by Jason Pere
Chuan “Jen” Qí came out of Tombstone’s General Store with two armfuls of provisions. The fruitless search for Jasper Stone was drawing long and she and her little posse were in desperate need of resupply. By her count she had enough funds in town to make one more similar supply run before things became even more complicated. Jen went about securing the assortment of dried meat, ammunition, matches, and the like in her gunpowder grey mare’s saddlebags. She had finished stowing the last of the supplies and tying the cracked leather laces of the saddle bag when she felt the heat of inquisitive eyes upon her shoulders.
“Señora, excuse me. May we talk,” came a voice that was kindly and warm, but unmistakably possessed a deep reserve of strength.
Jen spun around, almost too fast and fixed her eyes on a man who perfectly fit the sound of his voice. His salt and pepper goatee along with a white collar suggested a middle-aged priest. While he radiated a humble piety with a gentle posture, it was impossible for the man to conceal a sturdy frame that carried plenty of brawn in his broad shoulders. “Yes, what is it?” she asked.
“Are you Chuan Qí?” asked the priest
“Yes, I am,” Jen replied. As much as she wanted to see the priest as harmless, she could not quite bring herself to let her guard down. Her eyes were suspiciously narrowed at the man in black and white and her hand hovered inches from the butt of her pistol. “You may call me Jen though. Most people find that name easier on the tongue.” She offered him her hand.
“Sí, gracias Miss Jen. I am Padre Ernesto de Diáz, recently arrived in Tombstone.” He shook her hand with a firm grip. “And you, if I am not mistaken, are one of the ones who met the Deathly Drifter face to face—and survived!”
“You mean Jasper Stone?” asked Jen after a moment to let the priest’s words sink in.
“Sí, Stone,” Ernesto said. He cast a wary glance around the busy Tombstone street and storefronts. “If I might take a moment of your time, I’d like to buy you something to drink and talk somewhere there are not so many curious ears.” He motioned towards the Oriental Saloon across the way.
“What do you want to discuss regarding Jasper Stone?” Jen asked.
Ernesto leaned in to the woman and spoke as low as someone confessing their most embarrassing sins. “I want to talk about how to beat him and send him back to Hell where he belongs,” said the priest.
“I am quite thirsty actually. A drink would be just fine,” Jen said. She shared a smile with the older man and then walked with him side by side into the dusty frontier house of libations and vice.
The two found a table for themselves. It was not hard to secure some privacy in the saloon as it was still before midday and even the most practiced of reprobates and degenerates had not started their daily binge drinking yet. Jen sat behind a tall mug of beer with a good head on it and slowly sipped at the bitter drink. Ernesto, in contrast, only looked at the shot glass of whiskey on the table in front of him, letting the drink go unconsumed.
“Señora, thank you for humoring a weary and tired man. But the things I wish to tell you… they are not for the faint of heart. And they are to be whispered only among those you trust absolutely. Comprende?” said the priest. Ernesto nudged his glass with the tip of his index finger.
“Understood,” said Jen. She sipped her drink once more but stopped herself from partaking any further. The fact that Ernesto had yet to touch his own beverage gave her pause and only served to remind her that she knew absolutely nothing about the man sitting across from her.
“Good. Stone—he is not a man. Perhaps he once was, but no longer. They say he is Death personified, that he cannot ever die. You have seen this. But what if I told you there might be a way to kill him, to slay Death itself?” said Ernesto.
“I would say that you have my total and completely undivided attention,” said Jen. She leaned in as she spoke. The promise of a means to end Stone drew her like a moth to the flickering glow of a street lantern after sundown.
“I do not know how to kill Stone. But there is a man named Coot Jenkins—most call him The Prospector—and if anyone knows, it is he. Most recently, he lived in a shack just north of the town of Dead End, Arizona. That would be the best place to seek him,” said the priest. He cracked a grin like he had just spoiled the greatest secret in all the land.
Jen’s eyes flashed with a pulse of disappointment and she let out a breath that had been held inside of her lungs for several heart beats too long. “Not exactly the revelation I was hoping for, but it is something,” she said.
“I wish I could tell you more but sadly that is all I know. I will say this much, you best not undertake this yourself. I spoke to a few other good souls in town and they have already headed for Dead End but if you have anyone you trust, I say take them with you, señora,” said Ernesto. He promptly grabbed the neglected shot glass of whiskey that had been sitting in front of him for the duration of the conversation and downed its contents in one swift gulp. Standing up, he delivered the sign of the cross with his hand. “Vaya con Dios in this task, my friend. Buena suerte.”
