This is the story of how Slow Uncle went a mile in a minute. Or at least, part of him did, probably. And how Wyatt learned, contrary to his previous lifelong expectations, that he might have some sense. And how the settlement finally acquired a name.
The story started far away from the settlement, far away even from Groves, and quite a few years back. But for Wyatt, it changed from a story he'd heard and talked about, to a story he was going to be part of, one evening in March after finishing his supper in the refectory. He wasn't on kitchen for a change, so he'd been looking forward to spending the grudging remains of the early-spring daylight planning the summer's prospecting walks. A trace of iron in the water of Charter Creek, that it seemed only he could smell, told him that somewhere in the upper watershed there was a rust mine.
His idea, to make his own iron hoops for barrels, was considered a risk of time and effort. But a self-sufficient cooperage in the settlement would make many other pursuits, from pickling to tanning to distilling, more feasible or more profitable. The proctors therefore sanctioned Wyatt's prospecting along the upper Charter Creek tributaries as a suitable pursuit for his scant discretionary time, even though it was uncomfortably close to scavenging. With buried ruins everywhere and work to do, scavenging was considered a vice. At least, when practiced by other people.
But Slow Uncle had other plans for Wyatt's evening. He was waiting for him outside the refectory, leaning on his good leg.
"The wagon's in," he said.
To Wyatt, this meant an unexpected additional hour or two of heavy lifting in the waning daylight. But it also meant being first to know what goods had arrived from Groves. All in all, a fair trade. Not that he had any real choice.
Slow Uncle was one of the settlement's five proctors, charged with monitoring the younger settlers' plans and progress, with the authority to revoke shares if necessary. He'd arrived in Groves twelve years before, when most of the settlers were tots underfoot, having spent his earlier life on sailing ships. A dockside accident had maimed his leg, driving him to seek landward uses for the carpentry and blacksmithing skills he'd acquired at sea.
He was a skillful carver. It turned out he also had a sailor's working knowledge of paints and finishes and an artist's eye for natural forms and colors. The fishing lures he carved not only looked like real fish, they also wiggled and swerved side to side like real fish when you trolled them through the water. More recently, the life-size (give or take) wooden phalli he carved for some of the settlement's young women, to help them enjoy their rights without ending up swived down the creek, looked so much like the real thing that some of the girls insisted they could tell whose was modeled after whose.
That's the kind of uncle he was, worldly and a bit wicked and absolutely necessary, to the bumper crop of third and fourth and fifth children that grew up in Groves in the second generation after the last visit of the blue cough. When Slow Uncle became one of the settlement's proctors, some of the parents muttered about who would be looking after whom, but he hadn't given them cause for complaint. Although, truth be told, that was mostly because they were now twenty miles away, and what they didn't know, they couldn't complain about.
In the Settlement he'd taken Wyatt on as an informal apprentice, teaching him to assist with blacksmithing and helping him improve his barely-adequate coopering skills. Most of the time, Wyatt still had to pull his weight in the gardens and on the fence lines, and the kitchen and the privies, and martial drilling with the others on Sundays, but they had gradually ceded to Slow Uncle the first claim on Wyatt's time.
The wagon had already been hauled over to one of the supply sheds, the horses by now settling in the stables on the far side of the dormitory. Though it was likely still too chilly for evening romance—or rather, for the bathing that usually preceded it—Wyatt knocked on the shed door just in case. Indoor privacy, like indoor everything else besides eating and sleeping, was very limited in the settlement's early years, making the sheds one of the few options for the settlement's many eager couples. There was no response, so he swung the door open and then began un-knotting the tie lines over the wagon bed. Slow Uncle arrived just as he finished, and the two of them folded back the canvas tarpaulin.
In the settlement's first year, Wyatt had looked forward to the wagon loads from Groves as if it they were gifts or scavenged treasures. But, two years older now, he saw more clearly what they really represented. Reminders of how dependent on Groves the settlement remained. Additions to its growing obligation to parents and siblings. Commitments to more and greater labor.
The year was too young for the wagon to contain any food; the settlement's supplies of grain, pulses, smoked meat, hard cheese, and dried fruit, sufficient to midsummer, had been meted and delivered the previous fall. Instead, there were bundles of fabric for replacement clothing yet to be made, pots of paint for barns yet to be raised, a roll of shinysheet for a solar winter grow-berm yet to be dug, a keg of gunpowder for half a year of drills for the women, and bags of slaked lime for a millpond dam that was presently a pile of stones on the creek bank. Wyatt took particular note of a heavy bundle of iron hoops, variously sized for barrels, churns, and buckets, that awaited his own unpracticed hand. The staves were already seasoning and the containers would be needed soon; the first dairy cows were due to arrive before the summer.
