By Jason Pere
Coot Jenkins continued to fight a losing battle with himself. On the one hand, he took some comfort in the stacks of money he had won in the Virginia City poker tournament but the soothing weight of the bag of coins and ghost rock provided little solace. Riches were of little consequence when faced with the impending battle, however the knowledge gained from his meeting with Enoch Shaw of the Lady Luck Society could prove valuable. One last head to head with Jasper Stone awaited the Tombstone Posse, and one way or another when the dust settled and the gun smoke cleared the west would be forever changed.
The prospector noted the motley line of horses tied up in front of his hideaway shack. The prospector tied off his mule next to a well fed mustang and entered the shack. It looked as though the good Padre Ernesto de Diaz had gathered up every gunslinger and lawman in the territory. The greatest surprise was the fact that no less than a dozen men and women had crammed themselves into Coot’s one room sanctuary.
“Buenos dias,” said Padre Ernesto. He gave a polite wave to the prospector as he stepped inside his shack.
“Real cozy like in here. You darn near brought all of Tombstone with you,” said Coot.
“Not all,” said Wendy Cheng. Her words drifted back into the past with a mournful cadence.
“Yeah, I got the news about Nathan in Roswell. Here’s hoping that he’ll be one of the last that Stone adds to his score,” said Coot.
“It will take more than hope,” said Chuan “Jen” Qí.
“Indeed you are right ma’am.” Said Coot. “Yea, though I walk through th’ valley o’ the shadow o’ death, I will fear no evil. We’re goin’ to Californ-eye-ay, youngsters. Death Valley. Accordin’ to a friend o’ mine, the Heart o’ Darkness and all Stone’s killin’s are bound up in this-a here incantation.” He pulled the tattered page ripped out of Stone’s grimoire from his satchel. “When Stone’s done, all them souls he’s collected will smelt right into ’im like dusted ghost rock into steel. And then—jest like ghost steel—Stone’ll be nigh invulnerable. Conversely, my ol’ acquaintance also gave me this-a here counter-ritual.” With a flourish, Coot produced a faded yellow parchment that appeared even more ancient and decrepit than the grizzled prospector himself. “It works with the Heart o’ Light—which I hope you still possess!”
“Sí, we still have the Heart of Light,” said the Padre. He wiped his brow and gauged the quizzical looks of the rest of the posse before giving voice to the unified question on everyone’s tongue. “So what exactly do we have to do?”
Coot leaned over Padre Ernesto’s shoulder and pointed at the scrawled words on the parchment. “Listen here. Here’s what you do. One o’ you—or even a couple o’ you—read those words on the paper. Whoever’s reading’, hold the Heart o’ Light in yer hand and don’t let go of it. It’s sort o’ like an exorcism, but faster, and it’ll work on Stone. Whatever you do, don’t stop repeatin’ them words, no matter what happens. You hear me? No matter what. And hold tight to that rock. Meanwhile, the rest o’ you have an important job—keepin’ ever’body alive. If I know ol’ Stone, he’s bound to have friends along to back his play. Don’t let ’em stop yer ritual, and fer God’s sake don’t let ’em kill nobody.”
“Oh is that all we have to do? Well that sounds easy enough,” said Jen. She elbowed the ribs of her orange-furred companion, Mr. Outang, with good natured sarcasm and the large primate grunted in like humor.
“Ride hard for Death Valley. Head for the lowest point—Badwater Basin. An’ don’t drink
’at water. There’s a reason they named it so. I need to round up a few friends, and we will meet you at Badwater directly,” said Coot.
Death Valley certainly lived up to its name. Even in September, the mid-day sun scorched the hard packed floor of Death Valley with temperatures well over a hundred degree heat. Jen was wrist deep in ghostrock dust and grease as she worked to clean the trail dust out of her beleaguered velocipede. Before she could complete fixing what needed fixing an ominous streak broke across the plains.
The posse took shelter in the shadow of a ridge as a strange figure appeared in the distance. Jumping and hollering, a skeletal form emerged from the dust that led to the heart of Death Valley. Like he was riding some kind of possessed child’s pogo stick, came a man bouncing along on a mechanical drill.
