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Dead End

by Corey Brown

 

Sheriff Cyrus Johnson was suffering from a touch of indigestion the day the revolution arrived in Hammacksville. It whistled in on the one o'clock train, wearing a crisp black suit, top hat and silk checkered tie with a diamond pin big as a blueberry. Its name was Mr. Black, and in the leather bag at his side rested the invention that would reshape the world -- after Hammacksville rejected it.

Cyrus stopped by the train station on his way back from the Main Street diner, wishing he had a little bicarbonate to settle Alma's blue ribbon meatloaf. Mr. Black was checking his gold pocketwatch as Cyrus approached. "Right on time," the stranger said with a smile, and together the two men walked to the dusty two-room building that doubled as jail and town hall.

"Never seen a pet mouse before, Sheriff?" Mr. Black had caught Cyrus staring.

"Never seen a white mouse at all," Cyrus said, blushing a little. "All the ones we had on the farm were gray, and we had a pretty effective barn cat besides. None of 'em ever stayed alive long enough to be pets."

Mr. Black laughed, and stroked the silvery fur of the rodent scurrying across his shoulders. "Cerbie here is an ideal traveling companion for someone as transitory as myself. He eats little, and even participates in my demonstrations."

"I'm lookin' forward to that. Your telegram made some pretty big promises."

"I'm going to make you a rich man, Sheriff Johnson. You, and everyone else in this town."

"Afternoon, Mr. Black." Vernon Hallihan, all angles and chicken bones, waved as he pedaled by.

"Salutations, Vernon," Mr. Black replied. "I'm seeing your cycles as far away as Slocum County now."

Mr. Haverbrook, sweeping the sidewalk in front of his dry goods store, waved too. "Business is booming now, Mr. Black!" he shouted.

"Guess you were right about this not being your first time in Hammacksville, Mr. Black," Cyrus said. "Still don't recall having met you, though."

"Not before today, Sheriff. Yes, Hammacksville has proved fertile ground for my inventions, such as the chain mechanism I devised for Mr. Hallihan, or the apple peelers and vegetable dicers you see in Mr. Haverbrook's window." He waved at one of the women hanging banners in the town square for the Baptist revival. "How do you do, Mrs. Herbert! Do I still have an invitation to sample your delectable roast this Sunday night?"

Cyrus ushered Mr. Black into his office, where two other men awaited them. First to extend his hand was Mayor Alfred Whipple, a skinny man dressed in a gray suit so light it was almost white, flapping against his long shinbones and swinging from his thin shoulders. Around his neck was a stiff white collar folded down over a droopy black bow tie, not an eighth of an inch longer on one side than the other. Even the creases on his pants were straight; Cyrus was afraid to look at his own.

To Mayor Whipple's left was Randolph Jenkins, town councilman and local farmer. He stood with his arms folded across his chest, wad of tobacco puffing out one stubbly cheek, eyebrows raised in his perpetual look of bored expectancy. His old derby hat lay in the chair behind him, the same color and shape as a new potato. Cyrus frowned down at the mud still caked on Randolph's work shoes, and hoped that it was indeed only mud.

"Hironymus V. Black at your service, gentlemen. Such a pleasure to make your acquaintances." Mr. Black pumped first Whipple's hand and then Randolph's, bobbing his head enthusiastically. "Every time I visit your fair town I find it harder to leave."

"Well, we thank you," Randolph drawled. "Hammacksville suits us all right, I suppose."

"Mr. Black is offerin' us some kind of business proposition," Cyrus said, stroking his graying moustache. "He promised to -- how'd you put it? Plant the seeds of a new era in Hammacksville's town square?"

"Precisely," Mr. Black said. He picked up his small leather bag and placed it on Cyrus's desk. It landed with a heavy thump, like a cannonball.

"Gentlemen, I wonder if you have ever considered the very few advancements in the modes of human transit which have occurred over the ages," Mr. Black said. "We like to think of ourselves as a cultivated society, beneficiaries of wondrous science and technology, but upon closer inspection we are not so very far removed from our caveman ancestors. The wheel, domesticated animals, the railroad -- this magnitude of revolution has been rare. When was the last time a bold inventor furnished a new means by which men and women may travel across the surface of the earth?"

"What's in the bag?" Randolph wanted to know. His chin was propped up in his hand, so when he chewed his jaw moved more sideways than up and down, like a cow chewing its cud.

