By Jason Pere
“So here’s the story. Jasper Stone was a Captain in the Confederate Army, and a right bastard by all accounts. At Gettysburg he ordered his men into the meat grinder, but they’d had enough o’him. Rather than follow Captain Stone into battle, they shot him in the back 13 times. Yep—them boys killed ’im pretty darn good,” said Coot Jenkins. The train to Tombstone click-clacked over rail ties offering up an eerie sort of rhythm to the old prospector’s story.
The rear half of the passenger car was occupied with only Coot and the members of the posse sworn to end Jasper Stone’s days of terrorizing the good people of the west. The collection of white hats all shifted their eyes from one another as the dusty old man took several breaths and a swig or two from a chipped jug from his rucksack. The contents of the jug best went unknown as the aroma alone could have powered a small steam engine. Even the iron stomached Mr. Outang chose not to investigate the nature of Coot’s libation.
Nathan Shane cleared his throat and leaned in to speak. “Well they couldn’t have killed him too damn good, seeing as Stone is this side of the grave and still collecting tin stars and carving notches on his gun belt.”
“You see…some surgeon dug all that lead out o’ Stone’s back. And then, young ‘uns, Stone became the very first Harrowed. He just got up off the operatin’ table and moseyed out o’ the tent, and he was gone,” said Coot.
“But how’d that happen. Why didn’t he just stay dead?” asked Wendy Cheng. She drove her question to the point like a seasoned hunter loosing a shot at their chosen quarry. Her dark gaze would have burned a hole straight through the silver haired prospector were it not for the shift of fur and slobber at her feet. Wendy’s attention was stolen by the haggard mutt who had unrelentingly followed in her wake since departing Dead End. With a sigh and the last of her jerky, she stilled the hound’s stirring and returned the deathly gaunt canine to a relatively docile state.
“Sorry my girl but I can’t tell you that part of the story. The why of Jasper Stone is a question that the Deadly Drifter himself probably don’t even know. Plenty of guesses about it though. Most of them are about him cutting some kind of bargain with one breed of otherworldly evil or the other,” Coot said. He seemingly apologized to the deputy with a softening of his tired eyes. The moment passed soon enough when he dug into his rucksack for a few more pungent swigs out of his jug.
“So what happened next?” asked Chuan “Jen” Qí. She jumped on the silence that had fallen in the passenger car like a traveler valiantly trying to keep their campfire from snuffing out amid a freezing cross wind.
“I don’t know what became o’the surgeon, or the lead. But them 13 lead shots—recast into new cartridges—are the only things that can kill Jasper Stone. Everything else rolls off ’im like water off a duck’s back.” Coot said. He leaned back against the straight back seat of the passenger car and let out a long exhale. He was oblivious to the eyes of those gathered around him silently thirsting for some information of greater substance.
After another far too long interval, Jen once again spoke up. “And these thirteen lead shots that killed Stone the first time, they are still in Gettysburg?”
“Bright young girl you are,” said Coot with a gummy grin. “At least I assume they are still there. Last I heard they were…maybe they could have moved…” trailed Coot as he fell into his own thoughts as his imagination began to gobble up what remained of his confidence.
“So we are going to ride across the whole country looking for something that might not even be there?” asked Nathan. His face had run a shade of red that was solely the province of a man who was hanging by his last nerve.
“Look young feller, if them shots aint there then they aint anywhere…” started Coot.
“No I want some assurances before…” came Nathan over the top of the Prospector. His rising voice was quieted by a gentle hand on his forearm from Jen.
“It doesn’t matter. If the 13 shots are the only thing that can slay him then we must seek them. If we don’t find them then our fate will be just the same as if we never tried to find them in the first place. Stone will win,” said Jen. Her words were quiet but carried the full power of a summer’s thunderstorm with the truth they held within.
The deadly reality contained inside of Jen’s proclamation was enough to send the little group into an introspective silence for the rest of the ride to Tombstone. The engine’s whistle blew and was followed by the screech of metal on metal. All the world began to slow down for the white-hatted group as they came to stop in the town under spectral siege.
“We are stopping here because you said we needed to. What are we picking up?” Nathan asked the dozing prospector.
“The rest of the folks sworn to the fight against Stone. We’re gonna need a bigger posse if we are to get the bullets from Gettysburg,” Coot said. He nodded at a few familiar faces standing on the train platform.
