Kali McAlister tapped a wrench against her thigh as she contemplated her invention. She had stripped every extra piece of metal she could from the “dogless sled” and had even debated removing the brush bow, but that seemed unwise. Besides, it’d been cold enough the last week men were complaining of pee freezing before it hit the ground. The ice on Forty Mile Creek ought to be thick enough for the heavy steam sled. If it wasn’t…winning the race would be the last of her worries.
Hinges creaked, and a gust of frigid air hurled snow into the workshop. Kali spun toward the door, her long braid whipping around her shoulder.
A fur-clad figure loomed, head an inch shy of the top of the frame. With those broad shoulders and that height, she assumed it was a man, though a cap buried his eyebrows and a scarf swaddled most of his face. He gripped a rifle in one gloved hand, and the hilt of something-a sword? — poked over his shoulder. Who in tarnation brought a sword to the Klondike?
Kali’s grip tightened on the wrench. Another thug who wanted to interrogate her about her father’s alchemical masterpiece, probably.
“If you’re going to hold the door open that long, you could at least bring in some wood.” That sounded cocky, especially since the wrench was the closest thing to a weapon she had handy, but bravado went a long way in Moose Hollow.
Meanwhile, she sidled closer to the workbench and the panel of levers on the far end of it. The man’s blue eyes were the only thing visible between the cap and scarf, and they narrowed, watching her.
“The stove’ll have to work double time to heat the place again,” Kali said, hoping to distract him from her movement. “Not that this drafty hole could aspire to warm anyhow.”
The man stepped inside. Kali tensed, ready to spring for a bronze lever with a billiards-ball knob.
He did not move past the threshold though. Without taking his eyes from her, he pushed the door closed. He removed the cap, revealing thick tousled black hair, then tugged the scarf down to his throat. Kali might have called him handsome, but a scar gouged one cheek, as if someone had tried to remove one of his eyes. The beard stubble darkening his jaw would do little to warm his chin in the cold. He must be new to the north.
His cool gaze skimmed the shop, resting briefly on the unorthodox metal sled before settling on her.
“You Kali McAlister?” he asked, voice smoother and more pleasant than his rough exterior hinted at.
“Ma’am.” She propped her hands on her hips by way of disguising another step toward the lever. “It’s polite to call a lady ‘ma’am.’ Even if she’s a half-breed wearing man trousers with tools sticking out of all her pockets.” Not to mention she was only eighteen and covered in grease. She would collapse in surprise if anyone called her ma’am without the ulterior motive of needing a favor.
He stared at her for a long moment. “You Kali McAlister? Ma’am.”
“I reckon that depends on who you are.” She pretended to scratch her knee and took another step.
“Your identity changes depending on your caller?”
“Sometimes it does.” Another step.
“That’s not a name,” she said. “That’s a tree.” Though at his height, children might mistake him for the latter.
“And what are you here for, Cedar?” Three more steps and she would reach the lever. He might plow through her “security measures,” but they would distract him and give her time to run.
He strode toward her. She lifted the wrench threateningly.
“The job.” His free hand delved into a pocket. Paper rustled. He pulled out a sheet with writing on it.
It was Kali’s turn to stare. “What job?”
Wordlessly, he held out the flyer.
ASSISTANT MUSHER FOR BARTON’S RACE
Experienced pugilist preferred. Inquire at Kali McAlister’s Tinkery.
Kali scratched her head. “Where did you get this? I didn’t post it.”
“Nelly’s Good-Time Girls.”
“Nelly. Oh.” Kali puffed out an annoyed breath. While it had been nice having someone step in as a big sister after her father died, sometimes Nelly presumed too much. At least this meant the man was probably not there to rob or interrogate her. “That’s a mistake.” She waved at the flyer. “I can’t afford to hire help. I’m going alone. Sorry to have wasted your time.”
Cedar lowered the paper, but did not leave. “If you win, there will be prize money.”
“Yes…. One thousand dollars hard money goes to the first-place finisher, thanks to Francis Barton’s lucky claim. The old sourdough’s spending like a drunk.”
“Then you’ll be able to pay me.”
Kali’s suspicions toward her visitor returned. Only gold miners worked for thepossibilityof payment, and most of them were addled in the head. More, nobody in town thought her steam sled would do anything except crash through the ice and disappear forever. Francis wouldn’t have let her enter the race if anyone believed otherwise.
“If I win, I’m using that money to build…something I’ve wanted to build for a long time,” Kali said. “And I’m getting out of Moose Hollow to go somewhere warm.” And where nobody knew about her crazy family or called her a witch.
“One hundred,” Cedar said.
“Are you truly trying to negotiate with me over money that odds are against me winning?”
“You believe you’ll win.” A hint of impatience hardened his jaw.
“Everyone believes they’ll win or they wouldn’t risk their lives in this Godforsaken endless winter to run their dogs up a river. Look, Mister-”
“Look, Mister Cedar. I appreciate you coming-”
Something shattered upstairs. Kali froze. That sounded like the ceramic-pot booby trap she had set up in front of her bedroom window.
She scowled at her visitor, suspicions deepening. He did not appear surprised. His head was lifted, eyes toward the open stairway at the back of the workshop.
“You know anything about that?” she asked. He was probably the distraction while his cronies-
The front door slammed open. Three men charged inside, six-shooters leading.
Cedar whirled to face them. Metal rasped, and his sword appeared in his hand.
Hoping the men were focused on him, Kali darted for the bank of levers. She yanked the one with the billiards-ball knob.
A door along the wall slid upward, revealing two bulky figures in a shadowy cubby. Gears whirred, and a pair of four-legged mechanical constructs clanked out. Though comprised of a patchwork of spare parts and metal scraps, they had cohesive, canine forms. And they were big.
Her guard “dogs” angled toward the intruders, issuing growls that sounded like knives rasping against sharpening stones. Two of the men noticed the metal hounds and stumbled backward, eyes wide. The dogs’ steel maws gaped open, and iron teeth snapped.
A shadow fell over Kali. The intruder from upstairs. He vaulted over the railing and landed in a crouch beside her. A leer split his beard and displayed a row of tobacco-stained teeth. He raised a Colt Peacemaker toward her chest.
Kali hurled her wrench at his jaw and spun, intending to run for cover behind the steam sled. A second man dropped into her path from above, and she crashed into his chest.
Before she could jump back, massive arms wrapped around her in a bear hug.
“Got her!” her assailant yelled.
She squirmed, finding room to angle a knee into his crotch. His grip slackened, and a startled grunt flew from his lips. She yanked free, but the first man had recovered and grabbed her from behind.
As quickly as he snatched her, he released her. A howl of pain assaulted her ears. One of her dogs had clamped onto the man’s leg with those iron fangs.
“Good boy,” she caroled while jumping to the side to avoid the man still behind her. He caught her braid though and whipped her back so roughly pain erupted in her neck. He spun her to face him. Sharp, cold steel pressed against her throat.
“Mongrel bitch,” the man snarled. “I’ll send you to the bone orchard for that.”
A rifle fired.
Shock widened her attacker’s eyes. He stumbled back, dropping the knife. She shoved him, and he collapsed.
Her mechanical dog still harried her other assailant. The three men who had charged in the front door lay unmoving, blood spattering the floor around them.
Cedar crouched on top of the boiler on her steam sled, rifle balanced across his knees, while the other dog clanked about below. He glared at the last man standing, but that fellow had noticed his comrades were all down. He raced out the front, slamming the door before the dog could chase after him.
Kali gave the bronze lever a shove. She wanted the metal guardians back in their cabinet before Cedar had a good look at them. She told people all her constructs were simply steam-powered machines, but anyone familiar with the technology would guess more than punchcards directed their actions.
Cedar watched through narrowed eyes as the hounds clanked toward their kennel. “Interesting.”
“A girl who lives alone up here has to have security measures,” she said, not sure what to make of the speculation on his face.
His blue eyes shifted to study her. They were clear, like the purest ice, and a striking contrast to his dark hair. They could have made her uneasy, but the speculation was not unfriendly. The scar and beard fuzz notwithstanding, she wagered he would be popular with Nelly’s girls. Not that she cared. A handsome man would not swindle her again.
“They say you’re a witch.” Cedar hopped to the floor, landing lightly. He pulled his sword from the belly of one of the downed men without the faintest change in expression that might suggest the killing bothered him.
Kali looked away. “How lovely. The local rumormongers have decided to share their theories with thecheechakospassing through.”
Cedar cleaned the long, thin blade on the dead man’s jacket. “It seems your friend is correct. You need the protection of a pugilist.”
Whatever this fellow was, she suspected he was far more than a simple pugilist. After cleaning the sword, he walked from downed man to downed man, considering each face. He rolled one fellow from belly to back and stared for a long moment before shaking his head slightly.
“Have I proven my capabilities sufficiently so you’ll hire me?” he asked.
“For all I know, you’re one of these bandits, eager to rob me for…whatever they think I have.”
“Would I have shot them if that were the case?”
Kali shrugged. “I haven’t noticed that criminals care overmuch for other criminals.”
He walked toward her. She tensed, but he stopped a few paces away and stared her in the eye.
“I’m no criminal.”
“Then what are you?” she asked. “Why do you want to go with me?”
“I’m a simple traveler seeking adventure.” He nodded toward the sled. “I believe you are someone whom adventure finds.”
Kali snorted. In the aftermath of Sebastian’s betrayal, those words were proving too apt for her tastes. Yet it might be useful to have such a capable fighter along,ifhe did not mean to betray her himself. At the least, she could put him to work loading and unloading supplies.
“Fine,” she said, hoping she was not making a mistake. “We leave at eight A.M. Bring food for yourself for several days and kerosene for the lamps. Since it’s dark most of the day, we’ll travel through it when the trail allows.”
She headed to a coat tree and bundled up. She would have to visit the new Mountie headquarters to report the incident. Things had been easier before the law showed up, representing the “Dominion of Canada.” Criminals’ bodies had merely been tossed out for the wolves.
“Where do I sleep?” Cedar asked.
Kali stopped at the door and gaped at him. “Uh, the Blue Moon Saloon has a couple rooms.”
“You’re not paying me enough to cover lodgings.”
She wasn’tpayinghim at all. No holes or frayed sleeves marked his clothing, and he bore quality weapons. Surely, he was no penniless pauper without coin for a room. “You’re not sleeping here.”
She did not want him roaming around her property while she slept. The flash gold was hidden and booby-trapped, but what of her other valuables? Hertools?
“Are you always this warm and demonstrative to men who just saved your life?” Cedar asked.
“I don’t know. You’re the first who’s bothered.”
“Then perhaps you should consider displaying gratitude, thus to encourage others who may consider similar acts.”