"Why, the answer to my question, Councilman Jenkins." The top of the bag fell open, and Mr. Black's hands reached inside carefully, moving with the softness and slowness of a farmwife picking up a newborn chick. He lifted something heavy from the depths of the bag, holding it reverently in the sunlight for just a moment before placing it on the desk. Polished metal reflected the gleam of the sun. "Gentlemen," he said with a wave of his hand, "I give you the internal combustion engine."

They all rose from their seats as one and crowded around the little device, huddling like schoolboys with hands on hips. They touched it, turned it around to look at it from different angles, fogged its impossibly shiny finish with the breath from their gaping mouths. None of them had ever seen anything like it before.

The device consisted largely of two long cylinders and a large wheel, the latter having thick curling spokes radiating out from the center to the rim. The two cylinders were set in opposition to each other, along a common center line, so the whole took on a symmetrical appearance. A series of linkages emanated from the two cylinders and connected to a common shaft, which also served as the axis for the large wheel. Various gears and sprockets gleamed with an oily sheen, and the entire machine was polished to a glassy smoothness.

"All right, you've stymied us," Cyrus said, rubbing the back of his neck. "What does it do?"

"I believe I know," Mayor Whipple said, shoving his way in front of Mr. Black. "I heard of such devices during my time in New Haven. It's something of an engine, like a steam engine, except that the working fluid is the fuel for its operation. Europeans have been working on them for some time. From what I have heard, they aren't yet practical for general use."

Mr. Black spoke not a word, but pressed a small button on the side of the device. Instantly it sprang to life, snorting and wheezing like a miniature horse. The large wheel started to whirl, slowly at first and then whizzing up to such a speed the curving spokes disappeared into a gray metal blur. Mayor Whipple, Cyrus and Randolph all jumped back from the machine, much to the delight of Mr. Black, who patted the device with the loving attitude of a man toward his dog.

"It is an engine, Mayor Whipple, you're quite right. Unlike some of the experiments of which you may have heard, however, this one is entirely practicable and appropriate for use by any citizen in these United States." Mr. Black's voice boomed out over the clash of the engine. "It may be mounted on any carriage and, with a minimum of fuss, be made to assume the role of a whole team of horses -- in a slightly larger version, of course. Its exact method of operation I will withhold until a more appropriate time, but for now suffice it to say that the engine converts the latent energy in a certain petroleum distillate to mechanical energy, specifically rotary motion as you see here." He pointed to the shaft at the bottom of the cylinders, which was spinning at a tremendous rate.

"By a certain petroleum distillate, of course, you mean gasoline," Mayor Whipple said. "A very volatile and dangerous fluid, if I remember correctly."

Mr. Black held up one finger to silence the mayor.

"Dangerous until now, Mayor Whipple. As you can see, I have no qualms about placing myself in close physical proximity to it." He patted the vibrating, oscillating device again. "For years it has been an unwanted, castaway byproduct of kerosene production, but no more. What was once its least desirable quality -- that inflammability you mentioned -- is now its strength. Only a small quantity of the gasoline is necessary to operate the motor, and yet the results are surpassing impressive. This particular model contains all the power stored in the muscles of a full-grown horse."

"A horse! You must be crazy!" Randolph guffawed and slapped his leg. "Mister, I'll believe that doo-hickey has some kick to it, but a whole horse? I'll be damned!" And he commenced laughing again, louder than before.

"An audacious claim, to be sure," Mayor Whipple said.

"How about this smoke coming out of here?" Cyrus asked, pointing to the terminal end of a long, bronze-colored pipe. "Is this something I want to be breathing?" Already the air in the office was taking on a slightly blue tint.

Mr. Black laughed. "Oh, no, that's nothing to worry about at all. I wouldn't deliberately inhale it, perhaps, but then again I don't go around sticking my head in my neighbor's chimney in the middle of winter, do I?" Cyrus shook his head, as though he were in a position to know the answer. "As long as the fumes are allowed to dissipate, there will be no danger." He looked up at the ceiling. "It's a big sky up there, Sheriff Johnson."

"Very well," Mayor Whipple said. "I'll grant you that this engine of yours seems to do what you claim. But, as you say, it will need to be coupled somehow to the wheels of the carriage it drives, and control mechanisms will be required. Have you devised solutions to these problems, Mr. Black?"

"A question which can best be answered by another demonstration." Mr. Black touched the small button again, and the motor's steady throbbing ceased. It might have been imagination or the blue smoke wafting around the room, but Cyrus could have sworn that Mr. Black's arms dipped into the little bag all the way to the elbows when he put the engine away. Before Cyrus or anyone else could speak, however, Mr. Black withdrew another object from the bag, something which made them instantly forget any previous curiosity.

