Oregon wind cutting the riders deep, whispering her secrets to them; their death, perhaps?
The Train Riders
The ride takes place on a cold January morning. The train gently rocked and rolled through a mountain pass somewhere in the southern Oregon mountains. Hawk was busy chipping away at a 2x4 making some small kindling for morning coffee, the morning sun not yet visible trough the forest that surrounded them on all sides.
This trip had been going on for somewhere around eighteen hours now. They caught the first train in New Mexico and switched off in southern California. Tramp stretched as he tried to win the tug of war match he waged with his muscles every morning; they screamed their presence to him as if demanding a rightful place in his existence. Tramp felt every bruise, every knot and bump. This would be his last ride, he told himself as he attempted to shake off the cold penetrating down through his entire body; making its home deep in his bones, refusing to be evicted. No more after this one, he thought again as he wished Hawk would hurry up with that fire.
They did all of their cooking on an old military field stove. Folded up, it was no bigger than a small sheet of paper and so light it made for easy packing and carrying. Not that either rider had much anyway. You learned quick out here to carry only what you needed to survive and leave the rest for the spoiled who had it all anyway.
They were heading for InformationFalls, Oregon. Known to Train Riders as K-Falls. These Rail-Riders were a dying breed. The bulls tended to shoot on sight and ask questions later. Or you got a ticket so large you could never pay it back so you shook your head and moved on. How did they expect a guy to get around anyways? Sure there was danger riding the Trains. Both Tramp and Hawk knew plenty of fellow riders who had lost a leg from missing a jump on or off the moving monster. Railroad spikes were used to hold the boxcar doors open. They would be pounded in the slider track using a second spike as a hammer; many men had lost a hand trying to stop the 1200 lbs door from closing in on them if the spike gave way, their hand being crushed by the weight of the door or even torn from their body. Some had even lost their lives either to the trains or, if they managed to survive the ride, the elements got them sure enough. Not many men knew how to survive the elements. At night, in the desert, it can freeze you out; and during the day fry the skin right off you.
Thankfully, this ride was coming to an end. It had been a cold, hard trip and Tramp was ready to retire the ride.
Tramp sat in the door of the boxcar, sipping on the morning coffee, watching the light of the morning’s dawn peek through the whites of the treetops, shimmering down upon creation, as they wove their way through the Oregon mountain range. Tramp felt small as he gazed out at the wonder before him; never two sunrises ever the same…the car gave a sudden, terrible lurch. Behind him Hawk went sprawling and Tramp nearly fell off his bedroll that he used as his seat when rolled up, spilling some of his precious morning hot-brew. He thought for sure he was going to fall head over heels out the door and down into the deep canyon they were passing through at the moment.
“What the hell was that?” Hawk wondered out loud, as he regained his balance and surveyed the mess that was created. As he stomped out the scattered embers of his morning task, mumbling about not having his cup of morning coffee yet and vowing to make up for that as soon as he knew what was going on, they both noticed the train slow considerably.
As the morning snow fell from the tree-laden sky, both Tramp and Hawk knew they were being dropped in this barren, cold region. They both knew the tales of train riders who had been unhooked from the train and left where they were dropped. Sometimes the car, or cars, could sit for a month or more before another team of engines picked it up. The irony of the cars being left like this always amused Tramp, until this morning. The abandoned cars were much like their hitchhikers; the abandoned part of the train that was left behind was headed for a different part of the country. It was hitching a ride as they were for as long as it lasted, trying to get to its final destination. The riders knew this could be real trouble.
Tramp began to inventory their gear and supplies: they both had about three days water and food if they kept their eating down to one meal a day, with a small snack at some point through the evening. And they could afford to have their morning coffee and some in the evening. But they would have to cut out their afternoon coffee break they liked to indulge in, adding a joint to adding a joint to the ante when it was available.
The gear that these men carried was considered high by the standards of the regular class tramp. Hawk and Tramp had to watch consistently for robbers and the sort, as other men would literally kill for the gear that these riders carried. Their packs were their trademarks.
Each of the men sported a Kelty mountain pack. Tramp’s was a frame pack, capable of carrying a maximum of about a hundred pounds of food, water and other supplies. Hawk, also with a top-line Kelty, carried what was called a frameless pack. It was also a nice piece of equipment, but not able to accept the load of the other rider’s, but far above the norm, nonetheless.
Most train riders rode with near nothing. Such men were known as Stream-Liners. This breed of rider never lasted long and would be forced to retire in short time due to not being able to handle the physical demands that came with riding the rails. The chance of a less equipped rider surviving the elements Tramp and Hawk now faced, for more than a night, would have been slim to say the least. Hell, Tramps bedroll alone weighed in at about 40 lbs., which was far more than the average rider’s entire pack.
The train slowed over the next mile or so and finally creaked and moaned to a halt. The air was crisp and with the train at a full stop, the riders could hear the quietness of the mountain; Heaven for a man seeking solitude, death for the ill prepared….
