Early 1633

“I don’t know about you, but it bugs me that lots of people are getting rich and I’m not one of them,” Elias Renke said, over the sound of the television at the beer hall in Deborah.

“That’s fine, but what are you going to build?” Markus Kissinger asked. He liked Elias well enough. Elias was the sort who would give you the shirt off his back . . . complaining about it all the while. But you still got the shirt, and in cold German winters, that mattered.

“I don’t know. We could build roads,” Elias said, then took another drink of his beer.

“We already build roads and it’s not making us rich. Not the least little bit,” Markus said. “You figure out a way to make us rich building roads and I’m in.” They were both old Grantville hands who had worked their way up. After the Ring of Fire, the up-timers had used a combination of up-time equipment and stuff they had built later to build and maintain a road network around the Ring of Fire. That network was best right around the Ring of Fire, but by now it extended over much of southern Thuringia. There hadn’t been enough up-time equipment to do that, not in the time they had. So the roads were improved by a mishmash of up-time equipment, new equipment built since the Ring of Fire—like the Fresno scrapers—and men with shovels. Elias and Markus had started out as men with shovels and now Markus was in charge of a team of Fresno scrapers and Elias was a surveyor.

“We start our own company.”

“What? Elias, my friend, you pick the one thing that the up-timers do through the government and say we should start our own company. Even the up-timers can’t make any money building roads.”

“They did up-time.”

“They did?”

“Yes. They had road construction companies that contracted with towns and states and the like, and built roads.”

“So why do they have the road gangs here?”

Elias shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe because they needed some sort of work for the refugees. Maybe because they needed the roads now and didn’t want to wait for road-making companies to form. Hell, maybe because they didn’t have enough horses or up-time equipment. They needed the roads to Badenburg, Saalfeld, and the like. And they needed them in a hurry, to get the armies roads to walk on or ride on or whatever.”

“That makes sense, but who is going to pay us to make roads?”

“The government. They still need roads.”

“Maybe. But they also have road crews and those road crews need jobs. Besides, where are we going to get the money to buy the equipment? Do you know how much a horse costs these days?”

“We form a corporation and sell stock.”

Markus stopped. That might actually work. After all, if a bunch of kids could do it, so could they. Several bunches of kids had started companies or corporations since the Ring of Fire. Granted, most of those groups had had up-timer kids in them, but Markus didn’t think all of them had. “What would we call this company?”

“Something up-timer sounding. Up-time Road Construction?”

“Gee, Elias, I didn’t know you were an up-timer.”

“I’m not and you know it.”

“So, since you aren’t an up-timer, I’m not an up-timer and Elenore’s not an up-timer, maybe we shouldn’t call our company up-timer?” Markus said. “Just in case someone asks.”

“Maybe not,” Elias said. “But it needs to sound up-timer-ish if we are going to get investors.”

“Well, what sort of equipment are we going to use?”

” Fresno scrapers, cutting boards, heavy rollers. The same sort of thing we use when we build roads now.”

” Fresno . . . that sounds up-timer, doesn’t it? What if we call it the Fresno Scraper Road Construction Company?”

“Too long. Fresno Construction Company. FSG.” They were speaking in German and in German it came out Fresno Straßenbau Gesellschaft, FSG.

“Nice and snappy. The up-timers like snappy.”

“I don’t care about the up-timers. Most people are down-timers just like us, and so will most of our investors be. I want us to have a name that will sound like we know how the up-timers build things.”

“All right, all right. You don’t need to bite my head off. So how do we do this?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea.”

“What? After all that, you don’t know how?”

“I was just talking over a beer. I didn’t know you were going to take me seriously.”

“I will find out.”

****

“So, have you and Elias drunk all your wages?” Elly asked Markus as he came in.

“I think there is a little left. A couple of American cents,” Markus said, grinning.

Elly held out her hand and Markus put his wages in them. In fact, Elias had insisted on paying for most of their drinks because Markus had a family to support. Elly worked at the market while the children went to the St. Veronica preschool.

Elly tried to look severe, but then grinned at him. “And did you two solve the world’s problems?” she asked.

“Not the whole world’s. Just ours. We are going to start our own road construction company, the Fresno Construction Company. FSG.” Markus was still a little drunk. Not a lot. He and Elias rarely got really drunk, even on payday. Mostly they had a few beers to let off steam and complain about the world.

“You know . . . that almost makes sense.”

“What?” Markus asked, surprised that anything he had said made sense and not sure what she was talking about.

“Setting up a construction company. You both know how to handle the equipment. You are respected. I have heard the wives talk.”

“See? We have good ideas.”

The next morning, Markus wasn’t so sure but Elenore was insistent that they should look into it. “I don’t want to still be working in the market and you still on the road crew when the girls get big.”

*****

Elly asked about starting a company the next day at work.

“Oh, not you too,” complained her boss. “What is it about the Ring of Fire that makes everyone think they are Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?”

“Who is Bill Gates?”

“Never mind. The library has books on forming companies, some that you can buy, and there are classes at the high school. As well as other classes given by other people. There are even the Grameen-style banks, where people can get small business loans. Really small. Like enough to buy a spinning wheel or the like.”

“I think we will need more than that.”

“So what do you want to do?”

“Markus and his friend Elias want to start a road-building company.”

“Well, that makes more sense than some ideas I’ve heard. At least it’s something they know. Run by the library after work and ask.”

