Antire Road, West St. Louis
Shot’s keen aversion to being fired upon gave the impression he had sprouted wings as he tore away from Emma Colson’s past. At first, St. Louis on the horizon could not come fast enough, but she was surprised to find sadness swirling about her as she watched her home shrink away.
It had not always been so bad there. Her father had passed beyond the veil one and a half years ago. He had died saving a neighbor child trapped in a house fire.
Emma’s father had raced in, found and covered the infant’s head with his own shirt, and rushed back through the conflagration of crumbling walls and fiery timbers. Once he crossed the threshold of the collapsing home, his hair singed to the scalp and his skin beginning to blister, he delivered the child into the arms of his mother, the widow Estelle Rowland. He let out his final smoke-filled breath and fell dead on the spot.
In her mind, he was a hero—but a failed one, for he left the family to fall in the clutches of his brother, Theo, a twisted, sickening shadow of the great man her father had been. It was as if her father and Theo had shared the one mother, but had Gabriel and Lucifer as their respective sires.
Emma’s mother, Elizabeth, did everything in her power to keep the family together, but it weakened her. Due to the family’s good fortunes, the bills were mostly paid, but being a widow raising two children was a crushing weight. She also succumbed to the voices of civilized society that whispered a woman with two young daughters simply had to have a husband.
Eight months after her husband’s death, Theo eagerly came to her door and she was too tired to go out and find a better man, so she yielded to his incessant pesterings and promises of a blissful marriage. Emma’s idyllic life spiraled even more out of control. Her mother grew introverted and melancholy, all but disappearing into her bedroom for days. Sadness gripped Elizabeth firmly, squeezing tighter over time.
Emma was grateful for the help of Estelle, the neighbor woman whose child her father had saved. Estelle tried to serve as Louisa and Emma’s mother figure, helping with housework and cooking when she could, but both knew it only illuminated the truth: her mother Elizabeth was a sad shadow of her former self. Without the loving care or attention of their mother, Emma’s younger sister Louisa ran amok and became a hell child.
Her Uncle Theo was in the new moon euphoria of his freshly acquired family and took little notice of the waning of his wife. When Elizabeth became but a ghost, he showered Emma with the attentions and intimate lightness a man should only reserve for his spouse. Not having much experience in the manner of men or boys, Emma did not at first recognize what his behavior forecast, but each close brush of his hand across her forehead, every furtive glance and earnest whisper, brought her nerves to a jangle.
Soon he began more unwelcome and lustful advances.
Torturous months passed with the vile nature of her uncle growing as an infection on her life. He pressed on, both physically and emotionally until she knew the only way to survive was to cut herself out.
When she came to that decision, she could not imagine herself feeling lower. She realized she was leaving her sister and mother to the whims of an ogre. She reminded herself that Theo had only obsessed over her and ignored them completely. Though Emma would love her mother forever, the woman’s mind was gone with no return on the horizon and for now, Louisa was too young for his attentions. Louisa had Estelle to clothe and feed her, but now that Theo’s nature was revealed, the older woman could provide the protection Emma could not find.
Emma and Shot rounded a corner and were confronted with Estelle’s house on the roadside, the home where her father died. She could not look upon it. Although it had been rebuilt, Emma always saw it engulfed in flames, smoke billowing thick and high into the Missouri sky, her father dead in the scorched grass nearby, looking as if he were boiled alive.
She raced past, finding relief in thinking she would never have to look upon that house again.
Dashing through the farm land, young cotton and corn leaves reached up from the spring soil, conjuring a syncopated symphony in her periphery, a misty blur of black earth and rows of bright jade.
Antire Road changed the closer she came to town. Homes of brick and mortar loomed nearer each other and the road. She did not take much note, for she was busy helping Shot steer his way past the increased population, who rose like weeds in their path. She tossed anxious glances behind her, for she was terrified Theo might be swallowing up the distance and bearing down upon her any second.
No hell rider in pursuit yet, only the lazy meanderings of those she had passed and the dusty haze of an awakening thoroughfare.
The biting cool wind carried more dust as the traffic increased. She could barely see as she passed the infamous St. Louis Insane Asylum. The distinct cast iron dome rose above a light fog and stood shining against the pale blue sky. Visible throughout the entire city, it served as a steadfast landmark to most and as a subtle warning to a few.
As a ritual, her father would tease Emma as they clopped lazily past the asylum, “You ain’t careful, Biscuit, we’re gonna have to put you in there with all the other squirrelly people.”
She spoke to herself as she passed the asylum for what she hoped was the last time, “Well, Poppa, if I get myself caught, Uncle Theo just may have me locked up there.”