“That must be the legendary Pogo Joe,” whispered the Padre. “We must be close.”
The group of famed gunslingers and lawmen hid until the cursed undead miner passed them by. As if he heralded strange otherworldly tidings, once Pogo Joe vanished into the distance, the path in front of the Tombstone Posse seemed to twist and morph into a nightmarish image of a world born of horrors and demons. Seemingly plucked from the minds of the posse, a writhing dreamscape of terrible mirages sprung up to assault the group. Faces of lost comrades, the dead walking the earth freely, and every manner of gruesome death played out in a warped kind of villainous theater.
Lucy Clover turned the corner of the Clanton Ranch as she came to Wendy’s rescue. Even as she knew this was a phantasm of lost events, Wendy still screamed. “Lucy! Run! It’s Not Safe!” And once again she stood transfixed in horror as the ghostly drama played out to its inevitable conclusion of Jasper Stone pivoting and calmly placing a bullet on either side of Lucy’s badge. Sobbing, Wendy slumped down in despair. “Lucy,” said Wendy. She reached out as if to take the hand of someone who was not there. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not real,” grunted the Padre. He grit his teeth and closed his eyes as he held his crucifix tight to his chest and made a concerted effort to return to the present.
As if to mock Ernesto’s faith, another scene materialized as the spiritual forces of evil were not done with their macabre theater. For a second time the posse was forced to relive the recent showdown outside Roswell, New Mexico. Yet again, Nathan Shane squared off against Death’s Right Hand. Despite the previous scene dissipating into the ether upon completion, the posse could only sob and wail with anguish as the bounty hunter succumbed to the fiat of Jasper Stone’s Colt dragoons.
Padre Ernesto de Diaz grunted two deep breaths. He exhaled and then his scream echoed off the valley walls. “This is NOT real.” As if the Padre’s words were a guiding lantern in the night, the posse found their way out of the illusion the Deadland had conjured up. Their relief was short-lived. “Maybe that wasn’t real but I’m sure they are,” Wendy said. The veteran lawdog pointed up along the ridgeline at a posse of black cloaked figures.
The silent mob of riders gazed down upon the band of Tombstone gunslingers, with hollowed out eye sockets framing glowing red pupils. Their torn cloaks moved to and fro in the harsh wind. The eerie silence brooded for too many heartbeats to count. After a measure that stretched longer than anyone dared to count, the mob of dark riders sprang forth and descended upon the posse. A flurry of bullets whizzed past, signaling the Doom Riders’ rapid approach.
In response to the onrushing threat, the posse unloaded all of their weapons at the riders and their mounts. The bullets shredded more tatters in the cloaks and few found their mark in otherwise incorporeal flesh, but no discernable wounds appeared.
Jen shrieked as she gunned her velocipede into gear. “We can’t fight them, see if we can outrun them.” She wheeled the battered motorized mount and roared down into the canyon proper.
The rest of the posse followed as best as their own steeds would allow. Without a sound, the Doom Riders kept up a relentless pursuit.
Padre Ernesto raced ahead, and wheeled to a stop at a large boulder outcrop. He held up his hand. “Stop, we must make a stand. Wendy, please hold out your shotgun.”
The Gomorra lawdog came to a nonplussed stop. “NOW!,” commanded the priest. Wendy complied as Padre Ernesto held his crucifix over Wendy’s outstretched weapon. He then recited a blessing in Latin. Padre Ernesto concluded with a simple English command. “Fire away when ready. And aim for the head.”
Wendy sucked in her breath, and took aim at the onrushing Doom Riders. She briefly regretted not taking up the buffalo rifle and its long range as her weapon of choice. No matter, the riders would be close, but in return she would not miss her targets. To ensure maximum effect and range, she set her shotgun to full choke and waited. A squeeze of the trigger and the right barrel flamed and sent compressed buckshot towards the lead rider. Contrasted with the ineffective initial bullets, the pellets thudded into the rider’s skull, instantly disintegrating it in a shower of rotted flesh and bone. The right barrel followed suit, and another rider toppled from its horse, nevermore to trouble the living. With two of their number fallen, the remaining Doom Riders heeled their steeds and rode towards the ridge from whence they came. But the posse found no relief at surviving the macabre encounter, for the mounted nightmares had chased the posse all the way into the mouth of Badwater Basin where Jasper Stone lay in wait.
