When Sofina, Jack, Kat, and Frankie McBride lose their Mother to cancer and Dad has not been seen in three years, the children find themselves wards of the state and soon to be separated into foster homes. Even before their Mother was in the ground, Sophina knew their fate as a family was in jeopardy. In order to keep the family intact she devises an escape plan. Together these industrious children embark on a journey fraught with danger which takes them into a transient underground of hobos, tramps, and tie counters. A secret world where evil lerks behind a kindly face and trust may be their only salvation.
PG 13 with adult situations/285 pagesYoung Adult Fiction
Leave a sign and I might find you. I'm not a hobo, a tramp or even a bum; I'm a jungle buzzard, train jumper, if there ever was one.
Sunset, June, 1955
Before they even saw him, the stiffs in the boxcar heard the bum hoofing it trying his near-best to hop the car. He sounded like a pissed off dishwasher tossing around two days worth of dirty pots and pans. Clang, clang-bang and every now then a slap-thunk.
The noise raised such a raucous, a nervous stiff yelled from the back of the car. "Give it up you fat son of a bitch before you sic the bulls on us." Others joined in unison chanting, "Give it up. Give it up." Their unforgiving voices in grating sing-song.
A young stiff just out of his teens worked at closing the rusty bay door in hopes of deterring the bum from his last minute jump, but the door jammed and he grunted, shoving his shoulder against the frame without sucess. Finally, the kid gave up red-faced amist cat call and whistles, hiding in the corner with his head down. No one else was interested in breaking a sweat over the situation, it was far more satisfying to bitch and scream obsentities.
Laying up against the boxcar wall, Sidetrack clasped his hands behind his head, his knuckles raw from the weather. His skin the color of a paper sack. His partner Blue, named for the the mountains of his home state made himself cozy on his bindle, stretching long thin legs out across the dusty floor boards, his ratty Wellingtons crossed at the ankles.
Earlier, after intense deliberation, the two had decided to catch the northbound headed for the Albina Switching Yard in Portland, Oregon. They knew train schedules like children know their ABCís and the next rattler was a day away. It was Sidetrack who was adament about leaving. "I ain't staying in this stinking state another day."
Reluctant, but wanting to follow Sidetrack's lead, Blue grabbed his bindle and climbed into the car lousy with jumpers and stiffs. Blue hated jumping full cars but they were between a rock and hard place.
The bum continued to pound the ties at a frenzied gait. Sweat poured down his face and into his eyes. The freighter bolted as the powerful locomotive accelerated; the clacked-clack antiphony of massive steel wheels rolling over rail seams sounded in quick succession as the car garnered speed.
He slapped a gloved hand against the door trying to grasp an anchor, anything stable that might help but his hand smacked at nothing but air. He tried again, and failed. The train humped, pulling on. The carbonized speckle pans around his neck swayed side to side, banging against the car, bouncing off his chest, hitting him upside the head with loud thwacks. The bum groaned, pumping harder, his breathing ragged.
Blue couldnít take it any longer, the bastard was a lousy jumper. "Aw, shit." he muttered as he crawled over to the open bay. He reached out grabbing hold of the bumís outstretched hand. "Come on, get it up here." With a final heave, the bum landed belly down on the carís wooden floor,flopping like a catfish caught at low tide. Gasping for air, the man turned over on his back. Sidecar had never seen a fat man sweat so much.
The stiffs looked the bum over, unimpressed. He was dressed in the usual wranglers, flannel shirt, and canvas jacketóbut what made him different, besides his flabby gut, was the leather strap of cooking pans around his neck.
"Iíll wager thatís one of those foreign bums from Aussie Land." said a stiff from the back of the car. The bums complained mumbling in agreement.
"He ought to be bumming in his own country." A stiff growled. He sat cross legged with his arms folded across his chest. "I hate foreigners." The rest of the stiffs now moved and talked as one. Foreigners were taking over America.
Jumping up, Sidetrack yelled at the stiffs in the corner. "Does this guy look like he can take over America? No one answered."Well, does he? Now why donít you lousy bums shut the hell up for a spell."
The group of men exchanged glances,one of them balked. He had a blood stained rag tied around his knuckls and sported a black eye like heíd just gone a round or two with someone who got the better of him.
"Maybe I donít want to."
Sidetrackís eyes narrowed, his hand sliding in between two open buttons on his shirt. "And jest maybe you do."