Jen watched as the priest left through the swinging doors of the Oriental. She sat and returned to slowly sipping away at the frothy mug of beer she had been working on. Her mind flew with all the wild possibilities that had come on the heels of her conversation with the man of faith. The information she had gained lacked a definitive means to destroy Jasper Stone once and for all, never mind that she had no way of ascertaining the truth of what Ernesto had said. Jen nonetheless found the familiar golden rays of hope warming her heart. She sat and finished her drink, feeling the breath in her lungs come easier and lighter than it had in months.
His hearing was nothing like it used to be. The world that passed by Coot Jenkins was little more than a muted drone of sounds, punctuated with occasional highs and lows. While his secluded little shack was generally a quiet place, the prospector knew that the peaceful solitude of his home was not solely responsible for the vast amounts of silence that filled his days. Age had dulled his senses to a blunted edge but today he could hear the maniacal laughter of frontier villains as plainly as dynamite blasting right beside his head. The Laughing Men gang were one of the most aptly named outfits in the southwest. The chorus of shrill squeaking cackling that came from the band of outlaws standing across from the venerable prospector sounded as cutting and vile as it was unforgettable.
A different kind of noise filled Coot’s ear. The crack of a .45 Long Colt split the air, promptly followed by the shattering of glass. A moment of deafness took the old man but passed just in time for him to fully appreciate the peppering of ruined beer bottle shrapnel as it struck his cheek and neck. His hands reflexively fought against the rope that bound him to the fence post but his restraints held fast and he was unable to protect himself from the volley of glass and dust that assailed his face. Coot blinked his vision back into focus and snorted as he regarded the assorted arrangement of bottles and tin cans placed on the fence beams on either side of him. Another gunshot from a Laughing Men sent Coot into a stunned field of white for a split second. When his startled pulse of life and death anxiety receded, Coot shifted his eyes to the group of outlaws and tuned his ears to the nauseating sound of their sadistic laughter yet again.
“Fun as this is, why don’t you tell us how you do it so we can get on back to town. We can turn you loose too. All you got to do is say,” said Milt Clemons. He began to eject the spent casings from his pistol and reload the cylinder with more bullets. The band of Laughing Men on either side of the outlaw snickered and chortled as he reloaded.
“I been telling you all morning, I don’t know what you are talking about. I just dig gold. I ain’t no kind of alchemist or whatever it is you think I am,” said Coot. He tried to sound as sincere as he could, but a combination of dust, dehydration, and desperation warped his plea into something wholly unbelievable.
Milt snapped the loading port on his pistol closed and cocked its hammer. “We know you been denying it all morning, but the fact is we got it on good authority that you know how to brew something that will pull most anyone back from death’s door…maybe even a few who have passed through it,” he said. Milt aimed and fired a shot that struck a can mere inches from Coot’s left shoulder and sent it flying from the fence post. “Running out of cans and bottles but still got plenty of bullets. I wonder what we shoot at next? How do you do it?” he continued. Milt cocked the hammer of his weapon once again, this time holding it level with Coot’s forehead.
“You fellers really think I got the brains for cooking up something that defies nature and the good Lord? Where are you getting your story from?” Coot asked. His voice was shaky but changing his tactics from futile denial to self-deprecation helped him sound more convincing than he had previously.
“All right you might have something there. Maybe you ain’t the one who makes it, but we know you’ve got a stash of the stuff somewhere and that fact ain’t up for debate. Now you better tell us where you got it because I’m done shooting things that don’t bleed,” Milt said. Anger and irritation were evident in his voice as he took aim square at the bound old man’s gut.
“Milt Clemons,” came a voice from behind the gang of thugs and bandits.
The four men who had been torturing Coot Jenkins for the bulk of the morning turned in a startled unison at the sound of a new speaker. The three Laughing Men quieted their sinister giggling and Milt’s eyes went wide as the sky. The former Sloane Gang outlaw’s face went as red as the bandana tied around his neck as he saw the man who had interrupted the proceedings.
“Shane and Grave’s Security here to collect,” said Nathan Shane. He stepped forward with a pair of raised and cocked Peacemakers, both aimed at Milt Clemons.
