By Gregg Voss
Near Glasgow, Montana
Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot.
C’mon, man, breathe. Try to relax.
Try to break free from my straight-arrow march.
Then run like hell.
Only my legs won’t move in any other direction but toward that old man, sitting there in his lawn chair behind an off-white clapboard farmhouse, the extinguishing flame of the westward sun behind me lighting up his hazel irises.
He has this sort of smirk on his face, like he’s expecting me. Or expecting someone, that is. Maybe Hondo, who is back in the boxcar of the freighter he stalled, out here in the middle of nowhere. I can’t see Hondo because I can’t turn my head, but I know he’s watching me.
He’s going to get what he’s craving. He told me so, and I’m just a dude who’s doing his work.
I open my mouth and try to holler out a warning to that old codger, to run, something’s got hold of me, something evil. You wanna live, you gotta get out of your chair, get in your car and drive, drive, drive until this train is gone. But my vocal cords, like the rest of my body, are under control of that something, whatever it is.
Left foot. Right foot.
The codger is wearing a puke green, short-sleeved collared shirt that looks as if he bought it at Kmart a long time before he retired. Ditto for his straight-legged blue pants with creases that look sharp enough to cut ma’s Thanksgiving turkey. He has black socks and no-name gym shoes on his feet. A gold wedding band on his finger, and white hair combed over left to right. Thick horn-rimmed glasses perched on his beak.
Just a good old Montana boy, taking in the sights. Why’d that train stop, Mildred? But I don’t get the sense that there is a Mildred. Or an Edna or Helen.
He’s alone. Glasgow is probably a mile or more away. We passed the dilapidated white-brick station, what, twenty minutes ago?
Out here, there are no witnesses.
By the way, that knife I’m holding is heavy, with a blade that’s at least six inches. It’s not like those switchblades or butterfly knives we had growing up in Odessa. It’s not a meat cleaver, but I’ll bet it’s sharp enough to cut through muscle and maybe even bone. Hondo thrusted it into my hand before he kicked me out of the boxcar.
I couldn’t do that by myself.
I was already under his control.
If he wasn’t a monster, Hondo would be an interesting cat, man. He got himself elected the Hobo King back in August in Britt – that’s in Iowa, mind you, where the National Hobo Convention is held every year. He had this…charisma about him, a certain dark, daring inflection in his voice, as he made his case in front of everybody about why he should be elected king. I was caught up in his speech, in which he talked about riding the rails since the late 60s after getting kicked out of the University of Wisconsin for participating in some anti-Vietnam protests. About how, for him, everywhere is home, which is to say he was comfortable wherever he found himself, and programmed to handle any situation that the rails threw at him. He was persuasive, I’ll give him that.
After they elected him king, we were sitting around the fire smack dab in the middle of the jungle, which is where he asked me my name.
“Jimmy,” I said.
“No, no,” he replied. Like that wasn’t sufficient or even acceptable. “Where you from, boy?”
“Odessa, in Texas.”
“You work in the oil fields?”
“Then as my first act as Hobo King,” he said, standing and waving his arms around like Elvis might, “is to rename you Wellhead.”
Wellhead. Damn…it. Maybe I once went by the name Jimmy Gates, and maybe I once played football for Permian High (Go Panthers), but I passed into the pearly gates of Hobo-dom at that exact moment.
Keep in mind, I’m no tramp or bum. A tramp is someone who travels but doesn’t lift a finger to work. A bum doesn’t travel or work, like a panhandler. He lives on what he can get from others. But a hobo, man, a hobo goes from place to place on the rails, picking up work as he, or she, can find it. It’s a front-row seat to the rich tapestry they call America, baby.
Which is why I went with Hondo. After the convention, we made our way to Minneapolis to hop a BNSF train headed for Seattle, where there was work, he said. Decent money. Opportunity, at least for a while, until the rails called again.
I was dozing in this empty, rust-hued boxcar we commandeered, miles and miles of golden tallgrass fields flying by, the occasional tree and farm field breaking up the landscape. I wasn’t…happy. I was content. There’s a difference. People throughout your life ask if you’re happy or not. I’m never happy, it seems, but sometimes I’m content. It’s that warmth you feel when everything is going just right. I don’t get that feeling too often, but there was something about the slivered wooden floor, the echo of metal wheels under our feet. Freedom. Contentment.
Was it a hard sleep I fell into? I would guess. I do know that there was the fleeting vestige of a dream, about Odessa, no line on the horizon, the godawful, everlasting heat of home and me running, running. Running away, from something that turned my legs into either concrete blocks or Jell-O.
