When the train picked up more speed, he could no longer endure the rim of the car biting into his burning knees and he began to slowly slide one leg up and place the toe of his shoe where his knee had been. As he brought his other leg up he began to slide off the side of the hump he was clinging to and into the valley between it and the adjacent hump landing spread eagle on his stomach. He wiggled to get himself as deep as possible into the loose coal, digging in with his hands and feet. He closed his eyes to keep the black dust out. Then he heard the train whistle blow a thousand yards ahead as it passed the last crossing out of town. The sound renewed his initial shock and he began bawling with all the breath that was in him. There was no hope of anyone seeing or hearing him now.
As the train sped out into the countryside on a roadbed carved from the base of steep hillsides, it followed the meandering course of the river through a narrow valley headed north. T-Junior shivered as a cold wind swept across his back. He kept his eyes tightly shut and gritted his teeth against the screeching of the axels and the loud clacks of the big iron wheel passing over the joints in the tracks. After some time had passed, he heard the whistle blow up the line and knew the train must be coming to a crossing somewhere. He ventured to raise his head and open his eyes. It was almost dusk dark now. He could see the skeleton-like winter trees that lined the riverbank and the murky river itself. Across the river in the distance he could see car lights moving along the highway. He watched them until the cold wind caused his eyes to fill with tears and coal dust. Laying his head back against the coal, the thought that he was going to die caused him to gulp quick deep breaths of air, as the rumbling train carried him father and farther away from home.
But as the jolt went through the car he was on, T-Junior fell forward and froze, hugging at the pile of loose coal, his face rigid with fright. When the train then jolted forward in the same manner and began to roll, the two boys ran along side of it shouting for him to jump but they were soon left behind out of breath.
As he felt the coal car began to shake and vibrate beneath him, T-Junior stiffened and held on tighter. Fear that he would fall off and be cut in half caused him to break into a high pitched whine yelling for his mother: “Mommee! Mommee! Help mee!” But no one heard him, least of all his mother, who was at home preparing to cook supper.
“You’re still not on top, T,” one of his companions hollered. “You’re just hanging on the ladder.”
“Okay. Watch,” T-Junior said, as he boosted himself up over the rim of the car so that his knees were wedged against it and his hands were pressed into the chunks of crushed coal. Although the coal would blacken his hands, it was no matter, coal was what his family burned at home for heat. “Now, look!” he said, glancing back down over his shoulder. “Is this good enough?”
It was then that he suddenly heard the clunk-clunk-clunk wave of sound coming towards him. It was the jolt of the engine re-engaging the long line of cars and back-slacking them all the way back to the caboose, creating a rippling effect as each car snapped tight—like a crisp deck of cards being slowly shuffled.
“Hurry, T-Junior! Get down!” the two boys shouted. “Hurry!”
His mother was a tall, big-boned woman of strong Kentucky peasant stock. She called back to him and began trotting like a horse towards him, sending the snow flying through the air behind her. When she reached him she fell to her knees and hugged him to her.
“I knew you was alive, son. I knew I would find you.”
He sobbed into the heavy gray shawl entwined around her head and neck.
“I’m still alive, Mommy. I’m still alive.”
“Oh yes, you’re still alive. And I’m so glad to see you. You don’t know how I worried.”
“But where did you come from, Mommy. How’d you know I was here?”
“Your daddy and them wouldn’t let me come with them. So I snuck off way before daylight. I ain’t got no idea how far I’ve come. I just kept walking and thinking about you, knowing I’d find you somewhere. And here you are!”
“I didn’t think I could stand it much longer.”
“Well, we’re going back towards home right now. You get around here and get on my back. There’s a house way up the tracks where they let me stop and rest and get warm. We’ll stop there again.”
The tenderness of the reunion seemed to warm and rejuvenate them. She stood up with him on her back and began stepping along in the same holes she had made in coming. T-Junior clung to her like a tick.
That’s a boy. Hold on tight,” she said. “I can’t believe you stayed out all night in this cold snowy weather. I don’t know how you stood it.”
