©2014 Robert Lee Murphy
Twenty-seven days after running away from Burlington, Will walked up one of the main thoroughfares of Omaha, Nebraska. He’d done a lot of walking the past two weeks, after Chester had worn out and died. Shoppers hustled along the boardwalk on both sides of the dirt street. Buggies and carriages jostled for right-of-way as they rattled past on the dusty road.
“Watch where you’re going, son!”
Will jumped back onto the wooden sidewalk. He’d been so preoccupied studying the building across the street that he’d stepped off the walkway and hadn’t noticed the horseback rider bearing down on him.
Grabbing an opening in the traffic, he dashed across the road, stopping at the bottom of a long stairway that climbed in a dozen steps to the second-floor entrance to the United States National Bank. The brick structure rose two and a half stories above ground—the lower level being sunk a half story below the street. Along the side of the building, a narrow stairway reached from street level at the front corner directly to a doorway on the top floor. A sign above that third-floor entrance indicated it was headquarters for the Union Pacific Railroad.
The railroad office was what he’d come looking for. The ferry operator had told him that’s where he could find General Dodge.
Will slapped the old slouch hat against his leg. Dust flew from pants and hat. He ran a hand through his grimy hair and jammed the hat back on. The bank would close in a few minutes, and not open again until Monday. He had to go there first.
He retrieved the percussion pouch from his haversack and took out the twenty-dollar banknote. The ferry ride earlier that day across the Missouri River from Council Bluffs had taken his last coins. He’d hoarded the paper bill since he’d run away from Burlington. Now it was the only money he had left.
Climbing the dozen steps, he reached for the bank’s front door. It flew outward and a man talking back over his shoulder to someone in the bank barged into him.
Will grabbed the railing to keep from tumbling down the stairs.
“Sorry, young fellow. Wasn’t paying attention.”
“That’s all right, sir.” Will released his grip on the railing and straightened up.
The middle-aged man smiled through a graying mustache and beard. “We’ll both watch where we’re going next time. Eh, son?” He patted Will on both shoulders and hurried down the steps.
Will entered the bank and crossed the empty lobby to where a scrawny teller stood behind a barred window. He waited, but when the teller continued to ignore him, he cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”
The teller laid a stubby pencil beside a paper on which he’d been writing a column of numbers. Looking out through thick-lensed, wire-framed glasses, owlish eyes bored a hole in Will. “What do you want, boy?”
Will laid the banknote on the counter, keeping the fingers of one hand on an edge. Should he trust the teller with his money? “I’d like to change this.”
The teller snatched the bill from beneath Will’s fingers and held it up to allow sunlight to shine through the paper. Sweat stains discolored the armpits of his rumpled shirt, the sleeves of which were bound with elastic bands around skinny biceps. “Where’d you steal this?”
“I didn’t steal it!” Will jerked his hand off the counter and clenched his fists.
The teller glanced toward a heavyset man sitting at a rolltop desk. “Mr. Rogers?” A name sign atop the desk read: Chief Cashier Guy Rogers.
“What it is, Harry?”
“This boy wants to change a twenty-dollar note issued by the Burlington State Bank.”
“I’m not a boy.”
The teller glared back at Will. “How old are you?”
“I’ll be . . . fifteen . . . on my next birthday.” Will decided not to mention that his birthday was ten months away.
“That sure don’t make you a man.”
Rogers heaved himself out of his chair, shuffled to the teller’s window, and accepted the proffered money. Bushy black eyebrows drew together as he scrutinized the banknote. “We don’t see many bills from Burlington, Iowa. Where did you get this?”
“It’s from my mother’s egg money. We had a farm there. But she died. So I left.”
“Omaha’s a long way from Burlington. That’s near three hundred miles away. What’re you doing here?”
“I’m looking for my uncle, Sean Corcoran. He works for General Grenville Dodge, chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad.”
“Don’t know your uncle, but that was General Dodge you ran into at the front door.”
“That was General Dodge? He isn’t wearing a uniform.”
“He’s not in the Army anymore. Folks call him ‘general’ out of respect. Has an office on the floor above the bank.” Rogers pointed up with the banknote. “He stopped in here to inquire about a horse I’m stabling for him. He’ll be heading for the ferry now to go to his home over in Council Bluffs.”
“Please hurry, sir. I have to talk with General Dodge.”
Rogers handed the bill to the teller. “Give him the change, Harry.”
The teller counted out a stack of coins and pushed them across the counter. Will scooped them into the cap pouch, dropped the pouch into his haversack, and dashed out the door.
Jumping down the steps two at a time, he raced toward the ferry crossing. He dodged around wagon traffic and horseback riders, who shouted at him to get out of the way.
He wasn’t going to make it. The ferry had already pulled away from the landing. He skidded to a stop at the end of the dock, gasping for breath.
General Dodge leaned against the vessel’s railing, talking with the ferryman. Will cupped his hands around his mouth. “General Dodge!”
The general looked in his direction, waved, then returned to his conversation.
“Dang it!” Will banged a fist against the wooden bollard where the ferry tied up. “Sorry, Mama,” he muttered.
Walking off the dock, he trudged back up the road that led from the river through the business section of Omaha. He’d have to wait until tomorrow to talk to General Dodge. He choked and coughed on dust churned up by a passing buggy.
Tipping his father’s old canteen, its canvas cover still faintly stenciled 7th Iowa, to his lips, a drop trickled into his mouth. He shook it. Nothing came out. His stomach growled. He squinted at the sun low on the horizon. Nearly supper time. Not only was he thirsty, he was hungry.
He had the twenty dollars in coins, but half of them would be needed for his railroad ticket. Posters plastered on walls around town advertised that the one-way ticket to the end of the line cost ten dollars. Not sure what lay ahead, he didn’t want to part with any of his money for food or drink—just yet.
Someplace west of here he hoped to find his uncle—had to find his uncle. If his uncle signed those guardianship transfer papers, he’d be committed to seven years of servitude as a blacksmith apprentice. The thought of becoming a blacksmith filled him with dread. He dreamed of the excitement of helping to build the first transcontinental railroad. He craved the freedom to determine his own destiny.
But what would he do if he couldn’t find his uncle in time—before his uncle signed those papers?