EXPEDIENCY, INTEGRITY, A SHARP EYE, THRIFT
We are the Magpie Traders, merchants travelling the country in our airship and delivering goods to you.
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June 22nd, 2012
Captain J. Harper
Two orders of brass to the west dock, three bolts of fabric to the market, ten pounds of tobacco in exchange for the posters….
I roll tomorrow’s deliveries through my mind as Darren and I make it back to the docks. Been a long day. Got to mingle a bit in downtown before we had to leave. I’ll have to remember to thank Quint for letting me borrow Darren for the day when he could have been adjusting the steamworks. Just as we walk back up the gangplank for the night, we see Quint sitting outside taking his drink. Marcia’s voice reverberates off the ship. Every so often, the sound of metal striking metal sounds off. I sigh, hoping nothing’s broken.
“What’s got her so shook up?” Darren asks. Quint sets down his bottle and laughs.
“Ah, jus’ this boy that come by today lookin’ for work.” He wipes his mouth and smacks his lips. “Ahh. He came by yesterday an’ the day before an’ Marcia tole him to take off. Soon as he comes by again today, Marcia throws a fit.”
“In front of another customer?” I sigh.
“Nah, not that kinda fit, one of her ground-teeth, narrow-eyed, slow words ones.”
I close my eyes for a second, though I can hear Darren huff beside me. I set down the empty sacks I’ve been carrying and head into the ship. Behind me, I hear Darren plop himself on the crate next to Quint, saying, “’Taint no way I’m goin’ in there with that madwoman.”
Thankfully, Marcia’s taken to destroying her room instead of “fixing” the bridge like she does sometimes. I start stomping my feet and drumming the walls when I’m just down the corridor. Don’t want to surprise her too much.
She’s covered her cabin floor with components, bolts, fixtures, and tools, and I have to raise an eyebrow in surprise. I knew she tended to tinker in her off-time, but I had never seen her collection. Everything from rusted scopes to dented tubes. Marcia kicks a pile of them from in front of the door, sweeps her hair out of her face, and looks at me.
“The nerve a some people,” she says. I lean against the threshold.
“I hear he was just interested in a job.”
“Did ya hear which? Did Quint tell ya he was from the Protectorate?”
“No, he left that out, but asking is hardly a nuisance.”
She sinks down on a patch of clear floor and picks something up, mumbling something about roosters. She reaches to her belt and draws out a pair of tinsnips, turning the object in her hands over and over. Finally, I say, “What did Mr. Protectorate ask for?”
“A job. You know this.” She rips through one wall of metal.
“Says he’s a gunner, naturally. We’re fair enough shots.” She winces as a piece of jagged metal slices her finger.
“Dunno, a dedicated gunman could come in handy, further we go out west. The Plains are fuller than last year.”
“Jay, we do not need him!”
She glares up at me, crushing the small object in her fist. I raise an eyebrow at her. Several moments pass before she breaks eye contact, hurling the piece of metal against the far wall. Hoisting herself up, she says, “Whatever you say, Captain. I say we’ve made it this far without wasting money on a gunner, but you have final say.”
“I haven’t made any decisions, yet,” I remind her. “If he’s been this persistent, he’ll make another appearance tomorrow. Tell him to come by so we can talk.”
She takes a deep breath. “All right, Jay.”
I take my handkerchief from my pocket and hand it to her. She snatches it away, wraps it around her bleeding finger, and kicks another pile in one final burst of frustration. I nod and let her be, heading outside to join Quint and Darren.
June 22nd, 2012
The piles on the table dwindle down and down. Marcia sets down behind the table with me, just reading her almanac and jotting down a note here and there. She hasn’t said anything for the last hour. I groan and lay my head against the table.
“Hush up, we haven’t even been here three hours,” she says.
I twist my head and peek up at her. Sure, easy for her to say. She wasn’t being forced to sit here when there were people rushing in and out excitedly whispering ‘bout an upcoming festival—she volunteered! I missed a parade on another street not thirty minutes ago, and I can hear the hollering of people all over the place.
