Estelle held off the stirred-up crowd from smothering Emma with their concern. Silas was greeted with much earnest hand-shaking and patting on the back as he strapped the skillet back onto his saddlebags.
“Good work learning him some manners,” one fellow told him. Another offered him a comically fat cigar, which Herc took and put away in his breast pocket.
A third admirer, a middle-aged woman with two starry-eyed girls, thanked him for his gallantry and keeping the streets of Saint Louis just that much safer. “In broad daylight, no less, a man treating a woman such!”
The accolades and astonishment ebbed and finally Silas conferred, “What goes on here, Herc?” pointing to the fallen scoundrel and the affronted maiden.
“As far as I can surmise, Silas, that fella you griddled is the uncle of our charge here, Miss Emma.”
The news was as a cold pail of water tossed on Silas. His jaw dropped and he turned a shade whiter beneath his bronzed face. “Oh, well, ain’t this just pickles! We finally get a way out of this town—a way that pays—and we end up souring it by pulling her uncle’s eyelids down.”
“We?” Herc asked with a grin. “How is it when something is my fault, it’s ‘me’ and when you goof, it’s ‘us?’ No, that ain’t the kick in the pants, anyway. Not only is this fellow her uncle, he claims she done stole that horse, too. Plus—there’s always gonna be a plus that’s a minus with us—the girl here ain’t got but ten dollars to her name.”
“Ten?” Silas cried. “You mean the ten per man, right?”
“No, Sir. Ten to spread liberally between us.”
Silas turned and spit on the ground, narrowly missing the women who had been adoring him seconds before. Noses turned upward as their opinions turned down.
“Sorry, ladies,” he said absently before he turned back to Herc. “We ain’t got much choice but to persevere, my friend. Still, ten dollars? Has she at least said if we are gonna be gettin’ any other payment? Later on, perhaps?”
While Emma stood, silent, Herc related Emma’s comments about the money being sent on to Houston.
“Dang,” Silas said. “Houston’s a long way off the track we was gonna take. Hell, that’s Mexico, almost.”
“Yup. It is truly discommodious.”
Silas paused and shook his head. “You really feel the need to have me ducking those big words right now?” It clearly vexed Silas, but he realized it was not the time to grapple. He sighed, “Well, we better get ourselves moving afore the local constabulary gets their fat bottoms waddling this way.”
Silas rejoined the two women. Emma’s composure was fully regained, so Silas prompted farewells between the women and urged haste. He looked on as Estelle slid a small roll of bills into Emma’s shaking fingers.
The young woman protested, but Estelle’s resolve was great. Emma placed the money in the waist pocket of her jacket. Emma wiped tears from Estelle’s face. Estelle removed her maid’s apron, spit on a corner and wiped the blood from Emma’s mouth and nose.
Silas was sure the script called for much female emotion and he let them play it out on their own. This gave him a moment to absorb Emma. His fighting ire had waned, so he let his eyes linger upon her.
She stood a foot taller than Estelle. Her dark brown boots were durable enough, though if they had to do much walking, her tallish heels could give rise to spills and complaints. She was plainly dressed in a long, heavy, tan skirt—the practical kind designed to withstand a ride to town and back, but not the rigors of road life.
His eyes climbed.
Her top was a pale yellow blouse with a white lace collar, beneath a close-fitting waist-length light brown vest.
He was a practical traveler, and after having taken in the readiness of her outfitting, his gaze poured over her in general.
Strands of her auburn hair floated free from a loose knot. She lifted her long, graceful fingers and tucked away a lock caressing her forehead. Her face was smooth and faintly rounded as cherubic youth blossomed into womanhood. Her lips curved up at the corners, and when she smiled at something Estelle said, the right corner curled into a bit of a dimple. With her mouth stretched into a smile, he noticed a thin, pale scar on her upper lip. He did not know how it was possible, yet that small imperfection made her perfect.
The sunlight shined in her eyes where it collected, reflected and radiated shards of bright and deep amber, illuminating a long-since dark corner of his heart. Those eyes missed nothing before them—including Silas staring directly at her.
