©2020 William A. Lasher
“If a man dwells on the past, then he robs the present. But if a man ignores the past, he may rob the future. The seeds of our destiny are nurtured by the roots of our past” – Master Po
Mr. Hopkins brought a picture book to the schoolhouse one day, and he let us pass it around to look at as he talked about the railroads and taught us things we never knew before. There were pictures of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the first to ever sell tickets, and the South Carolina Railroad, the first to use steam locomotives – that was back in 1830, before Molly and I were born.
In his lesson, Mr. Hopkins said the railroads would improve our standard of living, and make it easier to move things we need from one place to another. It would make it easier for people to travel long distances too. He said it was only a matter of time before the railroad connected Chicago to San Francisco. Both of those towns were a long ways from western Virginia, and traveling that far was hard for any of us to imagine, though Molly had been to Richmond with her family once, a long trip by horse and carriage.
There were no railroads anywhere near our small village in the Appalachians. We lived in Leacock Corners which wasn’t that close to anything at all, except maybe the Blackwater River and Seymour Mountain. (Uncle Clay spelled it “See More” because when you climbed up on top, you could see a whole lot more than you could ever see before.)
Kane Scoffield said Molly was his girlfriend, and he would gladly fight me for her, but when Molly heard him say that, it just made her ignore him even more, and me, I just laughed. Kane and Molly were both 16, a year older than me, but we all went to the same class. The younger kids, up to 12, went to one schoolhouse, and the older kids went to a different one next door.
Molly always sat next to me. She never sat next to Kane Scoffield. One day when he wasn’t listening, Molly said Kane smelled like a pig, and it was true. He really did smell bad, because his pappy made him slop the hogs before he came to school. Owen Redway heard her say it, and he started laughing too. Owen said Kane was dumb as a bucket of mud, and then when he walked in and sat down in front of us, all three of us began laughing harder. He turned around and called us stupid, but the truth was, it was Kane who had the low IQ.
Mr. Hopkins taught us that – he called it an “acronym.” He said that it stood for “intelligence quotient.” There was a test you could take to see how how smart you were, and then they would know your IQ. Molly said if Kane Scoffield ever took the test he would flunk, and Owen and I laughed and agreed.
Molly asked me to walk home from school with her almost every day, because that way, Kane wouldn’t try to bother her. She said Kane was the last boy on the planet she would ever kiss, and even though I wanted to kiss Molly too, I never asked her if I could, though sometimes we would hold hands when we were walking home from school.
On Saturday, I asked Molly to go on a hike with me up the Blackwater River. Her father was our town doctor, and I talked with him on their front porch while Molly was getting ready to go. Dr. Keagan had a high IQ.
He said the United States was close to falling apart, mostly because of the controversy over slavery, and it was likely that the western part of Virginia would secede from the eastern part, mostly because of the disagreement on slavery too. Western Virginia wanted to abolish slavery, but eastern Virginia said it would be bad for their tobacco business.
We didn’t have any slaves in Leacock Corners, and according to Father Abercombie, owning slaves was a sin. That’s what we were taught in Sunday School. It was a long way to Richmond, and we were actually much closer to Pennsylvania where owning a slave was against the law.
I asked Molly to walk up the Blackwater River with me, because I was hoping to show her the river otters I had seen the weekend before. We walked a couple of miles upstream to where the valley became a narrow canyon, and there were waterfalls and rapids in the river. We found the same spot where I had seen the otters, on a steep bluff above the water.
After twenty minutes or so, we saw them coming. Two swam underwater, and then surfaced in the pool directly beneath us. Playful creatures, one stayed in the water doing barrel rolls while the other exited the river and climbed up on the bank; he looked right at us, to let Molly and I know we had been seen, and then gleefully dove back in the water, joined his companion, and swam back into the snappy current, making time downstream, and finally the pair joined a third in a lower pool.
Molly was delighted, and we watched with fascination as the three otters continued downstream, to an isolated grassy flat where the entrance to a cave was visible on the steep hillside. All three of the otters then left the water, and did what I had seen them do before – they looked around cautiously, and then darted into the limestone cave and disappeared.
“Where did they go?” said Molly.
“I’m not sure, but if we sit here and watch, they won’t reappear any time soon. I’ve sat here and watched for a couple of hours. Once they go in the cave, they’re gone.”
We decided to climb down the steep bluff to have a look, and we picked our way along the cliff towards the cave, being careful not to lose our footing and slide off into the river. Occasional loose rocks tumbled down the hillside and splashed in the water as we traversed our makeshift trail.