Kali scowled at him. Why did she have a feeling he was going to be trouble?
“Fine. You can sleep in the shop down here. Don’t touch anything.”
Whale oil lanterns burned on the dock, doing little to push back the darkness. This late in the year, dawn would not come until after nine. The sleds would be long gone by then.
Wind gusted down the frozen river, ruffling the fur on Kali’s parka. The warmth from the open firebox door offered a slight reprieve from the cold, but she kept her scarf over her nose as she shoveled coal inside. Embers glowed red, and the pressure gauge on the boiler ticked closer to the operational mark.
She paused to issue a fierce yawn. The Mounties had kept her up late with questions and paperwork, making her regret her decision not to simply throw those thugs’ bodies to the wolves. Cedar had been conveniently, or perhaps conspicuously, absent when the Mounties came to retrieve the dead men.
Nearby, dogs pranced and whined with excitement as men led them to the traces. More than a dozen sleds were lined up on the riverbank. Kali ignored the muttered comments about her monstrosity as well as the wager going around as to how far she’d make it before crashing through the ice or having a catastrophic boiler failure.
Cedar was hefting sacks of sand onto her cargo platform. Each sled would carry a five-hundred-pound load in addition to whatever supplies the mushers took. She worried again about the mass of her contraption. More than once, she had debated saving weight by skimping on coal and cutting wood as she went, but that would take time she could ill afford to lose during the race. She supposed she could leave a few tools behind, though the box of smoke nuts was definitely going. A girl had to have more than a rifle for self-defense purposes.
Though a scarf muffled the voice, Kali recognized the drawl. Originally from Georgia, Nelly managed to look beautiful even in a parka. Though layers of winter clothing obscured her curves, the long blonde hair spilling from her hood always enticed the northern men.
“Morning,” Kali said.
“I came to wish you luck. I slipped away from my young man to see you off.”
“Which young man is it this time?”
“The one I’d marry if his claim ever panned out.”
“So…that narrows it to…Charles or Saul. Or is Rupert still a contender?”
“Saul,” Nelly said, a smile in her voice.
Cedar dropped another sack on the sled, working quietly and efficiently. The perfect employee. Kali still found him damned suspicious. She took Nelly’s arm and drew her back a few paces.
“This fellow you sent over without asking if I was interested… What do you know about him? I question the wisdom of going out in the wilderness with a stranger. A tall, strong, well-armed stranger.”
“He walked into my salon and looked at my face instead of my breasts,” Nelly said.
“I see. And that makes him utterly trustworthy.” Kali stamped her feet, already missing the warmth of the firebox.
“I didn’t saythat, but he probably won’t try to rape you out there.”
“An admirable quality in a man, I’m sure, but why does he want to go with me? Did you tell him…?” Kali watched her friend’s eyes.
“Only that you were hiring. He came in asking about the folks and businesses in town.”
“Asking?” Kali said. “Like fishing for information?”
“He spoke of doing some prospecting, but I could tell he was a tenderfoot who needed looking after.”
Kali arched her brows. Cedar might be new to the area, but he had already proven he could take care of himself. Besides, the only men Nelly worried about “looking after” were handsome ones.
“I told him he couldn’t prospect for anything in the snow,” Nelly said, “and he might as well settle in and get a job ‘til the streams thawed. Coincidentally, you were hiring.”
“Yes, but Iwasn’thiring.” Kali glowered to let Nelly know she did not appreciate the big-sister interference.
Nelly waved away the glower, unperturbed. “You need someone out there with you, and he’s a fine enough fellow to keep you company. In more ways than one, I’m sure.”
“What? You’re too young to act like an old maid. Just because Sebastian was a scheming scoundrel doesn’t mean all men are.”
Kali shook her head. “This one’s up to something sly. He doesn’t seem desperate enough to work for thepossibilityof pay.”
“You’re overthinking this, Kali.” Nelly gave her a friendly shove toward the sled. “It’s a three-day race. How much trouble could you two get into?”
Kali found it impossible to dismiss her glower as she returned to the furnace.
Daylight brought little reprieve from the cold. The sun occasionally peeped through a cloud, but it provided only light, not warmth. The wind continued, whistling down the river valley between snow-smothered hills dotted with spruce trees. Kali’s sled chugged along at the rear of the pack. The next slowest sled disappeared around a bend ahead.
“Should we be concerned?” Cedar asked.
He jogged beside Kali, frosty breaths puffing before him. Though he wore a heavy pack, the pace did not appear to bother him, and his sure feet never slipped on the ice. She steered from the rear of her contraption, riding footboards as a real musher would. She would have preferred to create a seat up front so she did not have to peer past the gray plumes of smoke rising from the stack, but Francis had insisted she build something that looked and drove like a real dog sled.
“No,” she said. “The dogs will get tired. My girl won’t. We’ll make up lots of ground after we get off the river at Forty Mile. The return route goes through the hills.” Kali patted the side of the smokestack with a gloved hand. “Welovehills.”
He eyed her sidelong, probably thinking her odd. He wasn’t the first.
Something glinted on the hillside ahead, like sunlight bouncing off a watch or a spyglass. Kali frowned. Trailsdidrun through the forest up and down the river, but few traversed them in the winter. And she and Cedar were more than ten miles outside of town.
His face had turned toward the hill too.
“Did you see it?” she asked.
“Perhaps nothing,” he said.
“And perhaps something.”
Cedar removed his rifle from his back and flipped the safety off. For the first time, Kali got a good look at it. Meticulously cared for, the Winchester 1890 had a fancy checkered walnut stock and engraved inlays.
“Nice rifle.” Kali arched her eyebrows. “Though not the kind of weapon you expect from someone desperate enough to sign on for work with a gal who can only pay him if she wins a race.”
“Bad economy of late.”
“Uh huh.” Kali checked to ensure her father’s old Winchester 1873 was in reach. Nobody would call her an expert marksman, but she had taught herself enough to be deadly-occasionally to animals instead of herself. Thanks to a couple modifications, it fired more rapidly than normal as well.
“Will the other teams stop and come back to help if there’s trouble?” Cedar asked.
She snorted. “It’s a race for one thousand dollars. What do you think?”
He turned a steady, considering gaze toward her.
“Probably not,” she said. “Even if they put human life above money-which isn’t all that common out here-I’m not the best liked girl in town.”
“Because you’re a witch?”
“I’m not a witch,” Kali snapped.
His eyebrow twitched.
“It’s none of your business.” She studied the hill, but no movement or further glints came from that direction. That did not reassure her. There were not as many hiding places as during spring and summer, when dense green undergrowth cloaked the hills, but the evergreen trees offered plenty of cover.
“Down!” Cedar shouted.
Even as Kali ducked, a rifle cracked. The bullet clanged against the metal frame of the sled and ricocheted off. She heaved on the brake lever and stopped the machine a heartbeat before Cedar grabbed her and dragged her to the side of it.
They crouched behind the boiler, using it for a shield. Something that would only work if attackers waited on only one side of the river. She wouldn’t count on it.
Cedar rose, laid his rifle across the sacks and supplies loaded on the front of the sled, and fired. A return shot came promptly, but he ducked in time. The bullet hammered into the ice behind them.
“Did you see him?” Kali slid her own rifle out, grabbed a wooden box, and put her back against the sled. She scanned the shoreline and the hills on their side of the river.
“Them,” Cedar said.
“Oh, them. Of course. They might get lonely planning ambushes without friends.”
Several meters in front of her, a branch dumped a load of snow. Too much weight building up over time? Or had someone bumped it? Kali went down on one knee, pressed the stock of the rifle into her shoulder, and watched over the sights.
Cedar fired again, then dropped to reload. “See something over there?”
“And perhaps something?” He smiled as he quoted her words back to her. God, was he enjoying this? What a nut. “Stay here. When their rifles are empty and they’re reloading, I’m going after the ones on the hill.”
“I prefer offense to defense.”
She thumbed open the wooden box. Four shiny brass globes rested on velvet inside, each one half the size of her fist. She slid one into each parka pocket and returned the box to the sled.
“What are those?” Cedar asked.
Before she could answer, he leaned out and cracked a shot. Return fire pounded the sled and the ice. Cedar nodded to himself with each shot, counting rounds, Kali guessed.
The last one clanked off the boiler. Kali clenched her fist. If they ruptured the boiler, there would be more trouble than a little gunplay….
“Quit shooting at my sled, you bastards!” she yelled.
Cedar must have decided their attackers had spent their rounds, for he lunged around the corner and sprinted across the ice. The idiot was going to get himself shot before he reached the cover of the trees. Nelly should have put intelligence down as a prerequisite for the job, not pugilism.
The branch that had dumped snow a moment before shivered. Someone swaddled in furs leaned out, a rifle in hand. Kali fired instinctively.
The person ducked back behind the tree for cover, but left blood on the branch. She chewed on the inside of her cheek, debating. From that side of the river, she was an easy target, but to move around the sled would open her up to the people firing from the hill.
“We have you in our sights,” a woman yelled. “Three of us. Put down your gun.”
“Show me,” Kali called.
A man and a woman stepped out from behind trees several meters away. One carried a shotgun, one a rifle. Lastly, the man she had shot sidled out, his gun aimed at her chest. A hatchet large enough to brain a dragon was slung across his back, the head poking over his shoulder. Blood dripped from his temple. She had only grazed him, but the snarl on his lips and the way his two eyebrows crashed together suggested he was not pleased with her.
“My comrade will be back shortly,” Kali said.
“Not likely,” the woman said. “Jim and Cold Fish will run him all over those hills, while we have a little chat and get what we want.”
“I know what I want,” the bleeding man said, eyeing Kali up and down as he scowled.
“You can have her when we’re done talking.” The woman snickered. “She’s got to be alive when we turn her in, but there’s all kinds of levels of alive.”
A rifle cracked in the distance. Kali grimaced. If that was Cedar, he was nowhere nearby. If that was someone shooting at Cedar…well, he was still nowhere nearby.
Kali lifted her chin. No matter. She did not need him. She had gotten herself out of irksome situations plenty of times.
She laid the old Winchester down and lifted her hands. Inside her pockets, the smoke nuts bumped against her thighs. They would do her no good, however, until her foes drew closer.
“What do you want?” Kali said. “I’m trying to win a race. It’s rather inconsiderate of you to interrupt.”
The woman strolled off the bank and onto the ice, though the two men remained near the trees, covering her. She wore a wool cap with a bandana snugged over her nose, leaving little but brown eyes and freckles for identification. “Yes, I’m surprised your machine doesn’t go faster. Isn’t it powered by flash gold?”
“Flash what?” Kali blinked innocently.
The woman pinned her with a knowing glare.
