Boxcar Witchcraft

On the morning after Prohibition went the way of the dodo, the Hobo Witch-king came to call. I stood in the narrow alley behind the brothel where I was raised, pissing away the sour mash demons that hadn’t quite let go. Only long johns and the carryover warmth from my bedroll protected me from the freezing Chicago air. I knew it must be something serious. King never called on anyone. He rode the rails from jungle to jungle, held court, and the hobos and road kids with the traveling craft called on him. I still had my pecker out when I heard his familiar voice behind me.

“Something wrong with the toilets in that fancy house o’ yours?” he asked.

I couldn’t stop a grin from spreading ear-to-ear as I tucked myself away and turned to face him. Before me stood a gaunt man who looked more like a downtown banker than a hobo. Three times my own twenty years, at least, he wore a fancy gentleman’s suit years out-of-date but showing little wear; his shoes had no holes and the fresh shine gleamed. Beneath his full head of bone white hair, coal black eyes twinkled with mischief. I grabbed the old man and pulled him in for a hug. When I caught a whiff of his cologne, I became all too aware of my own sweat and whiskey stench, but it didn’t matter. King was dear to me, and I wanted to hug him for as long as I could.

“I’ve missed you; it’s been too long,” I said.

“I’ve had to get my affairs in order,” he said with a bit less twinkle in his eye.

My heart cracked. “King, no!” Before I knew it, tears streaked my cheeks.

“Don’t weep for me, St. Valentine. I’ve outlived far too many younger hobos. It’s my time.”

“How can you be sure? Not a doctor, right?”

“It’s true, can’t trust no doctor’s opinion of my health, but I gave myself a reading and the cards of the Hobo ‘Ro don’t lie.”

As I stood there like an idiot, teeth chattering and knees knocking in between sniffs and sobs, the back door opened and Tildy, one of my witch mothers, leaned out.

“Robby Ray Johnson, why are you running around outside in your skivvies? You’ll freeze,” she said.

“The pots inside were full up with witches and sales ladies. Unless you wanted me in there with ‘em, it was head outside in my drawers. And you’re supposed to call me St. Valentine now.”

“Ain’t no way I’m calling you St. Anything,” she scoffed and pointed at my crotch. “That thing of yours finds warm and welcoming beds the way a dowsing rod finds water.”

She wasn’t judging me, just having some fun at my expense. No one who lived in the house cared a lick how someone got their kicks, but my ears burned anyway. Even as a grown man, the witches who raised me had a way of making me feel twelve again, and I got real embarrassed with her talking about my ding-dong like that. She gave me a sly wink that only made matters worse. King’s melodious chuckle followed.

“So true, Miss Tildy,” he said. “More than once, I’ve hoisted Valentine into a moving boxcar to escape the pursuit of angry fathers and brothers.”

“It’s not my fault,” I said with exaggerated indignation, my sadness and embarrassment giving way to the casual comfort of friends and family. “It’s usually their idea, and I’m always sure to do the right charms and cantrips to make sure I’m shooting blanks.” If I only learned one thing from my witch mothers and a house full of working women, I learned men could often be assholes, and I had vowed long ago not to be an asshole.

“Come on inside, you two,” Tildy scolded. “I can’t feed you, King Robby’s eaten everything in sight, and no one’s been to the market yet, but there’s a fresh pot of coffee brewed.”

“Thank you kindly” King said. Before he crossed the threshold behind me, I heard him pray to the Goddess, “On the rails, to do what I must, with perfect love and perfect trust.

Tildy grabbed the coffee and a couple of mugs. She indicated King and I should sit at the kitchen table, set the mugs on the table with a clank, and filled them. I rolled up the blankets still laid out on the kitchen floor. To give a boxcar witch like me a more permanent place in the house would spoil the energy of the hearth-and-home rituals. The home of my youth could now only serve as an occasional flop house.

“I need you to catch-out with me,” King said, “and bring some of your boys too. I gotta take the NP to Seattle.”

“Jesus, that’s a long way to ride the rails up north in winter. Especially if you’re sick.”

“I was born by Puget Sound, and I want to die by it, but I don’t have much time.”

I felt tears well up in my eyes again and batted them away harshly, angry that I couldn’t be stronger for King. More followed. “Booker T and Cool Papa are working the World’s Fair with me. I think Brother Mulligan is in town too.”

“I need a couple o’ weeks,” King said, “but I want to catch-out soon after that. Can you and the other boys be ready then?”

Tildy looked both sad and relieved. My witch mothers love me, but it drains them to keep me under their roof. When a couple of Capone’s men had hid with us after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the women turned me out claiming if the cops came, they’d assume I was in on it too. In truth, the growing strength and untamed nature of my traveling craft had begun putting the whole house at risk, even then.

“Of course,” I said. “On the rails, to do what I must, with perfect love and perfect trust,” I whispered to the Goddess and then got to work making plans.

In the two weeks that passed while King readied himself, the rest of us prepared as well. Those of us who had planned to spend the winter working the World’s Fair celebrating a “Century of Progress,” had collected our final pay. As I strolled up towards Madison St. where the others planned to jungle up until we hit the rails, I glanced around and wondered what progress we were celebrating. In just a few miles, I had passed two sad sacks that had drawn their last breath alone on the streets. One I found lying on a bench near the trolley and the other had been propped against the door to a bar not yet open for business. When I told a beat cop what I’d found, he looked more inconvenienced than anything. It sure didn’t feel like progress to me.

Thinking on the two dead men, as well as my road partners sleeping in the jungle, I felt guilty for my makeshift bed in the brothel’s kitchen. I was catching out on a full stomach too, thanks to my witch mothers. They had cooked up the last bit of beef that could be found in the house and mashed some potatoes to go with it. If I felt guilty for the bed, I felt doubly so for the loving mothers I could still visit every so often. Such was not the case for the other boys that traveled with me. They probably thought I was crazy to be a bo at all, but boxcar witchcraft belonged on the rails.

When I arrived at the hobo jungle on Madison St., I found King, Brother Mulligan, and several other hobos gathered around a robust fire. King mesmerized his audience with his storytelling prowess. Each bo who had it to give, presented an offering of vegetables or seasoning to Mulligan who inspected it and then tossed it into an old tin can hanging over the flame. The can didn’t look like it held enough stew to feed the bos already present and more were pouring in from every direction. When King spun a yarn, it drew spectators like bugs to a light bulb. By the time he was finished, there must have been a crowd of three dozen. Some of those worst off eyed the brewing mulligan stew (Brother Mulligan was named after the stew, not the other way around) more than they listened to King’s tale. They knew the can could never feed them all and they wanted to be sure to get a few bites.

“Line up,” Brother shouted. A couple years younger than me and four inches shorter, his voice commanded. His pop had led men in battle during the Great War. Though Mulligan had fled home to avoid the daily beatings from his disciplinarian father, some of the stern man’s influence had rubbed off. When a few of the hungrier men got into a dust up struggling to be the first in line, Mulligan set the can down and stepped in between.

“Back of the line!”

The two men, the meanest, most selfish kind of tramps out there, skulked to the end of the queue.

One by one, each one held out his empty tin can, or in a few cases a mug, and received a heaping spoonful of mulligan stew. I stayed back, respectful of the fact that my stomach still had hours to go before I would be hungry again, and many of these men hadn’t eaten in days. I smiled as five times the volume of stew than the can could possibly hold poured into the makeshift bowls of hungry hobos.

“This is his body, broken for you. Take and eat of it, in remembrance of him,” Brother said to each recipient. Brother’s miracles might be different than those of the Hobo ‘Ro, but, in my book, traveling craft, nonetheless.

After King finished entertaining the crowd, and everyone’s can or cup had been licked clean, he, Mulligan, and I headed to the rail yard to find a suitable car to take the trip to Minneapolis. There we’d catch the Northern Pacific to make the long haul across the country.

“I ain’t able to catch a moving train no more,” King muttered, looking embarrassed to have to admit it to Mulligan and me.

“Don’t worry, King,” I assured him. “We can just board an empty that’s still sitting in the yard.”

“But the bulls,” King said.

“Booker T and Cool Papa plan to distract those assholes,” I said. My heart carried a seething hatred for the railway police. Seemed like they could sense a bo who possessed the craft and tried double to put them off the trains. King always attracted the nastiest of the bunch.