Up close, the mouth of the cave was bigger than it appeared from a distance, about four feet tall. I had brought along a copper candle lantern, and I struck a wooden match on a rock to light it. I ducked inside the cave, and when I held the lantern up to illuminate the interior, I saw the otters a short distance away, further up an inclined natural tunnel … then they turned and darted off, as quickly as the candle light illuminated their eyes.
I went back outside, “I just saw the otters again. It was almost like they were waiting for us. Like they want us to follow them.”
“Strange behavior for wild animals,” said Molly.
“You want to see where the cave goes?”
“You mean climb inside?” Molly with a look of alarm.
“You think it’s safe?”
“Sure, why not. We have the lantern and I brought extra candles and matches.”
“Umm, I don’t know – it looks sort of creepy,” said Molly as she anxiously twisted a lock of her long red hair.
“Then why don’t you wait here, and I’ll go take a look.”
Molly paused, looked around, and then, “No way, I’m going with you.”
We had to keep our heads down to walk up the inclined tunnel that became steeper as we went. There was a gravelly muck on the floor of the cave and the air was damp. Molly stayed close, grasping a handful of my shirttail. The shaft of daylight behind us grew smaller and smaller, and finally disappeared.
The tunnel became narrower and took a hard turn, and we were almost ready to go back. Things might have turned out differently if we had gone back at that point, but when I held the lantern up high, we saw the entrance to a much larger cavern with a ceiling that was probably twenty feet tall. We had to jump down to a lower floor to keep going.
As I scanned the interior of the cavern with the lantern, we discovered crystalline stalactites hanging from the ceilings … and bats, who fluttered off into the depths when disturbed by the light. Looking to the floor, we saw our three otter friends – were they waiting for us to catch up? The way they moved their heads, they seemed to be beckoning us to follow.
“You want to keep going?” I said.
“It’s not as scary now that it’s so much bigger. I think I was getting claustrophobia before.”
“It looks positively benjo in here with all the different colors.” (I learned the slang word from Uncle Clay, and I said it with a British accent that made Molly laugh.)
“You still have dry matches?”
“Yeah, they’re dipped in paraffin, they won’t get wet.”
“Alright, let’s keep going, but Pa said I have to be home for supper later on.”
The otters’ trail wound its way through a low jumble of stalagmites as the cavern became taller and wider. They were letting us stay closer now, so we could keep them in sight.
We walked underground for a considerable distance, it could have easily been two miles, and ultimately arrived at a junction. We found the three otters waiting for us once again, sniffing at the entrances to two separate tunnels, inspecting each as if they were trying to decide which to choose, and finally, they darted into one of them, though both looked almost the same.
“Should we keep going?” said Molly uneasily.
“We’ve come too far to turn around. They seem to know where they’re headed. Let’s keep following.”
We entered the tunnel, and it narrowed as we proceeded. The ceiling was low, and we had to duck down as we picked our way along the rockbound walls. After another hundred yards or so, we became aware of daylight at the end of the tunnel, and as we approached it, a goodly flow of water. We were back to ground level, and the tunnel’s narrow terminus had come out behind a pocket-sized waterfall.
We stepped through the waterfall quickly, to avoid getting soaked, and we found ourselves on a steep mountainside. Below us, the joyful otters were sliding down a section of naturally polished marble in the stream. As the otters darted off into the trees and disappeared, we discovered something much bigger to contemplate – as we walked through the waterfall, Molly and I had both changed in ways that were completely unexpected.
Our appearances and clothes had changed completely. I was now wearing clothes that were much different than what I had set out in. My hiking shorts had become sturdy wool trousers featuring thin vertical stripes, and my ratty undershirt, a long sleeved button up under a long-tailed frock coat. My previously clean shaved face now sported long bushy sideburns and a handlebar mustache, and I wore a top hat with an usually tall crown.
I laughed nervously when I looked towards Molly, because my bricky girlfriend was now dressed like a man! Her long hair was tied up and hidden under a squat black bowler, and the rest of her wardrobe was similar to mine … and Molly had a mustache – was it real?!
Even more troubling was how much we had aged. We were much older, full grown adults, Molly looked like she was in her 40s.
“What in the world is going on around here?” said mustachioed Molly.
I was carrying an extraordinary firearm too, an immense .50 caliber pistol concealed in a leather holster under my bulky coat. Heavy with mechanical apparatus, the gun had a compartment built into the handle that held some type of gas cylinder. After a hasty examination, I quickly returned the gun to it’s holster, thinking it would be better to learn more about it before I fooled around with it. I certainly didn’t want to risk shooting myself!
“An astonishing turn of events,” remarked Molly as she looked over her own pistol, her green eyes wide.
