Jungle Buzzard By Aaron Caley

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Stanton sat and listened to the bull make bedlam with a coupling pin and the side of the stationary freight. Though sunlight beamed through the open sidedoor he sat in the gloom between some sacks of poultry feed and a crate of rail spikes, rubbing his face with his hands; labor degraded palms rasped over black stubble, flecked with gray. When the racket ceased, he leaned forward to look around the burlap, quickly retreating his head, however, when a brakeman climbed into the carriage.

The brakeman stood in the middle of the near-empty boxcar. ‘We seen you board her at the water tower. Come on out now.’

Stanton backed up tight to the side of the car, but his face was impassive. Even as a boot swung into view in front of him. The hobo looked up at the railroad man. He was at least a full decade younger than Stanton, and his uniform—black trousers, jacket and waistcoat—had seen few miles. The small peak of his Illinois Central hat extended barely farther than a prominent nose.

‘I ain’t got any money,’ Stanton said.

The brakeman almost laughed. ‘I can see that,’ he said, taking in the pilled gray wool of Stanton’s coat, a shirt open at a rumpled, yellowed collar, and a black suit replete with the dust of threshing and the dirt of ditch banks. ‘You’re trespassing on railroad property.’

‘I won’t be trying nothing,’ Stanton said, staying sat down, eyes to the floorboards, arms wrapped just below bent knees. ‘Only going where it takes me.’

‘It’s taken you here. That’s about all there is to it.’ The brakeman raised his coupling pin, pointing to the doorway with his free hand. ‘You’d better hit the grit.’

Stanton laboriously pushed himself up off the floor, donned his derby, then made his way to alight.

The brakeman spat loudly after Stanton had passed him. ‘Sick to death of you stiffs. Ain’t you tired of living like this?’

At the doorway, Stanton turned. ‘Sick to death,’ he said, before lowering himself down to the gravel. The afternoon sun shone brightly but he shivered; a chill wind prophesied the coming November.

The brakeman was stood still after Stanton’s reply, his eyebrows near meeting. He soon came to and strode over to the door, to check that the vagrant wasn’t making his way ahead of the engine to try and reboard once it was moving again. ‘For your own sake it’d be better if you don’t step on these trains again.’

On reaching the doorway, what the young bull saw before him was Stanton standing, hands on hips, staring at the red brick station building fifty-feet back down the tracks.

The walk to Soperville from Galesburg Station was just over six miles, along a flat, muddy road, passing fields of wheat stubble all the way. A few buggies had offered Stanton rides, but all were refused.

He stopped a little way down the road from the farmhouse, just close enough to take it in; a two-story square of well-kept old timbers with a gable roof, it sat amid pasture, some copses of bare trees, and recently harvested rows of corn and wheat. Behind the house was the same plank-frame barn that he had known since he was last there, but a concrete block corn silo was a newer addition.

From his coat pocket he took a leather tobacco pouch and a small cob pipe, the varnish of its cracked handle long rubbed away, and the name Riggs carved into its bowl. He leaned on top of the roadside split-rail fence and drew on his pipe, looking at the farm.

By the time he had finished his smoke, early inklings that the house might be temporarily unoccupied seemed plausible. No one had come out of the house to fetch water from the pump, nor left the dairy barn bearing pails, nor returned from the fields after a day’s toil. He stayed and watched for half an hour more, until daylight waned, then made his way up the road and turned off onto the dirt path leading to the property.

He went past the side of the house to the lot at its back and stood between farmhouse, barn and silo. The yard resonated with the ambient noise of the farm at rest; cows in the barn sweeping through straw, hens murmuring as they pecked amid the long grass at the yard’s edge. The wind of the external world was reduced here to a torpid breeze and autumnal boughs swished gently.

Stanton crossed the yard to the apple tree opposite him, stood on its own to the side of the barn, and looked down at the crude wooden plaque hammered into the ground at its base; 1870. His gaze then turned up to the tree’s crown, as, with a fingernail, he flaked away some of the dry lichen barnacled on the trunk.

‘Ain’t got no work, but I can fetch you a light piece from inside, if it’s food you’re wanting.’

Stanton jumped, turning around quickly. The three boards usually covering the water pump cistern, he now realized, had been beside it instead, and a man’s head was now poking out. He wore no hat and his brown hair, showing glimpses of silver, stood above his forehead in permanent wind-sweep. His clean-shaven face was free of creases save for fledgling crow’s feet at his bright blue eyes. The two shared a physical resemblance, only this man did not have the same hollows in his cheeks as Stanton had.

‘I cannot believe it. Back from the dead,’ the man said.

He climbed out of the cistern on a ladder, his left arm cradling a small collection of hand tools, which he dropped onto the floor once he had reached ground level. He rubbed dirty hands on denim before running over to give Stanton a hug.

