“Night of the Woodslinger”

WoodslingerPathIn 1869 (AD), the Transcontinental Railroad was completed across North America. The United States economy was recovering from the Civil War. For many people in the East, North, and South of the country, conditions were improving. For many out West, it was still pioneer life on the American frontier. For Reginald C. Staplethorpe, it was a time of opportunity. Mr. Staplethorpe described himself as “an immigrant from England’s border with Wales and a whale of a tale to tell.” Usually the tale involved pressing the listener into a purchase. He asked everyone to call him ‘Reggie’, and would admit to being a fine salesman, and an even finer engineer. Of the two claims, history would prove he was a fine salesman. Reggie sought that one, great idea to make the world beat a path to his door. He conceived a plan to beat a better path for the world, and pave the way to fortune. To make his vision come true, he would need a lot of trees. And a steam engine.

Railroads now spanned the continent, but roads branched from train stations. In Reggie’s time, a road could be a rocky, treacherous line cut through hostile landscapes. Worse yet, in rainy seasons many roads became mud rivers that would mire a traveler more than lead them to their destination. When there was need for an even, passable lane, often times the answer was a boardwalk. Although men still built railroad tracks, Reggie vowed to build a new locomotive to lay boardwalks. Not only would this mean less mud on shoe leather, Reggie considered other types of shoes and the living things that wore them. His boardwalks would also have support springs to ease stress on horses and their metal shoes. This feature would come at an additional charge, naturally. Reggie wanted to be known as a good engineer, but he was still a business man. After a small fortune, several curse words, singed eyebrows, and the experience of sore thumbs, Reginald C. Staplethorpe’s massive machine steamed out of his warehouse. There was no brass band or publicity, although sluggish brakes and a funeral procession did create a few moments of excitement. Now, Reggie needed a place to showcase the wonder of “Staplethorpe Steam Craft’s ‘Extraordinary Boardwalk Layer, Mark 5.’” Reggie’s flare for salesmanship omitted the fact this was actually the first and only prototype.

Reggie felt there was no better place to display the abilities of a new machine than against the vistas of the American frontier. That, and no municipalities in the developed US wanted the potential terror of a machine charging through town like a locomotive having jumped free of its rails. Diablo Flats did not share this fear out in the New Mexico Territory. The town was so named, because, yes, the place suffered punishing heat in the Summer, and it was also quite flat. Level ground was what Reggie sought more than pious climate. A spur of tracks had recently connected the small town to the railroad. The Diablo Flats Chamber of Commerce was eager to make its town a spot on the map as opposed to a slightly larger spot among grains of desert sand. They hoped Reggie’s Mark 5 would better their town and draw investment from back East, or anywhere there was spare change. Reggie promised his machine would make Diablo Flats a showcase for America’s future. One problem: the western prairies and deserts were not a great source of trees for lumber. With timber resources being precious, most people elected to put up with muddy roads in favor of roofs to ward off the rain. For rain did come eventually even to Diablo Flats, and when it fell it was with torrential force. Reggie paid for a shipment of fresh planks and assured the town they could soon afford to cover the town in gold leaf, and the streets in fine, even boardwalks. They would come first, of course.

Once again there was no band for the Mark 5’s official debut. Although the player piano with most gears intact was set to play on, outside. Reggie hoped the evening would be a moment in history. His steam powered boardwalk layer chugged from the rail yard to the end of the town’s main road. In truth, it was the town’s only road. Reggie’s support crew loaded the planks in the rotating magazines held by girders above the engine housing. With practiced showmanship, Reggie introduced his machine. The Mark 5 was soon redubbed “The Woodslinger” by little Scotty Vaulson, Jr. Reggie at first grimaced when he heard the moniker. However, a swift murmur of chuckles followed as the nickname was repeated across the crowd. Add to this that young Mr. Vaulson was the son of a town councilman, and Reggie’s cheeks reversed course. He looked down and smiled at Scotty.

Tenders had finished stoking the flames and the steam flowed from boiler to valves. Pressures were at the ready. Reggie’s time was at hand. He ascended the side of his metallic lummox and thrust himself into the driver’s chair. Its ornate metal cage looked hardly strong enough to ward off the load of planks just behind it. The great rolls of milled cedar from the Pacific Northwest vibrated as if in anticipation of becoming a path laid down in history, or in tumbling over the nervous inventor. Reggie caught a leather helmet and goggles tossed to him by his crew. He donned them with dramatic flourish, no matter that they clashed with his tailored wool suit. Steam condensed into droplets on his waxed mustache, only to be blown aside by gusts from pressure release valves. The gusts also buffeted his flowing mutton chops. Reggie’s smile stayed brilliant beneath his saturating whiskers, and fogging lenses. He whisking them up, and then pulled and thrust unmarked levers. His rumbling contraption came to full life. Great cog wheels at the front that both propelled the machine and laid the planks began to turn. The massive roller at the rear followed with reluctance. Reggie opened the throttle. A shudder through the Mark 5 bounced Reggie in the driver’s seat. There was a deafening hiss followed by deep tones rolling through the pipes as if a whale had swallowed a soprano diva at the height of her aria. At that moment, Reggie would later say he felt he was launching toward to fame and fortune. His machine took a different path.

