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Unbreakable Will

Unbreakable Will

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Unbreakable Will

5/5 (1 rating)
189 pages
2 hours
Jul 1, 2017


Twelve-year-old Will Handler leaves his Pittsburgh home in the midst of the Great Depression to hop the boxcars out to California. The friend he leaves with becomes disillusioned and homesick, deciding to turn around and head home. Will becomes even more determined to continue on, and he meets up with an old guy named GUS, who befriends him, guiding him to his first hobo jungle by the side of the tracks.
Gus and Will hop on the next train in the hopes of getting on with the carnival. Life in the carnival is good, until an accident involving Gus results in the death of another man and Will steps up to accept the blame in his place. He finds himself running from an angry mob, and is once again on the move, hopping boxcars out to California. He takes with him the nickname “Unbreakable Will,” given to him by Gus.
What extraordinary adventures lies ahead of young Will and will he ever see home again?

Jul 1, 2017

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Unbreakable Will - Lisa Reinhard


In the steamy New Guinea jungle, Will tromped through the thick carpet of plants. He felt alone, isolated. Where were the rest of the men? Sweat stung his eyes and his feet were itchy in his heavy boots. He stopped, made himself motionless, and listened. Not a sound. No rustling of leaves. No clinks of metal. Then a stirring, a whispered command floated through space, so choppy it had to be Japanese.

Without a sound, Will grabbed a branch on the tree next to him and swung himself up, then stretched for another branch, pulling his body up onto it, thankful for all those chin-ups they’d been ordered to do wearing all their gear. Branch by branch he went until he heard slashes of sound through the bushes below. He froze. His breath caught. Looking down, he saw an entire Japanese patrol directly beneath him. He felt sick; afraid he’d let go and fall right on them or his foot would slip against the bark and make a sound, giving him away.

Steady, he told himself. Think, think of something to get you through.

His mind spun back fifteen years to Idaho Falls, to another time he had hidden in a tree. He had been hiding from the carnival men that night; angry men, out for bloody revenge, carrying torches and guns. Searching for a twelve-year-old boy they believed had killed their friend.

Through long minutes, Will played the scene over and over in his mind. He had lasted then, he could do it now. What was it old Gus called me back then? Unbreakable Will, that’s it.

He was a tough little bugger back then, hardheaded, telling people, Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and my name’s Will. Well, I made it then and will again. I’ll live to tell my children this tale, by God.

He settled in for the night, steel resolve holding him upright and noiseless through the grueling hours. His mind reeled back to the carnival and to the boxcars that brought him there. He recalled the smell in those boxcars; what an awful stench.


A hand was going into Will’s pocket. He thrust it aside and jumped to his feet, lost his balance, and crashed forward into the sea of grimy faces filling the boxcar. He rose amidst the grumbled complaints and groans, shaking his tingling foot awake.

I’ll take it off, man, I swear I will. I’ll cut your hand off. You don’t take my stuff. You hear me? Will yelled, grabbing the man’s arm and pushing it away as he continued. I got a knife, old man, so get your hand off me, and don’t put it on me again.

He turned toward the wall and drew his jacket tightly around his stomach as a hush fell over the boxcar. Dots of light streaked across the brown rags and battered suitcases. The rhythmic motion shook him back and forth, while the clicks, squeaks, and metallic scrapes of the train filled the air. The stench stinging his nostrils was a mixture of a potting shed and an outhouse. The splinters of the floor bit into his backside, so he moved his rolled-up pack under him. It didn’t help. He was cold, stiff from sitting so long, lonely, and hungry. So hungry, in fact, he dreamed of his family’s picnics with all the fixings, like his mother and grandmothers used to make — ham, potato salad, baked beans, watermelon, and those heavenly yeast rolls. He could just imagine the smell of those luscious rolls coming out of the oven, and how Ivy, his mother, would smack at his hands as he grabbed four, five, six, and stuffed them into his pockets, laughing as he headed out the door. She’d say, You’re a bad one, but her eyes always held a tiny twinkle as she said it. He knew it was the only way she could show him any affection.

Affection was something hard to come by in his home, for sure. Mostly, it had been a lot of fighting with his mother’s sisters, Ethel and Dorothy, who had come to live with them, and the way his parents went days without speaking to one another. He got blamed for things he didn’t do, and didn’t get credit for the stuff he did right. It was the dragged-down feeling of never being good enough that made him think there was no other way than to just leave and hop the boxcars out West.

