Chapter XV: Different Jungles, Different
The jungle spread out about 500 yards from the east-west tracks in an open area surrounded by clumps of scraggy oak brush. Scattered around it were a few old car seats, a torn mattress, plenty of tin cans, grates and bricks. Two fires were going. One, tended by only one man, who I figured must be the cook, was small, glowing below a large grate on which rested three pots. The other, larger, fire was a good 20 feet from the smaller one. Four men were chewing the rag around it.
I'd had a different image of a jungle--something with big trees and a running creek or spring nearby. Here there were no trees, springs or creeks. The man tending the tin cans on the small fire noticed me. "Welcome, brother," he greeted, waving a knife in my direction. "Whatcha got?"
"Hotdogs," I replied, setting my small package down in front of him. He laid the dogs out on a flat rock, sliced them and plopped them into a five-gallon can that was stewing away.
"Let's see, now," he mused. "In that can we have some beef, some lamb, a half-pound of bacon, onions, potatoes, parsnips, cabbage, leeks, two pigs' feet--and now, five hotdogs. That should make a good mulligan."
"Is it ready yet?" shouted a man by the bigger fire.
"Hell no," the cook replied. "It's gotta simmer some more now. Take it on the slow bell. I'll let you know." He stirred again, then added a few pieces of wood to the fire. "It's time for another bucket of water, kid, and you're elected. Take this five-gallon can and go about a city block down the track there. You'll come to a brown tool shed. There's a fresh water pipe back of the shed. Bring as much water as you can carry. Make sure you turn that faucet off tight; otherwise those railroad guys might pull out that water line."
The mulligan stew was delightful. Despite the fact that two guys joined us while I was hauling the water, there was more than enough to go around. We sat or stretched out with heads propped up around the fire. These men were all older than I. What they talked about was mostly where they came from or where they were heading. Since our jungle was on Houston's west side, most of the men who passed through it were heading west. As always in my encounters with guys on the road, I learned a lot listening when they talked. Despite their various backgrounds or the difficulties they might be in, they all maintained a sense of humor, and each tried to outdo the other with their yarns. "Ever up in Casper, Wyoming?" asked a heavyset guy sitting on an old car seat.
"Yeah, think I went through there about five weeks ago," someone piped up.
"Did you stay in the jungle there, by any chance?"
"You mean that big hole about half a mile east of the city?"
"Yeah, that's the place. You know how that hole got there?"
"No. Looked to me like an old dried-up lake," the guy guessed.
"Well, lemme tell you the real story," urged the first. "About three years ago, there was a mean bastardly sheriff by the name of Kick `Em Paxton. He hated everybody. At least once a week, he'd ride out to the jungle. You never knew what time he'd show up, barge right in on you, kick over your stew pot and, if you were stretched out, kick you awake. He never arrested anyone, just whipped `em till they got on their feet and scrambled out of his sight. Many a poor guy's rib he broke."
The men shifted. Some lit corncob pipes. Grins lit most of the faces. "Well," the tale teller went on, "for a month he didn't show; most guys thought he had given up raiding the jungle. Things starting settling back to normal, with a half dozen people around at all times. One day two safe-crackers arrived in the jungle. They were old pros. They had a suitcase full of stick dynamite. They got themselves a fire going and started to boil down the sticks to make nitro. I guess they must have boiled down a pint of the stuff when someone yelled, `It's Kick `Em!' Everyone scattered in all directions, including the two safe-crackers, who ran like deer. When the sheriff walked into the jungle, it was empty. He walked from fire to fire, kicking over the tin cans that were to have been meals for the men that night. He reached the nitro, boiling away. He gave it one of his famous kicks. They say that people as far away as Douglas heard the explosion; that was 70 miles away. It broke windows up and down the main drag in Casper. People ran out into the streets scared stiff. To this day, not a single piece of Kick `Em has been found. So that's how that hole that looks like a dried lake got there."
If I ever get to Casper, Wyoming, I said to myself, I'm sure going to look up that jungle and see that hole. One of the men noticed I was wearing no socks. "You like going around with no socks?" he asked me.
"Hell, no. Someone stole my socks last night at the seamen's flophouse."
He reached into his small knapsack and handed me a rolled-up pair. "These should keep your feet warm. At the rate you're going, I'm sure you'll be on your feet pretty soon." Silence. "What?" he exclaimed. "No one laughed at that joke?"
I could have put the socks on by simply pulling my worn-out shoes up over my ankles, but I didn't. I took the shoes off and did it regularly.
