The Rocket

fiction about inventors

Short Story

The morning had a crisp chill to it that had only just started to give way to the sun that creeped lazily over scattered clouds. Between rolling clover-covered hills a red barn partially obscured a boxy stone farmhouse. A pastoral silence blanketed the land only to be shattered by the excited mooing and then the frantic awkward gait of cows retreating. Two men soon joined them.

“You really did it this time,” The younger of the two shouted while clutching his hat.

“Just shut up and run, boy,” the older man responded, letting his own hat fly off into the wind. When the two passed a stone wall they tumbled over it and hid. A low rumbling started from the direction they had run from, it was pierced by the shrill screech of steam escaping and then replaced with a tremendous explosion. Whips of flame shot out from near the barn and a cloud of red-hot burning cinders rose up. Soon debris rained down, a giant steel driving wheel came crashing down mere feet from the two men. They both instinctively raised their hands over their faces. When they lowered them they saw the wheel, easily six feet across, half-buried.

“Wow that was a close one,” the older man said before finally standing up to survey the damage.

“Close, close? You almost got us both killed! This is madness!”

“Yeah, I don’t get it. I wonder why it keeps doing that?”

3 months later

George paced back and forth in beat up jean overalls and a patched shirt periodically scribbling something down on a piece of paper nailed to a wall. Nearby the locomotive rested peacefully. This new one was almost identical to the first three he had built; at the time the first was built the design seemed revolutionary, sure to change the world of trains forever. After the first one exploded in a fit of steam, and the second followed weeks after, some of the enthusiasm had died down. When the third one didn’t even last 20 minutes under steam before blowing a hole in the roof and scaring cows across half the county — it didn’t even make the papers. The old man slammed his fist into the great boiler. After a pause his son returned with the same upset face he had left with.

“No good, pop, we have to move forty tons of cargo now. Not just that but that lousy Mr. Kirkpatrick is going to be able to use four teams of horses. There’s no way we can win!”

The older man exhaled and twiddled his fingers in the air.

“Well, maybe not. Even a big strong shirehorse can only pull a load at, what, 10 miles per hour? Otherwise they might break a leg, even with a light load. One broken leg will ruin a whole team of horses.” He snapped his fingers. “I think we can move 40 tons with this rig, we just need to increase the pressure, to say 50 PSI. If we could do that I’m sure we can win.”

Robert plopped down on a fat wooden chair and kicked his legs up on a desk cluttered with blueprints and pages of calculations.

“Great, so all we need is a train that can go 11 miles an hour and hold 50 pounds of pressure … Dad, you know that’s impossible, why the only thing that can hold that sort of pressure is a boiler head, I don’t know, maybe 4/8 of an inch thick. Nothing like that exists on the entire isle of Briton. Mills can’t produce steel of that thickness with even quality. Even if we magically got that to work how the hell could the rest of the train handle that kind of force? It would shake itself apart in minutes.”

Robert ran his hands through his shaggy brown hair, which framed his strong jaw. His face had the slightly odd tan associated with someone who wore goggles for long hours in the sun.

“Maybe I can help with that boys.” A tall woman with wavy blonde hair pinned under a bonnet and wearing a purple dress that flowed over the sawdust and straw sauntered into the shed and immediately over to the train. She showed no regard to the bits of dirt that got caught on the hem of her dress. “My name is Calloway, Carol Calloway. I’ve heard all about the little race you stumbled into, honestly I don’t know how a two-bit operation like this one even got the notice of a rather powerful man such as the duke. Not just him, you have Mr. Kirpatrick just about shivering in his boots. But it’s obvious his fear of your competition is greatly exaggerated. I doubt this contraption could outrun a mouse. Not that I care for the man mind you, there is very little love lost between the two of us. Not since his perfectly vile behavior when he bought out my father’s share at the glue manufacturer. His family has been running the overland shipping in these parts since before they realized those couth-less Yankees found out they weren’t in India. He won’t be stopped easily, that’s for sure. Luckily though, I’m here to help.”

