Chapter 3: Hobo Code

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“All right, fellas, it's time you learned the Hobo Code.” The presidents sit on milk crates like pupils in grade school. Sam crouches in front of them, drawing in the dirt with a stick. “Now, this would be the language of pictograms that we all use to communicate, not the ethical code by which we all live. We'll cover that later.”

“You wouldn't happen to have a pen and paper, would you?” says Forty-two.

“No notes,” says Sam. He taps his head. “The old brain organ's gonna have to be your pen and paper. You might very well find yourself in a situation where you have to make a split-second choice based on the symbols you see there. You won't have time to check your notes. You're gonna have to know the difference between a safe place and a town that's been burnt by a bad 'bo. First, a brief history of pictograms. The ancient Sumerians...”

Forty-three catches an elbow in the ribs and jolts awake. He snorts and wipes the drool from the corner of his mouth. “Huh? Was I sleeping?”

“Not just sleeping, but snoring,” says Forty-two. “It's hours later on the same day, and we've learned a lot about the system of pictograms that transients use to communicate.”

“Glad that's over with,” Forty-three whispers. “I was always a 'C' student, as in 'C you later, alligator, heh heh.”

“He's pulling your leg,” says Sam. “You were out for about ten seconds. We've still got plenty of material to cover. But I guess we can skip the history for now.” He draws a square with an open top. “This symbol mean's that it's safe to camp in that spot...”

Hours later on the same day, the presidents have learned a lot about the system of pictograms that transients use to communicate, for real this time. Afternoon turns to evening, and a few campers start a Mulligan stew in a giant pot. Everyone who can contribute does so. They start with wild onions and thyme somebody foraged nearby, sauteed in a few pats of foil-wrapped butter pocketed in some diner. Sam throws in a few cans of beans. A couple of kids find some dandelion roots thick enough to chop up like carrots. Someone even manages to fight off a mutant nettle plant. It'll be back someday, for revenge. They have a long memory, stored deep in their roots, passed down through their seeds. It might not find its nemesis, but its sprouts will, or their sprouts after them. On that day, the hobo named Mickey will wake to find his skin red and welted with nettle stings, tufts of hair torn from his scalp, one bald patch for every leaf he tore from the walking nettle that day, downriver from Abby's Jungle. The leaves add a nice fresh, green flavor to the stew.

There's more than enough to feed the whole camp. Forty-two eats his out of an old mason jar, his necktie wrapped around it for insulation. He makes his way through the crowd, gladhanding as much as he can with a jar of stew in one hand. Old habits. He spots a family, two kids of about ten with their parents, eating together by the riverside. He makes his way over. “They gave me a packet of crackers, but I don't need all that salt.” He offers the saltines to the children.

“Say 'thank you,'” says the mother.

“Thank you.” The children split the crackers, crumbling them into their stew.

“They call me Forty-two.” He shakes the couple's hands.

“Martin.”

“Amy.”

“What brings you here?” Forty-two asks the couple.

Amy begins, “We lost our jobs when the-” but she's cut off by Forty-three, who comes running over dragging a middle-aged man by the arm.

“Mission accomplished!” Forty-three shouts. “This guy's the solution to all our problems.”

“We were in the middle of a conversation,” says Forty-two. “These fine people were telling me how they lost their jobs-”

“I've got a job creator right here,” says Forty-three, panting from excitement and brief exertion. He elbows his new friend in the side. “Tell 'em.”

“My name's Amerinext,” says the man. “I'm a corporation down on my luck. All these darned regulations are strangling me. Why, I never even heard of 'pneumoconiosis' until Big Government said it was a problem. Just Big Pharma trying to turn a profit, which of course is their right.”

“He needs a bailout!” says Forty-three. “Come on, you're holding the cash.”

“Are you nuts?” says Forty-two.

“If everybody in the camp gives him part of their road stake, plus a small portion of ours, he'll create enough jobs for everybody here.”

“Well, not the females,” says Amerinext. “Kids okay, though.”

“This is exactly the kind of thing that got us into this mess in the first place,” says Forty-two.

“Oh, there you go, finger-pointing again.”

“Well, if the finger fits-”

He doesn't get to finish his sentence, so we'll have to wait to find out what will happen if the finger fits. “It's the NICE Boys,” somebody shouts. Sure enough, up on the bridge a squadron of NICE agents jump out of an armored car. Two of them rappel down into the congregation. They're swarmed by hobos and tied up with the very ropes they used to descend.

Chaos erupts in the camp. Somebody douses the cook fire. All of the lanterns are snuffed within a few seconds, but the NICE car shines a spotlight down on the crowd.

Abby's already corralling people, ushering them to a secret tunnel under the bridge.

“Come on,” Sam shouts to the presidents. “This way!”

A voice booms out of a bullhorn. “Vagrants,” the voice says, “you are in violation of a lot of laws, assembling and loitering, and some other things. Stop tying up our agents down there. I hate it! You're all going to jail, and I gotta say, this is the worst hobo camp I've seen. The worst. Let me tell you, I would never do a hobo camp, but if I did, it would be great. It would be the best camp.” He drones on like that for a while, in the rhetorical style of his leader. Abby ushers the last of the campers through the secret hatch into their tunnel.

“Take me with you,” says one of the hogtied NICE Boys.

“Sorry,” says Abby. “No room in the tunnels for bulls.” She shuts the hatch. It's pitch black until somebody strikes a match and lights a lantern. “Let's get moving,” says Abby. “They'll be on that bullhorn for a while, but you never know what'll happen with these tools. We can't take any chances.”

Sure enough, not long after they've started their way through the long and winding tunnels, they feel the Earth shake. The muffled sound of an explosion rumbles down the corridor.

“That would be the bridge,” says Abby. “They wrecked my camp.”