The sun rose over the dew laden fields north of the Dairy Cooperative with the same sparkling enthusiasm it had since time immemorial. As it set to task the drying of the morning mists, it noted with rising interest the rapid approach of two strangers running from the south: a silver haired gentleman wearing inappropriate footwear for a cross country trek and a lanky, shaggy-maned teen carrying a bag in each hand.
“Perhaps we should have stuck to the road.” said Malus, as the two slowed to a more leisurely pace. “North across the farmlands is a rather vague instruction which could lead to substantial error. We may miss Bump entirely and not even realize it for several hours.”
Emerson scanned the horizon and saw nothing but rolling hills, interspersed with the occasional tree. He had to concede that Malus had a valid point. The problem was he had no idea where they were in relation to the road.
“Well, there’s the sun,” Emerson gestured, “so we know that way is east. I don’t see much choice but to push on towards the north and see what we find over the next hill.”
An hour later, the next hill showed little more promise than the last. “We should have stolen some food before we climbed out that window,” said Malus, “At least we could have gotten lost on a full stomach.”
“You seem to forget that stealing food is the reason we had to climb out that window in the first place.” Emerson retorted. He was about to suggest they start walking again when he spotted something. “Look,” he pointed, “do you see that?” About a dozen cows were just cresting the rise in front of them.
“Cows.” Malus remarked.
“How astute.” Emerson’s retort was perhaps a shade snippier than need be. “They must have come from somewhere.”
“Equally astute.” Malus’s hunger was making him grumpy.
“Why are they still coming towards us?” Emerson question was tinged with a subtle level of concern.
Malus would have replied with something of a mocking nature if he wasn’t also sensing a touch of trepidation. The cows were clearly making their way directly towards the knight and his young squire. Both men regarded the approaching bovines with an increasing level of distrust.
“What do you know of cows Malus?” Emerson asked.
“That they say ‘moo’ and it is somehow possible to get milk from them.” replied Malus.
The cows stopped at about 3 metres distance. Emerson and Malus, as if perfectly choreographed, took a step back. The cows, equally well choreographed, took a step forward.
“Malus,” Emerson began, “this may sound like a stupid question, and I give you full permission to ridicule, but…” Emerson hesitated as if trying to frame his question, “…do cows eat meat?”
Malus, of course had heard tales of Bump and began to wonder if the tastes of that town’s inhabitants extended to their cattle. “That may depend on whether these are Bump cows, or Dairy cows.”
The two men began to walk backwards keeping their eyes on the advancing line of cows until they could take the stress of bravery no more. Together, they turned-tail and ran in out of control panic. The cows maintained a steady pace behind them.
“Aww, look-it there Cleet.” Daisy pointed from the back of the little wooden ass-cart Ceetus was driving, across the fields. “Those cows be a restin’ under that pretty orange maple.” Cleetus noted a dozen or so cows sitting in the shade of an autumn-emblazoned maple, quietly chewing their cuds. But then his eyes narrowed as he caught sight of a couple of dark shapes clinging to the branches above.
“Be careful Miss Daisy,” Emerson warned as she approached the tree. “I think the cows are aggressive.”
Daisy stared up at Emerson for a moment before bringing her hand to her mouth to hide her giggle. “Sir Emerson, they be just cows, there ain’t nothin’ aggressive ‘bout ‘em, they is just curious is all.”
“Well,” Emerson replied with as much dignity as his position afforded, “I assure you, when the people read of these adventures in the years to come, the cows will be quite aggressive indeed.”
From its noon-time position high in the sky, the sun looked down upon the two individuals sitting in the back of the wooden cart. Beside them, two bored donkeys swished away flies with their tails. The cart was parked next to a coal-shed at the side of a set of train tracks.
“Where you be gittin’ your hookah leaf from Sir Emerson?” Cleetus asked, the nozzle of one of the hoses from Emerson’s hookah, clutched tight in his hand.
“My doctor.” replied Emerson with a cough. “A surgeon in New Babbage… though I haven’t seen him around lately since the women of the town burnt his practice to the ground.”
