Day One Hundred Thirty Nine
I found Yvonne talking to her son Philip off to one side where Locomotive stood looking around nervously. The only thing keeping the racehorse calm amidst the turmoil was the presence of his stable-mate, a placid gray pony that everyone called Dumpling.
Yvonne had my letter ready and was effusive with her thanks for my assistance, but when I asked if maybe she had thought of something I could do on her farm near Lexington, she shook her head. “I’m sorry dear, but I’ve got as many hands as I need right now. Don’t you worry, though. Something always comes through for someone who’s willing to work hard.”
That was easy for her to say. She wasn’t stranded in unfamiliar country with only a horse, a pack of food, and a few coins. I thanked her graciously and sought out Tanya.
I found her sitting on the edge of a trunk, trying to force it closed. I gave her a hand and together we buckled the leather straps. “So are you coming with us to the station?” she asked.
“I wasn’t planning on it. What good would it do? You know I haven’t got money for a ticket.”
“Oh, just hide yourself on a boxcar. Who’ll know?”
She waved her hand in a flippant way as she said this, but now I stopped what I was doing. “You know,” I said, “That wouldn’t be a half-bad idea, if it wasn’t for Flecha.”
“You’d never be able to do it, even if you didn’t have a horse. The cars are nearly always packed full of goods, so there’s no place to hide. And the railroad people check for hoboes before the trains pull out.”
Two men took the trunk away and I followed Tanya to where her horse was waiting. As she swung herself into the saddle she said, “Ride with us for a little ways. I get bored with only men and old ladies to talk to.”
I don’t think I’ve ever found anyone boring unless they were dead, but Tanya’s words had started me thinking. So I brought Flecha around, and before the sun was even fully above the horizon, we were on our way toward the train station, moving along in a caravan of other horse people, all heading toward either the docks or the rails.
“So they check all the cars on the train?” I asked as we rode along. “Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve seen people riding the freight cars, so it can’t be that hard to get on.”
“That’s because they jump on after the train is moving.”
“Well, I know that.”
“I know that, too. But I’d be willing to try it, if I could somehow get Flecha on board.”
“That would be the easy part. We rent livestock cars. How many animals we put on them is our business.”
“Then maybe I—“
She guessed where I was going with this thought and shook her head. “No way. The railroad people are diligent, and once they’ve checked that we aren’t stowing any humans on board and depriving them of a fare, we lock up the cars. Can’t risk someone stealing our horses if the train gets stalled on the tracks, you know.”
“You could hide me in one of those big crates of tack.”
As soon as I said this I knew how foolish I sounded. Tanya laughed. “Then where would we put our gear? Those boxes are full as it is.”
“There’s got to be a way.”
She looked at me from under the brim of her hat. “You’re really serious, aren’t you?”
Until she said it, I hadn’t realized that I was, but now I nodded. “I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ve been on the road nearly five months, and I’m ready for this trip to be over. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
She warned me. She told me all the dangers. There might not be an open car for me to jump onto. And if there was, I might fall and slip under the train’s wheels. And even if I got onto the moving train, I might get thrown off by officials in another town. We might get diverted, we might get stranded, we might derail.
“And the sun might explode and we’ll all die. Come on, Tanya. Help me.”
So she did. It was a crazy plan, gambling everything. Once Flecha was locked in the livestock car, I would have no choice but to get onto the train myself, even if it meant doing something dangerous, illegal, or both.
What was I thinking?
I wasn’t thinking, of course. And a good thing, or I’d still be poking along a broken asphalt road somewhere, dodging traders and refugees, half-mad with frustration and wondering how long my food would hold out. Instead, Tanya took my gear and horse in the milling confusion of the livestock loading area and I watched with a sick feeling in my stomach as she loaded her onto the car. I was committed now.
I walked down the length of the train, searching for a likely freight car and an official who might be willing to look the other way.
At last I spotted the one I wanted. He was young and homely, with a weak chin. I unbuttoned my shirt as much as I dared, bit my lips red, and approached him. My first thought was to convince him to let me hide on the boxcar before the train left the station, but I had no luck with that proposition.
“They’d see you,” he said, glancing all around.
He had a point. There were train officials everywhere. How could the government afford to hire so many? They probably paid next to nothing, and the employees supported themselves off pilferage and bribes.
