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Chapter Ten

We crawl on our hands and knees and ease up towards the yards. It is so dark you can hardly see your hand in front of you. We can hear them banging these cars around inside this high board fence that separates us from the yards. We can hear the switch engines chugging as they make up our drag. We do not have long to wait. We hear this drag give the high ball[1]. We ease up as close as we can get without being seen by the bulls. We scrape our knees and our hands on the sharp pebbles in the tracks and stumble over the ties that are higher than the rest. We cuss under our breath. We crawl to the side of the tracks and press up tight against these piles of ties. We are nervous. A stiff is always nervous when he knows he has to nail a drag in the dark. This drag is pulling out. We see this shack on the tops wave his lantern to the engineer. We can hear her puffing as she comes. I cock my ear and listen to the puff. You can judge how fast a drag is coming by listening to the puff. This one is picking up fast. She will be balling the jack when she gets to where we are. I keep one eye peeled for the bulls. If they are riding this drag out, they will be laying for us. I have too many scars already from being sapped up by the bulls.

I can see her coming now. I can see the sparks that fly from her stacks, and the flames that leap above her. She is puffing plenty. She is a long drag, and a double-header. I can make out the sparks from the two engines. That is why she is balling the jack[2] so much. This is a manifest. She won't lose any time going where she is going. Passenger trains will take a siding and let these red balls through.

This old stiff picks up his bindle, and starts back towards the jungle.

"This one is too hot," he says. "There will be another drag tomorrow. I do not like to sell pencils[3]."

Four or five stiffs follow him. They know when a drag is too hot, too. They do not want to sell pencils, either.

I crouch here in the dark and wait. Farther up the track I can see these other stiffs crouching beside the tracks. They are only a shadow through the dark. I hope I can make it, but I am plenty nervous. It is too dark to see the steps on the cars. I will have to feel for them. I pick me out an even place to run in. I look close to see that there are no switches to trip me up. If a guy was to trip over something when he was running after this drag, it would be just too bad. That guy would not have to worry about any more drags.

These engines bellow past us. I can see now that I have waited in the cold for nothing. I can see that a guy can't make this one. It is just too fast. The roar she makes as she crashes over the rails, and the sparks that shoot from her stacks, tell me she is just too fast. A stiff is foolish to even think about nailing this one. Christ, but I hate to wait all night for a drag and then miss it because it is too fast.

This stiff in front of me does not think this drag is too fast.

"Brother," I think, "I hope you are right, because if you are wrong you will not do any more thinking."

I see him run along by this drag. I see him make a dive at this step. He makes it. It swings him hard against the side of the car. I can hear the slam of his hitting from where I am. He does not let go. He hangs on. I see him begin to climb the steps to the tops. Damn, but that was pretty. No waiting all night for a drag and then missing it for this guy. He is an old-timer. I can tell by the way he nailed this drag that he is an old-timer.

Another stiff runs along by this drag. I can tell that he is scared. He reaches out his hand after this step as this drag flies by, and then he jerks it away. This stiff will never make it. I can tell. He has not got the guts. A stiff has got to make up his mind to dive for those steps and then dive. This stiff makes up his mind to take a chance. He reaches out and nails this step. The jerk swings him around and slams him against the car. He hits hard. If he can hold on, he is all right, but he cannot hold on. He lets loose and flies head-first into the ditch at the side of the track. The bottom of that ditch is cinders. Christ, but there's a stiff that's dead or skinned alive. I cannot tell if he is moving in the ditch or not. It is too dark to see. I cannot go over there and see. I have waited all night in the cold to make this drag, and I am going to make it. That first stiff made it. If he can make it, I can make it. I have nailed as many drags as the next stiff.

"Be sure and nail the front end of the car," I tell myself. "Be sure and nail the step on the front end of the car. If you lose your hold, you will land in the ditch like that other stiff. That will be bad enough, but if you nail the rear end and lose your grip, you will land between the cars."

It is just too bad for a guy when he goes between the cars. I saw a stiff once after they pulled him out from under a box car. That stiff did not need to worry about nailing any more red balls at night.

I judge my distance. I start running along this track. I hold my hands up to the sides of these cars. They brush my fingers as they fly by. I feel this step hit my fingers, and dive. Christ, but I am lucky. My fingers get hold of it. I grab it as tight as I can. I know what is coming. I slam against the side of the car. I think my arms will be jerked out of their sockets. My ribs feel like they are smashed, they ache so much. I hang on. I made it. I am bruised and sore, but I made it. I climb to the tops. The wind rushes by and cools the sweat on my face. I cannot believe I made this drag, she is high-balling it down the tracks so fast. I am shaking all over. My hands tremble like a leaf. My heart pounds against my ribs. I always get nervous like this when I have nailed a drag at night going as fast as this one is.

