The story a couple of weeks ago about Giveaway Babies got a few very interesting comments. One of them inspired me to write the following short story.
Rube could both hear and feel the rattle of the freight car as the train gained speed with each turn of the wheel. He panted a little with the exertion of reaching the car and swinging himself onboard. It hadn’t taken many rides to learn to quickly scoot into a corner that was protected from the cold wind.
The hum of steel wheels against the hardened rails sang a lullaby and his chin soon slumped onto his chest. The sleep was light and images of home danced before him. He dreamed of the first train he caught; he dreamed of the first train he heard.
“Rube, you’re gonna have to git them cows milked if we hope to git the corn chopped out today.”
Rube acknowledged the kind farmer with only a grunt as he rhythmically pulled milk from the old cow’s udder, his head resting on her warm side. The sun would quickly heat the corn field to misery but in the chill of the morning the boy appreciated his cozy resting spot.
The farm was quiet in the mornings and that’s when Rube most enjoyed it. He went to the barn before good daylight and even the cows seemed reluctant to disturb the peace. In the silence, broken only by the metallic ring of milk against buckets, erupted a distant horn. Rube froze. It took only a moment to understand the sound and to remember that the tracks were just over the big hill; still he had somehow never noticed the sound, never realized the mournful, seductive nature of it. In that moment, he could think of nothing but the train – the big locomotive and the steam he knew would be bellowing from the smoke stack, the innumerable cars following behind carrying people far away from Athens even out of Tennessee.
Rube shook his head, trying to regain control of his thoughts. You’ll never see the inside of a train car and you know you’re lucky to have this place.
He was lucky, he would never argue that point. A child without a father was nothing; he could hardly expect decent folk to speak to him and yet this man had taken him in and treated him nearly as well as his own sons. He even bought him books and sent him to school in the winter months. Much as he disliked sitting in still in the schoolroom, Rube realized it was a gift he that would serve him his whole life. Yes, it was a lucky day for Rube when the farmer took notice of him as he stripped bark at the sawmill.
And yet the whistle lingered in his memory. As he slowly made his way to the corn field with hoe in hand, he began to imagine where the train was going. Was that coal smoke he smelled? Was the train somehow reaching out to him?
He thought of Grandma. He still imagined she would come for him one day, even though she left for the Cherokee reservation almost three years ago. She’d always talked about her people and he wanted to believe they would love him for the blood he shared with them, no matter who his father was or even if he didn’t really know who his father was. But somehow he’d never been able to fully believe it since both Mother and now Grandma had not wanted him, not really. Maybe Grandpa had wanted him but the logging accident took him and now there was no one that wanted him, no one left to love him.
What did I do? He asked himself that question every day. How, he wondered, could Mr. Cox – despite his mother’s marriage to the man he’d never been allowed to call him anything but Mister – how could he have thought Rube was going to burn down the house when he was only stomping out an ember that popped from the fireplace? It happened all the time; there were lots of little black spots around the stone that attested the fact. What was different that time? As Mother dragged him by the arm to her parent’s little house she’d promised that Mr. Cox would feel better soon and surely he would ask Rube to return. But he didn’t feel better. Now he and Mother had five children of their own and Rube supposed none of them ever let embers pop from the fire.
He woke with a jerk, the ligaments in his neck screaming – or was that the whistle again? It took a minute to realize where he was, to realize he was no longer on the farm and the ache in his back was from the hard floor of the freight car and not hours bent over a hoe. The dreams haunted him, as the unanswered questions always did.
Rube, I reckon you’re grown now so thar’s not a reason in the world to be worryin’ ‘bout all that stuff.
He shifted the small pack, felt a bit of straw in the corner and tried to burrow as deeply into it as possible. Even though his eyes were heavy, he tried not to sleep; sleep just brought more questions and he could never find the answers.
He passed this night like so many others – how many nights had he slept on the rails? He shook his head, trying to focus on this new quandary.
Must be two years now, he reasoned. He slid the door open a crack and positioned himself to watch the rising sun even as the train seemed to run from it on the westbound track. He’d ridden this line all the way to California, but then he found himself back in Tennessee. In fact, every train seemed to eventually bring him back to Tennessee. Now the Eastern horizon seemed to call him in a new way – it was reminiscent of that first sound of the train’s whistle he’d dreamed of again last night.
Suddenly Rube felt tired. He realized it wasn’t just the restless nights, never sleeping soundly for fear the railroad bull would find him and use his ever-present club and toss him from the car at some remote whistle-stop. No, this fatigue was deeper, much deeper.
Maybe it’s time to go home. It occurred to Rube what a strange thought that was for there was no home to return to, no loved ones waiting with open arms, no one missing him and watching for his return. Still, there was a distinct call from the mountains, an unmistakable need to be on solid ground and to begin to build something permanent, something better than what he had before.