Claimed (The Flash Gold Chronicles, #4)

BOOK: Claimed (The Flash Gold Chronicles, #4)
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Table of Contents
Claimed

(The Flash Gold Chronicles, #4)

Copyright © 2014 Lindsay Buroker

by Lindsay Buroker

Foreword

It’s been more than two years since I published,
Peacemaker
, the third Flash Gold novella, and readers have been kind enough to remind me that I need to finish this series.
Claimed
is the fourth adventure, and there will be one more after this. I’ll make sure I don’t take another two years to write that one. Thank you to Alison Padgett, Amanda Findley, Catherine Malboeuf, and Oxalis for reading early versions of this and offering feedback. Thank you, too, to my editor Shelley Holloway for suffering through the period slang, which isn’t all that grammatically correct (hard to imagine, I know!).

Part I

A
s Milos “Cedar” Kartes stepped past the seventh and final booby trap on the path up to the cave, an uneasy sensation stirred in his belly. None of the traps had been triggered, but the familiar hammering and clanking that always drifted down from the subterranean workshop were missing. The sun lurked on the horizon, dipping its rays into the Yukon River, so Kali might have sent her volunteer workers home for the night, but she rarely set her own tools aside before dusk. Sometimes not before midnight.

Cedar picked up the pace while keeping his senses alert—ears listening for the crunching of brush beneath boots or moccasins, nose testing the fly-filled August air for the scent of black powder, eyes watching the spruce and alpine firs for movement. Nothing seemed out of place, but thanks to the steepness and rockiness of the climb, the foliage remained dense, untouched by the axes that had hewn down most of the trees surrounding Dawson. Any number of bandits could have been hiding in the brush.

Near the top, the slope grew less rocky and steep, and Cedar ran the final twenty paces to the cave. An unfamiliar scent hanging in the air made him falter. Citrus? He hadn’t smelled such a thing since his early bounty-hunting days in the southern United States. No, he realized. It wasn’t fruit, but a perfume that smelled of citrus. What sort of frill would wear such a thing in the Yukon? None of the native Hän workers that were helping Kali, that was a certainty. His mind flashed to her former beau, that snake Sebastian, as she called him, and Cedar resumed his trot. He carried his Winchester and thought about drawing the katana he wore across his back as well, a weapon that had beheaded numerous murdering criminals in the last five years. It would be fitting to use it on a snake.

When Cedar slipped into the cave, its entrance camouflaged from the trail by a canvas tarp adorned with branches and fern leaves, it wasn’t Sebastian’s voice that met him, but someone else’s. He didn’t recognize the young male speaker, though he spotted the figure immediately. His legs hung from a hole in the hull of the familiar wooden airship frame, his upper body and head inside. It was through that hole that Kali intended to install the engine and her lone bar of flash gold, the precious magical energy source that would power the craft. Cedar fingered the trigger of his rifle, ready to defend the airship from this intruder.

But Kali’s voice drifted out from within. “Sixteen cylinder engines with an output of over 1300 horsepower and 1650 maximum RPMs.” It sounded like she was winding down—or at least stopping to take a few catch-up breaths.

“That much power?” the man dangling through the hole asked. “From wood? Or coal? That’s amazing.”

Kali hesitated before answering. That didn’t surprise Cedar; he might know what the true source of the ship’s power would be, but few others did. In fact, he was surprised she was divulging so much to some stranger. Who was this coot anyway?

Cedar strode forward, passing lamps and candles that provided light in the windowless cave, along with a number of bells linked to the booby traps on the trail. He didn’t know whether he meant to tap the man on the shoulder or simply clear his throat, but the fellow squirmed backward and plopped out of the hole of his own accord.

No, it wasn’t Sebastian, though Cedar’s first impression was of someone who didn’t have the scrappy toughness to survive up here, especially with summer ending and winter around the corner. It might have been the pencil stub tucked behind one ear, but the man looked like someone who would be more settled in a library. He wore octagonal wire-framed spectacles and blinked his blue eyes in surprise when he noticed Cedar. He stood no more than five and a half feet tall and claimed a dearth of facial hair. He appeared scarcely old enough to grow any. The rest of his hair was cut short and neatly parted in the middle.

“Kali?” the man asked, now eyeing Cedar—or more accurately his weapons—uncertainly. “Are you expecting company? Because there’s a sas—man here to see you.”

Cedar felt his lips flatten as he wondered what other noun the fellow might have been considering besides “man.” Sasquatch? Just because he was tall, broad, and had been too busy hunting his nemesis Cudgel Conrad to bother shaving in a while...

“Is he carrying an arsenal of weapons and towering threateningly over you?” Kali asked from within the ship.

The stranger nodded. “Yes.”

“No,” Cedar said, raising his voice so she wouldn’t miss it. “I’m towering serenely.”


Serenely
?” the man balked, glancing from Cedar’s face to the hilt of the katana and back.

Kali’s head appeared in the hole, her cheeks smudged with soot and grease, her dark hair pulled back in a long braid that dangled over her shoulder. Her overalls and rolled-up sleeves were equally besmirched with grime, and some tool or another clunked against the edge of the hole as she leaned out farther.

“He has some interesting notions about his appearance,” Kali told the bookish stranger. “He thinks his weapons and his big muscles make him look like a knight from a fairy tale. He seems to forget that it was always the villains who had big scars on their faces and ran around beheading people.”

Normally, her teasing amused Cedar—indeed, she had a fond expression on her face as she regarded him—but she generally did it in private. It disgruntled him to have this stranger looking on. More, this man almost seemed like some sort of confidant. How could that be? Cedar had checked in on her every day that summer, even if he’d spent most of the hours of those days hunting for Cudgel after that. She’d never mentioned this fellow, nor had Cedar seen him before.

