The Air Pirate Affair: Chapter 4, Scene 1.
Ignatius reached the wreck of train #12 with many backward glances. Aches and pains were shooting through his back and hips. The snow, which fell steadily through the afternoon, started to come down in ever-increasing amounts. Large, sticky flakes clung wherever they landed. The train already looked like a pastry in a bakery window dusted with powdered sugar. He scarcely noticed that his feet were indeed soaked through. What occupied his thoughts were the tracks he found up on the mountainside. The tracks were unlike anything he had come across before.
After spending several years as a scout in the wildernesses of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, he felt confident that the prints were not from any native animal. Did that mean the Army was experimenting with biological manipulation? Ignatius felt that the time to leave the site had arrived and his whistled loudly for Wellsie and Jean Jaques’s attention.
“Wellsie, signal the Maudlin Rose, let us prepare to get out of this weather and discuss our findings.”
“Mousier, why did you go up into zee mountain?” asked Jean Jaques.
“I will tell you and Wellsie when we are on board the airship and getting warm. I will be honest with you… I am not entirely sure what I found.”
Ignatius took a small silver box, about the size of a matchbox and pressed the button on it. A minute later, his two clockworks came trotting out of the snow and huddled at his feet. Pressing a button on each of them caused them to retract their appendages and convert into a pair of smooth discs. Ignatius placed them in his coat pocket.
Wellsie took a red candlestick shaped tube out of his Mackinaw and snapped the end of it off. With a pop and hiss, a red flame erupted from the broken end. Standing near the river’s edge, he waved the flame back and forth. Before long, the steady chuffing of the Maudlin Rose’s engine came out of the fog and snow. A moment later the bulbous nose of the gondola peeked through the mist and the anxious faces of both Mr. De La Croix and Captain Howard were visible inside.
The engine pitch lowered the whooshing sound of escaping gas from the bladder announced the final descent. Skimming low over the water, Mr. De La Croix maneuvered the ship toward Wellsie’s flare. The Captain opened the hatch and braced himself to help the three men on the ground up into the airship. Wellsie flung the flare into the river and positioned himself for the other two to step up from his leg to the ship. One by one, each man grasped the Captain’s hand and by main force clambered into the Maudlin Rose.
Once all three were on board Wellsie took his seat at the engineer’s controls and sent the ship drifting lazily skyward. As the dirigible circled the site, Ignatius swept the mountainside one last time with his goggles. Nothing new revealed itself to him. He attributed that to the limited range of the lenses. Shivering, the trio huddled near the firebox trying to eke some of the radiant warmth from it.
“What did we learn from this excursion?” Ignatius asked Wellsie and Jean Jaques.
“Zhat zee soldiers were pretending to be zee railroad workers and zhat zey guarded something in zee boxcars. Something which had to be restrained,” said the pirate.
“The train was hit by something more powerful and hotter than any forge I’ve ever known. It cut that boiler in half like a knife through soft butter and did the same to the landscape behind it,” added Wellsie.
“Are we agreed that in Nature, lightning can have the same effect?” Ignatius asked.
“Yeh, so where does that leave us?” Wellsie said.
“We know that the pirates in question are flinging lightning around like they own it. That they can focus the energy at a specific target and pretty much destroy it uncontested,” Ignatius added.
“We know zee government was transporting something under heavy guard, why else use zee veterans?”
“I want to know what it was they were guarding and why the pirates attacked it, but then did not take whatever was in that boxcar.”
“A pirate maybe?” suggested Wellsie. “It could be a captive taken earlier. The Army was transporting them somewhere for interrogation.”
“It might be so,” said Ignatius thoughtfully. “The tracks were of bare feet. Nothing about them suggested pirate.”
“Like a black bear?” asked Wellsie.
“No, I mean without shoes. A hybrid would be wearing shoes or have some augmentation that is not biological. This track was at least eighteen inches long and perhaps nine inches wide. It has toes, ball of foot and heel. They are just larger than normal proportions.”
Smitty chuckled quietly to himself, “It sounds like you saw a Sasquatch footprint.”
“A what?” asked Wellsie.
“Sasquatch, you know Big Foot? No? Out in the North West territories like Colorado and Washington they tell tales of high mountain creatures. They’s shy, but supposedly smart.”
“I cannot believe that we are discussing a creature of folklore. Surely there is a better explanation,” fumed Ignatius.
“Meybe onea them Indian fellers be able to tell ya more,” Smitty suggested, unruffled. “Usually, there’s one or two hangin’ ’bout the train station. They’s looking for handouts or whiskey.”
“I would like to know more, however we cannot pursue this line of inquiry and abandon our current task. We need to find the pirates’ hideout. I think the train station would be a good place to start, if that fails up the road a little way is General Evan’s place. We can drop in on the good General and see what sort of information he can provide.”
“Zis is a plan, non.”
“I will go ask the Captain to make a report to the Commandant and set our course to the train depot,” Ignatius said. He rose up and went forward where he made his requests to the Captain.
“You want us to drop you off at the train station?” Captain Howard asked a minute later.
“Indeed. We believe that by questioning some of the locals we can find where the pirates are likely to den up. You may wish to leave out our intention of questioning a war hero when you report to Commandant Lestrange. I have found that it is sometime more expedient to ask forgiveness rather than permission.”
“I’ve heard that notion before. May I also point out that it is the quickest way to a court-martial as well.”
“Yes, I shall do my level best to avoid that situation. Let the Commandant know that the weapon uses focused energy, is side mounted on an airship and will cut through plate steel without any problem.”
