“Easy fella,” Wendell Caine’s voice usual broken gravelly drawl sounded like someone had run a steamroller over the larger rocks, smoothing it out to a low, calm and, hopefully, soothing pitch. “Nobody’s gonna harm ya.”
That could all change very quickly if the gorilla Caine was easing toward decided to pull iron. The Mountain Marshal caught a flash of sunlight reflecting off James Lovelace’s longshot rifle at an impressive distance away. Behind the gorilla was the heavy black shape of Hans Octavius Wilhem’s Steam Tank, idling, steaming and ready to cut off the gun-toting gorilla off should it run. Much nearer, the Mountain Marshal heard boots crunching on rock as Jack Lightning followed several steps behind, her hands as poised over her weapons the same as the paws of the nearing simian.
“Don’t know if anyone else’s got a plan, cause I sure don’t,” his voice and pace staying smooth as axle grease. Still, the gorilla hadn’t drawn yet so there was that much going for him.
Of course, it could just be out of ammo and waiting for the Mountain Marshal to get in arm’s length.
Despite the concern that he was keeping far away from his voice, Wendel Caine was better at handling animals than he were people. Of course he typically handled people in the literal sense of the word. And he’d used those same pugilistic reasoning on animals that just wouldn’t be tamed. First time, though, he’d have to punch out a beast that was armed.
It was a unique opportunity that would have to wait. The Six-Gun Gorilla sloped forward onto its powerful knuckles, it’s hands now safely away from the gun butts, and loped foward – nostril’s flaring – at the Mountain Marshal. Caine gently raised his hand and the gorilla, after learning his scent, allowed him to lightly stroke his fur.
“There we go,” he said gently as the rest of his companions drew closer. “Ain’t such a big deal, is it?”
Everyone was at the waterhole with the gorilla remaining placid. Years spent training and performing with the circus had taken away any fear of humans and the beast seemed glad of the company, no doubt after a few nights of little food and the cold desert. It responded to gentle instruction, at times seeming to understand what the humans were saying.
“So we got ourselves a gorilla…” Jack started
“Alfonse.” Caine interjected.
The gorilla looked puzzled at the strange new word. So did the rest of the humans.
“His name is ‘Alfonse’,” Caine repeated. No one else objected, least of all the newly-christened gorilla.
“So, now that we have ‘Alfonse’, where does that leave us?”
“With a new deputy,” Lovelace smirked, eyes darting to Smokey who, it was surprising to see, was taking a shine to the newest recruit.
“I don’t speak simian, if zhat is vhat you imply,” Wilhem shrugged with a hiss of hydraulics. “But it vhas able to hunt down vone of zee Chinese Miners, very specifically. Ve just need it to to track more of zhem.”
Lovelace knelt in the dust beside Alfonse. From his pocket he removed the photo of the late William Tapping Junior and placed it between them. He then drew four stick figures, the victim his two companions and a woman, who the marshals had only learnt on the second round of questioning, had vanished shortly after the murder. Lovelace sat back and felt the low growl of the gorilla through the dirt as a black paw rubbed out one of the stick figures before plucking the photo off the ground and holding it to his chest.
The Pinkerton Detective and the marshals waited for any other sign or clue that might lead them to the rest of the miners, but Alfonse sat in the dirt, wimpering at the photo.
“Ve should return to Ascension,” Wilhem suggested. “If ve are lucky, our quarry may be hiding zhere.”
There wasn’t any second thoughts about making room for Alfonse aboard the Steam Tank and, with the sun slowly rolling toward the afternoon, the lawmen returned to the small town with a gorilla, and more questions. Disembarking the Steam Tank, and glad of it after the hours spent aboard, they decided what to do next.
“The Lightning Family might know somethin’ about the circus,” Jack suggested.
“The Pinkerton’s as well. Besides, I’ll need to inform the agency as to Tapping Junior’s fate.” Lovelace replied. Both of them made way for the Telegraph office attached to the General Store.
“I suppose I’ll see if better tools might uncover somezing in zee bodies,” Wilhem said to thin air as Caine had already helped Smokey and Alfonse off the wagon. The mechanical suit the German marshal wore was able to shift Tapping Junior’s body from a coffin-like compartment aboard the vessel and he headed inside the office as Caine was finding a place for Alfonse to sleep.
Hours passed and the only one in the office who looked happy to be here was the gorilla. A couple of Lightnings in Utah had seen Legwrench’s Mechanical Marvels and recommended it to their cousin in Arizona. There hadn’t yet been word from the Pinkerton Detective Agency and Wilhem’s longer autopsy had uncovered nothing that he hadn’t already discovered out in the desert. Reunited, Lovelace was being served tea, one of the many tricks Alfonse had been taught at the circus. Caine had a cup as well, though pushed as far away from him as possible.
“That’s great. You’ve taken water and made it hot and bitter.”
“It speaks of a class more refined than that vile ‘kawfee’ you insist on swallowing,” Lovelace defended.
Wilhem placed his coffee down at that. “Zhe day zhe English can teach me somezing about class, is zhe day Zhe Kaiser resigns!”
“For my preference, I’d rather drink something concocted of plants in the ground, than the ground itself,” Lovelace shot back.
The debate was interrupted however as there was a knocking at the door. After being granted entry, the lawmen were joined by another member of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. A stocky fellow – decked out in tweed with bristling muttonchops you could use to sweep a porch and a brown bowler hat – Edward Parkes had been appointed the duty of safeguarding the elderly, and recovering Samuel Colt who had avoided the efforts of assassins twice in the last month. How the Harvard-educated agent of the Pinkertons had made the acquaintence of the illiterate Wendel Caine was a mystery even to an agency of detectives, but it had been a few judicious telegraphs on the marshal’s behalf that had seen Parkes assigned to Ascension.
“Caine!” He said, doffing his bowler. “Where the blazes have you been, old chap? Been trying to catch up with you since yesterday!”
Caine provided the new Pinkerton with an abridged, even by his own taciturn standards, account of the murders, to which Parkes paid only slight attention. His eyes had swept past the Mountain Marshal’s companions, nodding briefly to his compatriate at the agency before landing on Jack Lightning.
The Pinkerton Detective Agency had never claimed a Lightning in their ranks since it’s inception and this had not been for lack of trying. The Lightning Clan was synonymous with serving justice and keeping the peace – there was barely a city that hadn’t, at some point, elected a Lightning into a sheriff or marshal’s office. It was a name that would have seen the Pinkerton’s clientel beat down the door and each other if one were to sign up. But no promise of money or adventure seemed enough to attract a Lightning to the roster.
“Ah, there’s the lady who’s made such a name for herself,” Parkes boomed.
Jack stared back, saying nothing.
“Deadly with her guns and her looks,” Parkes continued.
Feeling somewhat colder, despite the layers of tweed, Parkes tried to shovel more charm at the Lightning Marshal and only succeeded in digging a deeper pit. Fortunately Caine tossed him a rope.
“What brings you down here, Parkes?”
“Hadn’t had a chance to catch up and with the Congressmen nearly here, I wasn’t likely to.”
This broke Jack’s silence. “Congressmen?” she said.
“That’s right. Here to see how far Colt and Ithaca’s guns have come along. Colt said their airship would be along sometime today. You haven’t heard?”
But the lawmen were already out the door.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 4