Bohnhoff, Maya: “Seraphim”

Seraphim

by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

San Francisco Chronicle, December 4, 1896

AN AIRSHIP WHICH RODE IN A WAGON WAS PLANTED IN A GULCH:

The latest fake to deceive the credulous

Built of galvanized iron and conveyed to a secluded spot, the airship
was found early this morning. The Seraph of the air spread its
wings like a giant condor and slid down hill in the vicinity of the Sunnyside
House on the Corbett Road and with a peculiar whirring sound, scraped
the paint off its underside.

Sunnyside House fronts a milk ranch and herders heard a noise shortly
before midnight that they describe as like an earthquake. Rushing
forth they heard cries proceeding from an ill-favored gulch where the
cows ruminate at nighttime. Going to the spot they found a strange-looking
craft of metal.

They did not examine the machine closely, for the writhing forms of
two men appealed to their humanity. The writhing forms recovered
sufficiently to explain that they were the inventors and builders of
an airship in which they had been sailing about when the machine got
out of order and they fell to earth. In proof, they pointed to
the immense, cigar-shaped metallic tube with its propellers and wings. Messengers
were hurried to the Almshouse for medical assistance and word was conveyed
to the press.

When the Almshouse physician and reporters arrived, it took but a moment
to puncture the fake. Captain Reddy recognized in Professor J.D.
DeGear the inventor, a man who had through the Almshouse telephone, called
up a prominent local amusement director, whom he assured that she would
go tonight for sure.

The reporters found that the airship was constructed of galvanized
iron; that the paint was not yet dry upon it; and that the propeller
blades would bend at a touch; and the thing was left to rest where it
had fallen.

The inventor vainly endeavored to convince them that it had once sailed
the skies, but under close cross-questioning, admitted that it had been
hauled to the crest of the hill on a wagon and dragged down into the
gulch.

 

It would be cliché to say that the evening leading up to that story
was an ordinary one. It was nothing of the sort, unless one calls being
lured into the boondocks on a false lead "ordinary."

I’d chased an alleged story to a tavern on Corbett Road, only to find
I had been hoaxed. The person who had called me there did not exist, and
the story — the appearance in a neighboring field of some exotic beast — was
bunkum.

The tavern patrons had a good laugh at my expense, then invited stood
me to a round of drinks — a sop to my embarrassment.

Not long after, a colleague from the Oakland Tribune appeared and
inquired if I had seen the "cow pasture creature."

"What?" I said. "Are you chasing the same story?"

The expression on his face gave me to understand that it was he who had
initiated my own chase. He led our fellow patrons in another guffaw.

"There," he said. "Consider that payback for that disgraceful
Embarcadero affair."

"Nonsense, Duggan, I didn’t send you out at the witching hour on
a wild monster chase."

"No, you simply deflected me from a story long enough to file it
yourself."

It was a fond memory. "All’s fair," I told him, raising my glass.

"Exactly."

We fell into friendly conversation until, not long after midnight, the
tavern owner — Sam Whitehouse by name — announced that he intended to be
asleep within the hour. Scottie Duggan paid for my last drink and we filed
out into the fog-bound roadway with a handful of die-hard locals, milling
like confused geese in the mist. A gibbous moon rode high in the sky, peering
at us through tattered holes in fog and cloud.

Duggan and I were at the point of parting company when we heard a shout
from the darkness beyond the tavern. Approaching us from the expanse of
pasture that bordered Corbett Road were a pair of bobbing lanterns. In
a matter of moments, two men could be seen attached to the lanterns, waving
their arms as they approached.

"I wonder what they’re on about?" asked my companion.

We were treated to a quick, but jumbled answer to that question. The older
of the two men was Frank Goddard, a farmer, who explained that he and his
son had been bringing in the milk cows from the pasture when they heard
the "awfullest noise."

"There’s been an accident of some stripe. Over across the meadow,
below the bluff." Goddard jerked his head back toward his pasture.

His son, white-faced and bug-eyed, nodded like a stick puppet. "S’true.
There’s been a crash. We’ve come for help."

We went without hesitation, envisioning a carriage or haymow overturned
onto Goddard’s property from the road above. The reality was much stranger.

Something certainly lay at the foot of the little bluff, but it was no
haymow. It was much larger and metallic, and was the shape — as near as
I could tell — of a weaver’s shuttle, or a fat cigar. It had some sort of
canopy suspended above the body that looked as if it had once been supported
by the delicate metal framework.

I wondered, as I approached, if I was looking at a new design for a hot-air
balloon and gondola, but there wasn’t enough fabric clinging to the
wreckage to amount to a balloon.

At what I assumed was the bow of the thing was the most peculiar feature
of all — a propeller with long, thin blades, each perhaps four feet in length.
Drawing close, I raised a hand to one of the blades and pressed it back.
It gave under my hand, bending sharply. I guiltily pulled my hand away
and the blade followed it, springing back into position so quickly, I jumped.

At that moment, a groan from beneath the crippled framework pulled my
eyes away from the propeller. The craft was manned.

"Here!" I shouted to the others, who were gingerly skirting
the wreck. "There are injured here!"

Two men had inserted themselves into a pair of pockets cut in the surface
of the thing’s hull, just forward of amidships. Their bodies were entirely
within the craft; only their heads were in the open. Those heads were covered
with odd leather bonnets, faces partially concealed by masks that made
them look like plucked owls.

Their obvious distress hastened our efforts to clear away the canopy above
their heads. This was not easy, for the structure was attached to the hull
with peculiar jointed struts that were not nearly as spindly as they looked.

Beneath the twisted framework, the air smelled strongly of machine oil.
I’d been aboard the Navy’s newest battleships; this was the perfume of
the engine-room. There was another odor present that I didn’t recognize,
sharp and pungent.

I managed to climb up to the first of the compartments, where one unfortunate
made ineffectual attempts to remove his headgear. I fumbled to help him
while Duggan pulled himself up to the aft compartment.

"This fellow seems to be unconscious," he said, beckoning to
the farmers.

I pulled away the first victim’s bonnet. It was leather and sported a
pair of lenses that looked superficially like spectacles.

"Are you all right?" I asked the fellow. "Are you hurt?"

"Ahhh…don’t think so."

"We’d best get you out," I told him. "Both of you. Your
companion is unconscious."

He nodded his understanding and reached down inside the compartment with
gloved hands. I heard two distinct metallic clanks, then he tried unsuccessfully
to lever himself out. In the end, it took Scottie Duggan and me both to
remove him and deposit him on a patch of grass beside the craft.

"How in heaven’s name did you come to be here?" Duggan asked
him. "And what is…" He gestured toward the vessel, if such
it was. "That," he concluded.