“But, Mommy. Guess what?”
“I stayed all night with the devil. You know that?
“Yeah, the real devil in the Bible. He tried to make me eat cooked brains, and he had this big horn on his head, and his eyes were red and burned you when he looked at you, and he smelled like a dead toad frog…”
They allowed T-Junior to stay home from school the rest of the week. When he returned on Monday, he became a sort of a celebrity for a few days.
Occasionally, in his future childhood wanderings, he would come upon an empty whiskey bottle lying about somewhere, which he knew wasn’t completely empty, if you turned it up and held it against your tongue long enough.
Where Everything Important Happens on a Hillside
But just when he felt he was doomed for sure, he began to perceive that the train was slowing down. He lifted his head again and looked around, batting his eyes in quick succession to try and clear them. It was dark now and the trees were shadowy against the long black smudge that seemed to be the river. When the train eased to a stop, he raised himself up on his hands and knees and listened, but could hear nothing but a brittle wind sweeping along the hillsides behind him. He wondered if the train had stopped to pick up more cars somewhere. He waited for it to move again and when it didn’t he turned and made his way toward the ladder. He felt for the metal rungs with his feet and quickly climbed down and dropped to the ground. But his legs were weak and trembling and he stumbled over to the ditch line and fell to his hands and knees. There was the strong bitter taste of coal dust in his mouth and he could feel grit in his teeth. He coughed and gagged and spit, over and over again until his mouth was so dry that nothing came out. Then he rose to his knees and began rubbing his burning eyes. It was only when he finally began crying in frustration that some of the grit began to wash out.
With his knees on the cold ground he began shivering and zipped his old worn jacket up under his chin as far as it would go. Then suddenly he felt something wet on the bridge of his nose and looked up and saw a snowflakes swirling out of the dark sky. He then remembered his teacher telling the class that it was supposed to snow that night. His ordeal had made him forget.
After kneeling there for a while longer, hugging himself for warmth and watching the snowflakes increase, he finally got to his feet and began walking towards the end of the train, towards the caboose with his hands deep in his jacket pockets. He walked bent forward with an urgency to find someone to help him, past car after car after car, as the snow began coming down heavier. Before long he was leaving footprints behind as the ground began to turn white. At last he saw a faint light ahead coming from what had to be the caboose where the brakeman rode. Just a few more cars to go and he knew he would be safe.
But just then the metallic ripple of the train tightening up shot back and forth through the cars and they started to roll with a loud screech. As the caboose came towards him he began to shout and wave his arms above his head. When it got almost abreast of him, he saw the side window open and something shiny being tossed out. Then there was the face of a man in the window looking out. T-Junior began jumping up and down and screaming, “Wait! Wait!”
But the man thought T-Junior was just a county boy happy about the snow, so he merely smiled and waved back at him, closing the window as the caboose wobbled into the darkness, as though being sucked into it by the swirling snow.
Listening to the sound of the train grow fainter and fainter in the distance, a whole new fear overwhelmed him and he began heaving big sobs that took his breath away. Finally he looked skyward, rapidly batting his eyes against the falling snow. And in a weak slobbery voice he pleaded, “Help me, God. Please help me…” He stood there for a while as the heavy flakes battered his face and realized there was nothing he could do now but start walking homeward as fast as he could. After a few steps he looked down and saw the object that had been thrown out of the caboose, an empty half-pint whisky bottle. He stooped and picked it up and shoved it down inside his pocket, deciding to carry it along for a while just to have something to feel of. He walked along between the tracks and the ditch line, leaning forward against the shimmering white curtain of snow.
He wondered if people were out looking for him and hoped to see someone at any moment. He searched ahead for a light of some kind but all he could see was the heavy snow dropping out of the vast darkness. The snow made a soft hissing sound as it fell through the hillside trees. But there was the dull thud of his footsteps, and he soon began to feel a tingling numbness in his toes as his tracks in the snow became deeper.
