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Lineman for the Country: Section One

       Last updated: Thursday, September 4, 2003 00:32 EDT



    The Thuringen Gardens was, as usual, dense with people. After collecting his first priority at the bar, Dougal Lawrie looked about for his second priority: something to sit on that wasn't a saddle. The only empty spot he could see was at a small corner table with a solitary American at it. Folk had taken all the chairs but one away from that table. Dougal could tell that the man was an American by the teeth and the horn-rimmed spectacles. Well—what you could see of the teeth. He had a moustache that would have looked fine on the hind end of Shetland pony.

    Dougal's blue eyes took in the scene. It was a case of stand or sit over there. He decided that the rotund morose-looking fellow was either a fighter or, more likely, a windbag. Well, the former didn't worry him, and he'd always found that he could shut up a bore.

    He walked over to the small table. "I'll be sitting here then," he said. No point in delaying a fight if there was going to be one. He was tired. It had been a long ride from Halle to Grantville. He'd been on the road for two days. Then he'd had to stand around while Colonel Mackay read the messages, and hope to heaven he wouldn't be sent off again tonight. Anyway, with beer at that price he wouldn't be staying long. Grantville was a boom town and bar prices reflected it.

    The solid occupant nodded. "Can't stop you."

    Dougal had none of Lennox or Mackay's awe for these Americans. Some of them were doughty fighters, to be sure. Their firearms and devices were near miraculous. But he, Dougal Lawrie, was a Supplicant, like the rest of the Clann, even if he had somewhat lapsed in his church-going these days. Too much respect bordered on worship. The covenant made it clear: Worship was due to God and no one else. And after all these years in foreign wars: respect was something you earned. If this American got too talkative he'd give him short shrift. Anyway he had things to think on, and he was looking forward to just relaxing. Being a dispatch carrier in troubled times and places meant most of your attention was focused on the countryside. There was no chance to let your guard down. He'd done that once. Damned near been killed for his stupidity.

    After a few minutes of silence the American said: "Well, aren't you going to tell me how wonderful our guns are?" The American's accent was particularly impenetrable, but Dougal was good with languages.

    Dougal took a pull at his beer. "Nae. They canna ride dispatches." That should shut him up. He wanted to drink in peace and not sing praises to the wonder of sniper rifles. He'd heard enough of it in the barracks. The average trooper didn't understand that it took more than guns to win wars. It took the movement of men and materiel. And that rested with men and horses.

    The slow smile spreading over the face of the American told him he'd guessed entirely wrong. "Well, maybe you Scots aren't all damned fools."

    This was fighting talk, even if it was said with a hint of a smile. Dougal tensed. "We're no' stupid. We leave being fools to the susunnoch." These Americans spoke English of a sort but they did not have the Gaelic. The American wouldn't even understand the insult.

    The American took off his glasses. Placed them carefully in a pocket. "Watch your mouth, sonny. You Scots are more Saxon than I am."

    Dougal's eyes narrowed. "Mo chainnt?" Seeing the American was obviously trying to decide whether "my language?" was an insult or not, he continued. "You don't have the Gaelic do you? Canan uasal mor nan Gaidheal."

    The American snorted. "No. I don't speak your damned language. I'm no good with foreign languages." But he'd subsided somewhat. "Ma just used to call someone a Sasanach when she was mad at them. I asked what it meant once. I guess it stuck because she used it pretty darn often."

    "So your mother was a Scot? What Clann?"

    The American shook his head. "Ma was Irish. Came to the US during the troubles. She had no time for the Scottish." He tugged at his horse-tail moustache. "Well. She didn't have much time for anyone."

    "Irish, eh? I served with a couple o' the Wild Geese. None of them could drink."

    The American took out his glasses again. Polished them and put them on. Drained his glass in one long moustache-foaming draft. "Really? 'Zat so? We'll have another round then, will we?"