The father and son glanced at each other, both with jaws gaping. The older Stephenson closed his mouth first and approached the train, patting it gently. “Well, just how do you intend to help? You’re looking at a state of the art piece of equipment right here, it has enough horsepower, the strength of real actual horses, to rip a man in two.”

Carol turned her head in the direction of the older man but stopped before facing him. Instead she looked at the large piston positioned completely vertically on the boiler above the drive wheels.

“Oh, I’m quite aware of how your little contraption works. Train locomotive engines have been quite the talk of the town at Cambridge. Anyone can see that these are going to be the future, and whoever makes the best is going to become quite wealthy.” After finishing her review of the piston she turned fully to look the old man in the face. “I imagine you must be experiencing quite a lot of vibration when you run it. That is the problem they are facing with the test machines there, somehow based on your reputation I would have imagined you would have figured out the solution already.”

“Now you wait one second lady,” Robert was on his feet by now and his face was growing red. “We’ve been working on the Rocket for two years now, and you come strolling in here acting like you own the place. Just what the hell do you know about locomotives?” He hissed.

Carol returned to the machine.

“A great deal, I should suspect. One doesn’t become the first woman to graduate with a doctorate of philosophy in natural engineering and leader in the applied mechanics team otherwise. Not to mention being awarded a complete scholarship.” She felt for play in the piston.

Robert’s forehead turned red and he balled his fists. He looked at his father who shot him an equally disgusted look. But then it softened into a smile. “Wait, let’s see what she says. We have actually been having trouble with vibration, the damn thing nearly rips itself apart. What do you have to say about that?”

Carol patted down her dress.

“Well there is one idea I’ve had. Right now, you’re driving your wheel from straight above it, same as everyone else. But what if you were to rotate them, so you powered the wheels from a 45-degree angle? That way the power will go more directly into the tracks shouldn’t make it shake so much.”

George’s eyes unfocused while he thought about it and Robert snorted. The two exchanged another glance, Robert grimaced in it and George furrowed his brow. But then he raised them.

“Oh, I think I see where you are going with that.”

Robert’s jaw dropped as he listened to his father but then sat up straight.

“Wait, of course, she is onto something. If they are behind the wheels instead of on top of them it will reduce the uneven swaying motion.”

An ugly creaking laughter escaped the old engineer’s lips.

“See, I told you we can do this. Lady you are brilliant!”

“Maybe, if we can stop the thing from exploding,” he sputtered. “We need to get this whole thing ready in just four weeks.”

Carol briefly smiled as the three made plans to work on the train.

Re-positioning the pistons took over two weeks. The braces had to be moved and new longer drive rods had to be rush made. The end result was impressive, a massive yellow smokestack towered above the smaller tubular boiler which rested over four wheels. The front two now connected to the angled pistons which gave the whole machine a sleek appearance.

George tended the fire in the small firebox while the others checked the tracks. When he got the steam up he turned a valve and pressure built in the piston, forcing the connector rod forward. The front wheels moved, dragging the rear ones along. A whoosh of escaping steam erupted when the piston was all the way down, the top valve closed and the bottom opened pushing the piston back to its starting point and forcing the wheels further along. The locomotive picked up speed. It reached the pace of a man walking. This was short-lived before George cut the steam and the locomotive slowed and then collided with the piles of hay prepared in front of it. Its travel had looked ungainly but it hadn’t shuddered and vibrated the way it did before.

The older Stephenson jumped off the train while the younger and Carol hurried to dump buckets of water over the firebox and the sparks that were spreading to the bundled hay. The three were shouting and whooping now, once the last embers were put out they jumped. Robert and Caro met eyes and then Carol wrapped her arms around Robert.

“We did it! Amazing,” Robert shouted.

His father stopped shouting and his face drooped.

