Friday, December 7, 2012

Steadfast

The following resulted from a conversation with my good friends at #steampunkchat on Twitter. It was suggested those of us that write try putting a steampunk spin on classic faerie tales from teh Grimms, Hans Christian Anderson, and others. Steadfast is my steampunk take on The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Enjoy!

STEADFAST

He didn’t know her name.

Timothy Timmons stood guard outside of the Manhattan Trust and Investment Depository. Each morning he watched the young lady with the bundled up brown hair walk past on the concrete below the marble steps of the bank. She was joined by a party of her peers, all chattering excitedly on their way to work. He was pretty sure they were seamstresses. Most women their age were. They worked in those large warehouses not far from Wall Street.

A few times he caught her eye and a few times she smiled his way. He worried that her smile was one of sympathy for him and not one of interest in him. He cursed the brace beneath what remained of his left leg. Field doctors at Bull Run had fitted him with the metal prosthetic. It was a quarter of an inch shorter than his other leg. Standing guard it barely showed but when he walked the limp was noticeable.

Sometimes after work Tinny joined his fellow guards at a local watering hole. He’d position himself near the window, saying it was better for him to stretch out his tin leg against a wall than to have the contraption tripping the waiters. On occasion he would catch a glimpse of his infatuation on her way home for the evening. The group was generally smaller. There was less talking amongst them, the mood much more somber.

This depressed him even more. Everyone looked at the guard with one leg. The endless stares. The comments whispered behind hands. He saw it in their eyes: pity.

 “Feel like a nip tonight, Tinny?” Elijah Baker asked. He stood on the opposite side of the marble stairs.

“Aye. I could use one.” Tinny said.

“Thought you might. You were looking a bit melancholy.”

“It’s my leg.” Tinny shifted. The leather cap on his knee felt a bit damp. “It’s always my leg.”

“Maybe tonight I tap on the glass when your lady strolls pass.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tinny said, although he couldn’t say it without a smile.

The captain of the doormen opened the door of the bank and the two guards snapped to attention. They waited for the captain to spin the wheel of either the great mechanical bear or mechanical bull to signal what kind of financial day it had been. The bear growled as the steam roared up its throat or the bull bellowed as the steam poured from its snout.

Tinny and Elijah unbuttoned their collars. They went down the stairs, although Tinny was always a step behind. Sometimes, when the temperature dropped, the fly wheels in his mechanical leg tightened up a bit.
The Cog and Spider Pub was crowded. They were able to procure a table near the window when a group of veterans saw Tinny hobble up to the bar. Tinny sat while Elijah brought over the pints. The two men toasted to their health and settled back to a quiet reverie.

“What will you do when you see her?” Elijah asked.

“See who?”

“You know, Tinny. The girl you pine for all day long after her and her brood move on to work.”

Tinny looked down into his beer. “There is no girl.”

“Horseshit,” Elijah said. “I’ll bet I even know what one it is.”

“Say what you will, Elijah. There is no girl in my life.”

“I say horseshit. And I could use another round.” Elijah pushed his chair back. Tinny held up a note but Elijah waved it away.

Across the crowded, narrow space sat a gruff faced man with a harlot upon his lap. The painted lady ran a finger along a scar on the man’s chin and said something to him. She watched Tinny from the corner of her eyes. The man grabbed at her buttocks.

“Look elsewhere, soldier,” the gruff man said. “You’re upsetting the lady.”

“I don’t mean to,” Tinny said.

“In fact,” the gruff man said “why don’t you find another place to have your drink?” He pulled back one side of his vest to reveal the ivory handle of a heavy knife stuck in a shoulder sheath.

“There’s no cause for this,” Tinny said.

“How would you like to lose your other leg?” The gruff man pushed the harlot aside and stood.
Tinny pushed up on the arms of his chair to meet the man’s braggadocio. He discovered the flywheels around his knee were locked in place. He twisted a bit and fell against the table. The gruff man and the harlot laughed.

Elijah returned with two fresh pints of beer. He set them down, helped Tinny into his chair, and opened his guard coat revealing his sidearm. His eyes met those of the gruff man.

“Is there a problem here?” Elijah asked.

