Posted in My Ebooks | Posted on 29-02-2012|
Excerpt from the first part of the first section:
In a cave on a hillside above Dawson, whale-oil lamps spat and guttered, creating dancing shadows against the wooden frame of a ship, an airship. Still in the earliest stages of construction, it was perched on a row of wooden braces stretching the length of the earthen chamber.
Kali McAlister bent over a sawhorse, sweat dribbling from her temples as she concentrated on cutting the lumber she had laboriously ported from town on a sledge dragged behind her self-automated bicycle. When she had first imagined building an airship, she had dreamed of designing the engine, crafting clever weapons systems, and—of course!—flying the finished craft. Dreams of hours upon hours of measuring and cutting wood hadn’t come a-calling in her mind. As the bandages on her fingers attested, she didn’t have an aptitude for carpentry.
Kali froze midway through a cut and stared at the row of bells laid on the muddy cave floor near the exit. A tiny hammer flicked against the third bell, resulting in a second ding.
Another curious wolf or fox had probably tripped it, but Kali couldn’t assume that, not with the number of people after her these days. Thanks to her late father’s invention, an alchemical power source called flash gold, a number of conniving gangsters had set bounties for her capture.
Kali set the saw aside and reset the alarm. She grabbed her 1873 Winchester and a pair of smoke nuts, pocket-sized shrapnel-flinging grenades that she’d invented. Ready for trouble, she jogged outside, heading down the slope toward Booby Trap Number Three.
She followed a game trail that meandered through the undergrowth. Rain pattered onto ferns, spruce trees, and moss, creating plenty of mud to squish beneath her boots. From a lookout point above her cave, one had a view down to the marshy lowlands where Dawson sprawled, but here, in the thick of the woods, she could see little more than trees.
As Kali drew closer to the trap location, she veered off the trail so she could approach under cover. She picked her way through damp fireweed and ferns, and soon soaked the cuffs of her overalls. The calendar said late June and there were only three hours between sunset and sunrise, but so far the mosquitoes and flies were the only ones who thought summer had come.
Movement stirred the branches ahead, and Kali hunkered behind a stump for a long look. Twenty meters away, a man dangled ten feet above the ground, one ankle caught in her trap. So. Not a fox this time.
He was big and broad, and for a moment she thought it might be her bounty-hunting business partner Cedar, but he knew where her traps were, and this fellow’s hat had come off, revealing hair a few shades lighter than Cedar’s tousled black.
As Kali watched, the man swung himself up and grabbed the rope, trying to free himself. That would take him a while. Kali had used rope threaded with steel and made a knot that would only grow tighter if someone fiddled with it.
The man’s bowler hat lay in the mud beneath him, along with a Colt Peacemaker. There was also a rectangular case with the lid flung open and round ivory chips scattered all about. The revolver drew more of Kali’s attention. Nearly every man—and more than a few women—carried firearms in these parts, so the Colt didn’t necessarily mean this fellow had villainous intentions, but it was a good reason to be careful.
Kali nestled the butt of her rifle into her shoulder and crept closer. “Looking for someone, mister?”
The man let go of the cable and, dangling upside down again, craned his neck to see her. “Looking for a girl that’s supposed to be the best tinkerer in Dawson.”
“She’s a woman, not a girl.” Kali figured she could, at eighteen, make that claim legitimately, though the man had a few gray flecks in his hair and might not agree. “And she’s got a shop in town. If you asked about her, that’s where folks would have sent you.”
The man hung silently for a moment before saying, “Does that mean you’re not she?”
“That’s right.” Kali glanced over her shoulder to make sure the cave—and her future airship—weren’t in sight. It might be hard to deny she had tinkering tendencies when she was building such a craft.
“But you must know her,” the stranger said. “Someone modified your rifle.”
Kali frowned at him. She had indeed altered the Winchester to reload automatically without her needing to manually chamber the rounds, but most people wouldn’t notice the subtle changes from a distance. “You’re powerful observant for a man hanging upside down.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He touched his head where the brim of his hat would have rested if it were not in the mud below. “I’m a gambling man. Having a keen eye pays in my business.”
So those were poker chips on the ground, and the box likely contained cards, dice, and other gaming gear. The gun made sense too then. For obvious reasons, knives and firearms were part of many a gambler’s kit.
