1 October, 2016, east of Ann Arbor, Michigan
He wakes up without opening his eyes. It’s a trick that Jack Coulter learned long ago. In the dark, if somebody’s coming for you, they have invariably arranged things so they can at least see you. That probably means there will be light behind them, and if you open your eyes wide they’ll be able to see that right away.
Now, coming fully awake in one second, Jack opens his eyes just the tiniest bit—and immediately sees what’s going on. Two men are approaching from across the freight car, stepping slowly to keep their balance against the car’s motion but a little careless of the faint scuffing of their boots on the floor’s rough planking. They think the train’s roar should mask any noise they might make. They’re wrong. The sound of a foot scraping on wood is at a different frequency than the rumbles and screechings of the moving train. That’s what woke him up, and that’s why Jack has some hope of living through the next thirty seconds.
The freight car’s big sliding door is open a crack for air, which is also admitting a three-inch sliver of moonlight. One man is a little ahead of the other, and holding a club out from his body, ready to give his intended prey a good knock to the side of the head. There must be twenty other people in the car, mostly sleeping, but Jack is certain that not a one of them will get involved one way or the other.
In the years that he’s been riding the rails, this is not the first time that Jack has been in a tight spot. In fact, it’s not one of the first ten times.
The most important thing is, you don’t freeze. You don’t waste time letting thoughts go through your head like This isn’t fair! or They shouldn’t do this to me! or There must be some mistake! Thoughts like those are pointless, and would be the last ones you have before the club cracks your skull.
But on the other hand Jack has also learned that thinking too much in any way about your situation is simply another way of freezing up. A guy who is marginally smarter than the this-isn’t-fair type of idiot might still sit and think about tactics. Maybe I can throw my blanket in their face. I’ll block his blow and then take the club away. This kind of mistake is actually much harder to get over, because the guy who’s doing it thinks that he’s doing something useful. What else can he do?
But does a driver in the middle of an automobile accident think that way? No, he just reacts. Afterwards he notices that his reactions may appear to have been pretty well thought-out! That’s because they were.
What Jack has learned in his years on the roads and rails is that there are two kinds of thinking. There’s the kind that feels like talking to yourself in your head, and then there’s the kind that happens silently, without effort. This second kind of thinking happens with pictures or emotions, and if you live through that car accident it was this kind of thinking that saved your life. Most people can only let go and think this way when there is an instantaneous and obvious threat like their car skidding on the road. When faced by a threat that’s just as obvious, but slower—like two men sneaking up on you at night—most people will use the usual kind of ‘conscious’ word-thinking. The part of them that wants to think that way wants to stay in control so bad that it will keep its hands on the mind’s steering wheel even if it means a serious risk of injury or death.
Jack learned long ago that he is not that stupid. He wants to live. He knows how to let the right part of his mind handle this kind of problem.
Through his slitted eyes Jack watches the men approach, their motion vague in the near-darkness. He sees the angles and actions, the probabilities and possibilities.
He spares one thought for the revolver, but only to dismiss it. They won’t be able to see it in the dark, so it’s no good for intimidation. And the damn thing only has two rounds in it anyway, and no telling how old they are.
Men move through the darkness, and the darkness moves around the rattling freight car. In the answering darkness of Jack Coulter’s mind, one realization suddenly flares. He, like everyone else who’s lying down in the car, has wrapped himself up with a ragged sheet of insulation stripped from the car’s inner walls. Most people are stupid about it, though. They wrap themselves up like one of those mummy sleeping bags, so that their feet are kept warm. Jack never does that. He rolls himself up loosely, leaving the space at his feet open—accepting less insulation in exchange for more freedom of motion. His two visitors don’t know that.
With his next step, the lead man comes within range and Jack kicks out with his right foot. He catches the man’s back ankle squarely, and the guy goes down like a sack of potatoes. Even as the man’s head is bouncing off the floor planks, Jack is jumping up and throwing his insulation blanket into the face of the second attacker. If Jack can hardly see anything then neither can his assailants: the second man runs straight into the blanket. Not knowing what it is, he tries to dodge too much and slips, losing his balance in the rocking car.
The fifty-foot boxcar’s wheels begin to screech around a long, slow curve, and the whistle sounds from the engine far up ahead. They must be coming into Ann Arbor! Jack realizes that his two attackers must have planned to rob him and then hop off as the train slowed for its passage through the town. Jack has never been to the hobotown in Ann Arbor, but he’s heard that it’s a good one. It’s called Gandy Town.
As the first man starts to rise, Jack puts him back down hard by way of the swift application of his right boot to the side of the individual’s head. And these boots are nice sturdy ones that he just got a week ago.
“Ya dumb fucks,” Jack snarls. “Did I look like easy to you?” As the second man scrambles to rise, Jack laughs and moves in to finish him off, too. These guys are about to discover that payback is a bitch.
Unfortunately, however, before he can carry out his plan, the back of Jack’s head explodes and the world goes white in his eyes.
Shit! Jack just has time to think before his forehead strikes the freight car’s metal wall. There were three of them!
He comes to, more or less, a few seconds later when the rushing air from outside hits him, and Jack automatically sticks one hand out to grab onto the side of the open door. The cold autumn night air wakes him up just enough so that the moon registers: big and full over to his right. There are rushing trees down below the train grade, and among the trees some lights from houses. His head feels like it’s been used for batting practice, and his legs can barely keep him upright. Jack feels a man’s hands seize the fabric of the jacket from behind him. He tries to sweep his leg backward to maybe trip the guy up, but he misses. That’s when he realizes they’ve taken his boots, too.
“Say hello to Gandy Town for me, buddy,” the man behind him says, and then there’s a push, a rush of night air—he tries to curl up—and a terrible impact.
Jack wakes up one more time that night, once again after only a short time has passed. He can still hear the whisper of the train receding westward. The whistle blows, distant and mournful: the call of a soul doomed to wander the lonely countries of the night.
Jack carefully unfolds himself, discovering that, in spite of contusions and abrasions, no parts of his body seem to be actually broken. The bastards at least left him his jacket, although—he feels the zippered pocket, now open—it’s close to a thousand bucks lighter. And of course they took his revolver. And his last pack of smokes.
It’s OK, he thinks. You’re alive.
Gradually persuading his body into a sitting position, Jack leans forward, puts one battered hand on the rough gravel of the train right-of-way, pushes, leans, and staggers into an approximately standing position.
He forces himself to climb the grade back up to the railway, stepping gingerly with his bare feet, so that he can walk on the cross-ties, saving his feet from being cut by the angular stones of the right-of-way for the rest of however far this walk is going to be.
Ahead to the west, sinking toward the tree tops, the big full moon is watching; the patron saint and nocturnal beacon of all hobos, vagrants, wanderers, and vagabonds.
“I expect you see this sort of thing a lot,” he says to it, as he reaches the tracks.
No more than a mile ahead, Jack can make out the distant camp fires and tarps of Ann Arbor’s Gandy Town. It’s as good a destination as any, for an entrepreneur of the rails who finds himself temporarily short of capital and suitable footwear.
Shrugging the thin jacket closer around his shoulders, Jack Coulter starts walking.
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