The Train Jumper

The Train Jumper

by Don Brown

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OUT OF WORK AND OUT OF LUCK. In Don Brown's The Train Jumper Ed "Collie" Collier encounters hobos, misers, racists, and even some kindness while riding the rails during the Great Depression.

Collie leaves home in search of his older brother, who has run off. Battling hunger, hostility, and wrathful weather, he meets an unlikely ally in a young drifter. They jump a freight train, joining thousands and thousands of young boys and men who try riding out the Great Depression by riding the rails.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466874367
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Publication date: 06/24/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 128
File size: 146 KB
Age Range: 11 - 14 Years

About the Author

Don Brown is the author of The Notorious Izzy Fink, praised by Kirkus Reviews in a starred review: "Short chapters, a brisk pace, lively dialogue and a compelling plot provide a totally engaging tale." He lives on Long Island, New York.

Don Brown’s books include The Notorious Izzy Fink, The Train Jumper, Kid Blink Beats the World, Mack Made Movies and Across a Dark and Wild Sea. He lives on Long Island, New York.

Read an Excerpt

The Train Jumper

By Don Brown

Roaring Brook Press

Copyright © 2007 Don Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7436-7


A train.

Gray smoke plumed from the locomotive. It rolled past, making a clattering, hissing, chugging racket.

I bounced on the balls of my feet. Boxcars followed, one after another, worn-out things painted dull brown, gray, and green, many with their side doors wide open. I spotted a likely one and darted after it, stumbling in the cinders. The boxcar's grinding wheels sounded like knives being sharpened. I came to the open boxcar door.


But I didn't.


I kept running. My legs tired and my lungs burned.

Trains don't have legs and lungs, and they never tire. It kept clack-clack-clacking forward, never slowing. The open boxcar pulled away. My chance was running away from me. With my last strength, I threw myself onto the train.

Only half of me made it.

My head and chest slammed onto the rough wood floor while my legs dangled from the opening. I was sure the train wheels were tickling my feet, and the thought of slipping beneath the train made my guts clench. I clawed the floor with my hands. Splinters stung my fingertips. But I felt myself sliding out. For an instant, I saw myself dropping beneath the train. Saw myself sliced in two.

I clawed harder.

Then hands grabbed my shirt and the seat of my pants and threw me into the boxcar like a sack of potatoes.

"Grab fer the handrails the next time, ya idgit," a voice said.

A scarecrow looked down at me, a tall, gray-haired man so skinny it looked as if his shabby shirt and pants were filled with sticks and not arms and legs.

"Thanks," I mumbled.

I caught my breath and rubbed the splinters from my fingers.

Scarecrow ambled to a corner of the boxcar, asking, "Ya got any grub?"

I thought the man was offering me food but quickly realized it was just the opposite.

"A couple of apples," I said.

The man held up his hands. I reached into my bag and tossed him one. He bit into it quickly.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"The same place yer going," Scarecrow said. "Somewhere else."

* * *

Six years ago, in 1928, Dad had gone to work at the lumberyard like he did every day, except this time a truckload of logs rolled onto him, killing him dead in a blink. I was just eight at the time. There was lots of crying from me, Mom, and my older brother. And then, more bad stuff happened, one thing after the other, each rolling down on us like those logs off that truck.

Dad's paycheck from the lumberyard ended when he did, so Mom took a job at the electric pump factory doing something in the sales office, but it didn't pay as good as Dad's job had, and money was tight. Mom yanked us out of the house I'd been born in and moved us into a smaller place. The faucets dripped, and the seams of the flowered wallpaper didn't line up. Me and Little Bill shared a bedroom.

Little Bill is my older brother. He and Dad had the same name, so people called them Big and Little Bill to keep from confusing everybody. They kept calling him Little Bill even after Dad died. Habit, I guess.

To everybody I was Edward, Ed, or Eddy. I hated them all. I liked Collie, the nickname my pal Davy made out of my last name, Collier.

The next year, in 1929, the stock market crashed. I don't know how a bunch of rich guys going bust in New York City should make a difference in Wisconsin, but it did. The Crash shut down the pump factory, shut down factories and shops all over the country. Mom lost her job just like everyone else. But she got lucky and found a part-time drugstore job, if, by lucky, you mean working for less than at the crummy pump factory.

