Before any of the lawmen could make toward the door, it boomed open and striding into the office came three men. The floorboards groaned under the weight of black polished boots, the heavy black greatcoats that, even under the heat of the noonday sun, were buttoned up to the high collar. A gasmask, goggles and black helmet completed the uniform with the Presidential seal being an oasis of colour amid the desert-dusted black. They were the Secret Service and were dressed as such to provide protection for sensitive members of government through loyalty and intimidation.
Wilhem, Caine, Lightning and Lovelace agreed in silence that, based on their lack of performance during the airship hijacking, that they had failed in all respects. As such, they were far from eager to respond to the barked orders that emerged, crackling and hollow, from behind the mask.
“We are here to collect the prisoner. You will surrender her to us at once.”
“On whose authority?” Wilhem returned.
The silent members of the Secret Service had taken up flanking positions either side of the speaker. Caine and Lightning mirrored the formation. There was a pause, a void that obliterated incidental noise and was born from the computation of a proportional response to those who would dare question authority. A silence as loud a steam train’s engine, propelling thoughts just as direct.
“We have orders to take her back to the capital for detention and interrogation,” came the reply.
“Over her dead body,” Lovelace called out from the side, pointing at Jack Lightning. For a brief moment, he had the honour of being the sole focus of six of the most lethal people in the nation. However…
“You may have orders,” Wilhem stated, returning his gaze back the bodyguards. “But she vas arrested by us, committing crimes in zhis territory and zee Secret Service has no jurisdiction in zee detainment or transfer of our prisoner.”
“Our orders come from the House of Representatives.”
“Who obey zee laws zhey make, same of us all.” Wilhem finished. “Ve cannot transfer her anywvhere vizout adherence to zhis protocol.”
There was naught but two things between the agents and the lawmen; silence and a glare from both parties so heated that Lovelace was considering going outside to cool off as much as get out of the line of fire. Fortunately the silence broke before the glare and patience did.
“Guard the prisoner until my return,” the lead agent ordered.
At once the cell door was covered by the two remaining agents, the third already left the marshal’s office and doubtless to the House of Etheric Delights were the Congressmen were roomed.
The lawmen eyed their new guests before Caine stomped off to the kitchen, returning with three large tins of beans, a plate and two dishes. Hearing the sound of lunch, his bear, Smokey, lumbered into the office and growled at the agents. Alfonse just grunted and creaked the chair as he leant back into it.
“Let’s see just how strong those gas masks are,” Caine muttered as he turned on the stove.
Jack Lightning’s stomach rumbled loud enough for Smokey to growl back at her, but before she could fix herself some beans as well, there was a second knock at the door.
“Don’t hold with all this politeness gettin’ in the way o’ lunch,” she mumbled as she opened the door. Standing on the porch, his bowler hat doffed, stood Caine’s acquaintance, Colt’s bodyguard and Pinkerton man, Edward Parkes.
“Afternoon, marshal,” Parkes clipped accent hid any surprise at the presence of the Secret Service, the one-armed woman in jail or the introduction of a gorilla to Caine’s menagerie. “I’ve been asked to relay an invitation to you all to attend lunch with the Congressman and Mr Colt.”
“Why would they want lunch with us?” Jack asked, not budging from the door frame.
“Far be it from me to relay the business of my protectee, Marshal Lightning, but I’d hazard a guess it’s to congratulate you all for your actions this morning,” Parkes replied with a smile, deciding pass the message to the Lightning Marshal and not try taking a chance at getting in the office.
“See you soon,” he finished as he donned his hat and hurried back to Etheric Delights.
“Vell, ve best not keep zem vaiting,” Wilhem suggested while Caine glared at the three open tins of beans.
“You’re surely not thinking to go upstairs like that,” stated a shocked Wilhemina Ether as she looked up from the bar at the four lawmen standing in the foyer along with a dust cloud that was near solid enough that it could be deputized.
“What’re you talkin’ about!” Lightning and Caine said at once and, to her credit, even after two days of travel, Jack Lightning looked as clean as a brass whistle fresh off the assembly. It was only the whorehouse madame’s eye for detail that she recalled the Lighting Marshal had been sporting the same clothes during the brief visit to town between expeditions.
Caine, on the other hand, looked like a well used stovepipe that had been rolled inside out and taken out for two hard days of desert travel as well as digging up dirt, marching around an iron mine and handling a gorilla and a bear.
