Chapter One of Lightning Wolves by David Lee Summers

Peer Review

Larissa Crimson dreamed a memory of flight.

She sat aboard a mechanical owl in a chair of lightweight wooden slats. She gripped levers and adjusted pedals while her heart beat a fierce accompaniment. Green hills fell away. Ahead, two impossibly large, silver-gray, cigar-shaped objects floated over Denver, Colorado. Like menacing thunderheads, these ships of the air hung against a backdrop of cloud-streaked blue sky. White, blue and red horizontal bars—the Russian Empire’s distinctive markings—decorated the airship tails. Below her, Americans marched through the streets on their way to dislodge the Russian forces. Something small and black dropped from the closest vessel’s belly. A moment later a sickening thud sounded and a cloud of black and gray soot rose from the street. Hovering out of artillery range, the dirigibles dropped more bombs on the troops below.

Looking around, she saw eleven other owl-like craft. The occupants knew they were the only people who could put an end to the invasion. Professor M.K. Maravilla, an inventor from Mexico, had built the owls he called ornithopters. Fatemeh Karimi, a healer from Persia, led the small group. She swept her hand forward and Larissa eased the largest lever toward the front panel. The tiny chemical-reaction steam engine under the seat chugged harder, the wings flapped faster, and the mechanical owl shot toward its target, slamming Larissa back into the seat.

Cold, mountain air whipped by and threatened to carry away her coachman’s hat, even though she had carefully pinned it to her hair. Despite the chill, sweat beaded around the edges of her goggles and made her face twitch.

As the ornithopters closed the distance, Larissa saw a smoke poof erupt from the nearest airship’s flank. A moment later, a whining projectile whizzed underneath her. She caught her breath and fought to steady her hand. Seeing a second, third, and fourth puff, she pushed one of the pedals and moved the control rod to the side, sending the ornithopter into a wide, upward arc. Seconds later, an owl below her burst apart. She slammed her eyes shut. The rider was dead, whether smashed by cannonball or splattered against the earth.

Opening her eyes a moment later, she glanced through the haze of unshed tears. Onofre Cisneros, the dashing pirate captain, waved at her. It was time to begin their assault on the far airship. She completed a circle, faced the target, and opened up the throttle again. With a new burst of speed, she followed Cisneros. As they got closer, ports opened in the sides of the airships’ envelopes and men leaned out, firing at them. Bullets whistled through the air. She gritted her teeth, knowing she needed to focus. She pulled back the control lever, lifting the ornithopter higher. The seat’s slats cut into her back and legs. A moment later, she was over the airship. Again, she sent the owl into a wide arc, so she approached from the bow. Slightly ahead of her and below, Cisneros's owl canted over. One of its metallic claws gripped the airship’s skin and the other missed. The ornithopter spun and Larissa’s heart skipped a beat as she thought it would topple off with the captain.

Cisneros leapt from his seat and grabbed the airship’s cloth skin. His owl came to a stop right in her path. She slowed her craft as much as she could and banked to the side. She extended the owl’s talons, but they only grabbed empty air. She leapt from the seat, toward Cisneros and began to slide past him. She jerked to a stop and nearly choked as the captain caught her collar. Her owl skidded along the spine until it smashed into the tail. The airship lurched and listed to one side. As bile rose in her throat, Larissa became aware of the buildings, streets, and people below, looking small, like some child’s elaborate plaything. Her eyes shut and she fell.

Breathing rapidly, she flailed about until her eyes flew open again, revealing a new scene entirely. Firm ground pressed against her back through a thin bedroll. A dagger of light came in through the cave entrance and shone across her face. She rolled over and snuggled further down into her blankets.

Larissa gulped deeply several times and reminded herself she had not fallen. She had survived the Battle of Denver. Onofre Cisneros had pulled her up until she could grab on to the airship’s skin. Then he cut a hole into the envelope and climbed down through the girders, past the internal gasbags. Inside didn’t feel a lot safer than outside, but at least Larissa couldn’t see the ground. They found the unconscious crew in the gondola, tumbling about the floor as the vessel bucked like an unbroken horse. She knelt beside one of the crewmen and checked his pulse, surprised to discover he still lived. Cisneros gained control of the airship and brought it to the ground. They escaped just moments before an artillery shell flew into the vessel and ignited its load of hydrogen. Larissa shuddered.

