Reluctance24 min read
Walter McMullin puttered through the afternoon sky east of Oneida in his tiny dirigible. According to his calculations, he was somewhere toward the north end of Texas, nearing the Mexican territory west of the Republic; and any minute now he’d be soaring over the Goodnight–Loving trail.
He looked forward to seeing that trail.
Longest cattle drive on the continent, or that’s what he’d heard — and it’d make for a fine change of scenery. West, west, and farther west across the Native turf on the far side of the big river he’d come, and his eyes were bored from it. Oklahoma, Texas, North Mexico next door… it all looked pretty much the same from the air. Like a piecrust, rolled out flat and over baked. Same color, same texture. Same unending scorch marks, the seasonal scars of dried–out gullies and the splits and cracks of a ground fractured by the heat.
So cows — rows upon rows of lowing, shuffling cows, hustling their way to slaughter in Utah — would be real entertainment.
He adjusted his goggles, moving them from one creased position on his face to another, half an inch aside and only marginally more comfortable. He looked down at his gauges, using the back of one gloved hand to wipe away the ever–accumulating grime.
“Hydrogen’s low,” he mumbled to himself.
There was nobody else to mumble to. His one–man flyer wouldn’t have held another warm body bigger than a small dog, and dogs made Walter sneeze. So he flew it alone, like most of the other fellows who ran the Express line, moving the mail from east to west in these hopping, skipping, jumping increments.
This leg of the trip he was piloting a single–seater called the Majestic, one could only presume as a matter of irony. The small airship was hardly more complex or majestic than a penny–farthing strapped to a balloon, but Walter didn’t mind. Next stop was Reluctance, where he’d pick up something different — something full of gas and ready to fly another leg.
Reluctance was technically a set of mobile gas docks, same as Walter would find on the rest of his route. But truth be told, it was almost a town. Sometimes the stations put down roots, for whatever reason.
And Reluctance had roots.
Walter was glad for it. He’d been riding since dawn and he liked the idea of a nap, down in the basement of the Express offices where the flyers sometimes stole a few hours of rest. He’d like a bed, but he’d settle for a cot and he wouldn’t complain about a hammock, because Walter wasn’t the complaining kind. Not anymore.
Keeping one eye on the unending sprawl of blond dirt below in case of cows, Walter reached under the control panel and dug out a pouch of tobacco and tissue–thin papers. He rolled himself a cigarette, fiddled with the controls, and sat back to light it and smoke even though he damn well knew he wasn’t supposed to.
His knee gave an old man’s pop when he stretched it, but it wasn’t so loud as the clatter his foot made when he lifted it up to rest on the Majestic’s console. The foot was a piece of machinery, strapped to the stump starting at his knee.
More sophisticated than a peg leg and slightly more natural–looking than a vacant space where a foot ought to be, the mechanical limb had been paid for by the Union army upon his discharge. It was heavy and slow and none too pretty, but it was better than nothing. Even when it pulled on its straps until he thought his knee would pop off like a jar lid, and even when the heft of it left bruises around the buckles that held it in place.
Besides, that was one of the perks of flying for the Dirigible Express Post Service: not a lot of walking required.
Everybody knew how dangerous it was, flying over Native turf and through unincorporated stretches — with no people, no water, no help coming if a ship went cripple or, God forbid, caught a spark. A graze of lightning would send a hydrogen ship home to Jesus in the space of a gasp; or a stray bullet might do the same, should a pirate get the urge to see what the post was moving.
That’s why they only hired fellows like Walter. Orphans. Boys with no family to mourn them, no wives to leave widows and no children to leave fatherless. Walter was a prize so far as the Union Post — and absolutely nobody else — was concerned. Still a teenager, just barely; no family to speak of; and a veteran to boot. The post wanted boys like him, who knew precisely how bad their lot could get — and who came with a bit of perspective. It wanted boys who could think under pressure, or at the very least, have the good grace to face death without hysterics.
