Chapter One of Owl Riders by David Lee Summers

Battle Wagons

A scout whistled a warning.

Lozen's eyes flew open and she sat up, looking around for Dahteste. She remembered her companion remained behind at Fort Bowie. She tossed the blanket aside, threw on boots, grabbed a pair of binoculars, and scrambled from her wickiup into the chill spring morning air to see warriors already scrambling toward the battle wagons. The wagons rumbled to life like giant beasts as the warriors stoked fires in their boilers. A young chieftain named Naiche called to his riflemen to take positions then tied on a bright, red headband. Lozen lifted binoculars and scanned the horizon.

On her second sweep, she spotted dark forms bobbing near the rising sun. Once again, General Miles sent his mechanical birds to dislodge the Tsokanende—the people the white men called Chiricahua Apache—from the lands they'd claimed in Southern Arizona. She counted three of the so-called ornithopters. Lozen lowered the binoculars, then calmed her mind, preparing for the coming ordeal.

The battle wagons, which resembled small locomotives with cannons on top, coughed up smoke and rumbled forward. Unlike locomotives, these battle wagons required no rail to move. Instead, they rolled along the ground on continuous-track treads. The riflemen opened up a path for the wagons.

The original wagon hadn't been built for battle at all. Instead, it drilled into nearby mountains. Cattle rustlers armed with a gun that threw lightning bolts had stolen the machine hoping to wipe out Geronimo and his warriors at their camp in the nearby Dragoon Mountains.

Fortunately for the Tsokanende, the army had wanted the lightning gun back.

The army defeated the rustlers and then left. They had a bigger problem than "Apache troublemakers." Soldiers from a country called Russia had invaded the Pacific Northwest. When the U.S. Army left to fight the Russians, they also left the rugged mining machine behind.

Geronimo used his contacts in Mexico to find machinists willing to build battle wagons based on the mining machine. In exchange, they received rights to mine Tsokanende lands. The Mexican government turned a blind eye to these activities, but Lozen had heard the Rurales—the Mexican rural police force—were glad to see a buffer between the United States and Mexico. Cowboy raids on Mexican ranches had diminished considerably.

The original mining machine had a drill at the front. That had been removed to give the drivers better visibility, and the decreased weight allowed a large cannon to be mounted atop the machine. Because they had treads instead of wheels, they could traverse almost any terrain. This would have put the Tsokanende at a considerable advantage, except the army had an ace in the hole—the flying machines.

Spotters called out targets and the gunners aimed the battle wagons' cannons. A great roar echoed across the landscape as the weapons fired. One of the army's mechanical birds crumpled and tumbled end over end, crashing into the earth just ahead of the battle wagons.

Lightning bolts flew from the two remaining mechanical birds. One scorched the earth near a battle wagon. Another scored a direct hit. Lozen gritted her teeth. If the men inside weren't dead, they would be burned and maybe unconscious. The metal machines conducted the lightning guns' electricity all too well.

Naiche directed two warriors to inspect the stricken battle wagon then shouted an order to his riflemen. They took aim and fired at the remaining mechanical birds as they passed overhead, ripping several holes in the cloth fabric. Both birds flapped harder, attempting to gain altitude as they continued forward. Naiche's men reloaded. The active battle wagon lumbered forward, and turned in a wide arc to face the mechanical birds which had nearly reached the village.

Lozen sent runners to the camp. Bombs dropped from the birds as women and children fled the wickiups. She threw herself to the ground.

A fireball erupted from the building where they stored the munitions and gunpowder. The shock wave leveled several wickiups and hurled rocks and debris into the air. Lozen struggled to her knees and spat out dirt. Several Tsokanende lay on the ground, wounded or dead. She wiped angry tears away as the mechanical bird whirled around for another pass.

Naiche shouted orders to his men, who took aim and fired again. The range had increased but a warrior got lucky and hit a mechanical bird's wing control cable. No matter how hard its pilot tried, he could not keep the craft airborne. It plummeted to the ground, throwing up dust and mesquite. When the dust settled, it lay still, in a broken heap.

