by Jason Pere
Padre Ernesto de Diáz felt it again, the sharp pain shooting through his bicep every time he bent his arm. He could not for the life of him remember the event that was to blame for this phantom pain or the newly arrived small scar that he had noticed several inches below his shoulder. Everything in between the shootout at the barn in the Military Preserve and his arrival in the swampy southland segued into a hazy mess. The only thing he was certain of with respect to his memory loss was that it was the work of Agency men. He swallowed down the discomfort and forced himself to refrain from audibly calling attention to himself. Thus far the locals in Girardelle’s Bayou were less than welcoming, albeit civil. Ernesto did not want to give anyone cause for suspicions or otherwise cultivate the notion that the arrival of his Tombstone posse in the remote little Louisiana town foreshadowed any coming troubles.
Ernesto raised his hand to alert Mr. Outang and Coot Jenkins as the trio approached the faded and chipped paint on the sign for Jacques Duchesne’s dry dock. The disheveled prospector and the green clad primate following the Padre slowed down and let the preacher gain some distance as they came to where the muddy streets started to disappear into the murky water of the Louisiana swamp. Ernesto stepped forward onto the wooden planks of the dry dock. In spite of the worn and broken down appearance, the dry dock offered up steady and reliable footing.
The Padre noticed a man wearing some ripped overalls and more than his fair share of mud and dirt on his arms and face moving about. The poor soul was so poorly groomed that he managed to make Coot and even Mr. Outang appear as something resembling respectable by comparison. There was nobody else present in the immediate area so as odd and unkempt a character as the man was, the Padre had to assume that he was in charge of the fleet of flatboats that were all tied off at various intervals along the partially rotted wooden planks. “Excuse me señor? We are looking for Jacques Duchesne, can you help us find him?”
“You found him. What you need?” said the dirty man. His cajun accent was so molasses thick that his words were almost indistinguishable as English. He moved up until he was just out of arm’s reach of the Padre, a noxious cloud of aged sweat and crawfish followed in his wake.
“My amigos and I were asking around town about someone who lived out this way, a doctor Isaiah Ingoldsby. Word is he lives out in the thick bayou and you are the one to see about a boat in these parts. Señor at the general store also said you know your way around out there as well,” said the Padre. As he spoke he noted the wary and glazed over look in Jacques’ eye. He pulled a billfold partially from the folds of his coat and as he had hoped, the other man’s eyes glimmered to life at the unspoken promise of a payday.
“They tell you right. I can do it for you. Ten dollars flat and I take you there. The doc don’t like company much though,” said the boatman. Jacques started to rummage around in some crates and began stocking various travel items into a cracked leather satchel slung over his shoulder.
“You want to go right now?” asked the Padre. The quiet urgency with which the boatman had begun to ready himself put the smallest tinge of alarm into the base of his spine.
“Yeah. It’s a ways and we have to go now if we want to be back before dark. You don’t be on the water after dark, less you wanna feed the swamp,” said Jacques. He checked the blade on a small pocket knife and nodded in approval before folding it back up and putting it into the right side pocket of his filthy ripped overalls. “The three of you, especially THAT,” he asked with a look to Coot and a quavering pointed finger at Mr. Outang. The ape responded with a guttural hoot and a swig from his baijiu jar.
“Si,” said the Padre. He pulled a worn ten dollar bill from his billfold and handed it to Jacques.
The boatman took the bill and stuffed it into the chest pocket of his overalls. “Well come on then. Got to move. Got to move,” Jacques said. He hopped onto the last flatboat tied to the dock and started to cast off.
“All right compadres, let’s take a boat ride,” said the Padre. He stepped onto the flat boat closely followed by his two companions. Within a few heartbeats the boat and its passengers had vanished into the thick Louisiana swampland.
The trip to the doctor’s home was a silent affair. It was not for the lack of conversation topics but shortly after setting on their way, Jacques had been kind enough to offer up a warning to his three passengers. The bayou teemed with dangers: snakes, gators, quicksand and water-level railway crossings were just a few of the deadly hazards that plagued the dingy waters. Silence was one of the best survival skills that one could employ upon the bayou. The hapless traveler who dared to call attention to themselves courted any number of brutal deadly ends.
