Chapter Eighteen

 

Smitty’s, 9:53 a.m.

 

There was little other commotion on the levee that day. Two different boats were docked about a quarter mile down. One was loading bales and another was disembarking a slew of passengers in high fashion. Those travelers scurried and scattered off like ants into the colony. The north end of the banks was deserted, save the group near the Lula Belle as they prepared to launch.

Romeo was better than his word. The boat was ready in a half hour, despite his warning to Captain Smitty that the starboard boiler was soon going to need to be re-plated and the Steamboat Inspector was due this week.

“Aye, but I canna afford the time involved presently, lad,” Smitty said tersely as he waddled up the gangway. “We’ll be able to build a whole new boiler when I return with this load. You can tell the inspector the Lula Belle will be docked for him by the end ‘a next week.”

Silas led the pack mule through the cluttered scrap yard, the sun kindling to the hot day ahead. “Smitty’s stubborn as ever, Romeo. Now do you wish you had come to work the Hotel when they was hiring?”

“No sir, I believe I fared much better than in that fancy emporium. ‘Sides, they wouldn’t be nobody to look after Dee Dee.”

Silas placed his hand on his friend’s immense shoulder. “You know one day she’s gonna be big enough to be left alone, right?”

“Yessir, but till that day come, I got the one eye on her and the other on Smitty.”

“Ain’t that right? You gotta be glad old Herc is traveling off, otherwise you’d have to grow a third eye.”

“Nope, that rascal’s under your watch and you did good by him so far. Listen to me: Smitty gonna push Lula Belle real hard—too hard—tryin’ to get down to that salvage. See if y’all can’t talk some sense into him and tell him to take it easy on her.”

Silas coaxed the mule up onto the walkway. “Will do, Rome. I want to get far from here too, but I would like to get there healthy and dry.”

Romeo looked at Silas with concern. “Seriously, she ain’t the flower of spring she used to be.”

“Ain’t none of us are, Romeo.”

“Truer than you know.”

The mule trod nervously onto the boards with his front legs, but when the boat moved, so did the planking, and the animal froze. A gentle wake had shifted the position of the Lula Belle only a few inches to the right, but it was enough to rattle the stubborn landlubber. Soon his legs front and back had split in an awkward stretch. Silas pinched the mule’s ass which made it board the boat in a hurry.

The other horses were led aboard with no further drama. They were corralled up front near the huge crane. The sparse shadows of the machinery would provide little relief when the sun come on full, but it was better than the open deck. Silas gave out a generous hobble line, tying their legs with enough slack they could shift weight naturally, but not wander about freely.

Herc, Dee Dee and Emma came down together to the river’s edge. They carried their own personal gear and Dee Dee had a bundle of cloth under her arm.

Herc bent down and gave Dee Dee a good-sized bear hug making her smile with a tear in her eye. “Dee, you go and find Estelle in the next day or two and tell her we finally embarked, alright? And tell her I’m gonna wire her from Houston when we arrive.”

“Yessir,” she said, after he released her and she caught her breath.

He moved on to Romeo and shook his hand. No words passed—none were needed between friends as old as this—just smiles and nods. He climbed the plank with more caution than was needed. “I know we ain’t ocean bound, but I still feel them sways and dips even on this flatboat. Gettin’ old. I must have lost my river blood.”

Emma stood alone with Dee Dee and eyed the ragged men who worked aboard.

Dee Dee recognized the worry on her brow and took her hand. “I know they’s a lot of worry comin’ your way, but them men is housebroken for the most part. Only one or two you gotta look out for, but they gonna be so busy under Smitty’s whip, they ain’t gonna have time to suspect you out.”

Emma stared at her a minute, and then said with concern lacing her voice, “You’re too young to know the ways of these men, Dee Dee. I’m sorry you do.”

With a wrinkled brow, Dee Dee ignored her own concerns and returned to Emma’s. “You got your boys keepin’ close tabs on you. You have trouble, you get them, or get them other two boys my Poppa is friends with.”

She craned her neck to find them among the swarm of men. She whistled high and strong through her teeth and two men turned to look.

The two crew members hailed Dee Dee and she waved back. “Them’s the twins,” she told Emma. “They come up with Poppa after the war. They was slaves. The skinny one is called ‘Reverend’ and the other one goes by ‘Sharp.’ Don’t play cards with Sharp or pray with Reverend. The one cheats and the other will not shut up once he starts in about the Lord.”

Emma looked aboard. She was unable to tell them apartas they were both equally dark-skinned and exactly alike down to the sharp part in their short black hair. “I shall avoid both activities among them, and I thank you heartily for your wisdom.”

“They good boys, though.”

“That is a fine reference.”

“Now that fellow there, the one with the ate-up hat?”

Emma looked and finally found the man—at least it had to be him, for he had a ridiculously tall ten gallon hat full of holes with a floppy, torn, soiled brim hanging limply over his face.

“Yes, what about this man?”

