The Air Pirate Affair: Chapter 2, Scene 2
“Attention,” began the sallow figure of Commandant Lestrange, “your mission is to locate the wreckage of the steam train #12, identify how it was stopped and bring those responsible to justice. Most of you are experienced airship men with a stringent code of ethics,” he paused looking directly at Ignatius, “others of you are not. Regardless, you are to serve your country to the best of your ability. The contents of the boxcar may be on the loose; in which case securing them will become your only priority. Even at the expense of losing the pirates responsible.
“I hope that I am making myself understood. Colonel Witmore will provide support from Fort Couch and I will be in command from the Ulysses. Any decisions will come from me. I will have this operation carried out by the book, gentlemen.” Commandant Lestrange clasped his hands behind his back and surveyed the arranged crews in front of him. “Prepare your ships at once. We leave on the hour,” he declared.
Then, he leveled a finger at Ignatius, “You, come here.”
“Oh, you’re in trouble now, Ignatius,” said Wellsie, chuckling with mirth.
“Yes, well we will see who exactly is in trouble,“ murmured Ignatius, striding forward to the flotilla’s Commandant.
As he approached the man, a faint scent of liquor reached Ignatius’s nostrils. Examining Lestrange’s eyes, Ignatius could see they were red and irritated. It might be from the long days and late nights pouring over maps in a room full of stinging smoke. More likely was the notion that Lestrange was medicating himself with vast quantities of alcohol. Getting a bit closer, Ignatius revised his theory when he could see Lestrange’s pupils better. Some form of narcotic taken with alcohol. Ignatius recognized the signs of an alcohol based narcotic, having used them himself.
“Commandant Lestrange, you wished to see me?” he asked in a terse voice.
Lestrange gave Ignatius a watery-eyed once over, swaying slightly. “Isn’t it customary to salute a superior officer?” he said in a sneering voice.
“I fail to see how you are a superior officer, merely a higher ranking one,” quipped Ignatius, though he did touch the tip of his hat in a perfunctory way.
“Colonel Witmore says you are the man to aid us in determining what the pirates used to disable the train, hic; I think that replacing you with several more soldiers would be more wiser.”
“Eloquent as usual, Commandant. Are you going to hold the past against me, even though I was vindicated?”
“I think will. I don’t trust you or your methods or that mind of yours. You’ve no business in this army and I’d rather see you back in the insane asylum than working with me.”
“Strangely, I would prefer being in shock therapy rather than standing this close to you, but there you are. Life is funny that way.”
“I don’t know exactly what line of thinking Sanderson is pursuing with you, but know this, I am in command here. Anything less than following my orders to the letter will result in your arrest and prosecution in a military court of my choosing. Do you understand?”
Ignatius hesitated before answering. A smile grin played across his mouth. “You know, there are many people who threaten me with similar notions. All of you mean it, and can carry out your threats. One fact remains unchanged… Here I stand a free man.”
Lestrange seethed for a moment then hissed, “I haven’t forgotten Charleston and what you did to me. Mind your step most closely or the next one will be out an airship’s door at maximum altitude, you crippled bastard.”
Lestrange shoved Ignatius aside and stormed off toward the landing airship. Ignatius watched him go, confident that they would, inevitably have a showdown. That was a concern for another time, for now there was the mission. Ignatius settled his top hat firmly in place and trudged over to the Maudlin Rose. Her captain, Eugene Howard, waited at the foot of the short gangplank. The captain extended his hand to Ignatius and shook it warmly.
“Glad to have you aboard again,” said the red-haired captain. Both men limped up the ramp to the entrance of the airship.
“You look well, Captain,” Ignatius said.
“I’ve gotten a lot of flight time in that always relaxes me,” Captain Howard replied. “Stirring message wasn’t it?”
“Quite. I enjoyed the complete lack of details. He has not changed since Charleston I see,” Ignatius commented.
“I didn’t realize you were at Charleston,” Eugene said, with surprise evident on his face.
“I was passing through on my way north. I managed to stir up some trouble here and there, mostly wherever Commandant Lestrange was.”
Captain Howard snorted. “Well, today’s a little better. You don’t have to share a ship with him, and we ditched the extra Gatling gun to lighten the load a bit.”
