Time for another one of my hitching adventures. This one is different. Someone I met along the way planted a seed, but it took twenty years to sprout. When it did, it sent me on a quest to discover the meaning of life. It took me another twenty-two years of visiting libraries, of perusing the shelves of bookstores. Twenty-two years of searching out, and finding, obscure books and writings from centuries past. Although a few pieces of the puzzle still elude me, I am content with the knowledge I have gained. I owe it all to a man by the name of Oracle.
“There is a chink, a nigger, and a cracker in that car; git ‘em out. Oh yeah, there’s also a kid in there.”
I was that kid. With those few words, one of the strangest and most profound adventures of my young life was about to take place.
Have you noticed that, nowadays, when you’re stopped at a railroad crossing and a train goes by, there are no more boxcars? It’s because the railroad companies have gone the way of the shipping companies—meaning, containers. The story I am about to tell could not happen today.
First, a little history lesson.
After the Civil War, or the War of Northern Aggression, depending on where your sympathies lie, some of the displaced men who found themselves still alive after the carnage and who had no home to go back to, took to the highways and byways. To earn their daily bread, they would offer to work for a day at the farms they passed. Before long, they discerned that if they had their own implements, work would come easier. Therefore, one by one, they started carrying hoes and soon they were called “hoe boys.” Now, English being the wonderful, beautiful, and living language that it is, it was not long before any itinerant man was called a hobo.
This is how the whole thing started. I was hitchin’ east on Old US Highway 90, but back then it was just “US 90.” I was in the desert of Arizona and the rides were not plentiful, to say the least. The last ride had let me out in the middle of nowhere; the only things resembling civilization were the train tracks and a few buildings about a hundred yards to the south. There was also a long freight train sitting on those tracks … there must have been a hundred boxcars or more.
My attention was drawn to one car in particular. All the cars were brown in color, except one about three-quarters of the way back. It was green and the door had been slid open. I looked down the road, saw not a car in sight, and decided right then and there to hop my first freight train. After all, it was pointed in the same direction I wanted to go. When I reached the green car, I threw my suitcase in and climbed in after it. For a moment, I did not see my traveling companions, but, as my eyes adjusted, there they were. Over in the far corner were three men: a black guy, a Chinaman, and a white guy. (Some of my terminology may not be socially acceptable today, but I’m writing from the perception of an eighteen-year-old kid back in 1968.)
The three men were sitting on wooden crates and they were all about forty years of age. The Chinaman had a wispy and sparse black beard about a foot long. He was a bit chubby, wore tan pants, a red flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his biceps. Brown work boots covered his feet. To his left sat the black man. He was thin and had grey throughout his hair. He was wearing a white t-shirt, black pants, and on his feet were black high top sneakers—US Keds. The white guy was also thin, had a big smile, and, though I couldn’t tell from that distance but found out later, he had piercing emerald-green eyes, and when he looked at you, you felt as though you had known him all your life. He wore blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a black t-shirt with a denim jacket over it.
If they were startled by my entrance, they were over it by the time I noticed them. The Chinaman had a hunk of cheese in his left hand and a small pocket knife in his right. “You want some cheese?” he asked.
After taking a moment to assess the situation, I said, “No, thank you.” I walked over to them, sat my suitcase on the floor, and sat myself on it—facing my three hosts.
After my butt hit the suitcase, the Chinaman said, “Where ya headed?”
“Miami … Miami, Florida.”
The white guy found his voice and chimed in. “Howdy, my name’s Jake, this here is Ying,” he said, pointing to the Chinaman. “And that sorry son-of-a-bitch over there is Samuel.” As Jake introduced him, the black guy smiled. They were obviously friends. Then Jake asked, “What might your handle be?”
“You can call me Andrew, Andrew Joyce.”
“Hold on there, partner. There ain’t no last names used around here,” advised Jake.
Ying cut slices of cheese and passed them around, then wrapped what remained in a blue bandanna and placed it in the pocket of a brown leather jacket lying on the floor behind him.
While they were enjoying their cheese, I asked if they were hobos. You’ve got to remember I was young, and this was my first encounter with men who “rode the rails.” I had always pictured hobos as looking more like the old Red Skelton character, Freddy the Freeloader. You know, baggy pants and patches all over his clothes. Maybe even a week’s worth of whiskers. But these guys were clean-shaven, except for Ying, and they were a lot cleaner and a lot better dressed than I was.
Samuel spoke for the first time. “An honorable and noble profession. What say you, fellow wayfarers? Are we indeed affiliated with those modern-day knights of the road?”
Jake said, “You’ll have to excuse Samuel. He gits a bit long-winded at times.”
“My bosom friend, Jacob, we have not answered the young lad’s query. His incertitude as to our status should be addressed,” declaimed Samuel.
“Kid, I told ya he was a son-of-a-bitch,” remarked Jake.
But before I could receive an answer to my perfectly legit question if they were hobos or not, we heard from outside the boxcar: “There is a chink, a nigger, and a cracker in that car; git ‘em out. Oh yeah, there’s also a kid in there.”
This is where we came in.
Before the “bulls” had a chance to stick their mugs into the car, my would-be traveling companions were gathering their meager belongings and heading for the door. I jumped up and scrambled after them. Just as we reached the opening, two men appeared. One of them, looking up at us, said, “Okay, boys, git off.” One by one we exited our little, and unfortunately temporary, haven. I was the last to disembark. My new buddies were already a few steps down the tracks by the time I hit the ground. I started out after them, but something held me back. It turned out to be a bull’s big hand wrapped around my left bicep. “Hold on, not so fast,” he ordered. Bull is slang for the railroad employees who were charged with throwing freeloading men off the trains.
When Jake saw that I was being detained, he stopped and turned around. The head bull yelled down the tracks, “This ain’t none of your affair. Ya’all just keep to ya own business and move along.”
Jake gave me a wink and continued on—leaving me behind.
When you’re eighteen, you think you’re all grown up and you think the rest of the world will perceive you as such. But as I write these words almost half a century later, I know how young I must have looked on that day. The man only wanted to make sure I was okay. As it turned out, the bull holding onto my arm had a son my age serving in Viet Nam. He asked about my family and where I lived. When I told him I was in touch with my mother frequently and that I was not a runaway, he smiled. He also told me ridin’ the rails was a dangerous business. “Not all the bulls are like me. Some, if they catch ya, will beat ya with a club. Some might even turn you over to the county sheriff if there’s a road needin’ work. It’ll cost ya time in the pokey. Ya see, some guys have an agreement with the local sheriff, so much for each hobo they turn over. Kinda like a bounty. Then the poor son-of-a-bitch is charged with trespassing and vagrancy. That’ll git ya sixty days.” He also told me that jumping off a moving train, even if it was going slow, could get my head busted wide open.
“Don’t worry, sir. This is my last time catchin’ a freight. From now on, it’s gonna be the thumb express for me.”