“Where are the Haitians?” King asked.

“They ain’t always welcome in the Madison jungle,” Brother Mulligan answered. Again, I wondered what progress the Fair was celebrating. “They’re already at the yard keeping an eye out for us and the bulls.”

It took courage for Booker and Papa to bait the rail police. Only black skin could rile up a bull like the scent of traveling craft. The fact they possessed both dressed the table for a full helping of cruel violence. One time, enraged even further by Booker T’s quirky manner, a bull nicknamed Fang — ‘cause of a twisted tooth that could be seen even with his mouth closed — had beaten the teen unconscious and then walked away humming a happy tune. Sometimes, back when I lived at home with my mothers and the sales ladies, I’d have to grab the baseball bat we kept for just such occasions and help bounce an unruly customer who’d turned violent. I often wished I could deliver the same justice to Fang. Some bos earned the treatment they got — Goddess only knows they ain’t all good people — but Fang beat Booker T not for being mean, but for being gentle.

“How about this one?” Mulligan asked, pointing to an empty boxcar with the door open and inviting.

“It’s headed to Minneapolis and leaves in a few minutes,” King said. The old man knew the destination and schedule of any train on the tracks with just one look. One of the gifts given to the possessor of the Hobo ‘Ro.

“All aboard,” said Mulligan, as he and I boosted King into the car and climbed in after him. The three of us turned and sat with our legs dangling out the car door. It was safe with the train sitting still, but less so when it moved. A sudden shift could send the door slamming shut, taking with it any legs in its path.

We weren’t settled there but a minute when I heard boots on the gravel near our train about four or five cars back. I didn’t even have to look to know. You could hear the arrogant swagger in the footsteps. A bull. When I did look, I saw a bean pole not much older than me. His brand-new suit and hat gave away his lack of experience. The holstered revolver at his side reminded me he could still be dangerous; like a baby rattlesnake that would sink all its venom with the first bite. He trotted our way when he noticed us.

The next train over had pulled away around the time the bull calf headed toward us. Before he had gone far, Cool Papa and Booker T stepped from between the cars of our train and started running for the moving one.

“Do it just like I said, Booker T,” Cool Papa said, his deep voice carefully enunciating around his Haitian accent so the bull would understand him. Booker T said nothing, as was his way, but scurried after his companion in the direction of the train that had picked up speed.

I noticed then that our train had started moving too. Not much I could do but watch the drama unfold.

At six and a half feet — a tall drink of water, the witches and sales ladies used to say while admiring his muscular build — Cool Papa had at least a foot on Booker T, maybe more, so the shorter young man had to run hard to keep up.

“Stop right there, you’re trespassing on railroad property,” the young bull shouted at them. He wrestled with his revolver, not well practiced in drawing the weapon.

“Faster,” yelled Cool Papa as he and Booker T made for the other train.

“God dammit, I said stop!” The bull gave up on his gun and ran after them, no better at foot pursuit than using his weapon.

No sooner had the bull started running when Booker T shouted, “Michel!” Even after several years, I still found his high nasally voice startling, he used it so rarely. Michel was Cool Papa’s real name, and Booker T would call him nothing else. Both men slowed noticeably after that, and the bull caught up. Then, without warning, they both stopped dead in their tracks, and the bull, unprepared, plowed into them. Cool Papa grabbed the dumbfounded policeman and threw him towards the decoy train, then turned with Booker T and sprinted toward our open boxcar. As they drew even, Cool Papa grabbed his companion and launched him through the door. Then, Mulligan and I reached out and hoisted the tall man in as well.

Our train had not yet picked up much speed, so I could see the rookie bull get up and dust himself off. Feeling victorious, I turned around, dropped my trousers and shook my bare ass at him to let him know what I thought about his policing efforts. My companions, at first laughing at my childish antics, grew serious and dropped flat to the floor. I heard the roar of the revolver and then the bullet ricocheting off the metal undercarriage of the car. I dropped prone as well, but we were moving faster now, and no second shot came.

“You might regret that,” King said. “If you really pissed him off, he’ll call ahead to Minneapolis, and they’ll be waiting for us.”

On the rails, to do what I must, ” I said, laughing and pulling my trousers up.

With perfect love and perfect trust,” the others responded. I hugged Cool Papa, but only nodded at Booker T. He didn’t much care for people touching him other than his Haitian road partner.

When the greetings subsided, we settled in for the ride and I wondered if King could be right, and trouble awaited us in Minneapolis.

The ride north stayed quiet, no sign of a bull anywhere. About halfway, Brother Mulligan pulled out a flask, took a swig, and handed it to me. I sniffed it, welcomed the scent of whiskey, and took a big swallow myself. Cool Papa followed and then Booker T. King waved it away when offered.

“I ain’t drinking no more,” he said. “Besides, we’re blind. I haven’t got a new read on the Hobo ‘Ro in more than a month. I need to keep my wits about me.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. I took another pull off the flask that had made its way back.

He reached inside his suit jacket and brought out a weathered black velvet bag with silver and gold embroidery. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, but I hadn’t seen it often either. It reeked of old magic like Mulligan’s flask did of whiskey. Carefully, he loosened the draw strings and reached inside. When his hand, aged well beyond the years apparent on his face, emerged, it held a deck of cards. Every hobo with a touch of the traveling craft knew it — the Hobo ‘Ro. Something like the Rider-Waite tarot decks the fortunetellers used, the Hobo ‘Ro spoke the specific language of the rails and those who rode them. Unlike the regular tarot, whose cryptic messages too often required the interpretation of a mystic looking for money, the Hobo ‘Ro sometimes spoke with startling clarity and never charged a cent for it.

King flipped four cards in a sequence on the floor of the boxcar and watched them like he’d seen it a hundred times.

The King of Hobohemia fell first. The card depicted a veteran hobo with bindle and crown.

The Loyal Road Partner hit the table next. It showed two younger hobos walking next to the tracks, each with an arm over the other’s shoulder, bindles in their other hands.

Third came a card from the railroad sequence. It showed the yin and yang mark of the Northern Pacific railroad.

I knew in my heart the last before he even pulled it. Labeled, “Catch the Westbound,” it portrayed an older model steam locomotive pulling its load towards puffy white clouds in front of a setting sun. Like Death in a regular Tarot deck, it symbolized something coming to an end. For King, it hit right on the nose.

King swiped the cards up, shuffled the Hobo ‘Ro and threw the top four cards again. The same series appeared. He did it a third time. We all just stared. I looked around for the flask just in time to see Mulligan slide it back into the pocket of his suit coat. Probably for the best. A wave of melancholy had settled on me. I might just crawl right into that flask, and I had a job to do.

“What does it mean?” Cool Papa asked.

“It means my time is done. I’m no longer King of Hobohemia, just the caretaker of the ‘Ro until I pass it on.”

Sadness flashed to anger, and I got to my feet. The two strong belts left me a bit wobblier than I had realized. I thanked the Goddess for Brother Mulligan’s discipline. Another couple of draws off the flask and I’d be sloppy. Once I steadied myself, I walked to the wall and kicked it as hard as I could. I didn’t know what I’d be doing if it weren’t for King. He brought me the closest thing to stability I’d ever known. Sure, my witch mothers loved me, but from the time I grew hair in my pits, and my power surged, there had been no doubt I’d be on my way sooner rather than later. I remembered when, on February 14th, 1929, in the early evening, I had climbed into my first boxcar like the inexperienced First of May that I was.

“Goddess, help us all,” King had said when we stood face to face. “All that craft and a face that pretty. You’re gonna be trouble for someone, and I’m bettin’ that someone is me.”

No sooner had I taken a step back, remembering plenty of stories I’d heard about old hobos and green road kids, when it had hit me he had said, “Goddess.” So accustomed to it at home, I hadn’t even noticed right away.

“Don’t worry, kid. I ain’t no filthy jocker looking to take advantage ‘o ya. I’m the Witch-king of Hobohemia.”

The average road kid would have thought him a crackpot, but I had grown up with witches, and while the occasional male witch (besides me) had visited my mothers at the house, it didn’t happen often. Curiosity took hold of me.

“I’m Robby Ray Johnson,” I had answered, extending a hand shaking with nerves.