The final bird flew on, firing a lightning bolt as it passed the battle wagons. However, from the greater height, its accuracy diminished. It scorched the earth just behind one of the wagons, then continued back the way it came. The battle wagon fired at the retreating bird, but missed. The warriors yelled and whooped, shaking rifles and fists at the ornithopter as it set course for Tucson.

Lozen didn't yell, instead cold fury gripped her heart as she watched the bird retreat. Once convinced it wouldn't turn around for another strike, she turned her attention to the village. She called to Naiche's riflemen, instructing them to douse the flames before they spread.

Although losing the gunpowder and munitions stung, they kept most of their armaments at Fort Bowie to the east and Lozen could always bring more.

Around the village, women and children now stood and moved about, helping to extinguish the fires and picking up debris. It seemed most had escaped and found cover. Nearby, though, a toddler screamed at his mother who didn't move. Shrapnel had punctured her back and blood burbled from the wound. Lozen stepped over, took the toddler into her arms. Uncomfortable with children, she scanned the ruins. She spotted Naiche's wife, Haozinne, and gestured for her. She walked over and took the child, whispering soft words.

Turning around, she saw Naiche hunched over one of the mechanical birds his riflemen downed. She approached. The thing was a heap of cloth and saber-thin steel. Lozen had been told the lightning guns made the machines heavy and they couldn't fly high enough to stay out of rifle range, so their best strategy was to attack with the sun at their backs. As such, the Tsokanende were especially vigilant in the morning and the evening.

A low moan sounded from within the mechanical bird's wreckage. Naiche tore the cloth to reveal a bloodied and broken white man. Enraged, the warrior continued pulling the wreckage from the man until he could yank him clear. The white man screamed as Naiche hefted him upright. The pilot's arm dangled loose, dislocated from the shoulder, but his legs seemed sound enough.

Lozen narrowed her gaze and gestured for Naiche to follow with the captured soldier. She led them to the young mother's body. "Why do you do this?" she asked.

The white man made a noise somewhere between a stifled sob and a snarl. "Why do you Indians steal our land?" He turned his head, despite apparent pain. "You're Natchez, ain't ya?" He addressed Naiche, ignoring Lozen. "Your pa agreed to live on the reservation."

"Reservation." Naiche spat on the ground. "First they give us poor land with little water in the south. Then they move us to San Carlos where we have even less water. Only desert." He gave the white man a shove. The soldier dropped to the ground. To his credit, he didn't cry out, but his face scrunched, betraying pain. "The land is not yours to give."

Lozen knelt down and grabbed the white man's dangling arm. The man's eyes widened. He cried out as she pulled the arm and reset the dislocated joint. The white soldier fell back onto the ground, with a huff, sweating, but his face relaxed.

Lozen then hefted the soldier to his feet and pushed him toward the burnt-out village. Naiche followed close behind. "Where are you taking me?" demanded the soldier.

"You'll be our guest for a little while." She would let the soldier rest a while, let his pain argue with him, then come back to see how many birds General Miles still had to throw at them.

Lozen led the soldier to a corral and instructed him to sit.

While Naiche tied him to a post, Lozen returned to the scene of the battle. She located the other downed flying machine. Flames had already ravaged the cloth skin and the metal frame was bent and twisted. Peering into the wreckage, Lozen could just make out charred, bloody chunks of flesh. No one remained in this mechanical bird to question.

She scanned the battlefield. Two men carried bodies from the lightning-struck battle wagon. They had repulsed the attack, but at what cost? They had killed one soldier and took a second captive. Her eyes roved the village. She estimated they'd lost half a dozen people. She reflected for a moment on where they would be if Old Man Clanton and Curly Bill Bresnahan had not attacked the Tsokanende with the original mining machine.

Naiche's father, Cochise had surrendered to the white soldiers in 1872 and agreed to move to the Chiracahua Reservation, which at least had arable land. When the white men decided they wanted that land, they moved the Tsokanende to the San Carlos Reservation out on the barren desert.