The fellow shook his head. "Everything was going fine. I don’t know
what happened. Down-draft? One minute we were flying along, level, on course.
The next…" His eyes surveyed the wreckage. "God, she’s a ruin.
The wings…."

"Wait," said Duggan, standing suddenly upright. "Would
you have us believe that this thing…flew?"

"Flew. Of course, flew. Seraph of the Air." He cleared his throat
and blinked up at us owlishly, his face below the pale mask outline dark
with dirt and oil.

"And these impossible things are wings?" Duggan grasped a dangling
strut and shook it.

"Wings, yes. They mimic the wings of the condor. My design."

Scottie tilted his head and gazed down at me. "Well, I must stay,
Lee, my boy, this is the most outrageous prank you’ve pulled yet. How in
heaven’s name did you arrange it?"

He turned to where the milk rancher was working over the second victim. "Of
course, I see you had help."

"What are you babbling about, Scottie Duggan? I’m as much agog at
this as you are."

"Like hell you are," he told me. "And good morning to you.
I’m going home to catch some sleep. ‘Seraph of the Air,’ indeed."

He was gone before I could stop him.

I returned my attention to the groggy gentleman. "Are you claiming
you flew this craft here, Mister…?"

"Professor. DeGear. J.D. DeGear, I—" He cut off in obvious
confusion and shook his head. "Am I…am I a prisoner, sir?"

"I’m Lee Cranfeldt — a newspaper reporter. San Francisco Chronicle.
And no, you’re not a prisoner; you were in an accident of some sort with
this machine. Don’t you remember?"

DeGear swiveled his head to look at the mechanical ‘condor.’ "I remember…flying
at about two hundred feet. Low, but above the fog, below cloud cover. Something
went wrong." He struggled to stand. "Please, help me up."

I did, looking to where the farmer knelt next to DeGear’s companion.

He followed my eyes. "Harry! Dear God, is he all right?"

Frank Goddard glanced over. "Alive, but knocked senseless. I sent
my boy up to the Almshouse for a doc. Looks as if his wrist might be broke."

DeGear nodded, still looking dazed, but his attention was already on his
Seraph. He moved to the bow and ran a hand along one of the propeller blades.

"What do the propellers do?" I asked, following him.

He moved aft along the hull of the craft. "They work as well in air
as they do in water, Mr. Cranfeldt, and will push or pull a vessel forward
in either medium."

"While the wings hold it aloft, I suppose."

"Yes. Except in this case…" DeGear had stopped just beneath
the crumpled starboard wing to finger a misshapen metal ring in the fabric. "Something
so small. A malformed grommet. Could this have…?" He didn’t
finish the thought, but ducked under the wing to continue his inspection.

I grasped the propeller blade myself, giving it more attention this time.
It was smooth, satiny, metallic, and possessed a soft sheen in the fitful
mixture of watery moonlight and lamp glow. I pulled it toward me and it
gave as if made of willow, hardly strong enough, one would think, to pull
a feather through the air, let alone this contraption.

I let go. As before, the blade snapped back into place. I followed DeGear
aft, pausing at the wing only long enough to feel the dunnish fabric. It
was supple, thin, oily feeling, and glistened like fish scales in the flickering
light. The hull also looked oily, and felt it as well, but when I pulled
my hand away, it was dry.

Abaft the wing, DeGear was hanging nearly upside-down in one of the seating
compartments. I’d seen native kayaks designed like this and wondered if
those had served as a model for it. Which begged the question: why?

"Professor, may I ask what this craft is?"

He pulled his head out of the well. "It’s a flying machine."

"Yes, but…where is the balloon?"

His eyes finally focused on me, and his face, which hardly possessed a
healthy glow, paled further. He collapsed against the side of his ship.

I dove to keep him from striking his head, nearly losing the oil lamp.
I dragged him back under the wing with one arm and deposited him as gently
as possible in the grass. His pulse was strong, so I’d no worry for his
life, and the police had arrived, along with a contingent from the Almshouse
infirmary.

I waved to them, then edged back over to the vessel, where I poked my
head into the seating pocket Dr. DeGear had lately inhabited. I don’t know
what I expected to see, but it was not this array of little dials and levers
and glass-covered gauges. I’d seen such things on steam engines, but I’d
swear there was no steam engine made that could fit into such a craft as
this. The faces of the gauges seemed to glow faintly even when I
held the lamp away from them.

"What are you doing?"

The voice, sharp and commanding, caused me to abandon my investigation.
I dropped back to the turf and turned. A tall bluff of a man stood just
off the vessel’s bow.

"I was examining Professor DeGear’s machine. The Professor is—"

"I’m quite familiar with Dr. DeGear, sir. And his antics."

I moved several steps toward him, bringing him into the light of my lamp.
He wore a cavalry uniform; an officer’s bars glinted against the dark fabric. "And
you would be?"

"Captain Reddy. Dr. DeGear is my charge. He is an inventor, as he’s
no doubt told you."

"Indeed."

Over Reddy’s shoulder and around the prow of the alleged flying machine,
I noticed that a small biting swarm of fellow reporters had arrived on
the heels of the physician, who was now examining DeGear’s companion.

A surge of icy dread coursed through me at the idea of these latecomers
filing their stories ahead of me.

I felt around in my jacket pocket for my note pad and pencil. "An
inventor, you said. He invented this machine?"

"Machine?" His lips quirked in an amusement that failed to reach
his eyes. "Look at it, Mr…"

"Cranfeldt," I said. "San Francisco Chronicle."

The Captain swept an arm toward DeGear’s Seraph just as a particularly
annoying colleague slipped under the bow.

"Look at it. Ungainly, heavy. Surely you don’t believe it could fly?
That such insubstantial material as those so-called wings are made of could
hold this hulk aloft?"

"Well…"

The other reporter snorted derisively. "Aw, c’mon, Cranfeldt. You’re
a hack, but I never figured you for a fool." He grasped one of the
propellers and twisted it. "It’s made of tin foil! Hell, the paint’s
not even dry on this thing." He touched the hull then brought his
hand to his face. His brow furrowed.

"It’s a sad story, really," said Reddy. "Jack DeGear was
a brilliant engineer. When the war broke out, he joined the Navy. Was instrumental
in the design of the USS Monitor, which made him of some importance
to the war effort — a thing that was not lost on the Confederates. They
captured him and pressed him into the service of their own naval program.
As you are newspaper men, I suspect you may have heard of the CSS Hunley."

"Tragic," I said. "But what about the War was not?"

"The Union triumph, sir. But I agree — the loss of life aboard the Hunley was
regrettable, notwithstanding they were Confederate lives. Dr. DeGear had
a hand in the design of the Hunley. He was aware of her mission
even as he worked on her. It is not certain, but he may have made intentional…design
decisions that doomed the craft."

