Tim Bundrow rocked against the railcar’s slated wall, unable to sleep. His Uncle Joe sat nearby. Tim tried to ignore the old fool. Had done so ever since they hopped this westbound train outside Gross Tete. A daylight flip was never advised, but they’d had no choice. Now the cannonball sailed towards the setting sun over the Atchafalaya swampland.
The sounds of the clacking rails punctuated Uncle Joe’s high-pitched drawl, “And that’s how Mr. Ferguson learned the identity of his kid’s real father …”
Tim didn’t open his eyes—distinctly hearing the pop of the old man slapping his thigh, “You hear me, Nephew? The real father!”
Tim begrudgingly offered a low, “Mmm …”
Uncle Joe brayed, “Ferguson was the last to know!”
The nook between stacks of cargo offered Tim’s aching body zero mercy. Tim shifted his weight—no relief. He hated this train and having to tramp rides. He hated his empty pockets and the holes in his boots. He hated the ways his broken and rotting teeth throbbed. He moaned and adjusted himself again, a wild flailing of arms and legs. No matter what he tried—nothing helped.
Uncle Joe continued, “… Anyways one of those bastards blossomed into a young gal who called herself Virginia. By the time I met her—she styled herself a suffragette! Met her on the street in Tallahassee. She held one of them signs moaning about her corset. I listened nicely as I could—then offered to take her case up with the boys at the lodge. Told her how I felt women had as much right to be considered in the voting booth as they did in the kitchen. If you can make a sandwich you can cast a ballot! I talked honey to that sweet gal all the way to her boarding house. Just as I was about to start pitching serious woo … outsteps Mr. Ferguson brandishing a shotgun.”
Tim groaned an elongated, “Mmmmmmmmm …” His mouth, drier than a Baptist wedding, tasted and smelled like old blood. Tim’s head throbbed and he wanted it to just fall off. He pictured the relief—rolling down into his lap—looking back at his neck’s empty stump. I could manage better then, he thought, how I envy the dead.
Uncle Joe and the train car clacked on in unison—unconcerned with Tim’s pain. “I felt heavy oats that day and called out, ‘Mr. Ferguson what do you care? Everyone knows this gal ain’t your progeny!’ Well, let me tell ya, Nephew … no sooner had I said it—than that old geezer shouldered his Greener and fired. I swear I never touched that sweet gal. But there was no way to tell Mr. Ferguson that … especially with the way her petticoat had accidentally come loose. First time I ever ran for my life!”
Uncle Joe exploded with laughter.
Tim grumbled louder. Eyes fluttered open. He wanted to scream, Shut the hell up! Everything was Joe’s fault—because of this constant, inane, chatter … but it all leapt from mind as he suddenly stilled instead.
From the flickering shadows, directly across from Tim’s cramped squat, two wet eyes stared back. Tim hadn’t thought anyone else was in the train car. Where had this stranger hid amongst the high rows of building material?
Uncle Joe kept talking unaware of their hidden guest, “That cuckold went and woke the sheriff … spent the night hiding in a horse trough … after that, Nephew, I was too scared to go back.”
Tim attempted to silence Uncle Joe. But he could only grunt loudly, “Mmm …” The old man either didn’t hear or didn’t care. He’d already started in on his familiar chorus.
“A blessing in disguise,” Uncle Joe droned, “the freedom of the rails—movement makes the sun go round—one can never be their own man anchored to society. No, Nephew! Society freed the slaves so they could then enslave everyone with work and bills and pleasant company—”
Uncle Joe finally quit. A match sparked in the shadows. Tim watched as the match lifted. A tormented face glowed. Fire touched a cigar butt. Hot smoke pumped from the man’s dual front exhaust. The cigar’s cherry burned orange—the only light left after the match snuffed out. Tim smelled the sulfurous smoke wafting from the dark corner. A voice like a gravel road asked, “Hey, Kid … ya sick?”
The entire mess seemed vaguely familiar.