There was something else in the bed of the wagon, gradually uncovered as Wyatt stowed the other items in the shed. He couldn't identify it at first. It looked like logs or rolled blankets.
It turned out to be a massive coil of heavy dark brown rope, big around as Wyatt's leg, dozens of yards long. It made up a full third of the wagon load.
"What is that?" he asked.
"It's called a hawser. From off the Eagle that sails out of Delayed Green. A cable strong enough to hold a ship at anchor, or to a pier."
"And, um, what's it for? I mean, what's it here for?"
"Well, as far as the folks in Groves know, it's used cordage to recycle into sixty rope beds for the settlement."
Improved beds would be welcomed by everyone in the settlement, Wyatt included. "I like that idea. When can we start?"
"In a year. Soon as I'm finished with it."
Slow Uncle had a carefully neutral mind-your-own-business expression on his face that failed to discourage Wyatt's too-necessary question.
"What are you going to use it for, then?"
Slow Uncle paused, considering whether to answer. Then his face broke into a slightly wicked grin. "I'm going to go a mile in a minute," he said.
§ ---- §
Jeanne had been the most desirable widow in Groves. She was skillful, smart, healthy, and not at all bad looking. Many hopes were dashed—and more than a few kindled, despite the half-dozen years she had on most of the settlers—when she left Groves to join the settlement as a proctor.
Her heart, everyone knew, still belonged to her late husband Marcus, the former railman. In his youth, far away down the Valleycross Line, he had fired up a locomotive to such a boil, and opened its throttle so wide, that it went a mile in a minute. He did it just to see if it could still be done. It was a logistics run with just a few empty flatcars, on a straight stretch of track. Even so, it was dangerous and very much against the rules. He didn't lose his job for it because the train stayed on the track and because he and his fireman never told their bosses they'd done it.
A few people in Groves might have called Marcus a reckless fool if they believed his story or a liar if they didn't, but most wouldn't have cared about such a thing at all.
Jeanne cared. She loved adventure stories of spies and doctors and lawmen in old times, with their computers and phones and, most of all, their cars that rushed them from place to place at a mile a minute. Marcus had plenty of good qualities for Jeanne to appreciate, but even so, everybody noticed how she found excuses to mention his outrageous feat in conversation whenever she could. It seemed to somehow give his ruddy gray-bearded face a little extra appeal in her eyes. It connected him, however remotely, to those figures from her stories, those romantic renegades of the past.
When Marcus died of a seized heart after only two years of marriage, leaving no children, Jeanne showed no interest in taking up with anyone else. Everyone said they understood, and that she had her rights and more than enough skills to support herself, and it wasn't as though the nurseries and schoolrooms of Groves had been empty of late. But over time, it inevitably occurred to various men and women of Groves, with tedious regularity, that surely Jeanne's lonely life would be so much better with them, or their cousin or nephew or friend, sharing her bed.
The only reason it couldn't be said that she joined the settlement to escape such propositions is that there was no reason to expect the situation to be much different there. And indeed it wasn't, until the settlement's second summer.
Then, out of nowhere, a rumor had swept through the settlement that Jeanne had agreed to marry the first man in the settlement who could match Marcus's accomplishment of going mile in a minute.
Of course she hadn't really said that. She'd said to Dryden, another of the proctors, during a moment of exasperation, that she wouldn't marry him even if he went a mile in a minute. But that was enough to get the story started, and Jeanne saw an opportunity and made the challenge real. She put additional conditions on it first. "It has to be on level ground, because any idiot can fall off a hill," she told the settlers. "And it has to be a whole mile, in a straight line, not spinning around in a circle or swinging back and forth or some such."
Ever since, how the thing might be done had been an occasional topic of conversation throughout the settlement. Most such conversations stalled quickly; the question would be raised, and people would shake their heads or chuckle or look off wistfully at nothing. But one Tuesday, Wyatt was harvesting beans with some of his more mechanically inclined friends, and the conversation had turned in that direction.
