Ocelot slammed his fists into the heavy iron bars of the jail cell in frustration. They didn't budge.
They hadn't the last few times he'd tried, either. Nor the times when Joe had tried. These things were obviously built to last. "What the hell do we do now?" he muttered angrily.
Nobody answered. That wouldn't have done any good either, since all of them were asking the same question.
They had been ignominiously herded through town to the jail about half an hour ago, and now occupied the place's only two cells. Specifically, Ocelot, Joe, 'Wraith, and Kestrel occupied one, and Winterhawk occupied the other. The sheriff and his men had taken no chances with 'Hawk's ability to cast spells: while several of them held guns on him they had cuffed his hands together and covered his head with a burlap sack tied snugly around his neck. The mage now lay on a bunk farthest away from the other cell, his leg shackled to the bed to prevent him from seeking aid from his companions. He was not pleased.
Across the room, sitting behind a desk with his feet up and his gun in front of him, was the sheriff's deputy, a youngish, balding fellow named Skyler. With him, his chair leaned back against the wall and his hat tipped down over his eyes, was Skyler's assistant deputy, Hendricks. The sheriff himself had gone home after warning his two underlings to keep a close watch on the prisoners. So far the deputies had followed that dictum to some extent, in that one or the other of them had glanced at the prisoners fairly regularly once every five minutes or so, but otherwise the five runners had been left pretty much alone.
Ocelot flung himself down on the bunk next to Kestrel. "We have to get out of here," he said under his breath. "There's gotta be a way to do it."
Joe, who was standing over by the door to the cell, tried rattling the bars again; this elicited only a knowing smile from the two deputies and no positive results. "Even I can't bust through these," he said. "I don't see how we can do it unless we get the keys."
Kestrel sighed. "It doesn't look like there's much chance of that." The keys were in plain sight, tossed on Skyler's desk, but they might have been a million miles away.
'Wraith was pacing around like a caged animal, unable to still his body long enough to sit down on the other bunk. He didn't speak; he looked like he was trying to get himself under control. This was not a pleasant situation for someone who hated confinement as much as he did.
Ocelot looked over at Winterhawk. "'Hawk—anything?"
The sack-clad head shook ruefully. "Sorry. I've been trying to wriggle out of this bloody thing, but no luck. I'm afraid I won't be much help to you until you can get me loose from it."
The runners lapsed into dejected silence for awhile; after about ten minutes of fidgeting inactivity Ocelot joined 'Wraith in his pacing. It was starting to get dark outside; they could see the sun going down outside the barred window, casting the cells in a depressing dimness as it went. Skyler got up and lit two lanterns, then sat back down again.
Time passed. The four runners in the cell grew more and more impatient as another two hours crawled by, but came no closer to a solution than they had been previously. They had examined and discarded the idea of trying to somehow lure one of the deputies over so they could dispatch him; so far the two men had shown enough smarts to keep a gun held on the prisoners from a distance if any close-up work (such as delivering their dinner) had to be done. At least the food was good: beef stew, mashed potatoes, and cold milk. They'd been extra careful with Winterhawk, both of them holding guns on him while he'd been untied to have dinner. "Lovely ambiance, gentlemen," the mage had commented acidly. "P'raps you've got a bit of violin music and candlelight to go with the artillery?" They hadn't answered, except to tell him to hurry up.
It was Joe who hit on the first idea that sounded like it had any hope at all of success. "Hey, guys," he said suddenly a few minutes after the deputies had removed their dishes, "why don't we just tell them the truth?"
"Huh?" Ocelot stared at him. After a moment, so did Kestrel and 'Wraith.
"Not the whole truth," Joe amended quickly, lowering his voice. "Not about—where we are and who told us about things. Just about the fact that the boss is coming in on the train and he's gonna kill everybody."
"They ain't gonna believe that." Ocelot shook his head. "No way. Especially if we don't tell 'em how we found out."
"Maybe they will." Joe was getting more animated now, struggling to keep his voice soft. "Nobody around here seems to like Grimmer much, right? Didn't you see how the sheriff looked at him? He was just doing what he had to do, but you could see he didn't like doing what Grimmer said." He shrugged. "It's worth a try, isn't it? Maybe if they don't believe us, they'll at least send somebody out there."