He said I was free to go and sent me off with a smile. After walking ten paces, I turned around; he was still standing there with that smile on his face, and he waved to me. I waved back and continued on to the highway. It was as empty of cars as it had been an hour earlier. I sighed, upended my suitcase, and sat down to get comfortable for what I thought was going to be a long afternoon.
About fifteen minutes later, the train started to move. At the first sound of those steel wheels turning on the tracks, my three friends appeared out of nowhere. One minute I was alone on the highway and the next there they were. Samuel approached and said, “We saw you with your thumb out. Have you given up your reservation for your Pullman berth?”
I must have looked perplexed because Jake interjected with, “He means, if ya still want to ride the rails, come with us.”
None of them waited for a reply. By the time I decided that it might be interesting traveling with those guys for a day or so, they were twenty yards ahead of me. I picked up my suitcase and ran to catch up. It was a momentous decision to follow those three hobos, but the short time I would spend with them helped shape and define the man I would one day become.
By the time I caught up, they had reached the tracks and were watching the cars go by. The train was moving slowly—one or two miles per hour. And as the green car approached, my friends started walking in the same direction as the train. When the car they wanted came abreast, one by one, they tossed their gear through the open door and hoisted themselves up and onto the floor. When all three were aboard, they stood in the doorway looking down at me. The train was now starting to pick up speed. Jake told me to toss my grip up to him, which I did. Then Ying got down on his knees and said, “Give me your hand.” I was running by then, trying to keep up. I stuck out my right arm and Ying grabbed hold of my hand and lifted my one-hundred-sixty pounds as though I weighed no more than a feather.
Once they got me aboard, we went back to the corner where the crates were and made ourselves comfortable. Samuel looked over at me and said, “Young traveler, I could tell from your hesitation you have not availed yourself of this means of transit before; you must be careful when alighting onto one of these chariots. I saw a man slip and fall beneath the wheels as he was trying to effect ingress onto a conveyance of this type. He lost both his legs. Furthermore, exiting while moving, no matter how slow, is difficult at best, and bone-breaking at its worst.”
Jake intervened with, “Don’t worry, kid, we’ll show ya the ropes.”
After that, no one spoke. Ying cleaned his fingernails with the knife he had used to slice the cheese. Samuel took a paperback out of his back pocket and started to read. Jake … well, I don’t know what he was doing. If I didn’t think it highly unlikely, I would have said he was meditating. Me, I got tired of sitting around and walked over to the door, sat down with my legs dangling over the side, and watched the desert pass by.
Jake eventually walked over and sat down next to me. He got his long legs dangling next to mine, but he didn’t say anything for the longest time. At length, he said, “You in a rush to git where ya goin’?”
I did not know where I was headed. I had told them Miami, but that wasn’t one hundred percent true. I was allowing myself to be blown along on the winds of chance. Like being picked up by someone who says to me, “I’m heading to New York to catch Janis Joplin at the Fillmore East and I’ve got an extra ticket. Wanna come along?” Things of that sort were always happening to me in those days. If nothing interesting turned up by the time I hit the east coast, I’d hang a right and head for Miami for a visit with the folks. So, my answer to Jake’s question was, “No, I’m in no rush to go anywhere, not really.”
“Well, me and the boys thought we’d extend an invite for you to tag along with us for a while. Kinda’ show you the way of the road. Teach you things that took us time—a whole lotta time—to git through our thick heads.”
I turned my head to look at this man I had met only an hour earlier and informed him that I had been on the road for over a year and had learned a few things along the way. He just smiled and said, “Boy, there are roads and there are roads. If you’re not interested, then I’ll bother ya no further.”
“Hang on, Jake, you’ve got me wrong. I’d be honored to accompany you three, and I thank you for the invitation. I just wanted you to know that I’m not entirely wet behind the ears.”
“Okay, Andrew. It’s Andrew, right?”
“Why not come over and sit with us, and we’ll talk.”
When we got back to Ying and Samuel, Jake nodded at them. Well, at Ying anyway. Samuel still had his nose in the book he was reading. As we sat down, Samuel looked up, so I had a chance to ask him what he was reading. “Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. You ever read it?”
“Yeah, about a year ago. I liked it. I also read East of Eden, but I just didn’t get it.”
Samuel looked at me and slowly shook his head. “I understand. I read Eden when I was your age. And like you, I did not appreciate the writing or the storytelling. May I suggest you reread it in a few decades? I think you will have a whole new take on it once you have some life under your belt. But we were discussing The Grapes of Wrath. This is my third reading. I love this book; it is writing at its finest. But what I love most about it is the last page. When Rose of Sharon bends over the dying man … you remember? … the man who had not eaten in a week or more? He had given what little food there was to his son. Well, when she kneels down to his prostrate body, unbuttons her shirt and starts to give him the milk that was intended for her baby who had been stillborn less than a few hours before … damn! That got to me.”
I noticed that he was not speaking in the affected manner he had used earlier. He must have read my thoughts because he said, “You’re wondering why I’m not speaking like Mr. La De Da any longer, aren’t you?”
“I guess so. You do sound different.”
“I only speak that way around strangers, never with friends.”
So, there it was. I had been accepted.
As we sat talking and looking out at the cactus plants and Yucca trees, their shadows shrank from their western side until they disappeared altogether, only to reemerge on the eastern side. A small, timid shadow at first, but as the day lengthened, so did the shadows of the cacti and the Yuccas. Soon they would be as long as their more substantial partners were tall. Then they would die for the night, only to be reborn the next morning.
When the shadows had gotten as long as they were likely to get, I asked what we were going to do about something to eat. Ying offered what was left of the cheese. I was mighty hungry by then, but if I was going to eat alone, I’d rather not. And as no one else spoke up and said that the cheese was a good idea, I politely thanked Ying and said I would eat when everyone else did.
Because the light was fading, Samuel had put his book away. He looked at Jake and asked, “What time you figure we’ll hit Lubbock?”
“I reckon we’ll be in just about suppertime.”
Samuel turned to me and said, “We’ll be leaving this comfortable abode in Lubbock. This train heads to Chicago from there. After a night to replenish ourselves and our stores, we’ll catch the 108 the next morning; it will be heading east to Dallas. Then the 310 to Little Rock, and after that, it’s old 19 to Atlanta where we’ll split up.”
I thought what I had just heard was amazing. How did this guy know the timetable of freight trains? Did freight trains even have timetables? So I asked, “How the hell do you know a given train will be there waiting for you when you arrive in a city?”
“Freight trains have a tighter schedule than passenger trains. There are goods on them that people have bought and paid for. And those goods have to get out to market for the railroad company’s customers to make a profit. If their customers don’t make money, the railroad doesn’t make money. If there are delays, companies will use the teamsters and their trucks to get their goods to market. So the trains are very dependable. And you shouldn’t hop a train unless you know where it’s going. That is your first lesson, my young friend.”
