Four Days On The Danube – Snippet 12


          Bonnie Weaver wasn’t thinking of the man next to her at all. Her concentration was on the man tending the burner that was filling the airship’s envelope.

          Stefano Franchetti. Slender, dapper in a commoner’s sort of way, quick-witted; altogether charming.

          He reminded her a lot of Larry Wild. The reminder drew her to him and repelled her at the same time.

          Bonnie and Larry hadn’t exactly been involved, but they’d been very close to it when the Ostend War started and he went off to fight the Danish fleet attacking Wismar. He’d been killed in that battle, when his rocket boat attacked the enemy ships.

          Foolishly, in hindsight, Bonnie had probed hard and long to find out exactly how he’d been killed. When she finally learned, she wished she hadn’t. Cut in half — literally, cut in half — by a cannonball. They never found any part of his body. The upper half had been sent flying into the sea, where it would have long ago been eaten by sea life. The lower half had stayed in the rocket boat, but the boat itself had blown up a short time later when it rammed one of the Danish warships.

          October 7, 1633. More than two years had gone by since then, but she still had nightmares about it sometimes; even flashbacks to something she’d never actually seen.

          The worst of it was that she couldn’t grieve properly. It wasn’t as if she’d lost a husband or a fiancé or even an established boyfriend. Just… a possibility, forever gone. She still wondered what might have happened between them. Not just from time to time, either, but often. She was beginning to fear she’d developed an obsession over his memory.

          Hearing a sound next to her, Bonnie turned her head and saw that Böcler had a tight expression on his face. That had been him, issuing a little hiss of pain. What was she doing, mooning over a dead man and his Italian doppelganger when she had an injured man to tend to?

          There was a first aid kit in the gondola, she remembered. She’d never looked inside it, but it had to hold bandages and some sort of salve or unguent. Bandages, for sure.

          The problem was that the envelope had been inflated enough to come completely off the ground. Stefano and Amanda and Dina were scurrying around with last minute preparations. This was the worst possible time for her to start rummaging around inside the gondola. She wasn’t even in it yet.

          Her thoughts must have shown in her face, because Böcler cleared his throat and said: “There is nothing you can do for me at the moment. Once we are in the air, we can see if there are medical supplies in the… what do you call it? The part that looks almost like a boat and hangs underneath the huge balloon?”

          “Gondola. It’s called the gondola.” She gave another smile. “And you’d do better to call the inflated part the envelope instead of the balloon, or you’re likely to get a long lecture from Stefano on the profound metaphysical distinction between a dirigible airship and a pitiful balloon, subject to the mercy of the winds.”

          He smiled back. It was quite a nice smile, she thought. Much less stiff-upper-lip than his personality seemed to be.

          Then, again, maybe the smile was the reality and the personality just the appearance. It was always a mistake to judge people too quickly. Whatever else, she’d learned one thing about the short, stout Franconian secretary tonight. He was a very steady man. Reliable in a crisis, and not given to either panic or self-pity. She knew plenty of people with more charming externalities who were a lot less solid.

          “We’re ready to go!” hollered Dina. “Hurry up!”

          You didn’t want to dally when it came time to board an airship that used hot air instead of hydrogen. It was lifted and lowered by adjusting the heat produced by the burners, not by dropping a lot of ballast. Each passenger who came aboard added to the weight, which required more heat — which, if you overdid it, ran the risk of lifting too far while another person was trying to climb aboard.

          The long dimension of the envelope had been aligned to face into the wind, and there was a bow line anchored to a tree stump that kept the ship fairly steady. But “fairly steady” is one thing, once a person is in a gondola; something quite a bit more challenging, when you’re trying to get into it in the first place.

          Under normal conditions on a proper airfield this wouldn’t be so much a problem, because there would be half a dozen groundspeople who’d be holding the gondola down with ropes. Not to mention that they’d almost always be working in broad daylight.

          It dawned on Bonnie that she’d given no thought at all to the problem of getting Hank Siers aboard. The surveyor was still unconscious.

          Stefano sprang over the side of the gondola and landed lightly on the ground, by now almost six feet below the rail. He was a lithe and agile man.

          Not a big one, unfortunately, nor a particularly strong one. With Willa and Maydene’s help, he was now trying to get Hank into the gondola, and…

          Was not going to manage it. Bonnie hurried over, with Böcler right behind her.

          Once there, she and the secretary lent a hand to the effort.

          Still no success. The problem wasn’t simply Hank’s mass, it was the height of the gondola. Dina had replaced Stefano at the burner — she was more-or-less the expedition’s designated copilot — and was trying to lower the airship as much as she could. But, at best, that still meant trying to hoist more than two hundred pounds of dead weight over a railing that was never less than five feet off the ground.

          “Use me as a stool,” Böcler said. He got down on hands and knees, right beside the gondola. “Quickly, please.”

          Stefano didn’t hesitate for more than a second before he stood on Böcler’s back. “Pass him up to me.”

          As stated, the proposition was absurd. Franchetti was barely more than half the size of Siers. But with four women pushing from below and using Stefano as a combination hoist and ramp — Amanda and Rita were pulling from above, too — they managed to get it done.

          Bonnie helped Johann Heinrich back on his feet.

          “Are you all right?” she asked. She was genuinely worried. He had to have taken something of a beating down there in the final frenzied push to get Siers into the gondola.

          He took a deep breath. A bit of a shaky breath, too. “I have been better, at times in the past. But worse also. It’s not as bad as being bitten by a horse. Or kicked by a horse, which is still worse.”

          She stared at him. Northern West Virginia had been a rural sort of place, especially a small town like Grantville. But the truth was that Bonnie, like many people in the area, didn’t really have any more experience with horses than a resident of Manhattan.

          Or hadn’t, at least, until the Ring of Fire planted them all in the seventeenth century. But even then, Bonnie — also like many people in Grantville — still didn’t have much experience with horses. You could get pretty far by walking, when you got right down to it. And didn’t have to negotiate with a creature six or seven times bigger than you were in order to do it.

          “You were bitten by a horse?”

          “Oh, yes. They’re quite vicious animals, actually. I look forward to the day when we can all ride in automobiles everywhere and put horses in the zoo. Or, better yet, in the larders. The meat’s tasty, if you slaughter the animals before they get too old.”

          “You’ve eaten a horse?”

          “Not often. The meat’s too expensive unless you get the flesh from horses slaughtered late in life. And that’s no good except in sauerbraten. I’ve heard the Bavarians make a good sausage out of horse meat too, but I’ve never tasted it.”

          It was their turn to get into the gondola, everyone else having already gone aboard. That was an awkward process. Neither of them was slender and Böcler had the further handicap of hands which were now almost useless. But with the help of the people pulling from above and a complete disregard for dignity, they managed the task.

          As soon as they were in the gondola, Franchetti increased the output of the burners. At his order, Dina cast off the anchor line. They began rising immediately.

          Panting a little from the exertion and half-sprawled on the floor of the gondola, Bonnie went back to staring wide-eyed at the secretary. “You ate a horse. Was that, like, a revenge thing?”

          Böcler frowned. “For the horse who bit me? And the one who kicked me? Of course not. They’re simply brutes, Ms. Weaver. I’d have to ask my father — he’s a parson — but I believe seeking to wreak vengeance on dumb animals would be frowned upon by the Lord. Viewed severely, in fact.”

          He sounded for all the world like a man discussing the temperament of his department boss instead of the Almighty.

          So. Steady, solid, seemingly unflappable. Add severely practical to the list, too.