Illustration for "Hobo Nickles" Copyright (c) 2019 by LA Spooner. Used under license.

Hobo Nickels

Story by Bruce Harris

Illustration by L.A. Spooner

 Even as a boy, Kurt the Carver was handy with a knife. Homemade versions fashioned from metal scraps and tape gave way to pocketknives. More sophisticated blades, awls, chisels, nails, screwdrivers, and various types of punches supplanted those. Pretty much anything else he could get his dirty hands on to ply his trade. He carried the weaponry on his back, wrapped tightly in a threadbare red-checked bindle, the latter fastened to a self-fashioned oak stick. Walking around Denver’s Union Station, most of the bustling crowd ignored him as if he were nothing more than a specter. A few stared, turned up noses of all shapes and sizes, and looked away. He hadn’t bathed in nearly a month. His face sported a week’s beard growth. Kurt the Carver paid them all scant attention. He liked the temperature-controlled train station for several reasons, not the least of which was the dearth of sadistic bulls and nasty brakemen. Commuters bought tickets and boarded trains, read newspapers, or stopped for a quick meal or something to drink. Kurt focused on the tiled floor and ashtrays. His eyes widened as he spotted the elusive words PARTAGAS HABANA on the distinctive red paper band still intact on what was a barely smoked Cuban-made cigar. Some wealthy lout must have lit up, taken a puff or two, and discarded the magnificent jewel, a Perfecto Fino if Kurt wasn’t mistaken. Usually, he’d have to settle for a badly chewed El Producto stub, no more than an inch and a half in length. The beautiful cigar lay among gray and black ash and crushed cigarette stubs. Kurt eyed the prize as if it were on display behind thick burglarproof glass in a museum. But it was exposed, waiting for a janitor’s garbage can, within reach. Images of the first few puffs danced in his head as Kurt the Carver strode closer, reaching for the unexpected prize. Someone gripped his wrist.

“Not so fast, little brother. I seen it first.”

Kurt didn’t have to look. He knew the voice. It was his twin.

Ed grinned. What teeth remained were badly stained, chipped or broken. Despite the early hour, his breath reeked from cheap alcohol. Technically, Ed was the little brother, having been born a minute after Kurt. Physically, there was no comparison. Ed was a good four inches taller and several times stronger than Kurt, but nowhere as handy with sharp objects.

“Sorry, Ed. This one’s mine. You can’t—”

“Not after you hear what I got to tell ya, it ain’t.”

Kurt the Carver’s head tilted. He looked like he was inspecting some unfamiliar grossly deformed exotic insect. “There’s nothing you can say that would—”

Ed released the viselike grip on his brother. Kurt withdrew his hand, rubbing his wrist. For a few seconds, the twins stood, saying nothing. Each stared at the cigar. A well-dressed commuter wearing a freshly brushed hat rushed past them, slowing down long enough to tap ashes from his filterless cigarette onto the coveted cigar remains before speeding toward the gates. The two hobos glared at the man.

“When did you get back, anyway?” Kurt asked, breaking the momentary silence.

Ed shrugged. “Day, two, maybe three days ago. I lost track. I figured I’d see you in the jungle, but musta kept missing you. Funny thing you being here.”

“What’s so funny?”

Ed ignored Kurt’s question. “I got something important, real important, to tell you. From B. Jack Jelts.”

During the early 1930s, one couldn’t open a matchbook, magazine, or comic book without seeing B. Jack Jelts’ famous, DO YOU HAVE A FORTUNE IN YOUR POCKET? advertising slogan. By the mid-1930s, with millions of Americans out of work and cash-strapped, coin dealer B. Jack Jelts received upwards of hundreds of coin shipments daily to his St. Louis offices.

The coin merchant’s name snapped Kurt to attention. “What’d he say?”

Ed stared down at the ashtray. “Allow me,” he said, bowing. He grabbed the lightly smoked stogie, dusted ash off its surface, and placed it under his nose. “Ah, that’s some bouquet.” He moved the cigar back and forth. “Them Cubans sure know how to roll the best.” He examined the tip. Satisfied, he stuck the cigar in his mouth.

Resigned, Kurt uttered, “This information better be good.”

“Thomas Jefferson,” Ed replied.

“Huh? What are you talking about?”

“Thomas Jefferson,” Ed repeated. “Haven’t you noticed the new nickels? With Thomas Jefferson on the front?”

“What? No…no…I haven’t,” an annoyed Kurt responded. He put his hands into his pockets, pulled them out, turning the pockets inside out. “Empty. Haven’t seen a Thomas Jefferson, or an Abraham Lincoln, or an Indian head penny for that matter. I’m broke.”

“Tsk tsk. But not for long, brother.” Ed struck a match, touched the end of his newly found largesse, and puffed, furiously at first, and then slowly, contently. “Yessir, them Cubans sure know how to roll the best.”

