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Sailing Upwind

Kevin H. Evans and Karen C. Evans

Late September, 1633

“Sally, did Mr. Pridmore say where he was going?” Reva leaned toward the young receptionist, to keep the conversation a little more private. Reva worried about Marlon. He hadn’t been eating or sleeping well for the last week. Just like he had last September, he’d gotten moody and irritated. And today, instead of finishing work, he just stood up and walked out of his office.

“No, Miz Pridmore. When he didn’t see you, he told me to tell you he was feeling poorly, and then got his coat and left.”

“Yeah. I guess he’s got the flu, just like last year.” Reva went back to her station behind the teller window. No use going after him. I might as well finish work.

* * *

“You sitting here moping again?” Reva came into the living room to hang her coat in the closet. While lights were on in other parts of the house, he was sitting alone in the dark. “I swear, you’re gonna wear me out with your sour moods this time of year.”

Marlon grumbled, “Tomorrow is October first. This weekend would be the beginning of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. And I let Hilde down again.”

“I know. I heard it all last year. Same old story. You were gonna help him get the money for an airship, and then you weren’t there to hand it over. Nothing new. I thought you were over this.”

She waited for him to respond, and when he didn’t she continued. “I’ve worked at that bank with you for more than twenty years, and put up with your moods here at home. But you don’t have an excuse to sit here and feel sorry for yourself. You don’t need to be in here moping like this, Marlon Pridmore. Life goes on.”

He glared at her. It was an old argument. “Reva, you just don’t understand. I gave them my word and I failed. I’ve been adjusting, but when it starts to get to fall weather like this rain, it makes me long for the things we used to do. You enjoyed that balloon fiesta as much as I did, and you know it.”

“Now, don’t pull me into this mess, old man. Yes, I liked going to Albuquerque just fine. But that was then, this is now. We can’t go back, and that’s that.”

He stood up and started walking toward the kitchen. “I’m going out to the barn. Don’t wait up.” He walked out the back door, hands shoved into his pockets.

* * *

Marlon sat out in the dark barn, drinking kirshwasser in memory of Hilde, mourning the loss of his friend once again. Marlon and Reva had both grown up in Grantville and most of their family still lived in the area. They had never had children, so there were no grandchildren left up-time. Now all that Marlon missed from West Virginia, besides getting a new computer once in a while, was Hilde and balloons.

Hilde and Marlon had planned to get some investors, including a loan from Marlon’s bank, and buy the envelope and basket for a thermal airship. This wasn’t just any balloon; it was a hot air blimp that could be steered against the wind. It was going to be their entry in the Gatineau Challenge, a thermal airship race with the prize of half a million dollars.

Reva found him in the barn later that night. She stepped under the single bare light bulb and put her hands on her hips. “Okay, I’ve had it!”

“You just don’t understand! I gave my word I’d be there, and there’s no way I can get there now.”

“Listen here, Marlon Pridmore. You need to stop this pity party of yours, and go build yourself a balloon. You can do it. There ain’t anyone here down-time that knows more about it than you do. But it ain’t gonna happen with you out here drinking brandy, and feeling sorry...”

Marlon interrupted. “What did you say?”

“I said you need to stop this pity party...”

“No. The part about the balloon.”

Reva stopped glaring, and laughed. “Swordfish, you’re an idiot. What you miss isn’t that silly airship project you set up in Leipzig. You miss spending time with balloonists. You miss flying. I just think that if you want a balloon so bad, there isn’t anyone around here that knows more about building one than you, now is there?”

Marlon thought for a moment. He’d never considered building his own airship. Up-time, it was much easier and safer to have a professional company sew the envelope out of high tech materials, and just gather the money together to buy it. He took another sip of the brandy, then looked at his glass. He couldn’t seem to remember why he was sitting out in this damp barn drinking in the first place.

Reva shook her head, then hurried back into the house. He sat for a moment more, then stood and ambled over to an old dresser at the back of the barn. He had always used it for plans and notes and such. Maybe there was still some of that graph paper in one of the drawers.

* * *

“Herr Pridmore, have you been out here all night?”

“Hmm? Is that you Bernard? What time is it?”

“It is just before dawn, time for me to milk the cows. Can’t you hear them calling me?”

“Oh, yes, so I can. Well, don’t let me stop you.” Marlon was busily drawing diagrams, figuring volume, referring to old ballooning magazines that had been stashed in the bottom drawer of his dresser.

Bernard Brenner, with his wife Agnes and his fifteen year old daughter, Hanna, had come to town as refugees in 1631. Bernard had been a distiller of cherry wine before the war destroyed his village. Now the Brenner family was woven in as part of the Pridmore family. By now, Bernard was accustomed to Marlon’s eccentricities, like becoming obsessed with an idea, and forgetting to eat or sleep.

Marlon looked up from the paper. “Bernard, what do you know about cloth? I think I have a new project that you can help me with.”

* * *

It was late in the day when Marlon and Bernard came back from the barn. Agnes had peeked at them several times that day, and even taken lunch out when they didn’t show any sign of stopping to eat.

“Reva, I think we can do it. Sure, Bernard and I have to do some more research, and it’s anyone’s guess what it’s going to cost, but I think we can get the cloth we need and somehow make it hold hot air.

“Well, I kind of thought there would be a way. I’m sure that you can find someone either here in town or up in Magdeburg that can give you price estimates and such.”

“That’s what I’m thinking, hon. Look at these here figures, and tell me, do you think we can afford to do this? You know what we have, and what we need to keep going. What do you think?”

Reva sat down at the kitchen table and spread out the papers that Marlon handed her. Together they looked over the figures and diagrams. “Well, Marlon. I guess it depends on what you’re willing to give up. You’re probably going to have to sell some things. And it isn’t going to happen all at once. We’re going to have to take some time to raise some money. But I can see us doing this over the next couple of years. That is, if you’re willing to give up some of your other toys and projects.”

Marlon grinned like a ten-year-old boy who had caught his first fish. He pulled Reva to her feet and swept her into a big hug. “Sweetpea, we can sell whatever you say to get this done.”

