Riding the Rails
Headline: GYPSY HOBO SUSPECTED OF MURDER
Henry Bledsoe scanned his typewritten copy one last time. The copy boy was running from desk to desk grabbing up pages from reporters all over the city room in the last minute rush to deadline. Unlike the city room in a Chicago where he had spent the past twenty years on the Tribune, this was a small- town paper and there were only a few reporters. He knew the copy boy would reach his desk in a matter of seconds to take the day‘s news article. He glanced quickly over the article.
Trenton Tribune Monday, August 6, 1936 News
by Henry Bledsoe
Less then a week has passed since authorities convened a Coroner’s Inquest to look into the death of Quincy Lambert, the engineer of the Northbound Limited, a locomotive of the Sisselton & Banks Railroad. Unlike those unfortunate souls who succumbed to the recent fire and the derailment of the train, Mr. Lambert’s body was found miles from the wreckage of the derailment with suspicious marks indicating the possibility of foul play.
Moses Pulani, a hobo Gypsy is being held in custody pending the outcome of the Inquiry and investigations.
The train driven by Mr. Lambert was on a rescue mission to save the inhabitants of two towns, Norton and Freemont, which were directly in the path of the recent devastating forest fire that burned over two hundred thousand acres of timber and entirely destroyed the town of Freemont.
He bit down on the soggy end of a smoking cigarette, tasting the bitter threads of tobacco on his tongue and wondered if the opening was too weak. He wanted the reader to get to the guts of the story quickly. Was it more important to talk about the fire first or the murder, or maybe even the derailment? he wondered. They were all equally important.
He glanced down at the type-overs and the grammatical errors and cringed. He hoped the galley editors would catch his mistakes. He read on:
Many residents of the doomed towns fled as soon as the danger became eminent. Some stayed and tried to fight the fires that were consuming their homes and businesses until they were warned by the town Fire Chief, James McCall of Freemont, that all was lost. Many sought safety in a nearby quarry or climbed aboard the No. 3294 Northbound Limited in hopes of fleeing the suffocating smoke and heat.
Unfortunately, several people died and were injured as the train passed through a corridor of flames that scorched and burned the train on its daring flight. Mr. Lambert was thought to have died minutes short of driving the train to safety.
Yes, that part is good, he decided. At the corner of his eye he caught the copyboy come towards his desk. He reached for the sheet, ready to rip it from the roller of the Remington, still reading as he made the move.
It is believed the catastrophic derailment was due to a failure of the breaking system when fire burned through the brake hoses. Only a few freight cars plunged into the ravine while most of the passenger cars remained on the track, prompting the authorities to predict that the injury and death rate will remain relatively low. However, bodies are still being removed from the wreckage.
Testimony in the inquest will continue today in regards to the cause of death...
He barely got the page out, leaving only the torn corner under the roller and the boy grabbed it and headed for the editor’s desk.
He wasn’t happy with the article but it would have to do. He’d been writing his bits on-the-run ever since he’d heard of the train derailment and arrived at the scene.
It had been a horrific even for a wizened old reporter like him. He could not have imagined what it was like without seeing the size of the destruction for himself; the twisted metal of a half dozen railroad cars, some with their underbellies exposed lay strewn across the landscape. The outside of all were charred, the glass window panes broken and cracked in most of the windows. He wondered how anyone had survived.
The surrounding landscape looked like a war zone. Trees stood smoking like burned-out matches and the ground was covered in fine ash. Smoke from the dead, burned-out forest engulfed the entire derailed train, and rescuers moved like phantoms among the wreckage and the bodies.
He stood with his camera and watched as men walked by him with stretchers carrying the wounded. He didn’t even hear the sounds of crying and moaning or the talk of the firemen and ambulance drivers. He was too stunned.
For some reason he caught himself studying his own feet, thinking how damned awful it must have been to be burned alive. His shoes and the lower half of his slacks were black from walking in the fine powder of ash.
It wasn’t like him to be dazed into inaction at any scene. It was true that most of his career he’d lived in Chicago and covered a city beat; which included crime of every description.