“That’s the thing though,” he stamped out a blowing piece of red hot hay. “That was only at one-quarter pressure; that won’t be enough to pull the load — not fast enough anyways.”

“That darn boilerplate, three-eighths of an inch just isn’t strong enough. Where the hell are we going to get something that can handle all that pressure?”

Robert snapped his fingers and kicked the dirt. The mirth ended and was replaced with the labor of pushing the heavy locomotive back into the barn.

****

Mr. Kirkpatrick grinned over his glass of brandy. Before him were 20 men standing at attention. Not the sort of muster that would impress a spit and polish general but decent enough for a regional transportation magnate. They were all strong; a lifetime of hard grueling work and good food left them that way. Some in the back row held the reins of horses who aside from an occasional neigh or stamping of their feet stood still enough. Before them many of their fathers had lived the same life. The work seemed to be same as it always was, but Mr. Kirkpatrick knew things had changed. His father had kept his father’s old records. Twenty men had become 30 had now become 80. Handwritten notes describing trades for cows and sheep had become a crisp ledger. Cargoes of crops and iron ore and fertilizer had started to change; exotic goods were carried near wool and cotton; all this in front of the backdrop of coal, endless dusty coal.

Regardless of all that some truths stayed the same. Nothing could move cargo better than a set of strong arms and a powerful back leading well-trained horses. No upstart was going to upset that.

“Alright men, in two days we have our little race. That’s our chance to show these upstarts that some devilish machine can never replace the god given power of flesh and blood. That machine isn’t normal; it’s not right. I’ve seen it explode myself, big fireballs, showers of boiling water, brass and steel falling from the sky. I’ve seen young girls get maimed by it, old miss Wilson nearly croaked from fright. Her footman had to carry her into her bed. She couldn’t even make it to her own daughter’s — sweet little Sally’s — wedding. That’s how scared she was. Old Toby, he says his cow’s milk turned sour, said it happened one day when an iron wheel fell from the sky and crushed his trough. I’ve seen silk, as white as snow and brought over all the way from the spice isles, turn black just from being brought on a road near that terrible barn that spews soot near every day.” The man shook his head and spit. “If it were up to me I’d have them run out of town right now. But those shitheads in Liverpool, who’ve never stepped foot out here once, are so blinded by their greed that they’d gladly sell your lives cheaply if it meant earning them a half pence more. So instead we are going to have to beat them by doing what we do best. Show those whippersnappers that men and horses can move freight the way they did it in the bible better than fire on wheels. I’m counting on you boys — so is your family.”

The men for their part began shouting. Their faces had grown red with anger during the speech. Mr. Kirkpatrick smiled, these men were handpicked, not only for their strength but for their loyalty. These were men that had worked for him for years that he could trust to lead their own wagons without getting lost at the gin mill. The sort that he could trust to find their way around road blocks and talk their way past nosy officials looking for a bribe without giving up too much. These were the sort of men he needed to win. He rested easy as the group broke and he spoke to people in the group and fomented their anger before riding back to his estate. He had another trick up his sleeve.

***

“They moved it?” Robert slammed his fists onto the desk. “How could they do that?”

Carol looked up from her papers. George kept standing where he was with a foot resting up against a wall.

“Well maybe we aren’t dead in the water yet. We don’t need much track. Maybe with 30 guys or so we can get the whole new track built by tomorrow.”

“That’s not very reassuring.”

“Well it’s the only shot we’ve got.” He looked and them and exhaled. “You two round up some of the village men, I’m going to scout out the field and figure out how to lay the tracks. Come on, let’s go.” Robert and Carol fumbled for a plan.

“Well I know where some guys hang out, there are always hungry men in town looking for work. These guys will do anything for a buck.”