“Will that hinder an attempt to detain pirates?”
“Naw, most of them dart for cover, add the Ulysses overhead and we probably won’t see anyone.”
Ignatius wandered back to the stern where Hines and Wellsie sat. The blacksmith stoked the steam engine with scoops of coal. He checked the boiler’s pressure gauge and gave thumbs up to Hines, Ignatius and then the Captain. Ahead of them, a bell clanged twice and the ‘whump’ of the docking clamp’s release answered back. The Maudlin Rose bobbed free and immediately Wellsie opened the lift valve to send gas into the bladder above their heads. Expertly, Christian spun the wheel and sent their airship in a wide spiraling arc. He adjusted his course so that they rose majestically up over the Susquehanna River, heading north.
The Captain whistled down the gondola to get Wellsie’s attention.
“Trim the lift gas and hold us at this altitude,” he called.
Wellsie spun several valves to halt their ascent. The steady chugging of the engine turning the propeller and the creaking joints of the airship were the only sounds for a few minutes. Looking over the tail of the Maudlin Rose, Ignatius watched the Mary Todd and the other scouts rise up from Forster Island and turn to follow. He kept watching as the Ulysses move forward and up, lumbering along like a sleepy giant. After several minutes passed, the mighty airship climbed up higher than the scouts did and plunged into the clouds creating trenches in the gray mists.
“She’s mighty impressive,” Smitty said, turning away from the open window.
Ignatius reclined on the hard bench next to Wellsie. “The Ulysses is a marvel of modern engineering. How is the mood among your fellow sailors?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are they nervous about this mission, facing pirates armed with some kind of mystery weapon that can take out a train?”
“Nah, we don’t usually dwell on that sort of thing. We think about shore leave, what’s for dinner. Simple things. ‘Sides with you on board I figure our chances just went up a whole bunch.”
“Do you know of General Evans?” asked Ignatius.
Smitty shook his head, “Naw, but I don’ rub elbows with officers ‘cept Cap’n Howard.”
“We are going to be near his place, I heard he retired to Thompsontown and built a nice little place. He may have some insight regarding the area. Excuse me. I am going to see what the plan is.” Ignatius rose and made his way forward to the Captain and first mate. “Gentlemen,” Ignatius greeting the pair.
“Bonjour, a lovely day for flying, non?” said Mr. De La Croix.
Ignatius cast a skeptical glance out the starboard window at the gray clouds, which threatened snow.
“It must be the French version of lovely,” he said to the Captain.
Eugene Howard chuckled. “What can I do for you Mr. St. Eligius?”
“What are the current orders?”
“We are going to fly upriver to the confluence, once there switch over to the Juniata River and follow that to the Thompsontown train station. Once there, the flotilla will break up and scout different areas across the county.”
The ship’s nose dropped sharply and then bucked up just as quickly. The sensation felt like being bucked on a horse. Ignatius gripped a rail. Christian adjusted his heading to veer to the right a few degrees.
“Choppy air, sir,” he reported.
“Steady as she goes, Mr. De La Croix. Ignatius you may wish to buckle in, the storm coming in is making the currents pretty unpredictable and rough.”
“Right you are, Captain.” Ignatius said. He turned and shuffled back down to noise and warmth of the engine. Wellsie clutched the edge of his bench with white knuckles.
“What in the hell was that?” he asked.
“Turbulence. According to the Captain there is going to be more. We should strap in,” Ignatius answered.
The three men found the canvas belts with metal buckles. With several fumbling attempts to secure the belts and muttered curses, they finally succeeded. Wellsie adapted to his role as engineer mastering the controls with ease.
“Give me anything with an engine and I’ll get ‘er humming,” he declared.
The quartet of dirigibles progressed up the river, wending their way between tree-covered hills. When they reached the confluence of Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers, they bore left at Clark’s Ferry, entering a narrow river valley. The airships slid across to the western side of the river and rode along the ridge. The bottom of the gondolas skimmed over the tallest trees.
