By Jason Pere
The omnipresent rattling concerned Chuan “Jen” Qí. Her velocipede had gone far too long without a proper tune up. At first, Jen managed to ignore the noise, but the vibrations in the handlebars were like a small flurry of California earthquakes relentlessly battering the bones in her hands. Not to mention the shrill squeal of worn out ball bearings grinding metal into metal. Jen had never let her ride go so long without due care, but Jasper Stone’s month-long shooting spree had forced her to ride sun up to sun down for days on end. She was not the only member of the famed Tombstone posse who was hot on the Deathly Drifter’s heels, nevertheless circumstance seemed like she was the closest at present.
The remote outpost broke on the desolate horizon and Jen followed the network of poles and overhead wires to the outline of the telegraph office. She was relieved two fold. On the one hand, she was on the cusp of some rest for both her and her faithful but weary mechanical mount, and on the other hand she was only heartbeats away from the next clue in the pursuit of Jasper Stone. Jen reluctantly upped her speed and amid some final objectionable screeches and groans from her motorized steed, left behind a trail of dust and sweat as she pressed on towards the dilapidated building.
Jen let out a lungful of sand and desperation as she came to a stop in front of the rickety little telegraph office. The gunfighter gave her velocipede a kindly pat as she dismounted and made her way to the clerk’s desk. Her ears pricked up as she heard the unmistakable clicks and taps of an incoming telegraph.
“Excuse me sir?” said Jen. She peered behind the desk of the one room office to look upon a broken down silver haired man squinting and transcribing the incoming message.
“Yes ma’am,” responded the gnarled clerk. He let his pencil rest as the clicks and taps of the incoming telegraph ceased.
“You might have a message for me. Name’s Jen.”
“You plan this or something?” asked the clerk. He quizzically raised a bushy white eyebrow.
“The wire that just come in. It’s for a Jen,” said the clerk. He pulled the ticker tape from the telegraph and tossed it in the rubbish bin before walking to the desk with the transcribed message in hand.
Jen placed a silver coin on the desk and took the paper from the clerk. She read it over and the moment’s reprieve she had known once laying eyes on the office instantly vanished. She looked out at her battered and dented velocipede. “Sorry friend. Looks like we don’t get to rest just yet,” she said. “Lacy you sure do keep us busy.”
Night had just embraced the high plains desert of Roswell, New Mexico. A few rogue lanterns flickered in the Spotswood Trading Post as Jen, Wendy, Nathan Shane, and other members of the Tombstone posse waited in the dying light for the arrival of their informant.
“Spotswood was supposed to be here before sunset, and Elijah Clay said he was reliable,” said Wendy. Her words were not directed at anyone in particular, but it was Jen who took it upon herself to respond.
“There are any number of reasons he could be late. He could be tied up with some business for the Rangers, but even so, we don’t need to immediately suspect anything sinister just yet,” said Jen.
Nathan Shane laughed and turned to face the pair from where he had been pacing the floor. “Sinister is the status quo these days.”
Before any of the other posse members could further agitate the unease and anxiety that hung in the dim meeting house, boots thudding on the wooden planks of the boardwalk sounded outside the room. The meeting house door opened and in walked Earle Spotswood. He regarded the assembly of law keepers and gunslingers with a wide eyed mix of fear and esteem. “I found out what you asked me to find out,” he said.
“And?” asked Nathan Shane. The bounty hunter posed the single worded question after their informant had let the silence build for just one breath too long.
“The military tribunal done found Ronan Lynch guilty as charged o’ the murders o’ his erstwhile companions—Mr. Van Helter and Miss McGrew. Won’t be no last-second pardon from the Gov’nor. Cap’n Melissa Ayuso’s Hell-bent on seein’ Lynch hang high for what he done,” said the posse’s informant. Spotswood mopped his brow before continuing. “But for now, he’s being held at the old Spanish church just outside of town,” Cap’n Ayuso got her troops garrisoned there. For what you folks need to know, there is a gallows set up in the plaza in front of the church,” said Spotswood.
“No pardon. I guess we don’t get any breaks… so, jailbreak?” asked Nathan.
“Hopefully not,” said Wendy. “What of this Captain Ayuso? Any reasoning with her?”
“She’s pretty set in her ways and likes it by the book but she’ll probably at least hear you out,” said Earle.
