Today we visit with JW Stacks as she shares her tale of gunplay and gadgetry.
Somewhere in the Arizona Territory, 1863
The gust of wind nearly took his hat over the side and Matthew Boucher cursed as he clamped it down on his head. This was about as harebrained as you could get. Man was meant to be safe and sound astride a good horse not up here in the damn sky like a bird.
"Bracing isn't it?" the rotund bespectacled man next to him shouted over the din of the engine noise.
That wasn't the word Matthew would have chosen to use. He stole a glance over at the professor's device and watched the Opto... whatever five-dollar word he called it, jump again. The idea, as he understood it, was that Professor Eckhardt was mapping the frontier of the United States much in the same way that early sailors did but he had a machine that would record the correct latitude and longitude on a map, except it didn't. Matthew called it a "sky sextant" even if the professor said that wasn't entirely accurate. He did have to give the old geezer one thing, the idea of flying machines replacing the railroads was an exciting thought, as long as he never had to go up in one of the things ever again.
Perhaps the thought that having a delicate instrument exposed to the wind hadn't occurred to the man, or "entirely accurate," but the professor seemed unperturbed. Matthew was here on "special assignment" from the Pinkertons, which basically meant that some busybody in the government was interested enough but not enough to spare some of their own people and Old Man Pinkerton enjoyed nothing better than to be "important," even if it meant they would be working for next to nothing.
In fact, the only thing that had gone right on the hellish contraption is that the big bag over his head was still holding them up. Matthew had lost track of the number of times Eckhardt had repaired the moribund steam engine or tinkered with something-or-the-other. It did little to succor his nerves and even less when he looked down at the ground. Every errant squeak or hiss had him as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
“I say, isn’t that one of your savages?” Professor Eckhardt said, gazing out of his telescope.
Despite his relative ignorance of exactly where they were, Matthew knew the dangers of Indian encounters. You never really knew if they wanted to smoke the peace pipe or skin your head until it was too late. He leaned over the railing and peered downward at the small group. There was eight of them, likely a hunting or raiding party, and nary a squaw in sight. One of them was pointing straight at their fragile airship.
It was with no small consternation that Matthew saw the old man waving his hat at them.
“Hullo!” the professor shouted.
A rifle report was the only answer he got.
“Dammit, Professor!” Matthew said. “What’d you go and do that for? They probably thought we were the Great Spirit or somethin’ til you went and started yellin’.”
Another bullet buried itself into the wooden cabin near them as the volume of shots began to increase.
“Return fire, Mister Boucher,” the old man said.
“You think I’m crazy?” Matthew said, incredulous. “Last I looked, there was eight of them and one of me. I ain’t that fond of dyin’. You’d best get us higher before they pepper your big bag.”
The professor crawled towards the firebox, muttering something that Matthew had no doubt was a statement about the unwillingness to sacrifice oneself with valor. The hell with that. Matthew loosed a few shots over the side. It was a waste of ammunition but it might keep them honest.
The left engine sputtered and died, again, as a lucky shot drilled it. The still-chugging surviving engine began pushing them to the right. Matthew was all right with this, at least it was carrying them away from the Indians, until the damaged engine gave up the ghost and exploded, scattering hot iron and gouts of searing steam across the foredeck and setting a few small fires.
A faint war whoop reached his ears.
Christ, a fellah just can't catch a break can he? "Professor, if you're gonna do something, now'd be just dandy."
"Are you always this impatient, and impertinent, Mister Boucher?" the old man's voice called out from behind the pilot's wheel.
A fusillade of lead spattered and pocked the woodwork around them.
"Only when my skin's on the line, sir."
"Hmpf," the professor said, the sound of a shovelful of coal going into the boiler following. "In my day—"
"In your day, you'd accuse them of insulting your honor, finished your damn tea n' crumpets, and challenged 'em to a right proper duel the next morning." Matthew fired another impotent shot in the pursuing Indians' direction. "Things ain't so tidy anymore."
"Utter bosh," Professor Eckhardt said. "Matters are only out of control because you perceive them to be so. Observe."
Matthew watched as the old man diverted the blowers from the gas bag to carry the steam and smoke backwards while spinning the pilot's wheel to turn their rear towards their pursuers who quickly vanished in the sooty murk. By deftly cutting and applying power to the remaining propeller, the professor wiggled the ship's stern, spreading the dirty fog in a wide swath behind them.
The gunfire immediately stopped and Matthew grinned at the clever plan and the sight of Indians emerging disoriented from their cloud and disinclined to continue the chase.
"I'll be damned," he said.
"I find your lack of faith vexing, Mister Boucher," Eckhardt replied. "Truly vexing.""What? You want me to kiss your boots and tell you how smart you are?" Matthew said.
"Apology accepted," the professor said airily. "You can use some of our ballast to shovel on that fire while I rig us for running on a single engine."
"Wait, you mean you're gonna keep goin'?"
"Of course, Mister Boucher, surely you don't think I'm going to let a small setback like this hamper my plans?"
God protects fools and madmen, Matthew thought with a sigh. It was going to be a long trip.
J.W. Stacks resides in humid South Carolina, about as far from the West as you could possibly get but she still enjoys playing in the sandbox when she can. She is primarily a romance author with DRAWN INTO CHRISTMAS and A CLOCKWORK CHRISTMAS ANGEL, which also stars Matthew Boucher, being her newest titles from Books to Go Now. When she isn't being a library ninja by day, she is plotting the formation of her own crew of airship pirates. You can find her (still under construction) website at http://www.jwstacks.com