Captain Howard nodded gravely. “Do you think it can be used against airships?” he asked Ignatius.
“I am not certain. The potential is there, certainly. I would theorize that the range is probably less than two hundred yards from what Mousier Broussard said. “There is evidence to suggest it is limited in duration. This death ray stopped the engine, but they shot the crew. Oh, before I forget I have some other data for you.”
Ignatius took the two clockworks out of his pocket and pushed a button on the back of each one, resulting in a small ribbon of paper issuing from their sides.
“This is all the environmental data collected from the area surrounding the train #12. It may give further insight, Eugene.”
“Fine, thank you. Strap yourself in, Ignatius. We’ll be arriving at the train station in just a little while,” Captain Howard said.
The Maudlin Rose cruised down the Juniata River. Following the water, Mr. De La Croix steered the ship to avoid striking the trees that lined the sides of the river. By flying over the water, he knew that they would not run into anything by accident. Fifteen minutes later the train station slid into view out of the swirling curtain of snow. A dark and brooding mountain loomed over the small building off to their right. A rough road ran from the station south where it crossed the river a half mile away.
The Maudlin Rose sidled over to the bank of the river and dropped again to the point of almost touching down. Ignatius, Wellise and Mousier Broussard slipped out of the ship and hiked up the riverbank and over the train tracks to the station. A luggage wagon stood to their right next to the small wooden porch. Dry goods such as flour and grain lay in canvas sacks next to a few crates and barrels. Waiting on the next train, Ignatius thought to himself that it might be a while before any services were running past Thompsontown again.
The trio made their way inside. The station was plain but serviceable. A few benches were arranged in the waiting area and unoccupied. Ignatius approached the ticket counter. Behind it, dozing at a desk was an older man with ink stained fingers and garters around his sleeves. A small hand cranked printing press waited in the corner. Ignatius cleared his throat theatrically. A milky blue eye cracked open and scrutinized Ignatius in a second.
“What der ya want, young feller?”
“I am under the impression that Indians frequent this station, is that correct?” asked Ignatius.
“Mm, meybee. What’cha need one fer?”
“I do not make it a habit to explain myself, if you could point me in the correct direction…”
“There’s one right behind you,” drawled the station attendant, lowering his green visor lower over his eyes and mumbling “huh, city folk.”
Ignatius turned around and true enough, a man was directly behind him. To be fair, the Indian did blend rather well into the background looking like a disheveled pile of blankets. The lone brave sat in the corner of the tiny shop wrapped up in a large blanket. A few tattered eagle feathers dangled from a headband that no longer seemed to fit its owner. The man’s tan, leathery face was like a prune shriveled in the sun for too long. The eyes were all but hidden in the folds and squinting with age. The Indian calmly took in the strangers. Ignatius could not hazard a guess at how old the man was.
“Hello,” he said tentatively.
The Indian nodded slowly causing several beads to clink and rattle. “I greet you in the name of the River Spirit, he who walks among us as an otter,” the elder said in a dry voice. “Why do you seek me out?”
“I have questions, would you tell me you name?” Ignatius asked.
“You may call me Spring Fox. I am the Shaman of my tribe. What is your question for me?”
“I seek your wisdom regarding something I saw in the woods earlier today,” began Ignatius, but Spring Fox held up a well-worn hand.
“I know of what you speak. He is a traveler from afar, visiting these lands for mere moments as we percieve them.”
“Is it dangerous?” asked Ignatius.
“Not in the way that you think of danger. He is intelligent, oh yes… He has a long memory. In his heart, he is gentle. Even now, he seeks his home though it is far to the west. He is fleeing others.”
Ignatius raised his eyebrows and took several steps closer, “Others? Can you tell me about them, Spring Fox?”
Something like sour distaste crossed the Shaman’s face before he answered, “They are not of the River Spirit’s world, and therefore they have no place in this valley.”
“Do you know where they hide?” Ignatius tried, unsuccessfully to read the Shaman’s face.
“They are sheltered beyond our reach, in a place we dare not tread. Seek them among your own kind, amid the warriors and braves,” saying that, Spring Fox started chanting softly shaking a hidden rattle somewhere under his blankets. He continued, “You tread a dangerous path for a white man. The Evil rooted in this land knows you and is moving against you.” His eyes clouded over and he began to sway in time with the rattle.
Ignatius and Wellsie exhanged looks. Mousier Broussard said, “I theenk it ees best if we go now, oui?”
“I suppose,” answered Ignatius. “We will go up the road to General Evan’s house. I hope he will be able to provide us with some good information.”
“What if he can’t?” asked Wellsie, ducking to pass through the entranceway.
“He has to. The alternative is drifting around the skies waiting for Commandant Lestrange to make a decision of whether or not he accepts our evidence. Of course the real pirates could show up at any time as well and attack the flotilla. I cannot imagine that we will go unnoticed for too long, do you?”
“Pro’ly not,” admitted Wellsie.
“How shall we go to zee General’s house?” asked Jean Jaques.
“The only way we can: Walking,” said Ignatius. “Captain Howard can go back to the skies and monitor the area and keep in communication with the rest of the airships. Meanwhile we will talk to the General.”
Ignatius buttoned his coat all of the way and turned up his collar. The snow was stinging now, whipped into a frenzy by a wind, which careened down the river valley. Ignatius started leading the way back to the airship so they could discuss the plan with Captain Howard before setting off down the road. Perhaps they could also wrangle up a hot cup of coffee.