Man on the run - By Charles Williams


Couplings banged together up ahead. We were slowing. I stood up in the swaying gondola and looked forward along the right side of the train. Pinpoints of light showed wetly in the distance. We continued to lose speed.

Then just before we reached the station, the block changed from red to green, the drawbars jerked, and the beat of the wheels began to climb. I cursed. I had to get off and it had to be now; daybreak couldn’t be far away. I went over the right side, groping for the ladder. When I had a foot on the last rung I leaned out and jumped, pumping my legs. I landed awkwardly, fell, and rolled.

When I stopped I was lying face down in the mud. I raised my head and turned a little so I could breathe, and rested, wondering if I had broken anything. Wheels and trucks roared past, and then the train was gone. I sat up. My legs and arms seemed to be all right. Less than a hundred yards away, on the other side of the track, was the station, a darker shadow in the night with a single cone of light at this end illuminating the sign. CARLISLE, EL. 8 FT. SANPORT 51 MI. I hadn’t got very far. But nowhere would have been far enough. Not this side of the moon.

I was drowned, chilled to the marrow of my bones, and plastered with mud. Cold rain drummed on my head. I swore bitterly and put up a hand. My hat was gone. I began sweeping my hands around in the darkness, slapping at mud and water. It was useless. It had blown off when I jumped and could be two hundred yards away. I’d never find it, and I was wasting precious time. I had to find some place to get out of sight.

I stood up quickly, trying to orient myself. The beach should be across the tracks and beyond the town. I could see the highway paralleling the tracks and two principal streets at right angles to it. I was almost in line with the near one and could see down three or four blocks of it, shiny, deserted, and rainswept in the pools of light under street lamps and in front of store windows. If the beach weren’t any further than I remembered, I should be able to reach it before daybreak and find a summer cottage, but I’d have to circle to avoid those lights.

I turned and started along the tracks, going as fast as I could in the darkness. Then, without warning, a car came out of the street at my back, swinging the corner. I dived and hit the mud just before its headlights swept over me. It was a police cruiser, shooting its spotlight into doorways facing the highway. It turned at the next corner, going back toward the beach.

Two hundred yards ahead I crossed the tracks and the highway and plunged into a dark side street overhung with trees. My teeth chattered with cold. Water sloshed in my shoes. The rain was slowly washing mud out of my hair down across my face. Beyond darkened windows men and women slept in warm beds, touching each other.

The trees and houses began to thin out. Sidewalks gave way to mud, and I was in an area of vacant lots grown up with scrub palmetto. I could hear the fronds clashing and scraping in the cold north wind. In a few minutes I came out on the beach. There was no surf because the wind was blowing offshore. Off to my left were some darker masses of shadow that appeared to be sheds and piers, probably for shrimp boats. It seemed to be growing lighter.

I was past the pier and down on the beach again, on sand. There was no doubt now that time was running out on me; pitch blackness was giving way to a murky and rainswept gray. Then in another few minutes I saw the dark silhouettes of houses on the higher ground above the beach. There were two about fifty yards apart, and then three more farther ahead. There were no lights showing.

I left the water’s edge and came up behind the first one. There was a window, but no door, except in the shed that was attached to it on the right. That would be the garage, I thought. The window was dark, but not boarded up. I put my ear against it and listened. There was