The Promise of Dawn
by Dianne Price
World War Two is over, but there’s much rebuilding to be done on the wee Scottish isle of Innisbraw. Now a wife and mother, Maggie Savage longs for other lasses to return to their island home, but how can they when there is no way to provide for themselves and their families? Her husband, Rob, driven by his unrelenting dream to build a rescue boat for the local fishermen, continues to be plagued by nightmares of impending disaster.
Will their simple faith in God and love for each other help them find a new dawn for their beloved community?
Isle of Innisbraw, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
I’ll never fly again.
The glow of peat embers glinted off the silver colonel’s eagle Rob Savage held in his palm.
Heaving a ragged sigh, Rob re-pinned it to the shoulder of his American Air Forces blouse and ran his hand over rows of ribbons below the wings.
Nine hours ago he’d worn that blouse with his uniform for the last time—to the special service held at the kirk when word reached the island that the war with Japan was over.
Rob closed his eyes. Would he ever overcome his grief at receiving a medical discharge? A graduate of West Point, career officer, full bird colonel in charge of the 396th Heavy Bomber Group … and now he couldn’t fly. The ache to return to his days piloting a B-17 bomber brought a yearning so profound he fought tears.
Aye, Innisbraw was his home now—a wee, green island peopled by all the folk he considered family. But to fly again, to chase the clouds, to fling off earthly fetters and lose himself in a sky so blue it seared itself into the deepest recesses of his brain …
His dog, Shep, pressed a cold nose into Rob’s palm.
“Want a run, lad?” He pushed himself to his feet. “’Tis verra early, but I’m thinking we both could use the exercise.” He laid the blouse over the back of his rocker, padded over to the large window in the kitchen, and lifted a corner of the lace curtain.
A bruised, dusky-grey sky.
“’Tis light enough to see the path.” He bent and rubbed the Australian shepherd’s silken ears. “On you come, then.” He let the dog out and eased the door closed so as not to awaken his wife.
Maggie, biggen with their second bairn, was a light sleeper and didn’t deserve to be awoken before their laddie, Robbie, called for her.
Footsteps muffled in the heavy pre-dawn air, Rob walked along the stone-flagged path through Maggie’s garden to the front gate set in the drystone dyke surrounding their home. His slow trot soon became a long, loping run as he and Shep covered the path down the slope of Innis Fell toward the harbour below. The chilly early morning air brought hen’s flesh coursing up his arms beneath his light, long-sleeved Jacobite shirt.
The waters of the Minch beyond the harbour shone inky-black with glimmers of white splintering the tops of the waves. Above the horizon, an occasional star blinked a faint protest before being swallowed by the slowly brightening sky.
The path was deserted. At a bit gone 0400, even the fishermen, always the first to be up and about, were still abed or savouring their first cup of tea.
Shep and Rob ran past the infirmary, Elspeth NicAllister’s cottage, the path to the MacPhee croft, and the stone buildings housing the post office, howff, and weaving shop on the inland side. Past the piers, the old herring-packing shed, and five tiny, thatched, stone cottages lining the harbour. He turned the wide corner where the path followed the contour of the island and headed west toward the Atlantic shore.
As he ran, Rob fought to blank out any negative thoughts. This was a time to renew his body and mind. The kirk to his left was unlit, but a soft light shone from one of the windows in the manse. Surely Hugh MacEwan, the island’s minister, also found sleep difficult after such an emotional day.
For most of the islanders, the war had ended with the surrender of Germany the previous May, bringing an end to the guards walking the shore at night, to fears of being shelled from the Atlantic, to dreading the fate of their uniformed lads.
But Hugh was one of the few who recognized the high cost of American lives in the Pacific Theatre. Most likely, he was deep in the Word at this time of the morning.
The sheep and the coo gangs of the large crofts Rob passed were hushed, nature holding her chilled breath until the first rays of sun flooded land and sky with warmth. Only a friendly bowf from one of Alec MacDonald’s herding dogs and the throaty pruk-pruk of a raven broke the silent dawn. But when the path turned south, the muted roar of the Atlantic breaking against the western shore gave voice to one of God’s masterpieces.