The bum with the black eye was the first one to drop to the floor. His bravado melting like the first snow. With no leader, the rest followed.
"Thatís more like it." Sidetrackís attention reverted to the big man still puffing for air on the floor. He nodded to Blue, motioning him to sit back down. Blue slid in next to his partner, giving him an elbow nudge to the side. Both men eyed the over-sized bindle.
After catching his breath the bum crawled in next to Blue and Sidetrack relaxing his bulk against the wall. "Appreciate the hand, mate. The name is Kansas." He said offering up a friendly shake. "That was a rough one. Thought I was going under the wheels. What the hell does the engineer have to be in such a bloody hurry for? Heís running empty."
Blue reached over to shake, but Sidecar intervened taking hold of Kansasí hand. He felt g the soft calfskin glove, showing a mouth full of black and yellowed teeth. "Ainít nothing to help a fellow jumper. That ainít no American language, and you ainít from no Kansas, so where you from?"
"Them stiffs are right, Iím Aussie. I thought the moniker, Kansas, would go better with a lot like that." Kansas said pointing his thumb towards the group huddled in the corner. "But, the minute I open me mouth the ruse is up, now ainít it mates?"
"It ainít your mouth, itís them pots around your neck, pal." Blue offered. "We western bums donít carry a kitchen around our necks."
Kansas looked down at his pans. "Kind of like these, mate. Been with me since I came to this country."
"Your name donít suit you. Iím gonna call you PanMan." Sidetrack snickered, pulling his bowler down over his eyes. "Now how about zipping it so I can get some shut eye." The PanMan shrugged and settled in for the night.
Midnight, Bum Jungle
Albini Switching Yard,
By the time the freighter pulled into Portland, the three were worn out, half-starved and it didnít look like the dismal jungle was going to be any kinder.
"Iím goiní for some better burners, this here is shit wood." Sidetrack said pointing to the stack of wet cottonwood Kansas had stacked teepee style. He headed into the woods until the darkness swallowed him.
Kansas and Blue lighted book matches, one after the other, trying to get a flame from the damp wood. Minutes later, a strand of dirty smoke drifted upward hanging like a foul mood under a canopy of madrona trees.
"Iím telling you, Kansas, that drag was highballing. I Ďbout froze to death." Blue turned his back on the fire. The embers crackled and hissed. "She was a double header and when I boarded her I thought my arms was gonna be jerked right out of their sockets. My ribs felt like they was smashed in and I had to lay on top Ďcoz I couldnít find an empty to save my ass. Iím telling you that drag was balling the jack and that wind near froze me."
"How many times you gonna whine about how cold you was mate?" Kansas said scratching filthy whiskers with one hand, while tossing a worn pine cone into the flames with the other. The cone sparks and white smoke rises mingling under the copse of tree limbs. "Damn, Blue Ridge, youíre driving me bonkers."
Blue turned around facing the fire stretching his hands over the flames. His hands are long and slender, strong as a pianistís. The metatarsal bones and blue outline of veins throbbed in the firelight.
Kansas booted a log, getting air to the flame. "Youíre beginning to sound like nothing but a beefer."
Blue Ridge sat back down on the log next to the fire, watching Kansas scratch at his armpit like it was on fire. "I was just trying to be friendly."
"Mate, you was friendly when you pulled me on board back there, now youíre nothing but a damned beefer." Satisfying the itch, he scrubbed his fingers in a ash pile at his feet.. "If you want to know cold, I flipped a rattler and rode the top through the backbone of the Rockies. Mate, you talk about cold, even thinking about it makes me arthritis kick in. Me fingers was so froze I could barely hold on, I jumped down into car, and there were ten other stiffs in there and we was hopping around like Mexican jumping beans trying to get some blood moving in our feet."
"More like a hopping Kangarooóyou should of started a fire." Blue said stretching out his legs moving his boots closer to the heat.
"We did. We used some old rags we found in a corner and the whole car filled with smoke, we was chokiní for breath. At daybreak, we was rolling into Denver and two of me fingers was turning black. Before two weeks was up, they just up and fell off." He removed a tan glove holding up a stumpy hand. "I was eating chili at the mission down on Glendale street in Grand Junction, you know the one?"
