Sunday, July 8, 2018

Not Even Not Zen 124: A Bandit Accountant, 20.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Score
Scene Five: Screwing Up

“But I tried this before and it didn't work!” complained Marcel. He adjusted his grip on the end of the wooden tube. He'd gotten the side with the handle. Denario grabbed the open end, the bottom. The shape lent itself to a good grip but the accountant knew he'd regret choosing the lower side. He was already standing in the water. He'd have to wade deeper.

Marcel's older brother held the middle of the tube. Opposite him stood a tall man with hairy arms. A boy too young to help tried to take part. His face was faintly purple with effort. Men chuckled as they strolled around and joined the team. The thick-bearded man who Denario thought of as a pickle farmer gripped the other half of the low end. From his grimace, he didn't enjoy putting his feet into the water any more than Denario did.

Jack Lasker, in contrast to everyone else in the group, laughed as he waded in. He directed the remaining bystanders to where they were needed. He even told the boy to join his younger brother and shore up the ramp of stones and dirt. A few second later, he dismissed Denario.

“We've got this,” he grunted. “Make sure yar ramp is ready.”

The accountant gave way to the riverman in relief.

“What is it that you tried, exactly?” he asked Marcel as he resumed their conversation. He slogged over to where he'd built most of the ramp out of shale, sandstone, and conglomerates from the creek. The slope of his construction wasn't quite sixty degrees but it was close.

“I put the end deeper into the water.”

“Aha. So you didn't make the angle steeper?” Denario surveyed the damage done by the overenthusiastic boys as they tried to mold the ramp with mud. It didn't look too bad.

“The steeper the angle, the harder the pump has to work.” Marcel grunted with effort. One of his friends was helping him keep the high end aloft.

“Yes, that would be true if this were a pump.”

Denario had to acknowledge that Marcel had done the right thing for someone with a wrong understanding of the problem. Pumps needed to dip an end into the water, no more. The steeper the angle of entry for a pump, the more effort to force liquid to the top. Denario didn't understand pumps to the level of detail that his apprentice Buck knew them but Denario had seen two laid open, each of a different design. Both had forced up water by pushing down on a bladder. If Buck had made these devices, he'd have made them just as Marcel expected, using underwater bladders. They wouldn't have had screws.

Despite the fact that he'd looked straight into the mechanism of a broken tube, Marcel still imagined that we was cranking a bellows or possibly some kind of gear shaft that compressed a bladder. He thought he had to force the water upward by pushing down on something else.

“It is a pump,” insisted Marcel. He couldn't dislodge his idea of how it should work. “I told you. It lifts water.”

Denario shook his head. He'd tried to explain but, after a failed attempt he'd shrugged and got on with his ramp. He knew that a description of geometric shapes wouldn't bring any enlightenment to these farmers. He might as well say the device was magic. Anyway, it was advancing toward him, step after step, and he needed the water and the land both lined up correctly for it to work. That was his theory, anyway. He was still working on the reasons.

The water screw arrived before he was ready. It didn't matter. The heavy oak casing didn't crush his fingers or toes. The underside came to rest on the slope of rocks. It dislodged mud and stones. The overall structure held firm. Boys on either side of the log began to shore up the ramp with more dirt.

“Is it the right way round? Do we need to roll it?” Marcel regarded the crank handle on the top of the tube as if it were the face of a clock. He meant to spin the cylinder to make sure the pump intake rested in clear water, not in silt or air. Denario checked to make sure the screw hadn't settled into the dirt too far. Otherwise, he didn't worry. His end was in the water. He was pretty sure that was all they needed. Not quite, he corrected himself. The screw blades need to rest at the correct angle. And they need to turn.

“It's fine,” he announced.

“Do you need to fix the mechanism?” Marcel asked.

“As long as the barrel doesn't leak too much, this one should carry water.”

“If it wasn't working before,” Marcel objected. “It's not going to work now. You haven't fixed anything inside it.”

“Just turn the crank.”

“But ...”

“Do you need me to turn it?”