By then it had gotten dark. Jake and I sat in the doorway looking at the desert, the stars, and the lights of the small towns as we passed. I asked Jake what Samuel and Ying were up to. It was too dark inside the car. I couldn’t see into the corner that we had made our headquarters. “Knowing those two, they’re probably asleep. They can sleep in the damndest places and under the dangdest circumstances.”
I had been wondering what Samuel meant when he said they, or I guess now it was we, were going to split up when we got to Atlanta. So I asked Jake, “Don’t you guys travel together?”
“Sometimes we do, like now. Guys on the road are basically loners, but no matter how much ya like being alone, sometimes it’s good to have a partner to chew the fat with.”
I just had to ask, “Where are you going and where are they going?”
“Well, Ying is going to New York and Samuel will be staying in Atlanta. Me, I haven’t decided yet. We just ran into each other at the stop before we met up with you. We’ve known each other for a while now, but the three of us haven’t been in the same place at the same time for two, maybe two and a half years now. I ran into Ying about a year ago and we traveled together for a few days. But Samuel and I haven’t seen each other since the last time the three of us were all together.”
About then the train was slowing down, and Ying and Samuel joined us at the door. Jake stood and said, “We better get our gear.” We, meaning him and I; the others were standing there, grips in hand. After we returned, Samuel asked if I had ever jumped from a moving train. I had to admit that I had not.
“Well,” said he, “here are lessons two and three. Always leave the train before it gets into the yard. If not, the bulls will see you and then there’ll be hell to pay. Next, when jumping from a moving train, toss your grip out first. Don’t try to jump with it; you’ll need both your hands. Then sit down like you were before, with your legs outside, and place your hands on the floor on either side of your body and push off. It’s going to be hard to keep your balance, but after the first few times, you’ll get the hang of it. Just remember to push off as far from the car as you can. You don’t want to slip under any wheels.”
By then the train had slowed enough so we could jump off without killing ourselves. Samuel was the first to throw his bag out the door. Then he sat down and said, “Watch how I do it.”
After the three of them were on the ground, it was my turn. I did everything I was told but still landed flat on my face.
Once we collected our gear and got away from the yard, Jake informed me it was time to forage for some vittles.
“Did you just say vittles?” asked Samuel.
“He sure as hell did, I heard him,” affirmed Ying. Ying then added, “Okay, Mr. Vittles, you take the kid. Me and Samuel will meet you at the jungle.”
The foraging for food took the form of going to the back doors of houses and asking for a handout. I had done the same thing on occasion, but my modus operandi was restaurants, or more precisely a restaurant’s back door. Anyway, Jake said the best pickings were in the poor section of a town. “You never get turned down. Next are middle class neighborhoods. You stand a fifty-fifty chance in that neck of the woods. And last are the rich neighborhoods. Unless the cook answers the door, you might as well forget about getting anything outta that house. Ain’t it funny that the people with nothing are willing to share what little they have, while those with everything are afraid to part with even the slightest bit of what they have?”
Jake told the people we asked a handout from that I was his son and we were going to Florida to pick oranges. After hitting three houses, we had all that we could carry, so we headed for the “jungle.” Jungle, as in hobo jungle.
In the 1930s, during the depression, every town and city had a hobo jungle, usually on its outskirts. In those days, depending on the size of the town, the denizens of any given jungle could number anywhere from twenty to close to a hundred. However, in the late 60s, the number rarely exceeded five or six. In the jungle Jake brought me to, outside of Lubbock, Texas, there were eight of us. Us four and four other guys.
By the time Jake and I reached the camp, Ying and Samuel were already there waiting for us. It had been a good foraging expedition for all of us. A couple of cans of soup, a large can of baked beans, various portions of assorted chickens, both fried and broiled, a tub of homemade potato salad, and the piece dé resistance, a bottle of bourbon.
Jake asked, “Where’d you guys get the booze?”
Samuel put forth, “Don’t include me in Ying’s larceny.”
In his defense, Ying claimed an altruistic motive in procuring said booze. “You see, it was lying on the front seat of this Oldsmobile. Now if I had left it there, it may have been a temptation to the driver. He may have weakened and started drinking before he arrived home. He might have caused an accident, either from being distracted while taking a swig or after having become intoxicated. I think freeing that poor soul of temptation is my good deed for the day.” Jake shrugged, Samuel shook his head, and I just looked at the three of them and wondered what I had fallen into.
There was a fire going when Jake and I arrived. Sitting around it were our buddies, Ying and Samuel, and the four other gentlemen. There was Montana Jack, a lean and weathered cowboy, Stetson and all. And then there was Charlie, who was dressed in a business suit. The only problem was that it was two sizes too big for him and it was practically in tatters. Then there was Missouri Mike, fiftyish with a full head of white hair with a shock of black just off center on the left side. And last, and probably least, there was Frisco Pete. Yeah, I know, it sounds like a name a bandit would have in a “B” movie. But ol’ Frisco was a hippie. The funny thing is that he had never been to San Francisco; he was on his way there for the first time. Of course, he had the prerequisite long hair that hung down past his shoulders. (Something I had not seen before.) He kept staring up at the stars and saying, “Groovy.”
I know what you’re thinking, “What happened to Charlie? Why didn’t he have a colorful handle like the rest? Something like, ‘Cimarron Charlie’. The answer to your question is I don’t know.
After the introductions were out of the way, we settled down to partake of our collation. And I must say, after not having eaten all day, it was one of the finest meals I’d ever had. Of course, my traveling companions, being who they were, insisted that any of the others who were hungry should put on the feedbag and join us.
With the meal behind us, we sat around the fire like contented potentates of the East, rubbing our stomachs and scratching our butts. After a few minutes, Jake said to Ying, “Ya saving that bourbon for Judgment Day, or ya gonna break it out before the end of the century?” Ying smiled the inscrutable smile of the Chinese, reached behind him, and pulled out the bottle.
It was then that we heard the rustling in the woods. It came from behind us, and I turned to see, through the low-hanging branches of the trees, the light from flashlights—maybe two, maybe more—bobbing up and down. A low murmur accompanied the lights. A few seconds later, the murmur gave way to voices—men’s voices. And they did not sound any too happy. I got the impression they were not a deputation from Lubbock to present us with the key to the city.
All at once, ten armed men burst into the little clearing in which, until a moment ago, we were enjoying each other’s company and repartee. Most of the men were holding hunting rifles, but a few of them held handguns. The one thing all the guns had in common was the fact that they all, and I mean all of ’em, were pointed at us.
We just sat there staring at them, and they stared right back at us. I’m sure our mouths where hanging open. Theirs were not. Finally, after what seemed an interminable amount of time, one of the men stepped forward and said, “You there by the fire, stand up!” When we hesitated, he added, “I’m talkin’ to you hobos over there. All of you git your asses up!” I looked over to Jake for some kind of guidance. He looked me in the eye and gave me one of his famous shrugs, then he stood up and the rest of us followed his lead.
When we all were standing, the gunmen fanned out behind their leader to form a semi-circle before us. Once his men were in place, the head asshole felt it was time to give his little speech.
