The landing party formed a rough crescent around Kahn, clutching shotguns and pistols and watching closely for any sign of movement amid the huts. Kahn had brought Dane, Corbett, O'Neil, Scales, and Jones, plus Gordon and his men. He counted ten planes on the strip. If the pirates had any ground crew, there could be anywhere between fifteen and twenty men between them and the gold, possibly more. He cradled a Tommy gun in his arms and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"Looks like they haven't been here too long," Dane mused. "The jungle's had enough time to start reclaiming the strip, so no one's been using it in the last few weeks, at least."
"They've probably got little bases like this scattered all through these islands, and just shift from one to the other," Kahn suggested. "I bet the Chinese pulled in, and were in the middle of making repairs when the pirates showed up. They jumped the zep more out of self-preservation than greed, probably. Once it crashed, they settled in here at the base, and eventually put together a salvage party."
"And hit the mother lode," O'Neil whispered, shaking his head in wonder. "Why can't stuff like that happen to us once in a while?
Gordon frowned. "I don't understand why they're still here, then."
"Their boss has probably been trying to figure out how he's going to turn all that gold into something he can actually use," Kahn replied. "He needs a fence to turn the gold into cold cash. Judging by the celebration, it sounds like he's finally got that part of the problem licked."
"Is the gold still here, do you think?" Gordon asked.
"Absolutely," the pirate leader replied. He pointed to a well-made hut, separate from the rest. Two men stood outside, holding shotguns. "Those boys wouldn't be missing out on the fun without a damn good reason."
"Right. Right," Gordon said, putting it all together. "The only problem is that they most likely outnumber us."
Kahn surveyed the landing strip carefully. His eyes settled on a concealed ring of sandbags, partially covered by the tarp. He nodded to himself. "Sit tight," he told the Englishman, and crawled over to O'Neil and Jones. Kahn whispered instructions to the two men, and they set off silently through the undergrowth. He returned moments later. "Okay. Get ready," he said, checking his weapon.
The pirates quickly followed suit, readying for action. Dane shared apprehensive looks with Gordon. She looked at Kahn. "What do you want us to do?"
"Just follow my lead," he answered. "When I give the signal, we're going for the gold. Shoot whoever gets in your way."
Dane snorted. "With what? My finger?"
Kahn stared at her for a moment. "Under other circumstances, I'd say rely on your razor tongue," he said, "but" He reached into his jacket and pulled out a pistol, a battered but serviceable Colt. "Here," he said, handing her the gun.
She took the weaponand immediately checked to make sure it was actually loaded. It was. Dane looked at Kahn strangely. "I take it you've got some master plan to sneak in there and get the gold, with no one the wiser?"
Kahn smiled. "Not at all, Comrade. I learned my lesson at Deadwood." He turned to Hetty. "What was it I said to you?"
She grinned. "Stealth is for the birds."
As if on cue, O'Neil and Scales broke from cover. They sprinted across the strip and dove into the sandbag emplacement. Moments later Scales threw aside the tarp, revealing a .60-caliber machine gun mounted on a tripod. He swung the heavy gun around and cut loose with a long, roaring burst, sending armor-piercing rounds scything through the hut where the pirates were holding their celebrations.
"Now!" Kahn cried, leaping to his feet. The rest of the landing party fell in behind him, howling like banshees as they rushed the camp. The guards standing watch over the gold froze momentarily, but recovered quickly and brought up their weapons. Kahn fired a wild burst from the Tommy gun. Both guards collapsed.
Kahn and his people stumbled to a halt in front of the hut. Scales' machine gun fired another burst, then went silent. There were no cries, no answering shots. The building where the pirates were celebrating had been torn to pieces by the heavy .60-caliber rounds. The ambush had been sudden, deadly and ruthlessly effective.
There was a padlock on the hut's door. A quick burst from the Tommy gun took care of the problem. Kahn kicked the door open, still wary, but the one-room structure was empty. Save for six chests, the size of footlockers, one of which had been thrown open by a machinegun round, to reveal a gleaming mass of golden coins.
Kahn looked around at the awed faces of his crew and couldn't resist a triumphant grin. "We've got to do this more often."
The gold slowed the return trip considerably. Even with a freshly-cut trail it took them nearly four hours to cover the five miles back to the Machiavelli's landing site. Kahn noticed along the way that the wind was picking up, and clouds were scudding fast across the sky. By the time they reached the edge of the beach there was an angry, black overcast looming overhead. The typhoon, it appeared, was headed in their direction.
"Step on it!" Kahn yelled to the landing party. "Let's get this stuff on board!" There was supposed to be a ground crew waiting for them, but the beach was deserted. Evidently they had gone back inside the zeppelin to avoid the coming storm. "We're not out of the woods yet!"
The team surged across the sands, and shots rang out from the treeline only fifteen yards away. Bullets kicked up sand all around them, and a loud voice ordered them to halt. "Put down your weapons!" came a shout, in accented English.
The pirates froze as a wave of brown-uniformed Japanese soldiers emerged from their hiding places, rifles leveled. Behind them came the proud figure of Saburo Murasaki, naked sword in hand.
But that wasn't the sight that made Kahn's blood run cold. It was the man who walked beside Murasaki, idly clutching a pistol of his own and grinning like the devil.
Artemus Hayes shook his head sadly. "Told you you're getting slow, partner," he said over the rising wind.. "Now it looks like the end of the line."