Western Short Story
Two railroad men, pointing guns, shoved Boxcar Berkelly out of a freight car door after they found him sleeping under a worn canvas in a corner of the last car in the train as it entered Texas. The Houston and Texas Central Railway Company, in its early years, had to keep a clean-suit west to get a good start on its business. It caught onto too many free-loaders, Boxcar being one of the regulars who’d rather ride the railroad for a few days than a horse for a week or more on open range.
The two railroad men made sure they dumped him a long way between towns, like in mid-nowhere, giving him a poor start on his life in Texas. Boxcar, unknown to those railroad dicks, was an experienced cattleman who hesitated taking long rides alone, let alone long walks. His last horse was shot out from under him by a sniper of sorts, and he left horse and saddle where they fell. Both easy enough to replace with a new job, if one got in his way again, not that he’d stretch for it, or deny it, either way he could look at it, depending on his social mien, dry throat or itchy finger on his Colt, needing hardly a solid excuse for a new adventure.
Boxcar was, as he’d freely admit it, “his own dude.”
As it was, he carried his guns and canteen for a whole day before he met up with a scout on a cattle drive, the meeting of two familiar souls.
“Any chance of hitching up with you gents? My name is Boxcar Berkelly.”
Laughter flooded the other gent as he said, “I been there, my man. My name’s Joe Riley, and I’ve been there too, wherever it is you come from, and my boss, Tricks Taylor, who speaks with a tough edge to his voice, is always on the lookout for new men, good workers. You toe the line on that stance?”
“Sure do, Joe. Done it all. Lead scout to dust-eater.” Boxcar covered lots of personal ground with as few words as possible, as we have learned up to this point.
A new friendship had formed in the midst of nowhere, in spite of the hurried delivery in the middle of nowhere.
Tricks Taylor started right at the beginning, as herd bosses do: I got a horse and a saddle for you that you can buy out of your pay and I figure it’ll take about a year, that a deal for you, Boxcar? It ain’t going to make anybody rich out here, including me, but you get your meals with it, which I guarantee you will earn ‘em and love ‘em.”
Boxcar was at work once again, even as he heard the distant and softened wail of a train whistle, like it damned near was calling him home again, with just a job getting in the way.
We all know the way West made many a man, and broke down just as many as it made. Boxcar made his way starting on the next day, fighting off in his ow fury the attempt of a few rustlers to grab and run with a few dollars of meat on the hoof. His first shot took a man off his horse, and letting him sprawl dead without any check on him for the better part of half hour’ gunplay.
Tricks Taylor said, ‘tell me, Boxcar, why’d you pick on that dead and down gent the very first thing?”
“Well, boss, he carried himself like you do, so I knew he was tie boss of that small gang off cow thieves. A small operation, if you ask me, and probably never pulled off good haul any time since they been formed.”
“You’re a damned good hire, Boxcar, so the horse and saddle are paid off already as long as you hang on for the year; regular pay and regular meals coming to you. You’re a good hire. Keep it up.””
“Thanks, boss. I’ll still duck when I think a slug is aimed at me, but will get right back on track.”
Three weeks later, it happened again, and Boxcar was right in the middle of the early morning attempt, shooting down two rustlers early in the fray, which evened the odds to a controllable lot, one slug taking off his sombrero when he didn’t duck deep enough or fast enough, but fired back with a vengeance. Tricks Taylor somehow kept his eye on Boxcar. When the affair was over and fully repulsed, he took Boxcar aside and said, ’you’re worth every penny and then some, pal. It’s a pleasure to share the ride with you.”
At that moment, when a train whistle sounded solemnly in the distance, and Boxcar’s attention was quickly drawn to it, the boss ‘I have noticed a couple of ties that that lonely sound seems to catch your full attention. Is there a story there?”
Boxcar said, ‘That’s how I got here, boss, and most likely will get me out there or on my way when my job is done. It’s in my blood, I guess. I find it hard to ignore the sound, like it’s a real part of me, and has been that way since I was a sprout of a kid and my Pa used tossing songs about his travels back east on the early railroads. He had a magic tone to his words that never let go, not for a minute. He used to say the railways will get longer and the country will get shorter. I didn’t know what he meant for a long time, but I once fell asleep to the music, and my dreams picked it up.”
Boxcar stopped there, with a hesitant nod, and continued, ‘My dream explained his whole life, and mine too, in the sound of a train whistle, the wholesale melancholy in it that won’t be silent. I am true to it, I’ll have to admit, boss, and it will draw me again after this current chore of mine is completed. I have to warn you of that. It’ll come at me one day, no matter where I am and I’ll be on my way.
Tricks Taylor, obviously moved by the story, said in reply, “I had no idea in all this world that a sound could wield such magic. I’ll have to keep my ears open from now on. I suppose I’ll realize one day when I look up and you’re gone.”
Boxcar said, “You probably won’t see me leave, boss, but afterward you’ll remember the sound of that same wailing train whistle and know I’m headed elsewhere, somewhere down the line.”
“I’ll sure miss you, Boxcar.” The early-on edge to his voice was long gone, and Boxcar saw him looking back down on the trail where life hung in place.