Boys like Walter McMullin had faced death with serious, pants –shitting hysterics, and more than once. But after five years drumming, and marching, and shooting, and slogging through mud with a face full of blood and a handful of Stanley’s hair or maybe a piece of his uniform still clutched like he could save his big brother or save himself or save anybody… he’d gotten the worst of the screaming out of his system.
With this in mind, the Express route was practically a lazy retirement. It beat the hell out of the army, that was for damn sure; or so Walter mused as he reclined inside the narrow dirigible cab, sucking on the end of his sizzling cigarette.
Nobody shot at him very often, nobody hardly ever yelled at him, and his clothes were usually dry. All he had to do was stay awake all day and stay on time. Keep the ground a fair measure below. Keep his temporary ship from being struck by lightning or wrestled to the ground by a tornado.
Not a bad job at all.
Something large down below caught his eye. He sat up, holding the cigarette lightly between his lips. He sagged, disappointed, then perked again and took hold of the levers that moved his steering flaps.
He wanted to see that one more time. Even though it wasn’t much to see.
One lone cow, and it’d been off its feet for a bit. He could tell, even from his elevated vantage point, that the beast was dead and beginning to droop. Its skin hung across its bones like laundry on a line.
Of course that happened out on the trail. Every now and again.
But a quick sweep of the vista showed him three more meaty corpses blistering and popping on the piecrust plain.
He said, “Huh.” Because he could see a few more, dotting the land to the north, and to the south a little bit, too. If he could get a higher view, he imagined there might be enough scattered bodies to sketch the Goodnight–Loving, pointing a ghastly arrow all the way to Salt Lake City. It looked strange and sad. It looked like the aftermath of something.
He did not think of any battlefields in east Virginia.
He did not think of Stanley, lying in a ditch behind a broken, folded fence.
He ran through a mental checklist of the usual suspects. Disease? Indians? Mexicans? But he was too far away to detect or conclude anything, and that was just as well. He didn’t want to smell it anyway. He was plenty familiar with the reek, that rotting sweetness tempered with the methane stink of bowels and bloat.
Another check of the gauges told him more of what he already knew. One way or another, sooner rather than later, the Majestic was going down for a refill.
Walter wondered what ship he’d get next. A two–seater, maybe? Something with a little room to stretch out? He liked being able to lift his leg off the floor and let it rest where a copilot ought to go, but almost never went. That’d be nice.
Oh well. He’d find out when he got there, or in the morning.
Out the front windscreen, which screened almost no wind and kept almost no bugs out of his mouth, the sun was setting — the nebulous orb melting into an orange and pink line against the far, flat horizon.
In half an hour, the sky was the color of blueberry jam, and only a lilac haze marked the western edge of the world.
The Majestic was riding lower in the air because Walter was conserving the thrust and letting the desert breeze move him as much as the engine. Coasting was a pleasant way to sail and the lights of Reluctance should be up ahead, any minute.
One of these minutes.
Where were they?
Walter checked the compass and peeked at his instruments, which told him only that he was on course and that Reluctance should be a mile or less out. But where were the lights? He could always see the lights by now; he always knew when to start smiling, when the gas lamps and lanterns meant people, and a drink, and a place to sleep.
Wait. There. Maybe? Yes.
Tell–tale pinpricks of white, laid out patternless on the dark sprawl.
Not so many as usual, though. Only a few, here and there. Haphazard and lost–looking, as if they were simply the remainder — the hardy leftovers after a storm, the ones which had not gone out quite yet. There was a feebleness to them, or so Walter thought as he gazed out and over and down. He used his elbow to wipe away the dirt on the glass screen as if it might be hiding something. But no. No more lights revealed themselves, and the existing flickers of white did not brighten.
Walter reached for his satchel and slung it over his chest, where he could feel the weight of his brother’s Colt bumping up against his ribs.
