Pale and pudgy, Walter Hayes looked like a bewildered schoolboy. He sat in the last seat in the last car, his left arm trailing across the top of the bench he occupied, his legs stretched out, his eyes down. Anyone looking at him would see an addled boy with a small round nose in the middle of a plump face, pale eyes, full lips, and a roly-poly chin. The duster he wore and the vest under it, brand new. Out of place was the gun he wore on his hip, the holster strapped tight to his leg. If he was trying to pass as a gunslinger he was failing miserably. He'd never fired a gun in his life. A traveling salesman, sitting across the aisle from him, had been making attempts at conversation. "Hey there fella," he started, "where you headed?"
"I'm Oklahoma bound. Ever been there?"
Again, no response.
"Kid, you okay?"
Walter offered a shrug, a guffaw, then: "I'm god-awful tired of taking orders from women, that's what I am." Did his voice squeak? He didn't look up.
Nineteen years old, Walter was indeed weary, weary of being bossed around by five older sisters, a peckish mother and a demanding father. The sixth of six children—there were five girls before him—his family was close enough to well-to-do that getting the rest of the way didn't matter. Chester Wilmore Hayes, his father, owned three dry goods stores in Philadelphia, knew bankers by their first names and smoked cigars with preachers, police officers, bankers, lawyers and a judge or two. His mother, the former Regina Minnie Clark, taught piano to young ladies waiting to marry. She treated Walter as if he were a chore. So did his sisters.
Frustrated with his position within the family, dispirited and desperate, Walter purchased a train ticket heading west and once underway, legs spread, eyes narrowed, he felt damned proud of himself. He'd made a decision and followed through. He had some money in a small cloth sack inside a small pocket in his vest. He figured it was enough to get him started. Two additional shirts and a pair of trousers were in a canvas satchel sitting beside him, along with sundry items: a change of underclothes, socks, a few handkerchiefs. He wore a grey round-top bowler, pushed back from his brow, tilted up. Just before leaving for the train station he'd told his parents he'd had enough, he would be treated shabbily no more. Why stay where he felt no respect? His father barked. His mother fumed. His sisters started their usual hectoring only to be stopped—shocked—when he told them they could all "go to tarnation." At that his father raised his hand to strike, his mother grasped hands to her chest and the sisters wailed . . . one praying, two crying, two howling outrage.
The salesman, Wilber Prouce, was comfortable talking with strangers. It made travel easier. It made time go by. He'd been attempting to start a conversation since the train sat in the station. He'd explained his merchandise—shoes—aware that all the while that Walter wasn't paying attention to a word he said. Getting nowhere, he thought inquiring about Walter's health, his state of mind—showing some concern—that might get a conversation going. "You running away from something?" he asked.
In response, Hayes spewed lukewarm vitriol about his sisters, his irritable mother and his imperious father. "No, I'm not running away," he said. "I'm escaping." He explained to Prouce that he was heading west "where a man is free to fashion his own future." He was certain, he told the salesman, that in time his family would hear of his accomplishments and lament their poor treatment of him. When Prouce inquired as to whether Hayes had ever been "out west" the reply was a humph and under-the-breath, indiscernible muttering.
"You might want to think about where you're heading," Prouce said. "There's more work out there than pay."
Hearing unsolicited advice, Walter raised his eyes and stared at Prouce, sniffed, stood up and walked forward, passing occupied and unoccupied seats before slumping into a vacancy and staring out the window. Prouce inspected his fingernails, scratched at his scalp, licked his lips, swallowed, leaned forward to see where the boy had landed, smiled, shrugged, then put his head down, closed his eyes and fell asleep. What that boy was up to was none of his business.
Walter was able, mostly, to stave off the anxieties that descended on him for the few days it took to get to his destination, St Louis, Missouri. On arrival he found cheap lodging and spent two days examining the downtown business district and the bustle down at the river, assessing his situation and weighing his options.
His situation? Easy. He was away from home for the first time in his life, knew no one and no one knew him.
His options? Simple. Get a job or go home.
On day three he found employment at a soap factory just blocks up from the Mississippi. He was unsuited for the work, unpracticed at laboring, and after two uncomfortable weeks, unemployed. His employer paid him out and told him he needn't return, no reason given. The earnings covered most of Walter's room and board in an aging boarding house just south of the business district. Unemployed, he went back to assessing his situation and weighing his options, finally deciding to continue moving west. Was he homesick yet? Perhaps, but not so homesick he wanted to see his family. He'd been thinking about Kansas. He'd heard about Kansas. Wide open plains. Sunshine and fresh air. Opportunities for anyone willing to work hard.
There were cattle in Kansas. There was money in cattle, wasn't there? As a boy he'd heard his father declare a Kansas City steak a delicacy. Wouldn't it be something to return home a successful cattleman? Walter Hayes knew nothing about cattle and precious little about the state of Kansas before stepping off the train in Wichita, where he slept in a less-than-desirable saloon for two nights, spending his days wandering the streets and wondering what in the world he would do with himself in the state of Kansas.