Then Mom lost the drugstore job. No business, her boss explained, and he let her go. Our grocery tab got a lot longer, and the electric company shut off the lights. In arrears, they said, which is a fancy way of saying we didn't pay the bill.

Little Bill decided to quit school. After a few hours of standing in line with two hundred people waiting to fill fifty jobs at the newly reopened pump factory, he got to meet the guy doing the hiring, and it turned out to be an old pal of Dad's. The two had worked together years ago in the northern Wis- consin forests. When the guy found out Little Bill was the son of his old lumberjacking buddy, he hired Little Bill right off.

"You favor your old man," the guy told Little Bill, which he did.

Dad was a big guy with thick arms and giant shoulders. Little Bill was cut from the same pattern, except bigger. If Dad had lived, he would have had to look up at his son.

"You could swing a mean ax," the guy told Little Bill.

He would never have said that about me. I wasn't anything like Dad, favoring Mom instead: slight, slim, and with her straw-colored hair, too.

Little Bill going to work turned out to be another log of bad luck, but it didn't start out that way.

* * *

Little Bill's paycheck brought the lights back on. We ate good. Mom smiled more than she had since Dad died. And Little Bill was as sunny as a June day.

"Come on, Collie, get behind the wheel!" he'd said one Sunday after I'd helped him wash Dad's old Hudson.

"You pulling my leg?" I asked. I'd never driven before. He shook his head, grinning, and I climbed into the driver's seat.

"Here's the skinny. The buggy's got three speeds, and ya gotta push the gear shift in the right spot," he said, and with the engine off, he showed me where first, second, and third gear was. "But the only way to change gears is by pushing the clutch down with your foot. Give it a shot."

I worked the gears and clutch like he said.

"Here's the tough part," Little Bill explained. "As you let the clutch up, ya gotta give the engine some gas. Not too much and not too little. Just the right amount so the gears meet smooth. Then you can get going."

"How much is just right?" I asked.

"Can't really explain it. You just have to get a feel for it," he answered.

Getting the feel was no easy trick. I felt like a dumbbell. I stalled the engine again and again. The car lurched and staggered as I tried to get it rolling. But Little Bill didn't care. He squealed and giggled at every wobble and reel, like we were on a carnival ride.

After flubbing it again, I pounded the steering wheel and yelled, "What am I doing wrong?"

"Don't get your bowels in an uproar. Start her up again," Little Bill said. "Put her into first. Okay. Now let the clutch up. Slowly. Yeah, that's it. Give it some gas. Too much. Better. Keep the clutch going. And gas. That's it. That's it. That's it!"

We were rolling!

The two of us started laughing, and I forgot to steer. Little Bill had to yank the wheel and drive us around a parked car.

We went around the block a half-dozen times, laughing like hyenas the whole time, before Little Bill called it quits. Getting out of the car, he threw his arm around me.

"When can we do it again?" I asked.

"Sometime," he said.

But we never did.

* * *

One night after work, Little Bill came home stinking drunk.

He'd visited a saloon with a bunch of factory guys. He got drunk another night, and then another. Pretty soon, he showed up burping beer and talking loud all the time. Then he'd grab me for a wrestling match, which was less wrestling than him just bending arms and legs until I screamed.

"Aw, ya crybaby," he'd laugh, and Mom would have to slap him off me.

Mom finally blew up and they had an awful fight. Mom told Little Bill that it wasn't right for him to be drinking at seventeen. Wasn't right to hurt me. But Little Bill just screamed, "As long as I make the money, I'll do what I want!"

Mom sagged and stopped nagging him about the boozing.

After that, he went to work during the day and drank with his buddies at night. And I guessed things would have gone on like that forever if the workers at the factory hadn't called a strike.

"It's a freaking crime, taking advantage of tough times and expecting us to work for next to nothing," Little Bill explained.

He was probably right. But the strikers hadn't figured on a whole crop of other people who didn't give a hoot about low pay or strikes and were happy to have any kind of work. The factory hired them and dumped the strikers.

"Freaking scabs! Foreigners!" Little Bill spat, banging his fist onto the kitchen table. But I heard most everybody hired was local.

