The two men returned to the alley and the Romeo fellow easily swept away the fence section before them. One by one, the group filed out with their mounts, onto the river landing. Romeo replaced the fence and joined them.
He had slow southern accent and voice so deep, it vibrated in Emma’s bones. “You all follow me. We gonna put you up in the old building behind the forge.”
He stopped to squeeze Herc’s hand and Herc reached up to pat him firmly on the shoulder. They shared no other greeting, but lingered to take each other in head to toe, assessing the tolls time had taken since they last met. They smiled faintly, nodded, then separated.
Romeo swung past Emma and though he did not look her in the eyes, he nodded and gave her a brief but polite, “Miss.”
After a short walk past two vacant storefronts, they stopped before a low, wide building which resembled a barn with two wood doors suspended on metal tracks. The doors were whitewashed many times and the most recent coat was stained whitish-gray from the elements. The planks near the ground were warped from the intermittent flood levels of the Mississippi River.
A sign affixed above the door let all who cared know this was where one could locate “Smitty’s Boiler Works; Ship Repair and Salvage. StLo to Cairo.” It was newly painted and therefore skirmished with the ancient facade.
Romeo pushed aside one half of the door. The small boy from earlier appeared in the gap and pushed the other side. As they entered, Emma felt the heat radiating from the low brick walls of the few dying forge fires. They passed between them to the rear of the cluttered space. A door at the other end was swung out, opening onto a courtyard in the center of the surrounding buildings at back. The floor there was laid brick, sloping down to a large grate in the center.
Two horse stalls with shale shingled roofs were tucked along wall to the right. A small, tilting shack stood beside the stalls. An open flight of old swaying stairs was attached to the building to the left. It rose and switched back, giving access to the second floor, but the third floor had no visible means of outside entry.
Silas led the horses to the stalls and tethered them. Romeo slipped through an opening along the back wall and returned carrying a bail of hay over his head as if it were a sack of goose down. He dropped it outside the stalls. The animals smelled the dried grass and turned to look longingly, but Romeo did not feed them yet. The boy came from inside the shop carrying two heavy oak buckets full of sloshing water. The contents slapped the bricks as he toddled along and Emma wondered if any liquid would be left in them at all.
Herc relieved the mounts of their burdens. The bags were piled by the landing first, then the saddles were stacked in the doorway of a room loaded full with hay. He grabbed Emma’s satchel and brought it to her.
“Should I do something to help?” She asked.
“You know how to shoe?” Herc asked.
“Sorry, but I do not.”
“Well, then, why don’t you go on upstairs and ‘shoo’ the rats,” he said with a wink.
Silas was already prying the shoe from Shot’s hoof, yet her horse was not distracted in the least as he drank his fill from a bucket.
The boy went to the foot of the stairs and waved for Emma to follow him. He was an odd child. Near ten years old but short for his age—especially considering the father’s stature. Emma assumed he was the father but realized she had no indications to this point.
As they climbed, Emma felt the planks shift subtly under her weight. The boy placed his hand on the railing. Emma noticed he was missing the smallest two fingers on his left hand and there the skin was high pink. He reached the first landing and turned. His face visible in the better light on the landing, she noticed the skin around his right eye was a sharp pink hue extended in a half moon arc up into his brow.
He noticed her gawking, but smiled politely and led on. Emma felt embarrassed.
They moved past a few windows along the walkway. Though many of the panes were broken out, it was too dark inside to view. The boy stopped in front of the last door at the end, placed his hand on the knob and paused before turning.
He looked back at Emma. “Pa and I used to live here with Mama.”
Inside, Emma’s eyes adjusted to find spartan quarters indeed. The room was void of furnishings aside from a few empty fruit crates and a small, cold, wood-burning cookstove in the far corner nearest the river.
Two tall windows looked out across the Mississippi and to the shores of Illinois. Emma walked to one and looked out through the broken glass. She wondered if Ezra Bean was nearby. She placed her face in one of the open panes and searched the skies for his familiar silhouette, scanning the banks and tree line of East St. Louis for any movement.
“Miss,” the boy said haltingly. It was clear he was giving her instruction reluctantly, “Pa said we was to stay away from the windows. Sorry.”
“No, I am sorry,” Emma replied. “I was not thinking. We are wanted fugitives, after all. I was just wondering about the bird.”
