By Jason Pere
Chuan “Jen” Qi snuffed out the match that she had used to light the lantern in her cramped little hotel room. The sounds of Tombstone transitioned from work to revelry as the sunset came and went. But for the solitary mechanist, it all faded into one dull hum. To her, there was little else in all of existence save for the collection of telegrams scattered across the room’s writing desk. Those sheets of paper held Jen’s interest like a preacher’s sermon swayed his faithful flock. She had read the lines of each letter over and over. They all seemed little more than cryptic ramblings, save for the most recent missive that Jen still clutched in her hand. While she did not fully understand the meaning of the mysterious correspondence, she could not deny that the letters radiated with a sense of power and foreboding. A set of knocks at the door pulled Jen from her unease.
“Hello?” said Jen. Her eye drifted from the door to her gun belt slung over the footboard of her bed. She felt a tingle of fear down her spine as she wondered if she had time to reach it and draw her weapon. She quelled her rising paranoia as she reasoned that anyone who might have intended her harm would likely not bother knocking. A few familiar sounding grunts from the other side of the door further put Jen’s troubled mind to rest. She went to the door and unlocked it for Mr. Outang.
The scruffy orange primate entered Jen’s room, followed by a worried looking Padre Ernesto de Diaz and a stolid Rafi Hamid. Outang gave his long time adventuring companion a yellowed, broken toothed grin as the trio gathered around her. Once the posse were firmly behind the discretion of a closed door, they all let out a simultaneous breath of apprehension.
“Been some time since Diablo Canyon, mi amiga,” said the Padre. He forced a kindly smile but a weariness lurked within his tired eyes plain enough for all to see.
“Yes, too long in some ways… Others, it still feels like it happened this morning,” said Jen. She reached for a bottle of whiskey to pour for her guests, but then corrected herself and poured four small glasses of water. The matter at hand was difficult enough to broach without the cloudiness that alcohol often brought in its aftermath.
Rafi took a polite sip from the water glass he had been offered and waited a second for the liquid to flow effortlessly down his inert esophageal tube. “I feel the same. Things that happened in that place…well I don’t think I’ll exist a day that I don’t dwell upon them. Still, after we finished Stone, I felt like this was all over.”
“For a time, so did I,” said Jen. A moment hung in the air like a corpse at the end of a gallows rope before she turned her eyes to the missives strewn about the desk. “Then I started getting these anonymous telegrams,” she continued. Jen handed the notes to Rafi and the Padre in turn.
The two men looked over the pieces of correspondence with curiosity marking their faces and fear glinting in their eyes. They offered a few glances back and forth before finally turning back to meet Jen’s gaze. Neither of the men wanted to be the first to break the awkward silence that ensued, so they engaged in a silent race to the bottom of their water glasses. The Padre was the loser, finishing his beverage before Rafi and thus taking on the onus of speaking next.
“THERE WERE TWO OF ME STOP YOU SHOT THE WRONG STONE STOP” said the Padre as he read the words off the page in his hand. “Dios mios. Like a Hydra, no? Kill one and another appears?”
Taking a cue from his friend, Rafi read aloud the letter he held. “IF HE FINDS OUT WE ARE ALL DEAD STOP IT IS HELL IN HERE STOP YOU ARE THE ONLY ONES WHO CAN BREAK THE CIRCLE STOP
Jen swallowed down the last of the water in her glass but it did nothing to quench the burn she felt in the back of her throat. “He sent me this latest one this morning. That’s when I knew I needed to get the old posse back together,” she continued. Jen handed the most recent telegram to the Padre.
Padre Ernesto’s eyes went wide as silver dollars and he stammered as he read aloud to the rest of the group. “STONE HEADED FOR PETRIFIED FOREST HE HAS HEART OF DARKNESS STOP HELL BENT ON RELEASING YEI TSO STOP SAME AS METEOR CRATER STOP DO NOT LET HIM FINISH RITUAL STOP”
“No. Stone’s dead…dead as can be. We all killed him and sent him screaming to Hell. There’s no way this can be real,” said Rafi.
“You think we can take that chance?” asked Jen.
Rafi fought a losing battle with himself before letting out a defeated breath. “No, I guess we can’t.” he said.
“Any more of the Tombstone posse still in town?” asked Jen.
“Nathan Shane might still be nursing a bottle around here. Not sure about Wendy or any of the others,” said the Padre. He glanced down once more at the paper in his hand and silently reread the ominous note. “Yei Tso and a Petrified Forest are both new to me. I’ll ask after the Office of Ancestral Affairs in the morning. They may not have the answers we need, but if there are answers to be had that would be the place.”
“I’ll go with you,” said Jen.
The Padre nodded in affirmation and then turned his focus over to Rafi and Mr. Outang. “Compadres, you think you can find out who is still in or close to town and got the grit to go against Stone, yet again?”
The lawman and the primate nodded in unison.
“All right mis amigos, I don’t know if I call it a plan but it is what it is. Sleep fast and deep tonight eh,” said the Padre. His fingers brushed his sombrero as he turned to leave.
“There is not much I can remember. I don’t even know a time when I looked younger than I do now. It feels like my memories slip away every time I go to sleep,” said Jackie Sanjuro. He sheepishly ran a hand over the top of his shaved head as he delivered his confession.
