The night’s cold air started to slip down my collar and surround the back of my neck. Perspiration from walking wet my back and shirt and only made the chill worse. I pulled my hands from my armpits and slapped them together, warming them by rubbing them back and forth. I cupped them then brought them to my mouth and blew in warm, humid air from my lungs. It felt good – it felt better when I stowed them back into the pockets of my Levies.
Far up the tracks I could see a tiny light off and to the right of the rails. It was moments like these that I always took the utmost care to maintain a level of inconspicuousness, a difficult thing to do when walking upon the course gravel of the railroad ballast. I rode my heels down the side of ballast to the opposite side of where the fire seemed to be and walked the trail that skirted the tracks. As I neared the light I could see from a distance that it was a small fire. I closed-in further. I could smell what smelled like burnt bread and cigarettes. Now parallel to the small fire, I hunkered low on the opposite side of the tracks and I slowly crawled up the ballast to the ties and rails, my pack upon my back. I could see a large man sitting on a metal bucket next to a small fire made from none but kindling and small branches.
As noted, this moment was always one of uncertainly. Great care must be taken within these next crucial few moments. As one can never immediately establish if the person they observe in the dark is friend or foe, one must take caution and maintain the element of surprise at his or her disposal. Robberies occurred along these tracks nearly every night in nearly every leg within nearly every state. The old timers will tell you about having their last fifty-five cents taken from them at gun point, or even their only bottle of rotgut yanked from their hands as they slept along the rails.
I watched the large man for a few moments. His back was to the rails but I could easily determine that he was indeed a large gentleman, perhaps 150 pounds superior than I. He sat upon his bucket and coached the fire along with a short stick. Within his reach was no long gun that I could see. Safe so far, yet a knife or even a revolver or pistol is easily stashed within a waste line and concealed by a coat. There was a small, blackened pan sitting next to the fire and two cans next to it. Nearer to the bucket rested the man’s pack and fishing pole with tackle. On top of the pack were two or three books – medium-sized, paragraph books – most likely containing no illustrations. “A literate man,” I thought to myself. Still, the sheer stature of the gent paired with the number of unknowns motivated me to move on.
From my stomach I shifted to get my knees underneath me; however, the weight of my pack shifted to the left and I fell to the side and onto my shoulder. All would have been flawless, but my metal cup secured to the inside of a small aluminum cooking pot within my pack announced my presences like a schoolyard bell. I rolled quickly to my stomach and held my breath. The man jumped from his metal bucket and spin around upon his heels. He squinted at the rails in the dark with eyes previously adjusted to the firelight. He snatched up his fishing rod and held it aloft like a knight yielding a sword.
I froze; I scarcely breathed fearing the fog from my breath would give away my position. He scanned the darkness in front of him.
“If there’s one think I know,” he yelled “it’s the sound of a train-hopper’s mess pot! C’mon out, but if’yur lookin’ fer’ trouble or lookin’ t’rob a’fella, you picked the wrong boy I tell ya!”
I was unsure what to do. I remained for what seemed like an eternity contemplating my options. If I scurried he’d likely catch me and shoot or stab me … without doubt, assail me with is fishing pole. Though If I responded I might be able to talk my way out of being robbed or murdered.
“Here…” I announced. My throat horse and scarcely audible, “Here!” I said again more clearly.
“Here, right here” I said, waving my hand and getting to me knees and feet. I forced a half smile so as to show I meant neither harm nor trespass.
“Well… there y’are! Ya’nearly had me up a tree captain! Ya’can come closer captain, I only bite the ladies!”
He lowered his fishing rod and tossed it back towards the tackle. He bent and slapped both his knees with his hands.
“Whew!” he said, “I tell ya, a man can have a heart attack when his mind gets to playin’ tricks on him in the dark. What in’the hell was ya’doing laying on the ground captain?” He laughed.
“I huh” I was now rather embarrassed by my tactics. “I didn’t know who you were and I’ve heard of so many folks getting held up and outright killed that I figured it’d be best If I just… well, watched you for a moment I suppose. BUT! I meant to be on my way! I certainly didn’t wish to disturb you and such.”
