Deep Shaft Run

In the mid-38th century (OT calendar), Trans-temporal Combat Chess reached the peak of its popularity. The rules were simple– using traditional chess moves on a checkered floor, two teams maneuvered for strategic advantage. Each square was assigned a particular temporal-spacial milieu chosen from the known scope of human history. When two players challenged for a square, they would be transported to that location in space and time; possession of the square would be subsequently awarded to whichever player defeated the other in an appropriate temporal-social context, using only the tools and technology available to the natives.

Each player developed a combat specialty. Pawns, usually the least experienced players on the floor, faced simple challenges. Court players specialized as they gained skill. Rooks were engineers and manipulators of the physical world. Knights tended towards “races and chases,” challenges of movement. Bishops engaged in rhetoric or acts of persuasion. Queens, chosen from only the most skilled and experienced players, had to be ready for any type of challenge. Meanwhile, the Kings as the focus of the game floor, determined overall strategy.

Gameplay at the highest levels, which were also the most difficult and physically dangerous, could command audiences of billions….

 

*****

 

At the command, Miranda took her square on the chess floor. They were now in endgame, and many of the other players had already retired. She surveyed those who were left. To her experienced eye, the next move was obvious, and she turned and nodded to Jax, playing the Pearl King.

“Queen to King’s Bishop Five!” Jax called, as expected. Miranda grinned and traversed three diagonal squares to stand face to face with Cheshire, the remaining Jade Knight.

“The Pearl Queen challenges the Jade Knight!” called the referee. “Does Jade accept the challenge?”

Cheshire glanced back at his own King, who had the choice to forfeit the square for some strategic advantage. The Jade King stroked her beard judiciously and nodded. Cheshire flashed a cocky grin and called out, “Jade accepts!”

“The time and place is 1924, Pittsburg, Kansas! What challenge does Jade propose?” the referee asked.

“It’s Prohibition,” Cheshire replied. “The challenge is rum-running. One load of illegal spirits from Pittsburg to Kansas City.”

“Does Pearl accept the challenge?”

Miranda nodded. “Pearl gladly accepts.”

A chase, then, and a battle of wits. This sounded like fun.

*****

 

The first thing Miranda always noticed about a time jump were the smells. Pittsburg, Kansas, was typical for its size and era, a distinct miasma of coal smoke, horse manure, cooking, gasoline, outhouses, exhaust, hot metal, and stagnant ditch water. She walked across the railway platform, and noted that this time the Game’s equipage staff had gotten her clothing right; a columnar calf-length dress and coat, bucket hat, and low-heeled boots.

She stopped a porter. “Pardon me, but where might I find the Chief of Police?”

“Is there a problem, ma’am?” the porter asked.

“Not at all,” Miranda replied briskly. “I merely have some business with his office, that is all.”

The man gave her directions, and Miranda walked down the street.

 

*****

 

The police station was a rowdy place; rowdy and smelly and there seemed little difference between the officers of the law and the criminals they apprehended. It took Miranda nearly ten minutes just to get the attention of the desk sergeant, and when she did she used her most officious and imperious manner.

“I demand to see Chief Armstrong this instant!”

The desk sergeant waved towards a narrow bench along one wall. “Wait there. He’ll see you when he sees you.”

The bench already contained one weeping woman, the bloom of her youth sadly wilted. She was accompanied by a little girl, who was whining, and an even younger boy who was running around in circles, whooping.

“Now see here, this certainly won’t do.” Miranda produced her badge, newly fabricated by Equipage. “I am here on law enforcement business. Federal law enforcement.”

The sergeant picked up the piece of tin and examined it. He remained unimpressed as he gave it back. “If you’d wait over there, Missus, he’ll still see you when he sees you.”

A door behind the sergeant’s desk opened and two men emerged. “You heard the Chief,” one said to the other.

“His office is back there, is it?” Miranda asked, and whipped past the desk and through the doorway. At the end of the short corridor a door bore the words, “A. R. Armstrong, Chief of Police.” Miranda headed that direction as fast as she could walk, ignoring the bellows of the sergeant for her to stop.

“Chief Armstrong? My name is Agent Miranda Cunningham, and I work for the Treasure Department. I require the assistance of your office to intercept a dangerous man.”

Armstrong regarded her levelly. “A dangerous man?”

Miranda handed over the wanted notice she had had printed with Cheshire’s photograph. “James Cheshire. He’s wanted in Illinois, Ohio, and Massachusetts for smuggling. He has also been implicated in the deaths of three federal agents in Cicero, Illinois. My information places him here, in Pittsburg, preparing to transport liquor illegally across state lines to distributors in Kansas City, Missouri. If we move quickly, we can arrest him before he has a chance to escape.”

