Jasper Stone had a way of making it feel like he was everywhere at once. That fact made it all the more unbearable that he was somehow all but impossible to track. For someone with as grand a presence and reputation as the deadly pale drifter, he was as elusive as rain during an Arizona drought. Even though winter had given away to spring for several weeks now, Death’s favored rider had left nothing but cold trails in his wake.
“The tracks stop here,” said Chuan “Jen” Qi. She looked up from the set of hoofprints in the soft muddy earth and cast her gaze to either side of the trail. Not so much as a twig seemed out of place for as far as the eye could see. A few grunts from her right hand side got her attention.
The partially inebriated orangutan beside Jen huffed and scoffed as he wordlessly expressed his frustrations with yet another one of Jasper’s trails that had led to nothing and nowhere. The primate met Jen’s gaze with deeply soulful and near-human eyes before helping himself to a longer than reasonable pull of spirits from his hip flask.
“I know. We should probably go back to Tombstone. I don’t want to be outside after dark,” Jen said. Her hand found its way to the gunbelt tied at her waist and her fingertips nervously traced circles around the ends of several rounds of .45 Long Colt ammunition nestled in the gunbelt’s bullet loops. “We can pick it up in the morning.”
“I have no doubt we can pick up Stone’s trail again. We’ve done it every day for the last eight days. Finding him is the bit we haven’t figured out yet,” said Xiong “Wendy” Cheng. Mr. Otang scratched his bright orange scruff and offered a swig from his hip flask to the women, who each in turn politely shook her head in refusal.
“Hunting him based off second hand information printed in newspapers and the like probably won’t get us anywhere. We will most likely find him when he wants to be found,” Jen replied.
“So then should we not bother riding out anymore? Let him come to us?” asked Wendy.
Jen realized that Wendy still deeply mourned the death of Lucy Clover. More than anything else right now, Wendy needed a purpose to channel her grief. “No, we keep riding out. Even if we don’t find Stone, we may still find clues to his whereabouts and destination.” She looked back and gave Wendy a warm sisterly smile. “We best get back to town. I’ll see about supper for the three of us tonight.”
Wendy returned Jen’s kindly gaze with a soulless stare from her two dark wounded eyes. A hollow forced smile passed her lips for the span of a single breath. Wendy paused only for a moment and looked out at the vast desert that receded towards the far off Dragoon Mountains. “Lucy…” she murmeredto herself, a few stray tears welling in her tired eyes. Wendy then heeled her horse and followed behind the last remaining members of her ever diminishing posse.
The first thing that hit him was the smell, or rather the stench of a man lost to the bottom of a bottle. Sargent Elijah Clay had survived some of the bloodiest clashes between Union and Confederate Forces, but those battles did not even come close to the nauseating odor that wafted down the hallway of the Oriental casino and saloon. The blue coated lawman had to reach out and steady himself on the wall as the scent of gin upon gin mixed with embarrassment and total lack of self-respect filled his nostrils. Elijah hacked and spat upon the floor in an attempt to stop the vile scent from infecting his sense of taste but it was too little, too late. He did not even have time to feel bad about the most uncouth act of desperation before he could feel the shameful flavor of Nathan Shane’s debauchery come to rest fully and grotesquely within his mouth.
Elijah managed to find the will to push through the noxious cloud of spent booze and sweat until he came to the door at the end of the hallway. The former Union sergeant knocked on the door once, then again after several heartbeats of silence. He heard the sound of movement from the other side of the door. A few groans, some squeaky bedsprings and the tinkle of empty glass bottles bumping into one another painted a vivid picture for Elijah framed a mental portrait of what to expect inside the room.
“Nathan Shane?” asked Elijah.
A labored moan came from behind the door. The voice was unintelligible if it was meant to be coherent speech, but the pitch and tone of the sound indicated that it did in fact belong to Nathan Shane. Moreover, the moan carried a welcome note of permission within it. A few more grunts, groans, and moans found their way into the hall before Nathan managed to put together a pair of recognizable syllables.
“Open,” said Nathan. The word seemed like it took a month to say.
Elijah twisted the doorknob and let himself in. As expected, the room wallowed in a gross state of disarray. The floor was barely visible beneath the field of dirty clothes and empty bottles. Sitting on the bed with his head buried deep in his hands was one fully hungover Nathan Shane, clad unceremoniously in boots, gunbelt, and some absolutely foul long johns.
“Mr. Shane, proud to meet you. I’m Sargent Elijah Clay. I’ll be taking over as Ranger here in Tombstone,” said the lawman.
Coughing and snorting, Nathan managed to raise his head from his hands to regard the man standing before him. His color flushed a faint sickly green tinge and he quickly grabbed up the bedside chamber pot. A few moments of gurgling and belching passed, but thankfully whatever limited contents Nathan had within his belly stayed there. The disheveled man kept the chamber pot handy in his lap as he spoke. “Ranger? Am I in trouble or something? If I’m honest I probably did whatever I’m being accused of but I got no recollection of doing the deed. Been a long winter,” he said. Nathan motioned to the vast collection of empty and partially consumed bottles that cluttered the room.
