This story is set in my home county in the northwoods of Wisconsin and is inspired by a true life heroine, Dr. Kate Newcomb, who was calle THE ANGEL ON SNOW SHOES. She was the first female doctor in the northwoods and often was forced to go to patients home via that method. Quite a woman!
Here’s the Excerpt from my novella “Winter Homecoming.” If you enjoy it, please tell a friend!
Christmas Day, 1930
Why couldn’t life go according to plan? In the stark moonlight at the railroad freight yard, Will Gustafson sheltered his ears in his upturned collar against the bitter December wind. They called Chicago the Windy City and they weren’t wrong. In the distance he heard an engine idling. Relief flickered within him. Even late on Christmas Day, the trains were running.
At least something in this country was still working. He’d hoped the feared railroad guards or “bulls” he’d read about in the Tribune would be busy celebrating in their warm office and he could make his escape without meeting them. He didn’t know how to jump a freight, but he’d learn how tonight.
His nearly empty stomach clenched and cold regret had clotted in his throat.. He’d given up trying to swallow it down. In a cloth sack over one shoulder, he carried all that was left of the life he was leaving. He listened in the wind for harsh voices, for the bark of the guard dogs he’d read could savage a man. Icy fear settled in the pit of his stomach.
His mind brought up a memory as bitter as the wind—a beautiful woman in a summer dress, laughing at him. He shoved it away and moved silently through the shadows of the parked freight cars toward the idling engine, slipping soundlessly as if on the hunt for an elusive twelve-point buck.
His ears caught the subtle sound of footsteps on frozen ground. Will stiffened, ready to run, ready to fight.
“Hey,” a man whispered, “gonna flip a train?”
“Yeah,” Will whispered back, hoping flip meant jump.
“Then you better follow me.” A scarf and battered hat pulled down against the wind hid the man’s face. “There’s a train leavin’ in a few minutes but we gotta hustle to make it.”
Will started hustling. “Where’s the train headed?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes, I’m headed north toward home.”
“Home.” The man spat the word like a curse. “You got one to go to?”
Will didn’t reply. He didn’t want to go home to humiliation and “I told you so’s” but he could survive there, hunting and fishing.
“Come on,” the stranger said. “Hustle.” At a breathless pace the man led Will through the maze of track and freight cars, the idling engine sounding closer.
The snarling of a dog split the wind.
The stranger pushed Will into the shadow of a freight car. They huddled there. Will’s heart pounded. But the dog, wherever it was, barked no more.
“Come on,” the stranger hissed. “Guess it’s too cold for the bulls or their dogs.”
And ahead in the moonlight Will glimpsed big wheels beginning to turn. He and the man zigzagged through the shadows and over tracks to the train just rolling.
Will moved to catch one of the handholds.
The stranger held him back. “Wait,” he snapped. “The bulls watch the trains leavin’. Has to be goin’ fast enough they won’t try to drag a man off. Too dangerous for them.”
And more dangerous for us. Will’s pulse sped up, keeping pace with the sound of the wheels on the track.
“Now.” The stranger yanked Will’s coat collar and then flat out ran to the speeding train.
Will raced forward.
The stranger caught hold. Swung himself up onto a car. Shoved the sliding side door open.
A dog barked wildly behind Will.
“Come on!” the stranger bellowed over the roaring wind and clacking of the train.
The dog snapped at Will’s heels. Will swung up high. The stranger grabbed his arm. Dragged him toward the gaping doors.
The dog jumped, trying to nab Will’s foot.
Downward gravity pulled at Will. The stranger hauled him inside.
Panting, Will lay prostrate on the dusty wooden floor, feeling the clackety-clack of the wheels in his bones. He’d done it; he’d “flipped” a train.
Finally he rolled over and sat up. The freight had sped up and was rocking along fast. Though the doors had been closed against the wind, city lights still flickered through cracks. The two of them weren’t alone. Other shapes huddled around the dark edges. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” the stranger sneered. Then he pulled out a pistol.
Will felt not only his shock but also a wave of shock from the others. “What?”
“Buzzard!” a voice jeered.
“Empty your sack.” The stranger waved his gun, ignoring the insult.
Will sized him up. And prepared.
Will reared up and knocked the man to the floor. He’d never before had to fight while in a moving train. He went down on the top of the man, punching, rolling. He clapped his hand around the wrist holding the gun. He’d grown soft in Chicago but he pinned the man down in a wrestling hold he’d learned in high school.
The stranger gurgled.
Will slammed down the hand with the gun, again, again.
The stranger released the gun.
Will snatched it up, shoved it in his pocket. Then patted the man down, searching for any other weapon or the ammunition. He found none. He flipped open the pistol’s chamber and found it empty too. “Well, that’s stupid. Threaten me with an empty gun.”
The stranger moaned.
“If I hurt you, it’s your own fault.” Will rubbed his throbbing elbow and slid back to his place against the wall. The man’s treachery stung more than the physical pain. Now he realized that what he’d taken as kindness from this man had merely been a strategy to get him where he could rob him away from the law. The stranger hadn’t expected anybody to come to Will’s aid here and no one had. When would Will learn that people here couldn’t be trusted?
The stranger finally dragged himself up and staggered to the opposite wall. The train had picked up speed, swaying more.
“What did you think I had to steal?” Will asked in the heavy silence.
The stranger was rubbing his side. “Hungry.”
The reply surprised Will again. Was it true? Sympathy touched him. The man must have suffered even more than Will had. “Why didn’t you just ask?” Will reached into his pockets and pulled out Hersey bars. “Anybody else want a piece?”
Stunned silence and then a few chuckles. One old guy with a white beard said, “Celebrating Christmas, are we?”
“It’s not roast turkey,” Will replied, feeling lighter somehow, “but it’s all I got.” He counted heads in the dim light and broke the two bars into chunks and handed them out, the last to the man who’d threatened him. Then Will sat back, letting the chocolate melt on his tongue.
“Give me my gun back,” the stranger said, his voice low and rough.
“No,” Will stated. “You’ll just get yourself killed with it. A man doesn’t wave an empty gun in a body’s face. I can use it for hunting.” A pistol wasn’t as good as a rifle but it was something. “I was wondering how I’d get a gun. Now I only need ammo.”
“So you’re stealing it.”
“I’m taking it into protective custody.” Still, his conscience pricked. Will pulled the pack off his back, reached inside, and pulled out a pair of gloves. He tossed them toward the stranger. “Here. Now you’ve been paid.”
The man picked the gloves up and peered at them in the flickering light. “Gloves. Leather gloves.” He pulled them on quickly.
“I can only wear one pair at a time,” Will said. “Deal?”
Another wave of surprise spread through the train.
“Deal,” the stranger muttered. “Sorry.”
Will nodded. “Anybody know where this train’s headed? What direction?”
“North,” one of the shadowy men replied.
“Good.” Will sighed silently.
One of the figures slid closer to him. “Hi.”
Will tensed, then saw that it was just a kid, not more than ten. “Hi.”
“How far north you goin’, mister?”
What was a kid doing here all alone? “Far.”
“Yes.” Will felt the tension leak out of him. The stress of everything that had happened in the last months, weeks, days, finally hit him as he sat there, swaying on the dusty floor.
The boy settled beside him. “Good.”
The excitement over, the men in the freight car turned in for the night. The cold wind found its way through the cracks. Will shivered. The kid next to him fell asleep and curled up against him like a puppy. Will welcomed the warmth, but he didn’t fall asleep. He couldn’t turn off the mocking images, the rude voices in his head. He deserved them. He’d been a fool. And now he was paying for it.