He’d won that just through sheer endurance. He’d grown up in the life of a reporter, following in his father’s footsteps and he knew the drill; get the story, don’t let it get under your skin, don‘t let the other guy get it first; the last was his father‘s injunction. There had been a time when he was young that he’d had to fight his way up the ladder. He knew about death, even gory, horrific death; man’s cruelty to man. It was his bread and butter.
He believed his ruthlessness was the core of his personality, that and dogged determinism. He thought this kind of thing couldn‘t touch him anymore. He’d been wrong. There had been women and children on that train and firemen were carrying stretchers with very small figures covered in blankets away from the wreckage. He turned away from it and strolled down the road towards a nearby lake. He had to get the taste of burned flesh from his mouth.
Now, shaking free of the thought, he grabbed his hat and headed out the door. The Inquiry was about to start and he didn’t want to be late. He had competition now. Other reporters were flooding into town even while they were still recovering bodies and taking them to a cold warehouse for identification. As his father would say; ‘time to sharpen the elbows,’ his way of saying, ‘get in there and get the story’.
The streets were crowded with moving traffic, of humans and motorcars. When he hit the sidewalk the feverish heat of the August day immediately engulfed him. The sun was a white-hot eye glaring down out of a cloudless sky. He kept a handkerchief in one hand to use to wipe away at his brow, and then would repeat the gesture moments later. His shirt was soaked in minutes and he carried his coat. The heat was unrelenting, as was the noise.
The chattering noises, horns honking, and children running and laughing brought the street to life with a carnival-like atmosphere. Relatives of the victims, off duty rescue workers and evacuees of the burned towns flooded the streets.
Henry zigzagged across the street hurrying past a number of closed businesses. He crossed over the square and past the Victorian gazebo that served as a band shell. The grand courthouse with its austere exterior was the focus of his attention.
The shallow steps leading up to the open doors were a mass of humanity. Men dressed in lightweight summer suits and straw hats, women in their summer dresses and wide-brimmed bonnets crowded the concrete steps and flowed down the adjoining sidewalks. Excited, young boys climbed street lights to view the spectacle.
There were other reporters like himself gathered in bunches. They could be identified by the press badge stuffed in the brim of their hats or hanging from their suit pockets. Many carried cameras and were changing film or inserting new flash bulbs. Henry knew some of them. He couldn’t quite call them old friends since friendship between competitors was never true in his profession. But some of them he’d known since he was a kid. They’d given him a break here and there partly because of the reputation of his old man. To these he gave a nod.
Cops from the local station stood quietly, batons in hand, surveying the area. He thought they looked as uncomfortable as he felt. He knew they were not used to the crowds, particularly the hobos and tramps, come to town in support of their comrade, Moses Pulani. They were an unwelcome and unwholesome bunch that hung around the alleys and shaded corners just on the periphery of the crowds. They made Henry itch where he couldn’t scratch. He knew the cops couldn’t do anything with them, not out in public. They could drive them to the edge of town at night when the streets were clear, dump them off with warnings not to return. They came back anyway. Henry wished the cops could have done more.
Since learning that Pulani was a Gypsy, a hobo and the main suspect, Henry had been uneasy. He knew nothing of these people other than general mythology. He hadn’t even been aware Gypsies lived in the States. Such ignorance was galling to him. Still, the fact Pulani was Gypsy was like having manna drop from heaven. It added a titillating twist to his over-all news articles and provided an even more exotic mystery to the whole affair. That fact alone was selling papers.
Henry could see the unease in the faces of the cops who were small town guys. They liked their town to be quiet and peaceful. They would be relieved when it was all said and done.
Henry studied the people around him and searched for a likely candidate for an interview. The Coroner and the jury were in the courthouse. It was doubtful he’d have access to them right away. It looked like the other reporters had snagged the most likely candidates milling around in the crowd.
The sea of town folk and new arrivals stood chatting with one another, the white straw hats of the men bobbing conspicuously. The local judge presiding over the inquest had announced a recess that allowing participants time to find restrooms, talk to participants, or walk out of the courtroom for a smoke. He had minutes to locate a suitable person to interview before they all went back into the courtroom.
His eyes caught a glimpse of golden hair near the center of the city park on the square and recognized the boy near two adults. On his way to the courthouse steps he'd walked right past them, head down, unobservant. His heart gave a little leap of joy when he realized he hadn't missed out. No one was talking to them.
