The Wager

Lynne Lumsden Green

Wyld FLASH July 23rd 2021

In 1804, Samuel Homfray made a bet with Richard Crayshaw, that Trevithick’s steam locomotive could haul ten tons of iron from Penydarren to Abercynon, nearly ten miles. The bet was for 500 guineas, equivalent to over half a million pounds today.

“Rees, can you do anything about the brake lever? It appears to be frozen,” shouted Richard Trevithick, as he struggled with the recalcitrant brake. Coal dust swirled around him. Sweat pouring down his face left him striped like a tabby cat, and his neckerchief was awash with soot and perspiration. He looked nothing like the academic inventor and tinkerer that was his daily occupation.

Rees Jones picked up a large hammer and whacked it. The lever creaked. He whacked again. The lever groaned. Jones swore. A third whack saw it give way, and Jones and Trevithick pulled on it with all their strength.

The train wheels shrieked in protest, while there was a series of loud clangs and thumps from behind them as the carriages rocked violently and slammed into each other. Sparks showered onto the verge. Trevithick winced.

“How d’you think the witnesses are doing?”

“Better’n us,” bellowed Jones. The locomotive was hauling eleven tons of coal, and five wagons carrying seventy passengers, including Homfray and Crayshaw. The wagons had been designed for carrying freight, rather than ferrying people in comfort.

Once the brake was locked into place, Jones peeked into the grill of the hotplate. The little scarlet dragon, Colby, was snorting out plenty of white-hot flames and all the metal around it glowed cherry red. Colby was purring.

Jones worried about his dragon’s ability to maintain the high pressure in the boiler. What if it developed the hiccups? And – for that matter – would the boiler survive the dragon’s flames? If the boiler exploded, even the little reptile mightn’t survive the blast.

Trevithick had no such qualms; he knew the animal could produce much hotter flames and so create much higher pressures. Hadn’t he developed Colby’s special diet for this occasion? And designed the boiler? He was more concerned about the ability of the cast iron rails to take their weight, particularly with the added stresses of the brakes. He hadn’t designed the tracks or supervised their construction.

What if the rails weren’t designed for the forces at play? If one was to crack, they might be looking at a sudden derailment and loss of lives. He decided not to share his fear with Jones; Jones had enough misgivings without adding to his list.

He fed another lump of the specially spiked coal to Rees’ tame dragon. Trust a Welshman to have a dragon for a pet. He watched it crunch up the mineral in its teeth, noting how it carefully licked up every speck. Then it huffed another liquid flame onto the boiler.

“Good boy,” crooned Rees. Colby wriggled with delight at the compliment, looking like an enamelled tin toy. The beastie was so small, to be powering such a huge vehicle.

Rees turned to his partner and asked, “Trev, d’you think we’re expecting too much from my madfall goch fach?”

“Your wee red lizard is loving every minute of this race. I’d stop in a minute if I thought he was coming to any harm.”

Privately, Trevithick was more worried about the track sloping down into Abercynon. It had been laid down first, when the workmen were still unfamiliar with the process. If there any flaws in the tracks, that was the most likely spot for it to occur. Cast iron was brittle, particularly when cold.

The chilly weather wasn’t helping with his misgivings. It wasn’t raining, but a light drizzle was making the metal tracks slippery, slippery enough to be considered treacherous, in his opinion. If he survived the race, he would look into that engineering issue. He considered the important part being ‘if he survived’.

 When the locomotive had been travelling uphill, and on the flat portions of the track, their speed had been a crawl. Now, it seemed much too fast. But there was no way of applying more pressure to the brakes. As they came down the down slope, the momentum and inertia of the locomotive pushed the vehicle to go faster. It was a case of hanging on tight and hoping for the best. Jones was swearing as only a Welshman could, musically and with great inventiveness.

The locomotive began to rock from side to side, which set all the carriages to rocking. It wouldn’t take long for enough kinetic energy to build up to toss them off the mountainside.  The groan of straining meal was rising to a moaning scream. Derailment seemed be their fate.

Even Colby could sense the danger. He blinked heavily, and then scuttled out of the hot box. He hit the floor with a thump, and left a trail of glowing footprints as he scuttled to the edge of the engine and dropped out of sight.

“Colby!” cried Rees, thinking his pet would be crushed under the wheels of the locomotive and its wagons.

“No time to fret. The beastie showed good sense, better sense than us. I’d jump like a rat from a sinking ship if I thought I’d survive the drop.”

They looked down the hillside, and far below was the township. People were lined up both sides of the tracks. There were flags and bunting and a general festive air to the crowd.

Rees swore, “We won’t be worth a sheep’s fart if we plough into that lot, Trev.”

“Great Jesus, they’d splash,” said Trevithick, green to gills. “Is there anything more we can do to slow down.”

“We’ve applied all the pressure to the brakes. With Colby gone, the boiler’s going to lose heat at a great rate.” Rees grieved. “Poor mite!”

“Poor us, and poor townies, and poor pack of witnesses if we can’t figure out how to slow this juggernaut down.”

There was a sudden jolt, accompanied by a blinding red moment of panic as the men thought the locomotive had derailed. The engine stopped it sickening rocking. A second jerk saw the wagon behind the engine cease it violent rocking, and the whole train slowed. There was another jerk, and two more of the wagons settled, while there was another slight decrease in their speed. The shriek of the brakes died down to a hum.

From behind the train, two huge red wings opened out. They filled with air and there was another lurch as they acted like a parachute. Trevithick and Jones could only glimpse the wings through the steam and sparks and smoke.

“Is your Colby a shape-changer?” asked Trevithick, while making a mental note to investigate the properties of air resistance.

“Isn’t he a clever, clever lad,” crooned the engineer. “He’s rescuing us.”

In a fountain of dark red sparks, the train slowed as it entered Abercynon, and it was doing a snail’s pace into the tramway station. Trevithick’s locomotive had completed the journey in four hours and five minutes. Success! The townsfolk were cheering themselves hoarse. Mr Homfray had won his wager.

Trevithick grinned at Jones, and said, “Not a word about problems with the brakes. Let them think it was a doddle.”

Author Bio: Lynne Lumsden Green is enjoying the ageing process, contrary to all expectations. She writes both fiction and nonfiction, and owns more books than bookshelves. She has stories and articles published by Queensland Writing magazine, DailySF, AntipodeanSF, Every Day Fiction, Aurealis magazine, and in over a dozen anthologies of fiction.

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