The Orphan Train
The boys’ supervisor, Uncle Feeney, yelled down the hallway. “George Brown, George Brown!”
“Uh, yes,” I called back from the boy's dormitory, still dazed by sleep and in my pajamas twenty minutes after the morning bell. After a year, I still didn’t recognize the name the orphanage had given me. “Kid” was what my dad used to call me before he got sliced almost in two trying to clear a jammed conveyor belt at the cannery.
The orphanage staff couldn’t wait to get me on that train. I’d lived on the streets since age six, so I had little use for blind obedience. At thirteen, I got caught stealing my breakfast – usually milk and butter that milkmen leave on people’s doorsteps. With no guardian, the magistrate ordered me to the orphanage, a year of hell for all concerned.
Feeney marched into the dorm, eyes ablaze. “You miss that train; I’ll kick you out,” he threatened.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I said, cinching my too big man-sized trousers with a too-long belt.
“Up and outta here. Get on that train and shut your trap, or I’ll shut it for ya,” said Feeney. I yelped on my way out the door as he gave me a hard cuff to the ear.
Uncle Feeney, what the orphanage staff insisted we call this sadist, was one of those guys who enjoyed administering corporal punishment to kids. He always found a reason to punch, kick, or swat me whenever the mood hit him. The guy should have been a cop but didn’t have the brains for it. All the “uncles” and “aunts” connected with the orphanage used the same tactics.
Anyway, when a group of us oldest kids got whisked down to the station and escorted onto that orphan train in 1860, it turned out to be an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, believe you me. that train ride was no carnival for us kids. None of us had any idea what would happen or where we’d end up.
One thing the train ride gave me was plenty of time to think about where I’d been while I was getting to where I was going. While I watched the scenery change from city to farms to woods and then to open plains, I wondered what my life would have been like had my parents not croaked on me at an early age. Mum died just three months after Dad got killed. Now it’s obvious she starved to death giving me what little food she could scrounge.
When the city put Mum in a pauper’s grave, Mrs. McCloud the landlady took pity on me and pretended to be my aunt. She let me stay in our flat the rest of the month and even gave me leftovers from her meals whenever she could. But one morning she knocked at the door. As small as I was, I knew the score.
“Child, I rented this flat to another family, and they’re moving in tomorrow. For your own good I’ll call Welfare or take you downtown to the orphanage.”
“No, Ma’am,” I told her. She tried to coax me over to her flat with the promise of a cup of cocoa, but I wasn’t going for it. When she went to see about the pot of soup she’d left on the stove, I grabbed what few things I had, tied them into a thin blanket and headed for the streets.
That first week was a living nightmare. I’d been sad without Mum, but as long as I was still in our flat I didn’t feel the twisting emptiness that hit me as a homeless kid. I soon had company. Naturally bound to the other street kids, they taught me how to scrounge from trash cans to eat and every way possible to beg, borrow, and steal.
One Puerto Rican Negro boy not much bigger than me showed me his panhandling skills. “Pick out the ones with the fancy shoes,” Juanito told me. “They always feel sorry.” He walked up to a passerby wearing a fine pair of boots with spats and a bowler hat. “Please, Mister, can you give me a penny? I haven’t eaten in days.”
The man turned sideways to avoid contact and pushed past him. “Get away, you dirty little street Arab,” he muttered.
Juanito turned and shrugged. “Just keep ax-ing,” he said. That day we had better luck with the well-dressed ladies who paraded by in nice pumps, gloves, big hats, and parasols. By noon, we had enough coins to buy bread, a bit of ham, and a pint of milk to wash our dry sandwich down. I loved the freedom that accompanied the hardship of the streets.
Too small to do much other than sell newspapers, I found a novel way to stay warm and make some extra cash. I could sell most of my newspapers on the streets in the morning, but when business died down, and men went for their afternoon and evening drinks, I wandered through the rows of pubs and taverns on 8th Ave. Since I was so small, I could pretend the papers were heavy and used the weight as an excuse to set them down atop the coins customers left on the table for their next drink. When I pulled a paper from the stack or rearranged them, I always scooped up a coin or two, not enough to be missed. Just pennies, or when I felt especially daring, I’d swipe a nickel. The pennies and occasional nickels added up. I suppose I could have asked for the coins, but it felt far more satisfying to steal them. I usually ended up with enough to buy a slice of pie or on a good night, maybe an entrée in one of the all-night diners.
