By Jason Pere
Tombstone was now less than a day away. The swamps and thickets of Louisiana and east Texas gave way to rolling hills and then the interminable flat desert punctuated by the odd yucca or mesquite. As the train continued to speed along the track, Chuan “Jen” Qí found her eyes constantly searching the horizon that so far only blended into distant peaks. She desperately wanted to see the silhouette of the town emerge in the distance. Jen knew it would be well into midday before the train reached its destination but part of her hoped that if she willed it hard enough she could somehow wish the train into arriving earlier than expected. Since departing El Paso the previous afternoon, she had clasped and released her hands so often that she could not recall the last time she felt her own fingertips. The need to rejoin Padre Ernesto de Diaz and the rest of the posse in Tombstone was becoming a weight that would soon be too great for Jen to carry. Unending waves of anxiety far outweighed the safety of splitting up the posse.
Jen looked across the passenger car’s aisle at the slumbering form of Mr. Outang. The primate’s snoring sounded like a mule chewing on dynamite. Still the most irritating element of her companion’s sleep was the fact that Mr. Outang could sleep at all. Jen was undoubtedly jealous. She could barely take in a full breath, let alone think of closing her eyes and going off into a dreamscape. She could not fathom how her companion managed to slumber through most of the long ride. All but certain death at the end of Jasper Stone’s Colt Dragons waited less than seven days away and Mr. Outang slept sound as a newborn infant. Jen had faced mortality many times before, and all without batting an eyelash in apprehension. Now she lived in a tangible cloud of fear. Her unsettled mind was a self-feeding demon that only grew in power as time passed. No matter how the inevitable war in Canyon Diablo Crater played out, she longed for the promise of resolution.
The sound of metal screeching and gears grinding to a halt broke the rhythmic click-clack of the train’s song. The cars began to slow as the train’s brakes engaged. Jen’s mind raced for possible causes to the sudden stop. She spared a split second to pout and shake her head in judgment as Mr. Outang continued to snore through the disturbance. About the time the passenger car finally came to a halt, Jen realized for the first time that most of the other passengers were suspiciously clad in black from head to toe and oddly enough appeared totally unfazed by the train’s abrupt stop. A few seconds of nothing passed as the train sat motionless. It was enough time for Jen’s companion to rejoin the world of the waking. In a flash, the men and women in black had drawn a small arsenal’s worth of handheld gatling weapons and aimed them on the pair of Tombstone posse members. Before Jen’s mind spun any further out of control, she heard the sound of a familiar voice come from the front of the car.
“Now, now, let’s not do anything hastily friends,” said the voice. A man pushed himself up from his seat with the aid of a cane and began to walk back towards Jen and Mr. Outang.
As soon as Jen saw his face, she recognized the Agent who had interrogated her and the other posse members after the mishap in Gettysburg. She flirted with the notion of making a run, but quickly struck down that foolish idea. She had to accept the fact that once again, she and Mr. Outang were at the mercy of the Agency. She looked across the aisle at her friend and found the primate wearing a sympathetic expression. If there was an out to be had in this situation, it would come by diplomacy and discourse.
The Agent limped his way back to the pair of travelers under the cover of many armed men. He loomed over Jen and Mr. Outang with a pompous and gloating air. The Agent oozed all the tells of a man who knew he was in total control of everything he saw. “Surprised to see me? Surely you realized we’d be watching you like eagles from the moment you left Washington. Can’t have people who know what you know running around all willy-nilly.”
Jen went to stand but the Agent settled her in her seat with a cautionary raised finger. “These days nothing surprises any of us,” she said. Her voice remained calm and even despite her raging battle with uncontrolled anxiety.
“And now, what do I find but a Triple-A bulletin sent all over the Southwest, calling us to White Sands of all places. That’s three As for All Available Agents’—not exactly the kind of thing one ignores. Too bad it was an ambush that saw Stone put at least another three dozen Agents in the ground. Would you happen to know anything about that? And more importantly—did you find what you were looking for down in the bayou?”
“We don’t know anything about a…Triple-A bulletin…” Jen started. She took note of the fast grimace that had covered the Agent’s face and quickly reached deep for some information that might prove to be a useful bargaining chip. “We did get what we needed from Louisiana. With any luck at all, my friends should already be in Tombstone with those bullets. We received a telegraph of our own from Stone as well.”
