He woke up to the sounds of snoring men. And a lump under his back where the mattress bunched. The pillow smelled of antiseptic soap. He pulled his boots out from under the blanket, safeguarded from the other men. Quietly slipping them on, he pulled the old knapsack out from the other side of the bed, where it had rested behind his knees all night. He was stiff, sore, hungry. Looking at the faint light coming through the window, he knew it would be a couple hours before they served what they called breakfast. Two eggs and 1 slice of toast, all the acidic coffee you could stomach. He wouldn't wait for that. He wanted to get out of this place. Out of this town.
Whatever town it was. Oh yeah. North Platte. God.
He stepped carefully between the bunks, hoping not to wake anyone. He opened the door to the bathroom. God. The smell quashed any appetite he might have had. Too many drunks here. Way too many. He hurried to the front door, quietly opened it and slipped out. Freezing out here. He'd come down with a bad cold. He hadn't even tried hitching a ride. Today he would look for work, again. If he couldn't find any, he'd just start walking. If he had to walk all the way to Texas, he would. He wanted to be where it was warm. But not the west coast. He was steering clear of that. Completely.
He stopped at a gas station, used their bathroom. One look in the mirror told him one reason it was hard for him to catch a ride. It had been a while since he'd had a shave or haircut. The last shower he could remember was a couple weeks before, at a truck stop. Nip and tuck there. They didn't like it when non-customers used their facilities. He'd have tried to shave right then and there in the gas station, but these people got nervous if you were in there too long. Didn't want people using their bathrooms to shoot up, or whatever. He straightened himself up as best he could and headed out. He thought about grabbing a couple doughnuts and a pop on his way out but decided against it. He hadn't resorted to stealing yet.
He headed down toward the state employment agency. Hadn't had any luck there yet. Small wonder. He checked the stores and businesses along the way, looking for help wanted signs. That was getting tougher, too. A few scattered cleanup jobs, the only ones people were willing to give a bum. And of course, doing that kind of work didn't exactly help with his hygiene. Damn.
You don't have to live this way. You could go back to the team.
You know why I don't do that. Forget it now. Before they come back.
Why not go back to Trish then? She'd take you back.
No. She's too close to them. Can't take a chance on hurting the kid.
Yeah, but we could...
No. I'll find a job, or catch a ride. Something. Now shut up.
Murdock landed the plane softly, easily. He loved this job. Even more now. When he was flying he could forget all his earthbound problems and worries. Not to mention being able to choose, many times anyway, where he went. Today's flight was special. He'd seen the schedule and immediately sought out the pilot who was supposed to have flown it. It'd cost him, once the other pilot realized how much he wanted it, but that was okay. He was here now. He could take a few days, do some checking. Probably wouldn't find anything, but at least he was closer. Grand Island, Nebraska. Just a hop, skip and a jump from North Platte. Not that he figured Face was still there. But Grand Island was on the main trucking route from there. Murdock had a better chance being in Nebraska than in California. It was worth a shot.
He found a motel close to the airport and collected a couple local maps. Rented a car. Got a quick carry-out lunch and sat down on the bed with the food and maps in front of him. Started looking for truck stops, rest areas, anywhere a man would go to hitch a quick ride. In his duffel he had dozens of copies of Face's picture. Hannibal had said let Face go, he'd come back when he was ready. Murdock wasn't ready to do that. Not until he saw him. Not until he heard it from the horse's mouth.
Murdock was stubborn that way.
He'd had no luck at the employment office. Hadn't figured he would. Couldn't even get a daily job. But he had lucked out on catching a ride. Waited in front of one of the lower priced hotels. He knew he was close to having the cops called by the manager, but he kept pestering the people coming out with baggage until finally a guy agreed to give him a lift. Some kind of salesman. He kept his mouth shut during most of the ride. Which was okay because the salesman talked enough for both of them. He was dropped off in Maxwell. East of North Platte, about 17 miles. The next big town, Grand Island, less than 150 miles away. He could do that.