Elly did and found a booklet, which made very little sense to her. Well, the details—some types—were simple. She thought what was called a partnership was the best bet and over the next few days she, Markus and Elias talked it over. They would need money, so the next thing was to go to the bank. However, they didn’t even have a bank account. Elly wasn’t sure she trusted banks. Besides, they were living payday to payday. Their savings were in an old cardboard box in the back of the pantry.

****

“I’m sorry, but you simply don’t have the collateral to support such a loan,” Dori Ann Grooms said gently.

The lady banker was trying to be nice, Markus could tell, and he knew she was right. But he didn’t know how they were supposed to start a business without money. “How do other people do it?” he got out.

“Some have collateral of some sort. That’s the most common way with up-timers. We have a lot of wealth here in the Ring of Fire and much of that wealth is irreplaceable, which increases its value. A lot of up-timers have started businesses by borrowing against things they owned like microwaves or TVs. For down-timers, well, some of the down-timers bring their own wealth. Lands they hold the liens on, or other real property. For folks that don’t have either of those things, there is always setting up a corporation and selling stock. But, honestly, don’t expect too much from that. The investors are getting pretty sharp and, well, you don’t have anything to get them interested, either. At least nothing that I can see.”

All in all, it was a lousy end to a hard day and the idea almost ended right there and then. But Markus, Elias and Elly sat down with the booklet Elly had gotten and went over how to set up a corporation.

****

Markus was back on the road, repairing a stretch of road that had been rained out a few weeks back. Road building with what they had wasn’t a “do it and forget it” business. Constant repairs were needed when macadam, or especially the coating called tarmacadam, weren’t available.

Markus was overseeing three of the scrapers, which were collecting up the dirt from the washed-out section of road and putting it back, when one of the scrapers hit a large rock and flipped. The man behind it had the handles ripped from his hands, which was a lot better than having his arms ripped off. Markus ran over. “You all right, Pete?”

“I think so, boss,” Pete said. “I don’t know where that rock came from.”

“I do. You weren’t paying attention,” Markus said. Now that he knew Pete was all right, he was furious that Pete had missed seeing the mud-covered rock.

He turned away and went to check on the scraper before he said anything else. The rock had done more than flip the scraper. It had ripped the blade loose. Markus looked around. The other two scraper operators had stopped to watch the show and he started to order them back to work, then reconsidered. “Pete, your scraper is ruined. I want you to get a stick or something and check for rocks and other obstacles that the rain waters might have deposited in this mess. I am going to have to notify the road department about the damage.”

They got back to work, slower, more carefully, and Markus used the team from the busted scraper to drag it out of the way. Then he sent a runner back to camp.

He was going to spend the next several hours doing paperwork.

The paperwork turned out to be useful. Markus learned the replacement cost of a Fresno scraper. He learned the repair cost, and that a repaired scraper was rarely as good as a new one. They were using steel-bladed scrapers with wooden C-shaped bowls because they were cheaper than the steel scraper, even considering how much longer the full steel scraper would last. Steel was just that expensive. According to the radio reports, steel was going to stay expensive for some time to come, because demand was outstripping supply.

When Markus had finished with his report, he made a copy of the prices and the names of the suppliers. At this point, he wasn’t sure that they would ever have a use for the information, but he couldn’t quite give up the dream.

****

That night Markus showed the notes to Elly and she said she would look into it, but didn’t sound very enthusiastic. The dream of owning their own business was dying.

****

Elias, using Markus’ list, went to talk to the supplier of Fresno scrapers for the road department. Well, one of the suppliers. Günther Dresner was the owner of, and sales manager for, the small factory in Rudolstadt. “We get the blades from the Schmidt foundry in Badenburg but they get the steel from USE Steel.”

“I thought they were the sewing machine guys?”

“There was a foundry in Badenburg before the Ring of Fire and it’s still there. But the steel from USE Steel is cheaper and the Schmidt foundry uses it for this. We get the blades at a good price and it’s good enough for scraper blades. We make the bowls out of wood in the carpenter shop. Why all the interest? Usually you guys are ‘how soon can you fill this order’ and ‘I have to get back to work.’ ”

“We were thinking about starting a road-working company on our own.”

“Who would hire you?” Günther asked. “I mean, the government has their own road crews.”

“We were hoping to get some jobs for the state, but also roads between villages and such. We would go in with the scrapers and with cutters to loosen the earth, and a crew that knows how to use them, and we could make better roads than a bunch of farmers with shovels. And do it faster.”

“Makes sense, but I wouldn’t gamble on that sort of business, not with all the new stuff coming out all the time these days.”

“Actually, Dad, it’s not a bad idea,” Günther Junior said. At least, he looked to Elias to be a copy of the elder Günther. “It’s a good example of the mechanical advantage.”

“You’re in for it now. He just graduated from Grantville High School and he thinks he knows everything.” But there was clear pride hidden in the complaint, and not hidden well. “Well then, O Sage of Grantville High, tell us why a city council should pay Elias here, and his friends, to build their road when they have their own traditional means of doing it.”

“Because Elias and his crew will cost them less. Probably quite a lot less than doing it themselves would cost, and make better roads. Look, they could buy Fresno scrapers from us and some of the towns are doing that. They could build them themselves, and some are doing that. But there are two problems with that.

“One: they end up with the scraper sitting in someone’s barn for most of the time. Two: they don’t know how to use them most effectively, because they don’t get a lot of practice with them.”

Elias nodded. “That’s sort of what we had thought,” he said. And it was, though he and Markus had not thought it through the way the boy had laid it all out.