Then he saw something dark up ahead that contrasted with the whiteness all around him. It was a rock ledge at the base of a hillside, which created a small black cavern beneath it. He ran and crawled back under it and sat there huddled over looking out. But the ground beneath him was cold and his teeth began to chatter. He swiped at his runny nose with both coat sleeves and cupped his hands to his thin freezing ears. Each time he put his hands back inside his pockets he felt the half-pint bottle and finally brought it out feeling its glassy smoothness. Twisting off the little metal lid, he took a whiff causing him to shudder and his mouth water up as though he was going to vomit. He twisted the lid back on and put the bottle back inside his pocket.
He began to cry again wondering what he was going to do. He said this aloud over and over again as he sat there hugging his knees and rocking back and forth. “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” Out of frustration, he fell back on the loose slate floor of the cavern and began hitting his head against it and stomping his feet. “Goddamn you, God! Why did you let this happen to me! Whyeee?” But he soon fell limp out of breath and lay with only a whisper left: “Mommy, come and find me. Hurry before I die.”
He sat up and wiped his nose with his sleeves and his eyes with his palms then stuck his hands into his pockets. At first the sleek smooth bottle surprised him and he pulled it back out again. There was a feeling anger towards the world as he unscrewed the cap and dared himself to stick his tongue on the rim of the bottle. It tasted sour and caused his tongue to tingle. He smacked his lips and cringed. But then, daring to go further, he pressed the mouth of the bottle to the flat of his tongue and turned it up. A few drops trickled onto his tongue and he felt a burning sensation, followed by an awful taste that he tried to quickly blow out of his mouth; but he also felt as if he were going to vomit and he suddenly had to swallow to hold it back, ingesting the whisky flavored saliva. He shook his head with puckered lips trying to gather enough saliva to spit again. And although he managed to finally spit he could not expel the taste or the whisky vapors from his mouth. It was then he felt a warm sensation in the back of his throat all the way down into his stomach. After a moment his head began to swim. It felt strange; and good in an odd way. Then when the sensation began to fade, he turned the bottle back up and sucked at it but nothing more came out. He screwed the lid back on and gave the bottle a triumphant shove back inside his pocket. He had showed the world.
But looking out at the continuous falling snow building up and beginning to blow in on him, his teeth began to chatter and he realized anew the danger he was in. It became logical to him that he couldn’t stay there just hoping to be found; his only chance was to try and keep walking towards home. He crawled from beneath the ledge and began trudging along again between the tracks and the ditch line. Every so often he stopped to listen, hoping to hear someone calling his name, but heard nothing but his teeth continuing to chatter. He lowered his head and continued on.
But after a while his thin legs began to weaken, as the snow got deeper. He dropped to his hands and knees and rolled over on his back; it felt good just to lie there, though his toes were numb and burning as if they had been smashed with a hammer. He just wanted sleep now. But as he lay there taking deep breaths of cold air, he suddenly began breathing in a faint familiar scent. He raised his head and began sniffing the air. It was the unmistakable odor of coal smoke. He got quickly to his feet and looked around. The smell seemed to be coming strongest from the river and he excitedly crossed the snow-covered tracks looking wildly here and there. He then saw wisps of it in the snowy sky and began stumbling towards it. When the chimney came into view it appeared to be glowing, its gray rolling smoke shooting high above the roof before swirling into the night. Down over a bank beneath the tracks sat a snow-burdened little square house.
He slid down the bank to the back of the house and saw that it was built of unpainted cinder blocks, turned dark with age. The backdoor glass was broken out and patched with a piece of weathered plywood. Around front there was a wooden porch partly fallen in, propped up with two by fours. There were huge piles of house coal on either side of the door and the single front window glowed yellowish orange.
He knocked timidly at the door and when it opened there stood a pudgy little man wearing only his jockey shorts. His forehead was smeared black from wiping sweat away with his coal-blackened hands. Other black smudges covered his body where he had apparently scratched or rubbed himself, including the front of his shorts. His body appeared completely hairless except for some thin red whiskers on his chin and along his jaw line. What little hair he had was reddish orange and hung straight down along the backside of his head in sweaty wet strands. There was a large boil on one side of his forehead that looked somewhat like a little horn. He gazed down at T-Junior with tiny red-cast eyes and a thin-lipped grin.
