I picked up the CSX headed west from Point of Rocks close on to nightfall.
You know they got that old station, a Victorian? Victorian Gothic? Big brick sumbitch. That is a famous old station, I heard. Course I never picked it up from no station. Down the way in that town there they got a nice big crossing and that CSX’ll pull away from that old station just as slow as you like until each car caboose and all makes it over the crossing. You can just about pick your favorite car thataway, especially at dusk. I like me a car near the back which you know is not a easy thing to get onto once a train gets to accelerating away, but then that is why I have always favored that particular station.
Time to time you expect to run across others on a car. Some of them don’t hardly never leave a train under favorable circumstances to where you might see Gimpy Joe setting in the same spot hopping on at Cumberland and then again some weeks later at the Magnolia Cut-Off. Old Joe you could trace a outline of his shape there on the floor and he’s still tucked inside like he’s trapped, as if by drawing his outline you done penned him in somehow. Anyway that ain’t all too uncommon a thing, is what I’m saying. Course Old Gimpy Joe turned out to be dead that time I’m talking about, but you know you never would of known if not for trying to pry a smoke out of his pocket when he looks to be asleep. He did tumble over like a statue just then. At which point I did evict him from the train straightaway. Old Gimpy Joe. Didn’t he look a sight setting out in the brush fixed in that slumbered posture with nary a thread left over his mottled skin.
I know he would of wanted it thataway.
This time I hauled myself up on that railcar and gripped the bar and made to shove it loose and then I knew it must of been occupied already on account of the bar ain’t even set right and the door looks to be slid partway open. You know I don’t mind riding along with a feller or two but it has never been my preference, only I’m already up on this railcar and we’re just scooting right along and it is a little late to be particular. Course you got to watch out it ain’t a tramp in there. You know a tramp is liable to do any old thing. I did get ahold of my pocket knife then.
I swung in and didn’t need more than a second for my eyes to adjust on account of it was already near to dark by then. It is a fool who hops a occupied car from daylight. Some of them tramps’ll have you stripped and bled out and field-dressed before your eyes can make out the corners. Which they never will do at that point. Once you’re dead, is what I’m saying. There toward the back is Stu the Banker and leaning on the back wall is a young feller I never seen before. Bushy haired young feller with not yet a full beard and hatless. You know that is a sign of a fresh stowaway. How on earth are you gonna survive without no hat. That is a thing you have got to learn for yourself, I guess.
Now if there is one thing I know about Stu it is he ain’t about to abide splitting this or any other railcar three ways. Well now hang on you know I do know more about Stu than that. He will get to talking when he is good and liquored up. I think I once might of even knowed his wife’s name. When he had a wife. From when he had one. I never knowed him to be married. I mean I never knowed him to be married when I knowed him. But I do believe he one time muttered her name when he was mouthing off under the influence. Ex-wife, is what you’d call her. Doris. Dorothy? Who can remember. My point here is I knowed enough about Stu to know we are gonna have to settle this here thing before anyone gets to bedding down for the night.
Which you know right off the bat you can see how this might put a stowaway at a certain disadvantage. I done crossed paths with Stu over the years and got the benefit of knowing the score here. Hell I even went on credit one time in Doswell when he got his hands on a sack of men’s socks. What he said were men’s socks. Although I reckon you will not find too many pink colored men’s socks. Three paper dollars or a half a pound of beans or bacon, to double after autumn turned. Them were the terms. I did feel the doubling was near to malicious but you know when the weather starts to turn you can’t just have boots and no socks. Course it would of been better if Stu had of delivered by-God men’s socks. Those pink things didn’t even make it to spring. And I did wind up paying that son of a gun banker a full pound of beans come winter.
Now where the hell was I? Stu and the young feller. Yes. Stu says by gum we need to settle this ahere living arrangement here and now, like I just done intimated he would. Well you know my first thought is there is no way in hell I am getting off of this train now I’m on it. First off I got what might be called seniority in such circumstances, which you know I am happy to claim if it comes to it. But then you know one or both them other two might fall back on finders-keepers, which is a difficult precedent to overrule most of the time. But it seemed to me right then the only feller in that railcar what had a problem sharing it three ways was the Banker, seemed to me if he’s so uncomfortable he ought to shove on his own self and leave us be.
Before I expressed myself I seen the young feller and he don’t look too comfortable neither. His eyes they got big and he’s shooting glances back and forth between me and Stu. Stu you know he’d taken an aggressive posture and this young feller he looked right afraid just then. Understand his position, mind you: here he’s a young feller new to the rails and don’t have a grasp of the finer details yet, and now here’s something to be settled what he don’t even know about. And he ain’t got no hat. That is a difficult position for anyone to be in. Stu I says, Stu why don’t you settle some and give a feller a chance to catch his breath. Course I had long caught my breath, but see here I’m recruiting the youth to my side. If he’s afraid of Stu and I’m a reasonable enough feller we might could ouster the Banker democratically. Then he don’t got finders-keepers, is what I’m thinking just then.
