The Bow Flume Cable-Car

by Rudyard Kipling

(a short tale)

“SEE those things yonder?” He looked in the direction of the Market Street cable-cars which, moved without any visible agency, were conveying the good people of San Francisco to a picnic somewhere across the harbour. The stranger was not more than seven feet high. His face was burnished copper, his hands and beard were fiery red and his eyes a baleful blue. He had thrust his large frame into a suit of black clothes which made no pretensions toward fitting him, and his cheek was distended with plug-tobacco. “Those cars,” he said, more to himself than to me, “run upon a concealed cable worked by machinery, and that’s what broke our sindicate at Bow Flume. Concealed machinery, no—concealed ropes. Don’t you mix yourself with them. They are ontrustworthy.”

“These cars work comfortably,” I ventured. “They run over people now and then, but that doesn’t matter.”

“Certainly not, not in ’Frisco—by no means. It’s different out yonder.” He waved a palmleaf fan in the direction of Mission Dolores among the sandhills. Then without a moment’s pause, and in a low and melancholy voice, he continued: “Young feller, all patent machinery is a monopoly, and don’t you try to bust it or else it will bust you. ’Bout five years ago I was at Bow Flume—a minin’-town way back yonder—beyond the Sacramento. I ran a saloon there with O’Grady—Howlin’ O’Grady, so called on account of the noise he made when intoxicated. I never christened my saloon any high-soundin’ name, but owing to my happy trick of firing out men who was too full of bug-juice and disposed to be promiscuous in their dealin’s, the boys called it ‘The Wake Up an’ Git Bar.’ O’Grady, my partner, was an unreasonable inventorman. He invented a check on the whisky bar’ls that wasn’t no good except lettin’ the whisky run off at odd times and shutting down when a man was most thirstiest. I remember half Bow Flume city firing their six-shooters into a cask —and Bourbon at that—which was refusing to run on account of O’Grady’s patent doublecheck tap. But that wasn’t what I started to tell you about—not by a long ways. O’Grady went to ’Frisco when the Bow Flume saloon was booming. He hed a good time in ’Frisco, kase he came back with a very bad head and no clothes worth talkin’ about. He had been jailed most time, but he had investigated the mechanism of these cars yonder— when he wasn’t in the cage. He came back with the liquor for the saloon, and the boys whooped round him for half a day, singing songs of glory. ‘Boys,’ says O’Grady, when a half of Bow Flume were lying on the floor kissing the cuspidors and singing ‘Way Down the Swanee River,’ being full of some new stuff O’Grady had got up from ’Frisco—‘boys,’ says O’Grady, ‘I have the makings of a company in me. You know the road from this saloon to Bow Flimie is bad and ‘most perpendicular.’ That was the exact state of the case. Bow Flume city was three hundred feet above our saloon. The boys used to roll down and get full, and any that happened to be sober rolled them up again when the time came to get. Some dropped into the cañon that way—bad payers mostly. You see, a man held all the hill Bow Flume was built on, and he wanted forty thousand dollars for a forty-five by hundred lot o’ ground. We kept the whisky and the boys came down for it. The exercise disposed them to thirst. ‘Boys,’ says O’Grady, ‘as you know, I have visited the great metropolis of ’Frisco.’ Then they had drinks all round for ’Frisco. ‘And I have been jailed a few while enjoying the sights.’ Then they had drinks all round for the jail that held O’Grady. ‘But,’ he says, ‘I have a proposal to make.’ More drinks on account of the proposal. ‘I have got a hold of the idea of those ’Frisco cable-cars. Some of the idea I got in ’Frisco. The rest I have invented,’ says O’Grady. Then they drank all round for the invention.

“I am coming to the point. O’Grady made a company—the drunkest I ever saw—to run a cable-car on the ’Frisco model from ‘Wake Up an’ Git Saloon’ to Bow Flume. The boys put in about four thousand dollars, for Bow Flume was squirling gold then. There’s nary shanty there now. O’Grady put in four thousand dollars of his own, and I was roped in for as much. O’Grady desired the concern to represent the resources of Bow Flume. We got a car built in ’Frisco for two thousand dollars, with an elegant bar at one end—nickelplated fixings and ruby glass.

“The notion was to dispense liquor en route. A Bow Flume man could put himself outside two drinks in a minute and a half, the same not being pressed for urgent business. The boys graded the road for love, and we run a rope in a little trough in the middle. That rope ran swift, and any blame fool that had his foot cut off, fooling in the middle of the road, might ha’ found salvation by using our Bow Flume Palace Car. The boys said that was square. O’Grady took the contract for building the engine to wind the rope. He called his show a mule—it was a crossbreed between a threshing machine and an elevator ram. I don’t think he had followed the ’Frisco patterns. He put all our dollars into that blamed barroom on the car, knowing what would please the boys best. They didn’t care much about the machinery, so long as the car hummed.

“We charged the boys a dollar a head per trip. One free drink included. That paid—paid like—Paradise. They liked the motion. O’Grady was engineer, and another man sort of tended to the rope engine when he wasn’t otherwise engaged. Those cable-cars run by gripping on to the rope. You know that. When the grip’s off the car is braked down and stands still. There ought to have been two cars by right—one to run up and the other down. But O’Grady had a blamed invention for reversing the engine, so the cable ran both ways-—up to Bow Flimie and down to the saloon——the terminus being in front of our door. A man could
kick a friend slick from the bar into the car. The boys appreciated that. The Bow Flume Palace Car Company earned twenty on the hundred in three months, besides theprofit on the drinks. We might have lasted to this days if O’Grady hadn’ tinkered his blamed engine on to of Bow Flume Hill. The boys complained the show didn’t hum sufficient. They required railroad speed. O’Grady ran ’em up and down at fourteen miles an hour; and jis latest improvement was to touch twenty-four. The strain on the brakes was terrible—quite terrible. But every time O’Grady raised the record, the boys gave him a testimonial. ’Twasn’t in human nature not to crowd ahead after that. Testimonials demorilse the publickest of mea.

“I rode in the car that memorial day. Just as we startyed with a double load of boys and a razzle-dazzle assortment of drinks, something went zip under the car bottom. All the prominent members of the company were aboard. ‘The grip has got snubbed on the rope,’ says O’Grady quite quietly. ‘Boys, this will be the biggest smash on record. Something’s going to happen.’ We proceeded at the rate of twenty-four miles an hour till the end of our journey. I don’t know what happened there. We could get clear of the rope anyways at the point where it turned round a pulley to start up hill again. We struck—struck the stoop of the ‘Wake Up an’ Git Saloon’—my saloon—and the next thing I knew was feeling of my legs under an assortment of matchwood and broken glass, representing liquor and fixtures to the tune of eight thousand. The car had been flicked through the saloon, bringing down the entire roof on the floor. It had then bucked out into the firmament, describing a parabola over the bluff at the back of the saloon, and was lying at the foot of that bluff, three hundred feet below, like a busted kaleidoscope—all nickel, shavings and bits of red glass. O’Grady and most of the prominent members of the company were dead—very dead—and there wasn’t enough left of the saloon to pay for a drink.

I took in the situation lying on my stomach at the edge of the bluff, and I suspicioned that any lawsuits that might arise would be complicated by shooting. So I quit Bow Flume by the back trail. I guess the coroner judged that there were no summons—leastways I never heard any more about it. Since that time I’ve had a distrust to cable-cars. The rope breaking is no great odds, bekase you can stop the car, but it’s getting the grip tangled with the running rope that spreads ruin and desolation over thriving communities and prevents the development of local resources.”