The sun was past its zenith, soaring toward the flatbed plateaus that shot out of the horizon like grasping fingers, casting shadows, across the rock and sand. In the cool darkness of towering rock, Jac Lightning and Wendell Caine dismounted and approached the narrow cave for the second time.
Outside, both lawmen could see stencilled figures carved into the rock face, the only sign that a tribe of Indians had fled to this sacred place to escape persecution and worse. Even then they had not been safe, a crater nearby yawned wide from the test bullet fired by the Ithaca Rifle Company that fell upon the camp without malice or intent but inflicted devastation nonetheless. After a shootout with the Marshals, the tribe had taken the advice of Hans Octavius Wilhem and relocated to parts unknown. But as Caine and Lightning entered the cave, it was clear to the marshals that others had taken up residence.
“Tracks,” Caine said as Lightning held a lamp over the worn dirt. “Lotta bootprints and a cart, I reckon.”
Both lawmen stayed quiet after this and Jac kept the lamp low as they both crept forward through the dark and dusty tunnel. Whoever had been visiting had obliged the marshals by clearing away the traps left by the redskins, and so progress was slow but safe. As the followed the winding path down under the rocky mountain, the passage opened up into a familiar sight: The cave of the red root.
The marshals stood back from the edge of a precipice some fifteen feet high. On the rock below, the cavern’s dimensions were lost to shadow though the lawmen recalled how vast it was. The red root, unlike anything either of them had seen before, thrived in cold and dark conditions, sprouting from webbed cracks in the stone, not needing light, and irrigated by means unknown.
Crouched over the roots where men who heaved and pulled the vegetation up from the stone’s firm grasp. There were baskets close by that were half-full of the root and some five men working furiously to fill the remainder. The work was done under the eye of a man holding a kerosene lamp, the flame kept safely sealed away by glass for if the root was ignited, it would release a potent chemical that drove man and beast into the throughs of demented rage. The marshals learnt this the hard way during their last visit.
The man with the lamp was tall, dark-skinned, though much of it was lost to flickering shadow, wore black clothing and a hat. Jones, or Smith, was here and he looked to be in charge.
Jac Lightning and Wendell Caine lay flat on their stomaches, peering over the lip of the drop, watching everything down below and, in hushed words, were planning how to take the men by surprise. The man in black beat them to it.
Hands flickered and Jones/Smith whirled toward the cliff clutching a huge pistol that had, a moment ago, been holstered at his thigh. The shot thundered in the vast cavern and a small rocket flew up and across the darkness, aimed not at the marshals who were behind cover, but at the stalactites hanging above them. A deafening crash followed and sharp, heavy rock fell upon the marshals. With both of them off-guard by the falling stone, the marshals had no time question or second-guess themselves. Both moved on instinct as Wendell Caine brought his massive arms up to shield his head, and Jac Lightning hurled herself off the cliff!
The rock fell and bashed against the Mountain Marshal’s forearms, but Caine had taken harder blows than this. Whatever they fed their boys in West Virginia, it made them tough as nails and the worse that Caine suffered were bruises and scrapes from chunks of stone bigger than his head.
The Lightning Marshal had fifteen feet below her and that number was decreasing fast but whether it was by good fortune or design, Jac’s fall was broken by the basket of red root that exploded beneath her when she landed. Bruised, battered but back on her feet and in the middle of men, who were reaching for their guns, Jac Lightning made it look like it had all gone according to plan.
Echoes crashed together as bullets fired and battle raged. Atop the cliff, Wendell Caine had shouldered his hunting rifle and was picking off those who either ran for cover or dared to return fire. In the flickering light of the lamp, the man in black with rocket pistol drawn, unleashed another missile at the Lightning Marshal. Jac’s duster coat was flung behind her in the rocket’s wake as she escaped to the side, sending it crashing into the roof with a low and long rumble above them all.
Jac Lightning’s hands were already filled with her Lightning Coil Throwers and, in a brilliant burst of blue light, fired back and into Jones/Smith’s chest. The surging bolt took him off his feet and slammed him into the ground where he twitched twice and then moved no more.
Wendell Caine worked the rifle with methodical routine and precision. Each shot found its mark while the dwindling number of opponents returned fire, sending shards and slivers of rock where the bullets struck the lip of the cliff face, but leaving the Mountain Marshal unharmed. There was one last boom that dwindled into an echoing whisper and the final man fell to silence.
