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Authors: Dean Hughes

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BOOK: Missing in Action
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He didn't shut his eyes. He watched the men, watched the open door, felt the heat rise inside as the rushing air kept getting hotter. But there was way too much to think about, and he didn't want to think. He just needed to keep moving ahead, doing whatever came next.

Maybe an hour went by, maybe twice that much—he couldn't be sure—but he realized that the clacking, the vibration, had begun to slow. “This must be Milford coming up,” said Mac, as though from his sleep.

Wayne said, “This is where the trouble usually comes. What's your name, boy?”

“Jay.” He said it without thinking, and then wondered whether he should have.

“Okay. We can probably sit tight here. There's a chance we'll get rousted—and you never know what the railroad guards in some of these little towns will try to do to you. Some sheriff with nothing to do will toss you in jail, or a guard will beat on you, just
because he wants to. If they find us and throw us off, don't say nothing to anyone. Just call everyone sir, and say you're down on your luck or something. You might have to say some of what you been tellin' us, whether it's lies or not. But if you can, stick with me and I'll think of something. I could say you're my boy, but I don't think they're going to buy that one.”

“Best thing is to hand him over to the sheriff,” Mac said. “They can send him home.”

Wayne didn't answer. He said to Jay instead, “Move back into the dark a little more, and just don't say nothing while we're in the yard. Chances are, this here car is staying on this train and we'll get through here.”

Jay nodded, and then he slid over, but he didn't want to be too close to any of these guys. He had the better part of a dollar in his pocket. His grandpa had paid him for his work a while back and made him save most of the money, but Grandpa had said he could keep a dollar spending money, and so far he had spent only fifteen cents. He wondered if Wayne wasn't hoping to get a little money off him—to buy something to drink.

The train slowly rolled to a stop. The heat in the boxcar got a lot worse as the air stopped moving. He heard someone talking, but far off, and he figured he was going to make it past Milford all right. Another few minutes passed before he heard footsteps crunching in
the cinders next to the tracks, and then he heard a voice. “Anyone in there?”

The men were silent, but a man's head appeared and then his shoulders. He was standing on something, looking in. Jay held still, held his breath, but the man said, “All right, you guys. Outa there.”

“We ain't bothering nothing,” Wayne said. “We're just—”

“We're switching this car off, boys. I won't worry much if you find another car with a door open, but I ain't seen any. The company is telling us to shut everything up.”

Wayne got up and whispered to Jay, “Wait until last. He might walk away before we're all off.” Mac was helping Jack get to his feet, and then he walked him to the door. He got down first and helped Jack come after. Wayne jumped down next, and then Jay stepped to the door. But when he did, he saw the railroad guard, or whatever he was, standing nearby. He jumped down, but as soon as he hit the cinders, the man said, “Hey, boy, what do you think you're doing?”

“He's traveling with me,” said Wayne. “He's my nephew. I promised his mother I'd get him down to California where his grandparents live.”

He watched the man, saw the firmness go out of his face.

But Mac said, “That's a lie. This kid jumped on in
Delta. His name might be Jay. That's what he said it was. I'll bet if you call up there, you'll find out some kid's run off and they're already looking for him.”

The guard shook his head. “How old are you, kid?”

“Fifteen. Almost sixteen.”

“Yeah, sure.” He took hold of his arm. “Come with me.”

“Sorry, kid,” said Mac. “But this way's better. I can promise you that.”

More promises,
he thought. Everyone made promises.


sheriff's office in Milford. The sheriff was hunched over his desk, leaning on his elbows, a sheet of paper in front of him. Jay could see how worn his shirt was. The cuffs and the collar had little threads hanging off them. He was not an old man, but his skin looked like leather, like he'd spent his whole life outside. “So first, just tell me, honest, what your name is.”

Jay had thought about a name. “John Belnap,” he said. He had known a kid in Salt Lake named Belnap.