“You were Robby Ray Johnson. On the rails, you’re someone else. On account o’ the day and your pretty face, let’s call you, St. Valentine. You can call me, King.”

Tears flowed freely and ran down my cheeks as I savored the memory. I slapped the boxcar wall for good measure, turned and leaned against it, and slid down slowly ’til my butt hit the floorboards. I sobbed and grieved. With King still here and keeping watch over me, I could. When the time came for him to catch the Westbound, I’d truly be on my own and I might not get to.

As I sat wallowing in sadness and self-pity, the train chugged north. Stop after stop, we held our breath expecting bulls to rush aboard looking for the bos that had been foolish enough to assault one of their brothers. Across from me, sitting close to Cool Papa against the opposite wall of the empty car, Booker T fidgeted in his own particular way, rocking and slapping his thighs. Cool Papa’s deep voice sang a soothing song in their native creole language. I didn’t grasp a word, but it calmed me anyway. I hoped it did the same for Booker. Mulligan took his comfort by praying to his stern and, in my opinion, judgmental god.

King seemed energized by his return to the rails, but every so often a coughing fit shook him violently for several minutes and left him gagging and gasping for air. His face had always appeared years younger than his creased and spotted hands. In the weeks since he had visited me at the Witches’ house, the difference had become less stark. It wouldn’t be long at all before he caught the Westbound. I looked again at my crew, lost in song and prayer. At twenty, I had two years on Cool Papa, and four on Booker and Mulligan. With King gone, they’d look to me. I stood, dusted myself off and tossed aside my sad sack routine.

“Come on, boys,” I said, “Minneapolis ain’t far, and there’s bound to be bulls waiting. We need to have a plan.”

And plan, we did.

Having left our first train, the Minneapolis rail yard sprawled before us. Line after line of cars sat on the tracks waiting their turn to be pulled away by locomotive. The traveling craft could be practiced in many forms. Ship, plane, automobile, even foot travel were options, but locomotives, and the network of tracks they rode on, bound and focused the elements of the craft best. As experienced boxcar witches, we were some of the most powerful practitioners around. Unfortunately, no flavor of witchcraft provided much in the way of tools for combat. That meant we were limited to our fists and street fighting skills. One bull with a gun could spoil our plan. Chicago had been a close call, and I suspected I had used up our luck in that department.

We sneaked through the yard as best as we could manage. King couldn’t walk well anymore, and Brother Mulligan and I each had one of his arms over our shoulders. Papa and Booker T carried everyone’s bindles and did what they could to obscure themselves with them. A bull sympathetic to our plight might overlook Mulligan and I carrying King, but if one of them caught sight of the Haitian boys’ black skin, they’d be on our asses for sure. I don’t much understand why. If I only learned one thing from my witch mothers and a house full of working women, I learned that the mayor of Chicago and the shoeshine man ain’t much different when it gets right to it. Though, for sure, the mayor was a lot more likely than the shoeshine man to take pleasure in smacking one of the ladies around. Even so, some just couldn’t abide dark skin on a person. I thought again about the World’s Fair celebration and hoped the next century would bring a different kind of progress.

“Valentine,” Cool Papa whispered to me as we slipped quietly alongside a track full of parked rolling stock trying not to crunch the gravel too loudly. “He’s here.”

“Who?” I asked and then realized he could only mean one person. “Fang?”

“Yes. He’s far away, across the yard, but I heard his voice. We can’t let Booker T know. He still has fits in his sleep some nights. Nightmares about what that son-of-a-bitch did to him.”

Cool Papa’s mellow voice and Haitian accent calmed my jangly nerves even as he clued me in to the danger. “Show me,” I said and hoped I sounded more confident than I felt.

I left King with Mulligan and Cool Papa and dropped back from the pack a bit, pausing at a gap between two of the rail cars. We had to be quick, Booker T never strayed from Cool Papa for long. Several men were walking back and forth on the far side of the train two tracks over. I couldn’t see much, but if I listened, I could catch bits of their conversation. Fang’s bullying snarl was unmistakable.

“Shit,” I muttered. “That’s why no bulls harassed us coming up from Chicago. Fang called them off so he could have us all to himself.”

“They’re coming this way,” Papa whispered. A hint of panic danced in his eyes. I hadn’t been with them when Fang beat Booker T unconscious, but if it messed up the Haitians this bad, it must have been worse than they had let on. “Which train do we need?” Papa continued. “Maybe they’ve already searched it, and we can sneak around them and catch out.”

“It’s our only choice. If they nab us, it’s jail for sure. Probably something worse. I’ll let King know the scoop. You get back to Booker and keep him distracted.”

I stepped ahead and lifted King’s arm back around my shoulder. “Which train, King? The bulls are on the prowl. Fang found out about Booker and Papa in Chicago and set up an ambush.”

“Your bare ass didn’t help us none,” King growled. “If it weren’t for your childish prank, that bull calf wouldn’t have fired his gun and he’d a been too ashamed to tell anyone about it — but it’s hard to hide the bang bang of gunfire. You need to grow up.”

King’s harsh words burned me the same as a hot iron. I wanted to disappear. Instead, I forced myself to stand up straight, look King in the eye as best I could, given we were standing side-by-side, and said, “I’m sorry. I was a fool.”

The old man turned to me and stared, his twinkling eyes baring my soul. After a moment, the corners of his mouth turned upward. “Ain’t we all from time to time,” he said. “You just need to keep your trousers on with the ladies and around the bulls and you’ll do fine.” He patted my shoulder with the hand that rested there. I vowed to myself to be better. “The train we need is the one three tracks that way,” King said, pointing in the direction where Fang and his henchmen lurked. I thanked the Goddess for the intuitive powers the ‘Ro gave to King.

“Good,” I said. “They’ve already searched that one. If we can get to it without Fang noticing, we’ll be sittin’ pretty.”

The rest had come to us, and Cool Papa leaned over so King could lean on him. That left Bother Mulligan and I free to scout. The two of us played a high stakes game of hide-and-seek with Fang and his cronies, ducking in between boxcars to avoid the bulls’ search. The other three waited one train over, ready to make their move when we let them know the coast was clear. We were close enough now to hear Fang more clearly.

“I’m telling you,” he said to one of the others, “them Haitians ain’t right. I caught ‘em doing some weird ritual. The quiet one was anything but quiet, cursing up a storm, dancing like some kind of pervert, and rubbing up against the tall one. Even the regular American hobos had been drawn into their wickedness. One of them was beating the drum while several of the others were dancing the same filthy dance.” Because of his tooth, a bizarre whistling accompanied his words.

My hands balled into fists, and I got heated listening to a vicious bull like Fang describe two gentle souls like Booker T and Cool Papa as “wicked.” I couldn’t argue their island flavor of the craft could be intimidating at first sight, but the lwa spirits were powerful allies if given the proper respect. In the past, I had danced with them during a mulligan ritual (like Brother Mulligan, the mixing of individual flavors of the craft together in a ritual was named after the well-known hobo stew) and it had been a powerful experience that left my body spent and my spirit strengthened.

“Easy, Valentine, this isn’t the time or place,” Brother whispered so low I barely heard him. “Come Judgment Day, God will decide their fate.”

Mulligan was right, of course.

I found his craft the most mysterious. The Christian god could be vengeful, but the best of his followers, like Brother, preached patience and forgiveness. I could never figure out how it all worked.

The hiding spot between the boxcars filled with nervous hobos. While I had been tamping down my temper, Fang and company had all moved to the far side of the train and Brother had given the other three the signal to join us.

“There’s four of ‘em,” I whispered. “When they come back to this side, we make our move for our train.”

Booker T fidgeted and pulled on Cool Papa’s sleeve, silently imploring him to run away from the bulls.

“We have to get King to Washington, Guillaume,” Papa told him.

“Don’t worry.” Mulligan added. “I’ll kill Fang before letting him lay his hands on you again.” I had never before heard Brother threaten deadly violence. Booker T’s eyes darted and rolled in silent terror, but he stood his ground and stopped pulling on Papa’s clothes.

By instinct, my head turned when I heard the bull’s harsh conversation pass from one side of the train to the other. I did a quick count and signaled to the group to go. We didn’t run — that would make too much noise and King wasn’t able to anyway — but the bull’s own footsteps and the normal sounds of the yard masked our hurried walking. Moments later, Papa and Booker hopped into the freight car, Mulligan and I boosted King up to them, and then we climbed in after. Good timing. The train steamed out of the station a couple minutes later.