“I guess we have to take what we can get,” said Jen with a sigh.
“So like I said, jailbreak,” Nathan Shane said. He let his wry smirk put a finish on the conversation.
“I’m surprised she’s going to let us see him,” said Wendy. She spoke low enough so only Jen heard her. She kept a wary eye on the pair of soldiers escorting them to see Ronan Lynch.
“Like Earle said, the Captain is reasonable,” said Jen.
“Just not reasonable enough,” whispered Wendy.
The procession came to a stop outside the holding area where the condemned man was being detained. A soldier with sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve motioned towards Ronan, and the doomed man obliged by standing from where he had been resting on the cell’s single plank bench. The sergeant turned to the pair of women and regarded them with a narrow and suspicious gaze. “Like the Captain said, you’ve got two minutes,” he said. He then pulled a pocket watch from his belt and made a show of checking the time in front of Wendy and Jen. He took his fellow soldier to stand at a distance that gave some facsimile of privacy.
“Ronan Lynch?” asked Jen. Her voice almost shook with an uncharacteristic timidity. It was as if it almost hurt her to speak the condemned man’s name.
“Yes ma’am,” said Ronan.
“I’m Jen and this is Wendy. Lacy O’Malley sent us. We know this is all part of Stone’s scheme,” said Jen.
“I’m much obliged to you for coming all this way, but I’m afraid it was a fool’s errand. I’m a condemned man, and nothing’s going to change that now. But it was Stone who killed Velvet and Betty. Murdered them where they stood, and set me up to shoulder the charges. I don’t know what cards he’s got up his sleeve in all this, but they can’t be good,” said the doomed gunslinger.
“I know it looks grim, but innocent men don’t hang. We won’t let that happen,” said Wendy.
“Don’t get into no trouble on my account. I appreciate that some good folks want to help me out but what’s done is done,” said Lynch.
“You can’t give up. We’ll figure something out,” said Jen. While her voice made an attempt to sound convincing, her eyes belied her doubts.
“Well you ladies better figure fast. I don’t want to be dangling like low hanging fruit when Jasper Stone comes a gunnin’ for me,” said the harrowed gunman.
“Time’s up you two. Y’all need to get a move on it,” cried the sergeant. He seemed to delight in evicting the Tombstone pair.
“So…jailbreak?” Wendy whispered to Jen.
Ronan Lynch walked up the gallows steps with heavy feet. The sun had yet to fully break on the Roswell horizon but a few errant rays of light were making their way into the town’s execution area. The Tombstone posse looked on warily from the crowd of gathered spectators. The men and women shared in a primitive defeat as they watched the wrongfully accused man edge closer and closer to his fate.
“We really going to do this?” asked Nathan Shane.
“We have to, amigo. We can’t let an innocent man hang. You want to cut and run, none of us will think any less of you,” said Padre Ernesto de Diaz
“Now, I didn’t say that, but there’s at least fifty soldiers and we barely got fifty bullets between the lot of us,” said the bounty hunter.
“If we had more time to plan something we would have, but we don’t so it is what it is,” Jen added. She moved through the crowd to join the other members of the posse. “You aren’t normally one to cringe at the head on approach,” she continued. She looked Nathan up and down with a critical eye.
“I can see us directly getting a spot on the gallows next to ol’ Ronan there,” said Nathan. “Only unlike him, us regular folks still need to breathe the good air.” He traced the butt of his strong side pistol and dug his fingers into some of the empty bullet loops on his gun belt. “Wendy in position?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Jen. She looked on as the executioner finished tying the black bag over Ronan’s head.
As the dawn broke over the gallows, a cold wind blew in from the west. It was as if a sudden frost had come out of nowhere and on its back walked a ghastly figure. The unmistakable form of Jasper Stone approached the gallows area. As the right hand of Death came into view, the assorted townsfolk cleared out faster than a jackalope stampede. Soon it was only the Tombstone Posse and the soldiers under Captain Ayuso’s command remaining in sight.
“I hate to interrupt a perfectly good hanging, but I got some business of my own to take care of here,” said Stone. His withered lips set in a cruel sneer as he sauntered up to the gallows, literally passing through any soldiers who tried to stop him like a phantom. At the top of the wooden platform, his form solidified as the Deathly Drifter turned to the assembled posse. “Lookee who it is. You must’ve got my telegraph. Well, here’s how it’s gonna go. Give me the gemstone you stole…and I’ll consider sparin’ your lives.”
