The midnight train whistled shrilly as it began to take off towards the West, slowly lurching forward on the moonlit tracks. The hard wheels squealed in the cool summer evening. Men rubbing sleep from their eyes bustled about in the dark, securing and checking the cars. The engineer fed the steel beast’s red-hot belly with shovel after shovel of coal to quicken their forward movement. The frowning whistle screamed once more as they chugged steadily out of the station. A man sat on a bench outside the station in the dark, quietly smoking, watching the train pull out.
Half a mile down, two young men crouched in the darkness behind a thicket. Their deep brown eyes carefully watched as their key to escape made it’s way toward them. Two canvas backpacks on two pairs of bony shoulders held everything they owned. One spare set of clothes each, two water canteens, two blankets, a loaf of bread, some strips of jerky, an old Colt .45 with a broken grip and a small wad of money was all they were taking with them out west. Both slowly crept out of their hiding place as the huffing engine passed them.
“Which car do we jump into?” the shorter of the pair shouted over the rushing sound of the cars passing them.
“We jump the red one near the end. That’s a feed car. No one will look for us there.” The second pointed to a faded red car three away from the caboose. The door to the car was open, only about a foot wide. They would have to be quick and careful. The train was gaining real speed now. The second motioned and they started running alongside the train. As their car came up behind them, the shorter one jumped up and caught the handle bar, easily swinging into the small opening. The other did it a little less gracefully, getting his pack hung on the door, but managed to squeeze through.
The inside of the small red car was dimly lit by one oil lamp and smelled like hay and warm grass. They walked along the aisle of the car to the back and settled down on the dusty bales. They spread their blankets out and split the bread between them. They ate in silence, listening to the landscape rush by outside. The shorter boy finished his bread and lounged on his makeshift bed.
“So, what do you think it will look like? The West, I mean. Everyone always says something different. I never know what to think,” the shorter one asked the other quietly.
“I don’t know Max. Dry, I imagine. What’s it matter what it looks like? Anywhere is better than Greentown,” he answered, annoyed by the question.
“Well we wouldn’t be leaving if we didn’t think it was a good place to go, not that we really had a choice. But I’m sure there’s someplace that’s worse than Greentown, John,” he said as he stared at the rusted roof of the car. John sighed and laid down.
“You know people like us don’t belong in Greentown. It feels like God created that place to hold all of the world’s mysterious and dangerous creatures. Strange things happen in that little town and whenever you talk to someone it always feels like they know something you don’t. I’m glad we’re finally getting away from all of it.” John rolled over and faced the wall, trying to end the conversation.
“What are we going to do when we get there? Where are we going to live?” Max’s eyes were locked on the flame in the oil lamp. The dim light gave his young face a sallow wash.
“I told you to let me handle all the worrying. You can’t even vote or buy a pack of cigarettes yet. You shouldn’t be filling your head with thoughts like that. Now lie down and go to sleep,” John said as he sighed and sat up. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway.
“Goodnight then, brother.” He laid down and was asleep before his head hit his backpack. John sat up the rest of the night, smoking and thinking. As the pink and yellow dawn stretched out its fingers over the flat fields of Kansas, he woke Max and they both packed up their blankets and had a lean breakfast of jerky and water. John knew they would be passing through Colorado soon. All he needed to see was a sign that confirmed it. Fortunately the tracks ran along the road here. He shielded his eyes from the now bright sunlight and looked down the road.
“Bonny Lake State Park: three miles. Strasburg: twenty miles. Denver: seventy miles,” John read out to his brother. Max looked out across the landscape.
“Very flat here, isn’t it?” he asked. “It’ll have to do,” Max laughed. John just told him to put on his pack and get ready to jump soon.
“This train is destined for California. I’d love to ride it all the way there, but the men will be going through all the cars soon, making sure everything is in order. Denver sounds good enough for me.” John took another drink of water and checked his watch. “It’s 11. We need to give it another ten minutes before we’ll be close enough to Strasburg to walk it. I don’t want a whole lot of people seeing that we’re train hoppers.” The two young men sat in the aisle watching John’s wristwatch, anxiously awaiting 11:10. “You’re going first, okay?”
Max swallowed nervously. “You sure we’re not going too fast?” He looked at the ground whizzing by outside.
“That’s why you’re going first. So you can’t chicken out on me and end up in California.” John grabbed his brother’s shoulder and laughed. “Everything is going to be fine. Ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Max said, suddenly gone pale. John patted him on the shoulder and started counting.
“One, two, three!” John said, and his brother was gone from the train car and suddenly on the ground kicking up red dust as he rolled to a stop. John didn’t wait another second. He jumped and as he was falling, he thought about Greentown, and was glad they had gotten away from all the strange happenings there.
And that’s when my crystal went dark. What weird and mysterious visions it was bringing me this evening. First the wolf, and now the two suspicious runaways. I put my hands on it again and focused, searching for something else.