Stump Station wasn’t much more than a collection of shacks built precariously into the pockets and wedges on the east side of the Bitterroot Range in the Idaho Territory. So barren and out of the way, even the vultures risked starvation.
It was the perfect sort of place to attract those members of society who preferred to remain unnoticed by others. Hard men and rangy women who spent most of their days waiting for the right wind to carry them up to the glim grounds where they could harvest their fortune.
Glim, more precious than diamonds or gold, used to power ships on air, water, or land. Used to heal the sick, cure the blights, turn the tide in wars, and make anything and everything stronger and longer-lasting. Glim was even rumored to extend a man’s life well beyond his years.
Rare and desired, glim. And as hard to locate as Hades’ back door.
Some said glim could be found underground, or out at sea. But the only place glim was known to occur with any regularity was above high mountain ranges, and up higher still. Above the storm clouds, floating like nets of soft lightning, the glim fields were capricious and fleeting. Difficult to find. Deadly to harvest. Most ships couldn’t launch that high, last those storms, or lash and land without killing those who flew them.
So it was no wonder glim fetched a pretty price in the legitimate markets, and a king’s ransom in those markets less savory.
Captain Hink counted himself among his own kind out here in the rocks. Outlaws, prospectors, glim pirates, soldiers of luck, fools, and the foolhardy, brothers all.
Not that he wouldn’t drop a brother at a thousand paces if he jumped his claim, stole his boots, or touched his airship, the Swift.
But then, he supposed any of the rock rats who ported, docked, or launched from Stump Station would do him the same.
“Problem, Mr. Seldom?” Captain Hink asked as his second-in-command ducked through the canvas tarp that hung in place of a door in the tumbledown that Hink called home.
Seldom was a wiry-built, redheaded Irish who looked like he’d snap in half if he sneezed too hard. Most people thought he got his name from how often he spoke. But Captain Hink knew he went by Seldom for how many times he’d lost a fight.
Hink figured he and Seldom didn’t much resemble each other. Hink scraped up a full six foot, three inches, and had shoulders that took the sides off doorways if he wasn’t mindful. Yellow hair, skin prone to tanning, and eyes the gray of a broody sky set in a face that women had never complained about, Hink might have been considered a catch if he’d grown up in the social circles of the old states instead of as the bastard child of a soiled dove.
And whereas Seldom looked old for his thirty years, Hink looked like a man in his twenties and that was no lie.
Seldom stabbed one thumb over his shoulder, stirring the wool scarves around his neck and jostling his breathing gear which hung at the wait near his collarbone. “Mullins.”
Captain Hink put the cup of boiled beans that passed for coffee up here in the stones down on the edge of the map spread across the buckboard that served as his desk. He leaned back in his chair, enough so his Colt was in easy reach.
He wasn’t expecting Les Mullins to come in and shoot him dead. But he wouldn’t be surprised if that was exactly what the captain of the big, and recently crashed and burned, Iron Draught hoped to accomplish.
Especially since Mullins had had to patch up that old mule of a steamer the Powderback to get around.
Mr. Seldom stepped to the corner of the room, and faded into the woodwork like a stick in a stack.
The canvas tarp whipped aside and in strode Les Mullins. Big man, high forehead under stringy black hair and a face permanently burned red from flying too long in the cold upper. He looked mad enough to chew coils.
“Just because I don’t have a door,” Captain Hink said, “doesn’t mean a man shouldn’t knock.”
Les Mullins smiled—well, more like sneered—showing tobacco stumps where his teeth ought to have been.
“Here’s the deal, Hink,” he said. “You give me that tin devil of yours, and I won’t tie you up like a hog, throw you off this cliff, and drag your broken bits in to the people who will shower me with gold for my trouble.”
“Deal?” Captain Hink said. “Why, we haven’t even cut the deck yet. How about you get the hell out of my house, Mullins?”
“How about you explain this?” Mullins tossed something onto Hink’s desk that landed and rattled like a tin can.
Hink made a big production of leaning forward and picking up the item, even though he knew exactly what it was. “It’s a tin star,” he said.
“It’s a badge,” Mullins said.
“So it is.”
“Says U.S. MARSHAL.”
