(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Return to Nebraska, June 1911
[On the train back to Hastings, Nebraska. Simon Cullen returns from a longer-than-planned trip to the west. On the train, he talks with a stranger about his life.]
“Simon, must you go?” Janie looked up at her fiancé, and her dark eyes poured out what was in her heart.
Simon found her hard to resist, but he did so nevertheless. “Yes. I must, dear. I’ve wanted to do this all my life, Janie, you know that.”
Janie looked down at the floor. She couldn’t bear to look in Simon’s eyes any longer.
Simon reached down and lifted her chin. “Come on, Janie. I know this is hard for you. But it’s now or never. Once we’re married, it will be too late.”
“I’ll be here when you get back, Simon Cullen. But don’t take me for granted. There are others who would marry me, you know.” Her eyes twinkled and she smiled at him.
“I know that, Janie. I do. I promise: I’ll come back to you, and then we’ll spend our whole lives together.”
That conversation, held almost a year before, now played through Simon’s head. Against Janie’s better judgement, he had taken his adventure. But it’s over now, Simon thought. I have the travelling bug out of my system for good. Soon he would be seeing his Janie again, they would be married, and he would forget the worst of his experiences. Maybe if he had known what was going to happen, he would never have gone. But he had had no idea then how tough the world could be, even after his discouraging days in Lincoln. Boy, he thought, Ma and Pa will be glad that I’ve come to my senses. I know now that Nebraska is where I belong.
Simon leaned his head back on the pillow provided by the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad and tried to close his eyes. It wasn’t easy to do, though. His six-foot-two-inch, two-hundred-fifty-pound frame took up most of the seat, and the back of it was not quite high enough to support his head. After attempting to find a comfortable position, he gave up. He sat up again, stretched out his legs and placed his feet on the seat opposite him, and stared out at the train station to watch people board.
Passengers quickly filled the train car — four loud and giggly young women, two families with crying children, three elderly ladies with their knitting bags, an older man and wife, and several young men alone like himself. With only a few seats left, a middle-aged man with a short, well-trimmed black beard approached Simon. “Do you mind if I sit here?” he asked, pointing to the empty seat across from Simon where his feet currently rested.
“Of course not. Have a seat.” Simon moved his feet, and pushed his satchel a bit further under his seat. His long legs, however, did not leave much room for the other man. “Sorry to take your foot rest, and I’m afraid I take up quite a bit of space here.”
“Not a problem.” The man, about six inches shorter than Simon, settled himself in his seat. “I’m headed for Hastings. You, too?” The man placed his briefcase beside him on the seat and used it as an arm rest.
“Yes,” Simon answered.
“Going for a visit or to stay?”
“To stay. I hope to have a job there soon and a new wife. How about you?”
“Oh, I’m a businessman, a salesman actually, just passing through. I live in Lincoln with my wife and two daughters.” He took off his glasses, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and rubbed the lenses clean.
Simon stroked his chin and looked at the man, trying to size him up. “I went to school in Lincoln, but I didn’t like it much.”
“Oh, which school? I went to the the University of Nebraska. Class of ‘88. ‘Go forward with courage.’ That was our motto.”
“I went to Cotner University.”
“You were planning to be a minister?” the stranger asked.
Simon shifted in his seat, still unsuccessfully trying to get comfortable. “I thought about it, but it didn’t work out. I was twenty-two years old, looking for a new life. I figured that if I didn’t want to be a pastor or a missionary, I could try another profession; Cotner University also trains doctors, dentists, and teachers.“
“So which did you become?”
“None of those.“ Simon laughed. “I left Cotner after a year and went to Hastings Business College. I’m an accountant. I didn’t like Lincoln. I hated the crowds, and too many strangers. Millions of ideas and no one agrees. I was lonely and I missed home. I was confused, isolated. I failed almost all of my courses, and I couldn’t face returning to my parents’ farm. I did well at Hastings Business College, though. I liked Hastings much better. It’s smaller than Lincoln and has more of a ‘small town’ feel to it, yet it has a big city atmosphere: electric lights, an Opera House, and the railroads.”
The stranger nodded, pleased to apparently have a good conversationalist sitting across from him. “Yes, I like Hastings, too,” he agreed, “and I know what you mean about Lincoln, but that’s partly what I love about it. Many people, new ideas. It’s not for everyone, though.“ After a short pause, he added, “By the way, my name’s Harold Stokes. Yours?” He reached over and offered his hand to Simon.
Simon smiled and shook Harold Stokes’s hand. “Simon Cullen.”
“Pleased to meet you.“
“Likewise.” The train lurched forward and began to move. “Looks like we’re on our way. Next stop: Hastings. I can hardly wait!”
