Can’t wait to start reading Lost in the Tallgrass by Clyde Witt, the Write Place 2014 Book Contest winner? You’re in luck. Read chapter one below for free, or download it as a PDF. You can also preorder it before Friday, August 15, and receive a 10% discount here.
Rusty decided to leave after supper, under the cover of darkness when cool evening air would make travel less of a hardship and more of an adventure. It was time to stop dreaming about being a cowboy in the Wild West and become one. He sat atop the metal boxcar, legs crossed in the manner he imagined Injuns would use at a powwow.
The palms of his hands twisted on two warm steel rods as he tried to wipe away sweat and improve his grip. As the train began to move the rumbling sound of its couplers rolled toward him in a straight line, like thunder of an approaching storm.
Rusty shifted the gray newspaper boy’s bag, worn bandoleer style, to a more comfortable position. The bag was loaded with his only possessions: one long-sleeved white shirt, one pair of black canvas work pants with a hole in the right knee, and two pairs of loose-fitting underpants stolen from his father’s dresser. He leaned against the comforting pressure of the bag as it captured wind and transformed itself into a canvas pillow.
The train’s speed increased, creating an assault on his face by cicadas and hard-shelled June bugs. They clung to his sand-colored hair and crawled along the buttoned collar of his clean white shirt. The rush of wind and rattle of steel wheels increased, replacing the familiar summer sound of crickets. With head tilted back, he screamed at the stars, “Yeehaaa! I ain’t never had this much fun.”
Earlier in the day he’d passed up an opportunity to go fishing so that he could quietly explore ways of getting to Kansas―for free. Trains ran through his town in every direction, so the obvious choice, his only choice, was to hop a freight. To a fourteen-year-old boy it seemed easy enough: just find a train heading toward the setting sun. Yates Center, Kansas, had to be out there somewhere. Uncle George had written lots of letters to Ma telling her how great things were in Kansas, so how hard could it be to find the place?
Rusty’s knowledge of trains was limited by what his father told him. If Pa said, “Stay away from the rail yard,” that was the end of the discussion. He would say, “You never know what kind of people you might find hanging around there: hobos, gypsies, even worst.”
Later that night, as the train began to move, Rusty felt the weight of Kendallville’s humid air drift back to where he hoped it would remain, along with Pa’s strange way of speaking, half-English, half-German. The smelly air could stay there too, with Sophia, the new stepma who screamed about kids always underfoot. Rusty’s stomach began to rumble, and he felt water coming up into his mouth. To make himself feel better he tipped his head back and looked at the unmoving stars that belonged to the muggy August night.
Each time the train approached a crossroad, the four-note blast of its whistle carried stories about things he wanted, like life as a cowboy, any life away from Indiana, where noisy cars and trucks were fast replacing horses. Living in the west would mean he could be with his brother, whom he’d not seen in a year. Cliff was six years older and already a cowboy. Occasionally, when rounding a curve, the train’s speed decreased, easing the pressure of the wind. Rusty could relax his grip on the metal bars and expel a deep breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. The rhythmic invocation broadcast by the boxcar’s wheels rose through the dark as the train traveled over uneven joints in the rails: do something, be something, do something, be something.
Rusty twisted from side to side searching for some way to ease the swaying of the railcar. He lifted his nose and sniffed, trying to identify insects, sparks, and ashes mixed in the aroma that pelted his face. He shuddered when cinders brushed his cheeks, reminding him of how Ma’s chapped hand used to feel when she tucked him in at night. Occasionally, invisible particles burned and he wondered if hitching a ride atop a steel boxcar was a good idea. Running away from home―or what he had called home after Sophia tossed him out of his real house, Ma’s house―had seemed like a perfect plan.
When the car swayed and rocked while rounding a turn, Rusty reacted like a bird flapping its wings to stay balanced on a wire. He rubbed his butt. His flat wool cap, first used as a seat cushion, no longer helped. His eyes became accustomed to the dark, and he studied the array of rods crossing the roof. The fat, central piece that extended the length of the car divided it into equal segments. At ninety-degree angles from the main rod, equally spaced shorter rods extended toward the darkness of the roof ’s edges. This jigsaw puzzle of symmetrical metal pieces reminded him of sides of beef he’d seen hanging in Mr. Kinkauff’s butcher shop back home.