Geronimo and his men had continued to resist the white soldiers, but Naiche had foreseen a time when they would be forced onto a reservation as well. Now with the battle wagons, the Tsokanende had carved out their own slice of land in Southern Arizona, but now they had to fight almost every day to keep it.

White men wanted the silver in the mountains and the water in the San Pedro River for farming and ranching. Now that the Russians no longer distracted them, the army seemed willing to keep throwing mechanical birds at them until they signed a new peace treaty—a treaty where Apaches got the worthless land while the whites got everything of value.

Lozen returned to the ruined wickiups. She found Naiche sorting through the remains of his own dwelling. He snorted. "If the white men keep attacking us like this, we could lose everything we've fought for."

Lozen frowned and nodded. "How do we get the white men to stop?"

"We have to take the attack to them."

The woman who had proved herself in battle alongside her brother, Victorio, narrowed her gaze. "Raiding Tucson would be suicide. Starving Tucson might get the soldiers to negotiate."

Naiche nodded slowly. He valued the advice of the woman who was not only a warrior, but had a reputation as a sorceress. "They have airships and trains to supply them. How can we stop them?"

Lozen grinned as she turned her gaze northward. "Airships are like ornithopters. They only carry so much weight. The train is the key."

* * *

"I don't care about cotton," grumbled Alethea Morales. "I want to play with my friends."

"You get to play with Francoise and Annette at school. The Cotton Exposition will be fun," countered her mother, Fatemeh. "There'll be music, food, and all kinds of new inventions."

The little girl wrinkled her nose and folded her arms across her chest. "It better be fun."

Her father, Ramon, forced himself not to laugh at the girl's serious expression. He adjusted his spectacles and turned in the seat to look out the window. The family rode on the horse-drawn streetcar along St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. There'd been talk of converting the cars to chemical reaction steam power, but the Crescent City still suffered the economic woes brought by the Civil War—the War of Northern Aggression, Ramon reminded himself—and Reconstruction.

The streetcar passed palatial houses far grander than the family's humble French Quarter flat as it trundled down the tree-lined avenue. He'd wanted to see the World Cotton Exposition since it opened months earlier, but his busy schedule only now allowed the family outing.

Ramon, Fatemeh and Alethea hopped to their feet and shuffled off the streetcar when it stopped next to the Upper City Park. The driver rang the bell and snapped the reins as the family crossed to the park, filled with several huge buildings. At the gate, Ramon paid $1.50 for the family's admission.

"When you enter, go past the main building to get to the Mexican pavilion," said the ticket seller as he handed Ramon a program book.

Fatemeh sighed as Ramon smiled and extended his hand. "Ramon Morales, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana. I'm glad to see you have a keen interest in our neighbors to the south."

The ticket seller took Ramon's proffered hand, but sniffed.

"You're funny, daddy," said Alethea as they passed through the gate into the fairgrounds.

Ramon considered saying something about keeping good humor even when people showed prejudice, but decided that conversation could wait until his daughter was older. Instead, he smiled down at her, then paused just inside the gate and opened the program book to a map. The U.S. and State Exhibits occupied the building to the left and those to the right housed livestock. The centerpiece building beyond these two was perhaps the largest building he had ever seen. It reminded him of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. A shiver traveled up his spine as he remembered traveling there aboard a Japanese Airship eight years before.

"It'll take us days to see everything," remarked Fatemeh.

"We don't have to do everything today." Ramon shrugged. "We can always come back."

"If your schedule permits, Mr. Assistant U.S. Attorney." Fatemeh's tone held a razor edge, but when he looked up, she beamed a proud smile.

"Let's go to the biggest building," urged Alethea.

Ramon nodded. "It's the one labeled 'A' on the map, might as well start there." They strode through the park on the mild spring day. Growing up in the desert Southwest, Ramon thought he had experienced harsh summer heat, but in New Orleans, the humidity was a palpable force in its own right. What's more, when he served as a sheriff in New Mexico territory, no one expected him to wear a jacket unless the air grew chill. As an attorney in New Orleans, his peers expected him to wear a jacket, cravat, and waistcoat almost all the time.

