He started up the track. It was well ballasted and made easy walking, sand and gravel packed between the ties, solid walking. The smooth roadbed like a causeway went on ahead through the swamp. Nick walked along. He must get to somewhere.
Nick had swung on to the freight train when it slowed down for the yards outside of Walton Junction. The train, with Nick on it, had passed through Kalkaska as it started to get dark. Now he must be nearly to Mancelona. Three or four miles of swamp. He stepped along the track, walking so he kept on the ballast between the ties, the swamp ghostly in the rising mist. His eye ached and he was hungry. He kept on hiking, putting the miles of track back of him. The swamp was all the same on both sides of the track.
Ahead there was a bridge. Nick crossed it, his boots ringing hollow on the iron. Down below the water showed black between the slits of ties. Nick kicked a loose spike and it dropped into the water. Beyond the bridge were hills. It was high and dark on both sides of the track. Up the track Nick saw a fire.
He came up the track toward the fire carefully. It was off to one side of the track, below the railway embankment. He had only seen the light from it. The track came out through a cut and where the. fire was burning the country opened out and fell away into woods. Nick dropped carefully down the embankment and cut into the woods to come up to the fire through the trees. It was a beechwood forest and the fallen beechnut burrs were under his shoes as he walked between the trees. The fire was bright now, just at the edge of the trees. There was a man sitting by it. Nick waited behind the tree and watched. The man looked to be alone. He was sitting there with his head in his hands, looking at the fire. Nick stepped out and walked into the firelight.
The man sat there looking into the fire. When Nick stopped quite close to him he did not move.
“Hello!” Nick said.
The man looked up.
“Where did you get the shiner?” he said.
“A brakeman busted me.”
“Off the through freight?”
“I saw the bastard,” the man said. “He went through here ’bout an hour and a half ago. He was walking along the top of the cars, slapping his arms and singing.”
“It must have made him feel good to bust you,” the man said seriously.
“I’ll bust him.”
“Get him with a rock sometime when he’s going through,” the man advised.
“I’ll get him.”
“You’re a tough one, aren’t you?”
“No,” Nick answered.
“All you kids are tough.”
“You got to be tough,” Nick said.
“That’s what I said.”
The man looked at Nick and smiled. In the firelight Nick saw that his face was misshapen. His nose was sunken, his eyes were slits, he had queer-shaped lips. Nick did not perceive all this at once; he only saw the man’s face was queerly formed and mutilated. It was like putty in color. Dead-looking in the firelight.
“Don’t you like my pan?” the man asked.
Nick was embarrassed.
“Sure,” he said.
“Look here!” the man took off his cap.
He had only one ear. It was thickened and tight against the side of his head. Where the other ear should have been there was a stump.
“Ever see one like that?”
“No,” said Nick. It made him a little sick.
“I could take it,” the man said. “Don’t you think I could take it, kid?”
“They all bust their hands on me,” the little man said. “They couldn’t hurt me.”
He looked at Nick. “Sit down,” he said. “Want to eat?”
“Don’t bother,” Nick said. “I’m going on to the town.”
“Listen!” the man said. “Call me Ad.”
“Listen,” the little man said. “I’m not quite right.”
“What’s the matter?”
He put on his cap. Nick felt like laughing.
“You’re all right,” he said.
“No, I’m not. I’m crazy. Listen, you ever been crazy?”