Sticks got the topic started, by idling observing, "You know, the whole world spins around in a day, so if you stand in one place for a minute, you're really going ten miles." The rest had been sure that didn't count for Jeanne's challenge.
Zoe turned to Sticks and asked, "How fast can a horse go, anyhow?"
Sticks didn't know, but Wyatt had asked Slow Uncle, so he knew the answer. "A horse bred and trained for racing, like they used to have at the Autumn Fair at Headwater, can go a mile in less than two minutes at a full gallop. But our Rebel, Carla, or Bright Lady would each take more than three minutes."
"Okay, so that's no use."
"Here's something, though," Wyatt continued. "The big teams that stage the bus through Groves can run a mile in two and a half minutes. And, we're going to be boarding some of those teams when the line closes this winter."
"But so what?" said May. "However fast the beast runs, that's it. You can't make it go three times faster."
They talked for a while about the speeds of other running animals, of fish and boats, and of locomotives, cars, and airplanes.
Fletcher said, "I think to go really go fast you have to go through the air."
"How would you do that?" said May.
"With a glider. The how-to is in the Almagest, and a glider doesn't need a motor. Just a high place to start from," Fletcher said.
"That's not on level ground!"
"I bet it would count if I started on the ground, then used a rope with a weight and a pulley to lift me up to the top of a cliff, then glide back to the ground a mile away, all in the same minute," said Fletcher.
They all talked it over and decided some birds likely could glide at a mile a minute or more, but a glider would need to fly more than twice that fast after all the time lost getting its pilot up to the cliff, and that didn't seem likely. Anyhow, the only slopes near the Settlement weren't nearly high or steep enough. But the talk about the glider must have stuck in Fletcher's mind, because years later he went to Global and learned the peculiar bells-and-drums language of the Almagest reader, and he found out about gliders and made one, but that's another story.
"If you're getting how-to from the Almagest, why not just make a real car, and a highway to drive it on?" said May. They all laughed, well aware that knowing how isn't the same as doing. That's one of the many meanings of the famous first words of the Almagest: "Ask how, answer why."
Zoe said, "Instead of gliding, maybe something could toss you. I'm pretty sure an arrow flies through the air much faster than a mile a minute. Sticks got his sticks out and did some figuring, and then agreed. "So," continued Zoe, "what if you made a thrower, something like a giant bow, to fire you through the air like an arrow? Not too high, just far."
"But an arrow doesn't go a whole mile," said Wyatt. "You'd need three or four throwers, spaced apart so when you hit the ground from one, the next one's right there to use."
Sticks had been figuring some more, and he said, "I don't think you all quite understand how fast a mile a minute is. Suppose you fell off the top of the Groves watchtower. Imagine the fall, okay? When you hit the ground, you wouldn't even be going three quarters of a mile a minute."
That tower, made of lashed timbers, was more than twenty yards tall. They all knew if you fell off it you'd be dead when you hit the ground, because Zoe's cousin Raz died just exactly that way when they were kids.
"So to hit the ground at a mile a minute you'd have to fall from a third higher?" asked Wyatt. "Another—let's see—seven yards?"
"No, twenty yards higher. Near twice as high," said Sticks.
"That doesn't sound right," said Fletcher, but in a tone of voice that admitted it probably was right, even if it didn't seem so. Arguing figures with Sticks was usually a waste of time, unless you were really eager to find out exactly why you were wrong.
Anyhow, that put an end to talk of using a giant bow or a gun or anything that would throw anybody through the air.
May had one more idea. "I wonder if the Mayor of Groves still has that motor chair," he said. Mayor DeSoto had bought it for his ailing mother, but it never worked very well, and hadn't seen much use before the old woman's death. It ran off the same batteries that powered the lights of the Town Hall, recharged on dry days by a wind-water grid on the roof.
"He's probably sold the motor by now," said
"It doesn't matter. That thing was slower than Slow Uncle anyhow," said Fletcher.
Wyatt said, "It's a machine, though. Maybe there's a way to speed it up, like Marcus did with the train."
"Bigger wheels would make it faster, but then it would need a stronger motor," said Zoe.
"Why?" asked May.
"That's just how things work," said Zoe. "Same as why I'm faster than Wyatt, because I'm also stronger."
"Hey!" said Wyatt. Zoe really was faster and stronger than he was, but that didn't mean there was a natural law saying so, did it?