“Well I hope they can lay a track too,” Carol faced the train and rolled her eyes. “We only have six hours of daylight left and the race is first thing in the morning.” She then sighed and walked to Robert and placed her hand on his shoulder. “We have to make this work,” she said, tightening her grip on his shoulder. “We might have to work all night but we need to win this race no matter what! I hope you realize that if we win this the Rocket is going to make you rich.”

“Owwww,” Robert whined.

******

The new location wasn’t far from the old, just over a small hill in land checkered with fenced in farms and grazing sheep. Both sides of the smooth grassy hill had large mostly flat fields. One had a neat circular section of tracks in it, the other did not. The morning had a chill to it and the grass had been covered in dew. But even before noon everything had dried out and the air had a tiring heat to it. George Stephenson hobbled along quickly with a heavy bag on his back. He put it down at a point in the empty field and took out his surveying tool on a tripod. He removed a small cloth flag on a long wooden peg and stuck it into the ground and then carried his bag about 20 feet and repeated the process. This time looking both back at his old flag and then forward again. He would need 2,640 feet total including four turns. The first part of his path mostly followed a gravel road but in a few instances it veered off to go over flatter ground or to avoid boulders. He was at the point of the first turn when the tracks would diverge from the road when he came across some trees and plopped down on a big rock near one of them. If he had tried this years ago he might have completed the task in one go but that wasn’t happening now.

“Hey there.”

He turned to see a man, dark in shadows sitting on the other side of the tree he was under.

“Oh hello there. Sure is hot today.”

“Sure is.” The other man was about as old as George. He wore denim overalls with a striped cap and had a small parcel opened up in front of him from which he was eating bread and some dried meat. “So what brings you out here?”

“Well one way or another I got signed up for a race, a machine race. I built a new machine. It’s going to bring money to all these folks out here.”

“Machines, huh — my son used to make machines. He left my house when he was just 13 to apprentice at a shop in Warrington. He got pretty good too; he could hammer iron into anything. He made gears, tools — heck, even whole steam engines; all by hand with his little water powered hammer. It didn’t last, though. Liverpool opened up one of those new mills. They have 300 people pounding away with steam hammers and power lathes. No talent, either; they pick up a bunch of losers off the street and put them to work. My boy couldn’t compete. His shop closed down and he got caught stealing from some absentee asshole. He was living down in London only his butler was too interested in the job and caught the boy. He got hung. Now I’m bringing back everything he ever owned, see if I can sell any of it.”

“That’s terrible. A man that can build a steam engine has no business getting hung for theft.”

The other man cut him off.

“He was incredible too. He managed to hold out against those mills for years by making such good product. Like this.” The man slowly stood up and walked to his wagon. After digging around he struggled to pull out a large metal plate. It was slightly converse in the center and had bolt holes around the entire perimeter. Bits of rust had begun to form on it. It looked like the bottom part of it was once buried. Clumps of dirt still clung to it, lichen grew in patches. “He managed to make this boilerplate, bigger and stronger than any boiler plate he’d ever seen he told me. The mills can’t even make one this big, it’s four-eighths of an inch thick.”

George kicked over his bag in his effort to stand. Small flags dropped everywhere and his tripod skidded down the hill.

“My god. Look at the size of that thing. How much do you want for it? I’ll give you all my money.” He emptied his pockets onto the ground and took out his purse from inside his coat. He hardly waited for the man to agree or to bother collecting his gear before grabbing the boilerplate and running towards the barn.

***

The crowd had changed its attitude as soon as it saw the barn. The locomotive had been hoisted up onto its road wheels and sat perched several feet higher than normal. All along the tracks was ash from a recent fire. At the end of the test tracks were five bushels of hay lashed together as a barrier, the front of it burnt. The drive wheel that had erupted from the last locomotive still remained half-buried in a small crater. It was too damaged to reuse and too embedded to remove. As the men looked around they noticed other bits of debris, wood and iron bent into cruel shapes, scattered around the land. The air now smelled like recent fire, not the pleasant smell of a wooden campfire though. The acrid aftertaste of a hot coal burn that had taken paint and copper and who knows what else with it.