“You already said that,” an impatient Kurt replied.

Crowds of people, heels clickity-clacking off the polished tile, rushed around and past the two brothers, each oblivious to the other. “What did Jack say?”

Ed blew smoke rings. He jerked his head in the direction of an out-of-the-way corner behind a magazine stand. “Follow me.” The two huddled behind the racks. Ed continually glanced up, ensuring no one saw them. He whispered, “Like I was saying, no more Indian head nickels. The mint is making them all with Jefferson’s face. And no more buffaloes.”

“So?” Kurt questioned.

“So.” Again, Ed looked around. Confident no one was eavesdropping, he continued, “B. Jack Jelts gave me a full set of buffalo nickels starting from 1913 till now.”

“He gave them to you? You have them?”

“Shush. Not so loud. You want to get us both robbed?”

“Who’s going to rob me? I haven’t got any money,” Kurt countered. “You have the nickels?”

“Yes, I have them. All shiny. Like they was minted this morning.”

Kurt the Carver calculated the numbers. “Let’s see, that’s a total of twenty-six nickels. You got $1.30 with you right now?” he said, his voice raised. He realized it, quickly shrunk down.

Ed wanted to sock his brother in the mouth but instead checked their surroundings. Satisfied, he said, “Keep it down! Almost. There are twenty-three coins. The Indian nickels weren’t made in 1922, 1932, or 1933. I have $1.15 here.”

“Let’s get us something to drink and eat!” Kurt chimed in.

“Not so fast,” Ed warned. “We…you…that is…are going to turn this $1.15 into $115.”

Kurt’s jaw dropped. Then, “B. Jack Jelts wants me to…” Kurt started but didn’t finish.

A transit cop spotted the brothers and ran toward them. “You two! What are you doing there?”

The brothers stood at attention. A nervous Ed did the talking. “Nothing, officer. We were just talking.”

“Well, go do your talkin’ somewhere else.”

“This is a public place. We have a right to—” began Kurt, but Ed yanked his sibling toward an exit. With arms akimbo, the cop watched the disheveled pair disappear into the street.

Afraid to return to their temporary Denver quarters, the area known as the hobo jungle, Kurt and Ed sat on a downtown street corner. They each removed their shoes but held onto their bindles. Ed rubbed his feet, stared at his own and Kurt’s worn, scuffed shoes. “With the money, maybe we should get us new walkers.”

“What’s wrong with the ones we have?” Kurt asked.

“For one, yours got a hole in the sole.” Ed pointed, leaned forward to get a closer look.

“I took care of that,” Kurt said. “Look. Put a nickel down there to plug the hole. Did it weeks ago. Perfect fit. Keeps my feet dry, too.”

The two sat in silence before Ed spoke. “B. Jack Jelts is willing to pay you five dollars per nickel. He said he already has a customer lined up that’s going to buy the entire set from him in one fell swoop. Some rich banker from out west.”

Kurt the Carver swallowed hard. “Really? The most he ever paid me was fifty cents for the others I done.”

“Right. But this is different. This is the whole shiny set. There won’t be any more Indian nickels made. And like I said, he’s gonna sell them as soon as he buys them from you…us.”

Kurt the Carver was an artist in his own right. Underappreciated by most, he’d sold several of his creations to coin dealers and at flea markets to anyone who showed the slightest interest in his talent. Kurt wasn’t unique carving designs onto coins, typically adding a beard, derby hat, ear, and collar to an Indian head nickel, but his skills were far superior to most. Even as a boy, Kurt displayed precocious levels of creativity and ingenuity. His workmanship and attention to detail surpassed other coin carvers, even those more experienced. Kurt usually received only a thin dime for the nickels he altered. On rare occasions, some flush moneybags would part with a twenty-five-cent piece for Kurt’s creations No one paid as much as the famous B. Jack Jelts. Jelts knew and appreciated Kurt’s talent and he rewarded the hobo handsomely. But five dollars per coin! The amount was beyond Kurt’s wildest dreams.

The first thing the brothers did was to find a safe location where Kurt could work. It would have to be at night when the others slept. Ed would always be nearby, within close proximity to the coins at all times. His physical stature deterred most other hobos from attempting to roll him. The occasional brave, drunk, crazy, or any combination of the three who tried paid a price. Ed hadn’t traveled eight hundred and fifty miles in freight cars from St. Louis back to Denver just to have another homeless bum steal his meal ticket. The brothers found a large, empty cardboard box and turned it into Kurt’s makeshift workshop.

Each evening, while Ed slept nearby, Kurt went to work. It typically took Kurt the Carver about five hours to create one of his mini-masterpieces. He began with the inaugural buffalo nickel year, 1913. A small circular depression in a block of wood he found years ago alongside railroad tracks near Seattle served as a vise. Working like a skilled surgeon, he first dressed or smoothed out, parts of the nickel’s original features. Using his knife, chisel, and other tools, he carved and punched his signature designs on the coins, completely changing their appearance. Despite poor lighting, Kurt completed two nickels a night.

