The rain hammered on the roof of the box car, waking the brothers from their sleep. They’d reached Tucumcari and prepared to jump off a few miles before the train reached the depot. They sloshed through the muddy streets of the small New Mexico town. Wilburn noticed it wasn’t much to look at. The train depot was the biggest building there. The boys found their next set of tracks, and waited quietly on the outskirts.
The brothers heard the telltale signs of the trains approach. They raced toward the cars, fighting the mud and water, as the relentless gray sky grumbled. The angry clouds unleashed the weight they held, and poured over the town with a roar. Wilburn scramble to keep up as Homer leapt in the air and caught the first car, but Woodrow wasn’t fast enough and caught the next one. Wilburn struggled to stay with them.
“HOMER! WOODROW!” Wilburn screamed to get their attention but the roar of the train, and the pounding rain, but it was usless. His brothers couldn’t hear him. He watched as the train pulled further out of reach. He pushed his legs faster and pumped his legs harder, trying with all he could. All he needed, all he wanted was to catch one car, just one!
But the train was too fast, he couldn’t get enough speed. He tripped over his feet and crashed, face first, into the muddy desert. He squeezed his eyes shut as the gravel ripped his skin like sandpaper and filled his mouth. He popped his head up out of the sludge, “Nooooo!” Angry and desperate, he scrambled to his feet but slipped again. He laid there and watched the train as it shrank to miniature in the distance, carrying his brothers with it. He rolled over and stared into the heavens. The sky began to blur as tears filled his eyes.
“They’re gone, they left me! Oh God, what am I going to do?”
Hopelessness consumed him as he faced the desert scared and on his own for the first time in his life. He heard his father’s stern voice echo in his head.
Get up Wilbur! He sat up and got to his feet. Get to Phoenix, your mother’s expecting you. He wiped his face on his sleeve, his skin screamed back in pain. He pulled his arm away and stared at the crimson liquid smeared on his clothes.
“Nothing to be done about that,” he put one foot in front of the other and followed the tracks.
Walk till dusk, you have to find your brothers; you have to get to Phoenix. He could hear his father’s voice in his head again.
“Yes, Pa.” He followed the tracks as long as the light let him. As the sun began to set, the air grew cold. So cold it seeped into his bones and took hold. His torn clothes didn’t do much to protect him. “I have to find a place to stop for the night,” he said as he followed the tracks, and looked around unsure where to stop. He needed to find something soon, twilight gave its last bits of light before succumbing to the shadows. The biting wind picked up, and the tips of his fingers froze. He rubbed them to ease the numbness. He was desperate to find something, anything, anywhere to stop.
As hopelessness set in he picked up a familiar scent carried by the breeze. It was faint, but it was there, he just knew it. He followed his nose and the closer he got the more familiar the smell became. It’s the smell of lazy summer nights, and roasted marshmallows. Wilburn knew that smell anywhere. “Campfire!” he said. His heart pumped in his chest, as his stomach growled in protest, at the luscious scents—reminding him that he hadn’t eaten a bite all day.
Alone, shivering, hungry, and scared, he had nothing to eat or drink. He had no choice…he followed his nose toward the smoky aroma that beckoned him. They lead to the outskirts of a makeshift camp. He tip toed toward the welcoming glow. It was a beacon to his frozen body and growling stomach. There were makeshift tents made from fabric and lean-to’s for shelter, clothes lines filled with shabby, threadbare clothes hung out to dry, campfires everywhere, with men and women roaming around, sitting, or cooking their dinners. He shivered in his tattered clothes and watched from afar. The icy cold shadows enticed him closer to the light.
He spotted a group of men sitting around a fire, on the outskirts of camp, and crept as close as he dared. Safe behind a scraggly bush, he shivered, watched, and listened. They were large men, as big as his pa, if not bigger. They spoke in hushed tones that he couldn’t make out, until one of them said.
“May as well c’mon out lad, we heard ya comin’ a mile way,” a man at the fired called. Wilburn jumped, making the branches shake. He quickly grabbed them to keep them from trembling, and looked around to see if there was anyone else around the man could’ve been talking to.
“Nope, not looking at anybody but you lad,” the man called out again.
Wilburn jumped again, his heart drummed so hard in his chest he thought it might explode. All the men looked in his direction, and snickered at him when they saw the bush dance. Panic set in as he looked from side to side, and took a step back. He was about to make a run for it when he heard the man call out to him again.
