St. Louis 10:45 am
Farther north up Grand, into the bosom of the city, the ragged parade turned right, down Park. Ezra Bean was seen in the sky between rooftops and alleyways as he drifted ahead, then sometimes back behind. She only noticed him among the other array of birds due to his outstanding size, but resting here and there among the buildings, he was invisible.
Silas took a wild, zig-zag pattern toward the river. Still, there was a purpose and direction as the men did not dally, or show signs of distraction nor disorientation. Main streets and sun-starved alleyways swirled into a blur of brick and pavement. One moment the Mississippi River was seen ahead, beyond the downward curve of the cobbled streets and the next moment it was behind them shimmering through the dance of commerce. Carts, carriages and people flowed like water about them, though her protectors kept a keen eye for constables or other pursuers.
She worried about relinquishing control to these two strangers, yet the makeshift rank-and-file had a calming, encouraging effect. Even the anxiety of her escape was beyond the definition of the word improvement since she was free of her uncle.
As they clopped down a long passageway between two high warehouses, she watched the thin blue slash of sky at the end grow wider until the troupe burst forth onto the levee. The whole of the waterfront exploded before them.
Emma had never been to the levee in all the years she lived in Saint Louis. Her father had wanted to show her the bustle of life as the world prepared to spread out west. Her mother forbade it, following her decree with frightening tales of the low men and women who dwelled there by the river.
The levee was bustling as far as the eye could see along the banks.
Several dozen steamboats eclipsed their view of the river and its banks. Crowded closely, some of them bumped none too gently together with the rocking waves. They groaned or squeaked behind the general din of commerce. One or two ships belched thick, black smoke from their upright stacks as boilers boiled and engines idled in readiness for voyages long or short, up or down the wide waters. This smoke drifted in across the sloping landing, filling the eyes and nostrils of all nearby before it emigrated up to meld into the great, hazy, metropolis.
Smaller craft were outfitted with gangplanks angled steeply down to the hard-packed dirt banks. If they had the great fortune find closer access, the planks gently slanted out to the rough-laid brick road sprawling up to the city.
Sweaty men—blacks and whites, in various states of dress or undress, with muscles strained, tended to their respective hives of activity around each gangplank. There was always one man hovering around each group, this man invariably white. He was not sweaty, was better-attired and, by surrounding standards, was an unimpressive weakling. It was clear these were the foremen as they checked manifests and barked high-pitched orders.
The myriad goods they swarmed around ranged from piles of bailed cotton to barrels of liquor to simple stacks of raw timber planking and a few other things Emma could not recognized and wanted to ask Herc about.
To the north, the larger packet companies had permanently-docked, covered barges–essentially warehouses on the swirling water, which had wider gangways reaching even farther into the landing. The wagons drove onto the barge through one doorway, then exited from another on the far end. The steamboats loaded from these barges were docked on the other side out in the river. These were closely gathered in the shadows of the majestic Eads Highway Bridge, the two level wonder spanning the Mississippi, connecting Missouri to Illinois.
Set in the pattern of bricks of the landing were rails laid from the south end of the levee through the Eads arches and out of sight to the north. No train was there, but Emma imagined the imposition a hulking locomotive with full complement of cars would have on this already crushing chaos.
Silas drove the group down into the middle of the action, finding a stream of travelers to join and flow northward. In the steamy, smoky thickness of levee life, motion was incessant and focus was futile. Yet, they managed a semblance of order amidst the chaos. A single-file, modest corps on the march to freedom and an unknown destiny.
Anonymity was a natural assumption in this ocean of humanity, but soon, a pattern of recognition manifested itself. At first, one black laborer and then two white ones called to the group and waved heartily.
Emma saw this and a sense of pride swelled inside. Her saviors were well-known and well-liked, for the hails were genuinely given with broad smiles and loud hoots. It spoke well of their character, even though this was a rough and randy-looking crowd. She realized these two men helping her were the same men her mother had cautioned against.
She glanced ahead to Silas and saw no change in his demeanor to signify recognition of the salutes. If anything, the pace of the trio quickened. The working men did not leave their toils, but did give small signs of consternation. One tall, white fellow, with a chest as broad as a carnival strongman, pulled off his hat and scratched his shiny, bald head in puzzlement.
With no return of hello, the men gave shrugs and played at being offended. They returned to the tasks at hand as a new wave of attention blossomed further along.
Silas increased the pace to a trot, his eyes leaping to any suspicious point or person. The mule and other horses instinctively hurried to follow.
Emma heard a grumble from Silas. He spoke while facing dead ahead, but could not make out his words in the riverbank racket.
Herc replied, which Emma made out clearly enough. “My word, boy! What did you expect, bringing us down here through the old stomping grounds? I am surprised we did not meet a bigger fan-following seeing as we spent three years working with these grand fellows . . .”
Silas finally turned back to address his old friend and companion. His face was set hard. The sinew over the bones in his jaw clenched and bulged in an agitated rhythm. “I swear, Hercules, if you don’t have the most irritating habit of riding every little misstep I make. You should just put a saddle on me and run me to ground. I know now this wasn’t the ten dollar idea I thought it was, but dang! —I didn’t hear you spouting no sage notions with the law bearing down on us back there.”
To Emma’s surprise, this tirade only brought an amused hoot from Herc.
“No, this ain’t right at all,” Silas said looking around. “We need to get out of this little revue before we get some malicious—”
He did not finish, for a short, loud man came striding up from a loading crew and stood directly in Silas’ path, thereby stopping the whole group.
“Well, well, well!” The man sneered, fists on his hips. “Look who has the acorns to show their faces ’round here!”
