<Back to Lucas and the Freighter
― 1 ―
Sarah Griswold disembarked from the Liberty Belle at the Port of St. Louis and stood to the side as the other passengers came down the ramp. The bright sun overhead provided little heat. Along the riverbank, two cows stood with their ankles wrapped in mud, as they pulled at grass along the water’s edge. One lifted its head and let out a mournful sound that jerked up at the end before it dropped its head, took several heavy steps away from the water’s edge, and found a larger clump of greenery to munch. Sarah wore a full-figured, dark green silk dress of the latest style from New Orleans and a hat trimmed with an ostrich feather, with a veil over her face. She carried a black lace parasol in her left hand and held the hand of a boy about five years of age with her right hand. The boy tried to point to the animals, but the lady pressed his hand to his side without any indication she saw them. He looked at her with apprehension, and she moved closer to the building to get out of the cool, dank-smelling air. She seemed to be waiting for someone and gazed toward the town.
An open wagon waited on the street, with two mules nibbling out of feed bags hanging from their necks. Their tails twitched, but they seemed well trained and content. A second wagon rumbled by, pulled by four horses and laden with newly offloaded goods from the ship. Several enclosed carriages disappeared into the city, their occupants unobserved and isolated from all around them.
Watching Sarah from a short distance down the wooden wharf, a tall, lank man of uncertain age hunkered in the shade. He was dressed in the plaid flannel shirt and faded blue trousers of a muleskinner and mountain man. The britches had a thin yellow stripe down the outside of each leg indicating they had once belonged to a soldier. A black, shiny vest covered his chest, while his brown wool coat hung on his shoulders, a size too large. He had a beaver cap on his head and high-topped boots on his feet. A holster sporting a side arm was at his right elbow, and a leather scabbard held a long, thin-bladed skinning knife. The man shifted position, and in that moment, it seemed he could use the weapons with equal precision, if required.
Sarah slowly became aware of the rugged man’s presence. She glanced his direction, then let her eyes jerk away, tracing the buildings disappearing into the distance. The streets were dusty with the wheels of wagons, and along the raised wooden boardwalks, various people could be seen. A woman twirled a parasol while a girl in a matching outfit skipped at her side, eating treats from a bag, and dropping as many as she consumed. Two men in dark suit jackets over stripped trousers carried on a conversation that became animated as she watched. A skinny dog appeared from an alley, trailing the girl and the woman, hungrily snapping up the treats along the boardwalk. After a while, the newly disembarked passenger holding the boy’s hand glanced back at the man in the beaver cap, and seeing his eyes still on her, she turned away nervously. With determination in her steps, she gracefully walked to the ticket agent’s window. The other passengers had long since gone their way, and the platform was deserted except for her, the boy and the man.
“Sir, please excuse me. Is there a cheap hotel near the station where I might eat a meal and refresh myself?” She spoke with the soft, pleasant cadence of a Southern lady, and the man watching her came to full attention.
“Sure, ma’am. The Webster’s Plymouth House is about a mile away, to the north of Frontier Street.” The agent wore a green shade positioned over his eyes and held a pencil in his hand. A pair of bright red garters wrapped around the sleeves of his brown shirt. He gave a quick smile. “Left my grandmother in Alabama when I decided to come west to seek my fortune. Don’t know that I ever found the fortune, but your voice brings back my memories of her. Anything else I can help you with?”
“How would I get to this hotel? Is there a public conveyance that we might ride?” She didn’t comment on the man’s reminiscence about his relations. She looked sideways, only to shift closer to the ticket window when she saw the beaver cap still haunting the shadows, with his eyes looking her direction.
“Nope. Ain’t no public conveyance that I heerd about, but that man over there has a freight wagon.” The man scratched his head with the flat end of his pencil. “Maybe he’d give you a ride into town.” He pointed his pencil at the man dressed in the beaver cap, and he called loudly, “Hey, Angus, you headed back to town, soon? This lady and her boy need a ride to the Plymouth House.” He turned to Sarah. “Best I know he can get you there, ma’am. He works for the United States Army. You can trust him.”
Sarah looked at the boy, still tightly gripped in her hand, and looked as though she might protest, but before she could form a response, Angus stepped to the window to stand beside her.
“Did you call to me, Casey?”
The boy’s eyes darted from face to face, taking in the expressions of the man behind the counter, the beaver-capped man, and Sarah. His interest revealed an alert and watchful mind; a good sign in a young boy.