The snotty kid grinned in such a way as to make clear that he didn’t believe they had thought any such thing, and Elias wanted to slug the kid. But he didn’t. Elias had a temper, but he knew it and mostly controlled it.

“What do you know about it?” he asked instead.

“I studied it in school. They have a business class, and part of it is how the new industries are doing so well. The teacher said that it was because they had increased output for the amount of work.”

For the next half an hour or so, Elias learned about industry up-timer style. It wasn’t exactly new to him. He was an old Grantville hand, after all. But he had gotten it in bits and pieces—sort of an impression—not as a thing to be studied and understood.

****

Günther Dresner Junior sat at the table of the Kissinger family, wondering what this was about. He had talked to Elias Renke a few days back, about business and how they needed to be organized. He had taken the business course to help his father at the shop, but a lot of what the course was recommending his papa was already doing and a lot of it didn’t apply unless his father wanted to expand his business a lot. But his papa didn’t want a big business; he wanted a small business that left him with time for his family and his hobbies.

It left Günther Jr. with not a lot to do at the family shop. He didn’t care for woodwork or making the scrapers. He could do it well enough, but it was far from his favorite thing. So when Elias had shown up with questions about business, it had been fun to explain how it worked. He hadn’t expected to get an invitation. They had a nice family. The oldest girl kept asking him about everything imaginable and the little one kept hiding behind her mother’s skirts.

After a dinner of a chicken and dumplings, they sent the older girl off to take care of the younger and then asked him about how you set up a corporation. He didn’t know, but he thought he could find out. Frau Kissinger brought out a bunch of pamphlets on forming different types of companies and they sat down and worked it out.

“Why a corporation?” Günther Jr. asked.

“We need to sell stock to get money to buy the scrapers and other equipment.”

“What other equipment?”

“Rollers and cutting boards. Horses or oxen . . . or both.”

“And a wagon. A big one to live in like the gypsies and tinkers use,” Elly said.

“What? Why?” Markus asked her.

“Because I have no intention of sitting here in Grantville, sacking groceries, while you two go haring off to the back of beyond to build roads from nowhere to nowhere else.”

“You want to go along?” Elias asked. “Is that a good idea?”

“Maybe not, but if my husband is going to build roads, I am going with him.”

And that apparently settled that. Günther Jr. grinned. Then they got down to planning what they would need.

****

Günther Jr. sat in the library and ran the numbers. How much was a workman in the road gangs paid per hour? How much was a supervisor paid? How much did a scraper cost? How much did the horses cost to feed and maintain? For that matter, how much did a horse cost? Or an ox? It was all public records and he looked them all up. Road building was expensive. Very expensive. Then he worked out how much it would cost without the scrapers and the other stuff and understood why so many roads were so bad. No one could afford roads, not good roads. But they paid for themselves in the long run. And with the expanding economy, that long run was getting shorter all the time. If a town expected to prosper—if it even expected to survive—it needed to be able to get its goods to the customer.

****

“Where have you been, son?”

“At the library, Papa,” Günther Jr. told Günther Sr. “I was looking up the cost of road crews and I lost track of time. Do you know how much the road just from Rudolstadt to Badenburg cost just to repair back in ’28?”

As it happened, Günther Sr. did know. He had been involved and it had taken ten years of increasingly bad roads to get the tightwads over in Badenburg to put up their share of the cost. But he didn’t get a chance to say so because Junior was still talking. “And the whole road was less than ten miles. It’s incredible!”

“How much are they paying you for all this research?” There, that shut him up. It was good to see the boy enthusiastic about things, but there was the real world to consider.

“Well, they didn’t actually ask me to do any research, but I told you about their plans and I got interested. I’d like to get in on it if I could. I figure to do just one mile a month they are going to need ten scrapers and a like number of cutting boards.”

The elder Günther nodded. He made cutting boards too. They were weighted boards with heavy blades projecting out the bottom, that were dragged behind horses, oxen or up-time cars and trucks, to loosen the earth so the scrapers could scrape it up easier.

“Not that they will always need the cutting boards, but when the ground is packed or there is a lot of grass and grass roots tying it together, they make a big difference.”

The elder Günther listened as his son rattled on. Junior had never cared all that much for wagon making. Günther had planned on sending him to Latin school and maybe to the university over at Jena so that he could become a lawyer or at least a city clerk. Then the Ring of Fire happened and instead Junior had two years at Grantville High and come out with a high school diploma and a decent knowledge of how the up-timers did things. Not a great knowledge, but a decent one. Junior had always been better at book learning than craft. He would never be a master wheelwright, but that was a thing of his hands, not his understanding.

Günther had enough money set by to send the boy to Jena for a year or two. Not long enough to become a lawyer, but perhaps long enough to become a city clerk. And now this . . . . Perhaps this was an opportunity.

****

“What can I do for you?” Elias was surprised by the visit. They were trying to get the company organized but it was still a very iffy thing. None of them knew whether it would work. And they were far from having the money to buy scrapers yet.

“It is about my son,” Günther Sr. said. “He is interested in your company. He talked to me about your needs and how you would make it work. He thinks you can make a go of it. I am not so sure.”

“I’m not sure either. Because I am not sure that we can get enough money together to start the company.”

“You have a good job,” Günther Sr. said. “And you aren’t living particularly expensively.” He made it sound like a question, as though he wondered what Elias had been doing with his wages.

“Emergencies happen,” Elias answered the implied question. “I get a little ahead and someone breaks a leg or gets in trouble and there goes my savings.”