“Go on ma’am,” said the Agent. He placed both hands on top of his cane and looked at the woman with an unsaid kind of hunger permeating his being.
“He wants to meet us at Canyon Diablo Crater at week’s end. He wants a showdown, a straight up fight to the death. The telegraph also said “bring all your friends.” Jen realized that her survival and that of her friends depended on as much assistance as possible. She gave the chief Agent an almost pleading look. “You know what they say about the enemy of your enemy. You gentlemen care to join up with us?” Jen said.
The Agent stared her down hard for the better part of a minute before he spoke. “Yes ma’am, I believe we do,” he said. His voice carried a chill that underscored his need for vengeance.
A train whistle cut the air outside the Bayou Vermillion Railroad depot. Moments later a locomotive materialized on the track leading in from the horizon. A small band of men waited on the platform of the depot as the engine sped towards them. The seemingly humble depot hidden in the outskirts east of Tombstone stirred to life as the train made its approach.
“I’d say that’s the rest of our posse right there,” said Sergeant Elijah Clay. He brushed some dust from the yellow chevrons on his sleeve and then wiped his face clean with an old red handkerchief.
Padre Ernesto de Diaz glanced at the sergeant before returning his focus to the oncoming train. “A posse that’s getting bigger and bigger by the second.”
“Are you complaining that there’s a whole mess of folks willing to stand up to Stone?” asked Clay.
“No, no amigo. Many hands make light work, but when things get too big, too many interests involved, they get…complicated,” said the Padre.
“My friend, we left complicated in the dust ages ago and are closing in on full blown fantastical,” said Clay, He shared a laugh with the others on the platform as the train came closer into view.
The screech of metal on metal preceded the steamy gasp of the engine as it arrived at the depot platform. A handful of men went about opening cargo doors and laying the gangplanks and such so the passengers could disembark. The sergeant and the Padre looked on as Jen, Mr. Outang and a throng of men in black got off of the train. A few seconds of uncertainty passed and then a man with a cane and a limp made his way to the forefront of the new crowd.
“I see you got the word, Padre. Do you have them now?” asked the man with the cane.
“Sí, señor,” said the Padre. He half pulled the mason jar containing the Gettysburg bullets from the travel satchel slung on his shoulder, briefly revealing the lead fragments contained within before putting the jar back into the satchel. “So are all of you going to be going with us to Canyon Diablo Crater?” he asked. The Padre motioned towards the group of black clad men gathered around.
“Yes, we’ll be there sure as the sun rises if it means getting a clean shot at Jasper Stone. And this is hardly the extent of what the Agency plans to send,” said the man with the cane. He smoothed his mustache with his thumb and forefinger, twisting the ends to accentuate a sly grin. He pointed to several of the open cargo cars with the tip of his cane.
From out of the cars came at least another score of black-clad Agents, all of them set to the task of offloading crates of dynamite, heavy gatling weapons, and other elite forms of rare munitions. Two of the warmachines exited the cargo cars underneath their own power.
A young junior-grade Agent waved a sheaf of papers as he ran towards the mechanical men. “This manifest clearly states that we should have two Post-A-Trons. That is clearly not…”
Nathan Shane fell into step beside the flustered Agent. He then pressed himself against the officer. “Son, everything is in good order. I strongly suggest you leave things be.”
The flustered underling pointed to the hatted automaton striding along next to the Post-A-Tron. “But, but, that, whatever that is, is not a Post-A-Tron. How could this…”
“Son, I’m only going to say this once more. This business at hand is well above your standing, and therefore, not your concern.”
The younger Agent continued to splutter as he attempted to wriggle past Nathan. Realizing his efforts were for naught, the Agent gave a resigned shrug. “Have it your way then.” Muttering, he went off to rejoin the rest of the Agents assembled on the loading platform.
“Some fine firepower you seem to be sporting there,” said the Sergeant.
