“That’s all Cap’n. The rest down here didn’t hold out.” Moira called from below deck.
Hunter sighed and turned to the two children who were bundled in a blanket William had carried.
“Well met young sirrah and lady, we’ve got warm food and clothes … “
His welcome faded on his lips as the sound of a hiss and whine of steam powered propellers echoed in the air.
O’Fallon, hearing it too, stopped partway out of the hatch, “Steambats? What be they doin’ here?”
Just then the pair of steam-powered biplanes, named ‘Steambats’ for the bat shape to the quartet of wings attached to each aircraft, arced gracefully to the right in a turn above the wreck. The cloth and wooden fuselage with its brass fittings had been painted a deep blue, long since faded from exposure to the sun and weather. Before anyone could become comfortable with their new airborne visitors, both of the nimble aircraft turned sharply and dove. Their angle of attack was directly towards where Hunter, O’Fallon, Moira, William and the children were at that moment.
“Down!” Moira shouted before ducking below deck.
A moment later the whine of steambat engines turned to an angry buzz. From two long nozzles attached to hoses on the wings erupted blue white bolts of lighting, guided by streams of high pressure water jets. The electrified stream scoured the deck and snow, tearing a pair of lines into whatever they touched. Nearly singed in the process, Captain Hunter threw himself across the children to protect them. Bits of wood and brass exploded from the wreck and rained down in all directions. Snow vaporized in whitish clouds of fog before it condensed back to snow. Finally the biplanes tore by overhead, passed beyond the wreck and climbed above the trees towards the clouds again.
Hunter eased up slowly, taking deep breaths to steady his voice. He had been shot at countless times when he served in the Royal Navy, but one never grew used to such an experience. Adrenaline tempered his nerves, and after a second breath he looked down at the terrified children.
He was rewarded by a pair of nodding, grimy faces drawn with lines of hunger and fear. From the hatch, William’s panic-white face peered over the edge and looked skyward. Behind him, O’Fallon had already drawn a pistol and true to his nature, looked for a chance to soothe his anger. Moira however, was not within sight.
“Good, now a brief introduction. I’m Captain Anthony Hunter of the Brass Griffin and this is my crew. We’re here to help.”
Immediately, the children screamed again. Quickly sitting up, Hunter turned to see a the steambats complete a turn for another attack run, guns crackling with lightning held in check. Instinctively he scanned the sky but saw no sight of the Griffin. Without a word, mouth set in a hard frown, Hunter scooped up the children in his arms and raced for the rock outcrop that had helped with the demise of the Marie Celeste.
Bits of wood and other debris from the wreck exploded behind the Captain. Throwing himself forward, he skid across the mud and snow until he came to a rest beneath the protection of the rock shelter with his two charges. The buzz of propellers surged by overhead then grew dim as the two aircraft returned to the thick clouds.
“Hush crying now, it’ll be fine. Just fine now. Now who are you two, eh?”
Dressed in a modest blue-gray dress, black vest with white lace trim that was now stained with black smudges of soot, she still looked very much a young lady from a family of means. The younger boy with her was dressed similarly, in brown knee-length trousers, brown jacket and a cream colored shirt, all stained similarly like the girl. The young lady rubbed her nose with the back of her hand and found her voice first.
“I’m Angela Von Patterson, he’s my brother Miles.”
Hunter smiled, “Well good to meet you both. I know your Uncle, he hired myself and my crew to come looking for you.”
Angela looked at Hunter with large eyes, “He did?”
“Yes young miss, he did.”
“Captain! Ye breathin’?” Came a woman’s shout from the wreck.
“Hale and whole, Moira, by the outcropping.”
A hurried crunch of footsteps in snow, then Moira, William and O’Fallon dove behind the rocks as well. William tossed a half-filled, grimy bag into the snow.
“Grabbed a few trinkets from below decks. Never know when somethin’ might come in handy. If they come back,” William gestured towards the cloudy, gray sky overhead. “What were they wantin’ anyways, Cap’n?”
Hunter cast an apprehensive glance overhead. “I daresay have no idea. It could have been a band of raiders who happened upon the wreck and thought searching it would be simpler with no survivors. Perhaps smugglers who frequent the area. If luck is with us, they won’t be a concern either way. O’Falllon, wind that opti-telegraphic of yours and see if the Griffin is paying attention.”
From his belt pouch, O’Fallon removed a rectangular brass box slightly longer than eight inches on the long side by four inches. Pushing a brass rivet, a small wood and brass ‘S’ shaped handle extended from the side with a pop sound. O’Fallon cranked the handle with a few quick turns until a pair of lights glowed dimly on the faceplate. Below the lights, O’Fallon opened a small panel. Using the few undersized typewriter keys there he tapped out a hailing message.
“If they be sailin’ within range, Cap’n, they’ll answer.”
“Griffin here. Anyone found?”
“Be findin’ two an’ then some. There be a pair o’ steambats takin’ bites at us, can ye be takin’ a swat at ’em?”
“Been in a scrape also, as soon as we patch a few holes we’ll be underway to your location.”
The four of them exchanged a look, O’Fallon keyed the device again. “Say again Griffin?”
Suddenly a bullet ripped the opti-telegraphic from O’Fallon’s hand. The device showered a bright flash of sparks and electricity before it pitched into the snow. Miles and Angela screamed and huddled close while the crew drew weapons with an eye to the rocks above.
“Where?” Hunter growled while William eased himself over to the children and spoke quietly to try and ease their terror.
In answer, a hail of bullets hammered the rocks around them. Chips and splinters of gravel rained down and flew past their faces. Through the chaos, Moira spotted figures just over seventy yards off and upwards among the rocks. With no time to speak, she aimed her long-barreled Army Colt and fired, sending a .44 caliber round towards the rocks. Quickly, the others followed her lead with the sharp explosions of gunfire. In seconds the firefight stopped with acrid gun smoke filling the air.
William looked up and around carefully, “Them ‘bats still there?”
Moira waved him quiet then nodded over the faint sounds of stumbling in the packed snow. “They be off findin’ a place ta lick their wounds. So, they’re gone for now. The thing that makes me itch be that they found us here. How’d they be knowin’? Them fliers haven’t had the time to set down anywhere.”
Hunter opened the cylinder to reload his revolver, “I was pondering that also. They had to have been waiting, which means we were set up for some reason.” He dropped the last bullet in and clicked the cylinder shut. “We’ll find out who that was soon enough, once we’re back aboard the Griffin.”
William voice shook slightly and the two children sobbing caught the captain’s ears. “Cap’n …” was all he managed.
A few feet from William, lay O’Fallon face down. A stain of red slowly pooled beneath him in the snow.
Hunter swore softly under his breath. “William, get your medical bag, we need to bandage him before we can get him to shelter and us away from here.”
William nodded grimly, yet still speechless, and withdrew a small leather wrapped parcel from his shoulder bag before he got to work.