Authors: Amor Towles
While it was the bend in the tracks that was fixed and the train that was moving, from Emmett’s vantage point it seemed like it was the bend that was in motion, making its way rapidly down the chain of boxcars, heading toward him inexorably, the way that slack moves along a length of a rope when one end has been whipped.
Emmett began to sprint as fast as he could in the hope of making it to the next boxcar before the curve arrived. But the curve came faster than he anticipated, passing under his feet just as he made the leap. With the boxcar swaying, Emmett landed unevenly and went hurtling forward such that a moment later he was splayed across the roof with one foot hanging off its edge.
Intent on not letting go of the pillowcase, Emmett scrambled to grab something, anything, with his free hand. Blindly, he caught hold of a metal lip and pulled himself toward the middle of the roof.
Without standing, Emmett eased his way backward toward the gap that he’d just leapt across. Finding the ladder with his feet, he slid farther back, climbed down, and collapsed on the narrow platform, heaving from the exertion and burning with self-recrimination.
What had he been thinking? Jumping from car to car at a sprint. He could easily have been thrown from the train. Then what would have happened to Billy?
The train was moving at least fifty miles an hour now. At some point in the coming hour it was sure to slow, then he would be able to make his way safely back to their car. Emmett looked down at his brother’s watch to log the time, only to find that the crystal was broken and the second hand frozen in place.
hen Pastor John saw
that there was somebody asleep in the boxcar, he nearly moved along. When one has far to go, there is much to be said for companionship. The journey in a boxcar is long in hours and short in common comforts, and every man, however vagabond, has a story that may edify or entertain. But ever since Adam last saw Eden, sin has been lodged in the hearts of men such that even those predisposed to be meek and kind may of a sudden become covetous and cruel. So, when a weary traveler has in his possession a half-pint of whiskey and eighteen dollars that he has earned by the sweat of his own brow, prudency counsels that he forgo the benefits of fellowship and pass the hours in the safety of his own solicitude.
This is what Pastor John was thinking when he saw the stranger sit up, switch on a flashlight, and direct its narrow beam upon the pages of an oversize book—revealing that he was no more than a boy.
A runaway, thought Pastor John with a smile.
No doubt he’d gotten in a tiff with his parents and slipped away with his rucksack over his shoulder, setting out in the manner of Tom Sawyer—little reader that he was. By the time he reached New York, the boy would welcome the moment of his discovery, so that he could be returned by the authorities to his father’s stern reproach and his mother’s warm embrace.
But New York was still a day’s journey, and though boys may be
impetuous, inexperienced, and naïve, they are not without a certain practical intelligence. For while a grown man who storms off in the heat of anger is likely to do so with only the shirt upon his back, a boy who runs away will always have the foresight to pack a sandwich. Perhaps even a bit of his mother’s fried chicken left over from the night before. And then there was the flashlight to consider. How often in the last year alone would Pastor John have found it providential to have a flashlight near at hand? More times than he could count.
—Well, hello there!
Without waiting for a response, Pastor John climbed down the ladder and brushed the dust from his knees, noting that while the boy had looked up in some surprise, he had the good manners not to train the beam of his light on a newcomer’s face.
—For the foot soldiers of the Lord, began Pastor John, the hours are long and the comforts few. So I, for one, would welcome a little company. Do you mind if I join you by your fire?
—My fire? asked the boy.
Pastor John pointed to the flashlight.
—Forgive me. I was speaking in the poetical sense. It is an occupational hazard for men of the cloth. Pastor John, at your service.
When John offered his hand, the boy rose and shook it like a little gentleman.
—My name is Billy Watson.
—A pleasure to meet you, William.
Though suspicion is as old as sin, the boy didn’t betray a hint of it. But he did exhibit a reasonable curiosity.
—Are you a real pastor?
Pastor John smiled.
—I do not have a steeple or bells under my command, my boy. Rather, like my namesake, John the Baptist, my church is the open road and my congregation the common man. But yes, I am as real a pastor as you are likely to meet.
—You are the second person of the cloth that I have met in two days, said the boy.
—Yesterday, I met Sister Agnes at St. Nicholas’s in Lewis. Do you know her?
many a sister in my time, the pastor said with an inward wink. But I don’t believe I have had the pleasure of knowing one named Agnes.