    Dougal drained his. "Aye. So long as you don't talk all the time. I have nae had a time when I could take a drink in peace for three weeks. And belike yon Mackay will have me off to Halle in the morning again."

    The American was already waving his tankard at the barmaid. When she came over Dougal realized this was another old feud.

    To work in the Thuringen Gardens you had to have a pretty fair grasp of English. Even the German customers tended to mix in a fair amount of English. It was a source of pride. Showed you were an old hand around here. Lawrie was willing to bet button-nose Hildegarde spoke English without effort.

    "Was willst Du, Du verdammtes rundes Schwein?" Her comment was a source of some amusement with the miners at the next table. It was apparent that the American understood not one word.

    "Two beers," he said grumpily, holding up two fingers and pointing at the empty stein.

    She looked at him with perfect incomprehension. "Wie Bitte? Was?"

    Dougal looked at his empty tankard. It was obvious that this game could go on until a man died of thirst.

    "Mach das zwei Krüge. Und wenn Du sie schnell bringst, erzähle ich deinem Freund nicht dass Du diesem Amerikaner Augen machst." One of the reasons Dougal Lawrie did so much dispatch riding was that languages came easily to him. It made simple things like haggling for stabling or asking directions easier, and the receiving of oral replies a lot safer.

    The barmaid had the grace to look embarrassed for a second. But she was a pert one, trouble looking for a place to happen, Lawrie reckoned. She was quick to recover. She made a showy little moue. "But you already know, mine darling," she said in thickly accented, but pretty good English. This got a shout of laughter and a whistle from the table next door, and let her sashay off smiling, without the tankards.

    The American looked at the empty tankards. Sighed. "I never get service. These Germans give me the jyp. We'll have to go to the bar."

    "She's bringing us a couple o' pitchers. Beer's cheaper like that. Which is good o' me, seeing as how you're paying."

    The American sat back. Shook his head. "OK. Hey, I can't talk their damned language. So what did she say to me? And what did you say to her?"

    Dougal decided that a few beers was worth a bit of tact. "She asked what you wanted." No point in mentioning the rotund pig part.

    "And you said?"

    "I told her to bring us two pitchers. And if she made it fast I wouldn't tell her boyfriend she'd been makin' eyes at you."

    The American snorted. But there was a smile behind that moustache. "And you'd have to figure out who that was tonight." The pitchers arrived. He looked up, startled. "My God. You get service, Scot." He fumbled out his wallet and paid.

    Lawrie contented himself with making a mental note of the barmaid. A bit on the skinny side for his taste, but worth remembering.

    Lawrie poured his beer, watching the fine head form. "If ye cannot speak German, why don't you do your drinking across at the Club 250?"

    "The beer is lousy," said the American. By the way it was said, there was more. He looked at Lawrie speculatively. He shrugged. "I got thrown out and told not to come back."

    Lawrie took a long pull of his beer. Grinned. "Just about have tae get kicked out o' that rat-hole if ye want to be part o' human race."

    The American tugged his moustache. "Yeah. But I thought a couple of them were friends of mine. And I organized their 'phone, dammit. I jumped 'em over the waiting list. I must have sixty of these New Americans yattering at me for 'phones. I haven't got the instruments even where they're inside the existing line network. Anyway. Name's Tanner. Len Tanner, Scotsman. What's yours?"

    "While you're buying the beer, ye can call me Dougal."

    By half past eleven, on a week night, Dougal could have found a fair number of seats at the Thuringen Gardens. But few tables with as many empty pitchers. It had been Len's idea to keep count. There were a fair number.

    Len stared earnestly at him over his glasses and wagged a finger. "'s not guns or newspapers or pol'tics that win wars, no matc... matter what Stearns says. 'S communications. The telephone... the 'net. God I loved the 'net."

