The trestle, p.1
The Trestle, page 1
Copyright 2011 Ben Woodard
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Soaring 280 feet above the Kentucky River, High Bridge was an engineering marvel—and a deadly diversion. Known in 1923 as the highest railroad bridge in the world. Dangerous and enticing, a single track crossed the river with no railings on either side. Teenagers dared each other to go out on it, and some died. It became a favorite place for suicide.
Tom wanted to cross it. He craved that kind of excitement—to forget for a while. About what happened to his sister, and his mother. Heights scared him. He wanted to feel the fear.
“When?” asked Tom. “Today?”
He eyed Will. His cousin would be a senior at the county high school; Tom, a sophomore. The two shared a room in an old farmhouse on Will’s family property.
“No,” said Will, “the railroad dicks check the bridge regularly. They slack off at night. After midnight is safest. And we need a full moon. You sure you want to do this?”
Tom nodded, but stared at his hands.
At the next full moon they grabbed flashlights and slogged through the dew-wet fields. The river sweated fog that rolled over the hillsides turned by the wind into swirling wraiths. The Kentucky countryside resembled an eerie graveyard of lost souls. The cold dampness filled Tom’s every pore.
Will knew the train schedule—one every thirty or forty minutes. They would climb on the track once a train passed. Unscheduled trains added to the danger. They were in trouble if a train came while they were on the bridge. No place to go except a catwalk that traversed one side of the trestle—two feet wide with no railing. Ladders, spaced every 25 yards or so, led down to the steel walkway. A harrowing escape route.
Their breath came in puffs of fog as they reached the tracks. Tom pulled up his coat collar. A nearly full moon hung over the trestle. The bridge looked like an erector set toy disappearing into the mist across the river. As they huddled in the bushes beside the track, a rumble echoed through the darkness as the train thundered by, swirling steam around them and soaking their hair. Tom’s heart clogged his throat as they eased out on the bridge. The river shimmered in the moonlight flickering through the cross ties like lightning in a thunderstorm. Nothing under his feet except rough blocks of wood—nine inches wide spaced five inches apart. The boys concentrated on each step.
After fifteen minutes Will said, “That’s far enough.”
Fear shown in Will’s eyes. But Tom was exhilarated by the terror surging through his body. He shook his head.
“Come on, let's go across, wait for the next train, and come back.”
“Uh uh. Too dangerous. Might be an unscheduled one. No way of knowing when.”
“I'm going,” said Tom as he gingerly resumed moving.
Will mumbled “fool” under his breath and followed.
Twin ribbons of steel reflected in their flashlight beams vanished into the inky blackness. The cross ties were 9 feet wide, but ahead in the darkness they seemed too narrow to walk on. Nothingness on either side. Tom felt a chill, but not from the wind. He had never been this afraid, but was determined to cross the trestle.
Their feet vibrated. Nothing in sight. Their eyes met. A dim light winked in the trees behind them. It grew into a headlight with a dark shadow attached moving toward them. The thumpa-thumpa of the steam engine spilled into the river valley. Almost halfway out, reaching the other side would be impossible. They stood frozen in fear.
“The catwalk,” shouted Will, his voice cracking, “drop down.”
Grasping a cross tie, they lowered their legs into the abyss.
“Let go. Fall the last few feet.” Will yelled above the thunder of the oncoming train. “Grab a bridge support when you land.”
Tom lowered himself arms straining and fingernails digging into the creosoted wood. His feet felt nothingness and his entire body shivered. The flashlight fell from his pocket. He stared as it tumbled end over end into the river.
“Drop, now,” shouted Will standing on the catwalk.
Tom dangled a few more seconds and dropped. The train roared by a few feet above him. His feet hit the edge of the catwalk, and he clutched at the supports. His fingers grazed the steel beam. He screamed and started to fall. Will grabbed his shirt and tugged Tom onto the support. Coal cinders showered their faces, and dank steam enveloped them. The catwalk bounced as the banging and screeching of the train pounded in their ears. Then quiet. Deathly quiet. The only sound Tom could hear was his heart trying to burst his chest.
“This way,” said Will, “a ladder.”
Tom dreaded letting go of the support, but crept after Will taking tiny steps, and reaching from support to support until he made it to the ladder. Back on the track, they stood in the quiet. Tom’s pant legs shook like drying clothes in a wind storm. The acrid taste of coal dust filled his mouth.
“Wow,” Will gasped, “that was close.”
Tom nodded wheezing.
Will punched his shoulder. “Let's get the hell outta here.”
After a few steps, Tom stopped.
“What's wrong,” asked Will?
“I still want to go all the way across.”
Will’s mouth dropped open.
“You're crazy,” said Will. “What if another unscheduled train comes?
“I think we're safe now,” said Tom, “the next train won't be here for fifteen or twenty minutes and we're already halfway across. Let's do it.”
“No,” said Will his fists clenched, “you're on your own this time. I'm not going across this trestle. You may have some kind of death wish, but I don't.”
Will tromped off.