Pastor John smiled down at the boy, then took the liberty of sitting. When the boy joined him, John expressed his admiration for the flashlight and wondered if he might take a closer look. Without a moment’s hesitation, the boy handed it over.
—It’s an army surplus flashlight, he explained. From the Second World War.
As if to marvel at the flashlight’s beam, Pastor John used it to survey the rest of the boxcar, noting with pleasant surprise that the boy’s rucksack was bigger than it first had seemed.
—The Lord’s first creation, Pastor John observed in appreciation while returning the flashlight to its owner.
Once again, the boy looked at him with curiosity. By way of explanation, Pastor John quoted the verse.
—And the Lord said
, Let there be light,
and there was light.
—But in the very beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, said the boy. Wouldn’t light be His third creation?
Pastor John cleared his throat.
—You’re perfectly right, William. At least, in the technical sense. Either way, I think we can assume that the Lord takes great satisfaction from the fact that having witnessed his
creation be harnessed for the benefit of men at war, the device has found a second life in the service of a boy’s edification.
With this satisfactory observation the boy was silenced, and Pastor John found himself glancing rather longingly at his bag.
The day before, Pastor John had been preaching the Word of the Lord at the edge of a traveling Christian revival meeting on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids. Although the pastor was not
a part of the meeting, so taken were the attendees with his own special brand of fire and brimstone that he had preached from dawn till dusk without even taking time for a brief repast. In the evening, when the crew had begun to roll up the tents, Pastor John had planned to retire to a nearby tavern, where a lovely young member of a Methodist choir had agreed to join him for supper and, perhaps, a glass of wine. But it so happened that the girl’s choirmaster was also her father, and one thing leading to another, Pastor John was forced to make a hastier departure than he’d intended. So when he’d taken his seat with the boy, he was quite eager to skip along to the moment when they would break bread.
But there is as much call for etiquette in an empty boxcar as there is at the table of a bishop. And what the etiquette of the road demanded was that one traveler should come to know another before expecting to share in his food. To that end, Pastor John took the initiative.
—Tell me, young man: What is that you’re reading?
Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers
—How appropriate! May I?
Again the boy handed over one of his possessions without the slightest hesitation. A Christian through and through, thought Pastor John, while opening the book. Reaching the table of contents, John saw that it was in fact a compendium of heroes, more or less.
—No doubt, you are headed off on an adventure of your own, prompted John.
In response, the boy nodded energetically.
—Don’t tell me. Let me guess.
Glancing down, Pastor John ran his finger along the list.
—Hmm. Let me see. Yes, yes.
With a smile he tapped the book, then looked up at the boy.
—I suspect you are off to circumnavigate the globe in eighty days—in the manner of Phileas Fogg!
—No, said the boy. I am not off to circumnavigate the globe.
Pastor John glanced back at the table of contents.
—You plan to sail the Seven Seas like Sinbad . . . ?
The boy shook his head again.
In the earnest silence that followed, Pastor John was reminded of how quickly one becomes bored with children’s games.
—You have me, William. I give up. Why don’t you tell me where your adventure is taking you.
Pastor John raised his eyebrows. Should he tell the lad that of all the possible directions in which he might travel, he had chosen the one least likely to get him to California? The news would undoubtedly prove valuable to the boy, but it also might disconcert him. And what was to be gained by that?
—California, you say? An excellent destination. I imagine you are headed there in hopes of finding gold.
The pastor smiled encouragingly.
—No, the boy replied in his parrotlike manner, I am not headed to California in hopes of finding gold.
Pastor John waited for the boy to elaborate, but elaboration did not appear to be in his nature. At any rate, thought Pastor John, that seemed conversation enough.
—Wherever we happen to be traveling and for whatever the reasons, I count it a stroke of good fortune to find myself in the company of a young man with knowledge of Scripture and a love of adventure. Why, the only thing missing to make our journey more perfect . . .
As the pastor paused, the boy looked at him expectantly.
— . . . Would be a little something to nibble upon as we pass the time in conversation.
Pastor John gave a wistful smile. Then it was his turn to look expectantly.
But the boy didn’t blink.
Hmm, thought Pastor John. Was it possible that young William was being cagey?
No. He wasn’t the sort. Guileless as he was, he would share a sandwich if he had one. Unfortunately, whatever sandwich he’d had the good sense to pack had probably been eaten. For if runaway boys had the unusual foresight to pack some food, what they lacked was the self-discipline to ration it out.