“The sled uses coal or, in a pinch, wood. See for yourself.” Conscious of the weapons pointed her direction, Kali moved slowly as she opened the firebox door.
The woman drew close enough to peer inside, though not so close Kali could thump her in the back of the head with the door. Just as well. With the rifles pointed her direction, that would not be wise.
“If you want to win the race,” the woman said, “why wouldn’t you use flash gold? All that power in so small a concentration-surely you’d fly down the trail. And they say an engineer can embed commands in it. An ounce is worth a fortune.”
“If flash gold exists, I’ve never seen it,” Kali said.
“That’s not what I’ve heard.” The woman picked up Kali’s discarded rifle, took a couple steps back, and leaned it against the sled.
“Oh?” Kali kept her hands by her side, near her pockets, though there was little point in tossing the smoke device with the two men out of range.
“Thanks to your chatty lover, you’ve come to the attention of Soapy Smith and the Scar of Skagway.”
Kali closed her eyes. That explained much. She had feared Sebastian, out of spite, would blab her secrets to some bartender on his way back to San Francisco; she hadn’t counted on him going to the most notorious gangsters in the West.
“Up until a couple years ago, the world thought your father died in the Civil War,” the woman said. “He did a good job of hiding up here. When his existence was ferreted out, he was already dead. Nobody knew about you. Until now. Soapy wants you brought in for questioning. The Scar, he just wants the recipe for flash gold, whether you’re alive to explain it or not. And my boss would like a sample before we turn you in. She’ll reward me handsomely if I bring it to her.”
“It was my father’s project,” Kali said, seeing no point in continuing to deny the existence of flash gold when this woman knew so much about her. “I lived with the Han until I was ten, and Old Ezekiel barely acknowledged my presence when I was forced to come live with him. I was on my own. He was busy with his projects. He never shared anything with me.”
The woman yawned. “Tragic story, I’m certain. I’m also certain I don’t care. You’ll march us back to your tinkery in town, and show us to any secret stashes you might have. If we don’t find anything useful… Well, we will. One way or another.” She nodded toward the axeman. The bandana hid her lips, but creases at the corners of her dark eyes signaled a smile.
“I’d be happy to show you around,” Kali said, thinking of the various booby traps she had around the shop, “afterthe race. Why don’t we meet in town?”
“With all the people hunting you? I’ll not have you out wandering around where someone else can lay a claim.” The woman gestured for her men to come closer. “Time for a hike back to town.”
“I’m not leaving my sled,” Kali said.
“Yes, you are.” The woman nodded toward the bleeding man. “Big Rock, you want to convince her?”
“You people certainly have colorful names.” Kali backed up until she bumped against the furnace door. She slipped a hand into her pocket.
“You’re the one what’s going to be colorful soon,” Rock said. “All blue and black and bumpy.” He chuckled at his own wit as he approached.
The third man stood back, keeping a rifle trained on Kali. It was not an ideal chance, but she might not get a better one. And she had no desire to be made colorful.
Rock reached for her. Kali yanked a sphere out of her pocket, twisted it, and threw it on the ground. Smoke spewed out, and ticks sounded-a countdown timer.
“What the Sam Hill?”
Kali used the distraction to grab her rifle and lunge around the sled.
“It’s just smoke,” the woman growled. “Grab her. Don’t-”
The countdown finished with a hollow clank.
Kali was charging away from the sled, slipping and sliding on the icy patches beneath the snow, and did not see the smoke nut in action. She had designed it, though, and knew its operation well. The spring-loaded cache was shooting out metal needles excellent at piercing layers of clothing and gouging holes in tender flesh, especially flesh located waist level and lower.
She reached the snowy bank without any rifles firing behind her and scrambled up the slope into the trees. Climbing the hill was no easy feat. Her snowshoes were on the sled, and her boots sank into deep powder with each floundering step. Unfortunately, it would be impossible to hide her tracks. Though the idea of killing made her stomach churn, she would have to find a good spot and pick them off. Otherwise, they would keep hunting her. And there was the matter of her sled. She was not leaving it there for them to mess with.
Kali spotted a thick copse and squeezed into it. Anyone following her tracks would have no trouble finding her, but at least she could use the trees for cover. She wriggled deeper. Snow dumped from the branches, pattering onto her head. An icy clump slithered past her scarf and invaded her shirt. She grunted and worked it out. That unpleasantness summed up the day so far.
She paused in the middle of rearranging her clothing. Her shoulder blades itched, as if someone’s eyes were upon her. Kali peered through the brush behind her. Nothing stirred.
Shouts came from the river below. It sounded like the pursuers had not started after her yet. Then what-
Something touched her arm.
Kali jumped. Cedar. He squeezed in beside her.
She cursed in her mother’s tongue, a chain of expletives that would have embarrassed most men in the tribe. She had not heard anyone crunching through the snow. It was as if he was a ghost, appearing from nowhere.
“I took care of the other two.” Cedar put his back to a tree and lowered a branch so he could watch the river.
“Took care of?” Kali asked. “That lady down there was sure they were taking care of you.”
In the tight space, she could smell the scent of gunpowder clinging to him. He slid a collapsible spyglass from a pocket and studied the river.
“What is that thing you threw at them?” he asked.
“I call them smoke nuts.”
“Because they make smoke and…?”
“The needles they expel tend to land about, er, nut-high.”
Cedar’s eyes widened. “Ouch.”
A gust of wind rattled the branches. Kali had started sweating during her traipse up the hillside, but her skin was cooling now. She flexed her muscles and bounced on her toes. “I imagine they’re down there picking things out of…things.”
“Good.” Cedar lowered the spyglass. “You specialize in making weapons?”
“Not weapons. Security devices.”
“The mechanical dogs?”
She nodded. “I made those.”
His scarf hid most of his face, but she thought he sounded intrigued. Maybe even pleased. That notion warmed her more than bouncing in place. She started to smile, but caught herself. She knew nothing about him, and she knew better than to be flattered by some man’s attention by now. Whatever he wanted, it surely had little to do with her ability to make silly devices.
“Do you have any more of those…nut crackers?” Cedar asked.
“Smoke nuts.” Kali withdrew another from her pocket and handed it to him. She demonstrated how to arm it.
“How do you make them?”
She blinked. “You want to know? I mean…most people don’t….” She snapped her mouth shut. No need to tell him people usually ignored her when she talked about her inventions. Or that they shooed her away, afraid her witchy ways would bring bad luck.
“Yes. I have an interest in weapons. I-” He lifted the spyglass abruptly. “The two men are coming.”
Kali shifted until she could see through the branches. Rock and his male comrade were tramping up the hill with snowshoes on. The men hunkered low, moving from tree to tree as quickly as the terrain allowed.
She rested her rifle on a branch and pressed her cheek against the stock. For a heartbeat, she had someone’s head in her sights, but she hesitated to fire, and he slipped behind a spruce. For all that she spoke of security and defense, she had never tried to kill anyone. She had only used the rifle on hunting trips. The shot she fired at Rock had been nothing but a defensive instinct.
“Be ready,” Cedar whispered.
Branches shivered, and Rock left cover, angling for a snow-covered boulder. The second fellow tramped back downhill and moved laterally through a small gully that hid him from view. They were angling to surround her. They must not know her exact location-or that she could see them. Cedar had probably slipped in without attracting their notice either.
Rock was not fully hidden by the boulder, not from her position. His side poked out. Kali picked a target that should not be life-threatening if his comrades cared enough to tend to him. She let out a breath and squeezed the trigger. The man howled, clutching his butt, and staggered away from the boulder. That ought to take the fight out of him. She lowered her weapon.
The man seemed to realize his mistake and lunged back toward cover. Too late. Cedar’s rifle cracked. His bullet took the man in the neck. He pitched sideways and lay still, blood spattering the snow around him.
Kali stared at Cedar. “He wasn’t going to trouble us again.”
“They’re criminals.” He watched the gully without glancing her direction. “Bandits who work for gangsters and crime lords. They’ve killed before and would do so again. The authorities would issue them the same fate.”
Maybe so, but a warning twanged in the back of her mind.
“How do you know who they are?” she asked. More importantly, did he know what had brought them out here after her? Did he know about the flash gold? Maybe he had questioned the other two. They could have revealed everything to him. Or maybe he had known before he signed on with her. Maybe the only reason he was here was because-
“Look out!” Cedar pushed her out of the copse.
A fist-sized black oval with wood fins sailed through the trees. It bounced off a branch and landed in the copse behind her. Curious, Kali craned her neck, trying to get a look.
“Go, go,” Cedar barked. He shoved her again, then crashed into her from behind, bearing her to the ground.
The fall did not hurt, but it startled her. Cold snow scraped her cheek. Kali tried to push up, but Cedar pressed her face down.
“What are you-”
An explosion roared, hammering her eardrums. Wood splintered and snapped. Branches and needles pelted the snow around them.
“What wasthat?” she asked when Cedar rolled off her.
“Grenade.” He patted the snow. “Tarnation, where’s my gun?”
Her ears rang, and she barely heard him. A rifle fired, the sound puny compared to the previous blast, but a bullet burrowed into the snow inches from her face, reminding her how deadly the threat was.
Kali rolled to her back. She had retained the grip on her rifle, and she lifted it, searching for the gunman.
Cedar, sword in hand, plowed down the hillside, churning snow as he high-stepped through the powder. The man in the gully popped up, rifle pointing toward Kali, but he shifted it toward Cedar.
Not able to target him from her back, she lunged to her knees. She feared she would be too slow to help Cedar, but somehow he anticipated the gunman’s shot. He hurled himself into a roll, and the bullet flew harmlessly high.
Kali fired, aiming for the man’s shoulder. She clipped him, but he did not go down. He howled in pain-or maybe anger-and turned his rifle on her. He pumped the lever, but she fired again first. Once, then again. Both shots took him in the chest.
Eyes bulging wide, he stared in disbelief. His rifle fell to the snow, and he slumped out of view behind the gully wall.
Dead. By her hand.
Kali propped herself on her rifle for support and closed her eyes, chin drooped to her chest. It was not the first time she had wounded someone, but it was the first time she had killed. Self-defense or not, it did not sit well in her gut. As if becoming a killer added some measure of truth to the imprecations the townsfolk sent her way. Evil witch, they whispered. Harbinger of death and misfortune.
Snow crunched as Cedar approached. He had sheathed his sword and located his rifle. “How do you fire so quickly?”
Her surprised “Huh?” frosted the air before her eyes.
“Those rapid-fire shots. It almost sounded like a Gatling Gun.” His gaze fell to the lever of her Winchester. “How did you chamber the rounds so quickly?”
“You’re worried about how my gun works when we just killed a pile of men? Are weapons the only thing you care about? What’s wrong with you?”