“I’m lost!” T-Junior exclaimed, through his chattering teeth. “Can I get warm, mister?”
“Why shore. Whose boy are you anyway? I ain’t seen you before I don’t think. You live around here somewhere?”
“No, I’m lost. I need to get warm. I’m freezing to death.”
“You go on inside there then by the fire while I get some more coal.”
T-Junior rushed inside straight to the fireplace, as the man went to one of the piles there on the porch and selected three large chunks of coal about the size of cabbage heads. He carried them in cradled against his stomach and pushed the door shut with his bare foot. T-Junior had his hands stretched out over the grate, lifting one foot at a time as close to the fire as possible. The man stepped in front of him telling him to move back and placed the chunks of coal into the grate. They flared up almost instantaneously sending blue and yellow flames roaring up the flu. Then he punched at the glowing red-hot coals in the bottom of the grate with a long iron poker, the tip of which also became glowing red by the time he pulled it out. T-Junior backed farther away as the intense heat began to warm him. But the man remained where he was, wiping sweat from his brow. The flaming fire was the only light in the room and it danced and flickered across the walls and ceiling.
I like a good hot fire,” the man said. “I been known to make a fire in the summertime if a big enough black cloud comes over. You know that?” Then he emitted a little high-pitched giggle that lasted much too long.
T-Junior looked at the man thinking he seemed retarded, but not all the way retarded like some people he had seen, who couldn’t do nothing but be led by the hand.
The man stood in the hot wavering light of the fire studying T-Junior, his giggling fit reduced to a tiny grin, unconsciously picking at his dirty naval with his forefinger.
“Hot enough fer you now, son?” he said without irony.
“Yeah,” T-Junior said, as he sat down on the floor and raised his feet to the fire. “My feet are frozen off and hurt so bad I can’t hardly stand it.”
“What’re you doing out in all this snow, boy?”
“I clung to the coal train all the way from Hambleysburg. I’m lost. Do you have a telephone that you could call up there and tell the police or somebody?”
“No, I ain’t got one of them. But I haul house coal almost to Hambleysburg sometimes. Whose boy are you?”
“My daddy’s Will T. Hopkins. My name’s T-Junior.
“Well—we both got ‘nitials to our names. You know that? My name’s Hugh B. Only I’m Hugh B. Hall. I just go by Hugh B., though. It’s a funny thing, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, but I’m scared and I need to get back home. I know my daddy would pay you something if you could take me.”
“Well, I’d expect to get paid. But they ain’t no way tonight.
“But I know they’re worried about me. Can’t you take me some way?”
Hugh B. Hall sat down near the fireplace in a big green plastic armchair which was scorched brown on the side facing the fire. “Don’t matter. Couldn’t get out of this hole down here with them bald tires of mine no how with all this snow. Wouldn’t be able to pull that bank out yonder with no load on it. Might get stuck anywheres tonight. You know that?”
Getting up from the floor, T-Junior then held his hands out to the heat. “Well, does anybody else live around here?”
“They’s a bunch of people at lives out yonder by the bridge. But it’s a good mile or so. A feller couldn’t hardly make it on foot right now the way at snow’s coming down. Besides, they’s some purty mean dogs at roam around here at night. Real mean dogs.”
“But my mother and father will be worried about me. I got to get back home. They don’t know where I’m at. What is this place?”
“You’re at the mouth of Little Mud Creek. Ain’t no way a getting out of here tonight. But you can stay here with me if you want to. I wouldn’t mind a bit.”
How far is Little Mud Creek?”
Hugh B. fingered the hard boil on the side of his head. “Bout fifteen mile or so from Hambleysburg. How’d you come this far, anyway?”
“I got stuck on a coal train when it stopped. My mother and father might think I been killed by now.”
“Well, they ain’t nothing you can do about that now. You know that?”
T-Junior screwed up his face and tears began to run down his cheeks. “But I want to go home,” he said in a squeaky voice.
