The story so far…
Tom Cain rescued sisters Nikki and Willow Keats from psychotic Draggers and a Mist infestation with the help of sharpshooter Agatha West. They fled Milton on the apparently deserted airship Hecate.
In the town of Havenvale they nearly lost Hecate to crime-boss, Ponderoy Charkart, but a vertically-challenged mechanic named Shorty came to their rescue and joined the crew. They did lose what they thought was a near-worthless cargo of lead bars. It turned out the ‘lead’ was actually gold, with a thin coating of lead to disguise it. Nikki, Shorty and Willow waited with Hecate for word from Tom, Dog (an ex-gladiator the crew rescued from Atlantis) and Agatha who were travelling overland to Havenvale, but ran into trouble on the way.
“That must be Black Lake.” Agatha pointed toward the vista that opened up as she cleared the last ridge on the road to Havenvale.
Tom trudged a few more steps up the steep incline before he could see it. “I have never seen the like.”
Below the valley was completely shrouded in Mist, it swirled and boiled angrily, sending dark tendrils flailing against the sides of the valley, like a great beast in its death throes.
“The trail is still clear behind us.” Dog crunched up the gravel road behind Tom. “Does the Mist not usually behave that way?”
Tom shook his head. “Last time I saw Mist this aggressive was at Milton. I heard tell some spots on Earth are like magnets for Mist though, maybe this is one of ‘em.”
“C’mon boys. We haven’t got all day to puzzle it out.” Agatha gazed to the west. “About four more hours of sunlight left, and a lot of miles still to cover.”
“Right, I could use a night in a proper bed, and some proper grub.” Tom shifted his gun belt so it would chafe at a slightly less raw part on his waist.
“What, a handful of berries not good enough for you?” Agatha turned with a grin and set off down the trail.
“Without you, we would not have even had those.” Dog smiled and threw his shoulders back. He took a deep breath of the mountain air and sighed. “It’s not so bad.” He clapped Tom on the shoulder. “Come on, like Agatha says, time is not our ally.”
Tom grumbled, but quickly caught up with Agatha on the downhill slope.
The sun was low in the sky when they finally came in sight of Havenvale.
Tom sat on a rock outcropping for a moment to rest. “’Bout time. I thought we might have to spend another night in the trees.”
Dog grinned. “This way you will not get sappy again.”
“Was that a joke Dog?” Agatha raised an eyebrow at him.
“Not a very good one. I am afraid humour is not my strength.”
Agatha brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “Not to worry, you have other strengths.”
Dog nodded. “We all have our roles to play. That is the nature of the world.”
“How ‘bout we discuss this deeply philosophical, and no doubt important stuff over beer and a hot meal?” Tom got up and set off down the trail.
On the outskirts of town, they came across a small saloon with a couple of rooms upstairs.
The barkeep eyed the three of them suspiciously. “Where’d you lot come from?”
Tom grinned. “We were with the caravan that pulled in yesterday, from Bedford.”
“That a fact?” He narrowed his eyes at Tom and Agatha. “Suppose you’ll be wantin’ a room an’ a hot meal.”
“That’d be about right.”
“Well, I can oblige, we have one room open, supper is bean stew, be ready in an hour. Meantime you can break a tooth on these if you like.” He pulled a basket of bread slices from under the bar.
Once they’d negotiated a fair price, Dog set off for the telegraph office so Tom and Agatha could minimize their risk of being spotted by Charkart’s men.
Tom and Agatha sat in the empty taproom chewing on the stale bread to curb their hunger, and washing it down with mugs of watery ale.
Agatha scratched at her hair. “Let’s get a tub goin’ in our room. I sorely need a bath.”
Tom nodded. “I suppose you’ll be wantin’ first crack at it?”
Agatha grinned. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Tom made a mocking half-bow. “Ladies’ prerogative.”
After a dozen trips, the tub was full to Agatha’s satisfaction. She made a shooing motion with her hand. “You wait outside, I’ll let you know when I’m done.”
There was no lock on the door, so Tom sat with his back to it and listened to Agatha’s splashes and sighs of contentment.
Dog came up the wooden staircase that led to the rooms and nodded at Tom. “We have a few problems.”
Tom laughed. “Yeah? New ones?”
Dog nodded, looking thoughtful. “Yes. Charkart’s men spotted Nikki in Bedford. She stopped them before they could telegraph Charkart, but there’s no knowing if they passed word to others in Bedford before she got to them.”
“Nikki did that? How’d she manage it?”
“She did not say. There is also a poster of you, Agatha, Nikki, and Willow at the telegraph office.”
“What’d it say?”
Dog ducked his head. “I don’t read, Tom, but I can guess it’s not good.”
Tom ran his hand over his face. “Yeah… I doubt Charkart’s remindin’ everyone our birthdays are comin’ up. There’s a good chance we’ve already been spotted by someone who’s seen those posters.”
Dog nodded. “If so, Nikki bought us time by stopping Charkart’s men, but that time is running out.”
Tom leaned back and thunked his head against the door three times.
He heard a splash. “Yeah?”
“Better get your clothes on. We might have company soon.”
“I was just gettin’ comfortable here.”
Tom snorted. “At least you got a bath.”
