Book 4 of the Ether Chronicles
From Avon Impulse
Return to The Ether Chronicles, where the skies above the American West are about to get wilder than ever…
Bounty hunter Anna Blue always finds her fugitive. But her latest mission is filled with mystery: a high price for an eccentric inventor. And her biggest rival, Jack Hawkins—a startlingly handsome, entirely unsettling man whose abilities match her own—is hunting the same bounty. Neither will back down.
When a rogue Man O’ War flies his airship into the California skies, guns blazing, Anna and Jack are forced to team up or die. But it isn’t the danger that has them ready to flare like gunpowder. They’ve circled each other for years as competitors only. Fighters and outsiders, they never thought they’d find a kindred soul. As hot passion and raw need draw them together, can they survive this mission long enough to track the most elusive fugitives…their hearts?
The remote hills south of Thornville, California.
“The only good place for a man is on the other end of my gun.” Anna Blue cocked the hammer of her .45, keeping the green dot of her prismatic sight hovering over “Dirty” Danny Malone’s heart. His partner in crime, Ron “Rat” Welles, stood on the other side of their little dead campfire. Anna had heard Malone was fast, but she had no doubt she could put a bullet in him before he reached the pistol on his hip. And he knew it, too.
Instead, Malone shot off his mouth again. “You ain’t too plain. Wash some of that trail dust off and you could be a pretty little flower.”
She kept her gun steady. The sun was high, but her tinted spectacles kept the glare down, as well as letting her see the green dot of her pistol’s sight. “I know you boys are stupid, but do you really think you’re the first to try to use what’s in your breeches to distract me from taking you in?”
Malone spoke up, thumbs casually hitched in his belt, but ready to draw if he had to. “Might want to reconsider that, sweetheart. A lot of things a man can do for you. A man like me.”
She laughed, but it didn’t break the tension in her body. She’d done this a hundred times—more, even. No one was better than she was at running down bounties. The image of a man with intense eyes, broad shoulders, and a two-gun rig flashed through her mind. Maybe one man was as good as she was.
“That’s right.” Welles’s nasal voice seemed to rattle in the pine needles around the campsite. “Laugh a little. Live a little. Got a bottle of corn liquor we could all share.”
“You boys could never earn the right to drink with me.” She hadn’t had a drink with a man in years. Something like that, sharing the heat of whiskey, the calm it soaked into her nerves, was more intimate than the tumbles she’d had with strangers.
Malone sucked a breath, shaking his head in disappointment. “Never met a more ornery woman.”
“That’s your problem,” she said. “Gotta stop thinking of me as a woman and start realizing I’m the bounty hunter who’s bringing your sorry hide in.”
Malone’s eyes narrowed. She saw the tendons twitch on the back of his hand. Welles shifted his feet in the dirt. Now they were serious. Even the horses that were tied on the edge of the campsite had the sense to paw at the ground and nicker nervously.
She kept the green dot on Dirty Danny’s chest. “What’s your play, Malone? Boxed yourselves in. You can’t run north. Up that way is Thornville, and everyone knows the law doesn’t even let mosquitos bite in that town. The ocean’s to the west, hunting parties to the east, coming up from New Mexico where they really want you dead.” Malone glanced in all the directions she mentioned, a tic developing at the side of his eye. She didn’t let up. “I imagine you wanted to run south, but I’m standing here.”
Welles’s nickname of “Rat” became abundantly clear when he showed his sharp front teeth in a mean sneer. “Not for long.”
He flinched toward his pistol and she swung her gun to aim at him. No more than ten minutes ago, she’d snuck up on these two fugitives, having picked up their trail when they crossed from the Nevada territory into California. The men were caught so unawares they didn’t even have a second to grab their hats.
“Make a play for your gun, Rat.” She kept her voice even. “I don’t hold any bounty papers on you, won’t lose any money if I leave you here for the vultures.”
“But I’ll lose money.” A third man stepped into the clearing. Silently.
How the hell did he sneak up on her? No one in boots moved with that kind of stealth. Besides her.
Taking on two shooters was a challenge. Three was a whole new deal from a stacked deck. Instinctually, she pulled the small revolver she kept in the small of her back and aimed it at Malone while swinging her pistol from Rat to the new man.
Then she understood how he’d come upon them with the silent ease of a true predator. The newcomer was Jack Hawkins.
