Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Belladonna Cure

by Jim Parks

They three crouched around the coals of a fire built of an oaken pallet by the tracks. The couple fussed with a thick soda bottle in which they brewed tea.

Just as it boiled, the woman in a long black skirt pulled a leather bag on a string out of her bodice and shook out three small seeds. She dropped them in the bottle and the man resumed heating it over the coals.

"Beautiful Lady," she told the tramp. "It's a living dream, the way witches flew." A black crow coasted on silken wings, landed at their feet, turned into a smiling man under a black slouch hat, danced away.

He found an empty boxcar on the line of tracks that was hot, loaded for trains eastbound out of the California valley of produce field and fruit orchards. Grabbed a cast-off brake hose with its galvanized fitting at one end, a mace with which to fight off attackers; jammed a spike in the tracks of the door to prevent its slamming shut and trapping him; arranged a slab of cardboard dunnage and rolled out his bundle of blankets for a snooze.

He awoke at dusk when the engineer jerked the train to make sure all the couplings were secure, waited for the percussive, hissing linear rifle shot to travel the length of the combination as they blew the air out of the brake system, put his back to the corner and got ready to ride uneasy when he saw the three tramps sitting with a half-gallon jug of wine at the other end of the car.

As they rode through the night, one of the tramps kept approaching him in the darkness to cast unsettling stares. He caught glimpses of his alcoholic face and toothless mouth in the shadows and moonlit reflection of snow and stone canyon walls, his evil expressions and his ragged frame clothed in filthy, frizzy gray hair, his body swathed in rags and a huge overcoat.

His attention attracted to a mountain pass covered with snow and spruce groves, their boughs drooping with icy deposits, he turned to see the man wielding a straight razor, preparing to make a slashing cut at him.

The smiling man did not panic. He stood quickly, spread his arms and shouted, eyes blazing.

A massive wind blew across the width of the car. It turned the tramp's coat into a sail, a dark, filthy spinnaker running before the wind that carried the screaming tramp out the door to cling for a moment with one hand; then he dropped into the rocky gorge below.

The other two men huddled fearfully in the corner as he approached them across the rocking, swaying floor of the boxcar, his smile intact under his black slouch hat.

They sat mute for a moment before one of them offered the bottle in drunken capitulation.

"Wanna drink?"

"Don't mind if I do."

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