The Runaways

The rock of the train was enough to put you to sleep if not for the biting cold. Two sets of eyes watched out through the slats of the rail car, one numb and cold, the other fearful and shivering. Shaking, the hand of the younger boy clutched at the coat sleeve of the first.

“Jacob, look,” he said, pointing through the filter of wooden boards to the hillside beyond. “Lights.” The daylight was failing, but far off the boy could still make out the outline of an old truck winding its way down the hill toward the tracks.

“I told you not to call me that. Don’t use their names.”

“Sorry Namid.”

“Forget it, Hito. And don’t  worry, they can’t stop the train.”

They watched in silence as the headlights came closer, sometimes bobbing in and out of sight as they followed the roadway, and even Hito had to wonder if it really could stop the train. He shivered again. “I’m cold.”

“Jeeze, here.” Namid pulled a wool blanket from under his coat and tossed it to the smaller boy. It was coarse and itchy but he gladly threw it around himself. “I thought I told you to bring this stuff. You’d think this was your first time or something.”

“It is my first time.”

Namid grunted and turned back to watch the headlights, but they were gone. He crossed to the other side of the car to see if the car had crossed already, but saw nothing there either.

Suddenly the whole boxcar lurched to the grating the screech of metal on metal. Both boys tumbled across the hard floor of the car and into the hay bales at one end. Spitting hay and rubbing raw eyes, they looked at one another, horrified.

“It’s the sheriff!” Namid said. He was wrenching open the car doors even before the train had finished stopping. It took all his strength, scraping and grunting, to get it wide enough for a person to fit through. He looked at the ground streaming past, and signaled for Hito to jump. Hito took one look and retreated to the other side of the car.  “Do you want to get caught? C’mon!” Hito refused to budge, and Namid ended up having to drag and kick him to the door and heave him off before jumping after him.

“Stupid boy needs to learn a different route,” Sheriff Harold Budd mumbled. He was a big man who fancied a good lick of chaw over just about anything. He spat a long gout of the stuff as he leaned, arms crossed, back on the hood of his old Chevy and watched the train come to a slow, grinding stop. He had dealt with Jacob before. The only question was which way he would bolt and how long it would take to catch him.

“Hito!” Namid shouted as loudly as he dared. “Where are you, you damned Dakota?” All around him were clumps of shrub and wild grass. Most of it came up past his head.  It was fully dark now and any moment he thought the sheriff’s light might find him. He heard a rustling behind him and froze, but then he heard Hito whimpering. He rushed over to him and found Hito still wrapped in the blanket. “I think I twisted my ankle,” Hito said, his voice near to crying.

A flash of light flickered past them and Namid look back to see beams of flashlights sweeping back and forth across in the boxcars and out into the filed. He turned back to Hito, biting his lip. He wanted to run, but he did throw Hito off the train. “Okay,” he said finally, “get on my back.”

It felt like the sacks of grain he had to carry to the storeroom at the school, slinging Hito onto his back, but Namid took him and trudged on into the field anyway.  He kept as low as he could to stay beneath the sweep of the flashlights. After a few mintues, however, they heard the sound of an engine starting up. Namid ran as he could, but it wasn’t long before the headlights of the sheriff’s truck were bearing down them. Hito squealed and grabbed tight to Namid’s neck. The truck barreled past in a great cloud of dust cutting them off. Harold was jumping out of the truck the next moment and Namid wheeled, threw Hito off, and ran.

Before he had made it ten paces, however, a gunshot cracked and Namid dove to the ground. “The next one comes for you, boy,” Harold called. “What say you give it up now, alright?”

The cab of the truck smelled like mildew, sweat, and old chaw and a lazy song droned out of the radio. Namid and Hito were both strapped in tight with the passenger seatbelt. Namid was trying his best to look defiant, but Hito, tears in his eyes, kept his head down and refused to say anything. A fresh bruise was forming on the side of his face. They were out of the fields and onto the highway now, making good progress back towards the Morris Missionary School at Midrun. Namid held his hands to the heater to warm them. It had been bitter cold in that train. He suspected the next time he tried for home it would be snowing.

“There won’t be a next time,” Harold said, as if reading the boy’s thoughts. “What’s this now, ten, eleven times you’ve run away?” Namid held his silence. “Well, me and them up at Morris have had a little arrangement made this time around. And guess what Jacob,” Harold leaned over, breathing the sickly-sweet chaw odor in Namid’s face, “from now on there’ll be a permanent officer on duty up at the school.” Namid glared the sheriff, so mad he nearly spit on him, but said nothing.

They were beaten with switches when they were returned to the missionary school, then made to stand half the night in the center hall of the boy’s dormitory for a month. If they fell asleep too soon they were taken and lashed again. The days were little better. They each had to haul extra loads of flour and grain back and forth from the barn to the school everyday, and instead of recess they were made to scrub down different parts of the school. They were kept apart most of the time, and only shared one another’s company, in icy silence, at night in the dormitory hall.

