"Come out with your hands up!"
Why did I always get caught?! Everybody else said riding the rails was so easy! They said it was only a one in a million chance you would get caught. So why did it keep happening to me? That police officer looked pretty mad, and I did not want to get shoved around by the barrel of his gun. What if he accidentally pulled the trigger?!
"Get out here now, boy! My finger's really itching to pull this trigger, you know. I've got no patience for the likes of you!"
So I climbed out. As I first suspected, he shoved that gun into the middle of my back so hard I almost keeled over, and I knew I was going to have a nasty bruise there. He just kept shoving, and even I dreaded the hard floor of the jail I would no doubt be spending the night. I would be in so much pain I would not be able to sleep.
"How many times do I have to tell you bums that you have to pay to ride the trains? The reason this country's in a depression is because of you stinking hoboes."
Naturally, after this outburst, I was fuming, and I almost started spouting some pretty interesting things, but I caught myself just in time. Foul language would not help my escape. Sometimes flattery worked though.
"Sir, did you know that –" I didn't get to finish. The man was obviously in a bad mood.
"I'll take none of your impudence, boy! Now walk and stop talking!"
At that point, I put Plan B into action. I sighed looking as dejected as I could. I let my eyes start tearing up, and I tried to look as young and pathetic as possible. My steps slowed, and I stumbled, falling on my face. I got up, completely muddy, my tears flowing freely now, but I still didn't say anything. The policeman rolled his eyes, but he didn't shove as hard. The next time I stumbled and fell, I got up facing him. I brought my clasped hands up to my chest, as if I was about to beg him to give me a minute, and then I completed my act. I dropped my jaw and pointed behind him screaming, "IT'S JOHN DILLINGER!HELP!" That got the man's attention. He immediately jumped around, his gun drawn, looking for the infamous 'Jesse James' of our time. Meanwhile, I ran as if the devil himself was nipping at my heels.
The officer caught on pretty quick though. He wheeled around and made a giant lunge for me. Unfortunately for him, a large rock tripped him up, and he fell… into the mud. He came up spluttering and swearing and then squelched around, trying to clean his eyes. I ran into the trees, desperate for cover. The police officer dragged himself up and came after me. Just as he reached the edge of the woods however, another policeman shouted at him.
"What are you doing, Officer Lansing?" The man following me flinched visibly at this question, but then he turned and walked back towards his superior.
"I caught another hobo on the train, Sir, and I-"
"Lansing, we have more important things to worry about- Now get back to your post!"
Lansing hurried away, and the other man followed him, still shouting.
Just then, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I whirled around, my fists ready. But it was only a little girl. We stared at each other for a moment.
"Anna! Anna girl!" An older boy, maybe 17, came running towards the girl. Pulling her away, he glared at me, and I realized my fists were still up. Quickly I lowered them.
"Sorry! You caught me by surprise." I smiled at them but the boy still looked at me warily. "I'm Riley. You must be Anna." I said, waving at Anna. She smiled, blushed, and hid her face in the boys' legs. She looked about 5. Turning to the boy, again I said, "I'm Riley." I stuck out my hand. He looked hesitantly at me for a moment and then slowly shook my hand.
"I'm Rhythm," he said. "And this is Anna."
"That's an interesting name." I smiled good naturedly at him. "Where'd you get it?"
A quick grin broke out on Rhythm's solemn face. "I like jazz."
Anna grinned at me from behind Rhythm. The older boy seemed to relax and turned to her. "It's all right Anna. He won't hurt you." Then Anna slowly stuck her hand out for me to shake, but I raised her hand, and kissed it.
"You're funny," she whispered, laughing at me from behind her dark eyelashes. Her black hair was cut short around her chin.
"Are you new here?" Rhythm asked, his curiosity obvious.
"I wasn't supposed to be new here," I sighed. "I was heading farther east than Chicago. I probably would have been in Cincinnati by now if that stupid bull hadn't decided to stop the train and shove me in the mud." I was trying to make light of it, but Anna immediately looked worried.
"Are you hurt? Is it bloody?"
I patted her head. "Don't worry, Anna. I'm alright." "But, Rhythm," I said, "Do you have a place I could sleep just for tonight?"
Rhythm gazed at me for a moment, as if he was searching me, making sure I wasn't a threat. "Why don't you come back to the jungle with Anna and me?" He knelt down and let Anna climb on his back and then gestured for me to follow him.
For every step he took, I had to take two. After ten minutes of walking, I started to get a stitch in my side. We didn't talk much; Rhythm was naturally quiet, and I didn't have the breath. Anna looked as if she had fallen asleep, her legs locked around Rhythm's middle. Ten more minutes of walking, and we reached the hobo jungle.
