Act IX: Heart of Darkness

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by Jason Pere

June 1882

They’re all going to die. It’s the funniest thing, see they don’t know it yet. They probably think they got it all figured. Too bad for them that they are going to learn they’re wrong, the hard way,” said Jasper Stone. He finished taking in one last count of the posse moving into the mouth of Canyon Diablo Crater before collapsing his spyglass and stowing it in one of his saddle bags. The demonic gunslinger turned to the other two riders with him and took a few beats to check for comprehension. Absalom Hotchkiss and The Ghostly Gun only offered up unfeeling wooden expressions in return.

There are more men then we planned for. Looks like the Agency is backing their play as well. We didn’t account for them bringing an Iron Mole to lead their mechanical cavalry,” Absalom said. He took a last swig of water from his canteen to wet his cracked lips.

You saying the Baron’s henchmen aint up to the task?” asked Stone. A lethal hiss cut his dry hollow voice as he leveled the accusation.

Nah, not at all. The Laughing Men got as much grit as you can ask for. We were just expecting to have the edge once the shooting starts,” said the Full Moon Brotherhood favored tracker.

Y’all have something against a fair fight?” Stone asked. A slayer’s grin took to his unliving face.

Hell yes,” responded Absalom. “Fair is for fools and dead men.”

Jasper Stone looked to the Ghostly Gun who only shook his head in the negative with deadly measured intent.

You got it right. Head to head is the best way,” Stone said to the phantom gunman. He turned his attention back to the tracker and softened his gaze in a twisted kind of mercy mixed with mockery. “And don’t you fret none, I got plenty of revenants waiting just under the topsoil to welcome our friends. And if my dead men ain’t enough of an advantage for you, we got a little something extra.”

Really? And what’s that?” asked Absalom.

You’ll see soon, real soon,” said Jasper. He looked past the two other gunmen at the dust kicked up by an oncoming rider.

Big Nose Kate came up to the three men overlooking the giant split in the Arizona desert. She slowed her hazelnut brown pinto to a stop and tipped her hat to Jasper Stone. Once she was finished with the requisite display of deference she regarded the Right Hand of Death’s two other companions with a less than respectful gaze. The infamous woman looked at the retinue’s hired muscle more like she would size up an adversary than she would look upon someone she was willingly collaborating with.

Is it all set up down there?” asked Jasper Stone. He nodded his gaunt leathery head towards the mouth of the crater where the members of the Agency and Tombstone posse had entered.

Big Nose Kate spat and scratched around a red line where her neckerchief had rubbed her skin raw before she answered. “Yes sir. I made sure we packed enough dynamite to blow every one of them fellers all the way to the gates of Kingdom Come. All you got to do is say the word.” She surveyed the dust cloud making its way through the canyon’s entrance and then turned back to the Deadly Drifter. “If it comes down to dueling, I want the long haired gal with the shotgun. I will avenge Doc’s death. You can have any or all of the rest.”

Stone’s laugh rasped like wind through dry leaves. “Now y’all get to where you are supposed to be. It’s almost high noon,” said Jasper Stone. He did not wait for his gang to acknowledge his command before he heeled his sickly withered mount into action and rode off to meet his foes.

***

The dust kicked up from the ground below as the procession of gunfighters and Agency Cleaners entered the mouth of Canyon Diablo Crater. The stone walls on either side of the ravine shook as the horses and armored steam vehicles made their way into the proverbial lion’s den. The brave men and women that composed the posse all moved with a quiet introspective kind of timidity. The rumble of hooves and the grind of metal treads on earth reverberated off the canyon walls, but the travelers hardly spoke as they sized up the incipient battleground.

Rafi Hamid’s heart could no longer beat and hadn’t since that fateful day when Nicodemus Whateley had thrust one of his four obsidian daggers into that vital organ. Still, he felt a throbbing emanating from within his chest and the jagged scar seemed to burn in anticipation. He last felt those sensations at the desolate manor on Whateley Isle.