At well over six feet tall, the black man filled the campsite with his presence. Hell, he even seemed to challenge the nearby mountains for dominance of the skyline. His dark striped shirt and buttoned wool vest hardly seemed to contain the muscles across his broad frame. A leather harness across his chest and shoulders held a weapon at his back. The small brim of his crisp hat shaded his face, but his intense eyes still pierced through. A two-gun rig was buckled across his trim hips.
One of those .44s was in his left hand, cocked and ready. His right hand was empty, but still looked like a weapon. His sleeves were rolled up, allowing sunlight to glint off the brass and black enameled metal that made up his thumb and first two fingers. It was some kind of mechanical wonder, extending into a steel band around his wrist. More metal rods climbed up his forearm and ended in a band just beneath his elbow.
But those eyes—they were more incredible than the technology that built a human hand out of metal. Like lightning striking gunpowder, his gaze was quick, piercing, and dangerous. And right now he was looking straight at her, into her, as if there weren’t two armed men intent on not going to jail between them.
This is what it was always like when they were within range of each other. Two of the best bounty hunters in the Western U.S. Of course they kept their eyes on each other. Often enough they were tracking the same bounty. Never came down to a fight for the prize, though. She or Hawkins would collect before the other had a chance to get the drop. Standing there now, however, looking back at him, she felt his presence and how it made her pulse race faster in more than her trigger finger.
“Anna Blue.” Hawkins’s voice was low, nearly a growl.
It was like stepping into a clearing and coming face-to-face with a predator just before it made its kill.
Anna growled back. “You’re not taking in my bounty, Hawkins.”
Jack had seen plenty of predators, but never a beautiful hunter like Anna Blue. Beautiful? He questioned himself as he took another step into the campsite. But the answer was yes. She wasn’t one of those pretty flowers from the dance halls, gliding in frothy skirts. Anna stood strong in tall miner boots. Her denim trousers hugged her hips. Even in breeches, there was no doubt she was a woman. He never thought a woman in trousers could light a fire in him, but Anna changed his mind about that. Damn if she didn’t have to be his rival.
“Malone? He’s all yours.” His gun was steady and level on Welles. “I’m here for Rat.”
Rat didn’t look like he was going easily. “I might have a say in that, boy.”
He’d heard it before. Too many times. His teeth clenched. But he wouldn’t let a piece of dung like Rat rattle him. “You might bleed to death from a .44-sized hole I put in you. So watch your mouth.”
While Welles took all the attention, Malone reached for his pistol. Anna swung her gun around, aiming precisely. Her .45 barked before Malone gripped his gun. Birds scattered from the trees and the horses tested the knots of their lead ropes. The single bullet streaked across the campsite and smashed into Malone’s gun. Sparks flew, and he nearly jumped out of his boots.
Silence came heavy down on the campsite.
Anna broke it. “Can’t cock a gun with no hammer.” She moved her aim a little below Malone’s belt buckle. “Guess where I’m aiming now.”
Jack let out a laugh. But his mouth was dry, and he didn’t have a lot of breath. Watching her move and shoot was like fine art. Better than anything they could hang in a museum.
Her razor-sharp aim was a wonder to behold. “Guess all them tall tales are authentic. Heard you put a bullet in the barrel of Junior Winter’s rifle before he could fire. Blew the whole rig up.”
“It’s truth.” She seemed to conserve her words like her bullets. “I’d tell you to ask Junior, but he ain’t talking from six feet down.”
Rat tried to laugh, too, but it only came out as a strained wheeze. “Ain’t she the most prickly filly you ever seen?”
Holstering his gun, Jack approached Rat. Knowing Anna paid attention, Jack put a little extra swagger in it.
Rat’s smile wavered as Hawkins came closer. He’d seen it before in a hunted man. Rat teetered between trying to talk his way out of it, run, or fight.
“She’s the best bounty hunter I’ve ever seen,” Jack said.
A decision hit Rat. It was a mistake, but he was already reaching for his gun. Jack balled his left hand into a fist and slammed it into Rat’s jaw. The bounty had no chance. He stumbled backward, grasping at the air. Dry pine needles scattered as he landed heavy on the ground. He groaned a little and rolled from side to side, but he was definitely down for the count.
Jack sneered, pulling the gun from Rat’s holster and the knife from his boot. “She’s the best bounty hunter besides me.”
Anna gave a wry laugh and muttered, “Cocky son of a bitch.” She maintained her aim on Malone, but her attention was on Jack.
He moved aside the shortened sabre on his belt so he could pull a pair of shackles from one of the many pouches.
