Rob! You’re home.”
“Aye, I’m home.” A sigh of relief burst from deep within his chest as he gathered her into his arms. The heather-honey sweetness of her kiss brought a groan. Could any man ask for a warmer welcome? He ran his lips over her silken throat, another groan building.
She pulled away with a laugh. “You’ve mud on your face. Give me your jacket. Your supper’s on the warming shelf, shower water’s hot, and I’ve hung your dressing gown in the bathing room.”
“Trying to get rid of an unwanted suitor, are you, wife?”
A fond pat on his bottom punctuated with a pinch was her answer.
Maggie spooned her back against Rob’s belly, warm and relaxed.
He pulled the bedquilt over her shoulder and kissed the tip of her ear.
Och, she’d thought him asleep.
He wanted to talk. And she knew why. He’d eyed Annie’s bruised finger when they’d checked their sleeping bairns before seeking their own bed. He hadn’t said a word. Just kissed the wee bairnie’s hand, tucked it ’neath her cover, and turned out the lamp.
Now ’twas time for her to pay the fiddler. “I’m awake.”
“I was surprised to see Robbie sleeping with his stuffed rabbit again. Thought he gave that up months ago.” Rob’s voice was a low, calm rumble in his chest.
“He … he pulled it from his toy box before his nap the day.”
His fingers trailed over her shoulder ’neath the quilt. Soft as the brush of butterfly wings, that touch. “You mean the nap he took after you paddled his behoochie for biting Wee Annie’s finger?”
Och, how quickly he’d put it all together. She nodded, unable to voice an answer.
He stroked her back and kissed her forehead. “I’d hoped the lad was no longer jealous, that he’d accepted she had a place in this family and learned to luve her.”
Maggie pulled away and looked up into Rob’s face. “I don’t think he’s jealous any longer. Annie’s finger was close, ’tis all … and an acceptable substitute.”
“Substitute? For what?”
“Yours? Why would our lad want to bite you?”
“Because I wouldn’t allow him oot to play on the entry with the blowsterin wind blowing rain against the front window.” She put up a hand to stop Rob from interrupting. “It was a frustrating day, with me burning their brose, Shep keeping to his spot on the hearth rug and no’ wanting to play, Katie no’ here because Fern had a day’s holiday …”
“On with it, lass.”
“I should have seen the signs—him stomping about the living room, gritting his teeth and making that low growl in his throat. Like he’s about to explode with frustration because he doesn’t know the words to make his wants known. When he asked for at least the tenth time about going oot on the entry, I told him to stop whinging and get a book for me to read to him as soon as I was through suckling Annie.”
“And he lost it.”
“Aye. He bit Annie’s finger, then stomped off into his bedroom, slamming the door.”
“And you paddled him.”
“No’ before I calmed Annie down. Poor lassie, she was rouping like her heart was broken. I’d sung most of the lullabies I know before she dropped off to sleep and I tucked her into her cradle.”
“Where was the lad during this?”
“Robbie was sitting on the floor in the corner of his room, holding that rabbit, his face to the wall. I told him what I was going to do. That … that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, Rob, for the anger had left me and he looked so miserable.”
“But you had to, luve, no’ only for Wee Annie’s sake, but for his. He needed to feel physical pain too.”
“You’ll no’ punish him further?”
“Of course no’. In a way, I feel responsible for his frustration. We have onshore storms from the east so seldom I thought roofing the entry would give the bairns a guid place to play oot of the rain. Mebbe I’ll fasten a tarp from the eaves.”
“Please don’t. With the days shortening and getting dark earlier and earlier, ’twould make the kitchen and living room feel like a cave. And ruin our view of the harbour and Minch.”
He pulled her up into his arms. “You realize ’tis only September, with a long wait till spring?”
“Fern and I have come up with an idea to keep both Katie and Robbie busy.”
“What, add them to my boatbuilding crew?” His grin was catching.
“Of course no’. I’m going to teach them to cook.”
How quickly that grin faded. “Cook? You want our lad to learn to cook?”
“Aye, you know yourself how many times you used to say you wished you could fix the family something to eat, and you’re getting verra guid at it.” She held up her fingers, ticking them off. “You can brew tea and coffee—”
“And pour milk from the jug withoot spilling it.”
“Haud yer wheesht. And you can fry eggs and minced sausage and even fix a pot of brose and a plateful of sandwiches.”
“But that’s no’ cooking. ’Tis just fixing things.”
“Things to eat. That’s the kind of thing I want to teach our Robbie—och, no’ the frying part yet, but sandwiches, how to spread bramble jam on a buttery—easy, safe things like that.”
“Och, I don’t know—”
The rescue siren pierced the night air, drowning out his words.
He leaped from bed, pulled on his denims and socks, and rummaged in the closet for a shirt.
Maggie held out his gansey sweater. She couldn’t control the tremors shaking her body. A rescue shout with high seas in the mids of a storm—just what she feared most. She pulled on her dressing gown and followed him to the front door.