I was stunned. "Sabotage? But surely the Confederates would not have
trusted a captured enemy so completely."

Reddy shrugged. "We know only that when Dr. DeGear was liberated,
he was obsessed with the disaster. He refuses to work on any more submersible
craft for fear more men will drown. He has turned his attention elsewhere."

I followed his eyes upward to where clouds scudded across the face of
the moon.

Out of the corner of my eye, I beheld my colleague furiously scribbling
notes. Well, I thought smugly, he has only half the story. He hadn’t
interviewed DeGear. Nor would he, for that hapless gentleman was even now
being hoisted onto a stretcher for his trip up to the waiting ambulance.

"So, a brilliant inventor of military machinery now invents fictions." Reddy
turned his gaze to the crumpled wings of the Seraph. "He was no doubt
trying to launch the damned thing."

I nodded, watching DeGear’s stretcher make its way up the hillside. Some
of my cohorts made a move to intercept it, which drew Captain Reddy from
my side.

"Here, here!" I heard him say brusquely. "Leave the poor
man alone. He’s in no condition for your poking and prodding."

Reluctantly the reporters let the stretcher pass. On its way to the road,
it passed a contingent of gentlemen with ropes and other tackle. Apparently
they’d come to take the craft away. They were a rough-looking lot and I
suspected they’d do DeGear’s Seraph no good in removing her.

Heartily wishing I had a photographer on site to capture the thing before
they reduced it to scrap, I took several steps back and gave the contraption
a long look. I took careful note of the way it lay so I could sketch it
later. It rested about thirty feet from the base of the bluff, nose elevated,
tail section sunk into Goddard’s pasture.

Before I could do much more than get a general lay of the wreckage, the
work crew began the process of removing it. So eager were they that they
quite literally shoved me out of the way and nearly into a fat cowpat.

One fellow, a heavy rope slung across his chest like a bandoleer, cast
me an apologetic glance and said: "Excuse me, sir," in unexpectedly
refined English.

I sidestepped the cowpat and moved away from the wreck as the crew swarmed
over it. There were a dozen of them and I had to wonder where they’d rounded
up such a group at this hour of the morning. They were amazingly efficient,
dismantling and folding the wings and removing the propeller in a matter
of minutes.

Hauling the hull up to the road presented no small challenge. They’d have
to drag it a good thirty feet across choppy ground just to get it into
position for a lift up the side of the bluff.

I felt a hand clasp my shoulder. "Surely, Mr. Cranfeldt," said
Captain Reddy, "you have better things to do with your time than watch
this travesty be carted off to the scrap heap."

"How is Dr. DeGear?" I asked.

"Better."

"I should like to interview him."

"Mr. Cranfeldt, you can’t believe…"

"A human interest story, perhaps. I’m intrigued by a mind that would
conceive of such a hoax."

Reddy flicked a glance at the dismantling of DeGear’s creation and shrugged. "He’s
resting in the ambulance. Let us go up and see if he’s regained his composure."

He had, and when I had puffed up the hill behind the Captain and presented
myself at the ambulance, he motioned me to the rear, wherein Dr. DeGear
sat — pale, but a good deal less dazed than before. At first glance he looked
perhaps a bit younger than I expected, considering Reddy’s talk of
the War, and had a full head of reddish-brown hair and wary brown eyes.
There, though, his age reposed in full, no less than in the lines etched
deeply at the corners of his mouth.

"I’m sorry about your airship, sir," I said, watching his expression.

He grimaced, glancing over my shoulder at the Captain standing behind
me. "My friend tells me I owe you an apology, Mr…Cranfeldt, is
it? You and the several other gentlemen I’ve kept from sleep tonight."

"I’m a newspaper man, doctor. I never sleep. Do you recall what happened?"

"I…had an accident of some sort."

"Do you remember what you told me earlier?"

DeGear reddened. "Vaguely. I suspect it was one of my tall tales.
I hope it wasn’t too ridiculous."

"You said you and your companion were flying when your… ship suddenly
went down."

His face flushed an even deeper scarlet. "Did I?" He glanced
over my shoulder again.

"Yes, Jack," Reddy told him. "I’m afraid you did. You were
not quite yourself."

DeGear brought his eyes back to my face, his expression wry. "You
have my most heartfelt apologies, Mr. Cranfeldt. I regret I am sometimes
subject to…flights of fancy."

Captain Reddy placed a hand on my shoulder. "As you can see, Dr.
DeGear is in fine health and seems to have recovered his wits."

I looked back to DeGear. "Did you really expect to fly, as Captain
Reddy suggests?"

"I…" He glanced up at Reddy again. "I had seen a prototype
for this craft in the workshop of my late colleague, Darius Green. It captured
my imagination. I did expect to fly, but in my more rational moments I
realize the folly of that expectation."

I would have asked more, but the orderlies insisted they must transfer
their patients to hospital. I stood aside at the top of the hill, watching
the ambulances drive away. The freight wagons were being loaded, and I
watched this activity for a while, marveling at how such a sprawling wreck
could be so condensed. Even the hull was broken down into smaller pieces,
draped with canvas and carted away on two large wagons.

I left my competitors to mill about the crash site, and went home to pen
my story. I prepared sketches from different angles and jotted down my
impressions of the craft and my conversations with DeGear and Reddy.

I filed at 4:30 am, barely in time to make the morning paper. My editor,
Andrew Sawyer, gave me hope I might bump another story from the front page.
I returned to my rooms, exhausted, and fell into a heavy sleep.

 

I didn’t wake until late morning, decided to take breakfast at a local
eatery, and there discovered that the Seraph of the Air was nowhere near
the front page of the Chronicle. It was, in fact, buried on
a back page among advertisements for corrective shoes and moustache wax.
Worse than that, the story itself had been edited to omit both my initial
interview with Professor DeGear and my first impressions of the craft’s
peculiar construction.

The food turned to sawdust in my mouth. I got up without finishing and
made my way to the offices of the Chronicle, clutching the morning
edition, which I slapped down atop Andrew Sawyer’s desk.

"This isn’t the story I filed!"

He didn’t so much as glance at me. "The story you filed was unprintable."

"At 4:30 this morning it wasn’t unprintable," I reminded him. "It
was front page material."

"At 4:30 this morning, I didn’t have the full story."

"And you got that from…?"

He reddened. "From Regis Canemore, for one."

"That hack? Why in God’s name—"

"Detail, Lee. Your story was light on detail."

"Light on detail? I described the propellers, the wings, the seating
compartments-"

"Fine. Your story was light on pertinent detail."

"Such as?"

"Such as that the paint was scraped from the undercarriage by the
slide down the hill. Such as that Professor DeGear was witnessed
earlier yesterday to have used the Almshouse telephone to call Sam Whitehouse
to assure him the ‘event’ would go on as planned."