“Did we give ‘em the slip?” Mulligan asked. It cracked me up when the pious road kid tried to talk like a gangster.

I started to say, “I think so,” but before I got the words out, another bo, not part of our crew, clambered into the boxcar. No more than five feet tall, the leap onto the moving train took all he had. He stood up, dusted himself off, and glanced around at the group of us. Somewhere in his late teens or early twenties, he wore a cowboy hat, new-fangled western blue jeans, a full-length duster, and boots.

“Fang and his gang jumped onto the caboose just before the train pulled away. You boys are screwed,” the stranger said in an odd sounding voice.

The rest of the gang groaned, but I was wearing the biggest shit-eating grin I could stretch my face into.

“Hello, Wild Billy,” I said, my heart hammering.

“Do you know this gentleman?” Cool Papa asked.

“Oh, this ain’t no gentleman,” I answered with a chuckle.

“But don’t call me no lady, neither,” Wild Billy said, no longer faking a deeper voice.

I ran to her and scooped her into my arms.

Later, steaming across the Minnesota countryside, we all wondered when Fang would show up. We could relax some in-between stops. Most folks don’t like to move from car-to-car on a moving freight train — it’s dangerous — but each time we stopped to pick up more cargo or refill the water tank, everyone held their breath. I let the others keep the lookout. My attention lay elsewhere.

“What are you even doing riding the rails again?” I asked Billy. We were sitting together at the far end of the car, away from the others. “I thought you were a respectable married lady now.”

“I suppose I’m still married,” she said. “But I ain’t been respectable in quite some time,” she teased wickedly and then continued more serious. “I walked out on my husband more than a year ago. That son-of-a-bitch makes you look chaste as a preacher, Robby Ray.”

“St. Valentine,” I corrected her. Years ago, as a lonely, lovestruck youth, I had confided in her and shared my real name. I still didn’t know hers.

“I’m not calling you no saint of nothing,” she retorted, echoing my witch mother. “You and that ding-dong of yours are pretty well known among the ladies riding the rails.”

My ears burned, but I shot back, “present company included,” with a wink and a grin. To my immense satisfaction, her cheeks reddened.

“Your cherry is my most cherished possession,” she taunted. “Given the legend you’ve become, it’s quite the prize.”

She hadn’t just taken my cherry; she had stolen my heart too. I first met Wild Billy soon after King had declared me fit to ride the rails on my own. I hadn’t believed in my abilities as much as him, and when Billy had come swaggering by me in the Chicago jungle dripping with easy confidence, I got caught up in her wake. We started as road partners. At first, I hadn’t known any more than anyone else that she was a girl, but trust had come easily between us, the way it can with kids, and not long after I had learned her secret, we had become romantic partners too.

I got worked up remembering those first encounters. Clumsy at first, I had learned fast. After that, Billy and I hadn’t been able to get enough of each other.

Now that I again felt the warmth of her next to me, I longed for it to be skin-to-skin. When I looked in her eyes, they reflected my passion, but when I leaned in to kiss her, I found my lips blocked by two of her fingers pressed against them.

“No, St. Valentine, it’s not the time, and I’m still, technically, a married woman.” Her use of my hobo moniker gave the refusal a stinging permanence.

I froze at first, startled by the unfamiliar rejection, but then pulled back and forced myself to exhale and release the tension. If I only learned one thing from my witch mothers and a house full of working women, I learned that when a woman says no, it should mean no. I had taken the baseball bat to more than a few men who had felt different.

As Billy and I sat there, passion cooling in silence, the others came over. King walked on his own, looking a bit better than he had, but all wore concerned expressions.

“God has told me danger is ahead of us,” Brother Mulligan said.

“Of course, Fang’s on the train with us,” I answered. My romantic frustrations laced my words with acid.

“Not danger for us, danger for the whole train. Something that will prevent us from getting King home in time.”

In time for what, went unsaid. When I glanced at the old hobo, his face carried an expression I had never seen before. Uncertainty.

“I need you to give the Hobo ‘Ro a throw and see if we can get more details,” King said.

“That even possible?” I asked, puzzled. I had only ever seen King throw the ‘Ro before.

“I’m the god dammed King of Hobohemia, and you can do it if I say so! It sure as shit ain’t working for me no more!” He paused when he realized he had shocked us with his outburst. “Sorry, Brother Mulligan,” he muttered as an apology for invoking the young man’s god in anger. “Just throw it,” he added and thrust the deck at me.

As I took it in my hands, an energy traveled up my arms that lived somewhere in the confusing crossover between hot and cold, like when the water comes out of the faucet so hot it confuses your skin and feels cold at first. As the energy reached my head and heart, I realized I knew the entire schedule for the train we rode. Soon that awareness spread to where I could sense the entirety of the railroads and the trains on them. Each locomotive was a powerful focus for the traveling craft, and the rails a way of connecting them. I felt a new strength in my muscles and a keenness in my mind. I looked at King and the uncertainty had left his eyes to be replaced by his familiar mischievous twinkle.

Everyone but Wild Billy gathered into a circle. She knew of the traveling craft and respected it, but possessing none of her own, she tended to keep her distance. A few girls and women possessed the traveling magic, but like boys and men with the hearth-and-home craft, it was rare.

On the rails, to do what I must, with perfect love and perfect trust,” I said to the Goddess before getting started.

I cut the deck several times and tossed the first card off the top to the boxcar floor. The card depicted a faceless man dressed as a railroad bull. It represented the lack of respect for hobos by regular society. For us, it probably hit right on target. We would have to deal with Fang before long.

The second card hit the floor in front of me, the familiar “Catch the Westbound” we had seen from the previous throw. No way of knowing if it referred to King as it had before, or something different.

The next card showed a steaming cup of mulligan stew. It represented teamwork.

The fourth and final card showed a tornado with train cars and hobos in flight all around it. Trains played a vital role in the hobo lifestyle and the ‘Ro reflected that. Several cards depicted possible dangers.

“Does that, uh…” Cool Papa struggled to find the unfamiliar word.

“Tornado?” King helped. “It don’t necessarily mean a tornado,” King told him, “but it means that weather o’ some kind will disrupt the train. Given it’s December, maybe snow, but really, it could be anything.”

“What can we do about the weather?” Cool Papa asked. Powerful though the traveling craft could be, especially blended mulligan style, the weather belonged to the gods and goddesses themselves. No one replied with anything but a helpless shrug or befuddled look.

“We’ll just have to keep our eyes and ears open,” I said.

The hiss of the air brakes, followed by the louder scream of the train’s whistle, warned us that we would soon be stopping. I looked out the open boxcar door and saw nothing but farmland. No one could guess when Fang would make his move. All of us had hoped it had been a coincidence that he boarded the train in Minneapolis, but the throw of the ‘Ro suggested that had been wishful thinking. We sat statue-still and didn’t speak a word while the depot crew traded a couple of the train’s empty cars for full ones loaded with local goods.

For an instant, I fretted the depot crew would come for the car we rode in, but my concern passed quick enough. The magic of the ‘Ro, still in my pocket, made it clear to me we were safe for now. I would give the artifact back to King when we were safely moving again. The stop seemed to drag on forever, but with still no sign of the bulls, the train horn blew two long notes, the pistons hissed, and the train pulled away.

I could hear familiar voices and went to the door to take a peek outside. There were the railway bulls receding into the distance. They remained at the depot smoking Luckys with the locals. I could see all of Fang’s companions in the small crowd, but not the leader of the gang himself. Intent on locating him, I got surprised when two boots struck me squarely in the chest and sent me reeling backwards until my feet fumbled beneath me and my ass hit the floor with a bone rattling smack. Fang must have climbed on top of the train and found some kind of handhold he could use to swing himself into the car.

“Well, well,” he said, his words accompanied by his characteristic hiss and whistle. “This don’t look like no garbage dump, but there sure is plenty of filth and trash laying about.”

In the time it took everyone to scramble to their feet, Fang had drawn his pistol from its shoulder holster. “Just hold it right there,” he sneered.

Booker T let out a strangled whimper when I looked over. I could see him shaking, and his eyes darted and rolled like they did when he got too scared.

