The tower of fire that erupted from the marshal’s office washed the town of Ascension in a wave a heat and light and left it’s citizens dumbfounded in the street.
Not so much, the marshals.
With James Lovelace, Pinkerton Detective in tow, Jac Lightning, Hans Octavius Wilhem and Wendell Caine charged toward the conflagration. Neither spoke but then they didn’t need to.
Wilhem headed for his workshop.
Jac for the stables.
Caine for the water trough.
And Lovelace scanned the slack jawed crowd for any who weren’t.
The German Marshal was grateful, how minute it may have been, that the explosion had been contained to the office and, while it was horrific to see his improvements to building go up in smoke, the relief that it hadn’t reached his workshop of prized contraptions and, equally important, volatile products, allowed him to retain a cool head as his armour deployed the trusty chemical fire extinguisher.
The stables, however, had not been gifted with such a blessing and it was into fire that Jac Lightning leapt. It was fortunate that each had reacted with calm manner for if not fast reflexes, Jac’s mount, Thunder, might have encountered a dire end. The Lightning Marshal took the reigns in one hand and placed the other on the stallion’s neck, stroking the terrified horse and leading her out of the stable just as the building grew hotter and brighter. Caine’s bear, Smoky, who sat a very safe distance away alongside Alphonse, The Six Gun Gorilla, lucky enough to be patrolling the streets at the time, watched as the fire roared, neither beast willing to get closer, but neither willing to abandon the marshals.
Wendell Caine had, by experience with Wilhem’s inventions, become a fire-fighter of some skill. Skill that combined with the muscles born of West Virginia saw the Mountain Marshal uproot the full trough of water and hurled it in a wave at the fire where it burned white hot. It splashed over the flames, soothing the fire though not completely extinguishing it. What it had done though was buy Caine enough time to run further down the street to the next trough before the fire resurfaced.
Wilhem marched forward into the burning building, the helmet of his armour slamming over his face and the orange wash of light changing it from dark iron to burnished copper. Before him went a cloud of white foam, destroying the flames and leaving only a white carpet of chemicals that he strode over.. Another torrent of water followed, killing the growing the flames as Caine returned, stacking another empty trough on top of the first.
With the fire in hand, James Lovelace focused his attention on the crowd, sifting through the countless faces, all awash in orange light and stunned shock. The reaction was to be expected but the Pinkerton Detective was searching for someone who had expected the explosion– the person who, no doubt, had set it. Dozens crowded the street, staring at the fire or at the marshals working to put it out and, in the flickering light and darkness of twilight, finding such a subtle expression would tax the keenest of observers.
The keenest observer did not have the gifts of James Lovelace though. His meticulous miraculous brain was processing everything his keen eyes saw, reading expression, body language, lips that mouthed silent prayers. Nobody in the masses was anything less than stunned at the fiery catastrophe, its orange light reflected in their unblinking eyes.
Lovelace scanned beyond the crowd, his eyesight sharp enough to peer through darkened windows of the surrounding buildings, searching for anyone. There were people sheltered there, looking at the fire but nobody looking suspicious. Content in nothing save that there was nobody present who wished him or his companions harm, Lovelace turned his gaze back to the building as the last of the flames were lost to darkness.
The explosion had destroyed most of the building, the fire had rendered much of the ruins unsalvageable. Some stubborn and blackened timbers stayed nailed together and there was an iron-built box that stuck out amidst the timbers – the super-containment cell for criminals that brick and steel could not contain – and while it was an edifice to Hans Octavius Wilhem’s construction skills, it was poor consolation given what surrounded it.
Wilhem hadn’t paused between fighting the fire and investigating the ruins. That somebody had destroyed his hard work was more than wilful destruction or a failed attempt at assassination; it was a slap in the face, a senseless disregard of both engineering talent as well as life. Servos in his armoured appendages whined and steam billowed from his iron suit as timber and rubble was cleared to the side, literally digging up the truth.
“Any ideas?” Lovelace asked.
The German Marshal did not answer, focused on removing one of the thick support beams. To a falling curtain of ash, the beam was exhumed and placed to the side as both Wilhem and Lovelace knelt amongst the charcoal and peered beneath.
“An explosive placed against zhe foundations,” Wilhem pronounced.
“Nitro-glycerine if I’m any judge,” Lovelace added, noting the blast pattern.
“Likely placed on a timer,” Wilhem continued. “Und easily procured from Camps Colt und Ithaca.”
“But you don’t think it’s them, do you?” Lovelace mused.
“I vould not eliminate eizer camp as yet. But, given zhe recent activities vith zhis new drug, I have a prime suspect.”
Jack Lightning did too but, unlike Wilhem, was not waiting for proof. Assuring the townsfolk that there was nothing they could do to help and, in fact, that the ruined office was now a crime scene, the citizens of Ascension had gone to the Ignit-Inn to console themselves with drink.
Lighting marched there too, bursting through the double doors with a slam that silenced all conversations. Her mission was far from consolatory.
“It’s important that the town see we’re still in control,” she had said before leaving the ruins. Now with all eyes upon her, looking for answers or worrying just what a Lightning might do, nobody so much as dared to breathe.