I lie up here on the tops in the rush of the wind and wonder about that poor bastard over in the ditch. I wonder if he was killed. I know that these other stiffs who missed the drag will see to him, but I cannot get my mind from him. A stiff like that has no business on the road. That guy should be a mission stiff. He has not got the guts to nail a drag at night. He should stick to the day drags. A stiff can't expect to reach up there and grab hold of those steps. You have to feel them brush your fingers, and then dive for them. If you make it, you are lucky. If you don't make it, well, what the hell? What difference does it make if a stiff is dead? A stiff might just as well be dead as on the fritz. But just the same I am glad I am here on the tops and not smashed all to hell underneath those wheels that sing beneath me.

For two hours I lie up here before this drag pulls to a stop at a red block. I am as stiff as a board from the rush of cold wind and the frost that covers the tops. I will have to find me an empty. It is just as cold in an empty as it is up here, but there is not the rush of the wind that cuts through you like a knife. I climb down to the ground and run along by the tracks until I hear the voices of stiffs in one of these cars. I shove the door open and climb in. There are about ten stiffs already in this car. They are walking back and forth and stomping their feet from the cold. It is miserable in this car, and they are miserable. I am miserable myself. But then, what the hell? A stiff is always miserable. If he was not miserable, he would not be a stiff.

Some of these stiffs lie on the floor with last Sunday's newspapers around them for covers. They are not so cold. You will

find a worse blanket than last Sunday's newspaper. I have no newspaper. I sit down in this corner and shiver. My teeth click together. On all sides of me I can hear other stiffs' teeth clicking together. The click keeps time with the song of the wheels on the rails. I close my eyes and try to sleep. But all I can do is lie here and think. I think: Here I am. I am in a box car. I am heading west. Why am I heading west? Well, it is warmer out west. There will not be the snow and the rain. You will not have to be listening to your teeth clicking together every time you try to get a little sleep. It is too cold to lie here. I get up and go over where these other stiffs are.

We huddle in a bunch. There is a pile of tar paper[4] on the floor. We tear this up into small pieces and light it. The flames flicker up and light up our faces, grimy and sunken. The black smoke roars up and fills the car. We crouch around this fire and choke for breath. We do not mind the smoke if we can get a little heat. We stomp on the floor with our numbed feet. We swing our hands back and forth. We are just a box-carful of frozen stiffs. We do not make a pretty picture with our red-rimmed eyes and our sunken cheeks. We do not care whether we make a pretty picture or not. What we want is to get warm. I take off my shoes.

I hold one of my numbed feet over the flames. I cannot feel the flame that burns my foot, but I hold it there until my sock is scorched and burning. Then I change to the other foot. Back and forth, back and forth.

We huddle here and hack and cough in the smoke. We do not dare to open the door. It will not do for the shacks to see the smoke pouring out of this car. They would sick the bulls on us at the next stop. These bulls would put you in and throw the key away if they ever caught you building a fire on a box-car floor. Pretty soon we are out of tar paper. We get out our knives and start cutting splinters from the beams of the car. The beams are hard. It is a tough job to cut fast enough to keep the fire going. It goes out.

I crawl back in my corner and wait for morning. The desert! That is a good joke. The books say the desert is scorching hot. I wonder did any of these guys that write the books ever ride across it at night in a corner of a box car? I lie here in my comer and listen to these stiffs' teeth clicking together. Even above the roar of the wheels I can hear them.

"Goddam it," says this stiff in the comer across from me, "I am not goin' to stand for this much longer. I will get my hands on a gat, that's what I will do. I will show the bastards I am not goin' to freeze to death in a box car."

He stomps his feet on the floor to get the blood to running.

"Up your fanny," says this stiff he is with. "I have heard that old bull for years. If you are a stiff, you will freeze in box cars and like it. That's where a stiff belongs, in the corner of a box car."

"If I ever get my fingers on a gat I will show the bastards where I belong," this stiff says. "It will be just too bad when I get my fingers on a gat."

"Yeah, I said that, too," this other stiff says. "But I have got my fingers on a gat, and what did I do with it? Nothin', that's what I did with it. Nothin'. A stiff hasn't got the guts to do anything but eat slop and freeze to death. That's all he's good for. That's why he is a stiff."

I lie here in my corner, and I know that that stiff is right. That is all that a stiff is good for. I had my fingers on a gat, too. What did I do with it? Just what he did. Nothing. I maybe could have been on easy street now if I had gone through with that bank job. I would have either been on easy street or been under six feet of ground. And what difference would it make if I was under six feet of ground? Is six feet of ground any worse than lying here with my teeth clicking together to the tune of the wheels that sing over the rails beneath me? There is nothing worse than this unless maybe it is being down in a hole with pecans on top of you for covers.

This drag pulls to a stop at this water tank. A draft of wind hits me. I can hear the door slide open. It would just be our luck to have some shack kick us off in this God-forsaken place. But it is not that. Two new stiffs are climbing into the car. They carry big flashlights in their hands. I can see from the flash of the lights as they flash them around in the car that they are a couple of mean-looking eggs. Their faces are covered with dirty whiskers. They have not had a shave in a long time. They are filthy. There is no sense in a stiff letting himself get this filthy. There is too much water in the world. One of these stiffs has a black patch over one eye. He is wearing an old raincoat. The other one is wearing a ragged brown overcoat and a blue toboggan.