It looked like an ordinary carriage, but Mr. Black held it comfortably in the palm of one hand. In the rear, behind the red plush seat, was a duplicate of the motor they had just seen, so impossibly small the flywheel was no bigger than a thimble. The wheels had spokes made of tiny wires, and the whole body of the carriage seemed to be fashioned out of old coat hangers and paper clips. In the seat of this miniature wonder sat the white mouse Cyrus had seen earlier, equipped with goggles and a leather cap, sniffing the air and wiggling its long whiskers. Mr. Black held the carriage up for inspection and then set it gently on the floor, stroking the mouse's head as he did.

"Here is my proof, gentlemen," he said. "Show them, Cerberus."

At these words, the mouse began frantically moving its forepaws, touching levers no bigger than straight pins, buttons the size of freckles on a ten-year old. He grabbed hold of a shortened knitting needle mounted on a segment of a chop stick just in front of him, and by swinging this attachment back and forth controlled the direction in which he rode.

"Well now, that is something," Cyrus said as Cerberus drove under his desk and did two loops about the legs of his chair.

"That's better than just about anything they have at those blamed three-ring circuses."

Next the mouse headed for Mayor Whipple, rolling between his legs without so much as scuffing the finish of his Eastern spats.

"Very impressive," he was forced to concede as the mouse turned figure eights around his feet. "Perhaps smacking a bit of side- show hucksterism, though."

Randolph was completely taken with the little creature.

"Ain't that just the cutest thing you ever did see? I'd just love to take him home and show him to Martha. She goes for that sort of cute stuff, you know." Cerberus rode by, working the steering bar for all he was worth, and Randolph bent down to stroke his fur. "I vote we take the offer and start making these...these horseless carriages right here in Hammacksville. Why, ever' farmer I know would want one come harvest time!"

"Now, wait a minute, Randolph," Cyrus said. "We don't know hardly anything about this engine, or the carriage, or even about Mr. Black here, if you'll pardon my saying so, sir. Do you think it's wise to jump right in without checking things out first -- "

"My feelings exactly, Cyrus," Mayor Whipple said. "Your carriage performs admirably, Mr. Black, but after all it is hardly more than a toy. Do you have a full-scale model which we can inspect, and perhaps even...test?" The mayor's eyes flashed at this last.

"Such a model would be cumbersome indeed for travel aboard a train," Mr. Black said. He picked up the model carriage, allowing Cerberus to run up his sleeve and onto his shoulders.

"But given a humble shop and adequate resources -- I know I could build one."

 *  *  *

And give him adequate resources the town did. Bertram Graham's old smithy came alive again with the clang of orange-hot metal. Even on the cooler spring days the blaze roaring within the gritty space belched a dragon's breath of smoky air out into the street. Strange alloys arrived at the shop from all over the country, and sometimes even Europe, cut to rough shapes that were later honed to a thousandth's inch perfection by the steady hands of Mr. Black.

"I'll say this much for him, he's got smith's blood in him from somewhere back," old Bertram told Cyrus as they stood outside one day, watching Mr. Black's hammer rise and fall.

"Never seen a man who could get a wood fire that hot."

"A hundred and fifty horsepower, as I live and breathe, ladies and gentlemen," Mr. Black would shout nights after a long day's toil at the anvil. "Dual carburetors, four-on-the-floor, a pocket rocket for every red-blooded American man to call his own. A top speed of not less than one hundred and twenty miles per hour." The townspeople walking nearby would shake their heads in wonderment and confusion. The top hat at Mr. Black's feet remained empty, save for a few coins and the five-dollar bill Randolph Jenkins had put there on the very first day.

"Dual overhead cams," Cyrus said to Mayor Whipple in the barber shop one day. "Five-speed manual transmission. What on God's green Earth is he talking about?"

No one knew, but it was clear what Mr. Black was selling. High speed, and plenty of it. "How would you like to feel the wind whistling through your hair at the rate of a mile a minute, good sir? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to leave the mightiest locomotive in your wake?" People gathered round, men especially, but wallets stayed closed. "You'll soon see!" Mr. Black told them. "The growl of a V-8 is too much to resist!"

At last the appointed day came, a Saturday, and the whole town turned out at the fairgrounds' quarter-mile track to see the carriage's maiden run. Pink parasols and brown derbies dotted the crowded grandstands.