Kansas looked up at Blue Ridge for a response but got none. "Anyway, I was in that soup kitchen eatiní chili and Iíll be damned if me pinkie didnít fall off into my bowl. I damn near ate the sonofabitch." Kansas chuckled. "And you know, mateóthe whole time them fingers was rotting off, I had a wicked case of nasty farts. Non-stop stinky gas, mate."
"So why you totiní around them pots if you ainít got any food?" Blue asked.
Kansas shrugged, stabbing at the embers in the fire pit. "Iím running shy this trip. Used the last of the grub on the way into Oakland."
"What you got rolled up in the bindle?"
"Now, listen here Blue, I never pegged you for a yeggar. I got a few thin ones if youíre looking to rob me." Kansas offered sticking his three-fingered hand into his shirt pocket retrieving a couple of dimes. "Man, I thought you was me mate."
Blue leaned back against a rotting log, locking his hands behind his head. "I ainít doing nothing but relaxing. Weíre just having a conversation, ainít we? Now put your damn dimes back in your pocket."
The fire flared up, casting an orange glow across the bumís face. "Look, we can split it."
The light distorted his features making him look like a pathetic version of Freddie the Freeloader with triple chins. Kansas peered into the darkness searching for Sidetrack. "How long does it take to get some damn wood?"
"Heílll find jest what suits him. You canít hurry that one up, heís on his own time."
"He should of been back by now."
"I said donít worry about it." Blue changed the subject. "Did you say you was friends with Travellin Jack?"
"Oh yeah, yeah, I know Travellin."
"Back there in the car, was you lying about a stash?"
"Hell no, I wasnít lying." Kansas brightened turning back around facing Blue. "Now thereís someone whose got some moneyóthat Travellin Jack is a shifty shit for sure. He stole a necklace chucked full of jewels and a purse full of money off this townee lady right in broad daylight and found her address sewn in the lining of the bag." Kansasí voice cracked with an eagerness of opportunity. "Travellin found her house, crawled in an open window and stole a heap of cash from a open cash box; sitting as big as shit, right on a table." Kansas threw back his head laughing. "Turns out he broke into some high floutiní cat house and got away with the nightís revenue."
"Ainít no lie, eh? What was the take?"
"We was liquored on Three Star Hennessy. He buried two thousand under an orange tree in Jeeters Canyon, near some small-ass town called Santa Paula. I hear heís hiding out in New Mexico until the heats off." His smug smile returned. "Hell, it ought to be good and cold by now." Kansas stirred the fire sending sparks circling up with the smoke. "Maybe you and I could dig it up and split it between ourselves?" Kansas winked at Blue. "You know, just you and me."
Blue Ridge rubbed his back on the truck of a tree like a horse scratching against a fence post. In the shadows where the firelight couldnít reach, Blue caught a glimpse of the plank of wood his partner had chosen. He raked his fingers through a collar length shock of greasy, red clay colored hair. This was their signal.
In hobohemia, Sidetrack was known as a ghost; his foot falls made no sound as he moved in closer, heaving the makeshift weapon in the air. Blue knew by the way he lifted the chunk of wood it was going to come down heavy.
Sidetrack stepped into the fire light, casting a threatening shadow against a backdrop of wax myrtle; he was a phantom Sasquatch direct from a fearsome nightmare. "We ainít gonna split nothing, PanMan." He growled. The tone deep and guttural, coming from a monsterís belly.
Wide eyed, Kansas swung around facing the animal behind him. He saw the plank, the flicker of light on steel, but it was too late. The tramp scrambled, trying to get away, his boots slid in the loose mud and slimy black ash from previous fires. He fumbled, looking for a weapon, grasping at a rock, but his two-fingered stump hand couldnít do the job.
"Shit." was all he could utter as the plank came down full force, cracking open his skull with a dull, smacking sound like a cabbage makes as it slammed up against wall. Blood splattered across the fire sizzling as it hit the flames. Mortally wounded and dazed with the sheer magnitude of such a crushing blow, Kansas wobbled, stumbling over a log before he fell face down, the board impaled in his head. He twitched a few times and lay still..
Blue Ridge watched the calculated murder of Kansas as disaffected and bored as a tom cat with played out prey. "Dammit, Sidetrack, youíre startiní to do this a lot. I thought we had a deal nobody was going down hard." Disgusted with the mess before him, Blue Ridge shook his head, clicking his tongue.
