Hobo Stew

by Roy Wilson

My dad sent me an army knife for my birthday today.  My grandmother looked at it and said, "Well, your dad was just as excited about his first knife, too.  I do believe he was nine years old, just like you, Buddy, when Grandpa gave it to him."  She shook her head and continued, "For the life or me, I can't understand why boys and men set such store by pocket knives."  She put the last of the dishes away and smacked me lightly on the behind as we left the kitchen together.

Grandma's house is in the same small railroad town were my mom and dad grew up.  I was born here. Now, I live with my grandmother because my mother died when I was little and my dad, who used to run Grandpa's hardware store in town, is a soldier somewhere in Europe.

"Would you like a birthday cake or would you prefer peach pie after supper tonight?"  Grandma had a smile for me as she asked and I knew she would enjoy making either one, but I also thought the cake would be more expensive.  We already had peaches growing on a couple of trees.

Turning toward the door, I said, "let's have pie.  If Dad were here, that's what he would like."  Outside, in the back yard, I thought about going down to my friend Charlie's house and showing him my new knife, but then I saw Ginger, the gentle collie who lived a few doors away.

"Buddy, Buddy where are you?"  My grandmother's voice found me in the alley behind the garage where I was scratching Ginger's ears and tummy.  Ginger had been in confinement for several weeks, and it looked like this was her first day to roam again.  She had all four of her new puppies with her, proud as punch and showing them off to anyone who wanted to see.  Actually, she was old Mister MacDougal's dog, but all the kids on the block thought she was theirs.

"Buddy," my grandmother's voice again.  "Buddy Nelson."  I couldn't ignore it any longer.

"Yes, Grandma?"  Giving Ginger a final pat, I picked up one of the pups and put my head around the corner of the garage where Grandma could see me.

"I want you to go to the store for me.  If I'm going to make some pies for after supper tonight I'll need some sugar."  She stood at the back door of the kitchen, screen slightly ajar, and held out some coins and a pink coupon from the ration book.

"Do you want anything else, Grandma?"  I crossed my fingers as I asked because I got to keep any pennies that were part of the change.  I knew that sugar cost a quarter.  "Yes I want a can of Crisco, too.  Now hurry off with you so I can let those pies cool most of the day."

I didn't know what Crisco cost, so I didn't know if I wanted to hurry or not, but I really didn't have anything else to do.  As I walked down the alley I was thinking there were four things people in this town didn't like: Hitler, Tojo, bums and ration books.  You have to use different color coupons from the ration books to buy different things.  Things like meat and gasoline and shoes.   1944 is turning out to be a hard year.  Everyone says there's hard times for most folks.

I was still carrying one of the puppies as I walked and Ginger, grinning like any proud new mother, joined me.  The three other little fur balls tumbled along beside us.  I thought how each one of those pups must have eleventy 'leven names cause every kid in the neighborhood calls 'em by a different name.  Mister MacDougal promised to choose names soon.

We didn't get very far up the alley before I stopped dead.  I could see a man near the end of the alley sitting with his back against Miz Potter's rickety fence.  He had a dirty bundle tied to a walking stick beside him and looked like he might be a hobo.  Hobos will often do odd jobs in the neighborhood, but they never work full time.  They don't mind working for a few hours, but that's about the limit.  That's the difference between them and tramps.  The tramps who come through our town sometimes stay several weeks if the job lasts that long.  I decided this one was probably from the overgrown piece of vacant land at the other end of the alley, the place my grandmother called a hobo jungle.  It wasn't far from the Southern Pacific railroad yards and an assortment of men drift in and out of our neighborhood as they find the little campsites under the trees down there.  Sometimes the kids on the block go down there to watch.  We never actually go in the jungle though, it's kind of creepy and scary.  Instead, we always go to Charlie's house.  Charlie has a great big pepper tree in his backyard with a huge branch hanging over the fence.  The branch is way up high and hangs out over the largest and most popular campsite in the whole place.  It serves as our lookout post.  Most of us have learned to tell the difference between hobos, tramps, bums, and bindle stiffs.  The bindle stiffs are strange men who don't associate with the others very much, and they always seemed to have a great many things they carry with them.  When my dad was home he told me they were a little touched.

"Hey, kid, do you live around here?" The man in the alley stood up as he asked the question.   Dirty and skinny, he had a mean look that gave me a shiver.  "Yes, sir," I answered as I stopped and stood about fifteen feet away.