“Where’s your swagger now?” Fang asked Booker. “Last time I saw you, you fancied yourself some kind of pimp or somethin’.”

“What’s he talking about, Michel?” Booker asked Cool Papa.

“Baron Samedi was still riding you when Fang came upon us previously,” Papa answered, remaining cool like his name. “You know the Baron; he had some choice words for this ruffian when he interrupted our ceremony.”

I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of the sharp tongued and suggestive Vodou spirit dressing down Fang while inhabiting the body of timid and quiet Booker T.

For a moment, the bull didn’t know what to make of Cool Papa’s comments. The Haitian occasionally couldn’t come up with a word, but his intelligence and education showed in his speech. The confusion only lasted a few seconds and then Fang’s simpler brain did what it always did and resorted to violence. Quicker than seemed possible, Fang sprang forward and cold cocked Cool Papa with the butt of his weapon. Booker T’s protector crumpled to the floorboards.

I surged forward, but before I could do something stupid, King, still sitting, pulled on the leg of my trousers. I paused and looked down at him. He threw a barely perceptible glance sideways, and I followed his gaze. I saw Brother Mulligan sizing up the situation, gaging the distance between Fang and the open door and between Fang and himself. Unfortunately, the bull had his weapon on us again.

“What do you want?” I asked, hoping to distract him while Brother worked out the details of his attack. He had vowed to protect Booker T and he took his vows seriously.

“These two,” Fang said, motioning to Cool Papa and Booker T, “ain’t right. They put some kind of spell on me. I can’t get their filthy rites out of my head. I can’t stop dreaming about them. They’re dangerous. I can’t have them on my trains.”

“You can’t put them off out here in the middle of nowhere, they’ll freeze,” I said. Fang’s expression didn’t change a bit. That’s when I realized expulsion wasn’t his goal, or even just a thrashing. He had left his gang at the depot because he had murder on his mind and didn’t want them involved. “Come on, now,” I implored. “It ain’t worth it.”

“They’re torturing me with their dark magic. I gotta stop it,” he said.

If I only learned one thing from my witch mothers and a house full of working women, I learned that violent men were, more often than not, motivated by their own twisted logic rather than any outside influences.

Fang pointed his pistol at Booker T. “You…get by the door.” Waving his empty hand at Mulligan and me, he said, “Carry the other one to the door,” referring to the still unconscious Cool Papa.

As the vicious cop let his focus slip while giving us directions, Brother Mulligan charged Fang, shoulder forward, like a football lineman. The bull sensed him coming and tried to bring his pistol to bear but didn’t get it there in time. Brother hit him hard and pushed him towards the door. The pistol flew from Fang’s grip and went flying out the opening. The two opponents were a close match, but Brother Mulligan possessed stronger muscles and a lower center of gravity. Inch by inch, the bull’s boots slid towards the edge. When they finally slipped over, Fang fell hard to the floor landing on his chest with his legs dangling out the door. With nothing pushing back, Brother lurched forward. Fearing he would go out the door instead of Fang, I sprang forward and grabbed the back of his collar. Everything froze that way for a split second, but then the car jerked, and Fang slid the rest of the way out. I had stabilized Brother Mulligan, but the bull grabbed his pant leg and pulled him down, taking me with him. I bounced hard to the floor and lost my grip. Brother went out the door after Fang. I had landed with my head hanging over the door rail and had a clear view as the pair of them went under the train’s spinning wheels. After seeing the train crush and mangle their bodies, I catapulted myself back into the car in shock, bumping into Billy who put her hand on my shoulder.

I couldn’t help but revisit the grotesque images. Hobos died violent deaths on the rails all the time, but I had never seen anything like that. Then, I felt something hard and small, like a pebble, beneath the palm of my hand. Fang’s namesake tooth had somehow flown back into the train car. I just stared, mouth agape, at the grim reminder, still too stunned to speak. My stomach did flip-flops, and my sweat grew cold. A blast of bile with only a few grainy bits (we were hobos. We didn’t each much) spewed from between my lips. Blackness flowed in from the edges of my vision until I blacked out.

I found myself, head resting on Wild Billy’s rarely seen bosom, in the soft grass a few hundred feet from a water tower and nearby tracks. We had hopped off the train to satisfy our lusty youthful passion in the quiet summer sun instead of the noisy shaking boxcar. Hobos wore their clothes in layers and kept careful watch over their possessions while on the road. The opportunity didn’t come along often to cast it all aside, along with life’s worries, and enjoy a cool breeze across bare skin on a sultry August afternoon. Wild Billy had been my first, but despite my missteps, she made me feel like Rudolph Valentino. I looked back on my sixteen years of life and thought to myself there had never been a more perfect moment.

Until the ground started shaking…

My most cherished moment melted away to be replaced by the rustic surroundings of the boxcar. My head rested against Wild Billy’s chest, like in the dream, but her breasts remained bound and concealed beneath her rough-spun man’s shirt. The shaking in the dream was the boxcar’s bumpy ride.

“Wake up, Valentine. We’re about to arrive at the next depot. We have to be ready,” she said with unusual anxiousness in her voice.

Nearby, I saw King and the Haitians looking at me, equally anxious. Where was Brother Mulligan? And then it all came down on me like an avalanche.

“I tried…” I started to say but then choked up.

“Everyone knows you did, Robby Ray,” a strange voice said. As my wits continued to return, I recognized Booker T’s nasal twang. It didn’t surprise me that he called me by my real name, that was his way, but I didn’t know he even knew it. But then, Booker knew a lot he didn’t let on.

“He went above and beyond his promise,” Cool Papa said. “He gave his life to protect Booker T and the rest of us.”

“What are the words in his prayer?” I asked no one in particular. “This is my body, broken for you.”

We went silent, remembering Brother, but then the train’s whistle blew, and we started to slow down. Any stop brought danger, but if Fang’s death had become known to the railroad, we’d be swarmed by law enforcement looking for revenge on anyone else who might be involved.

On the rails, to do what I must,” I said when our five-minute makeshift memorial came to an end.

With perfect love and perfect trust,” the others answered.

“We have to get off the train before it pulls into the station,” King said. He looked weaker again now, and at least a decade older than when he first came to me in the alley behind my witch mothers’ house just a few weeks ago. “There will be…evidence…on the outside of the car that will lead the bulls right to us.”

“It’s true,” I said. “They plan to hold the train at the upcoming stop.”

I just knew it. The way I could sense the movement of all the trains around the country. The Hobo ‘Ro, tucked in its ancient cloth sack within my pants pocket, bound me to the rail network. The locomotives focused the elemental forces that made up the traveling craft, and my connection to the train we rode felt more like that of rider to horse than passenger to machine.

I also knew the ‘Ro would be better with King and his years of experience. I took it from my pocket and held it out to him.

“Do you feel its power?” he asked. I just nodded.

“You should hold onto it. In my current state, there’s no guarantee I’ll make it off and back on the train, and if I don’t, the ‘Ro still needs to make the trip to Seattle and get delivered to the next King.”

I frowned and still held the magical cards out to him.

“Until the deck makes it to Seattle and the hands of my successor, I’m the King ‘o Hobohemia, and I’m telling you to hold it the rest of the way.”

I continued to frown and glare at him straight in the eye, but then slid the bag back into my pocket. The old man leaned in and whispered in my ear. “I’m weak, weaker than I look,” he said. “And we have one more challenge according to the ‘Ro. If it’s the weather, it might take a powerful mulligan ritual to pull it off and you’re going to have to lead it. The ‘Ro will help with that. Trust me.”

It made my heart sick to hear King call himself weak and to imagine we might not succeed in granting him his dying wish to get to Seattle.

“Are you four going to stand around diddling each other all day?” Wild Billy yelled from the open boxcar door. “I can see the next stop ahead, and you gents need to get off this train before anyone sees you.”

“Four of us? What about you?” Cool Papa asked.

“I’m going to distract whoever’s waiting so you all have a fighting chance to get back aboard without the bulls noticing.”

“Billy, no! It’s too dangerous,” I said. Deep down, though, I knew she had the right plan.

“I’ll make them chase Wild Billy for as long as I can,” she said. “Then I’ll put on a dress and turn myself back into the respectable Wilhelmina Carter. Now go!”

