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Chapter One:
Raiders from the Sky

Chapter Two:
In Enemy Hands

Chapter Three:
Old Debts

Chapter Four:
Under the Gun

Chapter Five:
Caught in the Act

Chapter Six:
Old Friends

Chapter Seven:
Making the Cut

Chapter Eight:
The Cut

Chapter Nine:
The Shell Game

Chapter Ten:
Serpents In Paradise

Chapter Eleven:
Into the Storm

Chapter Twelve:
Owning Up

Chapter Thirteen:
Interesting Times

"Genghis" Kahn & The

Manchurian Gambit

—A Tale of the Red Skull Legion—

By Mike Lee

Chapter Seven: Making the Cut

"Battle stations?" Hetty asked Kahn nervously. The bridge rattled again from the buzz-saw roar of engines as Nesbitt's heavy fighters came around for another pass, close enough to rattle the compartment's thick, plexiglass windows.

Jonathan "Genghis" Kahn shook his head. "The second we go for our guns, he's going to start shooting, then we're as good as dead."

For more information see:
Jonathan "Genghis" Kahn

The Red Skulls and their airship, the Machiavelli, had seen hard fighting and little chance for repair. Almost a third of the zeppelin's crew were walking wounded from the battle over Manhattan, and the ship was dangerously low on fuel and ammunition. Kahn leaned out through the radio room's doorway. "Dugan, have we got the hangar deck clear?"

The zeppelin's scarred captain was bent intently over the bridge's map table tracing a line with his finger and taking careful note of the sweeping second hand of the stopwatch he held. The airship was in the middle of a treacherous course through the Free Colorado Rockies, en route to the pirate den called Sky Haven. Nesbitt and his men were the least of Kahn's worries at the moment; the sheer rock walls and hidden pirate gun emplacements were of more immediate concern.

For more information see:
Free Colorado

"Deck's clear," Dugan called out, "but we can't launch. We don't have the altitude, and the wind's coming in from amidships. You'd hit the floor of the defile before you got enough airspeed to stay aloft."

"We're dead," Hetty said bleakly.

"Not yet," Kahn muttered. "He hasn't started shooting."

Kahn reached in his jacket for a cigar, but came up empty. The pirate boss ground his teeth and tried to make his tired brain function. He keyed the radio. "Not bad, Nesbitt. You caught us with our pants down. How'd you get so smart all of a sudden? You weren't this sharp over Deadwood, that's for sure."

Hetty's eyes went wide. The radioman's jaw dropped. Nesbitt's furious voice screeched through the radio's static. "You damn near ruined me, Kahn! I had to take a contract with Sky Haven just to stay in the air, but I knew that sooner or later you'd show up here, and I'd be waiting to collect!"

A sly grin spread across Kahn's face. "You aren't going to blow us away on Sky Haven's dime, Nesbitt. Not if you want to hang your hat here ever again. Regen and his gang don't care for pirates shooting each other up over their heads, much less having one of their militia pilots carrying on a personal vendetta."

"You listen to me, Kahn. You're going to fly that shot-up blimp of yours to Sky Haven, and when you dock, you're going to turn over the money—my money—that you stole at Deadwood, or by God, I'll have your scalp for it!"

Kahn laughed. "Blow it out your ear, Nesbitt. You can't make me give you the time of day...let alone the money."

"You think I can't?" Nesbitt's voice grew shrill with anger. "Guess again, genius. I'm challenging you and your crew, right here and now. We're going to fly the Cut, winner take all. Unless you want to back down, and show everybody what kind of a coward you really are!"

The pirate leader affected an exasperated sigh, though Hetty watched him grin from ear to ear. "Have it your way, Harry. We'll do the Cut tomorrow at dawn."

Nesbitt made no reply. Kahn chuckled, handing the microphone back to the radioman. "No, no Bre'r Fox!" he muttered, grinning. "Don't throw me in that there briar patch..."

"Have you lost your mind?" Hetty exclaimed. "We're down to seven planes, no gas, and no bullets. How the hell do you expect us to fly the Cut?"

"I don't," Kahn replied, pushing his way past Hetty and stepping back out onto the bridge. Nesbitt's fighters roared past a final time, and ahead, the tightly-hemmed mountains were falling away to the left and right, revealing the crowded plateau where the buildings of Sky Haven catered to their aerial clientele.