Suddenly, Marcia sighs irritably. She throws down her book and crosses her arms, and I glance upwards. The man hanging around our booth smiles brightly as he rocks back and forward on his feet. He tips his hat to her.
“I already told you, we don’t need a gunner,” she says.
He nods and walks away.
“Who was that?” I ask.
Marcia snorts, picking up her book again. “Someone from the Protectorate. Wanted a job.”
I open my mouth to say perhaps we need one, considering all that’s happened, but just as I start, Captain walks up behind us carrying a hefty load. Captain motions for me to help deliver them, so I jump up, stretching my stiff arms.
“Just a simple delivery, Darren.”
Finally! I think.
April 18th, 2012
Magpie Traders will resume soon as I have more time. I might be able to get one or two chapters out between now and May 7th, but I’m kinda busy with projects and studying. Finals are a few weeks away yet, but I need to get so much done. So, thank you for bearing with me.
March 30th, 2012
Down the narrow rows of baubles and gimcracks, hasslers and beggars, warblers and… musicians. Opportunity lies here in the excitement making a berth around me. I pull out the flyer I picked up some streets over.
“Ask for J. Harper or Marcia Tatum for assistance.”
Everyone’s so tightly penned up, it takes me a few to locate the magpie seal from the poster. When I do, I find an old grizzled man sitting at the booth, a young woman behind him reading a book.
“Mr. Harper?” I say, laying down the paper.
I smile me biggest charmer, the one Ma always said could trap sunlight. The old man glances at the paper, then up a me, snorts, and leans back to tap the girl. He jerks his thumb at me and motions at the poster. She sighs and stands up.
“May I help you?” she asks.
“Oh, I’m sorry… Miss Harper?”
“Yessir. Now, what may I help you with?”
I can’t help but balk. “But you’re so young!”
Her eyes narrow and she stiffens all over, her hands balling into fists. “Speak for yourself, you mongrel tot! What do you want?!”
I take a deep breath, straighten up, and unsling me rifle, resting it against the ground like I was drilling for the Protectorate again. I tuck me hand behind me back and spread me legs shoulder-width. “Ma’am!” I yell on instinct before remembering the civilian tone. “Ma’am, I’m here to apply for the position of gunner on your ship.”
“What makes you think we need one? We’re only a merchant ship,” she replies.
I relax my stance. “Pirates don’t discriminate merchant from private aircraft, Miss.”
“We have had interestin’ luck lately, Marcia,” the old man chimes in. “The filigree, Montrose…”
“We handled those fine on our own.” She turns to me. “Sorry, but we don’t need a gunner. We can’t afford to carry you, your gunpowder, and your pellets right now.”
“I can play violin.”
March 30th, 2012
March 22nd, 2012
Touched down last Sunday in the vibrant city. They’ve got their harvest colors up and a banner overhead is announcing a city-wide celebration on Saturday. Had to tell the boy no before he could even ask. He turned right around and asked when we were getting to Kansas City.
Most of the produce is gone, either from spoiling or from bargain hunters. In their place, we have:
- Replacement gears
- Uncut wind-up keys
- Sheet copper/brass
- Ingot copper/brass
Will write a formal inventory list later.
~Captain J. Harper
March 16th, 2012
Finally in the air again. Feels like we’ve been grounded for months. Montrose bid us farewell, but welcomed us back whenever we were in the neighborhood. It’s a nice town, not much going on, but might be a good place to unload more produce and trinkets before Toledo every year. Goodness knows, I hope we won’t be off-schedule this much again.
Marcia, Quint and Darren have been acting odd since we left. Every time I ask what’s on their minds, they just brush past me and try not to catch my eye. Marcia is especially bad at it, but Darren’s dead-eyed stare is a giveaway. I can barely tell what Quint is thinking when he grunts “Hello” and “Yessir” and obscures his eyes behind his goggles. But whenever he and Marcia pass in the corridors, they’ll say something along the lines of “Mine.”