Less than two weeks later, with all twenty-three nickels elaborately carved, Kurt and Ed planned their trip to B. Jack Jelts in St. Louis. They stood near the freight yard, blocks from Denver’s Union Station. The coins were wrapped tightly in Ed’s bindle. He gripped the attached stick. Kurt’s cloth sack rattled with the tools of his trade.

“Look at that!” shouted Kurt, pointing toward the sky. “Now if that ain’t a lucky sign, I don’t know what is.”

Ed looked up but saw nothing. “What?”

“Didn’t you see it? It flew away. A cardinal! Beautiful red coloring.” Kurt shrugged. “Don’t you see? Cardinals are hardly ever seen in Denver. And we’re on our way to St. Louis! Once we get paid for the coins, let’s go see Johnny Mize and Dizzy and Paul Dean play. I’ve always wanted to go to Sportsman’s Park and watch baseball and eat hotdogs and drink beer and—”

“Slow down, Kurt. We ain’t there yet.”

Ed’s sobering words brought Kurt back to reality. He knew the trip ahead would be anything but easy. Word around the jungle was the railroad bulls had ratcheted up the pressure on freeloading riders. Kurt and Ed were all too familiar with the regular hired guns. Some were okay. Kurt could usually pawn off a carved nickel or two and the bull or brakeman would look the other way. The stakes were high for this trip.

The steam locomotive looked massive. It sat poised, ready to begin its eastward journey. The brothers looked over the assorted boxcars, gainers, and gondolas behind their leader. Kurt pointed. “Damn!”

Ed followed his brother’s finger to three men huddled near the engine. Horace Simpson, known simply as Walrus because of his bushy, walrus-like mustache, Pete Schuman, and brakeman Willie Jones. They didn’t see the engineer. The Walrus and Schuman were known as the cruelest, most sadistic bulls hired by Union Pacific. Both brothers had previously been on the receiving end of beatings courtesy of Simpson and Schuman. Schuman had a personal vendetta against hobos. Years ago, one slashed his cheek. The deep, ragged scar made Schuman self-conscious and vindictive. Willie Jones’ reputation preceded him. A number of hobos disappeared and were never seen or heard from again after bumming rides on trains in which he worked.

“Damn is right!” Ed confirmed. “But we got no choice. We got to get to St. Louis before something happens to these coins.” He squinted. “Look, that reddish boxcar. That’s your best bet. Only one of the doors is open. Once the train starts, I’ll hoist you up into it.”

“What about you?” Kurt asked.

Ed studied the train. “I’ll jump into that gondola two cars away.” He craned his neck. “Looks like maybe it’s just got wheat or barley in it. Nice and soft.” He grinned, then his face took on a more solemn note. “You got some jerky, right?” Kurt nodded. “Good. We’ll be in St. Louis tomorrow. Remember, stay hidden when the train stops in Salina, Topeka, and Kansas City. In KC, we hop off. We’ll switch to the Wabash Railway and take it into St. Louie.” He paused. “Hopefully, the Walrus, Schuman, and Jones don’t continue on.”

Bursts of steam shot into the air. The train began moving. “Let’s go!” Ed ordered. Hunched over, the twin brothers ran low alongside the moving train. They were on the opposite side of the bulls and Willie Jones. Kurt tossed his bindle into the nearly empty boxcar, planted a worn shoe into Ed’s cupped hands, and was lifted into the moving car. Kurt jammed a railroad spike in the door, making sure it wouldn’t slam shut as the train moved.

“Good luck!” said Ed. “See you in Kansas City.” He proceeded toward the gondola, made certain no one saw him, and climbed in.

The trip to Salina was uneventful. Nobody checked the cars. Ed continually felt his bindle, reassuring himself the coins were still there. He wouldn’t let himself think about what B. Jack Jelts would pay for them, not until the money was in their hands. For his part, Kurt the Carver couldn’t think of anything else other than the cash and how he’d spend it.

As they pulled out of Salina, another hobo attempted to enter the boxcar occupied by Kurt. The Carver noticed dirty fingers trying to grip the car’s floor. Kurt inched over, looked down at the man’s pleading eyes, and stomped on his fingers. The man cursed, fell, and rolled over several times before coming to a stop.

BANG! The gunshot startled Kurt. He noticed blood pooling around the man whose fingers he’d just kicked. The Carver noticed smoke, no doubt from a gun, rising from between two railcars. He wondered if the brakeman, Willie Jones, working on a coupler, had noticed the vagrant and shot him. Kurt retreated into the boxcar.

