The Cut
Chapter 3
© 2002

“The cut starts there,” Brock announced in an awed whisper.

“We have to cross this?” I asked the obvious.

The surface of the bridge was an open deck—nothing more than railroad ties and steel rails. The ties were ten feet long and spaced closely together—no danger of slipping between the cracks. There were no handrails or walkways, no safety nets or escape routes. It was not the place to be when a train came shooting out of the cut.

“Is this safe?”

“Hell, yes. It holds up a train loaded with coal.”

Shawn laughed.

“I mean is it safe to be out there? What if the train comes?”

“We get wet.”

Brock led us out onto the bridge, tentatively at first. A ten foot wide bridge sounds spacious enough, but at night, over a river, with a train approaching somewhere in the distance, the bridge became a delicate ribbon over the water.

Our steps became more confident, but we stayed between the rails away from the edge. Thirty feet out, Brock stepped over the rail and paused.
“In summer, we dive from here.” He waited until Shawn and I joined him. Keeping well back, I leaned forward until I could see over the edge. The water had a black, oily look to it like molten tar sliding silently by. “It’s about thirty feet. The water’s plenty deep to the right of the support.”

For the first time I was able to see what held the bridge up. A series of concrete pillars rose out of the black water. Gigantic steel beams stretched from one to the other. The railroad ties lay across the beams. We were standing over the first support. Eight feet below us the support offered a small platform the size of a card table.

“Every summer, some stupid little kid is too scared to jump from up here, so we talk him into lowering himself onto that little landing. What he doesn’t know is that you have to be about seven feet tall to climb back up. The kid has no choice but to jump. That’s always good for a laugh. There’s a rope swing under the bridge by the shore. That’s fun too. Wait till this summer. You’ll love it.”

Without further comment, Brock turned and headed farther out on the bridge.

“Seriously,” I said at length. “What do we do if the train comes?”

“Run. We can make it back from here. Or, we could jump down and hide on the support.”

As we neared the opposite side, I was able to see the beginning of the cut. The bridge came right out of a rectangular notch at the top of a sheer wall of rock like an absurdly long drawbridge across a castle moat. The top of the rectangle was open, but the trees on either side arched over and nearly met, forming a canopy. The bridge was anchored to a concrete abutment that blended into the wall of rock forming a deep ledge. Brock stepped onto the ledge and leaned against the cliff wall. Shawn and I joined him.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” Brock said. “You’ve just completed the most dangerous part of this adventure. Listen.”

Below us the water sounded angry, a hissing roar, a wave constantly breaking on a rocky shore.

“This side of the river has a nasty set of rapids. You don’t want to fall in here.”

With my back to the rock, I was able to look across the black water to the field where our car was parked. Even in the moonlight, there was something peaceful and safe over there. I felt a longing to be there. Brock got out his little flashlight and checked the time.

“Eleven o’clock. I’m not going to kid you. There is an element of danger in the cut, but the danger is in losing your head and panicking. The train moves at thirty-five miles an hour through the cut. The cut is about two hundred yards long. According to the rules of the game as established by The Mad Turk that infamous night, you have to be halfway through the cut and you can’t begin running until the train’s headlights come around the bend. Those headlights show up when the train is a half a mile away from the cut. The question becomes this: can you run one hundred yards faster than a train can run a half mile clipping along at 35 mph? I’ve done the math. It will take that train 51 seconds to get to the cut. Can you run 100 yards in 51 seconds?”

He looked over at me and waited until I nodded that I could.

“There is a catch,” he cautioned. “You won’t be able to run at full speed because of the railroad ties. You can’t run next to the track because there is no ‘next to the track.’ You have to run on the ties. It’s like running through the tires at practice. You have to take measured steps. Your head has to be looking where your feet are going to land at all times because if you trip, you’ll lose precious time. The main thing is . . . ," he paused, “you have to ignore the freight train.”
Brock pushed himself away from the wall. “It’s time.”

