I fully depressed the studs on the gun barrel and a two inch blade shot out of the wooden grip. The weight and structure of the gun with the blade extended was roughly the same as the tomahawks I had grown accustomed to during the six months I had spent fighting with the Sioux tribe in Dakota Territory. I had commissioned the modification to my Model 3 in Topeka when my Dakota Territory tour had ended early on account of my placement in Phoenix.
The brown “fancy dandy” wolf had taken a few powerful steps and leapt toward me. The blade caught the wolf in the neck and I sidestepped, dragging the knife with me and ripping flesh. I was fairly certain the wolf would be up again in a few moments, but I took the brief pause in its onslaught to take a shot at H. Norman Price. He was still standing near the mesquites but his calm, handsome businessman’s face had strained into pure outrage. In the time it took to bring my revolver around to a shooting grip, my mind raced, straining to come up with some snappy quip to say to the werewolf that had most of California’s sheriffs in his pocket. I couldn’t come up with anything, so I just took the shot.
Pain exploded in my calves and my bullet missed Price. He didn’t even flinch as the lead tore past his face. The brown wolf dug his claws deep into my left leg and pulled me toward him, his jagged neck wound still dripping. I kicked at it with my right foot and evoked a satisfyingly wet, gurgling growl. Two more kicks, these a little more expertly placed so my spurs did most of the work, loosened the wolf’s grip. Looking down, my left leg was a bloody mess; looking behind me, Price calmly walked away with a smile on his face. This was a hell of a day.
I’d given the brown wolf a fairly rough beating, but he would still be able to take me down if I made a run for Price. Come to think of it, running was probably beyond me at this point, anyway. Rationality screamed at me to incapacitate the beast that had injured me so I could track Price, but pain and fury were more persuasive. The blade was still out on the butt of my gun. I raised my arm and brought it down on the wolf’s shoulder. It didn’t even attempt to block the blow, just sat on its haunches with both paws at its neck and panted heavily. I thumbed a sliding catch below the hammer of my revolver and the blade slipped back into its housing. I cocked and aimed the gun with my right hand while using my left palm and right leg to crabwalk backwards a bit. My intention seemed to dawn on the beast. His eyes narrowed, lips pulled back in a pathetic snarl. I fired.
“You all right down there?”
I looked up to see the Brass Wyrm and the old man above me, his lever-action rifle still trained on the brown wolf.
“I am. He’s not very fancy anymore, though,” I said. This elicited a chuckle from above.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to make it up the ladder this time,” I gestured at my leg.
“Don’t worry ‘bout that none. You think I carry these cannonballs up here by hand? There’s a wooden lift attached to a winch on the stern.”
By the time I was propped up on the Wyrm’s gunwale, my adrenaline rush had melted away and been replaced threefold with pain. The fact that the old man had placed my gunbelt on my upper thigh to stem my bleeding didn’t help. And I wasn’t overjoyed that the leather was getting stained by my blood. I hoped I could buff it out. Still, the gleaming brass handles, pressure gauges, steam release valves, helium tanks, and dark stained wood captured my fancy and awe intermingled with the pained grimace on my face.
“So, what d’you think of your new conveyance?” The old man asked, his words all but dripping with congealed pride.
“Well, it’s a lot different than what we had to work with in the Balloon Corps. Much more regal. And maneuverable. Those weren’t much more than floating lookout stations and occasionally a sharpshooter’s perch.”
“Sharpshooters, eh? I thought the Balloon Corps was a non-combat civilian unit,” the old man’s enthusiasm for his craft had faded. I was worried that talk about the war would stir up old feelings – it often did – but he seemed more conversational than confrontational.
“The Corps was civilian and most of the aeronauts were, too. But some of us were trained in survival and marksmanship and then personally introduced to Commander Lowe by some army brass or other.” I thought it was best to leave the name of the army officer who made the introductions out of the explanation; he wasn’t well liked by southerners, and for good reason.
“So you’re not really a part of the Balloon Corps?”
“No, I am. Or was. I just had supplemental training and received the occasional order from Union Army HQ to take a shot at an officer or cut my tether and reconnoiter further behind Confederate lines.” It wasn’t as simple as that, but I didn’t much feel like elaborating until I had some morphine in my blood. I pulled the end of the belt around my thigh tighter and tried (failed) to bite back a grunt of pain.
“And you were at Vicksburg?”
I nodded in response to the old man’s question.
“Take out any of the Menace that day?”
“How many other sharpshootin’ Balloon Corps boys were there?”
This was an odd line of questioning, but I answered anyway. “None.”
At that, he made a thoughtful noise and turned his attention back to the polished controls.
“We’re closin’ up on town. I don’t suppose you know about our medical situation here?”
I shook my head, which I immediately regretted. I felt as though the small motion had been amplified until my whole head spun around my neck. Nausea set in fairly quickly. Had I lost that much blood? Or was sepsis already setting in? I had been injured before, and it seemed early for some sort of infection.