Letters from Armorica- The Sky Wagon (3 Août 34AF)

First Letter

Dear Journal,

Yesterday and today Jacques and I continued our work on our first sky-wagon. We built it on the foredeck of Le Rubicon, not the most congenial spot for such activity: the deck of the sloop has a distinct curve to it, and is cramped besides. The curvature makes it tricky to get things square, and we had no proper workbench. Still, a sky-wagon is a necessity in order to continue to build up our encampment here on what the others are calling L’Isle de Grand-Blaireau, or simply Grand-Blaireau for short.

It is ironic, truly. Le Rubicon and its sister Le Blaireau have a cargo capacity far in excess of anything I am ever likely to build; and yet we dare not use them because without a skilled crew we dare not raise the sails. Without the sails, the sloops are slow and unmanageable, and far too noticeable at a distance. The sky-wagon will be smaller and much faster and more maneuverable, and provided we keep a good watch should be able to avoid notice. The current plan, as I understand it, is to descend in the shadow of the waterfall and then across the lake to a spot where we can meet normal wagons on the road from Bois-de-Bas. Ultimately we may be able to dispense with those, and take the sky-wagons the entire way, but that will require rather more of them than we will have for some time.

I had been pondering the design for some time, so Jacques and were able to set straight to work. The basis for the sky-wagon is a standard wagon bed: a box, not to put it too plainly, about two feet high by five feet wide by something over six feet in length, open at the top and back. Where a normal wagon would have axles and tall wagon wheels, putting the bed at waist height, our wagon is on runners—not sleigh runners, but simple beams—and to save lumber and to make it easier to load and unload the bed is only about a foot off of the ground. After all, there shall be no need to roll it anywhere.

To the front of the box is affixed the body of a sky-chair, cut down so as to seat only one. And above the whole, at a height of about five feet from the bed, is a canopy: the lifting elements, from which the whole will depend in flight. We have covered the canopy with canvas and netting, so as to disguise it from above, and to shade the load.

We completed our first wagon to this design today. It is roughly finished at best, as we are in haste, but it is functional, and in addition to the lifting and control elements I have hardened all of the structural members and many of the exposed surfaces. It is ugly, but at least those who use it shall have no need to beware of splinters!

Étienne, Onc’ Herbert’s wagoneer, will have the honor of flying the wagon. He presented to me that it would be better to leave the wagon completely open at the top, for ease of stowage and to increase the cargo capacity. I presented to him that it would better not to load the wagon above the lifting elements, so as it keep it stable and unlikely to capsize in mid-flight, and to maximize the number of lifting elements, so as to carry the needed loads with ease. When I put it to him that way he quite saw the point. Jacques and I did, however, increase the height of the canopy by a foot, so that one need not stoop quite so much while loading. It requires more materials, but increases stability as well as comfort.

The wagon bed itself is of fairly typical construction, a sturdy base with solid side panels two feet high in front and on the left and right. We added a gate of sorts in back, to prevent the cargo from slipping out mid-flight; and at Amelie’s comment that she should be quite frightened to ride in such a thing with nothing between her and the air, we ran laths along the uprights at intervals of about every two inches from just above the sides all the way up to the canopy. This provides light, air, and sense of safety to those who shall occasionally be riding in the wagon bed, and ensures that we shall not lose any small boys. At least, it makes it less likely.

It is an ugly beast, not nearly as comely as the sky-chair we built together, and poor Jacques hates to look at it, but thanks to his skill and my hardening it is both solid and durable; and as it is controlled in the same way as the sky-chairs it should be easy to operate. Étienne has pronounced himself content, and in the morning will descend to the lake shore to pick up his first load.

At the same time, Jacques and I shall descend to the river bank, as the men have put together the beginnings of a better workshop for us. It is a simple affair: just a wooden floor with a canvas awning to keep off the sun and disguise our activities, but the floor is perfectly flat. We have saw horses, and are promised proper work benches as soon as they can be transported from the village—which shall be all the sooner the quicker we work.

It is good to be a part of a community like this: each of us has our tasks to do, and the work progresses with amazing swiftness. I credit Onc’ Herbert, for he is a man of considerable prudence and foresight. Still, I wish Marc could have remained with us here on Grand-Blaireau, he being my closest friend in Bois-de-Bas; but he and Elise are occupied with running our shop, and on top of that he has become Onc’ Herbert’s chief lieutenant and aide, running hither and thither with prudent and deliberate abandon. I shan’t see him here for more than brief visits unless we find we need to abandon Bois-de-Bas altogether. That is, of course, why we are building the settlement here on my island, yet I hope it will not come to that.

At least I have no fear of wasting my time. The sky-wagons shall prove to be of great use—and, ultimately, profit!—even should the Provençese never come in greater force.

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photo credit: Kaarina Dillabough Antique via photopin (license)