"C'mon, kiddo, this is me we're talking about, here. Karl Regen owes me some favors. He has to agree to any duels flown around the town, and if I say so he'll keep Nesbitt twisting in the wind until we can get fixed up. Then we'll slip out of town late at night and worry about Nesbitt some other day, preferably when he least expects it." The pirate boss breathed a sigh of relief. "It looked a little dicey there for a second, but don't worry. I've got it covered."

"What the hell do you mean you're approving the duel?" The thin mountain air didn't let Kahn put the full force of his voice behind the shout, but he leaned across Karl Regen's dark wood desk and glared down at the would-be "master of Sky Haven" with all the bluster he could summon.

Karl Regen was a tall, handsome man with a square jaw, straight silver-blonde hair and emotionless, icy blue eyes. He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness common to politicians the world over. "What do you want me to say, Kahn? I can't go doing you favors like this. It'll kill my credibility. That mess with Zachary and Charlie Steele a while back has left me in somewhat perilous straits."

For more information see:
Charlie Steele

"That's baloney. What's he paying you, Karl? Name it, and I'll double it."

Regen sighed. "Kahn, be reasonable. Nesbitt's been talking about this all over town. People will talk if I try to string him along. And he's got as legitimate a right to challenge someone as you or I." He shrugged. "Listen, if you don't want to take Nesbitt up on it, you can leave. He can't follow you."

"And have the town think Genghis Kahn backed down from a man like Harry Nesbitt? Not hardly," Kahn growled. He leveled a finger at Kahn. "Put the word out. The Red Skull Legion will be flying tomorrow at dawn." With that, he jerked his head at Hetty, who stood by the door, and the two pirates stormed out into the cold Colorado sunshine.

For more information see:
The Red Skull Legion

"So much for having things covered," Hetty grumbled, folding her arms.

"It's the whole flap about the Empire State and 'kidnapping' Chiang Liu-Mei," Kahn said, seething with frustration. "Regen doesn't want any part of an international scandal, never mind that we were rescuing the girl from a Japanese cell. He wants us out of town, one way or another."

For more information see:
The Empire State

Hetty looked over at her boss, her long face somber. "We can't fly the Cut, boss," she said quietly. "We're at the end of our rope."

"We'll empty the zep's fuel tanks, and strip the ammo from the guns," Kahn said. "We won't be able to arm everybody, but at least the heavies should have something to shoot with."

"For what? Just so we can go up there and get killed tomorrow?" Hetty stopped in her tracks, fists planted on her hips. "Nesbitt's going to have more planes than us, and he'll be armed for bear. The word at the airfield is that he took out a loan from 'Fingers' Malone to make sure he'd have everything he needs when time comes tomorrow."

"What do you want me to do, Hetty? Quit?" Kahn rounded on her, there in the middle of the snowy lane. "First you're nagging me about walking out on the crew; now you're on my back because I'm trying to hold everything together! What do you want?"

Hetty glared at him, her brown eyes blazing. She walked up until they were nose to nose. "What I want," she said quietly, "is for you to stop thinking about yourself for half a second and consider what is best for your crew. You know, all the little people that do the bleeding when one of your plans goes south."

For a moment, Kahn couldn't find the words to reply. "What is this, a mutiny?"

Hetty managed a choked laugh. "Good lord," she said, shaking her head. "Does it always have to be all or nothing with you?"

"That's what life is all about, kid," Kahn said. "All or nothing. Take it or leave it."

"Yeah, well, what's to take, at this point?" Hetty stared hard at Kahn. "We're broke. Our birds are shot to hell. Half of North America is after us, and we're running on fumes. What the hell do we have to look forward to tomorrow, except more of the same?"

"Well, what do you suggest?"

Hetty shrugged. "We're in Sky Haven. There's plenty of captains who could use experienced crews. If there was a point where we could pack it in and start over, this is it."

"You want to quit?" Kahn said, his voice hollow.

"What I want is for you to think about your crew for a change. That's all I'm saying. It's one thing to think you can beat the devil at his own game, and another thing entirely to expect the people around you to take the same risks."

