Mud squelched under several pairs of approaching boots—more boots than Ikey normally heard on his dad’s farm. He sat back on his heels. The toes of his own boots pressed further into the mud as he looked away from the boiler assembly in the tractor and peered over his shoulder at his uncle. Uncle Michael straightened his back and lifted his chin. His thin wattle stretched out as he stared over the tractor’s hood from his seat in a chair. Rain dripped off the brim of his hat and splashed on the pale fists in his lap.
Ikey set a spanner aside and pushed himself into a crouch to peer over the hood of the tractor as well. His dad approached with two men behind him. One struggled up the hill, hampered by the bulk of his own weight. The shiny tops of his boots, the smartness of his greatcoat, and the coal-black top hat all spoke of inexperience at climbing hills of mud and grass in the rain. With each step, a puff of breath slid back into the face of the other man, who was obscured by his companions.
“Ikey!” his dad called out. “Come down here.”
The fat man stopped and clamped his hands to his knees. His breath rolled from his gaping mouth, and it looked out of place, as if it should pass from the smokestack of his top hat.
Ikey glanced back at Uncle Michael, who dipped his chin in a nod.
Ikey reached for the spanner and screwdriver balanced on the tractor’s chassis.
“Go,” Uncle Michael said. “You’ll be right back.”
His hand hovered over the tools. They should be returned to the satchel, to the tool roll.
“Go,” Uncle Michael repeated.
“Ikey! Get down here now.”
Ikey stood and looked back at his uncle. “I’ll be right back.”
The ground sucked at Ikey’s boots as he descended the grade. His dad turned and spoke to the large man, and no longer did he block Ikey’s view of the man in the rear. The third man clenched a pipe in his teeth and shielded the bowl from the rain with the cup of his right hand. Smoke spilled across his face, then swept under the brim of his black top hat and out over the valley below. A double-breasted coat completed the coachman’s outfit.
At the end of the coat’s left sleeve, several metallic fingers stuck out into the chill afternoon.
Ikey stumbled a step, caught himself, and hurried down the hillside. He dared not risk a glance at Uncle Michael to see if he saw the mechanical features as well.
As he approached, Ikey’s dad nodded in his direction. “Admiral, this is my son, Ikey. Ikey, this is Admiral Daughton.”
“Retired,” the admiral puffed. He straightened his back and presented a hand. Once Ikey closed the distance between them, he took the admiral’s cold and clammy hand. He gave it a pump before releasing Ikey at the end of a warm and damp smile.
“The admiral’s carriage broke down—“
“The devil it did!” Admiral Daughton hitched a thumb over his shoulder. “He has one of those mechanical arms, and blast it if it didn’t break on us while heading back to Whitby. Smith here, caught off guard, drove the carriage into a ditch and buggered up the whole works.”
Smith nodded. A puff of smoke leaked from his lips as if squeezed out by the action.
“I told them you would fix it,” Ikey’s dad said.
Admiral Daughton nodded. His jowl climbed up around his jaw as he did so. “We walked for at least an hour in the rain before we came across a pub in a village called Gunnerside. A man inside said you and your uncle have a reputation for fixing anything. Is that him up there?”
Ikey glanced at the mud and grass trampled around their feet.
“You’ll have to pardon him,” Ikey’s dad said. “He can’t walk any more.”
“Pity,” Admiral Daughton said.
“But Ikey here can fix it. He’ll have you on your way in no time.”
“Smith’s arm, too? I dare say a mended steam carriage won’t do me much good without a mended coachman to drive it.”
Ikey’s dad nodded, then looked the thin man over. “Smith, too.”
In response, a puff of white smoke welled out from under his cupped hand.
“Excellent. If you’d see to it now, I’d be most grateful. I’ve been away from my work for a week, and I’m eager to get back at it.” Admiral Daughton smacked his hands together and rubbed them vigorously.
Ikey startled at the noise, flesh hard on flesh. It rang out across the hill.
“He’ll get it done. Won’t you, lad?” Ikey’s dad turned to his son. Despite the bowler hat pressed low on his head, drops of rain collected on the ends of his curls and swelled like fruit until they dropped from steel-gray branches.
Ikey looked down, nodded to the earth, the scuffed toes of his dad’s boots, the prints of men and sheep pressed into the mud.
“What are you standing around here for, then? Get back to the barn.”
Ikey glanced over his shoulder, up to the hulk of the rusted tractor and its half-scavenged engine. Uncle Michael’s hat remained visible over the bonnet. Its wet and dark felt blended together with the wet and dark metal until it looked like a part of the tractor, like nothing more than a fixture that had neglected to fall off in a fit of rust.
“Oh.” Ikey’s dad slid his hands into his trouser pockets and tilted back on his heels. “Michael’s up there, eh? Well, Lord help us if he catches cold. I guess you best fetch him down, then. Meet us at the barn. These men ain’t got time to waste, so don’t be putting up with any of Michael’s bollocks.”
Ikey nodded. He turned and lunged up the hillside, listening for signs of pursuit, boots in the mud, a parting hand parting the air.
