Straining against stout lengths of chain, eager to take to the sky, five mighty airships struggled to be free of the city of Phoenix; each vessel filling with men of riches and skill, treated to the interior of the gondola, whose polished finery glittered like the spring sun across a brook.
This was lost to Marshal Wendell Caine who, operating under the guise of Bethany Cartwright’s manservant, was surrounded by valets, maids and luggage as they entered through the less glamorous cargo hold. Baggage handlers heaved and sweated as they hauled trolley after trolley of luggage, under the imperious direction of stately servants in pressed suits of black and grey, starched shirt collars unyielding under the perspiration of high noon in Arizona.
The Mountain Marshal’s attire was fighting on a losing war on more than one front though. While Caine had capitulated to wearing more layers than his usual garb of a pair of overalls, he had been unyielding in his views of bathing and grooming; the result a forgone conclusion as starched cotton was no match for the sweat and grime that had been gathering its forces for a little over a year. Wool and tweed were slaughtered under a two-part assault of a heavy lunch of bacon and beans as well as two heavy crates – laden with the late Spokey Sampson’s counterfeit money – that Caine insisted he was capable of carrying aboard.
Annie, on loan from Etheric Delights to aid Bethany Cartwright, refused to meet any of the agape stares of porter, manservant or maid as she followed Caine aboard. Her role was to ensure that the other Marshal was able to carry herself as a lady of society and there were customers back at the whorehouse she’d rather bed for free than supervise both Wendell Caine as well as Jac Lightning.
“And what keeps you busy, Ms Cartwright?” asked Constance Grimwheel, ad-hoc owner of Grimwheel Hydraulics until some suitor could be found to take the reigns of business.
Happy that her quick wits and poker face didn’t reveal her first answer – prostitution, drugs and extortion being Spokey/Cartwright’s business before she ran afoul of the Marshals of Ascension – Jac Lightning remembered the most important piece of advice that Hans Octavius Wilhem and Wilhemina Ether had given her.
Take your first reaction or instinct, and do the exact opposite.
“I’m in investments”, Jac replied, keeping her black lace fan at, what she hoped, was the appropriate angle.
Being the only two members of the fairer sex aboard the airship, Jac and Constance had struck up a conversation, the former hopeful in practicing her brief lessons of etiquette on the latter’s eagerness to discover more about Ms Cartwright’s independence.
“Investments! How fascinating!” Ms Cartwright exclaimed as Jac allowed a genuine smile to peek out around the corners of the false one she’d maintained since the painful hours of early morning.
“Whom are you engaged with at the present,” Miss Grimwheel continued and Jac’s smile scuttled back behind her fixed lips and teeth.
“What possible use could I have for a husband,” Jac retorted fearing as soon as she’d spoke that, unlike her unerring aim with a gun, her answer had once more missed its mark.
Constance Grimwheel sharp breath turned to a relaxed sigh though and the Lightning Marshal half-expected the airship to shoot up to the sun from the weight shed from the young lady’s shoulders.
“I too wonder at the necessity of marriage, though it seems plain to those in my business that I be saddled with a husband without delay,” Ms Grimwheel said with an uneven smile. “I’ve made it plain that Grimwheel Hydraulics could hardly operate without a Grimwheel in charge, but I appear surrounded by those who believe it to be men’s business. Hence I am here, I suppose. To prove I am the equal of any man”
Jac agreed but wasn’t sure Bethany Cartwright would and, as such, decided to play it safe and continue smiling.
“But that wasn’t what I meant,” Constance continued. “What businesses are you invested in, Ms Cartwright?”
“Oh, I don’t know. That’s the job of my advisor,” Jac smiled and with that, the thought of finding another suffragette comrade, along with Ms Grimwheel respect, leapt overboard.
With the luggage aboard the airships took to the skies, the second zeppelin carrying Jac Lightning and Wendell Caine, while the fourth vessel counted Hans Octavius Wilhem, James Lovelace and William Henry Baker amongst its passengers. The portly representative of Ithaca Rifling Company had no interest in the poker tournament ahead, having set his sights on grander ideas.
Wilhem and Lovelace watched as Baker managed to ride herd on three transport magnates of stagecoach, rail and airship into intricate dealings about Ascension’s destiny and the secret project Ithaca had stationed there. The talks continued for over an hour, Baker unwilling to let anyone leave until he was convinced that a deal to transport supplies and people was hashed out and agreed in principle.
Both Marshal and Pinkerton had never been happier to exist beneath the Ithacan’s notice.
