Chairs skidded on the floor as the marshals jumped up from the table. James Lovelace, and Bill Boxer, could only watch the rapid-fire exchange taking place.
“Mine is more than a day away.”
“Ze tank should see us zhere sooner.”
“Thunder and I will meet you on the road.”
Jack Lightning and Wendell Caine left out the back of the Ignit-Inn. Hans Octavius Wilhem turned to Ascension’s latest vistors.
“Zhere is room enough for you, Herr Boxer und I zink ze journey vill be quicker if you tell us the details en-route.”
Boxer swallowed and nodded, it was obvious to both Wilhem and Lovelace that the miner hadn’t spared the whip getting himself to the marshals and, weary as he looked, each were impressed that he stood up and made ready to follow the Iron Marshal out the door. Wilhem’s gaze shifted to the Pinkerton Detective.
“Zhere is room for you as vell, Herr Lovelace,” he offered.
“I appreciate the courtesy, but I really should turn my attention to my own work and leave such matters to the professionals,” Lovelace replied, not eager to embark on another lengthy, and less comfortable journey.
“Your quarry iz not in Ascension and zhere is little chance ve haven’t noticed him in either camp. You vould have to visit ze mine eventually.”
Lovelace stood and brushed the dust of his finely tailored suit. “Your logic, and generosity are boundless, Marshal,” he replied and then paused. “If you’re all making ready to leave, who will govern Ascension? Your absent fourth lawman?”
At that Wendell Caine returned through the backdoor astride the ‘fourth lawman’. Lovelace prided himself on keeping a calm and presentable demeanour regardless of the circumstances. Still, the huge hairy marshal astride and even huger and hairier bear did take some effort. Between the rapid blinking – the only sign that the Pinkerton Detective was peturbed – Lovelace spied a small barrell fixed to the collar around the grizzly, like the brandy that St Bernards would carry for rescue means in frozen wastes. Attached to the barrel was a crudely shaped tin badge.
“Ze barrel is only to hold ze badge. After a vhile it vas pointless refilling it.”
The only other person in the place that seemed to take it in stride was the man behind the bar, who stepped out behind it to retrieve the bucket from outside. Boxer had the fortune, when he collapsed, of having a chair beneath him. Wilhem helped him back up.
“Qvuickly, comrades,” he called, following Caine and Smokey out of the saloon.
The cloud of dust in the distance was Jack Lightning atop Thunder, already eating the miles between Ascension and the mine. Smokey and Caine gambolled after her. Wilhem instructed the two to wait outside and disappeared into the office. It wasn’t long before the loud whistle of steam echoed from around back and, chugging into the main street, a massive iron contraption, mounted on treads and with enough space to accomodate the marshals, their mounts and guests parked in front of them.
Wilhem too had changed, his body encased in what appeared to be a heavily modified iron bell diving suit, and a harness on his shoulders where four mechanical arms were pulling levers and twisting dials. He lowered a metal gangplank and before long, the steam-powered conveyance was jogging across the desert.
The half tank didn’t have the speed that Thunder, or even Smokey, had over short distances but it’s endurance was as hard as the iron it was forged from and before long, a larger gangplank was lowered and the marshals were rejoined once more.
“Explain,” was all Jack said.
“About two days ago, one of the miners was found dead. He was in his room, located within the mine itself. Foreman Anderson sent me to get you guys out there.”
“He let you go?” Jack said warily. “He must trust you a lot.”
“I was the only one, ma’am. John Henry and I go way back and I ain’t known a friend truer. He refused to let anyone else leave and doubled the guards around the mines to make sure of it.”
“Smart,” Octavius commented, turning his attention fully to the conversation while the arms kept the tank on course. “But ve are still vithout detail.”
Boxer scratched the back of his head, clearly not comfortable being the centre of attention, let alone one whose audience consisted of a bear. “The man who got killed… He was Chinee.”
The marshals said nothing, considering it and waiting for more. “John Henry got word of what you marshals did for them poor injun folk some weeks back. He hoped you might take the matter serious-like.”
“A crime is a crime, regardless of vhere he is from or who he is,” Wilhem stated. “Continue.”
“You gotta understand we ain’t had nothin’ like this happen. Sure, you hear stories of what goes on at the camps or in town. Uh, no offense marshals but before you got brought in, we were just as happy staying out of town and out of trouble.”
The marshals simply nodded in response. For Lovelace, it served to quickly bring him up to speed on just who he was travelling with. Though it wouldn’t take a Pinkerton to deduce that trouble became relative when a Lightning came to town. In a professional capacity, this wasn’t what he was paid for, but James Lovelace didn’t simply do the job to get paid. This time it was he urged Boxer to continue.
“Anyways, in case o’ trouble, we got guards stationed at the entrance to the mine. They ain’t seen no one comin’ or goin’ about the time that poor fella got shot.”
“He was shot, then?” Jack asked.
“Hell yes, marshal. Like a whole posse had come on into his room and shot the place up!” Boxer said, his eyes becoming wild as he remembered the storm of gunfire. Three or four guns opened up on him. Then they all vanished without a trace!”