I took me a seat there near to the door and proceeded to gather my scraps. Printer receipts and refuse and a obituary page discarded from a newspaper. And I did fix us a small fire there in the center of the car between me and Stu. Who don’t like a fire, I ask you. Come join the fire, young man, is what I said. He didn’t look too certain. Come on young feller this thing ain’t gonna burn all night. He did relax then and scoot his way on over. Course him being new and all he left his pack and sundries against the wall. That is plain careless.
Don’t get too comfortable, says Stu, we ain’t all staying. You know I could see the gears click together for the young feller then. I think knowing helped him. Who knows what he thought before, but overcrowding was apparently a situation he felt he could handle.
How do you propose we sort this out here Stu? Course I knowed already how the Banker would play it, but I figured the longer I kept the proceeding democratic in nature I had a good chance of seeing Stu shoved out of this car and into the night and have no more of his scheming about the place. Stu always was a untrustworthy feller and I would just as soon not have to keep my guard up.
Stu stares at me with a dark look. You know, he says. Don’t act like you don’t know. To which I replied why don’t you tell this ahere young feller so we can all be on the same page. You could of said it your own self, he spits back. Which I don’t know why there had to be conflict except old Stu prefers to be guarded and maybe he got a sense of me playing sides by now. You know me and him just stared in silence then. I was happy to let the night draw on this way and smiled to show it. It was Stu after all what had a problem and that was leverage for me.
We’re gonna cut cards, he finally says. Which of course he would. Old Stu knowed he was likely the only one of us carrying a deck of cards as he always did and therefore had a measure of control over the proceedings. The young feller, not wanting to say nothing or assert his self yet, he’s just looking back and forth from me to Stu like he don’t know what in the world could come next. Now Stu, I start to say, and the young feller he settles his gaze on me as if I’m the voice of reason, and truth be told I was just then about to play that very role in the interest of bringing him on for a vote, which once you mention a vote, then it’s like a bug that goes through the air and infects everything. Should we have a vote? Let’s vote on whether there’ll be a vote. So long as you got a majority of people what favor a vote by God there’ll be a vote on whether to vote. And then a vote on who is getting evicted, which of course whoever voted on having a vote is gonna vote off whoever voted against it on account of the voters are reasonable and you can’t trust a man what’s unreasonable. And I am just about to say let’s talk about having a vote and the young feller is watching me when Stu seizes the moment outside the young feller’s gaze and just does a real quick point with his finger from me to him. Just real quick. And of course I gave him a wink back on account of that suits me nearly as well. Even in a vote I am vulnerable and I have seen the Banker turn mighty persuasive in the past. After all he did trade me a pair of pink lady’s socks for a pound of beans that time. And so I never did say let’s have a vote. I said who among us brought a deck of cards. And then I gave the young feller a comforting smile. And I am thinking you are in for a rough night son.
Stu pulls out his old deck and gets to shuffling and I can see right away he is using a grip on those cards. I am no poker player but I have set around enough campfires to know a mechanic. Unfortunately that young feller he is pure as the newfallen snow, just steadily watching from one to the other of us for a sign of how to be. He don’t know. How could he? Low man goes, says Stu. We clear there? And I gave him a confident nod, for appearances. You see it’s got to look above board and also like I know it’s above board or anyone with a small portion of brains will suspect otherwise. The young feller watched me for a moment and cleared his throat noisily and says yessir. Which did strike me as unnecessarily formal given the setting. And you know that was the only word he did speak. Inward type feller, he was.
Stu gives the deck a final shuffle and slaps it down in front of me. Might as well go first, he says. I gave a good show. Slow to the deck, slow to consider my move, hesitant to lift, hesitant to set down. Stu waits a beat and then lays his hand on the top card. This one? Yep. He lifts it and shows it. A jack. Now you me, he says, again with that little flick of his finger between us. I gave the cards as good a shuffle as I can muster with the arthritis, enough to mix ‘em up good and then a couple more for appearances, and set the deck back down in front of Stu. And old Stu he’s straight to business, taking a heavy cut off the top with nary a moment’s hesitation. I pulled the top card and old Stu’s drawn a eight. Which by appearances puts him in a position of vulnerability.