For nearly one hundred feet, the Mark 5 chugged along beautifully. Reggie held tight to the controls, but control was not a word one would associate for the massive machine’s change of direction. It veered towards the saloon that also served as the town library. It was perhaps the only library where children could learn to read, and also be taught the qualities of whisky and beer from those who drank too much of it, and thus also why they should indeed stay in school. Reggie pulled hard to turn his charging hulk. He felt relief when the Mark 5 veered away from the saloon/library. He felt dread as the turn took it straight into old widow Tremaine’s boarding house. This time the brakes were not sluggish. They were utterly absent. The throttle control also took an unwelcome veer towards failure. A machine created to build proved very capable of destruction. The massive steel cog wheels torn through siding and walls, sofas, tables, china and its cabinets, and also the kitchen’s cast iron stove. A fairly neat line of planks followed the machine, soon covered by falling debris.

Very nearly the same fate befell the court house, the church, local jail, and, as if to add insult to obliteration, the remnants of old widow Tremaine’s place. The places were empty because everyone was out to see the demonstration, including the one voluntary prisoner. Lucky, that. In a way. Most people had little regret for the loss of the buildings. Save for old widow Tremaine, of course. However, a collective scream of dismay rose from the crowd when the Mark 5 crossed the street and its own neat boardwalk and bore down again on the saloon/library. The vibration of the oncoming juggernaut jiggled the player piano out of certain doom. However, walls, books, and bottles proved no match for the unstoppable spin of the giant cog wheels. Lamp oil and whisky caught fire on the rear roller and a path of flames and planks followed the Mark 5 and its screaming driver. Reggie’s wail of disbelief and effort almost rose above the whine and clanks of his rogue machine. Having destroyed the town’s church and supply of spirits, the only other sacred thing left was the town cemetery. This was naturally where it headed.

For a split second, Reggie admired how the Mark 5 rose up the incline to the cemetery on the hill outside town. He soon wailed anew. The ornamental iron fence around the gravestones proved only a mild barrier against coyotes and jack rabbits. It was no barrier at all against the Mark 5. The machine finally met its match against chiseled granite. Widow Tremaine had purchased a massive marker for her late husband, Nathaniel. Its solid mass finally stopped Reggie’s machine with a resonant crack. Steam vented, and the machine made a final hiss. Reggie, soaked by sweat and steam, released his death grip on the inadequate levers. A wind blew up and coated him in the red dust that covered the desert and most of the floors inside the surviving buildings. It also fell across the great loop of evenly laid planks and debris that followed the Mark 5.

Reggie climbed down his machine and walked back to town. The citizens of Diablo Flats met him halfway. The trail of fire behind Reggie’s machine had died out, but a small flame from splashed oil & whisky still flickered on his leather helmet. Although Reggie had made an accidental but spectacular annihilation of parts of Diablo Flats, the townsfolk were still people of a caring nature. They immediately formed a fire line and gathered the surviving buckets stowed across town for dousing fires. One by one, the buckets doused Reggie. Of course, this was a desert town, so not all of the buckets held water. After a few cleansing pales, Reggie was again coated in sand and earth. He slowly raised a hand to beseech the well-meaning townsfolk to stop. They did. Reggie gently cleared dirt away from his eyes, wishing at that moment he’d kept his goggles on. Caked earth fell from the ends of his waxed moustache and mutton chops. He walked towards the still-standing bathhouse with as much dignity as a person could who looked more like a mud hut than a human being. Dust drifted off behind him just as if from a slow tumble weed.

The town–all but widow Tremaine–wanted The Woodslinger to stay as a sort of monument and attraction. However, Reggie needed the machine for its parts. Brass fittings, valves, and gauges were expensive but easily resold. Luckily, his indemnity clause with the town meant his Diablo Flats misadventure was not a financial disaster. Although the fortune he sought would remain elusive. Reggie did pay for the repairs on Nathaniel Tremaine’s granite marker. Widow Tremaine withdrew her promise to hunt down and flay Reggie alive. As she had been an expert buffalo hunter and skinner in her youth, Reggie was relieved and grateful.

Diablo Flats would rebuild, thanks in part to a small bit of tourism brought by a curious boardwalk that cut a circuitous path through the town and some of its buildings, and the story of the strange machine that made it. Despite his efforts, or indeed because of them, Reginald C. Staplethorpe did not earn a mention in history next to Robert Fulton, or James Watt. Neither would he become American myth such as steel-driving John Henry. Reggie went on to invent something much smaller than the Mark 5 designed to keep document pages together. Unfortunately, “Staplethorpe’s Magnificent Magnetic Paper” did not attract many buyers. But magnets did. Lucky for Reggie, he had a good supply for sale. He retired in Northern New England, somewhere near the border of Maine and New Brunswick, where plenty of trees grew tall. The path to his stately home was paved with an erratic boardwalk that, despite several veers to the left and right left, was nonetheless easy on horse’s hooves. Today, notations of Reggie’s enterprise come from his various patents in the archives of the US Patent Office, including his designs for the Mark 5. Add to that an old, tattered volume in the Library of Congress entitled Curious Events Out West by Scott Vaulson, Jr. Chapter One: “Night of the Woodslinger.”

BSL