Chapter Seven

“Stop the goddamned mules!” Jeremey McCladden screamed as a crunching, splintering sound came from inside what was supposed to be a threshing machine.

What he’d actually said was: damned by the Gods mules.

He followed it with another curse—in English, and involving an invitation for the apparatus to perform an unlikely sexual act with its mother—and kicked it, hard. The only thing it had produced in the last two weeks was splinters.

Then he restrained himself; he was only going to hurt his foot if he did that again—he was wearing caligae, the Roman military sandal-boot with its thick soles and hobnails, but there were limits. When he looked up, the slave carpenter was white-faced and trembling, obviously afraid that the foreign freeman he’d been told to obey would blame him, in a direct and physical way. Quintus, the furniture-maker’s apprentice from Vindobona, was looking ready to fight back if he had to.

And it would be so much more satisfying to beat something that bleeds than kicking this shitty pile of wood, he thought. But it’s bad management. And the Prof would hit the roof and I don’t want the others giving me the stink-eye either. We all need each other… badly.

“Not your fault,” he said to them shortly.

They were in a big shed down by the lake and the boat-dock, which from the fairly overwhelming smell was usually used for salting and drying fish. Spears of sunlight came through patches where the wattle-and-daub of the walls had lost some of the daub; the frame of the building was made of pegged-together timber beams that rested on masonry blocks, and the ceiling was three times his own five-ten height.

He lifted the cover off the machine; this model was about twice the size of a grand piano. Then he checked to make doubly sure the mules that powered the whole thing had stopped; he most certainly wasn’t going to put his hand inside this thing otherwise.

Despite having a miniature model and lots of drawings it had been like trying to push a rock uphill on a sand dune… to start with, none of the Roman artisans had ever really worked from a drawing.

Maybe there were some who did that in Rome or Alexandria, but definitely not here in the sticks.

The closest they’ve ever come was scratching pictures of their dicks on walls or trees. And trying to get the idea of exactly through their heads, it’s a choice between tears and bloody murder.

Models they could grok—

To quote Dad, he thought.

—or some of them could.

The rest had been working wood and leather and a few metal fittings. Those they understood.

Mostly Type A, like Glorious Prof Leader said. Mostly, mostly, mostly, that’s the killer. They can do it… just not yet.

A stout vertical wooden shaft with two long horizontal poles attached at mule-chest-height provided the motive power down at one end of the rectangular barn-shed; four mules waited to start walking around again pulling on opposite ends of each pole, with their new horse-collar harnesses.

Right now they were showing predatory interest in a substantial stack of wheat-sheaves nearby, restrained by an occasional tap from the switch of the driver. You had to remember that livestock weren’t machinery; they had their own priorities, and they weren’t necessarily yours.

None of that had been hard, since wooden poles and draught animals walking in circles were things the locals had always done—if not put together in quite this way. The townsmen Josephus had recruited had worked on somewhat similar power systems for the big hour-glass-shaped millstones used in commercial bakeries.

Here on the villa, women used hand-querns to grind grain into flour with their copious spare time and superabundant unused energy, but few in a town of any size did. It was cheaper to buy bread from the bakeries anyway, since they could buy grain and fuel in bulk at lower prices and have their specialists work when other people were sleeping so it was ready at the right times. Only tavernkeepers and the like, and rich people with big domestic staffs, baked their own in cities. Romans had water-powered gristmills too, and one of those was on the list of priorities here if possible.

The upright shaft had an iron collar heat-shrunk around the base, and turned on a smooth stone below, greased with lard; it ran up through a collar supported by a big V-shape of bracing timber running up in turn to the rafters, and engaged a horizontal pole there with a crude wheel-and-peg gear arrangement. That pole had had a bigger wheel turning at the other end, and that had a leather belt over it that reached down and powered the machine.

So far, so simple. And oh, thank God, thank Jesus in the foothills the leatherworkers could just make the horse collar without understanding it, he thought. Slavery does have some advantages when you’re Master… or the buddy of the guy Master’s in deep hock to.

The insides didn’t look completely smashed up this time: that was progress… of a sort.

He used an iron hook and a pair of tongs and something like a crowbar to get the splintered wreck of what had been a grooved wooden cylinder out. The flanges were supposed to beat out the grain against a series of curved boards arranged around it in a semicircle… and this time the boards themselves only looked a bit battered, not broken and needing replacement.