Once again the sepulchral voice echoed throughout his head. “Men are dust. Power is forever. You are more like Stone than these weak fools. Swear fealty to Death and his Right Hand, and you can exchange this half-existence for true immortality.”

It only got harder to ignore the voice’s persuasive entreaties. Rafi once again thought back to when he first felt rather than heard the voice goading him as he watched Black Jack square off against Jasper Stone. His mind was lost for a split second in remorseful memories of the slain lawman and gunslinger. The sound of his own name being spoken aloud snapped him out of his reminiscences.

Eh, amigo? Rafi?” said Padre Ernesto de Diaz. He pulled his horse up alongside the harrowed gunfighter’s palomino mare.

Yeah?” responded Rafi. His voice sounded like someone who had awakened from a deep slumber. In many ways, this was a truth that his inner struggles foreshadowed portents as ominous as any nighttime slumber.

You with us here? You seem kind of…away,” said the Padre. He motioned to the rest of the posse and Agency convoy surrounding them as they entered the massive crater.

Rafi blinked sluggishly at first and then quickly as he forced himself back to a sharper plane of awareness. “I’m here. Just got hung up on some old thoughts. Last time I was face to face with Stone, in fact. Don’t ask me how I know, but he is already here and waiting for us.”

Ah. You going to be ready to go again? Not too many people meet him and get to tell the story,” the Padre said. He crossed himself after speaking in a sign of respect for the countless souls that the Right Hand of Death had sent to the Great Beyond.

I’ll be ready. It’s difficult to say…” trailed Rafi. He found his words lost among some complicated and nameless emotions.

You can tell me, my friend. You know I am pretty good at listening,” saidErnesto with a beatific smile. He tugged at the white collar around his neck as he spoke.

Rafi returned the holy man’s friendly expression, and as he did he felt some clarity grace his mind. “You know I think I want to meet Stone again and finish it. I’m really eager for it, but at the same time the thought scares me.”

There’s no mystery about those feelings. You can have room for bravery and fear at the same time,” said the cleric. His good cheer and the traces of confidence from his quick wisdom faded into a solemn expression. He battled with his own trepidations for a few seconds as he searched for the right words. “May I ask you something?”

Yes,” said Rafi.

What’s Jasper Stone like? We all know him by reputation, but I want to know what kind of man he is in the flesh. Like I said just a moment ago, you are properly one of the only men who can answer that question,” said the Padre.

Jasper Stone is no kind of man, and no longer of flesh as you and I know it. He’s evil…evil and death and that’s all,” said Rafi. He was terrified of the truth in the words that passed from his lips. Before he could read the Padre’s reaction to his assessment of the Deadly Drifter, the earth underfoot groaned and then screamed. Rafi Hamid’s world ripped asunder in a deafening crescendo as the detonation of hundreds of dynamite sticks sent the Tombstone posse and Agents flying into a swirl of madness.

***

Arizona territory had not witnessed a gunfight like this in any of its recorded history. The most brutal clashes between Union and Rebel soldiers of the last war paled before the shadow of the bloodshed that ensued in Canyon Diablo Crater. The boom of dynamite had faded, but none of the men or women had known a single beat of silence since Jasper Stone’s sadistic welcome had finished. Rifle cracks and pistol shots sent hot lead into the air. The rapid whir of numerous gatling weapons spinning a nonstop earsplitting drone as they accompanied the heavy thud and boom of the mounted guns of the Agency’s Iron Mole. The combined forces dished out a walloping counterpunch to match the crippling first blow struck by the Laughing Men gang and Stone’s mindless revenant thralls. Within the first few seconds, both sides of the shootout had been bloodied beyond any reasonable man’s reckoning. Lives ended in droves with each speedy pull of the trigger or launch of heavy ordnance.

Absalom yowled as a bullet hit him. After the initial shock, he realized that he had lived through worse. The shot had hit him cleanly, but the bullet had passed through and the only reminder of the wound would be a scar on his arm. However, at the moment the tracker’s injury meant he would be of little further use in the shootout. He could hardly lift his pistol with his shooting hand, let alone think of drawing a bead on anything with his buffalo rifle. Absalom would have to settle for the three Agents he had put face down in the earth. Now it was time for him to make his escape.

