As DeCoursey Rogers walked through a misty rain toward the Light Street docks, he thought a good many people would consider him crazy if they knew of his activities over the past two days. His former shipmates had called him a fool. Not that it mattered. A warm south wind was blowing up the last showers of April, but in spite of the rain the night was balmy as a summer's eve. Coursey shrugged his shoulders, brushed dark hair out of his eyes, and looked around him.
Dusk was falling in the city and he paused to watch a lamplighter move along the street. Other parts of the city had electric light, and the trolley lines had reached the harbor, but the lights on the south side were still on gas. The man stopped at each post to turn his key and then light the flame with a slow match on a stick. Even at twilight, teamsters maneuvered four-horse wagons onto the docks. Cargo nets swung over the sides of the steamers and sailing ships that were moored cheek by jowl against each other. People moved freely about the busy wharves and strolled along the brick street heedless of the showers.
A thin young woman dressed in a white linen bonnet and a dark cloak walked past. A Quaker or Mennonite, likely. She glanced at him, then turned away, determination in her firm step. When Coursey's gaze met her clear green eyes, he felt a fleeting moment of recognition, although he knew he had never seen the girl before.
She glanced from the paper in her hand to the names painted on the prows of ships lining the quay. Her face wasn't pretty in the conventional sense. The eyes were too large and wide apart, the cheekbones too prominent. A few dark gold curls had escaped her severe bonnet, and her lips were set into the firm line of someone who refused to allow anxiety to impede her purpose. Coursey thought she had no business anywhere near this place without a male escort. Still, because of her somber dress, not even a drunken sailor could mistake her for a lady of the night. As the thought crossed his mind, two rough looking sailors jostled the girl in passing.
Coursey started forward to offer his protection, but she fled into a crowded shop. He shrugged and took a deep breath. Mixed with the freshness of rain, he inhaled the unmistakable scent of vanilla, sage and cinnamon from the spice warehouse near pier 11. It stood diagonally across from where the Austin & Weymouth steamboat wharf. Soon Coursey would board the paddle-wheelerLily Austin. By midnight they'd be steaming down the Bay toward home.
From a distance, Coursey watched a woman dressed like a prostitute hurry along Light Street. Red high heels slipped on the rain-slick bricks as she stepped around puddles. There was something familiar about the way she moved. Her low-cut dress exposed a bony expanse of chest. The ruffled hem, a good five inches shorter than most people considered decent, revealed equally bony ankles. Except for her dress, and the cheap feather boa around her thin shoulders, she didn't look like a "hooker," a word Baltimoreans had coined for women who lived in the "hook," an area defined on city maps as Fells Point.
By the light of a street lamp, Coursey saw the woman's face and felt a real jolt of recognition. Sarah Mae Slater had been a respectable wife and mother when he had left Killraven Island seven years before. Though her hennaed hair gleamed red in the lamplight, she still looked more like a frightened child than a woman of the streets.
Coursey paused as Sarah Mae approached the Lily's gangplank, unsure whether she would be glad or sorry to be recognized in her present situation. The steamboat's mulatto cook strode along the street wearing a black sou'wester and gum boots. Looking relieved, Sarah Mae hurried toward the woman. "Zula-? Did you see Mama? Is Louise all right?"
Coursey slowed his steps as he realized the two women had planned to meet. The cook raised a hand and placed it on Sarah Mae's shoulder, turning her away from Coursey, as they spoke quietly for several minutes. Finally, Sarah Mae handed something to the taller woman. "Tell Mama, I love her. Tell her I'll send more money soon. I want Louise in school this year, sure."
"I'll do that, honey." The stout woman paused, looked at Sarah Mae as she clutched her shoulders and hunched forward in the rain. "Now, you go find someplace to dry off. You're bound to catch your death running around dressed like that."
"I will." Sarah Mae hurried away, stumbling across the trolley tracks that snaked across the street.
