“Off The Rails” by Roger Britton
Nerves sometimes get the better of me. Charlie, the Assistant Scout Leader, and I had planned an exciting night-time tracking game for my Scout Troop. But, my university Sociology exams were the next morning. I had cancelled the game as I’d decided to study; then, at the last minute, I decided to go. I didn’t want to disappoint the kids. I rang Charlie’s wife to get a message across to the Scout Hall.
‘Joan, could you get a message to Charlie? I’m coming after all,’ I said, a bit embarrassed. Ask him to tell the kids the police have called. They need “scout help” to shadow a suspicious character through town. I’ll dress up as a baddie and be down near the railway crossing. If they can follow me through town without being seen, they can get their badges. Just don’t tell them it’s me.’
‘Righto, Britt,’ Joan giggled, ‘I’ll pass the word on to Charlie.’
I quickly donned a pair of black overalls, black sneakers and my black duffle coat. I even started to feel like a genuine “baddie”.
‘Here, love, how about I put some burnt charcoal on your face,’ my wife said, getting into the spirit of things, ‘and put this stocking over your head’.
I drove the 12 kilometres into town and parked my car well away from the Scout Hall. Walking down to the railway station, I was glad it was winter. I was sweating under my disguise. At right angles to the road, where the railwayline crossed, was a cattle-grate with a small culvert running beneath the road. Stepping over this with my hood up and stocking over my face was difficult.
Headlights alerted me that a car was approaching from behind. It slowly came abreast. I saw that it was the town’s police car. It passed and went on towards the station. A searchlight flicked on and the patrol car began a u-turn.
My God! I thought. If he comes back and checks on me, that will completely ruin my tracking game. I turned and ducked back to the cattle-grid, before the spotlight could reach me. I scrambled into the culvert.
Slowly the police car returned with the spotlight trawling between the fence boundaries. The car halted on top of the cattle-grid and the light shone up and down the railway line, searching. I was afraid the sergeant would hear my heart pounding below his car.
Not finding his suspect, the policeman cruised his car back down the main street. I breathed a sigh of relief. But, as he came near to the Scout Hall, a surge of scouts poured out. They saw the police car and surrounded it. I could hear their excited voices. I assumed that they were asking the sergeant about the “suspicious character” that the police wanted tracked.
The whole affair was getting out of hand. I realized that I would have to give myself up, and explain to the policeman that it was just a scouting activity, gone wrong. I crawled out of my retreat and began jogging towards the patrol car. Suddenly, one of the senior scouts looked up, pointed at me and yelled:
‘Look. There he is!’
I stopped. I saw that the kids had armed themselves with long tent poles, and a few had steel tent pegs. Hey, that wasn’t part of the plan. The troop had become vigilantes. Before I could shout “It’s me”, a wild roar came from the lynch-mob and they charged. There was no chance to explain, I fled. If I could reach the culvert I might be safe.
But the policeman had other ideas. Having lost me once, he was taking no chances. The spotlight fixed on me. The siren wailed into life and the scouts parted to let the police car through. There was no way I had time to dive into the culvert, unseen.
I realized if I kept running along the road I would be overtaken. I changed direction as I reached the cattle-grid. I darted along the railway line. The police car couldn’t drive along the railway line. It straddled the cattle-grid and the scouts swarmed after me like soldier ants. Then the police car did a u-turn and drove on a road parallel to the rail embankment, holding the spotlight on me and in my eyes. Any moment I expected to hear a gun shot! My imagination was going as fast as my feet were, as I jumped over railway sleepers. The embankment was built up about two metres high and, blinded by the light, I was worried I would tumble down the side. Suddenly, the police car sped up, and I guessed that he was racing ahead to the next road-crossing to set up a roadblock.
I had to get out of view and avoid the searchlight, which was now in front of me. I slid down the blind side of the embankment and doubled back in the darkness. The scouts had followed me down, but presumed that I had continued in the same direction. I had lost them. Finally I had a chance to catch my breath. I could hardly breathe through my face stocking. Silhouetted above me, I could see a few stragglers heading towards the point where I had left the tracks.
I began jogging silently back through the long grass. With a gasp, I tripped over what felt like a pile of soft dirt. One of the stragglers heard my crash and exclamation. He dropped down the bank and began running in my direction. I lay there, winded and gulping for air. The pile of soft dirt began to rise. A black cow rose in front of me, drawing up its rear end first, and the pursuing scout ran straight into its backside. It bellowed in distress, bolting one way, and the terrified, shrieking scout, in the other. Several pursuers scattered in alarm. That gave me the chance I needed. It was too dangerous to run blindly in the dark. Who knew what else I would encounter? I scrambled up the embankment and doubled back towards the safety of my culvert.
Once more the searchlight caught me and I heard the excited roar as the scouts, hound-like, turned and headed after me.
By now I was exhausted. Peter, one of my senior scouts, caught up and leapt on my back. I kept staggering on.
‘I’ve got him! Hey, it’s Britt!’
He recognized the badges on my duffle coat. Then he snatched off my stocking. Immediately he saw my blackened face and screeched: ‘Shite! No, it’s not!’
Peter let go and fled back to the safety of the heavily puffing pursuers. They now jogged along behind me, but kept a secure space between us. I reached the culvert, but could go no farther.
From behind a rail-crossing sign, two long arms reached out and grabbed me. My legs gave way. I turned to see Charlie, the Assistant Leader, laughing hysterically.
‘You OK, Britt? You look like you’ve shit yourself!’ Tears of laughter were running down his cheeks. Charlie called the lads in.
‘Righty-oh, boys, I’ve got the guy and it’s Britt.’
The scouts surrounded me, laughing and yelling. They had enjoyed the pursuit tremendously and were rather relieved to find that the “criminal” was their Scout Leader. Next, the Sergeant arrived in the police car.
A delighted Charlie explained all amidst laughter and tears.
‘When you rang up with that awful story about the “suspicious character”, Joan thought it would be a good joke to ring the police. She invited them to join in. But we didn’t tell the scouts it was you. It was their idea to arm themselves with tent poles and tent pegs. They even brought rope to tie you up.’
I looked at the ring of grinning faces. I shook my head: ‘You guys could’ve killed me!’
‘But, because you didn’t, you all get your tracking badge, OK?’
I thought it was better to hug the laughing Police Sergeant than thump him.
I passed my Sociology exam the next day with a distinction. My knowledge of Mob Mentality and Herd Instinct was brilliant.
And, for the next two weeks, every time I went into town, some smart alec would stop and ask:
‘Hey Britt, seen any “suspicious characters”, lately?’
© Roger Britton
Editor’s Note: This is a true story … honestly. It could only happen in the country, right? Thanks to my Country College mate, Roger, for this suspense-laden story. This is a good example of Creative Non-Fiction. See Lee Gutkind’s blog for a definition.