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Lineman for the Country: Section Two

       Last updated: Friday, September 19, 2003 23:13 EDT



    He found Len Tanner frowning at pieces of telephone. "My head hurts," Dougal said by way of a greeting.

    "Humph." Tanner said, looking up briefly. "So does mine." His voice was carefully neutral.

    Dougal realized that what he was dealing with here was a man who was used to people being friendly... only when they wanted something. This was going to be trickier than he thought.

    "Yon lassie up at the mine said something last night I wanted to ask you about. I've an idea o' a business venture I've a wish to go into. But I dinnae ken this telephone business. I need some advice or she could sell me short."

    Len Tanner laughed. "Ellie? She couldn't sell a drink to an alcoholic. She's got a nasty tongue and a hell of a temper. But she's rock solid honest, even if she'll snap your nose off for nothing."

    Dougal grinned. "Ye sound as if you fancy her." And then, at the thoughtful look on the man's face, he realized he'd been more accurate in jest than he'd been when in earnest.

    Len shrugged. "Her bad-mouthing doesn't worry me."

    "Well. She is a fine figure of a woman," said Dougal respectfully. There are some lines a wise man doesn't cross. One of those is a fellow man's taste in women.

    Len blinked through his glasses. "Yeah. I kinda thought... when we were cut off like this. Being the only two telephone techs and having something in common we might get together. Y'know. An' anyway. I've never had any luck with women. But I thought..."

    Len fingered his moustache. "She said 'I got no fucking interest in a redneck walrus'. Y'know... it took me twenny years to grow this darn thing," he said resentfully, patting his moustache. "Anyway. Tell me about this idea of yours."

    Dougal pursed his lips. "Weel. It's things you said last night, you and yon lassie. You got me thinking about not having to sit in the saddle all day. About that switch room being able to cope with ten times the number of telephones. And what you were saying o' phones all over the new United States."

    "Yeah. Well, the exchange isn't all that big, but it has a hell of a lot more capacity than they're using. But it won't happen for five, maybe ten years. Things have got to get settled and organized first, Doogs. They keep telling us that they've got other priorities. When you put that into my kind of language, that means they've got ten other places to put the money. Me, I think that's goddamn stupid, but they didn' ask me."

    Dougal nodded. "Aye. It is stupid. Ye ken, things will get organized a lot faster if we have rapid communications"

    Len nodded. "Yeah. Not much we can do about it though. People ain't inclined to listen to me. I've tried to tell Bill Porter. I kept getting this 'we'll get here but we have other priorities right now.' So. We'll just have to wait."

    Dougal smiled. "What if we don't wait? What if we just do it ourselves?"

    Tanner laughed sourly. "Are you crazy? Nah. I guess you just don't know, Doogs. It's real big bucks you're talking about. Forget it. And forget borrowing it. The Abrabanels pretty well control venture banking and that means big projects get chosen by the town. Mike Stearns ain't a bad guy, but he's set on a whole list of other stuff."

    Privately, Dougal suspected that Stearns could be brought around to it by someone who was a better talker than either Anderson or Len Tanner. But that would not fit in with this Scot's plans. "If you're not interested in such a system getting started now..."

    Tanner snorted. "Of course I'm interested. It just can't be done."

    The salmon was chasing the fly. Now to set the hook. Dougal held out his hands. "Well, if you canno' do it, perhaps I'd better talk to some o' the students at the high school. They're full of ideas. Also Mister Underwood. I can raise money from the German towns, even if I cannot raise it from the Abrabanels. As soon as I have a working line, I'll have investors queueing. All I need is one telephone to Jena or Saalfeld. I'll have them falling over themselves to buy shares. Well, it has been nice talking. Perhaps we can employ you one day. I'd rather have had you as one o' the owners, but..."

    Tanner stood up and pounded on the table with a force that jumbled his miscellany of components. "Students! What the hell do they know about practical telephony? You need us! You need a wireman and Ellie's instruments. And forget it. We're not being your employees!"

    "Aye? So you're in then?"