Over the airship’s loudspeaker, everyone’s conversation was interrupted as the vessel’s captain announced that the fleet of gamblers was passing over a site of historical importance: The final battle of the American Civil War.
While Baker could care less about history, Wilhem and Lovelace sped toward the nearest window, peering down at the battleground and its scarred terrain.
The final battle before the surrender of Confederate forces had been terrible, with the development of steam-powered and propelled technology skewed toward destruction. While The South had boasted more military-minded leaders and soldiers, The North had both numbers and industry on its side and it was over four years of innovation and invention that concluded in the catastrophic culling of brother versus brother; the most destructive force, and the final coffin nail, being The March of the Steam Men.
Those that survived, on either side, did not often speak of it. Those who watched and directed the battle from afar, speak of it as route wholesome in horrid effectiveness. So great, the damage wrought, both sides of the war vowed that the United States would not be party to the development of such tools of destruction again, regardless of the enemy being foreign or domestic.
Wilhem and Lovelace could each see the solitary footprint, gigantic even from their altitude and both suppressed a shudder for once, there had been many footprints of that final march.
Constance Grimwheel, unwilling to speak with the collection of cigar-chomping men assigned to the airship, had remained content in discussion with the peculiar Bethany Cartwright. The investor, from New York it seemed, maintained such a distracted air toward the state of her business; alluding to a financial advisor called Von Willenheim aboard who, aboard another vessel, was gambling with her money. Yet despite the scatterbrained understanding of business, there was something that sparked behind her lighting blue eyes; a resolve or intensity at odds with her vague accounts of dealings and minor faux-pas. Hoping to glean some insight into Ms Cartwright for use across the poker table, she found herself pinned under a scrutiny unlike any woman or man she’d met before.
“Perhaps we could talk further back in New York, I have offices there as well,” Miss Grimwheel said; ready to break the conversation off.
“Once I confer with my advisor, I would be happy to,” Ms Cartwright responded as Constance’s ears latched onto something that had been bothering her since their introduction. Her words seemed forced, as if she were speaking around a large cherry pit in her mouth and did not want to spit it out. It was a careful phrasing, charming, but forced.
“Should he win, of course,” Miss Grimwheel said, feeling as if she’d stumbled across a mystery.
“Of course. Otherwise he wouldn’t be a very good advisor, would he?” And with that, Miss Grimwheel let out a smile that didn’t quite match the wide grin of Bethany Cartwright. She had finally figured it out.
Ms Bethany Cartwright was a half-wit.
During the take-off and journey Wendell Caine, not about to set foot in the state room where the contestants mingled, had decided to explore the rest of the airship in the event that he needed to break out of, or into, any part of the room. During his investigations he hadn’t succeeded in making many friends amongst the maids or gentlemen’s gentlemen, but he had rubbed elbows with a few of the porters and crew, who were happy to talk shop about the airship to somebody not afraid to get his hands dirty. It was, just after he’d finished up with one of the engineers and on his way back to his cabin that he felt somebody bounce off his massive frame.
“Watch where you’re walking, cocksucker!” The Mountain Marshal heard and he glared down at the small hairy man who belonged in a tuxedo as much as Wendell Caine did. Standing shoulders above hadn’t done anything to shut the guy’s mouth and, to Caine’s reckoning, wouldn’t stop him settling the matter with fists or whatever weapon that was stashed out of sight.
Punching a man out for rudeness was something Wendell Caine would have leapt at knuckles-first. But judging by his manner and the collection of gold rings, the Mountain Marshal figured this could be a contestant. And that meant he could be a suspect.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Caine deadpanned.
“You will be if I see you again,” the man shot back, fists balled and waiting for any excuse to take a swing.
Inside, Caine was waiting for the same but, neither willing to launch the first punch reduced things to a staring contest that ended as Caine unlocked the door to his room. The contestant stormed down the hall, unaware that Caine hadn’t closed the door and was peering through the crack, making a note of where his cabin was. Unnoticed, Caine left his cabin and, after seeking one of his new friends, learnt that he had been accosted by the infamous Wiley Pete: suspected outlaw, gunman and gambler.
Caine cracked his knuckles and grinned.
After a sumptuous five-course banquet, Bethany Cartwright wished her opponents a good evening, returned to her cabin and, with a explosive gasp of air once Annie had loosened her corset laces, let Jac Lightning out.
“I swear I’m fixin’ to shoot everyone on suspicion o’ somethin’ illegal then go back inside that blasted thing agin!”
