Chapter Fourteen

 

 Smitty’s

Sunday, 7:40 a.m.

Emma awoke disoriented, in a high state of nausea. The brash glare of morning light bullied her vision. She took little notice of the room or it’s occupancy as she bolted out the open door onto the balcony. A surge of bile rose involuntarily upward into her mouth. She gripped the rail and leaned out, prepared to vomit.

From below came Herc’s greeting, “Mornin’, Miss Em!”

She blinked tears away to see Herc, his face upturned and smiling. He waved.

Not wanting to shower her companion below with whatever may still be in her stomach, she pulled herself, hand over hand, to the eastern side of the balcony. She glanced over and found no victims save a small pile of wood in a stack.

The retching commenced in spectacular and dramatic fashion, however, the output was a dry disappointment. Emma had only taken but a sip of Herc’s wine last night. It was an unpalatable fermentation and, to Emma, it had a kerosene flavor. She wondered if she had been drunk. The symptoms of the morning were similar to those her Uncle Theo had exhibited after a night of much too much whiskey.

She straightened weakly to upright and turned to find Ezra Bean perched on the railing a mere two rods away. Aside from his swooping on her yesterday, she had never been this close to a bird of prey, and though he was a friend to her companions, she was still quite frightened.

Ezra Bean cocked his head to the left and the right. She felt he stared right into the heart of her. He hooted softly and ruffled out his breast feathers then smoothed them back down. The opaque nictating eyelids swept from the inside corners of his huge eyes outward and then back again. His outer eyelids closed then raised halfway in a drowzy-looking gaze.

She was loath to move. Partially due to fear, but also because she was so taken by the beauty of this animal. She was afraid if she stirred, Ezra Bean may fly off and she may never again get the chance to behold him this closely.

Ezra Bean released her by turning his head full around and lifting one of his down-covered legs up into his belly.

Below, tending to the horses, Silas and Herc exchanged quizzical glances.

Silas bent down, lifted the back foot of Emma’s horse, Shot, and asked Herc, “You don’t think she got a sour stomach from my biscuits yesterday, do you?”

Herc smiled. “Don’t you all think you or me or Dee Dee or Romeo would’a fallen ill too? No, my friend, I am formulating the opinion Miss Emma may need some time to gain the constitution required for life on the trail. You need to remember she is but a young woman used to a soft and safe cradle. Here she is leaving home and hearth and mother all in one big gulp. She is more than a little nervous yet. Don’t you go gettin’ your feelin’s bruised. You are a formidable gourmet and I am sure she was duly impressed.”

Silas waved him off in frustration, but stole another glance up at Emma as she shuffled back inside.

Dee Dee came bouncing along and Herc sent her upstairs to check on Emma.

“Morning, Miss Emma!” Dee Dee said with true open-hearted regard, “Uncle Silas asked me to point out the coffee’s still warm and they’s some bacon and biscuits up on the sill. Can I help you pack?”

“No, little dear. Truth be told, I believe it may not take but a moment as I have not much to my person.”

Emma realized that since her purge, the mention of the bacon and such created a unusual and strong greed in her belly. She tried not to frighten the child as she devoured the tepid breakfast like a wild animal.

Romeo called to his daughter from the courtyard below, “Dee Dee, get on down here and help me with this woodload!”

“Daddy don’t really need no help. He just can’t stand having me outta his sight for too long,” she confessed. This reminded Emma of the nature of Ezra Bean with the boys. Ezra Bean flustered if his charges were not within eyeshot too. Dee Dee added, “He asked me all kinda questions about you last night, but I didn’t tell him nothin’ about what we said.”

In deep delight of secret-sharing, she winked her scarred eye at Emma long and hard.

“I see y’all downstairs,” Dee Dee said, already out the door, “Y’all call me if you need anything!”

Emma stripped bare and first donned the underclothes the boys had purchased.

The long Union Suit itched like nettles and instantly she broke out into a widespread sweat. She was used to layers of clothing, but to her, this was akin to rolling in molasses and then feathers. Next, she slipped on the pants which were so stiff it felt they may cut right through the underclothes. She had never worn pants and though the idea was scandalous, the true experience was irritating—literally—as she felt the inseams clutch her thighs. The shirt was a fine and loose-fitting one. She had worried about her bosom being conspicuous when in disguise (though she was aware they were not yet too pronounced) but the spaciousness left it a moot point.