“We don’t want your types in our city. We keep clearing this place out, tellin’ ya not to come back, but here ya are again. Ya’all just won’t listen.”
It was then that ol’ Frisco, the hippie, decided to play his ace in the hole. “Excuse me, sir, but I’ve never been here before.”
The leader turned to Frisco and said, “Shut your mouth!” He started to turn away, but stopped in mid-turn and did a double take. He was looking at Frisco’s long hair. He told his men to keep an eye on the rest of us and walked over to Frisco and said, “Are you in one of them Beatle bands?”
I reckon the guy didn’t want or expect an answer. He looked Frisco up and down a few times, then turned to the rest of us and announced—while holding a bullwhip up the air with his right hand, “Well boys, we’re gonna’ teach ya’all a little lesson this time. One of you is gonna hug a tree and take a few lashes from my friend here, while the rest of ya watch. Ya gittin’ off easy this time.”
He dropped his arm and continued, “Now let me see, who’s it gonna be?” His eyes, lighted by the fire and reflecting the flames, looked evil. But I suppose his eyes would have looked evil buying his child an ice cream cone down at the corner drug store.
He looked at each one us in turn. When he came to me, he said, “What are you doing here, boy?” Before I could answer, Jake stepped in front of me and said, “He’s my son. His ma died this spring and I’m taking him to see his grandmother. He just enlisted to fight in Viet Nam. He’s gotta report in three weeks. I lost my job at the plant, so we had no money for a bus; that’s why we’re here.”
The guy responded. “I didn’t ask for no life story.” But you could see that Jake’s bullshit had had an effect on the stupid fuck.
After the exchange with Jake, the guy continued his perusal of the rest of our conclave. Then he came to Samuel. And oh, how his face did light up! A broad smile played across his lips as he intoned, “Boys, I think I found me the perfect candidate for our little lesson tonight.”
And then from out of the crowd behind him, a voice rang out, “Hey, Dick, can’t we hurry this along? My wife says I’ve gotta be home by nine to watch the kids. She got an auxiliary meetin’ tonight.”
At that point, two things went through my mind. One, what a perfect name for the leader of this bunch … Dick! If I wasn’t so scared shitless, I would have laughed out loud. And two, what auxiliary did that guy’s wife belong to? The Klan’s?
It was about then that Jake figured he better do something, but it sure wasn’t anything I could understand. He leaned into me and whispered, “Follow my lead, keep ya yap shut and do what I tell you without hesitation and don’t ask any fool questions.”
Dick told his men to grab hold of Samuel, though he used a pejorative rather than Samuel’s name. Three men laid their guns against a tree and approached Samuel. To his credit, Samuel did not back up or give even the slightest indication of fear. Two of the men grabbed his arms, while the third tied a rope to his left wrist. They then led him over to a large tree. The trunk was about ten feet in circumference. They put Samuel facing the tree, placing his arms so that they encompassed the trunk as far around as they could go, and then tied the free end of the rope to his right wrist. So this is what Dick meant by “hug a tree.” The men stepped back to admire their handiwork. Nodding their approval, they retrieved their guns and rejoined the other assholes.
That was when Jake went into his act. He cleared his throat loud enough to get Dick’s attention, took a step forward and said, “Excuse me, sir. I happen to agree with you and your methods. My son and I are heartily sorry for intruding into your fair city. If we had known which way the wind was blowin’, we would never have stopped here for a rest. But seein’ how my boy is about to go off and fight those Godless Commies in the defense of his country, do you think you might spare him the sight of this necessary, but still vexatious, act you are about to perform?”
Of course, Dick didn’t know what vexatious meant. Jake later told me that he used the word because he couldn’t think of another word for horrific, and he didn’t think Dick would have appreciated that particular word.
Anyway, after mulling it over, ol’ Dick decided to be magnanimous and granted us permission to leave. When told we could go, Jake again leaned into me and whispered, “Get your case and the bottle of booze. Use your case to hide it. I don’t want anyone to see it. Hurry up, we don’t have much time.” He picked up his bedroll and started for the road that ran by the camp. As he passed Ying, I saw him wink. He was moving so fast I had to run to catch up. When I came up next to him, I asked if we were just going to leave Samuel there to be whipped. “I thought I told you not to ask any fool questions,” was his only reply.
When we got near the road, we ran into two pickup trucks. “This is what I wanted to see,” said Jake. He opened the door to the closest one, and while taking out a pocketknife he said, “See if the keys are in the other one.”
“Yeah, they’re here.”
“Okay, kid, we got to move fast if we’re to keep Samuel’s suffering to a minimum. Push that truck out onto the road. Once there, start her up and drive about a quarter mile towards the town. Then pull off to the side into some trees, but keep her facing the road. Be ready to take off in a hurry. And keep the lights off. Now give me that bottle of booze.”
I stood there and watched him open the knife. He slit the upholstery and pulled out the stuffing, then unscrewed the top off the bourbon bottle and poured the contents onto the seat. As he lifted his head out of the cab of the pickup, he saw me. “You still here?”
Taking the hint, I went over to the other truck, put it in neutral, and started to push it towards the road. Halfway there, I turned to look back to see what Jake was up to. I was just in time to see him light a match and throw it into the cab of the pickup.
Whoosh! The goddamn thing caught on fire. But that was all I had time to observe. I had my marching orders and I was determined to carry them out to the best of my ability. Later I learned what happened while I waited in the truck down the road.
After Jake had a good fire going and there was no chance of it going out by itself, he ran back to the camp. He got there just as Dick had administered the third lash to Samuel’s back. As his arm came back for lash number four, Jake called out that there was a pickup truck on fire down by the road. That stopped Dick in mid-motion. His arm fell to his side and he went over to Jake and asked, “What did you say?”
“I said there’s a truck on fire down at the road. Just as me and my boy were coming out of the woods, we saw three white boys climb into another truck and hightail it out toward that county road. Then, as we got even with the other truck, flames leapt out at us from inside. She must have a good burn going by now.”
That was all he had to say. The vigilantes stopped pointing their guns at Ying and the others and ran through the woods from whence they came. Ying told me they were steppin’ and fetchin’ big time and he laughed at the memory of it.
Jake still had his knife open and in his hand. He went over to cut Samuel free. Before he had cut halfway through the rope, Ying was there with his own knife, cutting the rope at Samuel’s right wrist. Jake got through the rope first and said to Ying, “He’s free, we can take care of that later. Let’s git the hell outta’ here.” Jake helped Samuel while Ying gathered their gear. They found their way to the truck in which I was waiting. By the way, just as a matter of note, by the time Ying and Jake were helping Samuel out of the camp, our four compatriots were nowhere to be seen.
I did ask Jake why he said white boys had started the fire and stolen the other truck. His answer: “So they wouldn’t go messin’ with no black folk or hobos who may be passing through their shit-hole of a town.” That was Jake; one minute he was sounding like the dumbest hick the good Lord ever made, and the next he was using words like vexatious and thinking three steps ahead of the rest of us.