"Had to kill him, dead. I didnít want no repeater. God, I hate repeaters. The last one kept gettin up, so this time, I found me a board with a spike in it." Sidetrack scavenged through the dead manís pockets. "This ones a scoffer, ainít he? I can hardly get my hands in his pockets, his pants is so tight." Blue kept his eyes on the vagrant as he picked through the dead manís clothing.
"Better watch it. Heís got seam squirrels."
"I gotta boil my clothes anyway, got some of them, myself." He found two bills, waving them in the air. "Here they are, dumb sonofabitchótrusting us like that. Well, shit, didnít he have it coming." Sidetrack dropped one of the five dollar bills on Blueís chest. "He owed us this after we had to pull his hulk up in the car and then listen to his bullshit all the way here."
Blue rolled up a sleeve, folded the bill into a small square sliding it under a band-aid on his upper arm. "Damn tootin, that fat bastard was driving me crazy with his non-stop fart story. Shit."
Sidetrack checked out the dead manís boots. "I got better ones than these." he snorted. He took hold of the dead man by the legs and drug him off into the bushes. When he returned he plopped down exactly where Kansas was sitting before the big bang, grinning at his partner like nothing happened.
"You know, Blue Ridge..." he began. " I think its time we catch a red ball going south where we can drink tequila and eat them funny rolled up sandwiches they got down there, you know, bore-eet-toes." Sidetrack picked up the pots and pans chucking them one at a time into the bush, each one hit with a dull thunk. "Jumping with pots and no food, jest how stupid is that?." he grumbled unrolling Kansasí bindle.
"Dumb ass foreigners." Blue added. "Carrying them stupid pots."
"Holy shit, Blue, take a look at what this damn discard artist was toting." Sidetrack held up a pair of tweed trousers, plaid shirts, and more leather gloves."
"He got any hats or socks?" Blue Ridge asked sitting upright pulling off his left boot. He rubbed his big toe, poking at the discolored nail which seemed to be separating from the nail bed.
"Nope, no socks. I could use me a new shirt." Sidetrack ransacked through the clothing. "Got some blood on this one." He held up a blue flannel big enough to put three of him in. "Too bad he was such a whale of a sonofabitch." Sidetrack tossed the clothing on the fire, watching them smoke. "Iím keeping the gloves."
Blue grimaced at the scaly toes of his right foot. "When I strike it rich, Iím getting me a hat, one of them fancy ones with the nice band, and a brandy-new pair of socksóthe thick kind that keep feets warm."
Sidetrackís lip curled. "Strike it rich? You know something I donít?" He snarled staring at his partner. Blue shrugged as he continued to work on his feet.
Sidetrack swiped the top of his head. "Heyówhere the hell did my bowler go?"
"Came off when you wacked the pan man." Blue pointed to the place he saw the hat fall and went back to picking at the scales on his toes. "This here itchesóit itches like the darn crabs."
Sidetrack got down on all fours feeling the ground for the midnight blue bowler with the rooster feathers stuck in the band. The hat was his current favorite. He robbed the hat off a man in Denver in broad daylight and ditched the local police by ducking into an alley and climbing into a trash can. Sidetrack continued to search. Finally, his fingers touched the felt brim. A smile played at the corner of his lips as he brushed off a chunk of mud. He slipped it uptop his mop of moldy straw colored hair, cocking the hat at an angle. "So I've been thinking we should catch out and head back South."
Blue pulled sheets of dead skin from his toes. "I thought you wanted out of California and we was gonna jump the BN to Montana."
Sidetrack sat back down and poked the fire with the same stick Kansas used. " I changed my mind." he lifted his shirt, rubbing his stomach, his ribs showing. " My belly feels like there is two guys fightiní in there. When was the last time we ate?"
"Beats me, but Iím hungry enough to chew my own tongue." Blue mumbled. "Yep, Iím gonna get me a pair of socks "
Sidetrack cleared his throat and spat on the ground. "Maybe you ought to stuff a sock in it."
The remark grated on Blue, he stopped working his toe, studying his partnerís gaunt face as if for the first time since heíd partnered with him. He eased his foot into the boot, grimacing as the toe settled into its resting place. "Alright. If weíre gonna catch out on a red ball, then Iím gettiní forty winks." He rubbed his hands on his jeans and made himself comfortable against the base of a scrub pine. "Ainít you gonna get some sleep?"
Sidetrackís vacant eyes bore into Blue. He dropped his fire poking stick into the fire, spitting a wad of green phlegm in after it. "What are you, my ma?" He stood up stumbling towards the woods. "I gotta take a leak. Is that alright with you?"