    Dougal knew what the telephone was. Even though Len had made this speech, at more length, six or seven times that evening, the 'net part was still a mystery. But it had been Len's social life. He had fixed telephone systems by day and spent his nights with this 'net. Beer was poor substitute. But Dougal had ridden through firefights and across country with messages too often not to agree about communications. He nodded. "This telephone now, and the radio... they could save a lot o' horses." He had a feeling that he'd said that earlier too.

    "Ha!" Len snorted so explosively his moustache stirred in the breeze. "I tol' them. But they din' listen. I sh... said: Where we going to get replacement telephones from, huh? Like gasoline... 'sential supply. Said they couldn't take 'em away. That we'd jus' have to fix. Y'can't fix 'lectronic and plastic crap. Jus' throw it away and get a new unit."




    Quentin Underwood was tired and irritable. Grantville needed that coal mine. He gave it his best for sixteen hours a day on a lot of days, and the committee took up more time. They could at least let him have a few hours sleep. But the trouble was that some of the equipment they'd brought through the Ring of Fire was beginning to reach breakdown point.

    The German "new Americans" were good miners, all right. But specialized technical staff was still primarily "old American," or "uptimers" as some people were starting to call them. And in some cases they were few on the ground.

    Sure, they were training up new kids, but some things took a long time. So at 11:30pm—when they had a goddamned problem, they still called the mine manager. This time they'd had to send a runner up from the blast-face, because the 'phone system in the mine was down again—and the shift boss couldn't find the telephone tech.

    Underwood ground his teeth. He'd love to fire her. Of all the people on the mine payroll, Ellie Anderson would be at the top of his personal downsize now list. And thanks to the Ring of Fire it wasn't even an option. She was literally irreplaceable. And she knew it. They'd tried new American trainees with her. The men had left saying they wouldn't put up with being spoken to like that. Quentin couldn't blame them.

    He drove down the empty street towards the Thuringen Gardens. Tanner hadn't been in his trailer, but he'd been in the beerhall earlier. Quentin just hoped he wasn't too drunk to be of any use. Well, even stone cold sober, Tanner wasn't a patch on Ellie "the terror" on the mine's exchange. Tanner had worked for the local 'phone company. The town switchboard was electronic. Safety regs had meant that the mine's switchboard was an old electro-mechanical set-up, bought from Bristol when they'd upgraded to electronic systems.

    Ellie had come with it. And God help them if ever she went. So the mine management shut up and put up. She'd order what she pleased—and they'd have to find it. Mind you, she was really amazing with the damn thing. She'd stand there, in among the clicking switching stacks and turn slowly like a terrier sniffing for rats. Then she'd lunge off, heading straight for the problem. She claimed she could hear when something was wrong.

    The Thuringen Gardens were nearly empty, but yes, Len Tanner was still there. Sitting at a table full of pitchers with a lean, weathered looking fellow. One of Mackay's troopers at a guess. By the looks of the two of them those pitchers were empty. Underwood pinched his lips. Tanner, especially when drunk, had a reputation for being big trouble.

    "Evening, Len."

    The only telephone technician that had been in the office on the day of the Ring of Fire, blinked owlishly up at him. "We're going up in the world, Dougal ol' buddy. The mine manager come for a drink with us."

    Well. He sounded affable anyway. "We've got a problem up at the mine, Len. Part of the exchange isn't working. And nobody can find Ellie."

    Len snorted. "So suddenly I'm wanted, huh? Well get your sorry ass out of here, Sir. I fall unner Bill Porter these days. You go ask him."

    Quentin Underwood hadn't gotten to be a mine manager without learning to be effective. "Get on your feet, Tanner. I've got men underground whose safety relies on that system. You'll either come up with me now or I'll get the sheriff to cart you up there. And you can sleep it off in the cells."

    It didn't look like it was going to work. Tanner started taking his glasses off. "Firsht you'll have to get to the Sheriff, Underwood."

    Then the trooper at the table put a hand on Tanner's shoulder, and said with a conspiratorial grin to his fellow drunk. "We'll be helping the man, eh Len, if he buys us a pitcher or two, next time. Anyways, I'm so fu' I canna take another drop."

