“For the sins of your fathers you, though guiltless, must suffer.” — Horace
I dug the book I was reading out from under a stack of college paperwork that sat on my desk. After a week of celebrating my high school graduation I just didn’t have the drive to dig in to all of that yet.
Just before lunch, I heard the doorbell ring. I walked to the top of the stairs to see who it was. My mother opened the door to see a man in a very nice suit, his black hair cropped close, almost military. He raised a pistol and shot her. She fell and I wanted to scream, go to her, yell for my dad, but I all I could do was stand there speechless. My feet were frozen to the floor and I thought briefly that these were my last moments on earth. The man at the door walked down the hallway toward the kitchen without even looking upstairs. Still frozen, I heard a lot of movement downstairs.
“Hello Dragan, it’s been a long time,” the gunman said. “If you want to beg you should start now, but I have to warn you that it won’t do any good. Be a good cetnik and come on out.”
My father said something that sounded like “pico jedna.” Two shots followed and I ran downstairs to see the man in the suit lying in the hallway with half of his head gone. My father leaned back against a chair at the kitchen table, bleeding from the midsection, blood covering the floor around him, a pistol in his right hand. I started to cry. I tried to hold it in but couldn’t. I kneeled beside him and took his hand.
“Listen, son,” he said between labored breaths, “There are things from my past, things I should have told you. There isn’t time now. Men will be coming for you, and they won’t care if you know what happened or not.” He fished keys out of his pocket, held up one key, and handed it to me. “Go up to my office, look in the safe. There’s a belt with money and our passports. Wear it under your shirt so no one can steal it.” As my father closed his eyes his last breaths came painfully. I squeezed his hand one last time and turned to leave.
My first idea was to just drive until I couldn’t and then stop somewhere. I realized that if they could find my dad then they could probably find my car so I went with plan B. I had always been fascinated with railroads and had always wanted to hop a train. I had watched several YouTube videos on the subject and felt confident in my expertise. I parked my car about a mile from Mockingbird Rail Yard, took the pack I had thrown together, and walked the rest of the way. I managed to sneak through the fence and find some bushes to hide in near the tracks. My internet studying had told me that today’s trains speed up a lot faster than they used to, so when you go you have to run as fast as possible. I saw a train that looked good, but as I got into a crouch to run toward it I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Hey man, if you go out there now the bulls are going to catch you,” a voice said from behind me. I turned and saw a dirty guy who looked like he might have been on the rough end of forty or so. He was wearing a black wool cap, jeans, and a sweatshirt. A bedroll hung diagonally over his shoulder. He pointed back toward the train I had been about to hop. I looked and saw the SUVs the railroad cops drive come past us.
“There won’t be another one for about fifteen minutes, we can make it now,” he said. We got up and ran towards the train. He jumped on a flat car and pulled me up after him.
“Stay down and don’t get cozy until we’re out of the rail yard,” he motioned with his hand as he spoke. We rode for a bit before he pulled out his sleeping bag.
“You’re gonna get cold with nothing between you and the metal,” he said. He put a piece of egg crate foam that he had stowed in his sleeping bag on the floor of the car. “We can sleep back to back, but I’m not into dudes OK?”
“Yeah, me neither,” I said. “It’s summer time, I should be OK.”
“Man you’re green,” he said, “the metal will suck the heat right out of you and we’ll be in the breeze all night on this flat car. Trust me, you’ll get cold.”
“Okay, yeah, I’ve never done this before. I had some trouble at home and had to make a quick exit,” I said, feeling vulnerable for the first time.
“I’m Cinci. Everyone on the rails calls me that cause I’m from Cincinnati. I ain’t been there since I was a teenager, but that’s how it is out here, you get a nickname and it sticks.” He shook my hand as he spoke and then we both hunkered down in our sleeping bags. Sometime during the night I started crying and couldn’t stop. My parents were dead and my life would never be the same. I kept trying to rationalize things and think my way through, but in the end it became too exhausting and I slept. I hoped that Cinci hadn’t heard me crying, but we were lying back to back so I’m sure he felt it if nothing else. I didn’t know him at all and I didn’t want him to think of me as weak.
We woke up just before dawn. The train was pulling in to Oklahoma City. Cinci shook my feet.
