Experiment #248

The Gentleman of Steam Part 1

After Papa died, Mama built a bronze steambot to take us to school. She said it wasn’t safe for four girls to walk there by themselves. So the steambot would set us all in the back of the wagon and trot off with it like a horse.

Our one room schoolhouse was filled to the brim with name callers, brats, braggarts, and hooligans. So’s you can guess what happened the first day he took us to school. They called us “steamies,” “bronzies” and “deevee-en’s.” That last one made no real kinda sense to us either, but that’s the one that stuck. Cad Winkle thought it up as just one more way to be a knucklehead, and my sisters and I had to deal with it.

One time Cad Winkle and his cronies set an ambush for us while Rolland (that’s what we called the steambot) was taking us to school. They set up two hay wagons at an angle so they blocked the road. As soon as we got within tossin’ distance, they popped up out of the wagons, throwin’ mud and callin’ dirty names (though they weren’t very imaginative ones).

Rolland turned to me with imploring eyes. Somehow I knew he wanted permission to fight back. I hesitated, but then Maggie, my littlest sister, took a mud pie to the face. She screamed in pain and fear. He stared into my eyes, pleadin’ like a politician on election day. When I nodded, a familiar gleam came into his alabaster colored eye. He turned to the boys and set to work. He shoved the wagon closest to him, sending the boys sprawling. The wagon went off the side of the road into a ditch. He lifted the second wagon above his head and tossed it with Cad Winkle and Leroy Price still in the bottom of it. Nobody got hurt, but they were sure surprised. You’d think that would’a ended it, but his parents were right to name him “Cad.” It was the first brawl in a war.

It did, however, teach Cad that Rolland could kick the pattarky out of ‘im. So instead of trying to take on Rolland he just made life miserable for my sisters an’ me. He made up new names and games to torture us. If my Papa hadn’t taught me some manners, he would’ve ended more’n one day with a black eye and a sack full o’ hurt.

After school Rolland would lift my sisters and I into the cart one by one. He’d set off home faster than a horse could gallop. Maggie near fell out every time. Jessie or Sara or I’d always catch her, though. Maggie’d laugh as if she’d seen Old Man Cransburry pirouetting in a tutu. Rolland’d turn his head just a little and wink.

Experiment #249

The Gentleman of Steam Part 2

At our house, Rolland would lift us out and escort us inside. Never came in the house though. Once we were indoors he’d take up his post out on the front porch. He’d sit there rattling like a teakettle on boil till Mama got home or finished up in her workshop in the barn. After that he’d set hisself up in the barn while the rest of us ate whatever Jessie cooked up. She was better at cookin’ than me and I didn’t mind cleaning up. Papa used to call her pies the pride of the county.

Rolland didn’t need sleep so he rattled away in the barn all night.  None of us ever knew what he did. Mama must have had a guess though. She went out there most nights after she’d tucked us in.

Some of the folks in town, Cad Winkle and his lot among them, whispered about her doing “unnatural things” in that barn after dark. He claimed his father, Auggy, had come over one night and heard terrible noises comin’ outta that barn. But I never heard anything other than Mama’s singing, Rolland’s rattle, and the huff and puff of hard work. Mama fixed every steam-powered tractor and farm machine from here to Briggs County and back again.

We weren’t allowed inside the barn without Mama. We were pretty used to breaking rules whenever it got too hot outside or too boring inside to keep ‘em, but we listened to this one. As much as we loved Mama, it was probably because of Rolland and that rattle-y bow he’d give any time he saw us. He reminded me a lot of Papa. The barn was his sacred domain. We honored that.

One day, Rolland ran out of steam on the way to school. He just sort of stopped in mid-motion. He’d done that once or twice before when a gasket got loose, but everything Mama taught me to check was tighter’n Miss Pritchett at a square dance.

I walked my sisters to school then came back with a bucket of hot water as soon as I could. I found him lying on the side of the road. They’d smashed in his faceplate and cracked his boiler. And that’s when I found out what “deevee-en’s” really meant. Those hooligans scratched “deviant” across his breastplate (though they spelled it wrong). It wasn’t written by Cad Winkle or his cronies, neither. I don’t think he even knew what the word meant. He certainly didn’t know how to say it. ’Sides that, something had cut it deep into Rolland’s breastplate: something better’n that half-dollar knife he always flashed about. Somebody older and stronger must o’ done it.

