Rhrup…Rhrup…Rhrup..”Come on Susie!” pleads Skinner under his breath. Rhrup..Rhrup..Rhrup….”Dammit!” Susie, ever faithful, isn’t giving Skinner anything tonight. Frustrated, Skinner settled back on the seat of his 16 foot aluminum john-boat. With a couple of heavy breaths, he stared at the old Johnson outboard. Susie, was a relic even by Louisiana standards, but she was Grand-pappy’s motor and until tonight, never failed to start.
With daylight fading fast, Skinner’s eyes trace the surrounding swamp. What was familiar, even comfortable an hour ago, wears a mask where truth hides in shadows and fear stares back. Nobody spends the night in the “Black Hole”, not even Skinner…
The summer’s night air was cool with a hint of honeysuckle. Crickets and tree frogs sounded off the coming of another summer night. In the distance, Peter could hear the whistle of the “Dixie Bell”, as she announced her nightly pass through the village of Gettysburg. Glancing at his bedside alarm clock, Peter noted the time, 10:51 pm. Always on time, the last of the old steam engines, the “Dixie Bell” ran freight East to West then back, across central Ohio.
Now 10:57, Peter could feel the slow increasing vibration as the trained neared his house. Peter sat up, reached under his pillow and pulled out his boy scout flashlight. He then quickly crawled to the end of his bed, leaned on the open window sill, shining his light at the tracks. Peter leaned further out window, peering down the tracks. Trees, yards and houses were but silhouettes against the low glow of the town’s night sky. Two houses down, Peter could see a light shining out the window. Like every night of summer, his best friend “Jelly Bean”, his real name “Horatio”, had joined him. Jelly Bean directed his light at Peter. Responding in kind, the two shared a code only known to 10 year old boys.
The Dixie Bell was upon them. Crickets and tree frogs were quickly replaced with the slow thunderous, pulsing crawl of the old steam locomotive as she tried in vain, to tip toe through the sleeping town. Steel grinds and squeals as wheels clack against railroad ties and track. Dixie’s load tonight, empty boxcars returning to the Lima yard, another 50 miles East.
Peter aimed his flashlight at the open doors of the boxcars. “There they are,” Peter whispered to himself.” His light dimly crossing the faces of men riding the rails – Hobos. The count was different every night. A few were familiar and would wave. Others were lifeless and unknown. 40 cars in all, six riders he could see. A dozen more boxcars past, nothing, then there he was. Not like the others, he stared back. A menacing smile tight across his face. The hobo raised his left hand pointing at Peter then drew his thumb across his throat in a cutting motion, spitting in the boy’s direction. As quick as it happened, the last of the train disappeared from Peter’s light.