The massive crater with its labyrinth of rock and dust put Absalom’s tracking and navigation skills to the ultimate test. Under normal circumstances, negotiating the terrain was hard enough, but the echoing gunfight made even the most basic movement a challenge. Absalom used every trick and scrap of knowledge at his disposal to avoid making a wrong turn and finding himself trapped in a twice over dead end. He knew that as the battle spread outwards across the width of the crater, even a few minutes of standing still would become his death sentence.

Focused solely upon making his escape, The tracker nearly forgot the shooting pain in his arm. After a few extended twists and turns, the sound of gunfire and explosions became muted and distant. Absalom knew he was not free and clear of danger just yet, but he was certainly on the right path. He almost allowed himself to begin thinking of the future beyond the nearby flying lead, when a cold chill gripped his spine. There was no tangible sign, seen, heard or otherwise to lend credence to the sudden burst of fear that had taken seed in his bones. Nevertheless, Absalom felt a creeping dread nonetheless. He was being followed. He was being hunted.

Instinct took over and Absalom began to use every escape and evasive tactic he knew. Doubling back, walking without leaving a trail, setting decoy tracks and so on, the tracker did everything he could to throw his pursuer off of his back. Despite his efforts, Absalom instinctively knew that he remained the quarry of his unknown pursuer. Absalom recalled that during a hunt, time seemed to slow or stop. Knowing the answer, he dared to look up. Sure enough, the noonday sun had barely advanced from its perch high above the ridgeline. What had seemed like hours had only been minutes, if that. Still, Absalom ran from the unseen threat as he made his way deeper and deeper into the heart of Canyon Diablo Crater. In the end, none of it made any difference.

Soaked with sweat and blood, Absalom realized that he could no longer feel his arm. He tried to take another step forward, but his feet failed him. Before he knew it, he fell to his knees as he stumbled in the dust. He could only hear the softest reports of gunfire in the distance. He had succeeded in escaping the raging skirmish between Jasper Stone’s posse and the men and women who had come to end the mythic killer. Absalom’s victory was robbed of any comfort and all he could feel was a new breed of defeat rushing in to fill his spirit. A metallic clicking drew his attention. Wiping the sweat from his eyes with his one usable hand, he tried to discern the source of the sound of whoever had chased him past his breaking point.

Quaterman Prime and Post-A-Tron appeared around the corner of one of the winding corridors of rock. With gears and cogs spinning and clicking, the metallic automatons moved to stand over the exhausted man. The mechanical gunslingers looked down at the bloodied mess that was Absalom Hotchkiss. Post-A-Tron aimed a long Colt at the wounded man’s heart and pulled back the gun’s hammer.

Please don’t shoot me,” said Absalom. His words came out with flecks of blood and globs of gooey spittle.

Quaterman Prime placed one of its hands over Post-A-Tron’s gun and lowered it. “We will not shoot you,” said the automaton. “Thank…thank you,” said Absalom. His voice was little more than a dry cracking rasp.

You served countless masters, all of them aligned with the forces of evil. Thus I must cleanse your soul of impurities before sending you to your rightful doom,” said Quaterman Prime. With one swift fluid move the automaton pulled out the Tlaloc’s Fury that it had received from Nathan Shane from its gun belt and plunged the jet black dagger into Absalom’s chest.

Quaterman Prime gloated over its dying quarry. “Your presence here was an unexpected surprise,” said Quaterman Prime. “For reasons I do not fully understand I have a desire for vengeance upon your organisation that overrides my logic processes. I’d even go as far as expressing that ending you felt satisfying. Something far beyond the capacities of my simple companion here, in any case.” He gestured towards the Post-A-Tron, impassively standing by and awaiting further orders as Abasolm’s gore pooled around its feet.

As the dying man gurgled his last blood-flecked breath, Quaterman Prime pushed the blade up to the hilt and gutted its prey like a piece of wild game. Absalom fell back and convulsed for a few painful seconds before he lay motionless, bleeding and barely breathing. “There are further injustices here that I must set right. Goodbye, and good riddance!” said Quaterman Prime.