“Beheading people?” the stranger asked. “I... I suppose if that’s his normative state, this might be considered serene.”


He
may become less so if people don’t stop discussing him as if
he
wasn’t here,” Cedar said.

Kali clambered the rest of the way out of the hole and landed on the packed earth floor, her pockets clinking and jangling. “Afternoon, Cedar,” she said, using his preferred pseudonym, one he’d adopted after being framed for a crime back in San Francisco. She knew his first name, but only used it when they were alone, and rarely then. “This is Travis Andrews, up from the new newspaper in town. He wants to write a story on my ship.” She patted the hull with loving fondness.

Cedar had long since decided he shouldn’t feel jealous that her creations received greater affection than he did, affection that didn’t come with the wary hesitation she gave to human relations. Besides, as Kali had often pointed out, Cudgel received far more of
his
attention than she did. He hoped to put an end to that soon and finally find and kill the criminal—and the murderer of his brother.

“That’s... desirable to you?” Cedar asked. As secretive as she was about the flash gold, he was surprised she wanted anyone snooping around.

She gave him a single nod that seemed to acknowledge the hidden question, then smiled and said, “It will be if it gets people down to the docks in a couple of weeks when we’re ready for the laborious final touches. Sanding the decks, painting the hull, sewing the gargantuan envelope, and other tedious jobs that don’t require the hands of the engineer.”

“Jobs that are
beneath
the hands of the engineer, you mean?” Cedar asked. “I thought you already had helpers to do the work that doesn’t involve fondling machine parts.”

“I have a few helpers, yes, but I could use more helpers. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but summer’s peaked, and the temperatures are starting to drop. It won’t be long before the days are short and freezing again.”

Travis Andrews pulled out a small notepad and plucked his pencil from behind his ear.

“I’ll allow that,” Cedar said, making sure he didn’t say anything he wouldn’t want recorded, “but how is this newspaper man going to get you more workers?”

The slender fellow lifted his pencil into the air. “Actually, I only volunteered to write a story on your vessel.”

“Yes,” Kali said, “but you
also
told me that when the news gets out, lots of people will want to place orders for my maiden voyage, on account of there being so many new folks pouring into the area and nobody being sure how they’re going to remain fed through the winter.” She faced Cedar. “Didn’t you say the Mounties were already turning men back at the pass?”

“Yes, and there’s talk of forcing people to leave Dawson if they can’t prove they have supplies to see them through until next spring.”

“Well,
I
reckon,” Kali said, touching her chest, “all those folks who are aching for some coffee and bacon will have a strong interest in seeing me finish this girl up and get her into the air. Once the word is out, I’ll have to push away the eager beavers jumping to pick up sandpaper and sewing needles.”

“So... you’re the Klondike version of Tom Sawyer,” Andrews said. He didn’t sound disapproving. It was the opposite, rather. He smiled at Kali with appreciation.

Cedar was trying to decide if he should switch from looming serenely to looming threateningly. Kali probably wouldn’t have noticed. She was gazing back into the access hole and tapping a wrench thoughtfully against her chin.

“Tom didn’t offer his friends bacon or coffee,” Cedar said for no particular reason—several seconds had passed and nobody had looked his way. But he felt a silly need to let this fellow know he’d read a book or two. He didn’t mind Kali knowing that she was a touch brighter and more educated than he—all right, more than a touch—but in case this young coot was still thinking in terms of sasquatches, Cedar wanted to disavow him of the notion.

The coot simply gave him a frown, then asked Kali, “Is there anything else you want in the story?”

She turned, the wrench having left a new smudge on her jaw. “You want more details and specifications?”

“Uh, no, not exactly. People aren’t all that interested in such things, but they might be curious about
you
. Your background, what brought you here, how you learned to build mechanical things. The human interest element, as it were.”

Kali’s interest in sharing shriveled up at this suggestion, and her face lost its cheer as well. “I’m not looking to have my life history printed up in the penny press.”

“It wouldn’t have to be your life history,” Andrews said. “Just a few interesting tidbits.”

“I’m not interesting.” Kali pointed to the cave entrance. “See yourself back to town, will you? I’ll let you know when I’ve got the engine installed and she’s ready for a test flight.”

Andrews’s slight shoulders drooped. “I apologize if I offended you, ma’am.”

“You didn’t.” Kali pointed to the exit again.

Cedar stepped aside so the fellow could leave any time.

“But, uhm.” Andrews peered toward the darkening hillside beyond the cave. “Didn’t you say you led me past booby traps on the way up?”

“Several of them,” Kali said.

“You didn’t point them out.”

She smiled. “I know.”

“How am I supposed to...?”

“My alarm system will let me know if you trip one.” Kali waved toward the row of bells by the cave wall, each with a wire leading from it and out of the entrance. “I’ll be along eventually to let you out or down.”

“Er. Maybe I’ll just avoid the trail,” Andrews said.

“That might be wise.”

Cedar almost felt sorry for the fellow but was relieved to see him go. He’d had an accent from the American West Coast, and Cedar didn’t need anyone sending reports on Kali—more specifically
him
—back to the country, not when he’d played a part in a Pinkerton detective’s death scarce weeks earlier. He didn’t need anyone else finding him up here, not until he’d taken care of his man.

“Kali,” Cedar started, as soon as the fellow had disappeared, “you mentioned that—”

“Yes, I have them.” Kali wriggled her fingers for him to follow, then grabbed a lamp and headed toward the rear of the cave. “As long as you keep paying me my fifty percent, I’ll continue to produce for you. Step over that.” She pointed at a patch of ground. “And that. Oh, and around
that
.”

BOOK: Claimed (The Flash Gold Chronicles, #4)
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