The Boiler Blows

AUTHOR'S NOTE: In the first draft I envisioned a different departure from Lima Ohio. Note the use of characters that ended up disappearing in future drafts. Johnny becomes Jake and Garcia is an early pass at Bram Van Erie.


“Aye, toss in the lot. Put that load of crap to good use, lads, and mind the pressure release. Don’t want to be here when this thing blows.”

“To be sure, Johnny.”

Vincent cracked open an eye. He lay slumped against a ventilation pipe. Timepiece was there too, looking like a raggedy puppet cut loose from its strings. The conductor’s head shook repeatedly, suggesting he was fighting off more than alcohol.

The cramped brick room would have made the devils pounding at Vincent’s head feel at home. The place was mostly taken up by a locomotive-sized boiler whose roaring furnace cast the cluster of men before it in hellish hues. Coal wasn’t the only thing being shoved into the furnace. A pallet’s worth of black books were being tossed in by gleeful red faces. Vincent had seen those books before...held in Big Willy’s hand. Principles of Scientific Management - the Taylorist bible.

The risk of lifting his head brought with it unwanted attention in the form of the brakeman who had “helped” him earlier, and was now being addressed as Johnny. The large man finished tossing in a leather-bound tome and walked over to crouch in front of him. “You’ll be next, boyo, unless you can’t tell me where yur friend found this.” He waved the metal plate Timepiece had taken from the slaver device.

Vincent looked over at the spilled remnants of bibles, and back at his captor. “You’re bringing in slavers but burning those?”

“One deals with the devil himself if it means getting our own back from the Baldies.” The brakeman waved over two more hulks. “Fresh’n this Bo up, lads.”

Gritting his teeth, Vincent knew what was coming next as he was hauled to his feet. A few minutes later he was back on the floor again, the taste of blood in his mouth as he urged breath from bruised ribs.

Johnny nodded, and Vincent was pulled once more to his feet. “Enough of the pleasantries. Where’s that shipment, again?”

“Derailed,” Vincent gasped, not knowing what else to say but what had to be bad news. “We saw it south of crew.”

“Heard it went running,” one of the other’s said with a reasoning tinge in his voice. “Makes sense the crew would be...”

“I didn’t bring ya here to make sense,” the brakeman snarled back at the man. “We’ll pull a goat from the yard and see for ourselves, with this fine lad and the skipper there leading us once ol’ Mickey is done with em.”

“I don’t help your kind,” Vincent spat. Mikey...they’d drugged Timepiece’s drink, the bastards. He braced for the reward his contempt brought, but the other man’s fist was stayed by his captor.

“You don’t even know who our kind is,” Johnny countered. “Every man here is a Hamilton. Proud sons of the rightful owners of the land we be fight’n for.” He jerked a thumb at the ceiling. “The Baldies up there are the spawn of thieves and liars who took this place away from us.” He spat on the ground. “Ah, what do you Bo’s care?”

“You mean to discredit House Baldwin by seeding trains with slavers,” a slurred voice interrupted.

“Welcome back to the living, skipper,” the man replied with a derisive grin. “A fine plan to be sure, but raising the roof on that little party upstairs will do in a pinch. We’ll be turning your Awake into a Wake in a bit.” He laughed at his own crude play on words.

“There are families up there!” Vincent protested.

“More thieves in the mak’n,” the brakeman growled. “The devil take em!”

“Speak’n of the devil, Johnny,” one of the men near the boiler warned, pointing toward a darkened door. “Pat says they’re coming round the corner.”

“Clean it up, lads,” their apparent leader barked, kicking aside the empty pallet and errant bibles. “Remember, we’re all choir boys here...damn their prying eyes.”

As much trouble as he was in, Vincent would have happily embraced his captor in lieu of seeing the man who walked in ahead of a dozen white shirts with their clean looks and straight ties. Their leader wore a trim gray business suit, and looked far more reserved than he had before Big Willy and his court.

“Mr. Garcia, yur Honorship,” Johnny greeted in a tone balanced between respect and annoyance. “This ain’t a church social we’re holding down here, ya know.”

“Just measuring the weight of the shovel,” Garcia said with a reptile’s smile. “Such is how we judge the worth of the shoveler, Mr. Fitzpatrick. Rewards come to those who trust in science...and not chance.” The beady eyes beneath the sweep of Garcia’s black hair centered on Vincent. “And such a reward we have found for ourselves after such an exhaustive effort of putting together the pieces. Surely a sign of the first class work you are doing here, Mr. Fitzpatrick.”

The Supervisor snapped his fingers. Two members of his entourage all but pushed the Hamilton leader aside in their haste to run eager hands through all of Vincent’s pockets.