“Shore I did, Angus. Have you suddenly gone deef? The lady wants a ride to the Plymouth House. Tell Plano while you’re there, his package has come on the boat from New Orleans.” He dropped his pencil on the floor and stooped to pick it up, calling out to no one, “Bother my britches. Cain’t hang onto one of these for the life of my sainted grandmother.”
Angus faced the woman and removed the cap off his head. A scar ran down the side of his scalp, about three inches long, leaving his hair parted in a zigzag manner. Sarah let out a gasp, before tilting her head down and watching the boards at her feet. If Angus was offended, he didn’t show it. “Hello, ma’am. I can offer you transportation to the hotel, if you don’t mind riding along in a freight wagon.”
“I could hardly impose.” The breeze from the waterfront shifted her veil, revealing a strong chin and a nervous smile. The feather in her hat fluttered with gusto. After a pause, she asked, “Are you certain you don’t mind?”
Angus Meldrick held his cap in his hands, and he winked at the boy. “I had no intention of stopping at the hotel on my way out of town, but seeing as you and the boy need a ride, I can hardly do otherwise, for such a fine young man, standing so silent and still by your side. Reminds me of my own son.”
“You have a child?” Sarah’s stance softened with the question.
“Lost in the influenza epidemic that took Mary, his wife.” Casey had his pencil firmly back in his hand, and he worked at a sheet of paper totaling the anticipated profits or loss from the disembarked steamship. He didn’t look up to see Angus glare at him for the unasked-for remark.
“Where’s your luggage?” Angus could barely see the light of her eyes under her heavy veil. She was clearly uncertain whether to speak to a stranger, or ride with him the mile to the hotel.
“My luggage?” Sarah looked around before finding a small trunk about twenty feet away where it had been unloaded by the stevedores from the steamboat. The trunk was rounded on top and tied with two ropes to keep it secure. Beside the trunk were several wooden crates. On the side of three of the boxes, in bold letters, were the words Jefferson Barracks, Missouri Territory. She pointed to it with her parasol. “There, I believe. You’re an Army man?”
“Yes’m. Like Casey said, you can trust me. Name’s Angus Meldrick.” He nodded at her respectfully and pointed to the words on the boxes. “You headed to the Barracks, ma’am? So am I. Why don’t I lift these onto my wagon, and I’ll take you to the hotel?”
“If you would be so kind.” She leaned to the boy and touched his face, saying, “Be patient, Lucas. We’ll be on our way soon. We’ve someone to help us.” The boy glanced at Angus and offered him an embarrassed smile.
Angus replaced his cap and made his way to the wagon, clasping one mule by the flanks and rubbing it for a moment before leading the animals along the wharf to stop beside the offloaded luggage. He swung the trunk into the wagon and went back for the crates. On the floor, almost hidden until he had moved the boxes, were two large carpetbags, one of faded blue, maroon, red, and tan, and the other predominately green, yellow and white. He lifted them into the wagon and started to grab the lone box still on the pier when Sarah stopped him. It was of a larger size and marked differently from the rest.
“That one isn’t mine, sir.” Her voice was low and sharp.
He left the box and walked to the agent’s window. “Heh, Casey, does this crate belong to Plano? I can take it to the hotel, since I’m going there, anyway.”
The ticket agent put his head to the bars so he could see the one box left on the wharf.
“Yeah, that’s the one for Plano. I’d be grateful if you’d take it to him. Then I can go get my dinner sooner. When you going to the Barracks?”
“Soon’s I can get there. You finished with my paperwork, yet? I’m off when I get this woman’s things settled on the wagon.”
“Just about.” Casey pulled a sheet of paper from a hidden stack, added it to several already in front of him, and marked several items on it as he talked. “I heard there was a brawl down at Slim’s saloon last week, and a couple of men was killed, one of them a soldier boy. The sheriff was saying they fought over Lily, but Tom Lafferty said it was about a card game. You heard anything?”
“Nah, I just came up last night from the south to pick up the supplies.” He glanced at the woman. She was whispering something to the boy.
The agent pushed a pile of folded papers at him. “Here’s your inventory sheets. I heard someone say they’re getting ready at the Barracks to ride down to Santa Fe. You going with them, when they go?”