Kestrel sighed. "I don't like it, but it doesn't look like we have much other choice, unless you guys are hiding something."
"Agreed," 'Wraith said reluctantly.
"So who's gonna do it?" Ocelot asked, looking around at his companions.
Everybody looked over at Winterhawk, who was usually the obvious choice for any endeavor involving persuasion. This time, though, it didn't seem likely that the mage was going to be very charismatic with a bag over his head and his hands cuffed behind his back. He didn't even appear to have heard their discussion.
After a moment, Kestrel spoke up. "I'll give it a shot," she said. Smiling evilly she added, "Hey, maybe if I bat my eyelashes at 'em, they'll come over here and I can pound 'em."
Ocelot shrugged, grinning in spite of himself. "Hey, it would work on me..."
"Flatterer." She leaned over and planted a quick kiss on the tip of his nose. "Okay—let's do this."
The other runners backed off so as not to look too intimidating, and Kestrel went up to the bars. "Hey, Sheriff?"
Skyler looked up. "Yes, ma'am? You need somethin'?"
Kestrel didn't get the chance to answer, because suddenly there was a loud commotion outside. It sounded like some kind of scuffle, but the voices were high, like women's—
The runners smiled at each other as Hendricks hurried outside to see what was going on. "Good timing, guys," Ocelot murmured softly. Joe, apparently disgusted with the whole thing, dropped down on the bunk next to the bars and began removing his boots.
Outside the sheriff's office, Mike and Nathan Briggs had gotten themselves into a right and proper fight. They rolled around on the wooden sidewalk, punching and kicking each other for all they were worth, each one yelling for the other to give up and admit defeat. As Hendricks came running out, demanding "Hey, you kids! What's going on out here?" Mike took advantage of his brother's sudden change of attention to land a savage punch to his brother's nose. Nathan screamed, his hands quickly coming up to clutch his nose, and rolled into a tight little sobbing ball.
"Hey!" Hendricks yelled again, grabbing Mike's shoulder and pulling him off his brother. "Stop that! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!" He knelt down next to Nathan and tried to pry his hands from his face. His concentration totally on Nathan, he didn't even notice that Mike had disappeared, running quickly inside the sheriff's office.
They had not been idle inside. As soon as the door had closed behind Hendricks, Joe had quickly stood and, with unerring aim, flung his large, heavy-soled boot at Skyler's head. The deputy didn't even know what hit him. He had been briefly turned around facing the door through which his companion had exited, so the boot hit him squarely in the back of the head with a loud thunk. There was another thunk as his forehead hit the floor. He didn't get up.
"Nice throw," Ocelot said.
"Yeah, well, it would've been better if they'd let me keep my rocks," Joe said, but he looked happy nonetheless. Much happier than he'd been when the deputies had searched them and confiscated the several large rocks that he always made it a point to keep in his pockets.
The door opened again and Mike came running in. He looked breathless but pleased. Immediately crossing to the desk and grabbing Skyler's gun and the keys to the cells, he tossed the latter toward Kestrel. "Hurry up," he urged, "I don't know how much longer Nathan's gonna be able to stall Mr. Hendricks. We have to go now."
The runners didn't need a second invitation. As Kestrel used the key to open the cell door, Joe put his boots back on and Mike used Skyler's own handcuffs on the groggy deputy.
Once the four runners in the first cell were out, Mike immediately offered Skyler's gun to the group at large. 'Wraith took it while Kestrel and Ocelot went over to open Winterhawk's cell and extricate him from his bonds. All that time Mike danced impatiently from foot to foot, continuing to exhort them to hurry. "Come on!" he whispered. "We got somethin' else to tell you, and it's important!"
Ocelot tossed the keys to Joe, who used them to open the safe and get their guns back. He had just passed them around when Hendricks came back in, dragging Nathan (who, surprisingly, showed no sign of a bloody nose or any other injury). The deputy's eyes widened when he saw what was going on inside; his hand went for his gun.
"I wouldn't," 'Wraith said calmly, his own gun already trained on Hendricks' head. After a moment three more joined it.
Hendricks' gaze darted around, noting Skyler on the floor, the (armed) prisoners out of their cells, and Mike. He sighed and dropped his hand. "Please don't kill me," he pleaded. "I got a wife and kids. I was just doin' my job."
