5 minute read

"Freighthoppers" by Owen Schalk

A nickel a day was all Davis needed. Enough to buy a carton of eggs. While waiting between stations each night, he stoked a fire and dug the cast-iron pan out of his backpack and scrambled six eggs. He ate them with a wooden spoon he kept in his sock. Then he hopped a freight train and rode it to the end of the track. He cooked the rest of the eggs for breakfast and began his hunt for work.

Saint John to Vancouver: that was his route. He didn’t know the way, but as long as he was moving west he wasn’t worried. He worked whatever store or construction site or drought-starved farmstead was within an hour’s walk of the station and ducked out before dark, never again to lay his eyes on the floors he polished or the rooves he shingled or the heaps of dead grasshoppers he picked out of kitchen cupboards. All he asked was enough to buy a carton of eggs, and sometimes a pack of cigarettes. Water was a tertiary concern. If he needed, he could suck a stone.


The Prairies were a bust. There was little work for a farmhand besides sweeping up dust and insect husks, and nothing for a man like himself who hoped to start a farm of his own. It was all dirt and droughts and grasshoppers that sizzled like soda around your ankles. “Dirty Thirties” didn’t begin to cover it. There wasn’t a single thing that shined. The dust got in your pores until you were even sweating dryness. There was no stable employment out there for a man of the land. Maybe, he figured, things were different in BC.

He got off the train at Humboldt, Saskatchewan and asked the station manager if anything there still grew. He said no, but told Davis that the mayor of Plunkett was building a hospital and might need an extra hand. So Davis hitched a ride to Plunkett. The town was a sad cluster of houses and rusty combines a few kilometres to the south. The mayor gave him a nickel to paint the hospice. While he worked, he chatted with a guy from Manitoba named Jed Crutch. He was balding, round-faced, smiley-eyed. He used to own a wheat farm outside Selkirk until the drought turned his crops to sand. The way he described it sounded almost biblical: tsunamis of dust that levelled houses, tornados of grasshoppers that turned fields to stems in a heartbeat, and seas of leafless trees that looked like bone. There was no future out there, he said. The future was out west.

At the end of the day, Davis went to the Plunkett general store and bought a carton of eggs. Out back he saw Jed eating a loaf of bread. Davis started a fire and cracked all twelve eggs into the pan. Jed ate half, and Davis ate half of Jed’s bread. They hopped a train before sunset.

There was no door in the railcar so the wind poured in, carrying gales of dust and shrivelled flecks of wheat and springy pests they smacked with their shoes. There were three other freighthoppers in the car. Two were sullen, beige men who covered their heads with blankets and quickly fell asleep. The third was a tall, menacing man who cracked his knuckles when he walked. He strode to the corner where Jed and Davis sat and mumbled, “Fare’s two dollars.”

Jed and Davis looked at each other. They stood up. When the man threw a punch they dove forward and grabbed him under his arms. With a heave, they threw him into the howling whirl.

In the morning they were in Lloydminster, Alberta. Jed and Davis jumped out and asked around for work. They came back empty-handed. As they waited outside the station, stomachs grumbling, they noticed a man walk by carrying a slab of frozen meat. Shortly after came another. They investigated. A few blocks away they found a building with freezers for rent. Everyone who paid a monthly fee was given a key to one unit.

They talked to a man on his way inside. He had three keys: one was for his freezer, another for his mother’s, and the third was for his best friend’s. He was there to fetch their meat too. He went in, got what he needed, and on his way out Jed quietly slipped two of the keys from his pocket. The first freezer was empty. The second one held two steaks.

That evening they cooked the steaks behind a rundown gas station and waited for the train to Edmonton. They jogged alongside it until they found a car with a cracked door. Jed leapt in first and held out his hand. Davis grabbed it and lifted a foot onto the edge, but it slipped and he rolled under the train and the hot, squealing wheels crushed his skull. His body disappeared behind the railcar.

Jed gazed out at the sunset for a long time. Then he shuffled to the corner and sat down. A tall, menacing man came up to him. It was the same one they’d tossed out the night before. His face was bruised and his wrist was bent like it was broken. He held out his good hand and mumbled, “Fare’s four dollars.”

Jed looked at him. He sighed, rose, and rolled off the moving train into a barren wasteland where wheat once grew. He rose, groaning, and poked his shoulder to make sure it wasn’t shattered. He thought about going back to bury Davis, but he was too tired. Then he remembered the pan and made his way to the corpse. He took his dead friend’s backpack, slipped the spoon out of his sock, and slept that night on a mattress of dust and dead grasshoppers.