“No, no.” Marcel threw up his hands. He eyed the gentlemen around him as if to say, 'You understand this man is crazy, right?' Then he crouched forward over the handle. He wiped his right hand, grabbed the knob tight, and pulled down. A grunt vibrated through his lips.

“Go on! Go on!” His friends shouted at him.

Marcel put his elbow into it. He lowered his shoulder. He kept the handle moving around clockwise. He clamped his left hand over his right and put the force of his whole body behind the length of the jointed wood.

Inside the casing, the water screw turned unseen and creaked like it might come apart. After a moment, the sound quieted. Denario put his hand on the barrel. He imagined it had grown cooler. Did that mean water had crept into it?

“Is something happening?” one of the men asked. He put his hand on one of the iron rings that held the held the contraption together.

“Keep going,” Denario huffed.

“Go on! Go on!” others shouted. Marcel picked up his pace in response to the shouts. Men and boys started patting the barrel of what they thought was a pump. They were feeling the temperature or maybe they were just imitating the accountant. A couple of the young men started to climb the rise from the creek shore to the field above. They seem to think they could help Marcel.

“Something's happening,” a man breathed.

“Go on!” everyone shouted.

“What's that smell?”

“Water!” someone shouted. There's water trickling down my side of the ramp.”

“The barrel staves aren't completely sealed,” announced the pickle man. He sounded disappointed. “It's been too long.”

At that, Marcel stopped. “Go on! Go on!” the calls resumed.

He shrugged at them as if they were all as crazy as Denario but he dug into his task again.

“I think you have to turn faster if it's leaking.” Denario rubbed his chin as he tried to picture what was going on. He thought the angle of the screw meant that the wooden spiral was picking up water and carrying it to the top. It was a strange idea. Why didn't the water slip back down? It had to be the angle of the blades. To the current that flowed in through the open bottom, downhill was always kept in the direction of the inside of the barrel. That's what kept it in the curling slope of the screw. But the screw couldn't possibly succeed if too much water was lost between the the edge and the cylinder surrounding it. If that happened, all the liquid that had been gathered up by the trick of the screw angle would drip back out.

“It sounds a bit like you're killing a pig,” someone said. Everyone stopped to laugh, even Marcel. But Marcel saw Denario's face and started again.

“Kill the pig faster,” said the pickle farmer. “Come on, Yonni, help him.”

One of the young men who had climbed the river bank hopped to the aid of his friend. Yonni, as Denario saw, was an energetic fellow with a shock of light brown hair. He was thin, young without much beard, and he had a barrel-maker's limbs. Yonni's forearms strained against the cuffs of his shirt, which reached only to halfway between his elbows and wrists. Together, he and Marcel didn't turn the screw handle much faster than Marcel had done by himself. But this time they didn't stop.

Denario walked to the other side of the cylinder so he could study the leak. It came from beneath, so he could infer there was rot or flaw in the oak slats. It caused enough of a problem to darken the mud. On the other hand, that was a sign that the water screw was working at least to the halfway point. There seemed to be only one leak or a few small leaks in one place. He saw no seepage higher up the barrel. Either the water wasn't rising that high, which meant defeat for his repair-by-geometry attempt, or the ends of the cylinder were water-tight and only the middle had degraded.

“Gods!” Marcel jumped back suddenly.

“What? What?” his friends called. Next to the cooper, Yonni kept cranking. He was a reliable young fellow.

“Water!” Marcel leapt back to his task. He helped Yonni spin the crank. Water sloshed again. Even down below, Denario heard it. Droplets hit Marcel in the face and he smiled. He hesitated. Again his friend didn't stop. The screw turned around inside the barrel and drew up another handful of muddy water.

All of the men and boys scrambled up the slope at once. It was such a rush that Denario, who had started to do the same thing, stopped. He'd been the slowest off the mark anyway and, if he waited, he would surely get a turn. In the meantime someone had to stay with the main body of the device if only to make sure it remained on the ramp.

Men at the edge of the grass, four feet upslope, jostled for position to see. The cooper stepped back to let them look with an expression of bewildered delight on his face. The hint of world-weariness around his eyes vanished as he began to understand what this meant. He was witnessing a shift in fortunes. Before, he'd had no quick way to bring water into his fledgling foundry and he'd needed to irrigate his fields by hand. Now, with the prospect of these working water screws, he could smelt and shape metals in quantity, probably at double or triple the best speed he'd estimated. His dream of riches could become real.