The blond-headed boy sat on the grass. The man and woman stood directly behind him looking almost comically reserved and out of place. Must be the boy’s parents, Henry thought. “You look scared to death, mister,” he murmured, gazing at the man. The man held himself with an intense sort of rigidity as if he were terrified of being approached. His eyes jerked back and forth as the crowd spilled out onto the parched grass crowding the little trio.
Henry shifted a toothpick into another spot in his mouth and once again started to cross the street, weaving in and out of traffic. His focus was on the three figures, his mind on how best to approach them. This time, as he crossed the crowded street, people parted before him.
He studied the boy sitting on the grass. Charlie Buchanan had been on the train the day it went through the fire and derailed. He was the traveling companion of Moses Pulani, the Gypsy hobo, accused of murdering the engineer.
For all intents and purposes, the boy could be called a hobo, even though he was still a child. He’d been out on his own for over three years. Henry guessed, Charlie was barely past his twelfth birthday.
Each day as he had wandered through the crowd looking for a story, he would avoid the hobos camped around town. They were unobtrusive but present. These people were mostly unnoticeable unless it got up close and personal; like it was now. They had come for the Inquiry like everyone else. He’d even considered doing a little research and writing an article and entitle it, ‘The American Nomad’. Then he reconsidered the idea and dropped it. He didn’t want to have to mingle with them just for a story.
As he approached the trio in the park, he pushed his hat back on his head and tried to look like a bumbling country reporter in hopes of relieving the anxiety that showed on the parents' faces. He nodded at the boy and wondered why the other reporters had missed this opportunity. It was odd, he decided, glancing around. The family was in a little circle of shade, but hardly invisible and still no one was talking to them.
He looks small for his age, he thought.
The boy gazed up at him with grown-up eyes shadowed by strands of sunshine-yellow hair. Those overly large eyes were as blue as a cornflower and yet, not those of an innocent. Henry knew that look. He had seen it before.
In these trying times, he’d seen a lot of worn-out folks slowly becoming more frightened, angry and desperate. He’d seen kids with this very expression, who’d grown up all too fast without the time to have a childhood; many whose parents couldn’t afford to let them have one.
The country was dying. It was sucking away at the guts of people, taking their hearts and leaving these empty shells behind. He’d left Chicago because he couldn’t stand the lines of men looking for handouts or for jobs that weren’t there anymore. But he hadn’t escaped the Depression. It was all over the country.
This boy is going to miss his childhood altogether, he thought, briefly recalling his own less melancholic childhood. Unlike Charlie, he’d grown up enjoying summer afternoons where baseball with friends was all day source of enjoyment, and now and again he’d go to a matinee. It wasn’t like this, struggling to survive looking for a place to sleep or for a handout.
On his parent’s farm in Connecticut, he ran free all summer; fishing, boating, swimming. There was plenty to eat, money for an automobile; his father’s had bought the 1914 ‘Baby Grand‘ Chevrolet new just after he’d gone to college and they had lived in a beautiful country home. He’d never known deprivation.
Even now, he wore a light summer suit tailored to fit. There were few in the crowd who could boast of having clothes as new. He brushed it down with his palms and stepped up to the anxious man. He tipped his hat at the father making sure the press pass was visible.
Buchanan stood off to the side avoiding looking at his son who was squatting on the cement curb. Henry easily deciphered the look. The father's expression was that of a man who had forgotten he had a son, or who couldn't believe the son had returned. He was treating his boy like the kid was a stranger. Henry also noticed the boy was ignoring the people standing at his back, as if he, too, thought of them in the same way.
Henry smiled his charming, ‘I’m-not-so scary’ smile and raised his hand to shake the father's. The man reciprocated automatically neither gauging the hand he took nor questioning the man who presented it.
“Can I have a word with your boy, Mr. Buchanan?” he asked, holding the hand a moment longer than was customary. He wanted to impart trust and reassurance with a firm handshake. “Won’t take long.”
That’s essential, he thought, address the father and ask permission. Be polite. That’ll get your foot in the door. He was no slouch when it came to handling people. He might be working for this small town's paper, but he was experienced. He’d had to be hard and pushy in his time and it had gotten him some good stories but, like his father, his method was more subtle. “Persuade them it’s in their best interest to tell you what they know,” his father would say.