Maybe one day I’ll let on I know what happened.
~Captain J. Harper
March 16th, 2012
I been sitting out here awhile now. The boys are banging round inside too much for comfort, and even manage to start the engines for a second before they go dead again.
“Marcia…” I say through gritted teeth. “Come on, Marcia”
“Hup, two, three, hooah! Hup, two, three, hooah!”
What in Kells…? I think, turning round just in time to see a horde of Minutemen pour out of the streets. They’re whooping and hollering like Indians and holding their guns over their heads. I’ve seen rowdy soldiers before, but this is ridiculous! Leading the rear are Quint and Marcia themselves.
I leap down from the fence and weave my way through the mayhem til I’m next to Marcia. Quint marches into the field, waving the soldiers to surround the Magpie. There’s not enough of ‘em, though, so they can’t reach all the way round the ship. The noise attracts the attention of all the townsfolk, but there’s no sign of Captain. I lean over to Marcia.
“What’s got into him?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she replies. “He got drunk and he found a unit of Minutemen.”
“All right, boys!” Quint yells, banging on the hatch with his fist. The soldiers ready their guns. “We know you’re in there! Come on out now an’ we’ll just let youns go!”
A hollow boom on the other side answers him. The townsfolk gasp and a small rustle goes round the militia. Quint shakes his head and motions for the Minutemen to go ahead. The draw up their guns, aim, and wait for the signal. Marcia’s mouth drops open and she rushes in.
“Now hang on right there!” she yells. “You are not going to shoot holes in my ship!”
“Your ship?” Quint says. “I keep her runnin’ so you can fly her!”
They start squabbling, but just then, the engines cut on again. Air quickly shoots out of the underexhausts, knocking all of us back. A shot goes off somewhere in the circle, but none of us can see who did it until we peel ourselves out of the dirt. A little startled Minuteman is holding his gun to himself saying, “Sorry, it just went off…”
I have a laugh with some of the other men, but Quint and Marcia glare at me before going back to each other. However, over the engines, we hear the door coming up. All of us watch as the pack of boys run out, tripping over each other like mad to get away, yelling, “Take it! We swear we wasn’t gonna do nothin’!”
The entire town looks at us strangely for a few seconds, then a few run after the boys. The Minutemen cheer and congratulate themselves, even though they done nothing. Quint, Marcia and me look at each other silently.
“Well, we got her back,” we seem to say.
February 17th, 2012
“To the West!” one yells.
“Hooah!” they reply before chugging their beer. Another boy stands up.
“To the Minutemen!”
Half of ‘em gotta be tipsy by now. Most of these kids gotta be younger’n twenty. I ain’t got hollow legs, but the first time I got drunk out in the field like this, the next day’s training was rougher’n the ground we slept on.
“To the man from North Point!” yet another yells, toasting me.
No excited yelling after that, just murmuring. “North Point? During the war? Old man, innit he…”
I duck my head down an’ look interested in my cup, but the young’un standin’ up continues to make a fuss. He climbs over my hands onto the table an’ points at me.
“This man is an inspiration to us all! He’s what we joined up for and what we look up to be!” he says, gettin’ all theatrical. “Imagine: hours sitting in the cool Maryland fields, waiting for the British—waiting for anything!—and then, in only hours, making the lobsterbacks scuttle for cover!”
Well, he can make it sound better’n I could, anyway. The rest of ‘em shriek like a pack of war hawks, stirrin’ the old mess up again. They come up an’ surround me, buy me drinks, shout “To the man from North Point!” over an’ over an’ over til all I want to do is leave.
The kid on the table looks so proud at what he’s done. I was just havin’ a beer an’ a conversation when he came up to me an’ said he recognized me from earlier. Bought me a drink. We talked. He was sayin’ how he thought I would creep away after he jeered at me on the road earlier, but I had to go an’ open my mouth an’ say I was used to the military cause I was in it myself.