April 1635

It took almost two years, but finally it was coming together. The gondola, woven from wicker, was complete, and the last shipment of Indian muslin had been delivered. So this morning, Marlon and Bernard were busily working on their toy. Marlon was in the yard stirring a huge vat of brown smelly stuff.

“What is in that stuff?” asked Bernard.

“This, Bernard, is a modern miracle. It is a conglomeration of lacquer, gum Arabic, turpentine, and resin. It’s gonna keep the hot air where it belongs.”

“So you say, Herr Pridmore. But how do we get it on the envelope?”

“I’m glad you asked that, Bernard. We’re going to soak each and every piece of cloth in this stuff and let it dry. Local weather wizards say we have about a week of clear weather, so we’ve got to jump on this.”

“Oh, I see. Hmm. I think I’ve something to do in town...”

“No, you don’t. You’re my helper, and this is what you’re helping with. Reva already bailed out on me, said she’d rather boil soap. Can you imagine that?”

Bernard looked as though he, too, would rather stir stinking soap over a hot fire than drag fifty foot lengths of cloth through the vat and lay them out to dry. But there was no escape.

“Don’t worry. I got more help coming. You remember them boy scouts over at the Methodist church? One of the boys won’t let me alone with questions about hot air balloons. The Council has agreed to allow him to work on a hot air balloon merit badge, and named me as the local expert. He and about ten of his friends are headed over to learn how to build a balloon. With all those hands, and youthful enthusiasm, we should be able to get through this today.”

The boy scouts arrived in good time, and all set to work with a will. The weather was fine and warm, and while it was uncomfortable standing by the fire, the breeze helped. By the end of the day, the muslin was coated, and drying on every bush and clothes line in sight. Marlon, Bernard, and eleven boy scouts were coated with gummy brown stuff from head to toe.

September 1635

Ulrich Schwarz frequently felt like he wasn’t a good choice for leadership of a scout troop. He had never been a boy scout, and wasn’t always comfortable with all the customs of the troop. The boys knew much more about the requirements and the confusing paperwork for these merit badges. He had been methodically working through his first-class qualification, sharing one of the books they had for the group of new scouts.

He liked the idea of Boy Scouts. It really was a good idea to have training for young boys, and the uniforms and mottos were certainly uplifting. But he still didn’t feel comfortable as the authority.

“Herr Schwarz, have you ever read Tom Sawyer?” The question brought Ulrich back to reality.

“No, I do not read English so good, yet. Do you like it?”

Fritz Metzger and J. D. Cunningham were bent over a book, trying to read it together. “Yeah. I think it’s great,” said J.D. He was an up-timer, and seemed inseparable from his friend Fritz. “See, there is this boy named Tom, and he’s got a friend called Huck. And they go on adventures, and get into a lot of trouble.”

Ulrich wasn’t sure how advisable it was to give these boys a book about more trouble. They were well capable of finding their own.

“Boys, it is time to put the book aside. We must start our troop meeting.” Ulrich watched as almost twenty boys ranging from ages eleven to fifteen settled into chairs. The meeting was held in a classroom at the Methodist church, and it was the first time that Ulrich had to run the meeting. Between the colds and flu that were going around, he was the only adult available today.

After the opening flag ceremony, and recitation of the motto, Ulrich nodded to Levi Carstairs, the oldest boy. Levi stood and walked to the front, carrying a small pocket notebook.

“Before we get to today’s activities, I want to remind you about the Orienteering Hike we’ve got this weekend. We have permission to set up the course in the hunting preserve of the dukes of Saxe-Weimar on the northeast of town. It’s only a couple of miles away. How many of you need this for first class qualifications?”

Only the two youngest raised their hands. Levi nodded, and then looked at Ulrich. “Herr Schwarz is going with the Tenderfoots, so you two make sure you take good care of him. Mrs. Moss wouldn’t take it too well if you let her handy-man get lost.”

“No, and neither would my platoon sergeant.” Ulrich had been sworn into the army when he turned eighteen and was very proud of his rank of Private First Class. If only it was as easy to get a promotion in the scouts.

Levi looked sternly at the boys. “Now for the rest of you. We will meet here at the church on Saturday morning. Remember to be on time!”

* * *

Everything for the balloon was ready. Reva and Agnes had worked hard to get the enormous envelope sewn together. It was a good thing that Reva owned one very good sewing machine, and the other older one she had kept after upgrading.

Bernard and Marlon were in the barn, gathering bits and pieces. Marlon grinned and asked his friend, “Where is Hanna today? She was up so early.”

“She went with some of the girls from school. I don’t know exactly what their plans are, but they have chaperones along. Agnes is with her. That soldier, Ulrich Schwarz, has been showing a little too much interest in her lately, and Agnes decided to put a stop to ‘accidental meetings.’ ”

Marlon straightened from where he was laying out all his brand new instrumentation. “I think I’ve met that young man. He stays over there with Geneva Moss, doesn’t he? I heard he was helping supervise a boy scout troop. Those boys get a mite rambunctious now and again. Ulrich seems to have a steady hand with them, without losing his temper. Good practice for him, I’d say.”

“Ah, Marlon. You just don’t understand. You don’t have a daughter who is approaching womanhood. When I see all the young men in town follow her with their eyes, I just want to knock their heads together.”

Marlon smiled, and crouched to the ground. Along with the instruments he had built for the airship, he laid out the hand-held radio that he and Reva had used on chase crews over the years. And Reva insisted that he add in the first-aid kit he had carried in his car for a couple of years.

“Herr Pridmore, those instruments are amazing. Do you think they will work?”

Marlon smiled, and nodded. “Yes, I think they will. I’ve done all the tests on them that I can think of. Now we just need the field test.

* * *

Saturday morning arrived with clearing skies, which calmed one of Ulrich’s fears. He had done maneuvers with the army in the rain, but he really didn’t relish the thought of dealing with the boys in that weather.

Levi whistled for quiet, and stood on a stump that was there just for that purpose. “Okay, everybody. This hike today is for Orienteering. I want everyone to remember that as scouts, we leave a site better than we found it. We don’t disturb the trees or animals, and only pick up deadwood if we need it. We want the duke to be glad he let us use his preserve again. And make sure that everyone stays with their group. Safety first, you know.

