Memories of the Old West


5) The boy had saved enough to buy a ticket from New York to Omaha, and there he was, in a strange country with no acquaintances to whom he could look for help or advice, and badly in need of a job. For a time the prospects appeared most dubious, but there must be truth in that old saying, "Fortune favors the brave," for the very afternoon of his arrival the boy got work which would take him to the western part of Nebraska. After paying his hotel bill he had just fifty cents left on which to base his career. With a party of ten he left Omaha immediately. Ten weeks later, the work on which they had been employed by the Government completed, all hands were in town waiting for their pay checks.

     The only loafing place, aside from the twenty or more saloons, was an eating-house and general store owned by Major L--, a former major of artillery in the Army of the Tennessee known as the "Flying Dutchman."

     Major L------ was a brave and courageous man, well able to take care of himself in a new country. At the close of the Civil War, with many others he had drifted West, had seen the opportunity and had prospered. After he had been there awhile, finding himself in need of a housekeeper, he had visited a Mormon train then in camp and en route to Salt Lake. Here he picked out a wife from the five hundred or more women destined for Utah. Before the elders consented to the (6) marriage, however, they investigated the character of the Major, his circumstances and position, and considered whether he might be of service to the cause for in those days, under the leadership of that great pioneer, Brigham Young, it was the hope of the church that all that country beyond the Missouri would be dominated by the Mormon faith.

     On the particular morning referred to, the party of ten were seated on empty boxes in the store when they observed the Major going around with his right arm in a sling. Approaching a desk, he attempted to write with his left hand an address on a tag he was preparing to place on a box for shipment. While the men commented on the awkwardness of the Major's efforts, the boy stepped forward and offered to do the writing. Then he carried the box to the depot, returning with the receipt.

     "How mooch I owe you?" asked the Major.

     "Why, nothing," said the boy. "I was glad to do it."

      A young clerk had been around telling that he had had his fill of the West and was leaving for Norfolk, Virginia, that evening. The boy thought that here was his chance.

      "How about a job, Major L-----?" he asked.

      "Yah," said the Major, without hesitation, "I hire you."

     Thus, in the party of ten, all--with the exception of two engineers--looking for work, the boy was the only one to land a job. Removing his cap, he stepped behind the counter, ready for business. When customers came in the boy, ignorant of prices, appealed Major, who good-humoredly gave the needed information. Later, the boy was told that an emigrant train from the West would arrive at two o'clock and there when it stopped to solicit business for the house. This particular train had been put on to give (7) early settlers in California a chance to go East for the first time by rail at reduced rates. It was, therefore, unusually well patronized.

     There was a bitter rivalry between the railroad eating-house and the Major's establishment, and bad feeling had existed for a long time. It seems the railroad company owned all the land for two hundred feet on each side of the track, and the Major had been warned to keep off. This he refused to do, and the company had sent out a detective and gunman from Omaha to prevent trespassing. He and the Major met one day, and the latter came away with a bullet in his arm. This explained his keeping the arm in the sling.

     The Major, therefore, cautioned the boy to "keep his eyes peeled" and be on the lookout for the runner from the Railroad House. By good luck the train stopped directly in front of the Major's on this day, and as a result the receipts were $147, an unusually good amount.

     That night, when the time came for retiring, the boy asked Mrs. L---- where he would find a bed. She turned on him with disgust.
"Where are your blankets?" she asked. Since the previous job had made blankets a necessity, he was well equipped, and soon produced them; whereupon the woman opened a door, and said, "Here's your room."

     Not a single article of furniture was in the room, not even a chair; but the blankets were rolled out and, thankful for the job, the boy accepted the situation and slept peacefully. The next morning he got an early start in the store with brooms and dusters, and this routine continued for a week or more.

     The Railroad House, dissatisfied with their share of patronage, about that time reduced the price of meals from $1.00 to 75 cents. With great disgust the Major (8) met the price, but in a few gays he had more cause for complaint, for he was startled to hear: "This way to the Railroad House, best meals for 25 cents." The Major became anxious and, calling the boy, said: "See what they give for 25 cents. You go in with the emigrants; sit with them, and tell me all."

     Obediently joining the crowd, the boy was comfortably seated at the table, when the proprietor spied him and, walking over, took him firmly by the collar and led him to the door.

     "When I want you, I'll send for you," he said, with a parting shove.

     Crestfallen and humiliated, the boy returned to the Major, and related the experience. As he proceeded the Major became more and more infuriated.

     "Did you kill him?" he finally demanded, ferociously. "No."

     "Then I fix him!"--and, making rapid strides to a drawer, the Major pulled out a revolver, and started for the door.

     The boy hurried to intercept him, and grasping his arm, begged him not to go, insisting that the proprietor of the Railroad House was justified in his action and not harsh in his treatment, and after a time succeeded in quieting the Major and taking away his revolver.

     There was little harmony between the Major and his wife. She was always in a hurry to count the cash after the departure of the trains. One day, during the Major's absence, business was particularly good, the receipts amounting to $200. On his return the Major went to the money drawer and, finding it nearly empty, asked where the money was. On being told that his wife had taken it he went in search of her, and presently from another room there came the sounds of angry voices, in which the Major could be heard accusing his  spouse of having taken the money so that she might leave him (9) and join her friends in Salt Lake. After that she came into the store, and heaped such a tirade of abuse on the boy's head for telling the Major that he had no alternative but to quit his job. Before he left, however, the Major said, "Put on your cap, and come with me." The boy followed him to a vacant store near by, where the Major turned to him and said, "How you like this?"

     "All right," said the boy.

     "I start you in business," proposed the Major.

     "What business?" asked the boy.

     "Saloon business," said the Major.

     "No, Major, thank you," was the reply; "I would not go into the saloon business."

