Open 2022 Vasant Stories - Darrell Smith


The Pact
By Darrell Smith


In Appalachia it gets very dark at night. This night is no exception for the moon is just a sliver, high and obscured by black cumulus clouds against an even blacker sky. An occasional blue ray of moonlight pierces through to reveal a lone man walking on a railroad track. His face is directed toward the ground intent on seeing glimpses of his path home while sounds of the forest-covered mountainside follow his every foot step. He stops when the moon light peeks through the dense clouds allowing him to notice the approach of a long narrow bridge. The span of steel rail disappeared in a black-hole of night a few dozen yards away.


He mutters aloud as he approaches, "Well, I knew it was here, hell, not even a hand rail to hold on to. I just wish I had my dern pocket watch to know x’actly when the train was com'n. Course, the train is never on time anyway. If I cross here and follow a piece, I'll save an hour’s walk or better. On the other hand, if I go down to the road yonder it'd be a mite safer. I wish I knew what time it was gett’in to be."


"Lord, I aint a church goer like I oughta be, but I promise not to walk this old track again if ya get me across safe and sound. I guess this is where I'm supposed to say I trust ya, aint it? He looks upward and nods his decision. Flashes of lightening in the distance show faint outlines of the mountain’s ridge. A millisecond of brightness and just as suddenly, blackness again. The lightening stops, the darkness holds and another decision is made as he reluctantly begins across the bridge, one unsure step at a time.


Walking slowly, methodically at first, he carefully places his foot on the selected cross tie. In between the rails he catches brief reflections of the moon on the rushing river far below. On instinct his pace quickens. Each step is rhythmic and strides are long and calculated to ensure each foot hits its designated tie. With one monotonous step after the other he was closer to the end. Sounds of small creatures have left him.


Shards of lightening silently illuminate the distant sky beyond the clouds and mountains, much too far away to provide illumination. All that can be heard is his heavy breathing and the rush of the water on the rocks and shore below.


"I wonder just how long this old bridge is Lord? Gosh almighty it seems like I'll never get to the end of this."


Stopping, standing rigidly, his eyes move suspiciously to the corner of their holes, while he listens intently over his shoulder for a sound that as of yet is unheard. He looks downward to his barely visible feet as they feel the faint vibration in the timber. Stepping to the iron rail he placed one foot upon it and horror strikes his face. He begins to run and a whistle blows in the accentuating impending danger soon to come.


He looks to the heavens in anger and calls out... "God!" His voice echoes. His first inclination is to run as he takes an impetuous step… run, he thinks, “like the wind,” he says.


Several strides are made to do so, but then a strong impulse to return to his starting point comes over him, and he nearly acts on it. He turns, pauses, and hesitates yet again. What to do? In an instant he asks himself, go forward? Go back? How far have I gone, halfway or better than half way?


A distant but strong whistle blows again. The man runs, sprinting to best the train to the end of the bridge. Each stride is full and carefully placed. He stumbles in his panic, nearly falling through the wooden beams severely hurting his elbow. Painfully, he regains his stance and resumes the race.


In the cabin of the train the engineer is tapped on the shoulder and informed by the fireman the headlight is on the blink again. “Hey,” the assistant yelled to be heard over the immense sound of the roaring steam engine while pointing to the front of the train.


“I know. The damn thing does that every once in awhile. One of these days we'll run over something or somebody and never know it. Won't be on the bridge though, nobody’ll be out here this late nor fool enough to cross it on a night like this."


The assistant yells again to the engineer over the steady incessant churning of the massive wheels, "There it goes… it's completely off now."


"Don't matter none," the engineer yells through his cupped hands for a megaphone effect, "We're nearly home now. Just a few more miles pass the gorge, through the tunnel, and we'll be home in bed."


Making grunting noises and breathing heavy, the running man anguished inwardly, "If only the moon would appear so I could see how far I have to go. I'll jump if I get close enough to the end, I will if I have to Lord. I will.”


