Filled with nervous anticipation, Willie scanned the station. His focus scattered as he looked from face to face, hoping one would be familiar. People bustled everywhere. The troupe glided through the crowd of pedestrians, each man searching for anything out of the ordinary. Tobias lifted Willie on his shoulders to get a better view.
“Anything?” Tobias asked.
The boy lifted a hand to protect his eyes from the piercing sun and scanned the horde before him. “No, nothing. I don’t see ’em. I don’t recognize anyone.”
Anguish and fear grew stronger inside him. He kept his eyes locked on the mob, as they moved toward their destinations, searching for anything familiar. What if they aren’t here? What if Homer and Woodrow turned back to find me, and I left? I’m stupid! With wide eyes and racing heart, a silent panic gripped him. His knuckles grew white as his grip tightened on Tobis. Losing his family was something he never considered.
“Don’t you worry, Willie, we’ve only just started looking,” Tobias assured him. “We won’t leave you.”
Willie wanted to believe Tobias. He knew his hobo brothers wouldn’t leave him, but he longed to see his brothers by birth again and didn’t care about anything else. All that mattered was getting back where he belonged.
Willie propped himself higher on Tobias’s shoulders, turning his head from side to side, searching. Something far-off caught his attention. His ears strained because there was something familiar about it. “Tobias, did you hear that?”
“I… I thought I heard,” he said. There it is again! It was far off, so faint, the tiniest sound… barely audible. No, it couldn’t be. It was so slight, the name he heard above the noise around him. “Is that my name? I thought I just heard someone say my name,” Willie said.
Tobias stopped. He listened intently, and he closed his eyes, straining his ears for anything above the bustle of the station. “There it is, lad! I hear it too.”
Willie whipped his head from side to side. Those voices were familiar, but he couldn’t tell where they’re coming from. “Stop!” he exclaimed. “I hear it again; it’s getting closer. I don’t see anything, do you?” Willie asks.
“Nothing, I don’t… wait!” Tobias saw an odd commotion off to his left; people were moving abruptly, he heard yells, and above their heads, papers flew in the air. A man fell to the ground. He nudged Willie, “Hey, lad… over there. Someone’s callin ya. Do ya see’ em?”
Willie squinted in the direction Tobias pointed. Arms were waving, papers floating, and a figure crashed into an innocent bystander. His name grew louder, and his brothers burst into view as they breached the last cluster of people that separated them from Willie.
“WILBURN!” he heard them cry in unison.
Wilburn couldn’t believe his eyes. His brothers! It’s his brothers. His heart leapt with joy. “HOMER! WOODROW!” Willie wiggles off Tobias and took off in his brothers’ direction, with Tobias and the other at his heels.
Willie pushed his legs hard, pumped his arms, and closed the gap between them as fast as he could. All at once, Homer scooped Willie into his arms, and Woodrow gripped them both like a vice. The world around their little huddle slowed as the brothers embraced each other.
“Dammit, Wilburn, what happened to you?” Homer said.
“Let me go so I can tell ya, I can’t breathe,” Willie said.
Homer and Woodrow laughed as they released their hold on him.
Willie inhaled sweet oxygen, welcoming each breath and letting it fill his lungs. He recapped the story of his adventure. His time through the desert. The meet-cute with his hobo brethren. Their vow to get him back to his family.
Homer and Woodrow couldn’t believe their ears. They thanked Tobias, Ian, Angus, and Owen for their help. “We don’t know how to thank you for bringing our kid brother back to us,” Homer said.
“We’re forever in your debt,” Woodrow said as he shook the men’s hands.
Homer reached in his pocket and pulled out the small stack of bills. “Please, take this. I’m sorry it’s not more, but it’s all we have,” Homer said as his hand reached toward Tobias.
Tobias held up a hand and said, “That’s mighty nice of ya son, but put your money away. Willie here is one of us. We take care of our own. No reward needed.”
Homer nodded his head and slid the bills back into his pocket.
Willie hugged each man, “Thank you. I don’t know what I would have done without you,” he said.
“We couldn’t have done anything else, lad,” Tobias said.
“Come’ on, bud; we gotta get goin,” Homer said as he punched Willie in the arm.
As they waved their goodbye and parted ways, Homer said, “Whatever you do, don’t tell momma we lost you. She’ll kill us for sure.”
Willie laughed, “Don’t worry, Homer, I won’t tell momma,” and rubbed the wounded limb.
He looked back at the four men standing there, hats in hand, watching Willie and his brothers walked away. He smiled and waved goodbye to his friends, and they waved back. It was the last time Willie ever saw them, but he never forgot his Hobo Brethren or their sacrifice.
The family made Phoenix their home. Willie’s mom recovered from her illness and lived to be over one hundred years old. Years past and Willie grew up to be a man with a family of his own. Wilburn spent the rest of his adult life working the rails and always remembered that band of brothers that helped him so many years ago. He made a vow to repay that kindness someday. Every hobo that crossed his path along the rails was Tobias, Ian, Owen, and Angus. Any chance he could, he gave money, food, water, or shelter to the drifters he found along the tracks. The only regret Willie ever had about his hobo adventure through the desert was that pie he stole.
He always felt guilty about that pie.