"Witnessed by whom?"

"By a Captain Reddy."

"I met Captain Reddy. He said nothing to me of a telephone call.
Neither did he mention DeGear being at the Almshouse, which is odd because
we spoke of Professor DeGear’s health at length."

Andrew’s eyes remained focused upon the top of his desk. "Yes, he
told me."

I rocked back on my heels, taking in his downcast eyes and flushed face. "What really happened?"

He sighed and looked at me, finally. "All right, Lee. You’re too
good a reporter — and a friend — to sand bag."

I lowered myself into the chair opposite his desk.

"You filed a good story, Lee. Considering the circumstances, it was
a great story. Unfortunately, it made Professor DeGear out to be…somewhat
unstable."

"He is somewhat unstable. Disturbed, in fact. That was the
substance of my conversation with Reddy. The poor man holds himself accountable
for the sinking of the CSS Hunley."

He gave me a peculiar look. "I’ve no idea why he should feel responsible
for the loss of a Confederate submersible, but that’s irrelevant. Captain
Reddy visited me before you filed and let me know that we could
not print a story that would portray DeGear as mad."

"So instead you printed a story that portrayed him as the author
of a hoax?"

"At the request of the United States Army."

"But why?"

"Reddy indicated it was because the military still relies on the
Professor’s expertise but that the government would look askance at an
expert who was publicly revealed to be of unsound mind."

I said I understood, but when I compared my story with what the Chronicle had
printed, I realized I didn’t understand. Certainly, I could see that it
might be better for DeGear to appear mischievous than mad, but why the
other alterations to the story?

There had been no scraped paint, wet or otherwise. Yes, the propellers
bent at a touch, but they also snapped back into place — seemingly unbreakable.
The craft had clearly not slid down the hill; it rested too far from its
base and had landed tail first. If it had slid down, its bow would
have been buried in the pasture, not its tail.

And then there was DeGear himself. I recalled his conviction when I first
pulled him from the wreck that he had flown to the unlucky spot. I recalled
just as clearly the moment at which he had come to himself. He had swooned.
The man was clearly disturbed. It seemed cruel to paint him as a hoaxer
for the sake of being able to use his intellect to military advantage.

I resolved to find Professor DeGear and interview him again. To that end,
I checked the local hospitals, starting with the Almshouse. I was out of
luck. None of them had received Jack DeGear or his companion, whom I knew
only as "Harry." I gave descriptions of both men, thinking that
perhaps Captain Reddy had given fictitious names to the hospital.

I was in the midst of an earnest discourse with a stern but pretty admissions
nurse at St. Mary’s when it struck me as almost a physical blow: Jack DeGear
being mentally disturbed might explain his presence in the ill-fated "airship," but
what of his companion?

I had stopped speaking in mid-sentence, causing the nurse to look at me
with concern.

"Are you all right, sir?" she asked. "Would you like a
glass of water?"

"No. No, thank you, miss. I require something substantially stronger
than that."

I left the hospital with curiosity burning a hole in my stomach. One mad
inventor was credible — if only just. Two stretched credulity considerably.

Supposing that Captain Reddy must have taken the crash victims to a military
hospital, I presented myself at the Presidio, asking after the officer.
I had no luck. All three men seemed to have vanished from the face of the
earth.

I remembered the name Professor DeGear had dropped: Darius Green. The
late Darius Green, DeGear had said. Here, I had better fortune. My journalistic
contacts led me to a story from the Midwest that placed an inventor named
Darius Green at the center of a series of sightings of unidentifiable flying
machines not unlike DeGear’s Seraph.

Several reporters had filed stories on the sightings. Some were scoffing.
Some were ambiguous. Most described glorified balloons. But one, dating
from three summers previous, dealt with the crash of something distinctly
un-balloon-like.

The crash had claimed the life of one Darius Green, inventor.

Fascinated, I wrote to the reporter of record — Stephen Deering of Topeka,
Kansas, told him about my own experience, and awaited a reply. It was not
long in coming.

"I wish," he wrote, "that I had never reported that story,
for life has been hell since. I have gained the unwelcome reputation as
a gullible crank, and no newspaper hereabouts will hire me. I have been
living hand-to-mouth as a freelancer, and am planning to come to California,
where I hope to rebuild my career. Be careful of this story, my friend:
do not get caught up in it."

He shared some details of his own experience, including the circumstances
of Dr. Green’s accident. Green had attempted to launch his airship from
the top of a bluff. The machine had apparently glided some yards
before plummeting to earth, severely injuring its passenger.

"The local cavalry took the wreck away," Deering continued, "and
that was that. Except that I when I inquired at Fort Riley some days later,
I was told that Dr. Green, whom I had hopes of interviewing, had died of
his injuries."

A literal dead end. And in the time that had passed since the wreck of
the Seraph, the trail in San Francisco had also grown cold. Even
so, I found it impossible to simply shrug and walk away, if for no other
reason than that I felt a fool. I had been duped — either by Jack DeGear
with his "flights of fancy," or by Captain Reddy with his alternating
tales of madness and chicanery. The greatest irony was that I didn’t know
which.

As the month of February wound down and I was no further along than I
had been, I sat down to determine a next step. I started with two theories:
The Two Madmen Theory and the Two Hoaxers Theory. Then I laid out the facts
to see which of the two they best fit. At the end of the process I had
more questions than answers.

If, as Reddy claimed, DeGear was unstable and under watch, how was he
able to conceal such a monumental machine, transport it to a remote location,
and attempt to launch it into the air? Moreover, how was he able to draw
a co-conspirator into the "experiment?" Whatever the answer,
it hardly spoke well of Captain Reddy’s guardianship.

And what of his confederate? If Harry wasn’t mad, what was he doing in
such a dubious contraption in the first place? Unless he was a willing
partner in a hoax.

But, if this was a hoax who was the target? And why? One would assume
a hoaxer’s object would be to fool as many people as possible. What was
to be gained by hoaxing a handful of midnight tipplers and a pasture full
of cows?

When Jack DeGear claimed to have flown the craft, he was injured and addled — possibly
even concussed. Hardly, one would think, capable of keeping up a hoax.
Even seeing his companion unconscious didn’t jar him from his story.

But something had.

Madness or hoax — neither made sense. Nothing made sense…unless
Green and now DeGear really had been attempting to fly some sort of experimental
craft that the Army did not want known.

I reread Stephen Deering’s account of the Topeka incident. The crash had
occurred some time after midnight well outside of town. The cavalrymen
from Fort Riley had carted the wreck away.