The upshot was this. We drove the stolen pickup back to the freight yard where Jake, Ying, and Samuel got out. I was told to ditch the truck at least a mile from the yard and walk back. We hid out in an abandoned shed until our train was ready to leave. During the night, we attended to, or I should say Ying attended to, Samuel’s wounds. He had some Chinese shit that he said would fix Samuel right up. And it did. The next day, the rips in his flesh did not bleed through his shirt. When the train started to move, we ran to it and, one by one, jumped on board.
As we pulled out of Lubbock, Texas, I was thinking that nothing in my life would ever be anywhere near as exciting as the previous night had been. But I might have been wrong.
Because we had not slept the night before, we spent that day’s wayfaring in repose. The floor was hard, but surprisingly clean. I awoke in the late afternoon only to find that the others were already awake and sitting at the door watching the world go by or at least that little part of it that was known as western Texas. I joined them, and as I was sitting down, I asked, “So what’s for breakfast?”
“We’ll be there in less than an hour. Then we’ll forage before going to the camp,” answered Jake.
Samuel added, “Hopefully, Ying will remove temptation from some poor soul’s car again. I sure could use the help of some spirits. My back is hurting something awful.”
Ying looked at Samuel, “I’ll see what I can arrange.”
And that was it. None of us spoke until we got to the outskirts of Dallas. Then Jake said, “Okay, boys, time to detrain.”
Of course, I fell flat on my face again, but no harm done. I stood up and dusted myself off and said to no one in particular, “I’ll get the hang of it if it kills me.” Well, I’m still here, but I never did get the hang of it.
The first neighborhood we came to after having left the train was a good one for cadging food, if not an entire meal, or so I was informed by Samuel and seconded by Jake and Ying.
We split up as we had the night before. And as we had the night before, I played the part of Jake’s son. Once we had all the food we could carry and were on our way to the camp, Jake told me the “son dodge” was the best. He had never gotten food so easily, and he asked if I would travel with him, at least until I lost my youthful appearance. He was kidding on the square, but I was noncommittal nevertheless.
When we reached the camp, Ying and Samuel were nowhere to be seen. However, there were other inhabitants milling about. There was also a raging fire, about three times the size of the one in Lubbock, and sitting around the fire were six men. As we walked up, they gave a brief nod, but went right back to talking among themselves. Also at the fire, ensconced upon a throne of an old La-Z-Boy type recliner with the white stuffing showing through rips and tears in the fabric, sat an old black man with a full head of white hair. When Jake saw him, he whispered under his breath, “I’ll be goddamned!” I asked Jake who the guy was, but received no reply, probably because he was already three steps ahead of me, hurrying on his way to the man in the chair. Not knowing what else to do, I followed Jake.
When we got closer, I saw that the man’s face was gaunt; he looked downright emaciated. His cheeks were hollow and his cheekbones seemed very pronounced. His head sat upon a thin body and he looked to be about six feet tall, but it was hard to tell because he was sitting down.
When Jake reached the man, he said, “Hey, Oracle! It’s me … Jake.” I was right behind Jake and that is when I observed the most remarkable thing about the man called Oracle. As he turned his head in Jake’s and my direction, I saw that he had not iris nor pupil in either eye; there was only white showing. The man was blind, totally blind. It was an eerie sight indeed. If not for the broad smile upon his face, I’d say he looked like one of those zombies in a “B” movie from the 1950s.
Jake reached out his right hand and laid it on the man’s shoulder, saying, “How ya been, old stick?” I didn’t know if he was referring to the thinness of the man’s body, or if “stick” was a term of endearment.
Oracle kept his smile, nodded his head, and exclaimed, “Jake, you old shit-kicker. When did you blow in?”
“Just got here. You been here long?”
“Me and Marvin been here two days. Probably leave tomorrow. We’re headin’ for sunny California.”
“Oracle, I want you to meet a young protégée of mine. I’ve been teaching him the ways of the road. Well, with a little help from Ying and Samuel.”
“Are those shit-kickers here too?”
“Yeah, they’ll be along presently, but this here is Andrew. He hasn’t even hit his majority yet and he’s out hoppin’ freights.”
Oracle extended his right hand. I did likewise, and we shook hands. “Glad to meet ya, Andrew. Any friend of Jake’s is a friend of mine.”
I verbalized the same sentiment by saying, “Same here.”
After the introduction, Oracle invited us to have a seat and take a load off. Then he said, “Marvin’s out cadgin’ us some eats. Why don’t you fellas join us?”
Jake replied, “We just came in from a foraging expedition of our own, we’ve got plenty.”
Eventually Samuel and Ying walked into the camp. When they saw Oracle, they had the same reaction that Jake had. They rushed to him, shook his hand, and shot the shit for a few minutes. Then it was time to eat. Ying and Samuel laid their plunder next to our plunder, and I must admit, the four of us made quite a haul that night. We were discussing what to eat and what to save for the next day when Marvin walked in. Of course, it was a repeat of when Jake had first spied Oracle. It was old home week. It was then that I found out who the hell Marvin was. When introduced to him, I was told that he was Oracle’s traveling companion. You see, Oracle was in his sixties and Marvin was about thirty. They had hooked up more than a dozen years earlier when Marvin was a skinny teenager who had just run away from home and didn’t know the ways of the road, and Oracle’s sidekick at the time had just been hit by a highballer out of St. Louis, killing him instantly—leaving Oracle without a set of eyes. They’d been together ever since.
Ying was the chef of the outfit. As he opened cans and put them next to the fire, making sure to turn them every once in awhile so both sides would heat up, he laid out the already cooked food, like chicken, and the slab of meatloaf that Jake and I got from a very nice lady who flirted with him as she wrapped the meatloaf in wax paper. Jake extended an invitation to the other men congregated around the fire. His offer was politely declined. I think they were too busy passing a bottle of rye between them to stop for something to eat.
When Jake noticed the rye across the fire, he said to Ying, “That reminds me. Any luck in the booze department?”
Ying looked up from his culinary duties and informed Jake that, to date, he had never let him down and he wasn’t about to start. “Look under my coat over there on the log. You’ll find an almost full jar; I was going to surprise you after dinner.” Jake walked over to where Ying had indicated, lifted his leather coat, and there on the log sat a mason jar—you know, the kind they put up preserves in. It had a rubber gasket and metal hinge that secured the lid. This jar was about nine inches high and held what looked like water. As Jake held the jar up to the light of the fire, he asked Ying, “Where cha get it?”
Ying’s answer: “You don’t want to know.”
Jake walked to where I was sitting and sat down on his heels. He flipped up the metal hinge, removed the top, and inhaled deeply. “I must say, a mighty fine bouquet.”
Turning to me he asked, “Andrew boy, you ever had any shine? You ever have any sweet mountain dew?” I had to inform him that I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. “I’m talkin’ about moonshine, boy. Nectar of the gods.”
“Well, if that’s what you’re talking about, then no, I’ve never had any moonshine.”