Kahn shook his head. "Hetty, have I ever let you down? Ever?"

His wingman gave him a sad smile. "Me? No. Maybe you should ask Murphy that, instead. He's the one who took three rounds in the gut because you owed Hayes a favor."

Before Kahn could answer she pushed past him and continued down the narrow lane.

The hangar deck still smelled of oil and smoke. The bulkhead walls were streaked with soot from the fire started by Japanese flak rockets and a heavy crate sat in one corner of the cavernous compartment, filled with charred and twisted debris. One of the Red Skulls' remaining planes, Amos Jones' Sanderson "Vampire"—newly acquired a few months back during a raid in the Republic of Texas—was seared and blackened along its port side, out of action until someone could afford the parts to repair its engine.

For more information see:
Sanderson Vampire; The Republic of Texas

The hangar bay was packed with people. Kahn had called the entire crew to assemble there, even the seriously wounded. They sat in chairs brought down from the wardroom, holding themselves gingerly while they waited to hear what Kahn had to say. Everyone except Murphy, that is; he had died a few hours after the Machiavelli made port at Sky Haven.

Kahn eyed his crew and wished for the power to look inside their heads. To a man, they all looked exhausted, but none seemed fearful or angry—except Hetty, who stood near the back, her arms tightly folded. She looked as though her world was coming to an end. Despite the fact that she was the one who'd pushed himself to this point in the first place, Kahn thought. He'd never figure out dames as long as he lived.

The burly pirate leader stepped forward without preamble, and immediately the deck went quiet. He found himself wishing for a cigar. A last smoke for a condemned man, maybe, Kahn thought. He took a deep breath.

"Anybody here who's been with me for any length of time knows I don't like making speeches...unless I'm about to put one over on somebody." Several members of the crew laughed weakly. "Well, this isn't a con. These aren't ordinary times. For the last few days we've been going at things hard and fast, and there hasn't been much opportunity to sit and take stock. Well, it's high time we did.

"You guys aren't blind, and you aren't stupid. You can pretty much look around and see what kind of shape we're in. Frankly, we're broke. There's no money for gas or bullets, much less making any repairs. And now I've gotten a $10,000 bounty on all our heads. Why? Because of another debt that I personally owed to someone else.

"Now, Harry Nesbitt, whom I'm sure you all remember from Deadwood"—a few more stifled chuckles arose from the crowd—"has got us dead to rights. He's called us out. Tomorrow at dawn the Red Skulls are flying the Cut, winner take all. And I mean all-if Nesbitt wins, he gets the Machiavelli and everything in her."

Now heads turned. Not everyone had heard the news, and now looks of shock were appearing among the crew. It didn't take a genius to calculate the odds in a duel with Nesbitt's gang.

Kahn's eyes swept the room. "Now you people know me, or at least you ought to. I think we can still beat Nesbitt. There isn't a pirate crew in North America we can't out-fly or outfight. But odds are we're going to pay a price for it this time. If we go up tomorrow, at least half our birds won't even have ammo, and maybe not even enough gas to fly the Cut, much less beat Nesbitt. We stand to lose a hell of a lot, no matter what happens."

He took another breath, dreading what he was about to say. "A pirate crew isn't a democracy. I don't make decisions by committee. But the fact of the matter is that nobody is forcing you to go up there with me at dawn. This ain't the army, and you didn't sign any contract. It's not like I can pay you anytime soon. So far, you've followed along, and trusted me to make things right. Now I'm telling you that there's no reason to think that the Red Skulls have a future past tomorrow.

"There's eight different gangs in Sky Haven right now, and they'd give their eye teeth to have you working for them." Kahn stepped up to an empty crate of machine parts and placed an empty jar on it. "You're a good crew, the best there is. I can't make you any guarantees for the future, and you've got a right to make your own decisions." He nodded at the jar. "Every one of you wears the emblem of the Red Skulls. You can take those wings off and leave them in the jar. You can walk away right now and start over."

For a few minutes no one spoke. No one breathed. Then, slowly, Deadeye Dugan, the zeppelin's captain, rose to his feet and stepped purposefully up to the jar.

Kahn's heart sank. Other members of the crew started to stand.

It looked like the Red Skull Legion was finished.


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