Originally written for a challenge in June of 2011
Deep brown eyes peered around the corner of a ramshackle building. A healthy young face, surrounded by shiny dark hair, contrasted sharply with the splintered gray wood. The street was empty.
Where had Jake gone? Han was sure his brother had come this way. He squeezed his eyes shut and wrinkled his nose as an errant breeze carried the pungent stench from nearby stockyards. Han couldn’t decide which was worse, the mingled reek of cow-patties and offal drifting from behind, or the acrid bite of rotting fish wafting from the river docks. What was Jake doing in this part of town, and why so early in the morning? The skinny twelve-year-old shivered in the December chill and hugged his jacket closed to keep out the frigid fingers of the searching wind.
Less than two hours earlier, Han had been warm in a nest of blankets. Awake, but drowsy, he’d lain quietly on the parlor floor in the home of his father’s friend. He and his entire family were in Kansas City. It was the most exciting thing he could remember.
One afternoon, Han’s Pa came in waving a telegram. The whole Heyes family was invited to Lawrence, Kansas for Christmas. Uncle Joe, Ma’s brother, needed to go to New York and hoped that Pa could look after his general store in Lawrence while he and his family were back east. Minding Uncle Joe’s business would earn Pa some money, including train tickets for the family. Winter was the quiet time on the farm, so the plan helped everyone. The trip required a change of trains in Kansas City. The stop in Missouri allowed them a few days to visit one of Pa’s old friends.
Mr. Curry drove the wagon to Paola where they would board the train. They were all bundled against the cold and waiting for him when the sun came up. Han had hardly even dozed through the night, he was so excited. Jed slept over and shared the loft with Han and his brother. Both Jed and Jake had been plenty irritated, because Han wouldn’t stop talking about the coming train trip. No one was getting much sleep, but after Pa warned he’d take a switch to his bottom if he didn’t keep quiet, Han stopped talking. He still didn’t sleep. Instead, he tossed and turned in his blankets. How anyone could keep still when they were about to ride a train for the first time?
Jed rode with them to Paola. Wrapped in quilts, the boys sat crossed legged in the bed of the wagon bumping along on the frozen ruts. Their breath puffed out in jaunty little clouds as they swapped thoughts about seeing a locomotive engine and visiting new places. It took the better part of three hours to reach town.
Once they arrived in Paola, Han pestered his father so often about what time it was that a frustrated James Heyes handed his pocket watch to his son.
“Don’t lose it or drop it, Hannibal!”
“I won’t, Pa, and thanks. And may Jed and me explore the town? When are we going to lunch? We’ll be back in time to eat, I promise, Pa. May we explore until then? We won’t go far. We won’t do nothing wrong or get in anybody’s way. We’ll come back whenever you say. May we go? Please?”
“Slow down, son. I can’t answer your questions if you won’t stop talking even to breathe,” James Heyes laughed.
Han’s mouth snapped shut as he visibly swallowed the next words bubbling up inside him. His mother chuckled and settled the baby on her hip. “Be back here by 11:30 boys,” she instructed. “That should give us plenty of time before the train comes in.”
Han and Jed watched eagerly as the locomotive clanged and clattered to a stop at 1:00pm sharp. The train restocked wood, unloaded, took on freight, and let passengers get off and board. The boys watched avidly as the crew stacked the cut logs in the tender. The conductor observed them with an amused and knowing eye.
“Boys,” he called. “You been on a train before?”
Jed shook his head.
“No, sir,” crowed Han. “But I’m gonna get to ride on this one. It’s my first time.”
“Come on over here. I’ll introduce you to the engineer.”
Blue eyes met brown as both faces split in gleeful grins. They skidded to a stop in front of the conductor. Each wiped a palm on a pant leg before shaking the extended hand. He led them to the hissing engine where a bearded man in striped coveralls, a thick leather apron, and a billed cap greeted the conductor.
“Well, Henry, whatcha got here? A couple of train hoppers? Did you find ‘em hidin’ in the freight cars?”
The boys mouths gaped and their eyebrows climbed up their foreheads. “No, sir, we would never--” began Han. He was cut-off by a chorus of guffaws.
“Floyd, here, is just pulling yer leg,” the conductor reassured them. “Floyd, have you got a few minutes to show these fine young fellas how the train works? This one here,” he gripped Han’s shoulder, “will be riding with us today. It’s his first train trip.”
