Steeds 41

6 06 2017

“Say your prayers, Sheriff.”

“I have already.”

“I should have guessed. Look at this weather! It couldn’t be better. So, come on in.”

Lee handed Joshua a light-weight, gray jacket and a Model 1873 Winchester, and then climbed into the gondola of the hot air balloon towering above them.

“Rifle, pistol, ammunition belt,” Joshua observed. “Are you going to war, or does this thing remind you of the war, and you’re reminiscing?”
“It does, indeed, bring back some memories. I’ve never been this close to one, though. I never benefitted directly from the use of one during the war.”

“Obviously, then, you’ve never been in one.”

“No. I had no idea a balloon was so big.”

“This one holds sixty thousand cubic feet of sky,” Joshua said. “Are you afraid of heights?”

“I don’t think so. I used to climb trees often when I was a boy.”

“That helps, but this is different, as you’ll soon see. Does this rifle have a saddle ring?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, there it is. You better tie a lanyard to the rifle, just in case. Hannah, a piece of cord, please.”

Joshua’s wife handed one over to Lee.

“You have a last will and testament, sir?” Joshua asked.

“Why do you ask?”

“This is my business. Even so, it is risky, even dangerous. This trip will be no stroll in the park.”

“My business has its risks, too. Thus, the weaponry, especially since I’ll have no help from any of my deputies. One is missing. One is exhausted. The remaining two must stay at the jail working overtime. And, yes, I have prepared a last will and testament. Ella and Clara: did you hear that?”

“I did, Lee,” said Ella.

“As Mr. Stollfus says, this will be a risky endeavor … in the air, and then on the ground. The Oakleys are designated trustees of my estate, such as it is. Freyja and Isolde stay here, and you and Clara get money for their room and board. Otherwise, the church….”

“Don’t talk like that, Lee,” said Ella.

“As the man here said.”

Joshua spoke up. “Malachi. Micah. You have your maps?”

“Yeah, Pa,” said Micah.

“Off with you, now. Head north, as we discussed.”

“Later, Pa,” said Malachi.

With that, the two young men galloped off on their individual horses.

“Hannah, you have your map?”

“Got it, Josh.”

“As we discussed, load up the gear and drive the wagon to Dartford. From there, it’ll be a shorter distance to wherever we land.”

“Give me my kiss, first,” said Hannah.

That done, Joshua said, “Let us loose.”

Hannah unhooked the cable, and up went the hot air balloon.

“How high do you want to go, Sheriff?”

“I’m already higher than I’ve ever been in my life. You’ve done this before. I’ll want to be high enough to see the landscape at some distance, but not so high I can’t make out details. I did bring a small telescope.” Lee produced it from a pocket.

“I have one, too,” said Joshua. “It’s a bit bigger than yours. The scopes will be handy, I assure you.”

Joshua continued, “Let me review what I told you earlier. I’ve noticed that people who don’t do this have a hard time comprehending it. Like a sailboat, we are propelled by the wind. Unlike a sailboat, there’s no steering; we go where the wind pushes us.”

“Like cottonwood fluff and milkweed seeds.”

“Like that. I can adjust our height to some extent, though coming down is always easier than going up. In fact, the more time that goes by, the less I’ll be able to go up. The coals in the brazier will work to keep the air inside the balloon hot. As you can guess, as they burn down, they’ll produce less and less heat. Less heat means less lift. I do have a few sacks of charcoal tied to the outside of the basket. Generally speaking, though, if you want a change in altitude, think more in terms of going down and not going back up again. Also, no matter what time it is or how short a distance we have travelled, I must land before all the heat is gone from the balloon. I can’t predict that. The temperature of the air up here has an effect.”

“Got it.”

“We left at,” Joshua said as he checked his watch, “five o’clock, as planned. We have about three hours of sunlight. At the latest, we must go down with the sun. There’s no landing in the dark … or dusk, for that matter.”

“I understand.”

“We’re moving along fairly well, I’d say. Not too fast. The boys will have an easier time keeping us in sight.”

“I surmise all this red coloration, trimmed in yellow and white, is intended to make the balloon easy to see,” said Lee.

“You’ve got it. The colors are good advertising, but their main purpose is to help the family keep an eye on us.”

“From what distance can we be seen?”

“That depends on our altitude. In fine weather, we can be seen five miles away.”

“We’re moving south to north,” said Lee, “as I had hoped.”

“The wind is steady. That’s good. And these summer conditions are helping, too. I sense heat rising from the land, even this late in the afternoon. How about this height?”

“You tell me.”

“Remind me: what am I looking for?” Joshua asked.

“Pastures, meadows, glades that are out of the way. I mean, they are away from roads and farmsteads, far enough away as not to be seen by anyone on the road or at the farmstead. Far enough away as not to be heard by anyone. I suspect what we seek will be enclosed by a forest. Otherwise, we seek a forest that has no roads or trails or homesteads inside or nearby.”

“Wilderness? Here?” Joshua pointed at the patchwork of farm fields and woodlots below.

“One doesn’t think of wilderness in association with Tuscumbia County. Not anymore. Not for the past forty years or so. But there may be some vestiges left.”

“What about wetlands?”

“We should look at those, too. Most of the large expanses in the county, however, are to the west. We may not be able to see them well enough.”

“Another trip, perhaps.”