His eyebrows rose at her outburst. Maybe it was not wise to berate such a proficient warrior.
His response was mild though: “Much, I’m told.”
Kali eyed the desecrated copse. The grenade had mauled the evergreens, leaving one knocked over and several with broken or missing branches. Her first feeling was one of indignation-the Mounties were supposed to be limiting firearms in the Dominion of Canada-but her second feeling involved inquisitiveness. She was tempted to see if anything remained of the grenade so she could take it with her to examine later. She caught herself before moving more than a step that direction. If her thoughts could shift so quickly from killing to tinkering, perhaps she was no better than Cedar.
He was watching her, though not, it seemed, with judging eyes. He simply waited for an answer to his question.
“I modified it to be self-loading.” Kali lifted the rifle.
“Do you do custom work for people?”
“Of course. That’s how I scrape together enough money to buy bacon and flour. It’s also, I suspect, the main reason nobody’s tried seriously to drive me out of town. I’m useful.”
Cedar nodded. “I’d be interested in some of those smoke nuts.”
“I thought you had no money,” Kali said, thinking she might catch him in a lie.
He spoke without hesitation. “We’ll win, and then I’ll have one hundred dollars.”
“Not if we have more delays like this.”
Cedar squinted at something below. “There’s a woman, too, isn’t there?”
Kali winced. She had forgotten. “Yes.”
They picked a route back down the river, following the trail of already-broken snow. Wind gusted through the valley, and powder skidded sideways. With the exertion past, Kali shivered as sweat-dampened skin cooled. She clawed at the moisture that had frozen in her eyelashes and under her nose.
The woman was nowhere in sight. Cedar gestured, and they split up to see if she was hiding behind the sled. They closed, rifles raised, but nobody hunkered there. Blood dotted the ice, thanks to her smoke nut, but not enough to imply a mortal wound.
Cedar followed a set of tracks toward the far shoreline.
Kali checked the sled for damage. Dents from bullets pockmarked the boiler and smokestack, but none had ruptured a crucial part. Kali patted the side of the sled, glad she had not, in her quest to achieve lightness, skimped too much on the boiler design. If they returned to the trail immediately, they might have a chance at catching up.
She shoveled coal into the firebox. Cedar trotted out of the trees and rejoined her on the ice.
“The woman went over the hill.” He pointed. “Back the way they came. I could catch her, but I noticed you preparing to leave.”
Kali lifted the brake, and the sled rumbled forward, runners scraping on ice. “The race is more important than killing people, however irritating they’ve proven themselves by trying to kill us. If I don’t win that prize money, I’ll be stuck in Moose Hollow forever.” Or until someone succeeded in dragging her off to some crime lord for torture. More than ever, she needed to get out of town.
“In other words,” Cedar said, jogging beside the sled, “you’d leave me if I went after her.”
“I’d toss your bag of supplies out so you could make it back to town.”
Kali twitched a shoulder. “I’m sure you can take care of yourself. Besides, she ran away. Unless she’s got an airship waiting for her, we won’t likely see her again before we get back to town.” She gave him a sidelong look. “You didn’t have some specific reason for wanting to capture or kill her, did you?”
“I doubt she’s anybody important. It’s simply unwise to leave enemies around to take a shot at you another day.”
As they chugged down the frozen river, Kali continued to watch him out of the corner of her eye. Maybe her previous experiences were making her too suspicious. He had been nothing but helpful so far, and he had not even demanded to know why those bandits attacked her. Whatever his motivations, he was riskinghislife onherquest.
“Thanks for your help with those bandits,” Kali said. “You’re not as much of an unwelcome burden as I thought you’d be.”
“That’s…a compliment?” A mischievous glint entered his eyes.
“You’re a hard woman to win over.”
“I’m not looking to be won over,” she said. The last time that happened, she ended up losing. Big time.
Kali clammed up. She did not want him seeing. She did not want anybody seeing.
When Kali designed the tent, she had not been thinking of sharing it with anyone, especially not a six-foot-something man with broad shoulders and feet the size of snowshoes. She shifted, trying to figure out how she was going to find enough space in the dug-out hollow to lie down. For the third time, she adjusted her blanket, grimacing at a damp corner. Before leaving, she had worried about being too cold after dark; apparently, she should have worried that keeping the furnace running all night would melt nearby snow. Her next tent would be freestanding, not a lean-to designed to use the sled’s metal frame for support.
A dog yipped outside. Deep in the forest, a wolf howled in response. Low voices spoke nearby. Kali and Cedar had caught up with several sled teams after dark, and they were camping on a popular beach.
She shifted again, still looking for a comfortable spot. Her shoulder clunked against the sled, sending a jolt of pain through her. She spewed Han curse words.
“Don’t say anything,” she told Cedar, who had been watching her with a bland expression that did not quite mask his amusement.
“What would I say?” He lay parallel to the sled, tucked into some fancy all-in-one bed-blanket-pillow he called a Euklisia Rug.
“Sorry for being so big?”
“My size is usually an advantage.”
“You must not share tents very often,” she muttered.
Kali adjusted her position again, almost knocking their single lantern on the ground. She caught it with a lunge before kerosene could spill. Snow found its way onto her blanket. She sighed, scooping it off.
Finally, she settled on a spot, her back against the sled, knees scrunched to her chin. Though not comfortable, she did not know Cedar well enough that she wanted any of her body parts touching his body parts. They were both fully clothed, but she had known too many men who took such things as an invitation. Men who would ignore her in town, where there were witnesses ready to tease, got squirrelly notions out on the trail. And Cedar was watching her now, a thoughtful expression on his face.
“Could you make your modifications to the loading mechanism on the 1873 work on the 1890?” he asked.
Kali blinked. All that thoughtful gazing, and he’d only been thinking about her ability to tinker with weapons? A stab of disappointment went through her. She squashed it. She didn’twanthim thinking of anything else.
“Maybe,” she said. “May I see it? I haven’t taken apart one of the slide-action ones before.”
The rifle lay beside him on the blanket. He nudged it her direction.
She started out examining the firing and loading mechanisms, but ended up simply sliding a wistful hand along the barrel and running a finger over the inlays. Expert engraving decorated the frame on both sides. She held it to the lamplight. A floral scroll ran around the outside while a circle in the middle framed a tree. She squinted. A cedar tree? She supposed that made sense, though… “Who’s MK?” she asked, tapping initials. Given the value of the weapon, she wondered if he had taken it-through force, gambling, or theft-from someone else. Though his clothing and gear were high quality as well, and it all fit him.
“You don’t think my momma named me Cedar, do you?” he asked.
“Whatdidyour momma name you?” Maybe if she could get him to answer a simple secret, he would share others. Such as why someone who did not appear to need money was here working for her, possibly for nothing.
“The loading mechanism,” Cedar said. “What do you think?”
Kali sighed. So much for sharing secrets.
She returned the rifle to him. “I’m not sure I’d want to risk damaging it. This is one of the prettiest Winchesters I’ve seen.”
“Functionality is more important than looks.”
“That’s not what the boys at Nelly’s say.”
His lip twitched. “There’s a difference between spending a single encounter with a weapon and spending a lifetime.”
Kali thought about asking him if he was the sort who preferred lifetimes to single encounters, but it was unlikely anyone who traveled from place to place with nothing more than what was on his back spent more than a few nights with any one person. Besides, it should not matter to her either way.
“…damn witch wagon,” a raised voice came from the nearest camp. “That girl thinks she’s tall hog at the trough, but she’ll learn better.”
Someone shushed the speaker. As always, Kali pretended not to hear. Or care.
“Best get some sleep.” She turned out the lamp. “We’ll need to leave early and get up during the night to add fuel to the fire. If the boiler water freezes, our trip is over.”
“The witch accusation,” Cedar said, “is because…some of your inventions are too good to be explained by science?”
Kali’s breath caught in her throat. The mechanical guard dogs. He had realized a coal-powered steam engine could not explain their locomotion.
She was glad the dark hid the stricken expression that must be stamped on her face. “I don’t know any magic, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“But your father did.”
Her heart thumped against her ribs. She strove for a casualness to her tone she did not feel. “My father worked with nature’s ores and elements. That’s all.” She drew her legs closer to her chest-farther from him. “And I’m feeling a mite uncomfortable with you knowing things about me that I didn’t tell you.”
“If those bounty hunters were after what I think, I reckon a lot of people know things about you that you didn’t tell.”
“If that’s supposed to alleviate my uncomfortable state, it failed.”
“Better for your future safety if you don’t face the world too comfortably.”
Now she wished she had not cut off the lamp, so she could read his face. She licked her lips. Her mouth was dry. “That sounds like a threat, Mister Cedar.”
“If you believed I was a threat to you, you wouldn’t be sharing a tent with me.”
“I’m not sure what I believe about you, but I certainly don’t trust you.”
A long moment passed before he replied. “You’re right not to trust easily when it comes to folks you don’t share blood with. It’s not wise.”
“No. It isn’t.” Kali thought of Sebastian. If she had not been so quick to trust him, she would not have people hunting her now.
Cedar’s voice dropped so low she barely heard his next words: “And even those you share blood with…will disappoint you sometimes.”
Kali leaned closer to him. It was the first time he had hinted of his past. “Did some kin of yours betray you?”
A soft, rueful chuckle whispered through the dark tent. “Only by not being perfect.”
“Who was it? Did they…get you in trouble? Or get themselves into trouble?”
“Hegot himself killed,” Cedar said, the humor gone from his tone.
“Oh, sorry. Was it-”
“The end of the conversation? Yes.”
Kali scowled, feeling like someone had offered her a lamp on a dark night, then yanked it away as she reached for it. She crossed her arms over her chest. It did not matter. What did she care about his past anyway?
A soft crunch sounded outside.
“Sh,” Cedar whispered.
Kali sensed rather than heard him rise to a crouch. She groped in the darkness and cracked her knuckles against metal before finding her rifle. She patted around, trying to find the smoke nut case, but the sound of muffled voices made her pause.
“…do to it?” a man asked.
“Let the water out of the boiler?” another said.
Kali’s hand tightened around the rifle. The bastards meant to sabotage her. Before wiser thoughts could enter her mind, she shoved the tent flap aside and strode into the night.
Cold air blasted her bare cheeks and hands, and seared her lungs. Foolish to run outside without more clothing on, but she did not intend for this to take long.
She expected a pair of men she could scare off by confronting them. But six figures stood, silhouetted by the night sky. Swaddled in furs and coats, they were impossible to identify, though there was no mystery about the long rifles held in their hands.
“I’ll take kindly to you leaving my sled alone, gentlemen.” Kali glanced over her shoulder, hoping Cedar had followed her out.
