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This Ain't No Menlo Park

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-Whop-whop-whop-

 

The noise was familiar, but JD couldn’t place it at first.  In fact, he wasn’t even sure where it was coming from until he heard the gasps of the other people on the street and saw them pointing and running away fast as they could.

 

They pointed up.

 

-Whop-whop-whop-whop-

 

JD felt his eyes go wide at the sight, felt his mouth drop open, and even though he’d been working with Josiah in his workshop for… well, for a long time now, he felt just like he’d never seen any of the things Josiah had built.

 

Because the thing flying over the town right now looked like nothing so much as a finer, sleeker, altogether better version of Josiah’s Whirlie Bird.

 

Then he broke into a run, heading for the church as fast as he could

 

-Whop-whop-whop-whop-whop-

 

“Josiah!” he shouted, holding his hat with one hand, and still looking up, trying to track the Whirlie Bird’s progress as he ran, dodging around those people who stood stock-still staring in the street, and nearly crashing into a few who were scurrying for cover.  “Josiah!”

 

Of course, it was pure foolishness to think that Josiah could hear him half-way down the street; if he was down in his workshop beneath the church, he wouldn’t be able to hear JD from the nave, never mind from the street.

 

The Whirlie Bird tilted a little, banked in the air, like it was going to land.  Oh, boy, JD thought, this is gonna be something!  He wasn’t even aware of the grin splitting his face.

 

He took the steps into the church in one leap and nearly ran into Josiah.  “Whoa, son,” Josiah said, putting out a hand to steady him. “What’s got you all fired up?”

 

“A Whirlie Bird!” JD panted, and grabbed Josiah’s arm.  “Someone else’s!”  He started to tug Josiah’s arm, but Josiah pushed past him, as unstoppable as an earthquake.

 

Outside, Josiah looked up, then around. The whop-whop-whop noise had stopped.  “Where, JD?” he demanded.

 

“Looked like it was going to land over there,” JD answered, pointing down the track from town.  “Wait’ll you see it!”

 

Josiah took off toward where he’d pointed, long legs eating up the ground so that JD was hard-pressed to keep up, hand still on his hat.  There was a clearing just outside of town where the track curved slightly, and the new Whirlie Bird had set down right in the middle of it.  The rotors at the top were still in the process of slowing down, so it hadn’t been on the ground for more than a minute.

 

But oh, he’d been right – it was so much sleeker and shinier than the prototype Josiah had put together.  This looked like it’d been built special – a glass window up front, slightly bowed (gotta be to help with wind resistance, JD thought, and was practically dizzy at the idea that it could go fast enough that it needed such a wind-screen), a cabin constructed of metal (how thin it must be to not weigh the whole thing down!), and two gleaming boilers mounted behind the cabin to power the rotor.

 

Then the person who’d flown it got out, and JD’s jaw dropped open for the second time that day.

 

It was a woman.  Her flaming red hair was drawn up behind in a bun, and she wore a leather coat like Vin’s, except it belted tight at her waist.  She wore goggles over her eyes, kind of like the ones Josiah wore when he was working at the forge, but tinted green. Her skirt flared out around her from beneath the jacket but it was – JD swallowed – indecently short; it barely covered her knees, and he could see the ruffles of her petticoats underneath!

 

Josiah wasn’t looking at the woman at all; he had eyes for nothing but the Whirlie Bird.  When he glanced at him, JD could see his mouth moving, and knew he was taking mental measurements, already planning improvements to the one he’d cobbled together.  Josiah had been pleased as punch that it had actually flown, even if it hadn’t gotten more than five feet from the ground.

 

“Weight ratios, JD,” Josiah muttered.  “Look at how long those rotors are – they can provide so much more lift…”

 

The woman smiled at that.  “Looks like I came to the right place, then,” she said. The way she spoke sparked a chord in JD; he hadn’t heard an accent like that in years, not since he’d left Mister Roosevelt’s. 