Angus took the papers and stuffed them into his coat pocket. “I suppose I will. Either me or Claymore. I don’t fancy driving all that way; but that’s what I get paid for. I’ll see you soon, Casey.” He turned, picked up the final box, flung it onto the back of the wagon and tied the flap of the burlap cover down. He walked to the woman and boy.
“I’m ready to go, ma’am.” He swung the boy up to the seat of the wagon and took the lady’s arm. He breathed deeply and smiled as she moved past him. She carried a small, maroon-colored velvet bag with a long brass chain for a handle; it swung back and hit him on the cheek as he helped her to climb up the wheel and onto the seat. He raised his hand to his face but said nothing.
He removed the feed bags from the mules’ necks and dropped them in the rear of the wagon, then went around the vehicle and climbed to the driver’s seat, let go the brake, and the mules started moving. Nothing was said on the way to the hotel. He guided the mules around the traffic in the street, clicking his tongue at them and occasionally calling a direction. They presented quite a picture, a lady dressed in silk going to the Barracks, possibly the wife of an officer, and a driver as rough as they came. No one seemed to pay them much mind, however, as many of those around them were as mismatched or worse.
He pulled up to the hitching rail and swung down from the wagon.
“You stay here, ma’am, and I’ll take Plano’s box to him and ask about a room. What’s your name?”
“Griswold.” He stopped short when she said it. “Any relation to Adam Griswold?”
“You know him?” She smiled underneath her veil and tucked the boy’s hand into her embrace.
“Perhaps I do.” He untied the cover from the wagon and lifted the crate from the back. He carried it into the hotel lobby and set it on the floor next to the desk. Once inside, he called, “Plano!” A short, portly man came through the curtain behind the counter.
“Howdy, Angus. Are you staying in town tonight? I got a room at the back empty, if you want it.”
“Let me think on it. I have a box from Casey. He said to bring it to you.”
“Thank you.” The clerk came around and studied the box on the floor for a moment. He smiled, satisfied. “It must be the books I ordered. I buy them by the weight, not by author or title, from the warehouse in New Orleans. Save a lot of money that way, but I have to take what they send. Anything to read is welcome, I say.” He knelt to lift the box, but Angus stopped him.
“What was the name of that soldier killed in that brawl last week involving Lily the saloon girl? Do you know?” Angus frowned like he was trying to solve a riddle.
“Sure, Adam Griswold. Thought you might have heard, already. It’s about, everywhere.”
“Just got back in and don’t know nothing. Think I might have someone outside who knew him. What else you know?” Angus lifted his cap with one hand and rubbed his scalp with the other. He closed his eyes and shook his head.
Plano was at the box, opening one corner. He looked up. “The other guy’s name was Langston. He was a civilian. Why are you asking? You must have heard about it at the Barracks.” He pulled out one book, scratched his head and frowned.
“Yeh, that’s what I thought his name was. I think I have his relative in the wagon outside. Come here.” He led the clerk to the window but stayed far enough back that the woman couldn’t see them through the glass. “See? She just came up from New Orleans; dressed real fancy in silk. Got off the steamer, and her luggage says Jefferson Barracks. She wants a room to freshen up. She said her name’s Sarah Griswold. You let her have that room of mine you offered, and I’ll park the wagon at the livery until I find out what’s happening. Is the sheriff in town?”
“Why, yes. He’s at the restaurant eating his dinner, I think. I saw him walk down that way. Do you think this woman’s Griswold’s wife?” He stared at the pair sitting in the wagon.
“I don’t think she could be; she must be more than ten years older than Griswold; but that’s an unusual name. Well, I best be getting out to her; or she’ll be suspicious. You keep quiet until I talk to the sheriff. If she don’t have the money, I’ll pay you.”
He walked outside and stepped to the wagon.
“He’s got a room at the back, ma’am. You come down, and I’ll see you settled.” He helped her over the side and smiled again as he caught her fragrance. He held his arms wide, and the boy jumped into them. “You go in, and I’ll bring in your luggage. If you’re going to the Barracks tomorrow, I’ll come back for you.”
He lifted the trunk from the wagon, carried it into the lobby and set it down near the back wall. He went back for the crates and carpetbags. He saw her at the counter talking to Plano Jeffreys. He returned to his wagon and drove it to the livery, where he asked if he could park it until he returned for it. He paid the man for shelter and hay for the mules, then left the livery and walked toward the Hash House; it wasn’t the best restaurant in town, but cheap enough.