“You didn’t say anything about working with these machines. Forget this.”

One man’s cries where echoed by many others.

There were about 50 of them, attracted by the prospect of two pence for a day’s work.

“People, please!” Robert waved his arms and spoke quickly. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Everything is perfectly safe here. I need your help for a race, when we win we will prove how great this locomotive is and we can criss-cross the country with its tracks. This will make everyone’s lives better. Farmer’s food will be worth more money, people can travel to distant lands. It will bring prosperity here.”

“Yeah, but what about us? None of that is going to do anything for us. In the meantime, we might get killed!”

The crowd started grumbling. A few men turned to leave.

Robert held up his hands.

“Please, I need all your help here. We need to move all the rails by the morning.”

He looked down and spoke louder and quicker.

More men turned to leave.

“It’s for the good of the country, please, why can’t you see that?”

He was sharper on the last point his tongue snapping but the men hardly heard him.

Just then a sharp shriek cut through the chatter. Carol was up on the side of the locomotive. She pulled hard on the chain connected to the whistle which made a shrill deafening hiss.

“Come on fellas, are you really going to give up on some easy money just because of a little machine like this? See? I’m standing on it and I’m not afraid. It’s perfectly safe.” She faced the crowd and walked along the narrow running board trying to keep her dress from the oil and soot covered boiler. “All that money is perfectly safe too.  It’s not just this one thing either. If we win this race, we are going to be building these things left and right and we will pay top dollar for some strong young men to shovel coal and drive these things. I think two pence a day is a fair wage for that sort of work. When one person gets tired of doing it they can stop and we will fill it with another person, the wealth is going to be spread to whoever works the hardest for it. Imagine coming home to your wife and telling her you’re the one that makes this mighty machine rumble.”

Now the men were more interested, their spokesperson kept his dour face but he was already pushed aside by a surge of men.

“That’s the spirit, but we won’t have any jobs at all if we can’t win this race. So come on, we have some tracks to move.”

This was met with a wave of enthusiasm; men started lining up and clambering to start. Carol organized 40 of the men to get tools and started for the race site. Meanwhile Robert and ten men hitched horses to the train and began moving it. Robert packed the top of the coal wagon with every conceivable tool in the shed. The over the road rig was flimsy. It consisted of three sets of heavy wagon wheels put on axles which ran through holes in the carriage of the locomotive below the boiler. To turn the behemoth took a great deal of space or an incredible amount of effort to pivot it on the ground. The heavy weight of it made slight inclines major hurdles. In a few spots the ground was wetter and the wheels dug in and required everyone to heave and push with all their might. Robert was in front of the group. Each time they got stuck he would nervously examine the obstacle and then find a way either over it or around it. All the time he was yelling and pulling.

Along the way the group, exhausted and staggering, pulling the weight on long ropes and pushing the back and wheels along like golems, straining with every step, too tired for complaint or any emotion really, met George. His own rush had been reduced to a languid set of stumbles, clutching the large boiler head with both hands. He stopped at the sight of his son and locomotive but wasted no time in saying, “I got it; I got it, the only one in the entire country!” His son, despite never seeing a four-eighths of an inch boilerplate before, recognized it immediately and took it from George. He placed it on top of the current boilerplate and inspected it carefully; it was nearly a perfect match. He gingerly placed it in the standing platform behind the furnace.

“Come on dad, we need to go; the race is only hours away. This is it! We can do this.”

