SIDETRACKED - DAVID PRICE
I want to tell you up front. This story ain’t gonna be cute or tricky or end with a surprise twist, except that I’m here to tell it to you. If you are in the mood to read a real story that tells it just like it went down, keep reading. I know it's real cause it happened to me.
There are people in this world you really don’t ever want to meet. You can avoid an awful lot of grief by just knowing when you are in over your head. You know, shit like never take a canoe ride with Burt Reynolds in the piney woods of Georgia and never stop in the neighborhood of 18th St. in South L.A. after midnight and ask for directions. Stuff that cries, “You should have known better.”
Well, that was me sixteen years ago. Looking for some adventure and a cool tale to tell, I stepped into a pile of shit that almost swallowed me. I’ll carry the scars for the rest of my life. And, yes, I should have known better.
It was 1993. I’d been working at my job as an accountant for a large law firm in L.A. for twenty years. My marriage fell apart the year before. She cleaned me out good. See, in California, if your marriage lasts ten years, it’s called a long-term marriage. The spouse is entitled to half of everything. I’d worked my ass off so she could play Junior League with her girlfriends. When we finally hit the wall, she had never been employed and she got the house and alimony. In short, I was living in a dump with only enough money to squeak by.
Waa. Waa. You get the picture. I spent my time working and working out. I got through college at a Big Ten school on a wrestling scholarship. As a heavyweight, I made my mark. I was second in the Big Ten championship my senior year.
I’d trimmed down since but I still went 235 lbs. on a 6’ 2” frame. For exercise, I just hit the weights and wrestled some with the local JC team. My strength and wrestling background worked well. I loved to free style. Nobody could work me over, even at my age.
I’m telling you this because my background is the only reason I’m here today. That and my trusty Buck Kalinga. I didn’t choose this knife by accident. I did my research.
I wanted a personal knife that I could depend on for self defense during my upcoming vacation. I needed quality, strength, balance and a blade I could shave with and I got it.
So that’s my background and here’s my story.
I was coming up on a little seven day vacation on a very limited budget. I was looking for an adventure, something to shake me out of my rut. I’d always been fascinated by stories of the down-and-outers who rode the freight trains in the ’30s and ’40s like Woody Guthrie.
I started planning it weeks in advance. I figured I’d ride the freights north to Seattle and cut over to Spokane. I’d live off the food I could carry. Meet some colorful hobos. Maybe spend a night or two in a hobo camp. I’d have some stories to tell. A great adventure. Yeah, same sentiments as Lord Chelmsford when he crossed into Zulu land on his way to Isandlwana.
To get ready, I studied the rail schedules and mapped the routes of the freights. No passenger trains here. I also let my beard grow for two weeks so I could fit the part. I bought some used pants, boots and a well-worn winter coat.
I even slept in them and then placed them under a bush for three days to give them that well-worn look.
I put one change of underwear, socks, camping supplies, food and a sterno cooker in a ratty backpack I’d had for years. All this and my Buck Kalinga in her nice little custom sheath strapped to my waist.
Had to start this deal at night down in the train yards at Union Station. Seemed simple enough, just find a freight car with an unlocked door and jump in. Well on that night I wasn’t so lucky. Took me a while but I found a freight train about to head north. While checking for a door that would open, a voice from the top of a car yelled down, “Be quiet, dumbshit, or the bulls’ll hear you.”
I looked up to see a head peek over the top of the car. I said, “How do you get in?”
“Sometimes you don’t. Climb the ladder on the end but hurry up about it and be quiet.”
I found the ladder and climbed up and there he was. He looked to be 70 but he later told me he was 48.
He told me to lay flat and not make a sound. The train was to leave in an hour. I lay there in silence as the air turned cold. I was ten feet from him in the open but I could smell him like we were in the same phone booth.
We rode for several hours. Once underway, we made our way to a flat car where we set up. We talked a bit. He’d been living life on the margin for twenty years and his dental hygiene was testament to it.
I tried to give him a cover story about being unemployed and living on the street. He saw right through me. He said, “Bullshit, you’re a white collar chump doing a weekender. I’ve seen you guys before. You’re bigger than most.”
I said nothing.
He said, “I’m getting off in Emeryville. If you want a hot meal, follow me, but you better have something to put in or they’ll run you out or worse.”
“What do you mean, or worse?”
“Ever heard of FTRA?”
“No, what’s that?”
“Freight Train Riders of America. They are some hombres you don’t want to meet and, if you do, you better hope all they do is rob you.”
I projected myself into my role and said, “What the fuck you talking? You got some kind of hobo gang?”
“Well, smart ass, that ain’t the half of it. You’ll know ’em if you ever see ’em. They have ways to measure a man. If they think you have anything they want, they’ll either jump your ass right then or they’ll wait til you sleep and you’ll never wake up.”
“Horseshit. Ain’t no such thing.”
“Just wait. The direction you’re headin, you got a good chance to find out.”
“Yeah, sure. They got jackets like the Angels and the Mongols?”