“Ye can’t trust yerself to no doctor, Sir Emerson.” said Cleetus. “I grows me my own hookah leaf out behind Pa’s barn.” Cleetus tossed Emerson a small leather satchel. “Here go. Ye gots yerself a week ‘n a half in an airship ahead a yer. Yer be needin’ this more ‘n me.”
Emerson smiled gratefully as he pocketed Cleetus’s hookah-leaf. “So when this train be a comin’?” asked Emerson, easily slipping back into the local dialect.
“Usually be comin’ anytime ‘bout now.” replied Cleetus.
“Are you sure there be no hard feelings?”
Cleetus smiled. “There be no hard feelin’s ‘atwixt the two a us, Sir Emerson.” he assured. “Nor Daisy fer that matter. She didn’t really want to marry Mr. Malus anyhow. Pardon me for sayin’, but he’s a bit of a dandy fer her tastes. All she ever wanted was to git away from the farm… and I can’t say as I blames her none. This ain’t no place fer her. Why ‘afore you ‘n Malus comed along her best prospects fer a husbind be our cousin Jimbo… not that he be that bad, bein’ a champeen hog coller ‘n all.” Cleetus paused. “We ain’t goin’ back home Sir Emerson. Me ‘n Daisy… we be headin’ us down to New Babbage-town ta seeks us our fortune.”
Emerson quickly grabbed a quill and paper from his bag. After several minutes of scribbling he sealed the paper in an envelope and handed it to Cleetus. “Here,” he said, “Take this to my Majordomo, Mr. Arnold, in the Wheatstone Waterways. It authorizes him to provide you with sufficient funds to see you through your first three months in New Babbage. Could you also swing by Brunel Hall? Ask for Victor Mornington. Let him know that with the airship tonight, Malus and I will have taken four of the seven means of transport he requires… he’ll know what I mean.” Emerson paused, “Be careful Cleetus, New Babbage can be rough on new comers… although I have a feeling you and Daisy will be just fine.”
No matter how many times Emerson had seen it he still had the same undiminished excitement at the approach of a steam-powered locomotive that he first felt as a child. What energy! What power! The very sound alone was beyond description! If you shut your eyes for just a moment you can imagine it… the hiss and the chug… the very vibration of power rippling through the earth itself… is there anything more magical than that? Even now, at the side of the rail, ten kilometres south of Bump, he could feel the promise of adventure at the approach of that train!
While the engineers re-stocked their reserves with coal, Emerson and Malus bid farewell to Daisy and Cleetus.
“Thank you, Sir Emerson,” Daisy said as she broke the embrace. “Cleetus done told me ‘bout all your help.” She said with a tear in her eye. “We’ll do you proud down there in New Babbage.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Emerson returned her smile. “Don’t mind Mr. Arnold. He’s a bit suspicious by nature.”
“Squire Malus,” Miss Daisy curtsied, “I expect you to write me of all your adventures as you uncover the secrets of the empire.”
“All aboard!” interrupted the conductor, thus saving our four new friends from becoming even more maudlin in their goodbyes.
“Safe driving Miss Daisy!” Called Malus with a wave from the steps of the train as it pulled away from the coal yard.
“Thank you Squire Malus!” she called out. “And remember… the airship port is 10 kilometres north of the town. Whatever else… don’t get off the train in Bump!”
Twenty minutes later, the train slowed to a stop at Bump. The conductor entered the car. “We’ll be here about 5 minutes gentlemen, please stay on the train and we’ll be on our way shortly.”
“While Emerson read the local paper (which mentioned something of an influenza virus spreading rapidly down in New Babbage) Malus noticed a sandwich wagon parked beside the tracks.
“I’ll be right back.” he said as he jumped from his seat and ran from the train.
((For those kind enough to follow this adventure with so much going on in town, I truly appreciate your comments. It is only about 32 hours since Emerson and Malus set off on their quest. At the end of the next chapter I will synchronize events in the story with the actual date. I really want to bring Emerson back to New Babbage, especially after the remarkable events at the city hall on Saturday night))