The other group wasn’t having any easier of a time. The tracks themselves were relatively light. Each was made of sturdy oak, with ties attached to them every four feet. With a little muscle and a long pry bar the men were able to rip up the spikes and then move whole sections of tracks at a time. The problem came with placing them again. George had not done as thorough a job surveying the new section as he had the old. The men had never placed track before. Often sections didn’t line up with each other when placed. Where the ground wasn’t level enough they had to excavate, two much of a slant could make the train fall over. In one section after 50 feet of track had been placed they had to be ripped up and moved a foot uphill to a flatter surface. Much of the grassy passage between the hills had been dug up and became the brown of freshly turned soil with grass and root. As the tracks moved and the day progressed the men grew wearier. Mistakes were made from carelessness that had to be dug up and fixed. Carol walked tirelessly back and forth along the line inspecting the work. The crew grew disenchanted with her constant corrections.

“Come on, men! We are almost there, make it all right!”

They were almost done when the train arrived. The crew hardly acknowledged the others working. Instead they lined the train up over the beginning of the tracks. Using four jacks, the crew lifted the train higher and removed the road wheels and settled the train back on the tracks. By now it was nearly pitch black.  The track layers were slower now. They erected poles with lanterns. Pure utter exhaustion and a desire to avoid mistakes that would require rework at any cost reduced everything to a crawl. Carol would carefully inspect the land just a few feet in front of the end of the tracks and a diminished group would place the tracks. Others lay nearby. Five men had been injured already and their friends had helped them hobble to their homes. The remaining workers took turns resting. They were close, less than a hundred feet remained. The other crew meanwhile had split up. Some went to find wheel barrels to bring back kegs or water, while others returned with coal and wood to start the fire.

The work concluded about an hour before dawn. By this time all but a few had already dropped to the side of the work site to rest. George had sent some men to bring back flour and their wives to bake breakfast biscuits and fry salt pork. The smell of the bread rising and the grease sputtering out of the pork made their stomachs growl.

The race was due to start in an hour. They had managed to switch the boiler heads but they hadn’t even gotten as far as lighting a test fire, there wasn’t time for that. After a quick meal most of the crew fell back to sleep, barely managing to drag themselves up the little slope of the hill to get a good view. Robert and Carol surveyed the remaining crew. The two spotted a young man, well-built and short. His blonde hair and freckled face had been covered in dirt and a little stream of blood from where a rock struck his forehead. But he seemed alert despite the long night. They offered him a half dollar to work the locomotive.

They brought him up and showed him how shovel the coal into the furnace and which parts are too hot to touch and a few of the controls. After the brief tutorial they began lighting a fire, first with sticks and then logs. The boiler had to be heated up slowly or the sudden change in temperature could cause the whole machine to burst. George meanwhile gathered together his own small crew and they began watering the locomotive. By now the entire train was assembled. It consisted of a little hopper to carry coal and four wagons to be loaded with the weights for the race. Men heaved bags of coal into the hopper and the young operator broke the bags with the sharp edge of a shovel and poured the contents out.

Meanwhile the porters had arrived; they came out with four wagons. Each had two large horses in front. The horses, the reins and all the wood and iron had been cleaned and were gleaming. The iron all had been blacked recently and the wood was freshly stained. The men wore new canvas pants and clean checkered shirts. Around their necks were carefully tied handkerchiefs. They snickered at the train with faint wisps of grey smoke struggling to escape out its tall smoke stack. When the fire gets hot enough it creates a suction that forces more air into the fire, but at low temperatures little air gets pulled into it and the fire struggled. They laughed too at the motley crew that snoozed on the hills. These weren’t the hard-working porters, men who worked their trade for their entire lives, the men who had built the tracks were the poor farmers that had lost their right to work in estates. Some were younger sons of small farmers that knew they wouldn’t get any land. Others never quite managed to find work in town and spent their days looking for any labor they could find.

