Welcome to Flash Pulp, Episode Seventy-One.
Tonight, we present Sgt. Smith and The Last Stop, Part 1 of 1
This week’s episodes are brought to you by the ranting of Captain Pigheart.
Thrill to the dangerous incompetence of his crew; swoon at his romance with anything that will have him; cackle gleefully at the results of both.
Buy the tales, as told by the Captain himself at CD Baby.
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, we present a letter, as written by the hand of Sgt. Smith, telling of one strange evening, and a stranger encounter.
Flash Pulp 071 – Sgt. Smith and The Last Stop, Part 1 of 1
It was 1944, and there was a war on, but, as you know, I was forced to abstain from the service of my country, as I was short my tongue. Still, there are things a man can do to help his nation, and I was willing to do them. I probably wouldn’t have been so eager if I’d known your Ma at the time, but in those days the life of a mute wasn’t always the easiest, and, being 16, I was slightly stupid with my need to make a place in the world.
That’s how I found myself riding the rails. The age of the hobo was coming to an end, some would say it already had, I guess, but you could still find old timers hopping trains and coasting from sea to sea, if you looked hard enough at the shadows.
I was supposed to be watching the cargo cars for Japanese saboteurs, of which there never were any as far as I can tell, but every now and again I’d stumble across some gray whiskered fellow in patchwork pants, usually with a bottle under his arm.
The night I met Yancy and Poke was a cold one – I’d spent some of it chatting away in the caboose, keeping close to the heater, but I was young and hardy, and my duties weighed heavy even if I’d done the rounds a hundred times previous without turning up so much as a kimono or plate of sushi.
Yancy and Poke weren’t Nipponese, obviously, I doubt they’d ever had a home address beyond America-in-general.
They’d crammed themselves between a double stack of crates, and when I first came across them, I thought they were doing something mighty inappropriate.
“Hey – what’a’you doin’ in there?” I thought, pinning them with the flashlight the railroad had handed me. It was years later that I realized just how lucky I was that no one pitched me from the train during those dark hours.
Poke was lying across Yancy’s lap, and, over the rattle of the tracks, I could hear one of them crying and one of them dying in slow rasps.
Yancy probably couldn’t make out my face over the glare of the light; with the look on his own, I figure he must have thought he’d been caught up by a hardliner railroad dick.
“Mister, mister, please, my friend, he ain’t gonna make it much longer, just let us ride.”
Well; I had a whistle, and I had my flashlight, but those were about the only options the company had given me. I couldn’t speak to tell him I’d give him a pass, and blowing the whistle would have brought Old Mike up from the caboose with his clobbering stick at the ready.
I pulled out my notepad and scratched a quick message, but Yancy only looked at the paper in despair – you don’t find yourself having to hop freight because of a great education.
I didn’t have much else to offer them, but I felt bad – Poke was obviously in rough shape, his face was a mess of bruise and hard life, and I didn’t want to just flip off the light and leave them to the dark.
I dug out the last thing I had in my pockets: a Kit Kat chocolate bar I’d been saving as supper. I snapped off two of the ridges and handed them to Yancy.
The next few hours were a life’s worth of learning. I mimed my silent disposition to Yancy, who introduced himself and his companion, and he had no problem accepting it. To fill the time, he started talking, and I’d long finished my half of the meager meal before I realized the hour.
He told me of his travels with Poke; about the cities they’d seen built and fall apart, the moonshine they’d drunk together, even about the small town cop who’d beaten Poke to an inch of his life, ending their journeys.
Maybe it was the kindness I’d shown him that made him tell me, maybe it was the fact that he himself was not long behind Poke for the Lord’s judgement – either way, he let slip where they were headed, and that he needed to watch out for the great gnarled Douglas-fir with only the eastern portion of its limbs that would soon be after the down-slope of McClucthie’s hill.
It’s hard to say how, but before I knew it, the three of us were at the open door, and, as the engine began to grind around the sloping grade that marked the bottom of the incline; as we spotted that huge and awful tree; the three of us jumped.
I don’t know how Yancy had planned on carrying Poke along the path through the underbrush, if it hadn’t been for my flashlight and youthful exuberance I’m not sure either of us could have managed it. As it was, after an hour of pushing aside the thick green, we came across a hillock in a clearing, on top of which sat a low fire with a lone man huddled close.
I hadn’t fully believed what the hobo had been telling me back in the rail-car, but seeing that beacon set my body trembling. The patchwork man tending the flame didn’t bother to look up as we passed, and Yancy wasn’t willing to stop after getting so close.
There wasn’t a free place to rest my light that didn’t touch on bleached white bones or rotting flesh. I hadn’t smelled anything on the approach; Yancy had told me the wind always blows westward over what he called the hobo graveyard.
Some of the dead had signs on their chest; names or dates or scratched final messages; some had died sitting; some had taken the time to lay themselves down with arms crossed.
After a while of strolling through that open air sepulcher, I flipped off my light.
Some things are best left little seen.
I didn’t know where we were going, but Yancy led on. After a time he sat himself down, then motioned for me to rest Poke – who’d been limping along on my shoulder, muttering deliriously about his mother – beside him.
Yancy shook my hand, and I turned to leave them to it, trying hard to focus on the firelight as I picked my way back. I grabbed a ladder onto the next train to slow for the grade, and, once I got to the yard, I spun a tale to Old Mike that I’d fallen overboard after a lurch.
I’ve never seen a newspaper report mentioning the hoard of bones and bodies, and I’ve often wondered whatever happened to that self-made cemetery. Did the last man pick up a shovel and lay them all under?
At Eighty-Two I’m unlikely to sneak onto an iron horse to find out, and I’ve a terrible feeling I’d just find a subdivision with no history anyhow. Still, sometimes, when the wind blows to the west, I find myself wondering, and my legs longing to ramble.
Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm. The audio and text formats of Flash Pulp are released under the Canadian Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 License.