“Shore. I’d be glad to give ‘em the tour,” replied the engineer with a wide smile. “Can you two keep your hands in your pockets? I can’t have ya’ touchin’ anything.”
“Yes, sir,” they both answered.
The next few minutes were filled with explanations of boilers and coupling rods and talk of pistons, wheelsets, and axleboxes. They watched as a muscular man stoked the firebox with wood from a neat pile. He studied a pressure gage carefully before turning and nodding to the boys. Jed’s eyes soon glazed at the technical descriptions of steam pressure and piston action, but Han was fascinated. All too soon they were shaking gloved hands and hurrying back to their parents.
Han blew on his cold fingers, wishing for a pair of thick gloves. He crept around the corner and made his way down the dingy street where he skirted around a man sprawled against the front of a boarded up saloon. Stopping, he peered more closely at the filthy form. Was the man breathing? The grubby shape snorted and turned, startling Han who skipped back a few steps. His eyes scanned the dim street before he trudged forward again, searching for his brother.
A tall man, wearing slickers and a cabled sweater, stood near the edge of the street heaving gnarled, woven nets into a cart. The stub of a glowing cigar was clamped between stained teeth. Han faltered to a stop, leery of the rough looking man.
“Watcha’ doin’ ‘ere, boy?” he growled.
Han shied back a pace, then squared his shoulders and faced the hulking figure. “I’m looking for my brother.”
“Ain’t seen nobody but you.” The cigar bounced up and down as the man spoke. “He goin’ to the rail yards?”
Han considered. “Maybe.”
“That way, then.” He pointed toward the smell of the stockyards.
“Thank you,” Han responded, backing up. He hurried in the indicated direction. What was Jake doing here by the stock and rail yards? They hadn’t even seen a train depot until a few days ago. What was going on?
The distance from Paola to Kansas City was less than 50 miles. The engineer explained to Han and Jed that the locomotive could go as fast as 85 miles per hour under the right conditions, but that wasn’t going to happen today. They would stop twice before they arrived at their destination, once to take on water near Spring Hill and then again in Olathe to pick up passengers and freight. It would take just over two hours to reach Kansas City.
Han boarded the train wedged between his thirteen year-old sister Becca and his older brother Jake. Wooden benches bolted to the floor filled the passenger car. Only a few Union soldiers and a pair of elderly women sat waiting inside. Open seats were plentiful. Shut against the cold December afternoon, the windows rattled and shook as the train lurched into motion.
Han waved goodbye to Jed through the mist coated glass and settled into an empty seat. The excitement of train travel was dampened when he found slat benches instead of the luxuriously padded seats he’d imagined. Pa explained that the fancy cars were only used on the long haul and transcontinental routes. This spur line from Fort Scott to Kansas City didn’t even rate a dining car.
The rustic conditions didn’t quell Han’s enthusiasm. His eager eyes devoured the countryside slipping past as the train accelerated. Cattle and trees zipped by the window, and the passenger car rocked and rattled at an astonishing rate. Han couldn’t imagine what it would be like on a trip where the engine reached top speeds.
At the end of the ride they would be in Kansas City, Missouri. Han hadn’t left the state of Kansas since his family arrived to homestead when he was four. Stanton was a fair sized town with nearly 700 people, but Kansas City had over 6,000. He had never seen so many people all crammed together. He was visiting another state and would see the mighty Missouri River.
Han hadn’t gone far when he crossed the first set of rails. Weaving between deserted boxcars, he still heard the cries of men loading boats at the docks on the Missouri. The sliding creak and thudding slam of a boxcar door startled Han and sent him scurrying for shelter behind an empty tender. He heard snatches of conversations hollered between rail workers as the yard shuddered to life.
He crouched and backed behind the tender when he heard the crunch of boots on gravel. A strong grip yanked his upper arm and spun him around. He raised his fist and used his boots on the shins of his assailant.
“Stop kicking me, Han!”
Han looked up, and his brother slowly eased the grip on his arm.
“What are you doing here, Hannibal?” Jake’s disapproving tone and the use of Han’s full name made him sound like their father.
“Following you.” Han’s eyes widened at the sight of a rifle on his brother’s shoulder. “What are you doin’ with Pa’s hunting rifle?”
Jakes eyes shifted. “It’s not Pa’s. It’s the old one he gave me.” Jake replied defensively.
Han noted the knapsack slung over Jake’s shoulder, the thick winter coat, and the rifle. His mouth gaped open, and his eyes darted around the wakening rail yard. “Where you going?” The question verged on accusation.