Glad I didn’t do the iron edging yet, he thought. That’ll cut down on wear… when we finally get this to work, that is.

“All right, get me the next cylinder,” he said.

Fuchs’ baggage had included multiple sets of measuring gauges of various sizes.

The hell I won’t need them, Jeremey thought bitterly. Live and learn, you asshole: don’t overpromise. Hereabouts rule of thumb means rule by thumbs. And ‘about the size of my thumb’ doesn’t cut it with machinery, even this eighteenth-century Scottish crap.

He took the gauge and ran it along the splintered ridge.

Aha.

“Look,” he said to the estate carpenter. “It broke here, in the middle. You left too much wood on there.”

“But… but master, that makes it stronger—” the man began, and then took a step back.

Jeremey put a hand to his head and breathed deeply.

“That makes it break,” he gritted out. “Look!”

A long white scratch ran down the upper surface of the ridge as he used the gauge to score the new cylinder.

“Now, take off the wood down to this line. Down to this line from one end to the other. Do not make any changes. Do not think. Just do it. This time I am going to watch you right to the end.”

Sweating, the man ducked his head, mumbled something, and put the cylinder across the workbench, clamped it down with an awkward-looking arrangement of loops and twisting a stick to tighten them, and took up his spokeshave. That was sort of like a horizontal knife with a handle at each end.

It wasn’t that he didn’t know wood. His hands were scarred and callused, and delicately deft on the tool for all their size and gnarled look.

It’s that he’s used to getting general orders and handling all the details himself. Make a sawbench or make a cart, stuff like that. So’s Quintus.

If you just told them to do something and walked away, their reflexes cut in.

“No, no, no! Right on the line. No higher. No lower. All the way across.”

The man jumped, flushed, and bared his teeth as he overrode years of habit. He was sweating freely as he finished and beveled the edges of the six-foot cut. He unclamped the cylinder, and Jeremey turned it to the next ridge and marked it likewise.

“Now do that again. Just the way you did the first time.”

It took more than an hour to get them all done. When Jeremey snapped it back into the machine, re-engaged the leather belts and put the cover back on he was grinding his own teeth. The mules walked…

And it didn’t break.

Now let’s see if it works. If the ridges are too low they’ll turn without breaking… but they won’t work. Not too hot, not too cold, Goldilocks… you bitch. How I hate your smelly little pink pimply prepubescent ass.

“Hand me one of those sheaves of wheat,” he said.

It was prickly in his hands, and surprisingly heavy for what was basically a big bunch of long dry grass. He used his belt-knife to cut the tucked-over twist of stalks that was used to hold it together and dropped the armful of three-foot lengths into the opening on the top that led to a slope-sided board chute. The rattling, banging noise grew a little muffled, and Quintus from Vindobona went down on his knees to peer underneath.

“Wheat coming out, excellent sir!” he called. “And that fan thing you had me make is blowing away the chaff—just the chaff, this time!”

Jeremey caught himself before thankful swearing involving the name of Jesus; that was illegal here. It didn’t bother him in the abstract, since he’d been a closet atheist since he was twelve, coming out when he hit Boston. But it could be hard to overcome habits, and he felt self-conscious invoking Jupiter and Mars or the genitalia of Venus.

This time his touch on the machine was almost a caress.

“Get the foremen,” he said. “And the vilicus.”

@@@

“Now, you’ve got three ways to thresh grain,” Jeremey said.

He felt tired, but finally it wasn’t leavened with frustration. His audience of foremen who bossed the field-gangs they also labored in frowned and scowled, not in hostility but concentration; the vilicus, whose name was Julius, had simply said obey this man as you would me or our master and left.

“You beat it out with flails, you tread it out with oxen and horses and mules, or you have the draught-beasts pull a sledge around on it.”

There were nods; fortunately they had a high tolerance for repeating the obvious here. Roman rhetoric was chock-a-bloc with that, and apparently it had filtered down the social scale over time. They actually used flails except in emergencies, because it gave a higher yield per sheaf and a cleaner end-product.

He pointed to the clumsy-looking device that was finally working.

Unless it suddenly breaks again, he thought, and used an apotropaic gesture popular here involving the thumb clenched between the first two fingers, then crossed his fingers for good measure.

He signaled to the man leading one of the mules, and it began to walk in a circle; so did the others. They proceeded with a resigned indifference.

Four mulepower, he thought. A four mulepower engine, and it’s the bee’s knees.