"We know," Joe said.
"We aren't going to kill anybody," Kestrel added, moving over to slip the gun from his holster.
"Just unconscious," Winterhawk, who was now freed from his bonds, said as he came out of the other cell. "As you'll be in a moment." With those words he gestured at Hendricks, who slumped to the floor.
"Did you tell 'em to hurry?" Nathan asked nervously, looking around toward the door. "Did you tell 'em why?"
Winterhawk looked oddly at the boys as his companions dragged Skyler and Hendricks into one of the cells and locked them up. "What's going on? You didn't just come here to liberate us from prison?"
"He's comin' tonight!" Mike blurted out, his face a mask of fear. "Grimmer's moved it up! We heard it on the telegraph. The train'll be here in less than two hours! We have to go!"
The runners exchanged horrified glances. "Tonight?" Ocelot demanded.
'Wraith looked around the room quickly, pausing to grab one of the sheriff's rifles and a box of shells from a rack on the wall. "Need to get out. Make plans. Now."
Everyone agreed that was a good idea. "Where?" Winterhawk asked the two boys.
"Our barn's not far from here," Mike said. "We can go there."
"Lead on," Winterhawk said, nodding toward the door.
The barn was only a few minutes' walk from the jail. Fortunately now that it was dark there weren't too many people on the streets, so no one bothered them. Inside the barn, with the boys keeping lookout, the runners assessed their options. "We have to blow up that bridge," Joe said.
'Wraith nodded. "Yes."
"And we have to get out of town fast, before anybody discovers the deputies trussed up in their cells," Kestrel added.
"Okay." Ocelot began pacing. "What do we need?"
"Explosives," Joe said.
"Transportation," 'Wraith said.
"Luck," Winterhawk said, only half kidding.
Mike turned from where he had been watching the door. "I know where you can get explosives. They keep 'em in a shed outside of town, where they won't hurt anything if they blow up accidentally. It's locked up pretty good, though."
"What kind of lock?" 'Wraith asked.
"A big one." Mike indicated something about the size of a man's fist with his hands. "It's got a big keyhole in it. I don't know who has the key, though."
"Can you pick it?" Ocelot asked 'Wraith.
"Not without tools. Can't risk going back for anything."
"What kind of tools do you need?" Winterhawk looked around the barn as if expecting to find something there. "Joe, could you break it with a hammer and chisel or something similar?"
"I wouldn't want to try. The sparks might set everything off. That's a last resort."
'Wraith had joined Winterhawk in looking around. "Need something long and thin. Metal."
"Screwdriver?" Kestrel spoke up.
"What about an awl?" Mike ventured. "Dad has lots of those. For workin' on tack."
'Wraith almost smiled. "Yes. Perfect."
Mike motioned for Nathan to watch the door and ran into a little room off the barn. After less than a minute he returned with several awls of various sizes. "There's more, but they're bigger. I think they'd be too big."
'Wraith picked through the assortment and selected four of the smaller ones. "These should work."
Mike looked pleased that he was able to help. "We better get going," he said, the urgency in this voice stepping up a bit. "We only have about an hour and a half now, and it's a couple miles out to the trestle. We can take Dad's wagon."
Winterhawk shook his head. "No, Mike. I'm afraid you can't go with us. It's going to be far too dangerous out there."
Noting the disappointed look starting to form on the boy's face, Kestrel hastily added, "He's right, but there's something important you can do back here in town that'll really help us."
"What?" Mike regarded her with suspicion, clearly afraid he was being brushed off.
"Stay here and tell anybody who comes looking for us that you think you saw us heading for the boarding house to get our stuff."
"Or whatever else you can think of that'll get 'em off our trail for awhile," Ocelot said. "As long as they don't find the cops in the cells, they'll have no clue that you're workin' with us. Let's use that."
"Please tell us that the explosives shack is on the way out to the trestle," Winterhawk put in.
"Yeah," Mike said. "It's on the way. You'll see it a little bit off the road, about half a mile out." He looked at Nathan and sighed. "Okay. We'll do what you say. But we better get the wagon hitched up. If you can watch the door, we'll do that."
