War is coming.
In the mounting tension, all eyes turn west, to the Kingdom of Deseret. The Madman Orson Pratt's perfection of airship technology already has every power scrambling to get Deseret's Brigham Young into the war as its ally, or sidelined permanently. The stakes only rise with the rumors that Pratt's newest invention is a working, deadly, phlogiston cannon.
Sam Clemens of the United States Army rides into Deseret on his amphibious steam-truck, the Jim Smiley. Racing against him on the land-ferry Liahona comes Captain Richard Burton, explorer, linguist, soldier, and hard-headed man of science. Edgar Allan Poe, a master spy presumed dead for a decade, travels in disguise as an exhibitor of Egyptian antiquities, doing his dirty work for the clandestine Confederate leadership with flesh-eating, clocksprung scarab beetles and a hypnotic hypocephalus. The rivals fight each other tooth and nail, and clash with the Kingdom's loyal but eccentric defender, the Deseret Marshal Orrin Porter Rockwell.
Dave Butler's a friend with whom I've stood at many a convention. Since we love each other's books, we usually team up and each sell the other's, which means I've already pressed this book in physical form on many a reader. This is terrific American alternate history, turning Edgar Allen Poe into a master spy and Samuel Clemens his foe, bent on finding new airship technology created by the Mormons. – Cat Rambo
"If you love action packed adventure, conspiracies, plots and unexpected heroes, give City of the Saints a try!"– Amazon Review
"This is insubordination, Dick!" the man in the tall top hat and cravat hissed.
"Well then, Abby," Burton growled back at him, "you have something to write in your little notebook for today."
"You may address me as Ambassador," the younger, paler man whined, and removed his hat for a moment to mop sweat from his brow with a white silk handkerchief. The ceiling of the Jim Smiley's engine room was high enough for the two men to stand in comfortably but the heat that its boiler gave off, even on a low idle, made the chamber feel smaller and infernal, like a smithy with the windows all shut.
The heat might make Absalom Fearnley-Standish wilt, but it wasn't any kind of serious bother to Burton.
"If we are to stand on rules of address," he snarled, "you may call me Captain Burton." He picked up a heavy tool, spanner at one end and spike at the other, from a steel crate of similar implements and hefted it. He leered at the diplomat, knowing that the red light coming through the furnace's grate would give the scars on both sides of his face a devilish cast. "This will do well enough."
"Again, I protest," Fearnley-Standish said, eyes darting around in the Vulcan gloom. "My commission letter says nothing of sabotage."
"Well then," Burton answered in as reasonable a voice as he could muster, examining the three brass pipes that rose from the iron furnace to the enormous boiler, "you should have exercised a little more imagination when you wrote the damned thing."
With a grunt and a swing of his powerful shoulders, he slammed the spike end of the tool into one of the pipes.
Fearnley-Standish jumped. Hot air rushed from the hole Burton had made; the room becoming perceptibly more stifling.
"Egad, stop that!" he spat out, and Burton grinned.
"I find that your inexperience in the dark art of sabotage comforts me," he told the younger man. "It restores my faith in the moral rectitude of Her Majesty's Foreign Service. Moral rectitude, if not effectiveness." He swung again. Clang! "Still, must do the job right."
The second pipe was well-holed, and Burton looked at the boiler's pressure gauge. Its needle, already low as the boiler idled, steadily dropped now toward zero. Burton was no mechanick but he thought that meant he had done the job. For good measure, he smashed the gauge as well.
"That's enough! The Americans will hear us!" Fearnley-Standish wiped sweat from his face again. He was trembling.
"I forget," Burton mused, "how young you are. You've never cut through impenetrable jungle, never traveled in a foreign country in disguise, never taken a spear to the face." He raised his weapon a final time. "Great Kali's hips, you've probably never even sailed the Nile."
"Blowhard!" Fearnley-Standish squealed.
"Coward!" Burton retorted. "Stuffed shirt!" Clang! He smashed a hole in the third pipe. "That should hold them for a day or two, especially," he gestured at the crate of spanners and other implements, "if we take their tools with us."
Fearnley-Standish stepped away and crossed his arms. "I'm not carrying those."
Burton grunted. "Say something that surprises me, Ambassador." He stuffed the spanner back among its fellows and then picked up the box. "You might, for starters, explain why you bothered to accompany me on this little sortie. If you're so convinced the Americans are not our enemies, or at least our rivals, you might have saved yourself a little hysterical panting and remained on the Liahona."
"Did you hear that?" the diplomat hunched his shoulders and twisted his neck, cupping a hand to one ear while he craned to look up the stairs that led to the Jim Smiley's deck.
"Pshaw!" Burton dismissed his fears and pushed past, slipping effortlessly up the iron-grilled steps. He was nearly forty, he thought proudly, but he was as muscled as he'd ever been; as strong as he'd been when soldiering in India in his twenties.
Fearnley-Standish hesitated, and then tapped up the stairs in Burton's wake.
"I am Her Majesty's representative," he buzzed in Burton's ear, "responsible for whatever happens on this expedition. I couldn't risk that you might run off alone and do something foolish."
Burton laughed harshly. "Instead, you witnessed the foolishness!" The deck of the Jim Smiley was reminiscent of a sailing ship, a flat space with a railing around it and cabins fore and aft. Everything was iron and India rubber. "I hope you're taking detailed notes in your little memorandum-book."
"Yes, well," Fearnley-Standish harrumphed.
Something flickered in the corner of Burton's vision and he snapped his head around to look at it. Nothing. Just a shadow, a well of darkness thrown into the lee of the Jim Smiley's wheelhouse by the Franklin Poles, the great crackling blue electric globes standing guard in front of Bridger's Saloon. But was there a darker shadow within the shadow, a slight stirring?
He listened, and heard the raucous, muffled sounds drifting through the plascrete walls of the saloon but nothing more, nothing that indicated any danger. The shadow was too small to hide a man in any case, Burton reassured himself, and he turned and headed for the rail. The grated iron floor, the deck, since these truck-men all insisted on talking about their vehicles as if they were sailing ships, jutted out a few extra feet to the ladder, to get over the strangely rounded and rubber-cloaked hull of the vessel.
