I can smell the hobo camp before I can see it. Pungent sweat and sweet tobacco mingle with dew-dampened leaves, and I scrunch up my nose and breathe through my mouth. I can hear it, too. Raspy coughs, deep and ragged laughter, clinkin’ of tin, cracklin’ of fire.
As I edge farther into the woods toward a clearing, the tents appear suddenly. Small tents and cardboard shacks, barrels, tree-stump stools, crates, moonshine bottles litterin’ the ground, and men everywhere. There must be twenty or so men, some of ’em young, just boys. But they’re all as different as can be. I skinny up behind a tree and watch.
Some of ’em are old and scary-lookin’, their faces lit up by the light of the fire, and they got long, scraggly beards and missin’ teeth, and they laugh with their whole faces, chins droppin’ down like someone’s yankin’ on their beard. Others are dressed like they’re headin’ to a day at the office, suit coats and slacks and fedoras on, and they’re sittin’ proper-like, waitin’ on somethin’ that must be important. The young ones are gathered around a firepit, cookin’ somethin’ that sizzles and pops. Everyone’s drinkin’ and chattin’ and eatin’, and for a split second it feels like home, and I wonder if I’ve made a mistake.
I tuck a piece of my short hair under my cap and think back to when my best friend, Margaret Ann, cut it for me. She’d said it was the only way I could do this – disguised as a man. “A teenage girl pretty as you ain’t gonna find nothin’ but trouble in a hobo camp full of men, June, you know that,” she’d said. “Gun or no gun, you gonna be a target.”
I hug my pack in close to me, caress the bulge of the gun, and think about how I got here. How I got to this point of no return. And my thoughts turn to Josy and the day we got the news that he’d been beat up out on the rails. We didn’t know how bad it was ’til Pate and Charlie came hobblin’ up the drive with Josy lollin’ between ’em nearly bleedin’ to death.
They laid him in his bed, and Mama and Daddy fussed over him while I stood frozen in the corner, watchin’. Couldn’t hardly recognize him. They said the bulls got him. Not animal bulls, but people bulls. They’re the mean ol’ men who catch train hoppers and either arrest ’em or beat ’em silly. I sure wish they’da just arrested Josy.
Josy’s my older brother – name’s Joseph, but I cain’t remember a time I didn’t call him Josy. He’s the best big brother I coulda ever wanted. Always took real good care of me, and Mama and Daddy, too. He helped Daddy on the farm up until we couldn’t sell nothin’ no more and most of the crops went bad.
I helped Mama with the sewin’. I cain’t remember a time Mama didn’t have a sewin’ needle in her hands, ’cept o’course when she had a skillet in ’em. She could sew quilts, aprons, and real pretty bonnets, and we’d sell ’em at the market. But things got so bad, she said cain’t nobody ’ford to buy pretty things when the economy’s so ugly.
When the crops went bad, it was a good thing Daddy and Josy were handy-like. They could build outhouses and sheds and barns. But Daddy said it was just like with Mama’s sewin’ – nobody could spend what little money they had on anything extra when they had to put food on the table. I said, “Well, what if they ain’t got no table to put the food on?” He didn’t have an answer for that, but wouldn’t you know it – Daddy and Josy started buildin’ tables and chairs and stools, and they traded ’em for things we needed, like shoes and winter coats. They was always used, o’course, but we didn’t mind none, so long as we had somethin’ to keep our feet dry in the rain and our bodies warm in the winter.
Soon Daddy had to start sellin’ off the animals. He sold all the goats and some of the cows, and we ate the pigs – that’s a day I’ll never forget, ’cause I was so sad about them silly pigs gettin’ slaughtered, never mind the fact that bacon’s about the best food in the world. Anyway, all’s we had left after that was two good milkin’ cows, the mule to pull the wagon, and a handful of good layin’ hens. That way we always had our own milk and butter, and we could eat eggs any old time. And we had stuff to trade.
