Eli had given up. Turning slowly to face Phineas and Kitty, he no longer hid his frustration and embarrassment and mumbled dejectedly, "I have reached the end of my road; I am prepared to abandon this machine altogether."
All three of them stared at Eli's invention, willing it to spring into action.
"It is not such a difficult task," Eli said to the cotton engine, as if to a lazy child. "The teeth I have set into the wooden cylinder pull the cotton fibers away from the seeds, and the seeds drop away..."
Feeding a handful of fluffy cotton into the machine, he turned the crank. Wheels studded with wire teeth caught the lint and ripped it from the seeds. The seeds fell to the bottom of the machine. Up to this point the engine worked perfectly. But Eli had found no way to remove the accumulated lint from the teeth, which impeded its passage between the slats. It took only a few moments before the machine bogged down. Again.
With the mood as somber as a wake Phineas studied his friend, trying to find encouraging words.
But Kitty's thoughts were elsewhere, her blue-green eyes darkening with concentration. Finally she spoke.
"Eli, do you remember on the vessel coming to Savannah when we talked about the giant? How if we let him, he'll take away our peace?"
Eli nodded reluctantly, wondering what she would say next. She seemed to have a way of getting him out of a rut.
"Please retain your focus," she continued. "You are so close. Just keep the giant at bay."
Phineas' hand was firm on Eli's shoulder as he agreed. "You are almost there, my friend."
Seeking a solution, Kitty continued. "Eli, have you considered replacing the wooden pegs with different wire hooks?"
Her question was met with silence. After a long moment Eli responded. "I have drawn my own wire, but I will take another look at it." His words came out splintered.
Rising slowly, he reclaimed the model and headed for the door. Kitty watched him solemnly.
Just as he grasped the door latch, Kitty's eyes widened with an insight. She startled her companions by throwing back her head and laughing delightedly. Dashing to the door, she stood before Eli.
"What! Would you allow such a trifling problem to change your resolve? Trust it to a woman's wit to find the cure-prepare to turn the cylinder once again!" Her eyes filled with mischief.
Hurrying across to the fireplace, she picked up the hearth brush and came back to wave it over his model, now sitting on the table. "Perhaps this brush's stiff bristles would help you remove the lint from the teeth!" She flicked the hearth brush at the cylinder, still clogged with cotton fibers.
After a few flicks of her wrist, the cotton fibers lay in a pile on the table top.
Eli stared at her in shock and amazement, struggling to understand how such an elegant solution could be so simple.
Then he cried out, "Kitty, thank you for the cue! I do believe that's it!" Brown eyes ignited with inspiration, he rushed out of the room with his model.
Alone in the basement, hands trembling in anticipation, Eli went back to work. He painstakingly added another cylinder that turned in the opposite direction of the picker and forced it to move faster. As the short stiff hog's bristles combed and removed the cotton, the fibers were thrown off away from the gin, making them easier to retrieve. The cotton filaments fell away in small, white, downy clouds.
Sinking into a chair, Eli wearily massaged his shadowed eye sockets and pushed back his disheveled hair. He sat quietly, rubbing his palms against the tops of his thighs. Time passed, and he looked down at his hands, pressed together in front of him as if in prayer. Staring vacantly at the floor, he kept trying to sort it all out.
Eli felt his fingers wiping away a slow stream of tears trickling down his cheeks.
"Kitty has solved the puzzle. We have done it. My machine is complete." A small smile gradually blossomed into a joyful grin.
Pulling himself together, he staggered upstairs to inform his friends, who waited anxiously for him by a window. Eli's face radiated triumph as his fragile voice shared his news.
"If my calculations are accurate, this machine will turn out in one hour what several workers cleaning cotton by hand now do in a day." His grin spread.
Kitty was startled by her overflowing sense of pride in this news.
Her lower lip quivered as she reached up to hug Eli. She turned to Phineas, flinging her arms around his neck and kissing him soundly. She let out a whoop of delight.
Thunderstruck, they could only stare at each other as the room became wrapped in peaceful silence. Outside, a night bird cooed to its mate, who answered with a seductive warble. Palm fronds rattled in the rising wind.
The world had just changed forever.
Copyright 1999-2012, Pamela Bauer Mueller/Piñata Publishing, All Rights Reserved.