    It was quicker and easier than fighting about it. "Yep. I'll buy you a couple of beers—your call, but I need your help now. This is screwing up the blasting schedule. They're making do with runners, but that's bad for safety."

    The trooper smiled. "Weel, now. I'd say a dozen was the going rate, but seeing as there are men in need we'll make it a half dozen. A special price for him, eh, Len? It's a bargain we have then, Mister?"

    Quentin noticed that Len had pushed his glasses back onto his nose. The man was grinning behind that moustache. He was also beginning to push his chair back. The Mine Manager knew how to drive a hard bargain. He also knew this wasn't the time for it. He nodded. "Half a dozen."

    Len lumbered to his feet. "Ma always said Scots could do a goddamn deal with the devil. Come on, buddy. Le's go fix his problems." The tech swayed to his feet. And so did the Scot. They looked like a real life version of Abbott and Costello—if you had given Abbott about a foot of moustache.

    It wasn't worth arguing about. So what if he had a Scots trooper coming along for the ride? The man seemed adroit at turning conflict to his own profit. Maybe it would be useful further down the line. "Come on. I've got the mine truck outside."




    It was the first time Dougal had been in one of these American vehicles. He sat back against the seat. A man could get used to this. And it was fast. Damn sight faster than a horse. The lights... well they were a good and a bad thing. You could see the road, but you couldn't see into the darkness surrounding it. He'd done too many night-rides not to know how useful it was to be able to see off into the surrounding darkness. Still, at this speed you'd have to have some lights. It was as well to have them good, he supposed.

    They came to a halt at the mine compound. The gate guard let them in and Dougal found himself being shepherded into a big windowless room full of stacks of machinery.

    Len Tanner looked at it, with his hands on hips, swaying slightly. Sighed. "Go back to bed, Underwood. I'll try to dig this lot out of my memory. Damned dinosaur."

    The mine manager cracked a yawn. "Do your best." He turned to the shift-boss. "Hein. If he needs to go into the mine, will you detail someone to guide him? Keep him away from the blast zones."

    The beefy German nodded respectfully. "Ja, Mister Underwood. I see to it."

    Then the two of them left. Dougal looked around at the set up. Machinery at this level he would never understand. He spotted a chair and moved over to it. "Weel, I'll get out o' your way. Unless I can do something?"

    Tanner was already staring up at the charts on the wall. "Nah. Siddown. God, a T-bar system. I thought I'd finished with this old stuff forever."

    Dougal sat down. My, but this chair was finely padded. This foam-rubber stuff was a long way up on horsehair. He leaned back. Instinctively, he reached for the mug on the table. It was full and still faintly warm. You didn't stay alive, riding dispatches across hostile terrain, by not noticing things, even small things. "Len."

    The technician looked up, irritably. "Yeah?"

    "Mebbe you should look at this." He tapped the cup. "Yon mine manager said the technician was usually here of an evening, but that she must have decided not to come in tonight." He touched the cup. "'tis still warm, just. Would any anyone else be in here, drinking a warm drink?"

    Tanner felt the cup. Stuck a finger in the brew. Tasted. "Coffee! She's still got real coffee! You're right, Doogs. No way she'd have left this." He snorted. "So much for the goddamned mine management keeping their finger on the pulse of things. Let's go find out if her truck's still here."

    As he spoke someone knocked at the door. It was a miner, by the overalls and head-lamped helmet. "Mr. Elsberg sent me, ja. Klaus Kleinschmitt. I am der Health and Safety officer."

    "Take us to where Ellie parks her work truck."


    Dougal translated.

    "Oh. Ja. Come."

    They walked across the compound... to an empty bay.

    Len looked at it. "Oh, shit!" He turned to the Health and Safety officer. "You'd better get a search team. She's down there somewhere. Does she go out alone?"


    So Dougal translated again.