Now the boiler was building up steam, the outside was too hot to touch. The narrow mercury gauge attached to the smoke stack was at 35 PSI.  Carol had climbed on and was giving the young man some last minute instructions while Robert checked the connection between the cars. The porters had meanwhile lined up their wagons and were stretching. As the smoke coming out of the locomotive grew to the steady dark gray of coal their tone had changed and they avoided looking at it. Steam poured out of the regulators in regular bursts. The trial was starting soon and everyone got into position. Carol and Robert stood in the hopper behind the mounds of coal and the large water keg. The young man, now stripped to pants crouched behind the boiler ready to feed coal into the hungry furnace. The porters were in single file and aside from the odd neighing of their horses were silent. George sat on the hill a little ways away from Mr. Kirkpatrick who had a tray of tea and biscuits. Most of the men who worked overnight had woken and now ringed the hills, others from the nearby villages also crowded around. Children ran about.

The duke inspected the race. Although younger, he wore more old-fashioned clothes, an overcoat with long tails and a tall hat. The duke was one of the wealthier land owners in the region; his grain helped feed big cities from Liverpool all the way to London and Hamburg. He stood between the two groups and raised his pistol to the air. As soon as the shot rang out the porters were off. The horses pulled the wagons out of their starting position and in moments the last was past where the first started from. The locomotive started out slower. The young man pulled a lever and steam began to fill the top of the pistons. They slowly drove down and forced the wheels along, a plume of steam escaped when they hit the lowest point and then they started rising. Even as they rose they began to get the wheels turning. The whole train inched forward. The pistons had an easier time the second cycle, the wheels were already turning and now sped up. The wheels got traction and the train accelerated faster. By this point thought the last car had barely crossed the starting point. By now the horses were opposite of them, half a lap in front and trotting along at a furious pace.

“Hurry man, more coal, make it hotter!” Robert shouted. The young man opened the furnace door and was greeted with a rush of hot air and burning bits of coal. He twisted and shoveled a load of coal into the fire and then another before slamming the door shut.

The horses and wagons kept up their pace, each wagon spaced about 10 feet behind the one in front, their wheels following the same shallow divots the front wagon made in the road. The locomotive meanwhile was picking up speed. The pistons increased their pace, poof, poof, poof. Not at the frantic rate of the horse’s beating legs but methodically. The pistons moved without error, the train reached 10 miles an hour and the pistons kept the same perfect rhythm. The spinning governor kept their rate in check and two separate regulators controlled how much steam was forced into them. The horses had completed one lap and the train had only done half as much but it was going about the same speed. The young man was by then covered in sweat and coal dust that coated his body. He breathed heavily but got into his own rhythm along with the pistons, opening the firebox and shoveling in more coal at a pace encouraged by Carol and Robert’s relentless shouts of encouragement.

When the race was two-thirds over the horses were still nearly half a length in the lead. Some horses may have slowed down at this pace but these were hand chosen, their crew cracked the whips over them and shouted them on. As they went a cloud of dust followed them. The road now had deeper valleys carved out by the wheels.

“This is terrible, we will lose at this pace, how the hell are they going so fast?” Robert had been doing some quick calculations on the back of the water keg with his grease pencil. He had to shout over the noise of the engine.

“The pressure regulator, we need to release it.”

Carol shouted and pointed to the front of the locomotive where the primary one was located.

Robert looked over the edge and tried moving his leg over the side of the hopper but withdrew it before he got far.

“There’s no way to get up there. We are going too fast!”

“We need to, I can’t let him win.”

Carol crouched down and made her way to the inside edge of the train and swung her right leg and then her left leg over the side. The water keg was too big to climb over. Past that was the coal hopper, the engine platform and finally the entire length of the boiler before the regulator could be accessed. She grabbed hold of the side and then swung her body all the way off the hopper, nearly falling off in the process. Robert leapt up and held her hands and she found a hold for her feet on the undercarriage. She breathed deeply and began to move to towards the front of the train by shuffling her feet along and holding on to the side of the wagon with her hands. When she got to the water keg, the undercarriage continued but she had to reach as far as she could from one end of the keg to the other before she could catch hold and pulled herself forward. George and the other spectators stood at the sight of her. After the keg the coal hopper was easy but she became covered in dust. The young man had stopped shoveling coal and took her hand to help her onto the compact engineering platform.