Armstrong perused the notice. “He doesn’t look so dangerous to me. If he were, why would the Treasury Department send a woman to arrest him? Why wouldn’t they send a team of their best men?”

“Because a woman can move without being noticed, Chief Armstrong. Cheshire undoubtedly has informants at the train station. If I had arrived with a team of the Treasury Department’s finest, Cheshire would have been tipped off immediately and already be preparing his escape.”

Miranda tried a warm smile. “Did you notice the reward being offered? Five thousand dollars, to be divided between yourself and whichever men you choose, for less than an hour’s work. But only if you move quickly.”

The Chief was obviously tempted. But he put the notice down and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Cunningham. But I have better things to do with my time than chase tall tales. If what you say is true, he’ll be out of my jurisdiction tomorrow.” He stood up and began donning his uniform coat. “If I were you, missus, I’d return to Washington or wherever you’re from, and stick to your knitting.” He called into the hallway, “Sergeant, would you escort Mrs. Cunningham out?”

“Yes, Chief. Right this way, ma’am.” Miranda found herself escorted politely, yet firmly, out into the street.

Miranda turned to glare back at the building. It wouldn’t do any good to walk back in, so she lingered on the sidewalk, waiting to see if the seed she’d planted would bear fruit.

It wasn’t long before a police officer exited the station and headed towards Miranda. His coat was stained about the cuffs and his uniform pants were wrinkled and baggy. He also needed a shave. He spotted Miranda and ambled over.

“You’re that Treasury lady agent, aren’t you, Missus?” He drawled.

“I am.”

“That five thousand dollar reward– it’s for whoever helps you take this Cheshire fellow in?”

“It is,” Miranda affirmed.

“Well, then, Missus, my name is Blake Dawes, and for that reward I’m your man.”

 

*****

 

Dawes had a beat-up roadster that “isn’t pretty, Missus, but it’ll take you anywhere you need to go,” and in the middle of the night they headed out to the coal fields.

“‘Round here they call the moonshine they make ‘deep shaft,’ on account of them hiding the stills right in the mines. There’s hardly a family living in the coal fields that isn’t engaged in the liquor trade one way or another, for the extra money it brings in. That’s why Chief Anderson isn’t too keen on busting up the moonshiners they way he ought to.”

“Does he get paid to look the other way, then?”

“Naw. He’s just a soft heart. Rotgut money is the only thing keeping some of these families from starving, wages down in the mines being what they are, and mining companies going bust all the time.”

“Yet the newspapers print stories about the new prosperity, with the stock market doing so well.”

“Prosperity? If a man already has money, he can always get more. Way of the world, that is.”

Miranda changed the subject. “Where exactly are you taking me?”

“Your man Cheshire is taking the run up to Kansas City, you said? He’ll want the best then. Shaft No. 50 is the finest whiskey produced in the coal fields, and they make it in the old Davies and Wellington mine. Davies died in a rock fall and the mine has been shut down while the lawyers wrangle over it. Nobody’s in any hurry to open it again; the whiskey they make is worth more than all the coal in that mine.”

Miranda smiled. “Perhaps there will be a bottle or two for you when we’re done.”

“Thank you, Missus, I won’t say no,” Dawes laughed. “But the reward is enough for me.”

He pulled over to the side of the road and killed the engine. “The mine is just over there, behind those trees.”

In the dark, with the engine stopped, they could just see lights through the woods and hear men’s voices. Miranda pulled a pistol out of her pocket and checked it, nodding in approval when Dawes did the same. Together they crept through the underbrush towards the mine.

Three men were loading wood crates onto a truck. One was Cheshire. Miranda stepped into the light and shot her pistol into the air. “Federal agents! You are all under arrest!”

Instead of surrendering quietly, Cheshire leapt for the truck cab. The other two pulled pistols of their own and took cover, one behind the truck and one just within the mine entrance, and returned fire. Dawes cursed and started shooting back. Miranda took careful aim at Cheshire in the truck, but he hit the gas, spraying mud and gravel behind. Miranda’s shot shattered one of the crates and the smell of whiskey filled the air.

Miranda said something extremely unladylike and raced back to Dawes’ car. He had left the key in the ignition and she pressed the starter. Just as the engine roared to life, Dawes hopped into the passenger seat.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he bellowed. “We could have arrested those two back there and claimed the reward!”

“Stopping Cheshire is the important thing!” Miranda retorted. “We must at all costs prevent him from reaching Kansas City with the whiskey!” She stomped on the accelerator, and the car bounced through the ruts in the dirt road.