Tom focused on the far end of the trestle. If he made a mistake now, he wouldn't have Will to help him. He swallowed, and moved across the track keeping his eyes fastened directly on the cross ties in front of him. He didn’t need the lost flashlight. His eyes adjusted to the darkness, and the brilliance of the full moon provided his light. He didn't want a misstep. His ears tingled listening for the dreaded sound of a train in the distance. Nothing, but his heavy breathing and the thunk of his boots on the cross ties. He reached the other side, gasped, and checked his watch. Close. Five minutes till the next train.
On time, the passenger train rumbled by. He glanced at the faces in the cars with envy. He dreamed of being in there. Going anywhere, he didn't care. Somewhere no one knew him, or what he had done.
He climbed back on the track and squinted. Clouds now obscured the moon light, and the rails disappeared into the dark. He briefly thought about going down the cliff and swimming the river. Too dangerous. The water would be cold and he wasn’t a strong swimmer. In the now cloud-filtered moonlight he marched, faster than before, but stumbled. He shuddered, and stopped. Regained his breath and moved again—methodically, trying to stay calm. Clouds raced across the moon causing ghastly shadows to dance on the cross ties. He froze, disoriented. He glanced back; he had to go on. He started again focusing on each step. His eyes darted toward the edge. He stopped, and fear, cold as a blast of winter air flowed over him. He inched along the tie until his toes hung over the edge.
It would be quick. And probably painless. Uncle said his father did it. Couldn’t have been too bad. Just one step and he wouldn't have to think about that night at Grandfather’s house and the stairway. An accident. A mind-numbing, soul searing accident. And then his mother. He choked. Cancer they said, but he knew it was because of what he had done. Just one step. And all the pain would be washed away by the Kentucky River. And who would care? They wouldn't even know he was gone; someone else could do his farm chores. And Will? No, Will didn't care. Will would have the room to himsel
He trembled—no, not him; the trestle trembled. His mouth went dry. He looked over the edge, and then at the approaching headlight. He ran. The engineer spotted him and locked the brakes. The high-pitched screech echoed off the cliffs, and reverberated into the marrow of his bones. A steam locomotive would take a mile to stop. The brakes bought him a few seconds. His feet thudded on the ties as he concentrated on keeping his stride even. The train’s headlight lit the trestle like a hundred coal oil lanterns. The trestle’s end was close. Then his foot missed a tie wedging his toes between timbers. He pitched forward, his forearms smashing into the rough oak driving splinters into his skin. He ignored the pain. The train was midway on the bridge. He scrambled up, but the boot stuck. He tugged. It didn't move. Reaching down he pulled the knot loose and ran, the coarse wood slicing into his socked foot. His shadow from the headlight crept toward him as the train rumbled closer, and the heat from its powerful beam warmed his back.
Desperately, he glanced toward the catwalk. Too late to lower himself down. A glint of metal reflected in the light. A ladder. He dived. Both hands grabbed one handrail. He dangled in the air as the train, with air brakes hissing and wheels screaming, missed him by inches. His feet flailed and found the ladder rungs. He eased his right hand over to the other handrail. His stomach heaved like he had swallowed a swarm of angry bees. He lurched to the side and threw up into the blackness. The engineer let off the brakes as the last car passed. Silence. His body shook and his fingers turned white from his grip on the railing. His breath slowed, and he stumbled up the ladder to go back for his boot. Gone. He vaguely thought how he would have to buy new ones, and money was short. The cloud-shrouded moon vanished, and rain trickled down making the ties slippery. He dropped to his hands and knees and crawled the last few feet off the trestle.
As he limped down the embankment, Will was waiting. Tom started to speak. Will lowered his head and charged him like a bull protecting cows. Tom slammed into the gravel and dirt, the rocks boring into his back. His bloody forearms took the brunt of Will’s punches. Will screamed in his ears. For the first time in his life Tom didn’t fight back. Will tired and rolled off of Tom, his angry wheezing breaking the silence.
“You damn fool. You stupid, stupid fool.”
Neither boy moved. Tom lay in the quiet, rain dripping on his face. Then Will grunted and raised himself up. He stuck out his hand to Tom. Tom took it and Will jerked him upright.
A train whistle moaned in the distance.
Watch for more adventures of Tom and Will in the young adult novel A STAIRWAY TO DANGER coming December. 2012.
High Bridge, Kentucky is a real place. The bridge, built in the late 1800’s, was for a time the highest railroad bridge in the world. My dad told me he and his cousin thought about crossing the bridge. He never admitted that they did.
Although the story is fiction, a number of people were killed trying to cross High Bridge. It is still in use as a railroad bridge.
I am active in SCBWI and a member of a local children’s writing critique group. I started writing children’s stories in 2008, and have completed over twenty works including short stories, picture books, middle grade and young adult.
For more information, please visit https://www.BooksByBen.com/
If you liked this story, look for THE HUNT, more adventures of Will and Tom.
by Ben Woodard / Children's / Young Adult / Historical Fiction have rating 3.3 out of 5 / Based on30 votes