After that, I was alone.
Folks in town said I was cursed and no one would care for me—not even the church. I was ten at the time. I been on my own ever since. Folks would sometimes leave food for me on their stoops, and some hand-me-down clothes; soap to wash in the river. But no one ever dared take me in. They were afraid what would happen to ‘em. So, I left just after my eleventh birthday.
Rail line ran through town and I hopped on a boxcar. It was full of hay blocks and empty stables—I reckoned it must’ve been used to transport livestock at some point, but not no more. The car didn’t smell too bad, and there was plenty of room for me, so I decided it would be my new home. And it was. For years.
Every once in a while a station guard come give me trouble. Some would wallop me one and drag me out; others would just tip their hat and leave me be, which was just fine. Sometimes I got walloped and left on the ground, but they didn’t drag me out of the train yard, and I just got back into the car, anyway. I figured they didn’t care about me hitchin’ a free ride…just wanted to wallop me for the sake of it.
One year, when I was in my late teens, the train rolled into this town called Bridgeton. Unless I had to relieve myself, or scrounge for food, I hardly ever left that boxcar. I was too afraid of havin’ the train pull away without me on it. Without that train, I’d’ve been homeless—as funny as that sounds. But, like I said, I had to relieve myself, so I jumped off the train and went into the woods for a brief moment of privacy.
When I come back from the woods, I seen the shape of somethin’ sittin’ on the edge of my boxcar’s entrance. I couldn’t right make out what I was seein’, but from where I stood, I could see horns and wings. Its tail whipped around behind it, and the barb on the end ripped hay from the blocks and scattered it around the car. I do believe it was the Devil himself, and I stood right there at the edge of the trees for a long time to see what the Devil would do. But he didn’t do nothin’. The train began creakin’ and crackin’ and threatenin’ to get goin’ again, and the Devil thing let out a bat screech and took to the sky.
I wasted no time. I jumped right in my boxcar, slammed the hatch closed behind me, and ran and hid behind a hay block like a child. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t even know if I should believe what I just seen with my own eyes!
The train chugged along and nothin’ else happened worth mentionin’—not till we got to the next town: a place called Fairbanks. It had been a five-hour trip and I had to relieve myself again, but I was terrified to leave the car. I was afraid of somehow repeatin’ whatever triggers had led to the Devil appearin’ to me. I held it as much as I could, but it was no use. I jumped out of the boxcar and into the woods. When I was done, I come back out, and my heart was beatin’ so loud in my chest it sounded like kettledrums. I was relieved to see my boxcar was empty—ain’t no devil in there.
Then I heard the screamin’. It was comin’ from town.
Now, I know I shoulda just got back in my boxcar and stayed out of sight, but my curiosity got the best of me. I started walkin’ to the sound, and I seen others runnin’ out of their houses to see what’s the matter. Well, it turns out it was this woman screamin’ in the middle of the road—screamin’ that her baby had strangled to death right in its crib. I felt awful sorry for her, but I knew there was nothin’ I could do. I figured it best that I go back to my boxcar and wait to see where my train brung me next.
The Devil was there again. I seen him a bit better this time. Still had the horns and the wings and the tail, but he was hairy—my, Lordy, he was hairy. Hairier than a mutt dog, I’d say. The air grew hot suddenly, and it reeked of shit. The Devil—he made some kind of noise. It was like a tiger growl, but if that tiger was dyin’ or somethin’. He grinned with black fangs and then he took off into the sky again, laughin’ as he went.
I didn’t know what to do. The Devil seemed to be followin’ me, and he brought all manner of evil with him! There was no way to fight somethin’ like that! I crawled into my boxcar again, but I didn’t go and cower behind the hay. No, I sat right there on the edge for a while – a long while – and let my legs dangle out the car. I had the Devil on my back, and hidin’ would do no good. Well, the loco start chuggin’ up again, so I pulled my legs in and shut the hatch. I decided then and there that I wouldn’t ever get off at the next stop—not even if I had you-know-what comin’ out my ears.
After chuggin’ along for about six hours we rolled into the next stop. I didn’t get off. No, sir. I sat right there on my hay block, and I was gonna wait till the train took off again. No devil was gonna hurt no one in that town—that was for sure.
Well, I ain’t have much chance to stick to that plan, because the hatch door swung open and I see a station guard. He was angry – my, Lordy, he was angry – and he ordered me off the train that instant.