No one stood behind her.
“Don’t think so, ma’am,” one said. The voice sounded familiar, but he spoke in a low, gruff tone, as if to disguise it.
“Witch,” someone in the back muttered.
“Your monstrosity wasn’t supposed to make it this far,” the first speaker, probably the ringleader, said. “We’re not letting some machine win the money. It should be a man’s sweat and skill what earns that prize.”
She stamped her feet and flexed her fingers on the rifle. Already they were growing numb. “Isn’t it your dogs sweating and doing all the work?”
“Dogs with a lot of time gone into training them. And it’s a man’s skill maneuvering the team. No machine can replace a good musher.”
While he spoke, two men moved away from the group. They angled toward her sled. She raised her rifle, and though she did not point it at them, she found the trigger and rested her fingertip on it.
“Stop.” Kali put all the steel she could muster into her voice, hoping they would not call her bluff.
For all that she loved her sled, she did not think she could shoot a man to defend metal. And even if she could, the others would open fire on her as soon as she tried. They might not normally shoot a woman, but if they thought her a-
“Stand back, witch,” the leader said.
Kali slid sideways to block the sled. “No.”
“What do we do, boss?” one of the closest two said. “I don’t want to hurt a girl.”
“Shove her out of the way, and tear up that-” The leader stiffened.
A dark shadow loomed behind him. Night cloaked its features, but Kali smiled, recognizing the height.
“Drop your weapons,” Cedar said, voice so soft and dangerous she almost obeyed herself.
Chinks sounded as two mendidobey, and their rifles hit the ice.
The leader growled. “Who’s asking?” but his voice quavered.
“The man with a sword at your back. Drop your rifle and tell your cronies to do the same. And I’m notasking.”
“You might want to take his advice,” Kali said. “He killed four bandits this afternoon. He’s very good.”
“There’s just one of you and six of us,” the leader said.
“Two of us,” Cedar said. “You know about the special modifications she’s made to her Winchester?”
Nobody answered. Kali lifted her chin and puffed out her chest, trying to appear imposing.
A frosty breeze buffeted her cheeks and needled her numb fingers. She wondered how long she could hold the imposing stance without running inside to wrap her arms around the boiler.
“You know you’re sticking up for a witch?” the leader finally asked. “Her mother was a deranged medicine woman who shot herself. Her father was a crazy-”
“Your weapons.” Cedar kicked the leader’s legs out from beneath him and stepped on the man’s back, sword tip pressed into his neck. One-handed, he aimed his rifle at someone who presumed to turn toward him. “I won’t ask again.”
The leader cursed under his breath, but could do little while pressed flat against the ice. He opened his fingers, and his rifle dropped into the snow. More weapons followed.
Kali let out a relieved breath.
Cedar stepped back. “Leave.”
The leader started to rise and reach for his rifle. Cedar’s boot came down on his wrist. “We’ll keep your weapons.”
“What? There are wolves and bandits out here. You can’t-”
The other men stirred, trading muttered comments. Kali grimaced. That might be the straw that-
The two men near her lunged for their dropped rifles. She jumped at the closest and slammed the butt of her Winchester against his head. He staggered back, hands empty, but the second man wrapped his fingers around his rifle. He lifted it her direction.
She skittered back, but the sled blocked an escape. A shot rang out. She ducked, sure she was too late, that a bullet would slam into her chest. Instead her attacker’s rifle flew from his grip. He screamed and clutched his hand.
Kali did not hear the clack of Cedar loading a new round, not with the man hollering, but the expelled shell glinted, reflecting moonlight, before it hit the snow. His sword quivered where he had thrust it downward, pinning the leader to the ground.
“Shit.” The man she had clubbed grabbed his wounded comrade. “Come on, Ralph.”
The pinned man squirmed too vigorously for the sword to have pierced anything vital, but his curses promised he did not appreciate his helplessness.
Cedar yawned and pulled his blade free. The leader rolled away-far away. He made no move toward his rifle. He and the others scurried away, heading into the trees instead of toward the camps on the beach. Maybe they did not want Cedar being able to identify them the next day. Somehow, Kali doubted he would have a problem.
He joined her by the sled. Her teeth were chattering, but she refused to go into the tent until the last man disappeared from view.
“Thanks,” she said. It sounded inane, too small a modicum of gratitude for all the help he had given her, but she still had too many questions about him to offer him more.
“So,” Cedar said, tone light. “You think I’m ‘very good,’ eh?”
“I just wanted those dunderheads to believe they were swimming in water too deep.”
“Hm, then youdon’tthink I’m very good?”
“My ego is in danger of wilting under your unrelenting lack of appreciation.”
“This is the Yukon. Women here are hard to impress.”
“I’ve heard gold usually does the job.”
“You haven’t offered me any gold,” Kali said.
“Somehow I suspect you’d prefer a tool set.”
True, but gold would get her out of this frozen hell sooner. “Make the tools gold-plated, and I might swoon.”
He chuckled. The men had disappeared, and Kali could barely feel her fingers. Time to go inside.
She lifted the tent flap, but paused when something blotted out the moonlight. She expected a cloud, but no. The dark silhouette of an airship rode across the sky, its great hull and oblong balloon creating distinctive shapes against the stars.
Kali’s gut twisted. Airships were almost as rare as palm trees up here, and she would normally love to see one, but she doubted that crew had come to offer her a tour. At least not the type of tour where one got off at the end.
“Pirates,” Cedar said.
He drew her into the shadow of the sled as the ship sailed overhead. Lanterns burned on the bow and deck, revealing several men peering over the side with spyglasses. Kali barely breathed as they passed. Though the shadows might hide her and Cedar, her sled was unmistakable.
The airship disappeared behind the hills. She and Cedar stood in silence for several moments, breaths frosting the air, but the vessel did not return. The soft chattering of her teeth must have drawn Cedar’s attention for he gazed down at her, then gave her a gentle push toward the tent.
“They probably won’t bother us with so many others around,” he said.
Kali shoved aside the flap and ducked inside. “Others that would be happy to help them on their quest if it meant getting rid of me.”
“Perhaps.” Cedar followed her. “But the pirates don’t know that.”
Kali laid on her side in the dark. She pulled her knees to her chest and shivered, as much from the situation as the cold.
The insults from the superstitious townsfolk always gouged her soul, but she had grown accustomed to them. Being stalked by bounty hunters and airship pirates? That was new and depressing. If she won the race, she might escape the town, but would gangsters continue to send minions after her? How far would they follow her? Across borders? Over oceans?
She closed her eyes. She could not hate her father for inventing flash gold, but she did hate him sometimes for leaving her alone. Moisture pricked her eyes. She blinked rapidly. She had not cried since her mother died, and she would not start now.
Clothing rustled behind her as Cedar settled down. The fact that she had company-a witness-was another reason to hold herself together.
A hand rested on her arm. “You all right?”
“Fine,” Kali said, torn between being annoyed that she appeared to need comfort and appreciating that someone was bothering to give it.
He draped a blanket over her and laid behind her, his back to hers. The warmth was…not unwelcome.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“This doesn’t mean I trust you.”
She smiled faintly and closed her eyes.
The cold afternoon sun offered little warmth, but Kali did not care. They had reached the top of the ridge first. Three sleds trundled up the switchbacks below, dogs huffing and straining. For her steam engine, the incline had been no trouble.
She patted the side of the boiler. “Good girl.”
“Does it perform better if you speak to it?” Cedar lowered a spyglass, a spyglass that had been turned not toward the mushers behind them but toward the sky ahead.
“You’re not teasing me, are you?” Kali arched an eyebrow. “Because I found you cuddled up with your rifle this morning.”
“Yes, but I wasn’t speaking to it.”
“Uh huh.” Kali eased a lever forward, and the sled chugged into motion.
They followed a broken-in trail leading down a slope toward a long, narrow lake. The path weaved through evergreens and around hills, terrain that could hide an army. Cedar checked the spyglass often, though they had not glimpsed the airship, or anyone except other mushers, since the night before.
“See anything?” Kali asked for the third or fourth time.
Considering how often Cedar had the spyglass to his eye, she wondered how he kept from tripping over a low branch or stumbling into a snow drift. More than the average share of dexterity, she supposed. He would be a good man to have around, especially if her life continued along this new path, which included far too many people attacking her for her tastes. But what reason did he have to stick around? Hell, she still did not know why he was in the race with her.
“Nothing yet.” Cedar lowered the spyglass.
“It’d be convenient if anyone else who wants to harass me would wait until after the race.” The smokestack brushed the bottom of a branch, knocking snow onto Kali. She brushed it off and glowered at her surroundings. Even nature was conspiring against her.
“It would be smarter for your foes to kidnap you out here rather than in town, where you’ve a measure of protection from the security you’ve built into your workshop.”
Kali considered him out of the corner of her eye. “Should I be alarmed that you’ve been thinking that over?”
Cedar’s gaze had turned skyward. “Just be ready for more trouble.”
They neared the shoreline of the long lake. Snow and ice, glinting like a thousand candles beneath the sun, coated every inch of the surface. Kali stopped the sled, so she could pull tinted goggles out of her gear.
“We’re not going across the ice, are we?” Cedar asked.
The lake stretched a couple miles to the north and south, but the trail led straight across, where less than a mile separated the shorelines.
“Fastest route,” Kali said. “It’ll be thick enough to support us.” She hoped.
The river had been no problem, but the ice might not be as dense in the center of the lake. Numerous scrapes in the snow from sled runners proved many dog teams had traveled this way, but her steam sled had more mass.
“That’s not my concern.” Cedar stretched a hand toward the bare, open expanse. “There’s no cover. If we are attacked, we’ll be vulnerable.”
Kali checked behind them. The first dog sled team had reached the top of the ridge. “This is the race-approved route. If we go around, we’ll be breaking our own trail and dodging trees and shrubs all the way. It’ll add at least an hour, probably more.”
“The race money will do you no good if you’re captured. Or killed.”
“An odd attitude from someone whose payday hinges on our victory.”
Cedar sighed. “Fine. Go.”
They proceeded onto the ice. Kali almost wished he had not brought the threat up, for she spent the first couple of minutes with her nose to the sky, trying to watch the cloudless expanse in every direction. A jolt and an angry grind brought her attention back to the trail. She had run over the end of a log hidden in the snow and ice.
She decided to leave the sky-watching to Cedar. If she tipped the sled on the slick surface, righting it would prove a tremendous chore, and the fire in the furnace would probably go out.
Ice cracked and groaned as they neared the center of the lake. Nothing out of the ordinary, Kali told herself. It would be a month or more before anything thawed around these parts. In her mind, she knew that, but she could not keep from feeling nervous. They were now an equal distance from both shorelines, so there was no quick route to escape if something happened.
