An hour later, a steambat biplane sat on a level clearing far upslope from where the avalanche came to rest. The plane was largely in good working order, save for a set of bullet holes torn through the thin layer of rhino hide and canvas that composed the ‘skin’ of the craft’s body. Steam jetted in hot geyser-like spouts through the holes in response to the rise and fall of the pressure from the aircraft’s boiler.
Hard at work with a spanner wrench, a man in black cotton trousers, leather boots and a worn leather coat leaned into an open side panel that exposed the steam engine to the air. The man tugged furiously at the spanner wrench to tighten, or attempt to tighten, one of the pipe fittings collars that had been flush against the engine itself. Recently the pipe fitting had been doing its job well, until it had been struck by a bullet and belt oddly out of shape. Another sharp tug and the fitting moved just a fraction of an inch before the pipe itself ruptured. Steam exploded out of the engine compartment, knocking the pilot across the snow. He landed with a dull thump in the snowdrift, then groaned in pain. Slowly he reached under his coat to clutch at a bloody bandage-covered bullet wound in his shoulder.
Fifteen feet behind the wounded pilot, Tonks peered over the edge of some rocks until only the top of his head could be seen. He watched while the wounded pilot struggled painfully to his feet to slowly walk back towards the steam biplane. Quietly, Tonks slipped over the top of the rocks and walked silently across the snow. Just out of arm’s reach, he cleared his throat with a smirk.
The pilot spun, a clockwork-needler pistol in hand. He was surprised to find himself staring into the barrel of Tonks’ own revolver.
“Ah now, none a’ that.” Tonks said reproachfully.
“Who’re ya, eh?” The man demanded in a mild Irish accent.
“The one who your goin’ to be tellin’ about why you’re here, what all you’re up to, and why the Marie Celeste is so all important to Archie RiBeld.”
“Get bent!” He replied and raised his needler for a better aim.
“I wouldn’t if I were you. I might miss. You probably won’t with that needle-slinger of yours. But once you’ve done me in, what’ll you do about the rest?”
“Rest a’ who?”
A rough voice, touched with a hint of amusement, was heard from the other side of the steambat biplane. “Us.”
Krumer walked into view, long barreled Colt pistol in one hand and cutlass in the other. He was dressed as he usually was – short boots, trousers and shirt – but over that he had wrapped himself in a white leather, fur trimmed cloak. On either side of him six more of the Brass Griffin‘s crew, dressed in similar fashion to Krumer, rose from the snow itself near the edge of the clearing.
“Dahm’ yer eyes, ya stinkin’ glocky mutcher!” The man swore while he relaxed the grip on his weapon.
“Such language. An here I thought I was bein’ hospitable. Well, maybe you’ll learn a bit o’ manners once we have ourselves a chat, eh?” Tonks stepped forward and took the pistol from the man.
Tonks nudged the wounded pilot towards the east, away from the clearing and towards where the Griffin‘s longskiff lay hidden beyond the trees. Behind them, Krumer and two of the Griffin‘s crew set to work pulling the blocks from the biplane to move it under cover nearby.
A short ride on the longskiff took Tonks, the Irishman and the rest of the landing crew back to the Griffin. Behind them, the steambat was neatly concealed beneath the thickest section of trees along the edge of the clearing. Once aboard, they secured the wounded pilot in a storage closet located in the forward hold – used most often to securely transport coal or other minerals. Despite his arguments to treat the man in his own hospice, Thorias nonetheless took his usual care in tending the Irishman’s shoulder wound.
Two hours later, Thorias scaled the ladder from below. On deck he took a deep breath and adjusted his shoulder bag of medical supplies. Arcady flew up into view then circled the doctor in a lazy spin. Over near the main mast, Tonks noticed the pair and nodded a silent greeting. Thorias and Arcady walked over to Tonks while the pilot finished coiling some of the extra lengths of rope for rigging.
“How’s Irish doing, Doc? His shoulder wound was bleedin’ pretty good on the trip back.”
“Natural to expect it, when one doesn’t rest from a bullet wound. Though his own ministrations to his wound had been adequate enough, now he’ll mend with only a slight scar now instead of a rather ugly one.”
“And so you tossed his chances at a good tale or two at a pub.” Tonks laughed and tied off the end of the rope to a nearby belaying pin.
“I’m confident he’ll embellish. I do wish I had been allowed to work on him in my own hospice instead of an old coal bin of a closet.”
“It’s more secure there and you know it.”
“Perhaps, I doubt though he’d cause mischief. We’re miles off ground. Anything he did would put himself in peril.” Thorias rubbed his eyes as bright sunlight broke the thick clouds for a moment.
“Can’t disagree with you there. Desperate men do strange things, if he’s of a mind to. We found a few things aboard his steambat – a medical satchel with a pair o’ logbooks, a compass and a few rolls of bandages stood out the most.”
Thorias frowned. “I don’t follow you. Why are those important?”
Tonks leaned backwards slightly to stretch his back a moment. “The satchel not so much. I’m thinkin’ he grabbed it for the bandages. What he didn’t count on was them logbooks. Top one was empty. Second had just started to be used by the captain of the Celeste. The satchel had been burnt all along one side. I’m no expert mind you, but I know a good burn from a lightning cannon when I see it. Irish down there had been ta the wreck. After our own had visited it I’ll wager. Which means he’s got to be one of RiBeld’s men.”