Silas broke away from his trance, coughed absently and looked away. He imagined he had snagged a glimpse of a smile from her, but dared not venture if it was for him. He had already been caught goggling once, so he let it be.
Silas wheeled around to his partner. There, in view of all who cared to witness, Herc was knelt over Theo, rummaging through his pockets. He saw the butt of Theo’s pistol protruding from the top of Herc’s shiny boot.
“Hercules!” Silas hissed. Herc continued his pillaging. Silas looked about for witnesses to find many a suspicious brow raised. “Herc, You are gonna get us hunted for robbery now too!”
“I’m just makin’ sure the feller’s not carryin’ anything else he could hurt someone with. Besides, if I was the stealing type, he ain’t got a thing to take,” he said peevishly.
The tall man looked down at the gun in Herc’s boot.
“Hello, now!” Herc explained. “I picked this gun up off the sidewalk there where he dropped it, so it ain’t like I mugged him. Losers are indeed weepers . . .”
Silas helped Emma back onto her horse and collected her reins. He paused and stroked the neck of her mount. “I can see why your uncle would be missing such a horse as this.” His eyes, keen and sparked with admiration, traveled across the animal. “He’s a fine one.” He ran his hands across Shot’s fore flanks. “Needs a little muscling.”
The horse leaned his head into Silas and nudged to prompt more scratching.
“I beg pardon, sir, but this horse is mine,” she corrected. “Uncle Theo gave him to me, for my birthday. It’s mine and he can say what he will, but nothing shall change that in my eyes.”
Silas thought of the birthday remark, but did not ask her age. Instead he simply replied, “It may not be looked upon that way by the law.”
Before she could give him any sour response, Silas collected his horse, checked his skillet and mounted. He doubled back down the street to get hold of the mule, which had not strayed far from where his lazy hide was let loose. The other horse, being hitched to the mule, was forced to idle nearby.
For being a nexus to the wild and rowdy West, Saint Louis had her share of civilized souls, for some good citizen had looped the lead rope around a streetlamp. Silas tethered the mule to his saddle once more and checked the gear under the pack lashing. Thankfully, nothing was lost or loosened.
Herc bounced on one leg a moment trying to get up momentum and cheat gravity, and finally thrust himself up in the saddle. After he was done fiddling with the stirrup, he too was in for the ride.
The troop was fully assembled and horsed. Estelle went inside the hotel and came right back out with Herc’s pack. He slung it behind him across the back of his scarred-up saddle.
Herc’s mount mirrored the rider. The legs were brushed and polished, but his belly slung low and the mane was wild and coarse. A tired, bloodshot eye nervously took in the chaos. Emma wondered if the poor animal would even make it out of the city limits alive.
Herc noticed the judgmental gaze from Emma. “He’s got more miles ahead of him than he does behind, just like me.”
Emma turned away, blushing.
Herc leaned down from his saddle to give a farewell peck to Estelle. She stood on tip toes and got under the man’s weight to fondly receive the gesture. She placed her hands upon his chest to prevent him from falling right out of the saddle.
Estelle approached Silas and whispered, “You are gonna take the highest care with these two? Please promise me.”
“Now, ‘Stelle,” he replied, “you know I am gonna keep them safe. I ain’t got the smarts or stamina to hide from your wrath should I allow danger to befall them.”
The familiar gilded caps of several constables bobbed through the crowd at the head of the street.
“Hate to cut our tidings short, but we got company,” Silas said, nodding to the policemen.
“Don’t you all worry,” Estelle assured them. “I’ll make sure they know what that man had done—everything. You all need to scat. Now!”
Emma wondered how much detail would be relayed of her uncle’s crimes. She knew Estelle was aware of everything beyond the altercation today, because she was the only person outside her family who Emma had told.
She had no time to ponder as Silas turned them expertly in a tight circle. They trotted away from the scene in the opposite direction of the approaching lawmen. As with the seas behind Moses and his exodus, the crowd quickly spilled into the void in their wake.