“Does that mean lying to them, dad?” Henry had asked.
His father had stared at him for a long time. “Depends on if you want a story that will be printed or something to wad up and throw away. Just think of it as trying to influence their point of view, get‘em to come around to your way of thinking. Show a little compassion, a little interest,” he shrugged and continued, They‘ll think you‘re their best friend in the whole world and spill their guts. You don‘t gotta call that lying.”
It had gotten both of them reputations in the business; sometimes derision but mostly respect and admiration.
Charlie looked up at him and then wrenched his head around to look at his father. Henry watched. The man didn’t return the boy’s look. The son was savvy, the father wasn't, he decided.
It seemed to him that the kid had been waiting for this moment; perhaps had even picked him out of the crowd of reporters on the steps and waited for him to walk over and make his bid. He felt an odd sensation, like the kid had reeled him in just like a hooked fish. There was no resistance, no surprise when he’d walked up to the family and it was a little disconcerting.
He could not draw his eyes away from the boy’s and knew the deal was already struck. The kid would be willing to talk to him. He could read it in his face.
“I’d pay a sawbuck for an hour in private,” Henry said in a soft voice. He glanced up to see if he'd insulted the father and saw instead the man’s face lighten up. It was a lot of money and the man knew it.
He continued, “We’d just be over there at the café having a cuppa and some pie. What do you think, Charlie?” He didn’t down look at the boy.
The kid immediately stood and dusted off his trousers and nodded, taking off across the street and never looking at his parents again.
Henry watched the boy cross the street, turned tipped his hat to the mother, and discreetly handed over the cash to the father. “Obliged. Ma’am,” he said, touching his finger to the rim of his hat. He could barely see her eyes shaded by her own hat. She was a blond like her son, thin and small. She looked sad. He couldn’t meet her eyes when she finally looked up at him.
He knew he could have gotten permission another way, forcing his way like a wedge between the parents and the boy, but he was savvy, too. The kid might, or might not, take kindly to him treating his parents badly.
Gray, faded, green and white-striped awnings hung over the windows and doors of businesses along the street making the main street look tired and old. The sun bleached the color out of the world and left only drab muted hues of old brick and cracked concrete.
The whole world looks worn out, he reflected as he entered. The thought made him feel tired to his very core.
Part of the building had been transformed from an old general store into a restaurant where a dozen tables sat crowded into the front near the windows. They were sat there to serve the cafe customers and they looked oddly out of place.
Remnants of the store's inventory covered the back wall where shoppers now came in through a delivery entrance to look at the displays of pitchforks and stacked feed sacks. The smell of alfalfa and seed still hung in the air while pieces of straw blew around the bare wood floor.
The floor was stained with spilled kerosene and oil as if the back entrance was also used as a motorcar garage. There were even remnants of wood-spoked wheels and machine parts leaning against the door like someone was using the back area to work on the Model TT farm trucks parked in the nearby lot.
There was a diner farther down the street that could serve a better cup of coffee, might be cleaner and have better service but this was closer and Henry wanted the boy to be within view of his parents.
He was thinking of the train wreck and the fire and what Charlie had been through as he dropped his hat on the table and pulled out a chair. People had grown tired of the dreariness of everyday life and looking at their own poverty or desperation. As soon as this had all come about- the train wreck and the fire- the whole town had blossomed. And no matter how often he’d seen it happen, the party-like atmosphere to the goings-on never got less bizarre for him. A man’s freedom was in question and yet that didn’t seem to mean much to folks.
The Coroner's Inquest taking place was an example. Dead bodies were still being carted to a local mortuary and others were stored in a makeshift morgue covered in ice waiting for identification from relatives and still people were going about their business as if the circus were in town.
He shook his head at the whole business because it puzzled him. Why are they having an inquest now? he wondered. Why not wait for the feds or the railroad people to come and investigate and clean things up? Why hurry this up?
Charlie dropped into the seat across from him, turned to the window and also studied the layout of the street. His gaze was fixed on his parents.
Henry noticed a slight tremor in the boy’s hands. The stubby, dirty fingers that lay on the table convulsed into fists. The boy unconsciously smoothed out the oilcloth used as a tablecloth with his palms. They waited until the waitress wandered over and dropped two grease-stained menus on the table.
