1. The Train

THEY LONGED FOR A BETTER LIFE but had only one option left. With eyes restless from their journey, Nicola Di Gregorio and Vincenzo Marzola beheld a vast and clamorous freight train as it slowed to nearly a stall in an eastern Pennsylvania field in July 1902. Snaking toward them, the mass of railcars jostled and groaned like a great body willing to neither join nor die.

Nicola pointed to one of the boxcars crawling in their direction from about 200 yards off. The door in the middle of the boxcar had been slid wide open, leaving maximum room for error. “I go first,” Nicola instructed in Italian as he sidled toward the oncoming car. He then hollered above the din: “You stay there. Watch how I do it. Then I’ll help you.”

Vincenzo nodded, making a quick sign of the cross.

Nicola’s wary brown eyes tried to gauge the right moment. His heart pounding, he took several deep breaths and bent his knees in anticipation. As the boxcar rumbled within 20 yards of him, he raced through the field toward the moving target of the open door, aiming to intersect it at a right angle. When he came within a yard of the door, he sprang from the earth, hurled himself through the opening, and landed on his abdomen onto the platform, using momentum to roll the rest of his body inside. “Hurry!” he stood up and shouted.

Vincenzo followed suit. He raced toward the moving target, leapt off the ground, dove through the opening, and landed on his abdomen. But momentum failed to propel him further, leaving his legs to dangle over the edge of the boxcar, between its grinding wheels.

Nicola grabbed the wrists of Vincenzo and lurched backwards, dragging him the rest of the way inside. Nicola then knelt on one knee to catch his breath.

They made it. Grinning at each other, they laughed and sighed in relief.

But there were already two other hobos in the boxcar. They had left the door open for ventilation. They were there first, and they didn’t want anyone else there, as indicated by the cold glances thrown at the newcomers.

The train picked up steam, the horn wailing in the distance.

Nicola and Vincenzo moved toward the corner of the boxcar opposite the other hobos and sat down. Nicola uttered something in Italian, unintelligible to the others.

The earlier arrivals mumbled something to each other, too. They stood up, strutted across the platform, and confronted the newcomers, towering over them. “Get your greasy asses outta here, you damn dirty dagos!” one of the native hobos cursed.

“Okay, okay,” Nicola put up his hands. “We go,” he spoke in English. “At the next station.”

“Get out now!” the other native shouted. “Cantcha understand?” he jeered.

Nicola arose to face the men. But before he could find his equilibrium, they shoved him to within a foot of the open door. “Now!” they yelled above the accelerating chugs of the locomotive.

Nicola regained his footing. “We go at the next station,” he held his ground.

Vincenzo stood up to intervene, but the jerking train knocked him to the floor, where he heard a bloodcurdling scream. By the time he looked up, Nicola was gone.

“Musta stumbled,” one of the standing hobos muttered to the other.

Vincenzo ran toward the open door, bracing himself against the inside edge, and caught a glimpse of something that caused him to recoil in horror. Nicola, having slipped or been shoved sideways off the surging beast as if he were excess skin being shed, had struck his head on a rail and been decapitated by the charging wheels, his skull crushed beneath the bowels of the train and his body ejected away from the tracks.