The Machine of Wester Moorley (§.02)

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§.02

Albrecht shoveled the jam-and-butter-slathered bread into his mouth as Otto consulted a small glass of whiskey. Otto sipped and gestured to the jellied-roll on the engineer’s plate.

“You’re lucky. We’re nearly at the last of it.”

“Of the bread you mean?”

Otto nodded and held up the glass, swirling the amber liquid.

“Bread and whiskey both. Grain don’t grow out here no more, barley neither, and even if it did, we ain’t got no distillery. Have to order a new shipment soon. Place is dryer than a lizard’s backside…”

“Drought is worse than the papers made out.”

Again Otto nodded.

“Far worse. Situation’s been making folk a little crazy—those that’ve stayed, anyways.”

“Crazy—how so?”

Otto screwed up his face and looked out the window of the crowdless diner. A old, wrinkled woman, the owner, brought them coffee and hashbrowns and beans and forced a smile and departed without a word. Nervous. When she’d gone Otto returned his attention to the engineer, his voice low, barely above a whisper.

“Folk ain’t rightly religious in this town. Might call um superstitious. See, the drought started round the same time ole Wester Moorley came to town, fifteen years ago. Well, some of the old-timers came to believe that Ole Moorley had something to do with the drought. Blamed it on him. For the death of their crops. Their cattle. The heat. For losing their homes. For needing to move. For near everything whats gone wrong.”

“Why’d they blame him?”

“He’s a machinist. Folk round here don’t like machines. Besides, he’s a strange fellow. Keeps to himself, shut up in his homestead out to the north, just beyond town. Always tinkering away on some contraption or another. Won’t see nobody. Nobody but Mara—Henry the shopkeeper’s—daughter and a few’a the folk what come to believe he alone can save this place after the oil dried up and the pipelines failed. Don’t come to town no more. Sends Mara to pick up what he needs from the grocer. Well… folk naturally got curious. Asked Mara what all Ole Moorley was getting up to in that tumbledown out in the nowheres. Says she don’t know nothing and that make folk suspicious. Folk started thinking that one of them queer machines a’his lies at the bottom of it; others thought him a sorcerer, and that the machines were just a ruse to mask ritual sacrifice. Some have said they seen him slip out in the dead of night and return with a cattle skull. Now, I’m not keen on rumor-mongering. I ain’t. Find it downright distasteful. But I caint help but hear. Caint pocket my ears. I’m telling you cause you’ll hear it from someone else, sooner or later. I don’t know much what to think of it all myself, just want you to understand how things stand hereabouts.”

Brandt, furrow-browed and frowning slight, nodded, processing the information and filing it away in the crystalline corridors of his mind.

“I appreciate the edification. Far as I can figure though, I’ll be in and out soon as the pipes are laid and the water-tower is up.”

*

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