The train had slowed as it approached the station, but no jump from a moving train came without danger. We lined up at the door. King took the first leap, followed by Booker T and Cool Papa almost together. It looked like they landed safely.

If I only learned one thing from my witch mothers and a house full of working women, I learned that it’s best to be straight with a woman, not in a hurtful way, but let her know your feelings. I turned to Wild Billy and shouted, “I love you, Wilhelmina Carter.”

“You’re a damn fool, Robby Ray Johnson,” she said.

I kissed two of my fingers, pressed them to her lips, turned back, and jumped.

When I hit the ground, I bent my knees to absorb the shock and then let myself collapse and roll to a stop. Mouth and eyes were clamped shut, but I still felt myself travel into the snow-covered vegetation nearby. The white stuff made everything a little easier. It softened the blows and slowed me down faster than dirt would have. I came to rest on my back, my body making a t-shape with the tracks. The rest of the train thundered past and then pulled away towards the depot ahead. As I lay there collecting myself, several sets of footsteps came tromping through the snow.

“Come on, St. Valentine,” said Cool Papa, reaching down to give me a hand up. “We need to get to the depot and be ready to board once Ms. Carter has distracted the authorities. We wouldn’t want her efforts wasted.”

The four of us were undamaged from our unscheduled exit from the train, and we began the trek towards the grain silos we could see in the distance. About fifty feet on the other side of the tracks a single lane dirt road followed alongside. It would have been easier travel, but we stayed off to keep ourselves out of sight. Walking through the Minnesota countryside in late December took its toll on King and he began to cough more violently and more frequently. At the same time, I fretted over my mentor and turned the Hobo ‘Ro round and round in my pocket. I had to get them both to Puget Sound.

Halfway to our destination, we saw several cars racing down the dirt road from the direction of the train stop. As they got closer, I could see the lead car possessed the markings of the local sheriff.

“Get down,” King commanded, and the four of us dropped to our bellies.

Cautiously, I raised my head up just enough to get a look. The lead sheriff car had almost reached us, and two more were a hundred or so yards behind it. All three were screaming at top speed down the empty road. As the first vehicle passed us, just barely audible over the thunder of the engine and the sound of the tires churning through the snow, I heard the familiar voice of the driver belting out the lyrics to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave.” That gave me all the confirmation I needed, and I fell back flat to the ground.

“It’s Wild Billy,” I said. “She’s stolen a cop car and they’re pursuing her out of town.”

“Why did she bring them this way?” asked King.

“By bringing them this way, we know she succeeded in distracting them, and they are also headed in the opposite direction from the train,” I said.

“She’s very clever,” Cool Papa said. “Brave too.”

“I’ve never found anyone else like her,” I said.

“Goddess knows you’ve looked in every farmhouse and whistle-stop you’ve come across,” King said, winking. As I blushed and fumbled over how to respond to his friendly taunt, another coughing fit took hold and shook him hard. When it passed, he stood dazed for a moment and then began to topple. Cool Papa grabbed him and picked him up in his arms.

“Come on,” I urged. “We’ve got a train to catch.”

Wild Billy had done her job well. The train sat empty and unguarded at the tiny rural stop. King awoke halfway there and remained weak. Embarrassed to have been carried by Cool Papa, the normally good-spirited bo stubbornly insisted on climbing into the boxcar on his own anyway, bristling at our attempts to assist him.

“By the Goddess,” he snapped when Cool Papa tried to give him a boost. “I’m not an invalid.”

“We’re not sayin’ you are,” I told him. “But every bo knows, the faster we get on the train and out of sight, the less chance of us getting caught. Chrissake, King, that’s one of the first things you ever taught me.”

“Don’t talk to me like I just left home yesterday. I’ve been doing this twice as long as you’ve been livin’.”

“Just get on the damn train, you old bindlestiff,” I barked. “You wanted me to get you to Seattle, and that’s what I’m gonna do. We ain’t got no time to argue.” That shut him up. Booker T had already boarded, King grumbled but accepted the boost up, and Cool Papa followed after. I glanced around to make sure no one spotted us or heard us arguing and climbed on as well.

If Minnesota had been a constant state of action and emergency, North Dakota and half of Montana were more the norm when riding the rails; hours of uncomfortable tedium. Without Brother Mulligan to fortify the stew with his craft, we all began to get hungrier and hungrier. No use stemming the main drag of any of the little towns we stopped at looking for handouts. It might be different down South, but up here, the winters were tough and lean, and the risks associated with begging outweighed any possible benefits. Cold weather, empty bellies, and, in my case, a dose of self-pity, left us silent and grumpy. On top of that, the weather remained on everyone’s mind. Our destination lay only a few days away, and thus far, no sign of bad weather foretold by the ‘Ro.

King, appearing healthier for the moment, sat down next to me. For a minute or two, no words were spoken. I grieved deeply, both for Brother Mulligan and Wild Billy. Wilhelmina Carter remained alive and kicking, but in my heart, I knew, Wild Billy had died the same as Brother. It had always been her way to drop in and out of my life when I needed her most, and I think King had been right when he suggested my alley-cattin’ ways were just a hopeless search for her replacement. If I only learned one thing from my witch mothers and a house full of working women, I learned that love and lust did not nearly describe the hold a woman could take on a man’s heart. Just the right woman could stir deeper feelings — feelings so complex they couldn’t be put into words. Those feelings I felt for Wild Billy. That, along with the tragic loss of Brother and the knowledge that King would soon follow, mixed in me a kind of emotional mulligan more powerful than its individual parts.

“There ain’t no permanence in our lifestyle, Valentine,” King said. “You’re far too lousy with the traveling craft to ever settle down. There never was a happy ending for you and Wild Billy.”

“I don’t feel like there’ll ever be a happy anything for me,” I said, feeling as sullen as I ever had.

“Been there myself,” King said. I perked up and looked him in the eye. The man had never admitted to anything like that before. “What usually pulled me out of it was encountering a young kid, fleeing from whatever hardship they had in their home life, fearful of what they’d got themselves into. My joy would return when I showed them that a bo jungle and boxcar could be the home and family they needed.”

I stared, tongue-tied, while King hinted at the effect I might have had on him when we met.

After a moment, his eyes twinkled, and his mischievousness returned, “Don’t flatter yourself,” he said. “You’ve been nothing but trouble.”

An impossibility for me a minute earlier, I smiled, and King returned it. The moment didn’t hold for long before a wracking spasm consumed the old bo. He coughed until his face turned red and his eyes watered. Before he could wipe it away, I saw the pinkness in his saliva.

“Consumption?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” he said. “The ‘Ro kept the symptoms in check some, so it ain’t like no normal progression of tuberculosis I ever heard of, but don’t know what else it could be.”

I reached into my pocket and tried to hand him the deck. “Take it back then,” I said.

“No, Valentine,” he answered. “It’s more important that the ‘Ro be safe than I be healthy. It must get to Seattle. This economic calamity we’re in has years to run yet, and at the end is something even more serious, something that will challenge those who possess the traveling craft in ways they never imagined.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“War, I think. In part, anyway,” he said. “But there is something more to it. Something darker. Something that requires a fresh and energetic Witch-king of Hobohemia.”

“And just who is this new king?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” King said. “The ‘Ro tends to be specific when you’d rather it not be and maddeningly vague when the details are crucial.”

Before I could pursue my curiosity surrounding the new king and the dark future of Hobohemia and the traveling craft, Cool Papa called to us from the open door, “Helena is in sight, and I think the weather event predicted by the Hobo ‘Ro is beginning.”

The rest of us made our way to the door and looked out. Sure enough, the city could be seen in the distance. As for the weather, dark clouds shrouded the nearby Rocky Mountain peaks, but that could hardly be described as unusual.

“What do you mean about the weather?” I asked.

“Can you feel the wind on your face?” Papa asked in return.

“I can, it’s….”

“Way too warm,” Papa finished for me.

“I heard something about rain out West when we stopped in Billings, but not so much that I thought of the ‘Ro’s prediction.” King said.

“But if it was enough they were talking about it all the way in Billings early yesterday, the weather is warming, and the rain is still falling…,” said Papa.

“A flood,” I interrupted. “Flooding is going to interfere with the Northern Pacific main line. It hasn’t happened yet.” The ‘Ro provided me some insight there. I could feel that the trains were still moving.

