“SPEED ‘EM UP, VICTOR,” Clive barked. “We’re barely keeping ahead of this thing.”
“Ha’yah!” Victor cried, accompanied by the crack of his whip. The wagon bolted forward, leaving the ominous hole behind for now.
“What in Bill’s bald head was that?” Carl questioned.
Clive looked at his comrades.
“The more pertinent question is how long can we out run it?”
“That’s impossible to tell,” Victor managed to communicate from the front of the buckboard.
As the wagon rounded a curve, Carl extended a finger and voiced an observation.
“Looks like we’ve kinda got a handle on that question of time you had earlier.”
A three foot high wall of stone stood across the entire width of the road. Any attempt to circumnavigate the obstacle meant an impossible forty-five degree climb to the right and a deadly forty-five degree plummet to the left.
“Victor,” Clive barked, “left turn now!”
Victor looked to the left and eyed his options. He turned to find Clive.
“Now!” Clive roared.
The buckboard veered off the road. They found that the steep embankment was a small part of the problem. Hidden beneath the waist high grasses were potholes, ruts and rocks, large enough to destroy an ellack-drawn wagon.
“When I get to the station,” Carl yelled, “somebody’s gonna get an earful.”
Clive nodded. “Give ’em one for me too,”
Clive and Carl sat on the floor of the buckboard with their backs plastered to the front of the wagon. Each man had one hand grasping the iron bar at the bottom of the driver’s seat and the other hand looped through the back of Victor’s belt. They wedged themselves in place by pressing their boots against the barrels in the back of the wagon.
“Thanks for the hand hold,” Victor said, knowing he wouldn’t be heard if he voiced it any louder. Even so, he felt the need to express the sentiment. He was doing nothing more than holding on himself. His boots were locked underneath a flat plate normally used for the driver and passenger to rest their feet on.
The ellacks bore the brunt of the punishment. The muscles in their rear pair of legs contracted, lifting them off the ground, allowing the second pair, ahead of the rear legs to carry the load. Enzymes in the animals’ muscles stiffened the second set of legs to near unbreakable, allowing the joints to remain movable.
Much of the animal’s weight would be shifted to the flanks, causing the front legs to tread lightly, sparing them irreparable damage. Once the crisis was over, the rear legs would relax and lower to the ground and the second pair would contract to the abdomen to heal.
“How much more of this can we take?” Carl shouted.
Clive took a deep breath. “The buckboard can’t last much longer and then we’re next.”
Victor strained to see thirty feet in front of him.
“What is that?” He craned his neck to see, and in an instant was rolling over top of it, “A ramp?” He held his breath until the wagon landed on flat ground. “And, man, am I glad it was there.”
The buckboard came to a slow rolling stop. Victor applied what remained of the parking brake. He dropped the reins, removed his hat and fanned his face.
“All passengers may disembark in an orderly fashion.”
“Just get me out of this death wagon,” Carl said, falling over the side before catching himself.
Clive jumped to the ground.
“Victor, I don’t know how you did it, but you did it good.”
Victor climbed down last, said nothing and made for the anomaly he knew he had seen.
Sixty feet from the buckboard’s final resting place, was a man-made depression. It was more than large enough to hold both ellacks and the wagon. The alarming part of this scenario was the rows of sharpened, six-inch thick wooden spears that lined the bottom of the depression, protruding up some four feet.
“Ya think someone might have it in for us?” Carl asked.
Victor nodded toward a curved structure.
“I think somebody’s doing a stellar job of looking out for us.”
The three men moved as close as they could to the mound of clay that saved their lives. It was placed to carry both vehicle and occupants over the hazard and deposit them with minimal damage.
“Let’s check the buckboard,” Clive said, “then I think it best we get outta here.”
* * *
“How many barrels did we lose?” Clive asked.
Victor continued to drive, Clive rode shotgun, which left Carl to count. They were traveling at a slow, but steady pace. Carl could stand and make a quick count.