He heard and felt the loud bang of the heavy train hitting the bridge on its course to the other side. The race was officially on. The train was closing in on him and he knew it. It was difficult to run and look over his shoulder to barely see the steam bellowing from the massive vehicle appearing and disappearing in the night just a stone’s throw away.


His energy was nearly exhausted. Drawing breath was difficult. Sweat poured over his face obscuring his vision. He knew a decision was to be made. This was coming to a close. The rail eating monster blasted a shrill and deafening whistle, loud and strong as it closed in, now within just a few steps behind the runner. The men in the train were oblivious to the impending doom of a human being a few short yards away.


Looking over his shoulder once more he shook his head in defiance. Face to face with ultimate fear, he leaped off the track in to black night, wailing a terror-stricken scream, his arms grasping at air, and his feet searching for elusive steps that weren’t there. Miraculously, his hand found something, a pipe, old conduit to be exact, just two feet from his jumping point. Instinctively, his hand clutched it and its mate did the same, as the weight of his body bent the pipe nearly in two from the velocity of impact. The movement of the bridge whipped his body like a wagging tail on a dog while he dangled kicking, searching for something solid beneath him.


The cars of the coal laden train passed one by one shaking every inch of the bridge creaking under the weight of the train. The vibration challenges the man's grip until finally the dimly lighted caboose, filled with tired workmen, passes. The train is unsympathetic and ignores him. Now the bridge is still once more. The man was alone and isolated in the night, his life hostage to a bent and broken length of pipe, the undetermined strength or weakness of his hands, and his will to survive.


Struggling to maintain his grip he said to God through the whipping wind, "Why have you abandon me?” In his loudest voice, begging for an answer he wailed several anguished bursts of cries. His scream was blood curdling. With great speed, his echoed cry snaked along the mountain valley and upwards through the trees to find unprepared ears, startling the unwary residents of the hollows.


"What in the hell was that?" A father abruptly asked his teenage son.


"Who was that, ya mean. The hair on the back of my neck is standing straight up"


"I hope your Ma didn't hear it. She'll think it has something to do with her brother being over due from his trip."


"Well, where is he anyway? He shoulda been here long ago."


Like an unseen avalanche, another plea arrived, small and fainter with each reverberation.


"Com'on," the boy's father said, directing his son to go with him to the end of the porch. The man struck a match lighting the lantern.


"Jesus!" he blurted. "I didn't know you were out here."


"Do you think its Lester?" his wife pleaded to know, "Honey, is it Les?"


Husband and son held her tight and stared into the dark night. Only the twinkling lights across the hollow could be seen, as another panicked and pathetic plea came, followed by a trail of lesser audible cries of "help meeee." Lights in other houses began to light up as more and more people heard the cries.


Nearly ripping the screen door off its hinges, the father enters the small house to find and dial the telephone.


"Sheriff, there’s somebody on the mountain that.., you heard it too. Good. Where’s it com'n from... who can it be? Yes, I can. I'll bring my son he's old enough to help. We'll be there right away."


Across the hollow a woman sits alone at the dinner table before two place settings. An empty chair awaits the arrival of her husband. She is wakened from her prayerful trance by the sound of her little girl crying. ''I'm here baby. Don't be afraid."


"Daddy was calling me."


"Somebody is in trouble baby, but it's not Daddy. The police will help him and he'll be all right. Say a prayer for him honey.”


Whispering and stroking the child's head she assures her, "He's just late from work again, he's just late. Now you get to sleep and Daddy will come and kiss you when he gets home." Shhh, go to sleep...."


"Oh God, help him. Take him home, whoever it is."


The man's hands slip within an inch of the end of the pipe, and the same distance to the end of his life. His knuckles are white and wracked with pain. Quietly, he weeps and sorrowfully pleads for mercy.


"Please God, why must I go through this. Save me, take me from this, Oh merciful God, please."


His grip is determinate, vise like. His cries for help do not find an answer and his resolve wanes.


