A Dirigible Disaster: Chapter 2, Scene 1
The Captain of the Maudlin Rose stood at the base of the gangplank to greet Ignatius. His outfit was a mismatch of well-worn uniform and civilian pieces. He casually flipped his long red hair back and stepped forward with a noticeable limp. His grip was firm and he looked Ignatius directly in the eye.
“Captain Eugene Howard, United States Navy, retired,” he said in a deep clear baritone.
“Captain, Ignatius St. Eligius. I understand that I have passage to Pittsburgh aboard your ship.”
“That’s correct, sir. The Maudlin Rose stands ready for you. We can be aloft within the half hour, unless the docking hydraulics fail again.”
“I do not think that will be a problem. Wellsie and I have checked over the equipment and affected a solution.”
“Step this way then, and we’ll get you settled in.”
Captain Howard led Ignatius over to the gangplank. He swept the airship with his hand, “She’s sixty feet bow to stern. There’s reinforced sides and several Gatling guns for her armament. The Rose is lighter than most, quicker too.”
Ignatius nodded appreciatively. The entire ship was a light gray, the color of mist on the river in the early morning. Of her sixty-foot length, the gondola occupied only about twenty-five of it.
“We typically sail with a mate, engineer and two gunners. Today we are foregoing a gunner. You may be needed to assist us at a gunner’s station should we come under fire,” said the Captain.
“Is that likely?” asked Ignatius
“We’ll be passing through Juniata County, its contentious there. Pirates prey on commercial air traffic. Couple of times they’ve hit the train lines. They fly home-built airships. The quality varies, but some can be serious trouble. We’ll be lighter and faster without the second gunner, which should help us stay clear of them. It cannot be counted out though.”
“May I ask where you picked up the limp?”
“Naval blockade of Charleston. I commanded a corvette in the fleet. We intercepted a blockade-runner during some excitement in the harbor. They tried to squeak past as the rest of the fleet was watching to see what all the commotion was. Have you ever been to Charleston Mr. St. Eligius?”
“Once, I was just in and out on a business trip.”
“I see. Shall we go aboard and cast off?”
“Sounds like a grand idea to me, Captain. Lead the way.”
Captain Howard walked up the gangplank followed closely by Ignatius. Inside the gondola to the immediate left were the Captain’s wheel and mate’s navigation desk. Amidships some rough benches sprouted from the walls. Above each bench, a long window ran for a dozen feet. The aft of the ship carried a well-maintained Gatling gun on either side. Directly past them were the small firebox and engine.
The sensation of drifting above towns and countryside was one that Ignatius embraced as often as possible. The crew sat at their stations, waiting expectantly for their orders. Captain Howard pointed to each man in turn: “Franco, our engineer. Served up in New York building some of the armor we used in the war. Hines ‘Smitty’ Smith, gunner. Former runaway, joined the Army. He’ll show you the ropes once we’re airborne. In addition, this is Christian De La Croix. The best mate I could ask for.
“Bonjour Monsieur, welcome aboard the Maudlin Rose,” said Christian.
“Thank you, sir. I look forward to the flight,” answered Ignatius.
“All hands, prepare for launch,” called out Captain Howard.
The Captain stepped up to his wheel and looked out of the curved windscreen, watching the dock workers cast off the mooring lines and run out the chain from the hydraulic winch. The system worked as well as Ignatius had hoped. The airship rose smoothly up to the end of the tether, and then with a bump and click was released from the earth.
Franco stoked the small firebox and built up enough steam to start the twin propellers at the back end of the ship. Ignatius moved down the length of the starboard side bench to watch both the shafts turn the blades and Forster Island fall away from the underside of the Maudlin Rose.
“Clear,” called out Christian.
“Coming about,” said Captain Howard.
He gave the wheel a light spin and the airship pivoted to the right. It gracefully sailed over Fort Couch and started chugging its way upriver. Below, the Susquehanna River resembled an olive green snake winding its way between the rolling hills of the river valley. Some of the leaves were undergoing the change for fall. The hills bore streaks of crimson, gold and orange. Ignatius could see the various rail lines running along both sides of the river. The tracks gleamed silver, polished by countless wheels rolling along them. Ignatius slid forward to the first mate.
“How do you maintain trim?” he asked.
“The initial gas fill up at dock offsets the weight of the ship and the more gas we put in the bladder the higher we go. Comin’ down isn’t a problem, we just let gas out. Goin’ back up is the trick. We could dump ballast. You know, emptying sandbags, throw things overboard.”
“If we have time, Franco pumps hot air from the engine up into the bladder. It creates additional lift, not as effective as the gas, but in a pinch, it’ll do. Once the air cools, we lose altitude. That means Franco becomes a very busy person. Don’t bother Franco when he’s busy. I’m jus’ sayin’.”
“What keeps the airship in a level flight?”
“We have ballast at the bow under the cockpit which is balanced against the weight of the engines, coal and water. As supplies back there dwindle, we release sand from the \ bags.”
“I had no idea that managing these ships was so tricky,” said Ignatius.