The railcar shook and he flattened his hands against the still-warm roof in hopes of reducing the swaying motion of the car. He leaned forward against the pressure of the wind. To keep himself awake, he searched for familiar bright stars in the night sky and imagined Cliff doing the same while rounding up stray cows or sitting near the campfire drinking coffee.
Deep in the tunnel of darkness he saw red and yellow fireflies exit the engine’s smoke stack, then disappear into the night. Each time his body slipped he knew he was losing his battle to stay atop the railcar. He rubbed his tongue on the grit stuck to his lips and turned toward the back of the railcar in hopes of finding some safe way to get out of the wind.
As the direction of the train shifted his hair flowed with it, unblocking his vision and allowing the slightly bowed outline of the railcar’s back edge to come into view. Even though that edge seemed hardly more than three arms’ lengths away, Rusty knew the wind pressure would prevent him from standing. He could forget about trying to walk to the ladder at the back of the car.
He rubbed the tops of his thighs to relieve the numbness and feeling of pins and needles being stuck into his feet. He twisted and turned to get his legs unwrapped and under his stomach so he could balance on all fours and find a better position to fight the ceaseless rocking motion of the car. The swaying subsided long enough for him to slip his hands along the horizontal rods away from his body and seek a more secure, flattened position. Being stretched flat as possible might help reduce the wind but made it impossible to move toward the ladder. The car lurched. Rusty reached for any anchor and grabbed the metal rod that ran down the centerline. To keep himself from rolling across the top of the car, he spread his legs like a bird’s tail feathers. His jaw slammed against the roof and he unleashed a string of unpracticed profanity.
Rhythmic battering of his body against the roof sent spurts of pain through his chest. To soften the blows, he pulled and pushed at his canvas bag until it wedged between his chest and the central rod on the roof.
The rod gripped with his left hand felt slippery with sweat as he used his right to unbuckle the scarred leather belt he’d stolen from his father. When the tongue of the belt slipped free, he pushed the metal buckle under the central rod, rejoined the two ends, and pulled hard to cinch himself to the boxcar roof. Except for the pain in his stomach caused by the too-tight belt, he felt secure when lashed in place. The train moved faster than he’d ever imagined―faster than any horse he’d seen at the county fair. He lifted his head to see where he was going and a sharp pain in his neck made him tuck in his chin and rest his head on his forearm. Up ahead he knew was only darkness. With each attempt to see where he was going, his eyes stung from sweat mixed with insects and soot. He knew he was going to cry. He shivered. His right hand worked the bag closer to his face to serve as a pillow against the rhythmic pounding. He felt nauseous again. Maybe, if he could splay his arms and legs a bit more, as if he was giving this railcar a hug, it would reduce the endless swaying. He closed his eyes and was soon riding on top of a sparkling white stagecoach, seated next to Buffalo Bill himself. They were caroming between the new lamp poles of Kendallville’s Center Street, the sparking hooves of eight white horses thundering so loud he couldn’t hear the screams of children huddled against store windows in fear of being trampled. Buffalo Bill handed him the single-action .45 revolver, a huge Colt Peacemaker, to fire at the clouds overhead.
Sleep lifted from Rusty. The train was no longer moving. He forced his encrusted eyelids open on a scene of railcars the color of cooked beets stretching before him in the wide sweep of a train yard. A greenish hint of land separated the tops of railcars from the gray-blue sky. The sun poked above the line, its orb reminding him of the yolk of a fresh egg dropped in a skillet. Below the green line, railcars interrupted his view of the yard as they swayed along the tracks. Bells and whistles joined unfamiliar ticking sounds as the metal roof of the boxcar warmed in the sun. Smoke made the air feel thick as wool. Despite the clamor, there was a softness to morning in this place, something he’d not felt back in Kendallville for a long time.
Rusty sensed vibrations in his stomach. It was a soft, slow padding feeling, like a cat sneaking up on a mouse, making the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He clinched his teeth as the tremors drew closer, then stopped. He lifted his head at the sound of a sharp squeak. A hissing noise followed by the unmistakable sound of the impact of a bat against the skin of a ball arrived at the same moment as searing pain in his left foot. His body jolted forward, causing his head to slam against one of the roof ’s cross members. Flames flared through his spine, into his neck, and exited as dry heaves from his mouth. Another sharp cracking sound, an unexpected wash of cold air, then intense pain made his body shake and his breath disappear. The smooth skin of his cheek scraped against the canvas bag. Rusty twisted in an effort to see his assailant; however, something held him captive.