When the airship entered the valley, Aapeli leaned over the railing to get a better view of the area. He never grew tired of looking at the pristine lake that took up much of the valley floor. It was the main water source for everyone who lived within a thirty mile radius – the good and the bad. Stately pine and oak trees snuggled up to the edges of the mountain, creating a wonderful hiding place for anyone interested in stealing his airship or killing him.
“Looks good so far.” He didn’t know when he had taken to talking to himself but took comfort in the fact there was no one there to witness it. Sometimes he just liked hearing a voice – any voice. The daily solitude was a way of life and had been for many years, but there were times he missed sharing ideas and words with someone else. It didn’t help knowing that he was heading toward the loneliest place in the world - The Forbidden Lands.
Aapeli adjusted his goggles and leaned even farther over the edge of the railing, remaining ever vigilance of what might be hiding in the forest. The nearby caves were supposed to be inhabited by men who loved killing for the sport of it. The rumors were they ate their victims. In his twenty years of stopping at the foot of the mountains to refill the water tanks, there had never been any indication that these tales about the cave-dwellers were true.
It was quite possible the tall tales were just that – tall tales, but it didn’t hurt to keep a sharp lookout just in case there was some grain of truth in them. The last thing he wanted was to wind up on a roasting stick. It would certainly be safer to refill his water tanks elsewhere, but Big Lake was the nearest source of water before heading over the mountains into the Forbidden Lands.
Satisfied that all was well, Aapeli ran over to the helm, checking all the gauges before pulling a level that sent a plume of steam into the air. Slowly but surely the airship began its descent. It skimmed over the tops of a row of trees before settling onto the banks of the lake.
Aapeli patted Airus’ helm. “Way to go, girl, another perfect landing.” A couple of turns on a nearby large brass wheel lowered the anchor until he felt it hit the ground. To make certain it was secure he tugged it a couple of times before running over and throwing the water hoses over the starboard side. Not wanting to chance losing his hat or goggles he carried them over and sat them on the captain’s chair. They had belonged to his father, grandfather, and great grandfather, so he felt it was his duty to protect them.
Satisfied everything was secure Aapeli lowered the ladder but instead of heading downward, he sat with one leg over the railing, casting an eye over the area one more time just to be certain no one had entered the valley while he had been busy at the helm. A flock of birds flew out of the trees closet to the lake. He held his breath and listened for any unusual sounds, and when he didn’t hear anything he rubbed his pocket watch for good luck and headed downward.
Aapeli had nearly reached the bottom ring when an eerie wailing cut across the lake’s usual silence. He halted in mid-step, and chills ran down his spine.
“What the hell??” Every sense snapped on full alert and without thinking he slipped the small handgun out of his jacket pocket before jumping the rest of the way to the ground. The lust, green grass insured a quiet landing.
Before Aapeli had time to decide what to do next another cry filled the air. He flattened against the ship and cocked the pistol. As soon as that cry faded away, an unnerving silence settled over the lake. For some reason that was even more alarming than the wailing.
Which direction had the high pitched sound originated? It was tempting to pull up anchor and get the hell out of there, but that would mean he’d have to backtrack to Little Lake. Damn. Totally unacceptable. That would set him back at least a couple of days. Not such a big deal any other time of the year but winter was quickly approaching. The delay could easily make the return trip over the mountaintop dangerous as hell. The wind currents were unpredictable once the freezing temperatures reached the higher altitudes. The added threat of snow was also a concern. Any added weight would make Airus sluggish.
Those thoughts were interrupted by another wail ripping throughout the stagnant air.
The smart thing to do would be to pull up the anchor and get out of there. The crying had surely drawn someone else’s attention.
“Shit.” To hell with being smart. Maybe someone needed his help. Aapeli stepped forward and scanned the area again.
Something about the crying troubled him. It sounded like more a child’s sob instead of a man or woman’s. Was this one of the tricks the mountain men used to entice their victims?
“What are you going to do? Shit or get off the pot. Some mountain man is out there licking his chops hoping you’re stupid enough to run right into his arms.” But none of the stories he had heard over the years had ever lead him to believe the cave-dwellers were smart enough to pull such a trick.
“What the hell?” It wasn’t possible for a grown man to disguise his voice enough to sound that much like a little girl. He stood on his toes and strained to see over the tall grass. He couldn’t chance it really was a child. How long before the cries drew the attention of someone looking for an easy meal?
“You can’t stand here all day.” With no firm plan in mind, Aapeli took off running, silently cursing himself with each step. He was a damn fool for taking such a chance and was probably going to wind up in someone’s soup pot tonight.
