A creak, a pop and a low groan sang out as the iron-black and dusty brown steam engine began rolling toward Phoenix, though the chorus of complaints did not come from the engine, but rather from the cabins containing Hans Octavius Wilhem, Wendell Caine and an unhitched and unharnessed Jac Lightning.
A full day of travelling in a stagecoach across Arizona desert would make most acrophobes seek the luxury of an airship. As there was no such vessel available that would see the lawmen as speedily delivered to Phoenix, the Marshals had to endure the hot, dusty and bumpy conditions of the coach.
On top of this, and all around them, Lightning and Wilhem also had to endure the companionship of Marshal Wendel Caine, who filled the interior either in bulk or in odour.
The situation could have been worse, though it beggared belief as to how. One would only have to ask James Lovelace who, despite travelling in more luxurious arrangements, had the company of Henry William Baker. A constant string of complaints about the heat, dust and anything else that caught his attention mapped the miles of desert with landmarks of categorical discomfort.
Masquerading as Bethany Cartwright, The Lightning Marshal had managed to avoid riding with Baker, insisting that her fellow marshals be included in the carriage for her protection. It had not been a flawless escape, though. The stagecoach offer had been traded for Baker’s insistence that “Ms Cartwright” join him for dinner in his private cabin.
In keeping with appearances, as well as ensuring that the Lightning Marshal continued keeping with them, in spite of Baker’s boorish charms, Marshal Wilhem attended as her escort.
“Ms Cartwright, it seems the dust of the road has not tarnished your beauty,” Baker said, searching for her hand to take and finding it not at all forthcoming. The German Marshal was to thank for this as Baker would have ended up kissing her knuckles in a manner far less pleasant.
“A delight to see you. Again.” Jac replied between taut lips while just above the lace fan she’s snapped open, her stormy eyes sparked.
Both Wilhem and Lovelace, hairs on the nape of their necks at full attention, stepped next to their charges.
“We never did learn the purpose of your journey, Ms Cartwright,” Lovelace said, trying to force some levity into the atmosphere with Sisyphean effort.
Wilhem took up the labour. “Ms Cartwright plans to attend zhe Aces High Poker Tournament.”
“What grand luck!” declared Baker. “I intend the very same.”
“How. Delightful,” Jac replied as her dreams of decent poker were swallowed by the overblown industrialist.
With one hand rubbing his wrist, chafed by the shackle connecting him to Baker’s substantial entry fee, Lovelace suggested that a practice game might pass the time over dinner.
It might well divest him of his burden as well as both lawmen would be merciless in emptying Baker’s wallet.
In the dining carriage, another burden was being relieved by Wendell Caine. Informed that he could help himself to what he liked on the buffet, both cook and waiters shivered when the Mountain Marshal had looked from the mountain of food, and then straight into their eyes.
“I’ll have… everything.”
None of it were beans and only some of the dishes had bacon, but it was good fare and for a man who had been raised on not wasting perfectly good food, both staff and other travellers had to work fast to ensure that no one else was left starving as the West Virginian trencherman worked the buffet with gastronomic devastation.
Under refrained manner and sterling silver, Lightning, Wilhem, Lovelace and Baker concluded dinner and, with the table cleared, began dealing cards.
“Given how much you’ve obviously spent on your outfit, Marshal, we’ll keep the stakes low,” Baker offered without the slightest hint of charity.
Wilhem, who had attended the carriage in finery that bespoke of his nobility back in the old country, set a fine example for Jac Lightning by not pointing out that he could buy the train the rode on and gamble it away tonight without a care.
“Very kind of you,” he replied instead. “I vould suggest zhen ve keep zhe low bid at fifty und stakes at vone-hundred.”
He then reached into the jacket pocket of his tuxedo and produced a stack of bills that he divided between Ms Cartwright and James Lovelace.
“Your funds, madam,” he offered. “Und stakes for Herr Lovelace as Poker is somevhat more fun vith four players.”
Baker blinked twice before he caught himself and nodded. Wilhem felt himself being audited by the industrialist as he shuffled and dealt the cards.
Both Jac Lightning and James Lovelace had played poker for years and fleeced William Henry Baker of his cash like a balding sheep. But it was Hans Octavius Wilhem who had found his charity returned to him with interest as he took hand after hand.