“You’re mad! You’ll break an axle at this rate!”

“Not if he breaks one first!” Miranda concentrated on the road in front of her.

“If he’s headed to Kansas City, he’ll go east, cross the state line, and pick up the highway running north. It’s a good road and he’ll make good time. But it’s out of my jurisdiction.”

“You’re not squeamish about a little thing like jurisdiction, are you, Dawes? Besides, I’m a federal agent– there isn’t any place in the United States or its territories where I don’t have jurisdiction.”

“Fair enough, Missus!” Dawes said, and hung on grimly as Miranda navigated a tight turn.

 

*****

 

They drove through the twists and turns of narrow country lanes, lit only by a nearly full moon. Miranda managed to stay close enough to Cheshire’s truck to keep it barely within sight.

As expected, Cheshire turned north when he reached Missouri Highway 7. The highway hadn’t been paved along this section, but it had been graded recently, and Cheshire rocketed into the night.

“That truck is a bit faster than I would have expected,” Dawes remarked. “Especially loaded the way it is.”

“Can this car match it?” Miranda asked.

“Most likely,” Dawes replied. “‘Course, we’ll have to stop for fuel in a bit. Mind you, Cheshire will as well. Can’t think where he’ll get some this time of night. He’ll have to wait for a station to open in the morning.”

“Where, do you think? I’m depending on your local knowledge here, Dawes.”

The next good-sized town on this route is Nevada. After that, Butler, but that’s thirty miles further. I doubt he’d make it, unless he’s carrying a can or two of extra gas. We can make Butler just fine, because I always carry extra gas.”

 

*****

 

Miranda and Dawes entered Butler, Missouri, just after dawn, and cruised slowly up and down Orange Street looking for open service stations. Most were closed up tight, but there was one just opening, next door to a cafe. When asked, the mechanic’s boy said he’d seen a truck matching the description of Cheshire’s parked near the depot.

Miranda scurried across the street and in a very few minutes confirmed that Cheshire’s truck had been emptied and abandoned at the depot. It was a smart move, and Miranda hated being outplayed like this. She glared at the truck before hearing a sharp, cheery whistle. She looked up to see a Cheshire leaning out an open boxcar door on the north-bound train just leaving the depot.

“Dammit!” Miranda growled at Dawes. “Cheshire and the whiskey are on the train.”

“I’ll have a word with the station master, then.” Dawes ambled towards the depot. Miranda fumed. What could she do now? Take the next train? Hot air balloon? Were there airplanes in 1924, could she find one, and could she fly it? She wasn’t ready to give up yet.

Dawes returned, grinning. “Looks like your boy took the first train in the station. That one is not an express. It’ll make plenty of stops to take on and let off passengers and cargo before it reaches Independence at 4:30 this afternoon.”

“Can we still beat it?” she asked.

Dawes nodded. “We can, if the car doesn’t break down. I asked that mechanic to give it a quick once-over, just in case.”

The mechanic was just crawling out from under Dawes’ car while his boy finished filling the spare gas cans and put them in the trunk. Miranda paid the man, including a dollar tip for the boy, for the information. Dawes disappeared into the cafe, emerging minutes later with a bundle of egg salad sandwiches and a vacuum flask of coffee.

 

*****

 

They were at the Independence freight depot in plenty of time to meet Cheshire’s train. Cheshire’s cocky grin faded as he saw Miranda and Dawes approach the car where he waited with his whiskey.

“James Cheshire, you are under arrest, by the authority of the United States!” Miranda announced. “Dawes?”

Dawes put the handcuffs on Cheshire, then pulled his gun, turning it on Miranda. “It’s been real nice working with you, Missus, but I think I’d like the both of you to step inside this boxcar.”

“Mr. Dawes!”

“Now then, please do as I ask. I’d hate to shoot a lady.”

Reluctantly, Miranda and Cheshire stepped into the boxcar, and Dawes handcuffed them both to iron bars on the inside of the car. He then leaned out the door, whistling shrilly, and waved to three men who entered the car and started efficiently unloading the crates of whiskey.

“Mr. Dawes, I’m surprised at you! What about the reward I promised?” Miranda protested.

“Well now, Missus, the price of this whiskey is far more than any reward. Don’t worry about yourself any. Someone will be along by and by to let you go.”

Once Dawes and his men were gone, Miranda remarked to Cheshire. “Pearl takes the square.”

He snorted. “Did you know he would betray you when you hired him?”

“I thought he might. But keeping the whiskey wasn’t the point. I just had to prevent you from delivering it to win.”

The boxcar faded around them as the temporal transport took hold.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *