Finding a corner piece of the puzzle to a mystery that had kept the Marshals and the Pinkerton Detective up for two days did almost as good a job as coffee as the Steam Tank ploughed into the desert once more.
Of course the coffee helped as well, pouring out as thick and black as the clouds of steam as Hans Octavius Wilhem stuffed coal into the boiler of his vehicle and shouted above the orchestra of hammering metal.
“It’s zee location! Zhat’s vhy zee circus vas massacared, zhey must have found somezing about zhat area.”
Jack Lightning spoke around the grimace produced by the sludge in her mug. “All we found out there was a box of clothing. Hardly seems worth killin’ for.”
James Lovelace grimaced as well, rather out of sympathy for Jack’s innards as she took another swallow of the beverage he’d refused on principle. Coffee soup was well pass the limit of any civilised human. “Be that as it may, location is the only common factor present in this case. If the airship’s flight path takes it over that area, it may be the site for an ambush.
Wendell Caine held out his mug for seconds. “Mightn’t be if them Chinee fellas thought somebody was on to them.”
A loud whistle screamed out overhead from the tortured workings of the steam tank. Wilhem spun one of many cranks until it was drowned out by clanking pistons. “Regardless, zee terrain may afford zhem an advantage zhey might hope to obtain elsevhere. It vould narrow our pursuit.”
Continuing the conversation was pointless as the whistle screamed out an encore and it held its note over the dust and rock until they returned to the tilled soil marking the grave of Legwrench’s Mechanical Marvels. Jack Lightning was already off the tank as the brakes shouted down all other noises and was atop the dune she’d scouted from before the engine had started to cool.
Caine and his bear shuffled up next to her. “Frankly I ain’t seein’ the fuss about it.”
And there wasn’t any to see. It was open plains of rock, dirt and whatever plantlife was ornery enough to eck out an existance. The plateaus of rock were too far away to be of any advantage. No caves or tunnels that had bedevilled the marshals in problems past.
“Heck, I’m standin’ on the highest point round here and I doubt I’m gonna reach an airship,” Jack said, kicking at the dune beneath her. She stopped.
Everyone else looked as Lightning dropped to her knees and stabbed at the dune with her hands. Caine and Smokey picked up on it and both of them pawed at the dirt creating a sandstorm as they burrowed into the ground. Lovelace and Wilhem ran up the hill just as there came the clang of Jack striking something metal.
The answer had been underfoot the whole time. Packed in dirt there was a bear-sized tank of gas. To the keen reasoning of Wilhem and Lovelace this dune had been a hive of similar cannisters. Wilhem knelt down, the mechanical arms of his armoured suit produced a brush which swept the outside of the remainig tank, revealing what had been etched into its side.
“Hydrogen?” Wilhem asked aloud. The wind shifted direction before response came.
“Perhaps to reinflate the airship if it were forced down?” Lovelace suggested.
“Why use something inflammable?” Caine asked and grinned at success of sending one of their big words back at the Iron Marshal and the Pinkerton.
“Perhaps for zat exact reason,” mused Wilhem as he stood up. If zhere is more of zhese cannisters – enough to fill an airship of diplomatic-class proportions – it’s possible zhat it may turn ze wessel into a very powerful bomb.”
The thought of such an explosion filled the lawmen’s minds as they got back on the Steam Tank. Caine suggested their destination.
“If they’re fixin to hold up an airship, and here is south o’ Ascension, makes sense they might try it further south.”
Everyone else agreed, the steam tank fixed a heading and Wilhem put the shovel to the boiler as the noise grew once more. Lovelace was hanging out of the side of the tank to keeping the smoke out of his eyes as he peered into the horizon, trying to spy the airship. The marshals had all witnessed how much keener the Pinkerton Detective’s sight was and Wilhem passed him a spyglass, turning James Lovelace into the image of a rakish pirate, albeit one dressed in tweed.
“I see it!” Lovelace called out not too long. The marshals didn’t even try to look. Wilhem adjusted his heading at Lovelace’s direction.
“What about the Chinee?” Cained called out.
“Afraid not. We’ll need to get closer.”
“Have no fear of zat!” the German Marshal hollered as all his arms, mechanical and the ones he’d been issued at birth hand their hands full with levers and dials. All of them were twisted, pulled or cranked to maximum setting.
“Jack!” Wilhem called as the noise swelled, rattling the tank beneath their feet. “Do you see a red button to my left?”
“Yep. That’d be the one you told me never to push.”
“Zhat’s right. Except for now!”
Animal instinct had never experienced what was about to happen, but Smokey and Alfonse, the Six-Gun Gorilla, squirrelled themselves into a corner of the passenger compartment and held on to something metal. Lovelace pulled himself back into the cabin and crouched down on the floor with Caine. A screech of metal competed with the ominous growling of the tank as Wilhem ejected stout pittons from his heels into two appetures beneath his feet, anchoring himself into position. Jack pushed the button.
It would take the Apocalypse itself to cause Jack Lightning to lose her feet and that’s what errupted out of four rockets housed beneath the steam tank. A ear-crushing boom sounded as the vehicle screamed across the desert, skipping from dune to dune and kicking up a hurricane of rock that flew over Jack’s head and sparked off Wilhem’s armour and helmet.
“YEE-HAA!” Jack screamed risking a mouthful of dirt and broken teeth.
Wilhem had only his instruments to guide him, not willing to stress-test his helmet by peering out the side of the tank, nor willing to take his hands off the controls or remove the pittons fastening his feet to the floor. The best he could to do to guide the rocketing vessel was very slight course corrections and only when he was sure that the treads had bit into the dirt long enough for it to make a difference. The rockets wouldn’t last forever but they would eat up the distance fast enough before they were jettisoned. All he had to do was ensure they were still right-side up. His iron-gloved hand hovered near a lever that would re-engage the fly-wheels between the boiler and the treads and he waited.
Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!
Wilhem crunched the lever down and saturated the boiler with coal. The piercing whistle reached the heavens as the tank hopped and lurched, dropping to a speed that the engine could sustain. The others poked their heads up from shelter, Lovelace extending the telescope and peering at the horizon.
The airship was closer. It was under attack. It was sinking. And something buzzing around the balloon was responsible.
Lovelace turned back toward the cabin. “The Chinese are flying.”
TO BE CONCLUDED IN PART 5