“That guy you were caught with said your name was Jay.”

“They call me that sometimes.”

“So, John—or Jay—Belnap, where you from?”

“I just travel.”

A little smile slowly made dents in the corners of the sheriff's mouth. “That's
about as true as you being ‘almost sixteen.' You probably made up that name, too. Tell me what's going on. I know you got rousted off that train with those bums, but you're not hardened down. I figure that was your first train ride.”

Jay glanced at a dusty old wooden clock on the wall. It was just after eleven o'clock. He wondered if his grandpa was looking for him by now. Maybe Ken had gone into town and told Grandpa that he'd run off. Jay needed to write a letter and tell everyone he was okay, so that everyone would stop worrying.

What he had to do before he thought about all the rest, though, was lie to this sheriff and then get away from Milford. “Nothing's going on. I just heard there was work in California, and I need work.”

“One of those bums said you got on the train up by Delta.”

“He's nothing but a wino. He doesn't know where I got on.”

“So where
you get on?”

“Salt Lake. But I'm not from there.”

“Right. You're from all over the place. You ride the rails.” The sheriff let his head sag almost onto his chest, and then he shook it slowly back and forth. “I don't need this on a Friday. You know that?” He leaned back in his upholstered desk chair, the cover on it as worn as his shirt. “I told my wife this morning I was going to drive her down to Cedar City to do
some shopping. I don't much like doing that, but it's sure better than having to figure out what to do with you.”

“I can just move on.”

“Yeah, sure. And catch another train? You're lucky those hoboes didn't knock you over the head and take everything you've got on you—like that wristwatch you're wearing. If you were just a little bigger, they probably would have.”

“They were nice fellows. I've met a lot worse.”

The sheriff was thinking things over. He seemed like a pretty good guy. That was the trouble; he was too good to just send Jay on his way.

“You look like you could be Navajo. You didn't come off the reservation, did you?”


“I guess not. Not dressed the way you are. My guess is, that bum was right—you came out of Delta. I'm going to get in touch with the sheriff up there and see if some kid has taken off. But you could save me a bunch of trouble. If that's what it is—you got mad at your old man and ran off this morning—you might as well tell me. I'm going to find out anyway.”

“Are you going to put me in jail?”

The sheriff let out a gust of breath. “Sure I am. You were breaking the law—jumping on a train like that. But if you tell me where you're from, we'll let that go. I'll get you home and that'll be the end of it.”

Jay didn't believe that. The guy was too nice to stick him in jail. He wondered, though, if he called the sheriff in Delta, what would anyone know? The sheriff might not know he was missing. And he might not know that Kimball Reid's grandson's name was Jay.

“I've got a better idea,” Jay said. “Give me a ride over to Cedar City when you take your wife shopping. I can hitchhike from there. I'll just move on and you won't have to worry about me.”

The sheriff grinned. “Don't think I wouldn't like to do just that,” he said. “I'd like to give you five dollars and put you on a bus—just to get you out of my life.”

“That would be all right too,” Jay said, and smiled at the man.

But the sheriff was thinking again. He sat for a time, looking past Jay toward the back wall, and then he finally said, “What I'm going to do is walk you over to the Star Café. I'll leave you with one of the waitresses over there. I don't like to do it, but I think I might have to handcuff you to a table, just so you won't take off again. You're not my only problem this morning. I got a few other things I need to take care of. Then I'll make that call up to Delta.”

“That's a waste of your time. I'm not from there. I told you that.”

“That might be right. But it's the only lead I have. The trouble is, if you just took off this morning, it
could be no one's even figured out you're gone. The sheriff might have to check around and then call me back. But I can't leave you at the café forever. I will stick you in that cell back there if you don't give me any options. So do you want to come clean now?”

He almost did. But he thought of seeing everyone, and he just couldn't do it. “I told you I'm not from Delta.”