Vincent dared not move, sensing the animalistic frenzy whirling behind the eyes of those who tore at his clothes. Yegg, he realized. From the uneasy looks on the other workers’ faces, they too understood the contained fury present among them.

The throbbing pain of his beating was nothing like the ache rising in his heart when Vincent watched as fingers clawed free the Hobo nickel from his coat pocket. for the added dread upon seeing the heavy brass canister being placed in Garcia’s hands by his men.

“This will be quite the day for us all,” the supervisor said with a toothy grin upon receiving the prize. “A foothold for scientific management and the return of some very precious property. You really should have kept her canned instead of all the fanfare...Brass, isn’t it?” His words twisted in a mockery of Big Willy’s drawl, letting Vincent know he hadn’t forgotten that day he had been humbled by the king...and unfortunately released. Garcia tapped at the golden canister. “How fitting.”

“Begg’n yur Honor’s indulgence,” Johnny began, glancing uneasily at the glowering faces around him. “We don’t aim to get the riders against us. We...”

“Need them?” Garcia shot back. “For what? Some primitive ritual like what we have going on upstairs? Productivity, Mr. Fitzpatrick. That is what we sent you, and what has yet to apparently arrive. Instead of the rear end devices, we have these two. It doesn’t take much analysis to explain.” He slipped the nickel into a slot beneath the canister and pushed a rod to send it into an adjacent water-filled bulb. “I think a four hundred percent efficiency in your boilers will strengthen your belief. That, and the profit to come from setting aside craft worship for assembly lines.” The supervisor pulled a lidless lighter from his pocket, lit it, and pushed it into place beneath the glass bulb containing the nickel. “Cooperation, Mr. Fitzpatrick, not individualism. A tenant of our faith for good reason.”

“This will give us nothing but bad luck,” another Hamilton man muttered, edging forward until stopped by a warning snarl from one of the supervisor’s associates.

The atmosphere in the room darkened, helped along by the murderous emotions welling up inside of Vincent as the water began bubbling. To hell with all of them. He dug into his pocket to find the brass knuckles. Two of the shirt-and-ties leapt on him with roars before he finished pulling his meager weapon out. Their outlines blurred in the shadows of their true nature, the yegg pressed him to the floor, their clawed fingers digging into his back.

Steam rose from vents around the canister’s pot, and coalesced into Freedom’s puzzled face. Horror replaced confusion as Garcia snapped open a valve. A sibilant hiss blended with the steam child’s scream as she was sucked into the container’s aperture.

“The Chief Executive Officer himself will mark this day!” Garcia exulted, closing the valve with a triumphant grin. “Stock options, gentlemen, and personal recognition from Herod Smith himself.”

“Herod Smith can go bugger himself,” Johnny ground out. He lunged forward to seize the container. Knocking the supervisor back, the man hurled Freedom’s prison into the furnace. “You want it…go get it!”

Everyone remained frozen for a moment. Vincent seized the opportunity to break the ice. “You might want to see to your precious bibles too,” he spat, using a free hand to swat one of the books into the open.

Jaw slack, Garcia stared at the book, and then at the furnace with burnt remnants of pages around its lips. His shriek frothed on the fringe of sanity. “Kill them!”

Vincent’s captor snarled, his neatly pressed white shirt wrinkling into black slashing whirls consuming his form. The transformation was enough distraction for Vincent to curl his fingers around the brass knuckles and bring them full up into the yegg’s face.

Screeching, the thing slammed back into a desperate knot of Hamilton men assailed on all sides by dark beasts. Johnny stood in the middle of them, his shirt bloody as he traded blows with a clawed and fanged rendition of Garcia who fought half-suspended in a nightmarish black maelstrom.

Glancing toward the open gate, Vincent could do nothing to retrieve the canister shimmering in the furnace’s red heart. Was there a limit to the heat a steam child could endure? Somehow he knew Freedom was far safer there than with these yegg. Now he had to make damn sure this wasn’t going to happen to her again.

Determined, Vincent launched himself into the fray, slamming his brass knuckles into one dark apparition after another. Claws raked his arms, but this time to no avail, the talons scraping along sleeves that seemed to glint like metal. Emboldened, Vincent plowed through to Johnny’s side and landed a solid blow to the supervisor’s snarling face, laying him low.

“Forget him, lad!” Johnny warned. “Job’s done here, lads. She’ll be free’n herself with a vengeance, that steam child will. We’ll be blown all over Lima if we don’t get out.”

“And whose fault’s that?” Vincent spat back, swinging an ineffectual fist at the Hamlilton man as he stumbled for the door, his shirt all bloodied and torn. The leader’s hasty departure began a wholesale retreat of man and yegg alike.