I returned to the Presidio and tried again to contact Reddy, asking the
clerk to whom I spoke to tell the Captain I wished to confirm the death
of a Professor Darius Green of Topeka, Kansas in a aerial mishap. The blank-faced
young corporal gave every evidence that he thought me a complete crackpot,
raising the ghost of Stephen Deering’s warning. I went away half hoping
that if Reddy received my message, he would ignore me.

Two weeks went by during which I heard no word from the Presidio. On the
first day of March I put away my notes on the affair. On the evening of
the same day, I received a telegram from Stephen Deering.

"Flying ship sighted in Uvalde, Texas last spring," it read. "Interested?"

God help me, I was. And so, it would appear, was Stephen Deering, for
he had ignored his own advice, gotten caught up in the story, and chased
it all the way to the Lone Star state.

 

Uvalde, TX, April 22, 1896: That Uvalde has been visited by the
famous airship that has created so much excitement in Texas, there is
no room to doubt. The airship was sighted by Sheriff H.W. Baylor
around 10 o’clock Tuesday evening.

Mr. Baylor’s attention was first attracted by a bright light
and the sound of strange voices in back of his residence. He went out
to investigate and was surprised to find there the airship and a crew
of three men. They stated they were on a trial trip and did not wish
their presence known to the people of the town.

One of the men, who gave his name as Wilson, inquired for Capt. C.C.
Acres, former Sheriff of Svala County who he understood lived in this
section. He said he had met Capt. Acres at Fort Worth in 1877 and would
be much pleased to meet him again. When told that Capt. Acres was at
Eagle Pass in the customs service and often visited this place, he asked
to be remembered to the Captain on the occasion of his next visit.

After procuring water at the hydrant in Mr. Baylor’s yard, the
men boarded the ship, its great fins and wings were set in motion, and
it sped away northward in the direction of San Antonio.

Mr. Baylor is thoroughly reliable and his statement is undoubtedly
true. His description of the ship does not differ materially from
that given by Mr. J.R. Liggin at Bowmont. County Clerk Henry J. Bowles
also claims to have seen the airship as it passed up Getty Street north
of the Baylor residence. — The Dallas
Star

 

"Never arrived in San Antonio, though," said the young man
sitting across the table from me. He had been watching my face as I read
the story from a carefully cropped page of the Star.

"The description is enough like DeGear’s Seraph as to be the
same ship." I handed the article back across the table. "Have
you sought to interview the men mentioned in this story?"

Stephen Deering nodded. "Baylor, Liggin, and Bowles, yes — Acres
is no longer in the area. All three were…evasive. Which I found a bit
surprising considering the statements they obviously gave immediately after
the events. Baylor has it that he thinks he was hoaxed — that the machine
was a lighter-than-air balloon dressed up to look like something else."

"Truly? Odd, that was one explanation that wasn’t advanced
in the San Francisco incident." I took out the article that had appeared
under my byline in the Chronicle, handed it to him, and watched
him as carefully as he had watched me while he read it.

He raised his eyes to mine almost immediately. "Galvanized iron?
Not silvered fabric?"

"It landed heavily enough to have buried its tail section in a cow
pasture. I felt the thing with my own hands — it was neither fabric nor
galvanized iron — too rigid for one; too light for the other."

"What then?"

"A new alloy, perhaps. Something very thin and light, but metallic
in appearance. Whatever else she was, the Seraph of the Cow Meadow was not lighter
than air."

"Mr. Baylor never touched the machine," Deering said thoughtfully. "If
there was a machine."

"Why would Baylor make up something like this? Why would anyone?"

"Notoriety? The idea of a few rounds of free drinks will make some
men do foolish things."

True. "I would like to interview Acres. Consider how odd it is for
a man — supposedly on a secret test flight — to announce himself to the first
witness who shows up and to plant a name in his ear. Why do that?"

"I suspect that only Misters Acres and Wilson know the answer to
that question. The article says Acres is in Eagle Pass. Are you ready for
another train trip?"

I put the article back into my wallet and finished off my coffee, which
was all but cold. "Not at the moment. I’d rather investigate locally."

He stood. "What do you have in mind?"

 

Sheriff Baylor had thick salt and pepper hair and the build of a grizzly
bear. His expression, when he heard of our intent to question him further
about the sighting, was also reminiscent of that impressive beast. We’d
met in a tavern of Baylor’s choosing; he had not wanted us to come
to his house.

"I told you, Mr. Deering," he said to my companion, "I
was hoaxed. Why, I have no idea. But I saw nothing more than a dollied-up
balloon. I feel a fool."

I was not above pleading. "Sheriff, I’ve traveled all the
way from San Francisco to look into this. I beg your indulgence. Please
hear me out."

"San Francisco? What brings you here from San Francisco?"

"Three months ago in a pasture outside of town I saw something very
much like what you described in your original account. The chief difference
being that I was able to lay hands on the machine and know it to be of
heavier construction than a hot-air balloon."

Baylor reddened. "That’s as may be, but what I saw — well,
it must have been a balloon."

I leaned forward in my chair, leaning my elbows on the table. "I’m
curious, Sheriff, about the man or men involved in this…hoax. Who would
repeatedly perpetrate such a prank? You spoke to one of the men in the
craft?"

"Indeed I did." He eyed me suspiciously.

"He gave his name as Wilson?"

He nodded.

"The fellow I met called himself J.D. DeGear."

His lips twitched. "Name’s not familiar to me."

"Mr. Wilson asked after a C.C. Acres?"

Again the terse nod.

"An acquaintance of yours?" asked Stephen Deering with a meaningful
glace at me. Getting answers out of Henry Baylor was like trying to extract
teeth from a chicken.

"He was Sheriff before me. I was his deputy."

Deering swirled his beer glass about in the watery track it had left on
the table. "How did Wilson come to speak to you?"

"He approached me while the other two gentlemen were attempting
to disentangle the craft from the branches of a cottonwood tree and asked
if I would pass along his greeting to Captain Acres."

"Captain?"

"Ex-cavalryman."

"So Mr. Wilson took you aside," I said, "out of hearing
of the others?"

He frowned at that, his ferocious white brows colliding over the bridge
of his nose. "I hadn’t considered it before, but now that you
mention it, yes — our conversation was private."

"Then he just…flew away."

He flushed again. "Floated. Look, this isn’t a welcome subject for
me. I looked an idiot."

I held up my hand to stay him a moment more. "One last thing: did
Mr. Wilson give a first name, by chance?"

Again, the twitch of lips. "Initials only — J.D."

 

"You think Wilson’s behavior is significant," Deering
observed.

We were seated in a passenger car of the San Antonio Railroad speeding
southwest to Eagle Pass.

"J.D. DeGear dropped the name ‘Darius Green’ in my ear," I
returned. "Very deliberately, it seems to me. Just as it appears J.D. Wilson dropped
another name on another witness some time earlier."