As things banged and clattered and creaked, and little bits of dirt and whatever filtered down from the ceiling and its reed thatching.

Jesus. I’m saving the world in a mud shack that stinks of fish and mule-shit with a crowd of illiterate yokels who have lice in their hair.

He’d originally gotten interested in classical history because of aqueducts and big buildings with columns and gleaming marble, imperial triumphs, racing chariots, what he now knew now were very bad movies, and because of gladiators. He was looking forward to sneaking off to an arena sometime, but he’d have to be careful.

A little later, after his voice broke, streaming episodes of series like Rome and Spartacus and The Caesars with gratuitous nudity and jiggling titties had added to the stew.

So he’d been about ten when the Glory That Was Rome struck home in his imagination and it had all been downhill from there. One thing had led to another… and later he’d been determined not to spend his life selling seed and feed to wrinkled old guys in billed caps…

And here I am, back on the farm standing in cowshit. Like my goddamned granddadsWhen the alternative’s going into the stratosphere as radioactive dust, not so bad, but…

“Then we’ve got these grooved cylinders inside this box of planks.”

He lifted off one side by a set of handles he’d specified, so they could see the innards in action, and traced the path of the sheaves with a finger at a safe distance while they crowded around and peered in. Everything was kept moving by leather straps, and the size of the wheels at each end governed the relative speeds.

“Keep the mules at that pace, over there! No faster, no slower! The grain goes in here, you over there, get some sheaves in the hole on top… heads first, fool, heads first! The ridges on the cylinder grab it and beat it out against these curved boards, see? Grain and chaff fall down here, past this round wooden tunnel a bit like a barrel, with the fan inside it.. this wheel with thin broad spokes that makes a wind as it turns…”

There were murmurs and gasps at that. They knew about using wind to separate grain and chaff, but they did that by waiting for an actual wind and then tossing the mixture up with a basket or wooden paddle so that the lighter chaff blew away while the grain came down straighter. The concept of making a wind with anything but a lady’s fan was a new one, and tickled their fancy. Several clapped their hands and laughed in glee.

And the problem there was getting the fan so it would blow away the chaff, but not blow away the wheat. That little whore Goldilocks screwing with the bears again.

“…and that blows away the chaff. Grain falls here, you scrape it off this wicker mat into baskets you put in this hole in the ground, with these boards on poles. Lift it out when it’s full.”

The tools for moving the grain into the baskets were like rakes without teeth. That hadn’t been hard.

“The straw is caught by this cylinder with the thin iron hooks, after it crosses the grate where the grain falls through, gets pushed along this chute, and comes out over here.”

Wheat-straw had a lot of uses, including stuffing the more exalted slaves’ mattresses. The upper classes used feathers, people at the bottom used nothing.

When the demonstration was over and the machine was working away, one of the foremen scratched his head. Possibly just because of the head-lice that the Americans spent considerable time getting out of their own hair every couple of days; they’d all learned the origins of the phrase fine-tooth comb.

Paula had cut hers really short and tied a bandana around it with the knot over her forehead. He and Mark had imitated the Prof’s military even-shorter-on-the-sides buzz-cut.

Which come to think of it probably started out as an anti-lice measure when they learned about lice carrying diseases.

Filipa kept hers long but experimented with exotic-ingredient pseudo-shampoos and fine-tooth-combed a lot. She’d even gotten Sarukê to join her in mutual hair-combing sessions.

But more probably he was scratching because he was puzzled.

The gang-boss hefted one of the baskets they’d put the grain into in his hands; they were of a roughly standardized size, holding about two modii, say thirty pounds or half a bushel. All of them were surprised at how fast the machine did the threshing, and how clean and free of debris the grain was.

“Master?” he said.

When Jeremey gave a nod he went on:

“With this engine—”

“We’ll have more soon. At least three, so that two can always work if one needs to be fixed.”

He nodded. “With three, we can have all the grain threshed in a few weeks, maybe four, six. But what will all the men and women—”

The phrase he used was actually more graphic and rustic-earthy, referring to the respective genitalia.

“—do over the winter after th’ plowin’ ‘n sowin’ an’ vine-harvest, if they’re not thrashin’ the sheaves?”

They didn’t use the devil makes work for idle hands here, but they had the concept.

Jeremey grinned. “Don’t worry. We’ll have plenty of work for you all. Now let’s get some grain thrashed.”

