SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA | 1889
Urias awoke in the damp and the dark. It was a good few minutes before he realized the pounding he was hearing was coming from inside his own skull. He reached inside his vest pocket for a match and his fingers closed on the business card. So my kind benefactor is a tradesman, then? Urias was familiar enough with the professional classes to realize that the calling card, still out of favor with the American gentry, was becoming ubiquitous among those who worked for a living.
He found and struck a match as he struggled to remember the last bit of conversation he had with the mysterious gentleman in plaid. Urias recalled the man mentioning Fox, five thousand dollars, and then taking his leave. How did that lead to this? He wondered, holding his head.
Before the match burned down to his fingertips only partially deadened by the cold, the meager light revealed Urias to be in a damp storage basement. Above his head he could just make out the three-edged back-lit outline of a trapdoor, which—if he had to guess—led back up to the Baldwin Bar. Shanghaied! Blasted crimps!
Urias was well familiar with the reputation of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast. Many an unwary drunken sailor had regained consciousness on a different ship than the one he arrived on. The clippers that plied the trade routes to China often took more men to sail than San Francisco had willing sailors to do so. Crimps like Jim “Shanghai” Kelly and his ilk made a good living by collecting unwitting but able bodies to help fill the ships’ holds and crews.
Is that what I’ve become? Urias bemoaned his situation. No better than a drunken sailor on leave? I think not. He lit another match and scanned the dank cellar for an exit. A stack of Old Overholt crates caught his eye and he took the time to help himself to a bottle of rye out of an open straw-filled crate. Good enough for Honest Abe is good enough for me, he thought, stashing the bottle in his coat and removing a ring of brass skeleton keys. Let’s see now, there hasn’t been a lock made that could hold a son of Mother Urias, the trick is finding … hello.
Urias exited into a trash-strewn alleyway bathed in hazy sunlight. Once again holding his head to make sure it wasn’t coming off, he looked both ways and made his way into the morning throng.
The printed card the man in plaid slipped Urias read “Niall Hendry, Men’s Haberdasher, 745 Market St., San Francisco.” So, that’s where that natty suit came from, perhaps I should update my wardrobe. Urias spun on his heels and took off down Market in search of some answers and, just maybe, a new jacket.
Could Fox really still be alive? He wondered as his boot heels pounded Market Street into submission. Granted, there wasn’t much of that body left once the fire was through with it. Urias thought back to what he and Fox had gone through together in ’62 as Union soldiers in Virginia. Both men had been part of the Army of the Potomac’s offensive against Richmond. By the time the hellish week was over, Maj. Gen. McClellan had lost almost 16,000 men. Richmond’s defenders under Lee lost 20,000.
Fox is a hard son of a bitch to kill, Urias mused. I should have remembered that. Lost in reverie, he almost walked past a storefront with painted glass windows advertising Shirts, Collars, Gloves, Belts, and Hats. Piles of said items filled the displays on either side of the wooden door. The pleasing peal of a brass bell announced his arrival, but it needn’t have bothered as Hendry sat behind a scarred wooden desk with his one of his many hats in hand as if waiting for him.
“Mr. Urias!” Hendry exclaimed. “You should have mentioned to me last night that you were traveling with only one suit of clothes. We could have ended our business here instead of the bar.”
“Mr. Hendry, I presume,” Urias made a quick sweep of the shop and finding it free of crimps—or perhaps even more of an annoyance, dandies—approached the desk. “I am afraid, sir, that I am at a bit of a sartorial disadvantage today. I seem to have spent the night in an oubliette. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that would you?”
“Now, Mr. Urias,” Hendry put down the hat and spread his hands wide in supplication, “what would it profit me to come to you for help only to see you set sail on a schooner to Shanghai? I have to apologize for the coarseness of my fair city. She sometimes gets carried away.”
“Apology accepted,” Urias relaxed a bit. “I have been thinking about your offer, and I think I would like to know the truth of the matter as much as you do. Perhaps more.”
“Excellent,” Hendry grinned and his scar gleamed. “Before we go any further, might I ask you about the nature of your relationship with the good Reverend Fox?”
“If I might ask you about the nature of the scar on your face.”
Hendry broke into deep, husky laughter. “Very well, that only seems fair. I received this beauty mark in the King’s Service during the Boer War. Nasty business, that. I was with Colley at Laing’s Nek. Four hundred and eighty of us tried to break through the Boer positions, and little more than three hundred men returned.”
Urias snorted, drawing Hendry’s war story to a premature close. “I’m sorry, I am being horribly uncouth. You want to know about the history Mordikai Fox and I share? I’ll tell you. He saved my life. We were both with the Army of the Potomac during the War Between the States. On the fourth day of what has come to be called the Seven Days Battles, we were with Bull Head Sumner’s II Corps in full retreat away from Richmond back toward the James River. We were met with three Confederate brigades at a raw hell called Savage’s Station.
“I was shot through the side and the leg and evacuated to the field hospital. The two armies fought to a bloody draw that day; then that bastard Lee brought the devil himself in by train, a naval 32-pounder. That infernal device lobbed shells as far as the hospital where I laid in the mud and the shit not knowing if I was going to live or die. At the end of the day, the Union army left us behind, twenty-five hundred wounded men to be captured or killed. Fox found me and took me away from there and tended to my injuries. When I was strong enough to travel, we left for the West.”
“You two are rank deserters, then? I thought I was dealing with a man of honor.”
“You hold your tongue, sir,” Urias warned, “lest you find it has deserted your mouth. I didn’t leave the war, hat man—the war left me. It left me bleeding in the filth with the enemy bringing the very heavens down around my head. Mordikai Fox lifted me up and I have never forgotten it. Do you want to hear about loyalty? I never left his side until I found it burned to a crisp. Now you tell me that this man may still be alive? I pledge to you that I will find out the truth or die trying.”
Hendry weighed Urias’ pledge against indiscretions well past, and, if he was honest with himself, perfectly understandable.
“Well, Mr. Urias, you’ve got the job. Now let us see about those clothes.”