    "Ja. It is against the rules. But Fraulein Anderson... she breaks the rules. She does what she likes, ja. And when we try to stop her, she swears terrible, and still does it. I go to Mr. Underwood, he just throws his hands up in the air." He sighed, and picked up his walkie-talkie. "I report this. The teams will be called out. But there have been no reports of any rockfalls or problems. You want to go anywhere else?"

    Len pointed. "Back to the switch-room. I might be able to work out where the break is. She might be wherever that is."

    Dougal was amazed at the turn of speed that the American put into his return to the switch-room. Drunkenness too seemed to have been pushed aside. They arrived a good minute before Klaus, who was attempting to talk on the walkie talkie and follow them. When they got into the room Len grabbed the cup of cold coffee and drained it. "Hope that helps me think."

    He then proceeded to prove, to the watching Klaus as well as the Scot, that he could both think and work hard when he had to. He was moving at a pace that had his moustache windswept. Dougal learned that Weepstone bridge and ferret meant different things to these Americans. Minutes later, Len was peering through his glasses at the map of the risers and cross-cuts.

    "The break is hereabouts." He pointed. "On the old first cut. Good chance she'll be somewhere near there. Can you take us there? We might as well fix the damn thing anyway."


    So Dougal translated.

    "Ja. You vill come and collect the helmets and overalls? And spick slowly, pliss. I cannot understand you so good. I read the lips, and I don't see the lips."

    Len tugged his moustache. "Yeah. Well I'll take my translator. Just need to grab some tools, huh?"

    Ten minutes later they, and four other miners, were climbing out of the vehicle into an alcove—in which the mine's telephone systems' maintenance vehicle stood parked.

    Len Tanner blew out through his moustache. "Ladder's gone. Come on."

    They went up a riser to the original cross-cut. Len, despite his bulk, was leading the way. Dougal didn't enjoy the feeling of tons of earth piled above him. It felt as if the roof was pressing down on him. They hadn't gone far when they heard a yell. At a dog-trot they ran towards it.

    She was a mess. Blood on her face amid the dust. She'd been crawling.

    Tanner ran to her. "Are you all right?"

    The woman had startling red hair and rather glazed eyes. And a totally uninjured mouth. "Fuck me. Yeah, I'm having a real great time. What took you bastards so long?"

    "You didn't check in, Fraulein," said Klaus, severely. "We didn't know you were down here until Herr Tanner told us."

    She waved a hand vaguely. "Oh, piss on your rules. I was in a hurry. If I have to wait for you bastards, I'd never get anything done."

    "You must obey..."

    Dougal had had enough battlefield experience to know what he was seeing. He squeezed Kleinschmitt's arm and said quietly. "She's been hit on the head, man. Leave it now."

    Already two of the team had the stretcher ready. She pushed them aside. "Gimme a couple of shoulders. I've screwed this ankle." She hauled herself up on the arms. "Aw, shit!" She winced. "Not you, Tanner. You go fix it. It's the cable-tray maybe a hundred yards on. A fucking great piece of the ceiling fell into the tray. It, half the tray and the ladder came down with me when I got up there."

    So Dougal Lawrie found himself unable to leave the pressing darkness just yet. He, Tanner, and one of the miners, went on to fix the fault.



    Looking at the splintered stone next to the fallen ladder, Len whistled. "If that whole thing had landed on Ellie, she'd a' been dead," he said quietly.

    Dougal found himself a troubled man. If one piece of the roof could come down, could not others? The thought seemed to make the blackness blacker. Give him a moonless night of dodging moss-troopers on the open moor, rather. It didn't seem to affect Tanner. The man looked too round for the ladder—amazingly light that ladder was to carry a man that heavy—but he seemed comfortable up there.

    "Bugger." Irritation from the ladder top.

    "What's wrong, man?" Dougal hoped he didn't sound breathless. He felt it. Damn fool situations too much beer got you into. That was why he normally stuck with just one or two.

