“Novice” by Gene Carriker


by Gene Carriker

A truck rumbled overhead causing tiny cascades of road dirt to sift down Jim Haley’s back as he sat in the inky night under the viaduct waiting for the eleven o’ clock freight. His stomach had shifted at least fourteen times in the last fifteen minutes, and every time Big Bill’s hoarse whisper broke the silence the skin on the back of his neck seemed to crawl. Riding a freight would be a new experience for him and he had nightmarish visions of being hauled before the police magistrate and spending this long anticipated weekend in the city jail. It was too late to back down now. He had come from camp in his spirits, eager to go home but as the time drew nearer he was becoming almost afraid.

In the yard a switchman’s lantern blinked as the man opened a switch. Two cars rolled into the siding to the protesting screech of steel wheel-flange against the steel rail and the crash of coupling toggles and draw bars. Across the river a Burlington “flyer” wailed for the Sabula yard and right-of-way to the bridge.

Suddenly the gravel ballast along the track rattled and both boys dropped silently behind the abutment of the viaduct support. The white finger of the railroad “bull’s” flash poked inquisitively into the shadows where they had been thirty seconds before. After a cursory probe the detective passed by, and when he had gone down into the yard and disappeared into the switchman’s shanty, Jim began breathing again.

Three sharp blasts of a locomotive whistle caused Jim’s pulse to drum suddenly in his ears and then seem to stop completely. A stifled feeling enveloped him and he found it an effort to breathe. Big Bill and he slithered down the cindered incline to the road bed. Numbly he listened to last minute instructions from Bill. “Grab the front of the second car, Kid, before she gets up speed. I’ll take it up ahead here.” Bill’s vague silhouette merged with the night. Jim lay flat against the bank. The hiss of his breath seemed so loud he feared that the “dick” would hear it.

A short and long blast rent the night and instantly the black was banished by the headlight of the outbound locomotive. The engine started and the long tail of cards behind it rumbled and banged as the slack came out of the draw bars. Jim passed a clammy palm across his dry lips. He wondered detachedly what would happen if he slipped.

The engineer “high balled” the yard master. The superstructure of the viaduct disappeared in smoke and steam. When the front of the engine was abreast of him, Jim stood up. The wave of heat from the fire box scorched his cheek. The ground trembled under his feet as the drive wheels pounded past. The tender went by, then the first car. “Grab the front end before she picks up speed.” Jim was galvanized into action by the thought. He ran a few steps with the car until he had a good hold, then stepped up. He was on. It wasn’t hard. Joy was short lived as panic stricken he thought, “What if Bill doesn’t get on?” He peered vainly into the black. Jim knew nothing about freights. He would be lost if Bill didn’t show. He stood half way up the side of the car for an age-long minute, picturing himself riding into the clutches of the Galesburg “bulls” because he didn’t know where to get off. He wouldn’t get him! He wouldn’t see Doreas! He would be A.W.O.L.! He resolved if he ever got back to camp he would never ride another freight.

“Hey, kid, you gonna ride there all night? Come on up.”

“Novice,” by Gene Carriker originally published in Forum (1939, City College of San Francisco).

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