Wendy Cheng, formerly known as Xiong, slumped against a hitching rail and surveyed her shadow cast by the midday sun.
She traced the outline of her shotgun stock that jutted out over her shoulder. She’d seen that shadow for years. She tried to remember when it had last been the laundry of her father’s business over her shoulder. A fond memory lost in a blood-red haze.
Matilda Loomis, formerly known as living, sat perched on top of the adjacent hitching post. Her newly revived eyes blinked as they tried to focus on the buildings across the street. Her eyelids were still a little dry.
Tension slid around the heels of the townsfolk like an ice-cold river, moving them to and fro with tremulous speed. The Haboob winds carried not only dust, but also the scent of sweat and gunpowder. Matilda could feel the raspy chuckle of the spirit at the back of her skull as it savored the flavor of chaos.
Wendy and Matilda looked at each other, and the weariness in their eyes shared an unspoken feeling. Normal life, it just keeps fading day by day. Relentlessly eaten away by evil.
After another moment, Wendy spoke.
“Hattie and Warren – dead in a single moment. We must have allies, but carrying the debt of their sacrifice gets harder.” She looked at the dusty ground. “So many…”
Matilda snarled – and then caught herself short for a moment as she felt an ugly harmony with the rancorous spirit within her. After a moment, she continued. “Carrying the debt isn’t the point. It’s collecting the debt. The old sorcerous families of the East, their bills are long past due.” The word Vermilion sprouted in Matilda’s vision, entwined among thorny vines. Memories swarmed within her mind of the confrontation at the Depot. Memories of her desperate death. She looked at the sun to burn them away.
Wendy looked down the street towards Ike’s Place, and the sign out front. MURDERED IN TOMBSTONE. They’d moved it off the hearse after the exaggeratedly somber funeral procession for the killers slain at the OK Corral. She sighed. “And if only it were the supernatural we fought, our lives would be easier.” A boy walked past, hawking copies of the Tombstone Nugget. Wendy pointed at the front page’s banner headline.
LAWMEN MURDER HONEST RANCHERS
Matilda snarled. “They had the same headline last week, and nobody was dead.” She winced as she noticed another newsboy carrying the Epitaph that featured her own account. The Nugget was selling more, as lies always do.
Gunfire from down the street shattered the reminiscences of their haunted past. The pair leapt up – with the local ordinance requiring private citizens to stow their weapons in the town lockup, only those with influence were left armed and dangerous. Wendy and Matilda turned the corner to see three Cowboy thugs leaving Gage Export Co. as a misshapen brute trailed behind with the cashbox. Two red sashes walked in front, waving guns along the street.
“We take what we want! There ain’t no law here, only the Cowboys!”
Matilda waved to Wendy. “Keep their eyes this way.”
Wendy nodded, pulling her shotgun. “Drop the box and lay down where you are. The law still holds sway.”
The brute hurled the cashbox at Wendy, who dove to her left to avoid the hurled box. “I’ll call that ‘drop’ if you do.” As she spoke, she strode forward while keeping the shotgun pointed at the first gunman. The brute interposed between them.
“You’d better run. It takes more than buckshot to stop me.”
Wendy saw the first puffs of dust from the ground behind the Cowboys, but realized they were intensifying in time with Matilda’s whispered voice. She widened her eyes – not that she had any room in her soul left for surprise, but the theatrical gesture caught the attention of their enemies. They turned –
A thin chitinous black leg emerged from the earth, then another, then another. With a rustle of disturbed earth, a bundle of slick red eyes emerged behind. The brute shrieked and bolted backwards, right into the oncoming butt of Wendy’s shotgun. He crumpled quickly. The gunmen bolted down the street as the spider finished emerging and gave chase. Wendy started forward, but Matilda took her hand.
“They’ll run for a long time before they realize it isn’t leaving footprints.” She smirked, and picked up the cashbox. “The ill-gotten gains are safe, and we’ve got one of them, which is enough to get some names and directions for a proper posse.”
