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Hobo Willie, Part 7 – Afterword

I base my little tale on the actual life events of my grandfather, Wilburn Elliott. The Elliott characters in the story are all real, and I used their real names. However, the other men who appear in this tale are all fictional people I created to fill in the gaps in the story. You see, I know very little of what happened on his journey, to include the names of the hobos that helped him get back to his family. I grew up hearing the story of my grandfather’s journey through the Southwestern desert. It was my grandfather’s favorite tale, then my grandmother’s. My grandmother especially loved telling the story after he passed away. He died in 1985. I was eight years old, and he was the best man I ever knew.

The main bones of the story are nonfiction, and I’ve filled in the gaps with fictional elements from my imagination. I grilled my mother and my Aunt Ida for as many details as I could get out of them. I also used a memoir my grand-aunt Carrie made that helped me figure out the dates and ages of those involved. The family-owned a three-hundred-acre watermelon farm in Hall County, Texas. My grandfather was born on that farm, but when my great grandmother was diagnosed with consumption, it was time to pick up stakes. My great grandfather did the only thing he could. He sold everything, the farm included, and headed west in 1929 at the brink of the Great Depression.

For years I couldn’t puzzle out how my great grandfather could let his three under-aged boys travel by themselves across the southwest and by train-hopping no less — a rather precarious and dangerous way to travel. As I researched my family tree, I discovered a cousin shared a copy of my Aunt Carrie’s memoir with the family, and it solved the puzzle that has plagued me. Only two of the boys were underage. Homer was twenty-two years old in 1929, Woodrow was fifteen, and Wilburn was ten. I finally got it, and I have to admit I felt a whole lot better about the entire thing after discovering that.

So, the Elliott boys train-hopping adventure was true. They got separated; however, the facts about how and where that happened are unknown. All we ever knew was that his older brothers lost him on the journey. He wandered into a hobo jungle. Those hobos helped him across the desert and reunited my grandfather with his brothers. The nickname Hobo Willie is my creation. He stole that pie, though. However, we never knew what kind of pie it was, and it never occurred to me to wonder what kind of pie it was until I started writing, but I do recall taking that pie truly was his one regret during his time with the hobos.

My grandfather worked for The Southern Pacific Railroad until his retirement. He spent his time on the rails, continually paying back the kindness of those hobos from his youth. He never felt he gave enough in repayment. He also collected hobo memorabilia and displayed it around the house. His fondness for hobos never wavered. As a child, I remember listening to him tell his story as I gazed at the many hobo figurines he’d collected over the years.

Recently, I felt compelled to write this story about my grandfather. It was his love of hobos and all things Hobo related that sparks my fascination with the hobo culture. In a way, I also feel underlying gratitude for those hobos. After all, the likelihood of him surviving out there on his own was slim. If it weren’t for their courage and caring of my grandfather, he never would’ve met my grandmother, and I never would’ve been born.

The Hobo has been a part of the American landscape since the late nineteenth-century. It is a culture unique unto itself. “Many subcultures have developed their own way of doing things, and the hobo community is no exception” (Hacha). Hobo culture has many different terms and phrases, words ranging from bindlestiff, bull, and gandy dancer. They also created signs and symbols that they would leave at the entrance of towns, in alleys, or at individual homes. “They could communicate with each other about safe and unsafe camps and neighborhoods; mark a good road to follow; warn about barking or vicious dogs; leave their initials, a date, and the direction they were traveling so a friend could find them later; or show where a doctor who would provide services” (Hacha). Other symbols included warnings like a man with a gun, dishonest man, dangerous neighborhood, or unsafe place. They also had signs or symbols that told other hobos where kindhearted ladies lived. These women would feed them a meal in exchange for a chore or two. They would also mark safe places to camp, indicate if the area was a dry town or one that allows alcohol.

Creative hobos would make Hobo Nickels out of buffalo nickels. They would transform the head side of the coin into different types of men and sometimes chisel images on the reverse side, as well. “When the nickel was finished, a hobo could use it as a currency that bought more than a nickel’s worth of something, often trading it for a meal or a night’s lodging” (Hacha). They were a resourceful group that did the best they could to make honest wages when jobs were scarce.

