Bull of the Tracks


It was about 9:30 at night, dark had jus’ fallen as I shouldered my backpack and dashed across the train yard in Sparks. I tossed my pack into the open box car, grabbed the iron ladder next to the opening and flung myself inside.

It was the first time I had ever hopped a train leaving for where ever it was bound. It would also be my last.

Both my grandfather and my father-in-law had told me stories of how they’d get rides in open box cars and how each had traveled through several states as young men. Being newly separated from my wife and still mourning the death of my mother, I found myself lost and looking for a way to find myself.

The hot valley air soon gave way to a cooler mountain feel as we climbed up in elevation. From the direction the train seemed to be heading I felt certain we were heading east across Nevada, toward Utah and that suited me fine.

Feeling secure as the box car clickety-clack through the darkness, I laid on the wood floor, my pack as a pillow and slipped in and out of sleep. Since I had no light, I couldn’t tell what time it was as we began climbing even higher and beyond West Wendover in the distance.

At first I thought we’d entered a long tunnel, however a quick peek out the door and up told me the train was passing through a rather narrow gorge. I marveled at the idea that man and machine had carved such a long and deep valley through the nearby stone.

Suddenly, red lights began flashing and the train began slowing, slowing and slowing till it came to a complete stop. The man-made canyon had fallen away to a declining grade that seemed to slip away into a valley.

There were no other lights to be seen, beyond the red flashing lights. Curious, I stuck my head out and looked back towards the long snaking body of box cars that trailed behind my place in the chain. Seeing nothing, I turned my head to look towards the front and possibly the double engines, when someone grabbed me by the head and yanked violently.

And as I dropped to the rough gravel siding, the first of several blows rained down on my shoulders, back and side. I did my best to cover my head but that proved to be futile as my eyes, nose and mouth met a steel-toed boot, that kicked, stomped and scraped into me over and over.

“You fucking prick,” a breathless male voice growled, “Think you can steal a ride from my train, do you?”

This followed by several more blows from what I believed to be a pipe or a metal baton. As the baton halted its harsh blows, in came more kicks from the boots of the man, who had pulled me unexpectedly from the box car.

Once the beating came to an end, a flashlight shined into my bloody and swollen face, “I’ve seen you and know what you look like and if I ever see you on one my trains again, I’ll beat you to death and drop you body in a gully so deep they’ll never find your body. You understand me, asshole!”

Unable to see well enough to do anything, I simply answered, “Yes, sir,” in hopes he wouldn’t strike me with the baton again. “Now get off my fucking siding you piece of shit,” he shout as he kicked my in the rib cage once again.

With the wind knocked from my lungs, I crawled as quickly as I could over the hard gravel covered ground and towards the downhill grade I’d seen before I being attacked. As I made the softer dirt and the first of the sage plants, my back pack came flying out of the darkness, slamming into my head and shoulders, knocking me to the ground, where I laid as if dead.

In the distance I could hear the man who beaten me talking into a radio or perhaps a cellphone, “Yeah, we’re all clear, here. Continue on.”

His boots crunched in the gravel and slowly faded away as the train lurched forward with it’s customary ‘thunking’ as each box car violently joined the railed convoy. To this was the added sound of a vehicle starting up and slowly driving away, it’s headlights dancing off the top of the sage above where I lay assessing my injuries without moving.

It took me sometime to finally gather the strength to push myself to my knees. I was still light-headed, so I remained on all fours, my head resting on my blooded hands and forearms.

Once I felt I could stand without toppling over, I did. It took me another couple of minutes to slip my back pack on, before heading towards the valley below.

The walk was more like a slog, a painful forced march with no idea where I could be headed. I stumbled several times, fell once, but made it down to a water flat that I would never have seen from above.

It was there that I did my best to clean the blood from my bruised face, my swollen nose, shredded lips and black-eyes. I lifted my now torn shirt and looked as best I could at the lines of bruising left by the baton and the frightening sight of boot laced both burned into and bruised on my rib cage.

For two days I leather-tramped along the valley floor, following the pathetic flow of water as it wound from one side of the gorge to the other. It was my life-line as I knew it would eventually lead me back to civilization and perhaps some margin of safety.

Finally, I came upon a road, where I sat down to rest. Minutes later a green and off-yellow truck came rattling down the rutted dirt track, the driver slowing to a stop where I sat.

“Son,” the old man behind the wheel called out,” You look like hell. You need a lift?”

“Yes, sir,” I grunted from pain as I hauled myself to my feet, “I certainly do. The nearest paved highway, if you please.”

“Ben,” he said, introducing himself.

“Where am I?” was my response.

Ben gave me a strange look, “About five miles this side of the Utah state line.”

“Thank you,” I responded, “Good to know.”

We traveled in silence for a few miles, but curiosity got the better of Ben, “So what the hell happened to you, son?”

I tried to smile, “I got my ass kicked,” wincing at the pain of my cheeks rising.

“Hopped the train?”

“Yes.”

“Seen it before,” he said. “Johnson is the Bull in these part. Heartless, mean son-of-a-bitch even when he ain’t on the job. One of the worst you could happen across.”

I didn’t reply, didn’t feel the need.

About five minutes later, as we rolled into a gas station, I finally said “I won’t be jumping on trains ever again.”

“Probably a smart move, son,” Ben smiled.

He came to a stop and I got out of the truck, “Thank you for stopping to see if I was alright and for the lift, Ben. Much appreciated.”

“You be careful,” he said as I yanked my pack from the bed of his truck, “And God speed, son.”

Thoroughly battered I entered the store of the station and asked, “Can I use your restroom to clean up a bit, if I promise to clean up after myself?”

The woman behind the counter, stared at me, eyes-wide as she nodded her head yes and handed me the key. As I walked to the back of the store, I caught my reflection in one the glass panes of a cooler.“

“Holy fuck!” I thought, “No wonder she looked at me like that.”

Twenty-minutes later, I had removed the majority of blood that had found it’s way into my hair and beard, wiped the dirt from my neck, picked the small bits of gravel from the palms of my hand, and wiped down the sink area before stepping out of the restroom.

Waiting for me were two Toole County Sheriff Deputies. The woman behind the counter called them after seeing my condition.

After checking my ID and calling my information in, the taller one asked, “So, what happened to you?”

Thinking fast, “I missed a step and fell down a steep and rocky embankment.”

“Really?” the short questioned before adding, “Looks like you’ve been assaulted.”

“Nope,” I claimed, “Jus’ clumsy is all.”

“Do wanna ride to the hospital?”

“No, thank you,” I said, “I’m fine – it jus’ looks worse than it is, deputies.”

“Okay,” the taller responded. “Can we give you a lift to the line. There’s a Greyhound station in town that’ll get you home to Reno.”

“That would be great,” I replied.

It was the taller deputy that drove me into Nevada, where he dropped me at a casino near the bus station.

Shaking his hand, I said, “Thank you and be safe.”

“You be safe, too, and you’re welcome.”

I never went to the bus station, Instead I asked a westbound trucker if I could hitch a ride and within minutes we were on our way.

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