The enticing aroma of coffee finally lured her from the blankets’ warmth. Her muscles ached, protesting the fact that she’d slept on the rocky ground every night for the last two months. She would give good money for a nice soft bed. After checking her boots for varmints, she pulled them on, then did a quick check to make sure she was buttoned up and reasonably covered before stumbling over to the cook stove Professor Maravilla had set up at the back of the cave. A long pipe ran from the stove to the cave’s mouth to carry the smoke away. The back part of the cave trapped the stove’s heat and made it comfortable—except, of course, for the lack of a mattress.

The professor was nowhere in sight. Larissa knew that most people who encountered a young woman alone with a middle-aged man would make assumptions of a most unsavory nature. However, Professor Maravilla wasn’t like that at all. His only concern was science. That suited Larissa just fine. She poured a cup of coffee, took a sip, and walked toward the cave’s entrance.

Sunlight gleamed from a bird-shaped framework of saber-thin steel. A spruce seat faced dials and gauges set in a panel. This was the first of a new generation of ornithopters—craft that flapped their wings to fly. The professor hoped to build more. None of the originals had survived the Battle of Denver.

Strips of metal, boxes of gauges, and spools of metal cable littered the cave entrance. Plans held down by rocks carpeted the cave floor. Blue lines scribbled over the papers indicated improvements. Larissa knelt down and traced lines that showed the lift as air flowed both under and over the wings. She sipped the coffee and considered how much she had learned about mathematics, physics, and engineering. Looking up, she sighed. Despite all the clutter, they were missing gears, fabric, and chemicals needed to finish and fly the owl. The few coins jingling in her pants pockets, wouldn’t begin to buy the parts needed.

Before joining up with the professor, Larissa had been a bounty hunter. She actually had wanted to be a sheriff or a marshal, but as a woman, her prospects of finding a job in law enforcement were minimal. Being a bounty hunter allowed her to control her destiny. The more she learned about science, though, the more she realized the potential to understand and possibly control the world itself.

Larissa stepped from the cave onto a rock ledge just outside the entrance. Groggy and unsettled by the dream as she was, the sight still took her breath away. Sunlight washed over the Grand Canyon’s walls, bringing out vivid shades of rust, ochre and green. As the sun rose in the sky, shadows withdrew from the rocks. Birds called and soared overhead. Despite the frightening memories of battle, she would do anything to join the birds again.

Professor Maravilla crouched on the ledge, apparently absorbed by the view. He looked immaculate despite camping out in this remote cave for two months. He wore pressed trousers and a red silk vest. His boots were polished to a bright shine. Even his mustache was trimmed to a fine line. He cradled a mug of coffee and whispered to himself. Unlike most people who had the habit, the professor would say something, then wait a few minutes as though listening for an answer. Larissa only heard one side of a conversation. She found it more than a little spooky at times.

She cleared her throat.

The professor jumped, splashing a little coffee from his mug onto the ground. “Good morning, Miss Crimson, I didn’t hear you come out.”

“I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”

The professor held up his hand and stood. “No worries. I was just absorbed in… thought.”

Larissa nodded. “I’ve been thinking, too.” She took a sip of coffee. “I’m thinking I might ride into Flagstaff today, go check at the sheriff’s office; see if there are any bounties I could collect.”

Maravilla sighed. “It’s a dangerous way to raise money for this project and there are no guarantees of success.”

Larissa pursed her lips. “Do you have any better suggestions?”

“There are industrialists who would pay to develop such a project. Perhaps they would give us better facilities and tools… more permanent accommodations.” The professor’s gaze drifted off over the canyon. “Perhaps I might write to the Lowells in Massachusetts.”

“They’re textile manufacturers, aren’t they? What interest would they have in mechanical owls?”

