Steam Engine

A verse from The Woodland Chronicles

Cold thick rain falls heavy onto the still passenger car as midnight strikes. The departure horn screams and the burly steam engine begins to crawl pulling the passenger car down the track. A shadowy figure, quietly scurrying in the dark, rifling through as many bags as possible knows the get-away window is beginning to close. In short order, the steam engine will have too much speed to jump off safely. The dark figure is quiet, but the loud thoughts keep getting louder…

“Why can’t I find anything?”
“I need to get the hell outta here!”

In a mild panic, the figure accidentally kicks a small case while looking for anything of value. Suddenly still, peering quickly through the dark, the shadow holds in a few breaths. Hoping not to have alerted any sleeping passengers. Not wanting to leave completely empty-handed, the dark figure grabs a small hunk of metal that fell out of the case. It’s time to go. The loud thoughts, again, getting louder…

“Get the hell off this heap!”
“The steam engine has too much speed.”

The mysterious figure steps through a narrow opening out of the car. The only thing left to do is jump. The steam engine is going faster now than the other times. The time to jump is now or never. The figure leaps! Crashing hard and rolling into an ankle-deep mud puddle. Cloak completely covered in mud, the shadow looks back with a glance over the shoulder at the rolling steam engine and pauses. Then looks to the aged and dirty hunk of junk cupped in both hands. Wasting only a few seconds before quickly scattering from the tracks to the safety of the thick wooded darkness.

– – –

Today, for the third time in two weeks, the Westriver steam engine will stop in a downpour at noon.

The weekly arrival of the steam engine can be quite the happening in Woodland. That steam engine carries a sense of promise on-board. But lately with this never-ending rain, the merchants in Woodland are on edge… No farmers, herders, or merchants out. No travelers about. Rain water rushing and mud everywhere always causes the market to dry up. Everybody in Woodland knows the market thrives when the strangers arrive. But the travelers over the last 2 weeks only stay as long as the steam engine stands still. Arriving before noon and departing by midnight. With the train due to arrive shortly. The sheriff bears the rain yet again to put up a dry batch of bounty flyers. The sign reads:

25 Gold Pieces for the capture
of the “Midnight Bandit”

If you have any information,
contact Sheriff Marks.

First, crossing the would be dirt road from the Sheriff’s quarter to the oldest, rickety building in town, the Riverside Tavern. Sheriff Marks rips the old soaking wet and tattered flyer down off the Riverside tavern entrance to hang a fresh copy. He walks into the tavern. “Loud-mouth” Johnny and his rag-tag crew are already playing cards. The sheriff isn’t surprised. In Woodland, only the rats and trains maintain their routine when it rains.

The sheriff walks past them to the bartender and hands her a copy.

“Here ya go, Fran. Keep an ear open for anything, will ya?”
“Sure thing, Sheriff. How long’s this been going on now anyway? 3, 4 weeks?” Fran asked.
“This time?” the sheriff pauses. “3 weeks, maybe longer?” he replies.

Stepping out from Riverside, even over the pounding rain, the sheriff can hear the train rolling down the track from a distance. Impressive for the law man whose seen better days.

To avoid the pond of mud between Riverside and the Westriver Steam Engine loading area. Sheriff Marks makes a semi-circle from Riverside to the train. Heading back across the street in front of his quarter, then to the right, towards the loading area to greet any travelers who might be stopping in Woodland.

The steam engine comes to a stop just as the sheriff is about replace another bounty flyer. The first man off the train was a sight to see. The sheriff couldn’t help but take notice. Taller than normal folk traveling through Woodland. With broad shoulders, wearing a long black coat that came down past his knees. The man sees the sheriff holding a few flyers under a little roof at the loading area and approaches him with a few slow smooth steps.

“Are you the sheriff here in Woodland, sir?” asked the man.
“Yes, indeed,” said Sheriff Marks.
“Good. Then you’re just the man I’m looking for. I’m Inspector Bruce,” the man stated.
“I’ve come from New Cap to investigate a stolen valuable. A valuable I believe your…”
as Inspector Bruce reaches for a flyer from Sheriff Marks, “… ‘Midnight Bandit’, has stolen.”
“Do you have ANY new information or whereabouts concerning this person, or item?” asked the Inspector.