Günther Sr. looked at Elias and said, “If you are in charge of the money, your company will go broke. There is a time to help and a time to say no. I think you’re not good at saying no.”

“People have needs. Things happen,” Elias protested, then sighed. “You’re probably right. Markus is always telling me I’m a soft touch. Markus and Elly at least pay me back when they borrow. Grantville . . . it is so expensive to live in Grantville, but that is where the school for their daughters is.”

“That’s true. It’s amazing how wages have gone up since the Ring of Fire. But clothing is less costly now, and so are wheat and rye. We muddle through.”

And he did, Elias thought a little resentfully. Günther Dresner had started making scrapers at the behest of the Emergency Committee back in ’31, and it had proved a profitable business because he had integrated every labor-saving device he could get his hands on. So Günther was well-off and selling scrapers like hotcakes. But on the other hand, Günther was probably right that he wasn’t the one to handle the money. “It will probably be best if Elenore Keuperin deals with the money. She can make the deer on an American dollar scream.”

Günther laughed.

Elias snorted. “What is this visit about?” he asked.

“I told you. It’s about my boy. He is good at accounts and understands, I think, the way the up-timers do business. I want him to have a good life, and while he could be a wheelwright, he wouldn’t be happy as one.”

“You want us to give him a job?”

“No. I want him to have a share in the business.”

“Why should we give him a share of the business? I grant you he has been helpful. But not that helpful.”

“Because if you don’t, I won’t take stock for my scrapers,” Günther Dresner said.

“You mean you’re willing to buy him an interest in the business with your scrapers?”

“No, that’s not what I mean. I listened to him describe what you’re trying to do and I think it might work . . . but only might. You are going to issue stock and hope that people buy enough of it at a high enough price to let you buy the equipment you will need to go into business. And it’s a lot of equipment. From what Junior says you will need ten or twelve scrapers, three or four cutting boards, two or three large wagons, and a couple of rollers if you expect to build these new roads at any speed.”

Elias nodded. “Not to mention forty horses to pull the scrapers and oxen to pull the cutting boards and the rollers. And we will have to hire people as well. Building roads is a lot of work, even with the scrapers and other up-timer stuff. I do have a good set of surveying gear that I have put together over the last couple of years.”

“And from what I hear you’re a good surveyor and Markus Kissinger is a good road gang boss. Together, you know how to build roads. But do you know how much it’s going to cost you to build a mile of road? Do you know how much more than that you can charge and still get a town to hire you?

“Here is what I think will happen if you start your company without my son. You will build one road, one very good road for which you won’t get paid because the town you contract with will decide that there is some flaw in the road, it took you too long or failed to fulfill some clause of the contract, and that you aren’t owed the money. You will sue them, the local magistrate will find in their favor and you will appeal but you will run out of money before the suit gets anywhere. Then your goods will be sold at auction to pay off the debt you owe to your employees. Your stockholders will get ten cents on the American dollar, if that. You aren’t the first to think of this, you know. Meanwhile, the town you built the road for will accuse you of theft because you are villagers not townsmen, little better than gypsies and everyone knows that such are born thieves.

“It will happen that way because a great deal of money is involved and you don’t know how the game is played. You don’t know how to deal with town councils.”

Elias had felt his face flush then go white as Günther spoke. He had been a villager before the war and the Ring of Fire and he knew that what Günther had said was the sort of thing that happened to villagers all too often. Not all the time, but a lot. He had thought because he would be working in the State of Thuringia-Franconia, it wouldn’t be like that any more. But it probably would. “And your son does know how to deal with town councils?”

Günther lifted one hand and tilted it back and forth. “Some, but also he is a citizen of Rudolstadt and the family has connections all over this area. It’s not like we’re patricians or anything, but we are respected craftsmen. First, with him there, they are less likely to try anything and he’s more likely to spot it if they do. Which means that it’s a much better investment for me if he is a partner than if he’s not.”

****

Elias talked it over with Markus and Elly and they were more open to the idea than he had expected.

“He’s right,” Markus said. “You know how villagers are treated.”

“But we aren’t villagers,” Elias protested without really believing it himself. “We’re citizens of Grantville.”

“Which means something here and in Rudolstadt, Badenburg and Saalfeld . . . even in Jena. But not necessarily in some of the other towns where the up-timer influence isn’t so great.”

“Besides,” Elly said, “he knows how to fix scrapers. We will need some sort of repair something. A mobile shop of some sort.”

Elias groaned. “Every time we turn around this thing gets bigger and more complicated.”

Which was certainly true.

****

Günther Jr. hadn’t known what his father was planning and felt a little guilty about it, but not so guilty that he didn’t take the deal. Instead, he set out to prove his worth. He went though the books on incorporation and had all the paperwork needed to form a corporation ready. The four main partners would each have a thousand shares. That would give Markus and Elly together two thousand shares. The company would also have a thousand shares set aside for permanent crew. The other five thousand shares would be sold as needed to raise capital at a nominal price of ten dollars a share. Günther’s father agreed to take shares at that price in exchange for scrapers and much of the rest of the equipment they would need and also agreed to sell them that equipment at cost.

****

They were hoping that their initial offering would have the usual bounce, that the price would go up. But that didn’t happen. They started out offering one thousand shares at ten dollars a share, but they only sold seven hundred at that price the first day of trading. The next day their stock was selling, very slowly, at $9.50 a share.