 

With what was clearly an effort, Josiah tore his attention away from the Whirlie Bird to the woman who’d flown it.  “Please excuse me, ma’am.  That’s a… a very fine piece of equipment you have there.”

 

Her smile widened and she took off her goggles.  “Thank you, sir!  I’m quite proud of it myself.”  She shrugged out of her jacket, too, slung it over her arm.  “I’m looking for the gentleman who drew up the plans.”

 

Josiah’s brow creased in a mighty frown.  “The plans.”

 

She nodded, a few tendrils of hair that had escaped her bun bobbing.  “I work in the patent office, and saw that they had been submitted for a patent.  It looked so intriguing I couldn’t wait to try it out.” Her cheeks flushed a little with excitement. 

 

The patent office.  JD shrank a little as Josiah turned to him with an angry gaze.  He was only able to withstand that disappointed look for a few moments.  “You had a bunch of patent applications that you’d started to fill out,” he said, speaking quickly.  “I just finished the one for the—” And he flapped a hand at the sleek black Whirlie Bird in the field.

 

Josiah heaved a deep sigh.  “JD, I only fill out the patent forms so I can keep up to date with any changes.  I never meant to send any of them in, because none of what I’ve designed is ready to be patented.”

 

“Beggin’ your pardon, sir,” the woman said, and JD started; he’d almost forgotten she was there under the weight of Josiah’s disapproval.  “This one – the Whirlie Bird?  It’s a fine example of engineering.”

 

Josiah gave JD another dark look.  “That was just a temporary name, JD,” he muttered.

 

JD stuck out his lower lip.  “There wasn’t anything else to call it,” he retorted.  “’Sides, it flies and it whirls, so…” He shrugged.

 

“So you’re the man I wanted to meet,” the woman said, her grin widening even further.  She thrust out a hand toward Josiah; he shook it a bit awkwardly.  “Alice Springer, from San Francisco.  It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mister Sanchez.”

 

“Likewise, I’m sure, Miss Springer,” Josiah replied.  “But if you’ve already got the plans, I’m not sure why you’re here.”

 

Miss Springer bounced up onto her toes and back down again.  “To convince you to… to do more,” she said, and JD was starting to become a little afraid she’d break her face if she kept smiling like that.  “If the design for the Whirlie Bird wasn’t ready… goodness! I can’t even imagine the treasures you’d have in your workshop!”

 

Treasures?  For a moment, JD thought about all the blueprints and plans Josiah had rolled up and stuffed onto shelves in his room off the church: designs for the Iron Horse Mark I through Mark IX, plus the one for the Iron Cat; for Galatea (and oh, how he wished he’d been able to work on that punch-card setup he’d dreamed up); for the gun that Vin loved and hated in about equal measure (you could see it in his face – full of what could only be longing when he picked it up, and loathing when he shot it); the other things that JD had never had the opportunity to see… Was any of that treasure?

 

It was clear Josiah didn’t think so; he went very still, and those creases around his eyes that were always dark with coal dust seemed to deepen, as if he were in pain.  “Miss Springer,” he began, his tone flat, the way it always seemed to be when his anger really started to burn, “I don’t think you understand exactly what…”

 

“Oh, Mister Sanchez,” Miss Springer said, her smile slipping a little, “none of the engineers who send their work to the patent office have a fraction of your vision, if the Whirlie Bird is any indication.  It’s the same old dreadful stuff, day after day.  This plan was a breath of fresh air, in my opinion.  Just think of the good that you could do by sharing your ideas – why, progress could very well be limitless!”