Amidst the sounds of the engine and propeller came the squawking, crackling voices from the wireless callbox installed near the Captain’s station. During the times without messages passing back and forth, a hissing popping sound emanated from the speaker. Other times tinny voices called out course corrections or other instructions. The snowy landscape gave way to the dull browns of farmland untouched by the recent snow. Time slid by unnoticed by the crew of the Maudlin Rose.
Eventually, they rounded a bend in the river and came upon a long straightaway of valley. Through the middle of it ran field after field, barren save for the stubble of corn stalks harvested in the fall. East of them ran a ridge mirroring the western ridge they flew over. The flotilla carved through the air in a gradual descent and slowing to a near stop above the train station at Thompsontown.
Across the river, they could see a few buildings huddled together near the road. Half a mile south of the train station, a wood bridge crossed the Juniata River, leading into town. The callbox burst forth a series of squeals and impressively loud buzzes before settling down to a low hiss and the chicken laying an egg voice of Commandant Lestrange.
“Mary Todd, you will head due east, over the town and out toward McCallisterville. Betsy Ross you will explore along the south and east border, work toward the Susquehanna River. Molly Pitcher, I want you heading north and east through the heart of the county. As for the Maudlin Rose, take your so-called experts and follow the train tracks until you reach the engine. Conduct your investigation once you arrive. The Ulysses will remain on station over the middle of the county and respond as needed. If there are any questions, be advised, I’ve no wish to hear them. Lestrange, out.”
“All charm and fluff that one,” muttered Ignatius under his breath.
“All ahead slow, Mr. Wellsie,” Captain Howard called down the length of the gondola.
“Ahead slow, aye,” replied Wellsie as though he flew all of the time.
The propeller spun even faster when Wellsie tossed more coal into the firebox and opened the damper, allowing more air to flow into the engine. The coals glowed bright orange and the Maudlin Rose steamed away from the train station.
“Smitty, action station, ready gun two,” ordered the Captain.
Smitty opened the lockbox at his feet and took out a cylinder of ammunition for the Gatling gun. In a minute, the weapon was primed and ready. The Captain took his ship one hundred feet above the riverbed and glided along over the railroad tracks. The river and train tracks diverged and converged, following each bend and straightaway in the river’s course.
“Ignatius, come up here if you please,” Captain Howard asked his passenger.
Ignatius went forward again. The Captain handed him a pair of binoculars and gestured at the windscreen in front of them. “We should be almost to the wreckage. There’s a curve ahead where trains need to slow down, it would’ve been a sitting duck there.”
The promised curve revealed itself. Ignatius understood why the train would slow even from this approach. The tracks bent in the direction of the mountain and away from the river. Thick trees line both sides of the train bed. Christian swung wide over the river in order to give the trees the proper berth, while at the same time afford a better view to the occupants of the Maudlin Rose.
There lying along the bank, as if a great steel trout gutted by a black bear was the train’s remains. The engine was as described, over on its side with an unimaginable rend along the boiler from the lamp almost to the cab. The metal, Ignatius saw through the glasses, was rough and seemed torn apart. A dark stain spread around the engine where water, coal and other fluids congregated after spilling out of the mighty machine. The coal tender was at a ninety-degree angle in relationship to the steam engine and behind it were several boxcars, broken across the tracks like so many matchsticks. Ignatius swept the wreckage looking for hints and clues spying almost nothing from the current height.
“Can we get any lower, Captain?” asked Ignatius
“I should think so, Mr. De La Croix, take us in,” instructed Captain Howard. The airship’s nose dipped precipitously towards the water. They flared at the last moment, Wellsie spinning the valves open and then closed with rapid movements of his hands. The Maudlin Rose settled like a mosquito over the water. At eye level, the train wreck was no less devastating to behold. Ignatius peered down the length of the train and spied the military’s boxcar.
Past the caboose and across a field, a barn stood watching over the scene. Ignatius thought he saw movement, but could not tell. His mouth opened to ask the Captain to move in closer to investigate but was too late.
A small, lightly armed and armored airship sprang from concealment behind the barn and took off in a whirlwind of thrust and billowing black smoke. On the stern, a red, white and blue tri-color flag flew next to black skull and crossbones on a yellow field.
“After them,” shouted Ignatius pointing at the fleeing dirigible.