He had to get something to eat. He checked his cash. $2.76. Well, it would get him something. He should have waited for breakfast at the shelter. Next time he would curb his impatience to be on the move and take care of practicalities. He bought a doughnut and a bottle of pop. Breakfast and lunch. It would do.
Maxwell was a small town. A very small town. It took him twenty minutes to walk around and realize there would be no shelters here. He would have to find someplace to sleep tonight where he wouldn't freeze to death. Which was not easy in a small town. He figured in the time it took him to walk around the town, there probably wasn't a soul in that town that didn't know a stranger was among them. And not a very welcome stranger, either.
It took the county sheriff exactly 35 minutes to show up after Face was dropped off. At least it solved the problem of a place to sleep that night. Didn't really care for the charge of vagrancy, but a hot meal, warm bed, and a chance to shave and clean up made up for it. Another hot meal in the morning, just before the sheriff drove him to the edge of town and let him know he wouldn't be welcomed back any time soon. Then the sheriff slipped him ten bucks, said good luck and drove away.
There were some very nice things about the Midwest, after all.
There were three truck stops in or near Grand Island. Murdock hit each one, taping several pictures of Face up in each. He'd put BA's phone number on them. It was kind of a plan between the two of them. Hannibal hadn't been told about it. One, they didn't want to get his hopes up. Two, they didn't want to get him mad.
Murdock wondered about Hannibal. He'd changed a lot since Face left. Gotten quieter, more serious. That twinkle in the eye just wasn't there any more. Murdock was afraid the Jazz was gone. Hannibal had decided not to take on the clients he'd looked at Thanksgiving. Didn't really say why. Murdock assumed the cases were either something not that bad, or something the authorities could handle. He hoped it wasn't because Hannibal just wasn't interested.
He and BA had both gotten frustrated when the colonel didn't want to go looking for Face. He'd confronted Hannibal after the phone call, angry that they weren't immediately heading for North Platte.
"Murdock, it's not that I don't care. I do, believe me. That man's like my own flesh and blood. But you heard how he sounded on the phone. Did you hear any desperation in his voice? Any anger? Anything other than calm? Until we started in about his coming back. He really has found some peace out there, Murdock. I would like nothing better than to race up there and bring him back. I want him here. But do I have the right to do that to him? Take away the peace of mind? Isn't that just being selfish?
"Damn it, Murdock, it hurts. It hurts like hell to have him turn his back on us. But if that's what he has to do right now, to get himself back together, then we have to let him do that. Believe me, Murdock, the second he calls and says he wants to come home, I'm out the door. But it has to be his decision. When he's ready. I can't force him, or try to persuade him. All I can do is let him know he's welcome back whenever."
Murdock hadn't said another word to him about it after that. He and BA made their own plans. They would not force Face back either. But they wanted to try and find him. They had to know where he was, make sure he really was okay. Yeah, it was selfish. Yeah, it was overprotective. Hannibal accepted that Face was a grown man, capable of taking care of himself. He didn't like letting go, but he accepted it. Murdock and BA weren't ready to do that yet. To them, Face was still the young kid who'd stumbled into their lives so many years ago, and it had become second nature for them to look after him. Even though they'd never admit it to themselves, and certainly not let him know it. It was just what they did.
Once he taped the pictures at the truck stops, he started putting them on the trucks themselves, stuck under wipers, in doors, anywhere the driver would find them. Someone, somewhere, would know the man in the picture, and would call them. One way or another, he'd be found.
He started walking. Heard train whistles. Train whistles. He stopped, thinking. He'd never hopped a freight before, but jumping in the van as it raced down the road couldn't be that much different. Granted, he wasn't in the best shape right now, and he'd have to run through a few inches of snow, but what the hell. Riding anything would be better than walking another hundred some miles. He moved quickly toward the small train yard.1
He found a spot, just on the edge of the yard. He crouched low, behind some bushes. Waited. There was a whistle, and the low thunder of a train taking up its slack as it headed out. From where the rails vanished behind a copse, the rumbling got louder and, in what seemed like slow motion, the first engine burst into view. He could see the engineer, leaning out the window, his forearm on the sill. Face would have sworn he looked straight at him, even though he was 50 yards away and well hidden. Three more engines passed and he threw his pack on, feeling drunk, blood roaring in his ears along with the clacking of the train as it slowly began to pick up speed.