"What is it?" the diplomat asked him.
"Nothing," Burton dismissed both the other man and his own fears with one word. He dropped the crate of tools to the ground with a rattling crash! and slid effortlessly down the ladder after it.
Fearnley-Standish descended more awkwardly. Halfway down, the starchy young man missed a rung. He dangled by his hands for long and flailing seconds before he managed to reattach himself.
"What are you going to do with those?" he demanded shrilly.
Burton laughed again at the pusillanimity of the other man. "I'll put them in the one place where Clemens and his goon won't be able to find them in the morning!" he cried over his shoulder.
Bending at the knees to pick up the crate again, he headed across the yard towards the great shadowy hulk that was the Liahona.
"Your road ahead is shadowed and perilous," muttered the gypsy. He held Sam Clemens's right hand clutched in his own, which were armored in fingerless black kidskin gloves, and peered closely at the creases in Sam's flesh.
Close enough, Sam thought, that the man could just as easily be smelling his future as seeing it. The man's hair was long and greasy, as befitted a gypsy, and his coat and vest were threadbare.
"Your future is one of failure, disaster, and great sorrow. You should reconsider your course, sir. You should turn back."
The gypsy fell silent and arched an eyebrow at Sam, as if underscoring the fearfulness of his message. The silence between the two men was filled with the babble of the saloon around them.
"That's refreshing," Sam quipped, chomping fiercely on his Cuban cigar.
The air inside Bridger's was heavy with smoke but it was the smoke of cheap American tobacco rolled into cheap cigarettes, mixed with gas lamp emanations and the occasional ozone crackle of electricity. Sam filtered the stink, as well as the rancid smell of sour, sweaty human bodies and the drifting odors of horse and coal-fire, through a sweet, expensive Partagás. Nothing, he thought, beats a government expense account.
The gypsy stared at him. His gray-streaked black mustache hung asymmetrically under his bulbous nose, and was no match for Sam's fine, manly soup-strainer. His jaw looked misshapen, too, sort of hunched sideways into the thick, mostly gray, beard that veiled it. Above all the facial hair and the badly-cast features, though, the man had dark, intense eyes, with baggy pouches under them, and those eyes stared at Sam in surprise.
"Did you hear me right, sir? I told you that your future is bleak."
"Yes," Sam acknowledged. "Your honesty is marvelous. Most fortune-tellers would take my two bits and tell me what they thought I wanted to hear. Beautiful willing women, rivers of smooth whiskey, and horses that run faster than the sun itself are in your future, sir! Come again soon." He grinned, took another suck at the cigar and winked. "I respect your integrity." And besides, he thought, you're most likely right, anyway. If the Indians don't kill me, the Mormons will, and that wily codger Robert Lee must have agents out there somewhere as well. Failure, disaster, and sorrow, indeed.
Sam heard a clatter from the corner of the common room. A squad of Shoshone braves, proud and alien, with their beaded vests and fringed leggings, their strange hair, clumpy on top and then falling long about their shoulders, and their long magnet-powered Brunel rifles, had shoved aside several tables and were beginning some sort of coordinated movement that looked like it might be competitive interactive hopscotch. They tossed flat disks across the floor and then raced in hopping motions, each to another man's disk and then back to his starting position. They looked like big, hairy, dangerous, possibly slightly inebriated, versions of little girls. Sam forced himself to take a second look at their guns and suppressed an urge to laugh.
Those Brunel rifles hurled bullets faster and farther than any gunpowder-driven weapon yet made, and punched awful holes right through a man's body. They were English in design and manufacture, portable railguns, and Sam wondered how the Shoshone found themselves so well armed. He sobered up quickly at the thought. For that matter, as he looked closer, he spotted electro-knives and vibro-blades here and there. Somehow, though it was in a picaresque and highly individualized, even chaotic, fashion, the Shoshone had gotten themselves serious hand-to-hand weapons. Might they have larger armaments, too?
At this rate, he began to think all the wild talk about phlogiston guns being tested out in the Rocky Mountains might not be so wild after all. Maybe he ought to consider his mission objectives broader than dealing with Deseret alone, or at least get that recommendation back to Washington. It was bad enough that Deseret had airships, and might have ray guns that rained fiery death on their targets. Once such things got into the hands of the natives, there might be no end of mischief.
Two of the saloon's bouncers, heavy men in buckskins with knives and guns, didn't look like they wanted to laugh at all; they moved a little closer with expressions on their faces that were downright grim.
The gypsy shook his head, perplexed. What had he said his name was …? Archer? He wore a tall boxy beaver hat, a long duster, brown corduroy pants, and a shirt that was striped vertically in purple and gold. Round smoked glasses that might have hidden his burning eyes rode low on the onion-like bulge of his nose. He didn't really look out of place here, Sam reflected, surrounded by New Russia Trail pioneers, steam-truck mechanicks, black Stridermen from President Tubman's Mexico, cowboys, and the usual clutter of low-life entertainers that filled any bar west of the Mississippi.
Sam knew that he looked much more at odds with the environment in his self-consciously modern attire. He wore a jacket, without tails, because tails were inconvenient, and white because Sam liked to think of himself as the hero of the story, even though, if pressed, he wouldn't admit to believing in heroes. He wore Levi-Strauss denim pants, brand new and shipped straight from the factory to the U.S. Army at Sam's request. They were comfortable and rugged, and they snapped up the front with a row of metal buttons for convenience as well as for a certain masculine flair that shouted mechanick. At least, that's what they would have shouted to Sam if he ever took occasion to look at another man's crotch and saw it protected by a row of steel snaps.
"You don't understand," the gypsy said. "You take me for a huckster."
"I take every man for a huckster," Sam agreed. "I find it saves time."