Wendy nodded as she handcuffed the brute and grabbed a pant leg, dragging him slowly to jail. “Let’s go. The courthouse isn’t far, and it’ll be done soon.”
The air was hushed inside the majestic colonial facade of the Cochise County Courthouse, one of the only testaments in town to more enduring structures than the ramshackle wood planks of saloons and shops. Lucy Clover enunciated clearly. “I do so swear, sir.”
The bailiff withdrew the Bible, and Lucy slipped into the witness’ chair. Judge Spicer watched her closely as a swarthy man approached the bench. The trim of his beard and the dapper cut of his fine suit spoke wealth, while the sneer of his words spoke meanness.
He waved a hand towards the table where Doc Holliday and Morgan, Virgil, and Wyatt Earp sat in solemn repose. “Miss Clover, your glowing testimony on behalf of the killers behind me only speaks to your bias on their behalf. Why should anyone in this courtroom consider you a fair witness of the events at the Corral?”
Lucy tapped the badge on her lapel. “The office is worthy of respect. I’ve been in law enforcement for years, my record is spotless in bringing criminals to justice, and I only arrived in town very recently. Unlike you, I cannot be bought with the money of the swamp.” Lucy pointed at the small silver cufflink on counsel’s sleeve – a tiny skull. “The Baron can buy you, but you’re the only one in the room for sale.”
Judge Spicer tapped the gavel. “That’s enough – and that’s enough out of you, counsel. The evidence is straightforward and conclusive. You asked for a moment to cross-examine, but random aspersions are not enough to delay these proceedings.”
As Wendy and Matilda quietly entered the room, the judge banged the gavel twice. “The preponderance of evidence points to the defendants’ actions as legitimate pursuit of enforcement of the ban on private weapons within city limits. I dismiss all charges against the defendants.”
The Earps nodded their heads, but Doc Holliday pointed at the special prosecutor, requested for the hearing by Ike Clanton. “I might not advise staying in town too long, counsel. Your friends don’t like losers.” The man blanched as the party walked through the doors held open by Wendy and Matilda, back out into the free air of Tombstone.
Wendy drew a slow breath. The smell of sweat and gunpowder still hung heavy in the air. It was the acrid aroma of approaching war.
Cut Down in His Prime
The table at the Oriental was quiet as each person nursed a drink as they pondered recent events.
Wendy Cheng stared at the wood grain of the table, and wondered if the long arm of Gomorra’s evil could strangle the life from Tombstone as well.
Lucy Clover ran a finger over her badge as she recalled her encounter with a sinister stranger in a train car.
Enrique Dos Santos rubbed his temples, thinking once again of Hattie DeLorre’s quiet body in the coffin.
Quincy Washburne looked at a sketched blueprint he’d brought. After a moment of further thought, he added another layer of armor plate.
And Doc Holliday poured another round of liquid courage for the assembled.
The world will never know how long they might have sat there, trapped in riddles of gunfire and shadows. A voice called out from the door, snapping them all to attention.
“Wyatt Earp! Where is Wyatt Earp?”
The man entering the bar spoke with panicked urgency. His rumpled clothes, saturated with dust, marked him as someone who made his living atop stagecoaches. Lucy stood up, but Ned the bartender replied first.
“Wyatt Earp ain’t here. Ain’t no Earp in here.”
The man coughed violently, and Doc Holliday was up with a glass in a moment. The man’s hand trembled as he drank the shot of nameless liquor. Doc looked back to the others.
“This is Newt Sippy. He’s a messenger with Wells Fargo. We ride with him every so often, if it’s likely someone wants the cargo bad.”
Newt shook his head. “Morgan came with me. It’s Morgan. He’s…”
The world inside the Oriental froze.
The glass in Wendy’s hand shattered, and she barely noticed. Lucy pulled Enrique and Quincy towards the street. Doc and Sippy had already run out.
Wendy opened the doors to see a Wells Fargo stagecoach down on Allen Street, surrounded by her friends new and old. Among them were Wyatt and Virgil Earp. They were staring at the body of their brother, sprawled across the driver’s bench.