 

JD was starting to like this Alice Springer less by the minute.  Frowning, he turned to Josiah and opened his mouth to ask if he was ready to head back to the church – the furnace was sure to need stoking by now, and Josiah had been working hard on something on his drafting board. Maybe I can ask him about it, he thought, even though he don’t usually let me know what he’s workin’ on until it’s ready…

 

The thing was, Josiah didn’t look like he was ready to head back to the church; he was staring at the sleek black Whirlie Bird as if he’d never seen it before and all JD could see was his back.  For just a second, he thought that maybe, just maybe she’d hit the right note to get Josiah thinking her way, and he felt a jolt go through him.  What if he leaves? JD asked himself, and a kind of dread started to pool in his stomach.  What will we do? What will I do?  “H-hey, Josiah…”

 

But Josiah didn’t acknowledge him; he turned away to look off into the distance, in the opposite direction from Miss Springer’s Whirlie Bird.  “Progress,” he said, his tone thoughtful.  “You know, Miss Springer, progress is a fine thing… I wouldn’t have started inventing if I didn’t believe in progress.  But there’s a difference between progress for the good of mankind and progress for the good of a few.”

 

For the first time, Miss Springer frowned.  “I don’t understand…”

 

“Forgive me for being blunt,” Josiah continued, “but who really built your Whirlie Bird?”

 

She went still.  “I beg your pardon?” she asked, her tone cold and distant.

 

“I’m not sayin’ you couldn’t have built it,” Josiah said, glancing back at Miss Springer.  “Some of the cleverest, most intriguing minds I’ve ever met belong to women.  But I find it unlikely that anyone who would want to build something like that would have hands as clean as yours.”

 

Blinking, JD looked at Miss Springer’s hands, and just caught a glimpse before she tucked them behind her back.  Then he looked at his own, at Josiah’s.  There was dirt embedded in his skin, and in Josiah’s, grit underneath their fingernails; it made their hands look dirty, even though JD hadn’t even touched the coal this morning.  Even more, both he and Josiah had scars – burns from the sparks that flared up when working the furnace, cuts from sharp pieces of metal.  They were hands that worked.

 

Miss Springer’s hands were white and clean; cleaner even than Miz Travis’s, because her fingers were always stained with ink from her printing press.  Suddenly, JD was proud of the state of his hands, never mind all the faces that Ezra pulled.

 

“Now, Miss Springer,” Josiah went on, “you don’t have to answer who built the Whirlie Bird for you.  It doesn’t much matter anyway.” Then his voice grew hard and angry.  “Go on back and tell them that I’m not interested in lining their pockets.  Progress should be for everyone, not just the ones that can afford it.”

 

“They’re willing to offer you a great deal of money, Mister Sanchez!” Miss Springer said, smiling once again. It was a mercenary kind of smile, like the one Ezra wore sometimes when he was working the poker table.

 

“Come on, JD,” Josiah said, putting one heavy hand on his shoulder and steering him around, ignoring Miss Springer entirely.  “I reckon we’ve got a lot to catch up on now.”

 

They were halfway back to town when the distinctive whop-whop-whop drew their eyes up.  The Whirlie Bird swooped over them, the backwash making their clothes flutter, and JD had to clap a hand on his hat again to keep it from blowing away.  He glared at the black shape until it disappeared in the distance, then glanced at Josiah and bit his lip at the sadness on his craggy features.  This is my fault, he told himself.  “I’m sorry, Josiah,” he blurted.  “I didn’t know…”

 

Josiah shook his head.  “No, son, you couldn’t have known.  The Lord works in mysterious ways, but men ain’t mysterious at all.  Men are motivated most by love and money.  Folks like the ones behind Miss Springer… well, to them, it’s all money.”

 

“But you and me,” JD said when Josiah paused.  “We’re not… I mean, we don’t…”

 

Josiah smiled, though it was still a sad smile.  “We do what we do for the love of doing it,” he said, when JD stopped flailing for the right words. 

 

“Yeah,” he agreed happily.

 

They had almost reached the church when Josiah sighed.  “One thing I might miss about not taking her offer is the chance to work with other devisers, ones who might think about things differently.  Chances are anyone who could build that Whirlie Bird would have a stable of inventors, coming up with all kinds of new ideas.”

 

“We got you and me,” JD replied stoutly.  “And if anyone else like us comes here, well, I reckon we can talk to them, see if they want to stay and work with us.”

 

This time when Josiah smiled, it wasn’t sad at all.  “I like the way you think, JD.”

 

***

December 31, 2015