The mesas and meadows melded into stone-covered foothills, pine forests, and the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies. Paladin increased his throttle and climbed over them.
Free Colorado was certainly beautiful to look at from a thousand feet. It was too bad, he thought, that upon closer inspection she was infested with pirates, bootleggers and other human vermin. Like his brother.
Paladin would deal with Matthew, but first he intended to find out what happened to their sister, Floraassuming Matthew hadn't lied about her, and this wasn't an elaborate trap.
Durango Airfield was a dirt strip cut into the forest, a few shacks, and scattered fuel tanks. He circled the field, then eased this Devastator onto the bumpy runway, taxied to the end, and parked so he could take off quickly.
Sunning Lizard Airfield had been clean and neatcomplete with whitewashed adobe buildings, chili reaños and piping hot coffee in the pilot's lounge. Durango, in contrast, was a disaster. The area was cluttered with discarded airframes which lined the runway. Old engine blocks and rusty machine parts were strewn across the ground, and the odor of grease, smoke and sour mash wafted from a leaning A-frame. Over the door of this structure was a sign with a painted figure of a woman encircled by a leering cobra, and the words: "Snakes and Ladders." It was just the kind of dump Matthew would like.
The drone of aircraft echoed off the mountains. Paladin squinted and spotted a line of six incoming Fairchild F4 Corsairs. The snub-nosed planes banked, descended, and then landed, one after another.
Paladin flipped the secret kill switch under his Devastator's control panel and climbed out of the cockpit. He checked his .45smaking sure each pistol had a round in the chamberand then strode toward the Corsairs.
Matthew jumped down from the wing of his Corsair. He pulled off his flight cap and shook out a mane of gray hair. He was taller than Paladin by a head. Matthew's face was similar to Paladin'sthe same strong jaw and blue eyesbut his features were weathered by age, crossed with frown lines, his eyes ringed with fatigue.
Matthew's wingmen clambered out of their planes and gathered around their leader. They looked like a tough bunch, in black flight jackets and combat boots. Each of themthree men and two womenpacked a mix of weapons, mostly bulky revolvers. But they looked a little scared of Paladin.
Good, he thought. Let them be scared.
The truth was that Paladin was a little scared, too...of Matthew. Anything that crossed his brother's path, anyone that got in his way, Matthew made sure they never caused him trouble again. Pirates. Mercenaries. Lawmen. Civilians. They were all equal in Matthew's book: all equally dispensable. Did that extend to his kin as well?
Paladin broke the silence: "You said to come alone, Matthew. I did...but I see you needed a crowd to face me."
Matthew took a step toward Paladin. "I don't need anyone's help to handle you, little brother." He glanced at the horizon, then back at Paladin. "I just didn't know if there'd be a few"he spat the name out"Blake Aviation planes buzzing around. Or maybe a combat zep."
"I came with everything I needed," Paladin replied, his right hand resting lightly on the butt of his holstered gun.
"Look, I didn't come here to exchange shots." Matthew frowned, and pulled his gloves off. We've got important things to talk about." He nodded to the leaning A-frame. "Come on."
Matthew marched toward the "clubhouse." Paladin followed, and Matthew's crew trailed behind them.
Paladin wasn't so sure if turning his back on this pack of wolves was a good idea. Then again, Matthew was many thingsbut he was never subtle. If this meeting had been a trap, it would have been sprung the instant Matthew had seen he had Paladin outnumbered.
Paladin pushed through the double doors of the A-frame. The smell stopped him coldburning charcoal and the scent of bourbon so thick it made him choke. There was a player piano, a Ben Franklin stove with a fire crackling inside, and a stained bar top with a brass railing. The thing that caught Paladin's eye, however, was the back wallshelves jammed with bottles: tall slivers of icy-looking Vodka, cobalt blue decanters, magnums of champagne, moonshine jugs, and rows of square bottles filled with an amber liquor that he was all too familiar with. For a dive, it was well stocked.
Matthew dropped a ten-pesado silver piece onto the counterwhich was snatched up by the barkeep. "Drinks are on me tonight, gang. I'll be out back with my brother." He grabbed a bottle and two glasses, and held open the back door.
Paladin left, glad to be out in the fresh air. There was a small table set up on the back porch. The view of the mountain silhouetted against the purpling sky was magnificent.
"A drink." Matthew popped the cork. "For old time's sake."
Paladin sat and said nothing. He watched his brother pour from the bottle labeled with the same knight-and-shield insignia that Paladin used for Blake Aviation Security...only this knight was black, not white.
"I came to hear about Flora, Matthew, not to get drunk with you."
Matthew slammed the bottle on the table. "Can't you ease up for a second? I stick my neck out a mile to meet you, and you don't even have the decency to say 'hello,' or 'how've you been for the last six years?' Nice to see you, too."
"How have you been, Matthew?" Paladin's right hand eased from his lap to the holster on his right hip. He quietly unfastened the snap.
"I'm lousy, thanks for asking." Matthew filled the highball glasses to their brimsdowned one, then the other. "You know what happens if word of us talking gets out? No decent bootlegger will get within spiting distance of me."
"Sorry to be a such an...embarrassment to you," Paladin said and set his hands on the table. "You want to tell me about Flora?"
"I guess we really don't have anything to talk about but her." He slumped into his chair. His eyes met Paladin's for a second; he opened his mouth to say something, hesitated, then blinked and looked away.
