The switchyards occupy about a hundred acres of land five blocks to the west of Black River. They are only a few blocks south of downtown Poplar Bluff, but the neighborhood that borders the yards is cut off from the rest of the town by the railroad tracks and the river. Because of this fact, the area is known as South Poplar Bluff, as if it is a different community.
Hubert Robertson lives just a short walk away from the switchyards. As he grows up, they will become his downfall. Trains sitting on tracks waiting to move forward toward unknown destinations appeal to young Hubert’s imagination and desire for adventure.
The train whistle blows. The cars lurch. Slowly, the big freight train moves forward along the southbound track. In one of the boxcars, Hubert Robertson’s heart is beating faster and faster as he hides among the crates, daydreaming about where this train will take him.
As the tracks leave the town, they run along the banks of Black River, squeezed in between the river bluffs and sweeping acres of cropland. William Dixon, Hubert’s grandfather, owns much of this land. The evening air blows past the boxcar, easing in through the cracks in the car walls. Hubert presses his face against one of these cracks, both to feel the cool breeze and to watch as the land passes by.
Hubert has never been more than a few miles away from his home, so he is excited about the possibilities that lie ahead along these railroad tracks. He wants to be free: away from the school that bores him and the grandfather who beats him.