Soon a great green expanse of woods and lush lawn unfurled to her left as she came upon Tower Grove Park. The sour-sweet aroma of the flowering dogwoods reached her. A gentle wind plucked the white and red petals from the branches. They swirled in a tight knot above the road, like a small pink cloud. The breeze flung them to the street where they twirled and danced on the ground, laying a small blanket over which she crossed. Such beauty finding her in that troubled moment surprised her.
Farther down, at the park’s side entrance, a thick of people had formed around a horse cab that had lost a wheel. As Emma passed the scene, all present stopped and noticed her. It made her uneasy, for whether they truly took note of her or not, she feared it was more breadcrumbs for Theo.
She cleared the mess and quickened her pace.
The feeling of being watched or tracked was heightened by the who-who-ing of an owl somewhere inside the park woods. It was odd to hear the call of the night predator in the morning hours. It struck an ominous tone in her journey.
No matter, she thought, pushing the growing bulk of fear aside. I shall be at the hotel soon. I will meet my guides and we will begin our journey at once.
As a nervous precaution, Emma bade Shot down a side street. She took the small detour a few blocks out of the way in order her trail might be harder to follow. It was wholly instinctive, yet eased her mind.
Moments later, Emma turned north onto the street where The Hotel Crawford was located. Intent on making her meeting, she picked her way past the lazy confluence of pedestrians and horse-trams, all busy in their own workaday.
Her neighbor Estelle had promised she’d be waiting with her travel guides, but Emma’s heart grew heavy as she peered ahead to the sidewalk in front of the hotel and found no sign of her friend.
Estelle had known the full extent of Emma’s peril and desire to flee. She was the co-architect of the escape. Emma’s father had been savior to Estelle’s child, therefore Estelle saw to it Emma was looked out for as best she could.
Estelle worked in the hotel, as did the mystery pathfinders, whom she whole-heartedly vouched for. One fellow was a cook and the other did some work Estelle never described clearly—somewhere between maintenance worker and house detective. Still, the fact remained, none of the three were present. Was her escape to be trampled in the cobblestone streets before it even began?
She wondered how she might fare if she set out to Arizona on her own. Could she find the way? Would she be beset by robbers, Indians, or the elements? How far might she get, if she even knew which direction to point herself?
Some fellow far down the block bellowed and Emma panicked. She looked to find not her Uncle Theo in hot pursuit, but a gentleman who had escaped being struck while crossing the thoroughfare. He gesticulated wildly as he dusted himself, but was merely given a conciliatory wave from the driver of a flatbed wagon.
She stared at the entrance of the Crawford, locked in indecision and doubt, when the worried, worn face of Estelle emerged through the hotel doors. She wore her pale blue maid uniform streaked about the hem with soot, but to Emma she was a queen in royal regalia.
Emma rose high in her saddle and waved eagerly.
The harried older woman brightened when she spotted Emma in the crowd, but consternation furrowed her brow as she reached back inside through the gleaming brass and glass doors to tug a sorrowful excuse of a man out onto the street.
The man was short and thick, haggard and freshly awakened. He placed a battered hat with a wide, sagging brim upon his wayward mane of grey and brown hair. His jacket was threadbare and a size too small. For trousers, he went in the opposite direction, for they were laughably baggy.
As shabby as his overall attire was, his tall black leather boots were pristine, with a shine so high, morning sunbeams bounced off in all directions.
Considering the attire as a whole, Emma wondered if this man was actually a vagrant who had wandered unwelcome into the hotel and stolen a pair of boots set out to be polished.
Surely Estelle had been tasked with showing this thieving tramp outside. This could not be her guide . . . could it?
Emma was dismayed to see Estelle speaking to him and pointing toward her.
From a distance, his age appeared advanced due to the slight hunch of his torso, his tiny limp and the full, grey beard of steel wool flowing down to his collarbone. This was a misjudgment, however, for as she coaxed Shot closer to the pair, his bright brown eyes proved he was actually a mid-aged man who had been compressed by life. She watched him gesticulate wildly, noticing his ill-fitting coat being stretched to the seams’ limits.
An anvil with a coat stretched over, she thought.
He had no burning interest in Emma, or Estelle’s attempts to point her out. Drawing within earshot, Emma was able to snag some of the conversation.
He spoke, but the message was less from a full grown man and more like a high-pitched temper tantrum of a child. “I ain’t ready to go, ‘Stelle!” He stiffened. “I have not had my breakfast and I am still pocket-poor. The Baron owes me twenty dollars from our game last night, and I’ll be dipped in vinegar before I go off without my winnings.”