Henry smiled charmingly at the woman who wore too much rouge and had dyed her hair too black. He noticed there was food caught in the black netting holding the whole piled-up wad of hair in place and she smelled of old grease. You are too old to be doing this, he decided, as he waited for her to ask the question.
"What kin I git for you?" she asked, wearily.
“Coffee and pie, any kind you have,” he said, without waiting for the inevitable question and handed back the grease-stained menu unopened. He glanced at the boy. “Same for you, Charlie?”
The boy nodded without speaking or taking his eyes away from the window. The waitress took the menus and left them.
The boy turned to look directly at him as he spoke, “I’m only talking to you cuz you paid. The lawyer told my father that I can’t talk about what happened until I give my testimony.”
He nodded. The kid was setting up the terms of the deal. He also knew Charlie would talk in spite of his father or the lawyer. All he had to do was wait.
“I’ll tell you my story anyway,” Charlie said, confirming his guess.“But you don’t get to ask too many questions and there’s some I won’t answer. I’m telling you straight out, okee-doke?" He glared at him. "I consider Moses Pulani my friend and I won’t snitch on him and make it worse. You okay with that?” There was a pause and Henry waited him out because he knew there was more. He was right, the kid continued, “If you’re not, then tell me now and I’ll go fetch that dough outta my dad’s hands and bring it back to you.”
“Charlie they're going to point out that you were on that train with Pulani. Sooner or later you're going to have to tell what you know, to the cops or the Coroner‘s jury. Might even mean you’d be in trouble yourself. They might think you’re an accomplice. They aren‘t going to take it well that you traveled with a Gypsy and never tried to get away.”
He instantly wished he could have shoved his fist in his mouth. Jesus, why'd I say that! he wondered. He didn’t want to threaten the kid or scare him. He didn’t want to sound like he was interrogating him either. He wasn’t used to talking to kids and he knew he had to take it easy.
Charlie called him on it. “You wanna go down that road, Mister? he asked, sneering. “Cuz I kin promise you I‘ll drink the coffee and eat the pie and waltz on outta here pretty as you please and not say nothin' else. Nobody's gonna make me say nuthin'.”
“My apologies,” he said. He was being sincere. This had started off wrong. He felt more beads of sweat on his brow and it wasn't all from the summer heat. The soft whirling fan above did little to cool or even move the air around.
He dropped his suit coat over the back of a chair and rolled up his sleeves making time to see if the apology would be accepted. He didn’t want the kid to see weakness but he also wanted some control. “I'll agree to your terms, mostly. I am a reporter, though, and I think I should be able to ask a few questions. That’s my job.”
Charlie shrugged and splayed his hands out over the table as if to say, ‘You‘ve heard the rules. Are we gonna play or not?’. The waitress dropped by at that moment to slide two plates of apple pie and two cups of black coffee before each of them.
He set the notebook and pencil he’d drawn from his pocket on the table and pulled a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket. He lit one and squinted through one eye at the calendar tacked to the opposite wall. It was something to do while the tension between them subsided.
He knew the date, but it was old habit. Four days ago that train wrecked and the engineer was found dead with his throat cut. August 21 1935.
Smoke was still rising high into the sky from the forest fires that had burned through two towns. The acrid smell permeated everything, even the clothes he wore. He’d step out the door of his boarding house in the morning and his lungs would protest. The streets were still hazy with the smoke.
His thoughts wandered to the inquest and once again he thought about how fast they were moving on this. The town, the relatives; everybody wanted a head on a platter and a man to blame and they were moving forward lickety-split. The kid was in the thick of it.
“Have it your way kid,” he said and puffed on his newly lit cigarette. “Mind if I take notes?” He picked up the Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil, poised to write. He liked the smell of pencil and the way it sharpened easily with the little penknife he always carried in his pocket. He licked the end and opened up his notebook to a fresh white page of paper. He wrote the numbers from the calendar at the top just to be writing something.
Charlie ate the pie in a few bites and sat with his grubby hands cupped around the coffee as if he was trying to keep them warm. He examined the squares of the tablecloth, straightened the pepper and salt shakers and started talking. “I lit out of town in June,1932, at night. Mama had just cleared the table and my father was going in to read his paper. My sisters and my brother were upstairs.”