His shoulder hurt from his fall on the tracks, his weakened arms and hands allow another slip and the end of the pipe disappears into his pain wracked fists. Blood trickles down his arms and squirts from his tear ducts as he continues his pleas for deliverance from this horror.


"What do I have to do? I trusted in you and you didn't take me across. You told me to trust in you - what kind of a God are you?"


His words are hardly audible through tears and choking. "Why do you make me suffer like this? Just give me a sign."


A flash of lightning reveals the distance of the bridge he crossed and just as suddenly thrusts him back into darkness. He closes his eyes as lightning flashes again and again. The brightness is visible through his eyelids. Each time he opened his eyes he was in darkness and unable to determine how far he was from the water and rocks below. They were close, but how close? If he fell, would he survive the rocks or perhaps be impaled by the tree branches? His mind, and body, were terror struck.


He muttered aloud, “Believe in God, I've believed all right. Believe and you shall be delivered from harm. If you exist at all I know you've turned your goddamn back to me. It sure as hell looks that way, goddamn it! Anger was the partner of desperation but neither was there to save.


Hopeless, he muttered, "Nothing matters now, not life, not heaven, not hell. I doubt the deveil would help me now - you hear that devil, why don’t you save me, God won’t. Here’s your chance you son-of-a-bitch. If I DON'T die now, you can have me.Under his laboured breath, he cried to no one… “pretty safe bet, I’d say.”


Fingers and muscles no longer responding to the torturous commands from his brain, he involuntarily let the rusty threads on the pipe slip through one fist."I give up. I can't go on."One arm dangled at his side and his head bows to exhaustion, his conqueror.


In quiet dignity, through tired lips he whispers just one word before letting go, "please." His thought is immediately interrupted by the pounding of his body slamming into the ground after only a second or two in mid-air.


Like strobe lights, the night is turned to day for fractions of seconds at a time by jagged lines of electricity and deafening thunder was hovering above him while he was bombarded with the sensation of lightening also exploding in his brain.

Lying on his back, with his eyes wide open he is aware of the landscape surrounding him but unable to comprehend what has happened. Directly above, just slightly more than an arms-length away is the bottom of the bridge and nearby the entry to a tunnel where voices can be heard.


Beams of flashlights cross each other in the cool night fog frantically searching for the soul pleading for mercy in the night only minutes before.


"Hey,over here! Here he is. He must have been hit by the train and knocked off the bridge.”


"Careful son, he must be hurt really bad. He's in shock, for sure but he’s alive. Get the Doc boy, hurry!"


"Look at his hands Sheriff, they're bleeding but he doesn’t look banged up. Why, he’s been hang’in from that pipe there just a few feet above the ground. Look, there’s blood on it.”


“Well, I’ll be damned,” said the Sheriff. If only he had known he was this close, don't ya reckon? You were dangling only a couple feet off the ground buddy, but you’re okay now – you’ll be just fine."


Tears filled his upward staring eyes while his face became wet from the light rain, his mind unaware of those around him as his gaze focused only on the heavens. From the distant corners of the hollow, a low, taunting, human-like but evil sound rolls in close to him, muffled and disguised by the noise of the movement of the windblown leaves in the trees and the activity of the men nearby. It gains speed and volume as it comes closer but is only audible to him. He sobs innocently, knowingly.


Lifting his head, frightened by an unseen menace, the man asked, "Do you hear that?


“What? What’s that?” answered the Sheriff.


“Can you hear it?” said the man. “Can’t you hear it,” he insisted.


Looking up and around, catching the eye of a few of the bystanders, the Sheriff answers him. "It’s just the wind in the trees mister, we just hear the wind in the trees."


Darrell Smith grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and relocated to Oklahoma City in 1982 where he is a real estate broker and investor. In 1991, a story about Mr. Smith’s father was included in the book Angel Letters, by Sophie Burnham. He created, illustrated and published “The Big Branson Coloring Book” in 2021 and has published several short stories in 2022.


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