    Half an hour later they were sitting in Ellie Anderson's office, next to the clicking switch-stacks. Len Tanner was being more eloquent than he'd been in his life.

    "...look Ellie. We can either sit around and wait for it to happen and stay takin' orders. Or we can do just do it. We end up with a 'phone system designed by telephone technicians and not goddamn bean counters."

    Ellie looked suspiciously at Dougal. "So what's your share of this deal, you Scots cadaver? What do you bring in to it?"

    "Something you cannot. Ich spreche Deutsch. And what's more, the notables o' the towns around here know me. They'll assume this is Mackay's business, which means King Gustav Adolph business, no' ours." He smiled beatifically "Otherwise, if ye tried to do it wi' out me, ye'd have every petty official demanding a bribe or a tax. They'll no' try that on with what they assume is Royal business. Besides, I can deal with people."

    Tanner nodded. "He's got a point, Ellie. Neither of us can speak to people. We ain't much good with Germans."

    Ellie winced as she moved her foot on the chair in front of her. "Yeah. But what are Underwood and Bill Porter gonna say about this?"

    Len gritted his teeth. "We're going to make 'em offers they can't refuse."

    She snorted. Shook her improbable red hair. "I don't like the sounds of this. What are we gonna do? Take a cut in pay?"

    "Nope," said Len Tanner sourly. "We're going to take on apprentices. New Americans. And we're going to pretend to like it."

    Ellie put her hands to her head.

    "And I'll do the negotiation for ye," said Dougal, in the very tone that he'd once used to trick Gypsy horse-traders. "If it all works we'll be needing them. And I'll convince yon Underwood and is it... Porter?" Len Tanner nodded. "Aye, Porter, that ye'll no succeed and if they agree to the terms, they'll get trainees they want. They'll think they're getting the better of you. By the time they ken it is the other way around it'll be too late. "

    Ellie smiled evilly. "Underwood would agree to hiring us three-quarters of the capacity of this board if he thought his dreams of firing me could one day be real."

    Dougal smiled just as evilly in return. "And ye ken, if you train yon laddies or lassies well, why, we'll be able to hire them away frae Underwood. Then he'll have to bargain for our company's services."

    Ellie Anderson shook her head and laughed. "Cadaver, I can tell that you'll end up owning the company. So my terms are that you call it Anderson, Tanner and what ever your name is, so people will at least remember we existed." Her eyes were suddenly bird-bright. "Your name doesn't begin with a T, does it?"

    Dougal shook his head. "Lawrie. Dougal Lawrie."

    Ellie sighed. "Oh, well. I guess I won't be one of the directors of AT&T, after all. There goes another ambition."



    They sat in Len's chaotic trailer, surrounded by half a ream's worth of scrawled paper and the four computers that had been his life, once. Len was painfully aware that the place was a mess. Well, it had been a couple of years since anyone but him had been in here. And since the death of the net, he'd spent little enough time here himself.

    "We'd need about twenty miles of 300 pound per mile wire. Copper is still quite cheap, thank God. Poles every fifty meters. Insulators. Then we'll need some labor to put up the poles, and the wire. Say a team of five. We're talking months of work."

    Len tapped the figures into the spreadsheet. His face got longer as they added new items. Eventually he said gloomily: "It doesn't work, guys. We're about a third over budget. And there'll be stuff we haven't even thought about yet."

    Dougal tapped the rough map they'd been working out distances on. "Is it needful that we follow the road? And well, can we not get the farmers to put up the poles?"

    Len considered it. He'd been a wireman. "They'd probably fall down in three months. And if we go across country we'd have to clear the trees. "

    "Three months is all we need," said Ellie. "Look, our aim is one line to Saalfeld. Get tolls coming in and get investors. There's no way we're gonna have enough money to set up a telephone network." She grimaced. "Especially if every instrument we make is gonna take me a month."

    Len knew she could do better than that. "We'd get around that. I reckon Ollie could do most of the parts for one in a day. If he did it production line style, we'd get a lot more. Those 'phones sure aren't gonna be cheap. It'll work, though. But the poles, and the time and the labor—we can't get away from that."

