Four Days On The Danube – Snippet 11

Chapter 6

          Once he realized who was coming — that had been a tense few seconds, until he recognized the women — Stefano was immensely relieved. Before they’d even arrived at the airship, he’d already begun deploying the envelope.

          Trying to, rather. It really wasn’t a job for just one person.

          Dina Merrifield and Amanda Boyd hurried over to help.

          “Where is Hank?” Stefano asked, trying not to sound exasperated. The help of the girls — no, women — was appreciated, but neither Dina nor Amanda was large. Siers was big and there was quite a bit of muscle under the fat. That muscle would be useful at the moment.

          Thankfully, it had been a cold and dry January night, with a clear sky. In damp conditions, the envelope had a nasty habit of absorbing moisture which not only reduced the lift but made it more difficult to deploy.

          “He’s hurt,” Dina said. “Broken leg, we think, and he’s still unconscious.”

          Stefano broke off from the work long enough to look at the other people who were now arriving. A small man he didn’t know was struggling with a wheelbarrow, heavily loaded with…

          Sure enough, Hank Siers. He looked more dead than alive, although that might be an effect of the moonlight. One of his legs had been bound up in some sort of crude splint.

          Bonnie Weaver was with him. Behind them came another group of women. He recognized all of them. The wife of the American artillery officer — she was also the sister of the former prime minister — was bringing up the rear, with a shotgun in her hands and a very fierce look on her face.

          Mary Tanner Barancek was there, he was relieved to see. He was less relieved — considerably less — to see that her fearsome aunt was with her, along with the two women she seemed inseparable from. The three of them were something called “auditors.” Stefano wasn’t sure what the term signified, but he knew that a number of people viewed their comings and goings with considerable trepidation. They were police officials of some sort, apparently.

          Mary came over to help also. Within a short time, the envelope was ready and Stefano began the process of filling it with air driven by the fan that would maintain pressure in the envelope during flight. This air was cold, not hot, and would not provide enough lift for the craft to actually fly. But it would fill out the envelope and get it prepared for the hot air to come.

          That process was finished in a few minutes. While the envelope was filling out, Stefano used the time to operate the control surfaces and engine tilts to make sure they were functioning properly. Then he lit the pilot lights for the burners.

          Now came the moment Stefano had been dreading. As soon as they were ignited, the burners would light up the entire area. The flames would be bright and visible even in broad daylight. At night, despite the moon in the sky, they would be like beacons.

          But there was no help for it. They’d just have to hope they could fill the envelope with hot air and lift off the ground before anyone came out from Ingolstadt to investigate.


          Slowly and carefully, as a man will when he’s worn out, Johann Heinrich Böcler lowered the handles of the wheelbarrow until the weight had settled firmly on the braces. Then, finally letting go, he staggered backward a couple of steps. He might have fallen, except that Bonnie Weaver came up quickly and steadied him.

          “Easy, fella,” she said. “It’s done. Don’t hurt yourself now.”

          He grimaced, thinking of the damage he’d already inflicted upon himself. By tomorrow, his muscles would be aching all over. Böcler was stronger than he looked, but his life was mostly a sedentary one.

          The worst would be his hands, though. He dreaded to look at them. He hadn’t stopped once during the journey and he was quite sure he had a number of blisters.

          Weaver had figured out as much herself. “Let me see your hands,” she said. He held them up, unresisting. May as well learn the worst now, he supposed. She took them in her own and gently turned them over so she could see the palms.

          He heard a little indrawn hiss and saw her wince. “Let’s go over to the light,” she said. “I can’t see well enough just by the moon.”

          Franchetti had the burners going by now, and the flames were very bright. Once they got near, Weaver resumed her inspection of his hands.

          “Well, I won’t lie to you, Herr Böcler. I’ll see if I can find some salve and bandages. But even if I can, your hands are going to hurt like the dickens before too long.”

          The term “dickens” was unknown to him, one of the many English words that slid in and out of Amideutsch according to the whim of the speaker. No German dialect was standard in this day; Amideutsch less than any. But the meaning was clear enough.

          He shrugged. The gesture was minimal, since she was still holding his hands. “The problem should only be temporary.” He smiled, a bit ruefully. “I was not planning to do any more writing for a while, anyway.”

          She chuckled. “Writing? I know you have a reputation for being meticulous, Herr Böcler, but I can’t imagine there’s any point in keeping records for a while. The Bavarians will already be turning everything upside down and inside out.”

          He shook his head. “I was thinking of my book, not the province’s records.”

          She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Book?”

          Böcler realized he was speaking too freely. He was usually quite reserved, especially in the presence of women, but Bonnie Weaver had a relaxed and friendly manner that invited casual intimacy. Between that and his own exhaustion, he was being less guarded that he should be.

          “What book?” she repeated.

          He cleared his throat. “I am… ah. Well, it is an ambition mostly. So far I have a great deal of notes, but nothing I suppose you could properly call a book.”

          “That’s how most books get written, I figure. What’s it about?”

          “It’s a book on history.” He’d hoped he could leave it at that, but the expression on Weaver’s face made it clear she expected a fuller explication. “A record of our own times,” he added.

          “Good luck with that! I remember Ms. Mailey saying in class once that it was impossible to analyze human events dispassionately until at least two centuries have gone by — and not always, even then. Anything more recent than that, according to her, was just current events. She said that with a sniff, as if the term was synonymous with gossip. She didn’t teach current events, of course. That was taught by Dwight Thomas, who doubled as our driver’s education teacher.” She smiled. “They didn’t get along real well. Being fair to Mr. Thomas, he was a pretty good driver’s ed teacher.”

          Böcler had no intention whatsoever of asking the formidable Mailey women her opinion on his book project. Or anything else. She was the sort of person his father and grandfather would both urge him to avoid at all costs. His father was a Lutheran pastor; his grandfather, a school director. Neither was a profession noted for taking risks.

          Thankfully, Weaver seemed willing to let the matter drop. Böcler really didn’t like to discuss his book with anyone. Some of that was his natural reticence. Most of it was the reluctance of an unpublished author to discuss his ambitions openly. The printing press was less than two centuries old, but it had already been well established that the phrase “unpublished author” was a ridiculous oxymoron.

          Johann Heinrich Böcler had a horror of looking ridiculous. In that, as in many things, he was a faithful son and grandson.

          Weaver looked away, toward the work being done to ready the airship. The envelope was now beginning to fill out completely, as the hot air produced by the burners did its work.

          The moon was almost directly behind her, so her profile was well-illuminated. She had a short, blunt nose, above lips that were slightly imbalanced. Her lower lip was thin; the upper, rather fleshy. Her chin was round, as were her cheeks. Like Böcler himself, Weaver was someone who would constantly tend to be plump.

          Her figure, also well-illuminated, was much like her face. Not obese, certainly; but not at all slim, either. She was attractive, in a modest sort of way, but not a woman anyone would consider a beauty. Or even particularly pretty.

          Böcler felt a sudden, powerful attraction to the American. He was taken completely off-guard. What had triggered that impulse?

          He was a bit alarmed, too. He was only twenty-five years old. A rich man’s son or a nobleman would contemplate marriage at such an early age, but someone from Johann Heinrich’s modest origins would not be able to sustain a household until he was in his late twenties or early thirties. He had no business getting interested in a woman yet. Any woman, much less an up-timer.

          The thought of pursuing a mere dalliance never even occurred to him. A considerable number of people — most people, truth be told — thought Böcler was a prude. But at least he could claim the virtues of prissiness as well the vices. He was not a man who would toy with anyone’s affections.