I always had clean clothes. Some street kids didn’t give a hoot what they wore, but I’d wait for a woman to hang out her wash and help myself to nice clean clothes. At one place, the missus washed the dirty clothes I left behind, and I’d exchange what I took for my clean clothes. I even used the public showers at least once a month.
There were bad times, however. When times were hard for everyone, I had firsthand experience with hunger and understood how desperate a kid could become. Sometimes the numbers of homeless kids grew until people just walked by as if we didn’t exist. At nightfall, some of us “invisible” kids became monsters, prowling the streets in gangs to look for any unfortunate person to rob.
Out of necessity, I graduated from selling papers and hanging around with boys like Juanito to cruising with a group of boys a little older and with darker intentions. Toothy, Rags, Kid, Tiny, and Punchy went “hunting” in city parks after dark. Especially on the weekends after payday, they found drunks unable to put up a vigorous defense. Since their strength was in numbers, they took everything – money, watch, shoes, sometimes their even the victims’ shirts and pants.
Toothy acquired his name because of his lack of teeth and his ability to spot prey. “Hey Kid, look, a drunk, let’s get him,” Toothy had said on my first expedition.
On my first time out, all six of us surrounded the drunk, who lay passed out on a park bench, reeking to high heavens of cheap whiskey. That these drunks were often homeless was lost on us. That many of us would end up in the same condition was also not on our minds. Anyone drunk and defenseless was fair game.
Rags, the oldest kid, and the group’s commander had first choice of the spoils. “Hey, he’s got brand new shoes on, I call dibs on ‘em,” he called out. Rags had the nickname because he liked to collect useless old clothes to sell to the rag man when he came around.
“I want his coat,” I said. Winter isn’t a good time to walk around NewYork in just a short jacket like I wore.
Tiny, nicknamed for his big blob of a body, cracked up. His giggle got us all laughing. “Yeah, right, Kid, you can stand on someone’s shoulders and wear the overcoat.”
Toothy took over divvying up the plunder after we’d struggle with getting the drunk’s shoes and coat off and dug into his trouser pockets. “All right, Tiny gets his coat, I get his shoes, and the rest can split his money.”
Punchy, the second in command, divided up the bit of change in the victim’s pocket, handed the shoes to Toothy and the coat to Tiny, who was the only one big enough to wear it. Even on him, it grazed the ground. Punchy had picked up his name because when any of the victims fought back, he was the one with guts and strength enough to knock them unconscious with a few punches.
“Wait a minute, I’ll let you guys have my money if he has a watch, I said. “I’ve always wanted one.”
“Watch, you want my watch? Here watch this!” The drunk jumped up and pulled a pistol from the back of his trousers and fired into the air. We scattered like roaches into the night, learning later that the police had set a rookie out as a decoy to foil our gang and others. I decided that a lifetime of hard crime wasn’t for me and went back to the newspaper business.
Occasionally I’d still lift a piece of fruit from a vendor, but the difference was that I’d simply get yelled at or maybe chased down the street. I noticed that the beat cop did the same thing; whenever he got hungry for a piece of fruit he’d just amble by a fruit stand and take one without paying.
I did okay for a street kid, but I might have either died or turned into a drunk if I hadn’t gone to the orphanage. The orphanage was a minor nuisance after a life of freedom, but the train ride out into the Wild West changed my life forever.
“George Brown, get your hind end up and give your seat to Jennifer,” Uncle Feeney said after I plopped down into one of the last seats available on the train car reserved for orphans.
I took my sweet time getting up and ended up with a shiner for my insolence.
The other eye got blackened less than twenty minutes later when two bigger boys tried to bully me into giving them the bit of candy one of the nicer “aunts” had passed out before the train left the station. As a result of my black eyes, not a single person showed an interest in adopting or hiring me as a farm worker when the train got to the end of the line in Kansas.
“What’re we going to do with this one?” The conductor asked the engineer.
“I don’t have any idea? Where are the guys taking care of the kids?”
The conductor shrugged. “They all got off at the last stop.” He gave me a long look, threw his hands up in the air, and walked off.
Forlorn, I ended up sitting on a hard bench at the station while everyone else went about their lives.
After the sun set and I wondered if I should try to sleep on one of the station benches, the wrinkled old man running the ticket counter and telegraph office took pity on me. “Hey, boy, want to share my sandwich?” He had a coffee pot on a potbelly stove in one corner, and he shared a cup with me too.
The old man spoke with a strong accent, and I had a hard time deciphering what he said. “If you don’t have anywhere to go, I need a hand at my place,” he said, brushing crumbs away from his mouth.
