I hunkered down near to the rail track. I was just outside town; I’d spent the day there, panhandling without much success, but I didn’t want to spend the night in an alleyway or doorway. Small town folk, especially cops, didn’t like hobos, so I’d walked a mile or so out of town and found myself near a small rail shed, obviously used for storing equipment. I planned to move on the next day. There wasn’t much shelter, but the weather was warm and the sky was cloudless. It wasn’t the worse place I’d slept. I’d lost my job as a meat packer in Chicago in January 1933; I’d drifted west hoping for salvation. Six months and no luck later, I found myself in Colorado, still hungry, still poor.
I was about to drift off to sleep when I saw a figure standing over me. I tensed, it was normal for railroad cops to hassle us drifters, moving us on if we were lucky, beating the crap out of us if we weren’t, but I hadn’t expected to encounter any so far from town. My eyes focused and I realized it was an old guy, maybe seventy.
“Please, I mean you no harm. I live in the house on the other side of the gorge. I know what it’s like to be poor, to be homeless in these hard times. I’d like to offer you a hot meal and a warm bed for the night.”
The rail line ran alongside a steep gorge before turning south into town. I looked across the gorge to the warm yellow lights of a mansion. This guy was obviously loaded, probably ran a charity or something. I didn’t normally accept such generosity, but I was starving. The offer of food was too tempting.
“Excellent, now just follow me.”
The old guy headed across a bridge that extended across the gorge. He reached about halfway, stopped, turned and motioned me to follow. I stepped onto the bridge.
“Come on, young man. Keep up!” called my new friend.
I took another step and found myself falling. I felt a crunch, then nothing.
I woke in a hospital bed. A nurse stared down at me.
“You’re awake. Good.”
“You fell, luckily for you a tree broke your fall. It also broke your ankle, your femur, your arm and four ribs, but if it hadn’t been for those branches, you’d probably be dead. The others are.”
“You aren’t the first to fall. Didn’t you notice the bridge is out?”
“I guess I didn’t.”
“You guys never do, just straight across the bridge without looking, then boom, you walk right over the edge.”
“Isn’t there a barrier, to stop people falling?”
“There was, but the town can’t afford maintenance men anymore, so when it fell into the gorge last winter, it was never replaced. There have been five deaths since then, all drifters.”
“What about the old guy? I saw him reach the middle of the bridge.”
“He’s Henry Lansing. The millionaire owner of the Lansing House, the big mansion you can see on the other side of the gorge. He built the house in 1860, built the bridge over the gorge in 1863. He died in 1892.”
“By all accounts he was a very decent person. He got upset after the war by the sight of dozens of ex-soldiers wandering through town, moving from railyard to railyard. But instead of getting the police to move them on or arrest them, he’d come over the bridge into town and invite them back to his place for food and a place to sleep for a couple of nights. Converted one of his stables in a barracks.”
“I don’t understand.”
“His ghost still walks, comes over the bridge and invites people back to his place. He’s still trying to do good, all these years after his death. You guys hunker down at the rail shed, he appears, invites you over. The mansion is still lived in and looks welcoming, but there’s one problem. He can walk across the bridge. You can’t.”
“Exactly, he doesn’t know the bridge is out. You follow him, watch as he walks over the bridge. It’s dark, you can’t see the planks, but you can see him, so you follow. When he steps off onto the missing part of the bridge he stays where he is. When you do it, you fall.”
“So, it isn’t malicious? Evil?”
“No, but the outcome is the same. After all, they do say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I guess he still sees the bridge as it was, doesn’t realise he’s killing you.”
I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe her.
“One thing always makes me wonder though.”
“What he thinks when he arrives on the other side with no one following him. I wonder if he gets upset?”
There was no answer to that.
∼ RJ Meldrum
© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.