Smitty’s, 8:30 p.m.
Emma awoke to faint humming. A child was softly crooning some song. Before she could remember where she was, she was lifted by the realization she had not had “the dream” of her Uncle Theo while she slept.
She rose from the mists of slumber to find it had grown dark outside. A fine blaze was burning in the belly of the stove and the room was glowing a pale grey from starlight pouring in through the windows. She searched for Silas or Herc, but found instead the small child, Dee Dee, sitting on the floor beside her pallet. His thin, short shadow cast across her face.
He stopped the tune he was crooning. “I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”
“No. No, it is fine,” she said with sleep in her mouth. “Where is everyone?”
“They went off to get supplies. Daddy asked me to watch over you. I did not move. You sleep loud.”
Emma wondered what he meant. “You mean I talk in my sleep?” She was afraid she had the dreams and simply could not recall.
“You snore plenty. You sure are pretty.”
“Why, thank you Dee Dee,” she said, stretching. “You sure are handsome and diligent.”
“I know I’m not handsome, but that’s okay, I would not mind to be pretty like you,” he said. “I don’t know what that other word you said means.”
His comments confused her and she chose to change the subject. “How can the men get supplies at night? Surely the stores are closed . . .”
“Naw, Miss. All the stores know them. The men send word and the store owners come down and open up. Boats come and go all times of the day and river folk need things every time they stop. Daddy says money spends ‘round the clock.”
Emma found her satchel laying nearby and dragged it to her bed. She rummaged inside, past the change of clothes and the few items she could not leave behind, the tokens of her broken past. A silly, ragged doll, her father’s pipe. She found the brush and silver mirror, drew them out and laid them aside as she let her hair down.
“You have pretty hair. Your clothes are so pretty, too,” Dee Dee said.
Emma was uncomfortable with Dee Dee’s fixation on her. “Do you know when they are to return?”
“They only left but a little while ago and the chandlery is ’round the corner, so they be back soon. My momma always wore a skirt like that. She always dressed pretty like you too.”
“I am thirsty,” she said to change the subject yet again. “Is there still water in the pail?”
“Yes, Miss,” he said as he rose. “I get you some.”
“No, thank you. I will get it myself. I need to stretch.”
She walked over and dipped a cup. She faced the window and drank slowly. She prayed the men would return soon. She knew she was larger and stronger than the boy, but his preoccupation with herself and her clothes was troublesome.
“I wish I could wear pretty clothes,” Dee Dee confided.
Emma was startled by the phrase and dropped the cup. It rattled against her foot and she bent to pick it up. “Oh, I don’t understand how that happened.” The child’s odd statements were beginning to make her panic and wish even more that the boys were present.
She stood up and noticed Dee Dee had sat back down, picked up Emma’s mirror and was looking into it closely, inspecting his face in what light the stove and stars provided.
It was sad to her, though Dee Dee looked intently.
“Dee Dee, why would you say those things about my clothes and such?”
“What you mean, Miss?”
“Well, about wishing you could wear pretty things and you wished you were pretty. Little boys do not usually think on such things. They think about playing ball or toads, not dressing in girl’s clothes . . .”
“Oh, I shouldn’t of said nothin’. I was just talkin’.”
She went from fearing him to a concern for what he wanted to say. “Please, Dee Dee, you can tell me. I promise I will not tell another soul. What is it?”
“It’s just that being here, in this room, and seeing a pretty girl like you, all in fine things and such . . . it makes me wonder what my momma would do . . .”
“Do about what?”
“I shouldn’t say. I don’t want to get my daddy mad at me for tellin’ no one.”
“Telling what?” she asked, an alarm sounding in her mind. “Is he mistreating you?”
Several horrifying thoughts flashed in her mind.
“No Miss, not ever. My Daddy loves me somethin’ fierce. That’s why he don’t let me wear no clothes such as those and . . .”
Dee Dee arose and went to the landing. He looked carefully around. Satisfied with their privacy, he returned and said, “I’m really a girl. A girl like you, ‘cept not as pretty—or tall—or white, but I’m a girl alright.”
“Why would your father make you pretend to be a boy?” Emma asked, stunned.
“After momma passed, he started dressin’ me all boy-ish and such. Later, I asked him and he said the river ain’t no place for a girl. He said it weren’t safe. He said life here is too hard on women, but it was the only life he know’ed.”
Emma had no words, so she sat down, next to Dee Dee.
“Daddy, he’s just scared to lose me,” Dee Dee said, “He already lost momma and it would kill him quicker than a bolt of lightning if anything was to happen to me. I think I remind him of momma, too, and if I was dressed like a girl . . . I figured that out later, on my own. So when it bothers me to have to be a boy, I just remember that. And he’s right, too. This place is a whole lot harder on womenfolk. Just the way men treat ’em—us, I mean.”
Emma felt the remark in her still-swollen cheek. She reached for her brush and tried to brush Dee Dee’s tangled hair. In seconds, she knew her brush was not up to the task as the little girl’s hair was more coarse, but she kept brushing with one hand and smoothing with the other. It was not the result, but the action which mattered. She peeked around to see what had always been there: the beautifully full eyelashes, the soft curves of the face.
