Wednesday, April 15, 2020
Quest: Go Big or Go Home
The expedition just barely made the town of Monticello, Indiana on the shortened day of travel. They had planned on stopping short of it but the horses were pulling strongly and they found themselves looking at the bridge crossing the Tippycanoe River before they expected to see it.
Walt eased on forward and looked it over from up-river for about twenty minutes.
During that time, several pedestrians crossed over the bridge, unmolested.
Sally carried her pistol in the pocket of her parka, finger outside the trigger guard, the way Walt had coached her.
Steve drove. Walt rode shotgun with his 10/22 laying across his lap with the muzzle pointing away from Steve.
The expedition caused quite a stir.
The active part of downtown had compressed down into a kernel of its former glory. But there was clearly still a functioning downtown.
Steve parked in front of what appeared to be a general store.
A man with a pot belly came out and started berating them. “We don’t need any of your kind here.”
“And what kind would that be?” Steve asked, pleasantly.
Sally caught up with the wagon as things were getting tense. The proprietor of the store was not going to tolerate competition. The crowd was following his lead, presumably because they were buying on credit and could not afford to get on his bad side.
It was not the first time Sally had played before hostile crowds.
She started singing. At first, she kept her voice low and you had to be within 20’ to hear her. Then she gradually increased the volume as she approached the crowd.
“God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing yea dismay….” It was still three weeks until Christmas but Sally could not think of anything else to sing. Then she launched into “Jingle Bells” and she caught the voice of a child joining her.
Turning toward the child, Sally beckoned with her hands for the child to sing louder. Walking over to the child, Sally put her hand on his shoulder and then beckoned for other children to join them.
“Grandma got Run over by a Reindeer” followed by “Silent Night”.
Then Sally announced in a big, stagey voice “We will be having a concert in the park this evening just after sunset. You are all invited to join us at no cost. Bring a candle, though. It will get dark tonight.”
The store owner was not about to let go of his hostility.
“You can sing, but you can’t do any trading.” His posture was aggressive and he wasn’t going to brook any argument.
Then, an idea that had been percolating in Steve’s subconscious popped out of his mouth without his bidding.
“That would be too bad” Steve said. “We cannot justify reopening the railroad if we cannot document prices along the way.”
The man’s eyebrows shot up so quickly that he almost ran out of forehead.
“What?” the storekeeper asked.
“Hmm. Yes. The railroad” Steve said, thoughtfully. “We are doing a survey and documenting prices along the proposed route to see how far west to reopen.”
“Bullshit!” exclaimed a man who had leaned in to listen. “They won’t reopen anything here before they reopen the railroads going to Chicago.”
Steve shook his head, sadly. “The big cities are all smoking craters. In fact, Ebola is making a comeback in them. The future is in small towns exactly like Monticello. A rail line running east-west crossing a river running north-south.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a town like Monticello didn’t pull in business from fifty miles away, what with the ease of floating goods by barge and then shipping by rail” Steve observered.
The merchant was hooked.
“Whaddya mean, ‘documenting prices’?” he asked.
“Don’t make any sense to reopen the railroad if prices are the same all along the line, now would it? Railroads make their money by shipping from where goods are cheap to where they are dear. The merchant pays a shipping fee and both the railroad and the merchant make a profit” Steve explained.
“Where would this rail line run from?” the spectator asked.
Winging it, Steve guessed “The current plan is to start in the coal fields of eastern Ohio and run as far west as it is profitable. Maybe run from one end to the other once a week. Depends on what the market demands.”
“I still think they will restart the big cities first” the spectator argued.
“You would think that, but the underwriters have to make a profit. They looked at the big cities but the political big-wigs all wanted a 25%-to-50% cut of the merchandise carried. Nobody can take a hair-cut like that. Heck, that is at least 75% of the goods confiscated if you look at just Cleveland, Toledo and Chicago” Steve said.
That got heads nodding in agreement. There are greedy people in small towns too, but not with the chutzpah of big city operators.
The merchant was particularly horrified. He understood the huge difference between 25% of profit and 25% of inventory.
The very audacity and sweep of Steve’s story carried the day. Interstates had turned towns like Monticello into minor, historical footnotes. In their day, they had been strategic transportation nodes but inexpensive gasoline and limited access highways negated those strategic advantages and the towns had died on the vine.
Steve knew when to drive his advantage.
“So I need to know the prices of some basic things. The best way to do that is to trade.” Steve said.
Sally, who adored improv, had pulled out a notebook and was assiduously taking notes. That detail tipped the remaining doubters. Paper was not cheap and she had opened the notebook to the middle and immediately started making notes.
Looking over the top of the notebook, Sally said “Steve, you wanted to know the price of ammunition, bacon and cheese.” Those were the first three things that popped into her head that started with A, B and C.