The bandits watched agog as two leviathans of machinery circled each other. On the ground, the steam driven half-train of Marshal Hans Octavius Wilhem, dragged behind it a huge harpoon gun like a giant iron stinger. High above, the airship of Samuel Spokey Sampson who had dropped a bomb that just missed both the half-train and the bandits nearby and under Spokey’s employ.
Those outlaws were under something much worse now. They knew it. And they knew that the only casualty in a fight like this was the landscape and anyone fool enough standing on it.
Jac Lightning and Wendell Caine glanced away for a second as the bandits, to a man, abandoned the battle and rode hard for the horizon. Neither of them pursued.
A cold gust blew a tumbleweed across the dust, it’s haunting whistle the only sound. And then a voice, distorted by speakers and distance, boomed from the heavens.
“Consider this your only warning if you try anything, Marshals!”
The airship hung overhead, out of the range of the Lightning Coil Throwers and the Wave Mortar, but maybe not of the other weapons about. Wendell Caine looked about the ruined tank for any weapon that hadn’t been pulverised. Jac Lightning cantered toward the half-train where Hans Octavius Wilhem had his gauntleted hands poised over the control panel.
And James Lovelace edged toward the harpoon gun.
“If you had just played along like Sheriff Benson did, we wouldn’t have ourselves in this mess!” The voice echoed as Jac Lightning tried to pick out the voice through the distance and distortion. Both were too much to give up the airship pilot’s identity.
“We could have kept this civil, quiet and be rich, but no! No you had to turn up in Ascension and ruin everything!’
Wilhem allowed himself a trace of a smile. Money had never been a concern for either of the Marshals. Lightning did the work because that was all what their family did. Caine didn’t need anything that he couldn’t eat, drink or fight and he himself had only seen his wealth as a means to continuing his inventions. Lovelace though…
Wilhem looked over his shoulder to see the Pinkerton Detective at the harpoon gun, doing something with the very long length of cable attached to it. Whatever his history, Lovelace had helped the Marshals out at each turn. Wilhem kept the boiler hot and the half-train ready to move.
Aboard the ruined tank, Caine sifted through broken and shredded metal but nothing of the tank’s armaments had survived Wave Mortar’s onslaught. His rifle unable to find the range of the airship, the Mountain Marshal sat astride Smokey, whose flank while injured, was able to bear the weight, and made his way toward the half-train too.
At a thousand metres up, it might not be clear what any of the lawmen were doing on the ground, but it clearly wasn’t surrender. The voice boomed again, playing its hole card.
“Be advised, marshals: the bomb I planted in your office wasn’t the only one I left in Ascension! If you don’t surrender, that town and everyone in it get blown to kingdom come!”
Gathering around the half-train, the Marshals looked to one another for an instant at the news that Ascension could end up a smoking crater. It was only for an instant though. It could be a bluff and even if it wasn’t, the bombs, if they were the same as the one in their former office, would be on timers as well. If they acted fast, they could catch Spokey and get back to the town in time to defuse them all.
Quick as the marshals considered this, James Lovelace had been even quicker. Standing up from the harpoon gun, he kicked the lock out from the trigger and said one word.
And with an echoing twang, both harpoon and Pinkerton shot into the sky at the airship.
It was a risky venture to say the least and none knew that more than the man tethered to the soaring harpoon. First he had to have judged his target correctly, and then be dexterous enough to grab onto the gondola together, as well as strong enough to hang on and tough enough to take what he expected to be a very hard stop. In essence, he needed each of three marshals singular talents to ensure he survived this idea.
And when the harpoon ploughed into the gondola and his tether snapped, leaving him with nothing but a thousand yards between him and the ground, James Lovelace needed a new plan.
Back on earth, Hans Octavius Wilhem, seeing the harpoon sink home but not the beginning of Lovelace’s fall, slammed on the half-train’s brakes to leash the airship. The jolt sent a slow rippling wave up the length of the steel cable a moment before Jac Lightning, still astride Thunder mid-canter, reached out for the taught cable between half-train and airship. With her trusty Lightning Coil Thrower in the other, The Lightning Marshal was an instant too late as the cable snapped out of her reach and lashed against her gun, sending a charge along the cable. There was a heavy thump to her left as Wendell Caine had leapt off Smokey and onto the cable winch and spool, reading to climb up himself.