Once Absalom let out his final breath the two metal automatons headed back to rejoin the Tombstone Posse still battling at the mouth of the crater. Wind blew and began to cover the tracker’s corpse with dust. In a few minutes, the unforgiving Arizona desert had started to erase any traces of Absalom Hotchkiss.

***

The Ghostly Gun had traveled many months and miles from Gomorra to Tombstone to Louisiana and now the Arizona high desert to get his quarry dead to rights. He could end Nathan Shane right here and now with one gentle squeeze of the trigger. Still it would not do. The famed bounty hunter had to finally meet the gaze of his assassin. He fondly recalled the look of terror on Warren Graves’ face as he stared down the barrel of his Peacemaker. He had beaten the man, held his fate in his hands. That kill was rightly his, denied to him by the final shot of that tough old bastard, Steven Wiles. His old adversary had even managed to sour what should have been a joyous moment with his dying act. No, a bullet in the back would not sate the phantom gunslinger’s need for closure. The news that Graves had been killed in Tombstone had wracked his emotions at the injustice that someone else had taken what was his, but word that Graves’ partner still rode the trails gave him a new focus. If he couldn’t have one, then he’d have the other. He had played this cat and mouse game with the surviving half of Shane and Graves Security for far too long. A quick and sudden death would not be the kind of end this vendetta deserved.

A shrill whistle pierced the surrounding gunfire and the revenant snarls that reverberated across the canyon where Agency and Tombstone posses battled Jasper Stone’s forces. Nathan Shane turned at the whistle and found himself facing a tall, pale figure in a ragged duster that hung loosely over a gaunt frame. With shocked clarity, Nathan realized that this must be the elusive, but deadly Ghostly Gun that his late partner Warren Graves had spoken of. Nathan Shane blinked against the sun’s glare and discerned that the Ghostly Gun had a pair of Peacemakers aimed right at his chest. Nathan entered the near trance state that preceded an imminent gun duel. While chaos flowed around the two gunslingers, they shared a calm, almost as if inhabiting the eye of a hurricane. The phantasmal gunfighter savored the moment, holding the bounty hunter at his will. He practically felt the eggshell fragile life of the other man beginning to crack in his hand. Just before he committed to firing the kill shot, the Ghostly Gun hesitated. Something seemed amiss.

Nathan’s steady gaze and calm smile belied his disadvantaged predicament. His authoritative voice rang out in command. “Hit him!”

Chuan “Jen” Qí broke from her hiding place behind the smoldering wreckage of one of the Agency’s steam wagons. Coils spun and whirred and power cells let out a hiss of steam as they engaged. A light flashed and steadied as the bio-charged neutralizer strapped to Jen’s back made ready to charge the gun in her hands. Before the Ghostly Gun could take measure of the situation a strange flash of blue light blinded him. The phantom gunslinger tried to re-aim at the new threat to his left side, but before he could manage it a wave of wispy blue energy hit him like an oncoming locomotive.

It could have been years or seconds, the Ghostly Gun had no way to tell one from the other. When he next regained consciousness, he first noticed the smoke-filled sky above. His guns may as well have been miles away as Nathan and Jen stood over him like a pair of cold grave markers.

Nathan cocked his guns as he aimed them at the wounded abomination. “They look familiar don’t they.” Said Nathan. He hefted the mismatched pair of weapons as he spoke. “This one belonged to my pardner Warren Graves and this one accompanied a feller you met once or twice, Steven Wiles. I was saving them for a special occasion, and this just so happens to be my and your lucky day. There’s some Gettysburg lead in each one with their names carved on them, so you don’t forget the men who are about to send you Hell, you faceless cur.”

Two shots resounded over the din of the nearby gun battle. On the heels of the shots came the thunderous death screams of the Ghostly Gun. The earth below the spectral gunfighter opened up in a crack of fire and smoke. The body of the slain pistoleer twisted and spasmed as the underworld reclaimed its own in a plume of brimstone black. As fast as it had split, the earth reclosed and solidified on the canyon’s floor.

