DISCLAIMER: If you recognize it, I don't own it.
BLUE MUD, the rotting wooden signpost read. POPULATION: 100-ISH. Beyond that, two rows of buildings rose out of the dirt. Some had been painted once, but you couldn't have told if not for the peeling patches that remained. The water tower creaked and rocked slightly under the force of the light breeze. Locks ran up and down the front doors of the bank. One of the saloon doors was missing, and the other had rusted away from its top hinge. From within, the flat notes of a lifeless piano waltz drifted out into the street. People would stop and listen with blank stares until the music was cut short by a "Shut up!" and the angry tinkle of breaking glass, after which they would droop their heads and shuffle on. Through one of the many busted windows came the whistling of the undertaker as he polished his coffins.
At the edge of town stood a wagon packed to its gills and hooked to a pair of thin oxen. The children sat atop the mass of furniture, watching as their parents checked the wheels and climbed onto the drivers' bench. They were off with a flick of the reins, plowing up the grayish-blue earth beneath the brown as they rolled out of sight.
Sheriff Hedley sat in the rocking chair on his porch and watched them go from beneath the brim of his brown hat. He watched everything, for there was little else he could do. He was wrinkled and a little portly, with shaggy gray hair and an equally gray mustache that drooped down about his lips. There was a sullen glare in his right eye and a black eyepatch over the socket where the left one had been.
"It's a pity," said Phineas, who sat beside him. "All this work and we're going to end up with a railroad that goes to a ghost town. You know, James, I've half a mind to put up someone against you in the next election."
Taking his cigar out of his mouth, Sheriff Hedley turned to his companion and blew a ring of smoke in his face. "You keep to your end of business, Mr. Winters," he drawled, "an' I'll keep to mine."
Coughing, Phineas shot him a cold look and returned to watching the townspeople. All of a sudden, something caught his eye. He grew tense as he stood up and looked down the road with wide eyes and a dropped jaw. "Jennifer!" he shrieked. "What on earth happened?"
Sheriff Hedley jerked to attention and looked in the same direction, only to lean back with a snort as he saw the real problem. Phineas's niece was stomping towards them, her dress caked in drying mud and its hem dragging in the dirt. "Don't shout," he said. "Y'all gonna make everyone think it's somethin' serious."
Meanwhile, Albino Pirate and Beatrice were far behind her. The former flitted about in wonder, darting towards whatever happened to catch his eye. "Ahoy!" he chirped to the people he passed. They responded with confused and vaguely revolted stares, and woman backed away when he held out his hand in greeting. "What was that for?" he asked Beatrice, his smile shrinking a bit.
"She just hasn't seen anyone like you before, I suppose..."
"Oh, I see!" he answered. "Captain did say we were the first pirates to come here."
"Beatrice!" Jennifer screamed at them from across the street. "Bring those creatures here at once!"
Beatrice hesitated, but Albino Pirate picked up Polly and went to her. "Are these friends of yours?" he asked, staring up at the two men.
Phineas wrinkled his nose at the sight. "I take it that this is what you were speaking of, Jennifer?"
"Yes," she answered. "Sheriff, this scoundrel has ruined my day. Punish it at once."
The sheriff's bushy eyebrows raised as he studied Albino Pirate. "Strange colorin' you got there, boy. Where you been lately? Sun bleach ya?"
"No, sir. The Pirate With A Scarf says it's quite natural. I'm the Albino Pirate, by the way. Are you a pirate, too?"
"You've got an eyepatch!"
The glare in Sheriff Hedley's remaining eye grew more sullen. "Why are you here, boy?"
He thought about it for a moment. "Well, my friends and I came here to look for gold, but then Polly and I got left on the boat and a storm came along so we hid in the lifeboat and the lifeboat broke off and landed in the river and the river carried us off to a lake and next to that lake was the wagon where I found my hat and boots and then we found this big desert and we went exploring and found a cave and then Polly went exploring by herself and brought back Miss Beatrice and Miss Beatrice showed me to Miss Jenny — "
"Miss Beatrice showed me to Miss Jennifer and then she said I ought to come see the town so here I am!" He finally stopped for a breath, his broad grin not having faded in the least.
Phineas leaned over to the sheriff. "They sent him, I'm sure of it," he whispered. "Don't you think so?"
He ain't from 'round here, the sheriff thought. Too happy.
Sheriff Hedley cleared his throat. "Now see here, boy, we've been havin' a whole mess of trouble 'round these parts lately. Can't let just anyone in. So Mr. Winters here thinks I should keep you here until we figure out what to do with — "
A loud rattling rose up from somewhere behind the row of buildings, and the sheriff's words were drowned out by a shrill whistle and a deafening BOOM that shook the ground and nearly toppled the water tower. The people on the street screamed and ran for cover, but Sheriff Hedley only sighed. "Not again..."