They did. None of them complained; the vilicus had made matters clear, and he thought that they mostly understood the concept that you had to learn something before you could effectively supervise someone else doing it. Once a leather belt broke, and they simply set to and repaired it without needing to be told.

It was hot, smelly, stuffy work; and very itchy, because of the little awns that broke off the dry grain and then floated to attach themselves to you, apparently making a GPS-guided beeline for the crotch and armpits.

But compared to doing it by hand this is a stroll in the park with an ice-cream cone in your hand.

After half an hour or so the pile of sheaves was vanishing, and one of them swore by Lugos—some Celtic deity—then lifted several of the baskets again, grunted again and asked:

“Master ‘n lord? Are we gettin’ a bit more o’ the grain from each sheaf? Just a bit, mind.”

Jeremey smiled at him with regal approval and whistled for a stop—during which everyone lifted the covers off buckets, plunged in dippers and drank, and the driver brought pails for the mules. Then he walked over and presented the observant specimen of yokeldom with a copper as from the pouch he carried at his belt.

The clodhopper scratched his head again—this time he crushed something between thumbnail and finger, which settled that question—and grinned and blushed and shuffled his feet and popped the coin into his mouth to hold under his tongue. Nobody here had heard of pockets before they arrived, though the Americans were having them added to all their tunics as fast as possible and some of the estate’s upper personnel had already started to copy it.

“You’re right, we are getting more. One part in twenty. Spread the word to the tenants, that if they bring their grain in to be threshed with this, they pay one part in twenty. So they’ll have the same amount of grain as if they did it themselves, with a lot less work.”

That brought guffaws and thigh-slapping and nudges. He’d noticed that the estate slaves and the free sharecroppers who lived on the outer circle of the latifundium’s fields didn’t particularly like each other. Not on a collective level, though they worked together sometimes and saw each other fairly often. Some of the sharecroppers owned a slave or two, and one—the descendant of a minor old-time Norric chieftain—had half a dozen field-hands, a cook and a maid and a six-room house. He even owned a riding nag.

An hour later he was sure nothing was going to break right away this time. Jeremey turned things over to the smartest of the foremen and headed up the slope towards the pars urbana. It was a nice day for a jog or stroll, not too hot this time even in midafternoon, and with a light breeze off the lake.

From here, down by the water, you could see how the mansion had been built out on a low platform revetted with fieldstone, to keep the floor level from front to back. The marble-paved terrace at the rear was surrounded by fluted pillars topped with ornate gilded Corinthian capitals, with polished stone blocks on top joining them all together like lintels in a smooth U-shape. The stone ledge that made sported occasional statues, most of them gesticulating and all of them painted in colors that made them look like saints in a Brazilian Catholic church except for the nude ones. And the pool had a fountain in its center showing a nymph holding a big seashell.

The bronze nymph wasn’t painted, but she had those inset glass eyes that seemed to follow you.

A drain leading to a pipe that ran out into the water sent the household runoff into the lake. Romans were good at handling water, as long as you didn’t mind a continuous-flow system and its voracious demands. On the other hand, given the way they drained things like the pool from overflow valves at the top rather than the bottom, keeping the water turning over was a good idea.

So my youthful fascination with those ‘Rome’ episodes and Spartacus wasn’t all in vain.

He’d have a bath, a swim, and then… maybe a nap, and then…

There was a maid who’d proven susceptible to his charms…and the occasional trinket or as. A little charm went a long way here, when he could have just snapped his fingers and pointed at the bed and she’d have sighed and taken off her tunic and assumed the position. She had a friend who was just as flexible… metaphorically and literally.

A little technique goes a long way here too, he thought smugly. Roman men just plunge away, or at least the ones they’ve met do. Dumb knuckle-draggers don’t even know how to enjoy themselves!

He whistled as he walked.

And so some of my adolescent dreams about Roman orgies have come true. Onward and upward! And right now, down and inward.

“Master! Master! Master Julio’!”

Which is what they insist on calling me.

What happened when they really tried to say Jeremey was incomprehensible, but comic. Josephus had figured out that it was ultimately of Hebrew origin when they were introduced—Yirmeyah, meaning ‘may Jehovah exalt’—and given him an odd look when the penny dropped.

The foreman came pelting up, panting, when he was halfway to the mansion. “We caught ‘im! Peekin’ in through the place whar daub fell out!”