“I count seventeen. We started with twenty-four. Seven lost.”
“Not bad for what we’ve been through,” Victor said.
“I guess not,” Clive replied, “I can’t help wondering what’s next.”
“What do you mean next?” Victor asked.
This piqued Carl’s attention, and a third joined in the conversation. “Yeah, next doesn’t sound so good back here either.”
“In case you two haven’t noticed,” Clive said, “the closer we get to where we’re going, the more trouble we run into.” He ran a hand over his stubbly face. “It’s making a fella feel like he ain’t welcome in these parts.”
“I hear ya,” Victor said.
“Where are we going?” Carl asked.
“Whoa,” Victor said. He turned around and looked at Carl . . . “Right here.”
“Where is here?” Carl asked. “I don’t see anything but dirt and rocks.”
Clive hopped down from his perch.
“That’s a very astute observation,” he said to Carl, “Let me see if I can shed a little more light on the situation for you.”
Clive walked up to a rock formation the size of a three bedroom house. He pushed his hand into a small depression that no one save for Victor would have noticed. Clive removed his hand, then turned and smiled. A muffled click then a steady hum signaled movement.
“What the . . .” Carl mumbled, as a panel slid back into the rock, leaving an open doorway.
“After you,” Clive said.
Victor slipped in; to him this was home. Carl stumbled through slowly; his head moving up one side, across the top, then down the other.
A short walk down a dim hallway opened into a single round room with a dome ceiling. A large pipeline entered from the east wall, continued through the building, and exited out the west wall. Three quarters of the pipe were covered with a square shroud that reached the floor. Three steps led to a small elevated control center.
“So, close your mouth and tell me what you think,” Clive said. He adjusted several switches on the wall, bringing up the lights and adjusting the temperature down a few degrees.
Carl lowered his head from gawking at the ceiling and looked at Clive.
“I want you to tell me what all this is. Quincy mentioned his involvement in an operation, but indicated nothing like this.”
Victor had climbed the stairs and was working at the power console.
“What this amounts to,” Clive said, “is a big siphon. Crude oil extracted from Earth is pumped through this pipeline and into the storage facility at Baine.”
“I’ve seen nothing in Baine that would show any liquids other than liquor and urine,” Carl said.
Clive chuckled, “The other Baine.”
“I’ll let you finish before I bring that up again.”
“Good enough. As I was saying, the oil is pumped through this pipeline. The covered area you see is a miniature refinery, in part, at least. As the crude travels through this area, forty percent of one of its components, called gasoline, is extracted and pumped into an underground storage tank beneath our feet. The liquid is extremely flammable and volatile if confined without a means of pressure relief.”
“All that stuff is fine, well and good, so let’s talk about the old city of Baine.” Carl tipped his hat back and placed both hands on his hips. “From what I’ve gathered, and I believe these to be reliable sources, that place is just as lethal now as it was when people occupied its hallowed halls. And feel free to ignore the hallowed halls reference.”
“Calm down,” Clive said, “what you’ve heard has brought about the exact response it was intended to. That way people would stay away from the old Baine, allowing us to work unabated by sightseers and crooks alike.”
“Hey, boss man,” Victor said, “we’ve got a problem. When we first arrived, our underground tanks were topped off. Since then, we’ve lost a third of our product out of tanks one and two, and it looks like tank three is gone.”
“You mean empty?”
“No, I mean gone.”
A barely perceptible groan could be felt.
“Now what?” Victor said.
“Well, I guess you got your answer,” Carl said.
Clive looked at him. “Allow me to refresh your memory and I quote, ‘I can’t help wondering what’s next.”
The floor buckled, the slight groan now a full-fledged symphony of twisting tanks, floor plates and girders being ripped in two.
“I believe that’s our signal,” Clive yelled over the ear splitting chaos.
Three men exited the doorway as the faux building collapsed. Loading once again into the buckboard, they relived a scene that had played out hours earlier and would play out again.