“I take this ride often,” Harold said. “It’s quite nice, I think.” He paused and looked out the window, readjusted himself in his seat and then said, “If you didn’t like Lincoln, you must not have grown up there.”
“No, I grew up on my parents’ farm in Nemaha County, near Howe.”
Harold Stokes stroked his beard and stared upwards. “Yes, I think I know where that is. Down in the southwest corner of the state, right?”
“Yes, you know Nebraska well. Most folks haven’t heard of Howe.”
“I travel around the state quite a bit. As I said before, I’m a salesman.”
“What do you sell?”
“Mostly housewares.” Harold Stokes opened his briefcase and pulled out a small brochure. He handed it to Simon.
“Mmm. Looks interesting.” Simon took a moment to look at the brochure, mostly photographs of items which Harold Stokes sold. He looked up at Harold and said, “My mother bought her eyeglasses from a traveling peddler, and she never stopped talking about it. I used to sell bibles door-to-door when I was young. I earned a fair bit of money doing that. Salesmen who travel the rural areas of Nebraska do a great service to the community.”
Harold nodded his head. “Yes, I agree. Why did you say you were going to Hastings?”
Simon tried to give back the brochure but Harold told him to keep it. Simon folded it in half and placed it in his shirt pocket. “I’m going to get married,“ he said, “and I think I’ve got a job. The final decision will be made when I have an interview.”
“Congratulations. It sounds as though you have a future ahead of you.”
Simon smiled. “I do.” Then he thought of Janie. “I do indeed.” He looked out at the prairie rolling by and his heart felt good to see his native state again. “I loved growing up on the farm, but there’s no future there for a twenty-five-year-old man who wants to start a family. My parents have left — my father’s health is failing — and a couple of my older brothers run the farm now.”
“They don’t want another brother’s help?”
“Oh, they’d probably let me, if I didn’t have anywhere else to go. But I don’t feel like it’s my farm. They’ve stayed there and they’ve kept it going.”
Harold nodded. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose. “I know. I had to leave the family farm, too.”
The conversation lagged and Simon watched the prairie roll by the window while Harold pulled out a newspaper from his briefcase and began to read. All in all, Simon thought, I have nothing to be ashamed of. Ma and Pa probably thought I’d never make anything of myself and I’d be a drifter all my life. But things are getting better. A child yelled something to his mother and Simon wondered what had happened to children’s respect for their mothers. I could never have done that, he thought. Pa would have smacked me right off my chair. He smiled as he recalled the one and only time that had happened to him.
Simon’s thoughts were interrupted by Harold Stokes. He had put down his newspaper and was also looking out the window. “What was life like for you growing up in Nemaha County?”
“Rough,” Simon instantly responded. “I loved my family, but school was sometimes a living hell. If I’d never had to go to school, things might have turned out a lot differently.”
Puzzled, Harold said: “If you don’t mind telling me about it, I’d love to know why.”
“I don’t mind. I like to talk and this passes the time.” Simon stretched his long body once again, feeling quite cramped in the small seat. “My father taught me to be fair and honest. I got a big shock when I went to school and discovered that not everyone was good and kind, like my parents.”
“Let me guess,” Harold said. “You were teased about something.”
Simon scrutinized Harold‘s face. He seemed an honest man, but Simon had learned that you couldn’t always tell a man’s honesty by his looks. Harold Stokes was well-dressed, polite, an easy talker. Simon decided, with little evidence to prove otherwise, that Harold Stokes was a good man and he could trust this stranger. “You’re right about that,” he said. “Teased unmercifully. I was always big for my age: tall and heavy. None of my siblings looked liked me. Sometimes I thought I might have been dropped by another family heading west, and my parents picked me up on the wagon trail and brought me with them!”
Harold laughed. “I think they might have told you if that had happened.”
“Maybe,” Simon mused. “And maybe not.“
“How many siblings do you have?”
“Three older sisters, five older brothers, and a younger brother and sister. Eleven in all. My mother lost a couple of babies, too.”
“Eleven. My, my! I have seven siblings, all sisters, would you believe?“
“I prefer brothers.”
“I wouldn’t have minded having one or two,” Harold mused. “And none of your other brothers were built like you?”
“Not a one. All of them tall and thin, just like my pa.”
“That must have been difficult.”
“It was. Pa told me I had inherited my mother’s side of the family, and I should remember my Christian obligation to turn the other cheek. My ma told me I was handsome; I shouldn’t let anyone tell me differently, and I looked exactly the way God intended me to look. My older brothers kept saying that rhyme, ‘Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.’ But they were so wrong. No one, except the person who’s being tormented, understands the hurt that words can cause. I felt very alone. My older brothers sometimes fought for me, but kids still singled me out. I wanted to go to school. I didn’t want to get into trouble. So, at first, I tried to avoid them. They just wouldn’t go away, so then I fought back. I’d get expelled from school for fighting and Pa would take a switch to me. Then I started the fights before anyone could taunt me. That made it worse. My pa often said to me, ‘Simon, you have a choice. You must learn self-control and discipline. Fighting with every boy who calls you a name will never solve anything.’”
