by Michael Bracken
The Great Little Train Robbery first appeared in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.
When Buck Johnson rolled out of bed and his feet slapped against the cold hardwood floor, his thoughts weren’t on that day’s scheduled train robbery. Instead, he concentrated on leaving the bedroom without waking his wife, who was snuggled warmly on the far side of the bed.
Quietly, Buck gathered up his clothes from the high-back wooden chair and made his way out of the bedroom and down the stairs to the bathroom where he took a quick shower, brushed his teeth, and ran a comb through his long, unruly brown hair. He tried to comb out the tangle of beard he’d grown just for this job, but he quickly quit when the teeth of his comb caught in the knots of hair and pulled at his baby-soft cheeks.
After a quick cup of instant coffee and a stale Danish he’d reheated in the microwave, Buck pulled on his dusty, brown cowboy boots and finished tucking his red plaid shirt into the waistband of his faded Levi’s. He tightened his wide leather belt one more notch and patted his large, firm abdomen.
Buck quickly scanned the kitchen, confirming that he’d turned the stove off. He gathered up his bandanna and his chaps, and then he walked out the front door and down the steps to where his battered pickup was parked at the curb. The engine protested twice, and then turned over. Buck sat in the cab of the truck and waited for the engine to warm itself against the cold morning.
Finally, Buck dropped the old truck into gear and pulled away from the curb. If things went well, he’d be back with his family before the sunset, but Buck had been involved in too many robberies to expect everything to work according to schedule. Something was different every time and he knew there was no way to be prepared for the unexpected. No way to be prepared, that is, except by constant practice and by being alert to everything that happened.
After driving through town and then another thirty miles up and down the mountains, Buck turned off the main highway and drove through the open gate in a chair-link fence. The pickup bumped and bounced the next four miles along a road that alternated between potholes and asphalt, until he turned again onto a dirt lane that extended almost a hundred yards to a small tin shanty.
Buck pulled his truck to a halt beside a station wagon and noted with satisfaction that Roger Wilcox had already arrived. The thick black smoke pouring from the stovepipe informed him that Roger had already started a fire in the potbelly stove.
Buck stomped into the shanty and clapped his big hands together. “Sure is cold this morning,” he said.
Roger looked up from his morning paper. “Don’t that beat all,” he said as he shook his head. Long black hair fell into his eyes and he brushed it away. Like Buck, Roger sported a full beard that brushed his chest whenever he looked down. “Caught the weatherman this morning, though. Should warm up by nine.”
Buck grunted and stood by the potbelly stove. “When’d you get here?”
Roger consulted his wristwatch. “Almost an hour ago,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep. The first day always makes me nervous.”
“Me, too.” Buck smiled.
“Larry should be here soon,” Roger said. “He’s got the guns with him.”
For two weeks the three men had been planning for this day, carefully timing the train as it left the station until they’d decided on a spot just after a series of curves that brought the train to a slow crawl and just before the train could accelerate down a long, flat stretch of track. At nine each morning the train’s whistle would throw a piercing scream into the air and the engine would chug out of the last curve.
For two weeks the men had planned and practiced until each knew his part as well as he knew his own name. Buck was confident that the day would pass without any goof-ups.
They both heard the third car at the same time. A moment later Larry Cavanaugh opened the door while juggling three carbines and a pair of holsters with six-shooters in them. His own six-shooter was in a holster strapped to his hip.
Larry dumped his load on the shanty’s only table, then wiped at his handlebar moustache. Larry was stocky like the other two men, but he wasn’t nearly as tall.
Another car door slammed and a moment later a petite blonde followed Larry through the shanty door.
Buck collapsed into a chair. “What’s she doing here?” he asked.
“Boss’s orders,” Larry responded.
“At the last minute?” Buck asked. “We’ve been through this thing almost a hundred times. We don’t need anybody messing it up.”
“I’ll stay out of the way,” the blonde said as she struggled to unload the black case she had slung over her left shoulder.
“He called last night,” Larry said. “What could I say? When the boss wants to send somebody else along, I’m not going to argue with him.”
Buck glanced over at the woman. At least she’d been smart enough to dress for the part, unlike the last one the boss had sent along–the one in the spike heels and short shirt who’d never even made it as far as the train tracks.
The blonde had taken out a small pad and a pen and was doodling on it. Buck introduced himself.
“I’m Betty Brandon,” she told him when it was her turn for introductions. “And don’t mind me, honestly. I won’t mess up anything.”
After that, Buck pulled on his leather chaps and secured them in place. Next, he strapped on his sidearm, grateful that Larry had volunteered to clean all the weapons the night before. He pulled the six-shooter from the holster, loaded it with shells from his belt, and returned it to his holster. Buck picked up one of the carbines, balanced it in the palm of one meaty hand and, satisfied with the feel of it, began loading the rifle as well.
“So, how long have you guys been doing this?” Betty asked.
“Four years,” Buck said. “It pays the bills.”
Larry had been working the longest—almost eight years. Roger had joined in only a few months after Buck when a previous member had quit.
“The first time each year is the hardest,” Larry said.
“What do you guys do all winter?” Betty wanted to know.
“Rest,” said Roger.
They all laughed at that, and Betty seemed pleased with his response.
Roger glanced down at his watch and began to load the remaining six-shooter. “It’s almost time,” he said as he adjusted the leather thong that tied his holster tight against his leg.
The three men filed out of the shanty and began the long walk to the train track. Betty gathered up her case and followed them. At the track they split into two groups. Larry took Betty and moved to the northern side of the tracks while Roger and Buck remained on the southern side.
Buck reached into his pocket and pulled out his bandana. He folded it into a triangle and then tied two corners of it behind his head. The bulk of the bandana covered his nose and mouth. Roger did the same thing with his bandana.
“Get ready,” Buck said to his partner.
As the train rounded the bend, the two of them leapt from the bushes and fired their carbines into the air. The engineer saw them and pulled on the train’s brakes.
“It’s a robbery,” the engineer yelled as the train squealed to a halt.
A dozen Instamatics flashed. Fifty preteens squealed with delight. Dozens of parents laughed and pointed toward the two heavy-set men in cowboy suits. Any moment now, Larry would come striding around the end of the train, the silver star on his chest gleaming in the morning sun.
Betty Brandon stood off to the side, out of the robbers’ way, snapping photos for the next edition of the town paper. The theme park was officially open for the season when the first great little train robbery occurred.
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