    The Scot looked speculative. "Do we have to put up poles?"

    "Unless we can insulate the wire, yes. It's got to be up in the air. And then basically we'd have to bury it. Which would cost a whole hell of a lot more."

    "We couldn't just attach it to the trees?" asked Dougal.

    Len shook his head. "Trees move. And they grow at different speeds. And..."

    "Y'know... he's right," interrupted Ellie. "We could do that! We're talking about three months, Tanner. We can start replacing, putting up proper poles—even during that time."

    Len tugged at moustache. "It won't look professional."

    Ellie snorted. "Jeeze, Tanner! We're trying to get it up and running. The Germans won't know it's not professional, and the Americans—well, why should we care?"

    Len sat back. Nodded. "Yeah. I guess we could do that. And I guess we can improvise so long on the insulators. They don't have to be glass as we were planning on. I figure a piece of tire should do the job. There's stuff down at the junkyard which is beyond retreading. But even cutting all the corners, me demanding leave... we're still going to be way short. Ellie and me aren't much by the way of savers, Doogs."

    Dougal took a deep breath. "Ah, weel." He stood up and started undoing his shirt. "As well hung for a sheep... This idea had better work." He pulled out a money belt. "A tribute o' my faith. A mercenary trooper does nae earn much, but I've done a small amount o' horse-trading."

    He spilled some silver, copper and even one golden coin onto the desk. "My savin's over the last ten years or so. Will we do now?"

    Len Tanner looked at the coins. At the weather-beaten Scot. The man wasn't young. He looked at Ellie, and she at him. Back at the pile of coins. The Scot's entire life-savings might add up to three hundred dollars. The two Americans looked at the Scot. Dougal Lawrie was plainly uncomfortable. "It's no' much," he muttered. "But it's what I've got."

    "It'll be enough," said Ellie in her don't-even-think-of-arguing-with-me voice.

    Len nodded. "Yep." He looked at the pile again. "Equal shares."

    "It's no' equal to what you're putting in," said the Scot quietly. "Shares based on what we put in."

    "We're all putting in equal amounts," said Ellie, harshly. "We're all putting in all we've got. I can find another grand or so."

    Len nodded. He could always sell a computer. They were worth a fortune these days. It would be a shock to get more for a machine than he'd paid for it for a change. "Yep. Sounds fair."

    The Scot looked embarrassed. "I'm no' dishonest. That's not right."

    Len tugged his moustache. "He can take it or leave it, eh, Ellie?"

    She nodded.

    The Scot reached down and pulled a knife from his gaiter. Slit the stitching on his belt and squeezed out a golden coin. "A ducat. My last resort. If ye're going to do that, I canna hold this back, can I?"




    The caravan was made up of a load-bed and the rear axle from a rusty scrapped truck. Ellie called it Fort Knox. They'd built it up to about six foot with rough timber and roofed it over. It had four low slit windows, just above the metal of the load-bed, and a ladder to a manhole at the top. As far as Len Tanner was concerned it wasn't secure enough. The forest still had loot-hungry deserters and other perils. Wolves and bears too. At least those wouldn't steal the wire. They might eat the three of them in their narrow bunk-beds, though.

    The caravan's two oxen were an added aggravation. Len longed for a truck. But then he longed for even the relative comforts of Grantville. The only "comfort" he had was the new prototype AT&L carbon granule telephone, with the Tanner-built antisidetone transformer. It, and its battery, had pride of place in the crowded caravan.

    The task had so far taken a week. It was more than just following the marked trees and poles that Dougal had had put up where there were no suitable trees. Every new wire attachment point was numbered. Len would attach the 'phone, call in, and Ellie would record resistances. If the line went down they'd be able to tell exactly where the break was by the resistance on it. It was tedious, painstaking work. Len was at the stage of wishing for some excitement. Wishing for better German linguistic skills, too. Dougal had been with them until two days ago, but the Scot had had to return to Grantville. The bulk of Mackay's troop were taking part in an exercise in Saalfeld, merely miles away. But Dougal was posted back to Grantville.