Little Bill came home soused that night, kicking open the door and screaming at Mom to make him a sandwich. She explained, "There's no bread, William."

He slapped the wall and stomped around the kitchen, cursing.

"It's late, Little Bill. Why don't you go to bed?" I said, trying to calm him down.

He grabbed my shirt with both fists.

"Don't ever tell me what to do!" he shouted, pushing his face close to mine.

"William!" Mom cried.

"Crybaby," he hissed, and tossed me like a rag to the floor.

One day, while throwing a ball in the air, I noticed our neighbor, Mr. Custer, struggling to tie a ladder to the roof of his old car. I gave him a hand lashing it down and helped him load the trunk with buckets and boxes.

"I'm painting a house for some extra dough. Ya wanna help? I'll pay ya," he said.

Eager to make some money, too, I hopped into the car and we headed off before I even had the chance to tell Mom. Afterward, he flipped me a buck!

"Edward!" Mom cried when I came home paint-splattered. She was going to rip me for ruining my clothes, but I cut her short when I held up a chicken I'd bought at the market. I told her my good news.

"And I got some dough left over," I said, handing the coins to her.

"You're a sweetheart!" she gushed.

Little Bill came in, and Mom told him the good news.

"Isn't it wonderful Edward can help the family?" she asked.

He grunted.

A few days later, I helped Mr. Custer again, which meant another chicken dinner.

"We're proud of you, Edward," Mom said.

"Yeah, you're a regular little breadwinner," Little Bill said with a sneer as he chowed down on a drumstick.

Afterward, he went to the bar where he and his drinking buddies were still celebrating the end of Prohibition a year earlier. Drinking was legal again. He returned home soused and grabbed me for a wrestling match. I ended up on the floor, all twisted up.

"Say Uncle," he teased, squashing my nose down into the rug.

"Uncle," I squeaked.

"I can't hear you."


I was seeing stars when Mom found us and chased Little Bill off me.

"What a stinking mama's boy!" he said.

When I worked for Mr. Custer again, I gave all the money to Mom and didn't bother getting a chicken.

A few days later, I was leaving the house as Little Bill drove up. Getting out of the car, he said, "Ran into old man Custer. Knocked back some beers with him down at the Dew Drop. Asked me to give him a hand with the paint jobs. Going out on a job with him tomorrow."

He walked into the house. On fire, I chased him.

"You creep!" I shouted.

"Whadaya talking about?" he asked.

"My job! You stole my job!" I yelled.

"You don't know nothing about stolen jobs," he hissed, grabbing my arm and twisting. "Nothin'!"

He yanked my arm hard.

"My arm," I squeaked, turning myself so my shoulder would have a bit more give.

But he cranked it more, until electric pain shot from my elbow and I screamed.

After the sling came off, I was good as new, except when my pal Davy and I had a catch. My elbow stung when I threw. But it was no big deal, it wasn't like the Yankees were knocking down my door to join Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Little Bill didn't bother me much after that, other than calling me a dope or a mama's boy. But one night changed everything.

* * *

He came home on a bender, slamming the door open and stomping into the house.

"I had that friggin' job. I had it!" Little Bill bellowed, stalking back and forth like a caged leopard.

"Job?" Mom asked.

I guessed it was another chance for a job that ended in a dead end.

Little Bill didn't answer, instead slapped his hand flat against the battered kitchen table. Then he opened the icebox and rooted inside, clumsily knocking a bit of butter onto the floor. Slamming the icebox shut, he shouted, "Ain't there ever anything to eat?"

Mom bent to pick up the butter just as Little Bill stumbled toward the cupboards. The two collided, sending Mom flying into the cabinets and crashing to the floor.

"Ma!" I cried.

She touched her finger to a bleeding lip.

Little Bill stared.

"It's nothing. Nothing. A bump. An accident," she said.

I grabbed a dish towel and handed it to her. She dabbed her lip, repeating, "It's nothing. Nothing."

I turned to glare at Little Bill, but he was gone.

Good riddance, I thought to myself. But after three days, he was still gone and Mom grew frantic.

"He's probably off on a bender," I told her. "Probably holed up with one of his drinking buddies."

"Yes. That must be it," she agreed, kneading her hands.

It was Mr. Custer who brought us the news that Little Bill had run off.