"Let’s assume for a moment that DeGear and Wilson are the same
man. Why the name dropping? Let’s suppose he intended you to try to find
Darius Green. The man is dead."

"Is he?"

Deering graced me with a sly look. "All right, I’m willing to admit
that I don’t know that Darius Green is dead. I was told he
was dead."

"Dead or alive, I think DeGear/Wilson intended Sheriff Baylor — or
someone he spoke to — to be intrigued enough to try to locate C.C. Acres.
And if that’s the case, then he most likely intended me to go off
looking for Dr. Green. The question is: what was I supposed to find?"

"Me?"

An interesting thought. We’d both been at the end of our respective roads
when I contacted him. Yet, here we both were — chasing dropped names by
rail.

 

In the thirty years since the War, Eagle Pass had recovered well, notwithstanding
its violent history and its onetime occupation by Confederate troops. The
relatively new railroad connection had helped what had been a dying town
in the 50’s become a bustling hub of trade.

We found the Customs office without trouble and soon were behind closed
doors in the Captain’s office. Acres was a short, wiry fellow with black
hair that had gone silver at the temples. His skin was the color of the
local sandstone and of similar texture.

His intense gray eyes did not so much as waver when I explained our mission
to him by saying that we were trying to locate J.D. Wilson and that both
of us had seen what we supposed to be his "aircraft," and had
talked to Baylor.

"And Baylor sent you to me?"

"Not exactly. Mr. Baylor seemed quite embarrassed by the whole thing
and resisted discussing it. He was willing, however, to discuss J.D. Wilson.
We’re hoping you will be as well."

"That entirely depends on what you ask me about him."

"Then he’s not a figment of Sheriff Baylor’s imagination," said
my companion.

"Not at all. I became acquainted with him during my Army days at
Forth Worth in ’76."

"Had you known Mr. Wilson was experimenting with flight?" I
asked baldly.

He fixed me with a level gaze. "Jack Wilson was obsessed with flight
and had been since before I met him. He was a balloon man. The Army found
his specialty of potential benefit."

"Balloons only? No…heavier-than-air craft?"

That raised Acres’ eyebrows. "Heavier-than-air? Mr. Cranfeldt,
if something is heavier-than-air is it logical to suppose it will fly?
I’ll allow Jack did go on about something he was working on. Something
he said would astonish the world — but I supposed it related to aerial navigation.
He was a well-educated man and seemed to have the money with which to pursue
his investigations. As nearly as I could tell, he devoted most of his time
to them."

"He was privately funding this experimentation? I thought he worked
for the Army."

"Actually, it was through friendship with me that he came to the
Army’s attention — or it came to his."

"He didn’t serve in the Army during the War?"

He looked at me strangely. "Jack Wilson? He was all of twenty and
four when I met him. That would have made him twelve when the War started.
And from a moneyed family. As far as I know he entered the Army at Fort
Worth in 1877."

I did not trouble Captain Acres by telling him that his friend’s
recent experiences had aged him so as to make Reddy’s fiction credible
to me.

"From conversations we had," he continued, "it wouldn’t
surprise me that, having succeeded in constructing a practical airship
that solved whatever navigational problem he was working on, Jack
would hunt me up to show it to me."

"Then you trust Sheriff Baylor’s account of his sighting?"

"I’ve known Sheriff Baylor for many years, gentlemen. His statements
may be relied on as correct."

"Yet," said Deering, "he now believes himself to have been
hoaxed. If true, that means you are a victim once removed. You say Wilson
was a man of means; have you known him to use those means to perpetrate
elaborate hoaxes?"

Acres frowned. "How elaborate a hoax?"

"It appears that not once, but at least twice, Wilson — or someone
fitting his description — constructed a craft that had no hope whatever
of flying and pushed it off the top of a hill for reasons that remain a
mystery."

He grimaced. "I must admit, Jack had a goodly store of bravado.
While I’ve never known him to do anything dishonest, I have to allow he
had a flamboyant streak. It’s certainly more reasonable to suppose that
he committed these hoaxes than to believe he flew such a machine as you
describe."

Acres’ extreme care with words was not lost on me. "Can you speculate
as to why he should do this?"

"I suppose it’s possible he did not succeed in his avowed
intent and has found it necessary to resort to elaborate pranks to redeem
his reputation as an inventor."

"Ah, but here’s the odd thing: none of these pranks seems to have
been played out before an audience. The ‘crashes’ are always in relatively
remote places at odd hours of the night, and attended by mere handfuls
of people. What sort of prankster wastes his efforts for so small a return?"

Deering asked: "You said Mr. Wilson was obsessed with flight — do
you mean that literally? Was he…mad?"

When Acres didn’t respond, I added wryly: "I was told he had been
captured by the Confederates and forced to work on the design of the CSS Hunley,
which sank with all hands. Needless to say, I now realize the account was
fictional. Still, I feel compelled to ask: was he unstable?"

"I’d call Jack excitable, whimsical even. But unstable? I’d hate
to think it. But what else is there to believe?"

"Have you ever heard of a J.D. DeGear or a Darius Green?" asked
my colleague.

Acres became very still. "What do you know of Darius Green?"

"What do you know of him?" I countered.

"He was stationed at Fort Riley, west of Topeka, Kansas, at the
same time I was — about three years ago. That was just prior to my retirement
from military service."

"I met Professor Green," Deering told him, "in a manner
of speaking. I saw him unconscious and strapped into a metal machine that
he had apparently crashed while attempting to fly. He was later described
to me as a fraud. A dead fraud; I was told he succumbed to injuries."

Acres rose as if remaining seated was suddenly impossible. He moved to
the window of his tiny office, where he gazed out into the street. I first
thought that he meant simply to gather his thoughts, but realized he was
looking for something there.

He turned back to us. "What do you expect me to tell you?"

"Was it a hoax?" Deering asked, sitting forward in his chair. "Green’s
machine?"

"He intended it to fly," Acres said tersely. "It did
not."

"And J.D. DeGear’s machine in San Francisco?"

"I know nothing of that."

"I’m convinced my J.D. DeGear and your J.D. Wilson are the
same person," I said. "And…I’m more than half convinced
they are both Darius Green."

He said nothing, so pressed him. "Is Darius Green dead?"

"Let us say he has legally ceased to exist."

"Why?"

"I am unable to say."

"Because he designed balloons for the military? That hardly seems
likely. Because he is a brilliant engineer given to wild pranks? Possibly.
Or because, as Captain Reddy would have me believe, he’s mentally
unbalanced and obsessed with flight?"

"Reddy!" He gave me the full intensity of his eyes. "He
was with Reddy?"

"You know Captain Reddy, sir?" asked Deering.

