WHEN A FLY whined in his ear, Hook Runyon, Santa Fe railroad bull, sat up and rubbed at his face. The old passenger car waddled down the track like a duck in the shallows, and the air smelled of cigar smoke and stale food. The morning sun blasted through the window, and sweat trickled down his neck.
Now with the war over, both men and equipment had collapsed in exhaustion, and the maintenance shops had surrendered to the excesses of battle. What equipment could run did run, and to hell with everything else. If rolling stock wore out, the railroad shuttled it off to less-demanding routes, where the dilapidated cars continued to rattle along like tired old men.
Folks despaired with doing the impossible any longer, no matter who asked it, and wildcat strikes, often dangerous and unpredictable, cropped up like grass fires.
In the midst of this, Hook made a run in pursuit of pickpockets, traveling as far south as Pecos. In the end, he’d caught little more than a tequila hangover and a case of indigestion. The train cooler water tasted of chlorine, his back ached from the passenger seat, and both of his legs had gone dead as a side of beef.
To top off this misery, nothing gave him less pleasure than hunting pickpockets. Cowardly by nature, and opportunists of the lowest order, they preyed on the weak and defenseless. Relying on stealth, deception, and the goodwill of others, they stole whatever they could without regard for the consequences of their actions. Like coyotes, they hunted in packs for the easy kill, tugging the carcasses about among them before slinking off into the night. To make matters worse, Hook found the bastards almost impossible to catch.
He lit a cigarette and stared out the window at the passing landscape. In this country one direction looked as another, and the miles stretched out as monotonous as a cotton string. He checked his watch. The train should be arriving in Carlsbad, New Mexico, soon now. He’d be glad to get back to his caboose in Clovis, a modest abode to be sure, but home nonetheless and where he wanted to be.
The Santa Fe had towed his caboose from Albuquerque to Clovis shortly before he left for Pecos, parking it on a siding close to the depot baggage deck. Though not the most private place in the world, it beat the hell out of the Arizona salvage yard in which he’d been living the past few months.
The cook at the Clovis Harvey House promised he’d keep an eye on Hook’s dog, Mixer, providing a sawbuck showed up come payday. Hook hadn’t much confidence in the cook’s commitment to Mixer’s well-being but had agreed to the arrangement, figuring Mixer could take care of himself under most circumstances anyway.
Hook leaned back and scanned the car for any new passengers who might have boarded the train while he slept, spotting an old black lady sitting in the Jim Crow seat at the back. Across the aisle from her, a young soldier dozed with his hat pulled over his eyes.
A Mexican couple, with two kids in tow, sat near the bathroom. The little girl, thumb in her mouth and forefinger over her nose, slept in her mother’s lap, while the boy drew pictures in his Big Chief tablet. The mother, looking minutes away from her next delivery, propped her feet up on a cardboard box to ease the swelling in her ankles.
In the aisle seat next to the exit, a woman—young and fresh and dressed in a pink summer outfit—worked at her makeup. When the train slowed for the approaching depot, she hooked her black leather purse over her shoulder.
The engineer blew his whistle, and Hook checked his watch again. He’d have time to call Eddie Preston, the divisional supervisor, from the Carlsbad operator’s phone, though he didn’t look forward to reporting his failure to catch the pickpockets.
Having grown more belligerent over the years, Eddie now bordered on the intolerable, while at the same time Hook had become less inclined to suffer fools—the end result being war without resolution.
Hook figured to deal with Eddie first and then to find a lavatory where he could wash the Chihuahuan Desert from his body. After that, he’d catch the next milk run into Clovis. By tonight, he’d be sipping Beam and water and sleeping in his own bunk.
The passenger car lurched to a stop as they pulled into the station. Hook took a single suitcase down from the rack. He traveled light, often with no luggage at all. In this case, he knew the trip to Pecos to be a long haul and with little chance of a layover, so he’d thrown in a change of clothes and a couple of titles to read along the way.
He waited at the door of the car for the girl in pink to work her way down the steps. He paused at the bottom for a last look back. Failing to see that the girl in pink had stopped in front of him, he bumped into her, nearly spilling her onto the platform.
“Oh, Christ,” he said, catching her by the arm. “I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
Recovering, she brushed the hair back from her face. “No harm,” she said, smiling. “My fault.”
Hook watched her walk away. At the corner she turned and looked back at him.
He found the operator working up tickets. Hook didn’t recognize him, but then the company bumped operators around from depot to depot like traveling salesmen.
Pushing the tickets aside, the operator said, “Yeah?”
“Need to use your phone,” Hook said.
The operator pushed his glasses onto his forehead and looked at Hook’s arm prosthesis.