Thick, black smoke was pouring from between the cracks of the old wooden barn on the outskirts of town. Half the roof was sagging, and the whole thing rumbled with the sound of churning pistons. A faded, neatly-printed sign had been nailed to the door — Residence of Dr. Heinrich Wechsler, Contraptionist. Next to that was an equally faded but much less dignified notice; DANGER. STAY AWAY BY ORDER OF SHERIFF.
Sheriff Hedley blew past the sign and into the barn, followed by Phineas and the children. "Doc!" he yelled over the racket, coughing from the smoke. "Doc, git over here!"
A voice rang out from the haze. "Nur einen Augenblick!" With a hiss, the pistons slowed and fell silent. The roof creaked as part of it slid inwards to form a skylight. As the smoke rose up and traveled outside, the interior of the barn cleared up and revealed itself to be a cluttered mess. Tables were scattered across the floor, overflowing with various objects. Hammers, screwdrivers, springs, nuts and bolts, gears, microscopes, magnifying glasses, twisted flasks that sat on burners and held bubbling multicolored liquid, piles of rusty scrap formed into bizarre shapes and gadgets. Drawings were tacked up like wallpaper, some huge; from them sprang images of airships, palaces of glass, people made of metal with light bulbs for eyes, gigantic balloons holding up cities...and some were just doodles.
In the center of the floor was a large platform, and on that platform sat a something — that was the only proper word for it. A frame of iron with four wheels attached held it up, a sofa was placed atop this and the whole contraption was surrounded by a shell of welded metal. It faintly resembled a wagon in some places, but there was no place to harness the animals. Instead, another block of iron spewing pipes and pistons jutted out from the back. One especially thin pipe curved around the side of the machine and attached to a steam whistle stuck on the side.
The roof slid back into place, and the voice reappeared. "It verks! It verks!" It belonged to a wiry, little old man standing in the hayloft, his hand on a lever in the wall. His messy hair and neatly trimmed beard and mustache were equally gray, his suit was a shabby brown and a pair of spectacles with thick lenses balanced on the tip of his nose. Sliding down the ladder, he stumbled through the clutter to his visitors. "You haf come to see it, yes? Or do you require somesink fixed?"
Sheriff Hedley rolled his eyes. "Doc, the people here got enough reasons to be scared already. You said you were gonna lay low."
"I haf! But allowances must be made for strokes of inshpiration!" Dr. Wechsler answered, gesturing to the machine on the platform. "It came to me last night; zee image of a karriage vithout zee need of horses to pull it! Its power is contained vithin, and it moves of its own accord! Is zee thought not vonderful?"
"I don't believe you," Phineas said with a sneer. "It looks more like some sort of explosive. Where was that noise coming from?"
"Oh, zat vas only zee vhistle," Wechsler said as he tapped the object in question. "No matter vat I do, zee engine overloads venever I blow it. Here, I vill demonstrate — "
"You already did, Doc."
"...Why don't you just not use a whistle, then?"
"Vat did you say?" Dr. Wechsler demanded, his neck swiveling about in search of the voice.
Albino Pirate rose up from behind the vehicle. "Maybe you could use a bell instead, sir. They're very loud, and you wouldn't need your engine to use it!"
"Don't help him, boy!" Phineas snapped, but it was too late.
"Goen!" the inventor exclaimed, clapping his hands. "Vy did I not sink of it in zee first place? How did you sink of it, Kind?"
Albino Pirate shrugged. "It reminds me of the engine that makes our boat go on land. Captain says we shouldn't make it too tired or it wouldn't work anymore."
Wechsler's eyes bugged out. "You haf a boat zat sails on land?"
"The captain does, and I'm part of his crew, so I suppose I do."
"Do tell me of it!"
"Well, there's an engine like yours belowdecks that hooked up to these wheels, and when you press a button, the wheels come out the bottom and when you press another button..."
Wechsler grabbed some paper and pencils and started to scribble, while Phineas and Jennifer grabbed Beatrice and slowly backed towards the barn door. Sheriff Hedley stayed where he was, watching the boy and the contraptionist chatter on. "Say, Doc?" he asked. "Weren't you goin' on 'bout wantin' a helper? 'Cause this boy here...what was your name?"
"He's lost his folks, y'see, an' he needs someplace to stay awhile. You ain't too busy, so...?"
Wechsler looked the boy over. "Vat can you do vell, Kind?"
"I can swab and fetch things, and Captain says I'm a source of morale. Whatever that means. Might I be allowed to keep Polly?" he added, picking up the dodo.
"Of course you may! Let us see, vee shall haf to make some room in zee loft..."
"I'll leave y'all to it, then," Sheriff Hedley said. He saw that the Winters clan had already fled when he turned around, and for the first time that day, he cracked a smile.
"Two undesirables!" Phineas muttered under his breath as the trio trudged up the path to their mansion on the hill. "And under the same roof...!"
"I think it's nice," said Beatrice.
Phineas grabbed her ear and pulled her along by it. "You're not to see him again. Either of you."
"Do as Uncle says, Beatrice," Jennifer said. Rage was quietly stewing within her as she looked down at her dress again. Father will be hearing about this in great detail.