“These are men of state!” She exclaimed. “You can’t simply walk up there as you are, even if you did save their lives!” Their state was obvious now that attention had been called to it. Even Wilhem, fastidious as he was, had been blind from dusty days of journey and had forgotten to remove his armour,
“Well, Miss Ether, with my clothes upstairs, I imagine you’ll have to draw me a bath,” Lovelace interrupted.
“My girls are already doing as such,” Madam Ether replied, her eyes drifting over to Wendell Caine before being hooded by long black lashes. “Others could avail themselves of such services if they wanted…”
The gaze lingered and then sailed right past the Mountain Marshal. “What? I already had my yearly scrape,” he shrugged.
“She’s sayin’ you might need another one, else you can’t go upstairs to see the Congressmen,” Jack said.
“Great!” Caine stomped outside, pleased to have dodged what was sure to be a boring afternoon and marched back to the office before Alfonse and Smokey finished off the beans.
Wilhem and Lightning could offer nothing to the woman, who had found a glass nearby that wasn’t clean enough and set about polishing it with deliberate ruthlessness, and followed after Caine to change. Less than half an hour had passed before the two lawmen returned, Wilhem dressed in a pressed and starched suit that could almost clang like the armour if one brushed their knuckles against the lapel. Lightning had changed everything except her duster coat and hat. Meeting a grinning Lovelace, along with those who’d scrubbed him clean with tender thoroughness, Madam Ether took them to Samuel Colt’s room, which had two more of the menacing Secret Service outside the door.
Either confident in the lawmens’ loyalty to the country, or advised of the foolishness of trying to remove Jack Lightning’s guns, the lawmen entered the room with no hassle from the agents and were introduced by the still wheelchair-bound, but beaming industrialist, Samuel Colt.
“Marshals Lightning and Wilhem, I’m pleased you could come,” Colt looked past the absence of Caine and stopped on Lovelace. “And this must be James Lovelace, whose agency, I’m pleased to say, have provided me with a comfort and security that will sure to be the fuel of widespread reputation.”
Four chairs had added to the furnishings of the gunsmith’s opulent quarters which, despite the size, was straining the walls with lounge suites. Seated in two of them were obviously the visiting representatives of Washington. The third was also seated, but in a device that boasted wheels and legs, wound in gears and belts to aid those he had lost below the knees.
“Allow me to introduce,” Colt said as Parkes wheeled him to a well-fed, well-dressed gentleman whose ginger mutton-chops appeared to have been harvested from the hair on his head. “Representative Charles Toothbit, of our state of Arizona.”
“Chuck, please. A pleasure to meet those committed to the safety of my state” Congressman Toothbit grinned and extended his hand. After they took it, the introductions moved to the wheelchair-bound and elderly man next to him.
“Representative Bradley Crankshaft,” Colt continued. “Congressman from Montanna and retired Lieutenant of the 47th Infantry.”
“Jackie Lightning! As I live and breathe!” and another hand, this one dry and weathered as onion skin clasped hers. “And continue to do, thanks to you,” the Congressman continued not noticing the shocked look to her eyes. There was only one person who called her ‘Jackie’. Her father.
“And finally,” Colt steering the lawmen toward the youngest of the three men, sharply dressed in black with a suit cut just as sharp. Black hair has been combed back and to the side and shined under the effort, as did his shoes which squeaked as he stood up to meet them. “Representative Raymond Coppersmith of New York State.”
“Charmed.” He smiled and glanced to the door.
“While we wait for our final guest, let’s not delay afternoon tea,” and with that, Lovelace Lightning and Wilhem turned their attention to both the Congressmen and the tantalizing array of coffee and cakes.
As Jack Lightning popped a whole cherry tart into her mouth, to the growling demands of her stomach, Congressman Crankshaft wheeled over to her.
“Guess there is something to be said for Lightning striking twice,” he grinned while Lightning cocked her head at him.
“What do you mean by that?” she asked in a careful measured drawl between mouthfuls of coffee.
“I mean that this ain’t the first time I’ve had my life saved by a Lightning,” he replied as the soldier tone crept out from the elderly statesman. “Your father spoke of you during the war.”
Jack Lightning, the elder, had indeed served during the Civil War, though just for the duration of the draft. The Lightning clan didn’t back down from a fight but only against those who deserved it. ‘Criminals asked to be struck down, soliders didn’t’, and that was all Lightning Senior said when asked of the war. With the opportunity to learn more, the Lightning Marshal swallowed coffee and cake faster than she’d ever drawn iron and sat next to him.