Fletcher added, "And the stronger motor would need more batteries, and the batteries would make the whole thing weigh more..."
The conversation, like all such conversations, had eventually wound down. And there the matter ended.
Or so Wyatt thought, until the evening a forty-yard hawser arrived in the settlement, coiled like a serpent in bed of the supply wagon.
§ ---- §
Slow Uncle kept his plans to himself, revealing even to Wyatt only what needed to be done at each step. The first step was to untwist the hawser, first one way to make three cables, then each the other way to make nine ropes, then each of those (except for one) the first way again to make twenty-four cords. After all the untwisting, each cord was a hundred yards long and thinner than Wyatt's little finger.
Slow Uncle mostly performed that task himself over the ensuing summer, spending scattered hours of sleep time that he claimed were often sleepless anyhow. Wyatt helped out from time to time. The process was slow and awkward. Each of the smaller strands had to be picked up and passed around the other two, one at a time, over and over again. The freed strands had to be wound up into hanks to keep them separate, and the hanks got cussedly large long before an entire length was unraveled.
Wyatt noticed from the start that the cordage didn't feel like the hemp rope he was used to. It had a strange oily texture even when it was completely dry, and it partially repelled water. It weighed less than it should have, and the strands stretched more.
Slow Uncle explained, "The Eagle swapped for it at the Midlands, to replace one that got dragged over rocks in a storm. It was the only one they could get, but they knew the appro inspector would fine them for it if she spotted it, so as soon as they got back to Delayed Green an old friend of mine on the crew arranged to swap it to me."
"So, it's petro? Could we get fined for having it here?"
"Don't think so. In a port town, they care about proper cordage and the like. Around here, no one will think to look at it. Bed nets, remember."
"That all adds up to 'yes,' doesn't it?"
"Nothing's sure in life," Slow Uncle said.
Due to variations in their making, some of the cords were a little thicker and stronger than others, and due to their previous usage, some of them were abraded or had stretched sections. Slow Uncle sorted them by strength, strongest to weakest, setting aside the worst ones for other uses. "You can use this one for Thumbs' bed," he said, holding up a length that was frayed nearly through. Thumbs was the strictest, grumpiest, and least liked of the five proctors.
The next task was to splice the lengths of cord together to make one extremely long cord. Slow Uncle made Wyatt do most of that. "Splicing line is a useful skill," Slow Uncle told him. "Only it takes doing it about, oh, twenty-three times to get good at it." He showed Wyatt how to unravel the ends of each of two lengths of the cord, and then weave them together end to end. When it was done right, the two lengths would be joined into one with no knot, just a finger's length of thicker line in between, looking all of a piece and as strong as the cord itself. But it was easy to make a mistake, to miss a tuck or pull unevenly, and have to start over. Slow Uncle would accept no imperfect splices.
Five unsuccessful attempts into the first splice, Wyatt needed a change of subject. "A mile in a minute, and it sure looks like we're making a rope a mile long."
"About a mile and a third. actually. Have you figured out the rest of it?"
"No," said Wyatt. Thinking back to Fletcher's glider idea, he added, "You could tie one end to a wagon, and the other end to a big rock, then all you need is a mile-high cliff to drop the rock off of."
"That's closer than you might think," said Slow Uncle. He gestured at the rope ends still in Wyatt's hands. "Don't bother unweaving that splice. You've fatigued the yarns trying. Cut it off and start fresh."
§ ---- §
The post road through Groves, bearing the stage and most of the other trade and traffic the town saw, ran northeast toward the County Seat at Global, and south toward the seaports. A rougher road, little used, followed Charter Creek downstream to the east, to Ambler Falls and the Monday River. The Charter Creek watershed to the southwest of Groves had always been Groves land, but it was untraveled and had gone unused, except for occasional hunting and trapping.
More recently, though, a change had come in Groves. After generations of struggling just to keep from withering amidst fevers, blights, and local wars, the town had thrived and filled up. Gratitude for this good fortune was tempered with concerns for the future. There was talk of mouths to feed, of loss of pasture land to food crops and forest land to pastures, of staying sustainable, of the hazards of eggs in one basket should one of the devastating fevers return. And there was a crowd of young men and women all of age to start families of their own, threatening to increase all those problems.
The settlement was one portion of an answer.
The settlement would be a community project, not a haphazard colony of independent families in homesteads. The living arrangements would not, at first, be suitable for infants, and the workload would be too high to allow time for child rearing. As part of their agreement with the town, the settlers pledged not to conceive any children during their first years.