The siren uttered a final, strangled wail as he shrugged into his waxed jacket, yanked the door open, and stepped into his wellies.
She handed him a torch and threw herself against him. “Promise me you’ll take care and ask our Lord’s guidance.”
“You know I will, luve.” His kiss was fast and urgent. “Monitor our radio transmissions with Control to find out what kind of shout we’re facing.” He vaulted the front gate and tore down the path, his torch a smitch of light bobbing in the darkness before it disappeared behind a curtain of rain.
Maggie stood in the doorway, shivering. Be with him, Faither, please. Hold my Rob safely in the palm of Your hand, far above the raging waters.
A cold nose pressed against her palm. Shep always seemed to sense her fear.
That fear that always threatened to grip her heart and take her under.
She rubbed his silken ears. “He’ll be home, lad. He promised he’d always come home.” Stepping into her baffies, she tied her dressing gown tighter, then made her way into Rob’s office, Shep at her heels. He’d no’ leave her until she went to bed or Rob returned. She snapped on the Anglepoise lamp.
The shortwave radio sat on a shelf behind Rob’s desk, already set on the right frequency.
She toggled the switch to Receive.
Now the wait. At least Rob had talked her through the initial phase of every shout: first the all-volunteer crew arrived, by ones or twas, and immediately changed into their wetsuits, Rob included. Once they were all aboard and suited up, Rob contacted by radio whoever was working the Control desk in the shed, asking for a complete update on the reason for the emergency call, the coordinates of the vessel in trouble, a contact radio frequency, and went over everything again to make certain there were no misunderstandings before they left the harbour.
Which meant it could be a long wait. The crew all lived on the western side of the island. After the turn o’ night and in the mids of a storm, it would take them time to dress and fight their way through the teeth of wind and rain to reach the Maggie at her berth.
Keep each and every lad safe, Faither. Give them Your strength if they have to go into the water. She rubbed her forehead. She wouldn’t borrow trouble now. It could be a medical emergency or a tow, like the last shout. Please, Lord, just a tow, only a tow.
Rob’s deep voice interrupted her frantic prayer. “This is the Maggie, Control. What do we have, Stephen? Over.”
“’Tis a large trawler with six hands aboard, Commander. She lost all power to her engines and steering, and is at the mercy of the sea. Barra will be first responder, but has asked us to stand by to assist as needed. Over.”
“I copy that. Large trawler, six hands, Barra’s first responder, we stand by to assist as needed. What are the coordinates? And a radio frequency for the trawler? Over.”
“They had no radio frequency for the trawler. Barra has them at fifty-six degrees north, seven degrees west. Over.”
“Confirm, fifty-six degrees north, seven degrees west. But we’re almost as close to them as Barra, and a lot faster.”
“The call went directly from the trawler to Barra Control, no’ Maritime Rescue. Barra’s already left Castlebay and are on their way.” Stephen’s voice rose an octave. “Hold, Rob, Graham’s just walked in. He’ll take my place at Control. I’m on my way oot to the Maggie. Over.”
“Give heels to, then, and tell Graham to contact me if there’s any change. Maggie, oot.”
“Will do, Rob.” Graham’s voice. “Godspeed to all. Control, oot.”
Tears blurred Maggie’s sight. Almost as close to them as Barra. Rob had told her that it didn’t matter who received the initial call. Whoever arrived first would act as primary rescuer. And a much smaller lifeboat didn’t have much to offer against Rob’s rescue boat, even in calm seas. With his determination to save as many souls as he could, Rob would keep the Maggie at full throttle all the way.
Would she live the rest of her life trapped in this nightmare of fear? Hadn’t she suffered enough when Rob flew bombing missions over German territory while she paced the halls of the base hospital, yearning for—yet dreading—the roar of B-17s circling the base to land? Every emergency flare sent up by a landing Fortress stopped the breath in her throat. Was it the Bonnie Maggie? Was Rob’s crew working frantically to save his life while his blood spread across the cockpit floor?
She dropped to her knees beside the chair, hands clasped tightly together. An in-sea rescue in dark, storm-tossed waters, the waves washing over Rob’s head. Hadn’t she already given this to the Lord?
Waves crashed over the Maggie’s deck, obscuring the windscreen with salt water and spume. Rob checked their position. Exactly fifty-six degrees north by six-point-nine degrees west. He rotated the radar antenna. As he expected, no sign of the trawler.
Without steering or power, she had either been caught broadside by a wave and sunk, or been carried far to the west. And where was the Barra lifeboat?
He glanced at Neil MacLean, his second coxswain. “Cut engines to half speed. New heading—due west. Train those spotlights dead ahead. We’ll have to go looking for the trawler or what’s left of it.”
Neil nodded, executed a slow turn to the west, and activated their outside spotlights. “What about the Barra lifeboat? We’ll have to keep close watch so we don’t run her over. No’ an easy task in these seas.”