"You're on an errand," the palm reader pressed, looking down again into Sam's close-held hand. "You are a knight, and your quest is of supreme importance to your people … your family, perhaps … but your errand will end in irretrievable disaster. You should turn back now, sir."
Your family, perhaps. Sam felt sick to his stomach, and another swallow of cigar smoke did nothing to relieve him. He pulled his hand away.
"Gentlemen," interrupted a crisp New England accent at his shoulder, saving Sam from the terrifying void of his own thoughts. "If you have a moment …"
Sam turned to look at the intruder, who was brushing his long overcoat aside to reveal his hip. Sam found himself staring at a long metallic pistol, holstered but menacing and obviously meant to be so. The holster itself was unnaturally bulky, with a flap that covered much of the actual weapon and hid it from view. Sam wondered what kind of gun it must be concealing. Something new by Hunley? Maxim? Colt? Its wearer was a tall, muscular man in a bowler hat. He glared at Sam and the gypsy, and in his right hand he thrust forward a black calotype printed on a sheet of cheap paper.
Where the hell is that Irishman? Sam wondered irascibly. This sort of thing was supposed to be his job. Then again, maybe Sam should start wearing a pistol himself.
He spotted O'Shaughnessy against the far wall of the saloon's common room and tried to catch his eye, but the Irishman, Sam's bodyguard and designated man of violence, pulled his porkpie hat as low as the little thing would go over his brow, threw his scarf over his shoulder, and slipped through a doorway into the back hall.
"Pardon the intrusion," Bowler Hat continued, his smooth, polite tones in sharp contrast to the implied threat of his revealed gun. "Have you seen this man?"
Sam dragged on the cigar to steady his nerves and shot a look at the gypsy; the other man was as composed as a wooden Indian. Finally, Sam looked at the calotype and almost choked. It was his Irishman, Tamerlane O'Shaughnessy, in black and white and large as life, large as his own hawk-like nose, though the picture was not half so vicious as the genuine article, no doubt because the calotype hadn't been drinking.
"I suppose," he said slowly, "you've already concluded that I'm not your man."
"Suppose what you like, seeing as you're neither cuffed nor dead." Bowler Hat rested his hand on the pistol grip. "But answer the damn question."
A second man stepped up, similarly wrapped in a long overcoat but wearing a stovepipe hat the color of charcoal. Sam almost liked the man for his neatly trimmed goatee.
"Easy, Bob," Stovepipe cautioned his comrade. "We're not looking for either of these two gents."
Bob snarled and backed off, champing his teeth like he meant to bite off the smoldering tip of Sam's Partagás. Sam eyed him coolly, taking another drag of sweet smoke. If Bob could have shot bullets from his eyes and sliced Sam in half with that glare, he would have. Well, Sam thought, give Horace Hunley and his crew another twenty years, and they'll be grinding out soldiers that look just like real men and do shoot bullets out their eyes. This war cannot be allowed to happen.
"You know the fellow's name?" Sam asked. "Image that fuzzy, could be anyone. Mercy, boys, I'm surprised you didn't think it was me."
"He may be using the name Seamus McNamara," Stovepipe informed him.
"Hmmn." Sam chewed his cigar and raised both his thick eyebrows at the gypsy, who continued to be impassive. "You boys haven't shown me a badge, so I reckon that means you're bounty hunters. What's the dividend on this fellow?"
"We're with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency," Bob grunted.
"Like I said, bounty hunters." Sam smiled a practiced sarcastic grin at them that he knew was sweet and self-righteous and infuriating at the same time. He wondered why the Pinkertons would be after O'Shaughnessy. Oh well, it hardly mattered—he couldn't let them have him in any case. "Only you're the kind of bounty hunters that are too proud to subcontract."
"I oughtta—" Bob choked out, stepping forward again, but Stovepipe restrained him by the elbow.
"Have you seen him, mister?" Stovepipe asked Sam directly.
Sam felt the thrill of danger in his blood and grinned. The gypsy's face hadn't twitched a muscle but his posture looked taut, like a spring ready to bounce. Sam wondered if he was packing and concluded that he probably was. Every man in the room but Sam was probably packing.
He looked back to the two Pinkertons.
"I haven't seen the fellow," he told them. It was a lie, but a half-truth like I don't know any Seamus McNamara or I don't know where this man is would have been just as much a lie, and Sam didn't really object to lying anyway. Lies could be useful and downright entertaining.
Bob snorted but didn't argue. The Pinkertons faded, backing away one step at a time until the jostle of the saloon swallowed them. Now, what had that gypsy been saying about Sam's family?
Sam turned to ask the gypsy to explain himself, but the ugly man was gone. In his seat instead was a beautiful young lady, her brown hair curled on her head and high on the back of her neck, long pearl-drop earrings hanging from the cherry lobes of her ears. Her face was serious but cheerful, with a thin mouth that was all business. She smiled at Sam, and he had to take another puff of the cigar to keep the sudden explosion of songbirds contained within his chest. He glared at the smoldering stump—at this rate, he was no more than a minute away from having to light another, just as a defensive measure.
"I'm Annie Webb," the lady said, "and you're the most handsome man in this saloon."
Sam almost choked. "I'm Sam Clemens," he identified himself, "and I'm certainly the luckiest."
"Yes," she agreed. "Yes, tonight you are."
Poe pressed himself deep into the cracked leather seat of the corner booth and let himself feel inconspicuous, unworthy of attention, invisible. He scratched himself with the bare fingertips protruding from his kid gloves and allowed his head to slump with his body, falling into a posture that said he was just another frontier drunk with idiosyncratic taste in clothing. The scratching was not part of the disguise but the result of it—Poe's hair was longer and more oily than he liked under his tall beaver hat, and he couldn't be sure, but he thought he'd picked up fleas somewhere between St. Louis and Fort Bridger.
I'm just a gypsy fortune-teller, he thought; it was a role he enjoyed playing, especially when his mark was a man as shrewd as Samuel Clemens. The role was outrageous, and playing it with a smart man made it a game; in this case, it was a game with high stakes.