Kali nudged the lever forward a little more, increasing speed. Black smoke billowed from the stack.
“There they are,” Cedar said.
He spoke so calmly, she thought he meant something innocuous, but, when he pointed with his rifle, she spotted the “they” of which he spoke. Her stomach sank.
The airship glided over the trees at the southern end of the long lake, and its oblong shadow spilled onto the ice. By daylight, the massive balloon holding it aloft was just as dark as it had been by night. Only a great white cougar skull painted on one side interrupted the blackness of the material. The wooden hull, too, bore black paint, giving the ship a nefarious bent.
Despite the threat the craft represented, Kali found herself longing for the chance to inspect it from the inside. She had read about airships, and pored over schematics, but she had never been on one. Oh, to see its engines….
She shook her head and told herself to concentrate.
There was no question about the ship’s course: it veered toward them, a route that would allow it to cut them off.
Kali made a guess as to its speed and hers. “It’ll intercept us two hundred meters before we reach the trees.”
“While I appreciate the math that must have gone into that estimate,” Cedar said, “it’ll be in firing range well before then.”
She nudged the lever again, pushing the sled to full speed. It would not be fast enough.
As the airship closed, the crew scurrying about on the deck-readying the weapons for battle-came into view. Cannons and harpoon launchers glinted, reflecting the sun’s rays.
A cannon boomed. The black, round projectile lofted from the bow of the ship and smashed into the frozen lake a dozen yards away. It crashed through, hurling water and ice into the air. Shards pelted the sled, and Kali lifted a hand to protect her face.
“Range-finding shot,” Cedar said, voice calm, as he continued to jog alongside the sled.
“The commentary is great, but a plan would be better,” Kali said. “Do you want to come up with something brilliant or should I?”
“We can’t do anything to harm it from down here. We can just hope to dodge fire long enough to reach shore and maybe find protection from the aerial assault. Though those branches don’t offer much cover this time of year. And there are dozens of people up there, so they could just come down and hunt us on foot.”
“I see,” she said. “Your vote is formeto come up with something brilliant.”
The firing of another cannon drowned out his snort, but she read his expression easily enough. She tweaked her controls to vent more smoke from the stack, hoping it would obscure the sled’s exact position from above.
“Maybe we can tear up the balloon somehow,” Kali said. “That would steal their gas and force them to land.”
“With what? We could fire a thousand bullets into a balloon that size before it made a difference.”
Kali grumbled, knowing he was right. “Letting out the air would be too slow. You’re right. Well, not air. Gas. Hydrogen. That’s what they usually use to achieve lift, right? Because it’s lighter than air?”
Cedar gave her a blank stare.
“Never mind. I’m getting an idea. Come drive. Let me see if I can rustle up something.”
Despite his pessimism thus far, Cedar took the steering controls without comment. Kali climbed past the steam engine and clambered onto the cargo area up front. She dug into their supplies. Her knuckles brushed a lumpy bag. The sugar. Yes, that would help. She nodded to herself as her idea solidified.
More cannons boomed. The sled lurched, nearly flinging Kali from her perch. She caught a strap in time to keep from falling off.
“What’re you doing?” she yelled.
A cannonball slammed into the ice a yard to the right.
“Zigzagging our path so we’ll be harder to target,” Cedar said.
“Warn a girl next time, will you?” She’d make a damned easy target if she fell off and got herself run over.
The sled lurched again.
More prepared, Kali clung to the packs and wedged her boot into the gap between the smokestack and the engine casing. She dug into the supplies again, this time pulling out her jar of kerosene.
“If my idea works, we won’t have fuel for a lamp tonight,” she announced as she poured sugar into the jar to thicken the liquid. The wobbling and veering sled made it hard to keep her hand steady, and kerosene sloshed over the edge more than once. Wind whipped hair into her eyes, adding to the challenge.
“What idea?” Cedar called. “What’re you making?”
The sled swerved left, and she almost lost the jar. A cannonball slammed into the ice where they would have been if Cedar had not turned in time. She gulped and decided not to yell at him.
“I can’t dodge these indefinitely,” he added.
Kali tore the empty sugar sack into strips and dampened one with kerosene. She stoppered the jar, leaving her impromptu fuse dangling. The roar of cannons was much closer now, and the booms came more frequently. A ball pounded down ahead of them. A jagged fracture formed in the ice, quickly turning into a fissure dozens of meters long. Maybe longer.
“Stop!” Kali cried.
Cedar cursed, but figured out how to throw on the brakes. “We’re sitting ducks now. Unless we can go back.”
The airship blotted out the sun as it drew closer. For the moment, nobody was firing. Why bother? They could surely see the fissure blocking the path.
“No,” Kali said. “We’re surrendering.”
“They want me alive, I’m told.” She scrambled off the sled, skidding when she hit the ice, and thrust the jar into his hands. “Can you throw as accurately as you shoot?”
“Good. I’ll try to get them to come lower. When you think it’s time, light that and hurl it against the balloon. Uhm, you might need to shoot the jar right before it lands too. I’m not sure it’ll break on impact against a balloon.”
Cedar stared at the jar. “You want a lot from me.”
“You’re very good, remember?”
Kali left her weapons and walked away from the sled, away from the black smoke she hoped would hide Cedar’s movements. She spread her arms to show her hands were empty.
The airship hovered, the rumble of the engine audible even dozens of feet below. Numerous faces peered over the black rail at her. A dark-haired woman wearing a British admiral’s bicorne hat strolled into view, her hands clasped behind her back.
A female captain? That had to be rare, but, from the stolen hat and the way others watched her for cues, she must be in charge.
Behind Kali, Cedar muttered something to himself. She wondered if he recognized the woman.
The captain leaned against the side of a harpoon launcher, and Kali looked closely at the person manning the weapon for the first time. It was the female bandit who had ambushed the sled the day before, the one Kali had dismissed as unlikely to trouble them again. She snorted. That woman now had a harpoon aimed at her chest.
Kali resisted the urge to skitter back and take cover behind the sled. The female bandit would not do anything without an order from the captain. Probably.
“You folks looking for me?” Kali called.
“Reckon so,” the captain yelled over the thrum of the engines. “You’re Ezekiel McAlister’s kid, right?”
“What if I’m not? Would you feel bad for shooting at some innocent sled racer?”
“Nah. As you can see, the boys need target practice.”
“They were good enough to mess up the race route.” Kali considered the airship, wondering how she could convince the captain to lower it. Even if Cedar had an excellent throwing arm, the balloon was a hundred feet above the lake at the moment. “What do you want?”
“You. Care to make things easy on yourself? We can lower a rope, so you can climb up. Might even spare your partner cowering behind the sled there.”
Kali did not look behind her. She did not want to draw attention to Cedar. “I could make things that easy, but only if you agree to spare himandthe sled. It’s a prototype, and it’s worth a fortune.”
“Is it now?” The captain stroked her chin.
“I mean, it might be valuable to some people in the business,” Kali blurted, as if she knew she had said too much and wanted to cover her words. “No use for pirates. And it’d be a pain to tote out of here. Best to let my colleague finish up the race with it, and I’ll go peacefully with you.”
The captain had already turned her back to the rail. She waved a hand, and a coal-smeared man came into view. The engineer, Kali guessed. They had a quick conversation, which involved frequent gesturing at the sled and the airship.
The female bandit pointed Cedar’s direction, and Kali grimaced. Having someone who had seen him fight could ruin everything. But the captain merely waved for the bandit to pay attention to the harpoon launcher.
“New plan,” the captain said to Kali. “We’re taking the sled too.”
“What?” Kali yelled. “You don’t need to-it’s of no use to you. It’s-”
“Mine now.” The captain rested a hand on the harpoon launcher. “Shoot the man if he tries anything.”
“The sled is heavy,” Kali said, continuing to argue to keep their attention focused on her. “Are you sure you’ll be able to fly with so much extra weight?”
Nobody was paying attention to her. The ship drew lower and lower, then angled toward the sled. Men threw ropes with grappling hooks over the sides.
Kali crossed her fingers inside her gloves. The ship floated closer.
Just as she feared Cedar was waiting too long, the jar flew over her head, a flame dancing along its fuse.
“Look out!” someone shouted.
“No, it’s a-whatisthat?”
A rifle cracked behind her. The jar exploded against the balloon.
Flames burst to life. They licked the balloon walls, burning the kerosene concoction, but they did not pierce the material. The fire would die quickly without access to the hydrogen inside.
“Damn, damn.” Kali spun and ran for the sled. “Cedar, you need to-”
A foot in front of her, a harpoon slammed into the ice. She lunged to the side to avoid the quivering shaft, but slipped. She flailed, trying to catch her balance. The ice thwarted her, and she landed on her back. Hard. Air whooshed from her lungs, and the blow stunned her.
“Get her!” someone cried.
A rifle fired again. Certain someone was shooting at her, Kali buried her head beneath her arms.
An explosion ripped across the frozen lake. Wind blasted Kali’s hat from her head. The ensuing jumble of shouts and screams were too tangled to decipher.
Kali peeped between her arms.
Smoke choked the air, blocking out the sun. The airship was careening across the lake, flames streaking from the balloon’s side. It crashed into the ice and skidded a half mile before ramming into the shoreline.
A gloved hand descended into her vision. “This hydrogen you speak of… It seems it’s flammable.”
She accepted his hand. “Highly.”
“Smart lady.” Cedar surprised her by pulling her into a hug.
With the immediate threat gone, Kali’s legs grew rubbery, and she was glad for his support. “I still don’t trust you,” she felt compelled to add.
Cedar chuckled. “Perhaps not, but I’m beginning to trust you.”
The words surprised her, not only because he said them but because they made a lump form in her throat. She could not remember anyone ever saying that to her. Not trusting her voice, she decided not to respond. A hug was fine, but she certainly did not want him thinking his words affected her.
Sled runners rasped on the ice behind them.
Kali pulled away from Cedar. A team of dogs trotted past, angling their sled to skirt the fissure. The musher, an older man with a trapline above town, lifted a hand.
“Good show.” He smirked. “Hope it doesn’t delay you.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Kali called. “We’ll catch up.”
A second sled team was passing farther down. “Don’t bring that trouble back to town, McAlister!”
Kali gritted her teeth. “Let’s get going, Cedar.”
But Cedar was pulling his pack off the sled. He shouldered it, checked his sword, and reloaded his rifle.
“What’re you doing?” she asked. “You’re leaving?”
He pointed the rifle at the burning wreck. “I want to make sure nobody’s left to come after us on foot.”
“It’ll be dark before you make it there and back. I can’t wait for you. I have to press on. I have to-”
Cedar gripped her arm. “I know. I’ll catch up to you when you make camp.”