“The owls are covered in fabric, perhaps they could see this as a market they could develop. I’ve heard their son Percival has an interest in mathematics and engineering. The family might see it as a project to garner his interest.”

Larissa narrowed her gaze. “It sounds like wishful thinking.” She took another sip of coffee. “It seems like the military would have the most interest in funding your owl research.”

The professor shook his head sadly. “They already have my plans. I have no desire to continue their development as weapons. The ornithopters were meant as a way to understand the behavior of wildlife.”

“They could be so much more,” said Larissa. “We’re at war with the Russians.”

The professor nodded. “Tell you what, why don’t we both ride in to Flagstaff? I can write some letters and send them out. You can see what bounties there are. Between the two of us, we should be able to find a way to continue building the owl. Besides, we could use some more food and supplies.”

Larissa smiled. “I think we might just have enough money left for a few nights at a hotel.”

Maravilla frowned. “Don’t you think it would be better to save our money?”

“What? Try to ride all the way to Flagstaff and back in a day? No thanks!”

The professor shrugged. “Very well, we could use a holiday, but if we’re going to leave for a few days, we should make sure the cave is secure.”

With that, Larissa and the professor made a hasty breakfast of hot cakes and preserves. Afterward, they doused the cook stove’s fire and packed what they needed for a few days in town. Finally they moved the mechanical owl to the back of the cave where it wouldn’t be visible to any curiosity seekers who visited the canyon.

Once that job was complete, Larissa wiped out their tracks and did her best to obscure the path to the cave with branches, rocks, and bits and pieces of scrub brush. Such masking wouldn’t fool a professional tracker or a bounty hunter, but a casual eye was unlikely to see the trail as anything out of the ordinary.

Satisfied they had secured everything to the best of their ability, Larissa and Maravilla readied their horses, packed up their saddlebags and began the ride south to Flagstaff.

* * *

Ramon Morales awoke in a small room of his mother’s homestead just outside of Estancia, a little farming town almost dead center in the New Mexico Territory. He and his fiancée Fatemeh Karimi had been there for just over two weeks. After driving the Russian army out of Denver with the help of Professor Maravilla and his clockwork owls, Ramon and Fatemeh wanted a place to rest and they wanted to ask Ramon’s mother for permission to marry.

In the two weeks since they’d arrived at the homestead, Ramon had been hesitant to raise the subject. Fatemeh was Persian and belonged to a religion called Bahá'í. Instead of discussing marriage, Ramon and Fatemeh helped out where they could. Ramon tended the animals and Fatemeh looked after the small grove of fruit trees. He found he enjoyed the routine. Better yet, he enjoyed the fact that Randolph Dalton, a mine owner in Socorro, New Mexico, no longer sent bounty hunters like Larissa Crimson after him.

After Ramon and Fatemeh thwarted the Russian airships, they found they had powerful friends in the United States Army. General Phillip Sheridan himself assured Ramon’s safety.

Ramon climbed out of bed, dressed, then put on his little round glasses and went out to the kitchen. His mother sat at the table, doing cross-stitch. She wore her salt-and-pepper hair in a bun and blue veins stood out in her thin hands. Setting her work aside, she went to the stove and ladled atole—a thin porridge of cornmeal spiced with cinnamon—from a pot into an earthenware bowl, then poured coffee into a mug for him.

“Good morning, Búho.” She used the Spanish word for owl, given to him because of his glasses.

“Where’s Fatemeh?” he asked.

“She woke up early,” said Sofia Morales, returning to her place at the table. “She went out for a walk.”

Ramon took a deep breath and savored the fragrance of the cinnamon-spiced atole. “I’ve missed your cooking.”

“Fatemeh made breakfast this morning.”

Ramon looked up and smiled. “So, what do you think of her?”

“I like her.” Sofia examined the cross-stitch.

Ramon took a sip of coffee and then took a few bites of the atole. Emboldened by his mother’s declaration, he spit out a question before he could stop himself. “Does it bother you that Fatemeh isn’t Catholic?”

