(Photo by Brian Suman)
Kansas City Death Train: 1
“Rolling” Joe Stone leapt from his boxcar just as the train entered the switchyards. He rolled twice over the ground and came up walking in stride so deftly that a casual observer would doubt their own eyes to see.
He bopped along through the moonlight with his bindle bouncing lightly off his shoulder. A tall man built like rebar. Wiry and tough. White collared shirt and faded trousers. Everything about him was zip and confidence, like a championship fighter heading into the ring to defend his belt.
Joe was no palooka, though. Everybody who’d met him knew that much. He was as scrappy an Okie as anyone would find — wild and fun, too.
Firelight flickered beyond a wall of brambles fashioned just inside the woods growing at the edge of the switchyard. Joe bounded up towards it.
Knowing it was never wise to walk onto a hobo jungle unannounced, he called out, “Hey there scalawags and sewer hogs, you’re in luck! Ol’ Rolling Joe Stone is here, and he’s got him a big ol’ can of beans for the mulligan!”
A voice whispered back tensely.
“Quiet, you dummy. There’s bad actors about.”
Joe got quiet but was still smiling when he turned the corner of the bramble wall and saw two fellow hoboes sitting beside a tiny campfire with an oil can full of lightly steaming broth. The smell of a simple mulligan — little more than noodles, onions, maybe some carrots — wafted out. Joe took the can of beans out of his bindle and held it aloft.
One of the other men seemed to sense Joe was about to speak.
“If you have to talk, then do it low.”
Joe sat down.
“This switchyard must have the meanest bull in the Midwest to have two tramp-royals such as yourselves all knotted up like this.”
The men didn’t laugh at the compliment or the teasing. They just looked at him, pale eyes filled with fear so authentic that Joe damn near quit smiling completely.
“Bad actors,” one of the men said again.
He looked to be the older of the two and wore a coat and pants that had long been given over to the wear of the rails.
The other man, maybe thirty-five, had kept a neatly groomed mustache and a reasonably crisp suit, but the wear in his boots suggested he’d been living the life for a good long time. It was this man who said, “No joking, Rolling Joe. Stay quiet. Something about this place is all wrong.”
The man nodded.
“Rode the City of St. Louis for a time together. Full car. I remember that hat of yours and that smile. You’re a fellow that leaves an impression, though I doubt you remember me at all. Name’s Eureka Stu.”
He nodded across the fire.
“That’s Clammy Bill.”
Clammy Bill didn’t acknowledge the introduction. Just kept looking around at the darkness.
Though he didn’t want to admit it, Joe had begun to feel something foul in the air about him. The air seemed hazy, somehow, as though some thin, unnatural screen were laid over it. The hairs on the back of his neck felt like they were standing straight up.
“What’s got you boys spooked?”
“Been here three nights,” Eureka said. “Every one of them’s seen hoboes disappearing. There’s this sound, too. It comes from across the yard, sometimes. Sounds like an animal screaming.”
“That aint no animal,” Clammy Bill said. “Not of this world, anyway.”