“Right, and those shots may or may not be there, and even if they are we don’t know where exactly in Gettysburg,” grumbled Nathan.
“Now that ain’t true. If they are there, the Twilight fellers would know. Our destination is the Agency Castle,” said Coot.
“This task becomes more impossible each time you open your mouth,” remarked Jen.
Outang hooted in dismay at the word “impossible.”
“We don’t have much time before we are back on the trail east,” said Coot.
All eyes went to Wendy as the deputy stood from her seat, stepped over the sleepy hound that had circled up at her boots and started collecting her things from the overhead storage area.
“You lot might push on to Gettysburg but I best stay here in Tombstone. Someone needs to make sure that you all have something to come back to once you are finished east. I’ll hold this town together,” Wendy said.
“Ma’am, I believe you when you say that. I bet you can handle every single red sash wearing varmint in this place by your lonesome. One thing though, should you see Stone in the real that means you run,” Coot said with a tip of his hat to the deputy. “I seen him face to face at Whateley Isle and watched him put one of the best lawmen ever to wear a star in the ground. I mean it, temping as it may be to tangle with him, don’t.”
“I never put revenge above protecting the peace before and I’m not about to start now…even for Jasper Stone,” said Wendy.
“Suppose it wouldn’t hurt if a few stayed back with you. Just ‘cause you can do it all don’t mean you should have to. All of us go east and we’ll be tripping over each other anyways,” Coot said.
“I think I might be able to help on that front,” chimed in Nathan. He turned his eyes to meet Wendy’s as he spoke next. “Go on over to the Oriental and ask after my room. Got some extra guns inside that should help you keep the peace,” he continued. He reached into his vest pocket and handed her a small room key.
“Thank you kindly,” Wendy said. She tipped her hat to the bounty hunter in return and then neatly tucked the key away in her vest pocket beside her tin star.
“Best you talk to Sargent Elijah Clay. He knows this posse better than any of us. He’d be the one to say who else would be good to keep back with you,” said Nathan. He did not point but his gaze cut an unmistakable line through the passenger car windows to the man wearing a faded union soldier’s coat standing on the train platform.
“Best of luck to all of you,” Wendy said. She bowed her head in deep respect to the good people who had traveled with and fought alongside her.
“And you as well. We’ll be back as soon as we can,” said Jen bowing her head just as deeply as Wendy had.
“Or not at all,” said Nathan. The bounty hunter wore a half grin that was rife with a macabre gallows humor. His cynical expression faded and offered up a sincere flash of gratitude for the deputy.
Wendy looked one last time on the group of companions who had managed to survive Stone’s assault on the territory thus far. She glanced down to her newest friend and found the eyes of the strange dog looking back at her. She tilted her head at the hound, silently asking it to follow her. She turned and left the train’s passenger car with a loyal sidekick one step behind.
It was at the point when night’s darkness was just about to start greeting the light of dawn. The train had passed the border into Pennsylvania just after midnight, and Gettysburg was fast approaching. The posse of wildly assorted white hats that had made the long uncomfortable jaunt from Tombstone tossed and shifted on the unforgiving straight back seats of the passenger car. Each of them tried zealously to get a few more precious winks of sleep before entering into the chaos that was the Agency’s red castle. While none of the heroes were truly asleep, there were two in particular who had left the passenger car all together.
Rafi Hamid stepped out onto the platform of the train’s caboose and quietly slid the door shut behind him. He looked out across the fields of Pennsylvania, and even in the newly fading darkness he could easily see a land that had been victimized by the great war between North and South. He fixed his eyes on the other man standing on the caboose’s platform, looking out at the expanse of track and rail that followed in the train’s wake. “You thinking about him too?” Rafi asked as he stepped to hold the platform’s guardrail beside Coot Jenkins.
Coot jumped slightly at the sound of Rafi’s voice, but soon settled back into his own skin. “Ol’ Black Jack you mean? Yep, since we picked y’all up in Tombstone he’s been rattling around in here,” said the prospector. He lightly thumped his index finger against the side of his head.
“I keep going back there, the Whateley place, wondering if I should have stayed with him when he faced Stone,” Rafi said. His voice was half a whisper and mired in regret and paths untaken.