I had three silver coins in my pocket—small ones that weren’t worth much. I slipped one into the young man’s pants pocket, stroking his leg as I did so and hating myself for feeling compelled to do it.
He wasn’t fooled. He pulled the coin out and looked at it. “This ain’t worth risking my neck over. But if you’ve got another one of these, I can leave the door unlatched. The motion of the train should open it enough that you can jump on once it’s out of the station.”
I looked at him in annoyance. Those blinking, watery eyes hid more resolve than I had realized. “Fine,” I said. I handed him another coin. I would have to find paying work in Lexington fast, or I would be in serious trouble.
The young man nodded, said he’d leave the boxcar door slightly open, and walked away.
By now passengers were filing onto the train, and cars were being inspected and locked down. I needed to hurry if I was going to find a place up the line where I could jump on.
Right. Jump onto a train. I had clearly lost my mind. But it was too late to turn back now. With Flecha and all my gear boarded, I would have to get on or. . . Well, I would just have to get on.
I found a place down the tracks where I could hide in some scrub. Finally I heard the last boarding whistle. Then after what seemed a ridiculously long time, I heard the hum of the engines and the metallic clank of the lead engine starting to pull and the cars behind it falling into line. Now the wheels were screeching, metal on metal. The train was in motion.
But as the first engine passed, I had a horrible realization. This was a diesel train. It could pick up speed faster than one that burned straight coal. What if—
No. I couldn’t let myself think such things.
I crouched, ready to spring forward at the sight of my car. The passenger cars passed, then the livestock cars, swaying as they picked up speed. My boxcar should be along any moment, but where was it? What if that bastard at the station had taken my money but didn’t leave the door open? I craned my neck, searching.
And then I spotted it. Or at least, I spotted one just like it. It was a boxcar, the door was open, and there weren’t very many cars after. I wasn’t ready, but I was also out of time.
I readied myself as the car approached. It sure was moving fast and swaying a lot! Everything looked so far off the ground! What was I supposed to grab onto when I jumped? There was a small handle near the door, but what if it came off in my hand? Or what if I leaped for it and missed? Or what if—
I ran forward, my feet slipping in the rocks of the embankment. I leaped as high as I could, and managed to grab on, missing the door, my feet scrabbling at the side of the car, trying to find purchase. The train kept picking up speed. My hands were wet with sweat, my heart pounding. Everything was moving too fast. I couldn’t find my balance. The open door was right beside me, but I couldn’t see what was inside, and with the car swaying back and forth, I was having trouble leveraging my body weight so I could get in. We were moving faster now. My hands were growing slippery, my arms were taut and trembling with the effort of keeping my body from dropping back to the ground.
I must get in. If I waited any longer, it would be too late. So I said my prayers and flung myself through the open doorway. I landed with a thud on the dusty floor. The air rushed out of my lungs in a gasp, and I felt my sparse breakfast rise up in my throat. I spread out my hands on the filthy wooden floor and held on, feeling like I was on a spinning top that might fling me back out into the world.
Now I was really going to be sick. I struggled to my knees, peering into the darkness. All I could see was the gleam of a pair of eyes and a gap-toothed grin that didn’t look at all welcoming.
“Good job,” the man said again, his voice tinged with sarcasm.
“Who are you?”
“I should ask the same of you. This is my car.”
“It’s the railway’s car. You’ve got no more claim on it than I do.”
The man made a sort of clucking sound. “You just mind your own business, Miss, and we’ll get on all right.”
Now that I had a chance to get my bearings, I looked around. The car was nearly full of hay bales and feed sacks, but I thought I could make out a corner where I could settle in. I tried to stand, but the rocking motion of the train knocked me back to the floor. I scooted as best I could toward a promising spot amid the goods, where I arranged some sacks of oats to make a nest.
The day passed slowly. If there’s anything more boring than lying in the semi-darkness waiting to get to your destination, I don’t know what it is. I thought a few times about trying to engage the hobo in conversation, but there’s something about him that makes me think it’s best to stay out of his way.
Now that it’s growing dark, I hope he’s not going to be trouble. I wonder how he got here? If he were any friendlier, I’d ask. But instead, I suppose I’ll try to sleep. With one eye open, of course.
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