On the third week of their punishment, while standing back to back in the middle of the hall, Hito couldn’t keep his silence any longer. “You never told me this would happen if we got caught.”

Namid said, “I thought you got an eyeful enough all the times I got caught. Besides, you asked me to let you tag along.”

“You just dropped me and ran!” Hito shot back. “Are all you Ojibwa cowards? No wonder our tribes never got along.”

“You should talk, you damned Dakota. I’ve never met anyone who cried so much.”

“You threw me off the train! I’d never have hurt my ankle if you’d just waited ‘til it stopped!”

“We’d’ve gotten caught then!”

“We got caught anyway, you idiot!”

They dissolved into name-calling and tantrums, oblivious of the nun on watch, old Mother Rosa, who was dozing in the next room. Hito shoved Namid into the wall, and Namid came back with fists and fury. Soon other boys were peeking out of their dorms staring at them.

Amid shouts and curses, fists and feet, and the ogling of a hundred boys, the Mother Rosa burst into the hall. She took one look at the two, pulled out her switch and started to screech and beat at them. “Jacob! Michael! Stop it! Stop it now! In the name Mary, Mother of God, stop!” At that, one of the strikes whipped Namid in the face and, before he could stop himself, he turned and swung at the nun.

The hit took her square in the chest and she tumbled backward. She tried to brace herself, but Mother Rosa was old, too old. Every child winced to hear the muted snap when she landed on her wrist. For a long, indeterminible moment the dormitory was dead silence, and then Rosa began to wail. Namid and Hito looked, wide-eyed, at one another, then at the nun, then back at each other.

Then they ran.

An Olympian would have admired their swiftness. They burst out of the dormitory at full gallop, flying past the teachers and nuns who came to investigate. They shouted after the boys, but by then the pair had already crossed the yard and were making for the fence. They came at the thing like it wasn’t there at all, flinging themselves over the six-foot wire mesh in seconds.

Already they could see the flashlights of the police guard rushing in their direction. They ran, and ran as hard and long as their fear-driven rush would take them. After a time, however, they crashed to the grassy plain in pants and wheezes. Both of them were still in their green sleepers, and the cold was already biting.

Namid said, “I don’t see their flashlights anymore. I think they called the sheriff.”

“What do we do? They’ll flay us alive for hitting a nun. Plus the moon is starting to come through the clouds. He’ll see us for sure.”

“If that were true, that deputy would have caught us already. We just gotta keep low and keep moving.”

“Look!” Hito shouted, pointing. Namid sat up. Far in the distance, he could make out a light. “It’s the sheriff already!” Hito cried.

“Wait, listen.” Namid smiled and clapped his hand on Hito’s shoulder. “That’s the train! C’mon, before the sheriff really does come.”

They were off again at a trot, heading in the direction of the light. Before long they could make out the shape of the train in the moonlight. It was then they saw another light in the distance, a set of them. “C’mon!” Namid shouted. They broke into a sprint straight for the tracks.

Even at a dead sprint the cars continued to trundle past them. From behind they could hear the rumble of truck creeping slowly up behind them. “Look for an open car!” Namid shouted to his friend. His legs felt like they were burning, but he refused to give in now.

“There!” Hito yelled. “The next car!” The lights of the sheriff’s truck were full on their backs now and moving to run parallel with them. As the boxcar started to pass, Namid latched onto Hito’s hand and reached out to grab the handle of the sliding door. He pulled on Hito to get him to go faster.

“When I say, jump!” Namid screamed at Hito. The noise of both the train and the truck were deafening. “Now!”

Namid caught the rung, but lost grip of Hito. He looked back in horror, thinking him lost, but Hito just managed to keep his footing. He was quickly losing ground against the speed of the train, however. “Run Hito! Run!” Namid leaned out of the car and stretched his arm out as far as he could.

Hito jumped.

The pair tumbled back into the boxcar, rolling into the stacked hay bales in warm embrace. Both were crying. They lay for a long while in the hay trying to cool their burning muscles and get air back into their lungs. At length Namid told Hito, “Not bad for a Dakota.”

“Yeah, and pretty good for an Ojibwa.” They started at one another for a time and then Hito finally asked, “How long before the sheriff can stop the train?”

“I don’t know,” Namid replied calmly, “but one way or another I’m not gonna let him take us back this time.”


  • Neil says:

    It took me a bit to pick up on their names, and why they mattered, but I tend to be slow on the uptake on emotional things like that. And anyway, I figured it all out once they got taken back to the convent.

    I’m really impressed with how powerful and moving this passage is. I’m not usually a fan of realistic fiction, but this was captivating.

    • Andrew Putnam says:

      Thanks Neil! I wasn’t sure if I was being too subtle with the significance of the names, but I’m glad it came through.

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