A short while before boosting himself onto the moving train, Runny Walker was reading a book. At the end of each day, he enjoyed reading with his back propped against his favorite tree in the woods behind the house he shared with his older brother and mother. Soon, the sun would dip behind the barn and then lose its glow over the horizon ending the few waning minutes of daylight and solitude. Runny looked up from his reading as he heard the voices of two men approach the clearing at the tree line. He recognized one voice as that of his brother, Willie Junior. The men talked softly for a few seconds. Runny began to stand as he heard the men share a brief laugh. Then it happened. The man pulled a revolver from his overalls and shot Willie in the chest.
Runny stood, frozen behind the tree, and watched as the life drained from his brother, his hero, onto the muddy Mississippi Delta soil. His brief moment of absolute shock dissolved and he involuntarily jerked his hand toward his mouth in an attempt to stifle a gasp. He made a sound. The murderer looked Runny’s way. The man’s lopsided grin displayed crooked teeth that shone eerily in the dusky light. There should have been no witnesses. Runny knew this, and so did the man with the gun. The year was 1923. Runny was seventeen years old. The face of the murderer with the crooked grin was the stuff of nightmares for years to come.
Hopping trains was nothing new to Runny. He had done it many times before. This time was different. He would not return home. On the night that would change his life, he dashed along the gravel bed of the train tracks, parallel to the rolling boxcars. Timing his jump carefully, he launched himself headlong into an empty freight car as the train slowed at a bend on the outskirts of Mound Bayou, Mississippi.
He crawled and scooted to a corner of the dark boxcar and huddled there. The rushing air slipped through the slats of the walls on faint shafts of light from the clear moonlit sky. It created a ventilated cabin that would have been pleasantly cool, if he had not been shivering with anxiety. Fortunately, he had worn his only jacket when he left the house that morning. A different and colder climate was in his future.
Runny was leaving behind a Mississippi Delta that was tabletop flat to the horizon. It was verdant green in the spring and summer, then brown and white when the cotton was ripe in the fall. In the winter, the leftover cotton balls gave the brown stalks in the fields the look of snow. His destination was Chicago; a place that was brown and grey, made vertical by stone and steel.
He looked down at his copper-brown hands. They were grimy at the end of the long day. Every time he hopped a train, he got splinters in his palms. The freight car floor planks and rusted fittings of the train doors invariably scraped them raw. Today was no exception and he began to pluck the splinters. He was counting on those rough hands, and his capable brain, to help him maneuver his next steps and the rest of his life. Runny hunched further into the corner of the boxcar, insulating himself against the cold draft and the unknown, hopeful that he knew enough to survive.
One hundred miles later, the train eased into the rail yard in Memphis. Runny jumped from the train into the dirt and sawgrass tufts that bordered the tracks. As he did so, he reflexively looked over his shoulder. He knew they were looking for him. He brushed himself off as best he could and made his way to the ticket counter where he bought a ticket to Chicago’s Union Station. He had not dared to buy his ticket at the train station in Mound Bayou. There were too many big ears and loose lips hanging around the platform deck. He also knew it would have been a mistake to delay departing, even a few hours. Runny had to leave town in a hurry, without saying any goodbyes. He had seen too much that night. His only hope was to disappear.