Even from the front of the Oriental, Wendy could see Morgan’s mouth frozen agape. She’d seen similar many times before, worn by the victims of dark and terrible powers.
As a crowd of onlookers gathered near the coach, Doc held Sippy directly in front of him. His eyes were a rarely seen ice.
“Tell me everything.”
Sippy coughed again, but Doc’s grip held him upright. “We was riding from Mescal to Benson, about two hours north, and coming around a bend. A boulder’s in the road, and Morgan has his shotgun up. Truth be told, he has it up most of the time during the run.”
Doc paused, turning back to Enrique. “Get to the Fargo office. I want the manifest of this delivery run.”
Sippy held up a hand. “I’ve still got the delivery. He didn’t take anything.”
Doc turned back. “WHO didn’t take anything?”
Sippy shuddered. “He came walkin’ up over the embankment, casual as a dog on Sunday. Sun over his shoulder. I saw tall and thin in rough leathers. And the laugh – I can’t stop hearing the laugh. God, that cackle was the dark fire, right out of Hell.”
Enrique shuddered. “So someone came from the side and shot Morgan?”
Sippy shook his head – or more likely, shivered. “No sir. Only one man met us. And the man went for his guns, and Morgan fired first. Both barrels, from five feet. Dead to rights. But the man moved like a blur. He shot twice, and Morgan fell. I dropped to the ground, covered my head, and I’m not sorry to say I begged for my life. When I looked up, he was gone. Delivery’s still in the stage and he’d vanished like the wind. About the only thing I can tell you – around his neck was a red sash. Swear it.”
Wyatt Earp, silent until now, looked at Doc. “I see it. And Sippy’s wrong. The man did take something.” Wyatt pointed at the hole in Morgan’s chest, a neat match to the hole in Morgan’s forehead. “That’s where Morgan wore the badge.” Wyatt’s hand went to his own badge, in almost the same place. Virgil’s eyes swam, and he looked like he might not keep his dinner down.
As Doc dropped Sippy’s arms, letting him collapse, Wyatt stared at his brother’s dead eyes. Morgan’s face was a painting of fear and nightmares, with mouth open in a dread rictus. Wyatt took in a breath.
“THE MAN WHO KILLED MY BROTHER WORE A RED SASH!” The explosion of rage was unyielding. Doc stared, while Quincy started pulling onlookers away into the Oriental. The other deputies froze. Wyatt turned in a quick circle, scanning the crowd. His eyes captured a trio of Cowboys. They were tipsy, young, and had the grave misfortune of wearing a red sash. Wyatt fixed on them. “So – you think this is a warning? You think this is payback?” Wyatt’s gun appeared in his hand, covering the drunken Cowboys.
Doc turned to Lucy. “That’s not Wyatt. It is, but it isn’t. We need to clear the street.” Lucy tapped Enrique, and the three of them moved towards other groups of onlookers.
Wendy ignored Doc’s plea. She moved closer to Wyatt. “Stand down, Marshal. You have no evidence. This isn’t right.”
Wyatt’s eyes never left his targets, who’d clumsily drawn their own weapons. He snarled. “VIOLATORS. This is how we warn and pay back violators.”
The crowd screamed as Wyatt took down the Cowboys in a heartbeat. But he hadn’t shot them in the head. It was clear he wanted more from them. Each of them clutched their throat, gagging and spurting their lifeblood onto the street.
In a quick motion, Wendy pulled Wyatt’s gun down and then out of his hands. Wyatt looked at his hand for a moment, and then turned to the empty streets. He pointed at the bodies of the three Cowboys, now still.
“You damned Cowboys are finished in this town! Bayou Vermilion and its ilk be damned!” He turned towards Ike’s Place – it wasn’t directly in sight, but Wyatt’s rage was as magnetic as a compass. “You tell Ike Clanton and the rest of ‘em! Your time here in Tombstone is done! If an Earp sees a Cowboy, he’s dead! Crawl like the snakes you are, back into the hills and Hells that spawned you!”