So is this over for you?” Jen asked the bounty hunter.

Not by a long shot.” Nathan said. He motioned to the all-around shootout. “Still plenty of bad men in need of a bullet here. And after this, I got a long ride ahead of me and plenty of scores to settle.”

Living past today, as always the details are in the devils,” said Jen. She recharged her energy weapon and took aim at a new target.

They were starting to cut close to the bone. In a few brief moments after the battle had commenced, the truly dead that littered Canyon Diablo Crater far outnumbered the living. After the blast of dynamite that had signaled the start of the bloodbath there was nonstop gunfire so plentiful that nobody could tell when the report of one weapon ended and the next one began. After a few long moments, the frequency of gunfire slowed to more erratic and sputtered bursts amidst bouts of silence before resuming engagements between the Right Hand of Death’s forces and the Tombstone and Agency collaboration.

***

The Agency’s leader stood astride the deck of the Iron Mole. With practiced motions of his cane, he conducted the steam tanks’ deadly symphony of whizzing gatling bullets. The Cleaners fanned out and advanced under the withering cover fire. Satisfied with his troop’s cannonades, the Agent turned to survey the field ahead. A mirage shimmered in the heat given off by the Iron Mole’s ghost rock boiler. Then it began to coalesce into humanoid form. The Agent sucked in his breath as he realized that he witnessed not a mirage, but the very real form of a being long since divorced from mortal flesh. Years of battling the supernatural had honed the Agent’s senses to a keen edge. He brought his cane up and pressed a stud near the head, opening the concealed rifle’s barrel and squeezed off a shot. As the figure congealed into the terrifying spectre of the Hero Killer, the Agent calmly reloaded and fired a second round. As he reloaded yet a third time, the Agent realized that neither bullet appeared to have any effect on his target.

Jasper Stone cackled with maniacal glee. “You couldn’t wait for a fair duel, could you? Well no matter, now I’ll take my own shot, if you please.”

The Agent’s third and last bullet hit Stone yet again just as Stone’s Colt Dragoon cleared its holster and sent its own bullet slamming through the Agent’s badge and into his heart. Before the Agency’s leader even hit the ground, Stone reached out with his free hand and clutched the Agent’s bars and shield badge. The badge ripped free as the dead Agent hit the deck of the Iron Mole. Without bothering to remove the bloodied remnants of the Agent’s waistcoat, the Hero Killer pinned the badge between two others on his duster. Having claimed his first bounty, Stone jumped off the Iron Mole in front of a startled Cleaner. With a deft motion, Stone pulled the man off of his horse and broke his back on a nearby rock. Stone then mounted the horse and slapped it into a gallop back towards the largest ongoing melee.

***

Rafi Hamid and Wendy Cheng stood before Big Nose Kate as the outlaw lay slumped against the canyon walls and bleeding out of half a dozen small wounds where Wendy’s shotgun had ripped into her flesh. Her hands too weak to lift her weapon, Kate was only able to condemn the pair of law dogs with a murderous glower. “I may be done soon, but that blast was all my doing. I got plenty of your friends to keep me company where I’m headed,” Kate said. Her words came out with equal parts blood and spit.

Why’d you have to take up with Stone?” asked Rafi.

It’s all her fault,” responded Kate. With what little strength she had left she was able to point a finger at Wendy with as much intensity as a fully loaded and cocked Winchester.

What?” said Wendy. She nearly lost her grip on her double barrel shotgun as Kate’s curious statement sunk in.

That shootout in Tombstone, between the Law and the Cowboys. I heard it’s because of you that Doc didn’t make it,” said Kate.

Oh no…I don’t know where you got your story but the fact is it was Stone that killed Doc,” Wendy responded.

No…It can’t be…” started Kate. She battled with her thoughts for a few moments as she continued to bleed out. After several beats of reluctance the outlaw’s face adopted an expression of acceptance. “Damn, looks like I backed the wrong horse this time around. If that’s true then you kill that varmint once and for all,” she continued. Kate’s eyes fluttered closed and she went limp.