“Well, Andrew my friend, you are in for a real treat. It’s best enjoyed after dinner because to partake beforehand you won’t want any dinner. However, seeing as how you’re a cherry, take a swig, it’ll get the gastric juices flowing.” He handed me the jar, adding, “Make the first one small; it’ll set your throat afire.” Of course, I’m thinking that I’m cool; I’ve drunk 151 proof Wild Turkey bourbon, so this watery-looking stuff can hold no surprises for me.
I didn’t take a small pull as advised. It’s funny that, when you’re eighteen, you have all the wisdom of the world. You know everything. But as the years pass, that knowledge gets whittled down until you’re as ignorant as the rest of humanity. So, knowing all, I gulped a mouthful of 190 proof liquor. I reckon you all know what happened next. It burned all the way down and exploded like a mini A-bomb in my stomach. I then started coughing and choking. If not for Jake being ready for just such a contingency, the jar’s contents would have been lost. But just in the nick of time, Jake took the jar from my hand and saved me from spilling the precious liquid onto the ground. All had a great laugh at my expense—even Oracle and the six guys swigging rye on the other side of the fire.
Ying prepared our spread, Marvin prepared his and Oracle’s, and they both rang the dinner bell at the same time. So, when my coughing and the accompanying laughter subsided, we all sat down to a meal fit for a king. That is, if the king liked beans, cold chicken, meatloaf, and raw carrots.
I sat next to Oracle while we ate, and he started asking me questions about my life. After we had exhausted all the small talk, he asked what had precipitated my going on the road. I told him it was something inside of me that I had always, for as long as I could remember, wanted to know what was at the end of the road. I told him that as a kid, I would see a train of boxcars sitting on a siding and have the urge to jump into an empty one and ride the train to wherever it was going just to see what was at the end of the line.
He asked me if I had ever read On the Road by Kerouac. When I answered in the affirmative, he asked what I thought of it. Before answering, I asked him if he knew the story. With him being blind, I couldn’t ask if he had read it. Well, he looked right at me with those sightless eyes of his and said, “I read the damn book. Does that surprise you?” It sure as hell did. Then he explained that he had read it in braille, you know, the raised dots. I don’t think it’s in use anymore, what with audio books and all.
“There are books,” he said, “in braille in almost every library. Usually when we hit a town, Marvin and I search out a library and we’ll spend the day there reading. We can’t check out any books because we’re not members of the community, but we’re both fast readers and we both love books. And if we’re in a small town with no books in braille, Marvin and I will sit in a corner of the library and he will quietly read to me. But tell me now; what was your take on Kerouac’s Road?”
“I guess when it came out it was quite scandalous. But I found it rather boring. I’ve been on the road, hitchhiking, for more than a year and a half, and I’ve had more adventures, been in more weird and bad situations in a week than he experienced the whole time he was ‘on the road’. And it’s no wonder; he took a bus everywhere he went! I mean, how are you going to meet people and get into their lives if you’re sitting on a goddamn bus? He should have called it On the Bus.”
When I finished speaking, Oracle let out with a good belly laugh and said, “I guess great minds do think alike. That was my take on the book also. I kept waiting for something exciting to happen. I had to stop reading it three-quarters of the way through.”
And so it went; we ate and we talked of books. It was because of Oracle that I read Tolstoy, Mailer, Dostoevsky, Hesse, and countless others that he said I should check out. He also told me of the ponderous books that would be a waste of time. Authors like Nietzsche and Balzac. “Stay away from Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Honoré de Balzac,” he advised. “They’re more long-winded than I am, and that’s saying something.”
Of course, I knew of Nietzsche and Balzac, but this guy knew their full names! Oracle was a well-read and intelligent man who spent his life in the pursuit of knowledge. You and I should be as well read and as intelligent.
By the time we had finished eating, the other members of our little assemblage, the guys with the rye, were somewhere out there in the darkness. They had finished their drinking for the night, probably because the bottle was empty, and had gone off to find a place to sleep, away from the fire and the scintillating conversation. Ying was breaking up a wooden crate and throwing the wood on the fire to build it up when Samuel asked Oracle to tell us a story.
I think I should digress for a moment and tell you what I learned of Oracle the next day as we were Little Rock bound. Of course, Oracle was not his real name. I never did learn the name he was born with; I don’t think anyone knew his appellation. But here are the pertinent facts: Oracle was gifted with Second Sight. He could tell a man’s past, having just met him. He knew the secret desires hidden within, and more often than not, he could foretell the future. I guess they didn’t call him Oracle for nothing.
Oracle had an amazing track record when it came to seeing into someone’s future. In fact, he was so good at it, he had stopped relaying the information he saw in his visions. I learned that when he had a vision he was not blind. He saw colors. He saw rainbows. He saw the faces of the people his vision concerned.
Once it was known that his predictions were right most of the time, men tended to alter their lives in anticipation of the event prophesized. Oracle told me it was not his intention to influence the lives of men. So even though he still had visions, he kept them to himself unless it was a vision like the one he told us about that night.
The fire lit Oracle’s face, illuminating the white in his eye sockets. I sat spellbound as Oracle told us of the entity we know as God, and the creation of this universe. There is no such thing as death. “We are immortal, we are gods!” said he. It was a good tale for the fact that the things he spoke of that night so long ago have stayed with me. The things I heard that night propelled me, later in life, to go on a journey—a journey of discovery. It took me twenty-two years and a lot of time in a lot of libraries. This was before the internet. But I finally came to an understanding about life, and I owe it all to Oracle.
When he had finished speaking, Oracle sat back in his chair, tilted his head skyward, and sighed. I, on the other hand, sat in front of the fire with my mouth open. It was late by then. It was time to hit the hay.
As we got up and made ready to bed down, Oracle said to Ying, “Ying, my friend, there is a bad moon on the rise; please take care of your yellow ass.”
The next morning we said our goodbyes to Marvin and Oracle. And as I shook his hand, Oracle confided in me, “When you’re my age, you will write of your youthful adventures. In one of your stories, I will be mentioned; make sure you tell your readers how handsome I was.” And then he laughed. Because, at the time, I had not been told of his Second Sight, I said to him that I did not expect to make it to thirty, let alone sixty. He just smiled and said, “You just might make it if you keep your nose clean and play your cards right.”
We jumped the 310 to Little Rock and settled in for the last ride the four of us would take together. 310 refers to the number of the locomotive, not the time of departure. How those guys knew the numbers of the trains is beyond me. The numbers of the diesels were not painted on the front as they had been in the old “steam” days.
The only thing of note to report about our trip to Little Rock is that the train pulled onto a siding where we sat for three or four hours. The delay kept us from getting into Little Rock until it was too late to knock on any back doors, so we pooled our meager resources and sent Ying to the nearest liquor store. We had decided to drink our supper that evening. Or they had, and I just went along. When Ying returned with a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag, we set out for Little Rock’s hobo camp.