From the look of him, Emma assumed he could not get more sour—even with the vinegar, though she had no idea what on earth that actually meant.
Estelle wheeled him around by his shoulders to face Emma. It was a heavy task indeed.
Estelle hissed sharply, “Shush, now. You need to meet your charge, Emma. She’s been waiting for what I’m sure is too long already!”
“Don’t you get all wifey, ‘Stelle,” he said, not focusing on Emma. “You are not my spouse. Until such a time, you reap none of the hen-pecking rewards associated with the institution of matrimony.”
Emma noticed a flush grow beneath Estelle’s pale, lined face as she reached up to tuck a few tufts of hair beneath the man’s hat. Estelle had been a widow for many years, her husband having died in the War, but Emma never pictured her dear old friend as looking for a replacement—especially this muskrat of a man in shiny boots.
“Don’t let’s get started on that when you have a whole other thing to start on right here,” Estelle replied, brushing off his hopelessly soiled lapels. “I’ll get your money from the Baron, but if he says you cheated him like last time—”
“Why do you insist on calling it cheating?” he said, stomping up and down in another fit. “It’s cheating if there’s only the one person doing it! I told you I saw him slip a card from his sleeve first! I only did the same so as to level the playing field. Don’t you go sayin’ I was the cheater. I was justified and I won’t be discussing this again.” He folded his arms and turned away petulantly, an injured heart. “Besides, how you gonna get me the money if we’re away in the manger out West, babysittin’ some spoiled— “
Estelle’s gentle brushing on the back of his jacket became a sharp smack.
“Ow-wee. Why’d you go and . . .”
Estelle turned him round once more and nodded up to Emma.
“Oh,” he stammered. “I am truly sorry, Miss.” He removed his tired hat with a flourish and bent into a deep bow. He swept his arm across his big belly.
This was too great a shift in his cargo, for he listed forward. Emma wondered if the man were drunk. Estelle, quick and strong despite her years, got herself under him enough to keep him from capsizing.
He swatted away her aid, addressing the young rider once more. “I suppose introductions are in order and, seeing as how the Lady Estelle is so unmannered . . . I am Hercules Bennet, Esquire.”
He approached Emma, wiped his palm across his trousers and extended his hand to her. She took it and shook it, feeling at first a near bone-grinding squeeze that lessened as Herc adjusted his strength. She waited for Hercules to glance at Estelle before she wagged her pain away.
“It is nice to meet you, Mister Bennet—”
“Now please, call me ‘Herc’,” he said with a smile. “It is only polite since we are to spend so many miles together.”
His eyes twinkled and shone, and his wide smile was warm and disarming despite his missing a few key teeth. It was all Emma could do to not stare at the one gleaming gold crown on an upper tooth. By the way he cleared his lips of it and pointed it directly at her, she got the impression it was a treasure the man was greatly proud of.
Nothing was said for a moment. Emma only glanced at him briefly and then surveyed the neighborhood awkwardly. Herc fidgeted with his hat, placed it on his head and absently cleared his throat.
It fell on Estelle to break the silence and bring them to the topic at hand. “So, Emma, dear, have you wired ahead to let your grandfather know you’re coming to Arizona to live with him?”
“Well, actually . . .” Emma said, unable to look at Estelle, instead keeping her gaze toward the street behind her.
The older woman’s harsh tone snagged her full attention. “Emma! How in the world is that a proper way to treat your own grandfather? If he is to prepare for you, he needs to know you are coming. For heaven’s sake, girl! Surely you told him of what you were enduring here?”
A horrified glance from Emma set Estelle on the defensive.
Herc looked questioningly from one to the other. He was not being told some nugget of information, but it wouldn’t be the first time women were a secretive lot to him.
Emma said, eyes intent on Estelle, “It is more important I begin the journey. I will notify Grandfather when a better time presents itself. As you mentioned, I need to be on the road soon.”
Concern crossed Estelle’s face and then understanding welled up inside her, culminating in a slow nod. “I’m sure you’ll find the time, but don’t forget . . .”
“I believe before we embark,” Herc intejected, “there is the matter of the agreed-upon wages of our services. I believe twenty dollars each out front and—”
“Yes, I am aware of the terms,” Emma said, straightening her back and tilting her head up, jaw set firmly, “but there is a hitch in those plans.”
She gripped the saddle horn so tightly, her knuckles shined white. She prepared for Herc’s reaction as if he would try to unhorse her.
Herc’s eyes narrowed to wary, calculating slits. The corner of his mouth twitched, sending a subtle ripple through his bushy beard. “Hitch? Miss, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to ask you to elucidate.”