The elder Günther had sold them enough equipment for stock that the corporation had assets. That provided a minimum value. That value was less than the $9.50 that the stock settled at, but there was always the hope that they might find a way to make it work. Between the capital value and the hope of profit—and the general bull market that had started in 1631 and was showing no sign at all of turning bearish—the stock price held at $9.50 a share.

Markus looked at the results of the day’s trading and sighed. “It’s not enough. I’m glad I didn’t quit my day job yet.”

“Same here,” Elias said.

“We’ve got the equipment,” Günther Jr. pointed out. “What we need is a contract. That’ll bring more interest in the company, get more investors.”

“We won’t be getting anything from the roads department. I almost got fired when they found out we were setting up our own road construction company,” Markus said. “In fact, my boss was pretty nasty about it all.”

“So, how do we get a contract?” Elly asked.

“I start writing letters,” Günther Jr. said. “Meanwhile, you guys go back to work.”

****

Günther Jr. wrote letters to every town he could think of, asking if they had roads in need of repair or needed roads built and offering to bid on the jobs.

Eventually, he started getting answers back. He showed them to his father, who didn’t know much about contracts, but did know who would be out to skin them and who they might be able to trust. Then Junior looked very closely at the offers. None were actual contracts, not yet. After his initial sort, he showed the offers to the count’s clerk. and asked for his advice.

“Insist on being paid as you go,” the clerk advised. “After every mile or every half mile. Do that so that the money is in your hands, or preferably in a bank in Grantville or Badenburg, before you start on the next mile. They aren’t going to consider paying you in advance until you are better known. And your papa is right. If they have the road already, even the most honest city council is going to be tempted to find a loophole.”

It was good advice and after several letters back and forth, Günther Jr. had a firm offer from the town of Bayreuth to improve the road between that city and the city of Cruessen.

“I have a possible contract,” Günther Jr. told them at dinner. “But I will need to travel to Bayreuth to settle things.” He looked at Elias. “Can you get away to come with me?”

“I don’t see how,” Elias said. “The road department managers are still pretty pissed at us for wanting to go out on our own. Nothing official, of course. They were supposed to support new businesses, but they are still pissed. Any excuse, and I’m gone.”

“I can get away,” Elly said.

“I really need someone who can survey the route,” Günther Jr. said. “What I am afraid of is that I will get there and here is this contract and the contract looks good, so I sign it. Then we all get there and find out that we have to build a mile of road through a swamp I didn’t know about or something.”

“Up that way it’s more likely to be rock formations that get in the way.”

“See? I don’t even know what to look for,” Günther Jr. said. “We need someone who can tell us how hard the job could turn out to be.”

“Dan Hoffmann got fired again,” Markus said.

There was more talk, but finally it was determined that Günther Jr. would take Dan along on the trip to Bayreuth. Dan was a first-rate surveyor when he was sober . . . which wasn’t overly often.

****

“I think we may have a deal,” Günther Jr. said. “The margrave seems a fairly reasonable sort. He knows what things cost and he has a deal with the city council of Cruessen. He’s agreed to maintain the road between Bayreuth and Cruessen, so he is going to have to spend the money anyway, or they have a case for not paying taxes.”

“How did Dan do?” Elias asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Günther Jr. said repressively, and Elias laughed.

“He says that there are no real problems. The road goes through some hills between Cruessen and Bayreuth, and at the moment it’s little more than a track.”

“So, what’s to keep him from ripping us off?” Elly asked.

“Partly because I think he is a fair man. Partly because he wants to build a road from Bayreuth to his home at Plassenburg. That’s about twelve miles and a good road there would be really convenient for him. This Cruessen job is almost a test. Besides, he agreed to pay us by the mile. Every mile we get done, we get paid right then. Which keeps us safe.”

****

“The word of the contract is out,” Günther Jr. told his father.

“So I heard,” his father said. The price of stock in Fresno Construction had gone up by two dollars. It was now selling for $11.50 a share.

“We are trying to buy horses,” Junior said. “You wouldn’t believe what they cost.”

“I know what they cost. The engine of a wagon is a horse and as the horses get more expensive people have less to spend on wagons.”

“Do you know any place we can get horses?”

His father shook his head. “When do you think you will be leaving?”

“I don’t know. It depends on the horse situation. Elly was asking about engines.”

“You mean like the up-timers make?”

“Yes. She wants me to look into the cost of electrics and steam. She says she priced up-time gasoline engines and they cost almost as much per horse power as horses do. Or so she says. I think she is exaggerating.”

“You think you can get engines?”

“Maybe. I heard that Adolph Schmidt went off to Magdeburg to make steam engines.”

“And Karl isn’t happy about it,” the elder Günther said. “I don’t know what got into that boy.”

The younger Günther wisely kept his opinions to himself.

“So, you’re not sure about when you will be leaving,” his father said, after the silence had gotten a little uncomfortable.

“A few weeks if we can find horses or some sort of engine. Ah, Father . . . I am going to try and hire Friederich away from you.”

“Friederich? But he . . . ” Günther Sr. stopped. “It makes sense. Friederich is very good with the scrapers. He can fix them if they break, but he has the business sense of a turnip. He will never be a master, no matter how good he is at the crafting part.”

“This will give him a place and pay enough that he can put a little by for his old age.”

****

Over the next few weeks, they bought what horses they could and hired permanent crew. They would be hiring some of their labor on site and hopefully buying some horses there as well. They would also be renting oxen if they could.

And, to round things out, they had hired Antonio Contadino, a journeyman blacksmith who had ended up in Grantville in mid-1632 and fallen in love with steam. He haunted the steam heads and started building his own simple steam engines. They were hand-built, but he had managed to build and sell three of them. He had two almost finished, which he could finish quickly, and said he could build more even while they traveled.

