Authors: Frances Watts
But you’re so brave! Remember how you climbed that tall tree to rescue my sister Mavis?’
‘That was different,’ Ernie tried to explain. ‘Mavis was in danger. I didn’t stop to think.’
‘Well, I’d love to ride in a hot-air balloon,’ Maud said dreamily. Then her face fell. ‘But it’s probably one more thing that sheep can’t do.’
Picturing Maud in a hot-air balloon, Ernie had a sudden flash of memory. ‘Maud!’ he said excitedly. ‘Sheep
fly in hot-air balloons! Not only that, the first-ever pilot of a hot-air balloon was a sheep!’ Maud listened, enthralled, as Ernie repeated what he’d read in ‘Fearless Heroes of Flight’ the night before. ‘The first hot-air balloon was launched in 1783, and the pilots were a sheep, a duck and a rooster,’ he told her. ‘And they stayed aloft for fifteen whole minutes.’
‘Oh Ernie!’ Maud exclaimed. ‘Is this true?’
‘It’s all in the book, Maud,’ Ernie assured
her. ‘A sheep was one of the greatest heroes of flight.’
It was a proud Maud who cantered across the field to breakfast.
When Ernie and Maud joined Amazing Desmond, Valiant Vera and Housecat Woman in the front row of the assembly hall for Super Whiz’s speech, they were both feeling much more heroic than they had the previous day.
‘How did you enjoy your seminar?’ Valiant Vera asked them.
‘It was great!’ the two trainees chorused.
Their instructor, a jovial woman who had reminded them a bit of Desmond, had been very encouraging. They’d role-played several superheroic scenarios, and Lion-hearted Lakmi had held up Ernie and Maud as an example of a partnership that worked exceptionally well.
‘Well done, you two,’ said Valiant Vera, sounding pleased. ‘And what about the other trainee superheroes and sidekicks, were they nice? Did you meet the pair from Beezerville?’
‘Er, yes,’ said Ernie. He and Maud looked at each other and tried not to laugh. ‘Very nice.’ Trainee superhero Mei-Li had indeed been very nice, but her sidekick, Cuddles, was a very pompous porcupine.
‘Is The Daring Dynamo here?’ Ernie asked, craning his head around.
Vera laughed. ‘Oh no. Dynamo will be hiding out until it’s time to give his speech. He’s quite shy, really.’
‘Shhh.’ Amazing Desmond flapped his hands at them. ‘Super Whiz is about to begin.’
Looking up at the stage, Ernie saw Super Whiz standing at the microphone. His blue
tights looked very smart, and the red SW stamped on his chest seemed to positively glow under the lights. But to Ernie’s surprise, Super Whiz, who loved giving speeches, was pale and trembling.
‘Is Super Whiz worried that Chicken George might steal his speech?’ he asked Desmond.
Desmond shook his head. ‘I think Whiz would be
if Chicken George turned up now,’ he said. ‘It’s not Chicken George that he’s afraid of—he’s nervous about speaking in front of such a big audience.’
Just then, Super Whiz glanced down at them anxiously. And although Ernie had only ever seen them arguing, Amazing Desmond gave Super Whiz an encouraging thumbs-up.
With a grateful smile, Super Whiz began …
Desmond had bet Ernie a double-scoop colossal chocolate ice-cream cone that Super Whiz’s speech would be all about Leadership, since that was his favourite subject, but instead the Baxter Branch president had chosen Teamwork as his theme. Ernie was embarrassed but pleased to find that he and Maud were mentioned several times.
When Super Whiz finished talking there was a huge wave of applause and people rushed forward to congratulate him. Some wanted to talk to Ernie and Maud and the other members of Baxter Branch too, and they were surrounded by people as they exited the hall and walked towards the cafeteria for lunch. Mei Li waved a friendly greeting as they passed her, and even Cuddles looked impressed.
