James was just beginning his journey on a long cargo train that started out at dawn, a worn but beautiful rosewood guitar securely strapped upside-down to the back of his pack; he had spent the night in the quiet Arizona railroad town, in an inconspicuous ditch, before waking to find his train idling at the station. He hopped on to the train as it tiredly eased into the first motions of its run, and with practiced moves he pulled himself into the half-empty gondola car, dropping himself cross-legged into a vacant corner of the hold. As he settled down, he heard the reddish-golden bell-tones from the town’s only church, chiming sweetly in the morning air. James beamed in contentment, and glanced around the car.
There were four other men, silent and staring, all with beards of varying scruffiness and ragged clothes of varying grunginess; though they all sat apart and had not known each other until a few minutes ago, they appeared to have immediately gotten used to one another, so as to focus their attention to this strange newcomer sitting in the corner, who smiled dreamily and wore a cheap, clean black-and-white suit. James carefully unstrapped his guitar and pulled it forward to rest on his legs, continuing to smile at the hobos as he tuned it. As the freight train picked up speed, James spoke.
“You boys ever been to Mexico?” he asked. His answer was a continued silence as the men sat watching him, swaying slightly with the train.
“I spent the last year walking around that country. Nearly got killed by bandits in the hills outsida ol’ Oaxaca, and was waylaid by a Wailing Ghost on the moonlit banks of the Río Lerma.” As he talked, James began to softly strum his guitar with long fingers, his wiry arms cradling the instrument. Though he was much younger than the others, they could not help but hang on to his every word.
“But what really got me was the shamans down there— the old Indian doctors. They’d be lookin’ like regular white-haired old men, but if you can finally get them talkin’ they’ll tell you how to hear the cactus sing, or what it means for an eagle to play with a desert coyote.” He was playing fluid now; gentle and haunting, with many open notes which he let resonate and ripen until they sank back into the stream of melody. The hobos had never encountered such raw, tender music in all their individual wanderings, and each seemed mesmerized by the hypnotic tune. The closest hobo to James even closed his eyes, leaning back into the iron cargo crates next to him.
“It was one of those shamans down there who told me his secrets. He lived in Sonora, south o’ tha Mojave. He told me of tha beasts said to live deep in tha valley deserts. Wolf-like, Bear-like, he said nobody ever knew how they would appear to be, but get within a mile o’ them and they’d kill ya.” He paused to give a few extra bended notes, which wailed, quivering, and broke like a cracking voice. The finger-picked music went on.
“My shaman said his people learned long ago that the only way to soothe a beast was with music. So whenever one o’ them would go into the valleys to gather herbs, they’d take a flute with them. If a beast approached, they played a song and the beast’d get on its hind legs and dance away.” The train shuddered a moment, throwing James’ song briefly off-tune, but he continued as though he didn’t notice. The listeners still sat unmoving, except for the Closest Hobo, who opened his eyes and resumed his watching.
“So I had the idea of going to the West, rambling through the Sierra Nevadas. Figure I got this here guitar, so I oughta live for a few months as minstrel to the creatures of the California wilderness!” He leaned back to his corner, grinning broadly, still playing. As he gazed absent-mindedly at the ceiling of the train car, his river flow of notes slowly became a trickle of idle chords, and he eventually turned back to the hobos.
“So boys,” James said brightly, “What’re your names?” He looked at the man furthest from him, straight across the gondola car. The vagrant shifted under his stained woolen blanket.
“Potter the Bum,” he grunted, scratching the underside of his chin. James smiled and tipped his hat at him then turned a little left to the next farthest hobo.
“Cainan the Bum,” he mumbled. His duffle bag was at his feet, and he sat slightly tilted back, resting on his hands. James smiled and tipped his hat, then again turned a little left.
“Rueben the Bum,” said the next man, a sleepy smile playing on his face. He was lying on his stomach, his rucksack in front as a pillow. James smiled and tipped his hat, then again turned a little left.
“Moises the Bum,” said the Closest Hobo, still leaning into the crate to his left and resting a hand on the pack to his right. James smiled and tipped his hat.
“So, the Bums Moises, Rueben, Cainan, and Potter,” James said. He spent the next few hours wresting their histories from them, though none seemed willing to share.