The sweet scent of heather spilled down the slopes of nearby Ben Innis. The same fragrance had drawn him to his Maggie more than three years ago. He didn’t have to close his eyes to remember how she looked that night in the officer’s club at Edenoaks Air Base. He stood a little over six-five, but she was so tiny the top of her head didn’t even reach his shoulder. Her luxurious black hair in a regulation bun above her RAF Nurses’ Corps uniform collar … startling violet-blue eyes seldom meeting his gaze … petite body stiff with obvious embarrassment that the commander of the base had asked her—a Scots nurse loaned to the base hospital—to dance. All of those traits attractive, but the provocative, warm-honey scent of heather clinging to her skin and hair captured his heart with the first breath. If he lived to be a hundred, that meeting would still be burned into his memory.
His brogans juddered on the wooden planks as long strides took him across a bridge. The wide burn, its pebbled bottom hidden beneath dark, peaty water, ran toward the sea. Twa mute swans glided silently across the near-black surface of Loch Domhnall, hurrying their seven grey cygnets to the safety of the far shore.
Shep still ran at his side.
“Looks like they’ve been taking herding lessons from you, lad.” Rob upped his pace.
There were no macadam or even gravel roads, only a wide, sandy path leading around the island. And no automobiles or trucks, just wooden cairts pulled by small, shaggy horses the Scots called “cuddies.”
At first, he’d been horrified by that. What a difference three years made. Now walking or running everywhere, he reveled as his senses were overwhelmed by the smells of heather, salty sea, and peaty bogs. Amid emerald green girse, brilliant wildflowers waved for attention between the ever-present grey rocks. Sheep and coos grazed voraciously or lay in groups, chewing their cuds. And the sounds: pewlie and black-headed gulls keening on high, the barking of the seals lounging on the large, flat rocks cluttering the shoreline, and the constant hollow boom of waves crashing against the steep, craggy cliffs of the fells. The taste of salted sea air brought saliva to his mouth.
This was why he ran before sunup every other day. Not only did it strengthen his legs, but it was a time to concentrate on all his blessings from God. At last, the war was over. His body was almost as strong as ever after innumerable surgeries and months of therapy to repair the broken bones and torn muscles suffered in his last B-17 crash. He had a new life with his love, his Maggie. And though he couldn’t fly, he could focus on building a rescue boat for those who encountered trouble at sea.
Och, why did his bonnie lass put up with his impatience to build the boat? To blow through the constant impediments life put in his way?
He crossed another bridge and gazed over the machair. Vast stretches of wildflowers competed with the green girse while smaller areas, separated by low drystone dykes, rippled in varying shades of green and yellow as oats and barley stretched their slim stalks toward rain and sun.
Should he become a crofter, toiling in the soil or raising sheep or coos, instead of opening the Innisbraw Boatworks? Or even a fisherman, spending his days at sea on a trawler?
Och, Faither, give me Your peace, please. I know You brought me to Innisbraw to build the rescue boat so our fishermen could have help in time of need and to provide work for our island lads, but right now, I’m so whummled I don’t ken what to do. I need that lumber from the States, Lord, and with rationing still tight, I don’t ken where I’m going to find all the necessary fittings and hardware.
Shep cut in front of him, turned up a tiny path heading over Ben Innis, and veered off through the yellow gorse and purple heather in pursuit of a rabbit.
Instead of whistling the dog back, Rob gave chase. He hadn’t been over the ben for several weeks and the view from the top always sent his blood racing. Fifteen minutes later he reached the summit, placed twa fingers in his mouth, and gave a shrill whistle.
Within seconds, Shep appeared out of the underbrush, flanks heaving, blue eyes begging for praise.
“Well done, … you,” Rob panted as he rubbed the dog’s furry ruff.
Shep nosed around for a soft spot to lie down.
Rob leaned against one of the four ancient stone megaliths towering above them. When breathing came easy, he walked around the stones, trailing his fingers over weathered inscriptions, faint and rendered undecipherable by hundreds or perhaps thousands of years of wind and rain.
Below, a few lazy drifts of smoke from peat fireplaces and stoves curled around thatched cottage roofs. Burns, wide and narrow, fed from underground springs, tumbled in wild abandon toward level ground. The sea surrounding the island pulsed in never-ending waves against the rocky shore. And all around, heather bushes rustled as birds and other small creatures stirred at the dawning of another day.
If the Lord had called him home to heaven during the war, this was where he would have been buried—the bonniest place on earth.