The fire kept me warm during the night. Cook was up early. I woke up to the smell of fresh-brewed coffee. There was a big supply of bread. Time came for me to move out. Two men had already decided to walk through Houston and catch a train east. The other guys were in no hurry to leave. I asked about the best place to catch the train. "Walk straight down this track about two miles. You'll come to a junction line--one going right, the other left. The one you want goes straight west to San Antonio. Just before you get to that junction you'll see a paddle."
"A paddle? What's that?" I showed my inexperience.
"A paddle's a signal tower."
"Oh," I exclaimed, "the thing with all those little arms that go up and down?"
"Yeah," he told me. "That's what we call a paddle. Anyhow, stay on this side of the paddle in case the train is signaled to stop; catch it there.
It was a slow trip down those tracks. A passenger train passed me going at a good clip. She had several Pullman cars with their big windows, and a diner, where passengers were eating breakfast. I hardly had time to think about how lovely it would be to ride on a train like that when its tail-end passed, sending a gush of cool air and dust into my face. I scrambled back onto the track bed and continued my slow progress toward the paddle. The further from Houston I went, the more spaced out the homes were. Many were small ranches with a few sheep and maybe a horse or cow. I had to watch each step I took to be sure no pebbles got under my floppy shoe soles. The twine I'd used to bind the soles to the shoes had broken several times. After two hours I had covered not even half the distance. I was hot, tired and hungry. On my left were several small houses.
I knocked on the back door of the first house I reached. Chickens and a calf stood around in the backyard. No answer. At the next house I noticed some movement in a window. I knocked and a man came to the door. "Yup?" he greeted me.
"I'm willing to work for something to eat," I told him.
"Come inside," he invited, opening the door wide. Inside, lying on the floor on a large canvas sheet was a young deer with a small set of horns. It was cut up into sections, drenched in blood. "Killed this critter early this morning. Gutted him and carried him on my shoulders almost half a mile. Sit down there and I'll cut you a venison steak. Ever eat venison?"
"No, sir," I confessed. In fact, I didn't even know what the word meant, but I didn't say anything. I watched him slice off a huge hunk of meat.
"Now I'll get rid of this mess. Otherwise the flies will devour us. Give me ten minutes." He pulled up all four corners of the canvas mat and lifted it off the ground. Out the kitchen door he went.
While he was gone, I gave the place a quick scan. The number of dishes in the cupboard and the pots and pans I could see made it plain to me that this kitchen could accommodate a lot of people at one time. Maybe he had a wife and a lot of kids? I couldn't see into the living room because there was a swinging door between it and the kitchen. Two rifles leaned against the wall in one corner. Everything was neat.
The man returned. He went over to the sink and washed his hands. "Where you from, boy?" he inquired, drying his hands.
"New York?" He was surprised. "That's a mighty long way from here. What brings you to Texas?"
"Trying to find work," I explained. He took the venison steak onto the board now. With the skill of a master chef he ran the tip of the knife around its edge. He said that would stop it from curling when it was frying. In a second, the steak was on the fire. He put two cups on the table, filled them with coffee and sat down. "You'll have a good meal under your belt in a few minutes," he assured me.
"Are you a rancher?" I wondered, hoping he had a little job for me.
"Nope. I'm the local sheriff."
I almost choked on my coffee. Of all the houses to bum for something to eat! Well, I was looking for work. After this guy finished with me, I thought, I'll be working for the state of Texas for six months. Well, at least he was going to feed me before he took me to jail. That was fine. I made up my mind that whatever he fed me, I'd just sit back and enjoy it. He got up and turned the steak in the frying pan. "No," he said. "I gave up ranching ten years ago. I was jawed into taking the sheriff's job by a couple of old buddies. Ever have anyone talk and talk you into something even though your head tells you no? That's the way it happened to me. This little community used to be overrun with all kinds of crooks and varmints that were run out of Houston. They'd all come here and set up operations. Somebody had to do it, so I cleaned the place up. Made `em all leave town--except for two that didn't. I hanged `em."
He set the steak down in front of me. Then he went and got some bread and white navy beans and laid them on the table. My first bite of steak tasted funny--gamey. I rolled it around in my mouth. After the second or third piece, I set to and ate the whole thing. There's always a time to get used to new tastes.
"Yes," he was telling me, "being a sheriff ain't all it's cracked up to be. Used to be that the state would take care of burying all the darn people you'd shoot. Now them polytechnicians in Austin have changed all that. Why, every time I shoot a nigger it costs me five dollars for the box! Five dollars to bury a critter we just used to plant in the ground in the old days. How you like that?"