“Nonsense captain, Purse nonsense!” He bellowed, smiling from ear to ear. “I may look a might’unapproachable but I’m no menace, I assure you that.”
“Well, as I said, I certainly don’t wish to intrude on your…”
“Claptrap captain! C’mon sit’er down for a minute! Did’ja eat yet?”
“No sir” I said ashamed.
“D’have any money?”
“No sir, I don’t” and it was the truth, I didn’t.
“Well hell captain, neither do I!” His chest bounced up and down as he laughed an enormous laugh. “I aint got much but what’ I have yer welcome to some… Though, I think I burned the devil outta’ my pan bread! Oh well! Name’s Thomas Jeremiah Horton! …Thomas to my’ma; Thom to the ladies; Mr. Horton to folks’who owe me money; and, ‘Burly Thom’ to folks I like! YOU can call me ‘Burly Thom’!”
As I approached, Burly Thom stuck his hand out. I shook it and instantly took note of his massive forearm as he squeezed my hand, not hard but firm enough to provide one with an initial notification that this man, though a gentleman, could eat them with nary a trouble.
“You got a name captain?”
“Lawrence Webb, Larrys fine though”
“Well okay Larry!”
Burly Thom slapped me on the shoulder with his cupped hand as he invited me to sit down. He handed me his bucket, suggesting that it was extremely useful for holding all types of but “most useful for holding a tired man’s bottom after a long day.” I positioned the metal bucket near the small fire. Burly Thom disappeared into the dark and returned a few seconds later with a large rock, a boulder in the eyes of some, but a rock to burly Thom. He placed it down across from me and settled down upon it.
With the fire light that beamed into Burly Thom’s face I could now make out the details of his disposition. He was indeed a much larger man in the light than in the dark. Though not obese by any means, he was big, robust, and brawny. He had a thick, dark red beard with hints of gray near the corners of his mouth and chin. His face, already wide, seemed wider, almost bear-like, with this beard. His hair, also of the same dark red, was kept in a neat, side-combed crew cut. He seemed to glow in the firelight. He hardly spoke without smiling, and when he did his beard lifted at the sides and cheekbones, nearly covering his eyes as they squinted. He wore a tired blue flannel shirt, cuffed at the wrists, under his bib overalls, and he wore large, well-worn lumberjack boots. I cannot emphasis “large” any more than to say that Burly Thom must have had to special ordered these boots from a special catalog that supplied such mammoth footwear.
“I’m ‘fraid I burnt this bread here,” he said holding up the pan and smiling “the top’s prolly good but I didn’t put enough lard in the pan and the bottom got stuck in good and burnt up before the damn thing baked! I got two cans of beef stew though… would’ja like one?”
“Oh, I couldn’t eat your chow Burly Thom, but I appreciate the offer” I said trying to be polite. I was hungry, but I didn’t wish to eat this man’s meager food.
“Nonsense captain, as you can see” said Burly Thom slapping the sides of his round belly, “I can afford to eat a little less! Hell, might even be good fer’ me! Now you captain, well, you’re sorta scrawny-like, and I wouldn’t might the company fer’dinner… you like canned stew?”
“Yes sir, I believe I do.”
“Well there we have it!” He said slapping his knee “then this one’s yours fer’the takin’! On me!”
“If you insist Thom, Thank you, I’d be honored to eat with’ya. I appreciate your hospitality.”
“Think nothing of it… Ya got a’spoon?”
“Yes sir; and, as I said, I don’t have any money – be glad to pay ya if I did – but I do have about three-quarters left in a bottle of port? If you’re so inclined to have drink with me?”
“Port! Well now, NOW you’a speakin’ my kinda language Larry!”
I set down the can of stew and reached into my pack for the bottle that I’d purchased in Truckee with my last 90 cents. Burley Thom smiled into the sky as he sat eating his stew. As he chewed he closed his eyes and swallowed down slowly each bite. He was hungry, and he must have envisioned the port warming his belly.