Sofia pushed the needle through the cloth. “Not terribly,” she said after a moment.

“I thought you would want me to marry a Catholic girl.”

Sofia pulled the needle and thread, then pushed it into the cloth again. “Ramon, I’ve known Christians who care less about Jesus and God than she does. She prays. She helps others. She’s a good woman. I don’t really care whether she calls herself Bahá’í or Catholic as long as she believes in God, and it’s clear to me she actually believes more than some people I see at Mass every week.”

Ramon sighed relief, then took another bite of atole. As the silence wore on, he sensed there was something else, something unspoken. “So, you don’t have any problem if I marry Fatemeh?”

“I have no problem with Fatemeh.” Sofia looked up into Ramon’s eyes. “What I’m worried about is you.”

Ramon sat back, stunned. “Me?” He placed his hand on his chest. “I believe in God.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.” Sofia sat her cross-stitch on the table and folded her hands. “How long are you going to sit around here? What are you going to do with the rest of your life?”

“Why can’t we stay here? This is good land. The trees and the animals would support us.”

“They might, at least for a while,” agreed his mother. “But would the trees support your spirit?”

Ramon’s brow creased. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“You used to be a sheriff. You did that job because you had a desire to help people. You’re a man of action. You will grow restless. Fatemeh doesn’t deserve a man who will always be looking to the horizon, wishing he was somewhere else. You’re a good man, my son, but you’re not a farmer.”

Ramon laughed, then turned his attention to the atole and coffee. Finally, he looked up again. “I’ve been enjoying it here… the peace and quiet.”

“That’s because you’ve had a difficult year, being chased by Dalton and his bounty hunters. You were tired and you needed a rest. But before you marry Fatemeh, you need to decide what you’re going to do with the rest of your life.”

Ramon took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He stood and looked out the window. “I wasn’t happy being a sheriff, you know.”

“Why was that?”

He shook his head. “Everyone I knew left Socorro. I was sheriff in a town of strangers.”

Sofia narrowed her gaze. “That doesn’t ring true to me.”

“Why not?” Ramon looked out over the plains toward the Manzano Mountains. Snow from a late spring storm still capped the summits.

“Fatemeh was a stranger… at least until you got to know her.”

Ramon turned around and faced his mother. “If it wasn’t strangers making me uncomfortable in Socorro, what was it?”

Sofia Morales stood and took her son’s hands. “Ramon, you were growing bored and restless there, just as you will grow bored and restless here if you stay.”

“I was happy being a clerk in California. I was happy being a ranch hand in Las Cruces,” he protested.

She shook her head. “How long were you in either of those places? Not as long as Socorro, eh?”

Ramon sighed. “No, mama.” He squeezed her hands, then sat down again. His shoulders slumped. “So, if I grow bored and restless in one place, how am I ever going to make a living?”

“That’s for you to figure out,” said Sofia. “When you do figure it out, I will give my permission for you and Fatemeh to marry. I think you’ll find the two of you are more alike than you realize.”

Ramon pursed his lips, feeling like his mother knew something she wasn’t saying. If she knew what would make him happy, why didn’t she just tell him? He shook his head and sighed. After a moment, he finished the atole and coffee, helped her with the dishes, then shuffled out to tend the animals.

* * *

Billy McCarty rode into Lincoln, New Mexico with a nearly empty wallet, but a head full of possibilities. He still wasn’t sure how he had let himself get talked into riding to the Grand Canyon to join up with a force flying mechanical owls against enormous airships that hovered over Denver like storm clouds. Still, he had done it, and what’s more, the owl riders had won.

“I flew.” The memory left Billy breathless. “I actually flew like a bird.”

Billy’s horse wiggled her ears as though she had heard the words far too many times already.

Looking to his left, Billy noticed Lawrence Murphy’s store. With a scowl, he snapped the reins, encouraging the horse to move on by. Murphy wanted to be the sole supplier for every ranch in Lincoln County. Billy’s former boss, John Tunstall, not only started a ranch, but decided he didn’t want to pay Murphy’s prices, so he opened his own feed store. The two men had been feuding ever since.