"People of Hammacksville!" Mr. Black shouted, standing on the seat of the completed carriage. "In a very short while all your questions shall be answered, all your fears allayed, concerning the operation of my invention. The opportunity still exists to invest in my planned factory. I dare say everyone here will avail themselves of it before day's end."

Gentle laughter rippled through the crowd.

Mr. Black seated himself behind the steering bar, pressed the button to activate the carriage's engine, and drove around the track in thirty-six seconds.

"Twenty-five miles per hour," someone in the crowd calculated. "And from a standing start, no less."

Mayor Whipple was next to try, with Mr. Black riding shotgun beside him. After a few brief instructions, Whipple took the steering bar in hand and completed a lap in thirty-four and a half seconds.

"Exhilarating!" he shouted. "I reached forty-two miles per hour on the straightaway." Mr. Black had installed a velocimeter of his own design on the carriage so the driver could see how fast he was moving at any time.

Randolph Jenkins took his turn next. After him came Elmer Shadley, Wilbur Cartwright, and Dorsey Levine. Lap times dropped from thirty-four and a half seconds to thirty-three to thirty-one point four.

"Did you see how I kicked up all that dust coming out of the turn? Darn near had the carriage turned sideways!"

"Fifty miles an hour, it said! I could get from here to my brother's place in Spittin' Rock in twenty minutes!"

"Yes, ladies and gentlemen, today you'll have the chance to buy yourselves a spot on the ground floor of a new revolution," Mr. Black shouted. "Who wants to be next? Hop right up, ma'am. That's right -- don't be shy!"

Even Cyrus had a try, although he kept his average speed to a sedate twenty miles per hour, slower than almost all the men and several of the ladies. After all who cared to had taken their turns, Mr. Black posted himself at the start/finish line and dropped his top hat at his feet. From his doctor's bag he withdrew a ledger and a long quill pen. Mayor Whipple commandeered the carriage for another lap while the line of investors formed in front of Mr. Black.

Cyrus was first. He shambled up with a sheepish feeling in his gut, pulling a stack of rumpled bills from his pocket.

"Well, Mr. Black," he said, "I admit I had my misgivin's about your invention when you first came to town. Still not sure where all these people are in such a fired-up hurry to get to. But I'd hate to pass up a good investment with my golden years comin' on, so -- " He handed over the cash.

"No offense taken at all, Sheriff," Mr. Black said with a razor-sharp smile. "The skeptic has always been an important part of scientific progress." He dipped his quill pen. But

CYRUS JOHNSO

was as much as he wrote before a smash and a crunch sounded from the far end of the track, and all the ladies in town screamed at once.

Mayor Whipple had crashed through the wooden railing guarding the perimeter of the track and vanished from sight.

 *  *  *

The carriage was upside down in a ditch, wheels spinning slowly. Mayor Whipple lay nearby. The first to reach him pulled up and gasped, for they could see how his left leg bent out at a strange angle below the knee.

"He'll be all right," Doc Edmunds pronounced as a crew of men gently hoisted Whipple on a stretcher. "Might walk with a limp from now on, but I can't say he was one to do much walkin' to begin with."

"Oh, curse Horace Greeley and his frontier exhortations," Whipple moaned as he was borne away. "Why did I ever leave New Haven?"

The townsfolk watched him go, then turned to each other with the cowed expressions of children caught doing wrong. No one spoke for a while, though there were a few self-conscious coughs.

"Now, ladies and gentlemen, I can assure you that this is only a temporary setback." Mr. Black stood in the ditch beside the carriage, the ledger still in one hand. "I have inspected the carriage and found only minor damage. It is truly a hardy and resilient machine." He leaped up out of the ditch and cracked the ledger. "One worthy of your investment dollars."

But this time no line formed. A few at the back of the crowd began drifting away.

"Come now, dear people," Black said. "Surely you won't let one incident like this sour you on the opportunity of a lifetime! Had Mayor Whipple only adhered more closely to my instructions, he would be standing hale and hearty among you now."

The exodus became more general. A clatter of hoofbeats came from the fairgrounds road.

"Mr. Dempsey? Mr. Young, what about you? Mr. Coverdale, you begged me to let you take another lap." In his desperation, Mr. Black reached out and clutched a sleeve. "Wilbur -- Mr. Cartwright -- you promised to buy ten shares!"

"Well, Mr. Black," Cartwright said, gripping the brim of his bowler hat in both hands, "I guess I've decided I don't want to invest in your motor carriages after all."

"Same for me, Mr. Black," Elmer Shadley said, shaking his head. "They sure are fun to ride, but I just don't think they're safe."