Jacques wordlessly poled through the thin layer of fog that hung above the water and guided the flatboat to a small island in the middle of the bayou. He brought the craft up alongside a heavily rotted dock. Not far from the splintered wood and broken planks jutted another half capsized flatboat, surrounded by lily pads. Up the grassy bank the faint light of a lone lantern shone through the window of a small one room shack. For a few thick and unrelentingly humid breaths, the four travelers on the flat boat remained as still as corpses.
“This is the doc’s place, mon ami,” said Jacques.
“I reckon. You good to wait for us here?” asked Coot Jenkins. He partook of a long pull of spirits from the clay jug he kept in his rucksack. His hands shook as he stowed the jug though it was impossible to tell if the tremors resulted from fear or too much strong drink. Mr. Outang likewise took a long slurping pull from his omnipresent baijiu jar.
“Oui, so long as you fast about it. Like I say, we don’t be on the water after dark. So you be quick, you swim back, or you stay the night here,” responded the boatman. He cackled slowly to himself as he managed to take some amusement in his statement. Jacques lay his pole down on the deck and perched on the flatboat’s one makeshift seat, which was little more than a crate covered by a piece of canvas.
“We’ll be fast about it señor,” responded Padre Ernesto. “Come on, mis amigos,” he said. He started to leave the flatboat but he halted himself at the sound of the boatman’s voice coming quick and abrupt like a sudden thunderstorm on an otherwise sunny day.
“Don’t step on the dock. You go right through and say hello to the gators and cottonmouths down there,” Jacques said with a nod at the rippling water lapping at the rotted dock.
The Padre said nothing, but tipped his hat to the boatman. He then proceeded to leap directly to the grassy bank with a lithe hop. Mr. Outang followed him with a jump that saw a few scraps of splintered timber separate from the dock as the primate’s heavy frame landed on the shore. The pair managed to help the less than able-bodied prospector make his way over the pitfall of rotted wood without becoming supper for the teeming hordes of lurking reptiles beneath the lily pads and pond scum. Once the trio were safely ashore, they made their way up the overgrown path towards the dilapidated hut.
The three travelers hung outside of the hut’s front door in a lost kind of fog. They all took in the sight of the rickety hut in an attempt to glean some kind of information about its supposed inhabitant. After one moment of inaction too long, Coot rapped on the moldy planks of the hut’s door.
“Doc Ingoldsby? You in there?” called Coot.
There were a few seconds of nothing at all, but then the sounds of wood creaking and objects clattering and smashing into one another signaled the presence of somebody inside the hut. The Padre’s hand came to rest on the butt of his holstered revolver and Mr. Outang flexed his bulky arms and cracked his knuckles as the tension beneath the hut’s covered porch began to mount with the musty thick odor of precombat.
“Charles, get the door,” came a voice from inside the hut.
The three posse members on the porch exchanged confused glances with each other. The bristle of violent action stewing had been replaced with a swirl of uncertainty washing over each of their faces.
“The door, Charles dag nab it…” trailed the voice. Some more scuffling and clattering sounded from behind the door. “Got to do everything myself…” came a muffled grumble as the hut’s door unlatched and started to swing open.
A woefully unkempt and scruffy looking man stood in the doorway. He sighed as he regarded the three travelers on the porch through squinted eyes. The man then looked back over his shoulder as if listening to someone speaking to him from behind. He gave a number of affirming grunts and nods as the awkward moment continued to grow.
“Excuse me, Doctor Ingoldsby?” said Coot. His voice rose with a quizzical inflection as he struggled to process what was happening in front of him.
“Yes, that’s me. Who are you?” asked the man in the doorway.
“I’m Coot Jenkins, this is Padre Ernesto de Diáz and our… associate Mr. Outang,” said Coot.
“I don’t need a priest today. You fellers can go,” said the doctor. He started to close the door. “I know Charles, I just told them,” he shouted back into the hut as the door began to creak and crack.
Coot shot out a booted foot and wedged the door open. He met the doctor’s eyes with an apologetic stare. “Sorry sir but we come from Tombstone, Arizona by way of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania ‘cause we sure needed yer help.”
