An American Story


Chapter One: Homecoming

The side door on the boxcar slid open, slowly, quietly, at least as quiet as Paul could make it.

Open only about two feet, he slipped out and jumped onto the ballast, the crushed stone that supports the railway tracks. The tracks, what the Hobos call the Permanent Way.

Hesitating for a moment, listening, he could hear the slow, methodical footsteps, crunching on the ballast, approaching him in the darkness. 

Paul knew it was a Bull, the Hobos’ name for a railroad cop, a hired mercenary, and Paul was pretty sure he knew which Bull it was. Four stops back, he saw a new Bull board the train, so he climbed down from his Penthouse Suite and slipped into the Empty, what the Hobos call a boxcar with no freight in it.

Standing dead still for a moment longer, then jumping into the ditch below the ballast, he rolled and landed upright. Paul could hear the crunch of boots on the ballast coming from behind him.

His bindlestiff, or pack, which contained everything Paul owned, was still in the Empty, but no time to go back for it now.

He needed to bolt, and bolt fast.

Coming up the bank from the railroad ditch, Paul took to a gallop.

The lights of Centralia were not far off to his south.

Suddenly, a bright flash of light hit in his brain, then there was nothing.


“Paul Thompson?”

“Paul?” the deputy repeated.

“Paul?” the deputy repeated.

Not all of a sudden, but in short, pulsating intervals of dim light, like through a piece of glass smeared with Vaseline, Paul began to focus on his immediate surroundings. Through the pounding pain in his head from the Bull’s blow, he realized he was in a jail cell. The deputy was standing in the open doorway to his cell.

“What in tarnation happened to you, Paul Thompson?” he said. “And where the heck
have you been for the last five years? We last heard you was in Ohio, and then nothing more.” Paul sat up on the wooden cot. He rubbed his neck on the right side below his skull. Looking up at the deputy, he said, “Should I know you?”

“Know me? I’m your brother Jacob!” said the deputy. “You’re home! Nemaha! Centralia! We had all but figured you were dead.”

“Jacob? I don’t remember nothing, what happened? Why am I in jail?” Paul asked.

“You got clobbered pretty good. There’s a new Bull on the MoPac,” said Jacob.

The MoPac, what Midwesterners called the Missouri Pacific Railroad.

Jacob continued, “and he has cut himself quite a reputation. Killed a Bo in Kay See. Judge let him off. Self-defense. Yes sir, he is a devil. More than likely, he got you with his axe handle.” answered Jacob.

“I tell you; I don’t remember nothing,” repeated Paul.

“Well, we had the Doc up to look at you when you first came in. He says you took a pretty bad blow, surprised you’re still breathing. That Bull probably knocked the sense clean out of you.” Jacob exclaimed.

“That Bull wanted you charged. Says the MoPac has a new zero tolerance for Hobos. I say that bonk on your head is all the zero tolerance you need, besides, the train left hours ago.

I’m just keeping you here for your own health and safety. Lots of Hobos get tossed out, down along the banks of the Black Vermillion and left for dead, which is how we usually find them.”

“I tell you, I don’t know nothing,” said Paul, as he abruptly vomited.

“Oh Lord, Paul! Let me get you a wet towel. You’re in a bad way,” Jacob said as he stepped from the cell to a wash basin and dipped a ripped piece of cloth into the water.

“Here,” he said handing the wet cloth to Paul.

Paul just looked at Jacob with a blank stare. Then he vomited again.

Jacob gently, quietly shut the cell door and took off out of the jail to find the Doc.

He ran down the main street towards the Doc’s house. It was just becoming light, and thesun was just about to break the horizon. He knocked at Doc’s door and waited. After a short time, he knocked again, then again.

“Alright, alright! I’m coming!” he could hear the Doc say from inside.

The year was 1934, and in small town rural Kansas, a town Doctor worked mostly out of his black bag, making calls. The Depression prohibited the luxury of formal offices. One would have to travel to a bigger city to find a Dr.’s office or hospital.

“Doc! You gotta come now! Paul is in a bad way!” Jacob said through the door, just as it opened.

Doc appeared in a long nightshirt and pants holding an oil lamp. “What is all this commotion, Jacob? What are you telling me?”

“Paul! He doesn’t know who I am! Says he can’t remember nothing,” replied Jacob. “Let me get my boots and a coat,” said Doc. And the two of them walked swiftly back to the jailhouse.

By now the sun was bright on the horizon and the small town was coming to life. They could hear the roosters crowing, and several dogs began to bark.

Jacob ran several paces ahead and, reaching the jailhouse, threw open the door and skidded to a stop. Standing just inside the doorway, he turned, putting his hands on the jambs, and slumped over. Looking up to face Doc he said, “He’s gone. He’s gone, Doc. He tricked me! Paul tricked me!”

Just then, a middle-aged woman wearing a full nightgown and sleeping bonnet came rapidly around the corner, “Jacob! Jacob!” she shouted. “Oh, and Doc! Come quick, there’s a fella laying out back of the house! It doesn’t look good, Doc!”

Jacob, with Doc in tow, followed the woman back around the corner and up the side alley. There was Paul. Face down in the dirt. Motionless.

The woman gasped.

Doc knelt over Paul and checked for a pulse. Looking up at Jacob he said, “He’s gone Jacob, I’m sorry.”

Jacob, tears running down his cheeks, wiped his face with his shirt sleeve, and said, “Paul’s finally caught the West Bound.”

Hobo parlance for death.

(end of chapter one)


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