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Jack could read a crowd like fine print. These folks were the usual rabble one expects at the fringes of cotton country. Perdition, Georgia the road marker had spelled out in verdigris-stained brass lettering. Name just about summed up this place. He tallied up the meager profits he'd walk away with in a few hours just by the looks on these unsuspecting faces. He figured them for fifteen, twenty dollars tops. Still, that was worth the show, and he was hungry. Skin hardened and wrinkled from the sun, with clothes faded by the same, the townsfolk gathered around his wagon one by one. A few more leaned out of second story shop windows to peer his way. The Chief had been wrong, Perdition was as good a stop as any. No sign of trouble.

He set up in town square not far from the courthouse's central clock tower and the folks selling cowpeas and okra. He folded down the side of his steam-powered wagon to expose his shelves of wares, creating a stage. This was his arena, and he was both ringmaster and gladiator, and sometimes the lion. He cranked up the Victrola to play a tired Sousa march. He was well and truly sick of the tune, but it never failed to draw them in like flies. He rolled out a painted canvas banner that read "Astonishing Medical Cures & Clockwork Worlds of Wonderment" among other pretty nonsense. He was proud of that banner—had paid a sweet little thing back in Atlanta to paint it for him, and she'd done a fine job. Paid her in laudanum, strawberries, and a toss in his bed. The Chief had a few choice words to say about that too, but Jack kept him locked up and quiet while he and the girl settled up figures that night.

"Right here, ladies and gentlemen," he said in a voice like honey. He hopped up onto the stage and his wagon creaked on steel axles. "That's right. Yes, that's right. You've never seen the likes of a trader like me. I'll guarantee." He winked at a woman that was probably ten years his senior. She flushed, impossible on that tanned skin, even under her dusty straw hat, but he noticed it all the same. Maybe he'd walk away with twenty-five if he was lucky. Maybe he'd stay in town and find a hot-water bath.

"We've seen 'em all!" shouted a tall man from the back of the crowd. "Ya ain't no different."

"Ah, good Sir," he said, raising a pointed finger in one of his elegant flourishes. "That's where I beg to differ. Come closer, and be ye prepared to be amazed."

He snapped his fingers, and an impressive puff of bluish smoke along with a shower of sparks shot from a few well-placed holes in the stage. This drew the expected laughter and gasps from the crowd, and now he had their attention. With a smile, he moved his empty hands through the air, as if pulling something from the Aether. He balled his fists together and when he opened them again, a fine piece of black silk flowed from his fingers. He waved the smooth fabric for all to see.

He spotted a young boy of about nine or ten that was just a few feet from the edge of the stage, clutching the hand of his pretty red-head mama. With eye contact and a smile to the child, he added, "Young man, have you ever seen a clockwork bird fly?"

The boy shook his head. His mother smiled.

"I should think not, for they are a rare species," said Jack, loud enough for all to hear.

With a practiced flick of his wrist, he snapped the silk cloth in the air and draped it over his opposite open palm. When he pulled the fabric away, a creation of brass and enameled steel resembling a large hummingbird had appeared in his empty hand. The crowd gasped. The creature's wings were white silk stretched over a wire frame and its eyes were cobalt glass. Jack knelt at the edge of his stage near the boy.

"Take a good look, son." The boy leaned forward and gaped. Jack let him lay one dirty finger on the automaton, before he stepped back. "Now watch." He wound a key at the bird's back. Cupping it in both hands, he kissed it for good luck. As he did, the boy's young mother flashed pretty green eyes at him. With a wink to her, he held the bird aloft and tossed it into the air.

It whirred to life, buzzing around the crowd. To shrieks of delight and murmurs of alarm, the bird bobbed and darted from one person to another, hovering just above their heads, as if it had a mind of its own, which of course it did. Its silk wings hummed in a fair approximation of the real thing, but louder and with a metallic resonance that sounded like money in the bank.

With a snap of his fingers, the bird flew back to Jack's open hand. "A mechanical marvel , ladies and gentlemen." He raised a finger and smiled wide, gesturing to the bird. "Crafted with the secrets of the Persian Magi. It's a clockwork treasure brought to you from a faraway land. Made by the hands…" He paused for emphasis, and to grin at that red-head again. "Made by the delicate hands of the Princess Ranima-Luti herself." With a gesture from his free hand, the clockwork bird flew to its perch on a brass hook that hung from the ceiling, in full view of the crowd.

And old woman a few rows back guffawed, crossing arms over her wide, aproned waist.

"You doubt me, good Madam?" Which of course, she had good reason to do. He took a dramatic step forward, and cocked his worn top-hat at a roguish angle. "Have you been to Persia or studied with the Magi? I myself have. Only to bring back that secret wisdom to the good people here. Those of you I meet on my trader's journey."

