A Sunburned Country

Finalist in the 'Top Secret 2016' competition

Jim stirred. The afternoon sun peered in through the opened side-door of the boxcar. Dust and shavings of timber kicked up in the wind and danced together against the sun. Jim sat upright, the dreams of his afternoon kip already forgotten. For Jim, dreams seemed funny things, some you remember and others you forget. Strange, that was Jim thought. Uninterested, he focused his eyes, gazing out towards the blur of greens and yellows that flickered past. He couldn’t make out where he was but figured he’d be close to the border of Missouri by now.
The sunburned country was flat, stemming out to a vast horizon bordered only by a milky, blue sky. Lines of hackberry and oak trees sat scattered along the way, drawn and weathered in the mid-summer sun. Life was pleasant this time of year Jim thought. It was real pleasant just to sit there, on his own, in the boxcar as it rattled straight along the sunburned country. It made him feel funny thinking of that; a lot of things made him feel funny when he rode the rails alone. It wasn’t a weird funny but a friendly one, he was with himself and that was mighty fine.
Maybe he’d go and get a drink later when he pulled up close to town. He felt like liquor, watered down and clean, just the way he used to have it. It had been a while since Jim had been into town. He’d learnt recently that he preferred the country and what little it offered. He’d hum to himself sometimes, remembering drabs of old folk verses he once knew, “Ain’t nuin’ gonn’ to’ cheat yer’ in da’ cuntry, ain’t nuin’ at all”.
Now awake, Jim got to his feet and moved over to his bag that was bundled in the corner of the boxcar. For what seemed like a brief moment, but in reality was almost two days, Jim had called the small boxcar home. Its steel walls and wooden floorboard were bleak but the sweet Midwest air and long summer days made up for what little it offered.
The drag roared forward, skimming along the flat, grass-parched tracks. Jim holding all he owned over his shoulder moved to the open side-door. Breathing in heavy he closed his eyes and raised his face to the sun. It was a fine day to do nothing. The falling sun swam in his mind and danced under the cool shade of his eyelids. It never made sense to Jim how the lights twisted and oscillated like that. Opening his eyes to the sky Jim looked up the freight.
“Gess’ we ar’ don’ here,” Jim’s own voice made him jump a little.
The freight slowed, turning sharp round the corner into the shade of trees. Jim prepared himself for the jump; he lowered his body height and kept his feet strong.
He’d be well past the border by now. ‘Missouri’s a swell place,’ Jim thought.


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