“Now don’t you worry none, son,” Hugh B. said, reaching out one of his dirty hands to him. “Come over here and set down on the arm of this chur beside me. Come on over here now.”
T-Junior hesitantly walked over wiping his eyes and sat down on the chair arm beside Hall, who immediately put his arm around him and squeezed him tight. T-Junior stiffened.
“Everything’s going to be all right, son. You know that? Hugh B. won’t let nothing happen to you.”
“Okay,” T-Junior said, trying to lean away from him.
But Hugh B. reached with his other arm and pulled him back and kissed him on the side of the head, squeezing him tighter.
“Don’t do that. You’re hurting me,” T-Junior protested.
“Don’t mean to hurt you none,” Hugh B. said, loosening his arms but not letting him go. “Just want to hold you some, make you feel cozy.”
“But it smells bad over here,” Hugh Jack said, wrinkling up his nose.
“Don’t smell bad to me.”
“It smells like a dead toad frog. Only worse.”
“Don’t you want to set here where it’s cozy like. It’s good and cozy here beside me, ain’t it?”
“No, I’m too hot here too. Can I get up?”
“Why shore, son. I want you to feel at home here. You know that?”
T-Junior got up and walked to the center of the room looking around; it looked spooky with the light of the fire bouncing off the walls and ceiling. The only other place he could see to sit in the room was on an old foldout couch against the far wall. A wadded up gray blanket and a striped pillow without a pillowcase lay upon it. There were two doors to other rooms but they were closed with stuff shoved up against them as though they were hardly used or else the objects were stepped over. He went over and sat down on the edge of the couch and said: This is okay, I reckon.”
“Well, take off ye coat and hat and stay awhile,” Hugh B. said, giggling as though he thought what he said was funny.
“Okay,” T-Junior said softly, taking off his coat and laying it aside. He was no longer feeling cold, but rather felt his face flush from the intense heat of the fire.
Hugh B. grabbed the poker and reached over and removed the lid of an iron pot sitting at the edge of the hearth. “Are ye hungry?”
“Yeah,” T-Junior quickly said. He was famished, but then fearfully wondered what was in the pot.
Hugh B. spooned some of it out into a bowl he had already eaten from and proudly brought it over to T-Junior. “Eat some. Then you won’t be hungry no more. You know that?”
T-Junior looked at the contents of the bowl; it looked like cooked hamburger with pieces of light bread torn up and stirred around in it. “What is it?”
“It’s meatloaf. Good for ye. You eat whilst I take the ashes out and get some more coal. Don’t want the fire to burn down.”
Hugh B. went over and began shoveling ashes and hot coals that had rolled out onto the hearth into a coal bucket. Dark gray smoke immediately rose from the bucket and rolled around on the ceiling like a ground fog as he crossed the room to the door. “Eat all you want, son. When I make meatloaf, I make enough for three or four days. I done eat already.”
T-Junior held a spoonful of the so-called meatloaf up to his nose and sniffed it but was unable to tell if it smelt good or bad.
As Hugh B. went out the door, T-Junior put the spoonful in his mouth, started to chew, but quickly spit everything back out into the bowl, then spit again to clear the sour greasy taste from his mouth. He wiped his lips, twisting them in disgust and set the bowl down beside him. He then listened to the hot ashes sizzle when they hit the snow at the end of the porch and then lumps of coal being thrown into the bucket.
When Hugh B. came back in he shut the door again with his bare foot and went straight to the fire. He punched at it with the poker and threw on more coal and the room brightened after the new coal caught up.“Seems like this here coal’s got a little sulfur in it, but it still burns good if you keep it good and hot,” he said, standing back a little and watching the flames, as if judging the quality of the coal was all important at that moment. Then he wiped the sweat from his forehead with four fingers and wiped his hand off on the back of his shorts.
“It sure is getting hot in here now,” T-Junior said.
Hugh B. didn’t reply; he was looking over at the bowl Hugh Jack had set aside. “You finish eating already? You want some more?”
“No, I eat all I could. I wasn’t really too hungry.”
Hugh B. came over and picked up the bowl. “Don’t look like you eat much at all. Skinny little fellow like you needs to eat more. You know that?”
“I eat all I could.”
“Well, I’ll put it back in the pot case one of us gets hungry later on.”
He picked up the bowl and went back to the fireplace, leaned over and raked the contents back into the iron pot. Then he picked up the poker and punched at the roaring fire. “Now don’t you worry none, son,” he said, turning his back to the fire and looking over at T-Junior. “I got plenty of coal. Get it down at the tipple before they crush it. Haul it around to people who needs house coal. I’m a Hall that hauls coal. You know that?” He giggled over his pun and couldn’t stop for almost half a minute.
“I wish you could haul some tomorrow,” T-Junior said enthusiastically. “Maybe somebody will need some tomorrow and we can go out so I can get home.”
“Maybe. But I got most people stocked up good for the winter. People’ll be snowed in tomorrow I spect”
T-Junior’s face dropped. There was still a greasy taste in his mouth and he said: “I’m thirsty. I got to go out and get me a handful of snow to eat.”
“Go ahead. They’s plenty a snow out there to eat.”
T-Junior opened the door and went out on the porch and was amazed at the amount of snow that had fallen, and it was still coming down. He heard dogs howling somewhere far off. As he bent down and cupped up a handful of snow and pushed it into his mouth, he knew he was trapped.
Meanwhile inside, Hugh B. picked up T-Junior’s jacket and went through the pockets to see what was there. He found the empty half-pint bottle and twisted off the cap. He tilted his head back and sucked at the bottle until the suction caught the inside of his lip. As T-Junior came back inside, he pulled the bottle from his lip with a pop and screwed the lid back on.“Not even a drap in this bottle, son. Whisky ain’t good for younguns. You know that?”
T-Junior went back to the foldout couch. “The man in the caboose throwed it out. And I just picked it up. That’s all. You can have it if you want it.”
“Like to a had it when it was full though,” Hugh B. said, tossing the bottle aside.
“Maybe you can get some in the morning if you take me over to the bridge where people live. So I can go home.”
“Like to a had some tonight better. At bottle just made me want some.”
“Yeah, but you’d be staggering and falling down. You know that?”
“That’s the fun of it, son. Staggering and a falling,” Hugh B. said with a giggle, pretending to stagger a bit.
“Then they’d put you in jail.”
“Yeah, but then you don’t care cause they give you pancakes next morning.”
“I wish I had some pancakes right now.”
“Yeah, pancakes’d be purty good right now. I could eat a big stack of um.”
“I could too,” T-Junior said, liking his lips.
“I wish you wouldn’t a reminded me of um, though.”
“You said something about um first.”
Hugh B. came over and sat down beside T-Junior and put his arm around him. “We’re shore having fun talking, ain’t we?”
Trying to pull away, T. Junior said: “I guess.”
But Hall held him and gave him a wet kiss on the side of his head. “I’m glad you come by, Little T. Junior.”
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Hugh Jack said, trying to lean farther away.
“Hall loosened his grip. “Don’t mean you no harm. Just want to get cozy with ye, son.”
“It’s too hot in here to set this close. It’s hard to breathe.”
“You want to lay down then? You can lay down if you’re sleepy.”
T-Junior thought that was the best way to get away from him, so he got up and grabbed his coat for a pillow and crawled around to the back of the couch and lay down facing the wall. He closed his eyes and pretended to fall asleep. Hugh B. remained sitting on the couch for a while then he got up and went over to poke the fire and shovel up the ashes and hot coals to take out. He returned with more coal and set the fire blazing again, his little red eyes beaming with satisfaction as he gazed into the flames. After a moment he went back over and lay down behind T-Junior so that they were spooned together. He put his arm around him and kissed him on top of the head. “You asleep, son?” he asked quietly.
T-Junior continued to pretend he was asleep. Hugh B.’s flabby smelly body up against him repulsed him and to put it out of his mind he imagined he was home in his own bed, with his sister Fay and brother Victor Dean asleep across the room. It wasn’t long though before both he and Hugh B. were fast asleep.
