The Engineer Wore Venetian Red—Excerpt 2

As they floated down to the island on a short approach, Daisy could see Barnaby keeping a close eye on the party approaching across the water. 

“Those horses seem to me to be exceedingly well trained,” she murmured to him. “I have never known a horse to walk anywhere but upon solid ground.”

“That bridge appears to be made of pontoons, but even so, the swell is heaving them up and down,” Freddie said. “Someone is sure to be tossed in at any moment. You do not suppose we will have to ride them, do you?”

“Those are not live horses,” Barnaby said in wondering tones. Iris dropped lower, and as she hovered a mere fifty feet above the grassy airfield, they could see the approaching horses in more detail. “They are mecaballos—only these seem to have been adapted for civilian use.”

Mecaballos! Of course they were. It was not their harness flashing in the sun, but their mechanical bodies. 

“Cut the engines, vanes vertical,” they heard Captain Boyle say, and Iris settled into position in front of the lone mooring mast.

The ten-year-old Boyle twins, Luke and Rebecca, scampered down the gangway and made her fast, and tied her stern down with their own mooring irons. 

Peony inclined her head toward Barnaby. “Mr. Hayes, since you claim friends here, will you escort me to meet this rather terrifying delegation?”

“I would be honored,” he said with a gallant bow. “But first, someone must help me with my jacket.”

She did so with grave solicitude, draping it over the left arm, still in its sling. He was gaining strength and movement every day, but Daisy thought a gunshot wound must be very painful, no matter how well treated it had been by their friends in Bodie, and by Mrs. Boyle since.

Escorted by a watchful Captain Boyle, flanked by Dinah and Timothy with hands resting lightly on their Colt revolvers, they disembarked to await their visitors.

A track covered the short distance from the water, and one rider separated himself from the others, leaning over the gleaming metal withers of his mount and urging it up the gentle slope and out on to flat ground. He tore off his black-brimmed hat and waved it with all the excitement of a schoolboy.

“Evan!” Barnaby snatched off his own bowler to wave in acknowledgment and half-walked, half ran out from under the shadow of Iris’s fuselage. 

“Well met, old man!” Evan Douglas, privy councilor to the Viceroy, was not the sober personage of middle age that Daisy had been envisioning. He leaped from the back of the mecaballo, lithe as any athlete and hardly older than Barnaby or Peony themselves. 

“Easy—” Barnaby stretched out his good hand before Evan could seize him in a hug. “Got shot in Bodie. By George, what a sight for sore eyes you are!”

Evan seized his hand instead, his face alight, his eyes taking in every detail of his friend’s well-being. He wore a suit of fine black wool, its short jacket decorated wondrously with black embroidery, its trousers trimmed down the sides with silver medallions joined by fine silver chains. 

“I don’t believe anyone has ever been so welcome.” Belatedly, he seemed to realize that Barnaby was not alone. “Do introduce me to your friends, and then I will take you to meet my Isabela and the others.”

“With pleasure. Evan Douglas, Minister of Magnificent Devices, may I present Miss Peony Churchill.”

“Goodness me, such a title.” Peony offered her gloved hand and curtseyed as he took it. “Mr. Douglas, I have heard much of you.”

“You may blame the Viceroy for my title, Miss Churchill. I had nothing to do with it. I know of your mother, and both Lady Hollys and Mrs. Fremont have spoken highly of you. I had a letter from Gloria just a few days ago, in fact, informing me that you were in the country.”

“In which case one is obliged to call,” she said, her dimples flashing.

Goodness, Daisy thought. I would not dare to speak that way to a privy councilor of a foreign nation! But Peony is markedly unlike anyone else, and people seem to forgive her nearly anything.

“One certainly must call,” he said with a laugh. “And your friends?”

“Mr. Douglas, may I present my crew. This is Captain  Alturas Boyle, and his wife Persis. First Engineer Dinah Boyle, their niece, and Navigator Timothy Boyle, their nephew. And these rapscallions are their children, Lucas and Rebecca Boyle.”

Evan shook hands, clearly aware that Captain Boyle was giving him the once-over. “It is a pleasure to welcome you to San Francisco de Asis, Captain, Mrs. Boyle. And your crew. You have the distinction of being the first civilian ship to moor here.”

“Mrs. Fremont’s ships have not yet come?” the captain asked. “I understood that one of her vessels had preceded us.”

“Yes indeed,” he agreed. “At present it is serving as a school for aeronauts. You will see them practicing lifts and landings there.” He pointed a little south of where the pontoon bridge terminated on the other side.

“How many students have you, sir?” Dinah asked with interest.

He hesitated. “Three.”

“Three!” she repeated in disbelief. “Gracious, there were thirty in my graduating class alone.”

“We are but planting seeds as yet,” he said. “Classes are taught by the president of the Viceregal Society of Engineers herself. My fiancée is a student, and the youngest member of the palace guard another. Here is a name you will remember, Barnaby. Captain de Sola’s eldest son is eighteen and was so determined to become our third student that he abandoned his obligatory trip to Spain and has postponed his formal education indefinitely.”

“Flying will educate him better than anything,” Dinah said with a nod. 

“But you have not met our young ladies,” Barnaby said, smiling at the young woman’s conviction. “Evan, may I present Miss Daisy Linden and her sister Frederica.”

Daisy dropped a curtsey, and Frederica another. “We are honored, sir. Imagine our amazement at the manner of your transport across the water. In the Texican Territories they called them mecaballos—mechanical horses.”

Evan looked pleased at Daisy’s knowledge. “Indeed they do. I have heard May Lin use the term, too. They are surprisingly adaptable. Machines are merely a hobby for me, but May Lin—I beg her pardon, Madam President of our fledgling society of engineers, has taught me more than all my professors at university ever did. Repurposing the mecaballos was my first project. But come. Isabela will be storming up here on her own mount if I do not bring you along.”

“Bring us along … where, sir?” Peony asked.

“Why, to the palace,” he said in some surprise. “His Serene Highness saw you from the council chamber and you can imagine the disarray the excise meeting fell into. He is anxious for news of Mrs. Fremont.”

“Is he, now?” Peony murmured with some interest.

“The Viceroy,” Captain Boyle murmured back. “Fancy that.”

“Shall we attend you, miss?” Dinah asked her employer.

“I should like your father with me, but as for you and Timothy, you ought to go where duty and interest call you,” Peony replied. “In short, were it up to me, I should say you ought to do as you like.”

“Now, miss, that is no way to maintain discipline,” Captain Boyle said firmly. “The two of you stay with the ship, if you please. I should not like Mrs. Boyle and the young ones marooned out here without protection.”

“They are quite safe,” Evan said earnestly. “A detachment of soldiers guards the shore side of the bridge, and the harbormaster has assigned a patrol to circle the island.”

“The same harbormaster who manages the ships in Buena Vista Cove?” the captain inquired.

“Yes.”

Captain Boyle gave a nod. “Then my engineer and navigator will remain close to Iris. Armed, sir, with your permission.”

Evan inclined his head in a nod, as though he did not want to argue with a guest, then offered his arm to Peony. “Shall we?”

Daisy half wished she could stay with Iris, too, and paint the vista she’d seen from the viewing ports, which was so unusual and awe-inspiring it must be committed to pigment and paper without delay. But already Barnaby was offering her his good arm. She could see that Freddie was agog to embark on this adventure—in a moment she would be edging close enough to Mr. Douglas to ask if she might ride his mecaballo, as she had done in Santa Fe. So Daisy smiled at the detective, settled her hat, and together they set off across the field.

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