“I’m quite alright thank you kindly, but if you don’t keep up with that coal than we are really lost!”

The locomotive itself had running boards and handholds but the boiler was too hot to touch and bursts of steam escaped regularly from the pistons which also moved up and down right outside the walkway. Carol took another breath and climbed back onto the outside and made her way farther along. The young man returned to the coal but couldn’t peal his eyes off her. Some of his coal missed the furnace altogether and his pants caught on fire from a loose ember before he beat it out with his hands. Carol kept moving, gingerly holding her body as far away from the boiler as she dared. When she got to the piston she had to reach around them to grab a hold and swing her legs up high away from the moving parts. Her left leg got across but when she tried with her right a jerk in the train pushed her forward. Her dress singed against the boiler and the bottom part got caught in the piston when she pushed away from it. Now she had to hold on for dear life with her body straddling the piston and its chamber while the bottom of her dress got pulled up and down by the moving steel. The dress was slowly tearing but it kept her tethered. Carefully she let go of the train with her right hand and tugged at the tear, opening it up and completing it so a long jagged piece of cloth broke free. Immediately the cloth got sucked down and pulled under the wheels, part of it got stuck and spun around as the train moved. Carol’s stockings were now exposed above the knees but she hardly seemed to notice. She finally got up to the front and turned a nob on the regulator. The sound of the pistons changed and their pace increased. Now more steam was being forced into the system and everything began working faster. But it also meant that it wasn’t just the steam on the top of the boiler that was relatively dry anymore, now more of the wetter steam was entering the system.

The train sped up, to 16, 17, 19 miles per hour. Previously the train was shaking and rumbling in a regular fashion. Now it was hopping along and creating an incredible noise. The pistons moved faster but also with less regularity. Sometimes one would be slower than the other, or one would go into a fit and slow which made the whole train jolt and then jolt again when the piston resumed, this time with all the added force of the pent up steam. When this happen it would lurch from side to side and threaten to flip. The train began to visibly catch up with the wagons, despite their best efforts they were slowing and the train was only getting faster. As it burned more coal its weight decreased and added to the burst in speed. Carol hung on to the front of the locomotive, too afraid to attempt a return trip. By the last loop the distance between the competitors had almost closed. Some of the wagons lagged farther behind others and they had damaged the road enough that they had to carefully run a little off of it to avoid the ruts. The train kept going, rumbling and shaking. A connector from the boiler to the piston made a popping noise and now steam began to whistle out of the joint. This slowed down the left piston but the right kept up its pace. A screeching sound grew from the tracks and the wheels as the right side pulled slightly ahead from the left. There was still most of the last lap remaining when the train pulled ahead. The horse and their men were tired and could see the train coming on full speed. They yelled and whipped but the horses just couldn’t go any faster. The train crossed the finish line a good minute before the other team.

A cheer rose up from the crowd and the young man stopped shoveling in coal. He pushed in the lever to stop the steam from entering the pistons and as soon as the train slowed slightly jumped off to roll into the grass and to his cheering friends. Carol meanwhile moved back to the engineering platform where Robert also had found his way too.

“That was amazing, you did it!” He shouted and raised his hands up in excitement.

“Oh shut up and kiss me,” she whispered. Her eyes looked over his shoulders and saw the Duke making his way toward George. When he got close she kissed Robert more passionately with her tongue wrestling with his before pulling him down into the dubious privacy of the short walls on the platform.

Mr. Kirkpatrick threw his hat on the ground and stormed off, his daughter and lackeys in tow. The other spectators were in a jubilant mood and popped bottles of wine to toast and dance about. The duke found his way to George and offered him a glass of wine.

“Well, Mr. Stephenson, you should be very proud. That was quite a success. I really see that train of yours going places and making the two of us quite rich while we are at it.”

 

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photograph by Peter Kleinau

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