Central St. Louis, near the Levee, 2:35 p.m.
“We’re almost to Smitty’s,” Silas called back to his friends. “I doubt we will be able to move out tonight, but we will find a spot to camp till morning.”
Camp? Emma wondered where a suitable camp site could be found in the tangle of old buildings on the north end of the city.
“Ain’t we there yet?” Herc asked, “I’m all turned around. You had to go twisting and turning around this here maze . . .”
“If somebody is following us, why make it easy for them?” Silas reasoned.
Emma’s stomach pained her and sent a loud message to that effect. She worried her inquiring as to food may be taken as a nuisance or sign of weakness.
Hunger was the common topic, for Herc left off from complaining about compass points. “I am damn starved, Silas. You reckon we can go back to that bakery we passed . . .”
“We will eat when we get settled,” Silas said, without turning. “I need to check the girl’s mount, too. His shoe is scraping something awful.”
Emma hadn’t noticed, but Shot did indeed have an odd rhythm to his gait. She looked down to see the right back leg was losing a shoe. The noise of the scraping was noticeable to her only when pointed out, yet Silas had heard it two horses ahead—and above the din of the city noises.
He turned around and pointed to his right, down an alleyway between two tall buildings stained black with soot. From her angle, the opening didn’t seem wide enough for a man to walk down, let alone a horse. Silas dismounted and let out a good deal of the mule’s lead rope. He looked at Herc and Emma, jerked his head and disappeared down the alley. His horse went next. Though the mule bobbed his head and nickered in dislike, he followed as the rope was pulled taught.
Herc motioned for Emma to go next and waved her to pass. She led her horse into the opening. “Should I unhorse?” she asked Herc.
“No, I’d stay on,” he said. “I know this alley. Just keep your legs from gettin’ between the wall and your horse. It’s close quarters, for sure.”
She wondered how that was possible as she was sidesaddle. She held the reins with one hand and tucked her legs up a bit with the other. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but she wished they hadn’t. From the mouth of the alley all the way down to the high wooden fence at the end, there was a steadily increasing stream of refuse. Broken bottles, shreds of clothing, empty tin cans and lids. Half-burned logs were piled here and there. At the end, Silas stood on tiptoes, looking over a high fence. The alley was so dark, the afternoon sky above the fence line was blinding.
Emma’s horse did not care for the confines and he reared. Before she could react, Herc squeezed past, leaving his own horse behind, and calmed Shot quietly.
“What is this place?” Emma asked.
“This is where you go when you got nowhere else to go,” he said grimly. “Besides the poorhouse, that is. As I said, I know this place. Been holed up here once or twice.”
“Surely this isn’t where we are to make camp?” she asked.
Herc laughed. “No, Miss, though there’s far worse places to be. He’s just checking things out.”
Despite the lingering stench of urine, rotting garbage and charred wood, Emma’s stomach howled. Herc heard it, “Yes, Miss, I am truly starved myself. When was the last time you ate?”
“Early this morning—very early, I’m afraid.” She refrained from reminding him of the vomiting episode outside The Crawford, so there was no doubt nothing left in her stomach since then.
“You got the edge on me there,” he told her. “Mean ol’ ‘Stelle wouldn’t let me have a crumb before she’s pushing me out the doors.”
There was a silence of a few moments filled with the alternating stomach protests.
“What was it?” he asked.
“What was what?”
“What did you eat before you left?”
“Oh. Just a biscuit or two with some apple butter,” she said.
“Oh my. I love me some apple butter!” A beat more silence. “Was it store bought, or homemade?”
“Homemade—Estelle made it.”
“Oh my stars and garters, that woman can put up some good preserves. She’s a good cook, but our boy Silas ain’t too bad either.”
Emma, Herc, Silas and the horses waited in the alleyway until the area beyond the fence cleared out. Saturday’s work ended early on the levee and most of the men broke off like ghostly sleepwalkers. Some dragged their tired selves home to their families, while others embarked to the saloons, brothels and gaming houses they haunted nearby, coming alive soon enough when the liquor flowed into them.
