©2014 Robert Lee Murphy
Passing through the last of the business section, Will came upon a row of dwellings. There should be a well here. At least he could fill his canteen and quench his thirst. He’d gone hungry a lot during his four-week trek across Iowa. Being hungry wasn’t a comfortable feeling—but he could do it.
In the backyard of a two-story house surrounded by a white picket fence, he spotted a stout woman hanging laundry. A bonnet concealed her face. “Ma’am?” he called.
She didn’t respond. He leaned over the fence and raised his voice. “Ma’am!”
The woman looked his way. Strands of white hair poked from beneath the wings of her bonnet. Will hoisted his canteen. “Ma’am, might I trouble you to fill my canteen at your well?”
The woman peered at him for several moments before answering. “Yah. Come. The well be here in back.” Her lilting accent reminded him of a Swedish woman he’d known in Burlington.
In the backyard, Will cranked a bucket of water up from the bottom of the well and pushed his canteen into it. When the gurgling down the spout stopped, he tipped it up and gulped the chilly liquid. He filled the canteen again and tapped the cork stopper into the neck.
Behind the house he spotted a woodpile. An ax leaned against it. “Ma’am, I’ll chop that firewood for a bite to eat.”
The woman nodded. “Yah, that be good trade.” She gathered up her laundry basket and disappeared into the house.
He laid the first log across an old stump that served as a chopping block and attacked the log with a vigorous swing. Three swings later the log split in two. Chopping firewood had been one of his chores at home. He could probably do the job in his sleep.
As he worked to diminish the log pile, he imagined what it’d be like to swing a hammer against an anvil. Why’d Judge Sampson think it was his job to decide Will’s future, anyway? He swung the ax harder, almost splitting that log with one blow.
He had to find his uncle—had to talk him out of agreeing with the judge. “I don’t want to be a blacksmith apprentice!” One more fierce blow with the ax and the log flew apart.
“Who be you talking to out there?” the woman asked him from the kitchen window.
“Nobody, ma’am.” He gritted his teeth and laid another log on the block.
Will chopped for over an hour until he’d reduced the logs to a size suitable for a cookstove. When he finished, he knocked on the back door. “I’m done, ma’am.”
The woman stepped out onto the porch. “Yah. And good job it looks, too. Come in.”
Will followed the woman into the kitchen. She motioned to a chair at a table. “What be your name, son?”
“Will. Will Braddock.” He sat where she’d pointed.
“I be Mrs. Svenson . . . Helga Svenson . . . housekeeper for Mr. Rogers.”
“Yah. You know Mr. Rogers?”
“Not really, ma’am. I just met him at the bank today.”
She set a plate of stew in front of him. Will inhaled the aroma of beef, potatoes, carrots and onions. He raised the first bite to his mouth and reminded himself to chew before swallowing. His mother had frequently criticized him for eating too fast.
“Mm.” My goodness, he hadn’t eaten this well in days.
Mrs. Svenson sliced an end from a loaf of bread and placed it beside his plate. She pushed a crock of butter to him. Will buttered the bread and sopped up the broth.
“Delicious, ma’am. Thank you.”
“You be welcome.” She wiped her hands on her apron. “Why be a young boy like you in Omaha?”
“I’m not so young. I’m . . . fourteen.” He decided not to tell her the same story he’d told the bank teller.
“Fourteen. Yah, not so young . . . maybe.” She grinned.
Will told her about his mother’s recent death and that he’d come to Omaha to find General Dodge, who he hoped could help him locate his uncle.
“How did you get here?” she asked.
“At first I rode Chester, our old plow horse. But he wore out and died. After that I hitched a ride on a farmer’s wagon . . . whenever I could. Mostly I walked.”
Mrs. Svenson replaced Will’s stew plate with a smaller one containing a slice of apple pie.
“Nebraska is yust not safe like Iowa,” she said. “Savages be attacking the railroad all the time. You can defend yourself?”
“I have a revolver.”
A few minutes later, Will scraped the fork across the plate and licked it clean. He ran his tongue around his lips savoring the final tastes of the pie. “My mama was a good cook. Just like you.”
“Thank you, Will. That be nice compliment.”
Will pushed back from the table and stood.
“Where be you going tonight?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Find a tree to sleep under, like I’ve been doing.”
“You sleep in the stable tonight. Yust be careful of that big gelding. General Dodge be coming in the morning to fetch him.”
“I will, ma’am.” Mr. Rogers had mentioned he was stabling the general’s horse. Now the general was coming here in the morning. He couldn’t ask for anything better.
Will opened the back door, but Mrs. Svenson caught his sleeve. “Wait.”
She hurried across the kitchen and returned with two red apples. “Horses like apples, yah? One for horse, one for you.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Will jumped off the back porch, gathered up his haversack, canteen, and hat from where he’d left them beside the woodpile, and headed toward the stable. While he’d eaten supper, the sun had set. He pulled one of the squeaky stable doors open far enough to slip through, stepped inside, and eased the door closed behind him. He paused to let his vision adjust to the dim light.
A horse snorted and shuffled nearby. There were no windows in the stable, but twilight filtered through cracks between the wall boards. In a stall, he made out the shape of a horse.
“Hello, boy.” He spoke in the same soothing voice he’d used to talk to Chester. “Easy, fellow.”
When Will entered the stall, the horse tried to step back, but was restrained by a halter rope tied to the front rail. “Easy, now.” He stroked the horse’s withers. The hair rippled beneath his hand in shivered response. He held out one of the apples, keeping his fingers and thumb pressed together, so the horse couldn’t nip them. The horse devoured the apple in two chomps.
“Pretty good, huh?” The horse reached for the second apple, but Will pulled it behind him. “No you don’t. That’s mine.”
Will ran his fingers through the mane, encountering numerous tangles. “Well, boy. In the morning I’ll groom you up so you’ll look nice to greet General Dodge. What do you say to that?”
The horse whinnied and tossed his head.
“You and I seem to get along all right, fellow. Guess you won’t mind if I bunk in the loft tonight.”
An old buggy sat against the opposite wall. Mr. Rogers must’ve kept a horse for the buggy at one time, but there was no evidence of a second horse now.
He climbed to the loft, ate his apple, and washed it down with sips from his canteen. He took the revolver out of his haversack and weighed the heavy gun in his hand. How many Rebels had his father killed with it before he’d lost his own life? What was it like to shoot another man?
Maybe he should load the pistol—but it was dark, he was tired, his belly was full, and the threat of attack was far to the west. He’d load it in the morning. He returned the gun to the haversack and raked some stale straw into a pile with his foot. Yawning, he stretched out on the makeshift bed, pulled his hat over his face, and fell asleep.