All of the settlers would also drill in arms, and make up most of Groves' levy. Should the County call the muster, the settlement's plans would have to be set aside, but fewer households would be broken, and fewer children orphaned.
Accordingly, the settlement's compact affirmed the rights of age of all the settlers, but required that couples who got pregnant would forfeit their shares and return to Groves, where a child could be cared for. Some doubted whether anyone would be left in the Settlement after a year, but the midwives were optimistic that they'd instructed the young people thoroughly enough. "For once, the boys will have to learn to do something in bed besides snore and make babies," Alderwoman Adams had said. Though few others spoke of it so directly, this experiment was the beginning of a longer term answer to the new threat of crowding, perhaps more important than the settlement itself.
But to Wyatt, in the first two years of the settlement, the child rule had as much relevance as a rule against leaping to the moon on Wednesdays. Not counting proctors, the settlement had twenty-two young women and thirty young men. As the youngest and one of the smallest of the latter, he saw little opportunity for romance. Or rather, he didn't recognize the opportunities that came his way for what they were. He was vaguely aware, for instance, that Zoe's frequent teasing just might really be flirting, but he wasn't ready to chance it. Jeanne's challenge was only interesting as a how-to problem to solve. He certainly wasn't ready to marry anyone.
He could understand how Slow Uncle was attracted to Jeanne, though. So, he worked willingly on the cordage and kept their secret.
That summer, the settlement's third, saw many changes. The settlers fenced pastures, built the dairy barn, expanded the stables, improved the worst parts of the road back to Groves, and added more coops, hutches, and mixed-canopy gardens. They would need no cheese or peas from Groves that winter, and less meat and grains. They also planted the first few orchard trees, and started the vineyards. Wyatt even found his rust mine. How that happened is definitely another story, though.
One thing the settlement still lacked was a real name. The settlers simply couldn't agree on one. Some called it Upper Groves, but most of them actively disliked that name. Early on, Thumbs suggested naming it after the first crop to yield a filling meal. When that proved to be the product of the mushroom cellar, a few settlers had used the name Edible Fungus for a while, but that didn't last long. A variety of other names, from Charterville to New York to Rivendell, had been tested out and failed to catch on. By that third year, most of the settlers were resigned to it forever being named Settlement by default.
§ ---- §
It was the first light of dawn, a cool April morning following overnight rain. It had been more than a year since the hawser had arrived and work on Slow Uncle's plan to go a mile in a minute had begun. Now, Slow Uncle and Wyatt and a number of co-conspirators were out near the far western end of the pasture land, a mile west of the mill pond and the settlement's buildings, preparing for the attempt. Due to a slight rise in the land, only the roof of the dairy barn could be seen.
During the winter, Slow Uncle had built the remaining parts of his scheme. Key among these were two blocks, pulleys inside wooden cases that guided the long line through them. Slow Uncle had shaped them carefully, trying out a few different designs to make sure the splices could pass through without catching.
One of the blocks was fastened to the trunk of a lone-standing tree a half mile from the farthest end of the pasture. The other was fastened to the rear of the bed of the sturdy supply wagon.
The stronger end of the long line was hitched fast to the wagon itself; it then passed through the block at the tree, then back to the wagon and through the block on the wagon bed. The rest of the line would trail behind the wagon, attached to Slow Uncle's strange conveyance. However fast the horses pulled the wagon, the far end of the rope would be pulled forward three times as fast.
Slow Uncle had demonstrated this to them using a length of twine tied to one finger, then wrapped around a finger of the opposite hand, then back around the tied finger and back again past the opposite hand. Sure enough, when he separated his hands a yard, three yards of the twine had been drawn up.
Sticks' position was a few yards back from the tree. His task would be to count the time, using a pendulum that he'd taken all the way back to Groves, on some pretext, to calibrate with the town clock. A flag signal from Fletcher at the mark exactly a mile away, at the moment Slow Uncle passed, would start his count. One minute was one hundred twelve swings.