“None,” said the man. He pushed his way through the crowd and out onto the street. As he passed by the window, there stood the young woman with the thick, brown hair. The man nearly bowled her over.

“The lout,” Tinny said. He tried to stand again by the flywheels would cooperate. He banged a fist against the side of his knee.

“Easy now, Tinny,” Elijah said. He reached over and tapped on the glass. The young woman and her two friends laughed at him as he waved his pint in the air. Elijah laughed back and waved a polite invitation for the girls to join him and his friend. Tinny put a hand on Elijah’s arm and pulled it down spilling a bit of the beer.

“What are you doing?” Tinny asked.

“If you’re not going to court her, Tinny, then perhaps I will.”

Outside the window the three women negotiated. There was much brow crossing and pointing at clocks. The shadow of a late afternoon air-trolley slid over the street. One of the three women turned and waved a hand at the driver but the trolley floated south along the avenue. The other two watched her hurry up the platform to the station before looking back in at the two doormen. A moment later the gals made their way through the crowd. Elijah and Tinny stood and offered the ladies their chairs. The steadfast guard with the metal leg felt a little drop in his heart as the girl with brown hair took Elijah’s seat and her friend took his.

“So you’re the two boys wot guard the bank,” the girl in Tinny’s seat said.

“We don’t actually guard,” Elijah said. “We more often than not open the door for people going into the bank.”

“Then why do you carry them pistols on your hips?” she asked.

Elijah turned, whistled for the bartender, and circled his finger around the table. “What about you, ladies? What do you do?”

“We stitch,” the girl in Tinny’s seat said. She held up a cigarette. Elijah found a box of matches in his coat pocket and struck one for her.  The girl leaned into the flame. The other girl sat back, the flame flickered in her emerald eyes.

‘So they’re not brown,’ Tinny thought.

Elijah waved the flame in front of the second girl. She held up her hands and shook her head. “Please don’t do that,” she said.

“Not a smoker, are ya, miss?” Elijah asked.

“I do not care for fire,” she said.

“Just as well,” Elijah said. He lit a cigarette of his own and shook out the flame. “Three on a match is supposed to be bad luck.” He jetted smoke pass the girl. She leaned further back and waved her hand in the air.

“Here, now, Rose,” the other girl said. “Why don’t we swap chairs so this folly doesn’t irritate your senses.”
Tinny smiled. Her name was Rose. A rose with emerald eyes.

“Actually, Evie, I think I should join Jenny,” Rose said. She stood.  “She shouldn’t be walking the streets at dusk alone.”

The bartender brought the drinks to the table. He set them down one at a time. Elijah paid for the round.
“Look here, love, our drinks just came,” he said.

“I don’t entertain with men I don’t know,” she said.

“Easily taken care of miss,” Elijah said. “I’m Elijah Baker and this is my mate, Timothy Timmons, but we all call him Tinny.”

Rose blushed. “Perhaps you three could share the extra glass. I really worry about Jenny.” Rose gathered herself. “She’s new to New York. Fresh off the steamer, as they say.”

“Yes, the streets can be difficult this time of day,” Elijah said. He raised an eyebrow to Tinny.

“You know, I was on my way out as well,” Tinny said. “Perhaps I could walk with you. To find your friend.” His fingers manually turned one of the flywheels until at last it seemed to move on its own. He kicked his leg back and forth a couple of times for certainty.

“You can walk on that thing?” Evie asked. She laughed as she exhaled her cigarette smoke.

“Evie! Really.” Rose said.

Tinny smiled. “When it works. Sometimes I think it has a mind of its own.”

“I’m really very sorry, Mr. Timmons,” Rose said.

 “Mister? Oh, not like you don’t go on 'bout the handsome guard with half a leg when we pass them.” Evie took a long drink of her beer.

Rose turned and started for the door. Elijah jerked his head in Rose’s direction. Tinny made his way after her.

“More drinks for us, love,” Evie said. Tinny heard them clink glasses.

Out on the street, away from the pub’s window, Tinny caught up to Rose. She apologized for Evie’s rudeness.

“I’ve heard worse,” Tinny said. “Shall we find your friend?”

“Truth be told, sir? Jenny is a big girl. I’m sure she’s home by now. I care not to be a libertine.”