Jen’s eyes looked down from the chilling theater of death just for a moment and found a strange surprise waiting for her in the dirt underfoot. As if being traced by some kind of spectral hand, the words YOU BETTER RUN AMIGO etched themselves in the earth in front of Jen and her compatriots.
Jasper Stone followed Jen’s eyes and upon seeing the newly formed letters, his weathered lips framed a sneer. “I told you to stop that, worm!”
The members of the Tombstone Posse exchanged a look and then Padre Ernesto gave voice to their mutual decision. “I’m afraid not,” he said.
“Fine, have it your way,” said Stone.
No sooner were the words out of Jasper Sone’s dry leathery lips than his Colt Dragoons were free of their holsters and spitting hot lead.
The execution area descended into madness. Gunfire erupted and bullets sliced the air like flies above a carcass. Soldiers dropped left and right. Jen and Padre Ernesto took cover in a narrow alleyway. Wendy began unloading buckshot from her perch on the roof of the post office. Nathan was the lone member of the posse who seemingly ignored Stone and rushed the gallows. The bounty hunter took advantage of the executioner’s split attention and fought his way to Ronan’s side. After emptying the last round from his left-hand Colt, Nathan freed the condemned man from his hood and unbound his hands.
“What in the blazes is this?” asked Ronan.
“It was supposed to be a jailbreak but now, I got no damn clue,” said Nathan. He pulled a spare Peacemaker from his waistband and handed it to Ronan. “Come on and follow me.”
“No way we’re getting out of here alive…unless I buy you some time. As soon as you hear me start talking to that wrinkly old bastard, run. You hear me? Run as hard as you can and don’t look back. And keep that gemstone safe, if having it bothers Stone so damned much,” said the notorious gunslinger.
“Oh, Hell no. We all are sticking our necks out for you so you are damn sure gonna get out of here,” said the bounty hunter.
“Like you said, y’all are doing this for me. I gotta pay that back. You can stay if you want. but I’m not going to run.”
“This has to be the worst rescue I’ve ever heard of,” said Nathan Shane.
Nathan and Ronan made their way down from the gallows and rejoined the combat. They fought side by side ducking government-issue bullets and slugs from Stone alike. The two had almost made it to the alleyway where Jen and the Padre had some semblance of protection, when one of Jasper’s rounds finally met its mark. Nathan looked at the bloodless hole centered on the forehead of the formerly undead gunslinger. The bite of hot bile burned the back of his throat as he gave a last look at the motionless body of the man his posse had failed to save. He made himself swallow the bile along with a final measure of resolve. Nathan looked towards his friends and gave them one last smile. “Go on and run. I got you covered.” He did not see the response from any of the other posse members but he had to believe they made a reluctant retreat.
“Hey dead man, how’s about you and me?” shouted Nathan Shane above the sporadic gunfire filling the town center.
Jasper Stone looked the bounty hunter over with his implacable, hollow gaze. “By all means, just say when.”
Nathan took his time and chose his spot. He waded into the middle of the town street as the surviving soldiers ceased their fire in respect of the duel about to take place. Nathan could have drawn fast, in fact he wanted to hold on to his most recent burst of rage and send that right at Jasper, but his greater sense of reason told him that the rest of his posse needed every last heartbeat to get out of harm’s way. It could have been minutes or hours, Nathan lost track of time, but he only knew it had been long enough and finally he pulled and drew down on the Deathly Drifter.
After a pair of gunshots, it was the laughter of Jasper Stone that next filled the air. “Not bad, cowboy, but definitely not good enough,” said Stone. His fingers probed at the dusty bullet hole Nathan Shane had punched in his abdomen. He slowly approached the fallen bounty hunter where he twisted and squirmed in the dirt. Stone stood over Nathan Shane as his victim gagged and choked on mouthfuls of his own blood. “I’d tell you it’s about to stop hurting so bad, but that’s a bald-faced lie. Welcome to a whole new breed of pain,” said Jasper. He cocked the hammer on his favorite Colt Dragoon and fired a finishing shot right between Nathan Shane’s eyes.