Ten tense minutes later the rough wagon was hitched up to the Briggs' two horses. So far no one had discovered their activities, but the runners were getting more nervous by the minute. "Do any of you know how to drive one of these?" Winterhawk asked, looking at the horses dubiously. He and horses had never gotten along.
"Sort of," Kestrel said. Sheepishly, she added, "I went through the horse phase when I was about thirteen. Had my own and everything." Before anyone (like Ocelot) could comment on that, she swung up into the driver's seat.
As the others were loading up, Winterhawk paused to face the boys. "Don't want to leave without thanking you. If you're right about this—and I've no doubt that you are—you might have saved more than you can possibly know."
The boys shuffled their feet shyly, unsure now of what to say. "It's okay," Mike said. "Thanks for believin' us."
"Don't hurt our dad," Nathan added. "I think some of the railroad folks are out there. Please don't hurt him."
Winterhawk paused. How could he promise such a thing without knowing the details of what they would find?
"'Hawk! Hurry up!" Ocelot called from the wagon.
Finally the mage nodded. "We'll do the best we can not to hurt any of the townspeople. I promise."
That seemed to satisfy them. "Okay. You better go now."
Winterhawk jumped into the back of the wagon. The boys swung open the barn doors, and Kestrel steered the horses out into the street.
Getting the explosives turned out to be easier than they had expected. Apparently because of the threat to the bridge they had decided to put a guard on the building, but Winterhawk's long range Sleep spell took care of him in a hurry. After that it was just a matter of 'Wraith's using his selection of awls to pick the huge lock holding the heavy door closed, and they were in.
Joe and Kestrel, the only members of the group who had any knowledge of demolitions, directed the loading of the explosives. Inside the shed, neatly stacked on stout wooden shelves, were boxes of dynamite and smallish, thick glass bottles of nitro-glycerine, all of them clearly marked "EXPLOSIVE" and "HANDLE WITH CARE." Below these were barrels of gunpowder. "How much of this stuff do we need?" Ocelot glanced around nervously, uncomfortable with being surrounded by all this primitive destructive force.
They ended up taking two of the nitro bottles, carefully wrapped in the saddle blankets they found in the back of the wagon, and four boxes of dynamite. They elected not to take the gunpowder—the barrels were too big and unwieldy to be worthwhile. In less than fifteen minutes they were on the road again, albeit a bit more slowly than they had been. Nobody wanted to risk jostling the explosives.
It was totally dark now, but the full moon would have provided enough light for them to see even if their cybered (and natural, in Joe's case) low-light vision had not been operational. None of them had paid much attention to the fact previously, but they still had most of the functionality of their cyberware, including speed and vision enhancements, although there was no indication that they in fact possessed such cyberware. Obvious things like cyberspurs did not exist here. "So," Ocelot said from his spot in the back of the wagon, "you think there'll be anybody out there? Other than Grimmer, I mean?"
"Undoubtedly." Winterhawk didn't take his eyes off the road in front of them. He was seated in the shotgun seat next to Kestrel, a position he had won over 'Wraith when he had pointed out that he could take out large numbers of potential attackers at once without killing them. 'Wraith himself sat directly behind 'Hawk, rifle ready, also scanning the dark road ahead.
"I just hope that train's not early," Ocelot muttered.
They covered the rest of the distance in about forty minutes. When they approached the canyon where the trestle was, they could see it stretching out over the expanse from a fair distance. They also saw the tracks laid out parallel to the road and about ten yards away. The road veered off before it reached the canyon, but the tracks went on.
There appeared to be no one there. Not even any lights.
"What the hell's goin' on?" Ocelot stood up halfway so he could see better. Nothing moved. "I thought this was supposed to be some kind of party."
"Maybe they changed their minds when they found out we were on to them," Joe said, jumping out of the wagon as soon as it came to a halt.
"You don't think Grimmer was somehow able to stop the train, do you?" Kestrel asked nobody in particular.
Before anyone could answer, they heard a far-off sound of a whistle.
'Wraith leaped out of the wagon and moved off where he could put his enhanced hearing to use. "Not far off," he reported a few moments later. "Must hurry."
"How we gonna do this?" Ocelot asked as he gingerly pulled the first box of dynamite out of the back.
"Nothing fancy," Joe said. "We'll just take the stuff out and tie it under the tracks, all together except for the nitro bottles, which go on top. Then, once we're back off, 'Wraith can shoot one of those nitro bottles with his rifle, and the whole thing'll go up."
