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Chapter 11

The Hole-in-the-Wall

The sailboat proved a much more agreeable mode of travel than the steamboat. The quiet alone had much to recommend it; the sailboat being free of both the incessant chugging of a steam engine and the inescapable and often dangerous babel of human passengers. There was no sound at all save that made by the wind in the sails. The boatman, laconic by nature, neither spoke nor sang as he worked the ropes and rudder. Even Jack was silent; no doubt she had as much on her mind as I did. We had not settled our differences, but there was nothing more to say.

The little boat sat low in the water, and it seemed to magnify the grandness of the wide river and the mountains to the east and west. It was a fairly straight route south down the Hudson, but the river did bend and turn around stone outcroppings, becoming narrower, then incredibly wide, past terrain that sometimes rolled gradually down from distant mountains and sometimes ended abruptly with tall cliffs at waters edge.  We passed one such section of towering rocky cliff that looked as though an immense curtain had been drawn aside to reveal that the entirety of New York State was resting on massive stone pillars as if crafted by some great and ancient civilization.

“The Palisades,” the boatman said, knowing that the scene required comment, but not very much.

The mountains and treetops to the west were so far above us that our sunset was hours earlier than normal and we traveled in twilight for the last leg of the trip to New York City. Eventually, the land flattened out, and the boatman told us we had reached Manhattan, with New Jersey on our right.  At first, it was all farmland, but as we went further south, we saw more and more buildings until the Manhattan side was nothing but buildings, taller and more tightly packed than Albany. Even from the river, we could see carriages travelling under streetlamps already lit down the roads leading to the river. As we traveled further south, the buildings appeared to be older, with some badly in need of repair. We went almost to the end of Manhattan, stopping at the Liberty Street Dock.

“We will wait here until my customer arrives,” said the boatman.

It was nearly dark; it seemed to me an odd time to unload cargo. The boatman explained that it was not hard unloading in the dark as long as he had his own men along.

“I can hire the dockhands here,” he said, “but when I do, not all the barrels make it to the wagon. If I wait until morning to unload, the Daybreak Boys’ll take a share. “

It was completely dark when the wagon arrived, pulled by a huge, heavy-footed workhorse. The teamster maneuvered the wagon to a position he liked and Jack, and I began moving barrels. They were quite heavy, and it took both of our attentions to roll the barrels down the plank without losing control.  We then rolled them up another plank onto the wagon. The teamster gave us directions on how he wanted the barrels stacked, but would not lift a finger to help us. We worked by the light of a lantern, and in the shadows, we could see the dockworkers eyeing us with contempt, but we gave them no opportunity to steal a barrel.

When we had loaded the last barrel, the boatman came up to the wagon where he and the teamster slowly and meticulously counted each one. There were twenty-four in total, lying in rows of four: three rows on the bottom, two rows atop them, and one row atop the two. When both men were satisfied, the boatman signed his name, and the teamster handed him the money. While the teamster was securing his cargo, the boatman paid Jack and me the promised dollar apiece.

“Thank you boys, that was money well spent.”

“Those barrels are heavy,” Jack said, “can I ask you what’s inside of ‘em?”

“Cider.” He said.

“Cider?” This got Jack’s attention, “See, Pratt, I told you there was money in cider.”

“No there ain’t,” said the boatman, “not for me anyway. They gauge me at both ends, and those in between rob me when they can. Besides, no one in the city wants cider these days. Anyway, I won’t be bringing any more.”

He lit his pipe and started walking back to the boat. “You boys want a ride back north?”

“No, we’re going to stay in the city.”

He stopped then, took some quick draws on his pipe to get the embers glowing, then took a deep puff. He looked at us both then said, “I couldn’t help but notice some bad blood between you boys. What is it, a girl?”

“It ain’t that,” Jack said.

“Then whatever it is, I would recommend that you put it behind you. You’re going to need each other’s help here.”

We thanked the boatman and bid him farewell, then started up Liberty Street.

“That wagon’s moving mighty slow with all that cider,” Jack said, “let’s find out where he’s taking it.”

And just like that, without a word between us, Jack took the boatman’s advice and buried the tomahawk. But I was still leery.  We were in this strange and hostile city with just a dollar apiece (and whatever money Jack hadn’t lost on the steamboat), and for the first time since leaving the canal boat, I had doubts about our chances. I got a bad feeling about the city of New York the moment I stepped ashore. The boatman was right, though, we would need each other.

The wagon was moving so slowly that we could follow it down Liberty Street at a walk. Jack was talking again, and she was talking about cider.

“I told you we could make money bringing cider down here,” she said.

“Didn’t you listen to that fellow?” I said, “He’s not making any money. Everybody steals from him. Nobody here wants cider.”

“Somebody just bought twenty-four barrels. That’s who I want to talk to.”

I said nothing. As far as I was concerned, unloading those twenty-four barrels was my first and last venture into the business of cider. I wished I had never left the Rhinebeck dock; for that matter, I wished I had never left the canal boat. I never should have left the Travises. Now that I knew I was damned anyway, theirs was a safer life of sin. And I could hear Mirable sing again.