“I’ll keep a sharp lookout and try to raise her on the radio. We’ll have an advantage turning our stern to the storm. It should keep the waves from washing over our windscreen.”
None of the usual chatter came from the crew, who stood braced against the violent shudders buffeting the Maggie. With Graham filling in for Stephen, they were ten strong for the shout. In this gale, ’twas biddy certain they’d all be needed. But this was their first attempt at a rescue in the mids of high seas and plumpin’ rain. Keep us focused, Lord, and if it be Your will, help us find that trawler before it’s too late.
After fifteen minutes with no contact, they received a faint radio transmission. “Barra lifeboat to Innis … Rescue. Can you hear … Over.”
Flipping his radio to Broadcast, Rob replied, “Barra lifeboat, this is Innisbraw Rescue. Your signal is verra weak. What is your position? Over.”
“Having problems with ra … Have you located traw …?”
“Negative. What is your position? Over.”
“Barra, do you read me?”
Rob pounded his palm on the helm. “Och, there’s no telling where they are, and with a failing radio … I hope they turn back before they capsize in this sea.”
Neil’s face looked grim. “Do we keep looking?”
“Aye. Running with the wind and sea at our backs, we should be off the shores of Mingulay soon. With no harbour and a rocky shore, if we don’t find the trawler by then …”
Another nod from Neil. Thank God, he knew this sea and its islands better than most navigators knew their own faces.
Ten minutes later, a faint smudge showed on the radar screen.
Rob leaped to his feet and grabbed his binoculars. “Kill the interior lights. There’s something oot there.” He cupped the padded eyepieces to his face and pressed the lenses against the windscreen. There. Something … “Steady ahead slow.” He looked away, blinked, then peered through the glasses again. “There she is, the trawler! Stern’s facing us. Don’t think she’s moving.”
“But she has to be … unless …” Neil’s voice cracked. “Och, Lord, if they put oot both anchors and the flukes caught on some rocks—”
“Manoeuvre a bit closer till I can see her better. Steer aport. More … more … a bit more. Reverse engines, full stop!” Rob reached for the rope hanging from the cabin ceiling and gave it three slow pulls.
The Maggie’sshrill siren throbbed into the night.
He motioned his crew closer. “I don’t see anyone on deck, but her stern’s being savaged by waves. We’ll go roped together in pairs—Artair with Duncan, Ewan and Paddy, and I’ll pair up with Graham. Danny and James, stand by to pull in our ropes. Remember, three tugs means to start pulling. Matthew, prepare for casualties. Help with the ropes only if they can’t do it withoot you. Start roping together.” He gripped Neil’s shoulder. “Turn her prow to the south. ’Twill be hard holding her broadside to the waves, but we can’t use the aft deck with waves washing over it. As soon as she’s steady, rotate the spots to light the trawler.” His fingers tightened. “Any questions?”
“I’ll keep her steady. Godspeed.”
The Maggie rolled as it took a wave amidship.
Don’t let her capsize, Lord, but if she does, bring her back up. Rob took the tethering rope from Graham and tied it around his waist. “Lads, make your way slowly aft and be verra careful climbing down to the aft deck. Hoods up, check your ropes one last time.” He took a few seconds to meet each lad’s steady gaze. Thank Ye, Faither, for this brave crew. Guide my thoughts, Lord, please guide my thoughts. He unlatched the cabin door.
It flew inward with the ferocity of the rain-laden wind.
Five minutes later, all six men had their lifelines tied to the taffrail. Rob waited until the boat wallowed in a trough between waves before leaning close to Graham. “We’ll go first,” he shouted. “Don’t climb the rail, just slide under it and jump. Head straight north. I’ll be right behind you.”
Maggie awakened to find Shep licking her chin. She pushed him away and crawled to her feet, knees burning. How could she have fallen asleep in the mids of her prayers? She looked at her watch.
Surely she’d have heard the radio if there’d been a broadcast. She checked.
Still on Receive.
After turning the volume to high, she threw more peats in the fireplace and hurried into Robbie’s bedroom to make sure he hadn’t kicked off his bedplaid.
He slept soundly, one ear of his bedraggled rabbit clutched in his hand.
Her heart ached. So much like his faither, this laddie, always craving action. Bring Rob home, Lord. His lad needs him—we all need him.
Annie had slept through a feeding. Poor lassie, still exhausted from all that rouping.
Maggie covered one bare foot and tiptoed from the room, her knuckle caught between her teeth.
Where was Rob? Why hadn’t he brought the Maggie in yet? Should she call her faither at the infirmary? But wouldn’t Fern have dropped Katie off if they needed a nurse?
She paced the living room floor. Guard my heart, Lord. Help me believe Ye are watching over my Rob.
A burst of static brought a stab of pain ratcheting through her chest. She raced back to Rob’s office.
“Control, this is Maggie. We’re on our way in with six victims, all in need of treatment for near-drowning and hypothermia. Six cairts and John and Fern at the dock. Over.”
Neil’s voice, no’ Rob’s.