    Dieter, the assistant Dougal had found him, was so eager it was painful. And he spoke fair to middling German-English. Len found he was coming to like the boy. But he was getting mighty suspicious about this Waldross term the kid kept using when talking to Ellie's trainee, Lilli. Still, he'd even managed to learn a few words of German. It was different when you wanted to. Having a purpose, having a dream, had made the year 1633 in Thuringia a great place to be. It had changed somehow from a curse to a place of opportunity. It had become a United States that had a place for him too,even if it meant learning a foreign language and working your hands raw at repetitive manual labor. Another four days should see them in Saalfeld, their first target city. A lot of business from Grantville was going that way these days.

    They'd just settled in for the night when boredom suddenly became a very desirable thing.

    The door-bolt was literally ripped out of the wood. And through it came barreling saber-armed men. Len never even managed to get to the shotgun beside him. Instead he was wrestling with a sword-arm. Then bar-fights came to his rescue. He grabbed a tunic and head-butted. He could actually feel the nose break. But someone else had seized him from behind. More hands, strong ones, and profuse German swearing. He kicked savagely and was rewarded by more cursing.

    Ten minutes later he and Dieter were tied with their own precious wire as well as rawhide thongs and dragged outside the caravan, to where more men were throwing kindling onto the fire. Len was conscious. Dieter wasn't.

    A pair of riders came up through the darkness. Two of the attackers hastened to hold bridles once they dismounted. The others saluted them respectfully. Len wished like hell he understood more German. One of the men who walked into the firelight looked as if he'd just stepped out of a palace than the darkness of the Thuringerwald. His clothes and cape were impeccable. His boots gleamed like mirrors in the firelight. He looked down an arrogant aristocratic nose at the scene. The other... well, he was one of those invisible people. Everything from his dress to his face radiated ordinary, forget me. They walked over to the prisoners. The elegant one looked at them in such a way that Len Tanner began trying to remember prayers. He snapped something in German at them.

    "I can't speak German. Ich nix sprechen zee Deutsch."

    The look this earned him from the elegant one didn't bode well. "So. You are one of these American interlopers, Ja?"

    "Just what are you doing here?" demanded the plainly dressed man in perfect English.

    "He is a spy, Weiman. Ja. Or a guard. Here to watch over the route of the guns. I think we will have the truth tortured out of him." It was said in English, while the elegant nobleman watched him under half-lidded eyes.

    I'm expected to understand. To shit myself. Like it could get worse. But he knew it could.

    "I'm a technician. I don't know anything about your guns. We are putting up the telephone line through to Saalfeld for King Gustav Adolph." As soon as he'd said it, looking at the man's face, Len knew he'd screwed up, badly. This man wasn't a bandit. Or even some local aristocrat. This was someone who both feared and hated the King of Sweden and Captain General of the United States. Whatever he was doing here was obviously aimed at hurting the King.

    "You have just ordered your own execution." He leaned forward and grabbed Len's moustache, tugging. "I will singe Gustav Adolph moustache via you. Captain Von Streml..."

    The plain man held up hand "Wait, Graf. I wish more information from the prisoner."

    Len knew that "Graf" translated roughly into the English "Count." It was apparent the Count was not accustomed to being told to wait. But it was also apparent that this man Weiman held the whip hand. The Graf stayed the order.

    Weiman turned to look at the two prisoners. "This telephone. I saw them on my visit to Grantville. You can make them?"

    Len knew a lifeline when he saw one. "Between the two of us, yeah."

    Weiman turned back to the Graf. "I think the Emperor might like these men alive."

    The Emperor! That had to be Ferdinand II of the Austrian Habsburgs he was talking about, Gustav Adolf's most bitter enemy. And earlier that day he'd thought 1633 was a time of opportunity. Well, if he could talk his way into letting him call Grantville...

    "We need our gear in the caravan. And look if the line gets broken the machines back in Grantville will ring an alarm. And if we don't call in every morning Colonel Mackay's men will come and check. You'll have to let us call in."

