A Steampunk novel by Anthony Stevens
Coming Soon from Captiva Press
Crazy Taylor follows two generations of adventurers from the sunset of the British Empire in India, through the early days of WWII. The alternate history of an unlikely pair of warcraft: the Cloud Dancer, a new breed of high-speed warship, and her sister the Cloud Singer, a surprisingly nimble airship.
Will the courage, loyalty and tolerance of their crews allow love to flourish while explosions light the night skies?
Chapter 1: India
Charlie Morgan was well past the point of infatuation with the jungle, and the slow, rocking gait of the elephant wasn't helping his mood. The leather straps that lined and supported his colonial helmet were sweat-soaked and stretched. He glanced to the side of the howdah and realized his wealthy host actually seemed to be enjoying the hunt. When Charlie had joined Her Majesty's Rifles, he had hoped for a better post than this small detachment in the depths of an Indian swamp.
Most of the dark-skinned sub-continentals in their party were illiterate, although he was careful not to underestimate their intelligence. He did however, question the wisdom of stumbling through a steaming jungle in pursuit of a large, striped killer.
The gray giant of a beast stumbled over a log hidden in the brush. The two men tightened their grips on the woven wicker howdah.
The Rajah cursed the driver to take more care, scanned the jungle, then turned and addressed Charlie with a fine Oxford accent. “Best keep a very sharp eye out, lad. A tiger is a formidable and unforgiving enemy. They have been known to lay in wait for a line of hunters and spring only when the last one has past.”
The young military officer nodded and pointed at his host's rifle. “That monster is sure to take him down, Rajah. I doubt any self-respecting tiger would get near it.” He looked down to the side of the howdah. “What are those for?”
“The hand weapons on either side are for emergencies only. As you can see, each of them is unusually large and has been carefully cleaned and loaded with a maximum charge of powder and ball. If any beast should get past our bearers, my rifle or the rifles of the other hunters, then you need only pull one of those, as a matter of last resort, to acquire your trophy.”
Charlie was dubious. The matched pair of single-shot pistols were very ornate, bordering on gaudy, with small jewels set into the grips and complex engraving on the mechanisms. He realized that as a representative of the Empress of India, as Queen Victoria was known, he had to maintain cordial relations with the natives. So he kept any opinions to himself. As inexperienced as he was, he assumed the modest revolver worn on his hip should be adequate for either man or beast.
When they heard an excited bit of chatter from the side, his host swung the heavy rifle barrel to the left. “There! The tracker says there are fresh signs on that game trail. We may indeed get lucky, my young friend.”
The elephant driver halted the great beast while the Rajah spoke with the tracker in soft tones. A bird burst from a low tree to the right, startling everyone. A nervous chuckle followed and the elephant took a step forward.
At that moment, Charlie heard something crashing through the brush. He turned in time to see his first Bengal tiger. It had already used the bloody back of the native guide on their right as a stepping stone and leapt through the air, headed straight for the howdah. The Rajah whipped the heavy rifle around and, with an incredible display of bad luck, smacked Charlie in the back of his helmet. Charlie had just grabbed his pistol from the holster when the world suddenly went black.
Moments later, his vision cleared, albeit with an intense headache. By that time, the Rajah's shot had gone wild. The big cat had paused only long enough to bite down on the driver's shoulder and disembowel him with a couple of quick swipes with its two-inch long hind claws. The local ruler threw his useless rifle over the side, but the panicked elephant reared before he could draw one of the howdah pistols. Charlie's pistol was tangled in the holster, so he grabbed one of the ornate toys as he fell back to the floor of their wicker cage.
The tiger almost flew over him and Charlie only felt a slight pressure at his chest from the beast's fore paw. He pulled the trigger and a tremendous explosion tore the gun from his grasp and once again stunned the young officer. It hurt to shake his head, much less just to lie there, but he knew there was something that had to be done.
The next thing he knew, the Rajah was leaning over him and moving his mouth, but nothing seemed to be coming out. All Charlie heard was the high-pitched roar of his heart pounding in his ears. The explosion as he fired the pistol must have deafened him. His host was shouting over his shoulder and seemed awfully aggravated. He was holding a funny pink scarf to Charlie's chest.