The result high above was the electric blast travelled into the Mountain Marshal’s body, leaving only a small current to travel the length of cable and into James Lovelace’s arms. Muscles clamped shut like a steel trap around the cable, until the whiplash from Wilhem’s piloting bodily flung the Pinkerton off his perch like a bucking bronco and into the webbing of the airship’s balloon. His hands scrambled with fury though it was more because of the tangled mess he’d been flung into that kept Lovelace aloft and anchored to the airship.
Muscles twitching, bruises forming and blood pooling around his feet, the Pinkerton Detective froze, hanging upside down on the side of the balloon but safe from the vagaries of gravity. After a minute of stark terror, he decided that it was safe enough to start breathing again.
“Keep it steady, Wilhem!” Jac Lightning called out. “That fool Englishman’s still up there!”
Wilhem released the brakes and stoked the boiler, the half-train picking up speed again and travelling south.
“Where are you going?” Lighting yelled over the machinery, having drawn Thunder into a gallop beside the cabin.
“Ascension!” Wilhem yelled back. “If Spokey has rigged zhe town, he’ll tell us vhere zhe bombs are or he gets a close look at his handiverk.
The Lightning Marshal nodded and then her eyes went wide as inspiration struck like her namesake.
“I’ll meet you there!” She cried, digging the spurs into Thunder and storming ahead toward town.
Hand-over-hand Wendell Caine began the herculean task of climbing the cable. The half-train was moving at break-neck pace that the airship was unable to maintain, the result being that Spokey’s vessel trailed behind like a kite. Further helping the ascent was the mechanical winch that fought against the airship as it wound the cable, dragging the airship down. With the rope at a somewhat more comfortable angle and getting shorter, the burly lawman was making decent time as he swung from hand to hand, legs dangling over an ever-growing drop.
Breathing established and limbs willing to trust him again, James Lovelace explored the ropes and cables that kept him from falling head-first off the airship. It hurt to move or breathe so the investigation crawled, but the thoroughness made him a little more confident when he, with ginger care, extricated one leg from the webbing. Certain that he had wrapped ropes around his arms three times over, he disentangled the other leg and in a terrified jarring movement, found himself right ways up. Against better judgement, the Pinkerton looked down and was relieved to see that the ground was, in fact, getting closer. So was Wendell Caine who was nearing the centre of the harpoon’s cable. It was then that Spokey had enough.
Mounted at each corners of the gondola was a light belt-fed machine gun, designed to repel that which the bombs did not obliterate. The Mountain Marshal’s quick ascent had brought him into range and Spokey made no bones at firing at the dangling target. The distance remained considerable as the opening salvo went wide but over the whistling wind, Wendell Caine could hear the buzzing of bullets getting closer as the machine guns were finding their mark.
As fast as he was able, Lovelace scaled down the balloon and toward the gondola. He needed to find a way in to disable the guns before they riddled the Mountain Marshal’s hairy bulk. The door at the side of the Gondola was obstinate, locked to prevent intruders even from this altitude.
Hot lead stung the shoulder of Wendell Caine and blood poured down his arm, matting his beard in red clumps. Despite this, the Mountain Marshal’s hands stayed locked around the cable and, over the agony of his shoulder, continued to swing hand over hand, getting closer to the airship. The bullets would get closer to him before that happened but the only reason Caine’s hands would leave the cable was when Spokey’s throat was in reach. Another bullet spat into his leg, kicking him around like a bed sheet on a clothesline and still he climbed.
Gunfire caught Wilhem’s ear over the pounding engine and the Iron Marshal looked up to see the line of bullets picking off pieces of his partner. Trusting in his vehicle to keep travelling straight and true, Wilhem fed another shell into the Wave Mortar and, with the airship having been pulled into range, fired it into the machine gun. A white-hot explosion rocked the airship but the harpoon remained lodged into the gondola and Caine remained attached to the cable and still climbed!
