Elouise stared at the contraption sitting squarely in the courtyard of the fancy inn. What appeared to be an over-sized picnic basket with prongs sticking upwards from its corners was tethered to a giant sack that was spread out to the far fence. Hugh was busy scrutinizing a large rotary fan billowing hot air into the balloon sack, and an old man, a guest of the inn, chatted excitedly beside him.
“Do you foresee this mode of transport becoming a common thing?” the old man clapped his hands together.
Hugh straightened, his face scrunching in pain from lower back stiffness after being bent for a little longer than he would have like and stared at the sky. “I’m sorry, old chap. We’re still figuring out proper laws for the existing aircraft. Mass personal aerial transport seems a little to big a scale to fathom as of currently,” he wiped his brow. He gazed fondly at the little hot air balloon in front of him however, imagining a number of them all afloat at the same time, in an orderly fashion of course, like lanterns in the sky during midsummer.
“Oh, Constable Roxton!” Elouise caught his attention, fluttering the wave of her arm. The lit in her voice annoyed even her, but for her amusement’s sake; made Hugh react like he had mistakenly eaten a particularly sharp lemon.
“E-Lady Rose! A good morning to you!” he forced a smile.
“What a wonderful-looking device! How is it going to help catch the Red Hound, though? Are you going to cast a net from above and hope he sits like a fish?” she sucked her cheeks in, trying to contain a joking sneer.
“Well, as a matter of fact,” Hugh reached into the basket and, with some effort, pulled out a cylindrical object that resembled a canon, but on a far more miniature scale. “Meet another of Norton’s ideas! This will propel a net up to eight feet away, when a man can only cast four. Here’s hoping with the added height advantage, I’ll be able to catch even a deer running at its full speed,” Hugh proudly showed off his new arm.
Unimpressed, and perhaps even a little sorry, Elouise gazed to the outside of the inn and its lush forest surrounding them. “I’m sorry, dear; but that net is only going to get stuck in a tree.”
Hugh’s face fell as he too turned to survey the landscape beyond the inn’s white fences.
“The young lady is right. A highwayman like the Red Hound is bound to make full use of the forest trails to escape so quickly. If you asked me, the traditional hunt would be the best option. Pity, I would have loved to see the balloon in motion,” the old man sighed.
Hugh carefully set the heavy net-shooter down and thought for a bit. “We could still use the balloon. Someone could provide a lookout, and a team could provide chase down below,” he looked to Elouise excitedly. “Like a crow’s nest!” the old man chipped in.
“Wonderful! When do we leave?” she trotted down the stone steps to him. “Right as the balloon is ready. Give it a half hour,” he beamed.
Elouise noticed the old man staring longingly at the balloon and gestured to Hugh silently with her eyes.
“I say, Sir Howendell, would you like to join me and Miss Rose in a little gallantry?” Hugh bowed politely. The old man beamed so brightly Hugh and Elouise had a glimpse at what a visually charming man he had been in his yesteryear.
“Well then, I shall tell the innkeeper to put together a hearty picnic for us and we shall be off! Aha!” the old man cheered and practically skipped his way up the steps and into the mansion.
“So, Howendell in the basket and us on horseback?” Elouise grinned. Hugh looked at her, a look of negative contemplation steadily tilting his features.
“What?” she crossed her arms.
“You… on a horse…,” he clicked his teeth for added effect, enjoying the sight of her glaring at him.
“You, trying to take down three men all by your lonesome, and a delightful old man,” she fired back.
They stood staring at each other for a while, contemplating their next words before mutually agreeing to shake hands in compromise. “We’ll tether the balloon to both our horses and you give me your reins, alright?” Hugh rubbed the back of his neck. Elouise nodded in agreement.
Half an hour later, Sir Howendell, a retired colonel, was enjoying the view of the lush forest around the inn and thee orchards to the east and south from a one-man hot air balloon. The city loomed in the far north, its coal smoke pillars blotting the blue sky above it. Sir Howendell hummed in pity, and turned his spyglass towards the highway connecting all the areas for any signs of a flash of brilliant silk red along the trails.
Below him, Hugh busied himself teaching Elouise how to carry herself atop a horse. “Straighten your back. And hold the saddle with your knees,” he nudged her with his riding crop.
“This is tiring!” she growled, smacking the leather rod away. Her rapier bounced on her calf, its belt chafing her sides already. “Remind me to take you on some proper lessons when we get home,” Hugh sighed.”We don’t ride horses back home,” she shook her head. Really, there wasn’t room, or even decency to pull out a riding horse in the ports. The poor beast would only amass street filth and nerve problems.
Two short hoots from Sir Howendell signaled a sighting. Hugh and Elouise fell silent, straining their ears for another horse in the vicinity. Sure enough, a din of two boisterous voices rang out from the yonder trail. Hugh drew his and Elouise’s horses into the trees, while she took care for the ropes anchoring the balloon not to get tangled in the overhead branches.
“Admit it! You have a fever for that trollop!” one of the voices bellowed excitedly. “Don’t call her that!” another voice responded. “Yes! Don’t call her that,” the sound of a slap followed the third voice. “Are ye gunna ride to ‘er window again?”
“Steal her sword for me, won’cha? A electric piece like that would be worth something,” the voices carried on. Hugh spotted a flash of bright red fluttering among the movement and looked at Elouise. To his surprise, she was blushing; clutching her sword close to her.