The World Cotton Exposition's Main Building reminded him of a warehouse, completely unlike the Russian Winter Palace and its cavernous, white and gold entryway. Having resided in New Orleans for almost a year, he'd been to Mardi Gras, but the noise levels paled when compared to a vast space filled with people speaking, machines running, and music from a steam calliope competing with a Wurlitzer Band Organ.

"Wow!" gasped Alethea as she ran ahead to the first display. Ramon and Fatemeh bolted after her. Before them stood a sleek, shiny, brass automaton on continuous track treads. Piston-like arms pointed forward and a maw dominated the machine's "head." The word "Jackalope" had been painted in handwritten script on its side.

Fatemeh whistled. "That looks like no Jackalope harvester I've ever seen."

A man in a bowler hat, pinstripe suit, and bow tie stepped around the harvester. "That's right, ma'am. This is a brand-spanking new and improved Jackalope harvester. It's designed for maximum efficiency in any conditions." He winked at Alethea. "Would you like to see it work, little lady?"

"Sure," said the girl.

The man opened a panel on the machine's side, threw a switch and turned a dial, reminding Ramon of Katsu Kaishu's automaton rickshaw driver in Japan. The brass harvester rumbled to life, spewing a cloud of smoke toward the high ceiling. It spun around toward a bed of sod, dotted with cabbages. Its piston-like arms shot out, grabbed the vegetables, and shoved them into its mouth, as though it were a ravenous beast.

The man nodded. "If you're familiar with the early Jackalope harvesters, you know they were modeled on rabbits and hopped. They worked in a lot of terrain, but they could get stuck and burned lots of fuel. These new harvesters are much faster and the tracks keep them from bogging down in muddy fields."

"It's monstrous," breathed Fatemeh, though her eyes betrayed a degree of admiration.

Ramon nodded to the man and they continued down the aisle, passing clusters of people who watched new farm equipment demonstrations. Besides harvesters, they passed tillers, planting machines, new-fangled mills, gins, and presses. After a few displays, Alethea's eyes began to glaze over and her attention wandered.

She pointed up to the rafters. "There's a bird in here."

Ramon adjusted his glasses. "That's no bird. It's a little ornithopter."

"What's an ornithopter?" Alethea's brow creased.

Fatemeh knelt down next to her daughter. "A machine that flaps its wings to fly, Alethea joon." She poked the little girl in the nose, setting off a round of giggles.

A man wearing a boater hat and a string tie stepped away from his display. "I see you've taken an interest in our new toy." He held up a box, similar to the ones used to control the Jackalope harvesters. "It's a remotely controlled ornithopter. Both the ornithopter and the control box use electromagnetic coherer units to send signals to one another. It's technology developed by Heinrich Hertz in Germany."

"That's the same principle as the clackers we use in my office." Ramon retrieved a device the size of a pocket watch from his belt. "I thought M.K. Maravilla here in America developed electromagnetism for remote communication."

"Scientists around the world are working to grasp the power of the electron." The man with the control box grasped the control stick and brought the ornithopter down from the rafters. "This flying machine can be used to spray insecticide or the new liquid fertilizers coming onto the market."

"I wish I had one." Alethea clapped her hands. "It would make a grand toy."

The man controlling the small ornithopter ticked up an indulgent smile. "I'm afraid these are much too expensive to be playthings for little girls."

Fatemeh frowned. Before Ramon could ask what bothered her, she pointed to a tall display near the pavilion's center. "Let's go over there."

Ramon followed her gaze to a two-story tall banner displaying a book cover with the title Le Cuisine Creole. The author was a local newspaperman named Lafcadio Hearn. Fatemeh led Alethea toward the booth and Ramon scrambled to catch up.

"I wonder if that salesman would tell a boy ornithopters were too precious to be toys," grumbled Fatemeh as they walked.

"It did look expensive." Ramon shrugged.

Fatemeh narrowed her gaze. "Yeah, and we'll find cheaper stuff in the Mexican Pavilion, I'm sure."

Ramon let the jab slide off. He understood her annoyance and had no argument with it.