The doctor stopped and tilted his head to one side and turned to speak over his shoulder. “Yeah I heard what he said, Charles,” he said.
“Sorry señor, are we interrupting something?” asked Ernesto. He craned his neck and tried to see into the hut.
“No, that’s just Charles. He don’t right cotton to strangers,” said the doctor. He stepped out and shut the door behind him. “He’s fine company most of the time, but truth be told, he’s a few crawdads short of a boil, if you know what I mean. Living all the way out here for so long can do things to the mind,” Ingoldsby continued in a low whisper.
“I can see that,” said Coot. He looked through the window of the hut in an attempt to locate Charles, but all he could see was a mess of junk and broken gadgets.
“So what help do you fellers need?” asked the doctor.
“You dug a baker’s dozen worth o’ lead out the back of a grey by the name of Jasper Stone. We’re lookin’ for them slugs,” said Coot.
The doctor paled as white as an egret’s plume when Coot mentioned the former patient and the lead extracted from his back.
“You came for the bullets? All these years I wanted so badly to be rid of that accursed lead. But I could never bring myself to leave it behind. It came from him, you see—yes Charles, be patient, I’m getting to that part,” he said. The doctor gave a quick rap on the frame of the window as he admonished his invisible companion. “It came from Captain Jasper Stone. He died…and then he lived again. I didn’t know what good that lead would do anyone, but I kept it in a mason jar, and I kept it close.”
“We’d be happy to take the jar and the bullets off of your hands, amigo,” said the Padre.
“And now I can’t even get rid of it. The voices, you see…the voices came from the bullets. Speaking to us night and day. Whispering terrible things. I wanted to silence them, so I…I threw the jar in the bayou. Sank it to the bottom, just out from my dock. But the voices didn’t go away! They still plague me now! If only I could give you the bullets to take away from here…I would…but it’s too late.”
The three members of the Tombstone posse all shared a round of defeated glances with one another. “Where abouts did you toss the jar?” asked Coot.
The doctor pointed to a spot on the water not far from the edge of the dock. “That’s where I threw it, hand to the almighty, I’m sure of it. I can’t forget the day I put the jar in the water, as much as I’d like to.”
“How’s ‘bout we take a look,” said Coot.
“Suit yourself. Just be careful of the critters lurking down there,” responded the doctor. His eyes snapped back towards the window and he stuck his head inside as he spoke next. “Quit yer hollering, I’m coming,” he said. He promptly returned to the inside of his hut and a loud assortment of stifled muttering, banging and rattling followed soon after.
Coot and the Padre went to the murky water’s edge and looked down into the depths. They stood there for several long measures, just scanning the water over and over again. The two men strained to see through the layers of flora and fauna that clouded the water, the daunting scale of the task before them weighing heavily on their minds.
“I think that could be it,” Coot said. He pointed to a small shimmering anomaly half buried in the muck and silt a few meters under the surface of the water.
“You might be right,” responded the Padre. “How are we going to retrieve it?
“We could dredge it? Maybe get us one of them diving suits from Smith & Robards…” trailed Coot as his mouth outpaced his train of thought.
A rush of air blew past Coot and the Padre. Breaking from behind the two men at impressive speed,a flash of orange and green leapt from the edge of the grassy bank and splashed into the water. Moments later, Mr. Outang had swum with awkward, but powerful, strokes to the spot pointed out by the doctor and vanished beneath the surface of the bayou.
“Or I guess, we could just let him handle it,” said Coot. His eyes went wide with a mix of impressed astonishment and amusement.
Soon after he had jumped from the bank, the bulky primate broke from the surface of the dark water. He hooted in frustration, but dove back down again. Finally after the third breach and subsequent dive, the ape raised a long arm and held aloft a mud covered jar. The rattling of metal on glass mixed with a few victorious grunts from Mr. Outang as he started to swim back to shore.
Before Coot was able to offer any congratulations or affirmation for his companion his blood ran like ice and his heart skipped a beat. His mind was blank for a split second as he tried to comprehend the terrifying scale and size of what was moving through the water. “Watch out!” he screamed but his warning came too little and too late.
