Published by The Penmen Review, one of five finalists for the SNHU Fall Fiction prize
We’re waiting to hop a freight. The bulls almost caught us an hour ago, so we’re far from the switching yards, beyond the floodlights. We’ll have to be nimble to jump a train this far down: It will have gathered speed.
Boarding even a slow-lumbering freight takes nerve and good timing. I’m young and confident. I have no idea how nimble Harry is. Looks rangy and fit, but at least twenty years older. Garrulous. And a chain smoker. I can see his eyes in the glow of the cigarettes. Not squinting against the smoke. Not blinking, either. His eyes holding mine like a laser.
“Scorpions,” he says, “are worse than rattlesnakes.”
He told me about the rattlesnakes when we met, a few hours ago, in a diner outside the yards. A couple of stools down the cracked Formica counter from me, he ordered a bowl of chili. I could have ordered a meatloaf supper with pie and ice cream for dessert, but I’m careful about showing much money, let alone my credit card or wallet. With second helpings of crackers and tomato ketchup, a bowl of chili can quiet a complaining belly. I ordered chili, too, and moved to the stool beside him.
The chili was a good move: He recognized me as a kindred soul, or at least as one taking a train trip without tickets, and suggested we move to an empty booth where we could talk. In a railroad town, you never know who’s going to drop a dime on you; the bulls pay people to spot hoboes.
Harry, headed to Des Moines, had scoped out a long freight due to drop off a few cars here about 11:00 tonight. If we were extra-lucky it would then make a water tower stop, in which case it wouldn’t have picked up much speed when it got to us. Then it would go straight on through, he said.
I’m headed to visit friends in the East. Des Moines would be a nice long ride in the right direction. With any kind of luck, we could find a half-full boxcar left unlocked, or even an empty. Failing that, an ore or gravel hopper car — open, but out of the wind.
You hear about riding the rods as a rite of passage for hoboes. That’s an urban legend: The rods are a narrow perch under the floor of a car, and you don’t dare sleep. If you had a choice, you wouldn’t ride there even on a warm night. This is a long way from a warm night.
Harry told me he grew up in Phoenix. In a house that wasn’t much more than a shack, he said, at the foot of Camelback Mountain. “Nothing there now but fat-cat mansions, gated to keep out the likes of me.” At the time, though, there was nothing on top of Camelback except rocks and poisonous desert critters.
“We went up after school to catch rattlesnakes, my school buddy and I. Pin ‘em behind the head with a long forked stick, y’know, then grab ‘em by the neck, and throw ‘em into a burlap bag. Rattlesnakes won’t strike through a bag. You could throw the sack over your shoulder, perfectly safe.
“Why?” I asked.
Because a laboratory in Phoenix bought rattlers. Made anti-snakebite serum. “Milked ‘em, y’know. Made ‘em strike, and caught the venom in a lab bottle. The fangs are like hypodermics, y’know?”
“I read that somewhere,” I said. “They can make more venom and strike again, right? So they could probably milk them more than once.”
“Mebbe. I never asked. Anyway, they paid us a buck a snake. Damn good money back then. One afternoon we caught 25 rattlers.” He took his momma and sister and brother out to supper. A diner, nothing fancy, but their first meal out in a long time. “My dad wasn’t around. He came and went.” Sometimes his father was in jail. “Momma went to visit him if it wasn’t too far.” For a moment, his eyes lost that hard look.
I hop a freight to get from one place to another, mostly visiting friends, because it makes me a romantic character. My friends expect me to show up looking like a coal bin, and exhaust the hot water in their shower, lathering and scrubbing. Then we’ll go out to a bar, or on a blind date. Not many girls can resist the charm of a clean hobo.
But there are men riding the rails who are on the run from a place where they’re wanted. Or maybe looking for marks along the way. You can’t be too careful. “You done any time yourself, Harry?” I asked back at the diner.
“Not yet,” he said.
The Des Moines freight ought to be here soon. Harry goes on with his Camelback reminiscences. “I prefer rattlesnakes,” he says. “They’ll tell you where they are, y’know? Coil up and rattle.”
“Scorpions,” I offer, “like to sleep in your boots, so you have to knock them hard every morning before you put a foot in.”
“Well, that too, but in daytime they’ll curl up under a rock. If you sit down to rest, or even put your hand down to catch your balance, there they are. You gotta keep a sharp eye for ‘em.” He pauses to light another cigarette from the stump of the last. “Funny thing about scorpions. If they’re in danger enough, they commit suicide.”
He is looking at me with those hard eyes again. To see if I’m shocked, maybe. If I’m a candy kid.
I manage not to look away. “Oh, c’mon,” I say.
“God’s truth. My snake-hunting buddy showed me. Caught one, put it on a sheet of newspaper, struck a match and lit all four corners. When the flames came lickin’ up, it curled into a ball and stuck itself in the head.”
As it happens, I heard that story somewhere, and Googled it. Another urban legend. Scorpions can’t regulate their body heat. As temps rise, they suddenly dehydrate and curl up in spasms. No way I’d let on knowing that, though. “Suicide?” I ask.
“Yep, deliberate,” he insists, staring at me. “Their stinger is in the tail, y’know? You could see the stinger spear the skull. By the time the fire could got near, it was dead. At least dead enough it couldn’t feel the fire.”
Harry is confident in that misguided knowledge because incinerating scorpions became a pastime. “I always brought some old newspapers, and matches. Some days I’d catch two or three. Fricassee ‘em, and watch ‘em stab themselves to death. More fun that catching rattlers.”
We don’t have time to talk further. The headlight of the big diesel locomotive slowed to a stop a few minutes ago, down in the middle of the yards, and we heard the clank of couplings being unhitched. Now it’s starting our way, and not stopping for water.
You have to stay in the shadows as long as possible, so the bulls won’t see you, and then run like hell to get alongside the train. If it’s slow enough, you can pick your car, but when it’s getting up to speed you just grab any handhold you can find, and yank yourself aboard.
Harry turns out to be good. He sails aboard as smooth as if he had a gangplank. I know, because at the last minute I pull up to watch him, and then duck back into the shadows as the caboose rumbles by.
A man who talks hard-eyed about torturing scorpions doesn’t sound like good company on a long ride. Not if you want to sleep along the way.