I tried to get Rolland in the cart, but he was heavier than a bull in a bathtub. I pushed the cart over to him and tipped it up on its back-end. With a whole lotta pushin’, shovin’ and prayin’. I got him onto the cart’s back wall. I used the rear axle like the center of a seesaw to flip him right into the cart. It took a few tries. (I had to hold a big hunk a rock in one hand while I pulled on the wagon handle with the other.) But eventually I got the cart set right with Rolland in a heap in the back.  Then I set out for home. Even in the cart that bath taking bull seemed light in comparison.

Experiment #250

The Gentleman of Steam Part 3

When I drove the cart up next to the barn, Mama came out of her shop.

“Whacha doin’, Lizzie?” she asked. A piece of lace stuck out from under her shirt in a way I wasn’t used to seeing. She had a grin I’d only seen on the Cooper girls’ faces when they were talkin’ ‘bout a boy.

“Where’s Rolland?” Mama asked.

Then her eyes drifted over to the wagon. She let out a scream that startled the Price’s chickens a mile away. She started barking orders like a sergeant on the battlefield.

“Grab our biggest pot and fill it to the brim with water, then get it boiling,” she said.

She pushed the cart into the workshop. With the rope and pulley system she used to lift tractors, she got Rolland onto her sturdy oak work table. I ran to the house to get the water. They say a watched pot never boils, but it takes till Doomsday when a hurt friend’s waiting for it.

Finally I got it boiling and ran to the barn. I sloshed some on my dress and burnt the sarsaparilla out of my legs, but I didn’t care none. I got through the door and handed the pot over to Mama. Then I saw him lying there. His parts were scattered on the table and around the floor. And Mama was there workin’ on him. Reminded me of when Papa came home with that wound after going huntin’ with Auggy Winkle at the Prices. She stitched him up, but life is pretty fragile. I never saw Papa after that.

Mama thanked me for the water, but shooed me out the door and back to school.

She hadn’t come in by the time we walked home from school or suppertime or even by the time the cows came home. We were used to her long nights in the workshop. We weren’t used to it without Rolland rattling away somewhere nearby. The porch felt silent as a grave.

The next morning we found Mama asleep on the floor in the parlor. Then we heard that familiar rattle and shake and ran outside to greet him.

“Rolland!” We shouted and ran to him, but stopped ourselves short. His chest and arms were spattered with mud and soot as if he’d been hauling hisself through a forest fire. His eyes were empty too, like lumps of coal on a snowman. They didn’t shine like Papa’s…like they used to.

Rolland hotfooted it into the barn without so much as a look at us.

A few hours later the sheriff arrived with a posse, weapons at the ready.

“Louise, you better give up,” Sheriff Codger shouted from his horse. “I’ve already called in the marshals, best come along quiet now.”

All of us came out on the porch to see what the fuss was about.

“What’s she done?” Sarah yelled. She was always the first to find her tongue.

“Now you girls stay out of this,” Sheriff Codger said. “What your mama’s doing there with that thing is unnatural and it’s gotta be stopped.”

Experiment #251

The Gentleman of Steam Part 4

“We knows what you made it for.” Auggy Winkle called out. He sat on a horse at the sheriff’s right hand. “You coulda just come to me.” The scruff and hooligans that made up the rest of the posse thought that rather funny.

“I doubt your wife would have let you,” Mama said.

The scruff and hooligans liked that even more’n Auggy’s comment.

Mama turned to the Sheriff. “Herb, what’ve I done?”

“You ought to know. That there, what you call it? ‘Steambot,’ was wreaking havoc all over town. And if it weren’t cuz of you and yorn, I’ll be a pig on butcher’s day.”

“What’s he done?”

“What ain’t he done? Near as I can tell he just about wrecked any man who ever looked sideways at ya.”


