Adventures of Cookie the Stray, Chapter 13
The Old Oak Tree
Rupert was Hot Dog Man’s real name, but he never cared for it. Instead he went by Rusty, a name that would have fit most of the workers at the plant all except the plant managers. They sat in air conditioned offices with glass windows through which they could watch the workers on the mill floor. They never felt the sting of filings that bit into skin and clothing cast off by the metal working equipment. Work clothes took on a reddish tinge after sweat and metal combined. Rusty got his name from wearing the same outfit day after day, stains and all, washing it on Friday nights at the laundromat behind the A & P store.
He was a hard worker and gave a good day’s effort for his wages. No other job or trade ever satisfied him like working the night shift at the plant had done. That slice of happiness lasted only until old man Barton sold off the plant to foreigners. Soon, the plant’s long-time employees were let go without ceremony and the new owners hired in their own people for lower wages. The exchange took its toll on the small community whose loyalties to their own were compromised by the need to earn a living. Cafés, service stations, hardware and dry goods stores, and other small businesses no longer enjoyed the patronage of their old friends that were out of a job. They quickly looked after their own interests and welcomed their new patrons. The faces changed but the money was still green.
Rusty had never taken another full time job although he’d had many offers over the years. The closest he ever came to the joy he’d known working at the mill was riding on the railcars. The rhythmic clankety-clank of steel wheels rolling along the tracks was music to his soul. He’d ridden by more than his share of breathtaking scenery in the hills, valleys and fields from the northeast of Maine all the way to the coast of California. He’d even traveled to the southernmost city in the U.S. as an undocumented passenger of the Florida East Coast Railway. When he crawled from the boxcar onto the tracks near Flagler Avenue, he worked for a time offloading cargo from the boats at the docks before hopping back on a northbound train.
He’d often stay in a small town or village for a few days working jobs no one else wanted. Whether he was toiling in dusty warehouses, cleaning out garages, stringing barbed wire around pastures or loading hay, he put forth his best efforts before moving on down the track.
Rusty was a smart man although few would guess it to look at him. In his faded jeans, holey shoes and worn out pea coat he presented the image of homelessness. No one knew that he set aside the bulk of his earnings with visions of the dream he held dear. One day he would own his own ranch with wide stretching boundaries, creeks, and animals of all kinds. That thought made him remember the faces of the two stray dogs at the campsite he loved. He was nearly ready to build his cabin in the woods, grow a few vegetables and live the good life. Just a little more money and he would be there.
During the past ten years, each time he’d roll through a certain rural town he’d stash away the biggest part of his earnings, although, not in any bank, for which he had no use. His bank was a secret hiding place beneath an old oak tree that had stood for a hundred years. He would hike over to the abandoned farm where, in a hollowed out crevice beneath the gnarled roots, he had buried a steel box. Locked inside was his entire fortune, a tidy sum, minus only the few dollars he spent for food and the occasional lodging.
When bad weather forced him to remain indoors in the days when temperatures fell below freezing, he’d rent a room in a wayside motel. There, he could catch up on world events through the TV broadcasts, enjoy a hot cleansing shower and a comfortable night’s sleep before moving on.
For the most part, he loved the feeling of lying in his sleeping bag under a crisp, deep-blue sky sparkling with stars. The farther he camped away from the glare of city lights, the more beautiful the stars appeared. Surrounded by nature he would ponder the days of his youth and fondly remember the people he’d once loved. The first woman, his mom, died when he was a small child from some disease for which there was no cure.
The only other woman he’d ever loved was his high school sweetheart whom he thought about often, wondering how different things might have been had he not left town. She was the envy of many, blessed with a beautiful face, long, wavy hair and the greenest eyes he’d ever seen.
One school day in the middle of fall, the Principal of his school had shown up at the door of his history classroom. After a brief whispered conference with the teacher, Old Man Gillespie, he’d motioned for Rusty to join him in the hall. Walking the narrow corridor to the Principal’s office, Rusty thought they’d somehow solved the mystery about the cherry bombs he and two others had set off in the boy’s bathroom. Water had flooded the first floor classrooms, resulting in a half day off for students. He had been the hero of the senior class for a brief moment. He felt the sweat form in his armpits as their footsteps sounded on the shiny linoleum floor.
As luck would have it, that wasn’t the news the principal had for Rusty. If only it had been, Rusty would gladly have taken whatever punishment was due rather than hear the truth. Seated across from Principal George Maynard, Rusty learned the meaning of the phrase, “War is Hell.”
“Rupert, there’s no easy way to tell you this,” Principal Maynard began. He held out a half sheet of yellow paper with a few typewritten sentences that began, “We regret to inform you…”
Rusty's Dad had been killed in the undeclared conflict in Southeast Asia when he stepped on a land mine. Living with his mom’s sister while his dad served overseas, he took off without a word to anyone and struck out on his own. That was the seed that set into motion his days of wandering. He came back a couple of years older and took a job at the steel mill where he’d found what he once considered happiness. That was until the plant changed hands. Rusty was older now than his dad had ever been during the days he toted a rifle, a full backpack of military issued gear and marched through jungles across foreign lands.
This trip, Rusty had hopped aboard a flatcar near Sligh Avenue in Orlando and after a day of picking oranges in the groves, he’d stowed away in a boxcar and ridden upstate to Tallahassee, then Pensacola, where he’d loaded boxed goods from a shipping container into a semi-tractor trailer. Afterward, he’d slept his way across Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana before making it all the way back to Texas.
With storm warnings making their way into the state, he stopped for one of his rare motel stays and saw the news bulletin about Connie’s disappearance. The photo of her that flashed briefly on the TV was disturbing in itself, but the identity of the man in front of the camera talking about his missing wife was far more sinister. It was Jeb, someone he’d once made the mistake of trusting.
He hoped he’d find the big dogs again and headed back the way he’d come backpack stuffed with two packages of hot dogs, sugar, coffee, a small bag of dog food from the closest grocery store, fourteen miles from the camp. With a combination of hopeful thoughts and concern for Connie, he headed down the trail that led toward his favorite campsite.
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© 2017 Peg Cole