Blue heard him pee. Ghost, phantom, air walker, it didnít matter what hobos called him, Sidetrack couldnít relieve himself without sounding like he was pissing in a hollow tank. He heard the zip up, and thenónothing but crickets. Uncomfortable he shifted his weight, his ear to the woods, listening. Short hairs prickled up the back of his neck.
He loomed up behind Blue without so much as crackling a leaf and it was over quick with the flash and slice of a blade. Blue made a strange gurgling sound, his eyes went dull and lifeless as Sidetrack watched him bleed out. Casually, he cleaned the blood from his knife on the thigh of his jeans.
"Oh did I tell you I done found me a nice knife in that bindle? No? Guess I done forgot. Jest like you done forgot to tell me about Travellin Jack and that there stash in Jeeters Canyon." He kicked Blue in the ribs, knocking his body sideways. "You was gonna keep it quiet, werenít you?" He yanked at Blueís sleeve, pulling the material up his arm. "Didnít I tell you this was a stupid place to hide money? Every train jumper there is knows this trick." Sidetrack ripped off the band-aid, peeling the bill from Blueís arm. He dropped his jeans down around his ankles, folded the bill lengthways and slid the bill into the crack of his ass. "Now thatís where you hide paper money you dumb bastard."
Overhead, stars glinted against a solemn grey expanse as thunderous black bile clouds drifted southward. Hitching up his jeans, Sidetrack disappeared into the night, whistling, Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Being Mom and Dad....
Rio Azul, California
Every morning was the same for Sofina McBride; she refused to open her eyes and she did not want to get out of bed, even though it was as uncomfortable as any bed could be. She would squeeze her eyes so tight she could see stars hoping her mama was still breathing.
She realized that over time she had become a slave to this ritual and feared that if she broke with this habit, she and her brothers and sister would be orphans. So she started her day the same way everyday without fail.
She clung to the edge of the narrow wood framed bed she shared with her sister. She felt the mattress give before an old metal spring poked her in the rib. The jagged wire pinched her skin causing her to curse under her breath. She stuffed the rusty coil back into its hole. It was like a jack-in-the-box ready to spring again. Sofina made a mental note to fix it.
A cool breeze heavy with the sweet scent of orange blossoms blew in through a broken window. The pane was long gone, lost to an errant pitch from an orange as her brothers, Jack Jr. and Franklin, played a rowdy game of pitch in the back yard.
Sofina shivered grabbing a fistful of blanket, pulling it up under her chin. She had not had time to enjoy the blankets benefits before her younger sister,Catherine rolled over taking the blanket with her, leaving Sofina with nothing but a shiver. This was a daily affair.
"Kat, move over. You're hogging the bed again." Sofina took hold of the thin blanket yanking it until the cotton fibers threatened to rip. "And you share this blanket!"
Stubborn,Catherine held on with both hands, grabbing more blanket with each tug, like a puppy does with a pull toy. "I am sharing and I'm on the edge too!" Huffy, Catherine inched closer to Sofina. "Don't you have to get up and tend to mama?" she cooed.
"You want my side of the bed so much then take it Catherine McBride!" Sofina stood up standing in the shadows next to bed waiting. With a triumphant giggle Catherine scrambled onto Sofina's side, snuggling in. The old springs sagged and again the coil gave way, springing from its hole striking Catherine on her back side. "Ouch that hurt. You did that on purpose." She growled moving to her side of the bed, rubbing her bottom. "You're so mean, Sofina!"
Sofina smiled. "Why would I do that, Cat. I need to go tend to mama. Isn't that what you said I should do?"
Sofina reached down stuffing the coil back in its place.
In the corner of the room was an old army cot. She leaned down pulling a patchwork quilt up around Frankie's shoulders. He snored softly unaware she hovered over him.
She left the room padding softly through the living room. Jack Jr. lay sprawled, sound asleep, on a sofa which sat in the middle of the room. His legs longer than his make-shift bed. He called it his 'couch with a slouch'. He adopted the couch as his bed when he realized one day that he was too old to be sleeping in the same room with his sisters. For Jack Jr. it was simple. At 13, he needed his privacy.
Sofina crossed the kitchen, the the worn green linoleum cold under her barefeet. She hesitated, then reached for the door knob to her Mother's room.