“I saw North Point,” I’d said. He reflected on that for a few minutes, an’ then they started toastin’ the West, the trees, the horses… an’ now me.
Yeah, I remember North Point. The British came through on their way to McHenry. Between a few creeks, we started it. Took only one cannon at first an’ started blastin’ ‘em down.
It took only a few hours before we had to retreat, though. We cut ‘em down good, but we couldn’t hold ‘em back. There were too many of ‘em comin’ at us. A few days later, I was celebratin’ anyways after hearing about their defeat at McHenry! Hoo, whatta night that was…
I see no harm in them carryin’ on for awhile more, so I smile and raise my cup up, too. I’m just about to drink my fill when who but Marcia barges on in. The boys roar an’ whistle. She rolls her eyes an’ skims the room, restin’ her eyes on me soon as she sees me.
“Quint, we have to go,” she says, grabbin’ my arm. “Darren’s going to meet us at the ship.”
I brush her off. “What for? Captain say we’re good to go finally? Ship’s gotta warm up first, so lemme finish.”
“Quint, those boys who’ve been eyeing it took it only an hour ago! If we don’t do anything, we won’t be going anywhere!”
I stop with the glass halfway to my mouth an’ look at Marcia. “Darren?”
“I told you, meeting us there.”
“Motionless, last I saw it.”
Tryin’ to think quick, the noise around me ratchets up again. The boys have started singin’ a ballad bout destiny or somesuch counterpoint to another group singin’ bout the war. I’m gettin’ an idea. Oh, yes, this could work.
“All right, men!” I shout, hauling myself onto the table. I don’t look at Marcia, but I don’t have to to know she’s lookin’ at me like I’m crazy. The Minutemen trail off, fixin’ their attention to me. “Listen up! My ship’s been taken over, an’ it seems I’m outnumbered.
You young’uns want to see action today?”
January 20th, 2012
I jog into town only to see Darren kicking a rock down the uneven dirt road. Hands in his pockets and head towards the ground, he doesn’t even notice me until skid to a stop in front of him.
“What?” he says.
No time to reply. I just grab the kid’s collar and start dragging him off down the side street between the belching mechanicry and the smith’s. One down. I should at least find Quint before heading back.
“Hey, now!” he yells, trying to pry open my hand as we go along. “What’re you, gone mad or somethin’?”
I swing around the next corner. Darren howls as his arm twists a little too much the wrong way, so I stop a moment. Quint would kill me if I broke his apprentice’s arm, even for something this important. I ease up my grip and turn to him.
“Darren, we need to find Quint. You know where he is?”
“If he’s not on the ship, no!” He tries to wrench his arm out again, and then decides better. “Why you need to know anyhow?”
“That pack of boys you’re always hanging around with? They just took the ship.”
He winces, but half a second later has a grin on his face.
“Poor Marcia! Can’t hold the ship on her own! Did they sneak in while you were talkin’ to yourself again?”
“Quiet!” I toss him toward the side of a building. He recovers and starts laughing hysterically. I have to yell, “Darren, this is serious!” before he shuts up again. He still has that smart-aleck grin on, but he nods.
“Right, you check the streets, and I’ll check the saloons,” he says. He starts off but I snag him by the sleeve.
“I don’t think so. You check the streets because you’re faster. I’ll check the saloons. We’ll meet in front of the field. Hurry, before they figure out how to turn the thrusters on.”
He rolls his eyes, but goes. He’s halfway down the street when I think of something else.
“Darren!” He turns around. “If you run into Captain… could you please not mention this?”
He narrows his eyes and smiles as he nods, and I just know he’s going to try and weasel a favor out of me later. Sighing, I turn down the nearest side street and head for the closest alcohol well.
December 28th, 2011
One of the idiots starts banging on the stern hatch just as I’m screwing a gauge faceplate into place. I figure it’s Darren, since the comedy wouldn’t be complete without the mix-up. I curse and then haul myself up, my knees cracking from being on cold metal for an hour. Whoever it is keeps wailing on the door.