In the saloon, The Sugar Beet, he met a local farmer—Hayes assumed he was a rancher—who bought him a drink and offered him room and board in exchange for his labor. Walter accepted. It was a start, wasn't it? How was he to know that Riley Milburn, who was drunk when they met, spent more time intoxicated than he did sober? So, on Walter's third day in Wichita, Riley Milburn put several bottles of liquid encouragement into his worn-out buckboard, told Walter to climb aboard, and directed his listless nag to deliver them to Riley's farm, a few miles outside Wichita. Arriving, Milburn pointed to a structure struggling to withstand the Kansas zephyr and said "You sleep in the barn." Stepping off the buckboard Milburn ordered Hayes to get the horse taken care of and lurched toward the house, which was in no better condition than the barn.
Milburn held no paper on the land he'd been living on for months. A drifter, he'd wandered past an abandoned house on a plot of land outside Wichita, slept there one night, spent the next day sleeping more, then decided he'd stay until he was run off. As fortune would have it, no one cared about the house, the barn, or the land. He'd done little since he arrived and had no plans to do more. Drinking was his occupation. He liked to drink and it came easy. Farming was work. When Walter Hayes showed up in the only saloon Milburn could afford to drink in, and when Hayes said he was looking for work, Milburn's brain wasn't so fogged that he didn't see opportunity. It was possible, he figured, to get some labor out of an obviously naíve young boy, and so for three days in a row they worked, cleaning scrub from a garden grown over, working on a fence that held nothing in and nothing out, and dragging trash out of the house and setting it to flame. All three days Milburn went without a drink; for him, that was the hardest part of those three days. He snarled at Hayes morning, noon and night—Hayes had little idea of what he was supposed to do even after Milburn barked at him—and after three days Milburn "fired" Walter Hayes, claiming he'd earned not a penny with his lazy ways. Walter, afraid to argue, walked the railroad tracks back into Wichita and returned to the saloon where he'd previously slept in an upstairs room no bigger than a closet. Frustrated and exhausted, running low on money, his resolve wavering, he found himself growing bitter. For two days he stayed inside The Sugar Beet, anxious and adversarial, running his mouth about his bad luck. He sounded much like his sisters, whining, complaining, carping, grousing.
"Keep it down," the bar owner—Wayford Hellrung—told him every other hour or so. The Sugar Beet was near the railroad tracks, several blocks from the railroad station, and the clientele it served were those least likely to succeed at anything they attempted. It was not a happy place and its customers were there for one reason: solace found in alcohol. Hayes' bitching was not appreciated. It didn't help that the bartender (i.e., the owner, Hellrung) spent half his time telling himself he ought to lay off the drink and the other half holding a drink and thinking he ought to put it down. Hellrung had few acquain'tances, no friends and had been in business for several years. He was not succeeding at owning and running a drinking establishment.
Hearing Hellrung's admonishments, Hayes reply was always something like "I got things I need to get off my chest." It was the best retort he could think of. No one in the bar paid him much attention.
On his second day back of constant complaining, a man sitting in a dark corner of the bar—Walter hadn't seen him—stood up and walked to where Walter was cursing his luck and his lack of opportunity. The bar owner licked his lips, took a hesitant step toward Walter Hayes, raised a finger as if to signal him to be silent, and said: "Don't want no trouble."
The man looked at the bar owner and smiled. "Won't be none." He stopped just short of the boy, stared at the six-gun Walter was sporting, and said "Ever use that thing?"
Walter huffed. "I know how to handle myself," he said. He became, of a sudden, jittery.
"But," the man continued, "do you know how to handle that gun?" He looked neither friendly nor acrimonious, yawned, looked to the owner of the bar, looked at the only other customer—an old man avoiding making eye contact with anyone—then moved his gaze to Walter Hayes and waited for an answer. Hellrung said "Now let's not have no trouble," and the man looked at him, sighed, looked back at the boy and said "How much you want for that gun?" Walter took to breathing hard. "I'd like me that gun," the man said. "Doubt you need it. Doubt you'd know what to do with it."
Walter was shaking, felt it and tried to stop. He was looking down, frowning, and had to force himself to look up, which he did, and he looked this man up and down and saw he was without a weapon. Was that good news or bad? "Gun ain't for sale," he said.
The man walked back to the table he'd been sitting at, rummaged around in a coat, came back with a gun in his hand, pointed it at Walter, cocked it and said, "Boy, take that gun off, real slow. Be real careful."
Walter shuddered and didn't move.
The man stepped closer, slapped Walter once with his free hand, watched Walter suck in air, then smacked Walter at his temple, twice, with the butt of his gun. Walter dropped, put on hand on the holster, held up a hand as if to say "stop." His attacker knelt on the floor next to him, patiently relieved Walter of his gun, removed Walter's belt and holster and stood up.
