Ancient Foes – Airship Battles – A Hidden City
A ruddy sun has set on the gauntlet that nearly killed Jake and his companions in San Francisco. Storm clouds loom on the horizon, promising the inevitability of an airship battle with the nefarious Colonel Szilágyi.…
Blood Curse, the second book in the Blood War Chronicles, drops Jake into the middle of a war between the Free Territories and the Empire of Texas. In the shadow of warships, mechanized infantry, and spies, he discovers a world he couldn't possibly have imagined and begins to understand what fate has in store for him.
Jake doesn't want that destiny, but his growing feelings for the Lady Corina Dănești lead him down a path of death and destruction on a scale that could encompass worlds.
"Just like the first book in the series, Blood Ties, Blood Curse pulls you along on Jake and Cole's wild ride across the West. Quincy does a great job blending magic with steampunk and wrapping it in the grittiness of a western. I didn't want to put this one down, and almost missed my bus stop a couple of times! I highly recommend the series. You won't be disappointed."– Amazon Review
Chapter One The Smell of Blood and Canvas
The Smell of Blood and Canvas
"Only a few of us knew about Jake's dreams, the horrors he relived night after night. But those of us who knew and watched him keep going … we knew he was a man who wouldn't give up. Ever."
~ Captain Jane Wilson
A distant tugging dragged Jake out of comfortable oblivion. From around some unseen bend, a single hiss of steam—as if a locomotive had lurched forward then changed its mind—faded away to a begging silence. The silence became a phrase, a sentence—something with meaning that eluded Jake's clouded thoughts. A jolting wet crunch of bone punctuated that sentence, stirring within him a deepening horror that lifted him out of the darkness.
A single vibration tickled the base of his neck and shivered its way to the crown of his skull. A wave of nausea flooded through him. Jake opened his eyes slowly and discovered his left eye was covered by a bandage around his head. His right eye, however, took in spatters and streaks of ruddy brown marring a surface of filthy, gray canvas.
He recognized it as the wall of an army tent. The scent of death filled his nostrils, etching itself into his memory. Corpses and limbs, the stench of voided bowels and destroyed lives, it all pressed down on him like hot sand, and he knew in that instant he would never forget the smell.
The deep, throaty screams of men in agony filtered into his brain, as if through thick cotton, slowly reaching a maddening clarity. Screaming and moaning and cursing became a not-so-subtle backdrop to his growing awareness, reminding him of Jackinaw Ridge. It occurred to him that he wasn't the one screaming, and that led him to the realization that he couldn't feel anything. His last memory was of blinding agony, but a disquieting absence had replaced that pain. His body felt numb. Aside from the side of his face, he couldn't even feel what he lay upon. Jake wanted to tremble, but he couldn't. The thought of paralysis clutched and clawed at him.
If given a choice between paralysis or death, he'd take death every time.
More tugging forced Jake to turn his head, the only thing he could move. His gaze fell upon the roof, another version of the wall, with patterns of blood—leaves in a teacup—telling tales of men and their struggles with death. None of the streaks indicated who had won, who had lost. They merely marked another agonized battlefield, and Jake couldn't help but wonder if his own tale would be written there in the hours ahead.
Another insistent tug drew Jake's eyes to drift down toward his feet. An almost white sheet covered his torso, and someone had strapped his body to the army cot. A rolling curtain of blood-streaked linen partitioned Jake off from the rest of what appeared to be a very large army tent.
A portly man with a crown of white hair, his back turned to Jake, fiddled with a machine nearby. Jake assumed the man was a doctor. Through the fog, Jake recognized the machine as a steam driven log splitter. His neighbor had used one for years before Jake left home. This one was modified, however, and the reality of its terrible purpose hit Jake like a thunderclap.
A macabre tinkerer had replaced the splitter blade assembly. In its stead, the machine wielded a gruesome swing-arm equipped with an iris of gleaming steel big enough to encircle a man's leg. That ring of blades hovered around his left leg only a few inches below his hip. At his groin, a black belt bit deeply into his exposed flesh, cinched tightly enough to turn the flesh beneath the blades a sickening shade of blue-white.
Jake's right leg ended at the same location, wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, and there was no doubt what was about to happen.