He set himself a course for Reluctance. He was out of hydrogen and sinking anyway; and it was either set down in relative civilization — where nothing might be wrong, after all — or drop like a feather into the desert dust alone with the coyotes, cactus, and cougars. If he had to wait for sunrise somewhere, better to do it down in an almost–town he knew well enough to navigate.
There were only a few lights, yes.
But no flashes of firearms, and no bonfires of pillage or some hostile victory. He could see nothing and no one, nobody walking or running. Nobody dead, either, he realized when the Majestic swayed down close enough to give him a dim view of the dirt streets with their clapboard sidewalks.
Nobody at all.
He licked at his lower lip and gave it a bite, then he pulled out the Colt and began to load it, sure and steady, counting to six and counting out six more bullets for each of the two pockets on his vest.
Could be, he was overreacting. Could be, Reluctance had gone bust real quick, or there’d been a dust storm, or a twister, or any number of other natural and unpleasant events that could drive a thrown–together town into darkness. Could be, people were digging themselves out now, even as he wondered about it. Maybe something had made them sick. Cholera, or typhoid. He’d seen it wipe out towns and troops before.
His gut didn’t buy it.
He didn’t like it, how he couldn’t assume the best and he didn’t have any idea what the worst might be.
And still, as the Majestic came in for a landing. No bodies.
That was the thing. Nobody down there, including the dead.
He picked up his cane off the dirigible’s floor and tested the weight of it. It was a good cane, solid enough to bring down a big man or a small wildcat, push come to shove. He set it across his knees.
The Majestic drooped down swiftly, but Walter was in control. He’d landed in the dark before and it was tricky, but it didn’t scare him much. It made him cautious, sure. A man would be a fool to be incautious when piloting a half–ton craft into a facility with enough flammable gas to move a fleet. All things being ready and bright, and all it took was a wrongly placed spark — just a graze of metal on metal, the screech of one thing against another, or a single cigarette fallen from a lip — and the whole town would be reduced to matchsticks. Everybody knew it, and everybody lived with it. Just like everybody knew that flying post was a dangerous job, and a bunch of the boys who flew never made it home, just like going to war.
Walter sniffed, one nostril arching up high and dropping down again. He set his jaw, pulled the back drag chute, flipped the switch to give himself some light on the ship’s underbelly, and spun the Majestic like a girl at a dance. He dropped her down onto the wooden platform with a big red X painted to mark the spot, and she shuddered to silence in the middle of the circle cast by her undercarriage light.
With one hand he popped the anchor chain lever, and with the other he reached for the door handle as he listened to that chain unspool outside.
Outside it was as dark as his overhead survey had implied. And although the light of the undercarriage was nearly the only light, Walter reached up underneath the craft and pulled the snuffing cover down over its flaring white wick. He took hold of the nearest anchor chain and dragged it over to the pipework docks. Ordinarily, he’d check to make sure he was on the right pad, clipping his craft to the correct slot before checking in with the station agent.
But no one greeted him. No one rushed up with a ream of paperwork for signing and sealing.
A block away a light burned; and beyond that, another gleamed somewhere farther away. Between those barely seen orbs and the lifting height of a half–full moon, Walter could see well enough to spy another ship nearby. It was affixed to a port on the hydrogen generators, but sagging hard enough that it surely wasn’t filled or ready to fly.
Except for the warm buzz of the gas machines standing by, Walter heard absolutely nothing. No bustling of suppertime seekers roaming through the narrow streets, flowing toward Bad Albert’s place, or wandering to Mama Rico’s. The pipe dock workers were gone, and so were the managers and agents.
No horses, either. No shuffling of saddles or stirrups, of bits or clomping iron shoes.
Inside the Majestic an oil lantern was affixed to the wall behind the pilot’s seat. Walter grunted, leaning on his cane. He pulled out the lamp, but hesitated to light it.
He held a match up, ready to strike it on the side of the deflated ship, but he didn’t. The silence held its breath and told him to wait. It spoke like a battlefield before an order is given.