“Oh now this is indeed a surprise, a little more than three-quarters full!” I announced holding the bottle up like a trophy. I worked the cork from the top.
“Now that’s even better!” Said Burly Thom scurrying to where his belongings lay in the grass next to the fire. He secured an aluminum canteen cup and tapped it against his leg. Then he bent down low next to the fire so as to allow the light to shine within the cup. He peered in to examine. He placed two of his large fingers into the cup and ran them around the edge and bottom to clear it of debris or critters. Satisfied, he thrust his large arm forward and smiled in anticipation.
“That’ll do just fine Larry” Burly Thom said as the port neared the rim of his cup “just fine indeed! I thank’ye!”
“No, no,” I said “Thank you for the stew and for the company.”
Burly Thom cupped the sides of his canteen cup with both hands and lifted it to nose. His mustache bent upwards as he smelled in the ports aromas. He closed his eyes again and smiled, nodding in agreement. He brought his cup to his lips and sipped a slow, short sip. As he lowered his cup he sat for several seconds with his eyes closed and, conceivably, reflected upon the Portuguese grapes, hints of charcoal, purple vineyards, and sunburnt farmers working the soil in an effort to provide him this wondrous moment.
“I do like this,” whispered Burly Thom, “and I surely appreciate your bringing it out!”
“Oh, yes sir, d’ya like it?”
“Yes sir captain, I do enjoy me some port.” He paused and settled the canteen cup between his knees “I’m from Sacramento originally, never had port there, but I had it for the first time down in “Sanfran… you ever been to Sanfran Larry?”
“Just through a couple of times, yes.”
“Sanfran is a little to big fer’ me Larry… folk’s are moving along way to fast down there n’all.”
“Nope, I agree Thom. It’s a complete mess.”
“Where ya’headed Larry?” Burly Thom asked.
It is at this point that this point that I shall make mention that folks who travel the railway circuit never quite have a destination, per se, they just keep going. To suggest that one is going to Minneapolis to find work, Lodi to find a rich uncle, or D.C. to locate a girl is simply unacceptable. Rather, one simply suggests his or her next tangible or otherwise realistic destination.
“Oh, Colfax onto Stockton or Davis I suppose. I hopped a sorta peculiar leg of the U.P. up in Klamath Falls that took me into Nevada, Reno specifically. Wouldn’t mind getting down into Napa and hopping that U.P leg up into Eureka, head back north. Not sure. And you?”
Burley Thom slowly pulled the canteen cup from his lips and looked up at the darkened sky.
“Well, I been pissing around this old tree for a few years Larry” Burley Thom laughed. I could see the port had started to fill his head a tad “Hell, I’m wanting t’settle down some place, maybe find me a’gal, have a boy and a girl. BUT, there’s much to do sir, much to do out here yet. This whore of a railway has got a few more rider left in her fer me!”
“How old are you Burly Thom?”
“Oh, 32, maybe 35,” he laughed again and slapped his knee “I stopped considerin’ time and distance for a great many years now. Pacing-off the years until I get’ me tilled into this here dirt is not something I concern myself with.” Burly Thom stabbed the ground in the shadow of his rock and smiled. “How old are you Larry?”
“I am 32 years old… I’m certain of that,” I laughed “I see we’re no kids Thom”
“No sir, you’re right about that! Think we’d have this program nailed down tight b’now!” He pointed at me and I agreed with him.
“You have family out this way Thom?” I asked.