“I’ll say, and there’s definitely something suspicious about those otters.”
“Where are we? Where did they lead us too?”
“I’m not sure, but there’s nothing about this place that looks that familiar at all.”
A leather sling over my shoulder carried a strange type of optical equipment I had never seen before. Like binoculars with an extra set of lenses, on arms that folded out, and then pivoted into position in front of the primary lenses. A tiny brass nameplate bore the words, Burnwell Quadopticals, the apparent name of the odd device.
I positioned the gadget in front of my face, lowered the extra set of lenses into position, and found a pair of adjusters to bring distant objects into focus. There was a town below us, at least a thousand feet lower in elevation, and with my newly discovered observation device, I examined the nameless place thoroughly.
“The mountains seem bigger, and the forest is much drier. It’s all pine trees, there’s no maples or beech.”
“Maybe we should go back.” said Molly with discernible alarm.
I still had the lantern, but the candle was burned down to a stub. When I reached into my back pocket, I realized the extra candles and dry matches were gone, “The candle is burned down, and the spares are gone. We may not be able to find our way.”
“What are we going to do now?”said Molly.
“Let’s walk down into town and try and find out where we are. Maybe we can find some new candles or someone who will help us to find our way home.”
As we picked our way down off the steep mountainside, the strange new garb and unusual devices slowed us down considerably. I was almost ready to ditch the bulky copper candle lantern, but on second thought I kept it, thinking we might need it to find our way back later on.
About halfway down, we stopped at a rocky outcropping to rest. The rocks afforded a fair view of the valley below, and I used both hands to support the quadoptical device, looking things over from our new vantage point.
The architecture looked as eccentric as our clothes, steep roofed buildings with garish colors and ornate cornice work around the eaves. Across the river, there was a busy industrial area, with some type of industrial plant belching out clouds of smoke from tall smokestacks.
It was late afternoon when we reached the outskirts of the town, and a breeze began to blow down from the mountains, a cool wind that carried the durable scent of coal smoke, mixed with the smell of the pine trees.
On the outskirts of town we found dirt streets and ramshackle houses with chickens in the front yards and hogs visible in backyard pens, the acrid smell of livestock manure heavy in the coal smoke breeze. We continued walking towards the center of town, keeping to ourselves, and at first avoided talking to anyone, still headed downhill.
The housing grew taller and denser with boardwalks and hitching posts along the side of the street. As we entered the commercial district, the sidewalks turned to brick, and there were street lamps that looked like they were fueled by some type of gas.
Downtown was more populated, and we passed a number of pedestrians on the brick paver sidewalks. Some well dressed, in fashion styles similar to what Molly and I wore, others in gritty work clothes, many covered with coal dust.
We passed by three dirty-faced children, wearing checkered wool ivy caps, playing in a mud puddle. They looked at us like we had been recognized – pointing dirty little fingers, whispering among themselves, and then they began following us. We picked up the pace, but they stayed on our tail.
“We need to get off the street and find someone to talk to,” I said. “Try to find out what happened and who we’ve become.”
“And just who should we approach?” said Molly.
“Let’s go in here,” I said, pausing in front of a storefront with etched lettering on the window that said, Winterborne’s Clock Shop.
I opened the door, and let Molly go in first. The three little street urchins continued to follow and stare, and I paused to give them a look of contempt before I followed her in.
A cuckoo clock went off with a bang when we were a just a few steps in on the creaky floorboards – a faux gunshot that sounded like real gunpowder and then: “cuckoo! cuckoo! cuckoo!”
We walked further in, and found a collection of clocks displayed on uneven wooden shelves with narrow walkways in between. Each one had a handwritten price tag attached with a bit of string. There were Skeleton Clocks and Vienna Wall Clocks; Carriage Clocks, Dial Clocks, and more.
Glass cases towards the back of the store displayed wrist watches and pocket watches, and on top of the glass, there was a fancy brass cased Chronometer on a slab of polished cherry wood. The sign said it displayed the exact Greenwich Mean Time, down to the millisecond. Behind the cash register, mounted on the wall, there was a sterling silver great horned owl clock that was at least three feet tall.
I was quick to notice that beyond the Chronometer, none of the clocks seemed to be set to any hint of the correct time. Every clock in the store was wound and running, but each one displayed a different time.
“What time is it?” I said to the bald-headed clerk, a diminutive man named Higginbotham.
“Subtract seven hours from the Chronometer – we’re on London time here in the store.” Outside, our juvenile tails had their dirty little noses pressed against the front window, trying to get a good look inside, and Higginbotham, in starchy striped shirt and bow-tie, hurried over to shoo them away.