We stepped back onto the tracks and turned into the cut. It was a long corridor, pitch black with only a sliver of moonlight visible at the far end where the hill tapered back to track level. The moonlight flooded the landscape on the far side of the cut.

Brock unzipped his pack and pulled out a black ski mask and a pair of gloves. “Put these on,” he commanded.

I took them from him slowly, trying to advertise my doubts about this venture.

“It keeps the engineer from seeing us on the track. If he sees us, he’ll try to brake, but that won’t do any good. That train, loaded with coal, wouldn’t be able to stop for a mile or two. And it’s better if no one knows that somebody’s been running the cut.”

As he talked, he pulled his watch cap down over his face and he lined up two eyeholes that were cut out of it. Then he slipped on his gloves and drew them tight on his hand by flexing his hand as he tugged at the wrist. He looked like a terrorist ready to take hostages, and that is pretty much how I felt—like a hostage. I know that the smart thing would have been to refuse—just say, “You guys are nuts!” and walk away. But that is so easy to say in hindsight. I was new in school, and these two were the closest thing I had to friends. They were also teammates, and I wanted to play football in my senior year. I didn’t need to be an outcast in my first week of school. The bottom line was that I wanted to be accepted. There, I admit it. I’m one of those stupid people who will do anything, including risking my life, to be accepted.

At least that was true for that evening. I think I’ve grown up in the last few weeks, and I know for a fact that I don’t need acceptance that badly anymore. I’d rather be an Untouchable than Homecoming King any day rather than face the freight train again.

I watched Shawn pull his mask and gloves on and then they both looked at me expectantly. I placed the ski mask on top of my head and pulled it down over my face. It was the moment of truth. It was that moment when I committed myself to being a part of this insanity. My heart started to pound, and I wished that my father sold shoes back at Winfield.

Brock pulled out his flashlight and lit the railroad ties before us. As we progressed, the walls rose straight up on either side, seeming to narrow as we went. The arch of light illuminated the walls a short distance in front of us and deep shadows accented the uneven surface. The cut had been blasted and hacked through stratified layers of rock that bulged up from the earth’s surface. Great chunks of stone the size of engine blocks had been removed, leaving an irregular surface of angles and corners and deep holes.

As we walked along the track, we were silent. I focused all my attention on the distant track beyond the cut, waiting for lights to appear around the bend. Our feet scraped along loose gravel and the sound echoed and magnified itself in the narrow canyon. Halfway through, Brock stopped and held the light on a painted block of stone protruding from the wall. Most of the white paint had worn off, but there was still enough remaining for it to be easily noticed.

“This is the halfway mark. This is were The Mad Turk was when they first saw the light.” He held the light on it and we stood without speaking—almost as if we were at some holy shrine that demanded a moment of silence.

“Now what?” asked Shawn.

It was a ridiculous question. Obviously we had to wait for the train, but I knew what he meant. What were we going to do until the train came around the corner?

Waiting in silence, thinking about the possibility of not being fast enough was a terrifying prospect.

“We wait,” Brock said calmly.

“What time is it?” I asked. What I really wanted to know was how soon?

Brock aimed his flashlight at his watch.

“11:27. Just a few more minutes and she’ll be comin’ round the mountain.”

Brock dropped his light into his fanny pack and broke into song:

“She’ll be comin’ round the mountain when she comes!

She’ll be comin’ round the mountain when she comes!”

Shawn joined in and Brock threw his arm around his shoulder as they sang a duet. Shawn’s voice became stronger and I started to feel left out again. I joined in, and Brock threw his other arm around my shoulder. The three musketeers.

“She’ll be comin’ round the mountain.

She’ll be comin’ round the mountain.

She’ll be comin’ round the mountain when she comes!”