"You sellin' that there bird?" the old woman said. "Or are ye jus' talkin' nonsense? We ain't got all day." The sentiment was echoed by several others that pressed in closer to the wagon.

Careful, said The Chief.

Jack blinked, trying to ignore him.

I wouldn't trust these people, if I were you.

"Not now," Jack whispered, as quietly as he could. But when The Chief wanted to make a point, there wasn't much arguing with him. "Later," he added.

"What was that?" asked the pretty redhead.

He smiled again, thoughts back on stage where they should be. He raised a hand.  "Later you will be thanking your lucky stars above that Wandering Jack came to town." With poise, he stepped to his display shelf, and took down a large glass bottle with a printed paper label depicting a starry sky. "Because, dear ladies and gentlemen, I hold in my hand a panacea. A gift from the gods above. This ancient formula will cure your ills, clear your mind and sharpen your resolve. Just one spoonful and you'll…"

"What's it got in it?" a big balding man in denim overalls asked, moving through the crowd to approach the stage.

"Only the finest ingredients known to modern medicine and ancient science," said Jack. "A formula passed down by the most sagacious of alchemists and refined in the laboratory by the most world-renown of physicians. A patent medicine none has ever duplicated. Why, it's made…"

"But do it have morphine?" Said the vocal old woman.

If Jack had a nickel for every time he'd been asked that, he'd… well he would have a few more dollars to his name anyway.

"I believe it does, good Madam." He smiled wide. No use in denying what the people wanted to hear. "Only two dollars per bottle."

"Give me three," she said.

Like a flood, the sweat-stained dusty townsfolk pressed in on his stage, one-by-one, with their folded cash in hand. He went clean through one whole case of Balthazar's Stupendous Elixir and had to crack into as second. Sold a good amount of dried herbals and tinctures of various persuasions as well. The Chief had most definitely been wrong, because he was up to thirty-four fifty and still counting.

After a while, folks went back to hawking onions and sweet potatoes, and Sousa wound down to a jumping scratch. He switched off the Victrola, folded up the cuffs of his shirtsleeves, and counted his money once again. Forty-two dollars even. This September afternoon was unusually hot, but so had been his luck.

He hopped off stage, and began rolling the banner back up. The young boy that he'd seen earlier had broken away from his mother and lingered not far from the wagon. Jack glanced in his direction. "Can I help you, son?" he asked.

The boy walked closer, but hung back. "I ain't never seen a clockwork as good as that 'un." He said, pointing up at the hummingbird that sat motionless on its perch. "You said a real princess made 'em?" He took another step forward. "Can I see him again?"

"How do you know it's a him, young sir? Perhaps it's a she." He snapped his fingers and the bird sprung to life again, fluttering down to him. It hovered above his hand.

"Cause he's got a red throat. That's a male."

"Clever young man," Jack kneeled in front of him. "Hold out your finger like this." He demonstrated.

The boy did so. With his mind, Jack commanded the bird to land there.  The boy giggled when the bird's tiny brass claws gripped his finger with perfect balance.

"Careful," said Jack. "Now, he's heavier than a real bird, you see."

"What's his name?"

"Lancelot."

The boy laughed. "Don't sound like a good name for a bird."

"Well, nevertheless, that's what I call him." He looked up at the young woman who strode in their direction, dust-stained blue skirts hitched above the ground as she walked.  "Here comes your mother."

"She ain't my ma'. She's my cousin Lucy. I'm Grif. Short for Griffith."

"Nice to meet you, Grif, short for Griffith. I'm Jack." He shook the boys' free hand.

Grif laughed again, and almost dropped the bird. Jack eyed it cautiously, lest it should slip. The boy's cousin approached and smiled. She tucked a strand of flame-red hair behind her ear and nibbled her plump bottom lip. This day was looking more promising by the minute.

Jack stood up. "It seems Mr. Grif is fond of automatons." He extended a hand and she took it. "Pleased to meet you, Lucy. I'm Jack Pendragon, trader extraordinaire." He removed his hat, cut a fancy bow and lifted the back of her hand to his lips.

"How'd you know my name?" She blushed.

"Your young relation is rather forthcoming." He released the lady's hand and knelt again beside Grif. "Would you and your cousin like to see another clockwork creation?"

"You got more in there?" Grif's face lit up.

"Just a few." He glanced up at Lucy. "You could call it my side hobby."

"I knew there weren't no princess Rani… Ra…" She chuckled. "What was that name again?"

"I don't quite remember," Jack lied. Ranima-Luti had been the stuff of more than a few vivid daydreams, product of his imagination though she was. Then again, he'd always had quite an active mind. When he had it to himself.