At the top end of the screw, the steadfast Yonni kept the handle moving. The counter-clockwise spin he imparted brought up water in a succession of gulps. Young boys crept between bigger men for a close-up view. Their jaws dropped. Their expressions started to look like Marcel's.

“This isn't a trick, is it?” Marcel poked his head over the rise. “You didn't just fix something in the pump mechanism? You're not sneaking up the water somehow?”

“No and no,” answered Denario.

“You're not using magic?”

Denario sighed. He took off his hat to cool down. “This is geometry.”

“It that like magic?”

“A little,” he allowed. He wondered how much he could explain. “Now that this machine is working, I'm sure I can draw you a picture of how all of these water screws are meant to operate. I'm not a barrel maker, so I can't fix the broken ones. But I can give you instructions on how to repair and run the rest.”

“There's a matter of payment,” interrupted Jack Lasker.

“Right.” Denario had been about to offer his parchment for free, not to mention his services. First he'd failed to learn good haggling from Master Winkel. Then, when he had a chance to improve himself after his rescue two months ago, he'd been unable to follow Vir's advice. Denario should at least have been able to imitate old Addler Vogel. When that man was young, he had been the best of friends with everyone around and had apparently kept his eye on the main chance, too. Denario was trying. But he certainly hadn't found an equivalent attitude.

He shook his head as he realized he might forever be a slave in his mind, doomed rely on others to drive his bargains because he couldn't speak up for himself. He pressed a hat back on his head and made himself listen, silently, as the riverman arranged for the job payments to be doled out in stages. Denario had time think about how such an arrangement helped Jack, who seemed to be have earned his self-appointed title of Clever.

The accountant climbed to the top of the riverbank to shake on the deal.

In stage one, Denario got paid a handful of money and Jack took half. That exchange that took place immediately. The accountant accepted eight coins from Marcel, five copper and three brass. Half of the coppers were green with rust. They had a metallic, tangy smell that Denario associated with purity. The better the copper, the faster it rusted.

He divided the coins, two brassers and one pence for himself, a brasser and four pence for Jack. The riverman moved his lips as he checked the math. He nodded. Denario handed them over. Then he tucked his portion into the fold on the inside waist of his pants. He didn't want anyone to catch a glimpse of his other coins.

Next came agreement on stage two. Denario negotiated for a wage of twenty brassers, a lordly sum to these folks. It showed how valuable a supply of water from these aqueducts would be. However, Denario wouldn't get his portion until he delivered a diagram to show how a water screw could be repaired. He figured he could do that overnight.

“How will I eat? Where can I work on the diagram?” he asked.

“You'll stay at my place, of course,” answered Marcel. In a minute, he agreed to feed Jack Lasker in the bargain.

When Denario stuck out his hand to shake on the second deal, he found a drawing compass in it. That made him smile. His fingers had dipped into his accounting bag as he'd considered the job and had decided on the right tool. He switched the compass to his left hand and shook.

“What about the third installment?” he asked.

“Well, most of the money gots to wait until I repair at least one pump, don't it?” Marcel replied. He let go of the accountant's hand.

Denario tried not to scowl. He knew the man was being sensible. No one wanted to part with their life savings without some proof that this better geometry would fix the water screws.

“Jack and I have to be sailing before then.”

“You can stay. No one is making you leave.”

“But ...”

“I'll pick up the money next time I swing around,” said Jack. “I usually come up this side of the creek by caravan on my return.”

“But ...”

“You'll get your half when we meet again, accountant.”

Denario cleared his throat. He had no words to add. The fact that he was going to sail away in the morning and never return to Barrel Bad for what was owed to him wasn't anyone's fault. Jack would collect. It was possible, barely, that Denario would meet Jack again someday in Oupenli to get the rest of his money. Maybe he wouldn't, either, but to Marcel and his friends, it made no difference.

“That'll do,” he sighed.

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