“No, you’re not in trouble at all. In fact quite the contrary. I come to you, because I think you can help me,” Elijah said.
“I can barely help myself right now,” Nathan rebutted. He once again doubled over the chamber pot.
“Maybe but fact is, you used to be someone back in Gomorra. Made a name for yourself riding with Graves for the Morgan Cattle Company,” said the newly minted lawman. He poked at the topmost point of the Ranger star pinned on his coat as he spoke.
“Yeah, that I did, but that was a story from another time. I’m not one for bounty hunting and security work these days,” Nathan said. He steadied himself on the headboard of his grimy bed before giving himself approval to put the chamber pot back on the floor.
“How’s about vengeance? You got an interest in that?” asked the man in the blue union coat.
“You have my attention sir,” said Nathan. Almost instantly he seemed to come to his full senses, shaking off the drunken stupor that had plagued him the bulk of the morning. The talk of revenge clearly had a sobering effect on the man.
“Jasper Stone, the only thing longer than the list of folk he’s killed is the list of folk what want him dead. I do believe that you are up close to the top of that second list,” Elijah said. Feeling more confident with the flow of the conversation, he leaned up against the wall beside the door.
“I do believe that you are right, but what do you know about Jasper Stone?” asked Nathan. He tried to stand and meet the lawman eye to eye but the claws of last night’s binge still dug deep in his being. He did not press his constitution and the recovering man continued rock to and fro on the squeaky bed.
“Never met him face to face, but our paths crossed once or twice back east when we were both younger men. He was a Hellraiser as a Grey. Now that he’s dead he’s even worse, impossible as it sounds,” said Elijah. He ran his hand over the sergeant’s chevrons on his Union coat as he spoke of days gone by and battles remembered.
“Hellraiser is putting it kindly. If you had dealings with him, then you know it’s going to take more than two men, if you want to see him dead a second time,” Nathan said.
“I already got a few other good folk sworn to the cause. After here, I got me a meeting with Byron Decker and Valeria Batten over at the office of Ancestral Affairs, they might have a lead on helping me bring Abram Grothe into the fold,” said Elijah.
Nathan’s eyes went wide with a combination of respect and awe. “Them is some distinguished names you got on that list o’ yours. You think mine deserves a spot there as well?” he asked.
Elijah shifted and battled a sneaky grin. He chuckled softly to himself before speaking next. “You sure do, but if I’m straight with you, I come here hoping that maybe I can wrangle more than just you to our posse. You brought them with you didn’t ya?” he asked. Elijah pointed at a large dirty sheet covering something standing in the far corner of the room. As he looked at the pair of metallic legs peeking out from the edge of the sheet, it was his turn to go wide eyed.
Nathan shared in the lawman’s chuckling and looked to the covered clockwork masterpieces of science and mysticism. “Yes, I brought them.”
“When the shooting starts, you going to be able to control them?” asked Elijah.
“I got no idea but that’s a tomorrow kind of problem ain’t it. Now we going to the Ancestral Affairs office?” responded Nathan. He tried once more to stand and this time he succeeded albeit upon wobbly legs.
“I am indeed going to the Ancestral Affairs office. You are going to a bath. I expect it will be a privilege to work alongside you Mr. Shane,” said the lawman. He smiled, tipped his hat and left the newest recruit in his war with Jasper Stone to air out and clean up.
The sound of cards riffling together in a practiced shuffle and the click of wooden poker chips clacking together filled Tombstone’s dimly lit Sheriff’s Office. Maurice Croker finished a quick chop shuffle and offered the deck of playing cards to the man across the table. The one other player in the room neatly cut the cards and then pushed the deck back to Maurice who proceeded to deal the next hand of poker.
“Every day that goes by, this thing means less and less to the folks around here. Not much longer and nobody’s going to take me seriously as a lawman,” said John Behan. He scowled as his fingertips ran over the face of the tin sheriff’s star pinned on his vest.
“It’s just a scrap of tin. The important thing is that folks know you aren’t a damn fool. Law hasn’t gone in Tombstone since ever. It’s the Cowboys that run things, and only a dead man would dare challenge them. You done right by yourself and the folks here going along to get along,” Maurice Croker said. His words came out like some kind of theatrical oratory with each syllable mending the hollow sheriff’s wounded pride. By the time Maurice had finished speaking, John had gone from a slumped defeated mass of disappointment to a tall standing image of authority.
John looked at his hand for the first time since the deal. He was about as good of a poker player as sheriff, a heavy exhale and eye roll signalling his displeasure at the cards in his grip. “Check,” he said.
