24: The Vaquero of El Dorado
Gus spilled into Tilly’s cargo hold and used her momentum to overcome the disorienting gravitational inversion on her way in. “Close it!” she yelled as she landed with a thud. A red laser beam or two struck the inside of the lift as it retracted, but it closed smoothly and sealed shut before any of the advancing copperheads could reach it. Gus scrambled over the haphazard piles of gold bricks and ran for the saddleroom.
“How long until they restore power?” Oscar hollered after her.
“Not long enough!” she yelled back, leaping into the saddle. “Did you reach the families?”
“No.” Oscar was pale. “What does that mean?”
If she was right, they had only a few minutes before the Shenandoah’s engineers could restore enough power to energize the battle-train’s cannon batteries. That meant only minutes to get away. If she was right. They would have to worry about what became of the families later. “Get that crap stowed and strap yourselves into something. This is gonna be rocky!” She jammed her heels into the spur ports, grabbed hold of the reins, and disengaged Tilly’s magnetic landing struts. The small U-shaped mount fell away from the Shenandoah, Gus kicked the atmo-thrusters into full throttle, and Tilly darted along the belly of the massive train.
As they approached the Shenandoah’s rear-most train car, its belly split open along a nearly invisible seam. A massive set of doors opened and team after team of small but nimble cavalry mounts flowed from the opening like a swarm of wasps. Tunk! Gus’s mind screamed. She yanked on the reins hard and sent Tilly into a steep dive. The copperheads pursued with their guns blazing.
“Aurora, Oscar!” Gus hollered over her shoulder. “I need you two in turret control. Far end of the pony, through my quarters! Moe, try to contact the families again and get them out of here. Now, while the cannons are still down, and we’ve got them busy!”
“There’s still no word from Ray!” Moe yelled back.
“Doesn’t matter! It’s now or never!”
Tilly’s old rifle turret rumbled to life for the first time since Gus had bought the old mount. Thanks, Emmitt, Gus thought as the big gun started firing back into the pursuing swarm. That’s another one I owe you.
Back in the engine room, Moe was on Tilly’s transmitter and was screaming out over all open frequencies, “Now! Now! Now! All teams – If you’re still here break atmo now!” But the only reply was static. Moe appeared in the cockpit doorway and gripped each side of the hatch to brace against Gus’s evasive maneuvers. “No reply.” His face was pale, worried. “Do you think they made it? Or were we too late?”
Gus was too busy to spare a look back him. She gritted her teeth and she pushed Tilly through a series of rolls and dives, galloping hard to evade the oncoming fire. The old mount rattled and shook her way through the maneuvers. “I don’t know, Moe. I-” Gus was cut off by a blaring alarm and a flashing amber warning light.
“What’s that?” Moe yelled.
Rutting tunk. “Artillery weapons lock. They’ve repaired their power system already,” Gus said. She shook her head in disbelief. “That was rutting fast.”
“What do we do?”
“Hold on to something,” Gus warned, then pushed Tilly into a sudden dive, barely dodging an enormous neon green beam of light that punched a neat hole through the clouds in its wake. That was it. It was over. She pointed Tilly’s nose into the clouds and pushed the throttle as far as it would go. Tilly raced into the dense cover.
“What are you doing?” Oscar’s voice yelled over the internal intercom, “The rendezvous is the other way! We have to cover the families’ escape!”
Tilly dodged and weaved through the clouds with the rifle turret firing back over her shoulder at the cavalry mounts that had followed into the thick gas. “Don’t you get it? Nobody made it off planet!” she yelled. “That’s why Ray’s not answering. And even if they did, there’s no making it past that artillery battery now.”
“But you just did. We can still do this!” Moe insisted.
Anther colossal green beam cut through the clouds. But this shot had been fired blind and was well off the mark. “No chance,” Gus said. “They’re having trouble tracking us in this soup. As soon as we break atmo they’ll have a clear shot. We gotta regroup.”
“Regroup?” Oscar shouted over the comms from turret control. “That’s my family, you cowardly-” Gus flipped off the intercom and cut Oscar off mid-sentence.