“You mean the automatons?” Nathan motioned to the duo of metallic gunslingers. “The Post-A-Tron is a solid design, I fought alongside the prototype developed by the Morgan scientists back in Gomorra. I’m not so familiar with Quaterman. The law there used him in their war with the Sloane Gang though, so he’s proven in battle. I was surprised to receive a telegram that he was heading here, I didn’t think he was that smart…”. Post-A-Tron began hoisting and carrying crates of gatling weaponry, while Quaterman scanned his surroundings for threats. Personally, I prefer something a little simpler,” Nathan said. He patted the pair of forty-fives holstered on his hips. He turned his attention to the Agent who was leaning heavily on his cane. “Your folks going to be able to get along with them?” he asked with a nod towards his steel-clad companions.
“We’ll manage just fine. The Agency has plenty of its own toys just as fancy as your oversized coffee pots,” said the Agent.
“No doubt… Just don’t let them hear you call them big ol’ tin cans and we’ll all get on just peachy,” Nathan said.
The Agent shook his head as he gestured towards one of the cargo cars towards the rear of the train. Nathan observed a large canvas covering what appeared to be a massive vehicle supported by equally large metal wheels.
A charge of electric tension started to mount between the bounty hunter and the agent but it was diffused by the sound of Sergeant Clay’s excited voice. “And here comes some more of us,” he said. Sergeant Clay pointed at a pair of riders raising a hearty cloud of dust quickly approaching the platform.
Wendy Cheng dismounted her horse at the bottom of the steps leading up the depot’s platform. Half a step behind her followed Matilda Loomis. Wendy gasped as she noticed one of the two mechanical men following behind Nathan Shane. “Quaterman? Where is your Mas- I mean Mr. Beau- I mean Drew Beauman?”
Nathan started to speak, but Quaterman interjected. “I do not serve a master. I uphold justice by serving the Law.” Wendy tried to interrupt, but the automaton continued unperturbed. “There is one here who wears badges of the Law. But he is not a man of the Law. I must stop him.”
Wendy had so many questions, but she realized that Quaterman’s implacable voice and cold green gaze made further interrogation as to Drew Beauman’s whereabouts or Quaterman’s newfound independence unwise.
She turned to Matilda. “Let me introduce you to my friends.” A few moments of handshakes and other introductory formalities ensued.
“Wendy’s done a good job keeping things together here in Tombstone while we’ve been chasing down the bullets,” said the Padre. He tipped the brim of his hat respectfully to the renowned law woman.
“Matilda has been a solid rock for me to lean on. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her,” Wendy said.
Matilda forced down a smile that tried to grace her deathly pale lips. “I heard y’all had a go of it out east but it’s been Hell here all this while. I met up with Wendy while I was looking into Maurice Croker and Bayou Vermilion’s latest schemes. That’s been bad enough.”
“Law in town is still a mess. We’ve been backing Virginia Ann Earp to take over as Marshal, but Croker has some heavy hitters backing him for the job. Men who work for Bayou Vermilion Railroad, in fact. Abram Grothe and Valeria Batten have been in our corner, but they along with Sergeant Clay are still after Mason Adler. So we’re going to need some more help if we are to steady the town,” Wendy said.
“Damn, we got villains coming out the woodwork on all sides,” said Sergeant Clay.
“I would venture a guess that once Stone falls for good and all, restoring order to the rest of the territory will be far less of a labor. Finishing the Right Hand of Death is the top priority,” the Agent said.
“Agreed, señor, so what’s the plan there? We just ride into Canyon Diablo Crater guns blazing?” asked the Padre.
“Not quite. There’s still some strategy to plan out but first things first. The Agency is going to need those bullets so we can recast them into something usable,” said the head Agent.
Padre Ernesto de Diaz once again carefully pulled the mason jar of Gettysburg bullets from his satchel. He hesitated for a few heartbeats as he battled inwardly before relinquishing control of the artifacts to the agent. “Looks like we are going to have to trust you amigo.”
“We all have to trust each other. We’ll take care of the bullets as well as you have,” said the Agent. He marveled at the jar and thirteen smashed pieces of lead that he held in his grip.
“I hope so. At the very least passing them off means I get to know a good night’s sleep again,” said the Padre.
“What are you talking about?” asked the Agent.
“Oh you will find out soon enough mi amigo,” responded the Padre with a knowing wink. He patted the mason jar in the Agent’s hand and stepped back while letting out a sigh of relief that sounded like he had been holding in for a year.