“Tell me about him,” she said. “Please?”
Bradley Crankshaft rolled closer and began.
It was late in the war. Three weeks before the Prarrie March of the Steam-Men. My papers for promotion had come and three days later, I was assigned my first and only squad of men. Boys really, who had buried their fathers, filled their uniforms and held their guns in a war nobody wanted to fight save by those shouting from over the hills. Out of those soldiers, the one who would have cheered loudest, if the war were to be stopped tomorrow by God Above, was your father.
Sergeant Lightning was a different kind of man than I’d seen on the battlefield. Sure, like most sergeants, he no problem shouting orders and, like fewer sergeants, I’m sorry to say, the men followed him not just out of duty, but because it was the surest bet to surviving. And survive thye did under every situation, owing to the fact that Sergeant Lightning executed every order faithfully save one: He would never, under any circumstance, lead, follow or order a charge.
“Situation like that is as responsible for killing, as sure as those that pull the trigger,” he said. And he was right, though not in the way I’d thought back then. See, I thought he was talking about presenting yourself to the enemy as a target. That wasn’t what he was worried about. But that comes later…
Any order to charge issued to your father would always get misheard and the sole reason he wasn’t tried for disobeying an order was the success his platoon would have securing territory or an objective regardless. Of course, it was frowned on by those who gave the order, because each of these failed charges resulted in the enemy being allowed to escape unharmed, which they did though with growing curiousity, as they would abandon any weapons, uniform or supplies in doing so.
I’ve heard Lightning’s aren’t big on mercy, but they do what’s right. I’m not sure if it was mercy or righteousness but my new platoon while big on victories and supply-scavenging, was small on kill-count.
Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to ask which, as orders came down to remove a squad of Confederates who’d had the temerity to plant a line of machine guns on a strategically sound, though damned inconvenient at the time, hilltop. My squad was ordered to join several others in the taking of it.
Your father wasn’t in charge and neither was I, that day. Don’t recall who was but I do remember that his strategy was to order the charge, either to confound the enemy with our stupidity or to build his own hill made of corpses. What he lacked in sense, he made up in rhetoric and objections to this course were shouted down by words like ‘Coward’, ‘Traitor’ and other such utterances.
Come the battle, nobody could hear anything over screams and gunfire. No angle of attack would work, no one could reach the top and our cemetery hill was growing with each bullet. Our charge had turned to a crawl through the long grass, the only successful advance that day. Our squad was doing just that, slithering along by inches until, in between a brief lapse while the guns above reloaded, your father and I heard a ‘click’ beneath me.
I don’t recall the details of it but I know that your father threw his body and most of mine out of harms way. And frankly, I was impressed he remembered me at all, let alone take the time – between me triggering the mine and it exploding – to risk everything he had for someone he’d barely met. But that’s only what impressed me when I was safe and time to reflect in hospital; what impressed me, back on the hill, is what he did next.
Your father stayed low to the ground, hands feeling about until he came across another of those mines. Quick and careful, he dug it out, managing not to kill himself in the process. He then got to his feet, wound his arm back and hurled the damned device up the hill near the closest embankment of guns…
…And then shot it!
It didn’t do much to them save kick up a lot of dust, dirt and noise, but it was enough for your father to charge up the hill, those guns of his sending lightning into anyone fool enough to try shooting him. He was like Zeus, only striking from on low. And it was then I realised just what he meant about ‘charging’. He wasn’t speaking about making himself a target; he was talking about all the people he’d have no choice but to kill for getting in his way.
And you can be sure of two things: That he killed every man atop the hill and that it was him alone that gave us victory.
Y’know, your dad visited me each day I spent in the hospital; kept telling me about his wife and daughter back home and generally keeping me sane while I recovered. And every time he visited, I tried to get him to accept a medal for his actions. And every time, he’d tell me that I’d have to run him down to pin it on him.
Meanwhile, back in the office, Wendell Caine had managed to rescue the last tin of beans from Alfonse and Smokey and was shovelling it into his mouth like there was buried treasure at the bottom. It was then, just as his spoon struck metal that he heard something from outside. An engine kicking up dirt and slowing to an idle as it trundled down the street. Looking outside he saw the velocipede that contained William Henry Baker of Ithaca Rifling Company along with two stout men brandishing weapons, parking outside Etheric Delights.
The Mountain Marshal smiled through stained whiskers of baked beans juice. If skipping baths got you out of this much trouble, he might never get clean again.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 3.