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What Flows Downstream

The challenge was here. I had the world BucklePunk in my head (someone had tweeted it in an offhand manner) and in my interpretation, it’s Steampunk populated by Puritans, who didn’t have steam power... so not steampunk at all.

“You should check the run down to the waterwheel,” said Cotton Brown.

Technically, that was Cotton's job. They had portrayed the situation as a win for everyone -- the mill got an assistant, and Cotton was out of the village, so everyone's daughter was safe. In reality, it was just a win for the town, with a spy at the mill. Nathaniel Proctor had never asked for an assistant, anyway.

He sighed and went outside. The morning air smelled like honey, and hummed with the sound of bees. Of course, bees led to screaming, followed by accusations of being afflicted by a witch. Everything was a potential plague in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The run above the sawmill was pulled over so it wouldn't turn the waterwheel; he'd disengaged it before the storms had rolled in last night. With the run free, it picked up interesting detritus.
Once Cotton had found a twig shaped like the devil; Proctor had let him take it to the reverend, who now used it to frighten children and test witches. They had found apples, a shoe with foot bones still in it, and the nests of wasps and birds.

The water ran high this morning. Among fallen branches and dead wood, at least a dozen eyeless doll heads stared up around the figure of an angel and a jumble of toy soldiers. Proctor picked up a dollhead. It was surprisingly solid, but light enough to float. There was little question where they had come from. Leaving her broken, witch-afflicted trash was a new low for Widow Martin.

Proctor put the dollhead back in the run and went down to the workroom. “Just dig a hole and bury it all.”

“I can’t in good conscience do that,” said Cotton. “The devil is in those toys.”

"If the devil is in them, it's because he's upstream," said Proctor. If anything had the devil in it, it was those heads and soldiers. He hadn't seen Widow Martin sneaking around last night. Not for days, actually.

“Should let the reverend know about them,” said Cotton. “Taking them into town special would be the righteous thing to do. Or I could go myself, bring someone back.”

Proctor fully expected they'd be back right quick, too. No one wanted Cotton on the loose in town. After his time here, Cotton would be full of pent-up energies.

Cotton was a diligent spy, but uncreative. He didn't realize the lamps Nathaniel Proctor had rigged were not run on whale grease, that the rooms weren’t strictly warmed by hearthfires. No reverend would understand that water, not the devil, made the energy that flowed through wires and move the gears. Probably touch the wrong thing, fry himself, and then Proctor would be burning at the stake as a witch.

“A better idea,” Proctor said. “Let’s go upstream to the source.” Better that the logs pile up outside a day or two, than have visitors in the mill.

Cotton looked crafty, skeptical, but buckled his shoes and followed Proctor out.

Everyone knew of the Widow Martin, though no one had seen her this year or last. She had run off, rather than marry the man her son had chosen for her, and taken her daughter with her. They all knew where she was; it was just a matter of finding the time to bring her back. Obviously she was a witch.

It took longer than he had expected to walk up the creekbed. Cotton tended to get tangled in the vines, slip on moss, lose his balance on wet rocks. But after midday they came to the house.

Proctor had expected something larger, and probably less burned. God's judgment, no doubt, and clearly happened last night. The provenance of the doll's heads suddenly seemed obvious.
Widow Martin stood knee-deep in the creek below the house, picking dishes out and putting them on shore.

“Good day, Widow,” he called out as they approached. The creek bed was eaten away on one side of the creek, and Proctor could see why she had chosen this place to live, because the grey clay just fell into the water. Not a good place for a mill, though.

“Good day,” Widow Martin called back. “come to lend a hand? We’ve had a bit of a disaster.” She was a striking woman still, though well past her prime.

He waded into the water and fished out another doll's head, this one broken in half.

“I’ll take that,” said Widow Martin, and reached for the evidence. Proctor tried to show it to Cotton before handing it back, but the oaf was looking the wrong way.

“Big storm last night,” said Widow Martin. “Cleared the air.”

“Strange it hit your house,” said Cotton Brown. “Of all the houses in these woods.”

“Could be it hit every house out here,” said Widow Martin, noticing Cotton for the first time. She glanced up at the house, where her daughter must be.

“Would have heard,” said Cotton.

Proctor wasn’t so sure. He picked his way through dishes broken teacups and saucers in the rocks, and stepped out of the water.

“Surprised it didn’t hit your mill in fact,” said Widow Martin. "Thought the fire had travelled up the line.” She gestured at a wire that ran from her house down through the trees downstream. She must have traded for that, her dishes to the same smithy where Proctor got his wire, and the other tools he couldn't make himself.

“So this is my fault?” Proctor said.

“Your mill, to which that wire attaches,” said Widow Martin. “Though it only fires my kilns intermittently.”

She smiled. Any charge he tried to bring against her -- theft, witchcraft -- would lead to a charge of witchcraft on himself. He looked at Cotton Brown.

Cotton Brown, idiot that he was, missed the tension completely. “How is your daughter?” He glanced up to glimpse the shadow of the girl in the cottage.

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