That’s what stopped him. Not the thought of all that hydrogen, but the singular sensation that somewhere, on some other side, enemies were crouching — waiting for a shot. It froze him, one hand and one match held aloft, his cane leaning against the dirigible and his satchel hanging from his shoulder, pressing at the spot where his neck curved to meet his collarbone.
Under the lazily rolling moon and alone in the mobile gas works that had become the less–mobile semi–settlement of Reluctance, Walter put the match away, and set the lantern on the ground beside his ship.
He could see. A little. And given the circumstances, he liked that better than being seen.
His leg ached, but then again, it always ached. Too heavy by half and not nearly as mobile as the army had promised it’d be, the steel and leather contraption tugged against his knee as if it were a drowning man; and for a tiny flickering moment the old ghost pains tickled down to his toes, even though the toes were long gone, blown away on a battlefield in Virginia.
He held still until the sensation passed, wondering bleakly if it would ever go away for good, and suspecting that it wouldn’t.
“All right,” he whispered, and it was cold enough to see the words. When had it gotten so cold? How did the desert always do that, cook and then freeze? “We’ll move the mail.”
Damn straight we will.
Walter reached into the Majestic’s tiny hold and pulled out the three bags he’d been carrying as cargo. Each bag was the size of his good leg, and as heavy as his bad one. When they were all three removed from the ship he peered dubiously at the other craft across the landing pad — the one attached to the gas pipes, but empty.
He considered his options.
No other ships lurked anywhere close, so he could either seize that unknown hunk of metal and canvas or stay there by himself in the dead outpost.
Hoisting one bag over his shoulder and counter–balancing with his cane, he did his best to cross the landing quietly; but his metal foot dropped each step with a hard, loud clank — even though the leather sole at the bottom of the thing was brand new.
He leaned the bag of mail up against the ship and caught his breath, lost more to fear than exertion. Then he moved the mailbag aside to reveal the first two stenciled letters of the ship’s name, and reading the whole he whispered, “Sweet Marie.”
Two more mailbags, each moved with all the stealth he could muster. Each one more cumbersome than the last, and each one straining his bum leg harder. But he moved them. He opened the back bin of the Sweet Marie and stuffed them into her cargo hold. Every grunt was loud in the desert emptiness and every heaving shove would’ve sent ol’ Stanley into conniptions, had he been there.
Too much noise. Got to keep your head down.
Walter breathed, as he leaned on the bin to make it shut. It closed with a click. “This ain’t the war. Not out here.”
Just like me, you carry it with you.
A gusting. A hoarse, lonely sound that barked and disappeared.
He leaned against the bin and listened hard, waiting for that noise to come again.
The Sweet Marie had been primed and she was ready to fill, but no one had switched on the generators. She sank so low she almost tipped over, now that the mail sacks had loaded down her back end.
Walter McMullin did not know how hydrogen worked exactly, but he’d seen the filling process performed enough times to copy it.
The generators took the form of two tanks, each one mounted atop a standard–issue army wagon. These tanks were made of reinforced wood and lined with copper, and atop each tank was a hinged metal plate that could be opened and closed in order to dump metal shavings into the sulfuric acid inside. At the end, opposite the filler plate, an escape pipe was attached to a long rubber hose, to which the Sweet Marie was ultimately affixed.
There were several sets of filters for the hydrogen to pass before it reached the ship’s tank, and the process was frankly none too quick. Even little ships like these mail runners could take a couple of hours to become airworthy.
Walter did not like the idea of spending a couple of hours alone in Reluctance. He was even less charmed by the idea of spending all night alone in Reluctance, so he found himself a crate of big glass bottles filled with acid, and with a great struggle, he poured them down through the copper funnels atop the tanks. Shortly thereafter he located the metal filings; he scooped them up with the big tin cup and dumped them in.
He turned the valves to open the filters and threw the switch to start the generators stirring and bubbling, vibrating the carts to make the acid and the metal stir and separate into hydrogen more quickly.