The wagon trundled down Liberty Street almost to the East River then up Water Street about five blocks before stopping at a resort called the Hole-in-the-Wall. We watched as men came from inside the tavern and rolled three barrels into the place.

Jack and I went inside.  The Hole-in-the-Wall was so wild it made the dives of Watervleit look like church picnics in comparison. The people wore all manner of clothing, but with a sameness to it, like a rag-picker’s attempt at fashion. There were sailors in uniform, and children in nightgowns, women lounging with their blouses open and breasts displayed to the world. All of them were extremely drunk and everyone seemed to be in contention with someone else. Fights would break out sporadically and when they did a woman would come from behind the bar to stop them.  She was easily six feet tall and her skirts were held up with suspenders. She had a pistol tucked in her waist and had bludgeon on a strap hanging from her wrist. When a fight would break out, she would grab the bludgeon and strike one or both of the fighters. This was usually enough to break up the fight, but when it wasn’t, she would get angry and take matters to another level. We watched in horror as she bit the ear off one rowdy before throwing him out the door. She received a rousing cheer as she returned to the bar and spat the piece of flesh into a jar already half filled with pickled ears.

“Who the hell is that?” Jack asked the drunk next to her.

“That’s Gallus Maggie, and ye best not cross the line when she’s watchin’.”

Looking out on the hell on earth that was the Hole-in-the-Wall, I was hard-pressed to say where that line was. Just how did Gallus Maggie judge when someone had crossed it?

We purchased ale and found a table against the wall where there was little chance of attack from behind. Oblivious to the chaos all around us, Jack went on about the cider. The old man didn’t matter, she said, what matters was that someone bought twenty-four barrels of cider. We knew we would have to make new plans when we hit New York, and that’s what we were doing.

As she spoke, I saw a young man stride into the Hole-in-the-Wall. His dress was peculiar to me, but the clothing was clearly finer than that of everyone else in the place. He wore his hat at a jaunty angle and had a large sheathed knife in his belt. Many of the men at the bar hailed him as he entered and gathered around him like old friends. Just as many shied away, and left the bar for the shadows. Some even hurried out the door to avoid his eyes.

Jack noticed him too and watched as he called out to the man behind the bar who hurried to the call and stood nodding as the young man spoke. Then as if following orders, he and another man hoisted one of the new barrels to a shelf behind the bar. They taped the keg, pounding in a spout, then poured the first glass for the young man. He took a sip and nodded.

“That must be him.” She said standing up, “That must be the man who bought the cider. I’ve got to talk to him.”

“Oh, let it rest Jack, please,” I said, “We’re not going into the cider business.  Now let’s go get some food and talk about getting out of this wretched city.”

“I don’t care what you do, Pratt, you can go to hell for all I care. I’m going to do what I came here to do.”

She walked up to the young man and got his attention. He looked amused at first, to be talking to this boy, half a head shorter than he. But soon I could see he took an interest to what Jack was telling him and before much longer they walked out of the place together.

I waited at the table, sipping my ale until it was gone. Jack had stormed off before but had always come back; by this time I thought maybe she wouldn’t. I had not eaten all day and was exceedingly hungry. I still had the dollar, less the cost of one ale, and could probably find a place to eat, but I had to wait, I had to be sure she wasn’t coming back.  I had no idea how late it was, but the crowd at the Hole-in-the-Wall was down to half a dozen boys at the bar and a number of passed-out bodies at various points around the room.  

“Well, me lad, ye must be new in town. Leastwise I never seen you at the Hole-in-the-Wall afore tonight.” A man bellowed to me. I looked up to see a big man standing over me—big chest, big arms, fists on hips, but smiling. I felt he meant me no harm.

“Yes, sir,” I said, “I just came to town tonight.”

“Is that a fact? Are ye here all alone, then?”

It was the question I had been asking myself all night, and I was ready to answer, “Yes, I’m alone.”

“Well now lad, have ye no family here in New York?”

“No sir, I have not.”

“Why you sound like a poor orphan child.” The giant said gently.

“I have never had a mother,” I said, “and I have no father either, so yes, I believe I am an orphan.”

He nodded then in sympathy then asked, “Have ye ever spent any time at sea?”

“I have been more than a week on a canal boat, and I rode two vessels down the Hudson this very day.”

“Well that’s more than most,” he said quietly, then quite loudly said, “Young lad, I would like to buy you a drink to welcome you to the city of New York.”

“Thank you sir,” I said, “But I would rather have some food. I haven’t eaten all day.”

“Let me see what I can do.” He said and walked to the bar.

The whole interchange felt peculiar, but I had a good feeling about the big man. He was the sort of fellow I would need on my side if was going to make it in this city.

“Sorry lad, there was no food. I brought you a pint of stout; that should be hearty enough for your appetites.” He said, putting mug in front of me.

I took a drink. It was hearty, hearty and strong, but warming through and through.

“Drink up lad.” He said, and I did as told.

But after only two draughts from the mug, I was dizzy and disoriented. For one brief moment, I was lucid enough to realize two things: there was more in that mug than stout, and I am a terrible judge of human character. In the next moment, I became another unconscious patron on the floor of the Hole-in-the-Wall.