I asked him to repeat himself three times before I finally understood what he said.
Later I discovered that though he had some need for a hand, he mainly felt sorry for me. He knew that unscrupulous cotton growers often took boys like me to work the fields, and life expectancy was sometimes short for boys who ended up picking cotton in Missouri.
“My name is John Vladamich,” he said, holding out his hand as if I was his equal.
“I’m George Brown, but you can call me Kid,” I said, warming up to him. It cheered me up to be called Kid again instead of George.
He took me away in the gray hour right before dawn in an old cart pulled by a big draft horse. It took awhile to get to the edge of town, but we soon approached a large hill with a split-log cabin built right up against the base of it.
“Here’s my home,” he said, pointing to a two-room cabin that looked cozy. Mr. Vladmich’s property also comprised his barn and a chicken coop.
He showed me around the barn. “You can sleep up in the hayloft and cook in the cabin. The critters are our food supply, and it’ll be up to you to care for them. I can’t keep up with everything at my age, especially with my job.”
The barn animals comprised a cow and her calf, three goats, a pig, and the draft horse that Vlademich used for transportation and for plowing his kitchen garden and a bit of acreage for forage.
He pointed at the stack of firewood in front of the barn. “You’ll also split and stack the firewood. I work the night shift and always sleep from sun up to sun down,” he said, as the sun was about to burst over the horizon. “I’ll show you how to care for the stock, but I need my sleep during the day, so I’ll show you after sundown.”
This didn’t seem unusual because an old guy like him needed a good rest after being up all night. That left me with the run of the homestead all day. Though I wasn’t sure exactly what to feed the animals, I saw they needed water and made sure their troughs and pans were full.
Mr. Vladamich insisted I call him John when he woke up. Until the weekend came, we saw each other only briefly at dawn and before he went to work. Little by little I learned how to milk the goats and the cow and to churn butter and make cheese. We had plenty of eggs, and chicken dinners became the norm that summer. Though John already had the garden seeded, and the acreage planted in alfalfa, he taught me how to plow to be ready for next year.
The hard work and good eating agreed with me. I added twenty pounds of muscle and shot up like a weed. But I got bored. Though living with John wasn’t as bad as the orphanage, it was tame and uninteresting compared to living on the streets of New York City. I considered going back.
John seemed to notice my restlessness and taught me to rig the horse and wagon. I went to town once a week for flour or whatever supplies we needed. At the general store, a group of men usually hung around the potbelly stove to chew the fat.
“Vampire bats are sucking blood from my stock. A couple of head turned up with puncture wounds, and they’re weak from the loss of blood,” one farmer said to another one Saturday morning.
“Happens from time to time. We should get together and smoke those bats out of the caves one of these days,” the other said.
I’d heard these comments before, but the farmers never seemed to go to the trouble of smoking anything out. Vampire bats were a fact of life because of the caves in the area.
One fateful afternoon a messenger from the railroad arrived on a rickety bicycle when I was milking the goats. “John is needed at the station right away. The other telegraph operator is bad sick, probably his appendix. Don’t know if he’ll make it. We need John to man the telegraph office.”
I promised to deliver the message, and as the messenger pedaled away, I entered the cabin even though John had forbidden me ever to awaken him.
“John,” I called softly. No answer. “John,” I shouted as loud as my lungs allowed, and when I didn’t get an answer, I knocked on the door; still no answer. My promise to deliver the message drove me forward, and I soon discovered the room empty and the bed made. How could this be? I knew John hadn’t left the cabin. He always went into his room around dawn and while I cooked breakfast, he went to sleep and ate his share later.
Then I noticed the groove worn in the floor in front of a bookcase, smack against the hillside. The only time I’d seen this many books in one place was in a public library. Once I noticed the groove, I found the latch on the top shelf, pulled it and the bookcase opened into the room. Greeted with a rush of cool, damp air, I lit a candle John kept by his bedside and proceeded through the opening into the dark. The candle lit only a small area, and I could not see walls or ceiling. I came to a large piece of wood wrapped with oil soaked cotton hanging on the wall. When I held the candle to the cotton, the flame erupted a thousand times brighter than the candlelight. At that instant, I discovered the immense cave inside the hill.
A chill went through me at the beauty of it.
The floors were of something the country people called flowstone, a rock resembling spilled paint, and the crystal walls shimmered like diamonds. Big daggers of stalactites and stalagmites jutted from the floor and ceiling. That was the beautiful part. The awesome part, no, the horrible part, was the dark coffin set upon a pedestal of stone. Somehow the pedestal shone with an unnatural light.