“No, the only sign you’ll ever see is a black kerchief around their neck held on by a silver concho. If you see it, move on pronto.”
“Alright, Jack, you’ve warned me. Now let me tell you something. Me, I’m a past member in good standing of the Buckeyes. Don’t ever come to Columbus talking your shit or you’ll see what bad is all about. A word of advice, never fuck with a Buckeye.”
He laughed. I have to admit I kinda liked him. He offered me a toke of his Lucky Strike. I passed.
As the train slowed coming into a switching yard, he jumped off. I followed him. After all, the whole point of this adventure was to savor the experience, not high-ball it to Spokane.
We walked in silence for about a mile or so and came to some pretty dense trees and bushes near a freeway underpass. All of a sudden we broke into an encampment of about ten guys. They looked up and one of them said, “Hey, Spooky, who’s the tourist?”
My new friend replied, “He’s ok. We’ve been riding together since L.A. Just call him Buckeye.”
I’ll tell you there was nothing but hard looks from guys who looked like escapees from a TB ward. They had some coffee in a pot.
Spooky said, “Put some food in the pile and draw a cup.”
I reached in my backpack and pulled a package of dried eggs and pitched them in the pile of food for another meal. None of it looked like anything I would eat. I figured, right away, this is going to be my vacation to trim down.
Soon as they saw my contribution, they knew I was a weekender. They rarely had anything that good. I drew some coffee and sat with my back to a tree. I thought about what Spooky had said and knew that I may have bit off more than I could chew. It was now eleven to one. I wasn’t quite as full of myself as I had been on top of the boxcar.
Conversation was minimal. I drank two cups of coffee and decided I wouldn’t be sleeping tonight. I could feel the handle of my Kalinga pressing on my ribs. It was small comfort but she was all I had.
Long about sunrise, Spooky said, “Buckeye, if you want to move north, Hardluck and Boston Red are catching one in an hour. You can tag along if you want.”
The guy called Hardluck looked like a dope addict. He was skinny and wasted. Certainly no physical threat but the code of the jungle says you don’t stare down the lion. At my size, I was as close to a lion as any of them would ever get but Hardluck locked eyes with me and never looked away.
He said, “Sure, Buckeye, you can ride with me and Red but these tours ain’t for free. What you got to trade?”
Now my mind started racing. Getting out of this camp and reducing the odds to a more favorable number seemed like a real good idea. I sure as hell couldn’t pull out any cash from the lining of my jacket. I had to give up something but it couldn’t be too valuable.
I reached in my backpack and pulled out two cans of sterno and tossed them his way. He smiled, picked them up and slipped them in a pocket of his filthy army fatigue jacket.
“Let’s go. We got some ground to cover.”
I walked behind him and Boston Red. When they slowed, I always kept six to eight feet between us. There was no way they could jump me at that distance.
As we approached the train yard, I saw FTRA spray painted on a cement wall. Well, Spooky wasn’t lying after all.
They pointed to our train in the distance. It was a long one, car after car for almost as far as I could see.
Hardluck said, “She’s sidetracked to let a commuter pass by.”
We came at it in a roundabout way, keeping the station on the opposite side of the train. Several times we’d freeze as Boston Red peered around a wheel to see if there are any bulls around.
About a third of the way down the train and a good fifty yards from the engine, Hardluck directed us to a car with the door slightly ajar.
He opened it and climbed in. I was last in. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw a guy sitting in a corner. I recognized him from the camp. Never caught his name, never asked, didn’t care.
Now it was three to one. Much better odds but I knew it was no coincidence that this guy was waiting in this car. Hardluck nodded to the guy and he returned it. They all sat in the shadows.
Hardluck said, “Get over here, out of the light.”
I came over, sat with my back to the wall a few feet away from them. Boston Red took a wood block from his pack and jammed it in the door opening, closing the door all but a few inches.
Hardluck said, “Never let the door shut on you. If a bull comes to close the door, he’ll have to open it to get the block out. When he does, we all jump him and run like hell. Never get trapped in a car, it can be days or longer before they open it.”
With that, the camp guy moved over and sat with his back to the door about a foot from the opening.
They knew their shit, I’ll give them that. I looked around the car. Mostly bare steel floors with a few broken wooden pallets. There were a couple of 2x4’s on the far side along with some old food wrappers and empty tin cans. I could smell the stench of urine and feces. This car had been ridden many times. I looked at the 2x4’s. They were about three to four feet long. I immediately thought weapons.
We rode for a couple of hours. Very little talking. I could feel the tension. Hardluck had a tattoo on his throat. All I could make out was “eedo” across his Adam’s apple. The rest was hidden by his long filthy hair. He had a ratty flannel shirt with all but the top button buttoned under his over-sized jacket.
The no-name camp guy was pretty non-descript. Just dirty, worn-out-looking with the letters FTW tattooed on the back of his right hand. Add mean looking Boston Red who had not shown a flicker of emotion of any kind and I knew I was traveling with poster boys for the term, anti-social.
Try as I did to stay awake, the side-to-side motion of the train lulled me to sleep. My head snapped back a couple of times; waking me up but eventually I dozed off.