“I see that, Mullins,” Captain Hink said. “You thinking of wearing this around so folk respect you? ’Cause it’s going to take a damn bit more than a tin star to make people stand up and take notice of the bluster that comes out of your yap.”
“What I think,” Mullins said, advancing toward the desk, “is that you’ve been spying on us since you set up nest last spring. Weaseling out our stakes, claims, and buyers. What I think, Captain, is that you’re the president’s man, or near enough it don’t matter otherwise. You’ve come to shut our operation down and to haul us in to the law.”
“Shut it down?” Hink brought his hand, star and all, back casual-like toward his holster. “Why would I want to shut down an enterprise in which I make so much money?”
“Don’t know the mind of a turncoat dog like you.”
Captain Hink weighed that remark for one second. He had a reputation for a bad temper and a quick trigger. Something his mother had told him would get him killed, God rest her soul. So he always gave every statement a full-up two seconds of consideration before he acted upon it.
Then he pulled the knife from his belt and threw it straight and true into Mullins’s chest.
Mullins stumbled back. He clutched at the knife with one hand and clawed for his gun with the other. Wasn’t much successful with either attempt.
“I sure hope I haven’t damaged your talker,” Captain Hink said as he stood and sauntered over to the big man, who had stumbled to brace his back against the wall. Not that it’d do him any good. Walls couldn’t save men who rode the skies. “Because your story was just getting interesting.
“There’s a thing I have a powerful need to know, Mr. Mullins. Where in the world did you get this from?” He held up the badge. “You been sniffing down around the townies? Catch up some poor land lizard with a knack for a tall tale?”
Mullins leveled him a glare and finally got hold of the knife hilt. He pulled it free with a yell and nearly fell to one knee. Didn’t much matter, Captain Hink thought. There was no chance this traitor to the states was walking out of his house alive.
“Found me a yellowbelly who knew you, Captain Hink Cage,” Mullins rasped. “Said his name was Rucker.”
“Rucker?” Captain Hink said. “Name doesn’t jostle the memory.”
“He knew you,” Mullins said. “Knew what you did in the battle of Flatstand. Knew you took more than half your regiment and turned on General Alabaster Saint. Accused him of disobeying orders, profiteering, and holding correspondence with the enemy. You refused to move your men into position, on orders from the president. You cost the Saint the battle, his career, and his eye, you traitor snake coward.”
“He tell you any other stories, this Rucker you jawed with?” Hink asked.
“Not after I shot him dead, he didn’t.”
Hink didn’t even wait a second. He clocked Mullins straight across the chin and dropped down over him so he could continue with the beating, as he was the sort of fellow who didn’t mind getting his hands dirty to see that a job was well done. Got in one more hit before Mullins pulled his gun.
The cold click of the hammer cocking back soaked through the anger Captain Hink was enjoying and put him right away into a most reasonable and sober mind.
“Don’t matter if you’re alive or dead,” Mullins said. “Just so long as I bring you in.”
Mr. Seldom seemed to appear out of the walls themselves. And, just like that, was standing above Mr. Mullins. Then, just like that, Seldom swung the oversized iron marlin spike, slamming the gun out of Mullins’s hand. Likely broke up a few of the man’s fingers in the process, seeing as how loud he screamed.
“Thought you’d know better than to upset my second, Mullins. You know how he doesn’t take well to people trying to plug me.” Hink rolled back on his heels and stood, staring down at the bleeding man.
Seldom retrieved the gun from where it had landed, wiped the blood off with one of the scarves hanging to his waist, and tossed the gun to Hink.
Captain Hink caught the weapon, gave it a glance, then tossed it back to Seldom, who pocketed it.
“Won’t matter if you kill me,” Mullins gasped. “Word’s already out. This whole town’s coming for your neck, Hink Cage.”
Seldom lifted the marlin spike again.
“Name’s Hink,” Captain Hink said. “Captain, if you can’t remember that much. Don’t go on and kill him yet, Mr. Seldom. I’ve still a question or two I want answered.”
Hink rolled the tin star between his fingers like a poker chip, then held it with the tips of his index and middle fingers.
“What’s this matter to you, Mullins?” he asked as the star caught a shine of light. “Some lander giving you guff about me being a marshal don’t exactly stand that it’s true. And if so, what do you have to hide you wouldn’t want a marshal to know?”
