Albin, the Phantom Bandit, and the Waterwheel

By: Ed Rosenbusch

The waterwheel creaked as it slowly turned one revolution every thirty seconds while the cogwheels meshed with the teeth of the gears and hummed like a hive of yellow jackets.  As long as these sounds resounded throughout the basement of the Blackwell house, the villagers of Puddle-Basin did not have to worry.  If the waterwheel and the sounds did stop, the town would flood in a matter of hours and the loss of life would be terrible.

The village of Puddle-Basin, to its founders chagrin, was built at the bottom of a valley that was perpetually flooded by water.  Why the village was built there is a mystery to the villagers but it must have been erected during a very dry year for, if the waterwheel stopped or failed to pump the water away from the town, the water would flood even the highest window of the tallest building.

The village relied on the work of Albin Blackwell to maintain the waterwheel.  He was a strange boy not seen much by the public for a good reason.  Albin’s parents, when they were alive, were the town idiots.  The havoc his parents caused created many crises that earned his family their very own mathematical equation: Any Blackwell equals Crisis.  This held painfully true for his family.  There was the time Albin’s father clogged the sewer system and caused an outbreak of pinworms in the village.  Another time he felled a tree and it landed on the village dairy farm nearly bankrupting the family who owned it and causing a calcium deficiency throughout all the villages and towns in the valley.  Then there were the crises his mother caused.  She once hid a lit stick of dynamite in their neighbor’s chicken coop for the intent of seeing what an exploding chicken would look like.  The explosion ended up destroying not only the coop but the entire barn the coop was next to.  Regardless she was pleased with her new knowledge of exploding chickens.  There was also the time she held a séance in the baker’s horse barn and lit the place on fire.  It is needless to say all the bread was better used as charcoal than food once the fire had gone out.   The worst trouble they caused was when they intentionally broke the water wheel in order to have a public swimming pool in the village square.  They, in their stupidity, did not think of how fast the water would flood the village.  This is how Albin’s parents died; being swept away in a torrent of water while trying to make a swimming pool.  The town, however, was not moved by their deaths and no other family offered to maintain the waterwheel so the duty was passed onto Albin, eighteen and parentless.  Many of the villagers frequently questioned why the waterwheel was left in their possession, but the reason was all the same; the things the Blackwell’s broke, ruined, burnt, or flooded was never their own.

The day had been uneventful for Albin, for he slept most days.  The waterwheel was in perfect working order and the monotonous creaking and humming never missed a beat.  He was at his front door again, his wiry frame stretching from the ground to just under the top of the door jamb,  scrubbing off another AB = C in the fading twilight.  Out of the corner of his eye he spied his friends, Piety and Fenwick walking toward him.

“Hey Al!  How ya’ been?” said Fenwick, he always greeted Albin that way.

“I cannot say I’ve been better, neither can I say I’ve been worse today,” replied Albin.

“I can’t complain either,” said Fenwick, “How’s the ole’ pumper doin’?”

“She’s working as fine as the governor on Mr. Collins steam organ!” said Albin.

“Hey that’s great!  Now ya’ gotta listen to me, ya’ hear?” Albin nodded, “Good!  I overheard my pop telling my ma that there’s some kinda’ ‘phantom bandit’ runnin’ around.  He likes to bang things up a bit, ya’ know, break ‘em.  So I thought I might warn ya’ about it.  Mr. Baker is lookin’ to have you thrown out of the village if any more mischief happens.”

“I shall seek to be safe, Fenwick.  Thank you.” said Albin, Piety curtsied and they left around the corner.