The stop in Topeka seemed to take hours. Kurt was anxious to move again. He heard noises outside the boxcar. Kurt pressed himself against a corner on the same side as the door. He held his breath. His luck ran out. The light beam from Horace Simpson’s flashlight stopped on Kurt.

“Well, what do we have us here?” the Walrus asked. A menacing grin was anything but happy. With his two strong arms, he lifted himself up into the boxcar. “The Carver hisself. Whaddya know? How long you been ridin’ in here like the freeloadin’ hobo you are?”

Kurt didn’t answer. His heart beat like a hummingbird’s. He wished Ed were with him. The bull approached with gun in hand. The guard placed the barrel of his weapon under Kurt’s nose. The gun had recently been fired. The Walrus had shot the man Kurt didn’t allow into the boxcar. Now, he’d shoot Kurt.

“What’s in the cloth? Got any of them artwork nickels you like bribing people with?”

The train lurched forward, surprising both men. Simpson dropped the gun. Before he could pick it up, Kurt kicked it, ran toward it, and kicked it again. This time, out of the boxcar. Still clutching his stick, Kurt warned the bull.

“Stay away from me! I’m warning you. Get away from me.”

The Walrus chuckled. Despite his size, he was agile. He jumped Kurt. The Carver released his stick as the two men rolled on the splintered wooden floor. One of Kurt’s sharp tools slithered unseen, out of the bindle. The hobo was no match for the bigger man. Kurt managed a couple of ineffective punches, one to the Walrus’ cheek and the other to the side of his head. The punches caused more discomfort to Kurt’s fist than the Walrus felt on his face or skull. Kurt took several hard rights to his chin before a stiff uppercut straightened him up. In less than a minute, Kurt was beaten unconscious. The Walrus cussed after discovering Kurt’s bindle contained no nickels, no money of any kind. He found only Kurt’s remaining carving tools and a few pieces of half-eaten jerky. With disgust, he tossed them out of the boxcar.

In Kansas City, Ed descended from the gondola, brushed away the wheat, barley, and oats, and looked for his brother. He noticed the threesome of Simpson, Schuman, and Jones shaking hands and talking with two well-dressed men. They stood in front of the boxcar’s open door, preventing Ed from checking on the missing Kurt. Ed approached, careful not to draw attention to himself. He inched closer, within earshot.

“Excellent work, men. As representatives from Union Pacific, we want to congratulate you. No riders? No violence?” one of the fancy-clad suited men said.

“No, sir,” Willie Jones replied.

“Wonderful,” the other official said. “Union Pacific has a reputation, you know. We’ve had reports about you three. I’m glad to see that perhaps the stories were overstated. We are all for enforcement, but we won’t stand for violent behavior against anyone. I’m glad we’re all in agreement. We—”

The man was interrupted as a badly beaten, bloody Kurt the Carver staggered toward the boxcar’s open door and fell forward, face-first onto the ground.

“What’s the meaning of this?” an incredulous Union Pacific official asked.

Ed rushed to his brother’s side. He turned his brother face up. “Who did this to you, Kurt? Who?” Ed looked up over his shoulder at Perkins, Schuman, and Jones.

“Who is this man?” one of the officials asked. He was ignored.

“I want to know who did this to my brother?” Ed turned back to Kurt. “Who was it?”

Kurt groaned. He tried speaking but choked and spit blood. No words came out. More blood. He coughed, his breathing shallow, infrequent. Mustering up his strength, he pointed.

Ed followed his brother’s finger. He faced the bulls. “You!” he shouted, pointing at Pete Schuman. “You did this!”

“The hell I did,” Schuman countered.

“Liar!” screamed Ed. He felt a hand on his ankle. Kurt had grabbed him. “What is it, Kurt?” he asked, bending down inches from his brother.

Kurt still couldn’t speak. He shook his head and then pointed again. This time, he managed to kick off his right shoe before taking his last breath.

“What was that?” asked one of the Union Pacific men.

Kurt grabbed his brother’s shoe. Then, he saw it. The nickel. The nickel used to plug the hole in the sole of Kurt’s shoe. It had been freshly hand-carved in Kurt’s inimitable style. A large walrus-shaped mustache dominated the image.

— ♦♦♦ —


Next Week: 

Thumbnail illustration for "Return of the Queen" Copyright (c) Chlo'e Camonayan.  Used under license.The Return of the Queen By Ali Abbas , Art by Chlo’e Camonayan

The face was covered by a tight layer of skin, pulling at grey lips. Wisps of hair fell from under the helmet. Two broad holes marked where the nose had been. The eyes were closed, tightly clenched as if she had fallen asleep in pain and died that way.

The God Queen opened her eyes, startlingly moist and complete in the ruined face.

Ambrien stumbled back, giving a yelp as her retreat was halted. The God-Queen’s withered hand bound her wrist. 

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