The band of dark riders had broken off their chase of the Tombstone posse for some time, although the absence of pursuit gave little comfort to the Padre and his group. Ominous jagged mountain ranges loomed over a sunken valley, nearly three hundred feet below the level of the distant sea. Badwater Basin stretched out, a giant scar upon the earth. Hexagonal shaped salt deposits reflected the sun’s blinding glare into the weary posse’s eyes. Squinting, they could barely discern a large altar-like pile of rocks. Balanced atop the highest of the boulders stood none other than the silhouetted form of Jasper Stone. The Deathly Drifter looked down upon the band of gunslingers approaching him and rasped out a terrible cackle.
“So y’all decided to grow backbones! I’m impressed, my friends. Y’all got grit atop of your moxie, no doubt about it. You’re too late to stop me, but just in time for your own funerals.” Stone hoisted a gunny sack off the altar, opening it to reveal the Heart of Darkness. The searing high noon sunlight hit the gemstone and refracted its dark light into a rainbow of crawling, sickly evil. The posse members dry heaved with nausea as they gazed upon the cursed relic. Out of nowhere, black storm clouds congealed in the sky. Lightning illuminated Stone as he began to chant in an ancient tongue. From the mud and dust underfoot, a horde of undead wretches burst forth from hiding and charged the Tombstone posse.
“All right amigos, this is it. Hold them off while I work the counter ritual,” said the Padre. He pulled the Heart of Light from his travel pack and held it aloft in counterpoint to Stone’s own actions. Padre Ernesto started the chant that he had rehearsed on the long ride to Badwater Basin.
The hardened earth turned into a battlefield filled with mud, gunfire and death. Thunder roared a counterpoint to the volleys of shots. The valiant members of the Tombstone Posse held fast against the unending horde of unliving attackers. The savagery of the fight rivaled the fearsome battle that had bloodied Diablo Canyon a few months ago. Nobody could tell the difference between thunder and gunshot. It all blended into one deafening sound without end. Jasper Stone’s shrieking rasp and Padre Ernesto de Diaz’ stentorian roar competed with each other and the surrounding battle as they raced each other to complete their ritual.
Upon Stone’s altar, energy flowed from the Heart of Darkness and coalesced into ghostly forms floating all around him—a funerary procession of Earps along with a faithful even unto death Doc Holliday. Black Jack, Lucy Clover, Nathan Shane, and other souls the posse did not recognise reprised their roles in the grim tableau of the heroes that the Hero Killer himself had slain. Surprisingly, another familiar form appeared, that of Stone himself.
“It’s working,” said Wendy. She discarded two spent shells from her double barrel shotgun and reloaded as more of Jasper Stone’s undead minions rushed in on her.
The skirmish wore on, the dead against the bullets of the posse and the Padre’s feverish chants trying to outpace Stone’s implacable cadences. Locked in a pitched battle, neither side seemed to gain an edge over the other. However time was on the side of the Deathly Drifter as the men and women of Tombstone began to run perilously low on ammunition as the dead kept on emerging from the underground ambush pits.
A pair of shotgun blasts reverberated above the thundering storm. Looking back down the canyon, the posse saw Coot Jenkins lit up by lightning flashes. Another burst of lightning revealed the grizzled prospector flanked by a small army of dead men. Coot waved his hat as hollered to the posse, “I told you youngsters we’d be along directly! Now let’s finish this thang!”
With a renewed sense of hope, the Padre chanted louder and stronger though cracked lips and gasping lungs.
