The leaves rustled in the cold January breeze just off the railroad tracks as Wilburn stood beside his bothers. The three boys lined up before their father, Nelson, and waited in silence for him to speak. Wilburn’s heart drummed in his chest, his palms grew slick, and his blood surged. Nelson stopped in front of him, looked deep into his eyes, and let out a resigned and weary sigh. He could feel the weight of his father’s strong, calloused hand as it rested heavily on his head. Nelson paused long enough for him to feel the warmth seep into his skull. He watched his father move on to his brother Woodrow, repeating the gesture. Only this time Nelson’s hand rested on his older brother’s shoulder.
Wilburn looked to Homer and Woodrow; their eyes held an unassailable confidence he tried to mimic. All of them turned toward the tracks as they heard the ting, hiss, and metallic shriek of the steam engine’s arrival. His mouth ran dry and his stomach churned as his father spoke.
“Homer…Woodrow, you know what to do. Get to Phoenix. Your mother’s expecting you. I’m counting on both of you to get Wilburn there safe.”
He paused halfway between them, peered deep into their eyes the seriousness of the journey he laid on their shoulders.
“Take care of him,” Nelson said, as he placed the safety of his ten year old son in the hands of his two eldest boys.
“Yes, Pa,” they replied in unison.
The year was 1929. The roaring twenties were wrapping up and the country was on the brink of the Great Depression. Wilburn and his brothers were leaving their home in Hall County, Texas and headed west. Their father had to stay behind, put their affairs in order, and sell the family’s three-hundred acre farm. That farm was all Wilburn knew. It’s where he was born, and now he and his brothers must train-hop through two states from the Texas panhandle to the arid Arizona desert.
Wilburn began to sweat in the frosty air as the train’s headlight danced in the night like a sinister orb. The glowing crystal ball grew larger as it approached and gained speed. His breath, shallow and rapid, was all he could hear as he labored to fill his lungs. He watched Homer’s mouth…it moved but he couldn’t hear his brother’s muffled words. Fear sat on his chest like a pallet of bricks.
The train is coming, the train is coming, oh God the train is coming! Wilburn was moving, but not on his own. He looked to his left and saw Woodrow, then to his right was Homer, and they dragged him into the tree line and made him kneel in the brush as the tender passed by.
“Wilburn!” Homer shook him until he made eye contact. “What is wrong with you?”
“I’m scared,” he replied.
“I know little brother but you can do this. We’re going to be here with you the whole way. I won’t let anything happen to you,” Homer said.
“Promise?” But Wilburn didn’t hear his brothers reply. The locomotive charged ahead, picking up speed. The time for talk was over. Before he knew it, his father had him in a vice grip, hugging him so hard he couldn’t breathe. Nelson released him and half walked, half dragged him toward the train. His feet caught the ground and he began to run, but he was no match for his brothers. Before he knew it he was on Homer’s back and the three brothers raced for the train as fast as they could. Homer saw Woodrow grab hold and hop into the boxcar. He sprawled on the floor with his arms stretched out and Homer grabbed hold.
“Wilburn! Hold on tight,” Homer yelled as he leapt into the air and landed chest down on the boxcar floor. Homer struggled to hold on as Woodrow scrambled forward pulling Wilburn off him. When he was inside the car, Woodrow went back and pulled Homer the rest of the way in.
Wilburn scrambled to the edge of the box car, frantic to see his father one last time. He didn’t know if he’d ever set eyes on his father again. The same thoughts were rolling around in Woodrow and Homer’s heads too because the brothers held each other and watched as their father waved goodbye and faded into the distance.
The boys rode that west bound train all night long and into the next day. In the wee hours of the early morning Wilburn saw a sign that read, New Mexico.
“Not much longer until we reach the depot in Tucumcari,” Homer told his brothers. “About half a day’s ride ‘til we get there.”
“What’s in Tucumcari?” Wilburn asked.
“It’s where we get off to catch the next train, but we’ll have to jump off before we reach the depot. Rest as much as you can now because we’re hoofin’ it to the next train.” Homer replied.
“Because we can’t be seen. If we’re caught by a bull we’ll get red-lighted for sure,” Homer said.
“What’s a bull and what’s red-lighted?”
“A bull is a railroad cop. They police the tracks and the train cars, and red-lighting is what they do to stowaways when they’re caught.” Homer said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means they’ll throw us off the train while it’s still moving, and that’s very bad. Most people don’t survive it,” Homer said.
Red-lighted! Wilburn looked out the car feeling very certain he never wanted to get thrown from a train.
This short story is also published through Coffee House Writers