Virgil had struggled to his feet, and now took Wyatt’s arm. “You got it, Wyatt. We’ll do it right. But first,” and he pointed, “we got to treat Morgan right, too.”
Wyatt looked down, and his fury slowly ebbed into a husky solemnity. “Let’s get him down. Doc – get the undertaker. Morgan was a man of respect.” Wyatt dusted off Morgan’s clothes as the Earp brothers pulled him from the carriage. Doc left on his mission.
Wendy watched the remaining brothers go off, and tucked Wyatt’s pistol inside her belt. She knew that when Wyatt was ready to wield it again, with the clarity of justice, she’d back his play.
They all would. Hell had come for them, and now Hell was coming with them.
It’s A Reckoning
The day had opened with Morgan’s burial. Now it was noon, and the group had assembled within Virgil’s modest, but comfortable house. Wendy and Lucy, newcomers to the town and its troubles watched with increasing shock and disbelief as Wyatt, Virgil and Doc talked about murdering Cowboys. All the Cowboys.
Wyatt paced with a boiling resolve. “We take the fight to the Cowboys, we take the fight to Bayou Vermilion – we take the fight to the Baron himself if he’s here. Tombstone is done letting those red-sashed bastards run roughshod. Tombstone is done with putting them in lockup only to have them squirm out by loophole the next day. Tombstone is done with them, because they’re done.”
Lucy and Wendy studied them with increasing concern. Virgil poured coffee from a kettle into cups, and handed one to Wyatt. “When they gunned down Morgan, they started a war. And it’s one they won’t win.” Doc nodded.
Wyatt took a long sip and continued. “War is right. And this war doesn’t have prisoners. We take Ike’s Place, we take the Baron’s depot, then we chase them wherever they go, until they run out of road. And then we kill them. This time, they die.”
Wendy listened, and wondered if she’d heard it right.
“This time, they die.”
A man’s soul can be seen in the space of a word, if it’s the right word. Or the wrong one.
Wendy’s lips were taut, but still sealed. Lucy took the moment to speak.
“So – do you have a plan beyond running and shooting until you run out of bullets?”
Wyatt snarled. “I have bullets enough for each of them.” He took another drink. “But I get your point. I’ve seen hot lead fly astray too many times. It’s cold lead that finds the mark.” He nodded to Virgil. “We’ve got a few places to cover. Ike’s Place and the Clanton Ranch are the first two stops. We take away their homes.”
Virgil turned to Lucy. “You and Wendy are a formidable duo, and your performance at the Birdcage commends you. Are you with us to clear out Ike’s Place?” While he addressed both women, his eyes focused on Lucy’s.
Lucy met his gaze for a moment, then briefly turned to Wendy before returning her gaze to Tombstone’s Marshal. “Virgil, Wendy and I are always on the side of the law – but this is going sideways. We came here from Gomorra chasing an evil that lives in the shadows. But what you’re asking for now is round three of the Earps against the Clantons. The evil I came to find has always been adept at hiding behind hatred, and this blood feud is not why Wendy and I came here.”
Wyatt looked over. “THEY made it a blood feud. They drew blood. They’ve made it clear, their lives and justice cannot both be kept.”
Virgil looked to Wendy. “I carried my brother’s body today. I know I might not be seeing clearly. And I know your eyes are open to things Wyatt and I aren’t looking for now. So maybe I’m asking you to come because you’re up to the fight. Maybe I’m asking you because you helped Wyatt yesterday when nobody else could. But I’m asking you. Are you with us?”
Wendy looked at Lucy, and the two women nodded together. “Yes. We’re with you.”
Virgil shook the hand of each of them in turn. “Good. We’ll meet tonight at Ike’s Place, right when they’re all there and having their fun. Then the next morning, we’ll meet at the Clanton Ranch outside Charleston.” He took the rest of his coffee in a gulp, and Doc and Wyatt did the same. They each took an ammo satchel from Virgil’s wall, and walked back out into the Tombstone afternoon sun, burning low on the horizon.