I didn’t hear the footsteps, not even the ones in my dream. There was a light touch on both shoulder blades, and a leathery, chapped hand tousled my longish blonde hair, shifting it opposite my left-to-right part.
I opened my eyes and Hondo was staring into them with a frown.
“You got something there, boy—hold on,” he said, and used a curved finger with a yellowing nail to scrape something out of the corner of my left eye. Piece of eye boogie. The Sandman was everywhere. Even here.
There I was, light, on a pillow, the tallgrass still flying by behind Hondo, but it was starting to blur into a yellowish sea. Waves and everything. I had no idea where we were, so I asked him.
“We’re close,” he said, and then his face started to blur like the tallgrass, his tan facial features congealing into a color that was almost as rusty, but not quite, as the boxcar in which we were riding. There was something different about him now, malignant, like cancer. Or malicious. I don’t know what either of them mean, really, outside of the fact that they’re bad. I liked using big words around dumb west Texas girls. They’d believe anything, and I could get away with anything, just about.
Whenever Hondo smiled or frowned, his thin, graying eyebrows met just above the bridge of his nose, flanked by growing crow’s feet on either side of his eyes and his shock of white hair above, under a beat-up straw cowboy hat. Now he was frowning, and those eyebrows looked like a white checkmark on a leathery canvas. I know this because I couldn’t move, totally mesmerized by floaties in my eyes that had suddenly appeared.
“I’ve got something I think you ought to know, Wellhead,” he said, his lips barely moving.
“Yeah?” I replied, still lounging in that euphoric feeling, almost a dreamland escape.
“I’ve got powers,” he said. “Serious powers that’ll blow your mind.”
And with that, he pulled out the knife I’m holding now as I’m creeping toward that old fart in the lawn chair.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
Here, I was thinking he was going to gut me like a deer, eat my liver and heart, throw me out the door and wave goodbye as I floated out into the tallgrass sea.
No. Much different. First, he placed the knife in my right hand and I clutched it involuntarily.
I couldn’t look away. His cowboy hat fell to the floor and his face began to puff up and out, as big as a basketball, his nose turning into something like a pig snout, the color turning from rust to an off-pink. His fingers curled into his palms and became cloven hooves as the rest of his body bloated, snapping the buttons on his worn flannel shirt.
“So hungry,” he said, his voice both rising and scratchy, speaking with a deliberateness, almost a spacing after each word. “So very hungry. I haven’t fed since my time with Angel Maturino. Do you know who he was?”
I couldn’t nod.
“Of course you don’t,” he went on. “Angel Maturino was the Railroad Killer from the nineties, likely before you were born. He was a hard-working Mexican who merely got involved with the wrong people. With us. Like your Christ, I was hungry and he brought me to eat.”
“You will bring me to eat as well.”
Believe me, every instinct, every brain cell was screaming to run, to cannonball out of the side door and roll, Dick, roll, but like I said, I couldn’t move. I was listless, or rather inert, to use a word that would impress those west Texas girls. I was suddenly really warm and my mouth was totally dry.
“Now you’re wondering how you will bring me to eat,” said Hondo, or whatever he really was. “A few miles ahead of this train is a despondent boy, who is ready to end his life by jumping in front of this train. He will do it, and the train will have to come to a complete stop in front of a man’s house, an older gentleman. You will take that knife, and bring me to eat.”
“I don’t want to do that,” I bleated like a little kid.
“Then you will surely die.”
The boxcar shuddered and there was a skeeeel as metal wheels slid along the tracks for what felt like at least a mile before the train came to a complete stop. The way the shadows fell, it looked as if the setting sun was descending into the fields somewhere far away.
Damn. He was right. How did he know?
I asked, and wished I hadn’t.
“You must understand, we are legion, on the rails, in semi-trailer trucks, even in package delivery trucks in big cities,” he said. “We are the unseen, the ignored, which allows us to operate unchecked. Like any living organism, we must feed, or we shall die.
“We work together as a network might, sharing information. My siblings were present in Britt, and I learned of this present opportunity from them. All it took was a bit of coordination to ensure the boy took his life, setting in motion a chain of events that will result in a feeding.”
Hondo sat back on his haunches and clicked his front hooves together two or three times, seemingly to gloat about being right.
“I must feed,” he said again.
“How will you…?”
“You are under my control, even now,” he said. “I will guide you from this train to a home, where you will kill and bring me meat.”
He stopped and made a snorting noise that I thought was a laugh.
“Eh, your proverbial pound of flesh,” he said. “You will bring it to me.”