Acres collected himself with obvious effort. "I do. He has for some
time been my friend’s…amanuensis. Reddy is a dedicated soldier."

Amanuensis? The man had behaved more like a commandant. "Captain
Reddy represented himself to me as the Professor’s guardian."

Acres snorted. "Perhaps that’s as good a word as any."

"The Captain indicated to me that his charge was mentally unsound,
and in fact, DeGear all but corroborated it when I interviewed him some
hours after the crash. He apologized for leading me to believe the vessel
had actually flown some distance and — "

"Flown?" Captain Acres said, again focusing the full force
of his gaze on my face. "He claimed it had flown? How far?"

I shrugged. "I have no idea. He merely said that they’d been flying
along at about two hundred feet when suddenly they went down. Then later,
with Reddy present, he recanted the statement and disappeared. Along with
his flying companion."

When he said nothing, I asked bluntly: "Who is our Professor of
many names?"

"He is, as you suggest, a brilliant engineer and inventor. The Army
has invested much in his ideas and has reaped some benefit. A craft that
can fly above cloud cover to drop ordnance on an enemy army is quite a
powerful weapon to have in one’s arsenal."

"Brilliant, but unstable?"

Acres gave me a particularly direct look. "He has no connection
to the Hunley, Mr. Cranfeldt. He was never captured by Confederates.
He never served in the War."

I conceded that. "Brilliant, but given to outrageous jests?"

"You said it yourself — for whose benefit? Who perpetrates a grandiose
hoax for an audience of Holsteins?"

"Ah. You’re familiar with the San Francisco incident after
all," I observed. "I never mentioned the cows."

He smiled. "You’re good, Mr. Cranfeldt. I suspect you may
have a long career ahead of you as a newspaper man…if you don’t
affront the wrong people."

Deering and I both took note at that.

"Are you threatening us, Captain Acres?" he asked.

"No sir. I am warning you that some questions are best left unanswered."

"I’m not certain I can agree with that sentiment," I
said. "But let me ask just one more: If he’s not of unsound
mind and he’s not setting up a monumental hoax — perhaps against journalists
as a breed — then why is he dropping clues and names all over the country?
In the guise of J.D. DeGear, he told me about Darius Green, which prompted
me to contact Mr. Deering. In the guise of J.D. Wilson, he dropped your
name on Sheriff Baylor — one assumes to induce him to contact you. Why?"

"I don’t know."

"Do you know where he might be?"

"To continue in this course could be extremely foolhardy, gentlemen."

"Then you may call us fools."

Acres returned to his chair. "About twelve miles northeast of here
on an old farm road is a long mesa you may find of interest. Folks around
here occasionally tell tales about it." He opened his mouth as if
to say more, then shook his head. "I’ve already said more than
I should have under the circumstances."

"What circumstances would those be?" I asked, but he declined
to answer.

 

Closer to eleven miles outside of Eagle Pass on a thoroughly miserable
excuse for a road there was, as Captain Acres had said, an elongated mesa
reminiscent of a bluff Stephen Deering had once visited west of Topeka.
It was oriented south to north, the northern end being a precipice.

This formation also had a distinctive feature the Captain had not mentioned:
it was cut off from its environs by a fence. A prodigious fence, it seemed
to enclose the entire mesa and the shallow valley that lay at its foot.

We left the road and trotted our horses to the top of a smaller mesa a
handful of miles to the southeast, and from this vantage point surveyed
the land. The first thing we noted was that the valley was not empty. Along
the base of the mesa lay a clutter of low buildings, including a peculiar
structure that looked like an oversized Iroquois longhouse.

We followed the fence with our field glasses, finding no egress but a
hard-packed track that led up to a guardhouse. In and about this building
were several soldiers whose unenviable job it was to stare endlessly at
the unmoving landscape.

While I was engaged in trying to espy another less conspicuous entrance,
Deering studied the mesa. After several moments, he cried out, pointing.
I turned my own glasses to the mesa and immediately saw what had caused
his excitement; a machine that could have been DeGear’s Seraph was perched
on the wind-swept top.

As we watched, the machine was turned toward the northern end of the mesa
by a group of uniformed men. Then it began to move toward the precipice,
gathering speed with every second. When it was within ten yards or so of
the cliff’s edge, its great wings unfurled and it bobbed upward.

And flew.

It rose from the lip of the mesa into the air, the faint sound of its
propellers wafting back to us like the purr of a contented cat. It circled
over the valley at about 300 feet or so from the ground. The wings did
not move much, only taking an almost leisurely flap now and again or angling
into a turn.

There were two men aboard the vessel. All that could be seen of them was
their helmeted heads and shoulders. I could make out no features.

How long the ship flew, I couldn’t say, but we watched enthralled until
its riders brought it to earth once more, shuddering, bouncing, teetering,
but not crashing. It came to a rough stop, its wings folding as it slowed.
When it had ceased to move, its attendants scurried to secure it.

I let out an involuntary sigh and lowered my glasses, barely able to believe
what I’d just seen. It seemed our mysterious Professor had indeed invented
a practical airship.

"Here, Cranfeldt," Deering said to me, "see if this
is your Professor DeGear."

I raised my glasses again and trained them on the machine. Its driver
stepped from beneath the canopy of fabric that had held it impossibly aloft
and removed his bonnet. It was, indeed, the man I knew as Professor Jack
DeGear.

"Damn," said Deering, close to my ear. "I think we’ve
been spotted."

I pulled the glasses down and followed his gaze to the road that led out
of the fenced valley. Troops on horseback were moving out at a brisk pace.
We removed ourselves from the bluff and returned to Eagle Pass post haste.
From there we caught an immediate train back to San Antonio.

We relaxed only when the train had pulled out of the station without incident.
We saw neither hide nor hair of the cavalry.

"What does it all mean?" Deering asked.

"The Army is experimenting with heavier-than-air machines, apparently.
The tactical advantage of such craft is obvious: under the right conditions
they could drop ordnance without being seen. They don’t present as
big a target as the average balloon, they’re times faster, and therefore
less likely to be knocked out of the sky by conventional means."

"Provided they can stay aloft for any length of time."

"Yes. And if a marksman should by some fortune strike one, it would
not be punctured."

"But so much secrecy. Why? Do they fear that other countries will
try to duplicate their efforts?"

"A good guess, sir. And also that nosy reporters will fly these secrets
from the mastheads of their sensation-hungry newspapers."

We looked up to find ourselves captive to the steady gaze of Captain Reddy.
He was in full uniform, right down to the yellow buckskin gloves. He slid
into the seat next to Deering and kitty-corner to me.

"What did you see this afternoon?" he asked.

"You know what we saw. I saw the so-called Seraph of the Air. Deering
saw the same ship he saw outside Topeka. Only this time, we saw it fly."