On an impulse Coursey followed her. She went to stand under the awning in front of the shop where the Mennonite girl was still asking questions. Coursey could see the girl's white cap nodding at the counter inside. He smiled at Sarah Mae and was about to approach her when a burly man grabbed her by the arm. Though Coursey couldn't hear what he said, the man's intent was obvious. Sarah Mae took a step back and shook her head.
The man refused to let go and dragged Sarah Mae out into the rain. He took no notice of her efforts to resist. The Mennonite girl came out of the shop, standing under the awning, obviously waiting for the shower to let up. She glanced at Sarah Mae and the man, then looked quickly in the other direction.
Halfway down the block, Sarah Mae was still trying to twist free. She shouted and kicked at the heavyset man who hauled her along and paid no attention to her protests. Without another thought Coursey sprinted after them. When she bit him on the arm, Sarah Mae's would-be customer cuffed her across the face, punched her in the stomach, then kicked her when she fell to the ground. He was so intent on inflicting harm, that he didn't notice Coursey's approach.
What happened next was swift and brutal. As Sarah Mae scrambled to her feet and limped away, Coursey delivered three hard punches to the man's midsection. The first doubled him over; the second dropped him to his knees; the third left him retching on the wet paving. Coursey shook his hand and flexed his fingers. Then he turned and called after the fleeing woman, "Wait, Sarah Mae! It's me, DeCoursey Rogers."
"Oh-hey!" She stopped and waited, but she stared at the ground.
Coursey hurried after her. "You all right?"
Sarah Mae shrugged. Then she shivered. "I guess." She shivered again, looked back at Coursey over her shoulder. "He's one of them likes to hurt people. I don't go with his kind."
Coursey wanted to ask her what she was doing here, how she had come to this, but he couldn't. Instead, his gaze wandered half a block away and locked with that of the girl in the black cloak. She closed her mouth, swallowed, glanced down at the paper in her hand and hurried away down the street.
Coursey turned his attention to the shivering woman at his side. He had a thousand questions, but when he opened his mouth all he said was, "We stand here much longer, we'll both drown. How about I buy you dinner?"
Sarah Mae's teeth chattered when the rain increased. It fell in a steady rhythm as Coursey led her to the Saratoga Restaurant. The cafe was the one respectable place on the block. It catered to family groups who traveled on the Austin & Weymouth line. The prices on the bill of fare served as an effective barrier to whores and sailors, trade the owners wanted to discourage.
"I cain't go in there." Sarah Mae adjusted her drooping boa and held back, looking worried. "They don't allow no working girls." But Coursey thrust her through the door in front of him, gave the waiter who hurried forward a dark look and a silver dollar, and led the way to a table. He held Sarah Mae's chair as she sat down, then sat across from her. The waiter brought coffee and filled two thick mugs.
Sarah Mae cupped the coffee mug with both hands as if to warm them. "I heard tell you sailed off to parts unknown."
"That's right." Coursey smiled, took a sip. Java coffee. He recognized the flavor.
Sarah Mae tried a swallow, winced. Her jaw had already started to swell. "I knew you weren't the kind to spend the rest of your life licking your wounds." Sarah Mae nodded and drank more coffee, then a tide of red crept up her face. "Heard you went a-whaling. You leaving soon again?"
Coursey shook his head. "I'm going home. Gran's sick."
Sarah Mae's mouth twisted and she sipped more coffee. "Most people from the island don't talk to me no more. I left my husband two years back. Mama-she thinks I learned to run one of them fancy new typewriting machines."
"Likely you could, if you wanted."
Sarah Mae shook her head as the waiter set two steaming bowls of stew on the table. "A person does what-all they know how." Her voice sounded wistful. "But my Louise's going to have better."
Coursey dug his spoon into hot savory stew, and said with a mischievous grin. "You ever realize what a terrible crush I had on you when I was a kid?"
In spite of her split lip, Sarah Mae laughed out loud.