written by: Joseph D. Stirling
A long pull of the steam whistle rang through the air and the long string of boxcars slowed. Slim peeked through the door at the sand and dry trees, the brown grass and weeds, as they rushed by. There was no one around as the train drew closer to the rail yard.
He tossed his pack and jumped. He hit the ground and rolled, jumping up with a broad, gap toothed grin. After a quick pat down, Barracuda Slim found he had no serious injury. Time for some walking, this was all new territory. Today was going to take him into the city. He grabbed his pack and dug out an old baseball cap, pulling it on over his greased hair.
He’d been to the Santa Fe before and knew just where to find the jungle, his first stop. Though this time he had a much different purpose for the visit, this time it was a matter of honor. He dug into his shirt and took out the crumpled, stained envelope.
128 Fairgrove Ave.
Santa Fe, NM
It was a promise that brought him here. Old Tom Cotton made him swear to bring the letter to his son. And then the old man up and died. So here’s Barracuda Slim, riding the iron into Santa Fe to find Tom Cotton’s boy.
Barracuda made his way under the afternoon sun. There was a stand of trees, just as beaten by the weather and time as Barracuda Slim was, and down in the trees with the storm run-off trench sat a jungle. Not the jungle with tigers and deadly frogs, the jungle where the other free men, the other iron riders, gathered. A place of safety, unless there was a disagreement, and a place of shelter.
Barracuda Slim shouted down into the trees as he entered, hooting in the manner of madmen, or maybe just in imitation of an owl. He heard a whistle and an aggressive strum of a guitar in response. He hopped on down, pretending to ride a horse, with his hands taking hold of imaginary reins.
He came into the place and found three others sitting around a small fire ringed in stones and busted bricks. He knew the guitar and bushy beard of Coal-Mine Elvis, and the thick glasses and eight fingers of Harry the Eight. The other fellow was just some other fellow.
Barracuda Slim sat down with his pack in his lap.
“I got a treat today, for all that gathers. Found me some fresh dug out onions when my ride stopped. Dug ‘em up fresh myself.” Slim took three large yellow onions from his bag, still dusty from the ground. “And a taste of the Dr.’s finest mint hootch.” The bottle of Dr. McGillicuddy’s Mint Schnapps gave way to a round of applause.
Harry the Eight stood with a grand bow and took a can of corn from his pack. “I do believe I smell soup cooking!”
Coal-Mine Elvis began strumming and picking the strings of his guitar. He sang, “I got nothin’ but some deviled ham and big ol’ box crackers.”
Now if you were to believe the tales, Cole-Mine had that guitar hand delivered to him by the King himself, just before his final constitutional. But then again, a tale is a tale no matter how short or tall.
The other fellow rolled a cigarette and set the bag of tobacco and small pack of dirty papers on the ground. “I got ‘em, so smoke if you want. That’s all I got till I get something else.”
“What’s the name fellow? Barracuda Slim don’t pass no bottle to no man with no name.” Slim took a pull and passed the hootch to Harry the Eight.
“Dirty Jim, Dirty Jim.” He tipped his hat.
Barracuda smiled and motioned to send the bottle over. The four men told their tales while the soup cooked up in an old metal coffee can. The onions were cut with a dull pocket knife, but the job got done. The sun was close to down and the stars where all but up when Barracuda Slim took out the envelope.
“Sad news from Kentucky. Old Tom Cotton ain’t no more. He died right in front of me, but asked me to take a letter to his boy before he went. That’s why I come, to fine me Tom Cotton’s boy and fill my promise.”
“I knew Tom Cotton. He told the best tales,” Dirty Jim held his hat over his heart.
The others placed hands on their chests too. Barracuda Slim raised his bottle and sipped. He passed the final swallow around and they all drank the bottle gone in memory of Old Tom Cotton. Barracuda Slim curled up beneath an old wool army blanket with his bag as a pillow and fell asleep to Coal-Mine Elvis’s guitar.
In the morning, Barracuda was alone. The others left to catch whatever train they had to catch. Barracuda stretched and gathered his things. He wandered into town and found a bus stop. Not to catch the bus, but to check the map of bus routes with all it’s street names. Fairgrove Avenue was about six miles away.
When Barracuda got there, he just stood and stared. Sure the sign was right, dusty and bleached by sunlight. Fairgrove Avenue. The street went nowhere. If there were houses, they left a long time ago. Sand and weed choked foundations was all it had left to offer.
A dead cat lay in the middle of the road. Hit by a car sometime back. Plenty of time for rot to take away all the parts that said ‘hey, I’m a dead cat.’ Long enough that even the flies left it alone. Barracuda just looked right back at that road-kill.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?”
He took the envelope out again and opened it.