Setting: Depression-era American farmland
Notes: I have a serious love affair with the Hobo Code (keep that link, you may need it), and thought we might know someone who used it once or twice in his unlife. The title comes from a quote from that flashback scene in Mad Men ("I'm a Gentleman of the Rail") combined with taaroko telling me how to say "railroad tracks" in French.
Thank you most kindly to ares132006 for the beta. Any remaining errors are mine, especially historical ones because I don't know jack about that business.
Louise tested the top rung of the ladder before stepping onto it; it had been threatening to give for weeks, but she saw no need to waste good nails on fixing it before she was sure it was needed. Today it stayed, one more day of saving the nails.
She struggled with the hay in the loft as the cows lowed beneath her, anxious for their breakfast. She had finished with the milking just before the sun began to peek over the horizon, but its rays never caught the hayloft, and she moved around up there by memory and touch alone. One bale dropped down to the floor of the barn, the next pulled into place, and...
Her toe hit something that wasn’t hay, and a muffled cry nearly startled her into losing her footing. “Who’s there?” she demanded, crouching to steady herself.
The only response was a man’s groan, and the crunch of hay as he shifted on the floor. Louise sighed. She didn’t smell alcohol, but it was clear enough what this was. She reached out blindly until she touched a shoulder. “Look here. I don’t know how you spent your night, but you mayn’t sleep it off here. I’ll see you off with a cup o’ coffee, but you’ll not come near the house. My Tull don’t like wanderers.”
His form was just beginning to show through the darkness, as her eyes adjusted and the sun crept ever higher. To her surprise, he didn’t protest or even groan again, but instead spoke in such a low tone that she had to lean even closer to hear: “I’m so sorry. I can’t go.”
“You ain’t from ‘round here,” she said. His voice had a Northern pitch, even and cultured. No good fortune in that. Tull didn’t like Northerners, either.
“Please, let me stay here. Just for the day. I can’t go outside.”
The lowing of the cows was getting louder and more frequent. Louise tried and failed to take a look at the stranger’s face. “Are you ill?”
Silence. She stepped back to the ladder’s top rung. There was too much work to be done; she couldn’t take the time to sit with a dying vagabond.
She returned later with coffee, as she had promised. An hour had passed and the barn was light enough to see, even in the shadowy hayloft. Although she had been entertaining a hope that her visitor was merely a drunkard after all, and would recover and slip away while she was gone, she couldn’t quell her curiosity when she saw him still curled up in the same spot, like a sack of flour dropped on the floor.
“Here’s a good strong drink for you,” she said to announce herself, though she’d made plenty of noise getting up the ladder with a coffeepot in one hand. “Still hot, if you can stir yourself to taste it.”
He rolled over and her heart hammered out a few unexpectedly rapid beats, making her realize that she had feared he would be dead already. It shouldn’t matter, really. For his kind, there was no hope once they took ill; no doctor would ride out to help him unless he were paid for it handsomely, and there was no means of that for her and Tull, even if Tull would have allowed it. The stranger could either get up by himself and live on, or he could stay in the loft and cross over to God, and the longer he remained, the more likely that became.
Louise paused in the middle of pouring the coffee into a cup she had carried up in her apron pocket. The man had managed to sit up, pulling his sackcloth blanket over his shoulders, and was looking right at her, finally showing his face. He had deep, dark eyes and a worried brow. What startled her most, though, were his smooth cheeks - his hair was thick and matted, but he didn’t seem to have even a day’s growth of beard, and he was young, but no child. “You an Injun?” she asked suspiciously. She’d never met one, but she’d heard they were beardless.
He laughed hoarsely. “No ma’am.”
“Then where’d you come from?”
That was what they all said. She didn’t even know why she had bothered to ask. “Well, drink down that coffee and see how quick you can get yourself back there. I tell you, Tull ain’t gonna like finding you in his barn, ‘live or dead.”
He took the coffee, but just held it in his hands looking at it for a moment. “Did you tell him?”
“No, I didn’t tell him nothing, but this barn belongs to him and he don’t let nobody die in it.”
The vagabond nodded. “I understand. I’m not going to die.”
Louise shook her head, almost grinning, as she left. “Just you be sure to get on your feet, soon’s you’re feeling right again.”
Throughout the day she kept checking on him whenever her chores took her through the barn, and each time she found him sleeping in the shadows, his sackcloth draped over him. She didn’t know what to think. If he was well enough to sit up and talk to her, why wasn’t he well enough to get away from the farm? Perhaps she hadn’t been clear enough with the threat of Tull.
