“Well! Sounds like yer in a right big mess there, Wilburn,” Tobias said to him.
The men looked at each other and nodded to one another, except one man. Owen Little shook his head. The men glared at him, and Little scowled back.
“Dammit, Little,” Tobias said.
Wilburn’s brow creased in confusion as he watched Tobias. The hobo got up, marched to the fire, and aggressively poked at it. He paced back and forth, eyeballing Little and mumbling to himself. Tobias’ head popped up. He glanced at Wilburn and winked at him as he turned on his heel and sauntered back to his seat. Turning his attention to the not so little Owen Little.
“What’s the deal, Little? The kid needs our help. He won’t make it on his own,” Tobias said.
“That don’t mean he’s our problem,” Owen said.
“Oh yes it does, brother, n’ you know damn well it does. You know the code,” Tobias said.
Owen waved a hand at him as Wilburn asked, “Code? The code?”
Tobias spun around and looked at Wilburn, “The Hobo Code of Ethics, my boy. Our most sacred code is Rule 13—it’s a hobo’s duty to encourage runaway kids to return home and help their fellow hobos.”
“Fine. Kid, go home.” Owen said to Wilburn, “See, I’ve lived up to the code. I’ve encouraged the kid to go home. Now it’s up to him, and not for us to take him.”
“Dammit to hell, you ornery old goat! You know what will happen to him if a Jocker gets their hands on him. That’s not the spirit of the code, and you know it,” Tobias threw a pebble at Owen.
“Spirit, schmearit. I’m following the letter of the law while you’re interpretin’ it to suit you,” Owen says unashamed.
Not one man around that circle was happy with Owen’s flippant response to the dangers kids face on the rails. Jockers’ wander, and are the type of people that take advantage of small boys, and use them in horrible ways. This would not be Wilburn’s fate if Tobias had anything to say about it.
Tobias paused a moment to consider Owen’s words and realized his friend had him by the short hairs. The code’s flawed, and Tobias knew it. Owen’s smug smile reached both ears at once as he folded his arms on his chest. Tobias looked at him and grumbled.
“Seems we’re at an impasse,” he turned from his brother and strolled to the other side of the fire. As he did, his eyes lit in revelation, and he turned around again to face Owen. “So we make him a fellow hobo, and the code clearly states we must always help our fellow hobos,” Tobias said.
Owen’s smug demeanor faded, “You wouldn’t.”
“Would, could, can, and will,” Tobias responded and smacked his hands together in victory. “Wilburn, come here lad, I have a very important question to ask.”
Wilburn rose to his feet and shuffled his way over to Tobias. As he reached Tobias, he looked up and said, “Yes, sir?”
“Wilburn, how would you like to become a member of the Hobo Brethren Union #63?”
Wilburn was sure this was his only ticket home. If he didn’t get their help, he would never find his way on his own. He stood up straight, looked Tobias in the eye, and said, “Yes,” with as much conviction a ten-year-old could muster.
Tobias smiled at him, told him to raise his right hand, and to swear to abide by the Hobo Code for all his days. Each of the men congratulated him, even a reluctant Owen.
“Are ya hungry, lad?” Tobias asked.
Wilburn nodded his head as his stomach rumbled. Tobias went to the fire, removed the lid from the large pot, and served him a heaping bowl of Mulligan Stew. That evening the Hobo Brethren shared a meal with their newest inductee. By the end of the night, the men were so found of Wilburn they began calling him Willie.
Tobias knew of one Tuberculosis sanatorium in Phoenix, and the men headed out at first light. They vowed to reunite Willie with his family.