©2014 Robert Lee Murphy
Pushing his eye closer to the crack in the attic floor, Will Braddock tried to get a better view. He’d grown too big to fit easily into this crawl space he used to squirm into as a small child whenever he’d wanted to spy on his parents in the kitchen below. Those two old men down there were talking about him. What was that they were saying about blacksmith apprenticeship and guardianship custody transfer? Will didn’t like what he was hearing.
Judge Sampson sat at the table directly beneath Will. “I put the legal papers in the evening mail,” the judge said. “I’m sending them to Corcoran in care of my old friend General Grenville Dodge, the Union Pacific’s chief engineer.”
“Do you really have to get the boy’s uncle involved?” Reverend Kincaid sat opposite the judge. “Can’t you just issue a court order?”
“I’ll assign temporary custody to Klaus Nagel, Reverend, but as the boy’s only living relative, Sean Corcoran needs to relinquish any claim as guardian before I make the apprenticeship final.”
The judge pulled a cigar from a pocket and lit it from a candle burning on the table. Smoke wafted up through the crack. Will pinched his nose to stave off a sneeze. Moving to avoid the pungent aroma, the rickety boards creaked and a shower of dust floated downward. He froze.
“What’s that?” The judge looked up.
“Aw, just a rat, Judge.”
“Yeah, guess so.”
The judge rose and took half a dozen steps away from the table to stand in the doorway looking at the open coffin in the parlor. “Too bad Annabelle died from consumption.”
“Hard to survive here on the Mississippi with congested lungs,” the reverend said.
“Have to give her credit for trying to keep the farm going,” the judge said. “But, to what purpose? The mortgage is in arrears, and even if he had the money, a fourteen-year-old can’t hold title to property in Iowa. The farm goes to auction next week. Under the circumstances, this apprenticeship plan seems to be the best we can do for the boy.”
“Like I say, the Lord always provides an answer to our prayers. He’ll make a fine blacksmith. He’s taller than the other boys his age, and he’s developed a strong physique working on the farm. But . . . what if Corcoran won’t relinquish custody?”
“He will. Corcoran’s a bachelor. Works as a surveyor for Dodge on the transcontinental railroad. The Union Pacific’s tracklaying is approaching the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. That’s Indian country . . . no place for a boy.”
“How long will it take for Corcoran to return your documents?”
“Two . . . three months.”
“I hope not that long. Klaus won’t be happy with a temporary arrangement.”
Judge Sampson stepped back into Will’s view. “After Annabelle’s funeral tomorrow, I’ll have the sheriff turn the boy over to Nagel.”
“I’m going home now, Reverend. Good night.”
“I’ll walk you out, Judge.”
The men’s steps receded through the house.
Will eased out of the narrow space, back into the loft bedroom. He stretched out on the narrow cot. A blacksmith apprentice may be the answer to the reverend’s prayers—but not his.
After his father was killed at the Battle of Atlanta, Will had helped his mother work the farm. Raising skimpy crops, milking their old cow, and gathering eggs from six chickens did little more than provide subsistence living. Will supplemented their meager diet with squirrels and rabbits he shot with his father’s old musket. But his mother had pushed herself too hard. When she contracted tuberculosis, she had no strength to fight it.
He stared at the ceiling. His mother used to scold him for lying on his cot wearing his dirty boots. A tear trickled down his cheek—she would never scold him again.
He squeezed his eyes. No time to cry—must concentrate. Can’t stay here and be forced into a blacksmith apprenticeship. Not that he didn’t like horses—but he wanted to ride them across windswept prairies and through forested mountains—not nail horseshoes onto hooves in the dark confines of a barn.
Will listened to the rumble of snoring from below. Reverend Kincaid had planned to hold vigil for his mother throughout the night. Obviously, he’d fallen asleep.
Morning’s first light glowed at the attic window. If Will didn’t act now, it would be too late. He sat up. The cot’s leather strapping supporting the mattress squeaked. He paused. The reverend snored on.