By late afternoon she had worked out a plan. If he were dead, she would “find” him there the next morning; he could have just crawled up there and died in the night, after all. If he lived, she would give him a chicken and make him pretend to be stealing it, so she could be seen chasing after him and shouting, and Tull wouldn’t think she had allowed him to stay. They couldn’t spare the chicken, but they’d still have three good layers left, and they could make do for a while.
Once again she snuck back up the ladder, this time balancing a bowl of beef stew in one hand. He didn’t move when she spoke to him and shook him gently by the shoulder, and she stopped and held herself still and quiet to listen for his breath. There was none. Her throat constricted. “You said you wasn’t gonna die,” she accused.
“I won’t.” The response came without any accompanying movement, but it was clear, and Louise was startled once more. She knew of no illness that could make a man breathe so softly.
“Well,” she said, collecting herself, “then sit up right and tuck in before you go. You’ve spent long ‘nough resting your feet.”
“Don’t waste your food,” he said to the hay in front of him. “I’ll go. I’ll go tonight.”
She wanted to ask him why in the Lord’s name he thought he’d be fit to walk in a few hours, if he wasn’t now. She wanted to know what kind of traveler was mad enough to waste all his daylight hours and then resume his journey after sundown. She wanted to know if his sickness was of a kind that would infect her too when he was gone. “I’m called Louise Stuckey,” she said.
“Thank you for the stew, Mrs. Stuckey,” he replied courteously.
“What nonsense is that? You haven’t so much as sniffed it. Here, what’s your name, ruffian?”
“I don’t think I have one. I’m not...I’m not him. Not anymore.”
She frowned deeply, which of course he couldn’t see from his position on the floor, facing away from her as he was. Some diseases eroded the mind as well as the body, she knew. She didn’t think she would catch his addlepatedness from him, at least. Quietly, she picked up the bowl of stew and spoon. There was no use in letting it sit and go to waste while he ignored it.
For reasons she couldn’t understand, she felt herself teetering on the edge of tears when she headed up to the loft the next morning to feed the cows. She couldn’t stop thinking about the rats that Tull would find sometimes in the storehouse, lured there by the smell of corn and then unable to find their way out, so he would have to clean up their bodies after the cats did their job. Them rats again, he would say. Eatin’ up the corn and then expirin’ right before it, as it surely ain’t enough to have the food taken from my plate, I got them God-forsaken dead rats foulin’ up my property...
What would Tull do with a vagabond’s body? Throw it on the trash heap, just like the rats?
Louise groped about blindly as the cows moaned for their breakfast below her. The stranger wasn’t in his place, she couldn’t find him...there wasn’t much room up here, where could he have gone? “Where you gone?” she said out loud. “Holler out, you ruffian, I ain’t gonna hurt you. Tull don’t know you’re here.”
There was no answer. As the sun climbed higher she realized that there was no place left in the loft where a body could hide. He hadn’t been in the barn, either, or outdoors. He was gone. He had lived.
The vampire once known as Angelus stopped at the gate of the fence surrounding the Stuckey farm. He had come to it the night before, when he was growing desperate, but seeing the symbol scratched into the fencepost had given him hope. It was a crudely rendered cat, such as a child might draw, with triangle ears and a smiling mouth. Easy to see for those who were looking for it, but people never looked at their own fences, so Louise and Tull might never know theirs had been marked.
He stood for a long time, contemplating the cat’s happy face. Though he was familiar with all of the signs, he knew they weren’t for him. Some human had left this to benefit some other human, a stranger, someone in need of shelter and a bowl of Mrs. Stuckey’s stew. The cat on the post might mean he would get it.
It also might mean that Mrs. Stuckey would give up her own dinner to feed the hungry. Or that Tull would find out and turn his wrath on her. Or that she would end up inadvertently harboring a truly dangerous man, and die for her kindness. The vampire picked up a rock from the dirt road and began to rub at the wooden post, and slowly the cat faded into nothing.
He retraced the steps he had taken to get there, and made it back to the railroad tracks as the moon rose, a white thumbprint on the marbled sky. He had to laugh as the inanity of his thoughts caught up to him. Louise Stuckey had already harbored a dangerous man, and lived. If she had known how hard he was fighting to keep still each time she came close to him, with her fresh warm human smell, she could have saved herself the effort. Even her cows had been in constant danger all day long; it was lucky that he couldn’t have gotten to them without crossing sunbeams.
But she had lived, and deer grazed along the rail. Maybe he would eat tonight. He put one foot in front of the other, leaving one shelter behind, ever searching for the next.