    By the look in the eyes of Weiman, he hadn't succeeded. "We can deal with anyone who comes out. Most of Mackay's troops are not in Grantville. So, no, you will not call in and by great cleverness give some warning. You will now show us this telephone. A small device, Graf, but it allows them to speak across great distances."

    Only when he was taken back to the caravan with a couple of flaring brands Len realized that the AT&L carbon granule telephone was also a casualty of the fight. "It got smashed." The heartbreak in his voice made the Count laugh.

    "You can stay in here and enjoy it, ja." he said. He snapped something in German and Len found himself flung onto the caravan floor. A few moments later they tossed Dieter on top of him. The young new American groaned. Well, at least he was still alive.

    The troops nailed the door in place.




    It was a long, long night. Dieter had regained consciousness quite soon, much to Len's relief. There wasn't much he could have done for the boy, tied up like this. Outside they could hear several of the Graf's men making use of the fire and devouring their precious rations. Their beer too. The fireside conversation grew louder. Of course it was all in German. Eventually Len had to ask Dieter. "What are they saying?"

    The young man's voice was bleak. "They do not like the new United States, ja? It takes their peasants, their ancient rights. It weakens them. And now the Graf, he waits for the big shipment of the new guns for Torstensson. They will ambush them here tomorrow. If they can, they will steal them for the Austrian Emperor. If not they will destroy them."

    Len ground his teeth and went on with bending and flexing his bonds. Maybe they'd break. Not that that would do them much good. "And we just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time." He sighed. "Listen Dieter. You are an expert telephone tech. Between the two of us we make telephones. You got that, boy? That's what I told them. That's all that is keeping us alive right now."

    Len began easing his way along the broken remains of the telephone. In the ragged light of the brands he'd seen something among the ruins.

    The battery.

    Finding it in the dark, with his hands tied behind him was another matter. But eventually he located the squareness. And then, managing to sit up, keeping hold of it, against the back wall, to find the insulated cable. Getting it to his mouth was something that would have been best left for circus acrobats.

    Len tried not to think about what biting the wire was doing to his teeth. And then he had to maneuver some more. Trying to manage a short behind your back, when your hands are tied was exhausting. And very difficult.

    A spark told him he'd managed that short.

    "What are you doing?" hissed Dieter.

    "Tryin' to call home. I just hope Ellie's on the board, not your bit of talent."

    Spark spark spark—spark... spark... spark—spark spark spark...

    The battery died sometime after dawn. It had been a long night, and Len had no idea if the line to Grantville was intact. Or if anyone would hear it in between the sound of the switches.



    The wagon train trundled forward toward the Graf's ambush. From the slit window of his prison Len and Dieter watched horrified and helpless. Oxen don't move fast. To Len, these seemed to be moving glacially. Sixteen heavy wagons especially built for transporting Torstensson's new gun barrels. Guns that could spell the difference in the war, neatly under canvas covers. And there didn't even seem to be any outriders. At the moment the up-grade was the image of tranquility. It was going to be murder. And the aftermath, if those guns got to the other side... would mean that the artillery advantage that the Swedish forces had enjoyed would be over for a while. Men, money and materiel still weighed on the side of Emperor Ferdinand.

    Len couldn't handle the waiting. The guards might come and beat him up but the hell with it. He yelled. So did Dieter, adding his bull-like young voice to Len's.

    No one came in. But the sound wasn't carrying to the wagons.

    Len saw the smoke-puff at the forest edge before hearing the gunshot. Saw the cuirassiers begin to charge out of the forest. Closed his eyes. He could hear the pop of pistols.

    The thin bright sound of trumpets made him open his eyes again. The pop of cuirassiers' pistols was replaced by the heavy, solid massed sound of shotguns. Lots of them. Looking at the wagons now, Len saw that the canvas—if it had ever been canvas—was ripped. Firing in massed volley from behind the rampart of cannon-barrels, the Grantville militia was tearing the Austrian cuirassiers apart. There was a red head in among those on the lead wagon. And riding down the hill from the direction of Saalfeld were the bonnets of Mackay's Scots.