“I know. But every time I start thinking you might be giving me the lowdown, I look at you and think, ‘If he'd lie that much about his age, and do it with a straight face, he's probably lying about everything else.'”

“I just look younger than I am.”

“Yeah, yeah. You told me that before.” He stood up. “I'll bet you could use something to eat about now.”

Jay nodded.

“Okay. I'll buy you something over there, and then I won't feel so bad about all this. I just keep thinking how I'd feel if it was my kid run off—and I'll tell you, I got a couple of sons who just might get something like that into their heads someday.” He stood up. “Come on, walk over there with me. And if you'll promise me square that you won't take off, I won't put any cuffs on you.”

He didn't answer. He didn't want to promise. But when they got to the café, the sheriff told him there was nowhere to run. And then he asked Jay again, “Will you
give your word? You won't make a run for it again?”

He nodded.

“Say it.”

“I promise.”

“Okay. You look to me like a boy who's been taught right. I'll trust you.”

So the sheriff told the woman behind the counter—an Indian woman, he was pretty sure—to give him the twenty-five-cent lunch special, and he gave her thirty-five cents. “Jay here is going to stay an hour or two, and he's promised not to leave. I think he's run off from home somewheres and I'm trying to figure out where.”

The woman nodded and slid the coins off the counter into the palm of her hand. She looked at him, studied him over, but didn't smile. He figured the dime was her pay for keeping an eye on him. It looked like he wasn't worth much.

“Thanks, Myrna,” the sheriff said. “I got a lead on where he's from. I might have this figured out pretty fast.”

He walked out, and Myrna took another look at Jay. “You Navajo?” she asked.


“I think so. At least some.”

For some reason, he nodded. “Some,” he admitted.

She nodded again, still looking at him intently. She
was a grown woman, but not very old—maybe in her twenties. She was kind of fat, especially in her cheeks. Her eyes looked out of little caves. Her voice was low, like a man's, but she sounded like she was worried about him. “I'll get you some lunch,” she said, and walked back to the kitchen, through a tin door, one that swung back and forth.

Jay looked around. There were maybe a dozen people in the place, all of them bunched into booths. But no one was at the counter. He could walk out right now and no one would pay any attention. But where would he go? He didn't dare head for the railroad again, and towns were spread out. He could maybe hide somewhere along a ditch bank and then try to catch a train again that night. But he wanted to eat first.

The place smelled good—like coffee. His mom had always drunk coffee with his dad, even though Mormons weren't supposed to drink it. He liked the smell of it, but not the taste. There was a jukebox by the front door. It was playing “My Blue Heaven.” He didn't like that song. His dad had always liked to sing it in the car when it came on the radio. He would try to make his voice deep and smooth, but he wasn't a good singer. “Just Molly and me and baby makes three,” he would sing, like he and Jay and Mom were really happy, but he would sing it maybe the day after he had slugged Jay with the back of his hand and knocked him down.

Myrna came back with a hamburger and potato chips and a glass of milk. “Does that look all right?” she asked.


“That beef might be a little tough. It's hard to get good beef these days.”

“I know.” He picked up the hamburger and bit into it. It was sort of chewy, but it tasted good.

“You want ketchup?”

He nodded, and she found a bottle of ketchup behind the counter. But she stayed close and watched him, and that made him feel funny. “Do you like working here?” he asked, just to say something. He was still thinking he might take off. First, though, he had to get her thinking that he wasn't like that.

“No. I guess I don't,” she said.

“How come you do it, then?”

She rubbed her hand along her forearm, then held it by her elbow, with her fingers pressing into her soft flesh. She looked sad. “I married a man from here,” she said. “He's in the army now. At Fort Ord, in California. He's going to be gone for a long time.”

“Do you have any kids?”

“Two. One's a baby girl, just two months old.”

“Who takes care of her when you work?”

“The other woman who works here. We work shifts and trade off our kids.”

BOOK: Missing in Action
7.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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