They reached the corner and turned right onto Grand Avenue, back toward the park. Neither in a visible hurry, but not quite dallying, their gait was akin to hurried sightseers.
They passed before the breathtaking Eastern entrance of the park on Grand, between Arsenal and Magnolia. She took in the low curving walls, fine ironwork and two impressive huge iron griffons on either side facing each other atop limestone columns.
Silas was also looking intently in the park, searching the trees for something. He halted his group behind him by holding his arm straight out, palm flat toward them.
Emma and Shot did not fathom the command and they bumped Silas. He turned and gave her a brief, stern look but went back to his searching the foliage.
“What is he doing?” Emma whispered to Herc. She found him less intimidating than Silas.
“Ezra Bean,” was all he said.
Silas released his reins, cupped his hands and placed his thumbs to his lips. His cheeks puffed as he blew out a low, loud whistle. It was an uncanny reproduction of an owl call. Two quick hoots followed by three rapid-fire ones. He repeated the call. Far off in the thick of bright blossoms and green buds, a similar call answered back.
Without a word of explanation, Silas took the reins back up and led them onward. Emma shot Herc a quizzical glance. He answered with a wink and a smile, his gold tooth twinkling like a far off star in his mouth.
Emma heard a soft flapping and felt the rush of air over her head before she saw anything. A blurred mass of brown and grey feathers swooped right between Herc and Emma. The tips of gliding wings brushed both riders. Emma watched in awe as the bird passed before her, right toward Silas. She spied the huge obsidian talons clenching and flexing as the bird flapped his immense wings once, then twice, sweeping above and ahead of the lead man.
Emma’s horse whinnied and shook his head in disapproval of their new companion.
Silas reached into a saddle bag with one hand and pulled out a small and . . .furry object.
One of the most beautiful, terrifying—and largest—Great Horned Owls she had ever seen was focused on Silas. He did not stop as the bird circled and slowed to match speed. Silas raised the item from the pack up into the air. It was a bit of a small grey blur on some kind of string. Silas swung it up high. The owl wasted no time as he flung himself at the morsel and clamped his strong talons around it. In the brief second of capture, Emma realized it was a small mouse.
Wings beat silently as the owl rose into the sky with the mouse’s tail flicking in the wind below him. The owl circled tightly and found roost on the cross of a small church tower nearby. She saw the bird ripping into the feast with his sharp, shining beak.
Emma had not realized her mouth was wide open until Herc leaned across, put his hand under her chin and pushed up.
“Don’t want to catch no flies, Miss,” he laughed. “Stunning, ain’t he?”
“But, but,” she stammered, “you have a pet bird? A trained owl?”
“He’s no bird, Miss,” Silas said curtly, “he’s a raptor. And he ain’t no pet, neither. He is as free as you or me.” The word free was said with force.
“Don’t pay him no mind,” Herc interceded. “His name is Ezra Bean and he’s been our friend and traveling companion since—”
“Hercules Bennet, do you always need to be so open about our private matters?” Silas barked. He stopped dead in the road and turned his head whilst his shoulders faced ahead, resembling an owl himself. He shot the old man an icy look.
“Oh, come on now, Silas,” Herc pined. “I reckon she’s gonna find out all about us soon enough. It’s a long ride to Houston and even longer beyond, to Arizona. We gonna have to fill up the time with some words, ain’t we?”
“You know what your problem is, Herc?” Silas asked. “You jaw too much. I would truly relish one ride that ain’t so full up with words. Is that too much to ask?”
“You at least gonna tell us where in the world you takin’ us?” Herc queried. “You know the west is over that way, right?” He swept his hand back behind him, but Silas did not turn to see the gesture.
“I reckon I know which way is west,” Silas said. “Them po-lice is gonna be heading out that way as we speak. You want we should wait at the train depot back there for them to come along and collect us? Should we go on and travel the road in the exact direction they think we would be headed? We’re going to the docks. I got an idea.”
“Well, it sure would be nice if you let us into your sage council every once in a while, Sire,” Herc drawled.
Emma saw Silas shake his head lightly, but he rode on in silence.