“Was there no other means of accessing the mine?” Lovelace asked, beating Wilhem to the question.
“Only one other way we know about. There’s a bucket and pulley system on the roof of the mine,” Boxer explained, describing the mine as cave that led underground. “But there ain’t no way anyone’s usin’ that. The roof’s high up and the only way to climb is down the rope on the pulley. And we keep that baby good and greased up to get water to all us folk.”
“You’d be surprised what some people can do,” assured Jack Lightning. Boxer didn’t look convinced.
“And there was no sign of anyone intruding. No strangers or new workers?” Lovelace continued after a moment.
“Nobody I didn’t know,” Boxer replied. Lovelace had more questions and he and Boxer kept up the conversation. Caine tended to Smokey. Jack went over to Wilhem.
“Whaddya think?” Jack muttered.
“I don’t believe our guide is ze culprit,” Wilhem offered. “Ze crime-scene and ze body vill be able to tell us more, but vith ze time it took for him to get here, and for us to get zhere, ve may not learn much.”
“More of Spokey’s crew?”
“Hard to say. If so, zhen Spokey Sampson is in possession of some skilled assassins.”
The Lightning Marshal’s face turned grim at the thought and the journey continued on in silence as the day passed and night arose.
True to Wilhem’s word, and his sleepless efforts in piloting the tank through the night, the marshals made record time, arriving at the iron mine. A cave burrowed into rock, leading deep underground, its entrance flanked by four stout men brandishing rifles. With a groan of gears, the tank shuddered to a stop and its passengers disembarked. Boxer announced the marshals and one of the guards took off down the mine to retrieve Foreman John Henry Anderson.
“Smokey and I are gonna sniff ’round up top. See if we can find some tracks.” Jack and Wilhem nodded and the marshals split up with Lovelace following along into the mine. About half-way down, they made the acquaintance of the foreman.
John Henry Anderson had come to the United States as a slave. Forced into mines much like this, that which most would considered back-breaking, had instead built the towering fellow until he looked hewn out of onyx. What slave labour hadn’t done, and likely fighting for his freedeom during the Civil War had, was replace both the foreman’s arms at the shoulder with powerful mechanical appendages. Heavy and huge, it was clear that they were not meant for anything more delicate than swinging a hammer into stone, crushing it to powder to get at the iron vein. John Henry Anderson would have stood half a head taller than Wendell Caine and looked to be just as broad.
“Marshals,” he boomed in a sonnerous voice that the mine amplified, echoed and deepened. “It is good to see you.”
Jack stepped up to the man that looked as if he could snap her into with his mechanical fingers. She was far from worried. “Mr Boxer has filled us in on some of the details. Let’s walk and talk.”
Anderson nodded and led them down one of the shafts. On the way they passed underneath the bucket and pulley contraption where the marshals and Lovelace inspected it. With no handholds at the roof of the cave that any man could scale, and the grease coating the rope, it would be a task verging on the impossible to climb it.
Outside, and by the hole of the roof, Wendell Caine and Smokey scanned the area for tracks. Unfortunately, it being a busy hive of activity, there were plenty of tracks to choose from. Atop the boulder that housed the cave, the Mountain Marshal was afforded a view of the surrounding landscape, as well as a collection of tents that made up a small shanty town of miners who were watching Caine behind the patrolling gaze of yet more guards. Smokey gave a growl and Caine shrugged, jumping down from the boulder and heading back to the cave entrance to catch up.
“Did ze deceased have any enemies?” Wilhem asked they continued their journey.
“I don’t believe so,” Anderson replied as he stooped under one of the lower stalegtites. “Mr Xuanzang was a respected man amongst his people.”
“Und nobody outside his people who vould vish him harm?” Wilhem asked, being no stranger to racism and was sure that Anderson was even more familiar.
“Uh, not after the demonstration, marshal,” Boxer interjected. He looked up at Anderson who, with a whirring of gears, gestured for him to continue.
“Some folks got it in their heads to make trouble where John Henry wouldn’t see ’em,” he continued. “That Chinee fella, well he just took them insults like they was nothin’. Then, he picked up a rock as big as your head, placed it in front of them and smashed it to bits with one punch. One punch! And he didn’t have anything like what John Henry’s got.”
“Guess that means it weren’t rocks that done it,” Caine said, catching up with the rest. Smokey had been left outside with the tank with the instructions of ‘Don’t eat no-one innocent’.
Anderson looked like he was about to say something unkind but Wilhem beat him with a question. “Have you had any vistors lately,”
Anderson thought about it. “No, nobody much came out these parts.” He paused then and added, “Except for the circus, of course.”
That got everyone’s attention. “Circus?” Wilhem replied.
“That’s right. Lugwrench’s Caravan of Mechanical Marvels,” Anderson said, his expression slowly changing to match the confused one planted on Wilhem’s face. “Stopped by about a fortnight ago. Said they were heading onto Ascenion.”
No circus had been in town and there weren’t a lot of places close by where travelling performers could earn a living, but questions about it would have to wait.
The marshals and Lovelace arrived at the room of the deceased.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 5