It made a godawful amount of noise.
The rubber hose, stamped “Goodyear’s Rubber, Belting, and Packing Company of Philadelphia,” did a little twitch. Sweet Marie’s tank gave a soft, plaintive squeal as the first hydrogen spilled through, giving her the smallest bit of lift.
But she’d need more. Lots more.
A sighing grunt, gasped and then gone as quickly as it’d burst through the night.
Walter whirled as fast as his leg would let him, using it as a pivot. He moved like a compass pinned to a map. He held his cane out, pointing at nothing.
But the sound. Again. And again. Another wheeze and gust.
At this point, Walter was gut–swimmingly certain that it was coming from more than one place. Partway between a snore and a cough, with a consumptive rattle. Coming from everywhere, and nowhere. Coming from the dark.
Up against the Sweet Marie he backed.
He jumped, startled by a new sound, a familiar one. Footsteps, slow and laborious. Someone was walking toward him, out of the black alleys that surrounded the landing. Nearing the ladder to the refueling platform. And whoever this visitor was, he was joined by someone else — approaching the edge near the parked Majestic.
And a third somebody. Walter was pretty sure of a third, moving up from the shadows.
Not one single thing about this moment, this shuddering instant alone — but not alone — felt right or good to Walter McMullin. He still couldn’t see anyone, though he could hear plenty. Whoever they were, lurking in the background… they weren’t being quiet. They weren’t sneaking, and that was something, wasn’t it?
Why would they sneak, if they know they have you?
Reaching into his belt, he pulled out the Colt and held it with both hands. His back remained braced against the slowly filling replacement ship. He thought about crying out in greeting, just in case — but he thought of the dead cows, and his desperate eyes spotted no new lights, and the sound of incoming feet and the intermittent groaning told him that no, this was no overreaction. This was good common sense, staying low with your back against something firm and your weapon out. That’s what you did, right before a fight. If you could.
He drew back the gun’s hammer and waited.
Lumbering up the ladder as if drunk, the first head rose into view.
Walter should’ve been relieved.
He knew that head — it belonged to Gibbs Higley, the afternoon station manager. But he wasn’t relieved. Not at all. Because it wasn’t Gibbs, not anymore. He could see that at a glance, even without the gaslamps that lit up a few blocks, far away.
Something was very, very wrong with Gibbs Higley.
The man drew nearer, shuffling in an exploratory fashion, sniffing the air like a dog. He was missing an ear. His skin looked like boiled lye. One of his eyes was ruined somehow, wet and gelatinous, and sliding down his cheek.
“Higley?” Walter croaked.
Higley didn’t respond. He only moaned and shuffled faster, homing in on Walter and raising the moan to a cry that was more of a horrible keening.
To Walter’s terror, the keening was answered. It came bouncing back from corner to corner, all around the open landing area and the footsteps that had been slowly incoming shifted gears, moving faster.
Maybe he should’ve thought about it. Maybe he should’ve tried again, trying to wake Higley up, shake some sense into him. There must’ve been something he could’ve done, other than lifting the Colt and putting a bullet through the man’s solitary good eye.
But that’s what he did.
Against a desert backdrop of dust–covered silence the footsteps and coughing grunts and the buzzing patter of the generators had seemed loud enough; but the Colt was something else entirely, fire and smoke and a kick against his elbows, and a lingering whiff of gunpowder curling and dissolving.
Gibbs Higley fell off the landing, flopping like a rag doll.
Walter rushed as fast as he could to the ladder, and kicked it away — marooning himself on the landing island, five or six feet above street level. Then he dragged himself back to Sweet Marie and resumed his defensive position, the only one he had. “That was easy,” he muttered, almost frantic to reassure himself.
One down. More to go. You’re a good shot, but you’re standing next to the gas. Surrounded by it, almost.
He breathed. “I need to think.”
You need to run.
“I need the Sweet Marie. Won’t get far without her.”