Jac Lightning spoke.
“Folks. Take quite kindly to your concern about this. I would also take quite kindly to you not wasting time on Spokey Sampson.”
Jac paused, eyes darting from table to table for anyone who might challenge or disagree; anyone who might be listening on Spokey’s behalf. Maybe even Spokey himself…
“It’s not worth worrying about, because the marshal’s office will deal with him. So waste no more time worrying about that kind of scum.”
Message delivered, Jac thought and, turning on her heel, stormed out of the bar.
Wendell Caine had simply said “I’ll be makin’ my rounds,” and, with Smoky and Alphonse with him, the Mountain Marshal did just that. Those who hadn’t sought comfort in the bottom of a glass whispered to each other about what had happened and, more worrying, what was yet to come. Those whispers stopped the moment Wendell Caine walked past, stern gaze set in stone letting nothing out save that before the night was over, he’d punch somebody.
Nobody wanted that fate.
“Marshal Caine,” a tremulous voice called and the Mountain Marshal turned to face Wilhelmina Ether in a state that he’d never seen before. Not even when she had brought one of her girls forward to confess to him. Panic.
“Ma’am,” Caine said.
“I was so worried,” she said, voice cracking under the weight of her words. “I thought you might have been inside when…”
“No fear on that, Miss Ether,” Caine said.
“You… You don’t think there’ll be more, do you? That maybe he knows Annie talked to you?”
“Won’t matter none if he did, ma’am. Sampson ain’t threatenin’ no one tonight.”
Wilhelmina Ether stood not more than a foot away from the towering figure of Wendell Caine, torn between saying more or throwing her arms around him. Caine was impassive though, offering nothing to the sobbing woman.
“Best get indoors, ma’am,” he suggested after a lengthy pause. “Get to your girls and keep em safe.”
Madam Ether dabbed her eyes, blinking the tears away. “Yes, of course,” she said while peering through her eyelashes at the stoic lawman. “But what of you?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said and waited until she had left him and walked into Etheric Delights. Wendell Caine didn’t have room in himself for romance tonight.
Tonight every part of him sought justice.
Wilhem and Lovelace sought clues, having cleared the site of the explosion away and, between them deduced the nature of the explosion. Lovelace continued poring through the ruins for more evidence while Wilhem did that which gave him both peace and purpose.
He was building a gun.
Salvaging pipes from the site and combining them with parts from his workshop, the German Marshal’s gun was a long-barrelled weapon with secure housing that would attach to his Steam-Tank’s trailer. The ammunition had already been built and lay next to hundreds of feet of rope.
A harpoon. One that would increase the already long arm of the law and see Spokey’s fabled airship in his grasp.
“This Sampson fellow must feel somewhat stung by your persistence, Wilhem,” Lovelace said, the site not giving up anything further save for soot.
“He has been a thorn in our side since our arrival to Ascension,” Wilhem replied, not looking up from his work as he soldered the lengths of pipe together.
“And you’ve never seen him?”
“And, as far as he may be aware, his grudge is with you, and the other marshals,” Lovelace queried.
“Spokey is a blight for any in zhis town.”
“But,” Lovelace smiled. “He doesn’t, as afar as I’m aware, have any animosity toward me,”
“Und you’re vondering vhy zhat should change?” The German said with a wry smile back.
“Well it’s hardly likely that my aid is something I’d be recompensed for,” Lovelace patted the lapel of his tweed jacket. “And I’m feeling a bit cold in the wallet.”
Wilhem turned to the Pinkerton, matching grin for grin. “Maybe I could varm you up,” he offered as his portable oxyacetylene torch came alight.
Lovelace shook his head and help load the rope and harpoon aboard the Steam-Tank.
“Marshal Lightning!” Jac spun around at the call.
Bethany Cartwright, the housekeeper for the Marshal’s office sat upon a horse-drawn cart, a shawl wrapped around what appeared to be a nightgown. But any chill she had was buried under the worried expression on her face.
“Thank heavens you’re alright, Marshal,” she exclaimed. “Are Mr Wilhem and Mr Caine safe as well?”
Jac Lightning tipped her hat at the elderly widow and approached her, spurs jangling with each step.
“Nobody was harmed, ma’am. Just timber and Wilhem’s pride.”
“Thank the Lord,” she sighed. “When I saw the fire, I feared the worst and with the office destroyed…”
“Ain’t nobody inside at the time save some poor unfortunate in the cells who was destined for the noose,” Lightning said, referring to one of Sampson’s henchmen who she’d disarmed, literally, with a nail gun some days earlier.
“I’m so happy to hear that,” Mrs Cartwright said, but then the budding smile withered. “But Marshal, you and the others have no place to stay.”
“Don’t think any of us feel much like sleepin’ right now,” Jac said.
“It won’t do,” Mrs Cartwright said as if she hadn’t heard her. ” With my boys out at the camp, there’s plenty of room at my place. I can give you their beds for as long as you need.”
“No need at all,” Lightning said. “‘Appreciate the offer, but its inconvenient as well as risky to you.”
“There’s no risk if you’re close by. And no inconvenience either. I can cook you a proper breakfast, no offence to Mr Wilhem’s kitchen.”