The rest of the line was carefully stacked, in ten distinct coils, in the sledge that Slow Uncle would ride. The sledge was the strangest part of the whole apparatus, in Wyatt's view. It was shaped much like a boat, but lower and flatter, two yards long and a yard and a half wide but only half a yard high at the peak of its "bow," where a small iron cleat waited to hold the towing line. It had five wide parallel "keels" that curved up toward the front, polished smooth, with smooth thinner planks in between. Inside, the sledge had ribs like a boat, and a cradle of crisscrossed ropes stretched between its sides. During the ride, Slow Uncle would lay prone on the cradle, holding onto two handles tucked up under the bow, his good foot wedged against a thicker rib near the stern.
What the sledge didn't have was wheels. Slow Uncle had insisted that any wheels he could beg, borrow, or make would either be too small, too heavy, or too fragile. The sledge would glide directly over the rain-softened ground.
Hitched up to pull the wagon were two full teams of the stage horses, eight horses in all, and their tackle, borrowed for the purpose during what was one of the final days of their boarding period. Zoe, who had been grooming and exercising the teams for two winters now, would be driving them from the front of the wagon. She knew the horses and had rehearsed the run. They would only have to run half a mile.
"It's either too many horses, or too thin a rope," Wyatt had advised Slow Uncle when he heard that part of the plan.
"It would be, if there were a heavy load at the end of the rope," Slow Uncle had explained. "That's why the sledge has to be light. No undercarriage, no wheels."
They hitched the sledge by a tow rope to the settlement's own Carla, to drag it back toward the town. As they and Wyatt departed, Slow Uncle called out to Sticks and Zoe: "Remember, when the long line gets moving full speed, it'll be about the most dangerous thing you've ever seen in your life. It might not look like it but it will be. Don't fucking touch it. Do whatever you have to do to stay the fuck away from it."
"Uncle!" said Wyatt. He'd never heard him use sailor's cant before.
"I needed them to pay attention," Slow Uncle explained.
Slow Uncle rode standing up in the sledge, carefully inspecting the ground for any rocks or debris that might have been missed, while Wyatt with equal care paid the rope out behind them onto the wet grass of the meadow. Tight and straight, because any loop or snarl that got drawn up into the blocks would snap the line or worse. It took the better part of half an hour to go the mile Slow Uncle hoped to retrace in one minute.
Fletcher and Jeanne were waiting at the starting line, a mile from the tree and a half mile from the barn. Jeanne had a nervous look on her face. Wyatt couldn't tell whether she was afraid Slow Uncle would succeed, or afraid he would kill himself trying.
"You could call this off, Jeanne. If you don't want me to do it, say the word."
"When you've already gone to so much trouble? Wouldn't think of it," Jeanne replied. Wyatt realized that though she was nervous, she was also excited. Her words sounded rehearsed. Wyatt guessed that Slow Uncle had had this conversation with her before, more than once.
Fletcher was ready with his signal, a yellow shirt tied to a two-yard pole. The tree, wagon, and horses were visible in the distance behind them, but the small rise was in front of them still, and hid the gate at the east of the pasture, closest to the barn, where they would start. The challenge was for a mile, but an additional quarter mile would be needed for the horses, line, and sledge to get up to speed.
They continued on to the gate, where they untied the sledge from the tow line. May was waiting there, with her bow and a red-streamered arrow that would signal Fletcher, beyond the rise, to signal Zoe to start the horses.
Wyatt hauled the sledge into position. Without the line or Slow Uncle in it, it felt very light. He gave it a test push forward and, though it stuck to the ground at first, once it got moving it slid surprisingly easily. It was also much more flexible than he would have expected.
There was still some extra line coiled in the bow of the sledge, and the last few loops had tangled down among the cords of the cradle. Slow Uncle stepped in to retrieve the snarled coils.
After that, things happened very quickly.
"What are you doing? What is going on here?" The voice was behind them. It was Dryden, striding across the barnyard with Thumbs right behind him and a few dozen curious settlers trailing along.
Slow Uncle dropped the line and turned around as the proctors stepped close. Thumbs and Dryden had no idea what they were looking at, and no one knew how to begin explaining it. Dryden, though, immediately and literally seized on the one thing in the scene he could understand: the improper and unauthorized use of militia equipment, the bow and nocked arrow in May's hand. He said, "Put that weapon down," and not waiting for her to do so, grabbed at the belly of the bow. May's fingers were still wrapped around the bow string. When she let go of it a moment later, the bow flexed weakly and the signal arrow wobbled up into the air.
It went mostly sideways, only a few yards up, but far enough.