As we approached, we saw no fire through the trees and heard no voices. “Looks like we got the place to ourselves,” announced Jake.
There was a full moon, so we had no trouble finding wood with which to build a fire. Once we got it going, we sat around passing the bottle of Jim Beam among us. As Ying tilted his head back to take a deep pull from the bottle, he hesitated and said, “You guys think that moon up there is the one Oracle meant?”
“If it is, you better pass that bottle over here before the motherfucker falls on ya,” exclaimed Jake.
Just then I heard a voice behind me. “Well, well, if it ain’t my old friend Ying Lee.” My butt came about three inches off the ground because there was not supposed to be anyone there.
Ying stopped looking at the moon and handed Jake the bottle before he said, “Nick Testa, what the fuck are ya doin’ here?”
“Just lucky, I guess. I’ve been lookin’ for ya, pal. Where ya been hiding?”
By now, Jake and Samuel were on their feet and moving to the voice behind me, which prompted me to finally turn around. What I saw was a man about five and a half feet tall, with maybe three or four day’s growth of beard. He was wearing an old dark blue suit, no tie of course, and he had in his hand the biggest goddamn pistol I have ever seen. They’re all big when they’re pointed in your general direction.
As Jake and Samuel started for him, the man Ying had called Nick Testa raised the gun and swung it from side to side, telling them to stop where they were if they didn’t want a piece of the action. Ying chimed in: “Hey, Nicky boy, this is between you and me. Let’s leave others out of it.”
It was about that time I decided to stand up also. In effect, the guy had us covered. Why he was holding a gun on us I knew not. However, I did know that it did not bode well for my friend Ying once I looked into the man’s eyes; they were filled with hate.
Before we get down to the nitty gritty, allow me to fill you in on what I later learned. The whole confrontment was because of something that happened either three or four years—depending on who was telling the story—prior to the night in question. Samuel swore it was three years, and Jake was just as adamant that the nexus to that night happened four years earlier. Regardless of the time frame, this is what brought Nick Testa and his gun to our campsite that night forty-seven years ago.
The three of them, Jake, Ying, and Samuel, were headed west, just south of Detroit, when the train pulled into a yard, or siding, I forget which. The point is the train stopped. It was in the early morning hours and they had been asleep. They were awakened by the sound of a suitcase being thrown into the car and slamming onto the floor. The suitcase was soon followed by the dark figure of a man. They thought nothing more of it and tried to go back to sleep. Now, the thing is, there had been a mattress in the car when my three future friends climbed on board. It must have been brought there by an enterprising hobo. It was only wide enough for one, so Samuel took out three wooden matches from his shirt pocket and broke one in half, then putting them between thumb and forefinger, told the other two to choose. The one ending up with the short match would get the mattress. Long story short, Ying won the right of a comfortable night’s sleep. When the intruder climbed into the car, he found Ying lying on the mattress and kicked the souls of his shoes.
When riding the rails, or when in a hobo jungle, you always sleep with your shoes on, it becomes second nature because if you don’t, they’ll very likely be gone when you wake up. Anyway, Ying ignored the first couple of kicks, hoping the guy would just give up and go to his own corner and go to sleep. But that didn’t happen, so finally Ying raised his head and said, “What do you want?”
“I want you outta my bed.”
Ying sat up and informed the man that there must be some mistake. By then, Samuel and Jake were propped up on their elbows, watching what was taking place in the dim light. When the man repeated his demand for Ying to vacate the mattress, Ying politely asked, “Would you please say that again?” But before the man could utter a word, Ying lashed out at him with his right foot, connecting with the man’s left knee.
The guy went down hard, all the while yelling and cursing. Jake said his howling was so loud, they thought it would bring every bull within miles to their car. When the man hit the floor, even though the light was dim, Ying recognized him and said, “Nick Testa, is that you?”
“Goddamn it, Lee. You likely broke my knee!”
It turned out that they had worked together for a summer at a fish cannery in the Northwest. But they never did like one another or, as it was explained to me, Testa did not have any use for Ying. To quote Samuel, “He’s a racist son-of-a-bitch!”
The train started moving about the same time the two old comrades-in-arms realized they knew one another. At that juncture, Ying raised himself from the bed, stood over Testa, and said, “I’ve got to get my beauty rest, and with you here, I wouldn’t be able to close my eyes for fear of waking up with my throat cut from ear to ear.” He grabbed Testa by the back of his shirt, and dragged him over to the open door Testa had just come through moments before.
When they got to the opening, Ying said, “Here, let me help you. Let’s see if you can stand on that leg.” He reached down, and taking hold of Testa under his arms, raised him to a standing position.
Ying: “How’s that?”
Testa: “It hurts like hell.”
And with that, he pushed Testa out of the moving car. Then he kicked his suitcase out after him.
Now back to the ranch, so to speak. When we left off, Testa was holding a gun on us. More so on Ying than the rest of us. He told Jake and Samuel to move down next to Ying, which they did, though very slowly. He finally acknowledged my existence by saying, “You got no part of this, boy. If you want, you can leave now.”
You know it never entered my mind to leave. Those guys were my friends. The time I had known them did not matter, the depth and commitment of the friendship was what mattered. “No, thank you. I’ll stay with my friends,” was the only response I could give and still be able to look at myself in a mirror.
Once we were grouped together on the other side of the fire, Testa took a few steps in our direction. It was then that I noticed he walked with a limp. He stopped about ten feet in front of us and said, “Mr. Lee, I have something to say to you.”
Ying said to be quick about it. “You interrupted my drinking, so get on with whatever ya got in mind.”
“Always the chink wise-ass, ain’t ya, Lee?”
Ying shrugged his shoulders and stared at Testa. I saw no fear in his eyes.
“I’ve been carrying this hog-leg Colt since our last meeting. You crippled me and threw me off a moving train. And I aim to get mine back. Now you other fellas just stay outta this. It ain’t no concern of yours. I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if you interfere.”
He stopped speaking for a moment, took a deep breath, smiled and said, “Mr. Lee, if you’ll please, take two steps forward.” Ying did not hesitate. Without looking at any of us, he took first one step, then another, but he did not stop there. He rushed Testa and when he was five paces from him, Testa fired. He got off two shots before Ying collided with him and they both went down.
Before they hit the ground, Jake and Samuel were there. Jake wrestled the gun from Testa’s hand and slipped it in his belt. Samuel hit Testa three or four times, right in the mouth. Me? I was frozen in place.
When I could move again, I walked over to where Ying lay on the ground. Testa was out cold, but no one paid him any mind. Jake and Samuel were kneeling over Ying. He was flat on his back, looking up at us. He had a smile on his face. He also had two bullet holes in his chest. He looked at Samuel, then at Jake, and finally at me. When he saw the horror in my face, he winked at me. Then he died, his eyes still looking at me, but not seeing me. None of us moved for a few minutes. Jake closed Ying’s eyes, and Samuel took his arms and folded them over his chest. I was the first to turn away, and when I did, I saw that Testa was gone.