“Mighty temptin’ ma’am,” but I think we’ll be fine,” Jac said with finality. Bethany Cartwright nodded.
“Fair enough, Marshal. But the invitation stands should you change your mind.” The woman clicked her tongue and flicked the reigns at the horse and the cart rattled forward.
“You sure you’ll be safe, Mrs Cartwright?” Jac called after her.
“Nice of you to ask but I save the worry for yourself, Marshal. Nobody’s going to want to do anything with or to me,” she called back.
Jac nodded but watched her fade into the night, sucking wind between her teeth on edge. Spokey might just want to do something to anyone associated with the marshals and an old lady alone at night would be an easy target.
“So far, all clear,” Wendel Caine said behind her.
Jac nodded, her eyes still not having left the horizon where Mrs Cartwright travelled.
“You feel up to takin’ a journey?” she asked.
“Sounds good,” he replied and both lawmen saddled up.
Thunder and Smoky galloped and gambolled across the desert. The Cartwright place was ten minutes comfortable ride from Ascension and while Cartwright had a start, the horse was dragging both cart and an elderly woman across the broken stones and dirt.
Jac Lightning wanted to get to the homestead well before Bethany Cartwright showed up to check for any signs of an ambush and be gone so as not to worry the old girl.
Wendel Caine was just happy to be doing something more than keeping a frightened populace from giving way to chaos. Wilhem and Lovelace were engrossed in whatever it was they were building and had blithely nodded when he informed them of their plans to safeguard the Cartwright homestead.
It was a cottage with a small vegetable garden, a paddock for a couple of horses and a cow, and a large shed. Humble, but well built, a family would be comfortable in a place like this. At the moment though, no home fires burned as Mrs Cartwright was still en route and her boys were working at Camp Colt. Jac hitched Thunder to a post while Smoky stayed at Caine’s side.
“I’ll check out the house,” Lightning said.
“And I’ve got the dunes and the shed,” Caine finished.
Splitting up, Jac climbed up to the cottage’s porch and, with little difficulty, forced a door open as quietly as she could. Inside, the house was very well kept, barely any dust adorned the shelves and it was tidy.
No, not tidy. Sparse.
Mrs Cartwright wasn’t much for sentiment, or couldn’t afford it, it seemed. There were few trinkets or pictures, nothing acquired or saved over the home-owner’s long life. A couple of paintings and some books seemed the extent of the cottage’s inventory.
The Lightning Marshal crept along the hall, eyes darting about for anyone who may be lurking in wait. The house was empty.
Wendel Caine and Smoky walked across the paddock, both of them studying the ground for tracks. Aside from the livestock, there didn’t seem to be anything else about. Hell, it didn’t even seem like the Cartwrights got anyone visiting them.
Satisfied, for the moment, Caine walked up to the shed and heaved a massive door open.
Jac passed a small bedroom. Two smaller beds were pushed against either wall, the sheets and blankets smooth and fastidiously prepared. More example of the standard Mrs Cartwright kept her home.
Except, if these beds were meant to accommodate grown men, then they’d have to be the shortest fellows she’d lay eyes upon, because these beds looked built for children.
Wendel Caine peered inside the darkness of the shed, the moonlight was the only source of illumination. It was enough, though.
It was enough to see a shelf of securely packed bottles filled with liquid that looked like that nitro stuff Wilhem had described to him earlier.
It was enough to see large metal canisters stacked against a wall.
It was enough to see a very large and thick folded canvas sheet bound with rope.
It was enough for the Mountain Marshal to guess that what was stored here was gas and a spare balloon for an airship.
Jac finished searching the house. It wasn’t full of trinkets, it wasn’t full of bandits. It was, however, full of lies.
Caine might not be the quickest thinker of the marshals, but when he wasn’t thinking at all, there was a deadly suddenness to the Mountain Marshal. With a scream of metal, the bolts to the heavy door were sheered in half as he wrenched it clean off its hinges.
And then, with a mighty heave, he flung the door and broke into a dead run, Smoky already having got a head start.
The door soared into shed, bowled the metal cylinder of gas over and crashed into the nitro that was not nearly packed securely enough to withstand the impact.
Jac opened the door. “I think there’s*”
The Lightning Marshal slammed the door close as the second towering explosion of the night filled her gaze.
Wendell Caine dived for the ground but was picked up before he could land and flung into the paddock. Bits of shed sailed through the air and fell around him.
James Lovelace and Hans Octavius Wilhem looked up from their work at the billowing orange cloud that lit up the horizon. Without a word, they boarded the steam-tank and, with weapon secured, stoked the boiler.
Lightning peered out the door, Caine looked up from the ground. The shed and everything in it was lost. The Lightning Marshal’s jaw went slack.
“What have you done?” she whispered.
Before Caine could tell her, confirm her suspicions about the Cartwrights, both lawmen heard the chorus of hoof beats getting louder.
And riding over the hills, at least a dozen men on horseback closed in on them.
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE ADVENTURES OF THE COLT APOLLO: 2ND ROUND, 6TH SALVO
Posted by Wordmobi