‘Hello, Darnell,’ Stanton said. Darnell’s gray work shirt, and Darnell himself, smelled, not unpleasantly, of rooty earth.

‘You get lost?’ Darnell asked, still smiling as he disengaged from the embrace, his hands on Stanton’s shoulders, tears in his eyes.

Stanton stepped back, putting his hands in his pockets. ‘Not really.’

Darnell went to get his tools then waved his hand dismissively in their direction. ‘Forget it, be fine there for the night. Let’s get you inside.’ He nodded to the house and tried to guide Stanton toward it with a hand on his back.

Stanton looked at the farmhouse. ‘It’s alright. I can leave.’

Darnell laughed. ‘Let’s not be bothering with all that.’

‘No, really. I’m intruding here.’

‘It’s your home, too. I don’t think you can intrude.’

‘Because you’ve got to let me in?’

Darnell half-smiled. He saw that Stanton wasn’t joking. ‘I’d say it’s more like a place you don’t have to deserve.’

‘Oh?’

‘Come on now.’ Darnell had stopped smiling, but he didn’t raise his voice. ‘You know how I meant it. You’re coming in even if it is an intrusion.’

‘Anybody else home?’

‘Only me for the night. She’s taken the kids to a declamation contest, with the mission.’

‘Just you and your family here?’

‘Been just us about five years.’

Stanton’s head bobbed slowly, his eyes on the ground, hands back in his pockets. Neither spoke for a short time.

‘Are they buried here?’ Stanton asked.

Darnell shook his head. ‘Reckon Pa would’ve liked that, but they’re down at Linwood.’

Silence again came between them. The wind soughed in trees no longer visible.

‘Well, I’m not looking to jaw out here all night,’ Darnell said. ‘Come on, I’ll fix us up something to eat.’

Stanton’s hand went to his stomach. He looked at the house again. ‘Ok.’

They made their way over and Darnell bounded up the three steps to the backdoor. ‘How in the hell you end up back here anyways?’ He laughed, then added, ‘Sorry, don’t mean to curse.’ He put one hand over his mouth as he used the other to hold the door open for his brother.

‘Train ditched me.’

In the cramped kitchen a red-and-white-checked oilcloth covered the same table they had eaten from as children, and, by candlelight and the orange glow of the open stove door, they ate a meal of pork and parsnips upon it. Darnell spoke about his family, and the whereabouts and well-being of relatives and friends, and Stanton filled Darnell in on the harvests, mines and lumber yards that had occupied his last twenty years.

After their meal, Stanton held up the buckhorn handled knife he had been using. ‘Didn’t have to use the good silverware.’

‘Not every day you witness a resurrection on your own property.’

‘Really think I was dead?’ Stanton handed his brother the knife as Darnell gathered their plates.

‘Never truthfully did. Couldn’t say why. But a couple of times there was stories in the papers about some young bo riding the bumpers getting thrown off under the train, and Ma would get to crying. She’d be so sure.’ After Darnell had put the plates in the sink he turned and leaned against the countertop, arms crossed. ‘Took it hard, losing you, too.’

Stanton lowered his head and tousled his hair. ‘I didn’t plan it.’

‘What?’

Stanton looked up. ‘Going away forever. Well, till now, anyways. I just got so…restless. After it happened. Didn’t know how long it was going to be for. Didn’t really plan on coming back now, neither. I didn’t think anyone would want to be seeing me again.’

Darnell uncrossed his arms. ‘That was never the case, Stanton. I can’t tell you how mighty glad I am to see you here now.’

Stanton stared at the tablecloth.

‘How about some coffee? Usually have a cup after a meal.’ Darnell said.

‘Sure.’

Darnell fetched a coffee can from the pantry, then milk from the basement as the pot was boiling on the stove.

‘Can I smoke?’ Stanton asked, when Darnell returned to the kitchen.

‘Go ahead.’

Darnell saw the pipe as he put the two full tin mugs down on the table. ‘Well, that’s two ghosts in one day.’

‘Pa get mad?’

‘You bet,’ Darnell said, chuckling. ‘But he didn’t know you’d taken it. Just thought he’d lost it.’

Stanton puffed smoke. ‘When’d he pass?’

Darnell exhaled. ‘Seven, eight years ago, he was trimming that darn apple tree of his and a branch come down from under him. Stupid as all heck to be climbing trees at sixty-something years old, but there weren’t no telling him. Fall broke his arm, beat him up some. After that he couldn’t work like he used to, and he weren’t the same. Couple years later he got pneumonia and that was that. Looked about as ready to go as I’ve known anybody ever to be.’ After a moment of reflection, Darnell slapped the table with one hand. ‘Tell you what, we’ll honor the old man.’