“I reckon I shouldn’t,” I told him. “If you gotta beat me up or whatever, that’s fine, but you do it up in this car. I can’t touch the ground here. Someone’ll get hurt, or worse.”
Well, that guard, he only half-listened to my suggestion. He come up in the car and he walloped me one good across my face, but after I fell, he dragged me out the car and I fell on the ground.
“No, please,” I told him, but he wasn’t listenin’. He about to hit me again when there was a big explosion behind him—real big. The whole train station, it seemed, gone up in flames. We both looked and could see men and women runnin around’, they clothes on fire. And they screamed somethin’ terrible, and other people not on fire—they runnin after those that is, tryin’ to help.
I tried tellin’ the guard he shoulda listened to me, but the guard, he just took off for the fire, tryin’ to help whoever there was to help. I lay there on the ground, blood oozin’ from the back of my head, and then suddenly in front of me I see these goat’s feet. And I know it’s the Devil, because I can smell him, too.
“Why do you do these awful things?” I asked him, and then I coughed some, blowin’ dirt across his feet. He moved back from me – he didn’t so much step as slither, like a snake – and I hear him doin’ that laugh noise of his again. So then I asked, “Why do you follow me? Why are you stuck on me like this?”
The Devil laughed again and I looked up and I seen his red wings flappin’, gettin’ ready to take off.
“Because you’re unlucky, Sam,” the Devil said. “You’ve been unlucky since the moment you started sucking air. You bring it with you wherever you go. I don’t do any of these terrible things you think I do. You do.”
“It ain’t true,” I said, but I knew in my heart it was—known it since I was a boy. I was bad luck, pure and simple. I wore bad luck like other folks wore hats and ties.
The Devil grinned, sensin’ I believed what he told me. “Oh, it’s true, Sam. I hang back and let you do all the work, and then I reap the benefits.”
“What benefits?” I asked. Blood from the wallop I got was drippin’ down my face and I spat some out.
“The suffering of man,” he said, and then he was gone.
Well, I just about wanted to die. Bad luck poured off me like stink off a boar, and I realized that I couldn’t go nowhere without bringin’ it with me and givin’ it to other folks. The thought of hurtin’ others made me gut-sick and I decided right then and there to off myself. I figured I had a cursed life and I wasn’t doin’ no one no favors, so I might as well end it.
I guess the Devil musta counted on that. See, I crawled under the boxcar and lay down underneath the wheels. I figured once the train start goin’, it’d cut me in two. Not the best way to go, but it was the closest. I dunno how long I laid under there for, but after a while the loco gears start chuggin’ and the whistle blows and I just about said my prayers to God and Sonny Jesus when the wheels slice right through me.
I could see and think for about seven seconds or so and I remember when my head rolled off the tracks and bumped down the ravine that the sight of the world spinnin’ like that made me sick and I got nauseous. Imagine that! Head ten feet from my body and one still affectin’ t’other.
Well, that feelin’ didn’t last, because there was a flash of light and I was back on the boxcar again. The Devil—he sit before me on another hay block, his goat legs crossed all calm and genial.
“I’m afraid I can’t let you do something like that, Sam,” he said, all fancy and proper like. “You’re just too valuable an asset.”
I realized he wasn’t gonna let me die, and I started hollerin’ and blubberin’ right there like a baby. I got so upset I’m afraid I couldn’t repeat to you all the Devil said, but I remember him tellin’ me that some folks are picked before they even born to carry all the bad mojo in the world. These folk’re picked to bear all the bad shit other folk do to themselves and they got no choice but to see it through till they allowed to die. He said some folks got so much bad luck that it’s contagious almost. It blows off people like steam from a gunshot wound. He said that was me. He said I was picked to carry the weight—all the bad karma, he said. He said I’m to ride in my boxcar and bring all my bad karma to folks don’t deserve it. He said I’ma ride my boxcar until God sees fit to let me die.
My train been all over the place since—the whole continent, I reckon. Lotsa folks died when I showed up. It’s a damned thing, but ain’t nothin’ I can do. There ain’t tellin’ no to the Devil—but it ain’t even the Devil’s doin’. Fate’s, I guess.
Well, my story’s done, but I got one last piece of advice for ya’ll to keep handy: Keep your ears peeled for my loco’s wailin’ whistle in your town. If you look out your window and you see my train, I gotta tell you it’s too late to start runnin’…but you’ll have just enough time to make your peace. I’ll have the Devil on my back when you see me, but I’m only givin’ him a ride. Really, he’s come for you.