Her voice grew louder. “Spend a lot of time staring in the mirror, Hawkins?”
He didn’t look up from shackling Rat as he boasted, “Who wouldn’t want to gaze at this man?”
“I’m sure there are plenty of people with their sights lined up on you.”
He stood from his task, fixing her with his gaze. Her eyes were hard, but she didn’t seem ready to look away from him. He reached up with his right hand and turned his wrist slightly, making the mechanical fingers pinch the trim brim of his hat. Then he winked, like giving her a shot from a hidden pistol.
If it had any impact, she didn’t show it. The way she handled herself with Malone, stonewalling him, Jack wouldn’t be surprised if bullets and ether-powered cannon shells bounced off her.
He cocked his head toward Malone. “You just going to let him stand there and sweat, or you going to bring him in?”
If Malone had even dreamt of reaching for his broken gun, Jack knew she would’ve been able to pull the trigger first. She tore her eyes from Jack and turned all her attention back to her bounty.
“Left hand,” she commanded. “Reach across and take out your gun.” Malone started to move and she cautioned, “Slow or dead, get it?”
Malone grumbled, “I get it.”
What on Earth could resist her? Seemed Anna’s demands would make the sequoias stand up straighter. Malone followed orders well, gingerly unholstering his pistol and tossing it on the ground in front of him. He pulled out the rest of his weapons without her urging. The guns and knives jangled into a heap in the dry pine needles.
Stealing little glances at Jack, she made Malone walk backward a few paces before turning around and getting to his knees with his hands in the air. She shackled his wrists behind his back and holstered her gun.
Jack could stand there and watch her work all day. He knew the kind of bounties she’d brought in. Her confidence was warranted. Her skills were as sharp as legend said. And for the first time in longer than he knew, she made him remember what it was like to have a hunger for something he couldn’t have. As silently as he arrived, Hawkins slipped into the trees surrounding the campsite.
Distant thunder rippled over the clear sky, but it wasn’t a coming storm. It was the sound of Hawkins’s engine-cycle. She’d noticed it on the street before, but never flying with its ether tank activated. The eight-foot machine glided in wide circles over the campsite.
It didn’t seem like Rat had ever seen the engine-cycle before, though. Still dazed, he scuttled backward in the dirt until he ran his back into a tree. “Oh, sweet Father in heaven, have mercy on my poor soul.”
She watched the engine-cycle circle tighter, looking like a bird of prey’s demon skeleton. “I’m sure he won’t.”
When Anna was a child, sneaking away from the orphanage to marvel at the fantastic inventions displayed at the county fair, she saw attempts to rig a small steam engine to a bicycle frame. The contraption would sputter in circles, belching smoke and looking like it was ready to explode at any second. With the advent of tetrol, that miracle fuel pressed by the Chinese from the soya bean, the technology could actually translate from the inventor’s mind to the real world.
Hawkins’s engine-cycle was a perfect example. Rather than a dream come to life, it was more like a lawless man’s worst nightmare. Enameled black steel made up the long frame. Brass fittings shined in the sun. Hawkins took meticulous care of the vehicle. Maybe because it was built with the same materials as the apparatus that made up half his hand, the engine-cycle looked like an extension of Jack Hawkins’s body.
Malone muttered, “I’m sorry, Rat. Sorry for what he’s going to do to you.”
Twenty feet in the air, Hawkins sat in the small leather seat, thick arms outstretched to reach the handlebars. Extending forward, between him and the front wheel, was a long engine. It rumbled, shaking and cranking out power to the propeller spinning in the back of the engine-cycle. The back of the frame was strapped down with saddlebags and cases of leather and canvas. Being a bounty hunter meant traveling with your home. If you couldn’t carry it, it wasn’t yours.
Unexpected emotion fluttered open in her. Hawkins lived exactly as she did. The loneliness of the existence ached. She quickly pushed the thought away.
She nudged Malone with her boot, bringing his attention to her. “What makes you think you got it any better?”
His lips quivered. “Nothing . . . ma’am.”
Hawkins hadn’t put on his goggles, so he squinted against the wind as he dove the engine-cycle toward the ground. The propelling fan kicked up dirt and leaves, creating a small storm that settled around Hawkins and his machine. Once it rested on two wheels, he killed the fan and let the engine idle. It growled like an animal.
He swung out the kickstand with the heel of his black boot and dismounted. As he extended a retractable metal and canvas sidecar from the cycle, Rat continued whispering prayers for mercy.