“Now see here, my good man. You're being awfully familiar and I'm not really fond of pink scarves.” Charlie complained and then he realized he couldn't hear himself either and the pink appeared to be changing color. He looked farther down and saw the pink scarf was now the color of fresh blood, probably from those long, narrow gouges. They looked like they should have been a lot more painful than...
* * *
Despite stiffness in his chest and a pounding headache, Charlie opened his eyes.
“Good to see you're still with us, old man.” It was Abraham Masters, his old friend from boarding school days and now a fellow officer in Queen Victoria's Empire.
“It's good to be here. And it is very gratifying to know I'm not deaf.”
“Your friend the Rajah told me that is not uncommon when one has to fire a howdah pistol.”
“And the tiger?”
“Its pelt is being cured as we speak. It won't be long before you'll have a wonderful trophy for your wall. The Rajah insists that it is yours, since it was your bravery and quick-thinking that drove a lead ball through its heart as it was inches from eating him. He has been worried for your recovery. That is why you are here, in his palace. He wants to know the minute you are awake. You feel up to some more of the local royalty?”
“Go ahead. I'm feeling weak as a kitten, but should be able to handle a little diplomacy.”
His host was all smiles when he saw Charlie propped up on pillows and sipping tea. “I'm very happy that you have denied the tiger a final victim. Also, I want to thank you very much for saving my life. Is there anything you need?”
“It was nothing, my friend. Any of her Majesty's officers would have done the same, I'm quite sure.”
“Perhaps and perhaps not. Be that as it may, I'm going to see to it that your superiors have a formal record of your bravery. I've also arranged for a small token of my esteem to be packed with your belongings. There are only an few old trinkets, but they might give you something to remember us when you get back to that cold and dreary London.”
* * *
A few weeks later, Charlie was back on his feet and ready to leave the unrelenting heat of the palace. A short carriage ride, an overnight run on an antique train, and he caught up with Abraham on the docks.
“I hope you didn't think I would let you sail all the way back to England by yourself, did you?”
“Charlie!” The two men embraced and slapped each other on the back. “It's good to see you on your feet again. I wasn't sure you'd be able to make this ship.”
“Wouldn't miss if for the world. You forget there's a certain young lady I've been corresponding with for the last three years. The last I heard, she's waiting for my return so that I might formally propose.”
“Well, I'm sure you two will be incredibly happy together. I'm just curious as to why the Queen is recalling so many of the middle ranks as us. Especially when this corner of the Empire is in some disarray at the moment.”
“Perhaps she is privy to information that eludes us, Abraham?”
“No matter. I've some other good news for you. The captain of this fine vessel was overjoyed to hear we had been studying engineering before we shipped out. He's invited us to examine the engines and look over some plans for modifications that he has been drafting.”
Any chance to examine a modern steam engine and to work alongside someone conversant with the latest in this powerful technology was enough to bring a wide smile to Charlie's face. They would have much to amuse themselves with on the long voyage, home.
* * *
The Portsmouth docks were a bustle of activity. The two young officers had to run to catch the last train that day to London. Once in Piccadilly, they finally caught up with their luggage and arranged for a taxi to carry them and their gear to their respective homes.
The very next morning, Charlie presented himself at the front gate of the Porter estate. To his surprise, her father greeted him and then denied him entrance.
“But why, Sir? We have been corresponding for several years and I was under the impression you were pleased with me.”
The old man shook his head. “I'm terribly sorry lad. It's not at all your fault. It's just that when her mother passed away last year, she became despondent. One of the local lads, you might recall him, recently inherited his father's titles and approached her six months ago. They seemed to get along well enough and I'm sorry to tell you this, but she got tired of waiting. They were married last week and are on their honeymoon as we speak.”
The road back to his home had at least a dozen pubs, and it seemed like he had to try a pint in each. The only firm memory that remained, even years later, was of himself sitting in his bedroom. He held a polished wooden case containing a matched pair of howdah pistols on top and a hidden drawer below, full of gem-encrusted golden jewelry. He wasn't sure which of them were more important at that dismal point in his life.