“This phone ain’t for public use, fella. Gotta keep the line open. Never know when a train might arrive on time and stampede the whole goddang place.”
“I’m railroad security,” Hook said. “What’s your name?”
“John Beauford,” he said.
“Been chasing pickpockets down in Pecos. I need to get hold of Division.”
The operator took his glasses off, fogged them up with his breath, rubbed them clean with his shirttail, and slipped them back on. His eyes grew big behind the lens.
“That so,” he said, peeking around Hook’s shoulder. “Guess you got them pickpockets cuffed up outside so’s they don’t crowd up the waiting room?”
“Pickpockets is like trying to catch mice,” Hook said. “Grab one and three more run up your pant leg.”
The operator nodded. “I seen one steal a candy bar right out of an old lady’s mouth,” he said. “Took her false teeth right along with it. Wasn’t nothing left but a dab of chocolate on the end of her nose.”
“About that phone?” Hook said.
“Anything to help out the law, but I’ll need to see your badge. You know how persnickety the railroad can be about its equipment.”
“Right,” Hook said, searching for his badge.
The operator drummed the counter with his fingers while Hook went through his pockets.
“My badge and wallet seem to be missing,” Hook said.
“That a fact?”
Hook clenched his jaw. “Sons of bitches must have lifted it.”
“Now ain’t that irregular?” he said. “A man might think a rail dick would know better than to get his own pockets picked while tracking down pickpockets.”
“Let me use the phone,” Hook said. “Division can clear this up.”
“You better move on downline, mister,” he said.
“And how the hell am I supposed to get a pass to Clovis?”
“Buy a ticket like everyone else. I never knew a bum yet what didn’t think he had the right to get something for nothing. I get up every day, put my britches on, and go to work, so I figure you can do the same. If not, there’s the Salvation Army down on Fifth.”
Hook leaned into the window of the cage. “Listen, brass pounder, I’m the yard dog out of Clovis. Maybe I’ll just come around there and kick your ass to prove it.”
The operator stepped back. “You better move on, mister, or I’ll call the cops.”
Hook took a deep breath. A yard dog’s authority didn’t hold much water with local cops, and he had enough trouble going already. He walked to the door and turned.
“When’s the next milk run to Clovis?” he asked.
“Three o’clock,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be thinking of hopping her if I was you. Bums don’t get far on this line. Anyway, that engineer’s a ballast scorcher, and he don’t slow for boes or no one else.”
Outside, Hook checked his watch. He hated to admit it, but the son of a bitch had a point. A rail dick ought know better than to get his pockets picked. He figured that dame in pink had set him up, and he fell for it. While he mumbled apologies, she could have lifted his boxer shorts, and he’d never have known it.
He peeked through the depot window and could see the operator talking on the phone. Hook didn’t believe in revenge, being above it morally, but he figured to get even with that bastard someday.
Having bummed the rails in another life, he knew how to hop a freighter with the best of them. If that’s what it took to get home, then that’s what he’d do. In the meantime, he’d find some shade and wait it out.
As he turned to leave, a patrol car with two uniform cops in it pulled up next to him.
The driver stuck his head out the window. “Hey you,” he said.
Hook paused. “Me?”
“That’s right. You.”
“What do you want?” Hook asked.
The cop on the passenger’s side got out and walked around the car.
“Want you to put your hands on the hood,” he said.
Hook held up his prosthesis. “I only have one.”
“Hey, chief,” he said, kicking Hook’s feet apart. “We got us a smart-ass here.”
The other cop got out.
Going through Hook’s pockets, he said, “Threatening a railroad operator can get you into serious trouble around here. But being a smart-ass can get you hurt.”
“I’m the Santa Fe railroad bull,” Hook said.
“A one-armed cinder dick? Now there’s a rarity. Let’s see your badge.”
“Hey, chief,” the other cop said, holding Hook’s weapon up by the barrel. “He’s packing, too.”
“I lost the badge,” Hook said.
“Say what?” the chief said.
“I lost it.”
He pulled at his chin. “You lost your badge, did you?”
“Well, let’s see your driver’s license then.”
Hook shrugged. “It’s in the billfold with my badge.”
The chief twisted his mouth to the side. “You’ve had a run of bad luck, haven’t you? Cuff him up, Joe. We’ll run him in for vagrancy and carrying.”
Officer Joe slipped cuffs from his belt and paused. “But he’s only got one arm, chief.”
“Then cuff him to your own damned self, Joe.”
“He could kill a man with that hook, chief.”
“Put your gun on him then.”
“But what if he tries to run?”
“Jesus, Joe, then shoot him,” he said.
Copyright © 2013 by Sheldon Russell