The bell above the door to the restaurant jangled a welcome. The smell of fried onions assailed his senses, and he wrinkled his nose. His stomach growled in sympathy. He saw Wade Terrill, the sheriff, in a corner flirting with Majesty, the waitress. He walked toward him and spoke in a respectful tone. “Good afternoon, Sheriff.”
The sheriff nodded his direction.
Angus didn’t wait for an invitation, but sat down in the chair across from him. “Give me some eggs and ham, Majesty, please. I’m hungry enough to eat my mules, feet first.” She laughed and went to place the order in the kitchen.
“Howdy, Angus. Glad to have you sit down and join me.” The sheriff looked at him inquiringly. “I don’t suppose you’d be here sitting at my table if it wasn’t important. We know each other well.”
“Yeah, well, not that well.” Angus ducked his head, and his neck glowed pink.
“No?” The sheriff smiled. “I remember a few times you’ve gotten some drunken private out of jail with your own money, rather than have him taken to the Barracks to be disciplined by the army.”
“That? Common courtesy. Anybody with the sense of a thick-skulled heifer would do the same.” Angus looked around to see if his voice could be overheard and stopped when Majesty brought him a cup and filled it full. He leaned forward when she left the table. “Sheriff, I think I’ve got a problem on my hands.”
“A problem? From you? Well, dang my ornery soul to tarnation. You just yanked the rug out from under me, man. I never expected that from you.” The sheriff had taken a sip of coffee; he swallowed and gaped at the freighter. “What sort of doings have you managed to wrangle your way?”
“I think the wife or mother of that lieutenant killed in last week’s brawl in Slim’s saloon has shown up on the steamer from New Orleans this morning, and I don’t know what to do with her.” He kept his voice low, although there was no one who could overhear him.
“What? Good God, man, what are you saying? Griswold’s wife is here?” The sheriff looked around him, as if she might be present in the room.
“She’s at the hotel.” Angus cleared his throat and ducked his head, and he took a sidestep. “I could be wrong, as she seems too old for a wife, so maybe some other relative, but she definitely said her name’s Griswold. I mentioned Adam’s name, and she asked me if I knew him.”
“Angus, you fool!” Wade slapped the tabletop, causing Angus’ coffee cup to rattle on its saucer. “You told the woman the man was dead?”
“Now hold on, Wade. I did no such thing.” Angus puffed up, upset the man would think such a thing. “I just told her I might know a man by that name. I told Plano to keep quiet, but you know what an old gossip he is. She’s bound to hear something soon. I was waiting for Casey to finish the papers on the freight that came on the boat, so I could take them to the Major, and she was standing there with a little boy, apparently thinking someone was coming to fetch her. The print on her luggage said Jefferson Barracks, plain as the sun was shining, and she said her name’s the same as his. Of course, I asked her about it. Who wouldn’t? Then I got to thinking, maybe that’s why the lieutenant was in town, to meet her. And get this, she’s got that boy with her, about five, or thereabouts. I been trying to place whether the man had a kid, but I cain’t remember none such.” Angus ran out of words and leaned back, while Majesty set his plate before him and poured more coffee for him and the sheriff. She looked between them with a lifted brow, but when the two men remained silent, she left them alone.
“Holy Mother of God, this sure puts a different slant on the whole thing.” The sheriff spoke in a hushed and intense tone. “I thought it was odd that he was involved in that brawl. The witnesses contradicted each other. The sergeant said that he was an innocent bystander, minding his own business when the fight started. Judge Maddock was there, and he said the man who died, a civilian named Todd Langston, accused Garland of cheating on the roulette wheel. Garland said he didn’t know anything was happening until he heard the shots. Of course, he would. I don’t trust that gambler, but there’s nothing I can hang the accusation on with so many telling different versions. It’s certain he was the one who fired his weapon; his pistol was still hot. Griswold got caught in the crossfire, looked like to me. The Army said they’d take care of the body and see it had a decent burial.” He looked up when the bell jangled.
Angus looked around, his fork suspended full of egg, halfway to his mouth. He saw the graceful, full-figured form of Sarah Griswold come in with her boy. He couldn’t help the break in his voice.
“That’s her, Wade, and the boy. Mrs. Griswold. They must have come for food. I don’t know when they serve the last meal on the boat, but the boy must be hungry.”
“See to her, man,” Wade said. “Maybe we can unwind this tangle and get the matter sorted. Go.” He motioned with his hand, finally rapping the table to get Angus to move.
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