Kali watched for a moment as he jogged across the ice and snow. As capable as he was, she felt guilty about letting him go off alone. There had been a lot of pirates manning that ship. Many would be injured, and some might be dead, but there would be able-bodied men and women left too.
She yanked her gaze away and returned to the sled. Cedar knew what he was doing. She had to focus on the race. The last night was coming up, and she had expected to be ahead by this point. Larger and less maneuverable, her sled would be at a disadvantage weaving amongst the tightly spaced trees that dotted the remaining terrain. She had to make sure she regained the lead before nightfall. That was the only way she would be in position to fly into town at the head of the pack in the morning.
Kali lay in the lean-to, her back to the furnace. Darkness smothered the forest, and she had no lantern fuel left to light her lamp.
“Don’t need light,” she told herself. It was long past midnight, long past the time she should be sleeping.
But her ears strained, listening for footsteps crunching through the snow. The starlit trail ought to be easy to follow, even at night. Cedar should have caught up hours ago-if he hadn’t been hurt. Or worse.
Kali groaned and rubbed her face. Why was she worrying about him? She had only known him two days.
Two days in which he had saved her life numerous times. More, he had saved hersledfrom saboteurs. She probably shouldn’t value a piece of machinery more than her own hide, but, damn it, it made her grin just thinking of him sneaking up on those brutes from town.
That grin faded at the realization that dawn lurked only a couple hours away. She could not go back and search for him now. If she did, it was over. The race was lost. She had caught up to the other mushers but not gotten ahead before darkness fell, so she needed an early start in the morning. She needed to be well-rested. She definitely did not need to be lying awake, imagining Cedar buried in a snow drift with a bullet in his leg, trying to claw his way toward help, frostbite blackening his fingers and toes. Death on the horizon.
Kali groaned again, sat up, and grabbed her boots, her rifle, and a couple smoke nuts. “Fool. I’m a fool.”
She slipped outside, wincing as cold air enveloped her. She stoked the furnace and broke camp, not bothering to pack the tent. It might have been faster to leave everything and tramp back to the lake on foot, but, concerned for Cedar or not, she would not leave her sled in plain sight where it could tempt saboteurs.
A few dogs barked as she passed other teams bedded down alongside the trail, but she chugged through without pausing to acknowledge questioning grunts from sleepy mushers.
The first hint of dawn brightened the southern sky when she neared the lake. She tucked the sled into a hollow beside the trail, then, rifle in hand, padded onto the ice.
Even in the dim lighting, the airship wreckage was easy to see. Flames still burned in spots, lighting charred trees and casting an orange glow onto the ice.
Kali skirted the shoreline, clinging to the shadows as she headed toward the downed ship. She had not gone far when a dark form on the ice came into view. A person? A body? Cedar?
She slid a glove off so she could rest a finger on the trigger of her rifle. Frigid air chafed exposed skin. She eased forward. The form did not move. Queasiness stirred in her belly when she drew close enough to identify it: a charred body. He, or she, must have been thrown far in the crash.
A branch snapped in the woods.
Kali dropped to a knee and raised the rifle. The cold wooden stock chilled her cheek.
A shadow moved amongst the trees. Wolf.
She held her fire, not wanting to risk alerting anyone with a shot. Besides, grisly as the thought was, the wolf had a meal; it would not likely bother her.
Kali passed more bodies. She was glad darkness cloaked their faces, but she imagined their shocked expressions, their terrified eyes, nonetheless. Knowing she was responsible for their deaths did not sit well with her. Self-defense or not, she had caused a lot of carnage.
But not all of it. Her mouth fell open when she came to the next body. This one was missing a head.
Her first instinct was to look away, but curiosity kept her eyes riveted. How in tarnation had someone been thrown clear in a way that removed his head? And for that matter… She searched the ice all about her. Wherewasthe head?
Kali crouched for a closer look. Her stomach churned at the scent of blood, but she told herself it could be worse. The temperature had already frozen the corpse.
The head had been cleanly severed by something sharp. Her thoughts went to Cedar’s sword, but she dismissed the notion. He might kill someone, but he hardly seemed the sort of loony to run around hacking off people’s heads.
Kali left the decapitated pirate, continuing toward the wreckage. On the way, she passed two more corpses, these downed by more normal means: bullets.
She picked through scattered boards and cargo sprawled about the crash. She grew uneasy as she entered the ring of light around the ship. The flames made it easier for her to see, but they would also make it easier for others to seeher. Anyone hidden in the forest would have a clear view of her poking about. She stayed low, moving from broken tree to smashed crate to the shadows at the base of the ship.
Copious footprints crisscrossed the area, and, here and there, blood spotted the snow. She lifted a broken pocket watch on a chain, then laid it back down.
Kali was not sure what she expected to find; everyone around the ship was dead. If it was Cedar’s doing, he should have finished and returned to the sled. At the least, she would have met him on the trail. If someone else was responsible…she might turn a corner and find his body as well.
A soft thump sounded-something bumping against wood. Kali tensed. Someone, or something, was still in the airship.
It had pitched sideways when it skidded across the ice, and the decks would be too slanted to walk upon. If she could find a way on. The crumpled and charred remains of the balloon swaddled much of the craft. She rounded the bow and spotted a ragged hole in the hull. It might offer entry.
Kali crept to within a couple paces of it and paused, head tilted, ears straining. No voices murmured inside, and she had not heard another thump since the first. Shards of wood sprinkled the snow about the hole and footprints led to and from it.
She eased the last couple steps to peer inside. A bulky object hunkered on the threshold. In the predawn light, she struggled to make out details. She touched it and encountered damp canvas. Something lumpy in a sack. She found the opening and tugged it down, so the flames burning in a nearby tree would illuminate the contents.
A pair of lifeless human eyes stared up at her.
Kali screamed and dropped the sack of severed heads. She skittered back, heart in her throat, rifle clenched in both hands.
Footsteps pounded inside the ship, and she backed farther. Her outburst had been a mistake. Now they knew she was there.
A dark figured loomed in the hole.
She jerked her rifle up to shoot before it could.
At the last second, the name pierced her fear-clouded mind, and she kept from firing.
“It’s me.” Cedar stepped out, arms spread. One hand gripped his sword. “They’re all dead. It’s all right.”
“Allright?” Kali’s voice cracked. “What’re youdoing? Why are you-are you the one running around decapitating people? What the-whodoesthat?” Her heart was pounding her ribs like the pistons in a steam engine.
“Easy,” Cedar said as if he were soothing a beast. “I can explain.”
“Do so.” The calm detachment in her voice surprised her. She did not feel calm. Or detached. The flames created strange shadows on Cedar’s face and gleamed yellow against his sword. Blood dripped from the blade to the snow.
“I’m not decapitating everyone,” he said, “just the ones I recognize as having money on their heads. I’m a bounty hunter. The heads are required as proof of the deed done, so I can collect the reward.” He hesitated, and she realized she had not lowered the rifle. “I only hunt criminals. You’ve nothing to fear from me, Kali.”
“Oh, I’m not afraid. I’ve got my gun, and I can take care of myself.”
“Yes, you can.”
There was a fondness in his voice that she might have found flattering if he were not standing next to a sack full of heads he had cut off. And that was not the only problem. Her gears clicked into place.
“You joined up with me, knowing I’d be a target?” she asked. “That these thugs were after me? You figured I’d make some good bait, and you could stand back and shoot at the people shooting at me?”
Wind moaned across the lake and through the trees. A wolf howled. Cedar said nothing. Kali shook her head slowly as she stared at him. She had not wanted to be right.
“How much will you make for turning those heads in to…wherever the head depository is?” she asked.
“One thousand dollars for Captain Brandt, and a couple hundred for the lesser felons.”
“I see,” Kali said. “I guess you don’t need my one hundred dollars then. Which is good because coming back to check on you means I don’t have a chance of winning now. Because I’m stupid. Because I bothered being worried you’d been captured or shot.” She finally lowered her rifle. “Thanks so much for your help out here.”
“Kali,” Cedar said softly. “I didn’t ask you to-”
“No. No, you didn’t.” She kicked snow. “Like I said, I’m just a stupid fool. Nothing new.”
Tears stung her eyes. The last thing she wanted was to cry in front of him. She slung her rifle over her shoulder and turned her back.
She stalked away. A part of her wanted him to run after her, to apologize for using her. A part of her was relieved when he did not.
Kali chugged into town well after the race finished. Gray clouds hovered low, promising snow. Smoke wafted from chimneys, and the smell of burning wood hung in the air. Nobody lingered at the finish line by the docks, though boisterous noises flowed from the bit house up the bank. The winner buying everyone rounds, no doubt.
She wondered if she would have won if she had not gone back. Surely she would have if she had not been attacked three times and could have pushed straight through without delays. She could have taken the winnings, ordered the parts she needed, and escaped Moose Hollow by summer. She could have sailed the winds and explored the world, a moving target the pirates and gangsters would never catch. But not now. She scraped at ice droplets in her lashes, telling herself it was weariness that made her eyes water, not self-pity.
A lone figure rushed outside when Kali steamed down main street.
“Honey, you made it. Thank the Lord.” Nelly jumped off the covered sidewalk and threw her arms around Kali.
“You weren’t expecting me to? What’d the other racers say?”
“Not much, but there were men here looking for you yesterday. Mean men. They roughed up a couple of my girls.”
Kali winced. Her troubles were bubbling over to affect others.
“And…” Nelly bit her lip.
“What else?” Kali asked, certain she did not want to know.
“They ransacked your home.”
Kali’s shoulders slumped. She told Nelly about the last couple days while they trudged up the street with the sled. As promised, the door to her workshop had been kicked in and hung from a single, broken hinge.
Kali gripped the frame for support and gazed inside. Ransacked, yes, that was a suitable word. Devastated and violated also came to mind. Tools, upturned furniture, and her half-started projects scattered the floor, many in pieces now. A trunk from her bedroom lay beneath the railing, clothes thrown free.
Nelly laid a hand on Kali’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, honey. About your home and especially about the race. I can’t help but feel your loss is my fault. I thought that fellow seemed a good sort. You know you’re welcome to stay at my place as long as you need.”
“Thanks,” Kali mumbled. Maybe the fact she had not slept the night before was a blessing, for gazing at the carnage left her more numb than anything else.
The door to the cubby where she kept the mechanical hounds was bashed in. A crowbar and pickaxe lay on the floor before it. She needed to check…
“Nelly, could you let me be alone for a spell?”
“Of course. You come by my place for dinner. I insist.”
Kali nodded. Though spending time with all those pretty girls in their pretty dresses always made her feel awkward, some company would be better than none.