“What’s the date?” said Molly to the clerk as he returned to the counter.
“What year?” I said.
“The year? Why 1881 of course,” Higginbotham looked a bit puzzled by my question, and then, “is there something I can help you with? Do you need a new clock, or perhaps a new watch?”
1881?! I kept my shock to myself, and looked towards Molly. Her wide eyes told me she was equally astonished.
“What we really need are a few new candles,” I said nodding towards the copper candle lantern I held in my hand.
“There’s a candle maker down the street; inside Skullington’s General Store. Turn left on your way out, you can’t miss it.”
As we were turning to leave, a man appeared in the open doorway behind the counter, “Wait, before you go, I’d like to have a few words with you.”
“A few words?” I said.
“Yes, a few words in private,” he gestured with his hand for us to follow, “I’m Henry Winterborne, the owner of the store, please step in my office so we can talk.” He was a heavy gentleman, middle aged, and wearing a paisley vest over a billowy white dress shirt.
We followed him down a short hallway and then into his office. He closed the door behind us, “Please have a seat.” He motioned towards a pair of armchairs casually arranged in front of his desk. I noticed a number of different style clocks at various locations around the office, all were wound and ticking, and every one displayed a different time.
“What’s on your mind?” I said as I noticed what looked like a two way mirror on the wall. We could see an image of Higginbotham waiting on a new customer in the mirror.
“You’ve noticed my surveillance mirror, I see. It’s actually a series of mirrors that begin in the owl’s eyes. Did you notice the sterling silver great horned owl clock behind the counter? The image grows larger and larger as it’s transferred through a series of optics, and then displayed in life sized detail here in my office on the wall. It allows me to keep my eye on things in the store.”
“An ingenious invention, Mr. Winterborne,” said Molly as she used her thumb and index finger to smooth out the long ends of her faux mustache.
She made no attempt to disguise her voice, and when Winterborne heard her speaking in her normal feminine parlance, he smiled and raised his eyebrows.
“I recognized you as quickly as you entered the store.”
“Recognized us?” I said.
“Yes, you’re the infamous Molly Keagan and Bertram Backus. The infamous Molly Keagan disguised as the fictitious Elmo Gould that is.”
“Where do you know us from?”
“From the Marshall’s wanted posters, there’s a number of them around town.”
“Wanted posters? What are we wanted for?”
“Why, bank robbery and murder of course. You can speak freely with me, I’m not going to call the police.” He picked up a newspaper from a stack piled behind his desk, thumbed through it, and then laid the open paper out on his desk so we could read it. The poster reprinted in the paper displayed charcoal images of both of our faces, with Molly as Elmo Gould.
“Bank robbery?!” exclaimed Molly, “up until a few hours ago, I was 16 years old, living in western Virginia in 1851!”
Winterborne grinned, “According to what I’ve heard, you were framed for the robbery.”
I held up my hands and shook my head, “No, listen for a minute, Mr. Winterborne. We followed a trio of otters into a cave and something happened. We stepped through some type of time portal, and we don’t know anything about this town, or who we’ve become. We’re teenagers from Leacock Corners, Virginia.”
“A trio of otters,” repeated a skeptical Winterborne nodding his head still grinning.
“Yes, and if we can find some candles, we may be able to find our way back.” I was still carrying the copper candle lantern, and I set it on his desk. “The entrance to the cave is behind a waterfall, up in the mountains outside of town.”
“Well, that’s quite an imaginative story, I must say, and if what you say is true, it would be better to wait until after dark before you go back through town. I think the dirty little children at the window may have already recognized you.”
“Could we wait it out here for awhile?”
“Of course, would you like to play a game of checkers? I have a bottle of homemade caramel flavored crab apple whiskey, care for a snort?”
“Yes,” said Molly, “at this point I could go for a drink.”
I looked at Molly with astonishment, but then thought about it, and realized in my brand new clothes and persona, I could use a drink too.
From a low spot behind his desk, Winterbourne produced a silver tray that bore a quart sized dark brown bottle and three crystal whiskey tumblers; he seemed pleased to be spending a bit of clandestine drinking time with the local outlaws. Winterbourne poured drinks, and then pulled a small jar from one of his desk drawers.
“Would you care for a miniature game hen? They’re Prince of Liechtenstein,” he held the jar up to display the fancy lettered labeling.
“Miniature game hens?” said Molly with surprise. And then, “I think I’ll pass, but I’ll take another splash of your whiskey – that’s tasty stuff.”