Vincent hurriedly ran his hands through Garcia’s pockets, seized the nickel, and gave the supervisor one last good one on the chin before turning to aid Timepiece who remained slumped against a wall. Behind them, the furnace’s mouth glowed with an intensity well beyond what mere coal could provide. Swearing, he gave Timepiece a quick slap, bringing color to the conductor’s cheeks but little more than a half-coherent curse. “Come on!”

Gauges surrounding the furnace began an ominous rattle, their glass covers fogged by steam.

Vincent hauled the drugged man to his feet, looped Timepiece’s arm around his shoulder, and made for the doorway. He sneered down at the groaning Garcia. “Give the devil my regards.”

Outside he found a long narrow brick tunnel, but judging from the shouts and foot stamps, the Hamilton men had chosen a black iron staircase spiraling up around bucking pipes. The fast way out, he realized. Above him, the ceiling rafters quivered beneath the heavy chuff of what had to be the shop’s power station.

Timepiece grunted as Vincent threw him over a shoulder and charged the steps. What he first took for someone shooting at him with a pistol ended up being the sharp report of ricocheting bolts from the pipes next to him. The big gray pipes writhed and bulged like a snake’s belly, accompanied by a growing hiss that would have put a dragon to shame.

Chaos waited for him topside where he came out next to the power station. He eased Timepiece against the balustrade railing and stared at a regular donnybrook. Not only had the Hamiltons crashed the Awake, a roiling line of fury beneath brightly colored pennant lines told him the Taylorists hadn’t found a warm welcome either among the celebrants. It was indeed a fair gone mad, dark shapes clawing at men armed only with spanners and other tools of the trade as screaming women and children ran for exits.

“The boiler’s about to blow!” Vincent shouted with useless hope, his voice all but lost against the increasing pound of the power station’s piston. The engine was banging in its housing with all the ferocity of a beast tearing down its cage. The silver rod, as thick as Vincent’s body, was a hammering blur whose vibration nearly unseated him.

“Not...gonna make it,” Timepiece’s warning blurred out from where he slumped against a railing.

Vincent eyed the heaviest thing in the room, and nodded. “Then we’d best find cover. He pulled Timepiece’s arm over his shoulder and made for the big Berkshire’s cabin, courtesy of a gallows-like platform the workmen had pulled up next to the locomotive for easy viewing. In their haste to flee, both the yegg and Hamilton men had pushed the fighting just beyond the gantry, allowing Vincent to gain the steps with little trouble. Grunting, he pushed Timepiece into the cabin, curling with him between one of the padded seats and the boiler. They lay there gasping, Vincent staring up at all the bright valves and crystal gauges.

An extra-loud bang preceded a clatter as if every pot and pan in God’s kitchen had fallen to the floor in a deafening cascade. Something splintered and crashed its way across the cabin’s roof, sunlight shining in from a huge rent. There was a single high-pitched scream like a thousand steam whistles, followed by a deep thumping boom.

The huge Berkshire lifted. Vincent felt the cabin floor tilt down, and for a moment feared the locomotive’s boiler would break free and crush them both. A moment later the machine fell back, and kept falling. Shouting, Vincent could do little but hang on as the engine went down nose first in a shower of steam and bright sparks. Hell had opened up beneath them.

A wrenching impact threw him against Timepiece, whose eyes were fully open now with fear. The atmosphere was a pungent mix of hot steam, shattered brick, and embers. Through a constant hissing in his ears, Vincent heard the first moans of the injured outside in the enveloping fog. A suffuse orange glow suggested fire somewhere, goading him to pull Timepiece to his feet.

“I...can stand,” Timepiece gasped, hanging on to the canted seat.

Vincent clapped him on the shoulder, relieved to see the man’s senses return. “Think they slipped something in your drink.”

“Think I ought’a quick drinking,” the other managed, looking around. “I’d say Freedom got herself clear of that slaver bottle.”

At what cost? Vincent wondered, pushing himself forward to the cabin exit. He looked down on the battered and scraped tender upon which the back half of the locomotive had come to rest. The back section lay on a heap of collapsed brick and wood leading up to the top floor. Through gray swirls he saw evidence of the immediate cost - a pale dusty arm sticking up through an assortment of bricks and planks. Only at a second look did he realize the grisly truth of it. There was no attached body.

He helped Timepiece from the cabin, and together they clambered down the side of the locomotive where it rested against a crushed foundation wall. Smokey rays of sunlight shone down through broken glass panes, helping Vincent spot struggling people crawling among the bricks like broken dolls. Most were the men involved in the fight, but not all. “Best get topside,” he told Timepiece, gesturing toward a stable-looking ramp of what had once been flooring. Workers who avoided the blast were already using the sagging framework to reach those caught in the fall.