"Oh," Winterhawk said wryly. "That's all there is to it. Does this sound suicidal to anyone else?"
Nobody answered; 'Hawk wasn't surprised, since he hadn't expected anybody to.
"Why underneath?" Ocelot looked around again, but still couldn't see any sign of anyone other than themselves. "Wouldn't it just be easier to put it on top?"
"Engineer might see," 'Wraith said. "Stop train before they reach it."
Kestrel nodded. "It takes forever to stop one of those things, but if they're paying attention, they might see a big pile of stuff on the track."
Moving quickly but carefully, the runners set about their task. 'Wraith moved off to find himself a vantage point where he could sight on the place he would have to hit; Winterhawk found another spot to keep watch and use magic if needed; Joe directed the placement of the explosives while Kestrel and Ocelot did the actual placing. "Wonder if Gabriel and Bozo got to do anything this fun?" Ocelot muttered to Kestrel as they painstakingly tied the last box to one of the ties on the bridge.
Kestrel just shook her head. She didn't want her concentration broken by thinking about Gabriel right now. It was bad enough that the promised opposition hadn't shown up yet.
While the three of them had been placing the explosives, Winterhawk had cast a Clairvoyance spell centered high above his head, allowing him to get a good view of the relatively flat territory covered by the tracks. He could see the light of the train engine as it approached; it was still a fair distance away, but moving fast. He took one last quick look around before dropping the spell, just for curiosity's sake.
There was a cloud of dust approaching from back toward the town. Much closer than the train. "Get off the tracks!" he called. "They're coming!"
'Wraith started to turn his rifle to face the new threat, but reconsidered. He would be the one who would have to ignite the explosives. He couldn't afford to let his attention be split now. The others would deal with the threat.
Moving as quickly as they could on the wooden railroad ties, Kestrel, Ocelot, and Joe headed back for the side of the canyon. They had placed the explosives near the halfway point so as to have the best chance of getting the train when the dynamite went off, but that meant they had a long way to go to get back.
The riders were approaching.
Winterhawk turned to meet them, hidden behind a large rock a few yards from the edge of the canyon. As they got closer, he could see there were about ten of them. Too spread out to hit them all with a spell. Bugger.
The horsemen were already raising rifles as their horses thundered forward. Winterhawk recognized Grimmer and Weatherby among them as they approached, and centered the spell on them. At least he could take down the leaders—perhaps the others would listen to reason if their leaders were gone.
But he did not get the leaders. Grimmer and Weatherby rode by unhurt as the spell flowered around them; two men riding near them clutched their heads and fell from their horses, but the railroad boss and his toady continued on. 'Hawk spun and prepared to throw another spell.
Meanwhile, some of the other riders were taking shots at the figures on the bridge. "Down!" Kestrel yelled as bullets zinged past them. Ducking behind one of the heavy wooden supports of the bridge, she pulled out her own revolver and began firing back.
Joe grunted in pain as one of the gunmen's rounds hit him in the arm. Swaying, he almost lost his balance on the ties, but regained it by grabbing another of the supports. Ocelot, in front of him, flung himself sideways and quick-drew his gun. "You okay, Joe?"
"Yeah." Joe's voice sounded a little strained but otherwise all right. He drew his shotgun with his off hand and fired off a blast at the riders, and was rewarded by the sight of one of them clutching his gut and falling off his horse.
Ocelot spared a brief thought for Winterhawk's promise that they wouldn't hurt the Briggs boys' father, but quickly put it out of his mind. He didn't know if the man was in the group attacking them, but if he was and he was shooting at them, then there wasn't much he could do about it but fight back. The best he could hope for would be that 'Hawk nailed him with a Sleep spell before somebody else blew him away.
The riders, their numbers depleted now, continued to the edge of the canyon, spreading themselves out along its edge, rifles pointed at the three on the bridge. Winterhawk once again tried to hit Grimmer with a spell, and once again he failed. He sank back, breathing hard as he felt the drain begin to take its toll on him. He wouldn't be able to throw too many more like that one. What is protecting him?
"Give up!" Grimmer called from his position behind the line of gunmen. "Give up now and we'll go easy on you! Don't destroy the hard work of all these good people!"
