The Chicago stockyards were not nearly as much fun as I'd hoped. For one thing, the animals weren't happy at all. For another, they lived in a very regimented set of pens. There sure were a lot, though. Nearly as many 'thousands' as the dollars from the auction. Not enough hands to watch them all, though.
I could scarcely believe that the city was so hungry as to need so much beef. Mr. Oakes said that it isn't the city, but instead the damn Yankee army what eats most of it. If that's true, I understand now why they war so often for new land – they must need a great amount of lands to satisfy such a need. What great sickness must they have to be so … empty?
Mr. Oakes is nearly dead, so he gets tired easily. We had only been walking a few hours when he obviously needed another rest. Fortunately, he is also easily distracted. I lost him easy and found some interesting rocks and mud to build little villages with. After a while, some rats and frogs came to play, too. No other children, though.
Sometime later, I got bored. As I suspected, Mr. Oakes was still loitering and talking to the hands. As I padded up, I overheard him talking about going back to the Loop and the room he rented there. I don't think he realized that the room was a quarter day's walk away. I reminded him that the hands needed to sleep, too, and that got him to start looking around.
I figured that he'd see Miss Hattie's soon enough, and adults think they know everything, so why disabuse him of the notion? I brushed off the dust and then went through my stuff to make sure Buford the toad was well hidden. He was. The mud in his pouch seemed to be keeping him properly cool and moist, too. Good.
That’s about when I noticed a big community board. It was festooned with bills and messages, along with notices for hired help. I figured that if Mr. Oakes wanted to continue to stay in other people’s houses, he’d need more Federal money. Money means work. In a city like this, there must be loads of ailing and dying people – which is good news for a grave-digger, so long as people know that one is available. I grabbed a mostly-blank sheaf of paper from the board and ripped off the blank part. I then brought the paper and the idea to Mr. Oakes.
This went well, for the most part. After he’d paid Miss Hattie’s manservant for a week ahead, Mr. Oakes took up the notice and scrawled his own message with some of my charcoal. I noticed that there were more than a few ‘demimonde’ types that were kinda paying attention to us, but not really. Maybe these folks make enough jink to not consider five Federal dollars a lot? I dunno. None of this would have mattered enough to tell you about, teacher, but for what happened next.
After putting up his work wanted bill, Mr. Oakes surprised me by suggesting that we spend some time on the town, as the night had not yet fully engulfed the city. I was especially interested in these ‘pool halls’ that the newspapers say are so bad. After all, if the newspaper pans it, it must be good. Mr. Oakes said that he wanted to make up to me the fact that we left New York before being able to go to a pool hall there, and we would be going tonight … just here in Chicago, not in New York. Thoughts of testing my skills against other youths – white youths, no less – at a game of skill and nerve appealed to me mightily.
It was not to be, however. A bill that I had somehow missed earlier now demanded all my attention. It told about a rancher looking for help finding missing kids! It made me wonder: why wasn’t the law handling this?
For once, the old man was shuffling with a purpose. Maybe he liked pool halls more than museums and stockyards and trains? Anyway, he was most of the way to the hall when I tried to get his attention. As he’s old and deaf, he didn’t hear me call. I tossed a small rock at him, and …
Um, Mr. Oakes fell down.
I don’t remember what happened next, precisely. When I came to my senses, a nice woman was telling me not to fidget in a high-backed chair. I was in some sort of weird flophouse. There were beds everywhere, and a smell unlike any other I had experienced. More than the desperation and frustration of the city – this place smelled like people were dead or dying.
But Mr. Oakes wasn’t dead. Too Texan to die from a little rock to the head. Mr. Hellstromme and a foreigner that sounded kind of like Miss Beliveau were talking quietly near him. They seemed more interested in a small thing in the foreigner’s hand, so I figured the old man was okay.
When a (different) nice lady came to inquire as to the missing children, I saw that the Great Spirit had conspired to bring five people who had all been at that odd auction together again. I wanted to help the kids, anyway, but now I was convinced that it was something I had to look in to. They all seemed to agree, then realized that the ranch might be far away.
The nice man running the flophouse for not-quite-dead people was good enough to tell me which way it was to the general store. The (different) nice lady needed a horse, so a livery was our next stop. I didn’t say nothin’, but I knew Mr. Oakes was going to need a horse too, and I couldn’t imagine how he would pay for one.
While the adults were still playing pat-a-cake, I sprinted up the street to the previously mentioned general store. Once there, I had intended to talk to the hands, but the proprietor was available. He told me that (unfortunately) the ranch got its’ supplies once a month, and that last run had gone out only a week ago. Rats.
I asked some more questions, and eventually found out that a supply run was planned for the morning to a ranch that was halfway to this one. This was what I was looking for! With Traveler stabled in Colorado and the rest of these folks not exactly looking like Cow Boys, this supply run might be the only transport what would get us there in a reasonable span of time. I don’t have any Federal money, so I traded the trader for one of the gold necklaces I found in the Missouri. He seemed to think it was a fair trade.
For once, the adults all listened to me. Everybody was ready early in the morning for a journey by wagon to the ranch with missing children. It was a relatively small shipment to my eye, but maybe the ranch was small. After all, they say everything is bigger in Texas. The transit was largely uneventful except for the still skies and lack of wind, and the first stop went off without a hitch.
Our destination was a ranch … with hogs! Big, odd hogs of a sort I had never seen – large as a pony! Apparently, when they tried to start a horse ranch, ten of the dozen horses that they had planned to start with up and died. So, they found a large breed of wild pig in the fields below the ranch-land and switched to hog-farming.
In any case, the place was run by an old man and a younger woman along with a number of their hands and those hands’ families. It was from these families that the (seven!) missing children were drawn. The disappearances had occurred over the last few days, had taken mostly boys.
After jawing a bit with the ranch’s adults, the others started asking the kids questions. The sort of questions that the honest answers to which would get the kids in trouble. Not surprisingly, we didn’t really learn anything there. I wanted to talk to the other kids while there weren’t no adults around, but with the disappearances, Mr. Oakes was keeping a closer eye on me than usual…