By Eddy Cook
Chris and I made our way to the Kansas City Southern rail yard and caught a southbound. We were broke, hungry, and were in no mood for the derailment we got caught in later that day. I t was a super low-speed accident. Some tracks were out of alignment and caused the slow-moving train to derail right in the middle of a small town. A crew came out and used a hydraulic lift to raise the three derailed grain cars one at a time as they rebuilt the track beneath them. We laid low and smoked in the back corner of the open box, deep in the shadows so as not to draw attention.
It was some hours later when the train started moving south again. We rode into the night and decided to jump off at Garnet, Kansas, the first town that the train moved slowly enough through to leap off. We figured that maybe hitchhiking was a better option, in which case we would be able to talk our way into a little cash.
At first light we made our way out to the south- bound county road and stuck out our thumbs. Chris and I had hitched before – across the country from Minneapolis to Manhattan, but we had never done it this far south before. We could see right off that salt and pepper was too exotic for Garnett, Kansas. If looks could kill, Chris would have died four times an hour and me maybe just three.
Some local boys in an El Camino came from the North and swerved so close to us that we had to jump in the ditch, and then fantailed dirt on us from the shoulder of the road while the driver tried to keep it on the pavement. They weaved up the road and took a right onto a dirt road. We figured they’d be back, so Chris found a baseball sized rock and I got hold of a stump that I could swing like a mace into their windshield. We put our weapons in the grass nearby and tried again to catch a ride. Traffic was sparse and not having us. Then the El Camino came squealing and spitting back towards us again from the North.
They weren’t playing with us this time – the boy in the passenger seat struggled his way out the open window to get a shot off at us from a sawed-off and Chris and I took three steps and a dive into a heavy bramble of bushes, heavy thorns ripping at our flesh and clothing. They fired but they must have shot high, we didn’t catch any of the scatter shot, and then they were laughing and yelling, “Nigger Lover!” As they blew by and out of distance.
We discovered that tracks ran parallel to the south bound road right behind the bush line that we jumped into, so we stayed on them and headed back North until we got near and intersection were a train would have to slow down on it’s way through town.
Chris’s eyebrow was gouged and an earlobe was streaming blood. Thorns had driven through the webbing of two of my fingers. We were a sight when the local law rolled up and crooked a finger at us when we neared the crossing.
“We’re trying. Figured we’d get off the road and try the train.”
“I’ll bet, heard about that. I could round up those yahoos if you like.”
“No, but we sure would appreciate it if you would come by and check on us now and then while we try to catch out.”
“Will do. Stay off the road.”
We built a small fire near the tracks, between a crossing and a short bridge that crossed a river, and turned our backs toward the couple houses in sight, just to set them at ease. We were trying to stay off everyone’s radar. Broke, hungry and nearly out of Bugler tobacco.
A train went by soon after we made camp, but it was going about five miles an hour too fast to catch while we were running with gear. After dark, another Kansas City Southern blew through and we realized that they were all too fast. We got off in this town, but it didn’t look we would be able to catch out.
The slowest mover came at around 2 a.m. and we were ready. I would catch one and then roll by Chris, reach out to him, and help him on. I let half the train go by before I decided that there wasn’t going to be an open box and I was going to have to catch a ladder and get in the end compartment of a grain car.
I ran to keep pace with the iron horse, timing my grab on the ladder. My pack was heavy but I was going to make it. Then the ground dipped about a foot deeper just as I leapt for the ladder and I was stuck holding the bottom rung.
The train spun me and dragged me, snapping one of my backpack straps – the pack banging off the side of the car as I came into Chris’s view. He yelled and then covered his face. My shoes ripped off my feet, my heels were shredding on the coarse railroad rock and the shining screaming steel wheels were less than a foot away from my head. I remembered the bridge when I saw Chris cover his face, and I turned to see that it was about 30 yards off and coming at me fast. I had one shot, so I bunched up muscles and sprung as hard as I could away from the grinding wheels. The back pack, one strap still on my shoulder, softened my roll a little and I landed about 5 feet away from the bridge abutment.
I was fucked up. I laid in the rocks doing a slow damage assessment. No breaks. My heels were in agony and I caught gravel and road rash on both cheeks and my chin. I hurt everywhere and just laid there. Cussing. Moaning.
Chris had been looking for me along the tracks and tripped over one of my feet.
“You dead, Soldier?”
“Negative. Got a smoke rolled?”
Chris helped me up and half-carried me back to where we had been camped, found my shoes along the way, and started a fire. He left with a plastic jug that we used for water, filled it at the restroom in the Sonic down the road, and brought it to me to bathe and doctor my feet. He’d also bought two cigarettes for a quarter from a teenager, and the teenager got a “I sold two cigarettes to a black guy” story. We had a good long smoke and cooked the last of some coffee we carried. I bathed my feet, pulled the rocks out, and then ripped a t-shirt in half and wrapped each foot. I could put them in shoes if I didn’t tie them. We slept hard and hungry that night.
The next day Chris and I spent staying off the street and waiting patiently by the tracks for a slower train. But we were hungry, out of smokes and feeling mean. If something didn’t change soon, we were going outlaw. We needed wheels.
At about five in the evening, we heard the screen door on the back porch of the nearest house slam shut. We watched as a father, a little boy and a little girl each with a container of food, started a slow march through a little field toward us. Dad carried a crock pot, the little boy was in charge of a big salad, and the little girl hustled toward us with a pan of corn bread.
Dad was explaining to us about how his wife couldn’t watch two transients go hungry while they ate so well, but both Chris and I were openly bawling and hardly heard him as each kid left food in front of us and said,
“God bless you, Hobos!” and Dad said to put everything over by a tree when we were done. We spoke of God and so did he, and they went back to their house.
We ate pot roast with potatoes and carrots, and corn bread, and salad, and we wept thankfully and bitterly. We didn’t go outlaw in that town. A train stopped there in Garnet, Kansas that night and we went on to New Orleans both feeling closer to human.