The doctor reached out his hand and pulled a lever at the back of the machine. Terrified, Jake's voice caught in his throat. There was the hiss of steam, and Jake watched in helpless horror as the iris of steel closed slowly. The blades bit into his flesh like a butcher's knife cuts into hogback. Metal hit bone. Another wave of nausea washed over Jake as steel clipped bone with a wet crunch. He heard a dull thud as what was left of his left leg hit the wooden floor below.
Blind with terror, Jake's screaming finally added itself to that of the men around him.
He didn't see the doctor jump and spin around. He didn't hear the man shouting someone's name and cursing about his patient being awake. All he saw were steel blades swinging away from his severed leg, the gleaming metal covered with streaks of blood and gobbets of flesh.
A strong hand pushed down on Jake's forehead, pinning his head to the cot. Mad with fear, he tried to struggle, tried to shake the hand free, but the hand kept him from moving. A woman's voice whispered into his ear, "It'll be alright." A delicate hand placed a strange mask over his mouth and nose, its leather padding sealing around his face. He heard the hiss of gas. "Just breathe deeply," the woman said, "and it will all go away."
Jake gasped within the mask and smelled poppies, reminding him of the opium dens he'd walked past in Kansas City and Chicago.
Oblivion wrapped itself around him, and he thanked god for it.
O O O
Throbbing pain pulled Jake out of the darkness, and the stench of death nearly gagged him. He opened his right eye slowly and found the same patterns of old blood streaks across the tent. He was actually grateful that there weren't new streaks, thinking they would have been his own. His left arm and both legs ached, as if all three lay crushed beneath anvils. He could feel the cot beneath him once again, although he still couldn't move. Then he remembered the steel blades … the crunching bone … the sound of his leg hitting the floor like the piece of meat it had become. Part of him desperately wanted to look, to see what the rebels and the fat doctor had done to him. Fear clamped itself around his neck muscles, refusing to let him turn his head and discover the truth.
"I'm really very sorry you woke up during the procedure." It was a man's voice, mellow and soothing to Jake's ears. "It's my fault, really. You were unconscious when they brought you in, and I thought you'd been given something to keep you out. We'd merely administered something to immobilize you."
Jake managed to turn his head to see the doctor standing at the foot of the bed, just beyond the stumps of what had been his legs. Tears welled up in his eye. He raised his left arm to wipe them away, and when his hand didn't pass in front of his face, he turned his head all the way to the left so he could see what was wrong. His left arm ended a few inches down from his shoulder, and the stump was covered by more blood-soaked bandages tinged with yellow.
Jake turned his face toward the ceiling, clamped his eye shut and let the tears flow. He could feel them running down the right side of his face as he let reality soak in. He'd always believed that Fate stood behind all men, waiting to inflict herself upon them. It was just his turn to feel her wrath.
"Not your fault, Doc," he finally said to break up the silence. "I take it I'm gonna live?"
"At this junction, I'm convinced that you will indeed recover. There was a remarkable volume of blood lost. Frankly, I'm astonished—albeit gratefully so—that you were still alive when they brought you in. You had belts and rags tied around your injured limbs. They undoubtedly saved your life. You're a lucky man, Captain."
Jake found himself grinning sadly at the phrase. He was neither lucky nor a captain. Not anymore. "Hmph … luck comes in all flavors, now don't it?"
The doctor was silent for a few heartbeats as Jake clenched and unclenched his remaining fist, satisfied that he could at least do that.
It was something.
"I can't possibly imagine what you're feeling, Captain, nor what you will have to endure in the months and years ahead. It would be both presumptuous and foolish—even insulting—for me to try. All I can say is that you came off that battlefield alive. You survived not one amputated limb, but three. You survived, Captain. A lot of men don't in this godforsaken war."
Jake pondered it for a bit, finally opening his eye and reading the tales written in blood above him. He wasn't paralyzed. "It's certainly something to think about, Doc."
"Be certain you do just that, Captain. One can never lose hope, and you can never think for a second that your life ended on that battlefield. It didn't. I don't know if you're a Godly man or not. I, for one, have seen too much bloodshed, and far too much of it shed in the name of God, to be a believer anymore. I cannot conceive of such a pitiless deity, one possessed of little more than rage and wanton delight in suffering."