The Hobo will take offense if they’re referred to as a bum or a tramp. They are nothing like that breed of wonderer. Hobos took to the rails in search of work and to fulfill the wanderlust spirit. By definition, wanderlust is a strong desire to travel. While they go from place to place, looking unkempt and filthy from life on the road, “Hobos are not bums. Hobos fully embrace the Protestant work ethic, bouncing from place to place, looking for short-term jobs to earn their keep, while bums and tramps want to just bum everything—money, food, or cigarettes […] Both have traveled the rails, starting in the 19th century, much to the chagrin of the railroad owners” (Hix, par. 3). Hobos have received a bad rap over the years due to people in towns confusing them for the other two types of wanderers that would grace the town limits. Sometimes they would be beaten, jailed, harassed by the cops, or run out of town. However, hobos found allies in certain cities and were also the migratory workers that could work in the east in the winter, make their way west in the fall, and be in the south and west in time for harvest, all while they were disparaged as derelicts and vagrants, “hobos helped build the very rails they traveled on, as well as the sewer systems, water lines, roads, bridges, and homes that have filled up the West” (Hix, par. 4).

Hobos worked to distinguish themselves as different from the rest of the railroad travelers, so they created a union and a code of ethics that members must abide by. They would meet in hobo jungles (which is where Wilburn met his hobo companions). “According to the code, a hobo is expected to clean up after himself and pitch in with chores when he stays in the jungle. Hobo jungles […] have been located off the beaten path, but near a stream and reasonably close to a rail yard—and ideally near a small town” (Hix, par. 19). Thievery and other undesirable behaviors will get you banned from the hobo community. “Those who left the camp in poor shape or stole from sleeping hoboes, a crime referred to as ‘high-jacking’ committed by ‘yeggs,’ were driven away and ostracized by the larger community” (Hix, par. 21). These are, but a few examples of the kind of men and women hobos were. They were hard-working, honest, and caring folk who enjoyed traveling by way of the rails. It was a hard life, but one that strikes in the heart of the wanderlust traveler of today.

So it is to the hobos who saved my grandfather, and reuniting him with his family, that I dedicate this story too. Though you may be gone from this world, you are not forgotten. Your kindness, caring, generosity, courage, and brotherly devotion are a tribute to the human spirit. Without the men that saved my grandfather, my family wouldn’t exist. I thank you and my family thanks you.

Hobo Willie is also published here at Coffee House Writers.

***

All Content (unless otherwise noted) © 2019-2020 Ainsley Elliott

Creativity · Culture · Entertainment · Family · Fiction · Lifestyle · Relationships · Short Story

Hobo Willie, Part 6

Hobo Willie is also published here at Coffee House Writers.

Filled with nervous anticipation, Willie scanned the station. His focus scattered as he looked from face to face, hoping one would be familiar. People bustled everywhere. The troupe glided through the crowd of pedestrians, each man searching for anything out of the ordinary. Tobias lifted Willie on his shoulders to get a better view.

“Anything?” Tobias asked.

The boy lifted a hand to protect his eyes from the piercing sun and scanned the horde before him. “No, nothing. I don’t see ’em. I don’t recognize anyone.”

Anguish and fear grew stronger inside him. He kept his eyes locked on the mob, as they moved toward their destinations, searching for anything familiar. What if they aren’t here? What if Homer and Woodrow turned back to find me, and I left? I’m stupid! With wide eyes and racing heart, a silent panic gripped him. His knuckles grew white as his grip tightened on Tobis. Losing his family was something he never considered. 

“Don’t you worry, Willie, we’ve only just started looking,” Tobias assured him. “We won’t leave you.”

Willie wanted to believe Tobias. He knew his hobo brothers wouldn’t leave him, but he longed to see his brothers by birth again and didn’t care about anything else. All that mattered was getting back where he belonged.

Willie propped himself higher on Tobias’s shoulders, turning his head from side to side, searching. Something far-off caught his attention. His ears strained because there was something familiar about it. “Tobias, did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“I… I thought I heard,” he said. There it is again! It was far off, so faint, the tiniest sound… barely audible. No, it couldn’t be. It was so slight, the name he heard above the noise around him. “Is that my name? I thought I just heard someone say my name,” Willie said.

Tobias stopped. He listened intently, and he closed his eyes, straining his ears for anything above the bustle of the station. “There it is, lad! I hear it too.”

