Willie walked across the desert, day and night, sticking close to his road companions. His whole body felt like mush. He couldn’t remember exactly when his feet went numb, but he kept them moving. It’s not so easy to start back up once you stop. It’s best to dig in and keep walking until you can’t move anymore. But what distracted him most of all was the hollow feeling deep in his gut. The empty space between his belly button and spine consumed his thoughts. That precious commodity, so scarce on the road, was the only cure for the most acute case of torture he ever experienced in his life. So far from it yet brought forth in his mind within seconds…food.
Please, God, let us find something soon. I don’t know how much longer I can last. Willie looked up to the heavens in silent prayer.
It was two days before they found civilization. The men treaded-lightly as they entered the small town on the outskirts of Albuquerque. Willie discovered that not all were friendly to traveling vagabonds. Tobias and the others spent some time combing the fences, buildings, trees, or anywhere hobos before them would leave messages. The messages were symbols, and each one had a particular meaning. Their own language. They warned if a place was dangerous or confirmed, it was a safe area for hobos to find help, and as it turned out, this town was unfriendly territory for their kind.
“Willie, we won’t be getting any food here,” Tobias said and saw the despair register on his face.
“Are you sure?” Willie asked as watery pools flooded his eyes. He’d never known real hunger until now, and couldn’t hide it anymore.
Tobias couldn’t help but try for the kid, “Alright, we’ll see what we can do, but you’re going to have to stay here. If anything goes wrong, we don’t want you getting in the mix.”
Willie stayed against the ratty, weathered fence. Hunched beside the wood, he wrapped his arms around his knees and looked to the heavens. The sky was clear, and the sparkly white stars were twinkling as dusk set in. It was dinner time for everyone that lived in these houses. Aromas were wafting through the air like beacons. One particular scent hit his senses hard. He inhaled the most delicious aroma he ever smelled in his entire life! The luscious bouquet drew to him away from his hiding place. He knew he should stay put, but his stomach took over, ignoring his inner voice. In his mindless state, he followed his nose two gates down. He crept into a small backyard and stood silently for a moment in the shadows—surveying the quaint surroundings. There were lawn chairs and a large mesquite tree with a swing hanging from one of its large branches. His eyes drifted to the house, and there it was. The tempting aroma that drew him there was perched on the kitchen window.
A pie! Willie stuck his nose in the air and inhaled the luscious sent deep into his lungs. It was the smell of home, it was the smell of his momma, and it wasn’t just any pie, it was a meat pie. His favorite and it sat there on that shabby shelf waiting for him. His prayers were answered!
Willie felt a crazy urge deep in his bones, his hunger, and the need for food consumed him. Sinking down into a low crouch, he silently weaved his way through the yard, staying out of sight. Willie heard the rumblings of life inside the small abode. The chatter of family and home. All the things he missed.
He reached the corner, ducked low moved toward the siren scent. He arrived at the edge of the window and peeked inside. From his vantage point, he saw an empty kitchen and an unguarded pie. His heart raced, his palms were sweating. One last look to make sure the coast was clear, and off the shelf, the pie came. He ran as fast as his feet could carry him, bolting for the back gate, where he first gained entry. His hands seared, the longer he held on to the scorching hot pie. Breaching the gates opening—he was back in the alley and ran in the opposite direction of where the hobos left him. He ran another three fence lengths and stopped. Not waiting another moment, he sank his hands into that pie, devouring it. He couldn’t stop, hands burning as he plunged his fingers into the crust and scooped its contents into his mouth.
Stop! This is wrong! But he couldn’t. He savored the peas, the carrots, the potatoes. The delectable chicken, the creamy sauce it all bathed in, and the buttery crust that hugged it. He consumed every morsel, licked the container clean, and sucked the sauce remnants from his fingers.
His post-pie haze began to clear, and guilt took hold.
Anguish consumed him. Ooooh!! I stole a pie!! I can’t believe I filched it. What have I done? What is wrong with me? What if the others find out? Willie’s panic grew. They’ll leave me here for sure! I’m a no-good, dirty rotten, thief! He couldn’t believe what he’d done. But most of all, what would happen if the others found out? Would they dump him and move on? He couldn’t admit to it. He had to get home to his family.
Willie snuck into another yard and cleaned himself up. Then he trudged back to the spot where the hobos left him and waited for their return vowing never to say a single word to anyone, ever. He lived with the knowledge and the code he’d broken. I’m not a hobo at all…
That night they reunited, went to the train depot in town and waited for their next ride west.
“Willie, wake up! Ya gotta see this,” Tobias’ call nudged Willie till his eyes peaked open, letting in the morning light of a new day.
Willie blinked his eyes hard twice, three times. The sunlight penetrated their dark freight car, forcing the shadows to retreat to their hiding place. His eyes were blurry, and his mind groggy.
Where the heck am I? He thought. With each blink, a man’s silhouette came into focus, and Willie saw Tobias dangling his legs off the edge of the car.
“Com’ on lad, before ya miss it.” Tobias urged.
Willie hopped to his feet and wandered over to his companion. He sat in time to see the sun break the line between land and sky. The soft morning light touched everything as far as he could see. There was no hiding from the sun in the desert. The sky was a mixture of periwinkle and cerulean. The mountains were the kind he’d only seen in pictures. There were more colors on those peaks then he ever thought a mountain could hold. They ranged from champagne pink to mauve and thistle. He could see shades of apricot and burnt orange. All of it interspersed with patches of yellow-green vegetation.
“Wow! Why do the mountains have so many colors? It’s almost like they’re painted,” he exclaimed.
Tobias smirked. He hoped they’d pass through these parts during the day so the boy could see something truly marvelous. “Oh my boy, they’re not just painted,” Tobias replied. “They’re Mother Nature’s masterpiece. This whole range is called the Painted Desert.” Tobias had been to enough places to know this spot was exceptional. “Nowhere else in my travels have I seen so much beauty and color packed into one place. You know, like ya see colors in one of them highfalutin paintings ya find in them museums.”
Tobias and Willie sat in silence. They took in the majesty of their surroundings and sat mesmerized by the world. The spell remained unbroken until the pair heard their companions shuffle awake behind them.
Tobias leaned over to Willie and said, “We’ve made it to Arizona. Not much farther to Phoenix.”
Willie’s eyes flooded. All his hopes hinged on the one chance his mother was there. “Thank you, Tobias…for everything. I don’t know what I would have done without your help,” Willie sniffed.
“Don’t go thanking me yet, we’ve still got some miles ahead of us. You can thank me when we find your ma,” he said.
The trope of wanders spent the rest of the day snaking through the Arizona Mountains and into the valley. By the next morning, they hopped off their last train and arrived at the Phoenix depot. His heart raced with anticipation, and he looked at Tobias with hopeful eyes. “Com’ on lad, let’s go find your ma,” Tobias says with a glint in his eye.