Albin stepped out of the doorway for a moment and peered around the corner.  In his mind, Fenwick and Piety had shown him the beauty of love and Albin had never seen anything more beautiful than the two of them giggling and holding hands as they walked down the cobblestone streets.  They were not dating and swore that they were not into each other, but Albin could tell they were meant to be and most definitely not star crossed.  However, it sometimes annoyed him, because everyone thought he was a fool like his parents, the largest reason why no one ever shot him a loving look.  If only the villagers would give him a chance then they would know how much different Albin was from his parents.  His brow furrowed a bit and he turned back to his work.  He was not five feet from the door to his house when an icy gust of wind and the sound of running footsteps blew past him and knocked him down.  He sat there in a stupor for a moment; as he heard the door to his house slam shut, the sound reverberate of the facades of the other buildings in the vicinity.  Albin, as quickly as possible, ran to his front door.  It was locked so he began banging furiously on the door trying to get in.  In the midst of his loud hammering he stopped.  He sensed the humming of the waterwheel slowed and the creaking quieted down.  He ran, for a second, away from his house so he could see the top of the wheel from the street.  The great paddles with every passing second slowed until they jerked to a stop.

“No!” bellowed Albin.  As he returned to his wild pounding the villagers were peering out their doors and windows.

“Hey what’s going on?” called a neighbor.

“Blackwell’s beating up his front door!  Look!” shouted another.

“Ha!  He probably thinks the door bit him or something!” laughed a villager.

The villagers erupted into laughter as he continued to beat away at the door.  Suddenly the door swung open and the intruder ran out sending Albin falling forward into his house, overturning a rack of pots and pans that clattered loudly to the ground.  He didn’t care though, the waterwheel was broken and it needed his attention.

Albin rushed down and tripped on one of the stairs and went flying into knee deep water.  He surfaced and assessed the situation.  All of the pegs from one of the cogwheels were missing and there was a crow-bar jammed into the main drive shaft.  That’s what the intruder must have done!  He caused the wheel to jerk to a stop.

As speedily as possible, Albin collected the wooden pegs that were floating in the water around him and took them and replaced them into their holes in the cogwheel.  He then worked on pulling out the crow-bar from the drive shaft.  It took several strenuous tugs before it came loose and the waterwheel slowly began to turn again.  He returned to the street to tell the villagers that the problem was fixed.  But when he got there, the villagers began shouting their favorite refrain.

“AB = C!  AB = C!”

“Look, it turns again does it not?” said Albin.

“Yeah it’s turning, but go to the square!  All the shoppes have been flooded!

Albin looked toward the square and sure enough the area was flooded like his basement.

“How’d this happen kid?” yelled Mr. Baker, walking down the street.

“Sir, I haven’t a clue, sir,” Albin trailed off, “I’ve heard talk of a ‘phantom bandit’ on the loose.”

“A phantom bandit!  Right!  What is he?  Invisible?” asked a man from a second floor window.

“Is it not possible?  My parents said anything is possible!” said Albin.

“Your parents told you!  Ha!  Your parents did anything possible to het themselves killed!  They finally did with their last stunt!  Kid, take some advice, you parents were brain dead lunatics!” said Mr. Baker.

The villagers began laughing again as Albin slammed his door shut.  He was genuinely puzzled.  What had happened?  Had an invisible person really broken in to his house?  This he truly didn’t know and it hurt his brain thinking about the endless possibilities.  Then it came to him, a plan to see if this phantom bandit was real or not.

Then next day Fenwick and Piety came to his house like he had asked them to and they set out to fulfill Albin’s plan.  He was going to stand outside his door like he did when the bandit first struck.  Fenwick and Piety were to stay in his house with a trip rope at the ready to slow up the intruder.  They had set a tarp to fall onto the intruder once he or she tripped and landed amidst the pots and pans like Albin did the preceding day.  The volume of the clatter would attract the villagers and then the phantom bandit would be caught and blame lifted from Albin.

Albin, Fenwick and Piety took their places.  Sure enough the sound of swift running footsteps rounded the corner and an icy wind knocked Albin over.  Fenwick and Piety pulled the rope taut and the intruder tripped and crashed into the table full of pots and pans.  Like clockwork the tarp fell onto the intruder and, by this time, both Albin and Fenwick were on top of the tarp and the intruder, securely tying him up with the tarp over his head.