    "I musta been drunk when I packed up. Haven't got my wire-cutters, f'rchrissake."

    Dougal reached into his gaiter and pulled out his skean dhu. "This knife will cut near anything. Ye can even shave wi' it. I would nae give it to you to cut wire, but I need to get out of this place."

    "Herr Tanner," said the miner. "Here is the plier of the... liddy Anderson. It must have falled."

    Len Tanner reached a hand down. "Yeah. Better than the knife. Pass it up."

    Dougal saw that the light ladder could actually take the weight of two men.

    A minute or two later Tanner came down, dusting his hands. "No point in testing it. No one in the switch-room. Ellie will be in the hospital by now. Let's get outa here."

    Dougal was glad to oblige.

    But, some fifteen minutes later, when they got back up to the switch-room they discovered he was wrong. Ellie had a bandage round her head, but she was very present. Her foot was up on the desk and she had a militant look in her eye.

    Looking at her in the light, Dougal thought she was a fine figure of a woman. She'd cut and stook peats all day, he reckoned.

    "I can hear you got it fixed," she said, cocking her head at the relay-stacks.

    Len shrugged. "Yeah. Simple job. Why don't you get them to take you home, Ellie?"

    "And leave you and your boyfriend with my exchange?" she sneered.

    Tanner was principally interested in telecommunications. "Ha. What the hell would I want with this old dinosaur?"

    The other part of her statement penetrated to Dougal. "Ye daft besom! We just gave up a guid nights drinkin' tae pull your tail oot o' the mess ye made. I'm minded tae put ye o'er my knee an' gi ye guid hidin'. Have ye no brains or no manners?" He was quite angered and that tended to make his English a lot thicker than usual. Just about impenetrably thick, actually.

    "I think I just got cussed out by a master," said Ellie, looking impressed. "What'd he say, Tanner?"

    The telephone technician tugged his moustache. "Damned if I know," he said. "Ol' Doogs here can sound off in about six different languages," he said proudly.

    Dougal was quick on the uptake. He realized that the way to deal with this particular woman was to be rude right back to her. He'd met a few troopers like that, but never before a lassie. No wonder the mine manager had sounded so uncomfortable about her.

    The subject of his thoughts jerked a sardonic thumb at him. "Thought you didn't approve of all these foreigners. That we Americans should keep to ourselves."

    Len Tanner looked uncomfortable. "Yeah, well. Dougal is a Scot. And I got used to it."

    She snorted. "Realized you made a goddamn redneck fool of yourself, you mean."

    Tanner's moustache began to bristle. "Ha. So where is your 'new American' assistant, Ellie Anderson? You can't handle the Krauts either."

    Ellie laughed. "More like they can't handle me. I've been through three trainees. I don't mind Krauts, as long as they jump when I say frog. They bitch about my language to the boss."

    "Ain't they figured out that your bark is worse than your bite yet?"

    She raised an eyebrow. "That's what you think, walrus-face. And you watch your mouth about my switching gear in future."

    He snorted. "You want me to be polite about stuff that came out of the ark? I work with state of the art electronic equipment..."

    Now, by the flames in her cheeks, he'd really gone too far. "Tanner, you're so goddamn stupid! Your electronic rig is so superior. This is 'an old dinosaur'. Well, let me tell you this, walrus-face. Within three years that piece of plastic and electronics of yours is going to be nothing but fucking scrap. Something goes wrong there... you toss out the whole circuit-board and plug in another. Only you can't make transistors and circuit-boards. And you sure as hell can't buy 'em. But Ollie or Nat Davis's shop can make the mechanical switches here, if they have to. This ol' lady is gonna be the switchboard for the town. Hell, for the whole new United States. We've got ten times the capacity we need for this mine, or even this rinky-dink town. This is where it is gonna be at. So you better goddamn learn," she snarled.

