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Endeavour’s Fall #2: Steamshovel Sam

Nov 20, 2016

Early spring storm Up the kite flies
When lightning descends Everyone dies

– The Curse of Benjamin Franklin, from Poor Richard’s Heraticks

Sam Mack dug away in the granite hills of the Adirondacks all morning until dust of crushed rocks mixed with locomotive smoke and filled the whole valley to the brim. Pale sunlight streaked in rays through the tattered treetops.

Sam used the steam shovel like a fifth limb. His hands and feet flew between the three knobs and two pedals without a glance. He felt the weak spots in the stones through the controls. He raised the heavy arm and brought it smashing down in just the right spot until the boulders crumbled, and he scooped them away into a large, dented tender car on the rails behind him.

Sam knew the ore would be rolled down to Switch to be refined, then rolled to the lake or through Albany to a ship to England where it would be manufactured into, well, everything. The Empire only allowed the simplest items to be poured in the colonies. Things like chains and rails. Rails to chain the colonies together, from the Haudenosaunee borders on north and west to the Gulf of Mexico in the south.

Usually, excavation work was something that Sam enjoyed. But this morning Sam could not focus on his work. He loosened the straps on his knee for the third time that morning. The metal gears were wound tight. Sam’s metal leg was not what was really distracting him.

It was already late morning. Sam and his family had been working since breakfast. Sam decided to tell his parents during lunch.

It would be best if he avoided telling them that the warning had come from Emma Dunbar. They might not believe the Deacon’s daughter. Also, it would just make his brothers’ teasing worse. “Emma and Sammy, sitting in the scree, K I S S…” Ugh.

Sam did not hear the shiny black 4-4-0 train arrive. Two men on a crawler just appeared like a spider-legged phantom in the smoke.

Sam’s brother Al was the first to see them. He stowed his shovel and was already running towards Pa before Sam noticed the intruders. Sam let the steam out of his shovel and turned to watch the articulated legs of the complex machine negotiate the torn rocks and tailings, clickety-clacking the entire way.

The valley grew quiet as each of the Mack boys shut down his tools. Pa pulled dusty goggles from his head and hailed the visitors from atop the locomotive. Pa’s chin and nose were black from engine smoke, so he wiped his face on his sleeve. It didn’t really help, just smeared the dust and dirt around a bit.

The men on the crawler stayed well back from the train. Sam shivered. These must be the men in black Emma had warned him about. One gangly one even had the yellow accents on his clothing she had described. Maybe this was Reverend Dimsdale. Maybe he was not as bad as she’d warned.

“Hello there, how can I help you?” Pa called out.

“You are the proprietor of this locomotive?” Dimsdale’s voice was thin, with a refined accent. Sam could tell he was not from anywhere near Switch.

Dimsdale’s companion peered at a forked device in his hand. He looked up and down the length of the train, and Sam felt like he could see right through the wooden walls.

“Yes. This is our train and our claim, by lease and Imperial Charter. I don’t mean to be inhospitable, but I’m going to have to ask you to state your business or move along,” Pa said.

“Sir, you and your family are subject to an Imperial Writ,” said Dimsdale.

Pa clenched the handrail tightly. Ma came out of the car behind him. She briefly put a hand on his shoulder. Then she took one look at the visitors and quickly turned and went back into the train.

“Mister, I don’t know what you mean. We are up to date on our payments. I know the end of the season is coming, but for Newton’s sake…” said Pa.

“We are not from a bank,” Dimsdale interrupted. “The Star Chamber does not concern itself with financial instruments, only ecclesiastical law.”

“So under ecclesiastical law,” Pa asked, “as I understand it, there is always some kind of a trial?”

Dimsdale’s thin cheeks pulled back tightly in a cruel smile. “Yes, in fact there is a very particular type of trial for cases like this. Are you prepared for your trial?”

Sam noticed the men’s shiny black 4-4-0 train for the first time back on the spur. Two white bones crossed on a black shield embossed on the boiler. A strange high-pitched whining noise, not at all like a locomotive engine, arose from one of the cars. It grew louder and louder.

“What in Newton’s name are you talking about?” Pa asked. “Bring on your trial. We can explain anything you like. How about Sunday? We will talk to you down in Switch, on Sunday.”

“That won’t be necessary.” The crawler skittered back away from Pa, as Dimsdale stood erect and kept talking. “This trial is quite conclusive, and simultaneously provides immense educational value.” Again he raised his hand, as if in farewell.

Before anyone in the family could react, a bright white light filled the valley. Lightning leaped from metal appendages at the front of the shiny black locomotive. The lightning shot along the tracks, arcing and branching into the air, until it found the caboose at the end of the Mack train.

Then the glowing white energy seemed to possess the train itself. The train sparked and smoked and lurched violently into the air. Sam’s steamshovel threw him into the shallow pit he was digging. He covered his head with bleeding arms and cowered in the shadows.

The lightning only stopped when a loud boom shook the ground. Debris and smoke filled the air. The locomotive’s boiler had exploded.

© J. O. Evans 2016. All Rights Reserved.