THE CHRISTMAS DRIFTER



The boxcar swayed back and forth clacking darkly over cold steel tracks. Cracks in the doors provided ventilation for the small fire in the old bucket. Five shabby men, smelling the smell such men smell, sat around it warming their hands, tugging on tattered coats. With the hypnotic swaying of the train, only mono-syllabic words were spoken.

"By me," the first grunted.

"Check," said the nervous voice next to him.

"Me too,'" said the fourth.

"Queens bet two," said the last man, throwing in two brown cigarette butts.

"Call! Les' see whut you got," said the man next to him, and threw in two butts. So with each around the circle. The man with the pair of Queens looked around at his companions with obvious contempt.

"You don't 'low that I got'em?" he snarled.

"You say you got'em, Bo. Den 'les see'em!"

One man lay clutched up on rags gathered in a heap on the floor near the fire. He stirred, or perhaps you might say, 'jerked' as if in spasm.

"Don't look like Pete's feelin' none too good." As if on cue, Pete turned over and retched on the floor. The bile which came up glistened red in the yellow flame of the fire. He groaned, clutched more intensely at his stomach and drew himself into a fetal position.

A large figure of a man loomed from the shadows. The others looked up from their game in surprise.

"Where'd you come from, Shamus?"

The man appeared even worse than the others. Dressed in baggy pants and ancient brogans, he wrapped himself in old, tattered sections of burlap to cover his threadbare shirt. He had no coat. He tugged at the rags to keep his skin from being exposed to the cold.

"Look like he ain't got much," the others observed. The man had yet to speak.

"I asked where you come from, big fella?"

"'I've been in the corner," the man responded.

"I ain't dumb mister," he replied, "din't figger you jus' popped outen' thin air. Where'd you come from? When'd you hop this freight?"

"My name's Jude," he said gently.

Laughter. "Jude! Hey this 'Bo's got a name!" More laughter. Most of them had forgotten that they too, once had names. This guy still had his. What a rube!

"What's the matter with him?" the newcomer pointed a big calloused finger at the figure lying on the floor.

"Pete? Aw, he's poorly. Sumthin' he et, mebbe."

The stranger bent over the writhing tramp and examined him, stopping to loosen some of the sick man's clothes.

"You a doctor or sumthin'?" Hilarious laughter.

The man smiled. He laid his palm on Pete's head. "He's burnin' up with the fever." The sick man visibly trembled when Jude touched his forehead.




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Copyright: Paul D. Morris, 1985-2004