When Buddy Newman walked into the dusty little southwestern Virginia town of Gate City, he made sure he had his road face on, a menacing and mysterious dead-eyed stare that would help him survive in the encampment of hobos and tramps down along the creek not far from the train yard. Once he moved out of the camp and settled on a plan of action, chose his patsies or hatched a new scam, he would change himself from the inside out, taking on whatever face he needed, changing even his speech, his gait, his ways of moving his hands. He was malleable as the clay banks in the hills above his old homeplace. When you are hollow inside, you can fill yourself up with anything you need, get bigger or smaller, stay fluid or form a solid wall.
Buddy had only been in town a couple of days, but he already had a pretty good idea of the lay of the land as far as his world was concerned. The town had surprisingly large encampment, what was known in the hobo world as “the jungle,” probably somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five people every night, just at the edge of town, right off the main street. They had names like T-Bone, Chicken, Guzzle and Pip. Almost every town of any size that had railroad access had an encampment of some kind, a desolate, depressing swath of ugliness, with blankets thrown over tree limbs making little pathetic tents. Sometimes crates that had carried produce would be taken apart and nailed into a little box the size of a small chicken coop with boards or pieces of rusted tin for a roof. In Gate City, they stayed beside a narrow creek that ran along the lower street. It was a shady place and far enough from any street or houses that there wasn’t too much complaint unless there was a disturbance or some vandalism or thieving.
Buddy’s real name was Dexter Deel, and he left home from Bluefield, West Virginia, four years before. Holding on to that name seemed like a bad idea, under the circumstances, and besides, even the other railroad bums with no secrets told him right off that nobody used their real name out here. Too much law-breaking to be done, they said. So he chose the name Buddy Newman—because he wanted to always remember to be everybody’s buddy, and because he was going to be a new man and make a new life. He was pretty proud of his cleverness.
Buddy liked to ride the blinds—the little platform on the front of some of the cars, but it was pretty unpleasant. You could eat enough soot, gravel, and dust to kill you, but at least you weren’t hiding away in bunch of stinking livestock or waiting to get caught and beat up by some mean railroad thug. He rode into Gate City on a long coal train, jumping off one of the back car’s blinds, just a few hundred yards from the train engine’s halt in the station. He always did that; he didn’t want to be close enough to the engine for anyone to see him at the station. It was much better to walk into town with no one having any idea how you got there, and no railroad bulls bashing you with their clubs or calling the local sheriff.
He had started walking at nine months, his momma had told him, in between her drunken stupors, so a life comprised mainly of just walking, walking, miles and miles a day, many days, or running to catch a train car suited him just fine. He might have stayed in Bluefield, except the only sane, caring people he knew—his grandparents on his mother’s side—had died just a couple of months apart, while his mother was conveniently gone off with one of her gap-toothed, mouth-breathing boyfriends and left Dexter to handle all that messy stuff at the end. His father Abraham was long gone, thank God. Mr. Deel’s only talent was cruelty. Dexter’s worst memory of childhood was his father punishing him for something he didn’t do by hanging the family dog from a tree by a chain and making Dexter stand and watch him swat it with a bat, a hideous yelp coming with every pass, until finally he was quiet.
When his grandmother followed her husband to the family plot, Dexter saw to it that they were buried proper with the sale of the few animals they still had left. He kept his grandfather’s pocket watch, knife, hunting rifle and an old pistol. He gave the keys to the old house to their neighbor, Mr. Williams, with instructions that after one year, if his mother didn’t return to claim it, Mr. Williams could sell the place, keep ten percent of whatever it brought, and mail the rest to Buddy in care of the Salvation Army mission there in Gate City.
The town had been a good choice for the mail drop location because there was good train service through there from everywhere, and he had a friend there. One of the Salvation Army “sisters” there, Molly Kate O’Donnell, was a friend he’d grown up with. He would always joke with her about being a “doughnut Christian” because he only showed up at missions and churches for sweets, strong coffee, and some conversation. They both had a good laugh about it; she knew there was probably no hope of changing him, but she would never stop trying.
Buddy had been riding trains and working odd jobs for these four long years that felt like forever—a very long life for a hobo. Many didn’t live that long. They either died trying to get on or off a moving train, or from malnourishment or disease, or got killed by somebody for stealing or being on railroad property. It was a very dangerous life. If you tried to get on the train in a safe manner while it was stopped, you were much more likely to be caught by the railroad bulls. If you were lucky, they’d just rough you up and throw you off the train. Often, however, some people got hurt bad or killed if the bulls recognized you as a repeat.