Unable to attempt picking the lock while one hand gripped the shaking rope with white-knuckled fury, the Pinkerton Detective, over the roar of exploding ammunition, searched the gondola for another means of entry. There was only one door, the bomb hatch that in likelihood would be closed until Spokey found a target, the hole where the harpoon had torn through the wood walls and the newest hole that now on fire. Locked, burning or too small to use, James Lovelace cursed between gritted teeth as his eyes scoured the length of the airship.
It was then he saw that Jac Lightning had found a way in.
Dragged to the outskirts of Ascension, where pillars of towering rock reached to the sky, the Lightning Marshal had left the half-train and airship in her dust as she urged Thunder across the desert night and up the tallest pillar.
One the airship would inevitably float past.
Having been reeled in, the airship was at just enough altitude that Jac Lightning could fling herself off her galloping horse, over the precipice of the plateau and, with Lightning Coil Throwers blazing before her, through the shattered glass window of the cockpit. She rolled to her feet, guns trained on the only seat in a cabin off buttons levers and dials.
In the centre, hands looped with lengths of wire that manipulated the machine guns like marionettes, periscopes affording a magnified view of the ground only a glance away and securely buckled to the chair sat the marshal’s housekeeper: Bethany Cartwright.
“You,” she hissed and rage poured out her lips that had, until then, held nothing more than a smile and a kind word for the marshals. “You have ruined everything!”
Having climbed around the gondola, James Lovelace crawled through the broken windscreen and into the cabin.
“Wilhem would positively have a German helmet if he was here,” he said as he took in the copious amounts of instruments. Then his eyes landed on Cartwright.
“What the deuce?” he exclaimed as furious eyes locked onto his.
“Meet Spokey Sampson,” Jac Lightning said with cold and grim finality, the Lightning Coil Throwers not budging and inch from their target.
Sore, bleeding but having reached the harpoon itself, Wendell Caine pounded his fist into the wood, ripping out planks with one hand to make the hole big enough that he could crawl through. Feet grateful to be reacquainted with something solid beneath them, The Mountain Marshal found himself in the back half of the gondola, surrounded by racks upon racks of black-shelled bombs.
A smile formed beneath blood-soaked whiskers.
“This can all end peacefully if you tell us where the bombs are,” Jac Lightning said in a voice as hard as tombstones.
“I’m done with peace, Marshal,” Spokey rasped back. “You took my town, my men and my son!”
“Your son,” Lovelace interjected. “I’m afraid you might have to be more specific.” The Pinkerton slammed his mouth closed then as he could feel anger upon him from two of the deadliest people in Arizona.
“Harry,” she whispered. “My poor, dear Harry…”
There was a twitch across Jac Lightning’s face. Harry Winsome, the only person who had known who Spokey Sampson was, the only person good or lucky enough to outdraw the Lightning Marshal, the one who Jac had gunned down in the middle of Ascension after a furious battle.
“Harry, who protected me. Kept my secret. Did my business until he met you, marshal,” she said. “And without him now you’ve found me.”
“The bombs. Now,” was the Lightning Marshal’s only response.
Silence filled the cabin, the airship having been dragged low enough that there was no longer a howl through the broken windscreen. And then…
“Attention citizens of Ascension!” The voice of Hans Octavius Wilhem thundered through a bullhorn.
“Evacuate zhe town, immediately!”
Inside the bomb bay, Caine searched for an opening to the cockpit, but the two rooms remained wholly separate, accessible to each other only when the airship was on the ground. Short of climbing outside and searching for another entrance, the Mountain Marshal was stuck here.
Which suited him fine as this room was armed with possibilities.
Hefting one of the black shells and pondering how to set it off while escaping to safety, he heard, beyond the wall of the armoury the words of his partner and that Limey Pinkerton. Jac and Lovelace were onboard. That complicated things.
And then he heard another voice that made things simple again.
“I’m going to see my son now,” Bethany Cartwright said and something under her hand on the armrest of the chair clicked.
“And you’re coming with me!” she screamed as one of the dials switched on, counting down from five, four…
“Everybody out!” Jac yelled and she ran for the broken windscreen with Lovelace close behind, his narrow brush with death forgotten as he leapt out the after the Lightning Marshal and scrambled to the harpoon.