“Oh, you ain’t got to worry about Ezra Bean; I seen him wingin’ across the water. He’s probably looking at us right now. You know I got to feed him a mouse once? It wasn’t no big mouse, so he took it from my hand and he flipped it up and swallowed it whole.”
Emma nodded and smiled. She did not know how to reply. She realized though she knew many negro people, she had never actually been alone with one before—child or otherwise. She looked around the rest of the room and found no sign this had once been a happy home, no curtains, no pictures on the wall, just dust bundles stirring with their movements.
She walked to one of the crates, tested it for strength and sat down placing her satchel on her lap, “So you used to live here?”
The boy opened the belly of the stove and peered inside. “Yes, Miss. I was real little, but I remember some things here.” He looked around, lost in thought. “I just wish I could remember what she looked like. I was five when she died.”
“Your mother? I am sorry, I shouldn’t have—”
“It’s okay, Miss,” he interrupted, “Pa don’t like to talk about it, but I think on it often. He don’t know, but when he goes with Smitty on the boat, I come up here and try to remember what she looked like. Sometimes I can almost . . . She died in the hemp factory. It was five years ago. She used to take me to work and sometimes I helped her make the ropes. I was pretty good, I think, but she was better. I used to her watch her hands. They moved so fast . . . maybe that’s why I can’t remember her face. I was too busy watching her hands.”
Emma did not interrupt, but looked on with patience.
“They was a fire in the factory, and ’cause these men used to come and try to stop the women and kids from working—they said we was bein’ worked unfairly—the boss locked the doors during the day with a big old chain. The day of the fire, nobody could get the chain off and the windows was too high.” He told this tale with a detached, faraway look. “Everybody was starting to fall over ’cause of the smoke and Mama tried to climb us up some boxes to a window. The boxes was on fire and we fell into them. I was burned pretty bad and Mama’s clothes was on fire. I don’t remember much after that, but they said I only made it out alive ’cause someone threw me up and out the window. They say they found me wrapped up real tight in this big long scarf Mama used to wear.”
He held up his hand and contemplated his missing fingers. “They said I should have been burnt up worse, but the scarf had protected me. It didn’t have a scorch nor a scratch and the only harm done to me was where my fingers was sticking out and my eye here was uncovered.” He pointed to his scarred face.
Emma, unable to think of anything to say, stayed silent.
He reached inside the stove, pulling out the charred, spent wood, talking as he worked. His maimed hand tossed aside the remnants of the last fire.
“I like to think it was my Mama’s fast hands what threw me,” he said. “Still, I wished I could have wrapped her up with me . . .”
The men came up and dropped their bags. Silas sensed the odd nature the scene and tried to break the sobriety. “I reckon we all could use some grub.”
Romeo entered and paused, looking from his boy to Emma. He, too, sensed there was some kind of exchange. “Dee Dee, you go on and run and get some wood for this here old stove.”
“Yessir,” he smiled, and ran off in a hurry.
“I’m sorry about the accommodations—” Romeo began.
Herc interrupted, “It ain’t like you could take us to the nearest hotel, and if we was at your place, too many eyes would spy us.”
For the first time, Romeo addressed Emma directly. “The, um . . . the privy is down next to the stalls.” He added shyly, “that old leaning box? It looks unsafe, but it is built like a brick sh—” he did not finish the description. “Miss, is there anything . . . special you all need?”
“Oh, no, thank you!” she replied. “You are already doing so much for us.”
“I’d be doin’ just about anything for these men,” he rumbled. “I reckon they see fit to help you, then you get my help too. I’m sorry you havin’ these troubles.”
“I . . . I thank you, sir.”
She wondered how much the boys had told him, which led to her wondering how much Estelle had told the boys, and then it just became too much to think on further. She was free from Theo’s clutches, and, for now, that was enough.
The boy struggled under the weight of an armload of wood.
Silas fed the belly of the stove and proceeded to fill the other bellies in the room. He retrieved a rolled up canvas satchel from his belongings. He used a hook on the center of the roll to hang it from the nearest window frame. Untying two leather straps, the roll unfurled revealing the handles of several long knives and wooden spoons. From the other satchels, Silas produced the famous skillet he had used to put down Uncle Theo. Beside that on the stove top he added two smaller pots.
“You mind gettin’ me some water?” Silas said to Dee Dee.
“Yessir-I mean, no Sir, I don’t mind.” But he did not rush off. Instead he lingered, his eyes wide as they could open. “What you gonna make, Uncle Silas? You gonna make them cakes?”