“Now, who has a compass?” Five of them held up their hands. Ulrich did also. “Right. There are seventeen of us here this morning. Let’s break up into three- or four-man groups, and share the compasses. And we have a small prize for the first team that finishes the course and returns with the flag. Here are your instructions.”

The boys sorted themselves into groups, and Ulrich found himself with Fritz and J.D. Fritz said, “Herr Scoutmeister, I have your compass, and a canteen. J.D. can carry lunch for us, and we will let you be in charge of the instructions. Is that okay?”

Ja. That is good. We can trade later, so J.D. learns to use the compass also.”

Levi held up his whistle and shouted to be heard over the tumult. “Everybody ready? On your marks! Get set! Go!” He blew a mighty blast on the whistle.

Like racehorses responding to the trumpet, the boys took off at a run. It had begun.

* * *

Marlon and Bernard spread the envelope out flat on the grass. Flattened, the envelope was more than one hundred fifty feet long, and sixty feet wide, and weighed four hundred fifty pounds. This airship was a monster! It had a gondola that would seat three and mounted two forty-horsepower ducted fan engines (robbed from two defunct dirt bikes). The frame had an inverted “V” tail. Lift was provided from a set of internal burners that blew hot air inside the sealed envelope. The gondola was hung from curtain catenaries.

“Bernard, the difference between this beast and a regular hot air balloon is the engines. If we didn’t have them and the vector fans, we would be subject to the whim of the wind.”

Bernard nodded as he listened to Marlon, but truly it didn’t make much sense to him. He hadn’t seen a “regular hot air balloon” to compare to this one. It would just have to wait until they got it up in the air.

* * *

Ulrich shook his head as he tried to make sense of the directions. They had been walking for two hours, and had not found point M, which was the second to last mark on the map before the flag. It had not been as long between any of the other locations, and he was sure that they were lost. It also didn’t help that none of them had been here for other scout activities.

“J.D., hand me the map again.” Ulrich had already examined it not five minutes before, and this time didn’t change anything. They were still lost. He didn’t recognize any of the landmarks.

Fritz held up the compass once again. “I think we have come too far north and not far enough east. What should we do?”

“Well, a scout should always be prepared. What did you bring for emergencies?”

“I brought a blanket in my pack, in case it rained again,” J.D. said.

Fritz’s eyes lit up. “I have some extra crackers and cheese.”

“Good. You’re both learning to be prepared. If we do not find our way home tonight, someone will come and find us. And I think we have enough to be okay tonight.” Ulrich could tell that the boys tried hard to keep fear from their faces. It would not do to act like babies.

Ulrich looked around, and pointed to a hill southwest of them that seemed taller than the others around. “We will go to that hill, climb to the top, and see if we can spot something familiar from there. I think the sun has only two more hours before it sets, and we may have to be out here after dark.”

* * *

Getting everything laid out, strapped on the gondola, and prepared for inflation took the men most of the daylight, with a short break for sandwiches and beer.

“Well, look at you two, smug as a cat with a mouse between his paws,” said Reva.

“Darlin’, I think this thing is really gonna run. You shoulda seen the fire-up on the burners before we set them in the envelope. Bernard just about burned off his left eyebrow.” Marlon elbowed the tall, thin German in the ribs, and laughed.

Bernard grinned sheepishly. “One would think that I would remember to keep mein head away from it.”

“I think you were mistrusting me about whether or not this thing would really burn.”

Bernard frowned. “I’ve never seen something like this. How was I to know?”

Agnes hurried over to examine Bernard. Marlon stretched, and looked at the horizon west of his place. The sun had already passed behind them, and the sky was darkening. He shook his head. “I think it’s too late to try this today. Don’t want to be fiddling in the dark.”

Reva put her hand on her hip, and got that same old belligerent look. “Course not. Just get your tarps and whatnot, and cover it up till morning, and we can go in and have a nice supper.”

She walked back into the house, shaking her head, and muttering to herself. Reva didn’t always need others around to have a conversation, especially when she was irritated with Marlon.

Her husband grinned at her back, then turned to Hanna. “So, girl, you gonna be around in the morning to help with liftoff?”

Hanna’s eyes glowed. “Yes, I think I will. But it doesn’t look like it will fly. It looks like an auto with a very large cloth cover.”

“Oh, it’ll fly, all right. You just be here at five a.m. and see for yourself.”

* * *

Ulrich and the boys neared the top of the ridge. There weren’t too many trees, and bare rock jutted from the side of the trail they followed. At the crest, both boys sat on a large boulder to catch their breath. The walk uphill had been a little longer than Ulrich thought it would be.

He looked out over the landscape, and didn’t see one thing that he could identify on the map. They were well and truly lost.

“All right. I cannot see a way to go, and it is almost dark. Right here by this rock will be a good place to shelter. J.D., you start gathering some wood. And remember to only pick up dead branches. We don’t want to disturb this forest any more than we already have.”

* * *

Ulrich and the two boys huddled together under J.D.’s blanket. They were burrowed into dead leaves between the roots of an oak tree.

It had gotten cold. Ulrich slipped out of the blanket to put more wood on the little fire, and then stepped out from under the branches of the tree. The night was very dark. No starlight, or even the moon, was visible through the clouds. At least it wasn’t raining.

He turned at a small rustling sound behind him. “Who is there?” he whispered.

“It’s me, Fritz. I’ve to go.”

“Okay. Over there by that hazel bush. Be careful in the dark.”

As Fritz scampered off toward the area they had decided was their privy, Ulrich sat back down by the fire. The crackers and cheese they had eaten at dusk now seemed ages away. He was saving Frau Moss’ oatmeal cookies for breakfast. Now he wished he had thought to carry more food. They had enough water, but not much else.

“Fritz, where are you? You have been gone so long. Are you all right?”

There was no answer. Ulrich checked the fire, and on J.D., snoring away in the pile of old leaves. Both could be alone for a few minutes. He stood for a moment outside the circle of firelight to let his eyes adjust, and then walked toward the bush.