“Welcome to Okie City, kid. There are trains leaving today but they’re all going east. If we wait until tomorrow we can catch one to Kansas City, or better yet, somewhere west.” He started putting his things together. “And just so you know, out here we’re all running from something, so whatever it is, I ain’t gonna ask you about it cause I know you’ll pay me the same respect. If you wanna talk then go ahead, but it don’t matter to me one way or the other.”
“I’m all right, just going through some tough times,” I replied.
Cinci laughed. “There’s nobody out here that ain’t,” he said.
We jumped a train that morning to Kansas City. Cinci told me that people on the rails called it KC-MO for Kansas City, Missouri, to differentiate it from KC-K or Kansas City, Kansas, just across the river. When we got to Kansas City we found a spot by the river and camped. I just slept until Cinci woke me up and said it was time to hop our next rail. I hadn’t eaten in two days, but all I wanted to do was sleep. He was heading west so we hopped a train headed to Cheyenne, Wyoming. This time we got on the best rail car of them all, the big daddy, an old-fashioned box car. It was half full of bags of rice, which made great mattresses. I slept pretty well, all things considered. After I woke up there was a minute there where I felt okay, and then the events of the past few days hit me and I had trouble thinking straight. Cinci opened the door on the car a little and we watched the countryside go by.
I slept as much as I could to keep from having to deal with everything.
We got to Cheyenne around noon. I had been sleeping so much I didn’t even know what day it was. We found a spot to camp and Cinci started gathering wood. I hadn’t contributed anything since I met up with Cinci so I told him I’d go into town and get us some food. My stomach was making funny noises and I was ready to eat. I emptied my pack so that I’d be able to carry a lot of stuff and found a grocery store. I picked up a roasted chicken, some ribs, and mashed potatoes. I got some donuts, too. When I got back to our campsite, we feasted. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, before or since. It’s funny how you can be at rock bottom and something little like a good meal can remind you why it’s good to be alive.
After we ate we kept the fire going. I’ve never seen as many stars as I saw in the sky that night. After dinner, Cinci pulled out a deck of cards and began shuffling. He knew a few games but he had never played Texas Hold ‘Em. My father was a poker fiend and he, my mother, and I used to play family games for whatever spare change we had lying around. Cinci and I played with pebbles and I felt a little normal for the first time since all this had happened. After we put the cards away, Cinci began to speak.
“All right, kid, it’s time for Cinci’s crash course on trains,” Cinci said, looking animated. “Don’t worry none, there won’t be no crashing, that’s just an expression. The first thing you should know about hopping trains is the cars. We’ve been on a flat car, the first night; the car that looked like it was carrying stood-up ice cream cones is called a hopper. They put stuff like dirt and gravel in the top and then empty them out the bottom. That cubby on the end we rode in is the only place to ride on those. Don’t ever ride on anything hauling cars cause the bulls check those a lot.”
“I feel like I should be taking notes,” I said, smiling for the first time since all this started.
“You should be, but it’s OK that you ain’t, this information has been passed down by hobos for years. Used to be thousands of us riding the rails but now there ain’t that many. When I first started the old guys told me about how it used to be. They had hobo jungles in most big rail towns where you could go and stay for a few days if you wanted. Word is they called ‘em jungles for a reason, though. There wasn’t any law or anything; I guess you could say it was just the law of the jungle.”
Cinci fell asleep still pontificating on hobo culture and how September 11 had marked the end of it. I had been sleeping for two days and felt wide awake. I just sat by the fire and thought about trains and hobos and why people are willing to give up their freedom when they were scared, anything to keep my mind off the last few days or the next few. The cold Wyoming night didn’t penetrate my sleeping bag and I kept the fire going for the rest of the night, alone with my thoughts.
When morning came I was hungry again and a hot breakfast was sounding good. The train Cinci wanted to catch didn’t leave until that night. I asked Cinci if he wanted to go into town with me but he didn’t. I found a diner and got us some eggs, sausage, and biscuits and gravy.
When I got back to our spot, three guys in tracksuits stood over Cinci. One of them had Cinci’s arms pinned behind his back, another was punching him in the gut and slapping him, and the third was shouting questions I was pretty sure concerned me.