The place was nothing like I expected. Instead of a busy, crowded tree city, I saw only a few tents amidst some scraggly trees, a couple of campfires, and a smattering of people. A lady was stirring some stew in a big black pot. I could smell it from where I was standing, my stomach growled in response.
The sky was darkening when we reached Rhythm and Anna's tent. There were two blanket rolls inside and not much else.
"You're welcome to sleep in the tent with us."
"Oh, no, I don't want to crowd you. I'm perfectly comfortable sleeping outside. I've slept in worse conditions. It'll be a feather bed to me." I smiled, and before Rhythm could argue I threw myself down by the fire nearby. Rhythm frowned and shook my shoulder.
"It's not time for bed yet! Come on, let's eat dinner!" It turned out that even though they didn't have any money, the hoboes were willing to share what they did have with others. After we ate the delicious stew, and Anna was asleep in the tent, Rhythm and I sat by the burning coals and talked.
"Anna's not my little sister. I found her huddled in a bush, crying, with no one - so I've taken care of her ever since, Riley." Rhythm paused. "Well, I need her too - she's my family now." He gazed into the fire. I started talking.
"My family got kicked out of their house when they couldn't pay the rent, and they decided to move west. I was just another mouth for them to feed, so I ran away. Figured I should start looking out for myself. I was going to ride the rails all the way to Boston, Cincinnati, but that copper had to go and stop my train. That was a great John Dillinger trick I played on him though."
"What'ya do?" Rhythm asked, curious to hear how I'd escaped. The conversation turned then to Dillinger - the great gangster of our time.
"You know there's a reward offered for his capture, don't you? Dead or alive."
We stayed up late, talking into the night, and then I heard birds making a racket and realized it was morning. Rhythm was gone, but Anna was sitting next to me, waiting for me to wake up, I smiled at her.
"Rhythm went to get Carlo and Fabri. He'll be back soon." I had no idea who she was talking about, but I just nodded along.
"You want breakfast?" That sounded good. I nodded again, this time a lot more eagerly. She giggled at my excited face, and helped me up. We each had a roll and shared an apple, but when I tried giving a few coins to the hobo who gave us the food, she just shook her head and told me to keep them. Now that really confused me. But I didn't have any time to think about it because just then Rhythm walked up with two dark-haired kids.
"Riley, this is Carlo," Rhythm said pointing to a boy who looked about my age. "And this is Fabrizia." A girl who looked slightly younger stepped forward. Carlo was tall, a lot taller than me, even a couple inches taller then Rhythm. Actually, even Fabrizia was a few inches taller then me. I hate being short!
"So this is Riley. Anna found him last night, and he's staying for a bit." The newcomers waved and smiled at me.
"We're going into town now, Riley. Lots of work to do." He turned and pointed at Carlo and Fabrizia. "Their family is going to lose their house in two weeks if they don't pay off the mortgage, but they were robbed a few days ago." I noticed both Carlo and his sister looked cheerful despite their misfortune. Rhythm turned to the Italians. "Who's taking Anna today?"
Fabrizia raised her hand. "I am. We're going to wash some clothes, and then Carlo is coming from his newspaper job, and we'll have a picnic in the park. You and Riley can come, too, when you're done working." Just then Anna came running up, skidding to a stop in front of me, giggling. "I told you Fabri was coming." Fabrizia and Anna skipped away from the camp. I turned to the boys.
"So, what should I do?"
Carlo and Rhythm looked at each other, raising their eyebrows, considering. I tried again.
"Can I do something productive, or do I have to watch you two talk in code all day?"
They laughed, and Carlo asked, "Well, what are you good at?"
"What d'ya mean?"
"Well," He went on, "I sell newspapers, and Rhythm here does yard work. My sister does washing. So what do you do?"
"Mmmm— I can do handstands and flips, and I- I can juggle." I started laughing. I sounded like a walking circus. And that's what they decided I should be.
"That'll work great! Just pick a busy street corner, and put on a show. Juggle, do flips, tell jokes, and oh, you'll need this." Rhythm handed me his hat.
"What's this for? This is yours!"
Rhythm smiled wryly. "Yes, I know, but unless you want to carry all your earnings in your hands, I suggest you take it." And so we set off for town, me hoping for an adventure.
Three days later I had made enough money to buy meals for a week. Making my way back to the hobo jungle, I was surprised when Rhythm ran up to me, breathless, a wild look in his eyes.
"Riley! Riley!" He grabbed my shoulders, and doubled over, gasping for air. I held him still.
"Calm down, Rhythm, it's alright. Calm down." But he pushed me away.
"You don't understand! I can't calm down! I have to tell you! There's no time!" I started worrying. Was Anna all right? She was with Rhythm today.
"I know who stole Carlo and Fabrizia's money!" Rhythm got out, clutching his middle.
"What?! How do you know? Who did it?"