Thumbs was yelling something at someone, but Wyatt just stared at Slow Uncle with his jaw open and his face gone pale for a good long time, knowing what was about to happen but not ready to believe it. A good long time, because nothing did happen at first. It turns out, it takes a while for bad news to get from one end of a mile-long rope to the other. More than five seconds. More than ten, even. But less than fifteen.
That should have been plenty of time for Slow Uncle to jump out of the sledge, except for three things. One, he wasn't much for jumping; two, the loose cordage was still all around his feet at the bow; and three, he was hoping Fletcher hadn't seen the false signal. At least, that's what Wyatt later figured Slow Uncle was hoping, because he thought he heard him saying the word "maybe..." when the line twitched and started lifting off the ground in front of the sledge. The tautened line began moving slowly forward, and some of the coils from around Slow Uncle's feet snaked up, tightening on his leg. At first the line slid smoothly past the cleat on the bow, but when the tightening tangled loops reached the cleat they caught in it. Nothing else happened for another second, then the sledge jerked ahead about a yard, slackening the rope ahead of it and pulling Slow Uncle's feet out from under him. The sledge stopped, and an instant later the rope pulled tight again. There was another jerk, and another short pause. Then the thing started off for real.
With that first tug, Slow Uncle lost his balance. He landed on his back on the cradle, inside the sled, his feet still in the bights of rope near the bow, his head just short of hanging off the stern. He tried to grab the cradle to pull himself upright but he lost his grip as the sledge started forward again, and his arms wedged between the taut cords and stayed there. Then off the sled went, and off Slow Uncle went, face up, feet first, and searing the morning sky with a streak of sailors cant of a sort never heard in the settlement before or since.
Nowhere near a mile a minute. Not at first. For a few dozen yards, May, Thumbs, and Dryden, running in pursuit of the sled, could even keep up with it. But as it went, it went faster and faster, leaving them all behind as it drew toward the top of the rise. From farther ahead, Wyatt began to hear the hooves of the horses, two teams now pulling at a trot for all they were worth, and speeding up.
Wyatt had the presence of mind to mount up on Carla before giving chase. Carla wasn't saddled so he couldn't chase very fast, but at a trot he kept up with the others, and he had an excellent view of everything that happened next.
The sledge was approaching Fletcher and Jeanne at the start of the mile. It was going very fast and still speeding up. Mud and water sprayed out behind it. Jeanne was yelling, "Let go, Uncle!" but Slow Uncle didn't, or more likely, couldn't. He was wriggling around and had gotten one hand free.
Fletcher, intent on the starting line and his flag, hadn't noticed anything wrong yet. He raised the flag smartly the moment the sledge went past, then dropped it in surprise as he saw what was happening.
Onward the sledge sped. The tow line was making strange noises, an eerie whine that went up and down in pitch each second. There was some irregularity to the sledge's motion; it surged ahead and then lagged, surged and lagged, in time with the changes in the line's pitch. Slight changes in the ground also made it bounce up and down in a different rhythm, slightly at first, and then more, like a stone skipping over a pond.
It was going fast. So fast! Feet first or no, Wyatt thought, Slow Uncle was going to do it! The line howled.
But then, a quarter mile or so past the starting mark, the sledge started to veer from side to side.
Wyatt couldn't believe his eyes. How could that be happening? The sledge was only being pulled from the front. What would make it go sideways? Then he thought of Uncle's clever fishing lures, that would wiggle from side to side all by themselves in the current of the creek. There was something about the weight in the sledge being in the wrong place, or pulling the wrong way. The sledge was flexible. Uncle was supposed to be holding those handles, was supposed to be braced against the stern rib.
The sledge veered right and then way to the left, closer to the south fence line. There, the ground dropped away a little bit, so the sledge went a little farther left, tore through some dead brush, and then, going a mile a minute, hit a log that was half-sunk into the ground.
Wyatt saw it all very clearly.
The log propelled the speeding sledge up into the air. There was a terrible splintering noise, delayed by distance.
As it rose the sledge began collapsing on itself, the shattered frame crushed by the tension of its own cord cradle. At the same time, it turned upside down.
For a moment the tow line went slack, just as Slow Uncle began falling free under the inverted craft, except for the line still tangled around his ankle.
The tow line snapped taut and yanked the now-falling sledge forward again. Slow Uncle's leg jerked forward with it. The rest of Slow Uncle didn't. He went one way, and his leg another.