When he left Denver just about two months ago, Billy thought he would continue down the Rio Grande to Mesilla and ignore the Lincoln County feuds altogether. Working for John Tunstall, he had been little more than a hired gun. He began to think it might be worth learning a trade that could sustain him as he watched the future unfold—maybe he could even help it unfold. Unfortunately, he’d already spent most of his money just returning to New Mexico. Of course, it didn’t help that he’d reach a town, spend a few days gambling and enjoying the company of the local saloon girls before moving on. By the time he reached Lincoln, he needed more money.

He knew John Tunstall would have work for him. He would pay well and he would be interested in hearing about Billy’s exploits over Denver. Once he raised a little money, Billy could ride on to Mesilla as he originally planned.

As Billy looked around the town, it seemed emptier than the last time he’d been through. It wasn’t quite like a ghost town. A few people ambled along the boardwalks in front of the buildings, but it seemed too quiet for such a nice spring day, as though the town’s energy had drained away. His brow creased as he tried to count the days since he’d last seen a calendar. Maybe it was Sunday and people were at church.

Billy smiled when he saw Tunstall’s store, down the road from Murphy’s. He dismounted and looped the horse’s reins around the hitching post in front. As he walked through the door, a bell jangled. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the relative gloom.

“Well I’ll be.” Charlie Bowdre, a man with wavy hair and a long, thick mustache, eyed Billy with suspicion. “I never thought I’d see you again.”

“Charlie.” Billy tipped his hat, then looked around the strangely empty store. No customers milled about within, or waited at the counter. The shelves were not as full as the last time he’d been there. “Town seems quiet today? What’s goin’ on?”

“Town’s been quiet for the last three weeks,” said Bowdre.

Billy stepped toward the counter. Bowdre had a lean, gaunt face, but he seemed to have lost weight and a hungry look gleamed in his eye. “I thought business would be booming. What about the army?”

“The army ain’t been any help.” Bowdre leaned over the counter. “Business has been dead since they packed up and went north.”

“Yeah, but shouldn’t they be back in the territory by now? They sorted out that business in Denver.”

“Then they got sent to Washington Territory.” Charlie made the statement as though it was common knowledge. Confused, Billy rubbed the stubble on his chin and realized he hadn’t seen any soldiers on the ride south.

“Washington? Why’d they go there?”

“The army may have blown up them airships over Denver, but there’s still troops crawling all over Seattle. Denver was just the beginning.”

“Oh.” Billy frowned. He remembered General Gorloff, the Russian leader and how he spoke with a strange otherworldly voice. Some kind of spirit from the stars that called itself Legion controlled the Russians and made them invade. Before that, there had never been a history of animosity between the Russian Empire and the United States. As the invasion progressed, Legion reconsidered its plans and decided it had made a mistake. Billy thought the invasion had ended. “I was there in Denver and I thought the two big airships were their hold card. With those destroyed, why did the Russians stay? How are they even being supplied?”

“You know, some people got more pride than sense,” said Bowdre. “Once the Russians got that territory, they were probably more apt to fight and hold onto it than tuck tail and run.”

“I see what you mean.” Billy snorted, then looked around. “So, where can I find Mr. Tunstall?”

“He’s out at the ranch.” Bowdre waved his hand that direction.

Billy tipped his hat and turned to leave.

“Don’t expect a warm welcome, Billy.”

He continued through the door, unhitched his horse and climbed into the saddle. He ground his teeth and debated whether or not to continue on to Tunstall’s ranch or just ride on to Mesilla as he’d originally planned. He decided he wanted to know what happened since he’d last been in Lincoln. Besides, Charlie Bowdre was always something of a grump who often blew things out of proportion.

The sun was high in the sky as Billy reached John Tunstall’s place. He climbed out of the saddle and led his horse to a water trough near a patch of grass. After tending the horse, he strode over to the house and knocked, figuring Tunstall would be there. By this time of day, he had typically finished the morning chores and took a break for lunch while reviewing the store’s paperwork.