Reddy looked down at his gloved hands and nodded. "And you intend
to publish your revelations, do you?"

"Is there some reason we should not?" my colleague asked.

"National security?"

I glanced at Deering and sighed. "I see. Would you be willing to
answer some of the questions we still have?"

"Only if I can do so without compromise."

"Understood. Green, DeGear, and Wilson — the same man?"

He nodded.

"The same airship?"

"The same design. Improved over time. This was the most successful
flight to date."

"Then the Professor is neither a trickster nor a madman."

Reddy chuckled. "Well, I sometimes think him a madman, but no, he
is no trickster. His machines fly."

"Which makes them of great military significance."

"Indeed."

"And how do you account for the fact that he seems intent on arousing
curiosity?"

Reddy’s brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"

"He put me onto Darius Green himself, and he intentionally mentioned
Captain Acres to Sheriff Baylor."

The Captain was silent for a moment, then said: "I said I thought
him a little mad. I suppose a man would have to be a bit mad to focus so
completely on the impossible that he made it merely improbable."

I must have looked skeptical, for Reddy shook his head and added: "Professional
pride, Mr. Cranfeldt. John Darius Wilson — and that is his real name — is
a genius. A man of radical ideas and singular focus. If he were in private
practice as an inventor and engineer, he would most likely be both famous
and wealthy. As it is, he has done what no man has done before and can
tell no one. He simply wishes to be known. And he does not want
posterity to regard him as a charlatan."

I nodded, and Deering said: "We, at least, will not regard him as
such."

"I’ll tell him that. He will appreciate it. May I count on
your discretion, gentlemen?"

"Have we a choice?"

"Certainly, but as you well know, Mr. Deering, to come forward with
such things can be disastrous for your journalistic career."

This was the end of our journey, then. We sat atop the truth, but were
now obliged to ignore it.

 

Stephen Deering returned with me to San Francisco since his career in
Topeka was through. Andrew Sawyer was pleased to have him. He seemed unconcerned
by Stephen’s troubles at the Topeka Capitol Journal.

"I suspect your young friend simply ran afoul of the Army," he
told me.

"What makes you say that?" I asked, for I had told him nothing
of our trek to Texas.

"You forget: I’ve met Captain Reddy."

By mid-summer I thought of the Professor and his improbable machine only
to wonder if I would have occasion to see them used in battle. If the Professor
had dropped clues on any other eager reporters, I never heard of it.

So, on one of my evening visits to Sunnyside House, I was surprised to
have a man slide onto the stool next to me and say: "You gave up."

I swallowed my beer too quickly, coughed, and glanced up into the weary
face of our Flying Professor. He was dressed in a long driving coat and
wore a large, floppy hat.

"Well, Dr. DeGear!" I said. "Or would that be Dr. Green,
or perhaps Dr. Wilson?"

"So, you got that far."

"Reddy didn’t tell you?"

"Reddy told me only that my attempts to communicate with ‘outsiders’
were neither effective nor appreciated."

"Why do you do it?" I asked him. "Reddy has it that you
want someone to recognize your achievements."

"My achievements? Mr. Cranfeldt, all I’ve done is to take what was
given to me and…make use of it."

"You invented a flying machine," I reminded him.

"I designed it, but its motive power and materials are not of my
design."

"What does that mean?"

He glanced over his shoulder at the door of the tavern, which had just
opened to admit a trio of men, one of which was the ubiquitous Captain
Reddy.

He turned back to me, mouth twisting. "Things fall from the sky,
Mr. Cranfeldt. Dangerous things. Things we perhaps should not have found."

Captain Reddy was directly behind us now, the two taller men flanking
him on either side. "Professor, I really must insist that you return
to the Presidio."

"Yes, of course."

The Professor’s voice was dry and flat. He slid from his stool and faced
his custodians, and I swear he had aged twenty years in the handful of
seconds I had taken my eyes from him. Shoulders stooped, he took a step
toward the tavern door, then turned back to afford me a last look.

"Pray we do not find ourselves in war too soon, Mr. Cranfeldt."

"I pray we will not find ourselves in war at all, Professor."

He left the tavern, slumped between his guardians.

Captain Reddy stayed behind for a moment to speak to me. He was dressed
in civilian clothes tonight, but that did not disguise the cavalry in him.

"Your ward seems bent on escaping you," I observed. "Why?"

He shrugged. "A prideful man, our Professor."

"He seemed more fearful than prideful to me."

"He is also a fragile man in some ways."

I nodded. "Oh, yes. I forgot. Brilliant but unstable."

Reddy regarded me steadily for a moment, then said: "There’s more
than a little truth to that, Mr. Cranfeldt. I spend a good deal of my time
protecting Dr. Wilson from himself."

"I’m not sure I believe you."

He shrugged. "Believe what you will, sir. Now, I’ll bid you good
evening and apologize for the Professor’s persistence." He touched
the brim of his hat and turned to go.

"What did he mean," I asked, "things fall from the sky?"

Reddy hesitated before turning back to face me. "Would you believe
me if I told you he was talking about meteorites?"

"No."

He sighed deeply, his eyes roaming the floor at his feet. At last he stepped
toward me and met my gaze. "Dr. Wilson believes his Seraph is constructed
of materials that did not originate on this earth. He thinks that ships fall
from the sky, Mr. Cranfeldt. Ships from other worlds. We have shown him
the mines from which the metals have come, but the Professor persists in
believing that we are providing him with ‘alien’ materials."

For a moment I couldn’t speak. "If I were to ask him…" I said
at last.

"He would tell you the same thing. With the obvious exception that
the mines we showed him were for show. If you doubt me, I can arrange for
you to hear it from his own lips."

I read his eyes. He was serious.

"So," I said at last, "your original story was the truest
of all."

"So it would seem, Mr. Cranfeldt. Now, if you will excuse me, I must
get the Professor back to the Presidio."

Again, he touched the brim of his hat and made his way across the barroom
floor and out into the night.

I fell back on habit, attempting to catalogue this newest information
with all the previous facts and fantasies Stephen Deering and I had collected.
It fit well…and not at all.

Madman. Hoaxer. Alarum bell? I could not help but note one thing: other
than giving himself several pseudonyms — or perhaps simply accepting ones
he had been given — Professor John Darius DeGear/Green/Wilson had never
once lied to me.

I considered his words now: Things fall from the sky. Things we perhaps
should not have found
.

I started to order up another beer, then amended my request. Rum was required
for this line of thought. Were I drunk enough, I might wrap my mind around
the Professor’s words, but not now. Not sober.

I thought of my friend, Stephen Deering. Was he, I wondered, as my thoughts
blurred comfortingly, ready for another crusade?