Day One Hundred Forty
I finally grew sleepy last night from the boredom, the darkness, and the rocking of the car. I don’t know how long I had been asleep when I was awakened by a touch on my leg. I opened my eyes, but saw only blackness. I reached for my knife.
Suddenly the full force of the hobo’s body landed on top of mine.
I was so startled that I stupidly let go of my knife, and we struggled in the darkness. I could smell the man’s foul breath in my face and felt his thumb press against my throat while he pulled at my pants with his other hand. I tried to twist away from him, but he only pressed himself harder against me, calling me filthy names.
Damn it, why had I let go of my knife?
At least he was alone and unarmed. He couldn’t fight me and rape me at the same time. But he was heavy, and in the narrow space where I had made my bed, I couldn’t maneuver. He was stronger than me, and it was only a matter of time before he wore me down.
At last I found my knife. I couldn’t get a good angle of attack, but I delivered a flesh wound that made him swing off me with a yelp, followed by a string of curses. I pressed my advantage, driving my blade toward where I knew his belly must be. It was an instinctual move, made without thought, just as I had been trained to do.
But I had never tried this in such tight quarters. When I drove the knife in and jerked it downward, as I had done so often in training and in battle, I hit the abdominal artery and suddenly found myself covered in hot blood. And then with a thump, the man fell on top of me. He twitched as the liquid warmth spread across my body. And then the man lay still.
Damn it all to hell.
I struggled to get out from under him, my mind filled with horrible visions of being trapped under this stinking creature all the way to Lexington. But I finally worked my way free and got to my feet. The boxcar swayed, and I was breathing hard. I leaned against a stack of feed sacks, trying to catch my breath and figure out what to do next.
I had to get the man off the train, of course. And toss away any ruined feed bags, too. I also had to clean myself up and be ready to get off the train in Lexington in clothes that weren’t torn and stained with blood. And then—
I felt my knees grow weak and I sank to the floor. I sat for a long time like that, staring into the darkness at where the dusty floorboards were, my hands shaking, my breathing ragged, my mind a blank.
Then slowly I started pulling myself back together. I had no business letting my emotions run away with me. This wasn’t how Unitas trained me. I was becoming soft and civilian.
When my strength had returned, I dragged the man’s lifeless body to the open doorway and shoved him off the train. I did the same with two blood-soaked feed sacks before my aching back and trembling arms forced me to stop and sit down again.
Well, at least I was alone. I stripped off my bloody clothes and lay back down among the feed sacks. I hadn’t thought myself capable of sleep, but the next time I opened my eyes, a gray light was filtering through the open boxcar door, and we were stopped.
I pulled on my clothes in a panic, thinking we were in Lexington. But when I peeked outside, there was only farmland, no evidence of a town or depot anywhere. We were stalled.
Well, at least now I had a little light. I was hungry and thirsty, and maybe the hobo had a stash somewhere. I looked around the back of the car where he had been sitting the day before. My investigation turned up a dirty canvas bag containing food, a badly mended plaid shirt, and best of all, water!
Encouraged at having found such riches, I took a few cautious sips of water. It tasted okay, so I swallowed, but I waited to drink any more. I needed to make a plan for how I would ration it, in case we were delayed all day.
Next I took off my shirt and put on the plaid one. It was too big and it stank, but at least I no longer looked like a murderer. Then I examined the food, hoping it would be something good. But it was just ordinary road food—jerky, nuts, some raisins, and a bit of stale bread with a few faint spots of mold on it. I took the raisins and the canteen to the doorway and sat down, looking outside at the lightening morning sky, wondering where we were and when we would start moving again.
And it was while I was sitting there, leaning against the wooden door frame, that I had a horrible realization. I had no idea what the Lexington train station looked like. This train might stop dozens of times along the way, and how would I know which was the right place to get off? I couldn’t get off the train and look around every time we stopped. I might be seen by an official, or miss the train when it started up again. And after yesterday’s adventure, no way was I jumping onto a train ever again, if I could help it. My arms were already stiffening up from yesterday’s exertion, or was it from fighting the hobo? Either way, I didn’t have the upper body strength to repeat any of yesterday’s acrobatics. Once I was off the train, I was staying off.
But the question remained. How would I know when I was in the right place? By the time I saw the horses being unloaded, there might be train officials around. Would they arrest me?
Well, I would just have take my chances and hope that it all worked out. This was hardly the time to start getting upset about not having a good plan, since I’d never had one any other time I did something crazy and dangerous.
Feeling refreshed after my snack, I started looking around the boxcar for any remaining evidence of last night’s fight. I would need to clean that up. And this was a good time to set up a better hiding place, while the train was stopped and I could walk around normally. I busied myself for about an hour cleaning things and making a comfortable sleeping spot in an area where if we stopped at any towns along the way, the car inspectors weren’t likely to find me. And then in a sudden burst of inspiration, I took some twigs and pebbles from the dusty floor and wedged them into the tracks that the boxcar doors slid on. Now a zealous inspector wouldn’t be able to lock me in.
Satisfied that I had done what I could, I settled in to wait. It was nearly noon before the car jerked and we were on our way again. Soon we were picking up speed, and I felt my way to my hiding spot and settled in.
I spent the day waking and napping, sometimes not entirely sure which was which. I would be lying there, lost in little fantasies, when my body would sense that the train was speeding up or slowing down, and I would sit up, suddenly realizing that I had been dreaming. And other times, I was quite certain everything was a dream, but when I stretched out my hand toward the boxcar wall or the stack of feed sacks, or the dirty canvas bag, I knew that as unlikely as it seemed, I was awake and this was my reality.
Every time we came to a complete stop, I tiptoed to the door and looked out. But only twice were we in an actual station, and neither time were any animals unloaded, nor did inspectors check the cars.
And now it’s night again. I’ve opened the door a little wider so I can have some fresh air and moonlight. We’re moving, but at a pace I could just as easily walk. Will we ever get to Lexington? I find myself thinking of Gilbert, who had been traveling for weeks to get from Mississippi to Chicago, and who was still only in Oklahoma when he invited me to share his whiskey. And then there was Charlene, who never did make it from Texas to Colorado and ended up in the southern part of what used to be New Mexico, instead.
But surely the horse people wouldn’t have put their pedigreed animals on a train if they didn’t have confidence they could get them home. And at some point today, someone must’ve gone onto the livestock cars to feed them, right? My poor Flecha isn’t hungry and thirsty, is she? No, at least one of those stops today must’ve been so the horses could be fed. They’re too valuable, and the farm owners are politically powerful in this state.
So I’ll try not to worry, and I hope we get to Lexington tomorrow. I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I never imagined train travel would be like this.
I was better off riding my horse.
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