“He’s a little ‘touched.’ He got some devil in him. He only just started workin’ for Smitty and been startin’ fights and trouble every time they stop somewhere. Smitty won’t let him off the boat no more except here in St. Louis. He woulda been fired, but for his momma, who Smitty has a thing for. He’s the bad apple you need to stay clear of, you hear?”

“Loudly and clearly.”

Emma knelt in front of Dee Dee and presented the brown package containing her dress, the doll, and the mirror and comb with a few other belongings. “I want you to have these. They will be of more use to you than me in the next few years. Just hold onto them. You’ll know when it’s time to use them.”

Tears once again glistened in her eyes. “Oh! Thank you, Miss Emma! Ain’t nobody ever gave me nothin’ like this before—except Poppa, when birthday and Christmas come around—and then, it’s usually somethin’ for cleanin’ or workin’.”

“I hope it will come in handy,” she said, pressing it firmly into the child’s arms.

“I brought you somethin’ too.” The young girl handed over the cloth she was carrying. “It belonged to my Momma. It was the scarf she bundled me in when she saved me. It got burned some ’round the edge, but I done wore that off.”

Romeo stood a short distance away. He had a look of concern, but did not interrupt the exchange.

“Dee Dee, I cannot take this! This is too sacred a thing to—”

“You gonna need it more than me—just like what you done said about my present here. It gets real cold at night on the boat. Early mornings and late nights, the wind sometime blows right down the river and straight through your bones. I know ’cause Poppa took me once down to Cairo. Ooooh, was I chilled. The whole time I shivered and dreamed of this wrap.”

“But we have bought blankets and—”

“Sometimes a blanket won’t do. You use it as a scarf or bandana,” she said as she took it back from Emma to unfurl it and wrap it around Emma’s neck. “Can you please just take it?”

It was of a cotton weave so fine, it felt like silk. Short, knotted tassles dangled from the ends. These twists were irregular lengths from years of warming little Dee Dee and the meticulous mending. She kept her mother’s memory threaded in her heart by keeping the scarf from unwinding.

“There,” Dee Dee smiled, “let’s just call it a loan. You can give it back to me when we meet again.” The child looked dreamy as she stared at it, stroking it absently.

The thought of her generosity and warmth brought tears to Emma. “Oh, Dee Dee, of course we will meet again! I will take good care of this and have it back to you in no time, but all the while, I will know it is not simply this cloth keeping me warm but also the memory of you, my friend.”

“That’s exactly what I always thought when I wore it—I knew it was my Momma’s arms wrapped around me keepin’ me safe again!”

It was too much for Emma. She hugged the little girl so hard and long, Dee Dee finally whispered, “Air. I need to breathe, you know.”

Emma climbed aboard. Tears were wiped away, the plank was lifted, the engine fired and soon they were backing away from the sandy shore of St. Louis. Turning out into flow of the river, the Lula Belle whistled a long, mournful farewell and paddled off down the Mississippi.

Ezra Bean gave an odd, haunting screech and swooped from the shadows of the buildings above the levee. His wings beat furiously as he climbed up and out over the water. He swung a wide circle over the Lula Belle, and finally alit onto the pilot house. His feathers ruffled as he hopped down to the slanted roof just below the pilot’s window. He ducked back into a recess, finding his new nest.

“Bye, bye, Ezra Bean!” Dee Dee yelled as she waved. She looked up at her father and saw he was not waving. A sharp nudge to his thigh and he was waving as well, though not as enthusiastically.

Dee Dee and her father stood and watched until the boat was but a speck of white drifting away on the brown water.

She sat right down, cross-legged there on the levee and opened up Emma’s present. She carefully went through the contents, finally coming to the silver plated mirror. She held it up and inspected herself.

Her father stood and watched for some time, finally saying, “You know them clothes ain’t gonna fit you. Besides—”

“I know all about besides, Poppa. They too big now, but one day I’m gonna be big and a woman like Emma and now I got some finery to look forward to.”

“I done the best I could for you, baby. I just did what I thought was best . . .” He trailed off and looked again downriver.

Dee Dee quickly and carefully rewrapped her treasures, sprung to her feet and hugged her father about the waist. Her fingers could almost touch. “Poppa, you done better than the best you could. Don’t think for a minute I ain’t grateful.”

He chuckled and put his hand on her head. They stood in silence for a moment.

“Poppa, I want to go to service today.”

“We never go to service, baby.”

She looked up and held his gaze, chin on his hip. “I know. I always figured the Lord hears me wherever I pray to him. I pray a lot and I never felt need to be inside a brick box to do so. But, I want to make sure he hears me. I want to make sure he hears me loud and clear ’cause I’m gonna pray for Emma and Herc and Silas. They’s gonna need a whole mess of praying and looking over.”

“You right about that, sweet pea. Let me close shop and we go on home to get cleaned up.”

They strolled through the scrapyard among the skeletons and parts of the long-dead riverboats and closed the doors of Smitty’s Boiler Works, Ship Repair and Salvage.

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