He had a dream that he was waiting for the caboose to come along and saw the bottle being tossed out, but when he came upon it, it turned into a big black dog that attacked him and tore his pant’s leg. The man in the caboose yelled out that he would buy him a new pair of pants. But he never got them because next he was in jail wearing only his shorts, only the jail soon turned into a schoolroom where his teacher was making pancakes. She was just about to hand him a big plate of them when he woke up covered with sweat and realized Hugh B. was gone. But he heard him out on the porch throwing coal in his bucket. In a few minutes he heard the fire roaring again. He opened his eyes to the wall and it seemed to be glowing red. He felt like a pie bubbling on an oven rack. When Hugh B. got back on the couch and spooned him, he pretended he was asleep again. Hugh B. kissed him on top of his head and whispered: “I like you, son. You know that? You’re like my own little boy.”
It was a long fitful night for T-Junior, for Hugh B. got up ever so often to take out the ashes and build up the fire, keeping it going like a blast furnace. T-Junior would awaken each time and lie there silently listening, finding it hard to breathe at times as the fire sucked the oxygen from the room. Then once again Hugh B. would be up against him holding him with a sweaty arm while planting big wet kisses on top of his head.
But although they were awake off and on during the night, neither of them heard the high-rail pick-up truck going by on the tracks above, being driven by a railroad section foreman. Beside him sat the county sheriff and in the backseat T- Junior’s father and two deputies scanning the countryside through the side windows. Other deputies and volunteers were huddled in the bed of the truck, shining flashlights along the sides of the tracks. They were on their way to where the train had finally been flagged down, nearly twenty-five miles on down the tracks.
As morning light filtered through the dingy front window of the unpainted cinderblock house with its roaring fire, T-Junior awoke and could feel a soppy wet circle on top of his head, which he wanted to scratch but didn’t dare touch. Hugh B. was up tending the fire, loading it up with more coal. T-Junior raised himself up and scooted over to the edge of the couch and sat there rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and yawning.
“Way over a foot a snow on the ground out there, son,” Hugh B. said. “Maybe sixteen or seventeen inches. Doubt if anybody’ll be out stirring today. You know that?”
“But can’t we get over to that bridge where people are?”
“Don’t know. We might try adder while. But it’s awful deep. You might be better off staying here where it’s cozy like. You like staying here don’t ye?”
“No. I want to go home now,” T-Junior said, as tears began to fill his eyes. “My mother and father are worried, I know they are.”
Hugh B. wiped sweat from his forehead and began looking around on the floor for something, then finally found a silver bag lying on the window sill. “Now don’t you worry yourself none, son. You want something to eat for breakfast?”
“No, not that meatloaf stuff.”
“Got something real good right here,” Hugh B. said, holding up a bag of Hershey’s Kisses. “Almost forgot about these. Candy Kisses, Got um at the store other day.”
He came over and sat down beside T-Junior and poured him out a double handful, then placed the bag in his lap. The chocolate was soft and mushy from being in the hot room so they had to practically suck it from the tinfoil but it immediately melted in their mouths. They peeled piece after piece until it was all gone and their mouths were full of muddy chocolate. Hugh B. swallowed and licked his lips then kissed the side of T-Junior’s head holding him tight. “Candy kisses,” he said and giggled.
“Just don’t keep kissing me like that,” T-Junior leaned away and said. “It makes me feel sick.”
“Don’t mean to make you feel sick, son.”
“Why don’t you go back over to your chair then.”
Hugh B. folded his arms across his chest and sat there looking disappointed for a moment. “I feel me a shit coming on now, son. You know that?”
“I don’t care.”
“I got me a bucket back in the kitchen I use in the wintertime,” Hugh B. said, getting up and stepping over some junk in the floor to open one of the doors. “You just wait there. I’ll be back in a minute or two.”
“I got to go out and pee,” T-Junior said, looking around at the front door.
“Well, don’t freeze ye you-know-what off,” Hugh B. said and giggled as he went through the door.