“Reckon they know we’re here?” Caine said as he climbed down the cliff.
In the shadows, down one of the tunnels that branched off the massive cavern, both lawmen could hear sounds bouncing off the walls. Unintelligible, though worried voices, as well as sounds of scraping and shuffling turned both marshals’ heads in that direction and, without anyone to plan or delay, Caine and Lightning took to their feet and ran toward it.
The tunnel walls were close, forcing the lawmen in single file as they sped around twists and turns. At the end of the rocky corridor, a strong light spilled out from around a sharp corner. Jac Lightning knew they had to be ready for her, knew there had to be something prepared and skidded to a halt, poking one eye out to see what lay in store for her. And a hail of bullets was the answer.
Tucking her head back as metal pinged and rang off stone, the Lightning Marshal had seen everything she needed to. There were heavy oaken tables, two of them, which had been upended and placed together as cover for four gunmen. A fifth was crouched behind a stalagmite, peering out to see who was coming and in that instant, Lightning saw the dark skin, lanky build and black clothing of the man she had killed a winding tunnel earlier. A twin! All of this had taken a second and, the moment the bullets stopped firing, Jac sprung from around the corner and ran at the barricade.
The outlaws opened fire but by then the Lightning Marshal had leapt, sailing over the tables and over the gunmen who stopped shooting in awe. Jac didn’t, both Lightning Coil Throwers out before she landed next to them and with two burst of electricity, one of the barricades were clear of shooters. But as she killed the two on her left, Smith had his weapon drawn, a twin to Jones’s rocket pistol, and fired.
Jac rolled to her left and it was just enough to turn the fatal shot into a flesh wound as the missile exploded next to her. Blood seeped from her side and onto the dusty ground as the mammoth gun in Smith’s hand cycled its chamber and readied another missile. But Jac had a missile of her own…
Wendell Caine hadn’t stopped, hadn’t slowed and hadn’t thought once about rounding the corner into the field of fire. Their eyes focused on the Lightning Marshal’s leap and their leader’s explosive shot, the only warning that the remaining outlaws had of the trouble they were in was when they were picked up, table and all, and charged into the cave wall by the Mountain Marshal’s shoulder. With a crunch, both from the table and from the outlaws, both men slumped to the ground.
The rocket pistol was primed and ready to fire. Jac Lightning was propped against the surviving oak barricade and did not look she could put up a fight. Her hand clutched her side as her breathing shallowed and Smith came out from behind the stalagmite with a grin.
“Looks like I get that bounty after all,” he smirked.
Jac’s other hand flew out, grabbed the Lightning Coil Thrower next to her and she pulled the trigger in the same instant. No one could measure the time in which she acted and nobody could see her aim during it but the lightning bolt crossed the room and burned into Smith’s chest with the smell of ozone and charred flesh. The second man in black to be shot by her, with eyes wide open in shock, fell forward and died.
There was no movement in the room until Jac Lightning pulled herself up to her feet. The wound, while bleeding, hadn’t been as bad as she pretended and it had done the job of luring Smith out from cover. She looked over to Caine and the two outlaws crushed next to him. Nobody else moved.
“Guess that’s the end of it,” Caine grinned.
There came the sound of thunder from above; a horrible rumbling that was broken only by the sound of booming from explosions above them. The booms were rhythmic, like God was beating the mountain above them to dust with blows from a mighty hammer.
“Spokey!” both lawmen shouted as they remembered the outlaw’s mode of transportation: An airship.
With the cave shaking around and above them, Wendell Caine and Jac Lightning sped for the entrance, the sound of bombs racing them there. Rock fell, far larger than either lawman could survive, so they sprinted from outcrop to outcrop as they made it to the cavern of the red root. The explosions overtook them as the airship floated toward cave mouth and unleashed its fury in the last salvo.
The mountain entrance collapsed, the roof came crashing down and the only chance of surviving the cave-in was to take shelter under the cliff face where the root sprouted. Dust kicked up and caked the lawmen and then the explosions stopped.
And while Wendell Caine and Jac Lightning had been shielded from the falling stone, the kerosene lamp from the first shootout hadn’t. The glass shattered, oil splashed across the floor and fire ignited the red root of rage.
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE ADVENTURES OF THE COLT APOLLO: 2ND ROUND, 5TH SALVO.
Posted by Wordmobi