"Little Bill came by a few nights ago. Said he was gonna join the CCC. I figured he'd squared it with you, otherwise I woulda told you right away," he explained to Mom and me.

"The CCC?" I asked.

"Yeah. Civilian Conservation Corps. Something Roosevelt came up with. Hires young guys to cut roads, clear trees, fight fires. Take care of the land. Kinda like an army of lumberjacks. Little Bill got all jazzed up talking about it."

"Where is it?'

"They got camps all over. Little Bill said something about a Colorado camp north of Grand Junction."

Mom shrank at the news.

I tried to comfort her and said, "I'll get work. I'm fourteen. Just about the age Little Bill started at the factory. I'll take care of us. We'll get by."

"It's not about money, Edward. It's losing William. He's ashamed and stubborn. He'll never come back. He's gone. First your father and now him. The family's breaking like a shattered plate," she said, and cried and cried.

That's when I decided to find him and bring him home.

* * *

Scarecrow finished the apple. Night fell and he went to sleep. I watched house lights twinkle in the distance for a long time, until I fell asleep, too.

I awoke in the morning. The train had stopped. The summer air was soft and warm. A shaft of pancake-colored light beamed through the freight's open door. Scarecrow stood there, spying out.

"The bulls got a darkie," Scarecrow whispered.

I peeked out.

Two large white men pinned a colored man against the side of a boxcar and smacked his head with a large flashlight.

"Nobody rides my railroad without a ticket! Ya hear that, boy?" one man grunted as he swung the flashlight again and again. "Ya hear that, boy?"

"The bulls will be busy with the darkie for a piece. Chance to beat it," Scarecrow laughed, lifting a canvas sack. He leaped out of the boxcar and sprinted into the brush.

Being left alone so suddenly made my heart race. I saw the colored man curled on the ground, holding his head and rocking back and forth. One of the white men pawed inside a tattered suitcase, spilling its contents over the cinders.

"Ya got any cash, boy?" the bull growled, while his partner stood to one side, a revolver held loosely in his hand.

A dozen hobos leaped from the other boxcars in ones and twos and dashed into the woods. Not knowing what else to do, I snatched up my bag, took an enormous gulp of air, and hightailed it into the weeds.

"Hey!" someone shouted.

I crawled through thick brush until the earth suddenly fell away and I slid into a stinking drainage ditch. Scrambling to my feet, I ran through trees. Small branches slapped my arms and face. I skidded to a halt at a large, grassy field flowered in the haze of a zillion flying bugs.

I saw men. Bulls with flashlights and revolvers? I threw myself flat and peeked out. A shabby lot of teenagers, young men, and a few gray-heads milled about a trashy campground. Damp clothes dried on low bushes, there for the want of a line. A small hand mirror dangled from a branch, reflecting the sudsy face of someone shaving. Sacks and suitcases, all the worse from wear, dotted the camp, companions to men and boys stretched or standing beside them.

Like a late-arriving passenger's at a bus stop, my showing up excited no one. A few heads turned toward me, measured me for a moment, and then turned away. Scarecrow was there, staring at a simmering stew pot. Ribbons of steam drifted up, tickling my nose with promises of meat and gravy. My empty stomach did somersaults.

Scarecrow noticed me staring at the pot and said, "Mulligan stew. Ya can take some if ya add some. Throw in a potato or some carrots. Then you'll be able to take a dip."

Two hobos came to the pot and dropped in turnips and celery. Scarecrow produced a potato from his sack and added it to the stew.

Get yourself a potato? Why didn't he just tell me to get myself a diamond stick pin.

I turned away, the bubbling pot too much of a torture to stay near to.

"Ah, hell," Scarecrow muttered. "Here."

He tossed me a potato.

"That's fer the apple last night, so don't go thanking me. We're even now," he explained. "Go ahead and drop 'er in."

I slid it into the simmering stew and took a seat alongside a dozen others circling the pot as if it were some kind of god.

The minutes dragged like they were crippled before the stew was cooked and plates and tins and spoons appeared from backpacks, suitcases, and bedrolls. Soon, everyone was eating.


Excerpted from The Train Jumper by Don Brown. Copyright © 2007 Don Brown. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Begin Reading,
Also by Don Brown,
About this Book,

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