Keeping the pistol aimed and ready, Aapeli stopped every couple of steps and glanced around, checking to be certain no one had maneuvered between him and the airship. When he turned back around, a movement at the tree line caught his eye.
Anger replaced his apprehension. What kind of fool left their child alone in such a dangerous place? Aapeli ran across the open field toward the edge of the tree line. He stopped a few feet from the child and peered into the dense underbrush to make certain there was no one in there waiting to attack him. Not seeing anyone he quietly approached her.
Her big eyes watched his every movement so he slowly knelt in front of her to try to keep from spooking her. Her curly, red hair was filthy and matted. Tears had washed some of the grime off her face. A river of snot ran from her nose and off her chin. Where was her mother? He looked over his shoulder at Airus and debated over what to do. He couldn’t leave her here without any protection but he couldn’t take her with him either.
“This is a damn fine mess.” Aapeli scooted in to be closer.
With an innocent expression of curiosity the girl eyed the shiny pistol before reaching out to touch it. Before she could, Aapeli slipped it into his duster pocket.
The little girl was longer crying but was now drawing in ragged breaths.
“Where’s your mommy?”
She slipped a thumb into her mouth and hiccupped.
Before he could question her further, a shrill yelling bounced down the mountainside. This time there was no mistaking the fact that danger was heading their way. Aapeli looked up toward the caves. Seeing a mass of dark dots speeding toward the valley floor, he scooped up the little girl, stood and took off running. Calmly with each step he mentally clicked off what needed to be done before takeoff.
The trip up the ladder took less time than it did down. Once onboard, Aapeli swiped his hat and goggles off the captain’s chair and disposed the child in their place. He vaguely noted that her tears had stopped and her big eyes watched him with interest and not fear. Sensing she could probably use some reassurance that everything was going to be okay, he quickly patted the top of her head before running over and spinning the wheel, hauling the anchor up. With that done, he dashed over to the portside and pulled on the ladder until all of its links of chain were safely back on deck.
Feeling safer now the ladder and anchor were hauled up and no one could climb on board, Aapeli took a moment to look out at the herd of men rapidly running toward the airship. With them all bunched up and on each other’s’ heels it was hard to tell the exact number but the best he could tell it looked to be a group of twenty to thirty men. By now they were at the furthest edge of the lake and were heading in his direction.
“Damnation!” Aapeli glanced over to make certain the little girl was still in the captain’s chair. It was a surprise to see that even though she was now sucking her thumb she hadn’t moved. She was a mystery that was going to have to wait to be solved after they were out of danger. With that thought, he ran over to the helm. He increased the speed on the friction engine and opened the steam vent to release hot air into the balloon.
Even though the friction engine was running on it highest setting, it was an excruciating wait for the airship to achieve air lift. Aapeli pulled out his pistol and looked over the railing. The crazed mob were now beating on the sides of Airus with bare hands and large sticks.
Aapeli shook his head. If that was all they had, they were going to leave here disappointed. Since he had built Airus, he knew exactly how much punishment it could take and a few rocks and sticks were useless against the seasoned cedar planking.
He couldn’t decide whether to be afraid or amused at sight of the ragtag lot. They were grabbing whatever they could and throwing it at the base of the airship, as if that would be enough to stop it from taking off. Most of the small rocks and sticks fell harmlessly back to the ground but every now and then a few would land onto the heads of whoever had thrown them. Of course that only stirred them into a greater fevered pitch, but thankfully to no avail. Airus was slowly gaining altitude and climbing out of reach. By now, even the rocks and sticks could no longer reach the airship.
Aapeli grinned and waved at the mob. The smile was all for show because their crazed growls and hoarse screams had unnerved him more than he wanted to admit. No doubt they would have torn him and the little girl into tiny pieces if they had gotten their hands on them.
Slipping the pistol into his coat pocket, he headed over to the helm and increased the steam pressure. He looked at the dirty little girl and sighed. Shit. What was he going to do with her? She was sucking on her thumb with renewed vigor, but there wasn’t in fear in her big brown eyes - only curiosity.
Not knowing what else to do or say, he patted the top of her head again. When he did, her face lit up with a huge smile.
Before he turned back to the airship’s controls, he knelt in front of the captain’s chair hoping reassure her. “I’ll stop by Shatter’s. I bet if anyone knows who you belong to, it’s him.” That statement was rewarded by another bright smile. Someone was surely looking for this beautiful little girl. If she was his daughter, he would never stop searching until he found her.
With a mission set, Aapeli headed Airus toward the local trading post.