The Red Rocket Railroad Excerpt
THE RED ROCKET RAILROAD
The Secret of Black Maple Woods
The Black Maple Woods were haunted.
At least that’s what anyone who followed the narrow paved road away from the city, up into the rolling foothills of the White Lion Mountains thought. It was there where you’d come to the edge of the Black Maple Woods, and although named after the Black Maple, no one could actually remember seeing one. Probably because so few people had ever dared venture too far into the Black Maple Woods. It was supposed to be haunted, after all.
Travelers would, however, stop at the Faraway Farm produce stand. Sitting at the top of a small valley tucked in against the outer fringes of the Black Maple Woods, Faraway Farm was famous all over the coast for its produce stand. Shelves groaned under the weight of big juicy peaches, sweet corn cobs, luscious beets, fresh rainbow trout… in fact, almost anything you could ever want to put on your kitchen table could be found at the Faraway Farm stand. The old farmer and his wife always greeted their customers from the city with a cheery smile and would be happy to pass the time chatting about the weather, what was in season, and which were the ripest fruits. However, if ever the conversation drifted to questions about the nearby Black Maple Woods, they’d carefully change the subject, perhaps pointing out something like how exceptional the rhubarb was this year…
Today was like any other late summer afternoon. Cars were pulled up to the farm stand and the farmer and his wife were busy chatting with their customers, who, as usual, were too busy squeezing fruit and sampling grapes to pay any attention to the narrow gravel drive that wound down through the trees to the Faraway Farm farmhouse, a brightly-painted, rambling 100-year-old wooden building, cloaked in flowering wisteria and clematis and surrounded by neatly manicured gardens brimming with roses and lavender. But the neatness only extended so far. Behind the farmhouse was an old barn in which sat a collection of the type of machines one would expect to find at a farm; a tractor, plows, hay bailer, manure spreader… but they were all rusted and obviously had not been used in many years, with the tractor now home to a family of swallows. From the barn, a patchwork of fields sloped down to a small emerald-coloured lake in the distance, with the ocean just visible through the trees that ringed the end of the lake. But curiously, instead of neat rows of corn, cabbages and orchards laden with fruit, all that grew in the fields were long grasses and wildflowers that swayed in the late afternoon breeze that typical summer afternoon at Faraway Farm.
But deep inside the Black Maple woods, it was far from a typical summer afternoon. A small hairy animal in faded overalls hurried along a narrow path that wound between tall cedar trees. It was late in the day, far too late for a small Otter to be out alone in lower Black Maple Woods. Normally by now he would be at home in his cottage under the old willow tree on the banks of Coldwater Stream, curled up in his favourite chair. But the fish weren’t biting today, so he had lingered longer at Bear Creek than he should have, and he was getting worried.
Twilight was the time of day when Swamp Rats emerged from their damp underground tunnels near Skunk Cabbage Lake, looking for their evening meal. Otter didn’t have any fish in the sack that was slung over his shoulder, but that didn’t matter, barbequed Otter was right up there with Mouse Pie in Swamp Rat cookbooks. Otter dug a paw into the pocket of his faded jeans and felt the familiar handle of his battered pocketknife. He might need it before his journey was over.
Daylight fades early in the deep woods, with familiar and friendly trees taking on unfamiliar and unfriendly shapes and a couple of times Otter thought he could see eyes in the gloom.
A sound of fluttering came from the trees next to the path. He stopped, sniffed the air and strained his ears. But all he could hear was the thump, thump, thump of his heart. He pulled the tattered red scarf from around his neck and mopped his brow. Even though it was getting chilly, he was sweating. A twig snapped, followed by more fluttering. This time he heard a faint cry: “Help!”
It could be a trap to lure him into the woods, or it could really be someone in trouble. Otter knew he couldn’t just leave them there.
He dropped the sack, pulled out his penknife and opened the tiny blade. Holding it in front of him like a sword, he took a deep breath and stepped off the path and into the trees. After a few steps, he could make out something moving at the base of an old cedar tree.
“I warn you, I’m armed.” He growled.
Otter rushed over to find his old friend, Woodpecker, his feet caught tightly in a wire noose.
“Otter. Thank goodness it’s you!”
Otter took his penknife and in seconds had sawed through the wire, freeing his friend. “Swamp Rats!”
Woodpecker got to his feet, but fell down again. Otter rubbed Woodpecker’s feet. “You’ve got to get your circulation back. Were you trapped for long?”
“At least an hour.”
Otter looked around him. The woods had become even darker. “I can’t smell any rats but at this time of day they won’t be far away. I think it’s time we both got out of here. Can you fly?”
Woodpecker flapped his wings and landed on a branch above Otter.
“I’m fine, but you’d better get moving. It’ll be dark soon and you still have a long way to go.”
“OK. Good luck, Woodpecker!”
Woodpecker fluttered up through the branches and disappeared.
Otter trotted down the path, anxious to put as much distance as he could between him and the Swamp Rats hunting grounds.
The trail ended abruptly at Coldwater Gorge. Normally Beaver would be waiting on this side with the cable ferry but Otter was late and the ferry was tied up at the other side with no one around to bring it back.
The ferry, actually just a very small dingy, was the only way to get to the heart of the Black Maple Woods which, so far, was free from Swamp Rats, as they almost never crossed Coldwater Stream. Either they couldn’t swim but more likely, they were too lazy.
Otter took off his hat and overalls and stuffed them in the sack. He put it between his teeth, waded into the stream and started swimming for the other side. Even with his extra layer of fur, he shivered, but it wasn’t just the cold water that chilled Otter, Coldwater Gorge was where huge, slimy Stream Snakes lived and he’d rather face a hundred Swamp Rats than one Stream Snake.
Fortunately, the Stream Snakes were either busy bothering someone elsewhere, or asleep, and Otter made it across the water without incident. Shaking himself off, he pulled on his overalls. Above him loomed Greyhawk Bluffs, where the path narrowed to what was really just a narrow ledge, running up the bluffs. He slung the sack over his shoulder and started the slow climb, almost loosing his footing in a couple of spots, sending rocks spinning off into the stream far below. This would not be a good place to meet any Swamp Rats that might have strayed over the stream.
Which of course, was exactly where he met them.
A tall, thin rat blocked the trail in front of him. Although he was armed with a long, sharp stick, Otter quickly sized up the rat and was pretty sure he could take him on. If that didn’t work, he could always retreat back down the trail. Otter turned at the sound of falling rocks behind him. A short, fat rat slithered down the cliff face, blocking his exit.
Otter backed up against the rock face. The fat rat poked his stick at the sack.
“What’s in the sack?”
“None of your business.” growled Otter.
The skinny rat grinned, revealing a row of sharp yellow teeth. “In that case we’re eating roast otter tonight.” He raised the stick behind his head like a golf club.
Otter braced himself for the impact when skinny rat dropped his club and clutched his head. Otter looked up to see a brightly-coloured bird hovering above the rat.
Woodpecker swooped back down on the skinny rat, who was now cowering on the ground, covering his head with both paws. Fat rat had recovered from the surprise and swung at Woodpecker with his stick, which Woodpecker easily dodged.
“Run for it, Otter”! shouted Woodpecker.
Otter put his head down and charged fat rat. The rat dodged to one side and leaped onto Otter’s back. Otter rolled over, trying to dislodge the rat, but it hung on, claws digging deep into his back.
Woodpecker tried to help Otter, but in the writhing mass of snarling hair and fur, he couldn’t make out what was rat and what was otter. Spotting a long mangy tail, Woodpecker swooped down, grabbed it in his beak and yanked hard. Fat rat yelped and let go his grip on Otter, at the same time, skinny rat took a swing at Woodpecker, missing and hitting fat rat instead. Howling, fat rat fell to the path and rolled – right over the precipice. Skinny rat dropped to all four paws and peered over to see where his companion went. Otter seized the opportunity, and aimed a kick at the rat’s backside, sending him flying over the edge to join his companion in the stream below. Both rats hit the water with satisfying splashes. They surfaced and, as Swamp Rats often do, started fighting among themselves.
“You hit me!”
“You were in the way!”
The sounds of their bickering faded as they drifted downstream.
Woodpecker landed on a rock in front of Otter. “I saw them climbing the bluffs ahead of you and thought you might need some help.”
Otter grinned. “I’m glad you did. I can usually smell them long before I see them. I guess I was upwind of them. But how did they get here? They can’t swim and we haven’t seen a rat on this side of the stream for ages. Most unusual…”
They said their goodbyes and Otter continued along the path. Even though daylight was long gone, the moon was now up so he could see the trail quite clearly.