Whop! I awoke as I fell over sideways with a screaming pain in my head.
Whop! I looked up to see Boston Red strike me again with a 2x4 across my ribs.
I felt the blood run down my neck from my aching head. I was wide awake. I saw the camp guy with the other 2x4 as he stepped from my left to hit me.
Now, I got to tell you, I was hurt but all it did was piss me off. My adrenaline went into overdrive and I knew I was fighting for my life.
I kicked hard from the ground up to the camp guy’s knee cap. I got him solid and it buckled backward as it hyper-extended. His strike just missed my face.
Boston Red came at me with his 2x4 raised high like he was at the carnival and was doing the old sledgehammer game.
I pivoted on my hips and gave him a hard nut kick with my heel. He went down fast, bent over and moaning.
I scrambled to my feet to see Hardluck come from the shadows with a blade in his hand. I squared on him and crouched in a fighting stance.
He smiled. “Nice moves, Buckeye. I didn’t figure you to still be with us.”
He lunged with the knife in a stomach thrust. I slapped his hand away and moved to his right and drew my Kalinga. His eyes went real big. Suddenly the camp guy jumped on my back like a monkey. He grabbed around my neck and bit down on my left ear. Goddamn that hurt like hell. I ran backwards into the wall as hard as I could, at the same time bucking my head back so his head will take the impact.
We hit with a thud. As he let go, Hardluck stabbed for my heart but missed and the blade plunged into my left shoulder. I stabbed into his gut hard and got in real deep. He fell backward on his ass as his jacket went crimson. He scurried back into a corner like a sand crab but still holding his knife.
I turned quickly to camp guy who was half conscious behind me and kicked him in the face full force. My boot caved in his cheek.
Boston Red was on all fours and puking his guts out.
I sheathed my knife and grabbed camp guy by the collar and drug him to the door. I pulled it open and then kicked him out. I could hear him scream, then nothing.
I turned to Boston Red who still hadn’t recovered. I grabbed his right arm and pulled it behind his back in a classic chicken wing. He fell on his face as I cranked until it snapped. I moved to his side and gave him two full force kidney kicks.
Then I faced off on Hardluck as he tried to hold his gut to stop the bleeding. I kicked his knife hand, sending the blade across the car. I bent down and drove my fist into his face as hard as I could. He rolled over on his side. He was out cold.
I reached down and ripped open his collar. Hanging loosely below the collar line was a black kerchief with a silver concho ring. I pulled it off and stuffed it in my pocket. I could see the tattoo now. It read: Freedom.
The train began to slow. I decided I’d had enough adventure for a lifetime. I jumped off the train and began walking west to the freeway in the distance. I caught a ride from a hippie-looking dude in an old VW bus. He didn’t ask questions but he could see I needed medical attention so he drove me to the first hospital we could find.
In the ER, I got sewn up. I told the Doc I was mugged by some low riders while hitch hiking. He bought it.
I learned my lesson. I caught the next bus back to LA.
I’ve still got the scarf and I’m still missing the tip of my left ear.
I never thought I’d ever see Hardluck again but there he was on the evening news a couple years later when he got arrested for a string of murders. I guess he survived my sticking.
Don’t know anything about Boston Red.
The camp guy died on the tracks. The train severed an arm and a leg. Death by train wheels were an FTRA trademark. I’m sure he was chalked up to the FTRA body count which varied between 200 and 300 depending on which cop you were talking to.
Wondering about Spooky? I didn’t forget him. No doubt in my mind, he set me up. For months, I spent my spare time down at the train yards at Union Station looking for him, a matter of a little unfinished business.
A few months later, I found him or rather he found me. I always went after sundown and walked around the switchyards just to see if maybe he was passing through. About five months after my adventure, I was checking things out one night when I heard a voice say, “What you looking for, Buckeye?”
I replied, “You, Spooky.”
“I heard about what happened with Hardluck. I tried to warn you about FTRA.”
“No, Spooky, you set me up.”
I closed in on his little rest area near some unused track and rusted old freight cars. I looked around and saw he was alone. I came up to him, kind of friendly-like.
He said, “I had nothing to do with it.”
I said, “You had everything to do with it.” Then I hit him upside his head with an axe handle. He dropped like a shot. I checked his pulse. He was dead alright. I opened his jacket and there was the black kerchief. No real surprise there.
I threw his wasted bag of bones over my shoulder, fireman style and carried him down the tracks toward a sidetracked freight waiting for a go ahead. I found a turn in the tracks where there were shadows from even the moonlight.
I shoved him under a car with only his head peeking out, laying across the track. I left the scarf on him. I figured that when the bulls found the decapitated body the next morning, they would write it off to a little FTRA dust up.
Well, Spooky, warnings go both ways. I told you, don’t fuck with a Buckeye. We don’t forgive or forget.
BIO: David Price is an ex college jock and retired probation officer living in California. His work can be found on Thuglit, Flash Fiction Offensive, A Twist of Noir, Powder Burn Flash, Darkest Before the Dawn and Crooked.