Kahn pulled the Devastator into a climbing left turn and surveyed the aerial battle. At least nine of the raiders had been shot down, and the shock of the Red Skulls' furious attack had panicked the rest. Nesbitt's fighters were breaking off, hugging the hills to the southwest as they ran for their airship. The barrage of anti-aircraft fire had abated while the gunners on the ground tried to sort out their sudden change of fortune.
There wasn't any time to waste. Kahn keyed his radio. "Any militia pilots on this frequency, this is Comrade Major Smith of the Collective airship Elijah. We came as soon as we heard your distress call. Do you read, over?"
A woman's voice responded immediately. "This is Comrade Captain Angela Dane of the Deadwood Air Militia. You're just in time, Major...another few minutes and we'd have been done for." The Collective pilot had a cool, steely voice, but she sounded relieved all the same.
The militia planes had formed up on one another, and Kahn came up alongside the lead fighter, a badly shot-up Defender. By the looks of things, Captain Dane had been in the thick of the battle from the start. "Glad to be here, Comrade," Kahn replied, waving at the militia pilot, "but we aren't out of the woods yet. We chased those bandits off for now, but I expect they'll be back. You and I both know what they're after, and they aren't going to quit until they get it."
From the cockpit of the ravaged Defender Captain Dane glanced over at Kahn's fighter, her face unreadable. "Yes, sir, I have to agree," she replied grimly.
Kahn nodded, keeping his voice carefully neutral. "You and your squadron have put up a hell of a fight here, Captain, but Deadwood can't afford another raid. Half the town's been wrecked already"
"Those pirate scum can burn the whole place to the ground." Dane swore with sudden vehemence. "We'll make them pay for every single building, and when they're gone, we'll just build again. But they aren't getting that grain payment, Major. I can promise you that."
Kahn gritted his teeth. "Comrade, your courage is an example to all of us," he said, trying to sound reasonable. "But we have to think of the civilians down there. How many have already suffered because of this raid? I don't know about you, but I certainly don't want that on my conscience."
When Dane didn't reply immediately he knew he'd struck a chord. Finally, she replied. "I'm open to suggestions, sir."
"You're a credit to the People's Collective, Comrade. First, I need to speak to your mayor. Can you escort us in to Deadwood Airfield?"
"Certainly, sir. Follow my lead." The beat-up plane started a slow turn to the right, and Kahn fell in behind Dane's struggling wingman.
The pirate leader switched frequencies. "Red Flight," he called, glancing at the formation circling just south of town. "They bought it. We're being escorted in."
Kahn switched back to the Militia frequency and chewed thoughtfully on his cigar. Another thirty minutes, give or take, and their problems would be over. Providing that all went according to plan. If anything went wrong, he and his pilots were going to be caught on the ground in a town that shot pirates on sight.
The Devastator passed over the southern edge of the Deadwood airfield. The tower was wrecked, but he could see that plenty of their antiaircraft batteries were ready for action. Kahn lowered his landing gear and tried not to consider how long it had been since anything he'd tried had gone according to plan.
Comrade Captain Angela Dane had a stare that could drive nails. She wasn't more than five feet tall and built like a ballerina, but her blue eyes were hard and cold. Her short, auburn hair and delicate features could do nothing to soften that bleak, forbidding gaze. He hoped the captain wasn't going to be a problem.
Dane drove them into town in her Packard, weaving nimbly around piles of rubble and still-smoking bomb craters. Kahn sat beside her in the front seat. Three of his pilots, Amos Jones, John Scales and Pete O'Neil were crowded in the back, trying not to look nervous. The rest of the squadron, led by Hetty, had been left at the airfield to refuel the planes and be ready to try and take over the field in case things went disastrously wrong.
"Any other day and we'd have kicked their tails," Dane growled, slapping the steering wheel in frustration. "Four years Deadwood's been the transfer point for the Lakota grain payment, and no pirate's ever dared to hit us. But the one time we've got half our planes groundedit's like they knew somehow."
Kahn studied the Captain's profile. "Perhaps they did, Comrade," he said carefully. "A smart pirate would pay well for such information." He pulled a small flask from the inside of his flight suit, uncapped it, and took a small swig. Kahn offered it to Dane with a conspiratorial wink, and she accepted almost without thinking, knocking back a healthy gulp.