He went to the pantry and came back with a glass pint bottle filled with clear liquid. He poured two tablespoons of it into his coffee, then went to add some to Stanton’s.

Stanton put his hand over his mug. ‘Grain alcohol?’

‘Mmhmm.’

‘I don’t drink.’

‘Oh.’ Darnell had failed to conceal a certain amount of hurt. ‘You’re a better Christian than I, brother.’

‘It’s not that.’

‘Had trouble with it?’

‘No.’ Stanton took two slow pulls from his pipe before he continued. ‘I guess it’s…I don’t want to try and escape.’

‘Escape what?’

Stanton looked Darnell in the eye.

Darnell looked away. He kept his gaze averted as he started to speak, ‘It weren’t your fault. Lord knows I’ve wished I could tell you that.’

‘Pa used to say never throw a stone and hide your hand.’

‘It ain’t like that. How many times did we both play with that shotgun?’

Stanton closed his eyes.

Darnell continued, ‘Pa told me John Krans’d been round, day before it happened. Seen a bear round the way of his farm. Pa’d loaded the gun in case it showed up.’

Stanton’s eyes opened. ‘I was the oldest. I was responsible for the two of you.’

‘Fifteen years old. Three years older than my boy.’

‘And she never reached the age of your little girls.’

‘A kid can’t be held responsible for something like that. That ain’t fair.’ Darnell’s hands tightened around his cup.

‘When should we start holding people to account?’

‘I can’t rightly answer that,’ Darnell said. ‘But whatever the case may be, you don’t have to be cast out forever.’

‘What happened, that can’t just be left behind.’

‘It was terrible, I won’t argue that. For all of us. But, truth is, in some ways it’s been a good thing. Good for me, I mean. It helped me realize what’s important. What’s worth treasuring.’ Darnell sipped from his mug, he supped slowly and smacked with satisfaction.

Stanton looked down at his empty cup. ‘I cannot believe that you are being honest.’

‘I mean it. I think about it near every time I look at my children. About leaving what you came into better than you found it.’

Stanton drew on the pipe. Discovering that the tobacco within was all but exhausted, he lowered it and sat with low hung shoulders hunched over the table.

Darnell slowly stirred his coffee with the tablespoon for a while. ‘Never thought about settling down somewheres?’

‘Tried a couple times.’ Stanton sat back in his chair.

‘With a woman?’

‘Once. When I was twenty, twenty-one. In Wyoming, working cattle. We were happy for a few months, but I told her why it was I was beating around and she said, “I don’t think I can look at you the same way again.”’ Stanton shrugged. ‘Been so long now I don’t know if I can go back to working one same shift. Too long living free.’

‘Is it living free? Breaking your back twelve hours a day for a stake that can just about buy you a meal.’

Stanton stood up from the table and opened the backdoor.

‘Stanton, I—’

He tapped out his pipe on the outside of the doorframe, shut the door, then sat back down, laying the pipe on the tablecloth.

‘I’m sorry,’ Darnell said. ‘I don’t mean to attack you.’

‘Can’t say there’s no truth in it.’

‘I don’t need to be saying things like that. At least you’ve broken out beyond the home county. Got to be nice to see the land, way out there.’

‘Could ride across the country a thousand times but you’ve always got to take yourself with you,’ Stanton said. ‘And things happen along the way whether you’d seen them coming toward you or not. It’s like…You remember Reverend Cranfield’s sermons?’

‘I can still smell the hellfire.’

‘Always preaching foreordination. I hated it. I wouldn’t believe in it. But sometimes when I’m on the trains I get to thinking. I get to thinking about how the tracks I’m riding on have already been put down ahead of me. Some in years I never even lived through. I get to thinking about how I’m just being taken along to where they’re already going.’

Darnell raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, I don’t know about all that. But you don’t have to go anywhere else no more. Farm’s still here. Done my best to maintain it, and I’m proud of what I’ve done, but it should’ve all been turned over to wheat by now. We both know you were the born farmer, I’d rather you were here with me to see that through.’

‘Plenty around who can help on the farm.’

‘Folks these days don’t know a furrow from a farrow. And I’d a heap rather keep it in the family. The Riggs brothers back together on the farm. I’d like that a lot. And I know Anne would love to get to know you. The kids, too.’

Stanton sighed. ‘I could stay a while, might even enjoy it, for a time. Every couple years or so I find some nice new place and I tell myself, “I could stay here. I could be content.” Never takes more than a few months to start feeling restless all over again.’

‘It’s different here. This is home.’

‘I don’t know,’ Stanton said. ‘Maybe some people are set to be restless forever.’

One of the tallow candles sputtered out. The remaining candle also neared expiration and its pallid light made dim craters of the hollows of Stanton’s eyes.