A distant shriek of metal on metal cut through our song and we stopped. There was a moment of silence while we held our breath and then we heard it again—tortured metal screaming in the night as the conductor hit the brakes miles away, cutting the speed down to 35 miles per hour. A soft wind was carrying the distant sounds and they faded or increased with the gusts. The steady bass rumble of the engine brought itself to notice, faded out, then returned and held. The brakes screeched again and we looked at one another. In the shadows of the narrow chasm, I could only see the the dark shapes of Shawn and Brock. I did not need to see their faces to know what they felt. Our silence said it all. Death was approaching.

We turned and stood like marathon runners, crouched sideways, one foot leading as we waited for the starting gun. Our eyes were fixed on the distant track beyond the cut.

“At the end of the cut,” Brock said in a final moment of instruction, “the walls taper down gradually, not like the bridge end. The wall on the left continues beyond where we have to run. You’ll know when you’re through. The wall on the right drops away suddenly. Once you pass the drop, jump to your right and roll down the hill.”

The throb of the engine grew louder, and as we stared into the distance, we began to see the glow of the train’s headlights. Shawn blew out a lungful of air, clearing his nerves like this was the beginning of a championship game. I puffed out my breath also, and so did Brock. We started to rock on the balls of our feet trying to get into some kind or rhythm so that when we saw the lights swing around the bend we would already be in motion. There was another series of screeching metal, and the glow intensified. The tops of distant trees were being illuminated by the train.

“She’s coming!” Brock yelled. “She’s coming!”

A light blinked as the train passed behind a stand of trees and Brock took off. I pushed off and the train swung onto a direct course for the cut. The rails became white hot ribbons that converged at a rapidly nearing ball of light. I watched Brock ahead of me pumping his arms and legs in a high stepping, tiptoe sprint. My toe caught on a railroad tie and I lurched forward awkwardly for two steps.

Ignore the freight train, I reminded myself. Watch your footing.

I looked down at the ties and saw Brock’s shadow dancing at my feet. As I measured each mincing step, I watched his shadow gradually pulling away from me. And then I went down. Hands had scraped down my hip and my right foot came up hard against something. I had been tackled from behind. My hands flew out defensively and jammed into the gravel of the track bed.

“Brock!” I screamed as I watched his shadowy silhouette getting farther away.

I scrambled to my feet and noticed Shawn, motionless, face down, an arm draped over the rail. He had tripped and pulled me down. My right heel must have caught his face.

“Jesus, Shawn! Get up!”

I tugged at his arm and felt resistance. He was conscious, but stunned. He drew himself to his knees, using me for support.

“Shawn! Get up! Come on!”

The train’s engine throbbed like a deep, wavering drum roll. I stripped my arm from his grip and swung around behind him, jerking him to his feet in a bear hug.

“My ankle!” he shrieked.

I ducked my head under his arm and took his weight on my neck. Instinctively, we turned and ran away from the oncoming rain. Can you run 100 yards in 51 seconds? How much time was left? How much deeper into the cut had we run before we went down? Can you run more than 100 yards in far less than 51 seconds? Can you do it dragging an injured friend?

Shawn and I quickly settled into a rhythm. He could put some weight on his right foot, and with my support, we hobbled along at a good clip. And then I saw the white rock—the halfway mark.

There couldn’t be enough time to run one hundred yards. It seemed like we had already spent fifty seconds in the cut. I glanced back into the blinding headlight of the train. Brock was still in the cut, a distorted black shape dancing in the wash of the powerful light.

“Push it, Shawn! Push it!”

The throbbing engine sounds grew louder, funneled toward us now by the walls of the canyon. We had been stepping on every other tie. Now we were pushing our stride to cover three. Shawn cried out with each step, but there was nothing that could be done except to push on.

The rhythmic movement of our pace, accented by Shawn’s cries, our shadows stretching out before us, the pulse of the engine, and the blur of railroad ties beneath our feet became our world. And, as strange as it may sound, I found that I was able to “Turk it.” I was ignoring the freight train at our heels, focused only on the task of running as fast as possible to safety. We were nearing the end of the cut and I tried to picture the ledge on each side of the doorway. There would be no rolling down the hill on this side. If we didn’t make a deliberated turn right at the bridge, we would shoot out over the edge and into the rapids. I was about to steal a glance over my shoulder when the pitch of the engine changed dramatically. It became an angry roar that rumbled through the cut. We could feel it in our bodies. The train had entered the cut.