“Come on there young feller, you got to know in your bones that you staying would have seen you in a pine box just the same as Jack. More than that, you’d have disrespected the man and made his sacrifice all for nothing,” Coot said. He managed to cut through the cloud of noxious sweat and alcohol that surrounded him and seized a paternal moment with a fatherly hand placed on Rafi’s shoulder.
Rafi grimaced but as hard as he fought the reality his face soon became awash with acceptance. “Yeah, I supposed I know that. Still Black Jack should have had better and I hated giving Stone what he wanted. The way he called all the shots and played us like pieces in game…makes me feel hotter than the blazes of damnation. And don’t think I’ve forgotten about Nicodemus either. Him selling us out like that…I owe him a bullet too.”
Coot was quiet for a few heartbeats as he rummaged in his satchel. He drew out his jug of homemade spirits and a dented tin cup. “That anger will do you right when the time comes. You hold onto it but don’t let it get in the way just yet. Still need you with a clear head for thinking for a while,” he said. Coot poured a healthy draft of whatever was in the jug and offered up the cup to Rafi who looked at the suspect beverage with an incredulous sideways glance. “Best if you just knock it back. If you can avoid tasting it all the better.”
Rafi took the drink and held it in his hand, looking down at the dark brew and feeling the world speed beneath his feet as the train cut across the war-torn fields of Pennsylvania. He looked to Coot and then out at the horizon and the first traces of predawn blue falling across the land. “Jack ‘Black Jack’ Jackson,” he said lifting the cup.
“To Black Jack,” said Coot in kind. He clinked his clay jug against his companion’s cup and the two men shared a drink in the memory of the man who had allowed them to meet Jasper Stone in the flesh and live to tell the tale.
Rafi coughed and hacked as the strange libation burned a trail from the back of his throat to the pit of his stomach. “Forget the Gettysburg bullets, we should just get Stone to drink some of that…goodness. Tastes even worse than the stuff you gave me when I was on my deathbed,” he said. After trying to spit the foul taste of Coot’s concoction from his lips and failing miserably, Rafi paused to consider his last statement. His mind went to the day when he first met Coot and the strange tonic the man had given him. “About that thing. You said I’d be a changed man once I had a drink of your special brew. I admit that I’ve felt it in my bones ever since then, something growing stronger every day. Stone seemed to feel it as well, why he let us go. You think what you gave me will make me fast enough to beat him.”
Coot drained the contents of his jug and wiped his scruffy white beard with the back of his hand. “Maybe…could be. Keep in mind when it comes to the deed you might not be the one to take the shot, and if you are then how fast you are don’t matter none if you ain’t slinging Gettysburg lead,” said the prospector.
“But do you think I can beat him?” responded Rafi. His tone was unmoved and he barreled straight through the other man’s evasive tactics.
“If you can’t beat him then nobody can,” Coot said. All went quiet between the two men save for the click clack of the train cursing along. “If we’re on schedule then we’ve maybe got an hour or two before we make our stop. Should try and get a few winks at least.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Doubt we have much time for sleeping after today,” said Rafi. He slid the door to the caboose open and let Coot enter first. Rafi followed behind the other man fighting to quiet all the doubts and fears screaming in his mind. He hoped that a few moments of sleep might offer him a small taste of peace before the mayhem and chaos of what was to come next.
The ground trembled with a rhythm that Padre Ernesto de Diáz knew well. He held up a gloved hand and without a word the posse at his back all took cover within the pine forest. The former gunfighter turned priest pressed his belly to a massive evergreen that was far too big for any man to put their arms around and proceeded to hold his breath. He allowed himself to think for just a moment that it was all about to come to an end right here. He knew that if he or any of those sworn to bring down Jasper Stone were discovered then he would be forced to choose between shooting and surrender, neither option sat well with him and held only slightly less appeal than the impending push into the Agency’s castle.
Ernesto carefully peeked around the tree that sheltered him. As the earth shook like it was being split open by some kind of divine judgment, he caught an eyeful of Union blue coats and yellow chevrons as the cavalry detachment thundered through the forest. The troops whisked by the wooded area as the epitome of speed and power, but thankfully they lacked in perception. Of the fifty or so men in blue none of them had spotted a single one of the Diáz’ motley band of heroes. The last of the cavalrymen faded into the distance and the padre let out a breath that had long soured inside of his breast. Once his blood had come down from its near boiling temperature he stepped out from his hiding place and led the way to the edge of the woods. A sign that read Gettysburg National Military Preserve greeted the men and women as they broke from the protection offered by the pine trees.