“An impressive display, Marshal. One wonders where you found the time to master such craft at cards,” Baker commented with no small bitterness.
With meticulous care, the German Marshal sorted his winnings. “It is an easier game zhan zhe type I play in zhe homeland,” he replied with a shrug. “Using just vone deck of cards does keep zhings simple.”
“I’ve heard marshals possess all manner of skills,” Lovelace smiled, his gaze drifting toward Ms Cartwright.
“Indeed,” Baker replied between tight lips as the Pinkerton’s gaze went right over his head.
The game continued late into the evening, long after the snores of a very contented Wendell Caine competed with the steam train in scaring the animals away. Baker, eager to recoup his losses, removed his stake in the tournament from a grateful James Lovelace, and used its contents to back a small resurgence of luck in the later hands, though hardly sufficient to call it a wash. Lovelace dominated the middle, winning some $3000.00, while Ms Cartwright managed to break even. It was clear though that Wilhem had enjoyed the most success of the game, increasing Baker’s disdain that he was willing to let Ms Cartwright free of his clutches to see the German Marshal quit his cabin.
Wilhem and Lightning managed to get halfway to their beds before both lawmen split their sides laughing.
With a screech of steel and a fierce whistle, the train pulled into Phoenix Central Station. The platform was clogged with passengers and, as the Marshals, Pinkerton and Baker stepped onto the side walk, the throng of people were headed under the shadow of five massive airships that floated with a majestic lull overlooking an expensive hotel. Those that filled the streets were a combination of onlookers, beggars and gambling hopefuls, eager to see those that could afford to fritter away the riches of Aces High. Patrolling the porch, heavy repeater rifles at hand, were intimidating guards; hulking with brass and silver enhancements. Showing their invitations, the residents of Ascension stepped into the hotel where things were much less crowded.
There were an assortment of people, some who filled the finery of suits, tuxedos or gowns with tailored skill, while others appeared to have been shoe-horned by prodigious cash and little taste. The bar bustled as glasses were handed over and, in the corner, a large table had been set up where a queue waited upon a small clerical man under the protection of two of the larger guards.
Caine, Lightning and Wilhem joined the line, along with Lovelace who had been freed of the satchel and under instructions to register in Baker’s name.
“Given zhe suspicion ov foul play,” Wilhem mused under his breath, “zhere might be prudence in adding anozher pair of eyes.”
Having wired ahead before leaving Ascension, the German Marshal had been able to secure funds from the allowance his family provided and, producing the stack of bills once again, added to James Lovelace’s winnings enough money to buy him a place at the tournament.
“That’s exceedingly kind of you,” said an astonished Lovelace.
“Not really. It mostly belongs to your employer,” Wilhem smiled.
Ahead of the line, Jac Lightning, almost forgot her disguise as, when asked if he possessed weapons, the gentleman ahead of her produced a large-calibre pistol with six valved chambers. It was polished to a gleaming shine and etched with care, but to the Lightning Marshal, it was not the appearance but rather the antiquity of the weapon. It was a Steam-Powered Repeating pistol– one of the earliest applications of gas-powered technology and a piece of history.
The clerk behind the table showed the same appreciation. “Sir, that is a most valuable means of protection!”
The owner of the gun, standing over six-and-a-half feet, broad-shouldered and bellied, with gun-metal grey thinning hair boomed his reply. “It’s a priceless means of protection, and I trust you have the security worthy of it.”
The engineer in Wilhem and Lovelace stomped their conversation to a close and wrestled their eyes onto the pistol. What had gone unnoticed by Jac Lightning was the engraving amongst the filigree. It was a ceremonial pistol presented to officers who had won the Mexican-American War forty years ago.
“If I vere you,” Wilhem suggested somewhat breathlessly, “I vould insist it deserves zhe same care und security as your deposit.”
“An easy arrangement and one that would make me more comfortable,” the clerk agreed and, at his behest, one of the guards produced a heavy iron strongbox laden with cash.
The owner of the pistol turned to face the Marshals and Pinkerton. “I see I’m not alone in appreciation of history.”
“It vas a marvel ov its time, sir, und vone zhat should be cherished,” Wilhem replied, his voice heavy with reverence.