Unable to contain my curiosity, I stepped forward and put my hand on the coffin. To my surprise, it exuded warmth. Then I did what I shouldn’t have and opened the lid.
There lay John. Not John as I know him, but a younger, more debonair version of John without wrinkles or blemishes, impeccably dressed in evening clothes. His pale skin against a black velvet cape made for an eerie contrast, and when I noticed two fangs protruding from blood-stained lips, I immediately got the picture.
Terrified, I dropped the lid and ran from the cave. Now I knew where those “vampire bats” were coming from. I decided then and there that the streets of New York were preferable to this situation.
But the sun was setting. If John sensed my fright, what would he do to me? He’d expect dinner as usual. Maybe if I pretended that nothing had happened, it would be better. I could either tell him that the train station needed him and make some excuse to walk with him or get an early start in the morning.
I expected John to come sweeping from the bedroom in his cape with teeth bared, but while I cooked his favorite dinner, a lightly fried pullet, fried onions and potatoes, and corn bread, he shuffled from the bedroom like he always did, a tousled old man rubbing sleep from his eyes. In the middle of the meal, he looked at me with a penetrating stare. “I’m surprised you’re still here after what you saw today.”
My knees got weak; he knew I’d been in that cave. “A messenger came for you. I was trying to find you,” I stammered.
John set down his knife and fork and pushed his plate aside. “You will find what I say hard to believe. I’ll tell you about what I am and how I became like this.” He stood and put his dishes in the washbasin and poured himself a glass of what looked like wine. After what I had seen, I couldn’t help but wonder what was in that glass.
“In the year 1765, I met Countess Maria von Bulow. My family at the time was wealthy industrialists who spent quite a bit of time abroad. At any rate, I fell in love with her the first time I laid eyes on her, so hypnotic was her beauty. But she exhibited some very strange behaviors, and I soon discovered she belonged to a family of vampires.
“When I confronted her with my discovery, she laughed. ‘Do you remember how much you enjoyed me nibbling on your neck during our lovemaking? Well, those little love bites will soon infect you, and you too will have a thirst for blood.”
“She had many servants and used any and all of them to quench her desire for blood. The thirst came just like she said. I had to taste blood and the longer I resisted, the more painful it became for me. Finally, on one visit to her chamber, she presented one of her female servants, drugged and hung upside down by her feet. The Countess sank her teeth into the girl’s neck and sucked.”
John claimed that a vampire’s bite releases venom, so the victim is paralyzed, something I had never heard before.
He continued his story. “With blood dripping from her lips, Maria kissed me. The flavor rushed from my tongue and into my veins with an uncontrollable force. An overwhelming urge to taste more overcame me. I gazed upon the girl and knew I didn’t want to abuse her in this manner, but the irresistible hunger forced me. I bit her gently at first. Then my jaw snapped shut on her throat. Her sweet blood gushed into my mouth, thick, warm, delicious, a sensation so exquisite I could do nothing but gorge myself. I sucked with all the force I could muster and felt her blood mixing with mine like a drug.
“Power! I experienced power I had never dreamed of. My vitality and the strength and clarity of my mind astonished me.
“My desire to drain every last drop of blood from the servant girl still raged, but I forced myself to stop. I pulled away from her then and thanked my lucky stars she remained alive. Julianne said, ‘It is wise to allow them to regain their strength so we can feed on them another time.
“Then she told me, ‘Life everlasting will result from drinking human blood.’”
“Is it necessary to drink human blood?” I asked.
John paused and looked deep into my eyes again.
“Was it?” I asked, intrigued by his story. If it weren't for what I had seen in the cave, I would never have believed his story.
“I soon learned that in an emergency, animal blood will do, but unless you drink human blood often, you will age. Vampires retain their youth forever by drinking human blood.”
“But when I opened your coffin you were a young again,” I said, realizing then there were no mirrors anywhere in the cabin.
“When I sleep, I return to my youth.”
“Will you die?”
“I’m not certain,” John said. “I’ve lived a long time and I’m weary of life.”
“What happened to the beautiful countess?”
“Although the power of feeding on the servant girl followed by indescribable lovemaking with Maria was beyond the pale, my conscience would not allow me to drink human blood frequently. At first, Maria insisted I feed with her to stay as young and unspoiled as she. One night I watched her drain one of her girls in a mad bloodlust. That was the turning point for me. As I took more animal blood than human, I aged like a mortal man, though more slowly, and she could not accept my frailty. Then I snuck away from her manor, and knowing she would hunt me down if I stayed anywhere near her, so I booked passage to America.