I can’t punch him, Jeremey thought, grinding his teeth. Or I could, but that would be a bad idea. If you punch people who bring you news, pretty soon nobody brings you news, or they lie about it, and then the truth comes up by itself and bites half your butt and your left testicle off and it’s a complete surprise. And that hurts worse than listening to things you really don’t want to hear. Forethought, Jem, forethought.

He turned around and trudged back to the big shed instead, carefully not showing his irritation. Another two of the men he’d been instructing were holding someone with a face he didn’t know, with his arms twisted up behind his back and his youngish, patchily bearded countenance contorted with pain.

Jeremey looked him over. No rips in his tunic, and good sandals on his feet—most of the ordinary workers here went barefoot until things got much colder.

“Any of you know this man?” he asked the others.

One of the older foremen scratched his head and said:

“Couldn’t swear by the Gods, master, but I think he’s the son of the vilicus on Quintus Pollius Naso’s place, master.”

Jeremey searched his memory. That was a small estate or very large farm north of here—about three hundred acres all up—that he’d heard mentioned. That Quintus was a retired centurion of no great importance, promoted from the ranks and he’d never risen higher than commander of the ninth century. It was still big enough to employ about twenty slaves, and make Quintus Pollius Naso solidly middle-class, in a society where the working class was over ninety percent of the total.

Oh, I am so going to kick this upstairs, he thought.

Firmly suppressing his initial impulse to snap out: String the bastard up by the heels! That could cost both money and trouble. The young man burst out:

“I do not fear you, you wizard, you evil sorcer—”

This time Jeremey did punch; they had orders to firmly quash any talk of sorcery, and the thought of rumors like that made the skin along his spine crawl.

He figured he could hold his own with any individual Roman. He wasn’t necessarily smarter than any particular one of them, Josephus for example was scary-bright, you got that quickly. But he had the advantage of two thousand years of accumulated information and they didn’t.

A mob afraid of magic… that’s another matter altogether.

That wasn’t just peasantish hick superstition here. Everyone believed in it, or nearly, apart from a tiny handful of philosophical rationalists. Even they mostly believed in the Gods, they just thought the Olympians didn’t bother interacting with humans so you could discount them.

There was a satisfying meaty thud and the slave’s head snapped back. Blood ran down from his nose, and Jeremey’s hand only hurt a little while he wiped the blood off on the other man’s tunic by punching him in the stomach with a nice krav maga-style twister.

He’d learned the hard way to make sure you broke things in the other guy’s face rather than bones in your fist, and done it way back in his early teenaged years before he attended his first dojo. He carefully refrained from the near-instinctive follow-up of a solid kick to the crotch.

“Fetch the lord Artorius,” he said instead. “And tie this one up, and then get back to work. Who spotted him?”

Jeremey gave the one they indicated an as, the equivalent of a penny or nickel, and half the price of a pound of bread in most towns. If you reliably rewarded good service, you got more of it and it was more willing.

The Prof arrived about thirty minutes later, on horseback and leading a second mount; that was half an hour Jeremey would very much have preferred to spend washing and eating and drinking and screwing, or even just toppling into his bed and sleeping in it. Everything took more effort here…

The Prof grinned that rather annoying grin when he’d been filled in on the details.

“Let him see the engine at work,” he said, and threw the reins of the second mount to Jeremey. “Then release him unharmed except for a good kick up the arse.”

At McCladden’s surprised look, he went on—in English:

“What’s the chance of this Quintus Pollius Naso being able to make the machine from this kid’s description?”

One of the infuriating things about local names was that there were only about twenty praenomen or less—corresponding to an American’s first name—in common use. That made confusing people very, very easy if you relied on them. There were five or six named Quintus he’d met since they arrived at the villa. The only one he immediately remembered was the furniture-carpenter from Vindobona, the sharp ambitious one he was cultivating a bit. That was one reason Romans often used two or even the full three names in ordinary conversation; though nowadays and around here at least mostly the last two names, the nomen and cognomen.

“Zip,” Jeremey answered frankly. “I was overconfident. You need to get the proportions of the wooden cylinders right to within about the width of the tip of your little finger, or maybe Fil’s little finger. And all the way along, that was what took so long. If they’re too big even by that much even in one little spot they break off at the ridges and everything jams up and then other things break if you don’t stop everything fast, and if that happens you can’t tell what started it. And they just don’t goddamned work at all if they’re too small. Goldilocks and the Three Bears territory.”