A few minutes later, the door swung open, revealing a man just a little older than Billy. His hair was combed back and he wore a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee. “Well, well, if it isn’t Billy McCarty.”

“Howdy, John.” Billy held out his hand.

Tunstall looked at Billy’s hand for a moment, then with a hint of a shrug, reached out and shook it. “What brings you out this way, Billy? When you rode off a few weeks ago, I thought we’d seen the last of you.”

“What gave you that idea?”

“Well, you talked me into stopping the raids on Murphy’s cattle because the Russians were on their way to Denver.” Tunstall shrugged. “I thought it sounded like a good idea, help the country and all. You told me there might be a way to get the army to buy more of our beef, but soon after that, the whole damned army rode out of New Mexico Territory and you weren’t far behind them.”

Billy’s brow furrowed. “Surely you don’t blame me for that, John. I didn’t tell the Russians to invade America.”

Tunstall snorted. “No, and to tell the truth, business has been bad for everyone, including Murphy.”

“It can’t stay that way forever,” said Billy.

Tunstall gazed off into the distance for a moment, then looked back into Billy’s eyes. “No, I don’t suppose it can, but it doesn’t help things right now.”

Billy slumped as he nodded. “I suppose this wouldn’t be the best time to ask if you had any work, then.”

Tunstall shook his head. “I’m trying to figure out how to make payroll for my men as it is. Frenchy, Tom, and several other men went off to join the army, figuring it’s a better prospect.”

Billy removed his hat and rubbed fingers through his hair. “I’m sorry, John. If I’d known…”

“What difference would it have made? As you say, you didn’t tell the Russians to invade.” His expression softened and he reached out and put his hand on Billy’s arm. “Look, there’s room in the bunkhouse. If you want to spend a night or two, catch up on some rest… that would be fine. I can probably spare a little change to help you get down the road a little further.”

Billy smiled. “Thanks, John. I appreciate it.”

* * *

The lack of wanted posters hanging in front of the sheriff’s office in Flagstaff caused Larissa to turn her eyes heavenward and hold her hands out to her sides, imploring. There were only three posters. One showed a horse thief wanted in Prescott, another was for a stagecoach robbery in California. The third showed a curly-haired desperado wanted for stealing guns in Texas. The values attached to the bandits were low, each under $500. It certainly wasn’t worth the time and effort to ride out after the men in question. She hoped Professor Maravilla would have better luck with his letter-writing campaign.

She continued down the boardwalk to the general store. A man behind the counter placed cans on a shelf. “Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said, with a glance over his shoulder. “What can I help you find?”

“Right now, I’m just looking for a newspaper,” she said.

The clerk turned around and checked a shelf below the counter. “I don’t have much. Just a couple of papers the train brought in from Topeka four days ago. I also have a paper from Tucson that’s about a week and a half old.”

“I’ll take the Tucson paper.”

The clerk named a price and Larissa dug out a coin from a satchel on her belt. She tipped her coachman’s hat, then took the paper back to her room at the boarding house. She sat by the window to take advantage of the light.

The first page carried news about the war with Russia. Larissa frowned as she read. She assumed the war would have ended when the owl riders destroyed the Russian airships over Denver. However, the Russians were still entrenched in Alaska and Washington and showed no signs of leaving. What’s more, it sounded as though the Russians were expanding their hold on the territories and taking more cities. America had sent troops to the Northwest.

Larissa couldn’t help but notice that the Russian airships had not left troops in the Canadian provinces and they showed no signs of going there. She sniffed as she considered that the Russians were willing to invade the United States, but hesitated attacking the British Commonwealth. She wondered about that and suspected military strategists were trying to understand the situation as well.

Turning the page, Larissa learned that many soldiers had been pulled out of Arizona and New Mexico. As a result, ranches and mining camps had been left unprotected. There were reports of Indian raids on the mining camps outside of Tucson.