If Woodpecker had not been so busy defending his friend Otter, he might have noticed a strange looking vessel tucked in close to reeds that lined the stream about a mile downstream from the gorge. Only ten feet long, to a casual observer it looked like any model boat you might see in a park pond. But if you looked closer, there was something strange about this model… It was actually just a collection of rough boards lashed to dozens of empty plastic water bottles. At the stern of the barge, a crudely painted board proudly announced her name was Swamp Lady, although there was nothing ladylike about her – or her crew for that matter. They were a collection of mangy-looking Swamp Rats, carrying sharpened sticks and clubs wrapped with lengths of Devil’s Club spikes. Standing at the bow of the boat was a large weasel, wearing a tattered coat that looked like suspiciously like it might have been made from the skin of various small animals. A rat seemed to be having an argument with the weasel;
“But Weasel, we still haven’t heard from our advance scouts at the Coldwater Gorge if it’s safe to go any further!”
The weasel sucked his teeth and looked up the stream. “We can’t wait, we must be through the Coldwater Gorge before daylight. If not…”
The weasel leaned in to the rat, who recoiled more from the stench of rancid weasel breath, than fear. Weasel reached out a hairy paw and plucked a whisker out of the rat’s snout. Tears welled up in the rat’s eyes, but he said nothing.
“… I will pluck more than a whisker from you.”
The rat scurried off, gulping in sweet, fresh air.
With much squeaking and grunting, Swamp Lady was pushedoff from the bank and polled slowly upstream.
It was almost midnight by the time they reached the gorge and as it was dark, they didn’t notice two very bedraggled Swamp Rats standing shivering on the rocks, waving frantically at Swamp Lady. Even if they had been noticed, they probably wouldn’t have been to picked them up, Swamp Rats aren’t very sympathetic creatures and besides, they had a schedule to keep and no one wanted to make Weasel angry.
Further upstream and deep in the Black Maple woods, the only light reflecting off Coldwater Stream came from a small window carved into the clay riverbank beneath an old willow tree. Inside was a cozy little cottage with cedar bark carpets on the floor, a rickety kitchen table made from pieces of a wooden fence, and a bed made from willow branches. A comfy armchair that looked like it once belonged in a child’s playroom, was placed in front of a small stone fireplace, in which a birch log fire blazed merrily.
Otter poured a cup of dandelion tea, and peered into the shard of mirror propped up on the shelf above the fireplace to examine his ear. He picked up a pair of tweezers and carefully pulled out a tooth. “That’s one less rat tooth I have to worry about the next time I make that trip.” Settling into his armchair he stuck a paw into the sack and rummaged around, pulling out a box of brass nails. “Raccoon will be happy to see these.”
Next he pulled out a bag of cloths pins. “Miss Coyote has been waiting for these.”
He reached in again and pulled out an old Popular Mechanics magazine, studying the cover intently. “Build your own backyard brick kiln. Build your own barbeque. Build your own railroad…”
He opened the magazine, and turned to the railroad article, which showed photos of a miniature backyard railroad, with diagrams of switches, plans for stations and the plans for a fully working scale model steam locomotive!
By the time Otter finally finished reading, the fire had died down to embers and his mug of tea was forgotten. He put the magazine down and poked at the embers with what looked like the leg of a camera tripod.
He leaned back and closed his eyes. He’d first seen Faraway Farm when his father took him there when he was just a pup. For generations, the animals of Black Maple Woods had been farming; fruit, vegetables, corn, berries…Otter had tried his paw at growing tomatoes but the patch of ground in front of his cottage was too cool for the tomatoes to fully ripen, so he turned to fishing. As they produced far more food than they could use, the animals traded with the couple who owned Faraway Farm, making the long trek through the woods, where they’d leave their produce in wooden cases tucked behind the farm stand, in turn picking up items like nails, cloth, kitchen utensils, books, etc. They’d pick up a list of produce the farmer wanted, and leave a list of what they wanted in its place – carefully scrawled out by either Otter, or Raccoon who were the only ones among them who could write.
Unfortunately, the trail from their farms to the Faraway Farm stand wound through Lower Black Maple Woods, which was Swamp Rat territory and numerous times they had been attacked by bands of hungry Swamp Rats, who would rob them of the contents of their baskets and in some cases carried away the smaller animals who were never seen again.
Otter picked up the magazine again and looked at the photo of a model train. “If we had a railroad through the forest, just imagine how much easier it would be to get to Faraway Farm…”
© 2015 Adrian Raeside