He heard it coming before you did. He was already making his way to the tracks while you were dousing the fire. You picked up your sack and caught up to him. He was camped just outside of the town waiting for the late-night freight to leave when you walked in on him. You shared your last can of beans and some salted pork. He was pleased to have the company and pleased to have the food. When he was spooning his beans, he told you it’s safer in pairs than being alone.
The engine is illuminating the tracks and you hide behind the bushes until it passes. Remember, you’ve got to hop on them before they reach full speed or you’ll could end up under them. He keeps eyeing the boxcars as they go by, looking for one that he thinks he could get open. He sees a good one and he slaps you on the shoulder. He runs forward and leaps onto the car ladder. You are running right alongside of him, keeping up with the car. He is working the locking lever of the door and gets it free. He pushes it open a couple of feet and slides in. By then you are on the car ladder right behind him. Holding tightly to the ladder rung, you place your left foot through the door. It lands solidly on the platform floor and then you step in.
You open the door a little wider to get some moon light inside the freight car. It was half full of wooden crates. He uses a crowbar to pry one open.
He’s disappointed because they only contain machine parts.
You mutter something about watchmen being about. He assures you that they will only check the cars when the train stops and we’ll jump before that.
You lean back against the side of a crate and slide down to sit. There’s not much to do once you’re inside. The sway of the ride and the pulse of the tracks puts your mind into a lull. You look over at him. He is already laying on the floor using his sack as a pillow.
Mile one, mile five, mile twenty; and it comes back to you. As it has before. It’s the reason why you are here.
But Son, I got you a deferment.
You tell him you didn’t want the deferment.
Harvard and Yale accepted you. I’ve pulled strings.
You say you want to enlist. You want to go.
You’re not Army material. They will eat you up.
You say you will fight in Europe or the Pacific. It doesn’t matter where.
You’re weak. It’s not your fault. Your doctors will not allow it.
You tell him you don’t care what he thinks or what they say.
I’m looking out for you. It’s what a father does for his son.
You plead to him that you want to go. You’ve got to go.
It’s not for you. Can’t you understand?
You can’t talk to him.
I will not permit it. The doctors will not permit it.
You can’t reason with him.
They will listen to me. You will not be able to go.
You hear a whistle. Suddenly there is daylight in the boxcar. You spot him in the doorway. A massive body with a large brim hat and a nightstick in his hand. A watchman. Working for the railroad. You know his orders. Get the freight hoppers. No vagabonds. Throw the bums out. And a crack on the head to make sure they get the message. How the hell did he get in the car with the train moving? Did it stop? Did you fall asleep?
He doesn’t see you in the corner by the crates. But he sees him. You want to yell to him to wake up, get on your feet. But it doesn’t come out. The brute in the brim hat moves in on him. His large shoulders blocking the light coming through the door. His frame casts a shadow over the sleeping figure. The club rises high over the brim hat. The arc of his swings coming down on him. Again, and again.
Is this a dream? Are you asleep? Or have you always been awake?
You stand over him. His face is stoved in. Just like the others. Just like your father’s. You drop the crowbar and continue to stare at him. He looks like the others now. He looks like him now.
The train is slowing. You must be coming into a town. You grab your sack and jump off. You will need to stop in town this time. You will need to find a store. You still have money in your shoe. Plenty for a can of beans and some salt pork. Then you’ll work your way around to the west side of the town and find another one. Just look for a low fire in the night. You’ll find one near the tracks. They’re always waiting. Waiting for a late-night freight train.by