Wool socks even coarser than the underclothes were slipped on next. Oddly, these were quite comfortable and even airy. The new boots looked as if they had been cobbled from a petrified cowhide, with the dullest sheen and they bent only under considerable coercion. When she managed to force them over the socks, though, they fit snugly, but not too tight. Having never worn trousers with her footwear, she was unsure as to whether the pant legs should be sported inside or outside her boots. Silas and Herc went untucked and so did she.

Emma did not try on the coat, for she felt as if she was standing inside a steamboat boiler. At that thought, she heard a whistle from a boat directly outside on the levee. Being Sunday, there was little to none of the usual cacophony and this lone whistle stood out like a fart in church-service.

At the window, she gazed out and saw how low on the horizon the sun had risen and realized it must yet be very early.

Out on the edge of the riverbank, an odd-looking steamer pushed her bow onto the sandy landing. It looked similar to any one of a thousand other sternwheelers, with the modest, two story decks on the rear half of the boat, topped off by the pilot house.

The middle section was bereft of cargo, but the thing that set it apart was an imposing, immense crane dominating the entire front section of the foredeck. She wondered why the entire ship didn’t tip forward under the weight of the great iron frame and huge hook.

The ship had been painted with the standard whitewash, but the plank sidings were chipping and peeling in small patches here and there. Her eyes drifted to the sign hanging below the pilot house which read, “Lulabelle, Salvage/Snag, St. Lo, Mo., F. Smith, Cap’n.”

Romeo, Silas and Dee Dee went out to meet the ship. Two young black men on deck commenced to throwing out lines to the greeting party. Silas and the others tugged hard on the ropes, walking the boat toward shore. They wound them around huge iron lanyards set in immense cement blocks sunken into the levee.

Though clearly trying her hardest, Dee Dee was pulled forward, as her strength and weight were not ample to the pulling of the drifting boat. Her father came over and finished her valiant efforts.

Soon a host of other men were milling about the cabins and the deck. There were a dozen or so all told, mostly black men with a few whites burned to a near brown from the sun on the open waters. The two men Emma had initially seen with the ropes were clean-shaven, and were wearing light colored shirts with brown pants rolled up to the ankles above bare feet. The other men were hairy, dirty and naked except for their trousers, which looked to fall off if there was a malfunction of the ropes holding them up.

The gangway was lowered and Silas received it, swinging his end down onto the sunbaked levee. A tremendously round man in black trousers and jacket with a white shirt emerged from the rear cabins and strode imperially toward the fore of the craft. To Emma, he resembled a cannonball toddling along on a pair of twigs.

He carefully waddled down the plank where Romeo, Silas and Herc converged on him. There was a good amount of gesticulating, with the captain pointing far downriver and shaking his head in a negative fashion.

Silas pointed back toward the compound and up at Emma. The fat man removed his hat, shaded his eyes with his hand and looked up toward her perch. She ducked back into the shadows of the room, still able to see the events riverside.

The fat man finally nodded. A slap on the back, a wild handshake and the crowd dispersed to unknown chores in preparation for the voyage.

From her high vantage, Emma absently stared out into the morning firmament. Banks of clouds stretched out across the pale blue horizon. They rose uniformly in long tufts trailing high billowing fronts, an ethereal armada with sails full as the wind swept them across the ocean of American sky. She had never seen a sky so beautiful, but she noted she had only lately felt reason to look up.

She returned to her packing, as it was. She removed the mirror from the satchel and looked at her reflection with a gasp. Her long tresses had normally left her a fright to witness in the morning, but this short cut was a terror. Tufts and spikes were arranged in a chaotic mess from the night’s slumber. She lifted the heavy Stetson onto her head and looked again. She realized the reason behind man’s proclivity toward headwear, for not one stray golden straw was visible. In fact, she was pleased with her authentic cowboy look.

Emma emptied the other items from the satchel and placed her extra change of menswear, neatly folded, inside. To her, the array of memorabilia felt like antiques from another person’s life, though she had treasured them so just yesterday. The mirror and comb were frivolous and indulgent, the rag doll ridiculous and the pipe was painful to gaze upon. She collected the wardrobe of her previous days, folded them neatly and placed mirror, comb and doll carefully inside the bundle.

The pipe felt good curled in her hand, reminding her of the nights she filled it for her father. She tucked it down beneath her new gear in the satchel. She could not give it up yet.

Soon her dress and other items were bound in the leftover paper wrappings of the shopping expedition and her bedroll was secured across her bag with leather strapping. She took a last look around the room. Though she had only spent one night there, it had been a temporary home, or at least a pivotal station on the line of life.

She joined the bustle downstairs.

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