Hands appeared at the edge of the lifted landing pad. Gray hands, hands without enough fingers.
Left to right he swung his head, seeking some out. Knowing he didn’t have enough bullets for whatever this was — knowing it as sure as he knew he’d die if any of those hands caught him. Plague, is what it was. Nothing he’d ever seen before, but goddamn Gibbs Higley had been sick, hadn’t he?
“Gotta hold the landing pad,” he said through gritted teeth.
No. You gotta let ’em take it — but that don’t mean you gotta let ’em keep it.
He swung his head again, side to side, and spotted more hands — moving like a sea of clapping, an audience of death, pulling toward the lifted landing spot. He wished he had a light, and then he remembered that he did have one — he just hadn’t lit it. One wobbly dash back to the Majestic and he had the lantern in his hand again, thinking “to hell with it — to hell with us” and striking a match. What did it matter? They already knew where he was. That much was obvious from the rising wail that now rang from every quarter. Faces were leaning up now, lurching and lifting on elbows, rising and grabbing for purchase on the platform and soon they were going to find it.
“Where?” he asked the ghost of a memory, trying to avoid a full –blown panic. Panic never got anybody anywhere but dead. It got Stanley dead. On the far side of a broken, folded fence along a line that couldn’t have been held, not with a thousand Stanleys.
Ah. Above the hydrogen tanks, and behind them. A ladder in the back corner of the overhang that covered them.
He glanced at the Sweet Marie and then his eyes swept the platform, where a woman was rising up onto the wooden deck — drawing herself up on her elbows. She’d be there soon, right there with him. When she looked up at him her mouth opened and she shouted, and blood or bile — something dark — spilled over her teeth to splash down on the boards.
Whatever it was, he didn’t want it. He drew up the Colt, aimed carefully, and fired. She fell back.
The ladder behind the hydrogen tanks must lead to the roof of the overhang. Would the thin metal roof hold him?
Any port in a storm.
He scurried past the clamoring hands and scooted, still hauling that dead –weight foot, beneath the overhang and to the ladder. Scaling it required him to set the cane aside, and he wouldn’t do that, so he stuck it in his mouth where it stretched his cheeks and jaw until they ached with the strain. But it was that or leave it, or leave the lantern — which he held by the hot, uncomfortable means of shoving his wrist through the carrying loop. When it swung back and forth with his motion, it burned the cuff of his shirt and seared warmly against his chest.
So he climbed, good foot up with a grunt of effort, bad foot up with a grunt of pain, both grunts issued around the cane in his mouth. When he reached the top he jogged his neck to shift the cane so it’d fit through the square opening in the corrugated roof. He slipped, his heavy foot dragging him to a stop with an ear–splitting scrape.
He’d have to step softly.
From this vantage point, holding up the quivering black lantern he could see all of it, and he understood everything and nothing simultaneously. He watched the mostly men and sometimes women of Reluctance stagger and wail, shambling hideously from corners and corridors, from alleys and basements, from broken–windowed stores and stables and saloons and the one whorehouse. They did not pour, but they dripped and congealed down the uncobbled streets torn rough and rocky by horse’s hooves and the wheels of coaches and carts.
It couldn’t have been more than a hundred ragged bodies slinking forward, gagging on their own fluids and chasing toward the light he held over his head, over the town of Reluctance.
Walter stuffed a hand in his vest pockets and felt at the bottom of the bag he still wore over his chest. Bullets, yes. But not enough bullets for this. Not even if he was the best shot in Texas, and he wasn’t. He was a competent shot from New York City, orphaned and Irish a few thousand miles from home, without even a sibling to mourn him if the drooling, simpering, snap–jawed dead were to catch him and tear him to pieces.
Bullets were not going to save him.
All the same, he liked having them.
The lantern drew the dead; he watched their gazes, watching it. Moths. Filthy, deadly moths. He could see it in their eyes, in the places where their souls ought to be. Most of the men he’d ever shot at were fellows like himself — boys mostly, lads born so late they didn’t know for certain what the fighting was about; just men, with faces full of fear and grit.