Günther Jr. wasn’t all that confident, but figured once they got situated in camp near Bayreuth, Tony would be able to get some engines running. They had twelve scrapers, and even counting each steam engine as a team, they only had enough horses for five scrapers. As it was, Günther’s father was refitting one of the wagons to use the steam engine instead of a team. It looked, in Günther Jr.’s opinion, like the silliest combination of complexity and pipe dreams he had ever seen . . . but it worked.

About halfway through the process, Markus and Elias quit their jobs with the road crews and they also hired some other men from the road crews. Which didn’t please their boss even a little bit.

Elly took the girls out of St. Veronica preschool and everyone started living in the wagons. They were more comfortable than expected. There were tricks that the up-timers had brought with them—which the up-timers were mostly unaware of—that made the wagons Günther Sr.’s shop built both lighter and warmer than a similar wagon that was made before the Ring of Fire.

****

“Wagons, ho!” Günther shouted.

Everyone looked at him like he was crazy. Günther liked westerns. They had four wagons. On each wagon’s roof were three disassembled Fresno scrapers, a cutting board and other gear. The front wagon was pulled by a team of four oxen, the second by four horses, the third by a another team of horses. The last wagon had Antonio’s working engine in a wheeled cart attached to the traces. Antonio was driving the cart that was pulling the wagon.

The horses kept having to be pulled back to the speed of the oxen. The steam engine, for a wonder, could be set to a speed and would maintain it . . . for the most part. The first day’s journey was on good roads. They made it most of the way to Leutenberg and would have gone farther if the oxen weren’t so slow. At Wurzbach, however, they ran out of road. Not officially. There were roads, but they weren’t suitable for wagons. About five miles outside of Wurzbach, they were stopped by a narrowing of the road. It wound around a hill and the path around the hill narrowed to only a couple of yards wide.

“If we try to take the wagons over that,” Elias said in disgust, “they will tip over.”

Markus looked out at the stretch of hillside and then at the valley floor, which was a combination of fields, rocks and mud. “We aren’t going to be able to go through the center of the valley.”

Elly looked at Markus, then at Elias. “You’re road builders,” she said. “So, build us a road.”

“The village won’t pay us for building the stretch of road we need and it will take a full day at least.”

“Pay us? They might not even allow us,” Günther Jr. said, fully aware that the local village had them in a very difficult position.

Elly turned on him. “Why didn’t you tell us about this?”

“Because I didn’t know. We were on horseback when we went through here on the way to Bayreuth and I am not a surveyor.” It had never occurred to him to even wonder if a wagon could get through here and it should have, he knew. Günther Jr. started thinking about other places on the road that might not be suitable for wagons. And there were several between here and Bayreuth. “There are more places where we might have problems,” he said.

“I’ll need to survey the route,” Elias said, “with an eye out for those a wagon can use. Come along, Günther.”

“What?” Günther complained. “I need to be here to negotiate with the village.”

“No!” Elly said. “I’ll do that. You go with Elias and show him the route you took.”

****

Once Elias and Günther were gone, Elly headed for the village and started bargaining. It was nothing new to her; she had grown up in a village not too different from this and she knew how to talk to them. The negotiations took a while and she had to agree that they would do some extra maintenance on the village road, but they got permission, as well as food for themselves and the animals for the time they would be working.

Once she had the fee settled, Markus put the team to work taking down the scrapers and hooking up the teams to them. Antonio disconnected his steam cart from the blacksmith’s wagon and hooked up it up to a scraper. It was a three-wheeled cart with a chain drive and, according to Antonio, it was powered by a ten horsepower steam engine.

Markus left him to it, and got to work with the ordinary Fresno scrapers.

They spent the rest of that day and all of the next reshaping the hillside until the road was wide enough to take the wagons. Then they spent another half day straightening up the roads in the village.

****

“We’ve found ways around most of the obstacles. Not fast ways, but ways,” Elias said. “However, there are two more places before we get to Bayreuth that will require us to do some work to get through.”

“No way around?” Elly asked. It had taken longer than she had expected to fix the roads.

“None that I could find,” Elias said.

****

They finally reached Bayreuth about a week late but the margrave wasn’t upset. He had ridden out to look at the last place they had to improve before they got there and was interested in how the scrapers and other equipment worked.

“You did well on the cut I saw,” Margrave Christian said. “I think you will manage quite well on the road between Bayreuth and Cruessen. I want a road that will let two wagons pass one another.”

“It would be faster if we made the road one wagon wide and added passing lanes every mile or so where the terrain was suitable,” Markus said diffidently. The margrave was being very nice and complimentary, but his attitude grated a bit after living in Grantville. Markus wasn’t entirely sure what it was that irritated him, and he was sure that it wouldn’t have bothered him at all before the Ring of Fire. But now it did. Still, it was a job and the company really needed the work.

They discussed fees and rights and right of way. Margrave Christian pulled out a map with his proposed route and Elly politely suggested that while it was a very nice map, part of the service the margrave was paying for was the services of a skilled surveyor.

“And where is this surveyor?”

“We try not to let him out among civilized people, Lord,” Günther Jr. said piously. “He is very good with maps and numbers, not so good with people.”

“It’s surprising how many people are like that,” the margrave said. “But you think this route will have to be changed?”