Not being able to do much, Hawk went back to shaving the 2x4 for more coffee while Tramp busied himself with a morning joint. Neither man drank much, although when they did drink it usually lasted a day or two and then there was a day or two of resting up as they nursed their hangovers. But for the most part they stuck to their coffee and pot. It also helped in the way of security. Neither man would touch a drop of alcohol while on the rode or traveling by train. The lack of control and hard sleep that comes from that kind of indulgence had been the undoing of more than one traveler. No, this team understood the seriousness of their lifestyle and respected the boundaries that others ignored.
After about an hour of non-activity, there was another lurch and series of moans from the train. Then the first half went on it’s way, leaving the remaining thirty to thirty-five cars, including Tramps and Hawks, behind for a spell until the right train, going in their direction would come along to hook up and take them to their destination. There was nothing to do now but dig in and wait.
As the day wore on, a storm began to develop and intensified to the point of whiteout conditions. The riders had just finished the only meal they would eat that day. It was a hot bowl of oatmeal and some more coffee to warm the bones. After dinner, while Tramp was rolling another joint, Hawk pulled out of his pack a hidden bottle of whiskey from his pack. Looking up at Hawks prompting, Tramp couldn’t help but smile. They would not have to fear anyone coming up on their car this night; they couldn’t even get out if they wanted to. And now they would sleep well, blizzard or no blizzard. Hawk broke the seal of the brown colored liquid and took a pull. Shuttering, he handed the bottle over to his partner. With the snow still falling and the wind howling as if it had something to say to these men, it just didn’t seem as cold as it was a few minutes earlier.
Tramp was the first up the next morning and what he saw brought him out of his drunken sleep with a start. Their boxcar had taken in snow over the night and the drift had filled half the car. He woke Hawk and they stared at their situation with an icy knot in their bellies to match the cold of the morning. How much longer would they have to weather their situation before another train came to get them out of the mountain? The situation before them was daunting as they crawled from their bedrolls and slipped their boots on to begin another day of waiting and surviving the cold of the storm that had showed no signs of letting up. Tramp began the chore of morning coffee while Hawk relieved himself out of what was left of the room at the mouth of the boxcar door. The fire felt good on Tramps hands and face as the brew began to heat up and promise a warm belly to begin the day with. He doctored his first cup with three shots of the remaining bottle of whiskey and sipped it as he cooked his partner’s first cup of the day.
They didn’t bother rolling their bedrolls up as they did not know if they would need them to help stay warm through the day. The men did what they always did during any real downtime: they inventoried and straightened out the gear. It was more a habit than a necessity but there was little else to do and at least they were occupied with doing something. Hawk pulled out a small transistor radio and tried to pull in a signal but there was too much steel for a signal to get through. They got bits and pieces of a local news channel but no weather report was included with the static. Frustrated with the constant hissing and broken dialogue Hawk gave up and put the radio up.
The men climbed into their bedrolls to wait the cold out. Morning rolled into the afternoon and the men could not stay in their beds any longer. The silence was heavy as each rider was deep in thought. There was nothing much to say about their situation; complaining would change nothing. They took turns shaving more wood to get their space heater going and ignored their new rule about no afternoon coffee. A small fire burnt in the stove as they worked at their task, at least there was plenty of wood left for them to use. All of a sudden Hawk jumped up with a start and ran to the boxcar door. Tramp, confused, joined his partner alert to potential danger. Sure enough, however faint, they could hear the blessed sound of an engine in the distance!
It had been at least eighteen hours since the riders were dropped and left in this cold, barren white wasteland. Tramp was beginning to doubt whether they would make it out of this ride alive; it was so cold….
With each passing moment, as their friend approached them, the mood got lighter. It took another twenty minutes for the three engines and the tail of about twenty-five freight cars to reach them; it passed on a track running parallel to them and faded off into the distance. The engines were looking for the switch track, which would allow the lead train to align itself on the same track as their car. This process took about another hour As the lead team backed up to the parked line the men could hear a repeated “bang-rack” sound as the two lines joined to form one monster; Bang-rack, bang-rack as each car awoke to follow its new Master. When the Rider’s car was joined to the line, it sounded as if a bomb went off in their car. There was a loud crash, followed by a violent lurching that seemed to shake the world as the connection was now made. Both men were safely on the floor, sitting on their bedrolls; the only scare coming when the door of their car threatened to slam shut as the railroad tie keeping the door open, pounded down by Tramp at the beginning of the ride, shot out of its place like a bullet and the door lurched about 3 feet from it’s place. If the door had shut, Tramp and Hawk would have been in a freezing coffin. More than one rider died (especially in the desert heat) from a boxcar door slamming shut on them and laughing its dark laugh as it trapped its victims and ate them alive. But thankfully the door just threatened to keep them for itself and stopped well short of sealing their fate.
As the train pulled away and the men knew they were on their way to a warm shower, hot meal, and a clean bed, Tramp once again thought to himself, “This will be my last ride. From now on it’s the highway.” Tramp had been roaming the country for nearly 18 years; maybe it was time to make his way home… Maybe. He was so tired….
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