Nothing of that, not one shred of humanity showed on any of the faces below.
He could see it, and he was prepared to address it. But not until he had to.
Beneath him, the Sweet Marie was filling. Down below the twisted residents of Reluctance were dragging themselves up and onto the platform, swarming like ants and shrieking for Walter — who went to the ladder and kicked it down against the generators, where it clattered and rested, and likely wouldn’t be climbed.
He sat on the edge of the corrugated roof and turned the lantern light down. It wouldn’t fool them. It wouldn’t make them wander away. They smelled him, and they wanted him, and they’d stay until they got him. Or until he left.
He was leaving, all right. Soon.
Inside the satchel he rummaged, and he pulled out his tobacco and papers. He rolled himself a cigarette, lit it off the low–burning lamp, and he sat. And he watched below as the cranium–shaped crest of the Sweet Marie slowly inflated; and the corpses of Reluctance gathered themselves on the landing pad beside it, ignoring it.
Finally the swelling dome was full enough that Walter figured, “I can make it. Maybe not all the way to Santa Fe, but close enough.” He rose to his feet, the flesh and blood one and the one that pivoted painfully on a pin.
The lantern swung out from his fingertips, still lit but barely.
Below the lantern, beside the ship and around it, the men and women shambled.
But fire could consume anything, pretty much. It’d consume the hydrogen like it was starving for it. It’d gobble and suck and then the whole world would go up like hell, wouldn’t it? All that gas, burning like the breath of God.
Well then. He’d have to move fast.
Retracting his arm as far as it’d go, and then adjusting for trajectory, he held the lantern and released it — tossing it in a great bright arc that cut across the star–speckled sky. It crashed to the far corner of the landing pad, blossoming into brilliance and heat, singeing his face. He blinked hard against the unexpected warmth, having never guessed how closely he would feel it.
The creatures below screamed and ran, clothing aflame. The air sizzled with the stench of burning hair and fire–puckered flesh. But some of them hovered near the Sweet Marie, lingering where the fire had stayed clear, still howling.
Only a few of them.
The Colt took them down, one–two–three.
Walter crossed his fingers and prayed that the bullets would not bounce — would not clip or ding the hydrogen tubes or tanks, or the swollen bulb of the Sweet Marie. His prayers were answered, or ignored. Either way, nothing ignited.
Soon the ship was clear. As clear as it was going to get.
And reaching it required a ten–foot drop.
Walter threw his cane down and watched it roll against the ship, then he dropped to his knees and swung himself off the edge to hang by his fingertips. He curled the good leg up, lifting his knee. Better a busted pin than a busted ankle.
And before he had time to reconsider, he let go.
The pain of his landing was a sun of white light. His leg buckled and scraped inside the sheath that clasped the false limb; he heard his bone piercing and rubbing through the bunched and stitched skin, and into the leather and metal.
But he was down. Down beside the Sweet Marie. Down inside the fire, inside the ticking clock with a deadly alarm and only moments — maybe seconds, probably only seconds — before the whole town went up in flames.
At the last moment he remembered the clasp that anchored the ship. He unhitched it. He limped bloodily to the back port and ripped the hydrogen hose out of the back, and shut it up tight because otherwise he’d just leak his fuel all over North Mexico.
He fumbled for the latch and found it.
Opened the door and hauled himself inside, feeling around for the controls and seeing them awash with the yellow–gold light of the fire just outside the window. The starter was a lever on the dash. He pulled that too, and the ship began to rise. He grasped for the thrusters and his shaking, searching fingers found them, and pressed them — giving the engines all the gas they’d take. Anything to get him up and away. Anything to push him past the hydrogen before the fire took it.
Reluctance slipped away below, and behind. It shimmered and the whole world froze, and gasped, and shook like a star being born.
The desert floor melted into glass.