"That's what I'm trying to tell you. Stop interrupting!" He took another breath and went on. "I was planting some flowers under my boss's window - and then I heard harsh voices, coming from inside. My boss said, 'John, after the Italian family, you robbed that bank on the other side of town. Too much heat right now. Time for you and I to move back to Indiana for a little while.'" Rhythm stopped, but I wanted to hear more, "What'd they say then?"
"Nothing, Riley! That's the problem. Suddenly two faces were peering at me from the window, and one of them was John Dillinger! I yelped and ran away as fast as I could, but they came after me. What should we do?"
John Dillinger - that probably meant Rhythm's 'boss' was Homer Van Meter, Dillinger's nasty sidekick. So the two of them could appear at any moment? I said the first thing that came to mind. "Hide!"
When Van Meter came around the corner we were ready. I headbutted him in the stomach just as Rhythm punched him in the face. The man didn't have a chance. But somehow he was still conscious, and even though we outnumbered him, we knew it was going to be rough. For the next five minutes we circled and punched and dodged and kicked and bit and finally we caught him off guard. I pretended I was going to make a run for it, and as Van Meter's head turned to Rhythm, I lashed out with my foot. Van Meter didn't have a chance to respond. He went down hard, and we were just about to celebrate when John Dillinger walked around the corner, a gun in his hand.
Seeing the man who was wanted all over the country - the man who was worth $10,000 in reward money for capture - knocked all thoughts from my brain. Dillinger smiled real sweetly at Rhythm and me, pointing the gun back and forth between us.
"Which one, which one? Should I pick the stupid, eavesdropping American who started this all, or his skinny Irish friend? Which one, which one?" The man was obviously going to take his time. Not that I'm saying I wanted him to choose and shoot already; it's just, cocky bad guys really annoy me.
"Drop the gun or I'll shoot!" came a loud, harsh voice, "Put your hands on your head and keep them there." I thought I'd gone crazy because Dillinger's lips didn't move when those words were spoken. Dillinger tensed, his eyes growing wide and angry. That's when I realized it was Carlo! But I didn't let on; Dillinger obviously thought it was a cop. I certainly wasn't going to be the one who spoiled that pretty picture.
"I said drop the gun, or I'll shoot!" Dillinger suddenly pointed his gun at me and said, "If you shoot me, I'll shoot the kid!" I decided I should be ready to leap out of the way of a bullet.
"Put it down NOW!" I could heard the authority in Carlo's voice, and I could imagine him shoving that gun into Dillinger's back even harder.
"NO!" yelled Dillinger, and then there was gun fire. I jumped to my left, and suddenly there was a burst of pain in my right hand. I looked down and saw blood, and there was Dillinger, lying on the ground, Carlo standing nearby looking shocked, and a policeman putting cuffs on the bad guy.
"Riley… Riley…" I opened my eyes slowly. Rhythm, Carlo, Fabrizia, and Anna were all there, hovering. I immediately sat up.
"What's the matter? Why is everyone standing around me?" I saw a white bandage on my hand. It all came back to me then- Rhythm eavesdropping, the fight, the gunshot. I shuddered, and Anna patted my shoulder.
"It's all right. That naughty man's going to jail, and you'll get better." She smiled at me. I signaled Fabrizia, pointing at Anna, and Fabrizia caught right on. "Anna, let's go make Riley some soup. I'm sure he's hungry." They left. I turned to the boys.
"What happened back there? Carlo, how did you get a gun? And where did the police come from? And how do the girls factor into it all?" '
Carlo laughed. "Slow down, Riley!"
"We'll explain," Rhythm said, "just give us a chance!" He cleared his throat. "All right, first, Anna saw those men chasing me, and she ran to tell Fabrizia. They went to the police, and told them about the 'naughty men' with guns, and that's how the police got there just in time."
Carlo began where Rhythm had left off. "And I never had a gun, Riley! I just shoved a stick in Dillinger's back and let him believe it was a gun." I had another question though.
"Did John Dillinger steal your money?"
Carlo nodded vigorously. "Yes, it was him all right. The police said he admitted it when he was questioned. He told them we were just one stupid Italian family. We got our money back though, plus the reward money. We're rich now, and you and Rhythm both get a big share of it." I smiled along with the other two boys.
"By the way, where am I?" Just then Fabrizia and Anna walked in.
"Have you told him?" She looked expectantly at them.
"Told me what?!" I yelled.
"Well," Carlo began, "my parents want you to know that you are going to be living in our house; which you're in right now. It will become your house as well. Anna and Rhythm will be living here too. We'll be one big family. And Anna will be able to go to school!" He paused, waiting for my reaction.
"Oh, and it's not really an offer. You have to say yes or… or else… we'll never speak to you again!" He harrumphed and sat back; knowing his job was done. I smiled at them. Life was working out better then I ever imagined.