Jake took a deep breath. "I haven't talked to God in a long time, and what solace I took from the hereafter came more from what an old Cherokee taught me than anything else. That old man told me once 'When you're in a river of shit, you don't stand still, you walk to the other side.' As to the evil that men do, that's just men. Neither God nor spirit's got a thing to do with it."
The doctor nodded his head and shrugged. He laid his hand on the army cot gently. "By the way, there's someone here who wishes to see you."
"I'd rather not see anyone, Doc. Not for a while."
"I'm afraid he made it an order, Captain."
Jake laughed once, a sad sound that stirred a gentle frown on the doctor's face. "I guess Lady Fate ain't quite done with me yet, is she, Doc?"
"That's one way to put it, Captain. Whether we believe it or not, Heaven, if you want to call it that, has a plan for us all. The only difference between one man and another is how he sees Heaven." Without another word, the doctor turned and disappeared through the curtains still drawn around Jake's bed.
Jake closed his eye once again and tried to envision Heaven, as well as its caretaker. At first, he didn't know how to start. He hadn't been in a church since he left home, and then only on account of his mother. That got him to thinking about his life. Looking back, he realized he'd pretty much squandered it, all-too-frequently doing so selfishly. Always chasing one scheme after another.
He didn't have a thing to show for it aside from a short list of personal belongings—most of which were probably still up on Jackinaw, including a painted mare he would truly miss—and what little currency his father had left him after the brewery sale and a lot of debts paid off. Laying there, the cold clarity that he had no direction to go hit him like a sledgehammer.
Hell, he thought, I didn't have a direction before Jackinaw Ridge, not one the Army didn't point me at, anyway.
Jake had thanked God enough times, cursed him, taken his name in vain more times than he could count. But he never really thought about any of it.
He let that sink in, and the thought of it stirred something deep within. Finally, he just figured he'd start talking and hope whomever was up there was in a listening mood.
Well, I s'pose I'm talkin' to God or the Great Spirit or whichever one of you is willing to listen. I ain't talked to you in a while, not since I was in my teens. I reckon this is as good a time as any for us to have a few words. First off, I want to thank you for them Buffalo Soldiers. I swear, that was the prettiest sight I ever seen. You take good care of 'em. The world needs more good men like that. And I want you to know I don't blame you for what happened to me. Some men are lucky and some ain't. That's how this old world of yours turns, and I never believed otherwise. But here I am, only part of the man I used to be, and I could use a hand.
Jake chuckled at his own pun.
And a couple of legs, as long as I'm asking. Look, we both know I'm done in the Army, which I suppose is what I was asking for before Jackinaw. You got one hell of a sense of humor, I'll give you that. I guess what I'm looking to do is make a deal. With or without your help, I figure I best get to living my life with a bit more purpose than I have. I don't know how, but I swear I'll do what I can to help folks when they need it. No more following orders. No more politics. Just doing what's right. Okay? What I'm asking is that you find a way to help me get off this damn cot and back in the world. I don't care what that means. I'll leave it up to you if you're of a mind to help one poor, dumb cowboy. I'd sure appreciate it. Either way, I'll keep up my end of the bargain.
Jake opened his good eye and let it trace around the blood on the ceiling, wondering how many other men had offered the same bargain and under the same circumstances.
Amen, he added. Jake raised his good arm and held it in front of his face. He turned it this way and that, tightening his fingers into a fist and releasing each one slowly. "Let's just hope one good arm is enough," he said out loud.
The curtain slid aside as a familiar but weary and hoarse voice said, "You'll have more than that, Jake. So help me God."
Jake looked into the eyes of Colonel Forsythe, eyes haunted by demons Jake couldn't guess at. Forsythe wore wrinkled, brown civvies, not his uniform, and it looked like he hadn't slept in days. His bloodshot eyes looked as hollowed out as a dead man's. One corner of his dirty, wrinkled shirt stuck out over his pants, and his suspenders drooped down around his thighs.
Jake had never seen the man in such a state, not even when Forsythe's wife passed on, but that didn't keep the anger from flaring in Jake's chest. He wanted to curse at the man, dress him down for playing politics and kowtowing to Cromwell. He wanted to blame Forsythe for the bloody, aching stumps that were all Jake had left of his time in the Army. But that wouldn't change a thing, and he could no more blame Forsythe than he could the heavens. His luck had just run out.