He snapped his fingers, and commanded Lancelot to flutter to Lucy's shoulder. She sucked in a delighted breath. If Jack played his cards right, he might get lucky enough to see her make that expression a few more times, and in a more private setting.

"What makes it move like that?" She spoke just above a whisper, glancing at the shining automaton on her petite shoulder.

"Magic." Jack smiled. No one ever suspected that of being the truth. The Chief was curiously silent at the moment.

She arched a delicate eyebrow at him and grinned. "Well, Mr. Pendragon, ain't you full of surprises?"

He stood. "You have no idea." He summoned up his most charming tone of voice for that line. "Miss… Lucy." His attempt to win her last name failed, because she kept silent, but her sweet expression was promising.

He gestured to the wood and brass stairs that led up the side of his stage. "After you, young Grif. I hope you are not afraid of mechanical spiders."

"No, Sir!" said Grif with enthusiasm.

Don't say I didn't warn you, said The Chief.

Jack closed his eyes and didn't breathe a word in response. The three of them walked inside, and he pulled the lever that released a series of springs and cogs into motion, causing the stage to retract up again into the side wall of his wagon with a puff of steam.
Wandering Jack (Part 1)
By Cristen E. Rose

PART ONE of my newest steampunk short story.
Continued in PART TWO: [link]

Here's Lancelot: :thumb316342449: [link]

This story will be broken up into several parts due to length. Also, I have no idea if it really deserves a mature rating for sexual themes as suggested here, so I figured better safe than sorry.

Please comment and let me know how I can improve this. As a writer, I'm a work in progress, and I treasure your feedback.

Thanks for reading!

All the characters here are original and copyrighted by me. Don't use them or the text without my permission.
©2012 Cristen E. Rose.
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:iconviolinscry:
Violinscry Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2012  Hobbyist Photographer
This had me grinning all the way through! Jack is a wonderful character, he reminds me of a character I'm currently building for a role-play adventure! *scampers off to the second chapter*
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:iconcerose:
CERose Featured By Owner Nov 19, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you! He's currently the star of my NaNoWriMo project too. Hope you enjoy the rest of the story. ;)
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:iconviolinscry:
Violinscry Featured By Owner Nov 19, 2012  Hobbyist Photographer
I did enjoy it greatly! I found myself reading all the way through to the end, :)
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:iconremowylliams:
remowylliams Featured By Owner Aug 22, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Really beautifully written. There's a great deal here reminding me of the Music man and a young Robert Preston playing the part of Jack Pendragon.

I really appreciate the work you've put into your craft, it shows a joy that is very contagious.

Looking forward to reading the next installment.

With Admiration,

Remowylliams.
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:iconcerose:
CERose Featured By Owner Aug 22, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you so much! Your comments are always so thoughtful.
I'm sketching out a full novel for Jack now, which I will probably start on once I finish my current project. :) Didn't intend to when I began this short story, but this character got under my skin...
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:iconbluejay96:
Bluejay96 Featured By Owner Aug 7, 2012  Student Digital Artist
Your writing has a very refined, collected feeling to it. I can tell you felt a lot of confidence while you were developing the beginning of the story, and you've got excellent skill with the description of your characters and world.

It's very professional, and the accents of the characters add on to their personality. Jack's a real charmer, and you've done well. Congrats. :)
The only thing I was wondering about was when the old woman said;

"But do it have morphine?" said... etc.

Is this her accent? :? If so, never mind my comment and amazing literature. :)
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:iconcerose:
CERose Featured By Owner Aug 7, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks! Yep, I was going for bad Southern drawl. (Can you tell I live in the South? LOL!). Some writers do this with great skill (like Mark Twain), but some say it's a no-no and not politically correct. I figure since I'm a redneck I can get away with it. (?) Glad you liked Jack! The story gets much creepier and more interesting from here. Stay tuned... ;)
P.S. Most patent medicine DID have tons of morphine. Which is why it sold so well.
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:iconbluejay96:
Bluejay96 Featured By Owner Aug 7, 2012  Student Digital Artist
:giggle: I see - then you're set. Well done! Even if some say it's incorrect, I believe it adds character...
Creepier...? I don't cope well with horror... :XD: I'll continue reading though.
Ah, you've done your research! Brilliant! You are truly a talented writer!
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:iconcerose:
CERose Featured By Owner Aug 7, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Don't worry, I don't do horror either. Creepy in a good way. ;) My ending is currently being re-written because I am not happy with the character arcs, so I always appreciate your honesty in how I can improve... Thank you again!
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:iconbluejay96:
Bluejay96 Featured By Owner Aug 7, 2012  Student Digital Artist
Now I really am curious! :meow: Alright, then I shall continue reading. I wish you the best of luck!
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