“How old are you, Charlie?” Henry asked, holding his pencil poised in midair over the pad of paper. He noticed immediately how the kid was referencing his parents. It was 'mama' for mother- more endearing, he thought and ‘my father' for dad- cold and detached. Too formal, he conjectured. He respects his mother but not the father. It was a bit of character analysis he like to indulge in with interviewees. Sometimes he used the information to fill out the story and sometimes not, but it always helped him get a feel for the person he was talking to.
The boy frowned and shoved his empty plate roughly across the table as a signal it would be his way from the get-go. Bledsoe held up his hands in resignation. “Just needed a few facts to get us started, that’s all boy. No need to get riled.”
“I’m fourteen years old,” the kid grumbled. “Why is that the first question everyone asks?”
Probably because you don’t look a day over twelve, he said to himself and squinted over the smoke of the slow-burning cigarette in his mouth. He dutifully wrote down the number fourteen on his notepad while the boy watched. He knew it was a lie. The boy didn't want anybody to mistake him for a child.
I'll learn the truth eventually, he thought, but the fact that the kid was lying right off the bat was probably an indication of the information he was going to give and it was disheartening.
They sat in silence for a moment before the boy continued. “My father didn’t have a job for two years. We had food on the table, but my mama had to take in boarders. I moved out of my room early on and shared one with my little brother. I think it embarrassed them." He stopped and flushed pink. “We was known for being well-to-do people.”
The boy stared at the table as if reading the oil stains on it. "The night I left I heard ‘em talking. ‘No money, no jobs, too many mouths to feed’. My father was saying. He was angry and I figured he was talking about me. So I lit out. I didn’t want to make it hard on ‘em. Times were getting tougher you know? I think they tried to hide how bad off we was gittin‘, but…” The kid looked at him while he hot-boxed his cigarette. He felt the heat burn his throat and had to squint from the smoke stinging his eyes.
He nodded. He knew all right. He'd been there too, watching as the country folded inwards like an old tin can with too much pressure pushing down on it.
He’d been one of the lucky ones. He was single, in his thirties, and had no other responsibility than feeding his own mouth, which he could do fairly easily. He’d had no room for relationships, for other people. It was his job from day one. He stared at the boy.
Yeah, he knew many, many families like Charlie’s. He'd even seen kids on the street the same age as this kid and it always broke his heart, although he’d never let on to anyone how he really felt. He’d look soft and it wasn’t something he could afford to do in his business.
He slumped in his chair and hoped the kid wasn‘t wasting his time. I need something new and fresh, kid. Everybody has a story like this. Give me some meat. He didn’t say it out loud for fear of scaring the kid off.
It’s hard to find a decent story these day, he thought to himself. Same ol', same ol' news. No one’s getting any richer but they sure are getting poorer. It's hard times for everyone.
He was getting tired of writing about the hardship. Maybe the train wreck and the fire were terrible but it was providing him with something worthy of a headline. Ever since coming to this backwater town he’d been growing weary of the boredom of small town life.
Now because of the wreck, the murder and the terrible deaths of the passengers, the story was splashing across every headline in the country. But that wasn't going to earn him a dime today. Today was a new day and a new news day. He needed another story. He needed to keep his own fire going. He could only hope that he could hook the kid into confessing to him. But he needed to finesse this and it would take time.
The morning sun beat down on their heads from the unshielded storefront window. It was going to be another hot day without rain. He glanced out of the window at the milling crowd and the sun reflecting off the nickel of the cars as they went by and couldn’t help but wonder if it did rain would it hit the ground like water dropping into a hot skillet. Would it spit and hiss? he wondered. He'd like to see that.
His mind was wandering and he had to work at pulling himself back. He had been listening to the buzz of a lone fly trapped inside the gauzy glass window, watching its futile attempt at escape. Now he turned back to the kid.
“Charlie, lots of kids left home because their folks couldn’t support them. I need to hear about the wreck and the dead engineer. I want to know what you know about Moses Pulani, the man they are accusing of murder. You were with him for a long time. You better than anyone would know what kind of man he is. That’s what people want to know about. They want to know about a Gypsy and how you got hooked up with him. They want to know if you were a witness to that murder. Even if it is important to you, the rest doesn't count.”