That’s the plan,” said Rafi. He spoke quietly as he courteously tipped his hat to the corpse of Big Nose Kate.

You care to make good on a dying woman’s last request?” came the cackling voice of Jasper Stone from behind the pair of Law Dogs. Death’s gunslinger steadied his gaze on Wendy Cheng. “I took your friend’s life and her badge as my bounty. I see now that you too are of the Law. But here the Law dies, and with it you as well.

Rafi Hamid met the lifeless gaze of the deadliest being in the Arizona Territory. “We’ve got business to finish, you and I,” Rafi said. He emptied the cylinders of his guns and loaded them with the three Gettysburg bullets he had been allotted, two in his right hand weapon and one in the left. He stepped clear of Wendy and took up a duelist posture at an appropriate distance from his enemy.

I got to admit I’ve been longing for this moment since the Whateley place. All the men I killed since then ain’t going to bring me the kind of satisfaction I’ll get from gunning you down. I can just tell there is something real special about you,” said Stone.

The feeling is mutual,” responded Rafi.

Oh, I know it is, but in case you need a little reminder I kept a small token of our last get together,” Stone said. He pulled open the left side of his waistcoat and revealed the bullet pierced tin star that had belonged to Black Jack. The dead man offered a grim reaper grin to the lawman. “Just say when…” Stone said. He then set into a shooter’s stance and let his hands glide down towards his pair of Colt Dragons.

Rafi held up an index finger. “Give me a second, while I raise the stakes a bit myself.”

Jasper Stone paused, his hands slightly twitching above his fabled guns. Slow and deliberate, Rafi kept his right hand well clear of his holster as he reached into a pocket. He opened his palm to reveal a U.S. Marshal badge that glinted as it reflected the high Arizona sunlight. “Want this? Come and get it, you murderous spook!”

It was impossible to tell who shot first, the gunshots overlaid in almost perfect unison. Rafi and Jasper stood in the aftermath of the quick draw, regarding one another with hollow warrior’s stares. A strange analytical silence grew as neither man said anything nor fell to the ground in defeat.

I got a piece of you. I know it,” said Stone. His voice had lost its usual breed of arrogant bravado. His fingertips probed a couple of new bullet holes in his chest and quickly recoiled as the wounds began to hiss with black smoke and glow with a sinister red ember’s radiance.

You sure did. You hit me first in fact. Hats off to you sir, you were faster,” said Rafi. His lips curled in a victor’s smirk. “But you know what, sometimes fast doesn’t cut it. I was there when you gunned down a good and honorable man, who just so happened to be the fastest gun that ever lived. But being faster was not enough. Sheriff Jackson’s only mistake was to take on a gunman that was no longer alive. Myself, on the other hand, I may not be fast, but I have enough to finish what Black Jack started.

Then why? How?” Stone grunted. He lost his grip on his weapons and attempted to staunch the smoke and sparks that were beginning to pour from the matched set of holes in his body.

The thing is, you aren’t the only dead man in this duel. I am special just like you said. And if you had any sense at all, you’d have aimed for a dead man’s head. But I know you and I knew that you’d never be able to resist pluggin’ my nice shiny badge. Oh and by the by, I also loaded my guns with something a lot more deadly than the simple lead loads you used. Those bullets feel familiar because they have been inside of you once already…at Gettysburg,” said Rafi.

Jasper Stone was only able to scream in agony as fire erupted from his wounds and engulfed him. He burned to a blackened husk in a matter of seconds. Once again a crack in the earth opened as the netherworld for a second time that day reclaimed one of its own. The whole of the canyon rumbled and shook as the Right Hand of Death was pulled down in a blaze of hellfire and brimstone smoke. As he perished for a second time beneath the setting sun the last of his revenant soldiers fell to dust and the surviving Laughing Men gang members cut and ran. The remainder of the combined posse gathered around the scorched lash in the earth where Jasper Stone had met his final demise.