This drag gives the high ball and pulls out. I lie here and listen to her puff, and wonder how many more miles.

"All you bastards get over in the other end of the car, and make it snappy."

I raise up quick. These two stiffs that just got on are standing there in the doorway facing us. They are holding their gats in one hand, and their flashlights in the other. They look plenty tough standing there. These big, black gats look plenty tough, too. One of these guys has got his gat pointed straight

at me. This drag is jerking and swinging over the rails. That gat is liable to go off any minute. I do not lose any time getting to the other end of the car. I can see that these two mugs mean business. If they do not mean business, why have they got these gats? And why does this guy have to pick on me to point his gat at? Why don't he point it at one of these other stiffs? There are plenty of other stiffs in this car besides me. These other stiffs do not like the looks of these gats, either. They get to the end of the car as fast as I do.

We know what this is. We know what we are in for. These stiffs are a couple of hi-jackers. This is a hold-up. I have got my opinion of any stiff who will hold up another stiff and take his chicken-feed[5] away from him. Any guy who will do that is a low-livered bastard. I do not say that out loud, though— not with those gats pointed at us like that.

"Hold up your hands," this guy in the blue toboggan says.

We do not lose any time holding up our hands.

"You with the red hair, come out here," says this other stiff. "Any of you other mugs try anything funny and we will drill you full of holes."

This red-headed guy walks out to the middle of the car. He is holding his hands high in the air. They are shaking plenty. He is scared, and I can't say that I blame him. I am plenty nervous myself. These two are the toughest-looking mugs I have seen in a long time. One of them frisks this red-headed guy while the other one keeps us covered with the gat and flashes his light upon us.

"Where do you keep your dough?" this guy that's doing the frisking snaps.

"In my pants pocket," this red-headed stiff says. "In my left pants pocket. I've only got some chicken-feed."

"I will soon see how much you got," this hi-jacker says. "If I catch you holding out on me, I'll beat the living hell out of you and throw you out on the desert for the buzzards."

I can see that this stiff who is doing the frisking knows his business. I can see that he is an old-timer at this little trick of robbing stiffs of their chicken-feed. He not only looks in your pockets. He looks in the sweat-band of your hat and feels in the lining of your clothes. He does not find anything but chicken-feed on this red-headed guy.

"Get back in the corner," he says, "and keep your hands in the air."

He starts on the next guy. In the lining of this stiff's coat, fastened with a safety pin, he finds five bucks. Can you imagine that? This stiff has got five bucks pinned to the lining of his coat, and he has been bumming smoking off the rest of these stiffs. A tight stiff like that deserves to lose his dough.

"You will lie to me, will you?" says this hi-jacker.

He slaps this stiff across the face with the butt of his gat and knocks him clear across the car. This stiff sprawls on the floor and does not get up.

"Any of you stiffs make a move, and I'll drill you," says this stiff who is covering us.

We do not make a move.

One at a time he goes through the rest of us. I am the last guy. It is my turn.

"All right, you," he says.

I walk out to the middle of the car and hold out my hands. He goes through me. Four bits is all I got in my pockets. He does not find anything in my clothes.

"Where are you hidin' your dough?" he says. "Come clean or you will get what that other stiff got."

"Four bits is all I am holding," I say. "You've already got all the dough I'm holding."

"All right, get back to your end of the car," he says.

I get back. I feel pretty good. This bastard doing the frisking is not so smart. I bet I am the only stiff in this whole car who is holding a cent now. I am too smart for this bastard. I got two bucks hid under that bandage on my arm. I got iodine smeared over the tape. It looks like I got a plenty sore arm. But there is nothing the matter with my arm. That is only a way I thought up out of my head to keep these hi-jackers from stealing my dough. This is not the first time I have run into hi-jackers since I have been on the fritz.

This drag pulls over to a siding and slows down. She is going to let a passenger through. These hi-jackers pull the door open. They know she is going to stop here. I bet they pull this little trick every night.

"Lay down on the floor with your heads to the wall," one of them snaps.

We lie down. This drag stops. We hear these guys pile out the door. We hear the door close and the lock snap. They have locked us in. All these stiffs in the car get up to their feet and start cussing these hi-jackers. All but me. I do not say anything. I have got me two bucks under that bandage, with iodine smeared on top of it.

[1] High Ball: “a signal, orig. used by railroads, meaning ‘proceed’” (Greene’s Slang Dictionary, web).

[2] Balling the jack: “the expression "ballin' the jack" was used by railroad workers to mean going at full speed”; often referring to Judy Garland’s song “Ballin the Jack” (Wikipedia, web).

[3] A then-common way for homeless people with a disability to earn an income, dating back to the late nineteenth century (see Jacob August Riis's How the Other Half Lives [New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1890], 250.)

[4] Tar Paper: “a heavy paper coated or impregnated with tar for use, especially in buildings”(Merriam-Webster Dictionary, web). 

[5] Chicken-Feed: “a paltry sum” of money (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, web).

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