Several people hovered around Lafcadio Hearn's booth. Ladies passed around serving trays with cakes and small sandwiches. Ramon's stomach growled and he understood the booth's popularity. He took a sandwich and offered it to Fatemeh, who waved it away, so he offered it to his daughter. She sought out the cake lady instead, so Ramon swallowed the sandwich.

A thin Irishman with a bushy mustache and sad eyes sat at a table in the booth surrounded by stacks of books. He perked up when he caught sight of Ramon and Fatemeh. "Mr. and Mrs. Morales." He waved them over. "So good to see you here!"

Ramon, Fatemeh and Alethea approached the Irishman.

Hearn reached under the table and retrieved a book, different from the cookbooks stacked around him. "I just received the first copies yesterday. They should go on sale within the week." He passed the book to Fatemeh while Ramon looked over her shoulder. The title on the cover read Owl Riders.

Over the last year, Hearn had interviewed Ramon and Fatemeh about their adventures out west and in the Far East. He wrote about the Russian invasion of the United States and how Fatemeh had organized a ragtag band of pirates and gunslingers to drive them out when the Army had failed. He then told how Ramon had stopped samurai air pirates to prevent war between Japan and Russia. When telling their story, Ramon and Fatemeh had left out the part about an invisible creature from the stars called Legion.

Eight years after last hearing Legion's voice, Ramon began to doubt his own memories of communicating with the spirit-like creature.

Fatemeh flipped through the book.

Alethea tugged on her skirts. Fatemeh knelt down so the girl could see.

"No pictures?" The girl frowned.

Fatemeh smiled and shook her head. "Nope, he paints pictures in your mind with his words."

Alethea snorted and looked to see where the cake lady had gone.

A tall, thin man with a waxed mustache and a dark suit approached. "Excuse me," he said in a drawl more Georgia than Louisiana. "Do I understand that y'all are none other than Ramon and Fatemeh Morales from New Mexico?"

Ramon narrowed his gaze. The man's breath reeked of alcohol and it wasn't even ten in the morning.

The stranger pulled out a handkerchief as a racking cough surged through him. Ramon thought he saw blood specks as the stranger folded the handkerchief and put it away. "Pardon my manners. I'm Dr. John Henry Holliday. Mr. Morales, could we have a word?"

Ramon followed Dr. Holliday outside the exposition hall, relieved to exit the building's din. While they walked, Ramon wracked his brain, trying to remember where he'd heard the name "Doc Holliday" before. A booth sold beignets and café au lait. After ordering, they sat at an open-air table under an umbrella.

"It's been a long time since I've been here in the south." The doctor retrieved a flask from his coat pocket and added amber liquid to his coffee. He offered the flask to Ramon who held up his hand. The doctor shrugged and recapped the flask. "I live out in Arizona, working with some business associates who want to develop Eastern Pima County."

With that, Ramon remembered where he'd heard of Doc Holliday. "You're an associate of Wyatt Earp, the Tucson businessman." Ramon could tell he was becoming a politician. Earp and his brothers were gamblers, saloon operators, and occasional lawmen—when it paid.

"That's right," said Holliday. "My associate has become acquainted with Albert and Edward Schieffelin…"

Ramon narrowed his gaze while he sipped his café au lait, not recognizing the names.

"I believe you and the Schieffelin brothers have a mutual acquaintance." Holliday gulped the doctored coffee. "I believe he goes by the nom de plume, Professor Maravilla?"

The light dawned. "Now I know who you're talking about. They're prospectors. The professor built the mining machine based on javelina research for them." Ramon bit into a beignet, conscious of how much his girth stressed his waistcoat's buttons. He ate much better as an attorney in New Orleans than he had as a small town sheriff in New Mexico Territory.

"That's right." Ramon couldn't help but notice how skinny the doctor was as he swallowed the last of a beignet. "They know there's a lot of, shall we say, mineral wealth in the Mule Mountains of Southeastern Arizona…"

"But the Apaches have claimed that land for their own…"

Holliday smiled. "That's exactly the problem." A rattling cough shattered the doctor's smile. He lifted the handkerchief to his mouth again and Ramon waited for it to subside.