“What in the world is going on!”

“We caught him!  We caught him!” cried Fenwick, as he and Albin brought the tarp covered intruder out of his house.

“Well, let’s have a look!”

“Alright, shall we Fenwick?” asked Albin, and they flipped the tarp off the intruder’s body and there was nothing there!  Not being was visible!  With or without the naked eye!  All that could be seen was the rope that was around the invisible intruder’s waist and hands.

“Well where is he?”

“E’s is right here!  But, but e’s invisible!” said Fenwick, wide eyed and astonished.

“Right!  All that is, is a length of stiff rope nothing more!”

“We lie to you not sir!  Can you not see us struggle to keep him still?  Come, touch him with you hands so that you might believe!” said Albin in earnest.

“The only thing I’m going to believe right now is my dinner is ready!”

The villagers began to leave and Albin and Fenwick loosened their grip.  The phantom bandit jumped from their hands and began to writhe around.  One of the disbelieving men at that moment turned and saw the rope jumping about.

“Look!  They didn’t lie!” he said.

Some more villagers turned and saw the rope jumping about and they began pointing in astonishment.  After a minute or two the rope righted itself and sped off down one of the streets and clipped a man sending him flying to the ground.

“Hey kid, sorry I didn’t believe you.  Now, he got away!  How are we going to catch him now?” asked Mr. Baker

“The same way!” yelled a man.

“No, we cannot do that,” said Albin, “He will be wary of that entrance.”

“Then what are we going to do?” the man shouted again.

“I have an idea,” said Albin, “If you’ll accept my idea…”

“Kid were all at a loss for plans right now, if it’s to protect the waterwheel I’ll do anything.” said Mr. Baker

“Alright, we are going to fight the invisible with the invisible,” said Albin, “Do you remember when my parents took some fishing line and made it so thin you could not see it?   And how they thought it’d be funny when they strung it around the village square?  And how many became trapped in the invisible web it made?”

“Kid!  You’re a smart one!  I’ll go to the bait shop down the way and buy as much fishing line as I can,” Mr. Baker turned to the rest of the villagers, “Whose with me?”

“For the waterwheel!”

“For Albin!” joined in Piety.

“For Albin and the waterwheel!” cheered a crowd of people.

Within the next few hours the seamstresses of Puddle-Basin were hard at work sewing up three big nets, one for each street that led away from Albin’s home.  Albin was finalizing some maintenance on the waterwheel when Piety came down stairs into the basement.

“Oh, Hello Piety!” said Albin.

“Hi Albin,” replied Piety, “I was wondering if I could talk to you for a minute?”

“Of course!  What about?” asked Albin.

“About Fenwick,” she said, “I think he likes me.  What should I do?”

“Oh, finally!” exclaimed Albin.

“What!” she questioned.

“It is obvious to me that he likes you very much too!” said Albin.

“Really!” said Piety, her eyes bright.

“I have hoped you would realize this for such a long time!  Has he asked you out yet?” questioned Albin.

“Not yet… do you think he will!?” she asked.

“I’m sure of it!  Just wait and see!” said Albin.

“Oh!  You’re the best!” she said, giddy with excitement and bounded off while Albin smiled to himself.

“Kid, it’s time, the nets are ready!” said Mr. Baker.

“Alright, I’m on my way up,” Albin left up the stairs and out to in front of his house, “Alright everyone, the phantom bandit will run in one of these streets, once I give the signal raise the nets!  Ready?”

“Ready!”

Not five minuets after Albin gave his speech, the villagers hiding in the vicinity, head the patter of running feet.  For a third time Albin was hit by an icy wind that knocked him to the ground.  This time the invisible phantom bandit crashed through a window.

“Up!  Up I say!” he shouted, and the villagers hoisted up the nets.