“As you say, zip chance of their getting that right without help.”

Jeremey nodded: “That’s the fiddly bit, and if I hadn’t had the measuring gauges and the right dimensions written down in advance, it would have taken months. Or maybe forever. After this one I’m going to use boards pegged into grooves in the cylinders—easier to adjust with a plane or spokeshave.”

“Learning by doing,” the Prof said, nodding.

“We’ll need three of them to handle the whole harvest, four if a lot of the sharecroppers decide to bring their wheat in. I thought we could sell the worst two or three after that, and replace them at leisure over the winter. There’s some stuff in the books about how in the States they used iron pegs on the rollers when they started making these… that would take a lot of experiment.”

The Prof nodded again as Jeremey swung into the saddle, then addressed the captive, looking down at the bloodied but defiant face as he shifted back to Latin:

“Boy, look your fill. Tell your master, when he has wasted enough of his substance trying to make an engine such as this, that we will teach the man he sends to us the craft of it… or sell him an engine… for one thousand five hundred denarii. In advance.”

Most of those present laughed. That was the price of three or four field hands, or four to six year’s income for a moderately skilled free worker.

Ah, Jeremey thought. But with one of these, maybe Quintus Pollius wouldn’t need as many slaves, so he could sell… no, it’s slack-season work, he has to keep the hands—and he doesn’t have tenants to fill in at peak season like the big operators, so has to bid for labor in a seller’s market when the migrant gangs go around. He’ll be between a rock and a hard place. Turns out there are advantages to being rich, surprise surprise surprise, I’m shocked, just shocked.

“That was smart,” he said aloud as he swung into the saddle. “They’ll have to come to us and pay through the nose.”

“Oh, we want them to start making them themselves,” the Prof said. “And the rest of the stuff. There are plenty making their own wheelbarrows in this neighborhood already—and in Vindobona and Carnuntum and Josephus’ home town, Sirmium. That’s just from seeing the ones we sent as examples. And a couple of energetic types have gotten stills going. The thresher’s a bit of a leap in difficulty up from that, though. We want to make money off it in the interim if we can.”

“Difficulty? Tell me!”

They reined around and headed upslope, though not directly back towards the pars urbana; this heading would take them into the fields to the west, where preparations for the late-fall plowing and planting of the winter grains…

And a patch of canola, this year.

… were just getting started. They passed several carts heaped high with cut rushes or wheat straw as they did, heading for Mark Findlemann’s paper project, which was kept at a distance because it was rather smelly.

Glad I’m not stuck with that. Because mash the material into pulp is a hell of a general set of instructions. Devil’s in the details.

Jeremey cast a critical eye at the field where he’d planted the seed potatoes as they passed. There were a bunch of slave women weeding it with the surprisingly modern-looking swan-necked Roman hoe, the sarculum. In slow-motion, though they speeded up automatically at the sound of riders, and they’d drop back into the slower pace when the freemen were past just as reflexively. He’d had six bushels, which was enough to plant a little over half an acre.

With no fertilizers except dung, and late planting, he thought it would produce about…

Call it a bit over half a ton of spuds. Enough for seven or eight acres planted next year… planted at the right times… minus just enough for one blowout on french fries slathered with ketchup.

His mouth watered at the thought; he was eating well, as well as the estate owner’s own family and from the same cooks, but you just missed some things if you’d grown up with them. If there was one thing his part of Wisconsin had had in abundance, it was potatoes. God knew he’d dug enough up in his mother’s garden for her to cook for the family.

Nice light loam with some sand and gravel here but a touch dry, so say a hundred and fifty to two hundred bushels yield per acre next year if the weather’s not real bad, something like a ton and a half to two tons of spuds per acre! Roasted or boiled or boiled and mashed or fried!

That was about ten times the yield of whole-meal bread per acre of wheat here, and processing and cooking it took a lot less effort than grain did once it was in the cellar. Which meant the landowner could sell a lot more of his wheat, which was more portable anyway because potatoes included a lot more water.

Columbian Exchange, you betcha ass.

“Thanks for bringing the horse, but what’s up, Prof?” he asked.

“I want you to see that riding plow thing you’ve been working on,” he said.

They rode on to one of the fallow fields rotated with grain; technically it was a grass ley planted with clover and such, not just weeds, part of a surprisingly sophisticated crop-rotation system they used here. There were six feet plowed with double furrows, and a wrecked piece of equipment at the end of it.