Instead, he pressed his lips together and turned his head away from the man. It was just too much for him, everything all at once like that. The silence dragged out.
"I was talking to the doc yesterday," Forsythe finally said. "He knows a man in Missouri who can help you. I've already wired Tinker Farris to let him know you're coming."
Jake heard Forsythe step up to the cot but didn't move. He closed his eyes and tried to block out the man's voice. With one arm gone, he couldn't even cover his ears.
"I wouldn't blame you for cursing me, Jake." Forsythe's voice was still hoarse, and his words broken by half-sobs. "I know what I've done, and what it cost you. No excuses. I'll tell you I'm sorry, but that can never make up for … this." Forsythe sniffed, and Jake could tell the man wasn't holding back tears.
Forsythe shuffled forward and placed something heavy upon Jake's chest.
Jake froze. He held his breath, staying as still as a corpse. He counted his heartbeats and tried to push Forsythe away from his thoughts.
Finally, Forsythe whispered, "I'm sorry, Jake."
Jake heard him step away. The curtain whispered as it was pulled aside and back again. Forsythe's boots disappeared amidst the moans of other fallen soldiers in the army tent. Jake turned his head and discovered Forsythe had placed a fine oak box upon his chest.
The word "Colt" had been branded into the lid. Jake fumbled with the small, metal latch and opened it. There, in a sea of royal blue velvet lay the finest pistol Jake had ever seen. Dark-blued steel and polished mahogany gleamed against the velvet. Jake pulled it out of the box and noticed an inscription engraved above the trigger guard.
Apologies can never make up for blood. ~ Forsythe 1864
Jake nodded once and set the pistol back, closing the lid quietly.
He thought about what Forsythe had said, and it troubled him. A part of him was still angry with the man, but he wished he'd said something … told Forsythe that he didn't blame him.
The curtain opened once again, and the doctor stood there, looking at Jake. He remained silent, inspecting Jake with narrowed, calculating eyes.
Finally, Jake broke the silence. "Can I do something for you, Doc?"
A few more seconds ticked by. "I'm trying to decide what sort of man you are, Captain."
"Don't call me that."
"As you wish. I've known Forsythe a long time, young man. I've never seen him in the state he is in right now."
"Let me finish," the doctor interrupted, an edge in his voice. "Shortly after they brought you in here, Forsythe came in. He hovered outside the tent like you were his own son. When he asked me what could be done for you, I told him about a man who lives in your home state … a tinker by the name of Farris. He's the best I've ever known, and if anyone can help you, it's him." The doctor stepped up to Jake and looked down at him. "You're not a wealthy man, are you?"
"No. I ain't saved a penny in my damn life." Jake said it as an admission of guilt. "And my father left me only a small inheritance, just barely enough to live off of when I needed a bowl of soup."
The doctor nodded his head. "I think you should know that Forsythe has resigned his commission."
Jake's eye went wide. He couldn't believe Forsythe would ever resign over something like this. The Army was all the man had left to live for. It occurred to Jake that if Forsythe had resigned, he couldn't have ordered the doctor to do a damn thing. "But you said—" he started.
"I know I told you he gave me an order. He needed to speak to you." The doctor narrowed his eyes. "And frankly, you needed to speak to him." Crossing his arms, he said, "I lied. It won't be the last time I lie to a patient when I think it's in their best interest." The doctor's eyes drifted to the oak box and then back to Jake's face. "So, what kind of man are you? You can't blame Forsythe for what happened."
Jake sighed. "I don't blame him, Doc. I'm mad as hell at him for how things happened, but I don't blame him for this. I just couldn't talk to him, is all. Hell, the blood ain't even dried yet. I didn't want to say something that I would regret later. You know what I mean?"
The doctor nodded, and Jake could see that he'd reached an answer to his own question. He turned away, and then stopped with his hand on the curtain. Turning back, he gave Jake a sad smile. "There's something else you should know."
"Forsythe didn't just resign his commission. He sold his house, cleaned out his accounts, and wired everything he had to Tinker Farris. After a fashion, you'll be getting your limbs back, young man."
The doctor closed the curtain and walked away, leaving Jake with a silence that closed in on him.