Mullins closed his mouth and didn’t do much more than glare and bleed.
“I think this isn’t just your business you’ve got yourself hitched up to, Mr. Mullins,” Captain Hink said. “I think you’re working for someone. Someone who doesn’t cozen to the law. Makes a certain sense, seeing as how we straddle the border of legality, shooting the sky for glim. But more than all that, I think there’s a spy in this house who ain’t me.”
Hink glanced over at Mr. Seldom. “You don’t suppose Mr. Mullins knows old Alabaster Saint himself, do you?”
Mullins caught his breath. Not a dead giveaway, but a giveaway nonetheless.
Hink rubbed at his chin. “Let me take a shot and tell you a story, Mr. Mullins. I say there was once a man named Les Mullins. Came from out Kentucky way. Signed up to serve beneath the hardest, bloodthirstiest monster that ever put on a uniform. Followed that monster, oh, let’s give him a name--say, General Alabaster Saint--through hell and worse. Les Mullins saw nine out of ten of his fellow soldiers die obeying the -general’s bloody orders until the general was tried and removed from command.
“I’d say Les Mullins thought himself damn lucky to have survived. Maybe even thought himself blessed and appointed to continue following General Alabaster Saint’s orders long after the battles this United States were engaged in were done and gone. Long after the Saint had moved on to raising his own militia of mercenaries.
“So Les Mullins wants to make himself useful to the general he worships. And he knows what the general wants: glim. Knows the general has plans to bribe, bully, and kill his way into every peak and mountain of this country until he controls every ship and glim field. The man who rules glim and gold rules the world.”
Hink paused and nodded toward Seldom. “It’s a good story so far, don’t you think?”
Mr. Seldom shrugged, focused on flipping the marlin spike: slap, slap, slap, as if his palms were restless determined to use it again.
“Let’s see,” Hink said. “How does this story end? I’d say it ends with General Saint’s spy, Les Mullins, getting killed on the floor of a shack in the Bitterroots unless he tells a man named Captain Hink just who, exactly, he’s working for and what, exactly, that man wants.”
Mullins had gone from bleeding to wheezing. His good hand was pressed over the chest wound as if he could hold the blood inside. Looked like he thought he could hold the words inside too. But Hink would get them out of him. He’d done worse to better men.
“I’ll give you a moment to consider my request, Mr. Mullins. Because this is the last time I’m asking you to give me answers. From here on out, I’ll just be doing an awful lot of painful taking them from you.”
Hink turned back to his desk and took a drink of coffee. His hands shook from a hard anger.
George Rucker had been a friend. The younger brother of William Rucker, a man Hink served with, and had been unable to save from Alabaster Saint’s bloodthirsty loyalists.
Hink had come too late to stop William’s hanging, but he’d found young George Rucker and taken him in. Looked after him as best he could, even while carrying out the president’s orders. Because Mullins was right about that. That tin star was his. He was Marshal Hink Cage when he wasn’t wedged up here with glim pirates, trying to suss out the kingpin of their black market trade.
He’d given that star to George Rucker for safekeeping and as a promise that he would return from this mission to retrieve it from him.
A promise he couldn’t keep now because of Les Mullins. A promise that had gotten George Rucker killed.
A shot rang out and the high steam whine of engines catching hot pounded the air. Not just engines. The Swift’sengines.
“Captain Hink!” A woman yelled from a good ways off. “The ship. They’re on her!”
The gunshot boomed out again, louder. That was the Swift’s cannon.
Hink grabbed the map off the table and his shotgun, which had been leaning against the wall. Seldom already had one foot out the door. Hink gave half a second’s thought about taking the time, and wasting the bullet, to kill Mullins.
Decided the man wasn’t near enough worth either and was halfway down the road to dead anyhow.
He pushed through the canvas and squinted at the onslaught of harsh afternoon light.
There was enough of a tumble of rock and scree on this outcropping that the Swift could land and lash, but not so much that any ship bigger than her—and that meant every other ship in the range—could catch hold.
He’d chosen this spot for just that reason.
Mr. Seldom ran quick as a gangly jackrabbit over rock and around wind-twisted scrub toward where the Swift hovered, just so high above the ground that a man couldn’t catch her ropes with a jump. Not that she had any of her ropes dangling.