She handed back the flask, shaking her head. "Those were Harry Nesbitt's thugs," she said. "Vicious, yes, but not very smart."
Pete O'Neil let out a laugh. He was a short and wiry guy, dwarfed by the hulking figures of Amos and John, with slicked-back hair and a long, weasel-like nose. "Nesbitt's Nincompoops they ought to call them," he said in his sharp, New Jersey twang. "What morons" O'Neil's eyes went wide as two large elbows dug into his ribs.
If Dane heard, she paid little attention. "I guess it's just lucky for us you got our distress call," she said, glancing at Kahn. "I didn't think there were any Collective airships within fifty miles of us."
"We just arrived in the area two days ago," Kahn said smoothly. "On an unannounced patrol. We heard you'd been having trouble with Lakota bandits lately, and hoped to catch 'em napping."
Dane nodded thoughtfully. "Lucky for us."
A minute later they pulled up outside the Deadwood General Store. Its windows had been blown out during the raid, but the building itself looked undamaged. A burly man wearing a shopkeeper's apron stood near the counter, talking to a handful of townspeople and trying to look after his store at the same time. He looked over as the pilots crunched across the broken glass. "That was as close a call as I ever want to see, Comrade," he called out to Dane. "Who's that with you there?"
"This is Comrade Major Smith and some of his men from the airship Elijah," Dane replied. "They heard our distress call and got here in the nick of time." She turned to Kahn. "Major Smith, this is our mayor, Ed Stovall."
Stovall smiled and reached for Kahn's hand. "Much obliged to you, Major," he said with undisguised relief. "I thought we were done for. What can I do for you?"
"More like what I can do for you, Mayor," Kahn replied. "We're still not out of the woods yet. Those pirates are after the grain payment, and they won't quit until they get it. Right now I expect they're loading up more bombs and rockets and getting ready for round two. Your town is going to get hit again unless we do something."
There were cries of dismay from the townspeople. Stovall raised both hands, asking for silence. "What do you suggest, Major?"
"I suggest taking the grain payment and loading it onto my airship, then run like hell for Tulsa," Kahn said. "Frankly, I don't know if we can outrun the bandits or not, but we can at least draw them away from the town."
"No way!" Dane interjected. "Sorry Major, but that's a bad idea. We've still got more than a dozen working flak guns, plus your planes, and its only half an hour before dark." She folded her arms defiantly. "We can hold out here."
Kahn turned to the Collective pilot. "I'm not saying we can't, Captain, but think of the damage the pirates will do to the town in the meantime." Frightened cries echoed off the store walls as the townspeople shouted their agreement.
"All right, all right!" Stovall cried, trying to restore order. "Angie, he's got a point. Lord only knows how many people we've already lost today. I have to agree with Major Smith." Stovall dug in his pocket for a set of keys. "The bags are in the Post Office, Major. Take them and Godspeed. Angie, show the Major and his men how to get there."
Dane took the keys. Kahn put his hand on Stovall's shoulder. "You've made the right choice, Comrade," he said gravely, then looked to his men and nodded towards the door.
The Deadwood Post Office was less than a block away. Dane left the car engine running and led the fliers inside, her expression troubled. Kahn waited at the doorway, studying the sky. It was getting dark more quickly than he'd thought. If they didn't get off the ground very soon, they would be stuck there until dawn. It was going to be close, but it looked like they were going to pull it off.
One corner of the small building was taken up with a large steel cage, much like a jail cell. Inside were mail bags and the heavy, burlap sacks containing the grain payment. Dane unlocked the cage and pulled the door open, one hand resting idly on the pistol at her hip. "You're taking a hell of a risk, Major," she said, as Kahn's men headed for the bags. "If everything you say is true."
"I know people like Nesbitt very well, Captain. Trust me, it's the only way."
Dane nodded thoughtfully, watching the fliers wrestle with the heavy bags. "Well, can you do me a favor when you get back to your ship?"
Kahn glanced at her curiously. "Of course."
The Captain's hard, blue eyes bored into his. "I've got a cousin serving on the Elijah. Teddy Dane. Can you send him my love?"
Kahn's mind raced, trying to conceal his surprise. Dane's cold gaze narrowed. Suddenly she slammed the cell door shut and her pistol was in her hand.
"Put up your hands, pirate," she said.