I was getting more nervous with each mouthful. Suppose this guy decides to shoot me? I imagined myself lying in the cold Texas ground with him standing over me, complaining that it cost him five dollars to bury me. I started gobbling my food. Whatever he had in mind for me, I decided I wasn't interested. "How's that venison?" he asked as I choked down the last piece.
"Just fine. Just plain good." I tried to whip up enthusiasm.
"Plenty deer around here. Supposed to kill `em in season. Well, when you're hungry for venison, it's always the right season! Right?"
I tried to grin, but my face felt stiff. As he was pulling back his chair to get the coffee pot off the stove, he glanced down at my feet. "Say! What in tarnation have we got here? Something wrong with your feet, boy?"
"Oh, no, sir. My shoes are worn out. I've been trying to get a new pair."
"What size are they?"
"About size nine," I told him.
"Let's see if this old pair I have in the closet will fit you." They were work shoes, fairly new. My feet would barely go into them; wow, they were tight! But once I did get my feet inside them, it sure felt good to have a whole foot enclosed. "You can wear `em. Glad they fit. Take these old things and bury `em somewhere--away from here." He was grinning.
I was assured he wasn't going to arrest me--but I didn't wait around to find out. I thanked him and lit out. By the time I reached the signal tower along the tracks, I was in abject misery. My feet were all but crying out loud in those tight shoes. I finally had to sit down and take the damn things off. I took out my knife and slit open the sides of the shoes. That gave me added width. Next I cut the fronts out of the uppers, letting my sore, imprisoned toes stick out. Then I tore my handkerchief into several long strips. I soaked them in some water and wrapped them neatly around my skinned toes. In this way I achieved a more positive frame of mind.
It was clear that if a train did come along now, it would have to be a mighty slow freight in order for me to catch it. I was in no shape to dash for any distance alongside moving cars. I sat under the only tree around, a small oak, out of the blistering sun. What if no train came along? Should I sleep here? Perhaps a small fire against the night chill would be good. What about food? Should I try going back to that group of houses? What if I ran into the sheriff again? A craving for a cigarette began working on my nerves. I had lots of cigarette papers, but no tobacco. Toward the west, as far as the horizon, there seemed to be nothing but desert. I considered working my way back to the jungle, but a quick glance at my toes squelched that idea. I looked up at the semaphore and its arms. All showed green lights. It didn't matter, because there was no train coming from either direction. Then I noticed someone coming toward me from the west. I was happy to see him because he was puffing away on a cigarette. As he drew closer, I could see that he sported a moustache in the Zapata fashion. On his back he carried a small bundle. He wore a slightly-ragged straw hat tilted at an angle. His face was covered with a few days' growth of beard. His skin was bronzed. As he came nearer, I got up and went down the track to meet him. "Buenos días, amigo," he said.
My complete Spanish vocabulary consisted of gracias, buenos días, mucho and dame. "Buenos días," I returned his greeting, adding, "Dame cigarillo?"
He reached into his coat pocket and handed me a tobacco pouch. I took out enough to roll a cigarette. "Más, más," he urged. "Take more. Take more." I took another small amount, then thanked him. He continued his journey toward Houston.
Having made myself understood in Spanish without any previous experience in the language added to the pleasure of the cigarette. I returned to my oak tree for a moment. I dozed off in the hot sun. An hour must have passed. When I awoke two other guys were sitting near the track. "Been here long?" one queried.
"At least five hours," I informed him. "Nothing came, either way."
"My timetable show a passenger train due in Houston at four," one of them told me. "From the west. There should be a freight heading west before that."
Half an hour went by. The two talked quietly while I sat contemplating the future. A click, then a second click, came from the signal tower. I glanced up just in time to see the arms change position. The light, too, had changed; it was now red. My companions also noticed. "That's our baby," one announced. "We better get further up the track if we're going to board it."
The freight train was fairly long and many of the cars were empty. Doors were open and faces stared out from several of them. In some men sat with their legs dangling, enjoying the warm sun. In the train's center, a series of cars lay with doors wide open. We made for them. We were about to climb into the first one, but two men came to the door. "This is a family," one said calmly. Then we could see three women in the car, several men and six or seven young children. The code of the road required complete respect for this situation. We moved further back and boarded an empty car that seemed clean.
"We're seeing a lot of that lately," one of the men told me. "This is the fifth family I've seen on the road."
