No. 3.―Across the Piso Mojado by Balloon.
IT HAPPENED ONCE when I was a young commander aboard the Conundrum, a frigate of the third class, that we received orders to take the city of Taquito from the Spanish garrison there. The orders had come from the very highest levels of the Admiralty. Vain it was to protest that Taquito was far in the interior of the colony and thus out of reach of the Conundrum; the thing had to be done by some means or other.
Since the captain appeared to be in a quandary, I volunteered to lead an expedition into the interior, across the treacherous Piso Mojado, which (as a glance at any comprehensive atlas will tell you) separates Taquito from the coastal plain. The captain warned me that it was a suicide mission at best, but I was full of youthful bravado, and filled with a confidence that was probably unjustified by my experience. I was given a small number of handpicked men; two, in fact, one of them the ship’s cook’s assistant and the other a stowaway who had been kept in the brig. With this force I was ordered to expel the Spanish garrison, which our best sources estimated to consist of roughly two thousand men.
After a trifling incident in which I was mistaken for an incarnation of the demon-god Picante, who is invariably represented with a prominent mustache similar to the one I have always worn, we received a friendly reception at the port of Basso Profundo;―for the rebellion had entirely succeeded in banishing the Spanish from the coast. The native Mayor, or Mayor as they say in the local dialect, welcomed us heartily, and insisted on opening his own house to me. There his good wife regaled us with a hearty dinner of pise con cuidado, the well-known local delicacy, and in the course of our conversation I learned something singularly to our advantage.
It seemed that there was a young man in the town who not only was an accomplished aeronaut, but also possessed his own balloon, in which he frequently took honeymoon couples for an aerial view of the municipal wire works. He was a strange fellow, the Mayor told us, and a bit of an occultist, but of a friendly and pliant disposition. With this balloon, and its owner as our guide, we might effect a crossing of the Piso Mojado with no need for the climbing gear, salad tongs, Phillips-head screwdrivers, and phenakistoscopes normally required by travelers in that inhospitable region.
We wasted no time: the next morning we contracted with the aeronaut to carry the three of us across the Piso Mojado. Even after we had established to his satisfaction that I was not the demon-god Picante, his deficient knowledge of our language, and our equal ignorance of his barbarous dialect, made it a little difficult for us to communicate our intentions; but eventually we came to an understanding, the aeronaut being under the impression that we were a honeymoon couple and their manservant. I am to this day not entirely sure which one of us he thought was the bride.
Our flight went well at first, and I allowed myself some premature satisfaction at the apparent success of my plan. Just as we had almost reached Taquito, however, we suddenly heard shots from below; and you can imagine our consternation when we looked down and beheld on the ground a number of swift horsemen pursuing our balloon. It seems that the local tribal elders, or Jussars, had also mistaken me for the demon-god Picante, against whom they had an ancient grudge, and who was frequently represented as flying across the sky suspended from a giant beetle. Even as our aeronaut guide was conveying this information by means of the most animated gestures, one of the shots penetrated our balloon. It was not enough to bring us down, but two or three more like it would be enough.
I could think of only one thing to do. Communicating my meaning by elaborate hand signals, accompanied by such scraps of Wagner as I could recall, I persuaded our guide to make use of his occult knowledge. Once he grasped my meaning, the aeronaut set to work with a will, and in short order had a circle drawn on the floor of the balloon. He then chanted some barbarous phrases in a low monotone, and in only a few moments we were rewarded with an apparition of the real demon-god Picante in all his terrifying malevolence. The fiery face of the angry deity filled half the sky, and the Jussars, his natural enemies and the ones against whom he directed his wrath, turned and fled immediately, pursued over hill and valley by the awful supernatural manifestation.
When we arrived in Taquito, we discovered that the Spanish garrison, terrified at the sight of the angry demon, had fled in confusion into the jungle, where I understand that the demon-god Picante turned them all into okapis, an animal until then unknown in those parts. The natives, who were more accustomed to the occasional manifestations of the demon, had simply covered their ears until the noise was over; and so we were welcomed as heroes who had liberated them from the Spanish yoke. It was on the strength of this victory that I was given the rank of captain, and some of you may already have read the story of my first command, in which I ended the Spanish War once and for all. In this case, however, I must say that, although honesty forbids me to discount my part in the affair altogether, I owed some of my success to the demonic powers: a thing that has always prevented me from feeling that entire satisfaction that ought to come from a job well done.