“Crap! Again? Crap and crapitude and shit. Not the valuable manure type of shit either!”

The Prof grinned again. “Could be worse. You could be doing the paper project. Mark just about cried when the latest batch came apart like cobwebs, plus absorbing liquids like essence of Sahara.”

Jeremey swung down from the saddle. What he’d been trying to make was a two-furrow sulky riding plow, 19th-century style. The small-town museum in the place he’d grown up had one—something called an Oliver 23—and he’d remembered it well and spent weeks coming up with a plan to reproduce it with the modifications needed.

I have an eye for details if I do say so myself. But they were using the output of the Carnegie Steel Company’s Bessemer converters to make that in a factory with lathes and boring machines, not wrought-iron scrap from the local blacksmith, he thought dourly, and bent to examine it.

The locals stood back nervously; apparently they weren’t really familiar with the concept of a superior not blaming them when something went wrong. Roman slaves apparently expected a…

Let’s call it a vigorous zero-fault tolerance policy from their bosses. With a lot of hitting.

“Unhitch the team,” he said with a sigh; he didn’t even shout.

They were using another innovation; three pairs of yoked oxen in a row, with the yokes pulling on a common chain—the Prof had gotten that idea from stuff he remembered about the Boer War, of all things. That hadn’t been too difficult to get across, mostly one of those slap-the-head, why-didn’t-we-think-of-that things.

The sulky plow, on the other hand…

The Prof and he bent their heads over it. Jeremey had kept the frame simple; a wooden beam between two wagon wheels, with a bicycle-type seat and footboard. That part worked fine.

The problem was with the business end.

The plows were fine; two moldboard types, carved out of seasoned beechwood and then given a thin hammered-iron covering carefully polished to avoid any lumps. The covering was an innovation and so was the smooth precise double curve of the shape. But Romans did have something vaguely like that for individual walking-plows, used on heavier soils here in the northern provinces, sometimes with a set of wheels out front too. Though not often around here, where it was a nice light loam and they stuck with simple scratch-plows not much changed for the last four thousand years.

The coulters—the things that did the initial cut in the turf—were iron wheels a foot around turning on a pin and held in front of each of the plows by a lever. That hadn’t been a problem either, though it was new to them, as was the separate iron share on the point of the plow itself.

The problem was the iron bar that swung down with a simple lever arrangement to put the plows into the dirt or lift them out when you were finished with a row. The lever worked; the bar had buckled… again… into a nearly U-shape.

“And it popped one of the welds, too,” Jeremey said unhappily, his hobnails clinking on the metal as he prodded the thin slanting crack. “Prof, if we were using bar-stock steel, this would work. With this shit…”

“Wrought iron’s soft,” the older man replied. “Steel they keep for swords and knives and edge-tools because it costs the earth. And they’re working from small pieces of wrought iron to start with. Ordinary hammer-welding, you never know when it’ll pop. Scale in the welds, probably. You’d need a powered trip-hammer to get much better.”

They’d both grown up around tools and tasks and patching up and making do with what you had on hand, which was a help. Jeremy thumped the heel of his hand against his forehead.

“Look, Prof, let’s think outside the box. I tried… twice… for an iron bar as the moveable swing-down support because it was metal in the one I saw back when. Why not try hardwood?”

“Not strong enough, unless you used a baulk like a rafter.”

“Yeah, but braced with metal? Like, iron rods in grooves around the surface, held on with heat-shrunk iron bands? A lot heavier, but doable. I think!”

The Prof’s pale sun-faded eyebrows went up, standing out against his tanned face, like the short new beard.

“You know, Jem, that’s not a bad thought at all. None of that’s really strange here, either. Use ashwood. It’s strong and it’s resilient as well, that’s why they use it for spear-shafts and tool-handles.”

“Hickory would be even better, but we’d have to wait twenty years,” Jeremey said with a grin of his own.

They both laughed; Fuch’s stores of seed had included a number of useful trees that they’d plant next year, and hickory would grow here… but not very quickly. The closest mature hickories were on the other side of the Atlantic, which for now might as well have been on the Moon.

“Most of this is salvageable,” Jeremey said thoughtfully. “I’ll get the carpenter and smith on it tomorrow. Need a really strong brace for the swing-down pivots, there’ll be lateral stress, that’s the next weak point.”

The older man slapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll leave it in your capable hands.”

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