“C’mon now lad, don’t go runnin off. It’s dark and it’s only going to get darker. You don’t want to be out there all on your own come nightfall. C’mon now, I won’t hurt ya, and neither will my pals.”
Wilburn paused, unsure what he should do as he stood there shivering. Could he trust these men? What would his pa say? He’d be dead meat, his pa would tan his hide good, but what choice did he have?
“Are ya scared lad?” the man asked.
Wilburn nodded but stood in place, but didn’t dare move closer.
“No need, no need. We won’t bite, I promise ya that. You’ll be okay.”
Wilburn looked at them. They looked rough and tired, road me; he thought. His pa told him about them once, he called them hobos. They were the kind of people that lived on the road and used the trains to get from place to place and state to state.
Hypnotized by the fire, his cold body ached to move closer. His longing for warmth warred with his good sense as he glanced out into the encroaching night. He looked back at the fire one more time, and couldn’t resist. The firelight’s warmth won out. He inched out of his hiding place, and approached the fire.
“That’s a good lad,” the man said. “It’s alright. Come, come, sit here by the fire and warm up.”
Wilburn shuffled his feet, bit by bit, and slowly worked his way closer.
“That’s better, c’mon now, before ya catch yer death,” the man reached beside him and tossed a pouch to Wilburn when he sat down.
He took a long pull from the pouch, and made an audible sigh, as he relished the cool water trickling down his throat. He drank with greater urgency, emptied the pouch, and handed it back to the man. “Thank you,” he said as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, eyeing the men as they watched him. He turned his gaze toward the amber glow and stretched his hands out to warm them.
The man nodded. Wilburn studied him closely. He was a rough looking man with dark hair, ragged clothes, and wrinkled skin that’s been kissed by the sun to long.
“What’s your name boy?” the man asked.
Wilburn hesitated and looked down at the ground to avoid the man’s eyes, unsure if telling these men his name was a good idea.
“Pardon, sir but do ya mind if I ask ya yer names first?” Wilburn met the man’s gaze. He watched as the man’s brow over one eye and the corner of his mouth raised in unison and quickly looked back toward the fire.
The man’s eyes twinkled as he pointed a dirty finger at him, “You’ve got good instincts lad. No, I don’t mind at all. My name is Tobias…Tobias Reid at your service,” he made a circular gesture with his hand as he bowed his head. “Over there in the bowler cap is Ian MacDonald. That one with the red beard is Angus Armstrong, and last but not least is Owen Little. Don’t let his name fool ya, he ain’t so little,” Tobias winked, and each man tipped a hat, nodded a head, or grunted as Tobias introduced them.
“Nice to meet‘cha,” Wilburn replied. Wilburn felt the weight of their gaze on him as they awaited his reply.
Tobias piped up when Wilburn took too long to offer up his name, “Your turn lad. Tis’ only fair. C’mon now, out with it.”
“Wi-Wilburn” he stuttered, “Wilburn Elliott.”
“Wilburn ya say? Well Wilburn, what are ya doing out in these parts all by yourself? Where’s yer ma n’ pa?” Tobias asks.
Don’t cry, don’t cry! Wilburn fought to hold back his tears, “my ma’s on her way to Arizona and my pa’s back in Texas.”
“So you’re walking in the desert by yourself? That doesn’t make much sense,” Tobias says.
“No sir, My brother’s and me were train-hoppin to meet my momma in Phoenix when I got separated from’em.” Tears flooded his eyes and he fought to contain them. He had to be strong, but he didn’t feel strong, and he didn’t know if he’d ever see his family again.
“How old are ya kid?” Tobias asked.
Wilburn looked down at the ground and kicked his feet in the dirt, “Ten,” he said in a quiet voice. He sniffed and kept his gaze on the ground.
“Why’er you and yer brothers train-hoppin?” Tobias asked.
“We was on our way to meet my ma. She’s real sick, coughin up blood an’ all. My Pa calls it c’consumption. The doc said she has to get outta Texas or she’ll die before the year ends.” Wilburn’s mom was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The doctor ordered her to dryer climate. Living any longer in Texas would be a death sentence.
Dammit! Not again! Don’t cry! But he couldn’t help it, and his watery tears breached the dam he tried so hard to keep at bay. “The Doc set her up in a s..s..sanatorium in Phoenix and that’s where my brothers n’ me were headed when we got separated,” he said as he studied the ground and swatted at the tears rolling down his cheeks. The layer of dirt and blood on his face left evidence of his emotions betrayal. He watched the men as they looked at each other, then turned his attention to the fire and lost himself in the dancing firelight.