Built like a bullet, the Swift was one of the smallest airships that carved the sky. Outfitted with the biggest boilers she could bear, she had more power per pound than the North’s battle cruisers. She carried a crew of twelve, if needed, and enough water, coal, wood, and glim to get her an eight-hundred-mile range.
But the thing that gave her the edge over bigger, more powerful ships was her skeleton. She was made of tin, which lightened her load considerably and made her sing like crystal glass tapped by a spoon when she hit the cold upper.
All who heard that siren song knew it was the Swift. Wasn’t a ship that could launch into the storm as quick as she could, wasn’t a ship that could ride it out better, wasn’t a ship that could fly as fast and true.
Which was all that was saving her tin hide at the moment.
The Swift hovered above the heads of two dozen men and women who were unloading shotguns at her belly.
“Get her up, get her up!” Hink yelled. “Who’s at the helm?” He ran up alongside Molly Gregor his boilerman, who had just a moment before hollered him out of the shack.
Molly was a solid-built woman with curves in all the right places and a crop of straight black hair that she shaved short at the temples so as not to queer her breathing gear. He’d never seen her wear a dress a single day in the three years they’d been running glim together.
But even though she had boots, breeches, and a hell of a hand at steam tinkering there wasn’t a man who’d disrespect her. Not if he wanted to wake up breathing the next day.
“It’s Guffin,” she said, pounding across the rocks beside him. “He was on watch. Checking on that squall headed in from the north.”
They were almost upon the mob beneath the ship now.
Molly pulled the nozzle of the flamethrower she had strapped across her back around to the front and struck a match. The slow-burning wick spring-hinged below the tip of the nozzle caught fire. Molly twisted the valve at her belt, readying the mix of oils she’d rigged up to throw a burn a hundred feet.
“Don’t set her aflame,” Captain Hink said. “And don’t burn me neither.”
Molly didn’t waste her breath on an answer. She rushed past him, clearing a path to the rear of the Swift with another blast of fire.
Hink pulled his gun and rushed into the crowd, headed for Jonas Hamilton, the boot-licker who was yelling orders to take the Swift down.
“Hamilton, you horse’s ass!” Hink yelled. “Get away from my ship.”
Hamilton turned. He had a goosed-up Sharps Carbine tucked at his shoulder and took aim straight at Hink’s chest.
“Damn it all.” Hink raised his pistol and shot Hamilton in the shoulder, just above the butt of the carbine.
Hamilton reeled back, his shot clipping high, but still close enough that Hink heard the buzz of it as it passed his ear.
An explosion pounded rock walls and eardrums alike, and damn near threw Hink to the ground. He stumbled, kept hold of the pistol, trying to see his way through the thick black smoke that filled the air. That smoke better not be from the Swift going down, or he’d be skinning these rock rats until doomsday.
A hand reached down out of the smoke and caught hold of his arm and yanked him up hard.
“Rope!” Seldom hollered. The Irish was dangling from the Swift’sladder by one foot and two fingers, looking like a squirrel ready to jump a limb. Since his other hand was helping drag Hink up to catch hold of the ladder, Hink was more than happy to see him.
The smoke was still thick enough it burned his eyes, but the Swift was already climbing again. Hink could just make out ragged shadows of those below him picking themselves up from that blast. It wouldn’t be long before those guns in their hands were aimed at his head.
“Where’s Molly?” Hink yelled over the roar of the ship’s fans.
“Boiler,” Seldom said as he scurried uncommonly quick up the last of the rope.
Captain Hink put one hand over the other and hauled up the ladder as fast as he could. His crewmen heaved the ladder up while he climbed. Just as he breached the hold and pulled himself into the solid interior of the Swift, he heard Molly call out. “Get her up, Mr. Guffin! Get her up fast and hard!”
“He don’t know any other way,” Seldom muttered.
Hink laughed as the floor tipped alarmingly to one side. He pushed up off his hands and knees and staggered toward the helm.
The Swift’s engines popped three hard thumps of steam and power, the awe-inspiring noise of that beautiful steam engine drowning out the crowd and gunfire below, as she took aim for the clouds and let fly.
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