Pastor John frowned.
What charity the Good Lord bestows upon the presumptuous, He does so in the form of disappointment.
This was a lesson that John had taught many times under many tents to many souls and to great effect. And yet, whenever proof of the lesson emerged in the course of his own interactions, it always seemed such an unpleasant surprise.
—You should probably turn off your light, said Pastor John a little sourly. So that you don’t waste the batteries.
Seeing the wisdom in the suggestion, the boy picked up his flashlight and clicked it off. But when he reached for his rucksack in order to stow it away, a delicate sound emanated from the bag.
Upon hearing it, Pastor John sat a little more upright and the frown disappeared from his face.
Was it a sound that he recognized? Why, it was a sound so familiar, so unexpected, and so welcome that it stimulated every fiber of his being—in the manner that the rustle of a field mouse in the autumn leaves will stimulate a cat. For what had emanated from the rucksack was the unmistakable jangle of coins.
As the boy tucked the flashlight away, Pastor John could see the top of a tobacco tin and hear the currency shifting musically inside it. Not pennies and nickels, mind you, which announce themselves with
an appropriate poverty of sound. These were almost certainly half- or silver dollars.
Under the circumstances, Pastor John felt the urge to grin, to laugh, even to sing. But he was, above all else, a man of experience. So instead, he offered the boy the teasing smile of an old familiar.
—What’s that you have there, young William? Is that tobacco I see? Don’t tell me you indulge in the smoking of cigarettes?
—No, Pastor. I don’t smoke cigarettes.
—Thank goodness. But why, pray tell, are you lugging about such a tin?
—It’s where I keep my collection.
—A collection, you say! Oh, how I love a collection. May I see it?
The boy took the tin from his bag, but despite having been so ready to share his flashlight and book, he was visibly reluctant to exhibit his collection.
Once again, the pastor found himself wondering if young William was not quite as naïve as he pretended to be. But following the boy’s gaze to the boxcar’s rough and dusty floor, Pastor John realized that if the boy hesitated, it was because he didn’t feel the surface a worthy one.
It was perfectly natural, conceded John, for a collector of fine china or rare manuscripts to be finicky about the surfaces on which his prized possessions were laid. But when it comes to metal currencies, surely one surface was as good as the next. After all, within its lifetime a typical coin is likely to journey from the coffers of a magnate to the palm of a beggar and back again many times over. It has found itself on poker tables and in offering plates. It has been carried into battle in the boot of a patriot and lost among the velvety cushions of a young lady’s boudoir. Why, the typical coin has circumnavigated the globe
sailed the Seven Seas.
There was hardly any call for such finickiness. The coins would be
as ready to fulfill their purpose after being spread across the floor of a boxcar as they were on the day they were struck at the mint. All the boy needed was a little encouragement.
—Here, said Pastor John, let me help.
But when Pastor John reached out, the boy—who still had his hands on his tin and his eye on the floor—pulled back.
Reflexes being what they are, the boy’s sudden backward motion prompted the pastor to lurch forward.
Now they both had their hands on the tin.
The boy showed an almost admirable determination as he pulled it toward his chest, but the strength of a child is no match for that of a grown man, and a moment later the tin was in the pastor’s possession. Holding it off to the side with his right hand, John held his left against the boy’s chest in order to keep him at bay.
—Mind yourself, William, he cautioned.
But as it turned out, he needn’t have. For the boy was no longer trying to reclaim the tin or its contents. Like one who has been taken with the Spirit of the Lord, the boy was now shaking his head and uttering incoherent phrases, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. With his rucksack pulled tightly into his lap, he was clearly agitated, but also contained.
—Now, said a satisfied Pastor John, let us see what’s inside.
Opening the lid, he spilled out the contents. While the jostling of the tin had resulted in a lovely little jangle, the spilling of the contents onto the hard wooden floor recalled the sound of a Liberty Bell machine paying off. With the tips of his fingers, Pastor John gently spread the coins across the floor. There were at least forty of them and they were all silver dollars.
—Praise the Lord, said Pastor John.
For surely it was divine providence that had delivered this bounty into his hands.
Glancing quickly at William, he was pleased to find him still in his state of self-containment. It allowed John to turn his full attention upon the windfall. Picking up one of the dollars, he angled it toward the morning light that was beginning to shine through the hatch.