Buddy was good at hopping trains; it’s one of the reasons he’d lived so long. It takes practice to learn the exact moment you need to break out of hiding and run along the side, waiting for the car you’ve picked out to catch up to you so that you can catch hold of something big enough to get you a good grip. You’ve got to have the strength to swing free of the earth and pull yourself up there. It was painful; the strain on your wrists felt as if it would break your hands clean off, and your ribs felt like they were separating.
He’d heard every horror story you could imagine. One guy named Slim Jim got his head cut off because he was standing in the doorway of a boxcar, and when the train pulled out, it caught him off guard and knocked him down. He couldn’t get to his feet quick enough to avoid the heavy door’s rush. Another one they called Tater was mashed to pudding by a big bunch of heavy freight that shifted and fell on him while he was sleeping as the train rounded a curve up the Blue Ridge Mountains. Somebody told Buddy that he was broken and mashed so bad that they like to never got him scraped up off the floor.
In the Gate City jungle, there were tramps and hobos, and probably quite a few were like Buddy and moved between both worlds, meaning sometimes they would work if they felt like and it was fairly easy, but if they didn’t find an easy path, they’d just steal or run a scam. Because of the little group of nuns there, the town attracted lots of his kind. The camp was full of guys with a sad story to tell. One of them who called himself Chicken Joe claimed to have a dying mother in North Carolina that he was trying to get home to see. Several claimed to have jobs waiting down in Tennessee or Georgia if someone would just see fit to stake them the money to get there. There was a “dummie” pretending he couldn’t hear or speak, but Buddy saw through him right away when he noticed him jump at a big clap of thunder.
Buddy laughed and laughed at the man and cussed him and threatened to beat him to death while he slept. The man was gone the next morning.
That wasn’t the only problem, though. There was a gang of tramps, the kind who wouldn’t work, what the wandering folks called a “push.” It was a mixed gang, some old and some young, and it was a nasty piece of work. It was run with an iron fist by a man appropriately named Iron Mike, and Buddy Newman didn’t like him one bit. The gang bragged about killing lots of people, mostly railroad bulls and other hoboes who crossed them. Iron Mike was the sort of man Buddy Newman hated with a white-hot passion he could feel in his gut, the kind of man who thought he was invincible, better than everybody else. Iron Mike had a young boy named Alfred with him that he was awfully protective of, and Buddy had seen him stroke the boy’s hair at the edge of the campfire light. The boy didn’t seem to like it much, and Buddy felt sick to his stomach for him. He’d heard about those kinds of gangs. He’d have to see if he could think of a plan to help that boy out.
Getting away from the jungle and from the stares of the good town folk and the suspicions of the local sheriff and his deputies seemed like a good idea. Buddy never liked towns or cities. He felt uneasy and exposed. It had too many variables he couldn’t control, too many players, too many moving parts.
No, he liked the country better for lots of reasons. That’s why he’d headed out toward the back side of Scott County. There were train depots at Fort Blackmore and Dungannon if he needed to get out fast, but what really drew him was the kind of people he knew he’d find there. They’d be good country people, innocent, God-fearing and hard-working, poor enough to have a lot of sympathy for someone like him, but prosperous enough to have resources he could use.
When he crossed Copper Creek and started the long climb over the first big ridge, he immediately felt the rushes of cool air that seemed to come up out of the ground, the sweet smells, the wonderful quiet. He made sure he changed his face. In some of the big cities, he’d made use of more educated and sophisticated people, and he used what he called his Professor face, pretending to be an educated man, a teacher, down on is luck. Here he decided to go for his Country Boy face. He pressed the corners of his lips into a perpetual little smile, a clown face, opened his eyes much wider, made sure to relax the furrows of his brow. He worked on remembering to nod his head slightly every minute or two, like he was always agreeing with what someone was saying. It was a great character, and it had helped him in many a small town or wayside around the southern states.
He saw a sign on a church that read Wayland Baptist Church; he’d heard a man on the street in Gate City tell another man he lived out in Wayland. “Wayland.” Buddy said it out loud to himself and smiled. Wayland would show him the way to what he wanted.