At almost the same instant a new player emerged from the gas to join the dogfight. It was small and maneuvered quickly, darting in and out of the clouds, and drawing some of the remaining cavalry away. It broke from the clouds for just a moment and Gus got a good look at its gigantic atmo-thrusters before it disappeared again. She would recognize those thrusters anywhere. It was the Vega’s mule. She had just enough time to muse about Bernadette’s piloting skills before the mule reemerged from the clouds, galloping on a collision course with Tilly.
“What’s she doing?!” Moe yelled.
“Mule’s got no weapons,” Gus said, and poured on the speed herself.
“What? Wait, what?”
Gus flipped the intercom back on. “That wife of yours is somethin’ else. Everybody hold on tight!” The two small mounts streaked through the rust-colored sky towards each other, each trailing their own group of chasing copperheads.
The mule grew larger and larger in Tilly’s cockpit canopy.
“Gus?” Moe asked nervously. He was gripping the hatch frame so tightly he had left dents in the metal.
“Not yet…” she said.
“Gus…” Larger still the mule grew as they raced towards each other.
“Wait for it…”
“Gus!” Moe shouted when the mounts were so close they could see both Bernadette and Hector’s wide-eyes expressions.
“Now!” Gus yelled. She yanked hard on the reins and squeezed her spurs with all her might. Tilly responded with a hard left turn that nearly threw Gus from the saddle. Bernadette seemed to be every inch the cowgirl Gus suspected she was, and the mule jerked into a sharp turn at the same instant.
The two columns of chasing copperheads, caught by surprise with the game of chicken, tied to dodge each other at the last moment. The collisions sent shockwaves ripping through the clouds.
Tilly, followed quickly by the mule, disappeared into the lower atmosphere in the chaos.
“Papi!” Hector yelled and ran into his father’s arms.
“What happened?” Gus asked. Both Tilly and the mule were hitched at the abandoned Deiopean mining village.
“It was a set-up,” Bernadette said as she embraced her husband. “They hit us right after Ray’s signal that the inspection team had arrived in town. Someone leaked our plan to the Lecontes. There’s no other explanation.”
“Are you alright?” Oscar asked her. He held his wife out at arm’s length and looked her over for injuries. “How did you two get away?”
Bernadette beamed at Hector. “I don’t think we can yell at Hector for crawling through the anti-grav foundation anymore. And we may owe Moe a pay raise. He’s turned our son into quite the little vaquero.”
“Oh, has he now?” Oscar said. He tussled his son’s hair and gave his farmhand a wry smile.
“Maybe you better start at the beginning,” Gus said. “But talk quickly. It won’t take them long to figure out where we’ve gone.”
The first tear gas canister had come through the big picture window in the Vega kitchen only moments after they had received Ray’s message. By then the small home had been crowded with the families of those in town readying the distraction; the young, the old, and those who would take care of them. When that first canister hit the floor, no one moved. They were too shocked by its sudden appearance. But by the time the second and third cans hit the threadbare rug and exploded into great growing plumes of white smoke, the main floor of the Vega home had similarly exploded into panic.
Copper-helmeted soldiers were at every door, grabbing people as they fled the tear gas. Within minutes, they had most of the would-be escapees in custody and had started sweeping the grounds for stragglers.
Bernadette and Hector had not been in the kitchen when that first canister had come through the window. If they had, Bernadette explained, she might have been able to do more. But, as it happened, she and Hector had been in the barn pouring every last drop of Rb-87 they had left into the mule’s fuel cell. By the time the sound of the raid on the farmhouse had reached them in the barn, it was too late to save those inside.
But it was not a copperhead soldier that found them first. Instead, Brother Richard had come stumbling through the barn’s big double doors. He was already bleeding badly from half a dozen wounds and his frock was shiny and slick from it. He confirmed their worst fears – someone had betrayed them – and the copperheads were closing in. The pair had done the only thing she could think to do. Bernadette told her son to break the rule she had been scolding him for breaking since before Gus had arrived at their little plot of sky: hide in the ducts.
Hector did as he was told, and almost as soon as Brother Richard had helped him through the barn’s duct grate, the raid reached them. To hear Bernadette tell it, the noble monk died shielding her and giving Hector enough time to hide. They shot him down as he protected the innocent.