Willie whipped his head from side to side. Those voices were familiar, but he couldn’t tell where they’re coming from. “Stop!” he exclaimed. “I hear it again; it’s getting closer. I don’t see anything, do you?” Willie asks.

“Nothing, I don’t… wait!” Tobias saw an odd commotion off to his left; people were moving abruptly, he heard yells, and above their heads, papers flew in the air. A man fell to the ground. He nudged Willie, “Hey, lad… over there. Someone’s callin ya. Do ya see’ em?”

Willie squinted in the direction Tobias pointed. Arms were waving, papers floating, and a figure crashed into an innocent bystander. His name grew louder, and his brothers burst into view as they breached the last cluster of people that separated them from Willie.

“WILBURN!” he heard them cry in unison. 

Wilburn couldn’t believe his eyes. His brothers! It’s his brothers. His heart leapt with joy. “HOMER! WOODROW!” Willie wiggles off Tobias and took off in his brothers’ direction, with Tobias and the other at his heels.

Willie pushed his legs hard, pumped his arms, and closed the gap between them as fast as he could. All at once, Homer scooped Willie into his arms, and Woodrow gripped them both like a vice. The world around their little huddle slowed as the brothers embraced each other.

“Dammit, Wilburn, what happened to you?” Homer said.

“Let me go so I can tell ya, I can’t breathe,” Willie said.

Homer and Woodrow laughed as they released their hold on him.

Willie inhaled sweet oxygen, welcoming each breath and letting it fill his lungs. He recapped the story of his adventure. His time through the desert. The meet-cute with his hobo brethren. Their vow to get him back to his family. 

Homer and Woodrow couldn’t believe their ears. They thanked Tobias, Ian, Angus, and Owen for their help. “We don’t know how to thank you for bringing our kid brother back to us,” Homer said.

 “We’re forever in your debt,” Woodrow said as he shook the men’s hands. 

Homer reached in his pocket and pulled out the small stack of bills. “Please, take this. I’m sorry it’s not more, but it’s all we have,” Homer said as his hand reached toward Tobias.

Tobias held up a hand and said, “That’s mighty nice of ya son, but put your money away. Willie here is one of us. We take care of our own. No reward needed.”

Homer nodded his head and slid the bills back into his pocket. 

Willie hugged each man, “Thank you. I don’t know what I would have done without you,” he said. 

“We couldn’t have done anything else, lad,” Tobias said.

“Come’ on, bud; we gotta get goin,” Homer said as he punched Willie in the arm. 

As they waved their goodbye and parted ways, Homer said, “Whatever you do, don’t tell momma we lost you. She’ll kill us for sure.”

Willie laughed, “Don’t worry, Homer, I won’t tell momma,” and rubbed the wounded limb.

He looked back at the four men standing there, hats in hand, watching Willie and his brothers walked away. He smiled and waved goodbye to his friends, and they waved back. It was the last time Willie ever saw them, but he never forgot his Hobo Brethren or their sacrifice. 

The family made Phoenix their home. Willie’s mom recovered from her illness and lived to be over one hundred years old. Years past and Willie grew up to be a man with a family of his own. Wilburn spent the rest of his adult life working the rails and always remembered that band of brothers that helped him so many years ago. He made a vow to repay that kindness someday. Every hobo that crossed his path along the rails was Tobias, Ian, Owen, and Angus. Any chance he could, he gave money, food, water, or shelter to the drifters he found along the tracks. The only regret Willie ever had about his hobo adventure through the desert was that pie he stole.

He always felt guilty about that pie.

***

All Content (unless otherwise noted) © 2019-2020 Ainsley Elliott

Creativity · Culture · Entertainment · Family · Fiction · Lifestyle · Relationships · Short Story

Hobo Willie, Part 5

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.

Hobo Willie is also published here through Coffee House Writers

All Content (unless otherwise noted) © 2019-2020 Ainsley Elliott

Creativity · Culture · Entertainment · Family · Fiction · Lifestyle · Relationships · Short Story

Hobo Willie, Part 4

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.

All Content (unless otherwise noted) © 2019-2020 Ainsley Elliott

Creativity · Culture · Entertainment · Family · Fiction · Lifestyle · Relationships · Short Story

Hobo Willie, Part 3

“Well! Sounds like yer in a right big mess there, Wilburn,” Tobias said to him.