“Well, that’s kinda’a long story…” he sighed, “I was’a sorta forsaken, you could say, when I was three or four. Never knew my ma and my pa had turned-in ‘round ‘96, but an Aunt took me under. She didn’t much care for children, ‘cept for her own, and, well, she left me with a drunk preacher in Utah ‘round ‘98. Spent me some time there ‘till I ran off when I was ‘bout 10, I guess. Then I landed me a free ticket to the trenches of France when the Great War hit in 1918, think I was about 16 or 17. Found me a family in my Army brothers… hell, lost me a lot of family in my Army brothers too!” Burley Thom released a forged laugh this time, “Truth is, I’m just sorta try’na find my way… same as everybody… ‘Cept, I been lookin’ for so long now I’m not sure there’s a way that’s meant to be found!” He smiled and pulled a sip from his cup. “Hey listen, leme tell’ya about this old Shoshone Indian fella I met down in Wyoming, in fact, I got me this very pocket knife from him!” he held the knife aloft, “I was digging ditches for roadside culverts in Yellowstone of all places and…”
Burly Thom flung his arms into the air as he spoke into the night. He could get very few words across without smiling and laughing. He was unassuming yet no simpleminded gentleman; rather, he was a gentleman of every sense of the word: gentleman. He informed that after the war he had hopped a long run of the Union Pacific out of Rawlins, after working in Yellowstone as a road builder. He found himself in Portland with no money, no connections, and no idea as to what the next moments held. He told me little about his pa but much about his interests in Wild West serials in the Saturday Evening Post. The night was filled with his stories and getting a word in edgewise was slim-to-none: exactly what I needed at this stage.
“Yes sir, whoever wrote that story HAD to have been a real frontiersman in the Wild West. Why, there aint no way he could’a know about them things otherwise!!” Burley Thom pushed his chin forward and smiled at me. He awaited my response.
“Jesus Christ All Mighty Thom, you’re had yourself one helluva life!! You need to write a book!”
“And you’re not foolin’ Larry!”
We laughed. We both stared into the embers of the small fire still glowing between us, warm and comforting. Burley Thom looked into the starry night once again. He hunched his shoulders forward and cupped tighter the canteen cup with his hands. Unquestionably, scenes of the foreign barrages, Wild West maidens, and unending pathways danced within the clearings of his thoughts. He possessed an indescribable optimism and sanguinity.
“Thom, what do you have planned for the coming few weeks?”
“Oh, push on I guess. Heard there’s some folks hiring hands on farms down Stockton-way myself. I might try for a strong-back job if I can. Is that why you’re headed out that way?”
“Not sure, North or Stockton I guess!” I laughed uncertain, “You really out of clams too Thom?”
“Got me this fishing pole!” He jokingly held up the rod that he nearly struck me with, “It’s put a whole helluva a lot of creek bluegills in this here belly! …It’s just like money!”
“Say no more friend!”
“You really got no money too?”
“If I had, I would’a bought something better to share than that ole’ sour gut port to go with your stew!”
“Nonsense, nonsense. Well, I’m flat busted, you’re flat busted… I aint too smart, but I can work hard! What say you’n me put two parts of nothing together and make like a team for a little while?”
“Well… I am in debt to you for a can of stew!” I said sitting up and offering my hand out to Burley Thom.
Burley Thom shook my hand with yet a second amazing episode of force. As he smiled his cheeks shined with the moonlight. We spoke long into the evening and agreed to see what the next day or two brought for us both. Burley Thom laughed and laughed and cased me to laugh so much so that my stomach ached with the overexertion of muscles.
“Weeeell” Burley Thom announced at last, stretching his massive arms up and out to his sides, “I think that just about does it for me Larry. ‘Do believe this ole ports doing me a sleepy justice!”
“I think you’re right Thom.”
“Ima catch me a few of them sheep tryna jump my fence Larry, but I tell ya what, if you see or hear anything in the night just holler.”
“Will do Thom.” I said feeling secured by the presence of this powerful individual.
I untied my bedroll from the top of my pack and unrolled it near the fire. I pulled out an old sweater from my pack and refolded it into a neat pillow. The bedroll was cold and slightly damp, but I was happy to lie down and rest within. Within moments the heat from the small fire warmed the left side of my legs under the wool blankets. I placed my hands under my head and listened to Burley Thom, already fast asleep, snore into the fire-lit night. I felt secure, I felt befriended, but most of all I felt as if I had some direction.
The fire crackled near imperceptibly under the hum of the crickets in the tall grass along the edge of the Union Pacific railway line.
To be Continued…
From The Surfing Beatnik
.::Year of the Dragon Entry::.