Tobias woke the next morning as the sun started to light the sky. The men packed up camp and hopped the first westbound train. They taught Willie the ways of the rails—the difference between a bum, a tramp, and a hobo. A bum was a no good, dirty, rotten thief that would rather steal from you than work for anything. A tramp is the type that only works when forced to. But the noble hobo was a traveling migratory worker.
He learned it was far better to be of the fine upstanding hobo variety. Those that joined the ranks of the Hobo Brethren did so for various reasons. Some caught the wanderlust of the road—travel was in their blood. Others had no choice—the rails called to them because work dried up back home. Hobos lived by a code of honor. Their most important rule: Never steal… always work for your food.
Willie and his four unlikely companions continued westbound across the rails all day. By nightfall, the men were comfortable in the spot they carved out for themselves in the car. Owen and Angus collected the scattered straw around the car. Tobias and Ian laid it out and unrolled their packs to make beds for all of them. Willie stuck close to the men he’d grown accustomed to. He began to feel like one of them.
On the other side of the car were groups of vagabond wanderers. Everyone kept to themselves, going about their nightly rituals. As Willie sat and scanned the area, he noticed a man off in the corner who kept eyeing their group. The man’s constant glances in their direction made him uncomfortable. As he watched the strange man, an elbow dug into his side. It throbbed deep and warm until the pain broke Willie’s gaze.
“Don’t stare, lad,” Tobias warned.
“That man, he keeps watching us and moving closer.”
“You let me worry about that.”
Willie tried to avoid looking at the man. He concentrated on his hands for a bit but stole glances as the man advanced with subtle movements. He was scary looking, with short black hair that stuck up in all directions. A crooked and puffed up nose with angry purplish bruises under both eyes and one was swollen shut. His scraggly beard was long and clung to him like glue. His weather-beaten skin looked raw from neglect. The man saw Willie watching and gave a big grin, exposing gaping holes where his teeth should be. The few teeth he did have were decayed, jagged, and rotting. Everything about this guy made Willie uneasy.
This one must be a bum. He scooted closer to Tobias and turned his head away. A horrible crash caught their attention, on the opposite side of the car, as the chaotic bang of bodies against walls echoed everywhere. Two men were shouting and throwing fists at one another.
“Stay here,” Tobias said as he walked toward the commotion.
As he watched Tobias walk away, he felt arms on him, knocking him over. Willie kicked and wormed away from the intruder. The guy released him and lunged for something beside him. He realized the bum wasn’t after him; it’s the knapsack he’s after. The man got his filthy hands on the bag. Willie dove and grabbed at it. The straps slipped through his fingers as the bum yanked it out of his reach.
“Hey! Give that back,” Willie yelled as the bum rolled away and got to his feet.
All the men turned around and saw the wayfarer scrambling toward the door. They ran after him, but the no-good bum was faster. He reached the edge of the car, vanished through the door, and into the night.
“That no good, dirty rotten, lily-livered, bum stole our food!” Tobias yelled.
“It’s all gone?” Willie asked.
“Every last lick of it,” Tobias shook his head and kicked the ground.
“What’er we gonna do?”
“We’re goin without for while, lad,” Tobias fumed. He knew the kid couldn’t go too long without food, and they had to figure something out. “Don’t you worry; we’ll have food again before you know it.” He ruffled Willie’s hair.
They still had some time to go before daylight hit, and Tobias spent the rest of the night figuring out a plan. The men checked every nook and cranny for anything that could be of use but came up empty.
They settled in for the night. Lighting a fire was out of the question. It would draw too much attention. They huddled around each other and Willie, using their body heat to keep each other warm.
Right before daybreak, the door to the stowaway’s boxcar slid open, while the vagabonds slept. Three men armed with billy clubs inched the door open. As they did, the door screeched on its rusted rollers. Tobias’s eyes shot open as the hobo’s worst enemy slithered inside. They stealthily moved in, hoping to catch the freeloaders off guard. Tobias licked his lips, brought his fingers up to meet them, and let out a high pitched shrill.
The whole car was a rush of movement. Arms flying, legs in motion, the once unconscious vagabonds were now on their feet. The men yelled and grappled for their belongings.
“BULLS!” Tobias cried out.
The scrambling to and fro intensified before Willie’s eyes. The three intruders moved in and tried to get their hands on anyone. Owen and Angus kept the men distracted while Tobias and Ian grabbed hold of Willie and made for the opening.
“What are we doing?!” Willie screamed.
“We’re jumping, lad,” Tobias replied.
“Oh, no! Wait! I can’t!” Willie exclaimed as the landscape whooshed by, his vision blurred. He squeezed his eyes shut and fought the woozy feeling that gripped his insides.
“We don’t jump, then they red-light us. Jumpin’s better Willie, trust me.” Tobias gave him a stern look. “Now listen up, lad. Tuck your arms in front of ya, like this, and protect your face with your hands. Ian and I are going to take as much of the hit as we can. But we’re not gonna be able to hold ya the whole time. When ya feel us let go, keep your face protected. Do ya understand, lad.”
Willie nodded, and that was it. His feet left the safety of the boxcar, his body sandwiched between the two men, and they flew through the air. The world rushed by in a blur, and he closed his eyes. Suspended in mid-air, the world moved fast, then slow, and sped up again. He knew the pain was coming, and then impact. He hit the ground hard, tumbled and rolled. Tobias and Ian were gone. The air emptied from his lungs, and he struggled to fill them again. Everything went black.
I can’t see anything. Someone is yelling, but the sound is so far away. Someone took him by the shoulders and gave him a shake. I definitely felt that slap across my cheek. The fogginess in his head cleared. His name is coming in louder now.The voice sounds strained and urgent. I know that voice. The blackness is fading; light is coming through his eyelids. He tries to open them, but the light is so bright it hurts. He blinks away the pain and tries again. A blurry black silhouette comes into view. Someone’s hovering. That’s Tobias.
Tobias grabs Willie, “are ya alright, lad?” He half yelled, strained with worry.
“I… I don’t know,” Willie said. His whole body hurt. It was hard to tell which part was in worse shape. “I don’t ever wanna do that again,” he said, looking up at the man. Tobias knelt at his side, and the rest of the men surrounded him.
The men chuckled as they helped him to his feet and dusted him off.
“No one ever wants to do that again, lad,” Tobias laughs. “It’s just part and parcel of the wanderlust life we live. So, if ya don’t ever want to do that again, then don’t ever get the wanderlust.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t,” Willie replied, and he meant it.
Hobo Willie is published here with Coffee House Writers.
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