Kali lowered her rifle, though she kept both hands on it. “Why’re you looking for a tinkerer?”
“Got in a fracas a spell back, and somebody busted my pistol ring. I’m looking for someone to fix it.”
A pistol ring? Kali had heard of the tiny weapons, but she’d never seen one. They were specialty items, custom-made by a few European masters. She sure wouldn’t mind taking a look at one, but she was not yet ready to believe his story. How had he known to come up here looking for her? Only Cedar knew about her cave, and she had not seen him in days.
“I checked,” the man went on when Kali said nothing, “and the best smiths in town have closed shop and taken to the river to work their claims.”
That part of his story rang true. The two smiths that shared a street with her tinkery had been closed for weeks. It seemed like everyone had gold fever and was out mucking about, which was why she hadn’t been able to find a carpenter, or anyone halfway decent with a hammer, to help with her ship.
“Pistol ring, eh?” Kali said. “Five, six shots? Five millimeter custom bullets or thereabouts?”
“Yes, ma’am. Won it in a game of five-card stud poker down in San Francisco. I reckon I could show it to you if you’d cut me down.”
“I reckon you could do a lot of things if I cut you down.”
“Less than you’d think. Thanks to that rather tight knot up there, my leg has gone quite numb, so I’m not aspiring to do more than stand again today.” He smiled ruefully.
Kali gave him the squinty eye. He seemed amiable enough—most men would be cursing and swearing at her to cut them down—but the fact that nobody was supposed to know she was up here continued to make her suspicious. Maybe he had been watching her shop and had followed her out of town that morning. If his intentions were honest, why hadn’t he simply asked for her help in Dawson?
“Grab that rope with both hands.” Kali pointed above his ankle.
The man did so, which lifted his head and hands high enough that Kali was sure he couldn’t grab her.
“Now what?” he asked.
Before he finished the question, she slipped beneath him and grabbed the Colt. She left the rest of the kit, though she glanced at the velvet inlay of the open case. A plaque read, “Preston Somerset.”
“I didn’t think you had the look of a thief,” the man said, his voice cooler.
“I hope I have the look of a cautious woman.” Kali stuffed the revolver into her overalls before pushing aside a stack of rocks and fiddling with the mechanism hidden behind them. She cranked a wheel, and the ankle noose released.
The stranger twisted in the air and landed feet first in a crouch. It was the sort of move Cedar could make look easy, but not many others could. Kali pointed her rifle in the man’s direction again.
“I suppose caution is wise around here.” He—Somerset—flicked his gaze toward her Winchester and held his hands out, but his stance was relaxed, his face calm. “Do you think you could talk to your tinkerer friend to see if she might work on my piece?”
He tapped a buttoned shirt pocket, and Kali had to admit she was itching to see the miniature gun. It might be smartest to send this fellow on his way, but Cedar had a saying about the wisdom of keeping one’s enemies close. That way one could see what they were fixing to do. If she shooed Somerset away, he might simply spy on her from afar. Better to pretend he’d won her over, so she could find out what he was up to. And—a smile curved her lips—maybe she could persuade him to saw a few boards while she was at it.
“I might be able to talk to her, a favor if you like, but you’d need to do a favor for me,” Kali said.
“That could probably happen.”
Quick to agree, wasn’t he? He hadn’t even asked what she had in mind. “How’re your carpentry skills?”
“I can manage tools,” Somerset said. “What’re you—”
A woman’s scream tore through the trees.
The stranger’s head whipped around. The cry had come from down the slope, somewhere close to town. Another scream followed, a sound of sheer pain, before it was cut short in the middle.
Kali was about to ask the man what he knew about it, but he spoke first.
“Someone’s in trouble.” He took a determined step toward her, his hand reaching toward the Colt, but caught himself and asked, “May I have my piece, please?”
Kali hesitated a moment, then tossed him the revolver.
Without another word, he sprinted down the trail in the direction of the screams. He disappeared into the trees, leaving his gambling kit behind.
Kali wasn’t certain it was the smart thing to do—she had a briar patch of her own troubles without getting tangled up in someone else’s—but she headed downhill anyway, following Somerset’s prints in the mud…
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