One fellow couldn’t wait for the trip to the saloon as he glugged at a jug he tucked in a beached skiff at river’s edge. He sat and drank and drank, each swig hampered his aim to his mouth for the next drink.
The stench was overwhelming in the tight alley of despair. The malodorous assault was a melange of the mildew from damp, discarded clothing, the sour tang of their own perspiration, and the fact every animal on four legs had chosen those particular moments to defecate freely. Black fly and mosquito numbers multiplied with Biblical celerity. Though still early Spring, the Missouri afternoon sun had baked the surrounding brick walls and the effect was that of an oven, slowly cooking the contents within.
The river laborers divided and dispersed in the fading sunlight beyond. Still, their group waited for the besotted potential witness to finish his jug and go.
“Surely he can’t have much left,” Herc complained.
“It’s like some magic, bottomless bottle,” Silas said.
Herc wetted his lips. “Maybe you should sneak on out there and bust him on the head, Silas. I sure could use a nip from a magic jug.”
“I thought you were off the nectar,” Silas noted, not taking his eyes from the levee. He sighed, “Maybe he is drunk enough that he simply won’t notice us . . .”
The fumes were getting to Emma as she was feeling light-headed. “If he does not do something soon, I may just whack him one myself.”
“Oh, look at that,” Herc said, pointing to the fellow on the skiff. “He’s found his limit.”
The others looked out in time to see the man fall backwards into the boat. His legs pointed toward the sky, his feet twirled in a circle once and that was all.
Her horse drifted toward the fence, no doubt smelling the aroma of freedom beyond. He was soon nose-to-rear with the mule and stopped with nowhere else to go. Silas grabbed both sides of the fence at the end, rocked it back and forth gently, then lifted the whole section up.
“Stay here,” he said as he moved out to the space on the other side and replaced the fencing. He poked his head back over and declared, “I’ll be right back. This should only be a minute.”
From this vantage, Emma looked out over the fence to see Silas slowly making his way to the only two souls anywhere in sight along the levee. They were both black. Father and son, she thought.
The small boy sat on a log, braiding a large section of rope. His wide-brimmed straw hat fluttered in the breeze. The huge man standing beside him had short white hair. His back was as wide as a horse, his shirt stretched tight and soaked through with sweat. She saw the muscles strained beneath as he worked. Looking closer, she noticed the telltale cross-hatching of scars. Huge, long scars. Too many to count.
They were both facing the river. The entire area around them was strewn with hulking, rusted pieces of riverboat mechanics, a huge boiler cut in half here, some kind of winch there. It was a resting place for the broken gear-teeth and battered iron skeletons of the riverboat trade.
Neither one noticed Silas as he weaved around this menagerie of metal. He crouched as he walked, careful not to disturb the detritus and announce his approach. When Emma considered the size of the man he snuck up on, she worried for him when he got there. The boy looked up and was startled. He dropped his work and was poised to leap when Silas put out both hands, motioning for him to stay.
The man was untangling a cable from a hook. The cast iron piece was held easily in one hand while the other wrestled with the thick cord of metal. Emma knew she could not lift the hook with both hands, let alone one. She was worried Silas was going to try and attack this fellow. Surely one swing of his hook would do him in.
She held her breath and felt the urge to yell a warning to Silas.
Silas was right up behind the man when he pointed the first two fingers of his right hand into the lower back of the stranger.
The black goliath immediately dropped hook and cable and spun on Silas in a blur of hard muscle. A whole foot taller than Silas, he reached down, wrapped his arms around him and lifted him clear off the ground. The black man’s arms tightened like a snake around a rabbit. Emma saw Silas’ arms and legs flail helplessly.
What had he been thinking? Did he suppose he could have bested this behemoth with trickery?
Then a wave of deep laughter drifted to her ears in the hideaway. She wondered if this man delighted in Silas’ torture.
“Herc!” She pleaded, “Silas is in dire trouble! There’s a big black man breaking his spine! What should we do?”
Herc, was non-plussed. He made his way past the animals and looked over the fence.
“He’ll be fine, Miss. That’s our friend, Romeo Beck. I reckon we’re in good shape now.”