He laid his head back against the metal wall of the boxcar and slid his cap forward, over his eyes. Where am I headed? What am I going to do for money, for food? The questions attacked his already-tired mind, and caused his head to ache. This certainly hadn’t turned out the way he and Tommy had planned it. Tommy had bailed out on only the fourth day, then he found there were no jobs to be had at the supposedly great Chicago World’s Fair. He’d been chased away by police and told, Get on outta here! Get gone! With those words ringing inside his head, he brushed a single tear away from the side of his nose with the back of his hand.

Drifting through time, he went back to the house he had left and felt its solidness. His dad had built it. Will had helped him plane boards until the golden curls of wood cascaded down and sawdust filled the air. What sheer pleasure it had been for him to stand beside his father and feel useful; not the way stupid Aunt Ethel always made him feel. She was always sticking her awful mug inches from his, spewing mean, awful words, venomous bullets that bit into his mind.

You’ll never amount to anything, Willie boy, she crowed, screwing up her snoot. Now me, she cackled as she tossed a golden scarf over her head and shoulders, "I will be a movie star. She turned and grabbed a pink skirt from her sister, Dorothy, Give me that. It looks better on me. Now move, both of you." She shoved past Dorothy and Will, strutting out of the room like she was the Queen of Sheba.

A hint of a smile slipped onto Will’s sleeping face as he remembered how he and Dorothy had joined their heads together in silent laughter at the haughty Ethel.

Rocking back and forth in the dark boxcar, his mind continued to spin backward, recalling other days with Aunt Dorothy, who was more the age of a sister than an aunt. She had been adopted by his mother, along with Ethel, when their mother, his grandmother, had died. One time, she tipped her head close to his and whispered, Don’t listen, Willie! Don’t listen to those hateful words. They’re all lies! That’s what they are! Pure lies! You can be anything you want to be. Do you hear me? Do you believe me? Well, do you?

He had tried to believe her words at the time; tried to understand the passion with which she spoke them. Her eyes had flashed and she had touched his check lightly, waiting quietly until he answered her with a nod, not trusting his own voice to speak.

Well, I’ll show them all. I’ll come back someday, and be somebody, and then they’ll all be sorry they’d given me such grief. They’ll welcome me home and ask, Where have you been, Willie boy? Tell us of your adventures.

The train lulled him back and forth, back and forth. Clack-a-track, can’t go back. For now, the ache inside went away.


Will was deep into his dream, remembering how he and Aunt Dorothy sat side by side talking and laughing together in the attic with magazine pictures of movie stars on the wall. The window had been open and a breeze had blown in and lifted the magazine pictures, along with Dorothy’s hair, moving it in gentle swirls. Puffs of wind were hitting his face now and a loud hissing sound invaded his dream. Fingers dug into his shoulders, shaking him awake.

Get up there, boy. We’re coming to a stop. Bulls’ll be out. Gotta get off. C’mon now, get a moving, shouted an older man, whose wrinkled face was topped with a battered brown fedora, as he extended his hand out to Will. Will quickly reached for his bedroll and, holding the man’s hand, stood, shaking the last remnants of the dream from his mind.

He’d heard stories of these ‘bulls,’ the hired guards of the railroad companies, who kicked off train-hoppers; that they carried revolvers and clubs with which they rapped riders’ knuckles to make them lose their grips and fall off fast-moving trains, causing some to have their legs cut off by the boxcars’ steel wheels.

He couldn’t understand why they had to be so cruel. What were people like him hurting by riding in empty boxcars? It wasn’t like they were destroying railroad property or anything. Sure, they were riding for free, but didn’t they realize no one had any money these days? What did they expect? Hopping boxcars was the best way to get around, find work, and make something of yourself, and wasn’t that the way to rebuild America instead of just sitting around, feeling sorry for yourself? It didn’t make sense.

Will’s mind raced as he hopped down with hordes of other riders and rushed together toward the hobo jungle partially hidden in the scruffy trees not far from the tracks.

The old man who had warned him appeared abruptly at his side and barked, Follow me, kid, so he did.