Clemens would have a mission counterpart to his own, of course. Ascertain the truth of the phlogiston gun rumors. Influence Brigham Young and the foreign policy of the Kingdom of Deseret or render Deseret harmless.
But what about the strange request from the Madman Pratt, the one that had come directly from Pratt to Robert, the one Robert had told Poe was secret from Brigham Young and Jefferson Davis as well? Was Robert playing some game with Pratt alone or did Pratt act very discreetly on behalf of his country? And what were the strange objects that Poe had agreed to give to the Madman in exchange for the airship designs? Robert had mentioned ether-waves … ether-waves were also Poe's best guess as to how the scarabs worked, and the same technology could certainly be put to other uses … were the canopic jars communicators of some sort? Of course ether-wave communication was experimental at best, even in Hunley's laboratories in Atlanta, but he couldn't imagine what else ether—the mysterious particles that filled the universe, including the apparent void between the planets—could be used for. An ether-wave weapon? A transportation device for small objects?
A secret hope that maybe the objects were healing devices of some sort rose up in Poe's breast, and he strangled it.
Through his smoked-glass spectacles, Poe continued to survey the room closely.
The Pinkertons had made him nervous. His heart was still beating a little fast, and the whistle around his neck felt very heavy. He wondered if he was even close enough to be able to use it, or if the cotton batting packed into the crate would muffle the sound too much. If only one of the men came after him, of course, he could probably disable the attacker with some simple baritsu. Two men, though, would be more of a challenge.
Ah, Robert, he thought. What have you gotten me into?
Bridger's Saloon was the heart of Fort Bridger. There were also a commissary, dormitories, and a mechanick's workshop for the steam-trucks that arrived limping at this junction of the New Russia, California, and Mormon Trails, and in any kind of decent combination of good weather and daylight, the stockade yard thronged with merchants of one kind or another. Trappers sold furs; cattlemen sold meat, generally on the hoof; worn out, desperate pioneers sold furniture, books, and family heirlooms to lighten their loads. They all came to spend their earnings at the saloon.
Out front were two Franklin Poles, huge blue electric globes on iron lampposts but the interior of Bridger's place was lit with gas, little lamps glowing in sconces all along each wall, smudging the red wallpaper behind them black with soot and heat. The saloon used electricks, too, though Poe wasn't exactly sure what for, other than the lights in the yard—to cook, maybe? or to operate locks or security systems?—but he could smell the ozone now and then.
The bar crawling down one wall of the common room was like any other, heavy and dark and scarred and stained, clinking dully in the eternal dance of glass- and bottle-bottoms. The faro and poker tables could have been snatched from saloons in the Dakotas, Kansas City, or New Orleans.
The people, though, were a mix such as you'd see nowhere else. Even the pioneers were wildly heterogeneous: there were sober-faced, still-wet-behind-the-ears Mormon immigrants from northern Europe in their thick clouds, and more mixed, smaller bands heading for New Russia, and the California-bound prospectors so excited about the future they couldn't stop talking about how they'd spend their fortunes, if they hadn't already done so.
There were Russians from the northwest and Frenchmen from Canada and black men from Mexico. There were hunters, trappers, and Indians. Were those Shoshone in the corner? Poe wondered. It was out of his area of expertise—they might have been Blackfoot or Ute.
There were soldiers, lawmen, outlaws, gamblers, musicians, dancers, dry goods salesmen, and even a whore or two. They all rubbed elbows and bumped against each other like so many different species of bees, shoehorned unexpectedly into a single hive and surprised to find themselves not entirely displeased.
Poe watched them. He took it all in and he forgot nothing.
Jedediah Coltrane, the dwarf, drifted across the barroom floor, eyes carefully probing all the corners. He'd had a shot of something at the bar and he moved slowly among the faro tables and the dancers, but it was a slowness of deliberation, not of indecision. Despite his height, he fit in well with the saloon's crowd, unshaven as he was, his face craggy under his shapeless hat, and his striped shirt, wool trousers, and jacket fine but frayed, his suspenders holding on by a few impatient threads. He looked like he had purchased the Sunday outfit of some child second-hand and thrown away the necktie. He was coming to Poe to report.
"The Irishman slipped out early," Poe told Coltrane as the little man eased into the seat opposite. "Did he see you?"
Coltrane shook his grizzled head. "The mark didn't see me. Ain't nobody seen me. Then again, wouldn't matter if they did, 'cause I ain't had to do nothing."
"You're charmingly cryptic." Poe laughed softly. "Would you care to explain your statement?"
"The limeys did it for me. Beat hell outta the boiler pipes and then went and stole all the tools. No way the Jim Smiley sloughs it and rolls outta here in the morning, not under her own steam. She's gaffed."
"Mmm." Poe considered.
"Whadda we know about the Brits, boss?" Coltrane asked. He fidgeted with the pommel of the knife in his belt, one of several knives Poe knew he kept on his person at all times. "I was damn surprised to get to the Smiley and find 'em there ahead of me."
"Captain Richard Francis Burton," Poe reported, seeing before his eyes Robert's handwritten files he had memorized in Richmond. "Soldier, swordsman, linguist, explorer. A dangerous man, and very nearly a famous one. Author of several books, decorated inventor of a dueling maneuver, arguably discoverer of the sources of the Nile, and erstwhile ersatz hajji."
The dwarf shook his head irritably. "Jebus, boss, you buffalo me with the big words. I coulda swore you jest called that feller an arsehole horse hat sod gee, but that don't make no damn kinda sense."
"He made the pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise," Poe explained, thinking about the scars on Burton's face, lingering evidence, he understood, of a spear that had once been thrust entirely through the man's head. A man who could survive that sort of attack, Poe worried, was an antagonist to be feared.
"That so hard?" Coltrane wondered.
"It's very difficult," Poe affirmed. "The second man is Absalom Fearnley-Standish, a junior member of Her Majesty's Foreign Service. Harrow and Cambridge. His only posting prior to this expedition was to a consular position in the Principality of Liechtenstein."