“Fritz?” Ulrich listened for a moment, and then heard leaves rustling and the soft crack of a twig. It was coming off to his left. “Fritz, are you there? Fritz?”

Still he could hear nothing except rustling leaves. And he couldn’t tell if it was Fritz, or a slight wind in the treetops.

Then a terrified scream split the night. It was ahead of him, and a little more to the left. “Fritz, answer me!”

“Ulrich? Can you hear me?”

“Yes, Fritz. Where are you?”

“I...I don’t know.”

“Just keep talking, and I will find you.” Ulrich thought that Fritz’s voice sounded strained and frightened.

“Ulrich, my leg really hurts. I thought I saw a light over here, but when I came toward it, the ground suddenly disappeared.”

Ulrich was inching forward with his hands feeling the dark ground in front of him. “Keep talking, Fritz. I am close. I will help.”

“I thought it was a lantern or something through the trees, and I thought I could find someone to help us. I guess it was a witch light, like in Tom Sawyer.”

Ulrich felt bare rock, then nothing. He laid down on his belly, and inched forward until his head was hanging out over a chasm. In the darkness, it was difficult to tell how large it was. Fritz had fallen into a sinkhole. “Fritz, where are you hurt?”

“I don’t know, Herr Scoutmeister. My arm isn’t moving too well, and my leg really hurts.” Ulrich could hear suppressed tears in the boy’s voice.

“Don’t move! I will get a light.”

* * *

Marlon rolled out of bed promptly at 4:30 a.m., as he had done every morning at any balloon rally he had attended. Balloonists know that in the hour right at dawn, the air is at it’s coolest—which aids in hot-air inflation—and the wind was usually still. He didn’t want to inflate this monster in anything more than a one- to two-knot ground breeze.

“I’m going to go start breakfast,” Reva said, a bit drowsily.

“Woman, don’t bother with food right now. I got too much on my mind for that.”

“I got something special planned for you, you old goat. I don’t want no backtalk, either. You hear me?” The last was delivered with a stern expression, but the twinkling gray eyes and wry smile let Marlon know she was teasing him.

He grinned. “Yes, ma’am.”

* * *

Bernard and Hanna were pulling on coats and work gloves. Marlon pulled his old leather gloves from his back pocket and did the same. “I’m kind of glad we don’t have everyone in the neighborhood underfoot when we try to launch today.”

Bernard nodded. “Ja, it is better to fail without an audience.”

“What do you mean, fail? Don’t you think we’ll get it off the ground?” Marlon turned his grin on Hanna. “Maybe I shoulda had you get that young man to help us today. We’ve still got a lot of work ahead to get this beast off the ground.” Marlon’s eyes twinkled as he teased her. “What was his name? Oh, yeah, Ulrich. Maybe he could come over and help out. We could use another strong back.”

“I think he does not like me now,” Hanna said. “He said he would call last night when he got back from the hike. But he didn’t.”

“That’s too bad. He’d have been a great help.”

Bernard frowned. “I think we can do this without that man.”

Marlon laughed out loud. “Well, Bernard, we’re gonna have to, I guess.”

They proceeded out to the meadow. The morning was crisp and cold, just like the weather guessers said it would be. In the pre-dawn, the wind still hadn’t risen and that argued for little or no wind at dawn.

“We need to christen this ship before we launch,” Marlon said. “And I think I know what to name her. Hanna, go ask Reva for something fizzy to launch this with.”

Moments later, she returned carrying a beer bottle, and a strange paper contraption, followed by Reva and Agnes.

Laughing, Marlon took the items. “Looks like Reva anticipated what I’d want again.”

They stood in a half-circle around the bow of the ship. Marlon didn’t want to break a good bottle or leave glass in the meadow. So he opened the flip lid and said, “I hereby christen thee Upwind.” He splashed about half the beer on the nose of the gondola, and then they shared sips of the rest of the brew.

“Okay, time to get this show on the road. I need to know wind speeds in the upper levels of atmosphere.”

While Reva and Agnes went back to the house, Hanna picked up the paper construction she had carried from the kitchen. It was a small handmade balloon with a cup on the bottom that held a candle stub. She held the paper form from a string in the top.

Marlon went into the meadow to get a good clear view. From forty feet away, he shouted, “Light it up.” Soon the paper balloon was filled with hot air, trying to escape sky ward. The balloon had a white ribbon hanging from the cup.

“Let her go!” Marlon couldn’t keep the excitement out of his voice.

The balloon rose gracefully upward. drifting a little away from town. At about two thousand feet, the candle guttered out. Even the ribbon wasn’t visible.

“Almost no wind. It’ll be a good flight,” Marlon said. “Now be careful when we take up the tarps. The dew has settled, and we don’t want the envelope wet. Pick the tarp up, and let the water pour off the side. And for heaven’s sake, don’t step on the envelope.”

Bernard and Hanna lifted the tarps and poured the little rivulets of water to the side. Marlon stood for a moment, admiring the ship.

Reva came out of the house with a tray. Agnes followed behind her with a steaming pot of tea and four cups. “Marlon, before you go too far, it’s time to eat.”

“Woman, I don’t have time for that. We need to get this thing off the ground!”

“Now, none of that, Swordfish.” She motioned to Bernard, who took the small TV table from under her elbow and set it up. She set the tray on the table, whisked off the towel, and there, steaming invitingly, was a collection of bundles wrapped in napkins.

“What is it?” Marlon stepped closer, and got a whiff of beans and chili. “My favorite. When did you make breakfast burritos?”

“I put them together this morning. Went over to Monica’s yesterday, and we made up a batch of refried beans and some of her carne adovada. What do you think I was doing all day, lollygagging?”

* * *

The envelope was inflated, and the engines were running. Hanna and Bernard had taken their seats in the gondola, and Marlon was doing final checks.

Reva nodded. “Nothing to worry about, Swordfish. Do everything by the numbers, and you’ll be a winner.”

Marlon wrapped his arms around his wife and leaned his cheek against the top of her head. “Woman, how could I have ever done anything without you?”

“You couldn’t, of course.” With that, Reva released Marlon, and then stepped back to the truck next to the bow line.