Maurice offered the swiftest of glances to the five cards in his hand before speaking. “I’ll open for fifty cents,” he said. His tone was nondescript but the notes of confidence were unmistakable.
“Fold,” John said. As fast as his spirits had risen, they fell once again. “That’s nine in a row for you by my count.”
“Yes indeed, easy to win when you keep folding,” Maurice said with a grin. He quietly counted the pathetic stack of chips in front of the other man and did his best not to laugh out loud.
“I wouldn’t be folding if I could get a halfway decent hand every now and then,” grumbled John. “My deal,” he said, reaching for the deck.
“You know you can learn a lot about a feller by the way they play poker. Seems like you play cards the same way you uphold the law,” said Maurice. He carefully chose his words as he knew well his statement could ignite a powder keg in the wrong circumstances.
“Oh?” asked John. An arched eyebrow and a tone that fell as flat as a corpse in a pine box perfectly illustrated his mounting distaste for his present company. He took his attention from Maurice and dealt two fresh hands.
“Always waiting for something lucky to happen to you. My associates with the show helped secure that star for you because we knew you’d be agreeable to our aims but the thing is we need a partner, not a puppet. I’m afraid that you are going to have to make your own luck from time to time if this arrangement is going to work out for the both of us,” said Maurice. He checked his five cards with one eye while keeping the other on the lawman.
“Ain’t never been a puppet for nobody and I won’t never be one,” said John through slightly clenched teeth. He checked his cards and the sound of his teeth grinding in disapproval was as loud as a locomotive’s whistle on the open range.
“Open for a dollar,” Maurice said. His eyes shone with a sinister radiance as he put his chips in the middle of the table.
John checked his cards and spat into the nearby spittoon. “Fold…again.”
Maurice scraped the merger ante along with his sizable bet back to his towering stack of chips. He took the deck and began shuffling and dealing anew. “No need to get your blood all raised, it’s just the facts. Folks what run the show want to make sure that they backed the right man for their play. Finding a feller who can take orders as well as make their own decisions is a tall task these days. Goodness knows I struggle with that myself,” said Maurice. His own admission of weakness, as disingenuous as it may have been, helped to cool the frustrations of the irate lawman. With the mounting hostility diminished somewhat, the two returned their focus to the game.
John checked his cards and with everything that he was, stopped himself from grinning ear to ear. A pair of kings and queens stared back at him. “I’ll bid fifty cents.”
“I’ll see that and raise you…oh…a dollar,” said Maurice with casual supremacy.
“Re-raise for two dollars,” John said. Now he made no effort to conceal his smile.
“Call,” responded Maurice, pushing his chips to the rapidly growing pot. “How many cards?”
“Just one,” said John.
Maurice dealt the Sheriff one card off the top of the deck. “Dealer will keep this hand just the way it is,” he said. Now he was the one to offer a coyote’s smile.
John peeked at his new card and quietly erupted in celebration on the inside. “I’ll bet my whole stack.”
“I’ll call,” responded Maurice.
“Full house, Queens and Kings,” said John. He revealed his hand and almost made to rake in the chips before restraining himself.
“Finally got a respectable hand I see, but it won’t beat four Jacks,” said Maurice as he flipped his cards. He wordlessly collected the chips and then proceeded to pick up the stack of folding money beneath an empty shot glass on the side of the table. With a self-satisfied smirk he went about adding his winnings to an already bulging billfold, all the while avoiding eye contact with the simmering loser across the table.
“I never seen a man win so many hands in a row…well never seen one who wasn’t cheating that I mean,” said John Behan. His tone was accusatory enough but he drove his not so subtle point to the hilt as he let his hands come to rest on the butt of the Peacemaker on his waist.
Maurice put his hands flat on the table and looked John dead in the eye as he spoke. “This was just a game, best you learn to lose gracefully. The stakes here in Tombstone are high and the folks I represent will not lose. To help you win, since you seem such a stranger to the concept, they sent a couple of good men to keep an eye on anyone might want to cause trouble for us,” Maurice said. He beckoned slightly towards the darkness that hung in the corner of the sheriff’s station. In the blink of an eye the Ghostly Gun and Absalom Hotchkiss step forward and emerged from the shadows.
“How long they been there?” asked John Beham. Any reserves of grit and fire that he might have had in his belly were dashed by the arrival of two obviously more capable men than himself.
Maurice spoke with a cryptic sort of venom wrapped in silk. “Why they’ve always been there and they always will be there…to help of course…and to make sure you don’t forget who you work for now. I’ll say good night to you sheriff and leave you three to get acquainted,” he continued. A cutting sneer pulled his face into a nightmarish mask. As he walked past the pair of dark gunmen, Maurice leaned in and spoke low enough so that only they could hear him. “Some of the old Morgan riders in town supposedly brought some kind of mechanical gunslingers that could be real trouble for us. Find them and watch them,” he said before walking out into the night.