Hawkins pointed at the sidecar. “Stand up and get in there.”
Rat merely shook his head.
His temper didn’t flare, but the menace was clear in Hawkins’s deep voice. “Count yourself lucky I didn’t use my right hand to deck you. I once used it to punch clean through a steel suit Professor Bates built to protect him while knocking over banks.”
The inventor and his steam-powered thieves had made the news in several counties. She knew he’d been captured, but always assumed it took the might of the army to bring him in. But she wasn’t about to feed Hawkins’s ego by telling him that.
Hawkins pointed Rat toward the sidecar. “You sure as hell don’t want me to put you in there.”
“No, I don’t.”
Anna couldn’t help but laugh. “Sounds more like “mouse” than Rat.”
Hawkins shot her a look. This wasn’t a man who liked being interrupted. Too bad; she shrugged it off. She had her own business to attend to.
Putting her hand on the butt of her pistol, she leaned close to Malone. “I’m going to get my ride. You’re not going to give me the same kind of trouble Rat’s giving Hawkins, are you?”
Malone swallowed hard and shook his head.
Walking from the small campsite, she heard Hawkins continue to threaten Rat, but the bounty sounded petrified by fear and wouldn’t move. She couldn’t keep a small smile from her lips; served Hawkins right for thinking so highly of himself.
Through the trees and over a small ridge, she found where she’d landed her engine-trike. It was downwind of the campsite, so they wouldn’t hear or smell the engine on the approach. She climbed into the familiar saddle of the three-wheeled vehicle. After having her nerves jangled by being so close to Hawkins, it was calming to have the handlebars and control levers of her trike just where they were supposed to be.
She pulled the choke knob and yanked on the starter cable. The pistons cranked, but didn’t start up. Another try on the starter and the engine turned over, blooming heat in front of her.
Twisting the release valve started the catalyst in the ether tanks. They hummed to life next to the rear wheels. The suspension springs creaked as the whole frame lifted off the ground. A quick double check told her that all her gear was still secure. Like Hawkins, she rode with her life rolled up in leather and canvas, strapped tight.
She squeezed the clutch, dropped the gear lever into flying mode, and felt the air pulled around her by the propeller fans on the side supports. A long breath filled her lungs. Rising off the hard earth was the best freedom she ever knew. For a long time, she’d only imagined scraping her feet for countless miles on the dirt until she was dead. No grave. It seemed that there wasn’t even a place for her in the ground. But there was a place for her above it.
Turning the throttle gave more power to the fans, pushing her higher. Tree branches brushed past, then gave way to the open sky. It was a short trip, so like Hawkins, she didn’t put her goggles on. But her tinted spectacles helped some, cutting down the bright sunlight.
The treetops parted into the small campsite. She circled overhead, watching Hawkins drag Rat toward the engine-cycle.
She called down, “I’ll give you a hand if you split the bounty with me.”
Even from thirty feet up she felt the scowl on Hawkins’s face. “Don’t need no hand.” He balled a fist in Rat’s shirt and hauled him up to his knees.
Malone was still where she left him. She dove lower toward him, keeping her eyes on Hawkins. “You look like a greenhorn bringing in your first wanted.”
Hawkins lifted Rat higher and tossed him into the sidecar. “Just a shy, reluctant bride.”
She brought the engine-trike down hard and jumped from the seat to face Hawkins. “I ever see you treating a woman like that, you won’t live to see sunrise.”
He blinked. Before steeling over, he took a moment. His eyes searched her face; he had to know she meant every word. Hawkins made a little bow of his head. “Pardon the offense, Miss Blue. My momma raised me better than to say something like that, and if she’d heard me, you’d have to beat her on the draw to put the first bullet in me.”
Again, his mechanical hand came up to pinch his brim.
Her turn to blink. She’d have been ready for a hidden pistol or throwing knife, but his response was completely unexpected. If she knew how, she almost had the urge to curtsey. Maybe it was just another weapon of his. Twelve-gage charm.
She had to get out of range, so she turned back to Malone. “You’re going to stand up, walk slow, and sit down on the back of my engine-trike, just behind my seat.”
Her bounty thought through every instruction and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
The man scraped his way to his feet and walked over to her machine. On the other side of the clearing, Hawkins strapped a leather belt across Rat’s chest, pinning him to the narrow sidecar. The bounty hunter kept stealing glances at her.