He scrambled up the embankment by the tracks, the train speeding up.
The cars going by were long grain cars, with ladders and short covered porches, maybe four feet by eight, on both ends. He jogged alongside the train, trying to keep up, the gravel giving way under his feet and the cars sliding by. He placed one hand on a ladder rung and the train jerked ahead, but he held on. The sensation was like having a large dog tugging on its leash. But this dog weighed thousands of tons.
Too late he realized he could never grab hold with his right hand. Desperately, pulling with all his might with his left hand, he tried to put one foot on the bottom rung. It wouldn't reach, so without thinking he put his left foot on the hub around which the flashing silver wheel turned, just behind the ladder. Visions of dismemberment flashed through his head.
Stupid, stupid. He was flying through the air now, held in place by one hand and one foot. He could feel his hand giving way. He swung his right arm up, around the side of the ladder, holding on with the crook of his elbow. He dragged his other foot up against the incredible wind, catching the rung, leaving the ground and trusting his full weight to the train. The disembodied sensation of taking off in an airplane paled compared to catching hold of a train and not letting go. It was like grabbing the landing gear as the plane taxied up the runway.
Suddenly, all the nausea of anticipation was gone and it hit him - the greatest surge of adrenaline he'd ever felt. Even better than the Jazz. The landscape was rushing past him, rails and tracks blurring beneath his feet, wind tearing across his face, through his hair.. He was flying.
"I got it, Murdock! I got it!" He shouted against the wind, laughing out loud at the exhilaration.
He swung around, stepped onto the small porch at the front of the car. An opening, at the back of the porch, was about the size of a manhole cover. Inside was a little crawl space, just big enough for him and his pack. Everything was covered with a thick coating of diesel dust and rust. He squeezed through the hole.
Darkness. The violent shaking of the car. A cacophony of the thousands of pieces of steel that made up the car rattling staccato. It smelled of pigeons. He turned like a breech birth to get his head back out the hole and see the countryside flying by. He sat, scrunched in the opening, heart beating wildly, breath coming in racking gasps. And grinned like a fool...
He sat there for what seemed like hours, unable to take his eyes off of the passing scene. This rolling connection with the landscape was travel reduced to its purest essence. When night fell, he was standing on the porch with a hand on the ladder. If he fell off out here, no one would know. He had become a ghost to the stationary world.
The next morning Murdock was back at the truck stops, sticking pictures on trucks that hadn't been there the day before. Talking to drivers when he saw them. Anyone and everyone. So far he'd come up with nothing. Mid-morning he called BA. No one had called yet. Mama was manning the phone when BA was at the center. If anybody did call, there'd be a human at the other end to ask questions and get the information they needed.
He'd already checked in with the local authorities and hospitals. Nothing there, either. The police were helpful, anyway. Especially after Murdock hinted that his friend wasn't quite "right". Put out a notice to area law enforcement to look out for Face. Murdock left them his number at the motel and BA's, just in case something came up after he left.
Murdock figured he must have talked to a hundred truckers over the last two days and yet, nothing. He stepped up to a truck that had just pulled in. This guy hadn't seen him either. But he did have a suggestion.
"Lots of these guys, they usually take to the rails, y'know. They'll hitchhike, or grab a freight, or even take a legit ride on the bus. Long as they're moving, they're happy, y'know?" A generous wad of chewing tobacco went into the man's cheek. "You go down to the yard, be careful. It's big, it's busy - and the bulls are not nice guys."
"Railroad police. Most of 'em are decent fellas, but they got enough of 'em as soon bust your head open as look at you. I've seen 'em at work, when I'd drop loads off down there. It ain't pretty. So watch your step."