At thirty-five miles an hour, the train would chew up two hundred yards of track in seconds. That blast of sound seemed to push us physically as if we were running with a stiff tailwind. Our speed increased with our terror, but at the entrance we had to make a deliberate halt, inviting the train to slam into our backs. Shawn pushed my arm away and jumped to the left. I leaped to the right. The train roared between us.

Once I hit the platform, I curled up into a tight ball against the cliff face, hiding from the menacing power of the train. I still felt threatened by its power as if it could rattle me off the shelf and into the abyss. I covered my head as if a tornado was passing by.

Once the engine went past, the rhythmic clacking of the coal cars seemed relatively safe, and I thought of Shawn. I had assumed he made it—that he had duplicated my dive to safety. I also assumed that Brock had made it through, but the only thing I could really be sure of was that I had made it through.

The coal cars seemed to go by forever. I sat up and stripped off my ski mask and gloves. I tried to look between the blur of cars for Shawn, but it was impossible. I cradled my head in my arms, my knees pulled up tight. My breath was still coming in gasps, and I don’t think it was caused by a hundred yard three-legged run. I had almost been killed! And not just killed, but mangled under tons of rolling steel. That was an enormous thought. I looked up at the moon and shivered. That same moon could be looking down on a very grizzly scene. The train continuing its journey to Con Ed. Brock’s car sitting under the trees at the edge of the field. My father coming home to find my bed empty while I would be spread along a stretch of track like strawberry jam.

When the last car went by, I was amazed at how quickly it carried the noise away with it. I looked across the tracks and saw Shawn. He too was sitting up, and we shared a look that expressed everything I was feeling about my own mortality. I crossed the track bed and looked first at the receding caboose. Then I looked down the cut. A light was waving back and forth. Brock was running back through the cut to see what had happened to us. I didn’t think he’d see me even if I did wave. I didn’t shout because I really didn’t want anything more to do with the great Brock Duffield. He had nearly gotten us killed. Instead, I flopped down next to Shawn with my back to the cliff once again. His face was a red smear. The blood from nose and lip had been soaked up by his ski mask. Taking it off had spread blood all over his face.

“How’s the ankle?”

“It hurts like hell,” he winced. “I don’t think it’s broke. Probably sprained.”

There was a long silence.

“Thanks,” Shawn said, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard that word said with as much sincerity—maybe I never will again.

“Man, that was close!”

We looked at each other and just shook our heads.

In a few moments, Brock’s flashlight beam announced his arrival. Neither of us said anything as he trotted by. He must have sensed our presence, maybe he smelled our fear. His head whipped around and he stopped. His shoulders dropped with evident relief.

“What happened?” he whispered, and I really do believe he thought he would find us dead.

His flashlight beam centered on Shawn’s face.

“Jesus! What happened?”

Brock dropped on his knees in front of us and waited.

“I tripped,” Shawn explained. “I twisted my ankle when I landed wrong on a tie.”

Brock focused his light momentarily on Shawn’s ankle and Shawn looked over at me.

“I fell and dragged Brian down with me.”

“Your face!” he said in an awed whisper.

“I caught his foot on the way down. I think my nose is broken,”

“I thought you guys were dead,” he added in the same tone.

“The train came this close,” Shawn indicated an inch of space between his thumb and forefinger. “When I leaped aside, the train blew by.”

“We were already deep in the cut when he fell,” I explained. “We turned and ran.”

“You ran away from the train?” he asked in disbelief. “Why didn’t you Turk it?”

“We didn’t have time to do the math,” I hissed.

Brock helped me guide Shawn back to his car. We rode home in silence.