“Winkles, Coles, Prices, Dangerfields, and old Cransburry Smith. All of ’em are homeless. Cransburry and Sam Cole are lucky to be alive. Tim Price’s getting stitched up by Doc Winters right now. Given your history…”

“You must be joking.”

“Your thing there destroyed homes and injured three good men. Upstanding citizens who contribute to our town. They make it a right fine place to live.”

Mama swallowed hard. Her temper was almost as legendary as her mechanical abilities. “Herb, I had nothing to do with this. I would never tell Rolland to do such a thing.”

“Well the way I figure, whether you told it to or not, you built the darn thing so you’re gonna pay for what it’s done.”

“Sheriff, please-”

Sheriff Codger held up his hand. “No more talk, Louise. Come along now.”

Mama didn’t move, so Auggy got down from his horse and came up on the porch to get her. He grabbed her arm and pulled her along.

“Here we are again,” Auggy said “Me showing you what’s right and you resisting.”

All four of us girls started forward hollering for him to leave mama alone. But Maggie, little Maggie’s voice, stood out above the rest. “No!” she screamed. “Rolland!”

Within a second the side of the barn exploded as Rolland crashed through it. It only took him a second to get the lay of the land. He barreled down on Auggy like a bear protectin’ his cubs. Auggy let Mama go and started firing his pistol at Rolland. The bullets just bounced off his new steel face and body. Mama had made sure those ruffians weren’t gonna get him again. Rolland ran up to Auggy and threw him to the ground. I couldn’t see what happened next, but Rolland had red smears on his faceplate when he stood up again.

The posse fired from all corners, making little more than dents in his bronze and steel skin. He grabbed the posse member closest to him and pulled him from his horse.

Experiment #252

The Gentleman of Steam Part 5

“Rolland! Stop!” Mama shouted, but, whether he heard the order or not, he didn’a listen. Rolland was a runaway train, listening to no one and nothing. Mama ran after him, even while the posse continued shooting.

She got behind him and jumped on his back. Pulling at the tubes and bolts with her hands. Rolland paid her no mind, as if she were a gnat buzzin’ round his ears.

“Lizzie,” she yelled, still clinging to Rolland’s back. “Get me a wrench!”

I ran for the barn and jumped through the hole Rolland’d made. Inside there were tools of all shapes and sizes. My eyes scanned the room for a wrench, something, anything to help Mama. I ran from one end to the other hoping she hadn’t taken them into the house or down the road to fix something else. Then I saw one on the operating table, the big oak table Mama had fixed Rolland on and stitched Papa up on. I grabbed the wrench and ran back through Rolland’s hole.

Then a scream rang out like a thunder-clap: Mama.

She’d been hit by one of the bullets. She fell off Rolland and into a heap on the ground. She was as still as a scarecrow on Sunday. But Rolland didn’t stop to help her and neither could I.

I ran up behind him as he grabbed the sheriff off his horse. He held the sheriff up off the ground by his neck. I jumped up and began working at anything the wrench could twist, turn, or mash. In a minute I’d disconnected three of his five steam hoses. Rolland dropped the sheriff, turned and looked at me. And then he just stopped, frozen. My betrayal still in his alabaster eyes.


We never heard Mama speak again. She’d been hit by more bullets than Doc Winters could find. Whether they were ricochets or otherwise we couldn’t tell. One grazed her head. Another tore up her stomach. She never woke. Doc Winters assured us she was in a better place. I can’t disagree.

Maggie ran away the night Mama died. We spent days searchin’ for her. We looked in rooms and outhouses, turned over stones, and splashed through streams. We called her name in windy and wild places, but we never heard anything more’n our own voices.

Finally, we found her back in the barn, in Mama’s old workshop. She looked so frail and small, among the tools and machines and inventions. She was curled in a ball and clutchin’ Rolland’s defaced breastplate, wearing it like armor. It was the only bit I could save when the Sheriff ordered me to dismantle him and took away the pieces. She held it tightly to her little body. When she saw us, she rose to her feet, and still clutching the breastplate, she stumbled through the hole Rolland had made. The three of us followed her out into the sunlight.