Boots would make too much noise. Taking them off, he wiggled his toes through holes in his socks. His mother hadn’t gotten around to mending them. Oh well, they’d have to do. He tied the laces together and hung the boots around his neck. Descending the loft’s ladder, he stopped at the bottom. The snoring continued.
He tiptoed to the parlor doorway. Half a dozen candles illuminated his mother’s body, stretched out in the pine-board casket. She would’ve thought it wasteful to burn so many candles.
The reverend’s wife had clothed his mother in her only good dress, the one she wore to church. It was the black mourning dress she’d worn to his father’s funeral—now she would wear it to her own.
Her hands lay folded across her slender body. She’d lost weight the past three years. The neighbor ladies called her skinny, but to Will she was the most beautiful mother in Burlington. He was proud to go to church holding her arm tucked under his.
A stammering gargle interrupted Reverend Kincaid’s snoring. The preacher sat before the fireplace, his head hanging over the back of a rocking chair. After a snort and a throat clearing, the snoring resumed its regular cadence.
The family musket hung above the fireplace. To retrieve it, Will would have to climb over the preacher. It wasn’t worth the risk. He’d make do with his father’s pistol.
He approached the coffin. His mother looked so pale in her final sleep. He didn’t realize he was crying until a tear dropped to her face and slid down her cheek. Will brushed the wetness from her cold skin.
“Sorry, Mama,” he whispered, “I can’t go to your funeral. They want to make me an apprentice under old man Nagel’s custody. I can’t let them do that, Mama.”
He laid a hand over hers. “You always said if I got an education, I’d amount to something. I know I didn’t do well in school, but I don’t think you meant for me to be a blacksmith.”
A quick glance confirmed Reverend Kincaid still slumbered.
“Mama, I’m going out west to find Uncle Sean. I have to talk him out of signing those papers. I’ll ask Uncle Sean to help me get a job on the railroad. That’ll make you proud of me.” He squeezed his mother’s hand, then tiptoed into the kitchen.
From the cupboard, where his mother kept it, he took down his father’s old Army Colt .44-caliber revolver and placed it and two black leather belt pouches on the table. The larger pouch contained lead bullets, each encased in a paper wrapping filled with black powder. The smaller pouch held the percussion caps that provided the initial spark to fire the pistol.
On the top shelf, he located the ceramic canister in which his mother hid the cash she got from selling eggs and milk. He withdrew a handful of coins and one paper banknote. Slipping the bill into the bottom of the smaller pouch, he concealed it beneath the handful of percussion caps, and dropped the coins into his pants pocket.
At the back door, on a row of wall pegs, hung his father’s old Army haversack and canteen. He packed the revolver, the pouches, and the canteen into the sack and slung it over his shoulder. He reached to take his cap from its peg, but stopped. Beside his cap hung his father’s faded black officer’s hat. The gold braid had long since been stripped off the brim. His mother had worn the old slouch hat when she ran to the barn on rainy days. He squared his father’s hat on his head. It fit.
“Goodbye, Mama. I love you. Wish me luck.” He stepped onto the back stoop while looking one last time toward the parlor.
“Ow!” He’d stubbed his toe against a milk pail he’d forgotten to return to the barn. The pail toppled off the stoop, clanging to the ground.
“What’s going on?” The noise had awakened the reverend. “Who’s out there?”
“Dang it!” Will didn’t stop to put on his boots, but jumped off the stoop and raced in his stocking feet to the barn. “Sorry for cussing, Mama. Couldn’t help myself.”
He sidled into the stall beside the old Belgian gelding. “Morning, Chester.” Slipping a bridle over the plow horse’s head, he led him outside. The Braddocks didn’t own a saddle. He’d ride bareback, just as he did when taking Chester to pasture. Will grabbed the horse’s mane and swung onto his back.
“Stop!” The reverend shouted from the back stoop.
Will kicked the old horse hard—something he’d never done.
“Come back here! Where do you think you’re going?”
“Run, Chester, run!”