I hurriedly told the others, but got no response from either of them. When I insisted we should do something, call the police so they could pick him up and get an ambulance to take Ying somewhere, I was told by Jake, “No, we take care of our own, first Ying, then Testa. He can’t go anywhere. There are no trains leaving at this time of night. They don’t start until 4:00, 5:00 a.m. We’ve got a few hours to catch up with Mr. Testa.”
When I countered with, “Maybe he’s hitchhiking out of town, or walking.”
“No, he’ll stay off the streets. He’ll be thinking we’ve set the cops on him. He’ll hide out until he sees the first train moving, then he’ll catch it. And then we’ll catch him.” That was it. End of discussion.
“First we need tools to bury Ying. You two prepare him. I’ll be back,” said Jake as he walked off into the darkness.
The fire was getting low, but because of the full moon, we had no trouble seeing what we had to do. Samuel told me to get Ying’s bed roll, which I did. After I handed it to him, he unrolled it and spread it on the ground next to Ying. He looked up at me and said, “Help me lift him onto the blanket.”
I had never touched a dead man before. Well, I had, but that’s another story. Ying was still warm to the touch, so it was more like he was sleeping. Once we had him centered on the blanket, Samuel started to wrap him in it.
I asked him to wait a moment. I went over to the fire where Ying had been sitting, looked around for a moment, saw what I was looking for, and brought it back to where Ying lay. I lifted the half-empty bottle of Jim Beam so Samuel could see it and asked, “Think Ying may want this to help him on his journey?” Samuel agreed. “Damn good idea, kid.”
Just when I’m feeling pretty good about myself for having thought of such a brilliant scheme, Samuel asked me, “Don’t you think it would last longer if the top was on the bottle?”
I hadn’t noticed. I went back and looked for the cap, found it, and gave it to Samuel. He smiled and said, “It’s okay, kid, we’re all a little shook up.” He secured cap to bottle, placed it on Ying’s stomach, and clasped his hands around it. As he finished wrapping and tying the blanket, Jake returned.
He was carrying a shovel and a pick axe. “Got these at that construction site down the road, had to break into their tool shed.” He handed me the tools, then he and Samuel picked up Ying and carried him to a thicket of oak trees. In the center of the thicket where the roots would not be as dense, they started digging, first Jake with the pick, and then Samuel with the shovel. Back and forth they worked until they had a hole, or should I say grave, about three and a half to four feet deep. It was six feet long. I know because Jake paced it off.
With me watching, they lowered Ying into his final resting place. When Samuel started to fill in the grave, I said, “I want to do something. Let me fill it in.”
“Sure, Andrew, but pack it in hard, and whatever dirt is left over, spread it around so that the ground is level. Jake and I will gather leaves to hide the fact that any digging went on here.”
After the leaves were spread and the place looked as pristine as it had before, Jake said, “I need a drink. Where’s that bottle?”
Samuel and I looked at each other before he said, “It’s with Ying.”
“Right where it should be. Well, if I can’t have a drink, let’s go and see Mr. Testa,” said Jake as he picked up the pistol he had taken from Testa.
When we got to the yard, we squatted down in the shade of a shed, out of the moonlight, and watched the idle trains. We knew, or Jake and Samuel knew, that Testa was not too far away, doing the same thing. I asked Samuel, “Suppose he’s already on a train?”
“That isn’t likely. “He’d be afraid the bulls would see him and chase him out of the yard or worse yet, turn him over to the police. No, he’s hiding and waiting, just like us.”
We had no more than an hour to wait when the train in front of us backed up to couple with a line of cars, maybe eight or nine. When the cars had become part of the train, and as it started its forward motion, we saw a solitary figure run out from behind a building and jump into one of the boxcars that had not yet passed us.
“That’s it, gentlemen, we’ve got us a train to catch,” said Jake as he stood watching the car we wanted come our way. He had been absent-mindedly playing with the pistol, but now he stuck it in his belt and headed for the train. Samuel and I followed.
Jake was the first to jump on, next Samuel, and lastly me—as usual. By now, I could get on a moving train by myself and without too much difficulty. But it was still a struggle. By the time I flopped onto my back inside the car and lay there a moment to catch my breath, Jake had backed Testa up to the front wall. As I got up and walked towards them, I heard Testa say, “… and you were there, you saw it. He rushed me. I was only gonna scare him. But when he rushed me, I was in fear for my life.”
Jake looked over to Samuel and expressed his doubts as to the veracity of Testa’s story. “I think he’s a lying sack of shit. What do you think, Samuel?”
“I agree and concur wholeheartedly,” responded Samuel.
No one asked my opinion.
Because of the full moon, the ambient light inside the car was enough for me to discern the terror upon Testa’s face.
Just when I thought, What are they going to do now that they’ve got him? four shots rang out, the sound reverberating in the empty boxcar. The first one went into Testa’s forehead, not quite right between the eyes, but pretty good shooting nevertheless. The next three, as he lay on the floor … those went into his chest. Then I heard clicks as the spent chambers revolved to the firing position.
Jake stood over the dead man, right arm outstretched, pointing the gun straight down at the body and continued to squeeze the trigger until Samuel came up next to him and gently eased the gun from his hand.
“You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever killed a man,” whispered Jake.
They dragged the body over to the open door and we waited until we were crossing a river. Samuel took hold of Testa’s wrists and Jake his ankles and they swung him back and forth, counting one, two, three. On the count of three, they flung him out the door as far as they could. They wanted him in the water, not on the side of the tracks. It was my job to throw out the gun, which I did without screwing it up.
We did not know where we were headed. Jake figured we were going in a southeasterly direction. We wanted off as soon as possible. We did not want to be caught in that car because of all the fresh blood on the floor. That would take some explaining.
We ended up in Tallahassee. Samuel still wanted to get to Atlanta, so he said he was going to catch a freight headed in that general direction. Jake had a woman down in Bonita Springs and was thinking of spending the winter with her. Until then, he thought he’d pick oranges. The picking season was less than a month away. Me, I had had enough of boxcars … and travelling … for the moment. I was going home to Mother.
We said good-bye to Samuel at the yard, then Jake and I hitched together as far as Orlando where we said goodbye. We both lied and said we’d meet up on the road at some future date, knowing that was highly unlikely. At least I did, because I knew right then and there that my boxcar riding days were at an end.
When I tell of one of my youthful adventures, I do so as though I’m sitting at a bar and relating my misdeeds to the guy sitting next to me. That is all well and good, but when it comes time to put my words down on paper—that’s a bitch. I haven’t the foggiest idea where a comma should go. My syntax sucks, and if I had a nickel for every word I leave out or extra word I put in, I could quit this writing racket and get a real job.
I want to give a shout-out to my friend and editor, Emily, who runs Sunrise Editing Services. Without her, my stuff would remain unreadable.
If anyone feels so inclined, I’d appreciate it if you’d like my Facebook page. You can click on the button on the right side of the page, near to top. Thank you.