“Hang on, I’m coming!” I yell, even though I don’t think they can hear me over all this ruckus.
When Captain left, I’d hoped I could finally get some repair work done on the consoles and start studying my new almanac. Apparently, the winds have shifted since two years ago, and they’ve started mapping out the desert. Took them long enough.
He knocks faster, so I walk slower. By the time I get there, it sounds like there are ten fists knocking against the side of the ship. I roll my eyes and throw the switch to drop the hatch. One loud thunk later no one’s knocking anymore, but suddenly I hear a whole lot of muttering.
Darren’s just with some of those boys again, I tell myself. I grab a nearby pipe, anyways.
The door lowers to a view of the empty field. Silence all around. The only thing blowing is a slow breeze along the grass. I’ve heard of this. Back in the city, bored kids would go up to the biggest house, ring for the manservant, then run. I relax, remembering the summer afternoons I spent tailing my brothers up and down the streets.
Pft… Children, is my final thought before I’m shoved out of the back of the airship. The force of the push makes me stumble over my feet, and then roll down a small hill. I lift myself up in time to see four boys jeering at me from the hatch, three of them no older than Darren. The fourth crosses his arms and smirks at me before slamming his hand against the hatch button. I sit up, my mouth open.
“Goddammit,” I say, running towards town.
October 24th, 2011
I take another drag from my rolled tobacco stick, letting the taste of the bitter leaves snake down my throat and around my body. My muscles start to relax. Away from Marcia… away from Quint… no report today…. My hands stop shaking, and I inhale the smoke deeper.
Two days ago, the Minutemen stopped through on their way west. The whole of Montrose took it harder than we did, but they ended up selling us out. At least, tried to blame their arrival on us. Small towns take it badly when the militia walks down the main road. Think it means the government’s encroaching. I saw it all the time back in Virginia, what with being so close to the Maryland border. Often, the local Confederate Union Club would organize a counter-march, but it doesn’t take much to break them up. They’re loud and awful insistent, though.
As I exhale, my eyes water. I feel the start of a cough. I’m out of practice. There’s no smoking at any time on the Magpie. Anyone thinking about spending time on an airship should be able to tell you why it’s the stupidest habit you could ever keep up. Carry tobacco, carry cigarettes, hell, carry compressed fire—carefully—if you must, but don’t smoke unless you’re suicidal. Still, it does wonders to calm my nerves at times like these.
I quickly spit out the stick and stomp it into the dirt before Quint rounds the corner.
“Oh, Captain,” he says.
I nod, licking my lips. I wipe my hands on my pants and look him in the eye. He can smell it, and he narrows his eyes.
“Captain… just wonderin’ if you seen Darren round. I was s’posed to show him how to adjust the coolin’ tubes for winter.”
I shake my head and jam one hand into my pants pocket. I point northeast with the other.
“I don’t know where he is, but I know the boys he hangs out with usually gather over by the field. They can see the ship better.”
He nods and starts in that direction. “All right. Thanks, Captain.”
I wait for his footsteps to fade before I reach into my pocket again and bring out another stick. I light it and inhale, leaning against the back of the wooden building with my eyes closed. It’s like breathing a new type of air—natural, but gratifying. I open my eyes a little on an exhale, watching the smoke drift upward like new clouds.
October 19th, 2011
I swing my head round the corner to the bridge. Marcia’s there, as usual. Captain’s gone off somewhere, probably to calm down after what’s happened. Nearly got boarded twice, after all.
“You seen Darren?” I ask Marcia.
I wait. She’s not so talkative round me. “You have any idea where he’s gone to?”
I rub my eyes to keep me sane and to kill the headache that’s spreadin’ cross my head again. The swill they serve me at the tavern does the job, but it ain’t as hard as city stuff. Next thing I know, I’ve knocked back a few too many and they’re draggin’ me back to the ship. The pain subsides, but I’m left with a poundin’ head. I try Marcia one more time.
“You have any idea when he’ll be back?”