The vast, endless sky grew a luminescent, pearly grey as the sun inched toward birth over the Atlantic on the Minch side, wild and unfettered from horizon to horizon. To the south lay Ireland, only a soft smudge of purple floating on an inky sea. A rising wind played a haunting song around the ben’s stone sentinels. So familiar, that song. The same melody that had played through the wing-wires of his Stearman PT-17 bi-plane when he was learning to fly. Tears choked his throat.
It was bad enough giving up his flying career, but if his fears about the rescue boat sinking when she was launched came true … He fisted his hands. Please help me, Lord. ’Tis Your plan. Don’t let me believe the De’il’s sly whispers in the night. Help me believe she’ll float.
“Guard Robbie from the flames, Shep.” Maggie Savage set her laddie on the fireplace rug. She poured a cup of tea, added milk and heather honey, and sat at the kitchen table across from her husband as he attacked his breakfast. Thank the guid Lord island living provided an ample, unrationed supply of meat and eggs or, despite Rob’s hearty appetite, she’d never be able to add weight to his tall, lanky frame.
The sun’s rays, shining through the window, highlighted his brown hair and green flecks shone in his almost-translucent hazel-brown eyes beneath heavy brows. The therapy on his shoulder had added so much muscle, the shirt she’d made less than a year before fit too tightly over his broad torso. Such a braw man, both inside and oot.
He was bright, able to design a rescue boat by studying books and questioning local fishermen. And quick to pick up the Gaelic, the only language of the aulder folk, and the Scots commonly spoken by everyone else on Innisbraw.
Och, a native of Innisbraw, she spoke the Gaelic and Scots and had learned English at the boarding academy on Harris Island, but Rob was also fluent in German, French, and Italian. How had God considered her worthy of such a man?
Lost in her musings, she flinched when he tapped the tip of her nose.
“You’re quiet as nesting creatures at the gloaming.”
“Just enjoying the bonnie view.”
“You’ve been staring at me, no’ ootside.”
A tease tickled her tongue. “That’s what I said, enjoying the bonnie view.”
He rubbed the long scar above his right eyebrow, then spread tinned beans onto a slice of fried bread.
That scar again. Would Rob Savage never tolerate a compliment on his braw looks? “How is Graham working oot then?”
“Och, verra well. He’s a changed lad since he’s become my partner. Mebbe ’tis because his leg is doing so well after all the therapy.”
“Changed how? You’ve always said he’s bright and seldom takes time to fauld his fit.”
Rob chewed a mouthful of minced sausage dipped in egg yolk and stared out the window at the Minch. “I suppose time has put some distance between taking that Jerry bullet in the leg and all the death he saw that day, unlike so many of the de-mobbed lads from Innisbraw who can’t give up memories of the horrors they’ve seen and done. He’s more focused, as if he’s put the past behind and is ready for the future. I’m thinking he’ll be a lot of help when we start building the rescue boat.”
“Which will be soon, knowing you.” Maggie ran a hand through her hair, working out a few tangles.
He wiped a smear of egg yolk from his plate with his last bite of fried bread and drained his coffee mug. “That’s the way you should always wear your hair, luve.” A smile deepened the dimples beside his lips. “It looks black as storm clouds tossed on a blowsterie wind, all loose and spilling down your back.”
“I haven’t even brushed it yet, and I need a barrette to keep it off my face so it doesn’t tangle so much.” She wrinkled her nose, unable to resist another bit of devilment. “Besides, I’m thinking I may need to cut it, what with being biggen again. You know how ’twas always in the way after I birthed Robbie.”
Panic flashed in his eyes. He snagged her chin between his fingers. “Don’t even think it.”
“I was only having you on, luve. I’d never cut it, though I do have to trim the ends when they get too far below my waist.” She got up, perched on his lap, and nestled close. “You’re wound tighter than a wet mooring rope this mornin. What has you in such a fankle?”
He buried his face in her hair. “Och, ’tis all this waiting to start the rescue boat. But wound up or no’, I mean it, Maggie. If I see you with a pair of scissors in your hand, I’ll throw them over the side of the fell.”
A sudden squeal drew his attention from Maggie.
Their lad toddled toward them, arms outstretched for balance, fingers waving, blue eyes sparkling, and mouth wide open.