“How about you then, miss?” He held out his arm. “Shouldn’t you like to be home?”

Rose took it with a smile. “You may call me Rose, sir.”

“And you may call me Tim, although my friends all call me Tinny.”

They strolled up the avenue lost in talk and ignoring the shadows. Neither was in any hurry to return to their homes for the evening. It was the first time in many years he felt comfortable in the company of a lady.
“Oh my,” Rose said. “We’ve wandered off into the warehouse district.”

“You sound concerned.”

“I barely like being here during the day let alone after hours.” Rose’s eyes darted to the long shadows stretching out of the alley. Tinny put his arm around her shoulders. “There’s been a series of thefts, you see, from the notorious Jack in the Box gang.”

“Jack in the box? You mean like a child’s windup toy?”

“I hear the bosses talking about them. These bogeymen hide in shipping crates and when we lock up for the night make their way out to rob the company.”

“Has your factory been robbed?”

“Not yet, no. But I fear it is only a matter of time—there! Did you see that?”

Tinny looked to the third floor window she pointed at in the Hart Garment building. The dim glow of a handheld lantern bobbed in a window.

“Perhaps we should send for the police,” Rose said.

“Here? At night?” Tinny put a hand on her arm. “It’s best we clear out. The police certainly have.”

The streets of the warehouse district were empty. Even the airtrolleys didn't make their way in or out of the area once the sun went down.

“Come along, Rose,” Tinny said. “You’re right. This is no place to be after dark.”

As they turned, the tip of a knife flashed out and glinted in the gas light of a street lamp. The man wielding it wore a kerchief over the lower half of his face. He swung the knife again and this time Tinny caught him by the wrist. He bent the man’s hand back and the knife dropped to the ground. Tinny kicked it away with his metal foot and the blade sang as it skipped along the red, clay, bricks. The attacker ran after the weapon but Tinny tripped him up with his tin leg. The man sprawled out over the brick.

“Tim!”

Tinny spun about to find another masked man dragging Rose into the garment building. Light from a nearby gaslight glinted off the edge of an ivory handled blade. Tinny started for her but all at once it was as if his metal limb gave out under him. The leg clanged onto the brick pavement and Tinny, his balance off, fell face first onto the same. His jaw cracked and the skin along it tore open.

“What do you think of that, tin soldier?” the man behind him said.

Tinny rolled over. The knife wielding man now held a foot and half long lead pipe. He had swung it at Tinny’s metal limb knocking it out of position. The man raised it over his head to swing down onto Tinny’s skull. 

Tinny rolled out of the way as the end of the pipe smashed the red brick where his face had been. The man raised the pipe again, turned to where Tinny had rolled, and found his prey now kneeling on the stump of his missing leg. Tinny aimed his sidearm at the man’s chest and fired. The lead pipe’s clang was lost to the echo of the gun shot bouncing along the concrete canyon. No sooner had his ears adjusted then he heard a distant scream.

It came from inside the garment building the other thief had taken Rose.

Tinny found his metal limb. The leather cap that attached to his knee was ripped. The bolts of the brace would tear open his skin if he tried to wear it without the cradle. He felt helpless.

There was another scream. Tinny had no choice. He had to fight through the pain. He fitted the limb as best he could. As soon as he put weight on it the bolt tips cut into his skin. Gritting his teeth, he moved as quickly as he could. His gait was erratic. His good leg held while he swung out his metal leg came down heavily on it. Twice he stumbled but he did not stop.

Tinny entered the dark building. He yelled out for Rose but heard nothing. The lamp they’d seen was up on the third floor. There was a very good chance that the second lookout had taken her to where the burglary was taking place. He had no option but to go up to the third floor.

The elevator was not there. He thought about calling for it but if he did, it might let the thieves know he was coming for them. He would have to use the stairs.

Each step brought renewed agony. Tinny didn’t have to look at his stump to know it was a bloody mess. By the time he reached the second floor landing his brow was covered in sweat. He had to stop and catch his breath. Tinny laid his head against his arm rest on the railing but snapped it back up when he heard Rose scream.