One time, Mama took a dozen eggs to Mr. and Mrs. Porter down the lane, and they gave us eighteen potatoes. For quite some time after, we had potato hash, mashed potatoes, potato soup, stewed potatoes, potato pancakes, and I don’t know what all else. And we never did get tired of them potatoes, ’cause we knew what it felt like to not have any.
Soon me and Josy couldn’t go to school no more, ’cause we had to help Mama and Daddy, ’specially after Daddy’s accident – another day I’ll never forget ’cause there was so much blood. I sure was sad to not go to school with my friends and learn and study no more. But Josy said I should feel proud ’cause we’s a hard-workin’ family.
But sometimes I still wish things was different. ’Specially the day Josy went to ride the rails. Then when Mama got sick, things sure took a turn for the worst. You’d think we was the unluckiest family in the world, after all that went wrong, but it ain’t all bad, not really. I just wish the Depression never happened and people didn’t have to hop trains to find work and nobody got sick and nobody got hurt just tryin’ to live.
I know they ain’t really animals, but I cain’t help it – every time I think about what them bulls did to Josy, I imagine giant hairy beasts with horns and metal rings through their noses, and I cry and cry and cry. I think if it had been the animals, Josy wouldn’ta had no problems. He’s real good with animals.
So, how did I get here? It started the summer of 1930, just before I turned twelve. That’s when everything went absolutely haywire. And if I knew then what I know now, things’d be different. So different. See, the thing about me is, I notice things. I notice things but don’t think nothin’ of it ’til later, and then I think, Aw, crumbs! I knew it! Or I shoulda seen that comin’. Like that little twitch in Margaret Ann’s left cheek when she ain’t tellin’ the whole truth. Or the hitch in Mama’s throat when she’s tryin’ to put on a brave face but inside she’s fallin’ apart. And, mostly, the darkness that shadowed Josy’s eyes for a split second that day in Knoxville when we felt like we were sittin’ on top of the world. Lord, were we happy that day.
I wish I could go back to that day and hold onto Josy, keep him from goin’ out on the rails. Better yet, maybe I could go back to the day we got eighteen potatoes from Mrs. Porter, back when all we had to worry about was food and clothes. ’Cause, like I said, the world just kinda fell apart like wood rot. But that’s the past. Cain’t change it. All I can do now is make things right. I have to, ’cause this Depression’s bleedin’ us dry, and we’re runnin’ outa time. I gotta find work so’s I can save the farm and take care of Mama and Daddy. I’m gonna make Josy proud even if it kills me to do it. That’s what I think.
And that’s what I’m thinkin’ ’bout when I’m darn-near fallin’ asleep right up against this ol’ tree and a commotion startles me back to life. There’s a rumble in the distance and all the men are busy packin’ things away and clearin’ up and cleanin’ up. The train’s comin’. Bits of conversation tell me that some of the men are stayin’ back, but most of them are hoppin’ this train when it gets near.
This is it.
I try to think of everything ol’ Jimmy Mack told me about hoppin’ onto a train, but my mind goes blank. The train whistles, and the clackety-clack of the train cars on the rails is gettin’ louder. I reposition my pack across my other shoulder and scoot up behind a tree closer to the tracks, and I see men approachin’ the tracks and crouchin’ in wait.
Now the train appears, and it’s goin’ much faster than I imagined. How’m I gonna jump onto that?
Then I see the hobos runnin’, so I run up after them, and one man half jumps, half climbs up into an open boxcar, and then another jumps up into the boxcar next to it, and all the others are runnin’ beside the train, and one by one, they’re jumpin’ on and helpin’ the others up. I’m runnin’ faster now, my pack bouncin’ against my hip, and I got one hand holdin’ my cap on my head, and one hand reachin’ up toward the train car, and a big, beefy hand reaches for me, and men are hollerin’ at me, but I cain’t hear nothin’ over the roar of the train that swallows the drummin’ of my heart.