"Why come to me? How did you even know where to find me?"

Holliday drank his coffee and smiled again. "You see, I'm here on family business. My father wants me to return home to Georgia. He says there are doctors researching my—" he shrugged "—condition at Emory University out in Oxford. I think goin' back to Georgia would kill me before they could cure me. Much as I love New Orleans, it hasn't done my lungs much good."

"You're a doctor," Ramon leaned forward, gaze narrowed. "Surely you'd be one of the first to embrace new hope. You have tuberculosis?"

"I'm a lunger, yes. My doctorate is in dentistry, not medicine. My views on the subject, are, shall we say, jaded."

Ramon frowned, then sipped his coffee. "That still doesn't tell me what you want."

Holliday nodded slowly, as though trying to recapture his train of thought. "On the airship over here, I read about your exploits in the Times-Democrat." He referred to the newspaper that employed Lafcadio Hearn. "You're a man who's negotiated with the Emperor of Japan and the Czar of Russia. I thought you might be the man to negotiate with Natchez and the army. I was approachin' Mr. Hearn to ask him how I might find you when lo and behold he hands your wife the very book he wrote about you."

Ramon tapped his fingers on the table. "Dr. Holliday, I'm the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana. I can't just up and leave my job to help you with a land dispute."

"My associates could make it worth your while if you'd help out. They have holdings in several business interests and if they succeeded I'm sure you could be given an interest in the mine, perhaps a parcel of land. Can't be easy havin' your … skin hue here in the South."

Ramon's fingers stopped their dance. The statement held more truth than he wanted to admit. He loved New Orleans and the French Quarter, but he often grew homesick for the Southwest. Although he made good money as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, he wished he had more time to spend with his wife and daughter.

"May I take your silence to mean my offer tempts you?" Holliday leaned on one elbow and took another gulp of his coffee.

"Let me do a little research and think about it." Ramon picked up another beignet and swallowed it down, followed by more coffee. "How can I reach you if I want to discuss this further?"

Holliday retrieved a card and a pen from his pocket. He wrote down a name and passed it to Ramon—the Commercial Hotel, a respectable establishment—but not too far from Bourbon Street, Ramon thought with a snort. "I'll be here a week more, then I'll head west again," said the dentist.

Ramon finished his coffee, then stood and shook Holliday's hand. "I can't promise anything. Not even sure if I want to get involved, but I'll do some homework."

"That's all I ask," said Holliday.

Ramon brushed confectioner's sugar from his waistcoat and returned to the main building. He found Fatemeh and Alethea still talking to Hearn at the cookbook display.

"There you are," said Fatemeh. "I was worried you'd gotten lost. Who was that man?"

"A dentist from Arizona named Holliday." Ramon shrugged and glanced over to Hearn. "Seems he read your articles in the Times-Democrat."

"I hope I've given him a favorable impression." Hearn bowed in a way that almost reminded him of the Japanese.

A clacking sounded from the device hanging from Ramon's belt. He lifted it and tapped an acknowledgment in Morse code, then held the device to his ear to listen. His shoulders slumped. "I'm needed at the office. There've been some new developments in the lightning gun case I'm working on."

Fatemeh put her hands on her hips. "I wish they'd never invented those clackers. It's Saturday, for God's sake."

"I know. I'm sorry." He stepped forward and embraced his wife's shoulders. "You stay here and enjoy the fair. You'll be able to get home okay?"

"As though I need you to be my escort." Good natured sarcasm coated her words.

He kissed her. "I'll see you soon, Corazón."

She handed him the copy of the book, Owl Riders. "Take this. Maybe it'll remind you of your family."

He laughed then picked up Alethea and gave her a big hug. "Have fun, listen to your mom, and be good." Setting her down, he took the book from Fatemeh. He was honestly curious what Hearn had written about them and how it had attracted Holliday's attention.

"You be good, too," said Alethea.

Ramon waved. "I'm afraid, being good is why I have to go to work. See you as soon as I can."

The adventure continues in Owl Riders

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