"Do you know who this fence belongs to?"  He was pointing to the place where Miz Potter's fence joined with Mister and Miz Watson's.  There was a symbol scratched there, a triangle with a cross above it.  The last hobo who came down this alley had explained it to me saying that the triangle indicated an apple or maybe a sandwich could be had, but the cross meant a man down on his luck would have to listen to a talk about Jesus.  Miz Potter was always talking and singing about Jesus.  Right beside that scratching, on Mister Watson's side, was another symbol - a square next to a vertical line.  The bottom of the line ended at a half circle.  It was supposed to be a shovel and it meant a lot of hard work, but the square told them they would get a good square meal.  The Watson's cook, Hallie, would never give anyone less than he could possibly eat in three helpings.  "Which fence do you mean, Mister?"  He pointed to Miz Potter's as I stood there.  I decided he wasn't a hobo after all.  He was a bum.  Bums never like to work and they steal things.  My grandmother doesn't like bums, but she always feeds the hobos who will weed the victory garden or clean out the garage.

Before I could answer him, the skinny man said, "Where you going with those fat little puppies, boy?"  He squinted and tried to smile as he said it, but it made his face look horrible.  His teeth were rotten and a tooth was missing.  In answer to his question I silently pointed to the open back door of Mister Ryckmann's small grocery store.  It was still a few doors down, near the entrance to the alley.  I considered the distance to the store while I was mindful of the coins in my pocket.  I had to go past him.

The man stood up and said, "Well, I'll just walk down there with you.  Maybe you got enough money to buy us both a soda pop?"  I shook my head and continued down the alley.   "No, sir, I don't."

Putting the puppy on the ground, I broke and ran the last few yards to the store's rear entrance.  I looked back as I went inside and saw the bum squat down to pet the puppies.  They were crowded around him, licking his hand.  I waited a long time in the store, wondering if he would still be there when I was ready to go.  Mr Ryckmann was busy so I read one of the comic books on the magazine rack, then looked into the alley.  He wasn't there.

When I got outside Ginger was tied to the fence with a short piece of twine I'd seen in Mister Ryckmann's trash.  She was whining while two of the puppies bounced around us.

Where were the others?  Sarge and Duchess were missing.  I whistled for them a couple of times as I untied Ginger.  When she was loose, I watched her run back and forth, still whining, as I called the names of the two missing pups.

My mouth was too dry to whistle any more.  I knew where those two puppies were.  I knew what had happened to them.  They were going to be puppy stew!

Last summer Judy's little terrier had disappeared.  Bugsy and his brother Mikza with some other neighborhood kids had found the skin and some of the bones down at the hobo camp.  Nobody was going to tell Judy, but that stupid kid named Herman, who lives around the corner, told her one day when he was mad at her.  She cried all week, just like we knew she would.

Anyway, my grandmother said it wasn't good to know what went into a hungry man's soup.

"Charlie!  Hey, Charlie!"  I stood in the front yard and yelled for Charlie to come out of his house.  I was dancing first on one foot and then the other as I waited.  I had practically thrown Grandma her change after dumping the sugar and Crisco on the kitchen counter as I raced past her and now Charlie was taking his own sweet time coming to the door.

"Hi, Buddy, whad'ja want?"  Charlie had a sandwich in his hand even though it was still only mid-morning.  Charlie was the fattest kid on our block.

Quickly, I told him what had happened as we headed for the pepper tree in his backyard.  We were up there maybe twenty minutes and I was getting antsy before the skinny bum showed up. Charlie and I were both holding our breath as we watched him take the two puppies out of his bundle.  He tied them with a piece of the same twine he had used on Ginger, and then placed a large rock on the loose end.  The dogs didn't seem to mind and simply rolled over one another as they jumped and played.  He watched them a few minutes, even petted them, then walked a little way down the railroad tracks to gather coal clinkers.  A big stew pot has been in that camp for as long as I can remember.  It hangs on a long, iron rod over a circle of stones.  The men who gather in the camp at evening time bring vegetables and other things to put in it.  They occasionally get one of Grandma's chickens, but it's been some time since Judy's little dog was the main course.

It looked like the two puppies would be safe until evening, so Charlie and I scrambled back to his yard to decide what to do.  After a few minutes we had a plan and while Charlie went back inside, I ran home.