She didn’t expect the hungry look on his face. Like a man who’d just rode out of a snowy pass after a long winter. The look quickly disappeared as he turned to her machine.
He spoke casually, like they’d been drinking friends for years. “You don’t find that trike too wide for horse trails?”
She shook her head. “Just fly over them.” Malone sat on the back of her trike and she tightened a canvas belt across his lap. She hooked a thumb toward Hawkins’s ride, ether tanks extended on brass and steel lattices. “And I don’t need to pull out my ether tanks when I want to go up.”
“A fella doesn’t need more than two wheels,” he replied. “Keeps it lean.” Satisfied Rat wasn’t going anywhere, Hawkins strode over to the horses and pulled off their saddles and tack. He untied them, slapped their flanks, and hollered for them to run. They quickly obeyed, weaving through the trees and disappearing in the forest.
Malone craned his neck to see what Hawkins was up to. “Sure, the horse was stole, but the saddle’s mine. Think I can keep it?”
“No.” She placed her answer like a bullet, right between his eyes. “You killed a man in New Mexico. Left his bride a widow. Far as I’m concerned, you shouldn’t even get a last meal.” She took her seat in the trike and revved the engine. “But I’ll let the judge decide that. To me, you’re just one hundred dollars.”
Ether hummed in the tanks and the trike lifted off the ground. Malone gave a little yelp, but she didn’t care if he was scared or not. Yet she did care that Hawkins watched her. More than she wanted to. He even smiled a little as she made her turn over the campsite, twisting higher.
Last thing she saw of him before turning north was Hawkins taking his seat again on the engine-cycle and revving the motor. Then she turned her attention to the treetops and mountain ridges. The salt of the Pacific washed over her in the wind coming from the west.
She turned slightly to the left, getting a view of the full expanse of the silver and blue water. “First time I saw the ocean, thought I’d fall off the earth. Like it was some great waterfall that was going to take me away.” The trike climbed higher, easing to a steady pace two hundred feet above the ground.
Malone’s shackles jingled as he shifted in his seat to grip the trike’s frame. “I ain’t gonna fall now, am I?”
Waggling the steering, the trike swung from side to side. She knew everything was strapped down good enough to stay on. Even Dirty Dan. “We’re all given the same chance starting out. You’ve already fallen.”
The peace of the high air was broken by the rumble of Hawkins’s engine-cycle. He shot up, quick and nimble, and leveled out the long machine next to her. Goggles obscured his eyes, but the wide grin was clear on his face. Revving his motor, he pulled ahead of her in the air.
She prickled, charging forward to move beside him, then forward by the length of her front wheel.
Hawkins smiled, cocky. His cycle nosed ahead of her.
Even though they’d never spoken before this morning, this tug-of-war with Hawkins was all too familiar. In the past, when she’d shared a space with him, the tension was undeniable. They were the two best, they both knew that. But neither knew which was better. One time, in a Tucson opera house, they had spotted each other as they walked down opposite aisles to their seats. She sat a few rows behind Hawkins. He kept squirming in his seat like he was sharing it with a rattlesnake. After a minute, he got up and took a seat a row behind her. Then she had understood what had made him so restless to be sitting in front of her. No way she could relax, knowing he had the advantage at her back. By the time she got up, Hawkins’s row and all the seats behind him were filled. He sat comfortably on the aisle, long legs stretched out. But his eyes remained alert as his gaze tracked every move she made.
She couldn’t let him scare her out of that theater. But she couldn’t keep her back to him. A city dude sat in the aisle seat on the opposite side of the row from Hawkins. It only took a steady glare from Anna to move the dude to another part of the theater. Even with twenty people between them, she was aware of every move Hawkins made on the other end of the row. The Shakespeare actors stomping on the stage and the clockwork ghost of Hamlet’s father weren’t enough to steal Anna’s and Hawkins’s attention from each other.
When the audience rose to a standing ovation, they each slipped out through opposite exits. Flying now through the air with him, feeling Hawkins’s presence closer than ever, she wondered if more than just professional rivalry kept them in each other’s line of sight.
She released more of her engine’s power, retaking the lead. It was a race. But to what end?
His body was at ease, sitting astride his flying cycle. So sure of himself. In command of the machine and the technology that completed his hand. It seemed like he could give her a lot, if she was willing. But it might be more like losing herself than gaining a prize.
Her engine-trike growled. The fan pushed hard and she sped forward in the sky. Hawkins’s engine roared. He was close behind. There was no knowing what would happen once they reached Thornville.