“I ain’t gonna make nothin’ if I ain’t got no water, am I Dee?” He winked.
“No sir, I mean, yessir!” and he was gone in a flash.
Emma tried to keep up with Silas, but he was a blur. He selected a fine, long blade with a beautiful black handle. A long wooden paddle came out next upon which a hunk of bacon was chopped. As he rendered in the skillet, the smoky, fatty smell made Emma’s stomach just about leap from inside her. Some kind of dried fruit was chopped and added to that. He spooned the mixture off onto the board.
The child came in once again sloshing water from another immense pail. Silas dipped a pot in and set it to boil. He dipped the other pot and rinsed his fingers and knife.
Romeo and Herc sat cross-legged on a blanket, leaning against the wall. Herc removed his hat, revealing a cone of sweaty hair rising atop his head.
“Romeo, you say Smitty’s due back tonight?” Silas asked while he worked.
“Yes, but he won’t be able to ship back out till we fresh his boat up.”
“You know, Silas,” Herc said as he produced a long, well-used Churchwarden pipe, “we would be already miles along if we done hopped a train hours ago.”
Silas was measuring some kind of yellow flour from a sack onto the board “With what? She ain’t got but ten dollars.” He paused to look at Emma. “Sorry. I don’t mean to speak as if you ain’t here, but . . . and I ain’t got but twenty. Now unless they started taking pure manly charm like yours as payment for train fare, we ain’t gonna get all the way on that. And are you gonna eat dirt? We need supplies even if we train out there. I ain’t eatin’ no whistle-stop food.”
Herc, having filled his pipe, groaned as he got to his feet, “We got enough to get pretty far from here, at least. I feel it should be enough to get to Houston. The longer we dally, the riper we become for pluckin’.”
He pried a splinter from a log next to the stove, nudged Silas out of the way and lit the end through a hole in the belly’s grate. “Once in Houston, she can get the remainder of our fee and we use that to get to Arizona.”
“You know how many telegraph offices we’ll pass in all them depots, Herc?” Silas asked.
As he made a dough in the center of the thin board, Emma was amazed at how he worked it without losing any off the sides.
“Near every one has telegraphs,” he continued. “They got our description out to every post from here to California, I’d wager. Every town we roll into on the Northern or Southern lines would be looking for a devilish handsome fellow, a broke-down crusty one, and beautiful young lady traveling alone. And what are we to do with our horses? That would surely be a high penny—if they even had horseboxes.”
“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, partner. You ain’t all that crusty,” Herc said as he plopped back down against the wall.
Emma thought she heard mention of a beautiful lady but did not investigate the subject of the compliment, for she was too focused on the prospect of food.
He wiped out his skillet and scooped some white fat from a tin can. She wondered how he stowed so many supplies in such compactness. As the fat melted, he formed small dough balls. He lined them up on the board.
“So you want us to go south on Smitty’s boat to Cairo?” Herc puffed away. “Smitty ain’t going no further than that, I assure you.”
Silas placed the dough balls in the skillet. The magic mounds sizzled. “I reckon he could be talked into going a bit further if the price was right.”
“There you go, spending good money on a boat ride southward when we could be shooting through the plains to the west,” Herc complained.
“I know it ain’t got nothin’ to do with me,” Romeo broke in, “but you all’s sure to get nabbed if you all take one of them trains. I’m just sayin’, they are high profile for sure.”
“In deference to your hospitality, Romeo,” Herc said. “I am keepin’ my mouth cinched on that comment.”
Romeo smiled, “I appreciate that, Herc. For you to button up, it must be some good amount of respect.”
Silas passed around the meal on the long board. The flat dough balls had transformed into light, puffy breads.
He started at Dee Dee and Emma, “You all let them cool off a little. Eat up, ’cause I got more comin’.”
There was a hint of pride in his words. He went on to Herc and Romeo, but his gaze lingered on Emma.
Herc took three and cradled them carefully, “What? No butter?”
“The cow was out of milk,” Silas replied.
Though still too hot to eat, Emma tore into hers. At first she was swallowing without chewing, but soon, the flavors came to her…was it strawberries? She never imagined putting strawberries with bacon, yet from then on, she could not picture one without the other.
She looked at him with wide eyes and full mouth.
She nodded and Silas grinned. She liked his smile and his cooking.
The biscuits were gone when Silas held up a pot with tin cups and announced, “Coffee on the veranda.”