Marlon grinned and climbed into the gondola. He throttled up and looked to where his wife was waiting, next to the truck.

“Reva!” Marlon chopped his hand down, and she pulled the link. The bow line fell away from the truck. With another pull at full burner, the ground fell away just as the sun broke over the horizon.

Hanna let out a long sigh and stared at the ground. “Herr Pridmore, this is marvelous!”

“Yes, it is. I remember my first flight. Today’s flight will be special for all of us. Where should we go first?”

Hanna shrugged and giggled like a little girl. “Oh, Herr Pridmore. Wherever you take us is fine. I just love the trip.”

Leveling off at five hundred feet above ground level, Marlon gave the controls a work-out. He steered the airship to the left, then right, all the time drifting slowly backwards. This was definitely not something you could do in a balloon. He maneuvered the controls up and down, watching as small movements of the pitch wheel easily changed the attitude of the ship.

He looked over his shoulder at Bernard and Hanna. “So, what do you think?” He had to shout to make himself heard over the fan and the burners.

Bernard was gripping the back of Marlon’s seat so hard that his knuckles were white. Hanna, on the other hand, was leaning across the edge of the gondola, and waving down at her mother and Reva. “Hello Mutti, hello Reva! Oh, Poppi, everything looks so small!”

Bernard nodded, and forced himself to look down at his wife, then closed his eyes, and continued holding on. Marlon hid a smile and remembered his first trip above the ground. There were a few moments of terror, but he couldn’t even remember what that felt like.

The radio, popped a short shot of static. “This is Sweetpea. Ya having fun?” Reva’s voice had the same smile in it that he had heard on other balloon flights. She had gone up a couple of times, but enjoyed the chase crew more.

“Swordfish back at ya. This is great! Did you see me steer it in a circle? I’ve wanted to do this most of my life. For now, I’m gonna take her out about a mile or so. I’ll stay in line of sight and radio range.”

“Sounds about right to me. If you have to put it down, I’ll run the truck out to find you.”

“Roger. Swordfish out.”

* * *

Ulrich sat at the top of the sinkhole and tried to comfort Fritz through the coldest part of the early morning. The darkness was easier for Fritz to bear when he knew he wasn’t alone. Just before dawn, J.D. woke up alone and cold. Ulrich brought him over by the sinkhole and built another fire. They tossed the blanket down to Fritz, but could do nothing else.

Ulrich was still grateful for small miracles. He was certain that if it had really gotten cold last night, they would all be in very bad shape. Something nagged at the back of his brain, something about emergency situations. He couldn’t remember what it might be. First, he decided, he would get the boys warm, attend to Fritz’s wounds, and then try to remember.

* * *

Reva was changing into her Sunday best when the phone rang. “Hello?”

“Mrs. Pridmore?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“Ma’am, this is Matt Prickett, from the police department.”

“Oh, yes. I remember. Is there a problem, Officer Prickett?”

“Yes, ma’am, there is. Is Marlon around?”

“Oh, dear. I’m afraid he’s out right now. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Well, Mrs. Pridmore, we got us a search and rescue situation here. The boy scouts had an activity yesterday out there at the duke’s preserve, and three of the troop didn’t come home last night. They searched as well as they could with torches and such most of the night, but didn’t find any trace of them. So we need all the volunteers to report to their teams.”

“Oh, my goodness. Which boys are they?”

There was a rustling as Officer Prickett turned pages. “I have the names Ulrich Schwarz, Fritz Metzger, and J.D. Cunningham. The first one is the assistant scout leader, and the other two are both eleven year olds.”

“I’ll go out and find Marlon, and call you back.”

“Call the department and the dispatcher will know where we are. Let’s just hope that they just got lost, and haven’t run into some dangerous individuals.”

“Okay, Officer. I’ll have Marlon call back soon.”

Agnes asked, “Something is wrong? What has happened?”

“I think Hanna’s sweetheart, Ulrich, is in trouble. We’ve got to radio Marlon and Bernard.”

* * *

Marlon didn’t even notice the cold. The burners inside the envelope were keeping a lot of heat close, and it was almost uncomfortably hot when he pulled the burner controls.

Bernard was still clinging to the back of Marlon’s seat, and had not quite gotten his eyes open. Hanna was reveling in the experience. When she saw Marlon looking, she laughed.

“Oh, Herr Pridmore, this is glorious! This is how I think that angels fly to the heavens.”

“Yeah, Hanna. I think you got that just about right. Just like an angel.” His musings were cut short by a static burst on the radio.

“Marlon, do you read me?”

“You’re four by four. Are we late for church or something?”

“Now you quit your teasing and listen to me for a minute. The police department just called. Hanna’s friend Ulrich is missing. He went out with two eleven-year-old boy scouts yesterday, and they haven’t come back. They’re putting together a search and rescue, and you need to get back down here and help.”

“Don’t you think that it would help if the search and rescue team had an eye in the sky? This is the perfect rescue machine.”

There was silence from the radio. Marlon knew from long experience that Reva was thinking about what he had said before answering.

“Maybe you’re right. I’ll find out where they think the boys might be.”

* * *

Things were a little more cheerful in the daylight. Ulrich dug out the oatmeal cookies and they divided them for breakfast. Fritz didn’t look good. He couldn’t speak much, and his leg bent at an odd angle. Ulrich had not climbed down into the hole because the sides were narrow and unstable. Ulrich was afraid crumbling debris would fall on the boy. They could see that Fritz was pale and sweating, though. It was high time to find a way to get him home.

“J.D., you stay here and keep this fire going. Maybe someone will see the smoke and come to help. I will go back to the top of the hill. That reminds me of something.” He had finally remembered what had been bothering him. It was from his army training. They told him that three of anything meant emergency, like three gunshots. Or three smoky fires.

At the top of the cliff, he carefully cleared and piled three bonfires. It would not be possible for him to carry Fritz home in his condition. They needed to be found.

Soon, three smoky fires were burning in the open glade. Ulrich went back to the sinkhole. “J.D., look there. Do you see those fires?”

J.D. stood up, and looked at the cliff. “Yeah, I see them.”