Maggie slid from Rob’s lap. “Don’t say owt,” she whispered.
Rob went down on one knee and held out his arms.
Robbie teetered for a moment before he took a few more steps. He smiled at his father and squealed again.
It was all Rob could do to stay still instead of scooping up his lad and kissing him on that sweet-tasting place at the back of his neck, beneath those soft, black curls.
The lad waved his hands wildly and teetered on the brink of a fall, regained his balance, and toddled into Rob’s arms.
“Well done, you! You walked all by yourself.” Rob passed their son to Maggie, who showered his face with kisses until he arched his back and squealed in protest. “He wants to do it again. He’s had a taste of it and he’ll no’ be satisfied till he’s running.”
Maggie laughed, violet-blue eyes dancing a jig. “Och, he’s just like his faither.” She stood Robbie at a chair and moved back.
This time the lad’s objective was Shep, who cowered, eyes anxious, tail tucked tightly between his hind legs.
“Shep doesn’t like this one bit,” Rob said. “He’ll have to work even harder to keep the lad oot of danger.”
Robbie wobbled toward the dog, tiny fists opening and closing. Again he teetered on his bare feet and righted himself. When he reached Shep, he pounded the dog’s back with both hands and buried his face in the soft, blue-merle coat.
Rob groaned. “I’m thinking I’ve lost my dog. Nowt will separate those twa now.”
“He’ll still have to go with you when you run. A herding dog needs exercise.”
“We both do.” He patted his waistline. “I’m getting fat.”
Maggie stepped back, hands on hips. “Rob Savage, stop that talk. You still don’t weigh as much as you did when we met, and you were shilpit then.” She patted her own tummy. “Now, if you want to see someone getting fat—”
“You’re barely showing, and if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times, your body’s perfect.”
They looked at one another for a long moment, then broke into laughter.
He gathered her into his arms, rocking her back and forth. “Listen to us. We sound like a couple of auld merrit folk.”
She cuddled closer. “We are auld merrit folk, luve—and you’re no’ fat.”
“You keep teasing me with that saucy smile and neither of us is going to get owt done the day.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“For biddy certain.” He kissed her again. “You’d best rescue Shep. Your lad has his fingers in that poor dog’s mouth.”
Maggie tried to lead Robbie away, but he plonked down on his bottom. She picked him up and he hugged her neck, burying his face against her shoulder. “This one’s already worn oot.” She headed for the bairn’s bedroom. “And his hippen’s soaked again.”
Rob called Shep over and scratched his ears. “There’s a guid dog,” he said in the soft, deep voice Shep loved. “A verra, verra guid dog.” He grabbed his thermos and walked into Robbie’s bedroom. “I’m away, then.”
“Don’t disremember your scones. I added extra for Graham. They’re in a napkin on the kitchen table.”
“Thank ye, lass.” He patted her bottom. “And you’re no’ fat.” He grinned as he dashed out the door.
Not often did he have the last word with that cannie lass.
He jogged down to the shed, enjoying the warm morning air. There were few days like this left in the year.
The flat rocks at the base of Innis Fell were deserted, the seals at sea, gorging on fish to store up fat for the coming winter. The sheep and coos at Angus MacPhee’s croft browsed the girse or lay in the sun chewing their cuds, while pewlie and black-headed gulls circled the harbour, drifting in lazy circles.
He opened the shed door and stepped inside.
Graham MacDonald sat on one of their wooden folding chairs, chewing a pencil as he perused a sheet of paper. The lad looked guid, ruddy-cheeked like all the island’s young natives, short black hair combed back from a widow’s peak. Blue eyes flashed a hint of mischief when he looked up. “You’re late. I was about to send out a rescue party. Have a long lie-in?”
Rob chuckled as he opened the thermos. “Have a guid reason for being late.” He poured them each a mug of coffee and pulled up another chair. “Robbie took his first steps this mornin. Walked all over the living room.”
“Congratulations.” Graham swigged his coffee and reached for a scone. “Or maybe I should offer my condolences. If he’s owt like you, there’ll be no stopping him now.”
“What lad doesn’t like to run?” Rob ate half a scone in one bite.
“Aye.” Graham stood and held out his hands. “In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s another lad on his own twa legs.”