The men looked at each other and nodded to one another, except one man. Owen Little shook his head. The men glared at him, and Little scowled back.

“Dammit, Little,” Tobias said.

Wilburn’s brow creased in confusion as he watched Tobias. The hobo got up, marched to the fire, and aggressively poked at it. He paced back and forth, eyeballing Little and mumbling to himself. Tobias’ head popped up. He glanced at Wilburn and winked at him as he turned on his heel and sauntered back to his seat. Turning his attention to the not so little Owen Little.

“What’s the deal, Little? The kid needs our help. He won’t make it on his own,” Tobias said.

“That don’t mean he’s our problem,” Owen said.

“Oh yes it does, brother, n’ you know damn well it does. You know the code,” Tobias said.

Owen waved a hand at him as Wilburn asked, “Code? The code?”

Tobias spun around and looked at Wilburn, “The Hobo Code of Ethics, my boy. Our most sacred code is Rule 13—it’s a hobo’s duty to encourage runaway kids to return home and help their fellow hobos.”

“Fine. Kid, go home.” Owen said to Wilburn, “See, I’ve lived up to the code. I’ve encouraged the kid to go home. Now it’s up to him, and not for us to take him.”

“Dammit to hell, you ornery old goat! You know what will happen to him if a Jocker gets their hands on him. That’s not the spirit of the code, and you know it,” Tobias threw a pebble at Owen.

“Spirit, schmearit. I’m following the letter of the law while you’re interpretin’ it to suit you,” Owen says unashamed.

Not one man around that circle was happy with Owen’s flippant response to the dangers kids face on the rails. Jockers’ wander, and are the type of people that take advantage of small boys, and use them in horrible ways. This would not be Wilburn’s fate if Tobias had anything to say about it.

Tobias paused a moment to consider Owen’s words and realized his friend had him by the short hairs. The code’s flawed, and Tobias knew it. Owen’s smug smile reached both ears at once as he folded his arms on his chest. Tobias looked at him and grumbled.

“Seems we’re at an impasse,” he turned from his brother and strolled to the other side of the fire. As he did, his eyes lit in revelation, and he turned around again to face Owen. “So we make him a fellow hobo, and the code clearly states we must always help our fellow hobos,” Tobias said.

Owen’s smug demeanor faded, “You wouldn’t.”

“Would, could, can, and will,” Tobias responded and smacked his hands together in victory. “Wilburn, come here lad, I have a very important question to ask.”

Wilburn rose to his feet and shuffled his way over to Tobias. As he reached Tobias, he looked up and said, “Yes, sir?”

“Wilburn, how would you like to become a member of the Hobo Brethren Union #63?”

Wilburn was sure this was his only ticket home. If he didn’t get their help, he would never find his way on his own. He stood up straight, looked Tobias in the eye, and said, “Yes,” with as much conviction a ten-year-old could muster.

Tobias smiled at him, told him to raise his right hand, and to swear to abide by the Hobo Code for all his days. Each of the men congratulated him, even a reluctant Owen.

“Are ya hungry, lad?” Tobias asked.

Wilburn nodded his head as his stomach rumbled. Tobias went to the fire, removed the lid from the large pot, and served him a heaping bowl of Mulligan Stew. That evening the Hobo Brethren shared a meal with their newest inductee. By the end of the night, the men were so found of Wilburn they began calling him Willie.

Tobias knew of one Tuberculosis sanatorium in Phoenix, and the men headed out at first light. They vowed to reunite Willie with his family.

Hobo Willie is published here with Coffee House Writers.

All Content (unless otherwise noted) © 2019-2020 Ainsley Elliott

Creativity · Culture · Entertainment · Family · Fiction · Lifestyle · Relationships · Short Story

Hobo Willie, Part 2

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.

Hobo Willie is published here with Coffee House Writers.

All Content (unless otherwise noted) © 2019-2020 Ainsley Elliott

Creativity · Culture · Entertainment · Family · Fiction · Lifestyle · Relationships · Short Story

Hobo Willie, Part 1

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.

“How come?”

“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.

Hobo Willie is published here with Coffee House Writers.

All Content (unless otherwise noted) © 2019-2020 Ainsley Elliott