“Hard to find flaw there, Sirrah. Arcady, did you ever see him among RiBeld’s rabble?”
Arcady settled on Thorias’ shoulder and nodded. “Yes. I know him from my time aboard. He never saw me but I remember him.”
Tonks folded his arms over his chest. “Did he say anythin’ about the Captain and others that went a’ground with him?”
The clockwork insect sighed – a rather distinctive sound much like a very tiny bellows – shook his head slowly. “No, he did not speak of any such information.”
“Then mayhap he’ll need convincing. I’ll try my hand at it.” Tonks walked toward the ladder and descended below decks.
“I just finished putting him together, Tonks, I’d appreciate it if you not ruin my work!” Thorias called after the pilot.
Below deck and in the forward hold, Tonks drew an iron key from a vest pocket and turned it in the large steel padlock on the door latch. The lock clicked apart and the pilot eased the door open. To call the room a closet was a slight disservice to the room itself. It was small, but not tiny. It was a full five feet wide and fifteen foot deep – the wooden walls permanently stained with black soot marks and deep cuts. Long planks normally lined the walls as shelves but most had been removed save for one that could serve as a bench and sleeping pallet. Normally used for coal or other similar storage, the small room was now occupied by a surly Irish pilot.
“Well, if it nae be the talk’tive one. Come tae show me ya hospitality? Be teachin’ me ma manners?”
“Any more’n I’ll leave ya here ta enjoy the coal dust! If yer quite through, I’ve a question or two for you.”
The Irishman laughed. “Ye be roit daft! Bein’ shot down, den trussed up here like a winsome goose fer mid-Winter feast nae be makin’ my own disposition kindly tae ye. Nae know of a reason Ah’d want tae answer anything ye be askin.”
“Look Irish, we know your workin’ with RiBeld on some skulduggery. The way I see it, you could be comin’ out better than the rest o’ your band about now.”
“Get bent!” The Irishman barked another rude laugh at Tonks.
The pilot sighed, his patience frayed. “Gonna be that way is it? We can sail to that port.” Tonks took a slow breath, then leveled a hard stare at the Irishman. “We found that satchel you pinched from the wreck. You should’a checked the second book. The captain of the Celeste had just started ta use it. That means you been there.”
Sitting in a moment of stony silence, the Irishman glared at Tonks. Color flushed the prisoner’s face. “Ya cannae be provin’ a thing! I claim salvage rights!”
Tonks own temper rose to match the Irishman’s. “We’ve people down in all that snow and trees, eh? A word from you where they went would be turnin’ the tide in the right direction for everyone! RiBeld and his damn butchers wouldn’t know, we’d send you off on whatever port you wish.”
“Help ye? Ye own people shot me!” The Irishman spat on the deck at Tonks’ feet.
Enraged, Tonks grabbed the man by the front of his dirty linen shirt and hauled him to his feet and slammed him against the wall. “So you were there! Talk ta me you snake! Or so help me I’ll throw you overboard myself!”
“Ye don’t have the stones!”
“Oh?” The pilot jerked the man so hard that he ripped the Irishman’s shirt and accidentally bounced the mercenary off the doorframe. Slipping from the larger man’s grasp, the Irishman fell to the floor then scrambled to stay out of Tonks’ reach. Unfortunately for the Irishman, the room was only so large and Tonks latched on again like a tiger might grab its prey before dragging him from the room.
“Stop! A’ight! Stop!”
Tonks glared at the man with a white hot anger. “Talk then!”
“RiBeld’s havin’ us play the devil agin’ some bunch dat t’were prowlin’ around the wreck. ‘None be leavin’ the mountain’, says he. ‘Why’, asks some o’ us. ‘Cause dat be what our pay’s for’, says he. He be tellin’ us dat there tae be no survivors. So we try shootin’ ’em. Wily buggers ye people are, they slipped away on us then. So’s me wingman get’s himself an idea. See, we’ll start an avalanche. We pinched enough watches and such from the wreck tae prove there be no survivors he says. I ha’ been shot so’s I set down while he’s off droppin’ the bloody mountain on any down there. Cept’ they found some cave. Made their way loose and headin’ around towards the Yeti. Cannae be more’n hours ahead now. They’ll be on foot if the Yeti hav’nae taken ’em!”
“Yeti? No such thing! Talk straight!”
“Ah be! Ah be! Ah be seein’ ’em with me own eyes! Thick furred and strong they be wit’ some sorta long claws. Likely be tearin’ a man’s head from his shoulders!”
Tonks hauled the man back to the closet and pushed him in. The Irishman collapsed in a heap against the wooden bench. “Nae be tellin’ RiBeld will ye? Ye dinnae know what he’ll be doin’ tae those dat talk. Flog the skin from me back he would! Lashes at the rail, or even the yard arm!”
His hand on the door, Tonks anger cooled somewhat. In his past he had worked for a mercenary company or two and had seen both good and bad. What little he had heard of RiBeld tended toward the latter. “You coulda been more cooperative, but it’s the captain’s call once he’s back.” Tonks hesitated and his softer side won out. “I’ll pass a good word along … if what you say plays true.”
The padlock snapped shut with a hollow echo in the dark cargo hold. Tonks turned and dropped the key into his pocket to return to the keybox upstairs just outside O’Fallon’s quarters. He quickly turned on his heel and stalked towards the ladder. Yeti? Avalanche? Tonks shook his head and shuddered involuntarily.
“I gotta a bad feelin’ about this.”