“My,” Uncle Michael said as Ikey crouched down behind the tractor and started snatching up tools. “Those two look like they think themselves important. Who are they?”
Ikey slid the tools into their appropriate pockets in the roll, then slipped the tool roll into his satchel. “An admiral and his coachman. The coachman has a mechanical arm. It broke. He drove their carriage into a ditch. They want us to fix it.”
Uncle Michael let out a low whistle. “A mechanical arm?”
Ikey nodded as he flung the satchel’s strap over his shoulder. “I saw the fingers. His left hand. They look like tin.”
Ikey lowered himself as if to sit in the man’s lap. Before he placed his weight on his uncle, however, Ikey threaded his arms back into a pair of reinforced canvas straps held out by Uncle Michael, who then slid them over Ikey’s shoulder.
Ikey adjusted the straps with his thumbs. “Ready?”
Uncle Michael leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Ikey’s shoulders.
Ikey took a deep breath, rocked his weight forward, then pushed with his knees.
Uncle Michael hissed with pain. A slight grunt accompanied him as his weight settled onto Ikey’s back. The cold made Uncle Michael’s pain worse. Ikey had hated to take him out of doors on a day like today, but he had insisted.
“Got all the tools, right?” Uncle Michael asked.
Ikey nodded. It was a private joke. He was supposed to comment on how now was a fine time to ask. Instead, he stared down at his dad, the admiral, and the coachman as they picked and jostled their ways down through the mud and rain-slicked heather. Admiral Daughton held his hands out at his sides like a fledgling bird ready to right himself should his feet slip out from beneath him. Smith, on the other hand, continued down the hill, smoke leaking from his pipe as if he were propelled by a steam engine.
“Can you see his hand?” Ikey asked.
“My eyes ain’t what they used to be, lad.”
Ikey stepped forward. His feet slipped a couple of inches before the boot found purchase. The toe of Uncle Michael’s left boot butted against the back of Ikey’s lower calf as he negotiated the hillside. He tested each step as he transferred his weight. He held each breath a second as he waited to see if the hill would dump him backwards, send him crashing down onto his uncle’s frail body.
Ikey should have refused to take Uncle Michael out, but work was easier with him around. It meant not having to run back to the house every hour to check on him. Regardless, he couldn’t tell his uncle no. Not once in 18 years had he ever told him no.
As the others reached the bottom of the hill, Admiral Daughton stopped and looked back up the hill. His bulk stood before the coachman like a boulder, and so the coachman stopped as well. Smoke shrouded his head.
Ikey paused a second, held up by the glare. How much he and his uncle must have looked like a two-headed monster, his uncle’s legs dangling behind Ikey like two limp, bedraggled tails. Ikey raised his face to the opposite side of the dale. Damp sheep dotted the green. Beyond, the gray sky hung low, ready to break and wash down on them all. A shiver prickled Ikey.
The admiral turned and followed Ikey’s dad. The coachman continued on, a puff of smoke lifting up like a sack of unfinished thoughts.
A damp breeze rolled down the hillside. Ikey stepped forward. His heel sank into the mud and took the weight, testing. He transferred his weight to his forward foot. As he lifted his left, the right foot slid away.
Without thinking, Ikey twisted around. His hands gripped the straps over his shoulders to keep his uncle close.
The ground rushed up. His shoulder and chest slammed into the mud. Uncle Michael’s weight wooshed the rest of the air from his Ikey’s lungs. His skull cracked off Ikey’s own.
Ikey lifted his head. “You all right?” he asked.
“I’m so sorry, lad,” Uncle Michael said. “I had no bloody business asking you take me out in this.”
Ikey pulled his hands out from under him and planted them into the mud. The damp coolness spread over them like a glove.
“I needed your help with the tractor,” Ikey wheezed. He took in a deep breath. The earth pressed against him, smelled rich and possible.
“Codswallop. You don’t need my help with any of this. Not anymore. It’s an old man’s pride—No, truth is I just wanted your company. Foolish of me. You might have broken your bloody neck on my account.”
“I’m fine. Ready?”
“No wallowing on my account.”
Ikey pushed himself to his knees, then pulled his feet under him and into a crouch. Once assured he had footing, he stood. At the bottom of the hill, the other men continued on, oblivious as they approached the barn.
“Nice of them to offer a hand, eh?” Uncle Michael asked.
Ikey drew a deep breath through his nose. At least his dad didn’t have another reason to be annoyed with him. He looked to the ground once again and began to pick his way to the bottom of the hill, eager to see more of the coachman’s mechanical arm. He had heard of such things, knew that people sported them in cities like Manchester and London. If he studied one, he might he be able to make a mechanism that would help his uncle stand, perhaps even walk.
Uncle Michael’s grip tightened around Ikey’s neck as his pace picked up.
The first chapter of Arachnodactyl by Danny Knestaut will be published on 11th June, 2016. Bookmark Steampunk Journal to keep up to date with the latest news, reviews, articles and previews.
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