A loud voice came from downstairs, “They took a room up there?”
The bartender responded, “Yup, keep your voice down. Walls ain’t too thick here.”
A moment later they heard the pounding of footsteps on the wooden staircase. Tom drew his volcanic pistol.
“I will take the front position. Only shoot if I am about to be killed.” Dog edged to the corner of the wall so he’d be out of sight for as long as possible for anyone coming up the stairs.
A scream came from their room. Tom turned and shouldered the door, just as the first of the men reached the top of the stairs. Behind him he heard a bloodcurdling whoop from Dog as the door burst open.
Inside the room, Agatha was buttoning her shirt. “Can’t a lady get a little privacy?”
Behind them, various grunts and moans told them Dog was doing an effective job on the men coming up the stairs.
“I heard a scream.”
“Oh, that was him.” Agatha pointed out the open window. A man lay on the ground outside moaning, one of his legs was bent at an extraordinary angle. “Should know better than to come a’ peepin’. She finished the last button as Tom charged out the door to see if Dog needed help.
Dog had cleared the staircase of men and stood in the middle of the taproom with his sword at the throat of the bartender. “You called them?”
Tom ran down the stairs as the bartender stuttered, “N-n-no.”
The taproom was surprisingly clean. Tom had expected blood everywhere. Instead the gang of men lay crumpled around the floor, unconscious or moaning over broken limbs.
Dog withdrew his sword, then made a quick horizontal slice above the bartender’s head. A tuft of greying hair wafted down in the wake of the blade. The bartender trembled violently.
“You called them.” Dog returned the tip of the sword to the man’s adam’s apple.
“Yes… I’m sorry okay! Please don’t hurt me, I have a wife and a family to support, two little kids, you wouldn’t want to starve two little kids would ya?”
Agatha reached the bottom step and surveyed the mess. “I’ll get these folks secured.”
“Missed all the action, I guess you’ve got to contribute somehow, Agatha?” Tom leaned against the wall next to the bartender. “Who else knows about us?”
“Mostly us, I think. Me ‘an the boys didn’t want to split the reward too many ways. Some of ‘em probably told their women though.”
Tom sighed. “Naturally… why do things always get so complicated?”
The bartender glanced between Tom, Dog, and the sword at his throat. “I-I don’t know.”
“Never mind… that’s what some folk call a rhetorical question. So if you lot ain’t seen tonight, Charkart’ll find out?”
“Probably… Oh hell, he’s gonna want to skin me alive.”
“You an’ me both pal. Only I don’t plan on getting caught. One last query and I’ll be out of your hair.” Tom smiled. “Where does Charkart warehouse his goods?”
The bartender swallowed. “I honestly don’t know.”
Dog growled low at the back of his throat and put a little pressure on the blade.
“Okay! Sorry, can’t fault a guy for tryin’ can ya? It’s a dozen blocks east of the building he held you at last time you stayed in town.”
“That’ll do. Now lie down with the others.”
The bartender wiped his forehead. “Thank you.” He lay next to the other men.
Soon he was neatly trussed along with the others. Agatha surveyed her handiwork. “Well this is an all-round muddle. What do we do now?”
Dog shrugged, and they both turned to Tom.
“There was a wagon in the stable yard right?” Tom scratched his chin. “Let’s load ‘em up. We can’t stay here, and we can’t leave them unguarded.”
There were no horses, but between the three of them they could tow the wagon easily, even with eight men, a few blankets to cover them, and the pot of bean stew.
Dog got behind to push the wagon. “Where to, Captain?”
Tom smiled, he’d never get tired of hearing that title applied to himself. “I know the perfect place.”
Charkart’s jailor was more than a little surprised to see Tom at his door. He quivered for a moment, then turned and ran inside the low brick building where the crew had been imprisoned during their last stay in Havenvale.
It took Dog only one great leap to bring the man down from behind. They tumbled on the floor. The jailor opened his mouth to scream, but before he could draw breath, Dog cuffed him with a quick backhand across the face. “No noise, or I will gut you.”
After that the jailor gave no resistance. The three of them piled the bound men and the jailor into the small cell. Tom noted that the steel bars in the small ground-level window he’d cut through when the crew had escaped the cell had been replaced by a metal plate with holes in it. Charkart wasn’t about to let anyone get out the same way again. He smiled and swung the iron-bound door closed before locking it with the jailor’s key.
Dog held the pot of stew. “Time to eat?”
Tom could feel the saliva forming in his mouth. “Ab-so-lutely!” He grinned at the others. “You’ve got to hand it to me right? I mean this is the last place anyone would come lookin’ for us.”
Agatha arched an eyebrow. “Don’t let it go to your head.”
The three of them crowded around the stewpot, scooping out mouthfuls on stale bread.
Tom wiped the corner of his mouth with his sleeve. “How long you figure until someone tells Charkart his men are missing?”
Agatha sat back and patted her belly with a sigh. “Less than a day, for sure.”
Dog nodded. “We should act tonight.”
“I reckon.” Tom rubbed his chin in thought. “You up for another trip to the telegraph office, Dog?”
“Certainly, what is the message?”
“Pick-up at two in the morning, twelve blocks east of our previous accommodations. Be ready for anything.”