Padre Ernesto de Diaz, removed his hat and crossed himself. “Dios Mío,” he said.

Is this it? Is Stone done for good and all?” asked Nathan Shane.

I don’t know? This feels like it should be the end, but something…” Rafi trailed off.

Padre Ernesto de Diaz eyes widened in horror and pointed upwards and with his other arm grabbed Rafi’s arm. “Where is the sun?” All of a sudden the posse shivered as the searing heat of an Arizona mid-afternoon was replaced by a soul-chilling cold. Where rocks and boulders once rubbled the canyon’s floor, there now appeared piles and heaps of skeletons. The howls of thousands of damned souls shrieked as they escaped the newly formed fissures in the blasted earth.

Vamos!” said the Padre.

Partly from confusion, partly from fear, the posse remained transfixed in place.

Vamos, ahora! Flee this place now” repeated Padre Ernesto. He saw one of the Agency’s roans neighing in terror at the transmogrified landscape. With an agility that belied his burly frame, the priest mounted the horse. After a few tentative bucks and spins, the horse settled down enough for the Padre to set his steed on a purposeful gallop towards the canyon’s entrance.

Coot Jenkins followed suit. He likewise spied a riderless mare and managed to pull himself aboard. His equestrian experience had up until this point consisted of the easy back and forth gait of a trusty pack mule. Thus the up and down motion of the roan had the weather-beaten prospector bouncing up and down like a rag doll. Still Coot wrapped his arms around the horse’s neck as he knew that falling off while his companions escaped meant certain death.

No longer able to feel pain or suffer from overexertion, Rafi Hamid ran after the two men fleeing on horseback. Still he had to concentrate on turning thought into something resembling coordinated movement. Up and forward, then down. Again up. Then once more forward and down. While nowhere near as fast as the palomino that had been shot out from under him, Rafi nevertheless also made his way towards the mouth of the canyon.

A whine of ghost rock caught Jen’s ear. It wasn’t the wild banshee chorus that reverberated throughout the canyon, but a focused release that emanated from an engine. Guided by the sound, Jen made her way to an overturned mechanical horse that lurched and spun atop its former rider, a very dead Cleaner. Having extricated herself from crashes before, Jen knew that righting the vehicle required not brute force, but applied leverage. So after a lift and a skillful twist, Jen sat astride the cycle. She gave thanks that the Agency catered to a low common denominator, thus simplifying the controls and pedals. A quick release of the throttle followed by an adroit shift of the gears had her speeding after her companions towards the canyon’s entrance and the safety of the world outside.

Nathan Shane took a bit more time to survey his surroundings. Any port in a storm, perhaps, but not any horse would do. Not only did the posse need to escape the encroaching Hellscape, but they needed to return to Tombstone, 370 miles south to tell the tale to the Epitaph. He saw a chestnut stallion attempting to graze amongst the strewn rubble. Shane calmly walked over to stand in front of the majestic steed. After looking the stallion in the eye, the regulator and horse reached a tacit understanding and the former allowed Shane to mount up. As he wheeled the stallion towards the entrance, Shane saw Wendy swiveling her shotgun back and forth, as the bodies of the dead that littered the canyon reanimated and began to move once more. She did not heed Nathan’s shouts to flee the area. Urging the chestnut to a slow trot, Shane moved towards Wendy and finally got her attention. With a deft lean, Nathan grabbed Wendy’s free arm and hoisted her behind him. He scrunched up forward to give Wendy room to sit towards the back end of the saddle and then spurred the stallion to a full gallop.

The posse careened through the remaining Agents who likewise fled the imminent catastrophe. Eventually they regrouped a few hundred yards beyond the canyon mouth. Padre Ernesto crossed himself as gave thanks for his deliverance. Coot Jenkins moaned, eyes firmly shut as he still clung for dear life to his mount’s neck. Meanwhile, Nathan Shane tugged the reins, keeping the proud stallion under firm control. Wendy held her faithful shotgun with one hand, while wrapping her other arm around Nathan’s waist as she calmed herself with the repetition of an ancient mantra passed down from her father and his ancestors before him. Rafi Hamid, not showing any signs of exertions, slowed and stopped amidst the rest of the posse.