“There will be other…opportunities. We will work together until you are captured by your authorities, much like Angel Maturino was. His crimes—”
“Don’t you mean your crimes?” I spat.
“Semantics. His crimes were committed in your state of Texas, which has the death penalty. Consider that we are in Montana, which also has the death penalty. It would be a terrible shame if Hondo had to turn you in. Who’s going to believe a raving lunatic that a…creature…compelled you to commit such heinous crimes?”
The train had come to a stop by then, and Hondo rose. He slid open the opposite door, the one behind my back, turned me around and threw my legs over the side. With a little help from Hondo’s cloven hoofs, I was out of the train, onto the gravel, down a short berm and into the tallgrass, which itched my bare arms. But I couldn’t move them, and that knife, it felt—check that, feels—real heavy, like some of the wrenches I used back in the Texas oil fields, dreaming up big words to use with the girls that night at a dusty honky-tonk. Who cares if I was underage?
So here I am, step by step toward that antique bastard, who almost looks like he’s ready to laugh but is holding it back, his cheeks reddening. I realize it must have rained recently because I’m stepping into some muck as I emerge from the tallgrass and start up a short hill toward this guy’s house.
As I trudge up the hill, I seem to remember from my history class, of all things, Pickett’s charge from the Civil War. There, the outmanned Union troops held the high ground and Pickett’s Confederates marched up Cemetery Ridge, and got slaughtered. This time, the tables are turned. He may have the high ground, but I have something more. A terrible advantage.
I’m going to kill him, I think.
I don’t want to, but I’m going to.
I will bring to eat fresh meat for Hondo.
I’m about 50 yards away now, and the old man is simply grinning.
“Hey there, son,” he says to me. “Hey there, what you got in your hand there?”
Any idiot could tell I had a BFK (big effing knife). Was this guy mental or something?
Breathe. C’mon, try to relax.
I once saw a guy back in the oil fields who got arrested by the cops for something serious, I don’t remember what it was. Armed robbery, I think. Anyway, they shackled his arms and his legs and I remember him taking these little teeny tiny baby steps, almost as if he was walking in a refrigerator box, or a coffin, even. That’s me, right now, walking in a box, these little steps only a toddler could make. But the weirdest thing is, I know I’m not going to fall. I have a perfect center of gravity. Level head, eyes front. Determination.
Now I’m about 25 yards away and he says:
“You don’t really want to kill me, do you, boy?”
I can’t answer. My voice suddenly left me, and he knows that, too.
He’s almost yelling now, but not quite.
“I’ve seen you before,” he says. “I saw you in Angel Maturino, a sad young man who was possessed by something that overwhelmed him. I was there in Texas, you know.”
He stops and dabs something from the corner of his mouth with his forefinger. It’s dark and I think it’s tobacco juice. He’s chawing. Someone is trying to kill him and he’s dipping Skoal.
“His crimes were monstrous, and he paid for them with his life,” he says, which I don’t know and suddenly my heart speeds up. “But there is a way to beat this Hondo.”
At that name, my eyes widen to the point of hurting and I actually move my head about an inch. It hurts and my head snaps back into place.
How does he know that?
“Like I said, son, I know you, but I know him, too,” he says. “He’s been a pain in the rump for more years than I can remember, back to when I was a kid in Texas. I knew he was coming for me, so I waited here in Montana until the time was right. Well, here we are.
“We gonna have us a showdown.”
I’m now wondering what’s going on behind me. Is Hondo seeing all this? Is he planning to leave the boxcar to face off against this fossil?
Old guy leans up in his chair, and spits a big loogie into the wind, which grosses me out. I chawed just once, when I was in the oil fields, and accidentally swallowed some of the juice. It was rancid, baby, stinging all the way down, and then all the way back up as my stomach revolted.
“Here’s what you do,” he says. “You kill me.”
“You kill me,” he says again. “You lift that damn big knife and bring it crashing down on my chest.”
My eyes widen again and I know realize I’m within striking distance of this crazy coot. Even if I wanted to kill him, which I don’t, I couldn’t lift—.
Check that. My right arm starts to go up, at first inch by inch and then it flies up to the point where I can see the shadow of my arm and the knife in front of me, its tip erect and barely quivering. I try like hell to stop myself, but I can’t.
You will bring me to eat.
“Go ahead, boy, you know this is the only way,” the old man says simply, as if resigned to his fate, which is in my unfeeling hands made hot by the summer swelter of the fading east Montana sun. I notice I’m sweating, so that involuntary part of me, like my eyelids, is unaffected by whatever is—.
I can still close my eyes.