Slow Uncle touched down and rolled along the ground until he splashed into a puddle and came to rest, face up or face down Wyatt couldn't tell. The wreckage of the sledge, still pulled by the rope at something like a mile a minute, returned to earth at pretty much the same time. Going even faster than before, it sped away westward, spraying mud from the ground, making crunching and cracking noises, shedding pieces. From farther beyond, the sound of the galloping hoofbeats continued.
By the time Wyatt reached Slow Uncle and dismounted, the sound of the hooves in the distance had stopped. For a moment, the morning was silent.
Slow Uncle lay on his side by the puddle, covered with mud and bits of dry brush. He looked as limp as a wet shoestring, and his eyes were closed.
"Uncle!" yelled Wyatt. "Hey, Uncle!" He wanted to yell, "You alive?" but figured it would be rude if he was, and pointless if he wasn't.
Then as Wyatt came up closer, Slow Uncle rolled onto his back, and groaned.
"I think a rib's broke," he said. "And my leg's gone."
"By now, that leg's half a mile away," said Wyatt, looking at the broken scraps of leather harness on Slow Uncle's left thigh, at the stump where his leg was usually attached.
"And probably the worse for wear," added Slow Uncle.
It had been Slow Uncle's masterpiece, that wooden leg, carved and painted so perfect you could hardly tell it from the real thing.
Truth be told, though, it had been heavy. Awkward to use. Everyone thought a crutch would have been easier to walk on. But Uncle would rather be Slow Uncle, and look whole.
§ ---- §
Wyatt torqued the tension shaft behind Slow Uncle's leg with the wrench, then slipped the pawl into place. Slow Uncle shifted his weight to test it out, and nodded with satisfaction.
The leg looked nothing like a real leg. It had a strut sticking right out of the front of the knee, with four taut brown cords stretched over it like the strings of a violin. That gave it just enough flexibility to make Slow Uncle rather less slow than he'd once been. Not that he'd ever lose the name.
"Can I ask a question, Uncle?" Wyatt said as he hung the wrench on the wall of the smithy.
"I've been waiting for you to ask that, Wyatt. 'Ask how, answer why,' but it looked as though you were intent on the how without thinking to ask why. I was even a little disappointed."
"I thought I knew why," said Wyatt. "I thought you wanted to marry Jeanne."
In the four months since the mile-a-minute adventure, Jeanne had romanced, however briefly and cautiously, three men. None of them was Slow Uncle.
"Did you think Jeanne would have just up and married me, even if I had gone the whole mile in a minute? This isn't a teevee tale, Wyatt."
"Well, I thought maybe she wanted to anyway." He smiled, struck by a thought. "She at least should have kissed the leg or something. That did go a mile in a minute, as far as anyone can tell."
Sticks had dropped the pendulum when he saw the sledge come apart, and had run uselessly toward the horses, having no way to signal Zoe to stop. The leg, as Slow Uncle had predicted, had ended up cracked and useless, but it did pass the tree before the horses slowed. No one would ever know for sure whether it had really gone a mile a minute.
"So why do you think I did it?" Slow Uncle asked.
Wyatt thought about it some more. "It seems like... well, this might sound funny but it's almost like you did it to free her, somehow."
Slow Uncle smiled and nodded his head. Then the smile faded again and he turned away.
After a long pause, Slow Uncle turned back to Wyatt and spoke, slowly. "The thing is, Wyatt, we're all still caught by the past, a little bit," he said. "Jeanne's hero stories. Scavenging. The Almagest. Marcus and his mile a minute on the railroad. My leg too, I suppose. We have a chance for a good life here, but there's still parts of the past we're tangled up in without even noticing. Sometimes you have to look closer at something you're holding onto, and see it different, maybe have a laugh about it, before you can let it go."
"Done with you for today," he added. "Is it nearly suppertime? Run along now."
Wyatt headed for the doorway, then paused as Slow Uncle spoke again. "The past is read-only, like the Almagest. We have to put our own mark on things."
Wyatt just nodded. As he reached the doorway, Slow Uncle said, "You have sense, Wyatt. Or you will someday soon. I mean real sense, not the kind that means following every sensible rule you hear. Remember that."
Slow Uncle picked up a chisel and turned to his work.
Wyatt, of the village of Uncle's Mile, went out into the midsummer sunlight, heading toward the stables, looking for Zoe. There was another question he'd had on his mind.