Rob glanced around. “Where’s your walking stick?”
“In the infirmary supply room, where it can remain till Nevermass, if I have any say.”
What grand news. “It shouldn’t be long before I’ve a new running companion.”
“That’s right. In fact, John radioed and said to take my instructions from you from now on. Just no running or climbing rocks for at least a month.”
“You mean he trusts me to keep you in line? That doesn’t sound like John.”
“He said to tell you he’ll be back on the island in a few weeks and if I’m doing too much, he’ll have your skin.”
“You’d better listen to me then. I don’t want to tangle with Doctor John McGrath, father-in-law or no’.”
“I’ll listen. But right now, I’ve some news that could make your day.”
Rob leaned forward. “And what might that be?”
“Mither’s auldest sister and her husband were both killed when the Krauts bombed Clydebank, just ootside of Glasgow. Their youngest lass was already merrit and biding on Harris Island. Her husband took over a boatyard from his faither and ran it till he went off to war in forty-twa. He was killed helping the Underground fight in France.”
“Another family torn apart … but how is that good news to me?”
“My regiment was in Italy then and Mither wrote me that Fern took it hard. She’s been trying to run the yard herself, but the lack of a need for sma’ boats during the war ate up her reserves. She’s selling everything.”
The good news! “Everything? The tools, equipment?”
“And the inventory. She has twa diesel engines and boxes of fittings, plus a large pile of lumber.”
Rob whistled. “This could be the break we’ve been looking for.” He got up and paced. “Do you know how much she wants for it all?”
“She’s got it priced to sell piecemeal. Don’t think she thought anybody had enough silver to buy it ootright.”
“I’ll need a list of everything she has, so I can make her an offer.”
Graham drained his coffee mug. “I’m thinking you should go to Harris and look it over. You must have all the prices memorized since you’ve been pouring over auld catalogues as long as I’ve known you.”
Rob’s hands shook as he picked up the long list of items they needed. “I’ll take this along and see how many of these she has.”
“I seem to recall you saying you’d no’ take another trip without Maggie and Robbie going along.”
That stopped Rob short. “Right. Either they go or I don’t.”
“I’m sure Fern could put you up. She has the room and I’m thinking she’s most likely lonely.”
“One, a lass about three. Her name’s Katie.”
“How can I contact Fern and set a date?”
“I’ll get hold of her this een. Any particular time guid for you—and don’t say yesterday.”
“You took the word right oot of my mouth.” Rob grinned. “Today? Seriously, as soon as possible.” He punched a fist into his palm. “Does she have a radio, or only a telephone?”
“Radio. Harris was set to be connected to Scotland by telephone when the war broke oot. And since they didn’t have any air or naval bases and weren’t considered important, they’re still waiting.”
“Aye, it does that.”
Maggie acted pleased when Rob told her the news. Of course he was eager to get started on the rescue boat, but that meant fears for his safety would soon become an unpleasant part of her daily life. Commanding a rescue boat could be so dangerous in high seas. During all the bombing missions he had flown, she had prayed and prayed for the faith that the Lord would bring him back. And He had, even that last time when Rob had been so terribly injured. She tried to fight off the mounting panic but failed miserably and ducked her head to hide the tears filling her eyes.
Rob gathered her into his arms. “What’s this? I thought you’d be kittled up. Is the trip too much with you being biggen?” When she didn’t answer, he palmed her chin and forced her head up. “What’s the matter, Maggie? What have I done to cause you a fash this time?”
She felt sick—and ashamed. When would he realize she wasn’t perfect? And why did he always take the blame whenever she was upset? The closer he got to building and launching the rescue boat, the more he reverted back to the insecurities of his tragic, lonely childhood.
But now was no time to tell him her fears for his safety had returned. It would only burden him further. Why had she promised never to lie to him?
Please help me, Faither. I can’t do this to him again. She bit back tears and hugged his waist, forcing herself to meet his gaze. The bleak look in his eyes tore at her heart. “I … don’t know what to … to do with Robbie while we’re gone,” she stammered, voicing a small part of the truth. “He’s still suckling.” Her shame deepened when his body relaxed.
“Surely you didn’t expect us to leave him behind. I know ’twill be hard spending so much time on a trawler with a bairn, but I’ll do all I can to help. Fern lives near Leverburgh on the southern tip of Harris, so the trip shouldn’t take any longer than sailing to Oban.”