As soon as Nelly left, Kali shuffled through the mess to check on the dogs. Someone had dumped pipe tobacco on the floor, and the scent of smoke lingered in the air. She propped her rifle against the wall and pushed aside wreckage to peer inside the cubby. The pickaxe had done its work. The dog bodies were mutilated, heads dented beyond recognition. Scraps of metal littered the floor.
Brass plaques screwed into the dogs’ backs had been torn off. She checked inside. The thumbnail-sized piece of flash gold that powered each hound was gone.
“Bastards,” she muttered, stroking one of the broken heads. Having the gold stolen was irritating; having her work-herart-destroyed…hurt.
She wandered around the workshop, making sure nobody lurked in a corner, then climbed the stairs to her tiny office and bedroom. Tangled ropes and bells in the latter proved someone had triggered a booby trap. Too bad she had not been there to do anything about it.
In the office, she removed a slender pick from the backside of the stovepipe, then counted the knots in the pine floorboards. She slid the pick into a specific crack and disengaged a hook. She pulled the board up. None of the tripwires inside had been triggered, so she hoped that meant nobody had found the niche. It took a couple minutes to disarm a trap involving pinchers and a razor blade. Finally she braced herself and pulled out a heavy iron box. The heft reassured her, but she opened the lid to make sure.
Gentle flashing yellow light pulsed through the room, emanating from the pure brick of gold within. Aside from a few tools and books, this was the one thing her father had left her. She had no idea how to make more and considered it priceless. It would power the airship she had planned to build with her race winnings. The airship she stillwouldbuild. One way or another.
She had made the mistake of sharing those dreams with Sebastian, of showing him the flash gold, and then she’d found out the truth: before he ever met her, and long before he’d professed to love to her, he’d researched her father and found out about her. All along, his plan had been to learn if she had the gold and to get it. She had not given it to him-her only parting gift had been a flung smoke nut, which she hoped had done permanent damage-and she was not going to give it to any cursed pirates or gangsters either.
Kali closed the lid lest anyone outside notice the strange light seeping through cracks between the shutters. Before she could put the box back, a weight slammed into her from above.
She tried to roll away, but it smothered her whole body. She lost her grip on the box. A calloused hand clasped onto the back of her neck and forced her face into the floor. Her cheek mashed against worn floorboards. She could not buck, twist, or even wiggle an arm free. Whoever he was, he weighed twice as much as her.
Cedar? Had he followed her back and hidden, waiting until she revealed her secret cache?
Hot breath whispered against her neck. It smelled of tobacco.
“Got you, love,” the man crowed in a deep, raspy voice.
Not Cedar. The same bastard who had ravaged the workshop the day before.
“And you’ve got the mother lode,” he breathed.
Though she could not see him, she knew he was staring at the gold. The box had fallen open, revealing the bar inside.
“Guess it’s your lucky day.” Kali tried again to get her hands beneath her, to push up and away from him. The hard, round shape of a smoke nut in her pocket dug into her hip.
“Not luck,” he said. “Smarts. I knew you’d run right to your stash and check it when you saw you’d been robbed. And you did. Ain’t too bright, are ya?”
“I’ve not been having an overly intelligent week, no.” She tried to buck him again. If she could get the lummox off her long enough to dig into her pocket… “What now? Someone’ll see the flashing gold through the window if we let it sit there all day.”
“Gotta tie you up.” He shifted, lifting his head to peer around.
Yes, she just needed her arm free for a second. “There’s rope in the other room.”
“You’re being a little too helpful for my tastes, girl.”
Erp, she had best not be too obvious. Dumb as he seemed, hehadcaught her. “You’ve got me. What am I supposed to do? You’d prefer me to bite and kick?”
He laughed. “Actually, I do like a feisty wench.” The hand tightened around her neck, and he leaned back. “Get up.”
That was all Kali needed. Under the guise of getting her feet under her, she slipped the smoke nut out of her pocket. She held her breath, closed her eyes, twisted it, and thrust it over her head at the man.
“What are you-” His words ended in a series of coughs.
His grip loosened, and Kali tore away. The smoke nut dropped to the floor. She sprinted for the door, knowing she had to be out of the room before the needles shot out. She planned to run down the stairs and grab her rifle, but she turned the corner and crashed into a second man on the landing. She twisted away, trying to wiggle past, but his arm wrapped around her.
A snap sounded, and projectiles pinged against the wall inside the office.
“Son of a whore!” the man she had run from cried.
Footsteps thundered toward the landing. Kali tried to pull free of her captor. Her knuckles bumped against the hilt of a knife.
A gun fired over her head, the report pounding against her eardrum.
“Out of my way, you hairy hog!” She yanked her captor’s knife free.
A hand clamped onto her wrist before she could do anything with it. “Miss Kali,youran intome. I’d be obliged if you didn’t eviscerate me.”
For the first time, she tilted her head back to see the face of her captor. Cedar gazed down at her, an eyebrow cocked. He released her, and she turned to check the doorway behind her. Smoke poured out, but it did not obscure the man sprawled across the threshold. Blood drained from a bullet hole in his temple.
In addition to the smoke billowing from the office, golden pulses of light escaped too. Cedar stepped past Kali to peer inside. She watched his gaze settle on the glowing brick. She had heard many tales of good men turning on one another over a lucrative vein of ore. And her father’s last batch of flash gold was worth far more than a productive claim.
“Pretty,” was all Cedar said.
“The gold or the man?” Kali stepped over the body to close the box and return it to its niche in the floor, though it hardly seemed safe there now.
“The gold. When it comes to aesthetics, my tastes don’t run toward men. Especially dead ones.”
“I thought he might have a bounty on his head that would make him attractive to you.” Kali stepped back onto the landing and peered over the railing. “You didn’t bring the sack of heads did you? Though it’s hard to tell at the moment, I like to maintain standards, and there are certain items I don’t care to have in my workshop.”
Her words sounded inane to her; she was delaying the question she needed the answer to: what was he going to do now that he had seen the flash gold?
“Mind if we talk a spell?” Cedar asked.
“Have a seat.” She glanced at the carnage in the office. “If you can find one that’s not broken.”
Cedar walked down the stairs and sat on the bottom step. Kali hesitated, her emotions tangled inside her. Despite what he had done, relief at seeing him rose to the top of the mess. Thinking she must be crazy, she joined him on the bottom step. His size and the confines of the staircase forced their shoulders to touch. She clasped her hands between her knees and stared at the floor.
“I’d like to explain my actions…further,” Cedar said.
“No need. I got the gist.”
“You were correct in your guesses. I learned of the five-thousand-dollar reward for your capture and came seeking you personally.”
She gawked at him. “Five… Fivethousanddollars? For me?”
“For you. For that.” He waved in the direction of the office. “I knew a prize like that would draw every pirate and claim-jumper in the north. I was hoping it would draw Cudgel Conrad.”
Not familiar with the name, Kali shook her head.
“Murderer, thief, whiskey peddler, gangster.” His jaw tightened. “And the man who killed my brother.”
“Ah. Is that…” She hesitated, remembering the abrupt way he had withdrawn from her personal questions that first night in the tent. Figuring he owed her this explanation, she pressed on: “Is your brother the one you spoke of who disappointed you by not being perfect?”
A faint nod. “Andre had been a Mountie less than a year. At that time, Cudgel was relentless in our piece of the mountains. My brother figured to take him down, but he insisted on licking him by the rules of the law. Maybe if Andre had been scrappier and reckoned more like a gangster….” Cedar prodded a whorl on the wooden stair tread. “It doesn’t matter now. He was a good man, and Cudgel killed him. Cudgel killed a lot of others who didn’t deserve it. I aim to kill Cudgel.”
“I can tell you’re serious by the number of times you’re saying his name,” Kali said gently.
Surprise flashed across his face. She smiled tentatively, not certain if teasing him had been the right choice. She did not want to belittle him, just to lighten his mood. And to let him know…she forgave him.
After a long moment, Cedar snorted softly. “Yes, I don’t like to hunt a man across the country without having his name fixed in my mind. Repetition is good for memorization.”
“So, you want his head. And these others you’ve been collecting are for…?”
“I swore I’d find Cudgel and avenge his death, but I didn’t want to be restrained by regulations and procedures-that’s what got Andre in trouble. So I found mentors and trained at fighting and shooting. I started collecting bounties on other criminals so I could fund my quest. I got good at it.” He shrugged. “But I keep missing Cudgel.”
“I’m sorry,” Kali said.
“Don’t be. Please. I didn’t come looking for that. I just wanted to explain and…apologize for using you. I wasn’t expecting you to be so…someone who I, ah…well, who’s…”
She watched with bemusement as his fingers groped in the air.
He finally said, “When it comes to fighting and such, you’re as fine as cream gravy.”
“Gravy?” She rubbed her lips to hide the smile. He must not compliment women very often. “Well, now, those are nice words, thank you, but there’s no need for flattery. Unless you’re trying to win me over? Did you still want me to modify your rifle? If so, you just have to promise not to tell anybody about…” She tilted her head back toward her office.
Cedar blinked. “I don’t care about any of that. Well, a little about the rifle, but if I’m a flatterer, it’s because I want you to come with me.”
This time Kali blinked. And stared. “Withyou? To be permanent bait until this Cudgel bloke comes along?”
“No, to be my partner.” He fished in a pocket, pulled out a sack, and dropped it in her hand. Coins clinked. “That’s half of the money from the ones I just turned in, and there’s another five hundred if you come with me to Dawson to drop off the pirate captain’s head. A couple more bounties after that, and you’ll have as much as if you’d won the race. I owe you that much at least.”
She started to shake her head and say he didn’t owe her anything, but hehadwrenched up her plans. Or rather, his presence had turned her into someone who wrenched up her own plans.
“Once you’ve got your thousand dollars, you could go,” Cedar said. “Or you could stay. I sure wouldn’t mind having you around to help on the day I do find Cudgel.”
Kali fiddled with the sack. “I don’t know what to say. I’m not that comfortable with the idea of killing folks, criminals or not. I have this belief that heads look better when they’re attached to bodies. I can’t see myself as a bounty hunter.”
“How about anassistantbounty hunter? I’ll find the scalawags, and you hand me some fancy invention of yours to help wrestle them into surrendering.”
She scratched her jaw. “Dawson, huh?” Maybe she could go for a while and see how life went. The Lord knew there was nothing for her here. And she was bait going forward no matter what. She might stay alive longer with a decapitation-specialist bounty hunter at her side. “I guess it might be more interesting than dinner with Nelly’s girls.”
“That I can promise.”
She pointed a finger at his nose. “This doesn’t mean I trust you.”
Cedar’s blue eyes crinkled at the corners. “Naturally.”