“Good advice, I’d say. I think I like your father, even though I’ve never met him.”
“Yes,” Simon replied. “My father’s a good man. But I couldn’t control myself! I’d try really hard for a while, running home to tell Ma that I’d been good that day, but always — inevitably — someone would say something and that would start me going again. I just couldn’t control my anger. The school finally asked that I not come back, after I finished the eighth grade.”
Howard shook his head. “That’s too bad. Education‘s important. How did your parents feel about that?”
“They were mad, especially Pa. I couldn’t really blame them. I stayed and worked hard on the farm. I tried to make it up to my parents. They were honest, God-fearing folks and I didn’t want to hurt them.”
Harold Stokes, twenty years older than Simon, took out his pipe. “Do you mind?” he asked, pointing to his pipe.
“Not at all.“ Simon pulled a cigar from his suit pocket, and lit it up. He took in a long breath and enjoyed watching the circles he could blow up to the ceiling.
Howard continued where they had left off. “I admire your courage, young man. Your parents taught you well.”
“Thank you. They would be pleased to hear you say that.” Simon moved again in his seat, crossing his legs the opposite way, and shifting his weight. “These seats are not comfortable.”
“Not for a man of your size. I’m glad sometimes that I inherited my mother’s short stature.” Harold smiled and took a puff on his pipe.
The conversation ended again, both men enjoying their smoke. This time, Simon looked around the train car. All strangers, yet they too were going somewhere, and perhaps had a loved one waiting. With each turn of the wheels, he knew he was getting closer to Janie. When I get there, Janie, I’m never going to leave again.
“Mr. Cullen,“ Harold interrupted Simon’s thoughts of Janie, “I gather that you’re good with numbers.”
“Yes, sir, I am. I had lots of trouble with school work, except when it came to numbers. I hated sitting in a room and doing other things, like reading and science. Numbers made sense to me. No mistakes. Always a clear-cut answer.”
Harold nodded his head. “I like numbers, too. As a salesman, I need to keep my own records. Why did you go to Cotner and try to be a minister?”
“I’m not sure. I was lost. I knew I didn’t want to stay on the farm. I wanted to make something of myself, and I wanted to make my parents proud of me. A friend told me about Cotner and, since I’d always enjoyed church and selling the bible, I thought perhaps I had a calling. My parents wanted me to stay — even encouraged me to — but they also wanted me to do what I wanted to do. They were glad to see me try something.”
“Yes, with two daughters of my own, I know how much parents want their children to find success.” Harold finished smoking his pipe and put it away.
“Of course, my pa might have felt that I was more likely to cause trouble and make things worse.”
“Why’s that?” Harold laughed.
“Oh, no particular reason, I guess.“ Simon paused and an image of his father came into his mind. “I did come close to killing his mule once. I had a temper as a youth, and I was accident prone. Sometimes it just seemed as though trouble followed me wherever I went.”
Harold looked out the window. The flat land stretched out for miles. “Well, you have me intrigued. What happened?”
“I‘d been working Pa’s mule, trying to walk him in a circle as he was the source of power for the mill. It was hot and the mule, who had the strength of two horses but was very stubborn, refused to move. I tell you, nothing would make that mule move! I picked up my cattle whip, and I swung it at him, hitting him behind the ear.“ Simon paused and smiled. “I'd hoped to inspire him to move!”
Harold chuckled. “And I gather that it didn’t work out that way.”
“No, sir, it didn’t. He dropped to the ground, out cold, completely lifeless.”
“Had you killed him?” Harold sat forward in his seat so he could hear Simon over the other conversations in the car and the rattle of the wheels on the tracks.
“I wasn’t sure at first. I knew how my pa would react if I had. I’d have to buy a new one.”
“What did you do?”
“I stared at the mule on the ground and I prayed he’d get up!”
“Did that work? Somehow I think it didn’t.” Harold laughed. Two children ran by them, squealing with laughter.
“Hardly. I got some water from the crik and I poured it over the mule’s head. Imagine my surprise when the obstinate creature stood up and started working again! He worked the entire afternoon without stopping!”
Harold leaned back his head and laughed. He laughed so hard that tears came to his eyes. “That, young man, is quite a story. Did you tell your father about it?”
Simon shook his head. “No, not at first. But a couple of weeks later, I finally admitted it.“
“What did your father say?”