One by one they offered their apologies to Mr. Black. The top hat remained empty.

"But the carriage functioned perfectly!" Mr. Black shouted.

"It was merely a case of an inexperienced operator pushing the vehicle too fast."

"Well, sure," Hiram Biggle said. "But if this happens with just one carriage, what would happen if we sold as many's it'd take to make us all rich?"

"But -- but safety devices can be installed. Belts of resilient fiber that stretch across the bodies of the passengers, and restrain them in case of a wreck. Or air balloons which would inflate upon impact, and cushion against the blow -- "

But no one was listening anymore. Within minutes only Cyrus and Randolph remained, along with the slump-shouldered Mr. Black.

"Mr. Black -- you think I could have my five dollars back?" Randolph asked. Mr. Black looked up with smoldering eyes.

"You people are all fools, do you realize that? You're turning your backs on untold fortunes!"

"Mr. Black," Cyrus said, letting his weathered palm gently brush the wooden handle of his Peacemaker, "Why don't you just let Randolph here have his five-spot back? Ain't gonna be no factory here now anyways."

For a brief moment Mr. Black looked as though he would put up a fight. Then the lines on his face deepened with dejection.

"Very well." He reached into his pocket and flung a wad of bills and coins at Randolph. "You and the other four investors can squabble over that. But when my carriages fill every street and horses have become mere luxuries, you'll have no one to blame for your folly but yourselves."

He brushed the dust from his suit, retrieved his hat and doctor's bag and stalked off without a word goodbye.

"What do you think, Randolph?" Cyrus asked as they watched him go.

Randolph waved the five-dollar bill. "Don't know about him, but as for me, I'm gonna go buy Mary one of them apple peelers Mr. Haverbrook's got."

The carriage was left in the ditch. A crew of farmhands sneaked out from the Dempsey place early the next morning with the intent of salvaging the metal, but reported back only that the contraption had mysteriously disappeared.

 *  *  *

At the train depot on the outskirts of town, old Mr. Eberhardt looked through iron bars at a well-dressed man with a handlebar moustache and stovepipe hat, moving to the head of the ticket line. The man's fine suit was covered with a patois of red dust, and his top hat was wrinkled. The man himself looked little better.

"Where is that train going?" the man asked. He dropped a shiny black bag, almost like a doctor's bag, at his feet. It landed with a thud.

"Eh? What'd you say?" Mr. Eberhardt pushed back the brim of his lumpy engineer's cap and leaned closer, exposing all six of his teeth in a friendly smile. "Couldn't hear you."

"I said, tell me where that train is going or I'll make you deaf in your other ear," Mr. Black muttered.

Mr. Eberhardt shook his head. "Louder, son," he said, and cupped a hand around one ear.

"I said, where is that train going?" Mr. Black jerked a thumb toward the snorting, steam-billowing locomotive behind him.

"You do sell the tickets around here, don't you?"

"Oh, that's the one-fifteen." Mr. Eberhardt squinted up at the ceiling, as if the schedule was printed there. "Runs to Montpelier, Wauseon, Toledo, Monroe, Flat Rock, and on to Detroit. End of the line in Detroit." He sucked a pleased whistle through the gaps in his teeth. "They been making that run for nigh on twenty years now. Feel like I could engineer it myself."

"Detroit -- now there's a possibility," Mr. Black said. He scratched the white mouse scurrying around on his shoulders. "What do you think, Cerbie? Nothing so complicated next time, not as much speed. A little two-cylinder engine, perhaps; no need for turbocharging at this early stage! Just a harmless new way to travel from point A to point B, safer than a docile old mare."

"What was all that, young fella?"

"I said I'll take a ticket," Mr. Black said, slapping bills down on the counter. "One way." With the orange stub clutched in his callused hand, he lifted his bag and strode off toward the train.

"All aboard," cried the conductor a few minutes later. "All aboard the Dee-troit Special." The steam heart of the great iron beast began to beat faster, puffing out dragon clouds of steam. Men and women ran along the track, waving handkerchiefs and derbies, calling out to those leaning from opened windows. Already the fireman's face was smudged by the roaring blaze a few feet away, but on he shoveled, till the sweat poured down his bare arms. The train moved away from the little station and began to pick up speed, shattering the calm of the clover-thick air with its whistle. *

Story copyright © 1999/2000 by Corey Brown <1234@mindspring.com>

Artwork "Mouse Trap!" copyright © 2000 by Romeo Esparrago <public@romedome.com>

 

 

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