Water, air, water, air and then water again. This vicious cycle became Mr. Outang’s world. He remembered diving into the dark swill of the bayou and retrieving the buried mason jar containing the thirteen lead slugs needed to end Jasper Stone. Outang also remembered swimming for shore, a warning shouted by Coot Jenkins and then a blow to his chest that felt like he had been run over by a full speed locomotive. The moment of impact overwhelmed his senses and he regressed to the most basic principles of instinct and reaction. The cycle of water and air continued. Mr. Outang struggled to catch his breath, but he only inhaled a lungful of stagnant bayou water.
Amid a fit of coughing and hacking up the putrid contents of the Louisiana bayou, Mr. Outang’s mind cleared enough so that he was able to interpret something beyond the spinning elemental rush of being endlessly pulled through a world split between drowning and breath. A crushing pain ran through the core of his body. He felt muscles beginning to tear and bones starting to break. As he caught a moment of open air in his spinning, Mr. Outang was able to see the culprit for his painful state of being.
There were too many teeth to count and most of them were thoroughly embedded into the primate’s flesh. From snout to tail’s end the reptilian mass of leathery scales must have been at least twenty feet long. Two beady lifeless eyes met Mr. Outang’s gaze as the massive gator held him in its maw. Blood, his blood, drained away from where the beast had clamped down upon Outang’s flesh. His precious baijiu jar had wedged itself at the base of the gator’s mouth, saving Outang from instant severage. The sheer impossible size and ferocity of the animal was best explained by the rotted patches of flesh and exposed areas of bone along the animal’s considerable girth. Some kind of dark energy had called this gargantuan beast back from the beyond and imbued it with the might of Death itself.
A solid blow to the back of Mr. Outang sent new pulses of pain flaring all along his body. The gator pulled its intended prey back from the looming mangrove tree that it had just slammed the orangutan into and returned to its brutal deathroll. With a fresh lungful of water Mr. Outang felt like he was on the verge of surrender to the everafter as the audible crack of one of his ribs breaking met his ear. As his vision blurred into hazy blackness, he felt the weight of glass firmly clutched in his broad hand. Holding the instruments of Jasper Stone’s doom within his grasp brought the indomitable primate back to the moment in a flash of silver and renewed fight.
As the gator continued its breakneck pace, rolling through the murky waters, Mr. Outang grabbed hold of the strength to offer up a formidable counter attack. With the mason jar gripped for dear life, the orangutan fought against the gator’s bite. With powerful forearms and shoulders, Mr. Outang worked to pry open the gator’s mouth but to no avail. He landed several heavy closed fist blows on the reptile’s head that would have easily crushed the skull of any man but the beast went unfazed. The primate tried to reach his free fingers into the cloudy grey stare of the animal that had him and gouge the gator’s eyes from its sockets but it was a task too far.
Another blow struck the unfortunate primate on the crown of his head. He had a moment of clear enough vision before being spun under the surface of the bog again to see that the gator had slammed him up against one of the water level railway trestles. As Mr. Outang felt the bones in his back and hips begin to splinter, he heard the far off sound of his one and only hope. The blast of a locomotive’s whistle cut above the splashing and snarling that permeated the swamp.
Mr. Outang wrapped his thick arms around the gator’s snout and squeezed with crushing force of his own. The pain that hit him as he drove the undead creature’s fangs deeper into his body was unbearable, but Mr. Outang was able to perform the unfathomable task of pushing through the limitless waves of agony and continue willing his body to battle on. He kicked out with one leg and was able to find solid footing at the base of the trestle. In a moment, the primate regained his center of gravity and secured his balance in a more or less standing position. He took one step and steadied his bare foot on the base. He felt the pulse of hope rattle in his breaking bones as the rail shook and trembled with the vibrations from the approaching locomotive.
The bloody primate pulled with all of his might. As hard as the gator bit down on Mr. Outang was as hard as he pulled on the humongous apex predator. Mr. Outang gripped down with the last reserves of his considerable primal strength, pushed off and exploded in a backwards rush. At first his energy appeared to fizzle with no effect, but once Mr. Outang built just a little bit of momentum, everything fell like a line of dominos. His feet scrambled across dry land and railway ties and with him Mr. Outang brought the hefty bulk of the reptile that was in the middle of devouring him. He felt like he might lose ground and be pulled back into the water by the gator, but the sound of a train whistle blasting in his ear gave the mighty orangutan the last bit of motivation he needed to see his gambit through to the end. Mr. Outang grunted and pulled once more, sending himself clear of the railway trestle and straddling the gator across the tracks at the same time. He saw a small blur out of his peripheral vision, followed by the loudest and hardest impact he had ever experienced. Then there was a moment of nothing.