    Len grinned at Dieter's bloody face. The young man grinned back. Len hoped Lilli wouldn't mind a couple of missing teeth. The two settled back to watch the Austrian raiders being shredded.



    Len massaged his wrists, his mind in some turmoil. Ellie had not only left her switch-room but had actually kissed him. Well, that was when she and Dougal had kicked in the door to the caravan. Now, she stood and shook her head at the smashed ruins of the AT&L Mark One. Awkwardly, he patted her shoulder. "We can make more."

    She shook her head. "Maybe one day. But you came up with the real answer, Len. We've been over-engineering. We thought coming down to a Bell-type instrument was stepping down. Sure, it was a long way down from electret microphones and transistors. But it wasn't far enough. Any one of the machine shops can knock together a Morse-key in a couple of minutes. We need to go back to the telegraph. We can have the telegraph covering towns from here to the Baltic in six months."

    Len sighed. "I guess the Internet is a way off, huh? But I suppose you could be right."

    Dougal nodded. "Aye. That she is. We were talking about it this morning. Look, you Americans expect to talk to people immediately. The rest o' the world—we're glad if we can send a message within three weeks. This telegraph will do a grand job."

    "And once we've got the lines, well, then the step to telephones is a much smaller one, Len."

    "Yeah. I guess. So did you figure out it was Morse code I was sending?"

    She scowled at him. "You made that damned noise in my exchange for nearly ten hours. And I couldn't even tell you shut up. Three longs, three shorts, three longs. Over and over again. Why didn't you tell us what was going on?"

    Len shrugged. "That's all the Morse I know. Besides, my hands were tied behind my back."

    Ellie smiled. It was a slightly nasty smile. "Bet you can't say that in a year's time. You'll even dream in Morse."

    Len shrugged. "If that's what it takes to make AT&L fly... I will." He pointed to the rout below. "So how did you organize this? I mean the militia I can see, Mackay's troopers back from Saalfeld."

    Dougal rubbed his butt. "There were horses before telephones, Len. And I've got a mort of an investment tied up in you. I couldnae let that go tae waste now, could I? It's going to cost you, mind. I have nae been in the saddle for months, and I'm damned sore."

    Ellie shook her head at the third partner "Lawrie, you're a fraud. Len, he led the scouting party, rode back to Granville and then rode cross country to Saalfeld to find Mackay. He's been through about six horses, and been in the saddle just about non-stop since last night."

    "Aye, but she was the one who got yon Stearns and his wife tae come up and listen to the tappin', to get it into his head where you were and why we needed tae scout it." Dougal grinned. "It wouldnae have been worth his life not to come up to the mine. Ye ken we've got some good out of this. Mike Stearns saw the value o' the idea no more than five minutes after Becky. We've got backing for the telegraph."

    Ellie put an arm over Len's shoulder. "You're something of a hero, Len Tanner. Everyone in town is already talking about this." She pointed across at the hastily set up aid station. "Dieter is telling the militia nurse quite a tale by the looks of it. Story is going to grow, boy. You're going to be a popular fellow. Not bad for a man who didn't have a friend in Grantville three months ago." She looked at him quizzically but with an unusual tenderness. "And all it cost you is black eye and maybe a couple of ribs. And blistered fingers."

    Len blew through his moustache. "The truth is, Ellie, I did it to save my own skin, as much as anything."

    Dougal grinned. "What they dinnae ken their hearts won't grieve over."

    "And you, Len, are going to keep your mouth shut and let the lying Scots company spokesman do the talking," said Ellie firmly.

    Len looked speculatively at Ellie. She'd kept that arm over his shoulder. "You wouldn't like to repeat that kiss, would you?"

    Ellie actually blushed. "Not with that damn moustache, Tanner."

    Len put a reflexive hand to it. Sighed. "Hey, Doogs... ya said that knife of yours was sharp enough to shave with. Lend it to me, will you?"

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