The morning was quiet and intensely humid. Professor Thaddeus Lowe emerged from General McClelland's spacious wall tent, observing the atmospheric conditions. He signaled his assistant to inflate the Enterprise. A portable gas generator chugged to life and within moments, the flimsy woven shell fluttered, hydrogen gas awakening the sleeping balloon. Thaddeus quietly monitored the familiar procedure.
A rich baritone voice pealed melodiously nearby. Thaddeus turned to see an older man hunched over a large cast iron kettle, slicing potatoes in the shade of a giant oak.
"Good Morning," Thaddeus greeted, approaching the man.
"Mornin', Professor Lowe."
"You know who I am?" he asked, pleased.
"Y'r pretty famous down in these parts," he said, extending a calloused hand. "Gabe's, m’ name."
"How long have you been serving the Army of the Potomac?" Thaddeus inquired, dropping into the cool shade.
"Jus' got here," he replied, eyes twinkling. "I go wherever m' Commander sends me."
"Ev'ry army needs its share of good cooks."
"I reckon," Gabe nodded.
"I'm sure the men are going to appreciate vegetables. Taters beat that God forsaken hard tack any day."
"Hard tack ain't manna, f'r sure," Gabe agreed, flashing a toothy grin.
"Thaddeus," a voice barked several yards away, "the Enterprise will be ready in five minutes."
The Enterprise, inflated with gas and adorned with American Flags, swayed proudly over the Union encampment. Thaddeus pushed to stand; Gabe gripped Thaddeus' arm firmly, slowing his progress. Thaddeus stared into a pair of intense eyes.
"I got a question for y', Professor Lowe," Gabe stated solemnly. "Is y'r work dangerous?"
"A few cannons have thrown six-pounders through the rigging of my balloon," he nodded. "When I get out of range, the Rebs stand there, shaking their fists, yelling curses...If profanities could bring the gas bag down, I'd be a goner," he chuckled, snatching a potato slice, popping it into his mouth.
Gabe's eyes narrowed. "If y' get shot down, Professor, are y' goin' up or down?"
"Well, obviously with the force of gravity..."
"I ain't talkin' about gravity," Gabe interrupted. "Are y' goin' up or down?" he asked, pointing for emphasis.
"Oh, I see. You're not only a cook…but let me guess…you’re a circuit riding preacher too."
"Consider me a messenger," Gabe responded. "Y' really ought to have a talk with th' chaplain."
"Thank-you," Thaddeus said, backing away uncomfortably. "I'll take your advice into consideration. But now I need to get up to my observation post. The General awaits information about the Rebel's whereabouts."
Thaddeus hurried to the balloon, examined the tethered cables, and the signaling apparatus. Inspection completed, he nodded approval to his assistant. He retrieved field glasses from his pocket and wiped his perspiring brow on the sleeve of his frock coat. His assistant, James, knelt and cupped his hands to boost Thaddeus into the basket.
His assistant stood, looking at Thaddeus curiously.
"I was just asked an interesting question. Do you ever think about what happens after we die?"
James' jaw tightened. "Ev'ry time I hear a cannon roar or see a soldier lying on the battlefield...Who've you been talkin’ to Thaddeus?"
"The cook," he indicated over his shoulder.
“The cook sitting over there under...” Thaddeus’ voice trailed off into stunned silence. The oak stood lonely; the cook no longer prepared food in its welcome shade. Thaddeus scanned the area, and then sprinted to the tree. He scoured the base, looking for proof of his recent encounter. Gabe and the cast iron kettle had vanished. He shuffled back to the balloon, wide-eyed, shaking his head in disbelief.
A small band of soldiers now crowded around the Enterprise, gawking at the novelty, anticipating lift-off. Thaddeus pushed his way through the swarm, ignoring cheers and well wishes. He stumbled wildly and lunged for the basket’s rim, his head spinning, mind racing out of control.
A steady hand rested upon his shoulder. “Thaddeus, are you ok?” James asked, concerned.
"James," his voice croaked. "Delay the ascension. I need to go talk to the chaplain about going up!"
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