"My squadron is waiting for me, Captain," Kahn warned, "and they won't like the idea of my being hanged."
Dane shook her head. "Your pilots are parked at my airfield, and there's ten AA guns covering the strip. If they try to take off, we'll shoot 'em to pieces. It's the end of the line for you and your gang." She tossed Kahn the keys to the cage. "Now get in."
Kahn studied Dane carefully. There were bright spots of color at her cheeks and beads of sweat beaded beneath her short-cropped blond hair. "Captain, I think you'd better sit down and catch your breath. You don't look so good."
The Collective pilot frowned. Her free hand went to her forehead, and came away slicked with sweat. Suddenly she swayed on her feet. Her eyes went wide. "Whatwhat did you do" Her thumb fumbled at the hammer of her pistol, trying to cock the weapon. Kahn rushed forward, grabbing the gun out of her hand moments before she collapsed. Her head hit the wooden floor with a muted thump and she lay motionless, barely breathing.
John and Amos stared gape-jawed at the unconscious pilot. Kahn tossed O'Neil the keys. "Get that door open and start moving those bags," Kahn said calmly, returning to the doorway to peer warily along the street.
Kahn's strongmen each had one of the heavy bags in hand by the time O'Neil got the door open. The thief scooped his pistol off the floor and joined Kahn, shaking his head bemusedly. "Talk about lucky breaks, huh, boss?"
"A wise prince makes his own luck, to paraphrase a certain Italian thinker," Kahn replied. "That whiskey I offered her earlier was laced with laudanum."
O'Neil's thin eyebrows rose. "But...you took a drink, too."
"No, I only pretended to, and Dane was too preoccupied to notice," Kahn corrected. "I wanted a little insurance in case she tried to cause trouble." He stared thoughtfully at Dane's prostrate form. "Unfortunately I was only partially successful. Once she wakes up she'll have the whole town up in arms."
The thief looked long and hard at the unconscious pilot and nodded. "I see what you mean." He holstered his pistol and pulled a small, thin-bladed knife from his sleeve. "You want I should take care of her?"
"Kill her, you mean?" Kahn said, faintly surprised. "Don't be ridiculous. You don't kill an unconscious foe, Pete, especially a woman." He hefted Dane's pistol and took careful aim. "That's my job."
Just then Amos stuck his bald head back through the doorway. "Townspeople down the street, boss," he said. "They got guns and dogs."
Kahn let out an exasperated sigh and reluctantly stuck the pistol in his waistband. Squeezing past the strongman, he stuck his head outside and could see twenty or so menarmed with shotguns and riflesleading a pack of leashed hounds down the street a couple blocks away. As he watched, they pushed open the door of a building to their right and rushed inside, weapons ready. "Looking for downed pirates, I imagine," Kahn wondered aloud. "If it isn't one thing, it's another."
He turned to O'Neil. "We're going to have to take the good captain with us. If nothing else, she might make a useful hostage. Find something to tie her up with and stuff her in a mail sack. The boys can carry her out with the rest of the bags."
"Sure thing, boss," the thief said, and went to work.
Kahn left the doorway and went to lean against the Packard's rear fender, tossing his cigar stub into the street and pulling a fresh one from his leather jacket. It took two minutes for John and Amos to get another set of bags into the car. He lit the cigar and puffed at it methodically. Two bags every two minutes. How many bags had there been in the cage? He couldn't remember. Kahn shook his head disapprovingly. He was getting sloppy.
The search party emerged from the building and moved to the one on the opposite side of the street. They weren't inside the smaller building more than a minute, then went to the next set and repeated the procedure. Only a block away, now. Kahn noted that the group moved with a certain amount of precision. They'd obviously practiced their routine many, many times. He wondered if they'd ever caught anyone before, and whether they'd just pass on a trial and proceed straight to the executions.
O'Neil stepped outside. "All taken care of, boss."
Kahn nodded. "Think you can drive this car, Pete?"
The thief grinned. "My mama had one just like it. I stole it for her last Christmas."
"Then get behind the wheel. We may be leaving in a hurry."
The search party worked their way down the street. John and Amos still weren't done. The townspeople were close enough now that the hounds could smell Kahn and his men; they lunged and barked, straining at their leashes until the searchers hauled them back to the job at hand.
"How many more?" Kahn asked Amos as the strongman loaded another bag into the car.
"Just a couple," the pirate answered, a little out of breath. "You know, we could've gone faster if we'd brought more guys."
"Remind me the next time we rob a payroll."
Amos grinned. "Right, boss."
The search party was only a block away. John and Amos got the last bags out in record time and hurried back for Dane. Kahn was just about to climb in the car when he saw the leader of the townspeople wave the party away from the next building on the street and start walking over to the Packard, shotgun at the ready.
Kahn took a few steps forward, away from the car. He smiled broadly around his cigar as the townspeople approached the Post Office. "Seen any pirates, Comrades?" he asked cheerfully.
The man in charge of the party evidently didn't have a sense of humor. He looked Kahn over sternly. "We saw two chutes during the fight," he said, and spit a stream of tobacco juice onto the ground. "They're holed up here somewhere, but the dogs'll get 'em right enough." The man cradled his shotgun in both arms and squinted warily at him. "Heard you're taking the grain payment back to Tulsa."
Kahn kept smiling, watching for his men out of the corner of his eye. "That's right," he said. "No sense getting Deadwood bombed again if we can help it."
The man frowned. "But how are the pirates supposed to know the money's gone? Seems to me they'll still think it's here, and hit us again anyway."
John and Amos emerged from the Post Office, carrying a large mail sack between them. Instantly the dogs lunged at it, barking furiously, and the men broke into shouts, leveling their guns.
The pirates froze. The man with the shotgun shouted down the rest and glared balefully at Kahn. "What you got in that bag, mister?"
Kahn summoned up his nerve. "Letters and packages, Comrade," he said carefully. "We figured as long as we were headed to Tulsa we might as well carry the post, too."
One of the townspeople, a short, round-bellied farmer, lowered his rifle and shook his head in disgust. "Dang it, I told Alice not to send her sister those jerky strips! We just about blew our mail to kingdom come."
The rest of the men laughed, pulling back the dogs. Kahn remembered to smile and waved at his men to finish loading the car. "Sorry about the scare, fellas," he said with a laugh. "I think that's the last of the bags, so if it's all the same to you we'll be getting out of your way." He went to the Packard's passenger door as John and Amos piled into the back. "Good luck with those pirates," he said, giving the men a salute.
"You, too!" one of the townspeople yelled back as the Packard sped away.
They got lost twice working through Deadwood's rubble-strewn streets. By the time Kahn and his men reached the airfield the sun was coloring the hilltops to the west. The AA guns were still fully manned, he noticed, as they sped down the access road leading to the hangars. They weren't nearly out of the woods yet. All he needed was for Dane to wake up and raise an alarm and they were as good as dead.
The Macchiavelli was waiting for them at the airfield's mooring tower, the People's Collective insignia prominent on her prow. Their airship had been lowered to the ground and was ready to take on cargo. Hetty stood nearby with a cluster of Red Skull crew, waiting nervouslyuncomfortable in their Collective-issue flight togsfor Kahn's return. Not far away a group of Deadwood ground crewmen were offloading crates from the back of a flatbed truck.