Charlie Eden and Roy Kewanis towed their wagon, heaped high with bison bones, into the station at Broken Bow. Their haul, a day’s worth of collecting, gave off a mildly offensive odor, half sweet, half unsavory. The relentless Nebraska Territory sun had baked the bones a grey-white. A few still retained sinew and traces of flesh turned black in the heat. A few, dug from moist soil, stank of rot.
“You boys can’t leave that mess here. You be stinkin’ up the whole office.” Ticketmaster Sorenson, his navy-blue cap pulled down against the glare of the setting sun, eyed the bones. “Not so many anymore eh, boys?”
Charlie’s overalls, a brother’s hand-me-down, hung like a tent on his shoulders. He hitched them up, or tried to. “We’z found a new cache, out on a spit near the Loup Riv…”
Roy kicked him and lowered his head close to Charlie’s. “Don’t be sayin nothing ’bout where we found ’em.”
Sorenson made to sniff the air. “Well, you two roll that load down the platform. We have officials arriving this evening from Chicago. Won’t do to have that mess foulin’ the air a’fore they pull in.”
Charlie tugged at Roy’s sleeve, and led him and the wagon down the ramp into the dirt alongside the tracks. “Nobody but us be pickin’ bones these days. Why you mean on me?”
Roy hefted one of the twenty pound femurs that had once stood a massive bull bison. It had been years since the hunters and skinners had come and gone leaving middens stacked house-high with ribs, legs, and skulls. Shipped east, the bones were ground up and used for industrial purposes.
Roy smacked the pile with his heavy cudgel. “Sorenson’s been givin’ my mam the look. I don’t like it.”
“Wha’d ya mean, ‘the look’?”
“You know. Like she’s a picture in one o’ them museums the schoolmarm showed us. He’d like to take her home, keep her for his-self.”
“You can’t take them pictures home. That’d be stealin’.”
Roy squinted at his friend. “Forget it. Here comes the train.”
The #419 coal-fired steam locomotive hissed like a creek full of snakes, its wheels, level with the boys’ chests, rolled to a stop not ten feet away. Stoops were placed and folks stepped carefully to the platform. Down a ways from the passenger cars, boxcar doors slid open revealing dark holds full of freight ready for offloading.
Dan Taudry, buyer for the Michigan Chemical Company called down to the boys and their wagon. “Just you two?”
Charlie and Roy looked around. “Yessim’.” For months it had always been just the two of them waiting for the train.
“You weigh ’em yet?”
Having learned the ritual well, the boys looked at each other and shook their heads. Roy spoke up. “You trust our measure?”
Dan laughed and wiped at his neck with a red checkered handkerchief. He tossed down a bunch of burlap sacks. “Fill those and we’ll get ’em loaded.” He swung a pulley out from the open door. “Not many bone pickers left along this route. This may be our last pickup in Broken Bow. Bones still plentiful up in the Dakotas. Here in Nebraska Territory, just a piddlin’ now.”
The bones weighed and loaded, Dan handed Roy two dollars and fifty-five cents. More than two-hundred and fifty pounds of calcium, iron and assorted minerals.
“You two wanna earn two cents, maybe even five a pound, you head up north. We’ve got agents eager for pickers. ‘Course you’ll have to deal with the injuns.” Dan pointed to Roy. “You’d fit right in—be the fact. You native on your mom’s side, that right?”
Roy frowned, turned and walked away.
When Charlie caught up, Roy handed him half of the money. He made a flourish of the moment and flipped the remaining buffalo nickel in the air. “Heads ‘r tails?”
“Naw, you keep it.” Charlie pocketed his dollar and a quarter. “How much you got saved?”
“Sixty-three, no. Sixty-four or so.”
“Is it enough?”
“Tickets to California are forty apiece.”
Charlie pulled the wagon with one hand and slapped at Queen Anne’s lace with the other. Roy kicked at dried-up cow pies.
“I got more ‘n thirty saved.” Charlie turned to his friend. “That be enough?”
Roy pulled up short, gestured for the wagon’s handle and resumed walking down the trail that paralleled the track. They were headed back to a set of homes, cabins really, on the outskirts of town. Charlie lived on a homestead south. Roy lived in the cabins with his mother who worked as a maid in Broken Bow’s original hotel. The newer hotel, The Grand Western, didn’t hire Kiowa or Pawnee.
“You don’t have to, Char.”
“Now or never. I won’t offer again.”
Roy angled his shoulder and bumped his sun-burned friend.
“Yeah,” Roy said. “That’d be plenty.”
Nearing the cabins, Charlie said, “I guess, no more pickin’ bones for you.”
“Nope. What about you?”
“Naw, I only did it cuz’ you did.”