They were breaking camp.
It was a stroke of luck for Paladinrotten luck. He silently cursed himself for not thinking ahead. Sure, hed found the thugs that had shot him down...only he hadnt figured out what to do when he caught up with them. If he left now to get help, there wouldnt even be footprints left in the sand when he returned.
Whatever he was going to do, he had to do it soon. He had to do it alone.
He needed an inconspicuous way to get a closer look. The canyon walls, however, were vertical. Quickly surveying the scene, he spotted a branching ravine with slopes that a determined person could slide down. Better yet, this side passage twisted out of the sight from the main camp.
There was just one problem, though: the ravine wasnt empty. One man marched into the gully, while another wandered out and waved a greeting to his buddy.
If Paladins luck changed, he might time it just right so no one saw him crashing their party. He moved along the ridge of the canyon, half-crouching, until he came to the edge of the branching channel. He then understood what the attraction was in the ravine: in the shadow of a rocky ledge sat an outhouse.
Through the crescent-moon slit Paladin spied someone moving. Hed have to move before they finished.
Paladin stepped off the edge and slid down the gravel slope. A cloud of dust trailed behind him. He ran to the outhouse.
The man inside must have heard him. Cool yer heels, buddy, he yelled through the door. Wait yer turn!
Paladin thought of himself as a fair person. If he knocked someone down, he waited for them to get to their feet before taking another swing. Not this time. Hed left all pretenses of chivalry a days walk awaywhen five planes had shot him out of the sky.
He flung open the door and caught the mechanic with his pants down. Paladin threw a left hook and a right uppercut.
The mechanic grunted in pain and collapsed against the wall, unconscious.
Paladin cast a glance up the ravine. No one there. He dragged the unconscious mechanic from the outhouse, far enough out of sight in case anyone came looking.
He took the man's coveralls and cap, hog-tied him with his belt, then gagged him with his own dirty socks. Those restraints wouldnt hold forever. Paladin hoped that would hold long enough for him to find out what was going on here.
The mechanics greasy blue coveralls were two sizes too big. Paladin stuffed it with his flight jacket then tucked his hair under the cap. If anyone got too close to this lousy disguise, theyd see through it in a heartbeat.
He took a deep breath, steeled his nerve, and walked out of the ravine.
Men scurried about the airstripall of them moving faster than Paladin had seen ten minutes ago. They struck tents and lowered radio gear from the water tower. Two mechanics worked on each of the Avengers. Ground crews loaded belts of ammunition and slung rockets on hardpoints under the fighters wings.
The Avenger pilots were clustered by the edge of the runway, chewing on cigars, and shuffling nervously. They kept glancing at the sky like someone was about to drop a bomb on them.
Paladin tried to look like he had someplace important to get to, then marched across the field, passing as close as he dared to the pilots. He recognized the Neanderthal eyebrows of Dogface Dougan, the vivid flame tattoos covering the arms of Lady Kali, and the thick glasses of Crosseye Malonenotorious mercenaries who would shoot down anything or anyone as long as there was enough money in it for them.
He averted his gaze before they saw him. These werent the kind of people you stared at unless you wanted to start a fight. These also werent the kind of people especially noted for their brains.
So who was pulling the strings around here?
Paladin continued his trajectory past the pilots, then paused and knelt, pretending to tie his shoelace. He needed time to think. Maybe time to figure out a way to steal one of those Avengers. If he could get to Lockheeds base before these goons disappeared, he might be able to return with
A shadow fell across his face.
Paladin got to his feet and slowly turned...ready to go down swinging if hed been found out.
A middle-aged man in a linen suit and Panama straw hat regarded Paladin with mild disgust. His skin was as pallid as his white jacket. He wore kid gloves and sported a monocle that magnified his right eye so it looked like it bulged out of its socket. There wasnt a grain of sand on him.
Standing next to the pale man was a woman. She wore a smart black-and-white stripped skirt, black vest, and matching pillbox hat. She shaded herself with a lace parasol. Paladin had to force himself not to stare at her fall of black silken hair or into her deep blue eyes. She was movie-star material.
Take this the pale man gestured to a steamer truck sitting next to a flattened tent to my stateroom. Immediately. And take care not to jostle it.
Paladin followed the mans gaze to the zeppelin. Sure.
The pale man narrowed his eyes to slits. What did you say?
If this was a military operation, then Paladin had just given the wrong reply. He quickly corrected himself. I mean, yes sir. He saluted. Right away, sir!
The pale man turned and strode toward the pilots. The woman examined Paladin a moment, then she too left.
If he were going to remain inconspicuous, hed have to follow that order. At least he had a gotten a clue what the guy in charge looked like.
The steamer truck was made of soft leather, with brass-reinforced corners and three silver stars embossed on the lid. Paladin picked it up and balanced it on his good shoulder. He glanced back. The pale man seemed to be giving instruction to the pilots. They nodded and laughed.
Paladin trudged toward the war zeppelin. He fought the urge to duck as he neared the gun turrets mounted on the engine nacelles. Facing that much firepower was bad enough inside a cockpit, racing by at two hundred miles an hour...but to stare it down face-to-face gave him the creeps.