Vincent began tossing wooden shards aside and scouting out less treacherous ground for rescuers to not become victims themselves. The approaching wail of sirens blended with the grief and pain rising around him. Soon there were helping hands aplenty, and police to ask questions afterwards.

~ * ~

The Baron’s waiting room was a sight far removed from the shop’s carnage, if not from anything Vincent could put his mind to. Highly polished cogs of copper, brass, steel, and black iron moved silently behind glass walls. From fist-sized, to mechanical wheels as large as those on locomotives, the artwork was a moving statement of industry and wealth.

“Like being inside a damn watch,” Timepiece grumbled beside him on the leather padded bench, the conductor rubbing at his forehead. “Best keep your head about ya when we talk to this guy. Nothing ‘bout stealing no engine.”

“Nothing except blowing up half his factory,” Vincent returned darkly. “They were pulling Fergusson’s body out when we were grabbed.”

Timepiece grunted. “Yeah...I’d say we’re pretty much finished here. No engine and no crew. Better let me do the talking.”

“I can talk for myself,” he growled back.

Timepiece’s rejoinder was cut off by the arrival of four men in black uniforms with red cuffs and epaulets. Leading them was a stiff-faced fellow whose black coattails suggested a cross between butler and head waiter. He motioned to them. “The Baron will see you now.”

“And you’ll be minding your manners,” one of the cops added, tapping at the truncheon on his belt. “Especially you, tramp.”

Vincent stuffed a crass reply that would’ve earned him a crack on the head and accepted the firm grip of a policeman on each arm. There was no fast motorcycle out of town here.

Half expecting a vaulted ceiling and gold throne, Vincent welcomed the more sedate Victorian furnishing of an office overlooking the factory grounds. His expectations chilled upon what lay beneath the light of green desk lamps on an old roll top desk. The yellow plate of the back-end device Timepiece had brought to show his superiors. White hair laced the balding head of a puffy-jowled man who looked up from inspecting the item. Vincent knew immediately where this conversation was heading.

“Baron Matthias the Third,” the major-domo introduced in brittle tones before stepping aside. “Lord Baron, these are the two who were with the Hamiltons.”

“Not exactly with them,” Vincent interrupted, earning a warning squeeze on his arm from one of his escorts. “They were after those. We found a load of em on a runaway train. It derailed west of here. Those...Hamiltons, they tried forcing us to help them find the rest.”

“Yur Lordship...” Timepiece began.

The Baron raised a hand. “A moment, conductor. Let us hear what this hobo has to say, shall we? Such as why one of his kind would have business here.”

“Trying to find this fellah’s train for him,” Vincent quickly furnished, aiming to stay one step ahead. If this Baron knew the truth, words could get out to the wrong ears and he’d be up to his armpits in yegg.

Rheumy eyes glanced up from their inspection, the first time the Baron had deigned to bother even looking at them. “Lost your train, did you?”

“Yes sir,” Timepiece reluctantly answered. “Engine fifty-eight. Crew was killed fighting yegg. She’s been running free ever since.”

“He saved me from yegg back in Illinois,” Vincent offered. That much was at least true. “I figured I owed him.”

“We lost a few lives today as well,” came the chilled reply. “A tragic terrorist attack made even more troubling by links between the Hamiltons and Taylorists.” The Baron folded his hands and speared Vincent with an expression dripping in accusation. “Hoboes steal rides aboard trains. They don’t ride the rails behind their own makeshift engine. Not without help and sanction from their King. Not without purpose. I have to ask myself who else may be coming to the aid of these Hamilton miscreants.”

“We had nothing to do with today,” Vincent argued, seeing the lines the Baron was drawing. “I didn’t even know about these Hamiltons until one cold-cocked me, and I damn sure ain’t working for no Taylorist!”

“We brought Freedom in,” Timepiece broke in. “She was heading toward Grand Trunk to free up some more of her kind. It was the union who set her up with the cart. I was driving, and the kid here was along for the ride.”

“Those yegg were after her,” Vincent added. “They would’ve had her too, but a fight commenced between the Hamiltons and the Taylorists. The big one...folks called him Johnny, he tossed the slaver bottle into the furnace after the yegg grabbed Freedom. That’s what blew things up.”

“And what brought this steam child here?”

Timepiece sighed. “I did, yur Lordship. Was look’n for my train.”

“Fortunate for you both that the Order of Railway Conductors confirms your story. That said, your arrival has brought ruin to my factory, and become a lightning rod for the most unsavory of characters. You are marked men, now. The only ones who laid eyes on that slaved train and can connect it with the Erie Railroad. I can’t afford your kind of trouble.” The Baron stood, and brushed his hands against a red silk waistcoat as if having been soiled by their presence. “Steward, get them out of my sight and my city. Somewhere where the Taylorists won’t get their hands on them.”