With every glance back at Number Four grinding up the slope, Brewman was more convinced that her water was foul. He chewed at his lip furiously. Blast Grint for not paying closer attention to the filling! Blast the Guild for leaving the tank at the North Cut three-quarters empty. Blast this shoddy coal - all he'd been able to secure at the last yard - which was boiling so slow. He looked out at the rising country around him and fixed each rowan and pine with an angry glare. Blast them!
But it was his own fault, and that was where the fury was sourced. He had known that Grint needed closer supervision. The man was fair enough for local runs, but on a trip like this he didn't have the sense to think further than the next milestone ahead. Steerbridge was laid up and Macklemore was taking the Beast down to Manchester with a four-car train. That job needed two good men, so young Horrocks had gone with him, leaving old Horrocks to handle the local work in Number Five for the time being. They were both well past their prime - old Horrocks could only really stand when clutching onto the regulator wheel and Five, well, she spat cinders whenever she was driven further than four mile.
And that had left only Grint and the boy to accompany him on this trip. He'd known he would need another hand for the stretch past Yarthwaite, and thank God, the man he'd taken on at the Crown didn't seem to be an idiot, but it was Grint, his own employee tasked with the responsibility of driving the second engine, that frustrated him. A steamsman needed more caution. The big engines were temperamental - Brewman wasn't ashamed of admitting that. They needed coaxing up the long slopes, warming gently in the morning, talking to, reading. Every gauge and valve told you their needs. Number Four had always been thirsty. It couldn't be called a fault, no. That would be a deeply ungrateful, even unfaithful thing to say about a steam-powered road locomotive. It was simply part of who she was. And a good driver took account.
It was a dirty tank, though. He hadn't filled at North Cut for years, but he should have known the water was going to be muddy. It was his own fault more
"Mester Brewman," said the lad. "They's two engines a-coming up from the Cut."
Brewman turned about on the footplate and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. He could see the two dirty plumes of engines burning coal and accelerating up the road, clearly meaning to climb Hammer Hill the same evening as himself. He unclipped the monoscope from its mount above him and handed it to the boy.
"Take a good hard spy on 'em," he said. "Who is it?"
The boy peered away while Brewman concentrated on steering his own engine over the uneven road. The mighty Carocall locomotive didn't mind where she rolled, but the two wagons behind were piled right high, lashed tight over with canvas and cord, but still at risk. He let a little more steam in and immediately felt the pistons surge and the wheels pick up pace.
If it were a local firm, they'd have climbed the hill in the morning. So they were making the same run he was: up Hammer Hill by twilight, a rest at the filling station just over the crest and a run down into Finchwick in the morning. And probably on into the city after that...
"I think they's Guild engines, Mester," said the boy at last. "Red with gold bands."
"Hop back onto Number Four and look from there," growled Brewman. "Then light on up here as fast as you may. Go on - get!"
He'd stoke and drive for the next stretch. The hill didn't really steepen for another mile and Spadille, his own Number One engine, was singing and steaming as sweet as she ever did. It was Number Four that worried him, and he longed to coax her up the slope himself, but that would mean changing places with his man and he'd rather go blind than trust Grint to drive Spadille.
Brewman settled into his rhythm. Scoop and toss, scoop and toss, toe the door, look about, choose a line, check the pressure, feel the wheel. Scoop and toss, scoop and toss. Spadille was older than all of 'em, except Number Five, but she was tough. She was tough and she rode smooth and she never complained. She liked a hot fire and a long run and she lit quick again in the morning. A real steamsman's engine. His kind of engine. He allowed himself a grim smile and began to build the pressure a little more in anticipation of the climb.
The boy scrambled up again beside him. "Red and gold bands, Mester Brewman." He didn't have to say anymore. Brewman handed him the shovel and it was the boy's turn. Scoop and toss, scoop and toss, wiry muscles standing out through his thin cotton undershirt. Scoop and toss.
The boy knew not to ask questions, but Brewman liked him. Another three-four year and he could be of real use to Brewman and Son, Haulier. And if he were to drive, he needed to know the lay of the land.
"It's like this, son. We need water after the climb. Hammer Hill station has enough for both our engines, but maybe not for four. And the Guild fill first, see. Because it's their tank."