T-Junior put on his jacket and went out on the porch and took a long deep breath of the cold clear morning air. In the sky thin wide gray clouds were beginning to scatter apart letting rays of a stark yellow sun break through as it peeked over the ridge tops. White shimmering snow covered everything in sight, trees and bushes were bent low under heavy loads of it. And covered over completely under a rounded mound of snow, which revealed only its general shape, sat Hugh B’s old long-bed pick-up truck out to the side of the house. There was stillness and silence all around, except for a few sharp bird notes.
He stood there peeing listening for someone to call his name, looking out along a wide clearing of drifted snow between the trees and bushes that he figured must be the road leading away from the house. Suddenly he realized this was his only chance. He zipped up his jeans and jacket, taking a quick look back inside, and then jumped off the porch into the deep snow. It came almost up to his knees. He waded out through the clearing pumping his arms for power and balance. Before long he was out of breath. When the road curved up towards the tracks he fell in behind a clump of snow-laden bushes to hide, squatting there catching his breath and peeking back towards the house.
Hugh B. came out of the house carrying the coal bucket and looked around surprised. Upon seeing T-Junior’s tracks leading away from the house, he dropped the bucket and quickly hopped down off the porch. His hot bare feet quickly burned holes in the snow. But after going only a few yards he stopped, looked around, and then hopped back upon the porch. He called out towards the road: “T-Junior! Little T-Junior! Where are you? “Where you at, son? Where you at?”
He waited for an answer as he stomped snow from his feet.
“Come back, son! Where it’s cozy. You’ll freeze out there. You know that!”
He listened with his head cocked. And then a worried look settled on his face.
“Are you just prankin with me, son?”
He picked up the coal bucket and stomped his foot hard, making the snow covered porch roof shake. “Shoot. If I just hadn’t a tooken that shit…”
He turned and gathered up several lumps of coal and went back inside pushing the door shut. A moment later his face appeared in the front window. He wiped a blurry circle with a rag and peered out. His red-cast eyes searched the cold landscape, as he rubbed at the hard reddish black boil on the side of his head. Finally he turned away, and shortly the window glass flared up and glowed red for a moment.
T-Junior crawled out from the bushes and started up the road again. When he got to the top, which lay even with the railroad tracks, he stopped to rest and look around. The bright valley appeared endless and the white silent mountains seemed to lean into the sky. From there the road went down a bank into a snow-swollen field that stretched along the river towards a thick blush woods. Beyond that he could see smoke rising from several chimneys and the snow-coated cables of the bridge sagging across the river.
As he started down the road he suddenly heard a dog bark in the distance and remembered Hugh B.’s warning about mean dogs roaming about. This caused him to turn back towards the tracks, deciding to follow them for a while until he could get closer to the houses, not wanting to take a chance down in the field. Narrow furrows ran along the surface of the rails where the search team had gone past the night before. They were still miles away working their way back up the tracks.
He walked towards home lifting his already tired thin legs high. Before long the railroad tracks began curving away from the river and the little group of houses out by the bridge, but he failed to notice this with his watery eyes focused on the deep snow ahead of him. Soon he began to falter. And it wasn’t long before he began falling, getting up and falling again, and finally had to just let himself sink down in the snow on his knees and stay there shivering and shaking. He knew he would be lucky now just to make it back to Hugh B’s house and the roaring fire. As he struggled to stand up and turn back, he glimpsed a shape plodding towards him from way up the tracks. It looked like a mummy wrapped in several layers, almost frightful looking as it jerked forward with each long shoveling stride. For a second he wanted to turn and run from it, but just then he heard his name called in a desperate hoarse voice, a voice that caused his chest to heave. He screamed as loud as he could: “MOMMY! MOMMY!”
Long before T-Junior became an incurable alcoholic, he was a boy. And like most boys, willing to take a dare—one that had him clinging to the side of a loaded coal car on a cold dark February afternoon, grinning back down at his two companions on the ground. They had been on their way home from school and the coal train had stopped to pick up more cars from a sidetrack at the edge of town, the town of Hambleysburg, Kentucky.