Now Wayford Hellrung was shaking. The attacker looked at the bartender, walked over to him, put Walter's belt, holster and gun on the bar like it didn't matter anymore and said, "Don't want no trouble, do we?" The bartender shook his head. The man took some money out of his pocket, held it up for Walter to see, showed the bartender, then put it on the bar and said "Fair price for your gun." He looked at the bartender and handed him some coins. "Get that boy some food, get him to bed, and tomorrow make sure he gets on a train going somewhere else." He walked to his table, grabbed his coat, walked to the bar and grabbed his new gun, belt and holster and walked out the door.
Twenty-four hours later Walter Hayes boarded a train heading east—he'd assessed his situation, pondered his options and concluded heading home might be best. The man who'd taken Walter's gun was standing on the platform, watching the train depart, as was Wayford Hellrung. As the train pulled out the man walked over to Hellrung and said "Decent kid. He'll grow and be a decent man."
Three days later Walter Hayes strode into his home—late, after dark—and that arrival caused quite a brouhaha. His father went furious. His mother started blubbering. His sisters came running down the stairs and started in on him right away. His oldest sister Helen—as furious as her father—walked to him and slapped him twice—hard—and was winding up for number three when Walter stepped toward her and threw a roundhouse that landed squarely on her jaw. She went down, flat on her back. At that, the homecoming grew even more hysterical.
His father roared, moved toward his son and Walter put up his fists and said "I ain't putting up with this no more! All you on me all the time! You hear?" He was dog-tired, drawn in the face and ready for a decent meal, but facing the same situation he'd escaped from, he knew it was fight now or live with the unacceptable. His father stopped, barked again, started again then stopped when Walter raised fists higher. The boy had lost some weight, needed a bath, could use a shave. Chester Hayes' hands were at his side, fisted, and he studied his son's face, looked into his eyes, seeing something there. What was it? He'd never seen it before. Walter's mother went to muttering to herself. Walter looked at her—it was not a compassionate look—took a step toward his sister Helen, still on the floor, and offered a hand. She looked away.
He drew a breath, looked at his father, his mother, shaking his head. It grew very quiet.
"I'm gonna have me a bath," he said finally, and ignoring his family he strode to the steps and climbed the stairs up to the bedrooms and the bathroom and that's the last the family saw him until the next morning when he showed for breakfast, fully dressed, and told his father he decided he'd be working at the store on Gillingham Street for a while. It was the newest of their three stores and the most modern. His father said nothing, his mother said nothing, his sisters said nothing, and as he walked out the door his mother asked if he'd be home for lunch.
He did not respond.
At the store on Gillingham Street he told the help he was in charge. The man who'd been managing the store thought otherwise until Walter told him he would be getting a small raise in pay. Walter gave everyone in the store a small raise in pay, told his father about it in the evening, listened to his father rant and rave and ignored him.
Within a year the Gillingham store was making more than the other two stores combined and when his family praised him, Walter announced he'd found a small apartment near the store, would be moving out, and did. Next, the other two stores were expanded, using Walter's model and his planning; this took almost two years.
When he was twenty-six he married a girl who was a maid—his mother and his sisters were mortified, his father indifferent. The newlyweds moved to Wichita, Kansas, and with a bank loan—he'd asked for nothing from his father—they opened a small dry goods store. That store grew into what would be known as a "department" store, and as that store grew Walter added a small dining room—lunch specials being especially lucrative. Wayford Hellrung—sober, married, now a deacon at his church—applied for the position of running that dining room and Walter hired him immediately.
The store grew larger. Walter bought the building next to it and had it converted into a hotel. It, too, was successful. Both enterprises were so successful, in fact, that Hayes recognized the need for some form of security. A banker friend pushed the issue and he decided the time was right, word got out that he might hire, and one day a tight-lipped man, Jenet Wehmeyer, walked in and inquired about that position. Hayes recognized him instantly.
On Wehmeyer's first day he walked into Walter Hayes' office on the second floor of the department store, carrying with him a pistol, a belt, and a holster. He put those items on Hayes' desk, stepped back and nodded. Walter stood up from his chair, inspected the items then shook his head. "Thanks," he said, "but I don't need no gun and don't want one." He stared into Jenet Wehmeyer's eyes long enough that Wehmeyer dropped his gaze, stared at the gun, belt, holster, picked them up and walked back out of the office. Hayes would never see that gun, that belt, that holster again.
Jenet Wehmeyer would work for Walter Hayes for the remainder of his life, dying in his sleep in Room 306 of the Wichita Hotel at the age of fifty-seven. Walter spent better than a year looking for Wehmeyer's family, never found any and gave up. Wehmeyer was buried in a sanctified cemetery. Walter Hayes paid for it all, including the headstone upon which read this inscription:
A DECENT MAN