“Well mis amigos, between the cavalry and the sign I’d say we are about in the right place,” Ernesto said. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, feeling the muddy earth squish and slough beneath his feet. The swampy condition of the terrain was an apt depiction of how he felt the overall tenor of the mission was manifesting so far.
“Seems like they don’t take to trespassers,” said Nathan Shane. He stepped to the front of the group and grabbed the chain-link fence where the sign was hung. He shook it once, just enough to make the barbed wire loops lining the top tremble. “I’m guessing this runs the whole way around.”
Rafi brushed back his scraggly brown hair and took his grey hat from his head just long enough to wipe some sweat from his brow. “The fence shouldn’t be hard. We can dig under, cut through, or climb it given the right gear. We just need to make sure that cavalry doesn’t catch us when we cross or that we leave any traces they could follow,” he said.
“Young feller, you ain’t wrong about the fence. It’s the least of our worries. It’s what the Agency has waiting on the other side that’s the real cause for concern,” said Coot Jenkins. He moved to join the men towards the front of the group and offered Rafi a swig from his clay jug after helping himself to a hefty pull.
“More concerning than fifty trained soldiers on horse and miles of barbed wire?” Jen asked. Her eyes traced the winding serpent of jagged metal atop the fence until it was lost to the horizon.
“My dear girl this ain’t nothing,” Coot said. He patted the fence like it was a well over the hill hound dog. “They protect that castle proper. Got it secured tighter than any bank or payroll stage you’ve ever seen.”
“The bullets? I know you’ve said so plenty, but are you sure they are in there?” asked Nathan. He moved to face the pungent old man as he spoke.
Coot looked through the interwoven braids of metal. His gaze wandered across the main field of the Military Preserve until he found the imposing red tinged silhouette of the Agency’s castle silhouetted against the sky. “I know they were there in the past. Let me ask you this, If all of us who have survived and beaten what this earth has thrown at us so far are lost for how to get them bullets, you think any other posse could have done better?”
Nathan’s silence spoke of his reluctant comprehension loud enough. He stepped back from the fence and fished out a tin of snuff. He proceeded to chew on a mixture of tobacco and apprehension as the rest of the group milled around him.
“However we do it, we’ve got our work cut out for us,” said the black and white clad man of the cloth. Ernesto scanned the faces of the considerable posse that he had been able to amass. The wheels in his head slowly began to turn as he considered the wide array of skills and talents that the men, women, and primate surrounding him had at their disposal. “There may be more of them but there are still plenty of us here. I figure we can split up into two or three groups. Hit this thing from more than one angle.”
“That’s a good start. What next?” asked Jen.
“I don’t have it figured that far just yet, señora. As much as I hate to do it, I think we best pull back to town and do some planning and plotting,” said Diáz.
“You think we can spare another day? I’m surprised we ain’t heard about Hell breaking loose in Tombstone yet. Feels like we are running this job on borrowed time,” Nathan said. He spat a thick brown glob of chew into the mud.
“I’ll admit that I’m a bit surprised myself but I got to believe our girl Wendy is holding it together like she promised. We rush in there now with no plan we might as well hand the territory over to Stone on a plate,” said the priest. Ernesto scratched his jaw and slicked back his unkempt hair beneath his well-worn wide brim padre’s hat. “We best head back to town and do some shopping for supplies. That will give us the rest of the night to figure out some kind of way to get the bullets. Jen, Mr. Outang, you two stay here and see what you can see then meet back up with us in town around supper time.”
“Yes sir,” said Jen. Mr. Outang threw up a loose-jointed salute.
“Stay out of sight and you think for a second that it don’t feel good then you come on back straight away, comprende,” Diáz said.
“So we go back with you now?” said Rafi.
The priest gave a sly smile and winked at the lawman with a friendly eye. “Just don’t get yourselves killed today,” Ernesto said. He let out one more heavy breath and took a moment to reflect on each of the brave white hats who had followed him this far. “Ok folks, that will do it for today. Let’s get back to town and figure out how to make a miracle happen, because when tomorrow comes, we are gonna need one.”