“Not much. He just shook his head and walked away.” Simon paused, remembering the moment, and seeing his father in his mind. “You know what? A few years later, that mule got stubborn with my older brother, and he got his gun and shot that mule in the head. He buried him that afternoon, and that night he just told my pa, ‘I’ll buy you a new mule, Pa.’ Pa never said another word about it.”
Both men laughed together. Children nearby ran up and down the aisle and the ticket conductor came by and checked everyone’s tickets. The car swayed and the train’s wheels crackled.
Harold again began the conversation after their tickets had been checked: “So where have you been? Where are you coming from?”
“I’ve been away for almost a year. I wanted to see the west — Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon. They seemed like exciting places to me. I told my fiancé that I had to do that before we could get married.”
“I gather that she agreed.”
Simon smiled and remembered again their final conversation on the subject. “Reluctantly, yes. She knew I had a dream. But, as things worked out, I was gone twice as long as I had planned.”
“I’ll bet that didn’t make her happy. What happened?”
Simon enjoyed answering Harold Stoke’s questions. “I left in June a year ago, as soon as I had finished my last exam at Hastings Business College. I stopped in Kansas to visit my parents, and then I went on to Oklahoma and Texas, earning money by doing odd jobs. Eventually I made it to San Diego. That’s when everything went wrong. I got there late at night, and it was so foggy I couldn’t see two feet in front of me! I was tired and I got lost. I couldn’t find the rooming house where I was going to stay. Two strangers approached me. Instead of helping me, they demanded my money, my bag, and even the clothes I was wearing!”
Harold frowned. “Young thugs, no doubt.”
“Well, they knew I was a sucker, that’s for sure.”
Harold shook his head. “No, you weren’t a sucker, Simon. You were a victim. What did you do?”
“I stumbled on through the fog. I found another fellow who helped me get to a rooming house. He knew about a Christian group who could take me in. They gave me some clothes and enough money to call my brother in Oregon. I went up to Redmond to live with him, and I took a job riding shotgun on a stagecoach.”
Harold looked surprised. “Really? I had no idea there were any of those left.”
“A few, especially in the isolated areas. Mostly the coach carried payrolls to outlying mines.”
“So did that help get you back on your feet?”
“Yes, but Janie got tired of waiting for me. She insisted I hurry up and come home, no matter how much money I had earned.”
Harold adjusted himself in his seat. “A good woman always keeps us on the straight and narrow.”
“Oh, she does.” Simon could remember the first time he had seen her. She, too, had been a student at Hastings Business College. She had looked up from her books, stared briefly at him, and then shyly smiled. A pretty little woman from Illinois had stolen his heart in an instant. “We starting courting shortly after we met,” Simon told Harold. “We spent many afternoons together at Heartwell Park. She was raised in Illinois, but we both grew up on farms. She was lonely as a child — her mother died when she was just a little girl — and I was lonely because everyone gave me such a hard time. She truly understands me in a way that no other person ever has. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known. She was a teacher for a while, but she didn’t like disciplining the older boys. She came to Hastings to live with an aunt — her father’s sister, I believe — and then she decided to become an accountant, just like me. She has a heart of gold. I proposed to her last year and she accepted.”
Harold could see Simon’s obvious devotion. “I feel the same about my wife as you do about your Janie. I’m a little surprised she let you go on your trip.”
Simon leaned forward in his seat, placing his elbows on his knees. “Oh, she didn’t want me to go, that’s for sure. I had to do a lot of fast talking.”
“Was it worth it?”
“Probably not. I think I wasted a year, but soon we’ll be married and start a family.” Simon paused and looked out the window. “Look, we’re at the edge of Hastings. We’ll be stopping soon.”
“It looks like you’re almost home, young man. Thanks for our visit. I enjoyed it.”
“Thanks. I did, too.”
“Best of luck to you, your new job, and your new bride.”
Simon nodded. The train slowed down and then came to a halt. Harold picked up his briefcase and moved to the rear of the car, while Simon grabbed his satchel and headed for the front. He had not seen Janie for a year; a few months ago he had gazed at Halley’s comet in the sky and considered it a good omen. He stepped out on the platform and looked up and down the depot. There she was — his Janie. She was standing far down on the platform, waving her arms, dressed in a beautiful cobalt blue dress with a matching hat which she had no doubt made just for this occasion. He leaped off the steps and ran to her. I’m home, he thought. And I’m never going to leave again.
- Continue to Chapter 7.
- Refer to Family Tree to keep relationship of characters in mind.
- Return to Family Legacies Table of Contents.
Disclaimer: While it is true that my characters were inspired by my own genealogical study, I could not and did not know my ancestors with the same intimacy that I have created in my characters. Therefore, let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.