“You ain’t gonna tell my daddy, are you, Miss?”
“No, Dee Dee.”
They sat for a spell, Emma grooming and chatting softly with the newly unveiled riverside princess.
“It don’t look so bad to me, ” Dee Dee said.
“What doesn’t look bad?”
“My face. I don’t look at it like in this nice mirror, but when I do, I still don’t think I look too bad. I’m happy, in truth. I could’a been dead with my momma, so any way you look is good—as long as you alive.”
“Dee Dee, that is the only way to look at things sometimes.”
In a short while, Emma felt the pressing of her bladder. “Dee Dee, I have to use the privy. I will be right back.”
“You want I should come with you?”
“No, thank you. I shall be fine.”
“How’s about I light the lantern there and you can—”
“No, dear,” Emma assured her. “This starlight is bright enough to see every step of the way.”
She descended to the ground floor, the wooden steps complaining with every trod. Nearing the horses, she heard Shot sniffing the air for her. She reached over the fence and scratched his nose, and he nickered.
She went to the outhouse and held her breath as she entered. She did not know if the odor was powerful, but after the alleyway today, she had had enough of bad smells. She made her water, and as she was adjusting her skirt, she heard an odd shuffling beyond the door.
She thought it must be Dee Dee, but as she peered out through the uneven planks of the little house, she saw Dee Dee frozen in the dark doorway of the upper room. She looked nearby and spied a man creeping around the courtyard. Emma could not see what the intruder was doing as he had moved out to the right of her view. She thought it may not even be an intruder—it could be the men returning, but Dee Dee’s eyes were so wide with fright, Emma saw the whites of them from her hiding place.
Emma slowly opened the door and was relieved to hear no warnings from the old hinges. She slowly walked out, placed her finger to her lips in caution to the little girl above and looked over to find a man in suspenders and dark bowler untying the lot of the horses.
His odd build and hat were familiar to her, but still unclear from where. He began the difficult task of backing the horses out of their stalls but still keeping the reins together. She ducked back into the outhouse, her heart pounding to a fierce rhythm.
The man successfully turned them around to the open door of the foundry and led them toward it.
Emma shot out of the house, looked for a weapon of some kind, but only found one of the empty, overturned water buckets in the vacant stalls. She snatched it and ran between the horses. The man rounded cautiously at the noises, but before he turned completely, the bucket came slamming down on his head. He swooned a moment, his hat flattened nicely on his head. Emma labored to lift the bucket a second time and hit him again. This time he slumped to the ground face-down.
Dee Dee came hurrying down the steps. “You got him good, Miss Emma! Woo! I am proud to know you, Miss.”
Emma took two of the horse’s reins and led them back to the stalls. Upon returning for the second set, she whispered, “Can you tie him up? Tie him up good, I mean to say.”
“Why you whisperin’, Miss? This fellow ain’t waking up no time soon!”
“Dee Dee! Can you tie him up?”
“Miss, I was born with hemp rope in my hands!”
By the time the men had meandered on back to the hideout, Emma and Dee Dee had dragged the trussed man into the foundry.
The three fellows dropped packages and boxes in unison. The workspace was dim, but there was light enough to see the girls had collected a scoundrel.
“He was settin’ to steal the horses,” Dee Dee said, breathless. “Emma here done lowered his blinds with a bucket. Oh, my word, you all should’a seen it!”
Herc, leaned over the thief and inspected him. “Why, Emma, you done knocked his shoe clean off!”
That answered her wonder about the odd footfalls. “No, Herc. He came that way.”
Silas rolled the inert man onto his back and exclaimed. “It’s old Pie! He must have tracked us here and was set to steal our horses for whatever he thought we owed.”
“So that’s the price of a man’s pride these days? A horse or three?” Herc laughed. “I guess he never found the shoe he lost in the river, neither.”
Romeo rushed over to Dee Dee and knelt before her, inspecting her for injury. “Baby, you okay? You ain’t hurt, is you?” His voice rumbled with barely concealed fright and anger mixed in equal parts.
“I’m just fine, Daddy. Ain’t nothin’ bad gone happen to me when Miss Emma gets to swingin’ her bucket.”
Herc and Silas laughed as they gagged the would-be bandit with a handkerchief.
They decided to deal with his hapless person at a later time. As there were no jail cells or suitable stand-ins, Pie was hung up-side-down on a hook in a drafty corner for his troubles.
The supplies were taken up to the room and Romeo bade them good-bye for the night. “I be back early in the mornin’ before Smitty comes upriver.”
“We will be back tomorrow, Daddy,” Dee Dee said. She walked up to Emma and hugged her around the waist. “Thank you, Miss Emma. You sure took a load off my mind.”
The men looked fully confused, but said nothing.
“You are quite welcome, Dee Dee. We make a fine team, don’t we?”
“Yes, Miss, we surely do.”