Albin got up and they entire village listened as the calming hum of the waterwheel slowed.  There was an earsplitting crack and the wheel stopped and the villagers began shouting.

“The waterwheel!”

“AB = C”

Abruptly Albin’s other front window blew out and there was an immense pulling on one of the fishing line nets.

“We got him!  We got him over here!”

“Drop!” shouted Albin, and the villagers let go of their nets and a group of men tackled the phantom bandit to the ground.

Albin ran into his house and down to the basement where the room was filling with water and found the drive shaft axel had been dexterously split in two.  Several helpers followed and helped him pull the broken components out of their positions in the cogwheels.  It took Albin and three other burly men a quite while to lift the spare drive shaft axel into place.  The water was now up to their waist and they could hear screams coming from the street up above.  They could also hear the growing rushing sound.  Like a rogue wave, water began pouring down Albin’s basement steps and deepening the water already at their waist.

Albin and the men quickened their pace as they began hammering in the nails and screwing in the bolts on the shaft.  The water was just above their heads when there was one nail left to pound in.  Albin took his hammer and a deep breath and went to pound the nail in.  Under the water, he could not see well and accidentally nailed part of his shirt in with the nail.  Once he was done he tried to surface but was held down by his shirt.  He didn’t have any air left and his lungs were burning for just the smallest gasp of air.  His hands flailed above the water.  He made contact with another hand which gave a mighty pull and tore him away from the shaft.  He ruse to the surface and gasped for air.  His lungs singing with relief.

There was not much space between the water level and the basement ceiling anymore, only a mere six inches remained.  In the corner there was a ladder that led to the roof.  The men and Albin swam over to the ladder and pushed open the trap door in the ceiling.  Once open, more water rushed into the room and they had to fight the formidable down current as they climbed up.

Once on the roof, the wheel was still not turning and the streets looked more like rivers than roads.   There was no doubt that every house in the village had a destroyed first floor.  The men on the roof began pulling at the wheel to get it into motion.

“Kid, which way does she turn?” asked Mr. Baker, over the sound of the water.

“Clockwise!” shouted Albin.

They pulled and pushed with all their might.  Ever so slowly the wheel began to turn and finally resumed it thirty second rotation.  Fenwick and Piety were in a roof across from Albin’s house and at the sight of the turning wheel Fenwick kissed Piety on the lips and asked her out.

The men and Albin sat up on the roof for almost a day before there was enough water pumped out of the town to traverse the streets.  While they sat there, Albin asked a neighbor, who was the mayor, what had happened to the phantom bandit.

“Well son, I’d say he’s drowned and gone.  He was quite tangled up in that trap of yours Albin!  And I must say I have learned something in these past few days…”

“What might it be sir?” asked Albin.

“I was wrong about you Albin.  Just because you parents were fools didn’t mean you were.  I assumed you were a crazy as them but I was wrong.  Maybe, had you shown your gaunt face in society more often, we would have gotten to know you better and would not have ridiculed you like we have.  On behalf of myself and the rest of Puddle-Basil, I’m sorry.”

“You know sir, I have learned something too.  I should have shown my gaunt face in society more often.  It’s exactly like what you said!  I should have shown my face and proved to you that I’m not anything like my parents.  Frankly sir, had my parents survived their crazy pool idea I was going to go look for an institution for them.” said Albin.

And it came to pass that Albin was not one bit like his parents.  He became a friend to all and quite an expert in all things involving water damage.  After everything that transpired in those short three days let the entire town of Puddle-Basin know he was no fool.  And to this day the waterwheel has never stopped turning.  The shred of Albin’s shirt is still caught in the nail that he hammered into the shaft so long ago.  It is stuck there, never to come out.  It reminds him of how his family was be so very different than he was and that the past actions of his parents nailed him down as foolish and idiotic and how he let that be for so long.  But it also reminds him of how the situation of the phantom bandit tore him away from the label of his parents and gave him a new label, one where he did not equal crisis.

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