Coltrane spat on the floor. Ah, thought Poe, this was what it was to live in the West. Hard liquor and spitting indoors. The sight of the dwarf spitting made his own lungs ache, and he clutched reflexively at a handkerchief in his pocket while he fought down the urge to cough.
"Sounds like small fry, don't he, boss? But don't he also sound like a feller you'd expect to play the game straight?"
"Yes," Poe agreed, "and that worries me. What is such a man doing on this mission? Are we mistaken about what the mission might be? Do we overestimate the importance of this to the Crown? Are Burton and Fearnley-Standish a ruse, distracting us from the real operatives? Or might Fearnley-Standish be more than he appears upon first inspection?"
Coltrane grunted. "You think a lot, boss."
Poe coughed once, then stifled the cough's siblings. He wondered if he thought enough, and felt dissatisfied. Was he a fool to believe war could still be averted?
"There are Pinkertons here," he told his aide. He nodded almost imperceptibly to where Bowler Bob and Stovepipe stood on the other side of the room, waving their calotype in the pasty faces of a clutch of denim overall- and straw hat-wearing Scandinavians, who answered them with shrugs and uncomprehending stares.
"After us?" Coltrane dropped a hand to touch the knife in his belt again.
"I don't know." Poe wondered. "They claimed to be after Clemens's man, the Irishman, O'Shaughnessy. Though they knew him as McNamara. Clemens didn't bat an eye, lied bold as daylight, said he'd never seen the man."
"Brass balls on that guy." The dwarf's voice sounded admiring. "So we're safe. Maybe we oughtta find the Irishman and hand him over to those boys. That'd burn the lot, wouldn't it? Slow Clemens up another few days."
Poe squinted at the Pinkertons and considered. "Unless the Pinkertons are in league with Clemens, and their confrontation was a ruse to try to flush us out. We rush to the Pinkertons to turn in the dangerous wanted Irishman, and they clap us in irons and send us back to Washington."
"Damn, you think?" Coltrane asked. "You're making my head spin."
Finally losing his struggle with his lungs, Edgar Allan Poe coughed, hard, several times, into his handkerchief. He balled the white square of cotton up quickly, hiding the blood spots from Coltrane. "Best to be careful, Jed," Poe said to the dwarf as he rolled with a show of laziness and bad posture to his feet. "We're in the jungle here, and surrounded by man-eaters." But then, he reflected, he was a man-eater himself.
That was why Robert had sent him.
Tamerlane O'Shaughnessy huddled his birdlike head deep into the nest of his scarf as he kicked the back door of the saloon open and slipped into the sizzling blue half-light of the stockade yard, leaving behind all the idjits lowing into their shot glasses like cattle bound for slaughter. It was a crisp, cold night and his neck was thin, but the real reason to burrow into the scarf was the bloody-damn-hell Pinkertons. Stupid rotten cheating bastards. He'd known when he'd crossed them that they'd send men after him, but who would have guessed they'd follow him out to the Wyoming Territory? You should have got a pardon, Tamerlane, me boy. Or if not a pardon, at least the Pinkertons could have the decency to look the other way, since he was a paid agent of the Union Government, and they were more or less supposed to be on the same side.
The Union. Tam sneered at the word in his own inner monologue. You don't have a side, you stupid Irish lunkhead. Besides, it's the United States, you idjit, and it's best it stays that way. Pray Brigit and Anthony that this bloody war don't ever come, war ain't good for no one except them that sells guns.
Crime, now, crime paid. Crime had paid Tam when he was on the Pinkertons' payroll, digging coal mine shafts in Pennsylvania and listening to the grumbling small talk of would-be dynamite tossers. It had paid even better when he'd thrown his lot in with the Molly Maguires and been on two payrolls at the same time, and robbing from the rich mine owners to boot.
It had paid great, right up until that snoopy little Welsh bastard Pinkerton Bevan had told Tam that he knew the score, and he would keep quiet so long as Tam sent a little money the Welshman's way every month. Tam had no objection to greasing palms, of course, but he couldn't trust the little Taffy to keep his mouth shut, so he'd had to slit his throat, burn the body, and go west.
Another man in Tam's boots would have crunched the gravel of the stockade yard loudly, but Tam had a long-practiced step that was silent without being stealthy, effortlessly inconspicuous and unnoticeable without looking sneaky. He floated like a ghost around the side of the saloon, figuring he'd hide in the Jim Smiley for the night.
He knew Clemens would never give him up, not that stubborn son of Missouri, good old Sam Clemens. He'd spit in the devil's eye, tell him a joke, and swear he'd never seen no Irishman in all his born days before he'd knuckle under to another man. Sam Clemens had taken Tam under his wing, recruited him into Intelligence (ha! Tam thought, as if) when the Pinkertons were on his trail and scuttled him out of the country right under their noses.
Clemens was the first person since Mother O'Shaughnessy herself who had ever taken an interest in whether Tam lived or died. Also, Sam had cash.
"Egad, what if we're caught?"
Tam stopped. The words almost sounded like part of his own stream of thoughts but the voice was the frightened whine of some bloody effete aristo Englishman, some useless Etonian fop. It came from the corner of the stockade yard, ahead of him and to the left, where the blue light of the electricks splashed ineffectually against the bulk of steam-trucks resting from their east-or west-bound labors. The voice was followed by a loud, rattling clank! of metal on metal.
"Great thundering Ganesha!" barked another English voice, this one stronger and harsher. "You insisted on coming along, now the least you can do—and I do mean the very least—is not get in my way!" A grunt, then more rattling.
Tam thought he could tell where the sound was coming from, and a great hulking beast it was, a track-borne iron behemoth, many times larger than the Jim Smiley, hunched in the shadows. Two dark figures lurched across its deck, one straining its shoulders against a heavy load.
"Besides, they've only a few hours to catch us, and they can't possibly even know what we've done yet."
The figures sank into the deck of the big steam-truck, presumably climbing down some hatch or stair into its belly.