    "So your switching gear might outlast my switchboard. So what?" Len held up the telephone. "See this? Do you know what I do every goddamn day? Cannibalize broken 'phones, crap I'd have thrown away before, and try and make one working instrument outa two pieces of scrap. An instrument has an average life-span in normal use of maybe five years. Ain't that many new phones around. In three years the network will be half the size. And in ten you might have three telephones working. But your 'ol' lady is gonna be the switchboard for the town'," he mimicked savagely. "Big deal. Big fat hairy deal, Ellie."

    Ellie stared at him. In silence. "You know, walrus-face, that's the first time I've heard you speak any sense."

    "Stop calling me walrus-face!" he snapped.

    Ellie snorted. "I'll call you any goddamned thing I please. But it's time I showed you something I've been working on. I figured out that they were going to run out of instruments PDQ. I guess I ain't the most diplomatic person around because when I tried to tell Underwood—he said it wasn't an immediate priority. Fucking jerk."

    "Yeah. I tried to tell Bill Porter. He wasn't listening either. People take 'phones for granted. They don't even think of an existence without 'em."

    She pointed at a metal cupboard. "Open that."

    Inside stood what Dougal decided could be a fiendish new torture device for the Inquisition.

    Ellie pointed proudly to the contraption. "We've got to reverse engineer. Downgrade. They've had to go back to blasting in the mine instead of using the continuous miners, right. Well, we can't make electret sets. So I've been workin' on this."

    Dougal didn't understand it, but it certainly impressed Len. "Holy smoke! Edison would have been proud of you! Does it work?"

    "Yeah, well. The carbon granule part was tricky at first, but I got it licked once I got Ollie Reardon to make me some decent diaphragms. I'm having a bit of trouble with the antisidetone network. But it works."

    Len Tanner took a deep breath. "Okay. So I guess I made a fool of myself again, huh."

    He didn't sound unhappy about it. He rubbed his hands together. "Heh. We're going to see an increase in subscribers again. Work our way up. Lines all over the new United States.. Who knows? One of these days we may even have the net itself again. I kinda thought everything I knew about was heading for being history. Makes you feel so damned useless."

    Ellie Anderson scowled. "Yeah, well. It's not so simple. If I could get the fucks to listen to me. But when everything breaks down they'll want to listen. Maybe three years from now."

    Len shrugged. "We can't talk to the bosses. It's not my line and it sure isn't yours. But I'm gonna put in some time up here. Refresh myself on this stuff. The instrument fixing is going to take a back seat for a while." He smiled evilly.

    Dougal shook his head. "Weel. My head is starting to hurt. An' you understand this stuff, Len. I understand my way home tae my billet."




    The next day Dougal awoke—as was his lifetime's habit—at first light, with something of a headache, and an idea eating away like a maggot at his mind. Three separate facts he'd picked up last night were connecting in his head.

    Firstly—up at the mine was a device which was capable of carrying many more of these telephones than it did now. Secondly, the woman technician had made a telephone itself. It was large and clumsy compared to the 'phones the Americans had brought with them. But compared to a letter, a messenger and a horse, it was a grand thing indeed. The Americans might not see it as such, but in Jena or Saalfeld—any city in Germany—there'd be a stream of wealthy merchants and notables who would pay very, very well indeed, for such a device. And they'd be happy to take it right now, never mind waiting the three years that Old Americans would accept.

    Never mind Jena, for that matter. Just among the new American families there'd soon be a demand if they knew that they could have such a thing. Of course New Americans would want the wonderful light 'phones that the Old Americans had. It might be a lot easier in one of the nearby towns.

    It was however the third point that really was gnawing at him though: Neither Tanner nor the woman at the mine—Anderson—were any good at dealing with Germans. If you came down to it: neither of them were any good at dealing with people. As Mackay's dispatch rider, he understood how vital communications were. But neither of those two could have explained this. And neither of them had the business sense of a rabbit. And neither could deal with authority.