Nathan Shane turned to the Padre. “What in God’s name just happened?”

Padre Ernesto again again crossed himself and held up his crucifix as a ward between the party and the just vacated canyon. “That is nothing of our Lord’s doing. That, compadre, is now a Deadland.”

***

EPILOGUE

Quaterman Prime wheeled around a large boulder, Post-a-Tron clomping behind. A newly revived revenant stood blocking their path. Without breaking its measured pace, Quaterman Prime drew his six-shooter and shot his adversary through the forehead. The automaton’s head swiveled a full circle and it realized that like their newly dispatched foe, many of Jasper Stone’s former minions had once more arisen from the dirt to yet again wreak havoc. Quaterman Prime processed several fundamental bits of information. First, its sworn duty to uphold the Law required vigilant patrolling of this area until and only until no life remained within this area. Second, all potential avenues of escape must be sealed off to prevent any breakouts. Finally, only Quaterman Prime alone could carry out this task, and thus this new mission superseded any previous instructions.

Quaterman Prime required only two things to function – ammunition and ghost rock. The strewn weapons provided the former, while it sensed the surrounding landscape the latter. Clearly, Quaterman Prime could, if need be, carry out its self-appointed mission in perpetuity.

Post-a-Tron, Fetch some ghost rock.”

The robot whirred and huffed, but did not immediately comply with the order.

Imbecile,” said Quaterman Prime. It sighed and turned its companion automaton around to face a large, growing fissure in front of them. It aimed Post-a-Tron towards a region where the ghost rock turned from liquid to slurry, before congealing into solid. Quaterman prime repeated the command, this time with more emphasis. “Post-a-Tron, fetch some ghost rock, NOW!”

Post-a-Tron lumbered over to the cracked earth. It reached down and with cupped hands and scooped up some of the molten ghost rock. Incapable of registering extreme heat as a sensation of pain, Post-a-Tron stood up with the ghost rock still smoldering in its hands.

Quaterman exhaled some steam vapor that almost resembled a sigh. “Post-a-Tron, bring the ghost rock here.” Post-a-Tron once more complied with the instruction, but once again became immobile. Quaterman Prime realized that Post-a-Tron would follow instructions to the letter, but only to the letter.

Now deposit the ghost rock into the posterior receptacle.”

As ever, Post-a-Tron mutely complied. As it waited while the engine accepted and processed the raw ghost rock, Quaterman Prime twisted its left wrist so that it dangled below the wristline. A long, hollow, metallic tube extended from the newly formed opening.

Taking aim at one of the rocky cliffs that formed the canyon’s entrance, Quaterman Prime pressed a button on its left arm. An aquamarine stream of pure liquid ghost rock shot forth and seared the cliffside.

The surviving Cleaners realized that the mechanical gunslinger’s efforts would seal off any escape, trapping them to face certain death. They began firing panicked bursts at the two automatons.

Quaterman Prime never stopped blasting the cliff until the canyon entrance could no longer accommodate traffic coming or going. But with the other arm, it shoved Post-a-Tron in front of an abandoned gatling gun. “Post-a-Tron, these puny flesh vessels dare interfere with the mission. Kill them all,” said Quaterman Prime.

Post-a-Tron’s metallic fingers squeezed and held the gun’s trigger long after the last bullet had fired and the last of the remaining Agency Cleaners met their death.

Spying the abandoned Iron Mole, Quaterman Prime processed that something appeared amiss. After some time had elapsed, it turned to Post-a-Tron and pointed first to the arrayed corpses and then to the front of the Iron Mole. “Take the skulls of those who would stand in the way of the Law and place them on that deck.”

One at a time, and with crude yanks, Post-a-Tron ripped the heads off the corpses. Once Post-a-Tron had completed its macabre task, Quaterman Prime nodded its approval and ascended to the deck to assume its seat upon the grisly throne. Unliving lord of its domain, Quaterman Prime would ensure that no life remained within the roiling Deadland.