Suddenly, Tam had a bad feeling about the whole thing. First, the Pinkertons showed up on his trail, and now, suddenly, here were two English bastards up to no good. If there was only the one of them, Tam would kill him without a second thought, just to be on the safe side, but two men always made an attack a little more of a throw of the dice.
"Hell and begorra."
Tam gave the strolling Englishmen a few seconds to get well inside their truck, then crossed the yard to the Jim Smiley. He had to skirt out of reach of the electricks' blue light, which made his scuttling circuitous and piled additional time into his state of anxiety, but a couple of minutes later, heart beating a little faster than he would have liked, Tam stood next to the Jim Smiley and surveyed her for visible damage.
She looked fine from the outside. All six of her enormous, heavy India-rubber tyres bulked full and unscathed. The immense inflated India-rubber skirt that wrapped all around her hull was also fine. The big elephantastic wheel in back sat on its axle, unimpeached and unassailed, as far as Tam could see. Black smoke puffed, wispy and hard to spot in the blue-black gloom, from her raised exhaust pipe. Tam almost relaxed.
He sent himself up the ladder quickly, conscious that he was visible here from the doorway to any vulture that knew where to look, and then slipped into the wheelhouse for a moment to scan the shadowed deck through its large windows.
Nothing. Bloody-damn-hell nothing.
You're jumping at shadows, me boy.
Tam crossed the deck again and started down the stairs into the boiler room. He flicked the light switch in the iron stairwell and nothing happened. He flicked it again, still nothing. That wasn't good. He wasn't a mechanick like Clemens, but he knew that unless the emergency battery was engaged, the lights were powered by the electricks, which were powered by the boiler. No lights meant the boiler wasn't on.
Tam drew his pistol, a shiny Webley Lonsgpur (not his, originally, but Bevan's. The weaselly little Taffy didn't need it now, did he, with him all singing away, "Bread of Heaven" in the celestial men's choir?). Saints Brigit, Patrick, and Anthony on fire. Could be he let the coal run too low in the furnace and the fire had gone out. Sure, that was it.
No, you idjit. There's smoke out the exhaust, means the fire is going.
Could be a burned out bulb. Didn't they burn out? They burned out, he was sure of it.
Sure, it could, and it could be bloody leprechauns opened a valve and let out all the steam. Put your balls back on, O'Shaughnessy, and stop fooling yourself. He shook his head to clear his thoughts, then cocked the hammer of the Webley.
Gun first, he sprang noiselessly into the boiler room.
Empty, no one there, just the shovel and the pile of coal and the boiler throwing out its mad red grin into the room through slitted teeth.
He quickly checked the other rooms below decks—locker, galley, bunk room—and determined that he was alone on the Jim Smiley. Alone on a steam-truck with no functioning electricks.
He stood, Webley uncocked and reholstered, in the boiler room, scratching his head and beginning to feel relieved, when he saw the holes. All the pipes connecting the furnace to the boiler were smashed open. No wonder the electricks didn't work—there was no steam to power them.
With no steam, the truck wouldn't go anywhere either, couldn't budge an inch if it was pulled by ten Clydesdales. Well, Sam was a dab hand with steam machinery and electricks, he'd fix it proper in short order. He had patches precisely to cover this sort of an occasion, right in his toolbox.
Still, how in hell did something like this happen? Some kind of explosion? But that couldn't be right; the holes in the pipes looked like they'd been smashed inwards, not blown out.
Then Tam noticed that Sam's well-used crate of tools was missing. He heard the rough Englishman's voice in his mind. They only have a few hours to catch us.
"Bloody hell!" he yelled, his voice gigantic and booming in the engine room. He remembered the Pinkertons, and squeezed his voice back down to a whisper. "It's sabotage! We're holed by the English!"
He rushed back up the stairs to the deck, whipping out his revolver again, and flung himself prone to survey the stockade yard. No sign of the Pinkertons. And isn't that a blessed relief, after me going stupid and shouting my head off inside a great metal drum?
But there was a fellow on his hands and knees just below the electricks, vomiting on himself, and two men in frock coats strolled casually across the yard, from the far shadowed corner where Tam had heard the English voices, near the saloon doors.
A little too casually. Forced casual, like people pretending they hadn't just been having a quarrel. Squinting, Tam saw that the older fellow, with the big wild mustache, looked like he might bite the head off a mountain lion any second, and the younger, who was clean-shaven and wore a top hat, appeared on the edge of tears, like a little girl.
That'd be the bloody Etonian.
Tam lay flat and out of sight, waiting for the Englishmen to go inside the saloon.
"All ticketed passengers on the Liahona, Fort Bridger to Salt Lake City! Attention, all ticketed passengers on the Liahona!"
The man yelling looked to be about fifty, with a square face, serious eyes, and curly hair under a shapeless blue cap. He was dressed in white shirtsleeves under a brass-buttoned blue vest, and his accent was some kind of English-Irish-something-er-other. Jed had seen enough of the world to know there were different kinds of Brits, but he couldn't really tell them apart. Jed had been twenty years old when he finally saw Little Rock for the first time, and there hadn't been any English, Irish, or Scots there.
"This is Captain Dan Jones of the Liahona, attention, all ticketed passengers!"
Captain Jones had the lungs of a professional barker but he didn't rely on them alone. He bellowed through a speaking trumpet, an S-bent copper tube with an India-rubber mouthpiece on its lower end and a broadly flowering cone on top, like a periscope for the mouth. His voice came out tinny but clear, and loud enough to be heard over the rumbling din.
A boy, a little dark-haired kid in overalls, sailor's jacket and a gray slouch hat who couldn't be older than five or six but might be as young as four, knocked against Jones's knees and threatened constantly to be squashed underfoot, he stuck so close to the older man. He kept one hand out and tugging at the Captain's pant leg, as if reassuring himself that the man wouldn't evaporate.
The sight of the kid made Jed shake his head in irritation; he'd been that kid once, only even smaller, and a hell of a lot less awkward. You can't afford to get underfoot when the feet belong to a mule pulling the family plow.