Lunchtime chatter was all about the heroes of Baxter Branch and their town’s record low levels of wrongdoing. Ernie even heard one superhero say to another, ‘I bet Chicken George wouldn’t have got away with that speech-stealing stunt in Baxter.’ After a while, though, he started to find all the attention overwhelming. As soon as he had an opportunity he slipped outside for a bit of peace and quiet and to look for Maud, who had left the hall a little earlier.
At first he saw no sign of his partner, but a glance towards the far end of the field told him exactly where she was: sitting in the basket of the hot-air balloon. Walking closer, he could see that Clever Clementine was waving her wings around, as if she were explaining different features of the balloon to Maud, who had a faraway look on her face. Ernie could tell she was thinking of that heroic sheep who had piloted one of the first-ever flights.
As Ernie made his way across the grass
towards the balloon, he was suddenly overtaken by a streak of red and white.
Oh no! Chicken George!
‘Maud!’ Ernie cried. ‘Watch out!’
Maud looked up just in time to see Chicken George, who had nimbly untied the rope tethering the balloon to the ground, dive into the basket.
There came a mad cackle, then, just like the night before, a thin voice rang out in a strange song:
Run, run, as fast as you can,
You can’t catch me—
I’m Chicken George!
‘MAUD!’ Ernie yelled, racing towards the balloon, which was slowly lifting from the ground.
But the basket was already hovering just beyond his reach. With a desperate lunge, Ernie
grabbed the rope that was trailing like a tail behind the balloon, which was picking up speed as a gust of wind blew it higher.
Looking up, Ernie could see the anxious faces of a duck and sheep gazing down at him.
‘Let go, Ernie!’ Maud urged. ‘Save yourself while there’s still time.’
Ernie shook his head. He was petrified but determined. As long as Maud was trapped in that basket with a vicious, villainous chicken, he was hanging on.
Glancing down, Ernie saw a sea of curious faces as the superheroes spilled out onto the field after lunch.
‘Hey!’ someone cried. ‘Up in the air! It’s The Daring Dynamo’s balloon.’
‘But Dynamo’s backstage working on his speech,’ said someone else. ‘So who’s piloting that thing?’
There was a pause, and then the first voice said in a tone of disbelief, ‘A sheep, a duck and—is that a rooster?’
‘No,’ called Ernie breathlessly, clutching the rope as he was lifted higher and higher above their heads. ‘It’s Chicken George!’
The balloon was soon sailing high above Thomastown, with Ernie dangling below. From this angle, Thomastown didn’t look nearly as welcoming as it had the day before.
He could hear nothing over the rushing wind in his ears as they swept above the town’s main street. He shivered at the thought of poor Maud and Clementine, cornered in the basket by the monstrous chicken.
The problem was, Ernie realised, as the town
below grew smaller and smaller, he wasn’t much use to Maud and Clementine where he was.
‘Maud,’ he called faintly. ‘Are you okay?’ But his words were blown away by the breeze.
Tentatively, Ernie took one hand from the rope and moved it higher, then did the same with the other hand. He continued climbing slowly, hand over hand, trying not to think of what might happen if a strong gust of wind hit him while he had only one hand on the rope. Soon he was closer to the basket, but the muscles in his arms were so sore and tired they were trembling. He knew he couldn’t grip on much longer.
‘Maud!’ he cried. ‘Maud, can you hear me?’
There was a pause, long enough to make Ernie’s pulse race in terror for his friend, then Maud’s voice said reassuringly, ‘We’re fine, Ernie. You hold on tight and Clementine will have us down in a jiffy.’
Ernie was comforted, if puzzled. What had happened to Chicken George?
To his relief, the balloon appeared to have altered course and was now heading back across the river towards the Pleasant Dayz conference centre.
He closed his eyes for a moment, weak with exhaustion, and when he opened them again he was level with the treetops surrounding the field.
As they descended gently towards the open ground, two hundred concerned superheroes were visible once more, and this time Ernie could make out the superheroes of Baxter Branch. They had pushed to the front of the crowd and, as Ernie’s feet touched the ground, they came running towards him.