     The Major seemed crestfallen; nevertheless, they parted good friends. Out of work again, the boy applied to the "enemy" at the Railroad House for a job, which he took, with the understanding that he would not be required to go to the trains in competition with his old boss.

     This position lasted six weeks. Then a job was secured from the railroad company to wipe an engine on a gravel train out on the line. In this capacity he was employed for two months, when he succeeded in getting a job firing a locomotive. In three months trade slacked up on the road, and the engine crew was laid off. The boy was out of a job again, but with $400, the savings of fourteen months, laid by, it was not so bad. One month alone he had received a check of $116 for firing his iron horse.

     Not knowing where next to turn, he had about decided to return to the East when he heard of a young man in the shops who was planning to get funds from Ohio to locate on a homestead near Lincoln, where a great rush was going on for Government land. Here
was a chance which appealed to the boy. He looked the young man up, made arrangements to throw in with (
10) him, and the next morning found him in the old Pacific House in Omaha.

     On being shown to their rooms for the night, closing the door, they discovered that there was key for the lock. In those days to make a complaint over such a trifling thing would only have been met with the remark, "If you don't like it, get out. To make the situation more uncomfortable, it was reported that there was considerable looting in the hotels, so guests had to be on guard. Therefore the door was barricaded; but the night passed without incident, and in the morning the money was deposited in the Omaha National Bank, in which institution the boy continued to keep a balance for more than fifty years.

     Lincoln being the objective--this was in 1870--the B. & M. had not long been in operation to that point. Inquiry was made in regard to the best land available, and, with what information they could gather, the two companions set out on foot, not knowing exactly where they were going. They finally reached Kiowa Ranch, then almost an outpost of civilization. Here the people were alarmed over news of Indian raids that had reached them from the west, and it was considered unsafe to go beyond that point unarmed. Since the two young men had no weapons, it was considered expedient to turn east, where after a few days' travel they reached a settlement one mile from Pleasant Hill in Saline County, off the railroad. They were received kindly by the people, who were enthusiastic over the country, and were so favorably impressed by the homesteads that they decided to buy two adjoining preempted relinquishments for $125 each, with the understanding that the Ohio boy would go on for funds and return to help build a house. In his absence the remaining boy was to make all preparations. The Government called for a house 8 x 12, but since two pre-emptors (11) joined, it was permissible to build one house 16 x 24 on the line, with one window and a door on each side and a partition in the middle.

     House building began. A team was hired to plow the sod; this was laid according to the suggestions of the neighbors, and completed to the point of roofing. Spring Creek was the most favorable place to obtain poles and brush and, after a hard day's work there, the boy returned to the house with a load big enough to make a good job of the roof. That night it rained; and it continued to rain for three nights and three days. On the morning of the fourth day it cleared, and the boy started to complete the house. But, on approaching it, he was horrified to find that the whole structure had collapsed. The incessant rain had made mud of the sod. Water-soaked and soggy, with no boards on top to protect it, the water had rushed through the walls like a sieve. The pressure was too great to withstand, and the walls had crumbled. To the boy this was nothing short of a catastrophe, and the most sorrowful day of his life was at hand.

     Winter setting in, no word from Ohio, out of a job, the situation seemed black indeed. On the advice of his friends, he went to the land officer at Lincoln to surrender the relinquishment and file on the land in his own name. The first question asked was, "How old are you?"

     "Eighteen," said he.

     "You are too young to file," was the reply. "Are you the head of a family?"


     "Then we can't do a thing for you."

     So, added to his other misfortunes, it looked as though the chance of losing the precious price of the claim was due to follow. Another job had to be found.

     Stopping at the Tichenor House conducted by Will (12) Ensey, a gentleman well known in the city at that time, the boy asked for work and found it, and a few weeks later his friends came in from Pleasant Hill and bought his claim for $125. Hotel work soon became irksome, and one day Mr. John Burke of Fort McPherson, a contractor, who supplied a Government Army Post with hay and grain for the cavalry and fresh meat and fuel for the soldiers, arrived in Lincoln. Approaching him, the boy asked for a job, and was told to take the train in the morning and go to work in the store. That same day the proprietor of the Railroad House who had led him out by the collar the fall previous met the boy on the street.

     "What are you doing?" he asked.

     "Nothing," was the reply.

     "Then come along with me and I will open a store for you."

     Here were two jobs opening up in one day, but remembering the first offer the boy considered that he was pledged to accept it, and so his friendly "enemy's" offer was rejected. He remained with the contractor for nearly a year, when a better chance was offered him in a distant town; which he accepted.

     A few months later the boy was approached by an older acquaintance with a plan of opening jointly a new store.

     "I have no money," said the boy.

     "How much have you?" asked his friend.

     "Only about five hundred dollars."

     "That's enough," was the reply. "I will put in a thousand and with $1500 cash we can get goods amount of $3000 or $4000."

     But on counting his funds the boy found that he was $37.50 short of the $500. He asked a friend for a loan of that much, but was refused on the grounds that it (13) "would be like throwing money away to compete with the stores in town."

     Disconsolate, the boy reported the shortage to his friend, and was overjoyed to hear him say, "Don't worry, that's near enough." Next day the partner started for Chicago, where he bought all the goods needed, while the boy cleaned the store and made preparations for the installation of the goods when they should arrive.

      In due time the new enterprise was launched. The boy slept on the counter by night and by day carried deliveries on his back; cleaned the windows, swept the floor, opened early and closed late, was attentive to all details, and at the age of twenty-one--three years from the commencement of this narrative--he was on the road to a prosperous future.

     In one year from the day the store opened it was on even terms with the leading merchants of the town, and the following year the partners took the lead and held it during the continuance of the firm.

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