"Departure time will be eight o'clock sharp, by my watch!" Captain Jones warned his passengers, stumping a circular route among the gaming tables and turning his head as he delivered his message. The din rumbled a little louder and hands waved here and there in acknowledgement. "There is a return trip and a time table to make, and we will not be late. To those of you who are not accustomed to operating on a schedule, I say, Welcome to Deseret! I will fire a ten-minute warning gun. No refunds or exchanges will be offered to passengers who sleep in and miss the departure, but you may hold your ticket, and I will honor it on a future run.
"Any passengers desiring to sleep in the Liahona tonight may do so for the very affordable price of ten cents, payable in American, Mexican, Californian, New Russian, or Deseret. Breakfast will be provided for an additional five cents. Any passengers who have not yet purchased their tickets may see me now or in the morning at the Liahona.
Jed dropped off the barstool where he perched, plunking down two bits for his drink, rectangular like all of California's coinage. He ambled in an intercepting course into Jones's path.
"Captain Jones!" he called out. He'd done a bit of barking in his own time and knew how to make himself heard.
"Aye," Jones answered, and his voice was crisp and pleasant. "How may I help you?"
The little boy hid behind his legs and peered out between them like they were prison bars. Jed made an effort to smile at the kid, knowing that on his homely mug, it could only come out as a grimace. Not that he cared about the kid's feelings, but no sense pissing off the captain if it wasn't necessary. The boy shuddered and closed his eyes tight, the ungrateful little shit.
"I'm paid up for the journey tomorrow morning, party of two," Jed explained, and he waved their two dog-eared tickets as a sign of good faith. "I reckon I'd like to book two berths for tonight." He shot his winningest grin at the boy, who only cringed further away from him. Good money after bad, Gramma would have said. "And two breakfasts, if you'll vouch for your cook."
"I'm the cook, boyo," Jones said, "and St. David himself will vouch for my work." He beamed a warm, trust-inspiring smile. "That'll be thirty cents."
"I reckon I can believe St. David," Jed smiled back as friendly as he knew how, "whoever he might be." He paid with six tarnished nickels, three of them American and three rectangles stamped with the California bear. The Captain dug a pencil stub out of his vest pocket and marked both of Jed's tickets with the initials DJ and some obscure symbol.
"Bring your gear aboard whenever you want," the Captain invited his passenger, and then extended down a friendly hand. "I'm Dan Jones."
They shook. "I'm Jed Coltrane, Captain Jones."
"Just Dan will do, when we're not aboard. This is John Moses, my midshipman." He gestured to the boy hiding behind his knee, who heard himself talked about and took a deep breath to swell out his chest. "Your first journey to the Great Salt Lake City, is it?"
Jed snorted. "Can't be many folks as've been twice, can there? Thirty-odd years ago there weren't nothing there but dust, buffalo, and Paiutes, and old Jim Bridger paddled around the Salt Lake in a boat sewn outta his own shirt. Hell, even twelve years ago, the Mormons was all living in tents and possum bellies."
"Ah, but that was twelve years ago," Dan chided the dwarf gently, "and travel gets easier every year."
"You find easier travel brings better passengers?" Jed joked.
"A passenger who pays full fare is a fine passenger," Dan Jones said, his eyes opening up and twinkling, "and it's a very good passenger indeed who pays full fare but takes up only half the space."
Jed was caught off guard by the jest and found himself laughing hard. "You'll think better of it, Dan, don't you worry," he roared, "when you find out I eat three times my share!"
Dan Jones joined in the laughter. "Is that what brings you to the Kingdom, then, boyo? You've come to enter all our pie-eating contests?"
"No, I've come to bring you high culture," Jed tried to say with a straight face, but instead had to wipe tears from his eyes.
Jed took a deep breath and managed to still his riotous laughter. "Yeah, as a matter of fact, I have. I'm with a traveling showman, feller name of Doctor Jamison Archibald. He's a scholar of anquiquities … anquit …"
"Antiquities," Jones suggested, his own laughter subsiding.
"Really old shit," Jed finished. "Egyptian, mostly. We heard as there might could be some interest in it in the Great Salt Lake City."
"Mummies?" whispered John Moses. He had inched around Jones's leg and stood trembling, eyes wide open and round, both hands gripping Dan Jones by the knee. His voice was so soft that a man of normal height wouldn't have heard it.
Jed nodded, then let his arms fall suddenly slack, held half-up at a forty-five degree angle in front of him, fingers drooping. Reaching deep into his bag of medicine show skills, he rolled his eyes back in their sockets until he could see nothing, and he knew the lad could only see the yellowish whites of the dwarf's eyeballs.
"Muuuuummmmmieees …" he groaned, and lurched forward half a step.
John Moses yelped and jerked back behind Captain Jones, trembling. Both men laughed, though Jed thought that Jones's laughter was more forced this time, for his benefit rather than out of real amusement.
"Maybe you'll show us these mummies aboard the Liahona," he suggested politely. "It's not a long ride from Fort Bridger to Salt Lake, but there's time enough to spread the word among the passengers in the morning and put on an exhibition in the afternoon." He smiled, and Jed found it a shrewd and calculating expression. "If you were to charge, say, a nickel a head, I could take two cents of that and let you use the Liahona's stateroom."
Jed nodded as if he thought that were a good idea, and maybe, he reasoned with himself, maybe it was a good idea, from the point of view of maintaining their cover story. Of course, Poe would overthink the thing six ways to Sunday before agreeing to anything, so odds were it could never happen anyway.
"I'll pass on the suggestion to Doctor Archibald," he told Dan Jones, and the Captain nodded. "We'll load in tonight, then, and I reckon I'll most likely see you again at breakfast."
They shook hands again.
"Boo!" Jed hissed at John Moses before he turned to go, and the boy looked like he might cry.
Absalom Fearnley-Standish hunched over the bar and wrote furiously in his Patent Metallic Note-Paper-Book, racing to record all of Dick Burton's offenses of the evening before he forgot them. The morning, of course, had already filled a page. Now he had to add to it.