"Yeah, thanks, man." Murdock smiled and wandered back to the rental car.
Murdock was starting to think he was on a fool's errand. The chances of finding Face when he had the whole state of Nebraska to look in were so close to zero it made him crazy...
He felt the train slowing, and saw the first signs of Grand Island coming into view. He got ready to jump off; he wasn't so naive as to think his free ride would be looked on benignly by the railroad.
The train had slowed down appreciably by the time it was moving into the yard, and Face had no problem climbing down the ladder and hopping off before it got into the main yard. He grinned once more as he watched it move on. He may not ever hop a freight again, but the rush had definitely been worth it. He still felt it. One day he'd tell Murdock about it.
Well, maybe he'd just write him.
He looked around, trying to figure out the quickest way out of the yard. He saw a row of warehouses off to the side. Knowing there would be truck access, he headed in their direction. He hadn't gone more than ten yards before two men stepped out from behind a storage building. They wore very official looking badges.
"Uh, no, no, just looking around. Railroads are kind of a hobby of mine." He smiled, friendly. Innocent.
"Kind of a dangerous hobby, trains. People can get hurt, messing around where they shouldn't be."
"Yeah, yeah, I suppose it could be. But, I just like to look, y'know? Well, I'll be heading out then, fellas."
"Not so fast, mister. You kinda appeared out of nowhere, didn't ya? Almost like you kinda jumped off that train that just pulled in. You know, that's illegal. And, really, really dangerous."
"Yeah, yeah, I imagine so, but I was just walking around, watching the trains. Just watching..."
He never got to finish the sentence. The two bulls seemed to swing in tandem. At least it felt that way. He was down before he had a chance to make a fist. He fought to defend himself, but each guy must have outweighed him by a good 50 pounds. They were good with their fists, even better with their boots.
He didn't know how long the beating went on. At one point he felt himself being jerked up, dragged, tossed down again. He lay on the ground, wheezing, choking on the blood running down his throat. He found himself thinking that at least it was real fucking blood this time. Then he passed out.
Somehow, Murdock couldn't see Face hopping a freight. But then, he hadn't pictured the fastidious Face hitchhiking across the country, either. At any rate, he wasn't about to report to BA that there had been one avenue that he hadn't checked out. He headed for the freight yard.
The guy had been right. The yard was huge. He parked off in a corner, by a long row of warehouses at the north end of the yard. Where the hell would you even start looking? He began along the back of the warehouses, walking close, keeping an eye out for 'bulls'. What a name. Probably appropriate. He was searching the yard for trains coming in, for guys who looked like maybe they didn't belong. Hoboes. The people who might have seen, or even met, Face if he decided to ride the rails.
It was almost an hour later. He'd moved to the other side of the yard now. Still watching for bulls or anyone else who might want to interrupt his search. Then he heard it. Moaning. Somewhere behind several stacks of wooden pallets, next to a dilapidated warehouse. Stepping cautiously around the corner of the stacks, he saw him.
He couldn't feel anything but cold. Ungodly cold. Either he was dead, or frozen. Maybe both. He let out a low moan. That was all he could manage.
"Face! C'mon, buddy, we gotta get outta here. Can you stand?"
Murdock? God, he must have really taken a beating this time. He was hearing things. Nevertheless, he tried to get up. Bad move. The world slid to one side and he found himself retching up blood.
"Geez, Face, oh God, we gotta get you to a hospital, man, they beat the shit out of you." He felt arms around him, dragging him up. It was all he could do to stand. Every move hurt like hell.
"C'mon, Face, c'mon, I brought the car, the car's right over here, not far, I promise." He was being towed slowly toward a fuzzy looking brown thing. Must be the car. Who was with him? It sounded like Murdock but that wasn't possible. Just...not...possible...
Everything spun wildly again, and he fell into the abyss...
1 Description of train hopping is liberally lifted from the article "Trainhopping", by Matthew Power for Blue: The Adventure Lifestyle, Vol 3, No. 6 (December 2000-January 2001). Used with permission.