“We think that it’s fairly likely that some changes will make for a better, safer road,” Elly said. “If we take your map and have Elias survey the route, then bring it back to you to make sure it doesn’t cause any problems, we will probably, between us, be able to come up with a good route that is practical, both politically and geologically.”

****

It took Elias two weeks and five trips to produce a route that was both practical and legally acceptable. And at that there would be a stretch of almost half a mile where the road would narrow to only one wagon wide.

Meanwhile, they started working. The first mile of the road out of Bayreuth was quite straightforward. They would build the new road just next to the old, so that the old road could stay in use while they were building the new. Then, once they had one wagon-width worth of the new road built, they would go back and build up the old road to match it. That would give the two-wagon-wide road and would not have the road out of action while the new way was built.

****

With the margrave’s help, they were able to rent extra oxen and horses over the winter for the scrapers and cutting boards. As well, Antonio was able to build more steam carts that could pull a wagon and push a scraper.

In a way they were like gypsies, in the sense that they were moving. But they were glacial gypsies, moving only a mile a month and sometimes not that.

****

“We’re going to have to blast it,” Elias said.

“Looks like it,” Markus agreed. They were three months into the project and had three teams of workers. This team was the farthest along their route. And there was an old tree that was blocking the best route. “If we try to go around it, we run into other trees and to get around them all would take us a half-mile out of our way.”

“I’ll have Fred get the picks and shovels,” Elias said, rubbing his hands together to keep the blood circulating on this freezing winter day. Fred was a local hire they had given the nickname because Friederich was regular crew and calling the new guy Fred had prevented confusion. They would have to cut down the tree, get it out of the way, then cut a hole in the ground at the base of the stump to plant the black powder.

****

“This is not what I expected when I hired on to work with up-time equipment,” Fred complained between swings of the pick. The ground was frozen to a depth of about six inches and covered in snow.

“Even the up-timers have shovels and axes, Fred,” Markus said.

Fred grunted, and swung the pick again. Once he got below that six inches, he could—for a while—treat it as ordinary earth. In this case, it was a fairly standard stump removal. Fred, being a farmer, was quite familiar with the process.

Once he was through the frozen topsoil, he dug out holes using a shovel then chopped his way through the roots with an ax as much as he could. After three hours work, he was ready to place the powder.

“Here,” Markus said, handing him one of the measured sacks of black powder.

“Thanks,” Fred said. He was familiar with the process of blowing out a stump with black powder. Any German farmer was. The pre-measured, watertight sacks of powder with fuses were new, but obvious now that he had seen them. He carefully placed the charges, then covered the whole works with dirt and backed away.

“Are we ready?” Markus asked.

Ja.”

“Fire in the hole,” Markus shouted and lit the fuse while everyone got behind something solid.

Boom!

They went and examined the results: a big hole in the ground and bits of oak stump all over the place.

Markus waved and the steam scraper started up. It had a full load of earth and pushed it over to the hole. As it had turned out, the steam scraper could carry more earth than a horse-drawn scraper. Apparently Antonio’s estimate of the horsepower of his steam cart was accurate.

****

“We are running late,” Günther Jr. said that evening, while the four partners were eating dinner. Günther, Markus, Elly and Elias were going over the week’s work.

“There was no way that we could predict all the delays that have happened,” Elias insisted. Part of the reason that they had had to blow the stump was because some of the local farmers had gotten snippy about the land use rights. But that was only part of the reason and the truth was that blowing the stump had possibly even saved them some time since the road could be straighter now.

“That’s not the point. We get paid by each mile completed, but we pay our workers by days worked. I don’t care whose fault the delays are or if they are no one’s fault. The longer it takes us to build a mile of road, the less we make on it.”

“Fine,” Elly said. “I agree, and so do Markus and Elias.” Elly paused to look at both men, not so much to confirm their agreement as to command it.

They nodded. Markus dutifully, with a slight grin and Elias resentfully, and Elly continued. “However, I thought we had included delays in the timetable.” That was something Markus had insisted on, that there would be delays and that they had to figure them in.

“I know,” Günther Jr. said, “but that doesn’t make them any less costly. I was hoping for more profit.”

“You’re a bean counter, Günther. You’re always hoping for more profit,” Elias said.

They got into discussing what had been going on. It wasn’t, once they got into the details, nearly as bad as Günther Jr. was making it seem. It was just that they were not likely to get the early completion bonus they had been hoping for.

“How is Antonio coming with the steam scrapers?” Markus asked.

“No new ones available for another month at least,” Elly said. “The ones he has keep breaking down.” That was the drawback of the steam scrapers. When they worked, they worked faster and better than the horse- or oxen-drawn Fresno scrapers, but it was rare that the darn things managed more than a few hours without breaking down and two men had been injured by them. So far the injuries hadn’t been permanently disabling, but the men and women of the road gangs had all learned to be cautious around Antonio’s monsters. And the people, two men and a woman who drove and managed the steam scrapers, insisted on extra pay.

****

“And here is the reason horses are better than that steam contraption of Antonio’s,” Fred said. “It’s wheels get stuck in the mud.”

“Horses get stuck in the mud too,” Antonio insisted from his cart.

“Which is why we’re having to use horses to drag your mechanical monster out of the mud. Again!” Fred was by far the most out-going of the local hires. A natural leader and a hard worker, he had become a team leader of one of the scraper teams by mid-winter and now, in the spring, was trusted to drag Antonio’s wagon out of the mud that it was sinking into with distressing regularity.