“Okay. It is your job to take care of them. Don’t let them go out, and don’t let them get away from you. We don’t want a brush fire, just a rescue signal. Keep putting wood on each one. This will help them find us, so they must keep burning and smoking. Can you do that?”

J.D. brightened at being given such a responsibility. “I sure can, Herr Schwarz.” He hurried off to watch the fires.

Ulrich peered over the edge of the hole. Fritz still looked a little grey, and his eyes were not open. This wasn’t good. “Fritz, can you hear me?”

The boy groaned and mumbled, but didn’t open his eyes. Ulrich got the canteen, tied a cord to it, and lowered it to Fritz. The boy roused a little and sipped from the canteen. He seemed to come more awake, and drank a couple of sips of the water. Ulrich settled down to wait.

* * *

Matt Prickett was just getting ready to assign grid squares to the twenty or thirty men in front of him when another officer stepped up and got his attention.

“Matt, I just got word from the dispatcher that Marlon Pridmore is on his way over and should be here in a minute or two.”

“That was quick. Reva must have had a good idea where he was.”

The other officer hesitated, and scratched his head. “Yeah, Matt, but you ain’t heard the rest of it. The dispatcher said that Reva said to tell you that he’s coming over here in a blimp.”

“A what?”

“Matt, all I can tell you is what the dispatcher said to me. She said that Reva said that Marlon is coming over here in a blimp.

“I heard a rumor that he was working on a balloon. But I didn’t believe it. We’ll just have to see what he’s got when he gets here.”

* * *

With the engines running, it wasn’t silent like a hot air balloon would be. Two motorcycle engines put out more noise than Marlon had thought they would. He watched the ground flow away underneath him. He didn’t have radar, but he had a stopwatch and estimated they were doing about twenty-six knots. He was concentrating on where the boys might be and making contact with the search and rescue team. He hadn’t even considered how the ground troops might react when they caught sight of him. His attention was pulled away from his instruments when he heard shouts from the ground.

Hanna was practically standing up in her seat, waving like a maniac. Bernard wasn’t. “Hanna, sit down this instant, before you fall to your death,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Oh Poppi, I’ll be all right.” A blazing smile lit her dark features, and her hazel eyes gleamed with enjoyment.

Down below, men and boys were running and pointing, and the babble of their voices wafted up to the airship in the eerie way they always do. Marlon spotted Matt Prickett standing in the bed of a pickup with his mouth open.

“Sweetpea, you catching me darlin’?”

“I’m right here. And I’m gonna stay right here till you land.”

“Good deal. Okay, tell me where they’ve been looking for the boys, and where they’re gonna go today.”

“Gotcha. I’ll get back to you in a minute.”

Marlon was again glad that the telephones still worked. His radios were not wired quite the same as the others, because they were German, and used slightly different bandwidths. They had their own private channel, but he couldn’t contact the team directly.

“Dispatcher says that the scouts searched the eastern side of the preserve last night, and the plan today was to try more to the south,” Reva said.

“Sounds good, darlin’. I think we might circle the area and see what we find.”

“I’ll let the dispatcher know. You take care and don’t fall out of that contraption.”

“Don’t you worry your pretty head about that. I got my seatbelt on. Besides, Bernard is doing enough worrying for the both of us. Hanna’s having the time of her life, though.”

The smile in Reva’s voice was clear, even through the static. “I’ll just bet she is. Most exciting thing that has happened to her in a blue moon.”

* * *

J.D. wiped the smoke out of his eyes after sticking another branch on the middle fire. He felt lonely here away from Ulrich and Fritz. And hungry. Then he heard something.

It was like the chainsaw he had heard a long time ago. He looked at the trees around him, but didn’t see anything. And then the day got a little darker, like when a cloud goes over the sun for a moment. J.D. looked up and saw something amazing. It wasn’t an airplane, but something entirely different. It reminded him of the Goodyear blimp they used to have at football games when he was little.

“Herr Schwarz! Herr Schwarz, come quick!” J.D. waved his arms over his head to get the assistant scoutmaster’s attention. “You have to come and see this. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it’s coming this way. Hurry!”

* * *

Ulrich dropped the stick he had been using to stir his small fire, and hurried up to the signal fires. J.D. sounded disturbed. It took him a few minutes to reach the boy. And when he did, J.D. stood staring up into the heavens.

Ulrich didn’t wonder about that. It was unbelievable, all right. An egg-shaped thing colored in red, black and yellow. Like J.D., Ulrich stood staring with his mouth open. Then he noticed that it was coming toward them.

* * *

“I see something. There to the left,” Hanna shouted.

Good thing I brought her along, Marlon thought. “You got good eyes, girl. I see it. Three columns of smoke.”

Marlon adjusted the yoke, crabbing sideways some. “Hanna, I’m gonna come in from downwind, keep a look out.” Swinging the tail of the ship as it drifted by the signal, Marlon brought up the throttle as evenly as possible. The airship began to settle. Marlon helped it along with a degree or two of down-thrust from the engines. He picked up his radio handset, and thumbed the button a couple of times.

“Sweetpea, I think we got something. There are three columns of smoke over here. We’re past the northwest corner of the preserve.”

“All clear, Marlon. I’m relaying the info to the dispatcher now.”

* * *

“Ulrich! Ulrich, can you hear me?”

He looked at the flying egg, and then saw a face, and an arm waving. “Hanna? Hanna, how are you up there?”

The egg came closer, and he saw that it was much bigger than he had thought at first. In fact, it was the largest vehicle he had ever seen, more than a hundred and thirty feet long, and at least forty feet high. And Hanna was in a small sort of cart at the bottom.

The ship came closer. Now he could see that not only Hanna, but her father, Herr Brenner, and their employer, Herr Pridmore were in the cart.

“Ulrich, where is Fritz? Where is the other boy?”

Ulrich shouted up, “Fritz fell in a hole over here. We were unable to move him. He has been hurt.”

“Stay right there, we will swing around and see him.”

The egg moved right overhead where they could look down the hole.

Marlon leaned over the edge, examining the sinkhole, the injured boy, and the path up and down. “Herr Schwarz, I think we can help get the boy out of there. You cut a couple of poles, and use that blanket to make a stretcher. Herr Brenner, here, will help you.”