Wendell Caine, who had scrounged up some leftovers from the kitchen, looked up from his cleaned plate. “Reckon you could start off with that Wiley Pete, fella?”
Already familiar with Wiley Pete’s exploits, Jac Lightning shook her head. “Small fry. Don’t reckon there’s much cause for him bein’ here than cards. That Jacque Sanchez though…”
“The Frexican. Gun Smuggler my Pa wrote about. Can’t think o’ anyone else cause ain’t nobody on this ship heard’a Bethany Cartwright.”
“Might be that Wilhem and the Pinkerton dandy got us some news,” Caine said as headed for the door while Annie set about freeing The Lightning Marshal.
Both Wilhem and Lovelace had trying to put names to faces and faces to wanted posters with no success. The luck of the draw, which had split the lawmen amongst two airships, had kept a large clutch of businessmen together, making up most of the contestants on the ship. Their luck came to a sudden stop when they learnt they were trapped high in the sky with William Henry Baker, who stalked each of them with the ruthlessness of a polecat.
One of the contestants managed to escape the attentions of Baker, however: A retired Major from Connecticut, who fought in the Civil War. Approaching fifty, Henry Klondike was a collection of medals and stories, recounting anyone showing interest about various battles he’s participated in; a topic that found an audience of two: Hans Octavius Wilhem and James Lovelace.
“You vere at Zhe March of zhe Steam Men?” Wilhem asked, having noticed the campaign medal pinned to the lapel of his faded formal dinner jacket.
“Indeed,” the stout, white-whiskered man replied and, for the first time in the evening, he went quiet.
“Ve had been talking about zhis since ve passed zhe battleground,” Wilhem continued. “Ve vould be indebted to you for a first-hand account…”
“There’s nothing on that day worth remembering, son,” Klondike muttered. “It was a day of misery. A group of tired worn and weary men who were beat in all but name versus a terrible thunder from the fog of early morning.
Both Wilhem and Lovelace saw the Major pale and his eyes go wide.
“Red embers peering out as the thunder drew closer. The men started firing and those that didn’t miss heard the ring of metal and knew it tolled for them. Fifteen-foot iron golems strode out of the fog and the sky went black above them. Rotating guns cut down those that weren’t crushed beneath them. And those machines just kept walking.”
Lovelace fetched a glass of water as Wilhem eased Major Klondike into a stuffed chair. The water shook in his hand to some monstrous internal beat.
“Nobody won that day. We forged devils and bad them to fight in wars of men.”
Klondike realised the glass was in his hand and gulped the water down in gasps. Not trusting him to do himself injury, Wilhem took the glass away and was relieved to see Klondike compose himself.
“Whatever happened to these machines?” Lovelace asked while Wilhem, seeing the Major was alright, turned his mind to devising schematics of such weapons.
“Destroyed,” Klondike said in a long sigh of relief. “Both sides agreed that war must never escalate to such a travesty again.”
Gathering sidelong looks from the servants and other contestants at Klondike’s loss of composure, the noise of conversation returned when it was clear that the Major had said all he intended to.
“What brings you to the tournament, Major?” Lovelace inquired eager to change the topic.
“I’m a man of leisure now, lad,” Klondike replied through a thin smile. “Retired from soldiering and eager to sample life; it’s always been a dream of mine to take place in this tournament.”
“You’re a poker player then?” asked Lovelace.
“After a fashion,” Klondike shrugged. “I’ve had some luck with cards but plenty of enjoyment. I get my allowance, I’ve saved my money and it is my intention to get one shot of the high life before my time is done.”
The Major seemed more a grandfather than a soldier and the wan smile that had grown as he talked away from the topic of the war would be one to bring relief to anyone listening. But Lovelace and Wilhem, ever the investigators, couldn’t help but notice something behind the touching story; the certain sense that this was far and away not the reason he was here.
“So you really mean to say you’re going to gamble away your entire retirement savings?” Lovelace asked, keeping the accusation out of his voice with disarming charm.
“I lead a modest life. I have the savings for such an occasion. I am an old man, sir, and just once I would live a dream,” Klondike said, and again both Marshal and Pinkerton’s instincts tingled at the falsehood.
“Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me, the conversation appears to have taken more out of me than I would like,” and this, the lawmen knew was the truth.
Retired Major Henry Klondike shuffled off to bed, leaving Wilhem and Lovelace with more questions, but with somebody whom to ask.
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE ADVENTURES OF THE COLT APOLLO: RELOAD PART 5
Posted by Wordmobi