Gus’s temper flared. Richard was a good man. One of the last this far out onto the Arm. Blood like his always seemed to be the first spilled. Gus promised herself it wouldn’t be the last.
From the ducts, Hector had watched as the copperheads violently arrested his mother and loaded everyone hiding at El Dorado into a prisoner-transport wagon.
“From there, they took us back to town,” Bernadette said. “And used us to stop the fighting.”
“Fighting? There wasn’t supposed to be any fighting!” Gus said.
“Aren’t you listening? They knew our plan! The bastards had killed Jacob in the market. I think they deliberately brought us by his body. As a warning. We could hear the fighting from the market. They marched us straight to it. Ray called a cease fire as soon as he saw us. The copperheads rounded everyone up and brought us all back to the town square where they could keep an eye on us all while the inspection team went about their business.”
“How did you get out? Where’s Ray?” Moe asked.
Again, Bernadette beamed at her son. “Maybe you should tell this part, Hector. It is your part of the story, after all.”
But, with his father’s hands on his shoulders, Hector looked down at his feet. He was suddenly bashful with everyone’s eyes on him. Gus knelt to look him in the eyes. “You did it, didn’t you?” she asked and give the boy a slight smile.
He pulled his eyes away from his shoes to meet hers but kept his mouth shut.
“You used your brain,” she said and give his forehead a gentle tap. “You outsmarted ’em, didn’t you? How’d you do it?”
Slowly a smile dawned on Hector’s face too. “I did what Mama told me to do, and I hid until all the bad guys were gone,” he said. He broke eye contact and looked back at his shoes. “Then I followed them in the mule.”
Oscar gave Moe a sideways glance. “So much for waiting until he was a little older to teach him how to ride.” He smiled.
Moe shrugged and returned the grin. “Sorry, Boss.” Oscar laughed and clapped his farmhand on the back.
“How did you keep from being seen?” Gus asked.
“I stayed in the low clouds. Then, when they hitched up at the stables, I went into the engineering corral.”
Gus was impressed. “Smart move, kid. No one saw you?”
“There wasn’t anyone around to see me! Everybody was sitting on the ground in the middle of town. Mama and Marshal Gascon were sitting near the Marshal’s Office, but one of the soldiers was watching them. So, I threw a rock at him and got him to chase me into the cemetery. Then I-” he stopped, looking to his mother, who nodded for him to go on, “I pushed one of the shelves over on him. It spilled dust everywhere! Then I ran back to the square to find Mama.”
Oscar smiled proudly at his son. “You did good, Hector.”
Gus looked to Bernadette. “Where’s Ray?”
Bernadette’s smile faltered. “He-” he bit her lip, “he saved us. If it weren’t for him, we never would have gotten away. Oh, Gus. He stood in front of the beams. I think he’s dead.” She buried her face in her hands and let out a body-rattling sob. “We didn’t see Hector, not at first. We just saw the soldier nearest us flinch, yell, and go running down the alley. The next thing we know, there was a crash from behind the chapel, and Hector came running out from where the man had gone.
“Ray- he stood up and told me to run. Then he just turned around and spread his arms wide. He tried to make himself as big as he could to shield us. Oh, Oscar! He saved our lives!” Her body trembled as she was wracked by another round of sobs. Oscar held her tight.
Gus’s mind and body ran cold. “Are you sure he’s dead? Did you see him fall?”
Bernadette looked up from her husband’s shoulder and wiped a tear from her eye. “We just ran. But I heard them fire. There was so much shooting. He couldn’t possibly have survived. Could he have?”
Gus looked out into the growing storm. The wind was howling, and dragging a horizon overflowing with dark, heavy clouds ever nearer. Thunder rolled across the great hydrogen flats. They would be feeling the storm’s full force in only a matter of hours.
“There’s only one way to find out.”
“Are you sure about this?” Oscar asked. He and Gus were standing at the Deiopean stables as Moe and Aurora loaded supplies onto the mule.
“No,” Gus admitted, “but I don’t see any other option.”
“Me, Moe, Aurora – we could go with you.”