‘Look,’ Darnell said. ‘Stay the night, then we can think about the future. Where in all getout could you go at this time anyhow? Darker than the inside of a cow out there.’

Stanton looked at the black window.

‘You can sleep in the boy’s bed,’ Darnell continued, ‘he won’t mind.’

Stanton opened his mouth to speak, then closed it.

‘Got rid of them awful cornhusk mattresses, if that’s what’s worrying you.’ Darnell smiled cautiously.

Stanton looked at the door for a while, then down at the table for longer. ‘Alright.’

‘So glad to have you, Stanton, so glad.’ Darnell raised his mug, drained it, then yawned loudly. ‘Sorry. Think I need to pound my ear. Why don’t you come up, too. We could both do with some sleep. You’ll feel better come morning.’ He got two fresh candles from a cupboard, lit them from the one still alight at the table, then looked at Stanton expectantly.

Stanton pinched out the tabletop candle then followed his brother upstairs to their old bedroom, now Darnell’s son’s. They stood facing each other either side of the doorway.

‘So good to have you back. Truly.’ Darnell gave Stanton one of the candles, hugged him, then winked. ‘Poland Chinas to slop in the morning, if you’re feeling strong.’

He went down the hall, leaving Stanton in the bedroom.

Stanton stood and inhaled the smell of dry resinous boards, then put down his hat on his nephew’s desk and hung his coat on the back of the chair stood beneath it, blew out the candle, and lay down on the bed on top of the coverlet, still clothed.

He listened to the faint creaks of his brother moving around in the other side of the house, then all was quiet, save the legacy of countless days exposure to screeching trainmetal ringing in his ears.

He lay unsleeping for a long time, until, at some unreckonable hour, a loud bang from outside vanished the silence. Stanton leapt off the bed at the sound. He jolted on the spot when there came another bang, then stood dead still in the middle of the room. He went over to the window once a sustained quiet had been restored.

Listening closely, he heard the sound of rusted hinges precede a third bang; a gate blown open and slammed shut by the wind. He released a breath he had not realized he was holding, then sat on the chair, wringing his hands in the darkness. The gate continued to slam intermittently, and his flinches failed to weaken with any number of its repetitions.

Sometime later, after the gate was long still, he got up from the chair, took his coat and hat, and crept down the stairs and into the kitchen, the black outside barely fended off by the now much weakened light coming from the open stove door. Passing the table, he saw the cob pipe still upon it. He picked it up and rubbed its bowl and stem with his thumb, and looked it over for a little while. When he placed it back on the oilcloth, his hand lingered over it. He half-turned to leave, before his fingers clenched back around the pipe and he strode over to the stove and threw it into the embers.

Halfway through his walk dawn, had begun dimming the stars. By the time Stanton reached the station the engine he found idling there was gleaming in the sun, but its smokestack shrouded his carriage in shadow when it pulled away down the line.

Stanton was soon to turn fifteen when he first rode a train. After counting his savings of dimes, he persuaded his father to get him a pass on a C.B&Q train to Peoria, for the State Fair. He rode there alone, feeling independent and responsible.

At the Fair he marveled at the equipment and technologies proclaimed as the future, and he could not wait to get home that evening and tell his father about the machinery he would be using by the time he took over the farm.

Later, he spent a long time looking at the steamboats on the Illinois River. He went in for a swim, sharing the water with a group of boys, slightly older than himself, who he fell in with for the rest of the afternoon. They talked differently from the people in Soperville, a different vernacular from those in Galesburg, even. They labelled themselves road-kids, and Stanton lay listening silently on the bank, ‘On some south-bound rattletrap…’, ‘Bulls is hostile that way…’, ‘Held her down three-hundred miles…’

Come the end of the day, Stanton headed to Peoria station to return to Galesburg, and the boys joined him. Stanton eschewed the passenger cars, instead beating his way back home on a freight with the others.

The train crossed the Illinois River at the nadir of sunset and they all looked out from the open boxcar door. The expanse of water acted as the suns canvas and it was painted with every conceivable color, in every shade between blinding intensity and fathomless, abyssal depths. The picture changed moment to moment, orchestral in its intricacy, though conducted blindly. The boys were all quiet as they meditated on the setting sun.

When the train reached the end of the bridge, the boxcar jerked forward, banging loudly, awakening Stanton from his ruminations. Water then turned to morass, before shadowed forest cut out the light and in the dark the train hurtled the boys ever faster along the tracks.

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Aaron Caley

Aaron Caley, twenty-nine, is originally from Ipswich, UK, but now lives in Bristol. He works as an electrician and took up writing as something to do whilst furloughed for a couple of months, and has kept it up since. Jungle Buzzard is his first published work.

Image by Lisa Johnson on Pixabay

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