Mr. Outang came to consciousness floating in the calm water of the Louisiana bayou. The screech of a train’s brakes guided him back to awareness. He looked around at the scarlet trails of blood clouding the water around him. He soon realized that despite the numerous oozing punctures in his flesh the vast majority of the blood was not his. A yellow toothed smile graced the battle-weary orangutan’s face as he saw chunks and pieces of what had moments ago been his deadly foe bobbing and floating in the swamp. The pain that consumed the whole of Mr. Outang’s body receded from his being as he felt the blessedly intact weight of the mason jar still clutched in his hand. It even made up for the loss of his beloved baijiu jar. With victory pumping through his veins, he swam towards the caboose of the halted train on the nearby trestle. Mr. Outang had just enough grit remaining in his bones to reach the safety of the train before he passed out.
A pair of hidden figures lurked in the shadows of the alleyway. Despite the midday sun, the darkness that hung between the storefronts of Girardelle Bayou Village concealed the observers like the dead of night. A small glow as Absalom Hotchkiss struck a match and lit his buffalo bone pipe was the only hint that there was anything more than empty space in the alleyway.
“Looks like the rest of them are finally back from Boggy Trail, having seen the doctor no doubt,” said Absalom. He lost himself to a couple of deep puffs on his pipe and then snuffed out the half burnt match by grinding it into the mud with the heel of his boot.
In the distance, the two figures in the alleyway could see a peculiar and trail weary trio stepping off of a flatboat. A priest and a wily old prospector helping a bandaged and battered orangutan limp away from Jacques Duchesne’s dry dock. Gripped firmly in the heavy hands of the orange furred creature was a mason jar wrapped up in a crudely fashioned gatortooth necklace. As the three made their way into the heart of the bayou town they were greeted by a throng of similarly dissimilar adventuring sorts.
“Oh, I’m sure they got the Gettysburg bullets. You see how they are handling that jar, like it’s a newborn baby,” Absalom said. He nodded to the Ghostly Gun on the other side of the alleyway and indicated that the phantom gunslinger should take heed of the glassware in the orangutan’s grip.
The Ghostly Gun pulled his coat back to reveal the butts of the pair of revolvers holstered in his gun belt. He tapped his left side holster purposefully with his index finger and quizzically tilted his head to one side.
“No, now’s not the time to move on them, too many eyes for starters,” responded Absalom.
The Ghostly Gun let his coat fall back into place, concealing his weapons. Though he remained silent as ever, his frown and furrowed brow spoke volumes.
“Don’t get it all sideways, we will move on them, just when the time is right. Besides, it’s a long way back to Tombstone and I prefer they keep on doing the lion’s share of the work. You can bet them bullets are going to draw a lot of attention from more than just the likes of us,” Absalom said. He turned over his pipe and knocked out the spent tobacco leaves and ashes. He paused for a moment as he considered packing a second round of smoke, but decided against it and stowed his pipe in the leather pack he wore over his shoulder.
The heaping dose of sound logic helped to assuage the grimace of disapproval that had taken root on the phantom gunslinger’s face. The Ghostly Gun silently cracked his knuckles and leaned up against the side of the town’s general store.
“For now we keep on tracking them like we have been. Granted if an opportunity to snatch up that lead presents itself, we won’t be fool enough to miss it. Plenty of time to pick our moment before we cross over into Arizona territory,” said the grizzled tracker. Absalom looked side to side and then checked the rear of the alleyway, as he plotted the best way to move without being seen. Once he had his route picked out he turned back to the Ghostly Gun. “You, be in the shadows and don’t let those bullets out of your sight.”
The Ghostly Gun tipped his hat to Absalom and then vanished from all sight like a drop of rain meeting the open ocean.