He directed the airship past the signal fires and into the open glade. “I’m gonna drop a rope. But don’t touch it until I tell you.” He was well aware of the dangers of static electricity. How many times had he seen that footage from the Hindenburg?

Ulrich and J.D. retreated to a large boulder, and watched. Marlon detached the bottom of the bow rope, and let it dangle. It dragged on the ground for a moment. “Okay, Ulrich. Run over here, and grab this rope. You can help steady us as we land. Herr Brenner is climbing out, and I don’t want to overbalance.”

Ulrich grabbed and held tight to the bow rope. Herr Brenner climbed out of the gondola, then leaned back in to retrieve something. But Ulrich didn’t notice exactly what. He was looking into Hanna’s eyes. Truly, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her cheeks were red from the wind, and her hair was fly-away and tangled. But the look on her face was priceless. Her hazel eyes seemed to pull him into deep water. He hoped that she would continue to look at him like that forever.

“All right, you two.” Marlon grinned when he saw the two young people gaze at each other as if they were seeing each other for the first time. “You’ll have time for that later. Right now, we gotta get this rig back in the air.”

Ulrich blushed and hurried backwards. He still didn’t take his eyes from Hanna. He stepped backward until he ran into J.D., and they both watched the airship lift off the ground.

“You boys get that stretcher put together. I think that with Bernard’s help, you will be able to get Fritz up here to the landing zone.”

* * *

“Swordfish, you got info for me?”

“Reva, you got the prettiest voice.” Reva could feel the blush. Here the man was saying things like that when there was an emergency going on.

“Enough of that. Have you got the boys?”

“Yeah, I got ’em spotted, but one is hurt. I need you to call the hospital and let them know.”

“Who’s hurt?”

“It’s Fritz. He’s in bad shape. We have to make this quick. Tell the hospital we have the boy, Tell ’em we’re inbound. ETA about thirty minutes.”

* * *

The men wrapped the blanket around two saplings, and pinned the ends down to create a rough stretcher. Ulrich and Bernard carried it to the side of the hole and examined the problem. They had to lift Fritz up out of the hole without hurting him more than they had to, and get him on the stretcher for the airship to carry.

Ulrich took the rope and tied a bowline on a bight, making a boson’s chair. Then they lowered the chair down to the injured boy.

In his best fatherly voice, Bernard instructed Fritz. “Lad, when this rope comes down, slip it underneath you like a chair. Then Herr Schwarz and I will pull you up. Hang on tight.”

Fritz whimpered a little as the rope lifted him. Tears were streaming from his eyes, and he was holding on the rope with the whitened knuckles of one hand as he came to ground level. Gently, the men took him by the shoulders and hips, and laid him on the stretcher. They splinted the injured leg to the other leg, and bound them both together.

Before picking up the stretcher for the trip back to the glade, Ulrich said, “J.D., you put out this fire, like they showed you in scouts. Use that stick as your shovel, and pour the rest of the water from the canteen on it. I don’t want to see any smoke. We will keep the signal fires over there smoking until the others get here.”

“Yes, sir.”

Ulrich and Bernard carried Fritz to the large boulder. It was worrisome that with every bump and jolt, Fritz would groan a little.

They carefully put him on the ground, and signaled the airship. Not too long now, and everything would be all right.

* * *

“Hello, who is this?” The man’s voice sounded almost as frustrated and harried as Reva had felt a few moments earlier.

“This is Reva Pridmore, and I’m trying to let someone over there know that you have a patient arriving in about fifteen minutes.”

“Okay, I got that. How are they arriving?”

Reva hesitated a moment, then dove in. “They’re coming in on an airship. You know, like a blimp?”

There were a couple of moments of silence, and then the man said, “You mean it’s like a life flight? I think we can handle it. I’ll get a gurney and a couple of men out into the parking lot to meet it. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything.”

* * *

Hanna had not taken her eyes from Ulrich and her father. They were both busy taking care of the poor little boy. Then Ulrich looked up at her again, and began to wave his scout scarf.

“Herr Pridmore, I think they are ready. Ulrich is waving.”

After settling the airship to the ground, Marlon had Hanna pull the pin from the middle seat, and it laid down flat, like a bed. He waved Ulrich and Bernard over. They carefully placed Fritz and the stretcher into the gondola, and stepped back.

Marlon handed another canteen to Ulrich. “You take care, I’ve got to get this little fellow to the hospital double quick. The search and rescue team will get here as fast as they can.” Marlon pulled both the handles to the burners, and pivoted the engines so they were thrusting straight down. Balancing on the thrust and with the heat in the balloon increasing, the air ship rose rapidly in to the air. Still at a full burn Marlon began pivoting the engines to thrust them forward.

He thought for a moment, then eased the throttles all the way to the stops. Hilde always said that a ship like this could do fifty kph. I’m gonna call him on that. He could feel the pull of acceleration, and the cold wind whipping past the windshield.

* * *

The parking lot at the hospital resembled a hill of ants that had been kicked open by a curious boy. People hurried everywhere, carrying supplies, watching the sky for the life flight, or just standing in the way gawking.

“All right, listen up!” It was the ER doctor and, as hospital protocol required, all personnel stopped for a moment to listen. “I want this area cleared of anyone who doesn’t have a real job. The rest of you, stay over there on the grass. I don’t need any rubber-neckers underfoot.”

The crowd sorted itself out, and the tumult died down for a moment. The sound of a couple of trucks could be heard down the road, and a police car pulled into the parking lot.

“Albert, get that cop car out of our landing zone, then find out what he wants.” All eyes looked into the sky. No one knew exactly what to expect. No description of the airship had been given to anyone.

“There it is! I see it!”

“Wow, it’s beautiful!”


“Okay, everybody. Just like we practiced it in the drill, only with a blimp instead of an ambulance.”

* * *

Marlon looked down in frustration. “This thing needs a horn.” The blimp was rapidly approaching the hospital. Pitching down, Marlon began to ease off the throttles.

He leaned over the side and shouted, “Grab the rope. Grab the rope!” The bowline was already dancing across the parking lot.