It hadn't always been their tank. Old Master Brewman had been one of the seven or eight hauliers who had seen it built, replacing the very unreliable roadside pool, but the Guild had bought it out more than ten year back. That rankled too. Because it was really Brewman's own water - at least in part.
"But we're going to be there first, Mester, ain't we? And they can't fill if we's already taken what we need."
"You think we'll be long ahead of 'em, Shawn boy?" The lad looked up into his master's face. He wasn't often called by his given name. He had hoped that the master liked him - he tried to be good - the tough, reliable roadsman he wanted to be. "You think we'll be filled at the rate Number Four is goin'?"
They looked back. The gap between their own rear wagon and the following locomotive had lengthened even since the boy had scurried between them. Brewman shook his head. He could see it all ahead of him. Half-filled, the Guild drivers would arrive upon him and claim their privilege. Four really needed a full flushing. He'd be stuck, waiting for the tank to refill at its trickle, until at least midday, or have to split his train of four wagons and take two on and deliver half the consignment. But he'd contracted to bring it in by the night of the eighteenth and the bounty wasn't a prize: it was his firm's lifeblood. They couldn't compete with the Guild's margins, so he had to get every delivery in on time. No penalties, no mishaps, no smirches on the Brewman name. That was the only way he had managed to keep the firm alive.
Why does Steam Highwayman feature a parallel, water-borne adventure? In Book 1, Smog and Ambuscade, around 150 passages out of the total 1017 are devoted to your options to take to the River Thames and captain your own steam barge, shipping freight and discovering unique adventures.
Because I love narrowboats. I love everything about them and their history, their lore, the short-lived and much-romaticised ‘traditional’ life of the bargee families. When I was designing my alternate but plausible steampunk past, I could not see how a Britain dependent upon steam power but lacking large railways (one of my premises) would work without some reference to the canal network at least. In out timeline, water-borne freight on the Thames has always remained competitive with the railways, and to some extent, the roads. Boats still lug building materials, hardcore, sewage and waste up and down the old river daily.
One of my regularly re-read books is LTC Rolt’s Narrow Boat. Essentially, he was the first canal tourist and also responsible for a lot of our modern romanticised view of the canals, but he was also a writer with a real interest in the genuine traditions of the canal people. I bought this some time back in 2010, I think, on a canal holiday with a good friend and his family.
When I lived in Marlow, between 2008 and 20012, I got to know the reach between Maidenhead and Henley very well. I had only been afloat on it a handful of times, but I was fascinated by the boathouses and bridges and could see how a highwayman adventuring back and forth across this great boundary would have to interact with its people and way of life. I had walked the towpath between Marlow and Henley in sun, rain and the dead of night.
Writing a continuation and development of the river into Book 2, Highways and Holloways, I’ve had to make some decisions. I’m currently trying to smooth out the reader’s journey to include fewer repetitions and more story. There should still be the opportunity to trade, investing relatively large amounts of capital to make good returns, all in the name of that retirement bank account at Coulters! After all, trading (and defeating pirates) by sea in Fabled Lands was always the best way to get your hands on a pile of cash.
But I know the reach between Henley and Oxford less well. So I’ll be depending on the good old OS171, Chris Cove-Smith’s The River Thames Book and lots of googlemaps. Nothing can replace the insight you gain from the locations themselves however and since a very large part of my pleasure in writing the Steam Highwayman series is to share my love of the parts of these parts of the world, I think I’ve got a good excuse to take an extended walk along the Thames pretty soon.
I still live by the Thames, but much further east and I see the Thames Barrier out of window and enjoy the tides defining the rhythm of the day. Regular shipments of estuary and Dogger-dredged aggregates are unloaded opposite our tower at Angerstein wharf – the largest gravel and sand unloading wharf of its kind Europe. The walks along the river here are quite different – and a good subject for another time, or another book.
Two other fluvial reads I’ll recommend here are the hilarious JK Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which furnished me with the minimum of an amusing encounter in Smog and RL Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage. Three Men has still got plenty to give, so I’ll be mining it in the next fortnight, whereas the Stevenson is much more down-to-earth. I might borrow some of his cold and damp.