“When I arrived in America I satisfied my desires with animal blood. I knew I couldn’t continue to live in a city, so I found work on a farm where there was always an adequate supply of animal blood. As time passed, I would move on, so people would not get suspicious of me. I picked up many skills along the way and came to be a telegrapher at the railroad office.”
I felt stunned with the enormity of his life. It was enough to worry about how to live out an average lifespan, let alone eternity.
“Do you ever wish you hadn’t ever met a vampire?”
“I think if I’d completely succumbed to the hunger, I might have more regret. Still, life has been lonely, not being able to have ordinary friends or a lover because of my need to sleep during daylight and my thirst for blood at night. Next week is my centenary year, and I have decided that one hundred years as a vampire is more than enough. I will walk into the sunshine and end it all. You’re the only friend I’ve had in these last one hundred years. I would like to pass on the gift of eternal life to you if you want it.”
“Why would you want to pass on something that burdened you?” I asked even though the thought intrigued me. “I wish you’d reconsider the decision to end your life.”
He shook his head. “No, it’s time. But a strong, young man like you . . . Not everyone who embraces the hunger finds it a burden,” he said. “Some consider it a gift beyond all others. And it’s about all I have to give, except for this old cabin. If you want, you can simply extend your life as I did. You’re no stranger to solitude.”
I felt a little tingle then, like the good feeling that memories of street life brought me. A vampire’s life just might work for me. “John, you gave me a home when no one else would. I appreciate that you think of me as a friend and would consider giving me such a valuable gift.”
“Are you sure you want this?”
“Never been surer about anything in my life.”
John came around the table, put his arm around my shoulders, then leaned in and gently bit my neck. Now I understood the paralysis a victim feels when bitten.
Afterward, John looked younger, and his step surer.
I told him so, and he replied, “That’s what human blood can do for a vampire like me, and you!”
Then it hit me. “Did all those girls you and the countess fed on – did they all became vampires too?”
“They did. That’s why Transylvania got overrun with them for a while.”
As I sat on the porch the next morning, John came out with a look of determination on his face. I attempted to speak to him, but he ignored me and walked into the first rays of the rising sun. He turned to wave good-bye, and as he raised his hand, he disappeared in a ball of fire.
Beside myself with sorrow, I cursed that night when I got the urge John had talked about. Satisfying my thirst by drinking cow blood, I found it disgusting. I would have preferred to sink my growing fangs into the soft, sweet flesh of a young woman’s throat.
The next day I gathered up everything I could and put it in the old wagon and carted the load to town. I sold everything I could and gave away the rest. As much as I’d like to stay and used John’s cave, I knew I’d never be able to explain his disappearance. Still half-man and half-vampire, I tolerated the sun but felt a deep radiating burn penetrate my bones. I knew I’d soon be nocturnal.
I took the first train to New York City where I’ve lived ever since. Not wanting to grow old like John; I didn’t object to drinking a little human blood. I read of Dr. Lane and Dr. Blundell’s blood transfusions in England. When Dr. Lister showed how to use antiseptics to control infection during transfusion, I experimented with these methods, and attended college to become a doctor, an almost impossible task. By volunteering to tend the morgue all night and any other undesirable night job, I accomplished this in a few years.
Soon recognized as one of the leading experts in blood transfusions, I became financially successful. I purchased and operated my own blood bank to this day, so I can drink whenever I want.
Like I said at the beginning of this story when was that? Oh yeah, 1860. It’s now 2015, and I still look nineteen years old. I know this because everyone I meet tells me, “I can’t believe you’re over twenty.” Getting back to what I said about owing my long life to the Orphan Train. I literally owe it to the train, because without it I never would have met John Vladamich, and lived this long life, but as I take a long slow drink of warmed specially imported blood, I know my long life is also due to withdrawals from my blood bank. I particularly like fresh blood from Indians who live in the Rain Forests of South America because their blood has fewer toxins than any other.
The Orphan Train had good aspects, so many kids found homes, but you never heard of the brutality of the Uncles or the foster parents. Two or three Uncles assigned to take care of a trainload of kids had to treat us tough. Otherwise how would they have handled kids like me? Not only were our keepers brutish towards us kids. We treated one another with the courtesy of jungle animals. There wasn’t any loyalty except to one’s self. I didn’t let myself be pushed around by anyone. My story so accurately portrays the events, it could have happened to any of the children who rode the Orphan Trains.
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