“Then ’tis settled.” But only if I get some spiritual help from Hugh before we go.
His long fingers kneaded her tight shoulders. “I’ve already contacted the mill in New Hampshire. The lumber I ordered will be sent on the first available merchant ship. If I can pick up the tools and equipment I need, plus some inventory, it’ll speed things up considerably.”
“’Tis coming together, luve.”
“Aye, finally, thank the Lord.”
The moment Rob left for the shed the next morning, Maggie radioed Hugh and asked him to come to their home. “I’d walk down to the manse, but Robbie’s too heavy to carry and he’s only started walking.”
“You sound like you’re in a fair fash.”
She wiped impatiently at the tears welling in her eyes. “I am, and it’s gone on too long. I desperately need your help.”
“Consider me already on my way.”
Maggie hovered in the doorway a short time later as Hugh unlocked the gate and walked up the path. Of average height and carrying an extra stone or twa that evidenced his love of food, he and his round, cherubic cheeks and elfin smile always lifted her spirits. Climbing the steps to their stone-flagged entry, he opened his arms wide.
Just the sight of his dear, kind face and the rough texture of his tweed jacket against her cheek when he hugged her eased the tightness in her throat. She handed him a mug of coffee and seated him at the kitchen table, putting a finger to her lips. “Robbie’s taking an early nap, so we’ll have to be quiet.”
Hugh sat unmoving while Maggie poured out her fears and her inability to put them aside even after hours and hours of reading the Word and praying. “I’m so ashamed. I can’t let Rob know how I feel. The closer he gets to building the boat, the more afraid I become.”
Hugh took off his eyeglasses and polished them on his handkerchief. Maggie’s fears were understandable considering Rob’s lingering so near death only twa years before. Help me, Faither. Give me the words to show her once again how to rest in Your perfect will. “So you’re afraid Rob will drown?”
Tears slipped down her cheeks. She nodded, head bowed.
“How many times does God have to pull that lad back from the brink of death before you see He has a special plan for Rob’s life?”
“But why does His plan have to be so dangerous? Doesn’t He know what Rob means to me—how I can’t face life without him?”
“Of course He knows.” Your words, Faither, no’ mine. He steepled his hands on the table. “After all, it was our Lord who brought you together in the first place, knowing the needs in both your hearts and meeting those needs perfectly.” He pulled a worn Bible from his jacket pocket and paged through it.
Maggie groped for her handkerchief.
He gave her time to dry her eyes. “You will find this in First John 4:18: ‘There is no fear in love: but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath punishment; and he that feareth is not made perfect in love.’” He leaned back in his chair. “We all have times in our lives when we doubt God’s ability to take care of our problems and fears, but those of us who have learned the promises of God—as you have, Maggie, lass—have hold of the greatest power in the world. God’s power. And His power is divine. Just think, no’ human power, but divine! Moses and David and Abraham and Isaiah all drew upon that power when circumstances made them weak and faint. Remember David’s words when he stood before Goliath? ‘The battle is the Lord’s.’ That was no longer David’s battle to fight. It was God’s.”
She met his gaze warily.
“The hardest thing a Christian faces is to wait on the Lord.” A chuckle rumbled in his chest. “As impatient as that lad is, I’m thinking our Rob would agree with that.”
She nodded, a tight smile showing her agreement.
Opening one’s mouth and allowing the Holy Spirit to speak—so hard to learn, yet so easy to do. “But waiting on the Lord doesn’t mean to sit back and do nowt. It means letting go of your fears and remembering one of His greatest promises: ‘He offers strength to the weak.’ No’ the strong, nor those trying to solve their problems by their own efforts, but to the helpless. Is the God who created the universe suddenly so weak He cannot pluck Rob from the waves when something goes wrong during a rescue? Is the Lord who gave Himself on the cross for all of our sins suddenly so uncaring He wants you to be tortured by fear?”
Her cheeks flushed. “Of course no’.”
Hugh returned the Bible to his pocket, rose, and pulled Maggie to her feet. “Every time you fear for Rob’s life, I want you to picture our Lord creating the stars and flinging them into the universe. Sometimes we disremember the power at our Lord’s fingertips.”
She dipped her head. “I will try to remember.”