“Edward Stokes,” the man announced, thrusting out a large hand now that it had been divested of the pistol.
“Baronet Hans Von Wilhem,” the German Marshal replied, taking his hand, as the shock to Lightning and Lovelace stayed hidden behind their practised poker faces.
“You’ve travelled far to be here,” Stokes smiled.
“Cards are an entertaining distraction from history und engineering,” Wilhem smiled back.
With promises to meet aboard the airships, Edward Stokes ambled to the bar while Ms Cartwright registered for the tournament. To the relief of Wilhem, the counterfeit stakes of the late Spokey Sampson went unnoticed and were added to the the strongbox, with the rest of the cash secured with the luggage, ready to be loaded aboard by Ms Cartwright’s manservant, Wendell Caine.
“Baronet?” Lovelace whispered once registration was finished.
“Anozher time, perhaps,” Wilhem whispered back as the two gentlemen chose a spot at the bar, far away from William Henry Baker who was already chewing the ears of a group of wealthy contestants.
Jac Lightning’s electric-blue eyes surveyed the crowd in a manner, she hoped, was ‘softer’ than searching for an outlaw. She was, in fact, doing just that, waiting to see if anyone approached or took interest in Bethany Cartwright. Aside from polite nods, there didn’t appear to be anyone who paid her much attention, which could mean that these people hadn’t arrived; or would approach her later aboard the airship; or knew Bethany Cartwright on sight.
She hoped it wasn’t the latter.
Hans Octavius Wilhem similarly scanned those assembled. His education in things mechanical and industrial identified a number of different contestants, most significantly Miss Constance Grimwheel, heir – or caretaker until she got herself a husband – of a vast business of hydraulic manufacture. Just turned thirty, she kept herself prim, though no amount of dress or make-up could conceal the hawkish glare as she circled groups of other wealthy industrialists, ready to descend into conversation.
Both marshals recognized a face that had graced many a wanted poster. An outlaw and suspected, though never convicted, gunman named Wiley Pete– so named for his signature weapon of a shotgun loaded with white phosphorus buckshot that had dispensed agonizing death to those who crossed him at cards.
Further scrutiny was interrupted as the clerk banged a gavel on the bar. Aside from his flanked security guards, the small bespectacled man stood in front of a blackboard, chalk poised in his hand and appearing as the best protected schoolteacher in Arizona.
“Good morning and greetings to all our contestants,” he bellowed. All conversation stopped in the hotel.
“Welcome to the seventh annual Aces High Poker Tournament. For those who have attended in the past, I ask your indulgence as I familiarise our new guests with the particulars of this event.
“Contestants will be randomly assigned to one of the four airships where they will play until a winner has been determined. Those winners will then be transferred to The Colorado to play in the grand final.”
“Only the winners and entourage will be allowed aboard The Colorado, though there will be updates via messenger to those interested aboard the other zeppelins. However, I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say that you’ll want to be there in the thick of it, am I right?”
A resounding cheer filled the room with one or two “Yee-haws!” by some of the less cultured contestants.
The clerk set about drawing the contestants, assigning them to their first table. By chance, Wilhem, Baker and Lovelace would be aboard the second airship while Ms Cartwright had been selected to play on the fourth airship. With the potential of the lawmen being divided, it was already agreed that Wendell Caine would act as Ms Cartwright’s servant, ensuring the Lightning Marshal was not without backup.
All that remained was for each of them to win against the richest or canniest poker players of the country to see what legacy Spokey Sampson had left behind.
As the contestants filed out of the hotel, to be conveyed to their respective airships, a name on the roster stopped Jac Lightning in her tracks. It was a name she had seen before and, given her lack of interest in reading, meant she could only have seen it on a wanted poster or in her father’s journals. And it was in such a journal that she remembered a weapon’s smuggler who worked during the Mexican-American War to deliver explosives to the enemy inside the border. Suspected of masterminding several underhanded and explosive chapters of the war, he had been captured, imprisoned and, obviously by his presence, had been released and acquired considerable wealth.
His name was Jacques Sanchez.
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE ADVENTURES OF THE COLT APOLLO: RELOAD, PART 4
Posted by Wordmobi