Today’s post is the long-awaited second installment of “Incident at Dragoon Pass,” by Vaughn Treude. Read Part 1 here.
While the chained-up guards watched helplessly, the two desperadoes attached the heavy sacks of gold to the hooks on the chain. The Caballero gave the chain two jerks and it began moving like a vertical conveyor belt, carrying the loot to the gondola. One of the sacks ruptured, dripping shiny coins to the floor as it rose.
There came a terrible banging at the door of the car. “U.S. Marshall! Open up or I’ll shoot!”
“Don’t do it!” the Caballero shouted back. “One of your men is chained to the door.”
At that moment, the train’s brakes came on with a screech. The hauling chain snapped forward, slapping Poirier across the face. The Cajun swore and drew his gun but the Caballero held up his hand. Denali had been alert. The chain went slack as the airship matched the train’s pace.
The bandits hooked on the remaining bags as the Marshall’s men hacked at the door of the car with an ax. “Hey! Watch it!” The bound guard squirmed in his bindings as the blade broke through, narrowly missing him.
Poirier was already riding the chain back to the airship. “Thank you, sirs,” said the Caballero, tipping his hat. Before mounting the chain, he scooped coins from the floor and shoved them in his pockets. As he passed through the hole in the roof, the Marshall and his men burst in guns blazing, nicking the Caballero’s new boots. He pulled his gun and squeezed off two shots in response.
Heckler hauled him up through the hatch. The Carolina rose into the sky, the bullets pinging off the metal-mesh armor of the gondola.
The Captain pulled off his mask. “Denali, up ship! Top speed, due northwest.” He grinned broadly and turned to the rest of the crew. “Gentlemen, commendations on a successful operation.”
“Ja, sehr gut!” exclaimed Heckler.
“I need a doc,” complained Poirier. “This hurts like hellfire and blazes.” His face was swollen and purple where the chain had struck him.
“Captain,” said Denali. The surprise of hearing him speak made his crew mates turn and stare. “Look!”
As the Carolina was angling away from the railway, the train slowed to match her speed. Just behind the Treasury car, the sides burst off what had appeared to be a freight car, revealing a full-sized military cannon. A blue-uniformed soldier scrambled to load it, while another turned the crank to aim it in the airship’s direction.
“Poirier, what’s the range on that thing?”
“Mon Dieu, that’s a Lancaster howitzer. That thing can hit us from around three miles away.”
The unlit cigar dropped from the Caballero’s mouth.“Mr. Heckler, more steam!”
“I cannot, mein Kapitan. The needle is in the red already. We have too much weight.”
“Denali, due north. We need to lose them!”
The Apache cranked the wheel and began chanting in his native tongue.
“Praying?” muttered the Captain. He’d never seen anything that could rattle the Apache. “Heckler, damn the red zone. More steam!”
“We’ll be a’right,” said Poirier. “We can maneuver a lot faster than they can raise and lower that cannon.”
“They’re still too close,” said the Caballero. “Even a grazing hit may ignite the hydrogen.”
“What else can we do?” countered Poirier. “I don’t know about you, but I ain’t gonna surrender, not on your life.”
“Kapitan!” Heckler pointed below.
The Captain raised his binoculars to his eyes for a better look. One of the soldiers raised a lit torch to the breech of the cannon. “Denali, drop us down!”
The pilot had anticipated his order. With a sickening lurch, they dropped fifty feet in a second. The shell whistled by them, visible only by the trail of smoke it left behind. The Captain gritted his teeth, but there was no explosion above them. The cannoneer had missed. His next shot might not.
The Caballero checked every port hole. No shelter anywhere! Then he realized it was getting dark. Clouds were gathering above him. Where the hell had they come from?
“Up ship, Mr. Denali!” he cried. “Climb, man climb!”
“Are you mad?” Poirier shouted. “Those look like thunderheads. If a lightnin’ bolt hits us…”
“We’ll take the chance.”
Denali pushed the lever up as far as it would go and shook his head. “No lift.”
“I told you!” Heckler shouted, red-faced. We got too much cargo! And to dive so quick, I had to spill lots of hydrogen. We must lighten the load, schnell!”
“Dump the gold!” the Caballero commanded.
“Damn you, I didn’t risk my life for nothin’” cried Poirier, grabbing him by the collar.
“Get your hands off me,” snarled the Caballero, shoving him back. “Or I’m tossing you first.”
Heckler was already sliding the bags out through the open hatch. The Caballero gave Poirier a poisonous glare and stormed over to help the engineer.
“Voila merde!” Poirier cursed. “First chance I get, I’m coming back for that gold. If it’s gone, so help me I’ll…” He looked out the port hole toward the train, let out a gasp, and rushed over to help the other two men push the last few bags out the open hole.
“Hang on!” shouted Denali. He spun the wheel and the airship lurched to port, throwing them all to starboard. Out the window another shell whizzed by, missing the gas-bag by less than a yard.
Before the Captain could even give the order, they were rising, fast. Everything went dim as they pierced the roiling clouds, which enveloped them like a thick fog.
High winds buffeted the fragile vessel. Lightning flashed around them. Denali had resumed chanting, but his voice was barely audible over the screaming winds. The sound rose to a screeching cacophony that caused the men to clap their hands over their ears. Then came a blaze of colored light like an explosion in a fireworks factory, followed by a sulfurous stench.
Suddenly all was quiet except the thrumming of the steam engine. Denali had stopped chanting and stood at the wheel, staring straight ahead. Ruddy sunlight streamed through the windows.
“Gott sei dank! We are saved!” cried Heckler.
“What the hell?” snapped the Caballero. “Heckler, shut that hatch before someone falls out.”
All around was nothing but blue sky. The desert below was suddenly green as if it were early spring. A cool breeze blew through the port holes.
“Where’s the soldiers?” cried Poirier, waving his pistol out the stern. “Where in confounded blazes are we?”