He was five feet tall or so, hips wider than shoulders. His once-fashionable white shirt had digressed to a dingy yellow—especially around the collar where it was a deep ochre. His feeble suspenders had the hopeless task of spanning his pot belly while trying to hold up his heavy, woolen trousers, which ran shy of his knobby ankles by at least two inches. His soiled face was pudgy and pock-marked. At the apex of all that mess was a ratty black bowler with a salty white sweat-ring around the crown. Even from a distance, he emitted the blended aromas of bilge-water and old butter.
Emma had to suppress a snicker, not at his appearance but his peevish nature.
Silas and Herc expressed quiet disdain as they both rolled their eyes and shook their heads.
“Silas, you still owe me for that fine chair you saw fit to reduce to kindling the day I threw you two off my boat,” he sneered.
“Pie, I wouldn’t have had to whack you with any chair if you’d have just payed us our wages. Move out of my path.”
“I didn’t owe you nothing ’cause you two didn’t finish the run,” Pie replied, his finger rising in accusation.
“You didn’t tell us you were running stolen goods,” Silas shot back. “That’s why we left—and you did not ‘throw’ us off your broke-down raft, we quit.”
Pie looked around to see if any in the confluence of people had noted Silas’s smuggling accusation. “You watch your tongue, boy! It’s a bad thing to go tossin’ around a man’s reputation like that. Ain’t none of that haul was stolen!”
“Why am I even speaking with you?” Silas asked. He turned to Herc. “Why am I even speaking to this carbuncle, Herc?”
Herc gave a single laugh, shrugged. “Dunno.”
“I lost my boat ‘cause of you two. You gonna give me my due, or am I gonna have to summon an officer of the law?” Pie warned.
“What are you gonna testify, Pie?” Silas threaded true irritation and impatience through his tone. “You gonna tell him about that tobacco haul you stole, too?”
“Dang you,” he practically screeched. “I said it once, you better watch that loose talk!”
“Or what, Pie?” Silas queried with disdain. “Am I gonna be obliged to break more chairs over your cranium? A lamp, perhaps?”
Herc laughed happily.
“You!” Pie spun on Herc and growled at him. “You took your liberties with my sister! You de-flowered Isabelle! And then you up and left her!” His anger was focused into an ugly squint and a crooked, pointing finger.
Emma tossed a questioning look at Herc, which he caught uneasily.
“That was ‘afore I met ‘Stelle,” he assured Emma quietly. He returned to Pie. “Your sister has had more liberties rung on her than the bell in Philadelphia, Pie. She was not interested in me for but the moment—though I will say, I’d rather be tied down on an ant hill and covered in molasses than be staked to that little shrew.”
It was Silas’ turn for a chuckle.
Pie shook with anger. Then he spied Emma behind Herc. His ire miraculously dissolved as he ogled her up and down.
“Well, hello,” he crooned. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure—”
He took his hat off and held it with sincerity over his heart.
“I wouldn’t do that, Pie,” Silas said.
“Oh, you hush, now, Silas,” he said airily. “If you two were to give me a few minutes alone with your little friend here, I’m sure I could be persuaded to consider your debt expunged.”
“I’m only gonna say it one more time, Pie,” Silas said, “I wouldn’t do that.”
“Why is that?” he asked without waiting for an answer. As he smoothed his few strands of hair across a freckled scalp, he continued to Emma, “I surely cannot fathom why you would find yourself in the company of these two . . .hoodlums, but I reckon if you were to favor me with a—”
“Yup, that’s enough,” was Herc’s only warning as he moved his mount alongside Pie. He tightened his legs against the sides of his horse, and grabbed a fistful of the back of Pie’s filthy shirt. Suspenders and all, he lifted Pie high off the ground and over his head.
Emma was amazed at the ease with which Herc manhandled the fellow.
Herc circled his horse and headed toward the river with Pie, mid-air and dangling, wailing and flailing all the way. In the struggle, however, Pie managed to clutch his bowler tightly to his head.
By now, a fine audience had assembled for this altercation. Nearby, Pie’s crew took advantage of their boss being preoccupied by sitting on the cotton bales, wiping the sweat from their brows, smiling and laughing at the foreman’s plight. It was good entertainment to them, indeed.
Herc ignored Pie’s protestations and wriggling and found his way to an open spot on the banks. The horse was led into the water up to his belly. Herc stopped, swung Pie back and forth to gain momentum, then flung him a good distance over the water. One of Pie’s shoes came free and flew even farther out, disappearing instantly into the muddy swirl.
The splash was more impressive than the man who made it. He sputtered and spit out the river water as he found his footing. He stood, swaying in his dripping clothes, his bowler still clinging to his head. Cheers and jubilant clapping arose from Pie’s laborers. He was not as popular as he liked to think.
“We need to move on,” Silas told his friends.
No complaints were lodged as they gently pushed their mounts through the thickening swarm.
The people let them slip away quietly, for the scene of Pie slogging in the river shallows, looking for his lost shoe captured the crowd’s attention. Knowing whether the poor lost shoe would be reunited with the owner was an intrigue and a keen delight to all.
“So much for our low notice,” Emma opined.
This brought a smile and wink from Herc, who admired her spirits in light of her just having been affronted.
Silas even let a light smile grace her as he looked back and said, “Yes, Miss, we sure should try to keep a lower profile.”
“Or a smaller splash, if you will,” she answered. “I had no idea you were so strong, Mister Bennet.”
“Thank you, Miss,” he tipped his hat. “My parents named me Hercules, and the Lord must have thought it fitting to grant me a fraction of my namesake’s famed strength.”
Silas and Herc were still smiling as they threaded through the center of the five great stone arches sculpted into the north end of the Eads bridge. Once through the passage, they turned sharply to the left and headed back up among the warehouses and storefronts to sink into the shadows.
The bells of St. Louis pealed the noon hour.