When Grandma heard about the bum taking Ginger's puppies, she put her arms around me and whispered that it was going to be all right.  I hugged her real tight and couldn't say anything else for a few minutes.  Inside, I felt both excited and sad at the same time. When I explained what Charlie and I had decided to do, her eyes glistened and I thought I saw a wet spot on her cheek.  Without another word, Grandma turned toward the kitchen and started her part of our plan.

As I placed the pies in my Red Flyer wagon, she said, "you be careful and stay out of sight.  Let Charlie do all the talking.  You hear, Buddy?"

A few minutes later I cut across Charlie's front lawn with two steaming peach pies, both of them fresh out of the oven.  Charlie sat on his porch pulling on a long stick of black licorice and gave me a thumbs up sign, letting me know that everything was still okay.  I pulled the wagon to the backyard and watched as Charlie climbed the pepper tree again.  My voice was a hoarse whisper as I handed the peach pies to him and said, "you wait until I'm out of sight in the woodshed before you call him, okay?"  Charlie nodded and I ran for the shed.  The back wall of the woodshed was part of the fence separating Charlie's yard from the jungle.  There was a broken board in the back which provided me with a good sized hole to watch from.  Just as I flopped on the floor and looked out, I heard Charlie's yell - "Hey, Mister!"   I couldn't see anyone and wondered if Charlie did.  "Hey, Mister!"  Charlie called louder and I saw the big cardboard box move.  The tied-up puppies were sleeping nearby.  A lot of the men who used the camp slept in cardboard boxes, usually with newspaper for covers.

It was him!  Still on his hands and knees, he stuck his head out of the box and looked up at Charlie.  Sleepily, He replied, "Huh?"

"Hey, Mister, would you like to trade those puppies for couple of delicious peach pies?"  Charlie held up one of the pies as the man scrambled to his feet.  "They just came out of the oven."

"Well, I don't know, boy.  These are a couple of real fat little fellers."  The man walked over and stood under the tree limb where Charlie sat.  He was a tall man and could easily reach one of the lower limbs, but I knew charlie was too high for him to do anything.  "Besides, if I give y'all the dogs, how do I know I'll git those pies?"

"Well, Mister, if you'll push the puppies into that hole in the fence, and keep your hand on the rope you got'em tied with, I'll put the pies on that real big branch below me and climb down while you hold onto the puppies."  Charlie was as glib as I knew he would be.  "After I'm down, you can let go of the rope and be over to the pies before I could climb back up again.  Does that sound fair?"

The man rubbed the stubble on his chin, apparently thinking it over.  Charlie held up one of the pies and tilted it toward the man.  Turning, and without another word, the bum went over to the sleeping pups and picked them up.  I slid back away from the hole in the wall and waited silently as he approached.  My heart was stuck in my throat and beat so loudly I just knew he would hear it.

"Okay, boy, put the pies on that lower limb where I can reach 'em and climb down."  He was only a few feet away from me as he spoke, the pups still in his arms.

"No.  First you got to put the little dogs inside the shed.  You can hold onto the rope while I get down."

I could hear him swearing to himself as he got down on one knee.  My grandmother would have hit me with a broom for using such words.  I let my breath out slowly as he bent over to the hole.

"All right, put the pies down there.  I'm puttin' 'em inside." Sarge and Duchess were suddenly thrust inside, the rope still around them.  From the dark interior I saw the man turn his back on Charlie and quickly tie the rope around a large nearby bush.  He stood up and started for the pies.

Fatso Charlie couldn't move very fast and the skinny man had the pies down and out of the tree before Charlie could even take a step toward me and the pups.  The bum placed the pies on the ground and then suddenly came running back toward the shed.  Long before Charlie could reach the door, he was on his stomach beside the fence and had a dirty hand inside the hole.  He was yanking hard on the rope again, hoping to get the little collies back as well.

The puppies were safe in my arms.  It had taken only a moment to cut the heavy grocer's twine from around their necks with my new army knife.

Mister MacDougal was really impressed when Grandma told him the story of how Charlie and I had rescued Sarge and Duchess.  He asked if we would like to keep them, and of course Charlie and I were quick to accept.  Sarge is my dog, now, and Charlie gave Duchess a dumb name I don't like.  He calls her Salty.

Oh, and another thing, Grandma didn't waste any of her rationed sugar.  She used salt in those pies.



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