Wendell Caine heard everything but hadn’t finished in the bomb bay yet. With titanic strength, the Mountain Marshal wrenched the floor-mounted bay doors, twisting the catch until and they were wedged shut and ensuring the bombs wouldn’t drop on Ascension below.
Jac and Lovelace leapt to the cable, her hand catching onto it. Lovelace fell short and while the airship wasn’t as high up before, it remained a fall he wouldn’t walk away from. Just as gravity asserted itself upon the Pinkerton, Jac Lightning let go of one of her father’s precious Lightning Coil Throwers and grabbed his hand as the gun shattered on the streets below. For one precious second they both hung there before Lovelace managed to grab the line.
One second too late.
With the bomb doors sealing the shells inside, the explosion above Ascension was the biggest and loudest yet. The townsfolk, having acted immediately on Wilhem’s orders, watched as a fiery cloud billowed out before washing across the night sky with the brightness of the sun. Shielding their eyes, they did not see Jac Lightning or James Lovelace sliding down the cable.
They did, however, see someone ablaze who slid, quite literally, hot on their heels.
Wendell Caine’s beard, hair and overalls were on fire, he was shot and tired.
He was alive though. And Spokey Sampson, clearly, was not.
All three lawmen landed in a tumbling heap, bruised and battered but still able to feel out. Hans Octavius Wilhem leapt out of the cabin of his half-train and deployed the chemical fire extinguisher, coating Wendell Caine in white foam.
“It’s not over yet,” he said. “Zhere are still zhe bombs to vorry about.”
Nobody wanted to move but each of them did as the lawmen split up. Wilhem took the blacksmith. Caine, the Ignit-Inn. Lovelace, the doctor’s surgery and Lightning ran for Etheric Delights.
Wilhem and Lovelace knew what to look for and quickly located similar bombs to that which had blown up the marshal’s office. The timers had two minutes remaining but each of them were proficient enough to defuse the explosives with time to spare.
Where time would work against them would be covering the entire town. Which is why Lighting and Caine had gone ahead to scout the bombs’ locations.
Jac Lightning stormed through the foyer of Etheric Delights and, on the briefest of briefings, headed for the cellar where, in all likelihood, the bomb would be found within the foundations. Barrels of wine and liquor were stacked in long rows and Lightning sprinted from end to the other, looking for anything that didn’t fit. She found it in the form of a heavy steel door that had been double-locked and padlocked, built into the brick of the building.
Returning to the street, Wilhem heard his name yelled and joined Jac at the whorehouse, running down the stairs with only one minute remaining. He was shown the door and its solid foundations and shook his head.
“Nein,” he said. “Not enough damage.”
Leading Jac through the rows of the wine cellar, the Iron Marshal found the bomb on the third load-bearing post and, with mechanical precision, defused it.
Having dealt with his bomb at the surgery, James Lovelace ran toward the Ignit-Inn where Wendell Caine emerged, the explosive in his hand. So focused on the urgency of the situation, the normally perceptive Pinkerton hadn’t noticed that the foam had spilled off and the fire had burnt his overalls to ashes.
“Give it here!” Lovelace yelled, but Caine shook his head.
“Check the tavern,” he called back. “I got this.”
Less than a minute left no time to argue with the naked mountain man and Lovelace sped into the tavern and straight for the foundations. He defused the bomb just as heard an explosion outside.
Lovelace, Lightning and Wilhem returned to the street where cinders rained down from the heavens. Caine hadn’t bothered trying to defuse the bomb. He had simply hurled into the air as far from Ascension as he could. And thanks to his and everyone else’s quick actions, the town had been spared of everything but a night of fireworks.
Grateful citizens returned to town, dousing the last burning embers and offering free drinks to the lawmen for removing the menace of Spokey Sampson.
All that is, except for Wilhemina Ether, the Madam of Etheric Delights who took one look at the naked Wendell Caine and fainted right there on the street.
JAC LIGHTNING, WENDELL CAINE, HANS OCTAVIUS WILHEM AND JAMES LOVELACE CONTINUE IN THE ONE-SHOT RELOAD, BEFORE RETURNING IN THE NEXT INSTALLMENT:
THE ADVENTURES OF THE COLT APOLLO: 3RD ROUND, FIRST SALVO.
Posted by Wordmobi