A lesser man might have surrendered, deciding that Burton had already seen through him and it was no longer worth continuing to write down the misdemeanors and felonies of the famous explorer. Absalom carried on, because he hoped Burton might yet come to believe in Absalom's authority, because it was proper to make a record of material infractions, that was just good Foreign Office procedure, and also out of sheer bloody-minded pride.
That at least, he thought, we have in common.
Evening of 22 July 1859. Persists in calling me by woman's name. Will not use correct form of address. Accuses me of cowardice, stupidity. Repeatedly disobeys direct orders. Questions my authority, accuses me of forgery. Commits likely crime (check Wyoming Territory statutes—burglary? trespass to chattels?).
He fortified himself with a sip of whisky from the shot glass in front of him.
Upon consideration, he scratched out the last item and sighed. Any crime Burton had committed, he'd committed, too, as an accomplice.
What are you doing here, Absalom? he asked himself. You're thousands of miles from home, on a fool's errand, and shackled to a baboon.
There is a war to avert, he reminded himself. Or if it cannot be averted, then the Empire's interests must be protected. England, as everyone knows, expects that every man will do his duty.
And, of course, there is Abigail.
He looked up from his Note-Paper-Book and his eye fell on an Angel. She sat one-quarter-turn pivoted away from him, as did the man graced with her presence, so Absalom could see them both clearly.
He—he was nothing; another brute American, a surly-looking thug whose brushy mustache and gorilla eyebrows would have suited some redcoat in India but here looked overstated, an exaggeration, a false and overly masculine swagger. Something in the back of his mind told him he should recognize the man, but he had no patience, either for the man's face or for the nagging thought. He was focused entirely on … her—she was grace and refinement and elegance and beauty, all bound in the delightful package of perfect, freckle-kissed feminine charms under a crest of curly brown hair. Absalom thought he could smell her perfume, over all the human stinks of the saloon, from where he sat, twenty feet away.
"Why no," the Angel was saying to the Brute, "I know shockingly little of the Mississippi River, really. I was carried across it as a small child and have not been back since. Please, tell me all about it."
"Your first problem with the Mississippi, Miss Annie," the Brute began to spout back in answer, "is distinguishing fact from fiction."
"Does that make it different from any other place, really?" she asked.
"Some would say not," the Brute admitted with a chuckle. "But when a man's riding a river that's so wide he can't see either bank, I find that he becomes particularly susceptible to the pernicious influence of fable."
"Tell me more," the Angel urged him on.
"Consider the case of the famous Mike Fink," the Brute mused. "You'll have heard of Mike Fink, I take it?" He stubbed out his cigar. The cigar, anyhow, smelled sweetly civilized to Absalom, and he regretted its disappearance but the Brute immediately fumbled in the inner pocket of his coat for another.
"He was a boatman of some sort, was he not?" Clearly, distinctly, unmistakably … the Angel looked Absalom in the face and winked at him.
Absalom's heart froze, and he was dimly aware of his Patent Metallic Note-Paper-Book falling to the saloon floor from nerveless hands. Some time passed, and some conversation between the Angel and her Brute, and all Absalom could hear was the rushing of his own blood and the outrageous hammering of his own heart.
"… but he did in fact, that scalawag, ride a moose," the Brute was saying when Absalom's hearing returned. "Saddled an ornery bull and rode it around the muddy streets of St. Louis when that good old town wasn't much more than a trading post for Frenchmen and Injuns."
Absalom swallowed with a very dry mouth and, feeling suddenly terrified, raised his eyes to look upon the face of his Angel. She was nodding at the Brute's droning oratory, and smiling, but when Absalom looked at her, she shifted her eyes slightly to look back at him, and her smile widened a little more.
"Mr. Fink sounds terribly brave," she observed to the Brute.
Instantly, Absalom dropped his gaze and stared at the floor. Good heavens, man, get hold of yourself! He tried to seize command of his suddenly shaky spirits. Are you a Cambridge man or aren't you? Don't shame the Foreign Office by acting the overgrown child!
He swallowed again, still dry, and couldn't raise his eyes. The drone filled his ears—he found he couldn't make out the Brute's words at all, but every mmm, hmmn, and I see of the Angel rang like a church bell.
On the floor he saw his Note-Paper-Book. He must pick it up, mustn't leave work papers on a saloon floor. Those were property of the Crown really. He stood from his stool, shaking slightly in the knees, stooped to the floor, wrapped his fingers around the paper—
—and suddenly found himself propelled face-first across the room.
Absalom gasped for air and almost dropped the Note-Paper-Book. Midsections of dancing people and the startled faces of gamblers swerved in and out of his vision as he was launched horizontally forward. His trousers seemed to be dragging him ahead as if possessed, and when Absalom twisted to look back, he saw that he was gripped with both hands by the belt by a wild-eyed man with a gnarled and bushy beard.
"Unhand me!" Absalom meant it as a manly command, but even in his own ears it rang as a shrill squeak.
The wild-eyed man swung Absalom through the doorway and into the back hall of the saloon. There were heated lavatories, he knew, in this hallway, and an exit, but little traffic. The stranger slammed Absalom up against the wall, held him there with one fist twisted in his shirt, and stared into his face.
Absalom gulped. The stranger wore an eye patch, and his one unveiled eye drilled into Absalom with the piercing blue stare of a madman. His face was scarred and weatherworn, his beard tangled and streaked with gray, and whatever hair he had was hidden under a large bear-fur hat like that worn by the Coldstream Guards, though shabbier and more thoroughly used. He stank of meat, smoke, and sweat. He was half a foot shorter than Absalom, but somehow he seemed enormous.
"You use me ill, sir," Absalom managed to protest, though he felt it was a weak expression of his true sentiments.
"I need to be sure I got your full attention," the stranger growled. His free hand disappeared from Absalom's view, and when it returned, it held a long, triangular, straight-edged knife.