The sheriff takes a deep breath and exhales.

“No,” replied the sheriff.
“Nothing other than we had somethin’ stolen from a traveler each of the last 3 times a steam engine headed north from here. Maybe more?”
“Seems like you have a problem on your hands Sheriff,” the Inspector says eagerly.
“Every couple years, some smart ass pulls something like this. Thinks they won’t get caught. And they always gets what’s comin’ to them,”
chirped Sheriff Marks.
“This time ain’t any different.”

With a slow turn of his head from left to right the inspector takes a long look over what he can see of the town. Other passengers start filing out of the passenger car behind him and the rain inexplicably starts to lighten up.

“So this is Woodland,” the inspector says as he looks at the bleak, dreary, and vacant marketplace. “Sounds like this bandit is forming a pattern. How do you deal with rodents here in Woodland, Sheriff,” asked Inspector Bruce?
“I don’t do rodents, Inspector. Hell… over these last weeks, they prolly just drown,” said Sheriff Marks. “Well in New Cap, Sheriff…”, says Inspector Bruce, “… to catch a mouse, we set a trap.”

– – –

For years, with or without a flood, travelers and regulars alike have managed to drown themselves at Riverside. Now, the weeks-long downpour has all but stopped and the standing rain is slowly flowing from the streets toward the high waters of the Misty Stone River. Drowning in a bottle will soon be the lone danger once again.

For as much good the steam engine represents for the locals here and the merchants on board the engine, one cannot forget this is Woodland. Strangers are common and the commoners can be strange. Nobody is to be trusted. With all the comings and goings and the complete lack of familiar faces. All sales, trades, and agreements are final at the Woodland marketplace.

As the Sheriff and Inspector head toward the Sheriff’s quarter with many things to discuss. Many passengers continue to emerge from the train and unload their goods. Others step out looking for a dry space or a wet drink when they hear a small cheer coming from the old Riverside Tavern.

“Looks like he got ya!”

“Loud-mouth” Johnny likes to let each and every person at Riverside know when he, or his right hand man Golden Brown, takes a game down. And with some strangers rolling in, of course Johnny thinks it’s his time to shine.

“Any of you lookin’ for a game? Take a seat right here. Any of you lookin’ for a name? Take a seat right here. Any of you ladies want to give me your name? Please, take a seat right here,” Johnny says.

From behind the bar Fran yells, “Shut up and sit down, Johnny.”

Johnny smiles, then Johnny sits.

Not more than an hour passes since the arrival of the Westriver steam engine before Sheriff Marks is out making a racket, ringing the bell outside his quarter, hoping to get the attention of as many people as possible through the town. Travelers on the loading platform immediately turn their attention to the sheriff’s quarter. Others step out from Riverside covering their eyes from the sun peeking out. A larger crowd moves through the mud street from beside the marketplace.

“Gather ’round now and listen up,” the sheriff barked.
“By now some of you know we had a little trouble the past couple times the steam engine was through here. Things goin’ missing, yada, yada… The reward is now 35 gold pieces for this – ‘Midnight bandit’. If you know anything about this person, I’ll be here in my quarter,” as Sheriff Marks points over his shoulder towards his quarter.

“Also, we’ll be opening the marketplace in about an hour,” said the sheriff.
“Still soggy, I know. But I’ll get this show on the road,” as he looked over to the loading platform peering at everyone to see if his midnight bandit could be among them. This is not the first time Sheriff Marks has encountered a cops and robbers scenario here in Woodland. And with the market about to crank back up, and the steam engine set for another midnight departure. He knows all too well this last round of cat and rat is just getting started.

Inspector Bruce is silent, standing alone outside the Sheriff’s quarter familiarizing himself with the lay of the land. The trading post is an open area and is finally about to be flooded with people instead of rain. He smirked and had one single thought cross his mind.

“Sooner I nab this bandit, sooner I can get the hell outta Woodland.”

Be sure to check back for more Woodland Chronicles!!

2 replies to ““Midnight”

  1. Johnny and his rag-tag crew approve. Especially of the card-playing part. …But who IS this “Midnight?” How will Inspector Bruce set this trap? So much steam building in that engine… The people demand answers!

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