Milt froze for half a heartbeat. The energy that passed between the Sloane outlaw and the bounty hunter was identical to the charge that had filled the air during the fateful gunfight that marked their last encounter. Though Nathan had managed to get the drop on the four cruel men, he was markedly outnumbered. The weighted odds seemed to spur the Laughing Men to action. A small shuffle in the dust from the man on Milt’s left ignited the Sloaner’s will to fight. Milt went to raise his arm at Nathan Shane but the gesture was met with thunder from the bounty hunter’s pistols before he could bring his weapon to bear.
“Warren Graves says rot in hell you coward,” shouted Nathan. He unloaded twelve shots straight into Milt Clemons’s chest and neck like some kind of biblical reckoning. All the world was red with vengeance for the few seconds as Nathan Shane delivered a final serving of retribution.
The savage ferocity with which Nathan dispatched his nemesis put the fear of death into the Laughing Men. Each of the three surviving outlaws abandoned any notion of returning fire and dove for the minimal cover offered by the stones and brush that dotted the field outside of the prospector’s shack. The three men hung low until the repeated click of empty chambers sounded in the air. Like a pack of slavering coyotes the three Laughing Men rose up. They stood with hateful eyes fixed on the bounty hunter and long shadows cast over the bloody ground where Milt Clemons lay dead.
“Oh no,” gasped Nathan. The fire of revenge faded from his eyes and was replaced with the glimmer of realized mortality. He was now staring down three bad men brandishing fully loaded guns with only empty hands to defend himself. Nathan dropped one of his Peacemakers to the dust and nearly ripped the loading port of his right hand gun from its frame. He felt his spit turn to liquid copper as he began to clear the empty casings from his weapon. He dared not dwell on the impossibility of trying to load and fire on three men before one of them had the chance to end him. All Nathan could do was will his hands to move as fast as they were able. As he loaded the first chamber of his weapon he felt the telltale icy burn of a man holding a loaded gun on him. He wondered if he should look up to embrace his end head on but the blast of a pistol sounded before he could decide. Nathan waited for a life ending impact that never came. He looked up to see one of the Laughing Men fall to the dust and then a quick set of shotgun blasts sent the other two bandits to a similar fate.
“That’s all of them,” said a calm and serene voice.
Nathan looked up the path back towards the prospector’s shack and saw a strange trio approaching him. There was a woman wearing clothing that was clearly of far eastern design at the center of the three newcomers. Her face was as peaceful as a rippleless lake but somehow managed to harbor two deeply troubled eyes. To her left was a woman with long dark hair, black as coal, and reloading a recently fired double barreled shotgun. The last member of the three new arrivals nearly sent Nathan’s head spinning around atop his spine. The man was what appeared to be some kind of primate sporting scruffy tufts of orange fur. The strange creature walked alongside the two women with a surprising degree of poise and posture.
“Are you hit?” asked the peaceful woman.
It took Nathan a few heartbeats to realize that she had been speaking to him. “No, I’m alright. Thanks to yall,” he said with a tip of his hat. “I’m Nathan Shane, Shane and Graves Security. Who are you?”
“I am Jen Qí. This is Deputy Wendy Cheng and my friend and associate Mr. Outang,” said the woman with a motion towards each of her companions as she introduced them.
With all the excitement and gunfire long passed Coot Jenkins found his words. “Much obliged to you lot. Been a lot of visitors for me today. Them fellers were here on behalf of Jasper Stone, so I’m guessing y’all are here on account of someone else?”
“Yes, Padre…” Started Nathan.
“Padre…” started Jen at the same time as the bounty hunter. She shared a friendly glance and moment of silent mutual understanding with Nathan and then proceeded to speak once he nodded to her. “Padre Ernesto de Diáz told us we could find you here. He said you know how to kill Jasper Stone once and for all.”
“Of course he did. Well y’all showed up just in time. We gonna have to move though. Likely to be more of them fellers before too long,” Coot said. He nodded at the fallen Laughing Men.
“Is there someplace safe we can go?” asked Wendy. She blew some dust clear of the breach on her shotgun before closing it.
“Well we are going to have a long trip east if your aim is the end of the Deadly Drifter. Train station in Dead End is where we are headed soon enough but first one of yall, please untie me and second I need me a drink or two. I can start telling yall what you need to know over a glass of whiskey,” said Coot Jenkins.