If I close my eyes, I can’t see what’s in front of me. I try it, and sure enough.
A loophole? A technicality, like in a movie courtroom drama?
If Hondo, or whatever that hellish beast is back in the boxcar, needs my eyes to do his thing, then maybe I’m not giving him the satisfaction.
I scrunch them closed and fight any urge to open them, of which there is none.
Apparently, I’ve got him. Hondo, that is.
You will bring me to eat!
He still has control of my right arm, where the knife is quivering. The arm drops in front of me and waggles back and forth, as if there is something moving, some danger that needs to be dispatched. There is the sound of a something falling, and I realize it’s the man’s chair. There are footsteps in the grass, but they seem to be coming toward me, rather than away, closing in.
I want to know what’s going on in front of me. I desperately do.
But I can’t afford that. I can’t pay for that decision with his life. Or mine.
Then there is another voice. Older. Masculine. Almost husky.
“It’s okay, son,” it says. “It’s okay.”
I feel as if I’m turning, that disorienting feeling that I can only imagine is like vertigo. It’s a spin like a scary rollercoaster where you’ve shut your eyes. My arm lashes out again and again, but connects with nothing but air.
I stop turning and I must be facing west and thus the boxcar where Hondo is, because the sun is warm on my face. I’m not sweating, but almost. I keep my eyes screwed shut, hoping that whatever is happening before me is in my favor.
It’s been several minutes since the voice in my head went away, and I’m so tempted to open my eyes.
What if I do?
What if I don’t?
Am I going to be left here, maybe with a dead body and a knife in my hand?
What brings me back to life is the sound of boxcars jarring. My boxcar.
Er, Hondo’s boxcar. Whoever’s. I don’t care.
I finally open my eyes and there’s the old man, standing in the doorway and waving at me to hurry.
“Come on, son!” he yells over the tallgrass and his lawn.
The train’s moving. But how? Didn’t some kid off himself? I’m new to the whole hobo-ing thing, but even I know that the cops and whatnot get involved in a case where someone gets hit by a train.
I toss the knife into the tallgrass as I cut through it. Hopefully nobody’ll find it.
Chug. Chug. Chug. The metal wheels are starting to pick up speed.
A hand reaches out to mine and I grab it. It’s smooth, like those of the smarmy, suit-wearing execs back in Texas that once in a great while lowered themselves to come out and meet with the drones operating the machinery. As if they had done their good deed for the day.
A couple of steps and I’m on board.
“You’re okay, son, you’re okay, Hondo’s gone,” the old man says, resting his hands on his hips in apparent triumph.
“Wh-where is he?”
“You killed him? Where’s the body?”
He sits down and rests his back on the opposite wall. He takes a deep breath and starts to talk.
“Well, son, I suppose you’d like to know what’s going on,” he says.
“That’d be a change of pace.”
With a doddering chuckle, he launches into this, this…bizarre tale.
Hondo was right. There are creatures that are hidden in plain sight in our world—including the Texas oil fields. They are meat-eaters, and they kill to survive, just like we kill cows and chickens. We’re unnamed fodder for them, just a bunch of wild animals running around that need to be tamed before they’re dispatched.
“And there are some of us that have been tasked by the highest powers in the land to deal with these entities,” he says, “to ensure they can’t kill with impunity.”
“You mean, the government?”
“The same. Your politicians know a lot more than they’re letting on.”
I whistle. What the hell have I stumbled into?
“I was in Britt,” he goes on. “In a different form, of course. I’ve been watching Hondo for a long time, decades, as a matter of fact. I knew what he was up to. You see, they can’t just kill, they need humans to do the actual dirty work.”
It’s been a wild evening, and I’m as out of it as I was when I worked in the oil fields, just devastatingly tired. I put my head back and close my eyes.
“That’s right, Wellhead, get your rest.”
I perk up to my nickname and my eyes pop open.
“How do you—?”
“You want to know where Hondo is?” the pig-like form in front of me says. “I ate him. He’s meat, just like you.”
He belched a snorty chuckle.
“Rest yourself, because we’re going into business together, you and me. You’re perfect for the job we’re going to do.”
A pause, and then:
“I told you to kill me. You had your chance.”
During the day, Gregg Voss works for a major East Coast marking and public relations agency, and evenings covers high school sports throughout the Chicago suburbs. His first book, published in 2019, is titled The Valley of American Shadow, a collection of paranormal/dystopian short fiction. His next book, Calling Fire From Heaven, also a short-story collection, will debut May 29, 2023. Interact with Gregg at GreggVoss.com and on Twitter.