I ran and waved, shouting, “Here I am, here I am, please don’t hurt him, he has nothing to do with this!” My yelling clearly got the attention of the man swinging his fists because the first thing he did was draw his gun, turn, and shoot. I felt the bullet hit me low in the gut and I hit the dirt. I heard one of the men cuss and then they were all gone. Cinci came running over and started to staunch the bleeding with his filthy shirtsleeve. He held my hand and told me to hang on. I felt myself getting sleepy so I slept.
When I woke up with tubes coming out of each arm, it took me a minute to figure out what was going on. I was still really tired. I blinked my eyes and slowly took a look around the room. A door opened to the hallway on my left and a wall locker sat next to that. A TV from a bygone age hung over my bed and a rolling table with a pitcher of water stood to my right. I looked past the crappy TV and saw an old man sitting and staring at me. When I saw the old man staring, I freaked out so bad that my heart monitor alerted the nurses.
“It is OK.” The old man told them, “He just woke up and is probably a little curious. I am a friend; I will let him know what happened.” The nurse looked at me and I nodded, because whatever was going to happen I wanted to get clear of this.
“Where’s Cinci?” I asked.
“I don’t know the man named ‘Cinci,’” the old man said, “but there is a wallet and passport on the nightstand there. The nurse said that was all they found with you.”
“I guess he needed the cash more than I did,” I said.
“You will not know me. I am a Bosnian but I live in Saint Louis now. Many of us do. As you know, your parents were Serbian. Your father is considered a war hero by most of the people he served with, but like many heroes, the other side thinks he was a monster.” He handed me a manila envelope. I opened it and took out several pictures. My father was in all of them. I had never seen him with a beard, but it was him. There was a picture of him standing over what looked to be a mass grave as men in ski masks shoveled dirt over bodies. There was a picture of him and a group of men in the same masks standing with their AK-47s, posed to look tough. The last picture showed him with cuts on his face that would later become scars I recognized. He stood pointing a gun at kneeling man with bound hands. “Unfortunately, your father lost his ability to draw the line between warriors and civilians. It happened a lot in our war, on both sides, although mostly by the Serbs. Twenty years ago is a long time, but now the children of men we lost are getting involved.”
“My father said something that sounded like ‘pico jedna’ to his killer before he died, can you tell me what that means?”
“Your father was calling his killer a pussy,” the old man said, laughing. “It is important that you know that I did not order or condone your parents’ murder. The men who made that decision did so without my approval. They are here,” he said. He handed me a newspaper folded to the front page of the metro section. There was a small article about three eastern European immigrants from Dallas who had been murdered.
“If my father did all those things, then why didn’t you want him dead?” I asked, starting to feel a little woozy. My voice cracked with cotton mouth and the man handed me a cup of water from a bedside table.
“Your father did do horrible things. Many of us had decided after the war to try to bring men like your father to justice instead of making revenge killings. We knew that if we killed them they would be viewed by both police and media as being victims. If we sent them to trial they would live, but the world would know what they did and others would know that there is no safe haven for killers like that. It has to end somewhere. And then there was your mother. There was no reason for her to die, and there was no reason for them to chase you. These men cannot see past their hate, but they have all lost family members to men like your father, so they thought your father’s family should die too. This doesn’t make them right. We took some action, but the men who killed your parents didn’t start out as monsters. I’m sure your father didn’t either.” The old man looked down at the floor and then back up at me. He slowly patted my foot with his hand as if that would make things better, then walked out of the room.
I walked out of the hospital two days later with nothing but some donated clothes and a bag full of antibiotic pills. The sun forced my eyes into a squint but as soon as I grew accustomed to the light I saw Cinci sitting on a bus stop bench across the street with my pack and his on the bench next to him.
“Man, it’s good to see a friendly face,” I said walking over to him.
“Well, I felt real bad about you gettin’ shot and all, plus, a good rail buddy is hard to find.” Cinci rose from the bench and clapped me on the shoulder. “You know, it occurs to me that with all of this going on I never got your name.”
“Well, it occurs to me that I thought I’d have some answers by the end of this and I’m more confused than when I started. I’m Dallas.” I smiled at Cinci and held out my right hand. As he shook it, I said, “Let’s hop a rail.”
Jim Downer has loved mystery novels since his youth. He started with The Hardy Boys and Sherlock Holmes and later graduated to Elmore Leonard, and James Ellroy. He makes his home in Denton, Texas.