“If it’s been raining for days, it could be imminent,” Papa said.

“Then we need to goose this train in a hurry,” I said. “It’ll take a mulligan ritual, the elemental power of witchcraft and…”

“Ogou,” said Booker T, voice shy and squeaking, “we must seek a favor from Ogou. I will prepare.”

The ride from Helena to Missoula gave us a look at what to expect. The further west we traveled, the warmer the weather got, even as we went up and over the Rockies. The rain came down harder and harder. In the Missoula yard, chatter of impending disaster ran rampant. More than one of the feeder lines had flooded or become covered by slide debris. The main line still ran, but no one could say for how long. While the train took on water and cars were added and removed, I sneaked around trying to get as much information as I could. The ‘Ro in my pocket gave me a general sense of the train network’s current movement and timing, but it couldn’t predict the future. For that, I needed gossip.

Listening from my hiding place between the tracks underneath the caboose, I overheard some helpful news from the conductor. The most precarious portion of tracks lay about a hundred miles or so west of Missoula. The railroad company had made the decision to push as many trains down and out of the mountains as quickly as possible meaning smaller local stops were going to be skipped. That was the best news possible for our plan and I hightailed it back to our car to let the others know.

“Once we leave Missoula, there won’t be any stopping ‘til we’re out of the mountains. That means the Goddess can give us a real good goosing,” I proclaimed.

“Don’t matter for shit if the Haitians can’t get us the help we need,” King grumbled. “Ballin’ the jack on a long, flat straightaway is one thing. Up here, it would just lead to boxcars tumbling down the mountainside.”

“Ogou can keep the train on the tracks. It’s steel on steel,” Cool Papa said as he pulled long red strips of cloth from his bindle. Handing one to each of us, he paused for a heartbeat when he removed the fifth and final length of crimson silk, but then quickly shoved it back into his sack. Our dangerous situation had distracted us from the loss of Brother Mulligan, but when confronted with these reminders of his death, the rawness of our grief tore at us. We each placed the red cloth around our neck and let it hang loosely. Next, Papa and Booker worked several lengths of floorboard loose and fastened them floor to ceiling in the center of the boxcar to create a makeshift poto mitan, the post that occupied the center of a proper Vodou ceremony space. It represented the center of the universe in the Haitians’ ceremony, and it would double as the altar in King’s and my Goddess rite. Traditional Haitian Vodou and hearth-and-home witchcraft rituals both came with a lot of trappings we couldn’t bring with us on the rails, but the forced simplicity of the traveling craft helped the blending of the two separate crafts into something greater.

The thunderous downpour pounding against the boxcar intensified, and a powerful gust of wind rattled it. We had pulled the door closed most of the way to keep the rain out, but that left the interior of the car shadowed and gloomy. The four of us stood together near the poto mitan and passed a flask of rum around, each taking a good belt. Then, all of us but Booker took a seat at one of the compass points, Cool Papa to the east representing air, King to the west representing water, and I sat, legs crossed to the south representing fire. The seat to the north representing Earth remained empty out of respect for Ogou (and necessity, as we had run out of participants).

“How are we going to start?” Cool Papa asked. “Brother usually started our mulligan rituals with his prayer.”

I considered the question. Brother’s craft was always the most stubbornly uncooperative of the three. Vodou and witchcraft flexed and adapted to make peace with each other, but Brother’s craft, while powerful, remained rigid. That meant his part in our combined ceremonies had always been to open with his prayer and close with a benediction.

“We’ll just recite the Hobo Witch Creed,” I answered. Cool Papa pulled his drum in front of him and started pounding out a rhythm. Booker danced, feet stomping and hips shaking suggestively, around the poto mitan. The sight of Booker in a dans always surprised, no matter how often I had seen it.

This hobo’s life is boom and bust,” chanted King.

Life on the road is what I lust,” crooned Cool Papa in his deep baritone.

Into a higher plan, I am thrust,” shouted Booker T, making no attempt at song while he danced.

To men and women, no act unjust,” I sang.

And then all of us together,

On the rails, to do what I must

With perfect love and perfect trust.

Cool Papa’s drumbeat became more urgent. In a tight ring, Booker T continued to shake and strut his way around the poto mitan. I stood and walked the larger circle that passed through the three of us seated at the elemental quarters. In more mundane rituals, the protective circle remained solely in our minds. That day, I chose to take the small supply of salt I carried with me on the road and sprinkle it behind me as I went. A proper hearth-and-home witchcraft circle would have been started in the north, but as I doubled as the southern quarter call, we had to take some liberties. When I completed the circle, we started our invocations.

I faced north from my spot on the southern quarter and cried out, “Spirit of The Great Northern, Watcher of the North, lend us the power of Earth.”

As I did so, I could feel, via the Hobo ‘Ro in my pocket, a heaping shovelful of coal arrive in the furnace. My connection to the locomotive became primal, the fuel for the boiler filled my belly like a hearty plate of meat and potatoes.

Without missing a beat, Cool Papa looked over his shoulder to the east and intoned, “Spirit of The Pennsylvania, Watcher of the East, lend us the power of Air.”

I felt the steam pressure build in the train’s pistons; the same heat coursed through my veins.

I spun and faced south. “Spirit of The Southern Pacific, Watcher of the South, lend us the power of fire,” I screamed. The fire roared in the steam engine’s boiler. My muscles clenched as power flooded into me and I rose, involuntarily, to my tip toes.

Much quieter and more controlled from his decades of experience, King said, “Spirit of The Denver and Rio Grande, Watcher of the West, lend us the power of water.”

The water in the boiler bubbled and spat angrily. With the quarters complete, the energy I held within me flooded out and formed an invisible cone of power defined by the circle of salt and the top of the poto mitan. Booker T continued his wild gyrations, and I could sense that Ogou would soon be here.

The Goddess preferred to join the circle and speak via a woman, but as was so often the case with the traveling craft, that was not possible.

“Join us now, Triple Moon Goddess,” I said. “Please, take my body to be your vessel, it’s all we can offer. No women are with us now, and we are all the poorer for it.”

A different kind of energy flowed into me; a soothing, nurturing energy with a depth I couldn’t comprehend. My own consciousness still remained, but another presence had joined. The slightest bit confused at first, the Goddess within me soon realized her own magic blended with that of the Vodou ceremony. As she gained her bearings, I felt my feet tap and my hips sway. Soon the Goddess cavorted around the altar, mimicking Booker T’s steps and moves. With the temperatures soaring twenty or more degrees higher than what we were dressed for, the Haitian and I became drenched in sweat. After another couple minutes, Booker T began to make sounds almost like barks as a spiritual channel opened within him. Then he froze, facing away from us. Cool Papa continued his drumbeat, but the Goddess froze as well and held my body rigid.

When Booker T spun around to face us, everything about him had changed. The shy, quiet boy now swaggered towards us, spinning a glowing crimson machete in his hand. His enlarged pupils nearly consumed the brown irises around them. Ogou had arrived. He looked all around himself, frowned slightly when he sensed no impending battle, but then a huge grin emerged when he fully grasped his surroundings. The machete faded away. King hurried over and handed Ogou the flask of rum. The lwa took it, drained it into Booker T, and then tossed the flask aside laughing in a deep rumble that could have, in no way, come from the slight Haitian boy alone.

“A train,” he boomed. “A masterful working of iron and steel.”

“Yes,” the Goddess said, “and it’s in trouble. These men need our help.” A lightning bolt struck a tree alongside the tracks just as we passed and a gust of wind slammed the side of the boxcar, rattling it.

“Then, let’s do it,” Ogou said, laughing again, and giving the Goddess a flirtatious wink.

The cone of energy surrounding us rippled like heat waves, and I felt the iron beast at the head of the train surge, and that momentum rippled through the cars behind. When it reached us, the boxcar leaped forward, and those of us standing tumbled to the floor. The unnatural acceleration felt more like slamming on the accelerator of an automobile than the graceful pull of a locomotive. Cool Papa drummed faster and faster as we picked up speed, his rhythm linked to that of the train. Ogou and the Goddess resumed their dance. The separation of my senses from control of my body made it hard for me to follow the action. People popped in and out of my vision as the Goddess tilted and turned my head to the beat. Occasionally, I felt Booker T press against me as Ogou’s passions became aroused by the dance and the Goddess within me that only he could see. But if the Goddess could go toe-to-toe with the amorous attentions of the Horned God, her traditional ritual consort, she could manage those of our Vodou spirit guest. It particularly amused me when he leaned in for a kiss and I felt my arm place two fingers against his lips denying him. One eyebrow went up on Booker’s face, but then Ogou’s deep laugh resumed and the dans continued.