    Dougal put his hands behind his head and let his breath hiss between his teeth. He spoke, to varying degrees of fluency, five languages. He could explain things. He'd had to—especially to men in positions of authority. And he did have the canny to bargain and deal. This, if he could pull it together, had the smell of the deal of a lifetime.

    He stood up. First Mackay. If the Colonel had left his warm bed next to that pretty and deadly wife of his, he'd be in Staff HQ.



    He was, along with Lennox. Dougal Lawrie saluted. "Sir. Would you be having me return to Halle today?"

    Mackay shook his head. "It's already too late to do anything about it, unfortunately."

    Lennox twirled his mustachios. Dougal reckoned he had the length on Tanner, if not the breadth. "Nae purpose, t'whole thing. T'would o' done some guid if we'd had word two weeks ago. But th' barges are already on th' way to Naumberg. Now th' guns'll have tae go by road instead. Saalfeld. Kronach... and so on."

    Mackay shrugged. "His Majesty did understand the communication problem. The message will have to go back, but there's no urgency. It's a pity we didn't have word earlier though."

    Dougal Lawrie cleared his throat. "About that, Sir. If I could have a word, Sir?"

    Lennox eyed him suspiciously. "This is nae' one o' your money-makin' schemes again is it, Lawrie?"

    Mackay sat back in his chair, his infectious grin spreading. "He saved us a fortune in horse-flesh last time, Lennox. Let's hear it, trooper."

    Dougal knew that in some ways this would be his hardest pitch. "Well, Sir, if we had yon telephone"—he pointed to the instrument on the desk—"spread oot across Germany, we'd have done away with this problem."

    Mackay smiled. "And trooper Lawrie could spend his time in the beer-garden instead of in the saddle. Can't be done, Lawrie. I've talked to Mike Stearns about it. It's something they'd like to do. One day. But they've other priorities."

    Dougal took a deep breath. "Colonel. If I could organize such a thing—without taking away frae their priorities, in a private way like—you'd have no objection? You know how many battles have been lost because of poor communications, Sir. This could change that. And it would keep me out o' the saddle, Sir."

    He saw the wariness in Mackay's face. "And if it works, Sir, ye'd be able to talk to Julie when you were away."

    Mackay laughed and Dougal knew he'd won. "You're my most reliable dispatch rider, Lawrie. You're trouble in a troop, but a good man for detached duties. So if I can help it, you personally are going to be sitting in the saddle, telephone or no. There are places it won't go to and there are not enough of these radio devices to go round."

    "Aye, Sir. But this would nae need me tae leave your service. There's nowt in my oath that says I cannot have a business interest on the side, as it were."

    Lennox snorted. "Y' already have, ye black-hearted mosstrooper."

    Lawrie ignored Lennox. Concentrated on Mackay, hoping that the young man would not think too deeply on the affair with the gypsies and their current remounts. "Sir. I've the people who can do the job. They can no' deal with the Germans. They have no' the language nor the local knowledge. If I factor for them, the money will come from the Germans and the skills from these two. And we'll have telephones. They'll aid us in the war. The enemy cannot use them even if they capture the instruments, because the calls will all be routed through Grantville. It's a bargain, Sir. A bargain in which Grantville wins, the other towns win, and King Gustav Adolph wins most of all. And ye've still got your dispatch rider. I just have a wee business on the side."

    Lennox snorted. "Aye. And we can provide y'r time and horses too, eh, Lawrie?"

    Mackay chuckled. "No doubt. But if he doesn't do this, he'll do something else. And we might get something useful out of this."

    Dougal saluted smartly. "Thank you, Sir. You'll no' regret it. If we can make it work, Sir, ye'll talk to Mr. Stearns about a military appropriation?"

    This venture was greeted with a shout of laughter from both men. "I knew that you'd be up to some scheme, Lawrie. Get along with you, but see you keep Lennox posted with your movements in case we need you."

    Well, it wasn't a flat refusal, anyway. And he had permission to proceed. Dougal was smiling as he walked away.

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