Luckily, they came to ground with a gentle thump. The gondola slid forward to a stop in the parking lot. As people swarmed over, he yelled, “Grab the sides of the car, so we can stay down.” He ignored the furor that was going on behind him as the boy was removed, and people were already shouting orders in incomprehensible medical jargon.

Grinning, he picked up the radio again. “Reva, could you pack up some kind of picnic? I could run it back out to those boys in the bush, and let them have something to eat. They haven’t had much since yesterday.”

“That’s a really good idea, Marlon. You wait there. I’ll be there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Then we’ll go home for a proper celebration.”

Marlon kept the burners going periodically to keep the envelope inflated, but not lift them off the ground. He had wrangled a couple of bystanders to hook their elbows over the edge of the gondola to keep it on the ground.

One of the men holding the basket grinned. “Marlon, when you gonna build one of these for me?” His jibe stirred laughter from those standing around doing nothing.

“Well, I guess that depends. I’m willing to advise any one of you who wants to build one, but you’re gonna have to do the building of it. I’m outta the balloon-making business. Got more than enough on my plate right now.”

* * *

Bernard, Ulrich and J.D. were sitting near one of the fires. With the rescue and the excitement over, they all felt just a little let down.

J.D. spoke first. “I wonder how long it will be until they find us?”

“Not so long. You will be home before supper.” Seeing the worry in the boy’s eyes, Bernard grinned and said, “And if you’re hungry now, you can always have an extra drink of water.”

Ulrich had been staring at the sky, the last place he had seen Hanna. He couldn’t believe how wonderful she really was. He had been watching her, and thinking that in a couple of years he would like to settle down with someone like her. Now it seemed much more urgent. He needed a good job, and a bank account, and somewhere decent they could live. It would take at least that much for her father to consent to...

“There they are again!” J.D. was on his feet, jumping up and down and pointing. And sure enough, the flying egg had returned. As it came close, Hanna leaned out and waved again.

After the landing, Marlon called from the front of the gondola. “We came back to take J.D. home, if he thinks he can stand to fly in this thing.”

J.D. hesitated for only a flicker of a moment, then darted to the gondola, jumped over the side, and snapped his seatbelt.

Marlon laughed. “I guess he really wants his mama’s cooking. And speaking of food, Hanna’s got something special.”

She bent down and reappeared with a basket. “It is from Frau Pridmore and my mother. I hope you like it.” The airship lifted off the ground again, and Ulrich still stood with the basket in hand, watching.

“And Ulrich, I expect you to call the moment you arrive home, so that we know you’re all right.”

“I will call, Hanna. As soon as I step foot in Frau Moss’ house.”

Bernard frowned at Ulrich’s enthusiasm, and shook his head. It didn’t seem as if he was going to be able to keep his daughter from this young man. Perhaps it was time to get used to the idea.

Marlon leaned over the edge of the gondola and waved. “You boys keep out of trouble. Reva says that search and rescue is already halfway here. Be good.”

* * *

The sunset painted the sky before Bernard arrived back home. The clouds that had been threatening rain all afternoon cleared and the sun was glorious through the trees to the west. Reva and Agnes had prepared a sumptuous feast for the Sabbath, and everything was ready when Bernard came through the front door.

“Did J.D. get home? Will Fritz be all right? And Herr Schwarz?” Hanna tried to sound concerned with the scouts, but everyone could tell that she wanted to know about the scoutmaster.

“Yes, Liebchen, everything is good. The police tell me that Fritz didn’t need surgery, and is conscious. His parents are at the hospital, and J.D. is home eating fried chicken and mashed potatoes.” He frowned a little at his daughter, and didn’t mention anyone else.

Marlon slapped Bernard’s shoulder. “I’m glad you finally got home. You know, if you had stayed with me, you’d a been here a couple of hours ago.”

Bernard held up his hands as if to stop any more such suggestions and began to take off his gloves. “No, my friend, I’ve had my first and last ride in your airship. If God had intended for me to fly, I would have been born with feathers.”

“Oh, Poppi, I think it was wonderful. I can’t wait to go again.” Hanna’s eyes still gleamed, and she seemed almost a different girl. She had more of a confident air about her as though she had seen what she wanted, and was going to do her best to get it.

“Now hold on there, Bernard. We still have some business to take care of.”

“What is it that is so important? I’ve not had any decent food since this morning.”

Agnes whirled around and put her fists on her hips. “Why you terrible man. How could you say something like that, after the beautiful picnic Frau Reva and I sent to you? Now you just turn yourself around and go out to the barn. We have an important ceremony.”

Bernard turned and walked back out into the night while the rest followed. Around back, near the barn, he could see a dark lantern standing on a small table, along with some papers, and a bottle of beer.

Marlon stepped up to the table and lit the lantern. He began in a sonorous voice. “As long as men have been flying in hot air contraptions, they have been honored with entry into the Society of Fire and Air. The tradition is ancient—or I guess it will be—so you must do as I say. Bernard, you stand here. Hanna, over here next to him.”

Bernard and his daughter obediently lined up shoulder to shoulder, facing the table. Reva and Agnes stood behind Marlon, who was next to the card table.

“Mother Nature has taken you into the skies and returned you gently to Earth. So you become new creatures, that fly through the air.

“Now, both of you kneel on the ground.” Marlon turned to the table, and picked up a long wooden match. He lit it in the lantern, picked up the beer bottle, and set a small piece of Bernard’s hair on fire. Before the frightened man could jump up, Marlon poured beer on the flame and put it out. Not even an inch of hair was gone.

He reached over, and caught an end of Hanna’s hair, but she knew what was coming and held still. The beer drenched her head as well.

“The fire symbolizes the power to reach the heavens, and the beer symbolizes the power to celebrate our return to earth. Welcome to the ranks of the aeronauts!”

Agnes stepped up to Bernard, gave him a ceremonial kiss on the cheek and handed him a small towel. Reva held a towel for Hanna, but they could hear the telephone ringing.

“Oh, it must be for me!” Hanna grabbed the towel, and sprinted off for the back porch to answer the phone. Nobody had any doubts that the young scoutmaster was checking in as promised.

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