We were on our way west. The train rambled on. There's not much to do in a boxcar. Sometimes a guy with a needle and thread will catch up on his mending; some read books or newspapers; others sit in the doorway, taking the sun and watching the world go by. Still others just lie there, catching up on sleep. We were traveling at a fairly good speed, passing small towns with whistle wailing loudly. If luck held out, we'd be in San Antonio early in the evening.
About 25 miles from San Antonio our train sidetracked to allow an eastbound passenger train to pass. Several men came aboard. They had heard that there was a train derailment west of San Antonio and nothing was moving. The San Antonio police were said to be rounding up all vagrants caught in town. The derailment had filled the city with men and women bumming restaurants and homes. The local people were apprehensive. They had demanded that the police do something, and the police had responded in the only way they know--by getting rough with unfortunates and throwing them in jail. They had issued a warning that anyone caught outside city limits was okay, but woe to anyone caught with so much as a foot inside the line.
No one had any idea how long it would take to clear the tracks of wreckage. Every train coming into San Antonio from all over the country brought dozens of new faces. The news of the wreck was shouted from car to car. For the last five miles into the San Antonio yard limits, the train crawled at about five miles an hour. The deeper we moved into the yard, the more tracks there were, from single to double to triple and more. We stopped behind another string of freight cars. "Where's the jungle?" someone wanted to know.
"About two miles down the track from here," was the reply.
We fell in behind the speaker; others fell back of us, and men, women and children climbed down from the cars. We were in a freight yard where being caught by railroad bulls could mean jail or a rap across the ass or legs with a club. Yet as the procession swelled no one seemed to care one way or the other about the railroad police. We just trudged on, passing engineers and other railroad workers who paid not the slightest attention to us. Some of us carried small bundles, a hard bag or grip; others had blankets tied in neat bundles across their backs. Many, like myself, had nothing but the clothes on their backs. There must have been 50 of us.
From the clusters of heads I saw when we reached the jungle, I estimated about 150. Our little parade raised the jungle population to over 200--men, women and children. Fires were burning; the odor of cooking was in the air. Around the water tower close by people were dipping water into tin cans. Two hundred feet from our jungle another one was developing. I spotted a small fire with three people standing around it. I headed in their direction. A gallon paint can steamed away atop a metal screen set up on three stones above the fire. I smelled coffee. "Okay if I hang around here?" I inquired.
"All right with me," one man agreed.
"You can do your share of hauling wood," suggested another.
Twenty minutes later I brought back an armful of wood. More people had moved into the new jungle. A man and woman with three boys lit another fire and stretched a piece of canvas out on the ground. "Get a can and help yourself to some Mississippi mud," joked one guy, waving us toward a steaming gallon can of coffee. It did taste like mud. With so many fires burning, the air in the camp stayed warm that night. I woke up at three in the morning, hungry. Stars twinkled in the sky. I got up and made my way to the water tower. After a quick face wash, I started slowly toward the roundhouse, a half a mile toward San Antonio. I stopped a man entering the roundhouse. "Where can a guy get something to eat?" I asked.
"City's full of restaurants," he told me.
"I mean for nothing. I'm broke."
"That holds for most of us," he said. "Look. Here's something you might try. Get to the other side of the roundhouse. It will take you out to Fort Sam Houston. If you hurry you can get there before the troopers eat."
Fort Sam Houston was a cavalry post. I didn't know the troop or horse population it maintained at the time, but I could smell the place three blocks before I saw it. When I reached the mess hall door it was still dark. Pots and pans, dishes and silverware rattled as the mess hall staff prepared the place for breakfast. "Yeah? You here to join up or to bum something to eat?" asked a trooper who met me at the kitchen door.
"Something to eat," I admitted.
"Hey, sarge," he shouted. "See that heavy-set guy over there? See him? He's in charge. I only cook the stuff; he gives it away."
Tables and chairs to feed several hundred troopers were set up. I struggled halfway across the large mess hall through the tangle. He saw me coming. "Hungry, son?" he greeted me.
"Then come with me." He led me back across the hall toward the kitchen. "Sit at this table. You have 25 minutes to stuff yourself sick. Be out of here before the bugler sounds mess call." He beckoned to a soldier close by.
Within 20 minutes I had eaten my fill, stuffed my pockets with bread, thanked the mess sergeant and departed. The sky lightened in the east. A block away I heard the bugler blowing reveille. I had to get back to the railroad tracks and into the jungle quickly before every policeman in town woke up and started hunting down vagrants. With a full stomach and a pocket full of bread, I felt good. Maybe I ought to join the cavalry! No, I didn't feel like playing nursemaid to a horse. Not now, at any rate.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One