The next few stairs were excruciatingly painful. Eventually his mind blanked out the pain. As he turned on the third floor landing, he came upon one of the robbers coming down. Both men froze. The thief a few steps higher turned to warn his accomplice and took a bullet in the flanks. He tumbled backwards down the steps and landed at Tinny’s feet.

“Daniel?” another man a flight up called. The glow of his lantern lit up the edge of the hall above Tinny.
“Your friend is dead,” Tinny said. He was surprised at the hoarseness of his voice. “As is the other you left on the street. Let the woman go and we will leave you with your life.”

The man responded by throwing the lantern down the stairs at Tinny. In the ensuing explosion of glass and kerosene, Tinny caught glimpse of the man’s face. There was a noticeable scar on his chin.

The heft of Tinny’s guard coat kept the flames from reaching him. Tinny made his way up the stairs now engulfed in flames. The heat made his eyes water. The flames rushed up from behind him. The old warehouses were timber boxes. When one went up in flames, the ones nearby followed.

Exhaustion was tugging at him to stop. Thoughts of Rose and how the simplest of flames from a match made her jump filled Tinny’s thoughts. He could leave her here to die alone. On he went to the third floor, fire baiting him, the white pain of his leg numbing him.

“You’re persistent,” the last of the thieves said. “You’re not even a copper, are ya?” He had one leg out a window. A heavy rope was coiled around his wrist. Behind him Tinny could see the basket of a balloon bobbing. Rose lay in a heap at his foot. She stared, now catatonic, at the rising flames.

“Don’t leave her to die here,” Tinny said.

“Oh, now I see the motivation of your doggedness.” He nudged Rose with the toe of his boot. “Pity. I don’t think she wants to come with me.”

“She’s afraid of the fire,” Tinny said. “I’ll help you get her into your balloon basket.” He swung his leg forward. The pain seared him.

Behind him there was a horrendous crack of splintering wood as the burning stairs behind him collapsed.
“There’s no time,” the thief said. “And there’s only enough room in the gondola for one now. Safe’s do take up a bit of space.” He tugged on the rope wrapped around his arm. The balloon came in closer.

Tinny aimed his pistol. “Then send only her.”

The thief stared at the gun. “That, my friend, is not going to--.”

Tinny shot the man in the leg. He started to fall forward but the balloon attached to his arm kept him from falling all the way into the room. Tinny came forward as the flames filled the hall behind him.

“Why did you do that?” the thief demanded.

“You left me no choice.” Tinny swung the handle of his gun against the man’s temple .Still tethered to the balloon, the thief’s limp body kept the craft from floating away. Tinny lifted Rose into his arms and laid her over the edge of the basket. She crumpled on the floor between the wall and the safe.

The thief was right. There wasn't a lot of room.

Tinny pushed the unconscious man aside and crawled through the window. He had his good leg inside the basket but got no further. The exposed flywheels of his metal leg were snagged on the cloak of the thief. Tinny worked his fingers as quickly as he could to free the brace from his stump. The intensity of the fire had heated up the metal bits and the blood made his fingers slip off the hot bolts.

There was a loud crack of wood. Flames rocketed up through the floor. The unconscious thief jerked to life. He grabbed Tinny’s metal limb for support, yanking on it to keep his balance. The bolts tore down through Tinny’s stump. He cried out in pain and toppled backwards almost falling out of the balloon’s basket.

But he didn’t fall. Rose had a hold of him.

“You can’t leave me,” the thief said.

“The hell I can’t,” Tinny said. He placed the barrel of his pistol against the stretch of rope between the thief’s arm and the basket of the balloon and fired. The shot tore through the fibers and the balloon floated away as the wall of the Hart Garment building collapsed under its own weight. Tinny turned Rose away as the thief clinging to the window sill disappeared into a bellow of flames.

“You’re safe now, Rose,” Tinny said.

“And so, my love, are you,” Rose said. She tore off the bottom of her dress and wrapped it around his bleeding stump.

To protect her honor, Tinny removed his coat and draped it around her shoulders. He swung one arm around her and held her close in the tight space as he piloted the balloon. A puff of wind struck the inflatable and for a moment they hovered over the burning Hart building but then the same wind carried them far, far away from the rubble. 

(c)2012 Jack Bates

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