“Perhaps. And, yes, wilderness is a good word to describe what we seek. Any place that appears not to be visited at all by people.”

The balloon soared silently through the sky. The two men in the gondola watched the ground below, studied their map, and made notes on it in pencil. One periodically checked ropes and lines and tended the brazier.

“I couldn’t help but note back there that you mentioned no family as beneficiaries of your last will and testament. You are alone in this life, Sheriff?”

“My parents are now quite elderly,” said Lee. “They live with my sister. Actually, they have lived with her and her husband for some time. In Racine. My brother-in-law is employed by J.I. Case.”

“I refer, sir, to a wife and children … if I may be so inquisitive.”

“I was engaged to marry, many years ago. The war had commenced, and we agreed not to wed until afterward. No need for my fiancée to have to wait years and years in the event of my going missing in action to get a death certificate. I wanted her free to marry someone else, if it came to it.”

“But you didn’t die. Did you go missing for too long?”

“No. Sharon, my fiancée, was the one who died. Before I got home. She was killed by a runaway team of horses after she shoved her mother and younger sister out of harm’s way.”

“I’m sorry, Sheriff. And you didn’t marry someone else.”

“No, sir.”

The two stood silent in the breeze.

“I take it, that’s Fairwater Lake on the horizon ahead,” Joshua said.

“It is,” said Lee.

More time passed.

“Sheriff, look there to the left.”

“Yes.”

“That expanse of woods, it looks like it may reach the shore of the lake on its north. To the west, I see a creek draining towards the lake. Below us, another creek. See? It empties into the lake ahead. Looking back upstream, the bed goes south and then west. Those two creeks all but bound the woods on three sides, in a manner of saying it. The lake is the north boundary.”

“I do see that.”

Joshua had his telescope up. “And there appears to be an opening in those woods.”

Lee had his telescope up. “Indeed. It’s not obvious. It’s not plainly demarcated, as if a farmer had a fenced hayfield there. It appears natural, very much like prairie parkland within the forest.” Lee moved his telescope away from his eye and studied the landscape without it. “I see no bridges crossing the creek below us. No fords. Can you see anything at the other creek?”

Joshua looked through his telescope. “No.”

“I see a road, more like a trail, to the east. That’s the closest, and it doesn’t go in the direction of the woods. Should we go lower?”

“We can.”

“It’ll be easier to spy animals.”

Joshua pulled on the cord that operated the cooling vent. “Descending.”

Lee had his telescope up. “There! In that break in the forest canopy. Horses.”

“You don’t say.”

“Please, you have the practiced eye. Use your scope and say what you can see.”

“Yes, sir.” Joshua studied the scene below and to the left. “You’re right, Sheriff. Horses.”

“Can you count them?”

“At least a dozen.” Joshua’s lips moved silently. “I do count twelve … now thirteen … now fourteen… now fifteen.”

“Willy and Billy.”

“Who?”

“Uttica’s fire horses. I see them. They’re the black pair staying close together. The white markings are distinctive.”

“I see them.”

“Any people in view?”

“No.”

“I don’t see any, as well. And I still see no roads or trails. Not even pathways.”

“You’re wondering how they could get in there without making tracks of some kind?”

“Right.”

The balloon continued soaring north.

“We’re going over the lake,” Joshua announced. “That’ll likely mean a drop in altitude because the water is not as warm as the land. We’ll lose some lift.”

“I think I can deduce how the horses got into those woods without leaving any traces.”

“Oh?”

“I see what appears to be a landing on the lake shore down there to the west. It’s quite small and all but camouflaged by trees. To the east, I see another landing, bigger, with a trail going upland. I think someone could have led the horses, one or two and even four at a time, to that landing and coaxed them into the water. From the landing, they waded and swam along the shore to that other landing, where they were led up and into the forest.”

Joshua looked at the scene. “Yes. It looks like that could explain it.”

“Good enough now. You may land when ready.”

“Not here over the water.”

“I should hope not, unless this basket floats as well as the one Moses had in the bulrushes of the Nile.”

“Take my advice and make some sheriff notes on the back of the map,” said Joshua. “Believe it or not, landing will be the most dangerous part of this trip. You’ll want something someone else can find and use if we don’t make it.”

“You’re serious?”

“I am.”

Joshua opened a tin box and removed what looked like a small bomb.

“What’s that?” Lee asked.

“Fireworks. I carry two colors, orange and purple. Orange says we’re in trouble. Purple says everything is all right, and we’re landing.”

“The one in your hand is purple, I presume.”

“You are correct.” Joshua lit the fuse from the brazier and quickly tossed the grenade away from the balloon. It went off with a bang and a blossom of sparkles. “Now comes the part for which you pay me money.”

“Oh?”

“I must look ahead for a good field, without obstructions, while dropping in altitude. I must select a place where we can drop without hitting trees or anything else on the way down, but without going down so fast that we kill ourselves when we touch ground. I must select a place where the wind won’t drag us into trees and ruin the balloon while tossing us out of our basket like garbage. All this, while judging between how much hot air to keep in the balloon and how much to let out and how fast.”

Joshua reached for a metal lid hanging on the outside of the basket. “Here. You can help by placing this over the brazier and clamping it down when I say so. We don’t want what’s left of those hot coals peppering us if we have a hard landing.”

Lee took the lid and examined it, and then examined the brazier.

“Isn’t this fun?” Joshua asked.

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