Page three mentioned a notable exception to the rise in Indian raids. Apaches and miners alike stayed away from the area between the San Pedro River and the Mule Mountains. According to the article, miners had reported seeing a camel with a spectral rider in the area. Larissa laughed to herself. “The miners have been out in the sun too long.”

She continued reading the paper. Once she reached the end, she tossed it down beside the chair with a snort. The only way she saw to put her expertise to work would be to hire herself out to a mine owner as a guard. That seemed more suicidal than lucrative.

Larissa looked up at the clock and realized it was almost suppertime. She went downstairs to the boarding house kitchen. Although Professor Maravilla knew how to cook, his repertoire was a bit limited and he had a taste for hot spices. She looked forward to giving her tongue a rest.

Arriving downstairs, she found the professor already at the table. “How was your day?” she asked.

“I posted a dozen letters to potential supporters. Four have given me money before, so I’m hopeful we’ll be able to continue the owl’s construction in a week or two.”

“It sounds like you had better luck than I did.” She told the professor about the lack of wanted posters at the sheriff’s office and the dearth of news in the paper. “At least I got a laugh out of the story about the ghost camel.”

“Ghost camel?” Professor Maravilla leaned forward. “Tell me more.”

“You can’t be serious.” Larissa sat back and folded her arms.

“Of course I am. All mysteries are interesting to me.” The professor’s eyebrows rose.

“Apparently Apaches and miners down near Tucson have been seeing some kind of ghost riding a camel,” said Larissa.

“Apaches and miners?” pressed Maravilla. “Why would Apaches make up such a story?”

Larissa shrugged. “It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I just figured it was some kind of spook story put in to help sell papers.”

The landlady interrupted their conversation when she entered carrying plates loaded with roast pork and potatoes. Larissa took a generous helping of meat and three potatoes. The professor sniffed at the food, then served himself.

“It seems to me,” said Maravilla, “that news of the Russian invasion would sell lots of papers. They don’t need ‘spook stories’ to do the job for them.”

Larissa’s eyebrows came together. “So you’ve heard the Russians are still in Washington Territory?”

“I’ve… had my suspicions.” The professor nodded.

Larissa leaned forward. “I thought the invasion would have ended when we destroyed the airships. Why are the Russians still there?”

The professor’s eyes darted back and forth for a moment as though he listened to two people converse. He did that sometimes when he thought.

“The Russians were motivated by a desire to help their kinsmen with land claims in California and for Alaskan resources.”

“Land claims in California?” Larissa shook her head, not understanding how the professor knew something that eluded even the newspapers. “What resources are there in Alaska? I gather we bought it more as a favor to the Russians than anything else.”

Maravilla nodded thoughtfully. “Alaska is rich with oil and in a world of machines, oil is very valuable indeed. Just because we stopped them at Denver doesn’t mean they’ll leave the territories they already control.” The professor’s voice sounded distant, almost like he was reciting something he’d heard somewhere else. He looked down, blinked at his food, then took a bite. His face betrayed disappointment as he reached for the salt and pepper shakers and doused his food liberally.

“So, what’s next?” asked Larissa. “Back to the canyon tomorrow while we wait to see if anyone sends us money?”

“Why not go to Tucson? We could investigate this spectral camel rider.”

“We could and we wouldn’t find anything,” said Larissa. “I tell you, it’s just stories made up by miners.”

“And Apaches, you said.”

“So?” Larissa shrugged.

“Apaches fear the dead. They would not make up such a story unless they had a good reason.”

“The other problem is our lack of funds.”

“That situation won’t change sitting in Flagstaff or at the Grand Canyon, my dear.” The professor flashed a disarmingly innocent smile. “Besides, I’ve noticed that opportunities sometimes present themselves while on the road.”

Larissa took another bite of supper as she considered the professor’s statement. The food grew bitter in her mouth. The Russians were still in America. She wanted to help, but knew there was little a Mexican expatriate and a woman bounty hunter could do to help the war effort. “All right, then,” she grumbled at last. “Let’s go ghost hunting. What have we got to lose?”

The adventure continues in Lightning Wolves

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