I was famished. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and it had been a busy day, “Sure, I’ll try one.” Winterborne handed me a pair of sterling silver tweezers so I could choose one myself, right from the jar.
He smiled as he held the jar out in his hand, “a hint of hot mustard, they’re very good.”
I was unfamiliar with the delicacy, and soon realized one miniature game hen would do little to satisfy my hunger. The birds were rather small indeed, and one was all I was going to get. After choosing one too, Winterbourne quickly closed the jar and returned it to its hiding place in his desk. He was much more generous with his whiskey.
“Prince of Liechtenstein game hens are extremely rare ever since the Hydrogen War.”
“The Hydrogen War?”
“Oh, I forgot, you’re time travelers,” with a hint of sarcasm, “Yes, the war began when the Union Army leveled Richmond with a hydrogen gas detonation. From there the conflict escalated, and most of the United States east of the Rockies was destroyed.”
“Western Virginia too?”
“Yes, completely flattened.”
Without warning, the whole building began to tremble and shake. Winterborne grabbed the bottle of crab apple whiskey as it was about to fall off his desk. The long clock in the corner tumbled over and crashed to the floor, and then as quickly as it began, the shaking stopped.
“What was that?” exclaimed Molly, “an earthquake?”
“Yes, it was a quake,” said Winterborne refilling our whiskey glasses, “common since the Pendlebury Gas Company moved into town. They began injecting compressed river water into an underground geo-thermal hot spot, and that’s when the earthquakes started.”
“What’s the point of that?” I said, “injecting water into a geo-thermal hot spot?”
“They use a coal powered turbine to compress the river water. When they shoot it into the volcanic hot spot, it explodes. The chemical reaction from the explosion separates the hydrogen from the oxygen in the water. Pendlebury bottles the hydrogen gas as it comes to the surface, and they sell it for fuel. Here in Dunkwell, most everything is powered by hydrogen gas. It’s a powerful fuel.”
“That’s where we are?” said Molly, “In Dunkwell?”
“Yes, Dunkwell. Actually, here on the hill you’re in Dunkwell Heights. Dunkwell proper is along the river at the bottom of the hill.” Winterbourne opened a desk drawer and produced a new jar, different than the last, “care for a Prince of Liechtenstein Miniature Pork Chop?”
Molly waved her hand and said, “No,” and I declined as well. The previous miniature game hen had a decidedly bad aftertaste and at that point I was in the mood for something more substantial.
Winterbourne returned the jar to his desk and produced another. This one was rounder and a bit larger, “What about a spoonful of Dr. Helgenberger’s Miracle Brain Powder then? Guaranteed to increase your intelligence quotient by at least 10 points.” He smiled and held the jar up in his hand so we could see the label. “It’s an amazing product that might just help you to see things as they really are. A glimpse of intra-dimensional consciousness as Dr. Helgenberger might say.”
He opened the jar and sank a tiny silver measuring spoon into the peculiar looking powder – it had an iridescent glow. When he sprinkled the powder into his whiskey, a tiny plume of purplish-green smoke rose up from the tumbler. He stirred the concoction and took a sip: “Ah yes. I feel smarter already. The powder enables your mind to see; to see the more than one way you can be, or in some cases, the more than one way you already are – it allows you to perceive intra-dimensional consciousness. Could be useful in finding your way out of the little predicament you’ve found yourselves in. Care for a spoonful?”
It gave me an uncanny feeling of dread to be sitting in the tiny jail cell listening to the sound of carpenters building the gallows where they would hang Molly and I. Uncanny and terrifying as well.
They had Molly locked up in another cell, far enough from mine that we were unable to communicate. It had been a few days since I had last talked to her, and I wondered how she was holding up. A 46 year old woman who knew nothing of her life beyond the day when we walked into that cave in western Virginia when she was just 16 years old. Thirty years of both of our lives had somehow vaporized; sitting in that jail cell I was still 15 in my conscious mind.
We had returned to the waterfall with fresh candles and bad hangovers the next morning. We discovered that one of the frequent earthquakes had sealed the entrance to the cave shut. We returned to Dunkwell Heights where we were arrested by a trio of automated police officers; robots constructed of intricate clockwork and powered by hydrogen gas. The jail guards were robots too.
Henry Winterborne hired an attorney on our behalf, a Mr. Knightingale who flew in on an airship to represent us. He said he would do his best to get a stay of execution, but the judge wanted some kind of evidence, or at least some sort of credible testimony from a witness. Something to prove that we had been framed for the bank robbery and the two homicides that we were mistakenly convicted of.
I could hear the carpenters sawing boards and driving nails as I wrote these words in my journal …
To Be Continued …