A slightly out of tune piano played a far too lively melody for early in the evening. The piano man and his rickety little instrument kicked out notes that could have lit a fire in the hearts of a room twice as big as the sleepy little drinking hall. Whereas there was music enough to go around for several score of men, the half-filled tables and lethargic bar staff suited the newly formed posse with the much desired ambiguity they sought.
Coot Jenkins wiped the corner of his mouth and waived the serving girl over to the table. He pointed to the empty glass in his hand and grinned a gap-toothed smile as a fresh glass containing a long pour of top shelf Tennessee whisky appeared in front of him. “Y’all aint thirsty?” asked the prospector. He looked around the table at the attentive faces of his rescuers and the largely untouched assortment of drinks in front of them.
“Right now I think we’d much rather hear what you have to say about Jasper Stone, than we would dull our minds,” said Jen.
“Right of course. Y’all don’t mind if I drink do ya?” asked Coot.
Nathan Shane pushed the brim of his hat up and leaned forward to catch the eye of the man he had helped save only hours before. “We don’t mind if you drink so long as that don’t stop you from talking. Now…Stone,” said the bounty hunter. His voice was soft enough to keep away any unwanted attention but hard enough to convey the group’s shared sense of urgency and rising frustration with the ever inebriated Mr. Jenkins.
“Right, the Hand o’ Death himself. I know how to end him, it’s true but it won’t be easy,” Coot said. He took a deliberate sip of whiskey.
“It can be done though?” asked Wendy. Her voice was charged like the air before a bolt of lightning. Her lowered voice belied her word’s deafening resolve. The rest of the people at the table had to take note of how the woman was harboring the telltale anthem of vengeance for more than just herself.
“Sure can, but even getting what we need will be a labor let alone the act of facing Stone himself. First thing needed is to get this posse east,” said Coot. He his shot glass and beckoned the serving girl to bring a fresh round.
“Back to Tombstone?” asked Nathan Shane.
“Nah, farther than that. Well we will need to make a stop in Tombstone but after that we have to get on to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,” Coot said. He proceeded to dive into his freshened glass of spirits.
“What in the good graces is all that way in Pennsylvania?” asked Jen. The strange turn in the conversation was enough to motivate the woman to partake of the frothy mug of beer sitting in front of her, albeit with moderation and temperance.
The Prospector finished his drink as a train whistle cut the air outside of the saloon. “That will be our train. More to tell, but we got to get on the move again for now,” Coot said. He stood up from the table and grabbed his hat. “One of you fine folks mind settling up with the house?” he asked with a disarming grin and a nod towards the collection of empty glasses and partially consumed beverages dotting the table.
Wendy huffed and rolled her eyes. “I’ll take care of it,” she said.
“Thanks ma’am. We’ll meet you at the station,” Coot said. He blew out of the saloon faster than a stampede of jackalopes with the rest of the adventurers on his heels.
Wendy paid for the drinks and stepped out of the saloon. She started on her way towards the train station but, before she even set foot on the main street she felt a strange presence nearby. It was the aura of death mixed with the living. Her body ran cold as the thought of another meeting with Jasper Stone being readily at hand. Her fingers wrapped around the grip of her shotgun in her back sling holster as she walked the path towards the station. As she passed an alleyway between the town’s general store and the one other saloon she felt the sensation come to a head like the break on a trigger before firing a gun.
The deputy wheeled to face the ally and started to pull her weapon free. She stopped herself when she saw the source of her apprehension. Jasper Stone it was not. Instead, she noticed a scrawny mangy hound dog gnawing on a splintered bone. She looked the dog over and could tell that there was something otherworldly about it. It had a similar energy to Jasper Stone and as it looked at her with clouded lifeless eyes, she realized that the beast and the Deadly Drifter had something in common, they both had managed to slip lose form death’s finality. As Wendy shared a linked gaze with the dog she felt her fear begin to melt away until she found calm like the center of a storm.
“There you go,” Wendy said as she tossed a half a piece of jerky to the revenant hound. She watched as a flicker of life came back into the dog’s empty eyes. The kind moment was a precious salve for the deputy’s spirit and it nearly put a smile on her face. She turned and continued to make her way towards the train station. She did not look behind her but she knew the dog was following in her footsteps.