You ready there young feller? He nodded back at me but soon as I handed Stu the deck worry contorted his expression. I think he must of wanted me to handle the deck. I told him I’m sorry young feller, with these stiff mitts I don’t got more than one good shuffle in me these days. I tell you I am no poker player. Which was only partly true. You know I am no poker player, but I could of shuffled him if we were playing square. Which we were not. As I am not a poker player I am even less a mechanic. I am likely to deal that young feller a Ace and Stu is very likely to cut my throat one night in retribution. You can cross a stowaway here and there but it is bad business to cross a railway regular and suicide if he’s a tramp. The Banker ain’t no tramp - he works where he stops - but he’s got some of the tramp to his temperament.
Stu snatched up that deck and gets to shuffling and then all of a sudden I had this bad feeling come over me. Long as Stu and that young feller been in that railcar together, they could of worked out anything. I mean I have no way of knowing. Maybe Stu picked up in Weaverton and the young feller was on from the Viaduct. And maybe all this time they been shooting signals back and forth. Hell I never watched them together except before I made the fire and even then the young feller he was way back in the shadows. And now I got myself in a predicament where I am relying upon the goddamn Banker to keep me along and toss a young feller what’s inherently more vulnerable to his scheming. And right then I am thinking hoo boy you have screwed yourself on this one, dummy.
And then Stu sets the deck down in front of the young feller, and true or not he has a look of worry and doubt about him. As long as I took to make a show of picking just the right card he must of doubled me. We set there in silence for minutes while his hand hovered over that deck of cards. With greatest deliberation he gripped the sides of that deck and slow as a snail he lifted near the middle and took no less than a minute to set back down again. Stu is practically up and pacing he’s so impatient by then. The very moment the young feller’s fingers slipped off them cards Stu’s hands come racing in and grabbing them up, but not fast enough that I don’t see him swap in another card, from where I don’t know. The young feller he’s still got his hand down there and though I doubt he could of seen it it might not matter anyway. There’s no telling which of us the Banker is bottom dealing for anyhow. Someone is getting worked. And I am not generally the type to stab a feller over even something as lowdown as that but I am for sure thinking about it. If I run across Stu in a railyard some lonely night. Who can say what might could happen.
Stu made a show of pulling the card off the top real deliberate and in plain view, and he takes a good long look at it before finally setting it down. And it’s a red six. Old Stu came through on that one. I sighed deeply then, but that young feller he looked genuinely thunderstruck. Just stunned setting there looking down at his red six. I glanced over at Stu and it all kinda come together just then. Stu’s having a look down the railcar at the young feller’s possessions shoved against the back wall. Maybe the Banker did have a deal with the young feller, who can say, but that is why you don’t scoot away from your pack under any circumstances. That is a mistake you will only make once out here.
I think that young feller must of thought he’d be granted a pass to the next station but there is no way the Banker is waiting all the way to Cumberland to bed down, especially with a chance to clear this stowaway off before he can gain his pack. You got to go, says Stu, and just up and grabs the feller by the wrist as he sat there. The young feller he recoiled a little and his eyes went wide and he looked at me for interference but as far as he knew this was a lesson in how things are done on the rails and I suppose there’s truth in that after all. For he was about to be done thataway and that is a thing that will happen, sorry to say. He pulled and resisted but Stu was up quick as a cat and pulling him across that dusty floor before he could leverage himself in any particular way.
Come on now, you lost fair and square, says Stu, and yanks the kid hard across the floor, upending him so now he’s being drug face down on his belly. He fought to get his feet under him but before he knew it Stu had drug him clear away from the fire and off towards the still open door. And we are making pretty good speed by now, this is not a easy disembarkation under any circumstances, let alone against your will and off balance.
Stu yanks his struggling form right to the edge of the door and then agile as can be steps over and behind him for the final shove. The kid makes a final good push to gain his footing but in all that dust his boots just slid out from under him. He gave me a desperate look then but old Stu says God speed son! and rams his shoulder low and hard into the kid’s back and next thing you know that young feller just disappeared. I walked over to the edge then while Stu stood and brushed the dust off his flannel shirt and the two of us had a look back at the young feller tumbling in the dust and receding into the hazy and deepening darkness. Him being a young feller he managed to halt his roll just as the train entered a bend and he found his self in a crouch looking up at us just before he faded completely into the darkness.
He shouldn’t of left his pack back there, said old Stu. I would of rather had him than you.
I know you would of. I wasn’t sure which way you’d go.
A feller shouldn’t leave his -
I think he realized it right in that tiny moment before I got him in the brainstem. You shouldn’t of left your pack neither, Banker. Even to toss off a stowaway, you greedy sumbitch. I held the knife in place for the final few twitches before his body collapsed and made sure to strip him good before his eviction. Like I said, I don’t mind riding along with a feller or two but it has never been my preference.