“Right after you leave for the night.”
She looks up at me, her mouth thinnin’ out, and I get it. Bah, I sigh to myself. I leave her be and head out to find the boy. He left sometime in the mornin’, but this town’s jus’ big enough I can lose him. I double-check my watch to make sure it’s too early for troublemakin’, and step onto the road.
God, the sun’s bright. If He’s up there, He needs to tone it down. I call out, “Darren! Boy!” but he’s keepin’ his head down good. “Boy—”
A unit of Minutemen round the corner, so I slip to the side and lower my eyes. They slow down a bit, but keep walkin’. I just nod and try not to mind ‘em til one walks up to me.
“Hey, old man,” he says, “whatchoo up to?”
“None of your business, son,” I reply. I try to push past ‘em quicker, but he grabs my shoulder.
“I think I’ve seen you around.”
He looks at me for a second. I think he thinks I’m lyin’. They know we ain’t from here, and the people’s given ‘em reasons to check us out. We might be honest merchants, but there’re plenty of black marketeers and pirates in the skies, too. I keep my eyes on his. He can’t be no more than fifteen. Finally, they just let me go. I nod once more to thank ‘em for gettin’ outta my way and walk off, calling for the boy again.
October 16th, 2011
I grin an’ shake the carved dice in my right hand. The boy to my left narrows his eyes and wobbles his head around, like he don’t think I can do it. Across the circle from me, another boy sucks on a cigar, puffing out rings. He said he’d show me how if I throw the highest number. He nods at me, an’ then he tugs on a passing girl’s skirt.
She squeaks in a lil girly way an’ almost drops her washing. She’s walked by here a few times, though. The cigar boy seems to know her. But, everyone in Montrose says they know each other. They don’t have a lot of fancy machines out this way. At the Capitol or in Kansas City, automata would be doing the wash while the ladies sewed samplers.
“Come on, now!” one of the boys says.
I snap back into focus, give those dice a final good shake, an’ throw ‘em loose. They bounce into the circle once… an’ then again… an’ then one stops on five.
“We gotta fiver!” I yell. I’m crossing my fingers for the second one. It rolls for a moment before landing on three. Suddenly, I’m in the air, whooping and hollering. “Eight! Eight! I got a damn eight!”
The girl giggles at me. I suddenly stop dancing around an’ instead stand up straight like it was no big deal. I brush off some fake dust from my jacket as cigar boy reaches out for the dice.
He wastes no time. Short wind-up, snappy pitch. They hop around the circle a few times. One lands on six right off the bat. I lean down over the arena an’ start praying. But the number comes up, an’ it ain’t a two or less.
“Douglas did it again!” one of the boys says. “He always rolls twelve, even when he isn’t trying!”
I nod, stuffing my hands in my pockets. I slip off saying I got chores to do anyways, which ain’t a lie, but I don’t have to do ‘em all at once today. I glance over my shoulder before I leave the alley, an’ I see the girl holding the cigar boy’s hand. It ain’t fair… I think.
October 14th, 2011
Delayed a week. Winds from off Erie started pushing us into Pennsylvania. Marcia couldn’t hold against them to get into Canada and go around, so we were grounded near the Susquehanna for two days. Then a storm hit. Then the militia surprised us.
We’re damn near out of surplus food, and everyone in the village is scared. Quint isn’t helping. He’s going into the tavern every night and dances home by morning. Darren met a gang of young boys in town and they’re real keen on this ship. The only one who doesn’t leave every day is Marcia. Dear God, please shove her outside. I do not need her echoing around here another day. Plenty of other people in the village she can talk to.
Still, our extended presence here means we’ve sold a few more things. A few more pounds of okra, thank God. We might just make a bonus this year. One of the women I talked to said this place was called Montrose, but hardly anyone stopped through. Nice enough folk, not too bad business, and friendly. I’m wary about those boys Darren’s falling in with, but the buyers might make it worth putting on the route.
We’ll just have to see about the militia, then.
~Captain J. Harper