"Hard work, hell!" Ocelot yelled around the wooden support. "Why don't you tell them what's really gonna happen, Grimmer? Tell 'em what your boss is gonna do when he gets here!"
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about. The only thing my employer is going to do when he gets here is to stage a massive celebration to mark this historic day!"
"A massive extermination, you mean!" Winterhawk shouted, raising up slightly from behind the rock behind which he was hiding. "Tell them about his plans to kill everyone in the town!"
A murmur was beginning now among the gunmen. "What's this about, Grimmer?" one demanded.
Grimmer laughed unpleasantly. "Nothing but the insane ravings of a couple of lying children, I assure you! I am finding it difficult to believe that five theoretically intelligent adults could be taken in so thoroughly by two children known for their propensity to tell falsehoods whenever they can."
The three runners on the bridge used Grimmer's momentary inattention to move a little closer to the edge. Behind them, they could now hear the whistle of the approaching train loud and clear; the rumble began to reverberate through the tracks. "Nobody believes you, Grimmer!" Joe yelled. "What's in town that you and your boss want? How come you have to kill everybody to get it?"
The murmur among the gunmen was growing a bit louder. None of them particularly liked Grimmer and his buddies, and they were hearing persuasive words from the newcomers who had saved some of them from death only a short time ago. "Get off there," one of the men called to the three on the bridge.
"No!" Grimmer screamed. "No!" Moving cat-quick, he leaped off his horse and grabbed a lantern from Weatherby, who was standing next to him. "We must stop that train before everything is ruined!" He ran forward with the lantern, waving it wildly around like a crazy man.
Ocelot, Joe, and Kestrel knew a good chance when they saw one. Rather than trying to shoot Grimmer, they all took off running toward the edge of the bridge. They believed that at this point the townsmen wouldn't shoot them.
They were right about that.
They were wrong about Weatherby.
As the three of them reached the edge of the canyon, the crack of rifle fire split the air and Kestrel went down.
At that point everything happened at once.
Kestrel fell, lunging desperately for the canyon edge.
Ocelot cried "Kestrel!" and dived to grab her before she disappeared.
Joe made a massive jump and landed face-first on terra firma.
One of the gunmen took careful aim and shot out Grimmer's lantern; right before it went out, Winterhawk saw two things: the gunman was Charlie Smith, their miner roommate from the boarding house, and Grimmer's face was changing as he howled protest to the skies.
The train thundered into view, wheels screaming and sparks flying as it tried in vain to stop before it entered the bridge.
'Wraith, who had never taken his eyes or his aim off the nitro-glycerin bottle atop the tracks, waited for the train to slide into his field of vision and gently squeezed the trigger of the rifle.
The bullet flew unerringly to its target, shattering the thick glass bottle.
The resultant explosion touched off the dynamite strapped to the bottoms of the ties; the second, larger explosion took out a twenty-foot section of the bridge. Everyone still standing was blown off his or her feet.
Except Grimmer. The railroad boss watched, screaming with rage and hatred, as the dark train skidded onto the collapsing rails and plummeted into the canyon. The engine went first, its weight pulling the remaining cars inexorably downward. "NNNOOOOOooooooo!!!" Grimmer shrieked, flinging the ruined lantern to the ground. Then he did a very peculiar thing: before anyone could stop him (were they even inclined to do so), he sprinted forward and dived over the edge, screaming all the way down.
The train hit bottom with a massive crash that shook the ground all around them. No one heard Grimmer hit.
Several moments passed. Slowly, the runners rose up from their prone positions, testing themselves for injuries. Kestrel, who had been hit in the leg, struggled to a seated position. "Well," Winterhawk said softly, coming over, "that's done."
"Look!" screamed one of the gunmen, pointing.
Everyone whirled around almost in unison to look where he was indicating. The runners stiffened; their gasps joined those of the townsmen.
Something was rising up from the canyon. A twisted, dark something, writhing and squirming, flew up out of the blackness below and disappeared into the night, screaming like the sound of protesting metal being stressed beyond its breaking point. After a brief moment another dark form, smaller this time, flew upward to join it. The screams echoed through the canyon, then stopped abruptly.
The scene faded from view.
Copyright ©1998 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.