They pressed past several low-hanging tree limbs and found themselves in a clearing surrounded by the oddest structures Will had ever seen. They were shacks of a sort, built of flattened tin cans, boards, railroad ties, sheets, and cardboard, really anything that could be scavenged and molded into the approximate shape of a shelter. Sitting next to them, or in some cases underneath in the doorways, were an amazing array of men. The word ‘weary’ popped into Will’s head; the one word that described them to a T. You could see it in their eyes, above their whiskery, dirty cheeks, in the way their arms, encased in ragged shirts, lay across their patched knees; even in the way their mud-crusted boots hung down from their torn, thin pants legs, barely having the energy to sway or tap. The men, hoboes as they were called, looked up at the two newcomers with eyes as old as rocks.

One stuck out a gnarled hand and motioned them forward, toward the circle of stones around a snapping fire. Join us. We’ve got coffee and a Mulligan underway. Got any fixings?

The old man with Will stuck his hand in his pocket and brought out two small potatoes. There was a cheer, a couple whistles, and a few claps.

What’s a Mulligan? asked Will.

Got a new one, there, hooted a toothless old man in overalls, not unkindly.

Come ‘a here, boy, said a man in a gray wool peak cap pulled low over a youngish face. Lemme tell you a few things to get you started. He patted the empty stone next to him and Will headed over there, looking back over his shoulder at the older man who had guided him here and who now nodded his approval.

As Will settled himself on the rock, the younger man thrust out his hand and spoke, Name’s Hank.

I’m Will.

Where’re you from?

Pittsburgh, sir.

Whoa! Come a fer piece, haven’t you? I’m from Wyoming myself. Been riding the rails couple ‘a years and learned a few things. A Mulligan’s a stew where everyone throws what they got into that pot yonder there, he pointed over to a stew pot sitting on a grate over the fire, and then we share it.

When Will’s eyes got bigger, Hank chuckled. You learn not to think about what goes into that ole pot. Why I’ve seen stuff go in there I wouldn’t feed to my dog back home. But as my grandma used to say, ‘Beggars can’t be choosers.’ I remember one time I saw a guy sitting there with one small raw potato and he wouldn’t give it up to the stew. No, sir, he said he’d just ‘a soon hang onto it, thank-you-very-much, and so he did. I’ll never forget the sight of him later that night, Will, when the rest of us was all full bellies, warm and happy. There the poor guy sat, cold to the bone, nibblin’ on that stinkin’ raw hard potato, shivering alone. It sure taught me a lesson about sharin’ I’ll never forget. Pitch in what ya got and you’ll end up with more. That’s the ticket. It’s always worked for me. He put his hands behind his head, stretched out his legs in front of him, and leaned back against the trunk of the tree. Then he looked over at Will, slapped him on the knee and said, Go get you some stew. You got a can?

A can?

Yeah, something to eat out of.

Uh, no, sir.

It’s Hank. You can drop the ‘sir.’ You’re not in Pittsburgh anymore, kid. Here, let’s round you up one, and one for the old guy, too. What say his name was?

Will realized he didn’t know. He got up and walked over to him, sticking out his hand. Name’s Will.

The old man looked up from his tin cup of coffee. Gus, he said simply.

Nice to meet you, Will smiled. I’ll get you a can for your stew while I’m getting me one, Gus. Then he turned and trudged off after Hank. A ghost of a smile touched Old Gus’s lips.

Will hurried after Hank, who was bending down over some bushes, parting them with his hands. He straightened up and turned to Will with a lopsided smile. Here we go, here’s one, he said as he handed Will a slightly dented can. Let’s look over here a ways. As he made his way toward another clump of bushes, he turned back to Will and asked, How long you been on the road?

About two months.

Seem like a long time?


Ah, here we go, here’s another. Hank grabbed the tin can, scraping at the rust with his thumbnail. Let’s head on back and grab us some Mulligan, boy.

When they returned to the circle of stones, Hank used a dipper can tied to a string to fill the two cans they had found, and his own, with a dark brown concoction that smelled surprisingly good. Will handed one can to Gus and then sat down, then someone handed him a hunk of bread. He dug in quickly, letting the warmth slide down his throat to his empty belly. Only when the

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  • (5/5)
    It is hard for a mother to read of a child of only twelve riding the rails, but it happened. What a brave boy! And to think this is Lisa’s father! Oh, the stories I am sure he told. All I could think of were all the horrible things someone so naïve is subjected to; the things we take for granted — protection from the elements, safe food and water, a place to sleep, security. This is a book all who can read, should, then pass it on to the next generation. Unbreakable Will is timeless.
    — CJ Loiacono