Behind Stone, reality split open like an old shirt tearing in half. A swirling vortex appeared. Weird tendrils of energy erupted from the vortex to coil around the Heart of Darkness. The Heart of Light flared up in the Padre’s hands, meeting the night head-on, and driving it back. The raging storm calmed. The deceased heroes’ souls wrenched loose from Stone’s control to pass through the rift instead—toward redemption. The incorporeal form of Lucy Clover hovered and a quick beatific smile seemed to form. “Shishi, my dear friend. Goodbye to this world,” said Wendy. The Heart of Light’s rays fell upon the Heart of Darkness. The light refracted through the cursed diamond and black beams flew towards the spectral image of Stone which alone remained after the other souls had left. The image fell to the ground and tumbled down the slope, now seemingly corporeal once more. The black gemstone detonated like a bomb, flinging the ritual-casting Stone onto his back. Ghost rock slivers rained down from the altar and sizzled and extinguished upon reaching the ground below. A dull report echoed away across the salt flats. In the ensuing silence, the thwarted Stone screamed in rage, “I’m gonna KILL you ALL!”
The mob of Stone’s undead lackeys disintegrated into a pile of bones and dust. The Heart of Light faded to a dull innocuous lump, its power now spent. Wendy was the first of the posse to approach the prone, unmoving, recently formed Stone laying at the foot of the rocky altar. As she came up on the Deathly Drifter, his eyes snapped open and his guns were in his hands in a flash—pointed at her. A split second later he faltered and turned feeble. He spat a vile black glob to the ground and snarled at Wendy,
“That double crossing bastard is me from some other timeline. Don’t ask how he got here, I don’t know. It was fun partnering up with myself for a while, two of us got plenty of killin’ done. I shoulda seen it comin’ when that rat set me up to take a fall in Diablo Canyon though. An’ just so he could use me as more fuel for this ritual o’ his. He needs to pay for that but being trapped in that diamond with those wretched do-gooder friends o’ yours ain’t left me fightin’ fit. The lead you’re packin’ won’t do squat to him. I hate to do it but I guess I’m gonna have to lend you a hand.” Stone turned a pistol toward his left wrist and fired a shot that severed the wrist and hand from its arm. The Colt Dragoon fell at Wendy’s feet, with Stone’s lifeless left hand blown clean off, but in rigor mortis still gripping the handle. “Next time we meet ain’t gonna be so friendly,” grinned the re-formed Stone as he dissipated into ghostly vapor and seeped into the rocky earth.
Atop the rocky altar, Stone staggered to his feet and went to draw down on the surviving members of the Tombstone Posse.
Again, the memory of Lucy Clover’s face flashed before the dark eyes of Wendy Cheng as the legendary Law Dog raised the revenant hand that in turn clutched the Colt Dragoon. It was not Wendy, but the Deathly Drifter’s own finger that squeezed the trigger, beating his other version to the draw. One last gunshot sounded out over Badwater Basin, followed by the screams of Jasper Stone as he was pulled down to the underworld. Darkness itself seeped out of the wound in his heart, with a bullet fired from one of his very own Colt Dragoons. Animated by some otherworldly force, the severed hand released its grip upon the pistol and scuttled across the cracked earth and into a newly opened chasm.
As soon as the last traces of Jasper Stone vanished, the sun broke through the clouds overhead. In a matter of seconds the storm receded and a glorious blue sky reigned over the California desert. With nervous optimism, the members of the Tombstone Posse all looked to one another, not knowing what to say next.
“Is it over?” asked Rafi Hamid.
“Yes son, I think so,” said Coot. The dusty old prospector handed a satchel to Rafi, a bottle filled with black elixir protruding from the bag. “You’ll find this to be of more use here, then where I’m headin’ out for. The recipe is in the bag. As for us, we’ve got a date with them bastards behind all this. Some big nasties from a place known as the Deadlands who are callin’ themselves The Reckoners. And time’s a-wastin’, that portal ain’t gonna last forever.” Coot and his Harrowed army climbed the rocks to the swirling rip in reality. One by one they stepped through, until only Coot remained. He raised his shotgun in salute, then stepped into the rift. It closed as though it were never there, and a calm silence blanketed Death Valley.