We were fortunate to have remained on the straight and narrow for as long as we did. When the first bend hit, the altered physics of the train collided with the unaltered physics of its passengers, and we were all launched against the wall. Booker T rolled on top of me and gave me a playful leer. The Goddess propelled him off me with my arms and Ogou rolled away chuckling.

The crazy carnival ride continued as the train barreled through the mountains. Ten or fifteen minutes went by and with each turn, the momentum tossed and tumbled us within the boxcar. The wheels screeched an unholy sound, and I felt the framework of the locomotive and its cars struggle, but Ogou’s influence held them together. I wondered what the train crew thought about it all. They’d probably try and tell their buddies about it later only to be told they were full of shit.

When the train jolted exceptionally hard to the left, I tumbled toward the opposite wall and before I knew what happened, I went out the small section of door that remained open. With no control of my body, I had no options, but if I only learned one thing from my witch mothers and a house full of working women, I learned that if I found myself helpless, leave it to the Goddess to decide my fate.

With that last thought, I found myself outside in the torrential rain and gale force winds, facing to the rear of the train, my right arm hanging on to a metal bar on the side of the car. Without the Goddess, I wouldn’t have lasted long, but a calmness and strength flooded me. I knew, and so did the Goddess, that I couldn’t safely get back to the opening and the interior of the car, so she braced us with my leg, and we held on tight.

There were eight cars between me and the caboose, so I could just see the end of the train. As the ground flew by beneath me, I heard an ominous rumble from my left. The Goddess turned and looked toward the sound, and I caught a glimpse. Only a few hundred feet up the ravine, a wall of water and debris headed towards us. Thick tree trunks snapped, booming like explosives. The powerful flow shredded great heaps of dirt and rocks from the sides of its channel. I even saw the antlers of a buck thrashing in the unnatural river as it fought its inevitable fate. I wondered if I faced a similar end. The car I hung from shot ahead of the onslaught. Would the other eight cars make it? The Goddess swung my head around to look behind. Moving as fast as we were, the caboose passed just ahead of the explosive flood of mud and broken tree limbs that blocked the tracks behind us. We had passed the crisis foretold by the Hobo ‘Ro just in time.

The great iron beast heaved a sigh of relief, and the train behind it slowed to a more normal speed. I felt the Goddess leave me. Soon after, Booker T called to me in Ogou’s deep bass voice from on top of the boxcar. With me stretching my free arm, and Booker T leaning over, he could just grab hold. A supernatural strength pulled me to the the top of the car, carried me to the open door, bent over and tossed me inside. Booker T swung himself in behind me.

The Haitian collapsed when Ogou stopped riding him. That always happened after a Vodou dans. More concerning, Cool Papa hunched nearby, checking King’s inert body. “He’s breathing,” Papa said, “but he’s unconscious and I cannot wake him.”

I rushed to King’s side, grasped his hand, and prayed to the Goddess this hadn’t all been for nothing.

By the time we reached Spokane on Christmas Eve, the weather had chilled again, and the flood waters had started receding. The Northern Pacific track behind us remained blocked for almost a day. Traffic would take several more to resume a normal schedule and the trains that did move ran at slower than normal speeds. King had worsened considerably and had remained unconscious all the way to Coeur d’Alene. By the time he awoke, he could hardly sit upright, each breath accompanied by a wheeze. If he made it to Puget Sound, it would be close. Had we not made it through the mountains before the flood, there would have been no chance.

As the train hissed to a stop in the yard, five hobos jumped into the boxcar. I knew immediately they practiced the traveling craft.

“It’s true,” a man who looked about thirty said in awe. “It’s the King. I saw him once in St. Louis when I first took to the rails.”

“What’s wrong with him?” a pimply teenager asked.

“He’s dying,” I said. “We need to get him to Seattle. It’s his last wish.”

“Of course,” the first man said, but he stood like a deer caught in a car’s headlights.

“Come on now,” I barked. “This is the King of Hobohemia. Get a move on!”

With that, the strangers got to work looking for a way to get us to Seattle. I had been right; the train crew had breathlessly reported our reckless run through the mountains only to be ridiculed. When two hobo witches heard the tale, they had a different reaction. A powerful mulligan ritual had taken place, and they wondered why. When their rumors encountered chatter that the King of Hobohemia might soon catch the Westbound, the bos started putting the pieces together, and that’s why we got the greeting we did in Spokane. A similar crew awaited us at each stop after that. The weather had everyone distracted. With the informal honor guards to assist us, we arrived in Seattle in the middle of Christmas day.

The Haitians said their goodbyes in the hobo jungle near the tracks and started looking for the first train headed to warmer weather. For two boys born in the Caribbean, the ride up north in the winter had been particularly harsh.

“It was our honor,” Cool Papa said. “When we arrived in Florida, King greeted us at the boat, and showed us the ropes.” The pair hugged the frail old man. He had recovered some but could just barely stand. They released their embrace and stepped back when a coughing fit took hold.

“Get me to Alki Beach, Valentine, quick.” he said when the spasms passed.

It took some extra time, but we made it there by late afternoon. We sat down together in the sand looking toward the water. King leaned against me. The wheeze had evolved into a rattle.

“King,” I said. “We’re the only ones here.”

“That’s all that matters,” he whispered, the sound almost drowned out by the sounds of the beach.

“But you have to pass the Hobo ‘Ro,” I said. “That’s the whole point.”

“I passed it days ago, you fool,” King chided. “I wanted to see with my own eyes that I made the right choice. I’m sure now that I did.”

“But King, I can’t.”

“You can and you will. Heck, you’ve already been doing it. The greatest challenge ever faced by practitioners of the traveling craft is on the horizon. By then, we’ll need an experienced, yet still youthful, king.”

“What’s the challenge?” I asked.

“I still don’t know the details,” he reminded me. “The surge of bos we have now is from economic necessity. This next challenge is more like some kind of moral imperative. A monstrous evil is on the rise overseas. We have to be ready to fight.”

Those were his last words. His surge of strength faded away, the rattle in his lungs grew softer and slower, and then he wilted in my arms. I wanted to linger with him, but it could be dangerous to be found holding a dead man. I stood up and gripped the Hobo ‘Ro in my pocket. My eyes scanned the nearby area and found a policeman a few blocks away.

On my way to him, I spotted a pair of boys, maybe thirteen, wearing fancy clothes still almost new, and carrying awkwardly assembled bindles full of their possessions. I wondered what made them leave home on Christmas Day, but if I learned anything when I left my home of witches and working women (and I learned many things) I learned that very few bos out there were raised in the safe and loving environment I had been.

“Hey boys, you about to catch-out?” I called to them.

“Yeah,” they answered, looking relieved to encounter someone who might show them what to do.

“Wait there for me, I’ll only be a minute.”

I walked up to the lawman. “A man passed away on the beach,” I said. He rolled his eyes, more irritated than sympathetic, just like the policeman in Chicago.

“Damn hobos,” he said, oblivious (or maybe not) to my own obvious status as a bo.

I flashed white hot and balled my fists, more than ready to punch an officer of the law…but then I let it go. If the next century was to bring a different kind of progress, I didn’t need to start it with violence. So, I just turned and walked back to the green road kids who still waited for me.

“Hey boys, allow me to introduce myself. I’m the Witch-king of Hobohemia, but you can call me King.”

Christopher is currently a data visualization specialist living in Arizona. He grew up in the hills north of Los Angeles, carries a small piece of Southern California in his heart wherever life takes him, and plans to return one day.

Christopher’s calling to imagine other worlds, alternate realities, and the characters that live there has expressed itself in many forms. Daydreaming, RPG & board games, and writing.

Of course, not everything is imaginary. Christopher shares his life with his wife, his three kids, and an ever-shifting menagerie of pets.


  1. Pingback: Published and Upcoming Short Stories – Tales from The Bonesaw

Leave a Reply