“Oscar, your family needs you now,” Gus said and put her pink dusted hand on the rancher’s shoulder. “You need to make sure they get to safety. And then I need you come back, guns blazing.”
Moe and Aurora joined the pair and the rob joined his boss’s protest. “You don’t stand a chance alone. Don’t try to be a hero, Gus!”
Gus laughed and shook her head. “I’m no hero. You guys are the heroes here. Holding on to what’s right in the face of all this. All I’m doing is giving you the chance to finish the fight you started. I’ll make sure you get your chance to make the sprint.”
Oscar peered into Gus’s eyes, perhaps seeking some sign he could persuade her otherwise. Apparently not finding what he was looking for, he sighed and nodded. He took Gus’s hand and put her lucky coin in it. “I think you’ll need this more than me now. Hold on for as long as you can. We’ll be back with the whole damn UCET fleet.” Oscar nodded again and boarded the mule. Moe and Aurora hung back.
As the sky grew thick and dark, Aurora took Gus’s hand with two of their own in a clumsy imitation of the two-handed handshake the hunter had shared with Moe on the day Gus had first met them both. “Thank you,” the translator chirped as the Deiopean’s eyes flashed a dazzling array of colors. The small, spider-like hunter then followed Oscar onto the mule without another word.
Finally, only Moe remained.
“You don’t have to do this. Not alone,” he said.
“Did you know Ray saved me from Junior and his goons the first night I was in town? After you left me at the Hotel Irma?” Gus asked.
Moe nodded. “Word gets around.”
“He didn’t know who I was, but he stuck his neck out for me. Probably saved my life.” She shook her head. “I owe him.”
“I understand, maybe more than most,” Moe said. He was watched the Vegas prepare to leave through the mule’s saddleroom canopy. “But that doesn’t mean you’ve got to do it alone.”
“I won’t be alone,” she said and managed a small smile. “Tilly’s been my partner a long longer than you lot. She’s always watched my back just fine.”
Moe snorted and shook his head. “Have it your way. We’ll be back as soon as we can.” Gus shook his long, elegant hand, and then he was gone too. She stepped onto Tilly’s lift and boarded her own pony.
She slid into the saddle, flipped on the comms, and looked to the Vega family through the canopies. “With their weapons systems up and running this isn’t going to be easy. Just stick to the plan. I’ll give you an opportunity to sprint. Watch for it. You’ll probably only get one.”
She watched as Bernadette picked up the comms handset in the mule. “Roger.”
“No matter what happens, you take your chance and go. No matter what. Right?”
As she watched, Oscar and Bernadette exchanged words. Oscar took one more unhappy glance back at Gus and Tilly and stormed out of the mule’s saddleroom. The comms crackled with Bernadette’s voice again. “Roger.”
The two women held each other’s gaze for a moment longer. Thunder clapped, loud enough to rattle Tilly’s canopy. The storm had finally arrived. “Let’s go.”
The plan was simple: Gus and Tilly were going to go pick a fight with the Shenandoah. With the copperheads’ attention focused on them, the Vegas could break atmo and sprint away to Holliday. They didn’t have Brother Richard’s voice to lend them credence anymore, so Aurora’s would have to do. Gus just had to be a big enough pain in the ass to keep the copperheads’ attention.
Both mounts rose silently into the dark and gusting sky. For a moment they hung there, facing each other one final time, before turning and gliding off in opposite directions.
Rain, of some variety, began to fall. Before long it was pelting Tilly’s canopy in sheets. Gus had never ridden through a storm like this before; every raindrop was the size of a dinner plate. The sheer mass that struck Tilly’s back every second was immeasurable. It made the going difficult at best. But Gus pushed Tilly through it all the same, fighting the rain, the wind, and her own growing sense of impending doom.
Just as that anxiety was beginning to allow doubt to worm its way into her mind, Tilly crashed through a wall of rain and into a break in the clouds. Las Ráfagas and the Shenandoah loomed in the dark of the storm. Again, the belly of the battle-train slid open, and a swarm of calvary mounts flowed from it like the rain still pummeling the backwater mining town.
It was officially too late for doubt.