“What makes you think I’m going anywhere?”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense.” Han swallowed a lump that jumped into his throat. “Jake,” he began again warily, “where are you planning to go? Are you going to hop a freight train? You know that ain’t right.”
Jake didn’t respond and wouldn’t meet his brother’s eyes.
“Jake, come back with me to the house. Ma and Pa are gonna be mighty worried about us by now.”
“I can’t, Han. I gotta go. And I need to leave real soon. They’re getting the train ready. I can’t stay with the family anymore.”
“What do you mean you can’t stay with the family? Of course you can. Pa needs you on the farm. We’re your kin. Where else would you go?”
Jake’s light brown eyes slid sideways and stole a peek at the rifle barrel on his shoulder. Han felt like a horse had kicked him in the gut.
“No!” he hissed, his voice dark and angry. “You ain’t gonna enlist. They won’t take you. You’re too young! They won’t take a boy of 17 years. You gotta be at least 18.”
“No, Han. They’ll take me.”
“I’ll tell Pa. He’ll stop you goin’.”
“You can’t reach him in time. Besides I don’t think he would stop me.” Jake hung his head, and Han had to work hard to hear. “You don’t know the things he said.”
“What things?” Han spit back. “I don’t care what he said. He wouldn’t want you running off to war.”
“He called me a coward, Han. He said I was hidin’ behind the farm work and our family. He said that if I believed all the things I said about state’s rights and Lincoln violating the Constitution, I’d be off fighting for the south.” Jake paused and dug the toe of his boot beneath a rail tie. When he raised eyes full of tears, he looked like a little boy. “Pa called Mr. Quantrill a cattle rustler and a rabble rouser.”
“Mr. Quantrill was a good teacher, Jake. I know he was real good to you, and you admired him. But I heard the rumors too. Pa might be right. They say that after he got let go from teaching, he took to rustlin’ and thievin'.”
“If he took to thieving, it was because they left him no choice.” Jake’s voice climbed in defense of his former teacher.
Han shook his head. “Man’s always got a choice. Pa says so.”
Neither one spoke. The sounds of the rail yard grew louder.
“I need to go.”
Han grabbed his brother’s arm. “Pa didn’t mean those things he said, Jake. You know, Pa. He just wanted to win the argument. He don’t always mean the words he says. He loves you. And he’s proud of you. He told me so. He’s proud of you for standing up for what you believe.”
“Like he stands up for what he believes when he helps the Underground Railroad?”
Han’s eyes shot up and met his brother’s. “You know about that?”
“Yep. I know. That’s part of the problem. If I stay, one day, one of us, Pa or me, is going to end up hurting the other one. I can’t keep pretending that I don’t know what’s going on. It’s against the law, Han! And I think it’s wrong.” A tear escaped down Jake’s cheek. “And if Pa is really proud of me for standing up for what I believe, isn’t that just another reason for me to be going?”
“You and Pa! You and Pa and your arguments. Don’t you two know they are just words? What about Ma, and Becca? If you leave now, Lily isn’t even going to know you when you come home. She’s too little. What about me?” Han’s voice dropped and his shoulders slumped. “We… we care about you, Jake. Can’t you stay for us?”
Han looked down and went still. The lowing of cattle echoed through the silence. He looked up and smiled brightly, thinking of a new argument. “What about college? Pa’s been pulling in old favors trying to get you into college.”
Jake smiled. “He should be saving that for you, Han. You’ve got the sharpest mind in the whole family. That’s a quote from Pa too.”
Han let go of his brother’s arm.
“Tell ‘em where I went and that I love them. Will you do that for me?”
Han nodded. “Where will you go?”
“I’ll hop the freights until I get to Springfield, Missouri. I can reach the Confederate lines from there.”
A train across the yard jerked to a start and pulled out slowly. Jake looked over his shoulder and then back into the tear filled eyes of his brother.
“I need to go, Han. Be careful heading back. This isn’t the best part of town.” He started to turn, then spun back and gave his brother a tight hug. He held him by the shoulders and looked into the swimming brown eyes. “I love you Hannibal Heyes. Take care of Ma and the girls. They say the war will be over before summer. I’ll see you then.”
Jacob Harrison Heyes jogged across the yard. He grabbed the box car with both hands and hoisted himself through the opening. He waived to the thin boy hugging his coat against the December chill, before the door slowly slid shut.