“These little ones can be a beast,” said the Captain, “the larger warships and cargo carriers are more advanced. They can carry lifting gas in containers, use automated systems to weigh and balance the ballast and a dozen other things to keep everything trimmed up.”
“What they need,” growled Franco “is protection from damned lightning.”
“True,” Christian said. “That is a greater threat than a pirate raid.”
“We’re passing over the Rockville Bridge now, Mr. St. Eligius,” said the Captain pointing out his window.
Below, spanning the river was a stone arch bridge with a pair of tracks running side-by-side. A steam engine chuffed its way around the bend from the east shore and started out across the bridge to the west side.
“That’s the Harrisburg local running up river to Lewistown. They finished off a new collection of foundries up there in order to make parts for trains,” said Christian.
“I heard about them,” Ignatius said.
He rummaged through his travel bags, which were stowed under the port side bench. Out of them, he extracted a large travel flask about a foot tall and six inches around. He unscrewed the top and inhaled deeply. The rich aroma of fresh coffee with cinnamon rose up to greet him.
“Would anyone care for some coffee?” he asked.
“Aye,” said the Captain. “That’d be a welcome treat. The air’s gonna be feeling a bit cooler any minute now as we pass between the twin peaks just south of Clark’s Ferry. That’s the confluence between the Juniata and Susquehanna rivers. When we turn up the Juniata, we’ll start hugging the ridgeline on the western side. It’s a bit easier to spot incoming airships there, and we have better options for evasion if need be.”
Ignatius nodded and passed the coffee forward to the Captain. He took a long draft from the bottle and handed it to his mate. Christian handed it back to Ignatius wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“That’s a little different isn’t it? What is that I taste?”
“Cinnamon. I quite like the spice. It gives the coffee a certain Je ne cest pas.”
“Oui, oui,” laughed the mate.
Ignatius sidled his way back to the gunner.
“Coffee, Hines?” asked the inventor.
“Call me Smitty. Thanks.”
Ignatius proffered the flask and the gunner drank his share. Ignatius held the flask out to Franco. The engineer narrowed his eyes and shook his head. Smitty chuckled and slapped Ignatius in the arm.
“Don’ mind him. He jus’ jealous that we have a real engineer on board today.”
Franco gave Hines a black look and turned back to his engine, adjusting some valves that really did not need any attention.
Ignatius made his way forward again and spent some time watching the landscape and river slide past. The steady rhythm of the steam engine lulled Ignatius into a relaxed state. His shoulders drooped and his chin dipped. The quiet talk amongst the crew did nothing to disturb him. The airship maintained its course up through the wilderness. It floated above the river and train tracks, dancing over the trees in their autumn glory.
An abrupt change in course jostled Ignatius from his light doze. He quickly blinked his eyes and looked around. On either side of the ship, a pale mist drifted by. It looked as though clouds had descended to earth and wrapped the land in their embrace.
Smitty silently prepared the Gatling guns with canisters of ammunition. Franco closed off some of the valves and stopped stoking the fire in order to quiet down the engine. Christian leaned back in his seat and whispered to Ignatius, “We hit a fog bank just outside of Thompsontown. This is what the pirates like the best. They’ll drift along with the air currents and spring on anything they think they can take.”
Ignatius bobbed his head. The captain twisted around in his seat, “Franco, pump air into the bladder and drop some sand. We need to climb up outta this pea soup.”
Franco twisted a knob and then hauled on several lines. Ignatius felt the bottom of the airship pressing up against his body, within moments they broke out of the mist, leaving swirling tendrils stretching up behind them. Underneath the airship, the river meandered through the countryside. A tiny village was barely visible on the east bank of the river. On the west side, a train station sat idle. Just to the right of the airship hills jutted up out of the mist, forming a bowl with the valley’s ridge to their left. Everything was still, no birds called out, no sound of the engines, nothing.
Christian leaned over the windowsill on his side of the cockpit scanning below their ship. He stiffened when a long cigar shaped shilloutte passed beneath them. Christian raised his left arm with two fingers up. Hines switched over to the port side gun and ever so carefully pulled the cocking mechanism. The clink of metal against brass rang out like a church bell against the silent veil of the mist. Under them, a cry of surprise went up and an engine roared to life as air rushed into the firebox.
Captain Howard cried “Fire!”
Smitty spun the crank on the Gatling gun and it spat out a series of airship-shaking rounds down into the mist at the passing shadow. Franco stamped on his firebox pedal opening the maw wide and flung handfuls of coal into it. He then pushed the valves wide open while the Captain pressed his throttle lever forward. As quickly as it began, Smitty ceased firing and the Captain steered the ship up and over the ridge. The burly African switched sides and prepared the second gun for operation.
“Did you hit anything,” called Captain Howard.
“I’m not sure Captain,” replied Hines, “I must have winged ‘im a bit, too close not to.”
“Mr. St. Eligius if you wouldn’t mind, take the port gun for now. We may be in for a bit of a hard time. Others will have heard those shots and come a callin’.”