"Yeah, Flora. You know she's always been in troublenot the kind of trouble you and I get into, but booze and men and all that high society stuff." Matthew poured himself another shot. "Well, I guess it's not so bad when you stop to think about it."
"Uh huh," Paladin remarked.
Matthew was wrong. Flora had not always been trouble. Once, she had been enrolled at Smith College with plans to go on to law school. Then their father had died and nothing mattered to her, except trying to forget. She wrapped herself in vice and extravagance. Liquor and men were just a start. She often indulged in things much more "sophisticated"...and much more unsavory.
But Flora was always everyone's darling. She entered the room and instantly became the center of attention. Everyone loved her. They couldn't help it, not even Paladin.
"This time," Matthew whispered, "she's in real trouble, little brother...I mean, she's in way over her head. She got mixed up with a New Orleans crowd."
"Last I heard she was in Paris."
Matthew snorted a laugh. "A year ago. She's spent time in London since then, and South Africa. I got a postcard from her last week to meet her for Mardi Gras."
Paladin winced. The only time Flora ever contacted him was when she needed cash. "And? You saw her?"
"Kind of." Matthew gazed into his glass. "She said she could only get away for an hour. She looked scared. And not for her...for me."
Matthew furrowed his brow, struggling to find the right words. "I followed her after she left and got a glimpse of her new friends. I asked the locals a few questions about them. I had to get rough before they coughed up what they knew.
"These friends of hers have money and hired muscle. Their kind buy and sell things, doesn't matter from where or from who. Guns, booze, narcotics" Matthew paused, then added, "Well, you name it and they can get it for a price."
A smuggling outfit? Paladin could see why Flora would be with that crowd. Exotic delicacies and fast times would, for her, outweigh the danger involved.
"They call themselves 'Derpsins,' or 'Diespines'something like that," Matthew said. "Thing is, when Flora's ready to move on, I don't think these people will let her go. She knows too much."
"You wired me because you think I can get her out?"
"You've got the guns and the men to go in there. Hell, you did it when you were in the Pinkertonsfor strangers. You should be able to do the same for your own flesh and blood."
"Working with the Pinks was different," Paladin said. "I did all the wrong things for the right reasons. And, it was a long time ago."
"Well, there's another reason it's got to be you. If I get Flora out, then what? How do I tell her to clean up? I'm no angel. She'd laugh in my face and have every right to do it." Matthew drank his shot of bourbon. "But you're squeaky clean, a businessman. Hell, you're a hero if you believe the newspapers. She'll listen to you."
He was rightit had to be Paladin. Matthew would use a sledgehammer when a light touch was needed. He'd go in with guns blazing and get everyone killed. Paladin knew the odds that he could convince Flora to change her ways were long, but there was another way to help her. Dasheill had connections with a hospital in Santa Barbara that dried out studio starlets. That might do the trick.
"I'll see what I can do." Paladin stood. "Thanks for telling me, Matt."
"I knew you'd do it." Matthew stood, too, and held out his hand.
Paladin stared at it. He wanted to reach out and clasp it. He tried to move his arm, but it might as well have been made of lead. Matthew was his brother, his blood, but he was also everything that Paladin had sworn to fight.
"There's one last piece of business between us, Matthew. You're coming back with me. You're wanted in Hollywood, Texas, and a dozen other places for larceny, theft, murdertake your pick."
Matthew retracted his outstretched hand. He looked his bother up and down, then laughed. "You think you can take me? With five of my crew to back me up? You're a hoot, little brother."
How fast could Matthew draw his gun with a quarter bottle of bourbon in him? Probably too quick for Paladin's liking.
"I mean it, Matthew. You come with me now, the easy way...or later, the hard way."
Matthew's smile vanished. "Get out of here. Get out of here and get Floraor don't. I don't care anymore."
"Everything okay, boss?" Matthew's crew stood silhouetted in the frame of the back door.
"Get back inside," he growled at them. "This is none of your businesses."
Matthew then turned back to Paladin and whispered, "If I ever see you again, on the ground or in the sky, I'll kill you. Brother or no brother."
"That's good to know," Paladin said. "It looks like we do have something in common."
He stared at his brotheryears of drinking and hard living had made Matthew's eyes sunken and his skin pallid. In the shadows, Matthew's head looked more like a skull than human flesh. Paladin didn't know the man anymoreno, that wasn't right. He knew him, he just wished he didn't.
Paladin turned his back on his brother and marched back to the runway. He climbed into his Devastator and tried to stop his hands from shaking. He had promised his father he'd get every last pirate in the air. But what would Dad say about this? Which of his sons would he disapprove of more? Matthew for his murdering and thieving or Paladin for wanting to bring his own brother down?
That didn't matter. His father was long dead, and Paladin was his own man, with his own reasons for fighting.
Paladin flipped the ignition switch, cranked the Devastator's engine, and taxied onto the runway. He pushed the throttle full open and shot into the sky. The moon rose past the edge of the mountains, casting silver and shadows into the valley. He climbed to three hundred feet then banked and headed back toward Durango Field.
Sometimes, he thought, you need a light touch to solve your problems. This wasn't one of those times.
Paladin lined up with the runway and dove. He opened fire, peppered the Corsairs on the ground with .30-caliber bullets, then launched rockets one and four.
He pulled back on the stick. He risked a quick glance, and saw two planes explode as men and woman ran onto the airstrip. Paladin circled back for another pass, but the remaining Corsairs were already taking off.