“You leave my baby alone,” said Margretha Kappelin, another one of the local hires and the only woman who worked with the steam carts. This was Margretha’s cart, which she called Smoky. “It’s not Smoky’s fault his wheels are too narrow. It’s because wheelwrights don’t make wide enough wheels.”

The strange custom that had sprung up in the company was that a steam engine that was handled by a male engineer was female and one that was handled by a female engineer was male. So Smoky was a boy, Hotsy was a girl and so was Steamy.

“You know, she makes a good point,” Günther Jr. said.

“What?” By now most of the crew thought of Günther Jr. as the person who delivered their pay and bought supplies for the company—that is, as the money guy, though not the person in charge. That was Elly, backed up as necessary by Markus and Elias. Markus was an easygoing guy who was about the size of a bear and Elias looked like he was always ready to cut the heart out of anyone who bothered him. He wasn’t really, but he looked and sounded like he was. So no one argued with Elly. Still it left Günther Jr. looking like sort of a nonentity to the road gangs. So everyone was surprised by his comment.

“It just makes sense that a steam cart is going to need a different structure than a regular cart. If for no other reason than that it has its engine in the cart, rather than tied to the front of it. Let me get with Friederich and see if we can make some better wheels for the steam carts.”

As it happened, the new wheels had to wait. They got a message that Margrave Christian wanted to talk to them.

****

“So, tell me about railroads,” Margrave Christian said.

“Railroads, Your Grace?” Elly asked. She was generally the spokesperson of the company.

“Yes, railroads. What do you know about them?”

Elly looked over at Markus, who shrugged his ignorance. “Not all that much, I’m afraid,” she said.

“Anyone?” the margrave asked, clearly hoping for something more.

“Not much,” Elias said. “The surveying for rail lines is similar to that for roads, but I know that the big deal that is delaying them up north is the shortage of steel and iron. I understand that they are using wooden rails in some places. Other than that, all I know is that they can carry a lot of goods really cheaply.”

“That was my impression,” Margrave Christian said. “I was hoping that you might know more.”

“You know who might . . . ” Günther Jr. said, interrupting the margrave without a thought, ” . . . Antonio. He said the steam heads in Grantville that he learned from were all crazy for railroads.”

The margrave looked over at Günther Jr. for a moment, apparently deciding whether to be offended by him or pleased with the information. “That’s interesting,” he said noncommittally. “Perhaps I should have a talk with this Antonio?”

“I’ll see to it, Your Grace,” Elly said, wanting to kick Günther Jr. under the table. Except there was no table to kick him under.

****

Antonio was more than a little nervous as he was gestured into the sitting room and left to sit for a while. Elly had gotten back from the discussion with the margrave, still complaining about Günther Jr.’s lack of manners and told him to get dressed and go to the margrave’s residence in Bayreuth with everything he had on railroads.

Antonio had gotten dressed, unhooked the steam cart from the scraper and driven it into Bayreuth at the top speed it would manage.

Now he was sitting, waiting for the margrave to get around to him and wondering what he wanted to know. The door opened and the butler led him to the margrave’s office.

“So tell me what you know about railroads.”

Antonio did that. For a couple of hours, he told the margrave everything he knew, which wasn’t much compared to what one of the up-time steam heads could have told him, but included most of the basics. Why railroads could carry so much, where the expense was—in the roads, not the trains, because trains could carry so much more.

Margrave Christian listened and asked intelligent questions, some of which Antonio could even answer. After that, they went out and he showed the margrave and his children the steam cart. He even gave the children a ride on it.

Then Margrave Christian let Antonio go, with his thanks.

Antonio came back to the camp feeling really good about it all. Well . . . halfway back to camp. Then the damn steam engine busted again, and he spent hours trying to put it back together.

****

More months passed and more miles became road. Good road, road that would take heavy wagons and made for easy traveling. Friederich made wide wooden wheels for the still-constantly-breaking-down steam carts, of which they now had five. And finally, on a day in September of 1634, they finished a gap and the new road between Cruessen and Bayreuth was done.

Margrave Christian rode a coach along it and made the whole trip in half an hour. An average speed of over sixteen miles an hour! That was impressive and it was agreed that it was a very good road. The margrave paid them their final payment and asked them to extend the road to Kulmbach, where he had his palace, the Plassenburg.

There was some haggling and Elly wanted to kick Günther Jr. again, this time for weakening their bargaining position with unnecessary details of their costs and profits.

Günther Jr. and Elias were a pair, she thought. They each needed a muzzle.

****

Two weeks later, on the road between Bayreuth and Kulmbach, Günther Jr. showed up waving a paper.

“What have you got there?” Elias asked.

“It’s The Street.”

Understanding that took a second, because Elias had never been much of a reader of the weekly financial paper. He looked first at the road they were building, then back at the paper and remembered.

“What about it?”

“They had an article on the growth in the road construction industry. There are road crews springing up all over Germany !” Günther Jr. shoved the paper at him and Elias took it. And then tried to read while Günther Jr. nattered on.

The article didn’t mention them by name, though one line mentioned that a road company had just completed a road between Cruessen and Bayreuth and was now at work on one between Bayreuth and Kulmbach. But Elias didn’t see anything particularly worrying about it.

By that time they had gotten to Elly and Markus’ wagon and Günther Jr. was insisting, “We’re ruined! There are road construction companies appearing everywhere.”

“Oh, don’t be silly, Günther,” Elly said “There are enough roads that need work in Germany to keep us and a thousand like us busy for a hundred years.”

Antonio grinned. “And then there’s Italy.”

****