Tsintah sat impassively as she silently regarded the man who had come to her seeking aid. She let her eyes fall away from Jackie as she scanned some of the assorted knick knacks that resided within the main room at the Office of Ancestral Affairs. A faint smile tugged the corner of her mouth as she looked upon the frayed feathers dangling from a dream catcher that hung above the main entrance. A long time ago, an Algonquin shaman had entrusted her with the woven stranded hoop, assuring her that it would protect against evil spirits, seen and unseen. “Something eats away at your dreams, it seems,” she said.
Jackie rubbed his head again as he took the remark. He stood in a moment of uncertainty as he was lost for a way to respond to the strange comment. “I’ve never heard anyone call it that before but it’s as good an explanation as any. What is it that’s…eating my dreams?” he asked.
“The what is far more complicated. It could be many things,” said Tsintah.
“So you can’t help me?” asked Jackie. His shoulders fell with his voice.
Tsintah poked and prodded some of the ashes in the bowl of incense smoldering on the table in front of her. She took a second to consult the twisting images in the smoke that wafted from the singed mixture of herbs. “I do not know if I can help you yet, but I know that you are in the right place and it is the right time. Dreams and memories are what I know best of all,” Tsintah said.
“Thank you. What do I need to do now?” asked Jackie. A beam of hopeful light showed in his troubled eyes as he spoke and his posture straightened to a less disheveled state.
Tsintah did not want to tease the man but she could not help but enjoy the irony before her. “For now, you should go and come back tomorrow. I need to dream upon an answer for you,” she said. She took a small moment to congratulate herself for saying the words without laughing.
“Whatever you say. Thank you again,” said Jackie. He bowed to the woman and turned to go. He walked across the room with a renewed strength in his step. His restored confidence waned as he reached the door and he turned back to Tsintah with fresh traces of worry on his face.
“Do not be troubled. I will have someone fetch you here in case today is stolen from you when you dream tonight,” said Tsintah. She gave the man a winning and sagely grin that could calm the harshest seas.
Jackie Sanjuro bowed to the woman once more and left the office. Not more than a single breath passed from the time he left from the time the door swung open again. A peculiar looking duo entered the Office of Ancestral Affairs to stand before Tsintah.
“Good morning, sister. I brought the people I told you about?” said Nathaniel Tuwikaa. He nodded to Tsintah and ushered in a man in priestly garb and a woman with features that spoke of far off lands.
“You manage to find the most peculiar drinking companions,” said Tsintah to Nathaniel. “I am Tsintah, how may I be of assistance?” she said.
“It is a pleasure to meet you Doña Tsintah, I am Padre Ernesto De Diaz and this is my friend…” started the Padre but he was interrupted as Jen spoke over him.
“I am Chuan Qi, although most people call me Jen. We need to get to the Petrified Forest. The word is that this office would know the way there,” said Jen.
Tsintah looked over the pair who accompanied her fellow tribesman. She found their bullish attitude and total lack of formality off putting, but she sensed on the deepest level that the Padre and Jen were possessed of pure hearts all too rare in the west. Once again, even though she knew of what the pair sought, Tsintah used silent contemplation for dramatic effect. “This office knows nothing of the Petrified Forest, other than a spot on an old map. Now some of my tribesmen on the other hand can help you on your way,” said Tsintah. She felt however rude her literal transition of Jen’s plea was, she was vindicated of the transgressing by the pair’s initial intrusion. With the score evened, she abandoned any further pretense of coyness and cast a hawk-like eye over the strange couple who accompanied Nathaniel. “Now I must ask you, if it is within our power to direct you to the place that you seek, why should we?”
“Jasper Stone, you know the name?” asked Jen.
Tsintah felt cold grip her heart as if Death himself had touched her. “Yes, I know the name. I also know that he is no longer of this world.”
“That’s true. We were both there at Canyon Diablo Crater when he died a second time. Did Nathaniel happen to mention that when he told you about us?” asked the Padre.
“That detail must have got lost in his recounting of the epic drinking contest with that ape companion of yours,” Tsintah said. Her tone as well as her gaze were akin to freshly soured milk as she subtly glared at Nathaniel. “Well then, you know first hand that he is no longer a threat to the territory.”
“Sad to say but that doesn’t seem to be the case… At least there’s a chance he’s not finished completely,” said Jen.
“I see now, and this is why you need to take the journey to the Petrified Forest?” asked Tsintah.
“Si, Doña,” said the Padre. But not only that, there is something about Yei Tso and its release.
Tsintah masked her shock at two forces of darkness becoming entwined in one nefarious plan. She knew her words before the man had finished speaking, but she made a show of looking meditative. The truth was that she would use every resource at her disposal to keep her people safe from the likes of the Deathly Drifter, or even the possibility of an encounter with him or his unleashing the ancient threat of Yei Tso. Nevertheless, she was far too poised to allow fresh acquaintances to witness her seeming overeager, or worse fearful.
“Yei Tso is not of this place. It is a terrible enemy to our people. Long ago, Yei Tso rode a flaming boulder through the skies. It crashed into the earth, and made a great hole in the ground. Yei Tso came out, and took away the peoples’ minds and bodies. So we hunted it, and imprisoned it beneath the Stone Forest. We cannot allow it to be free…or we all die.” Having completed her explanation she pointed out the door and towards the rear of the building. “Follow that hallway until it ends and take a left. Speaks With Buffalo will be able to help you find your way.
“Just like that, you help us?” asked Jen.
“Of course. You both should know better than anyone how dangerous Jasper Stone is. I would be a fool not to heed a warning bearing his name or his sinister plans… Especially not if others are volunteering to face the dangers ahead,” said Tsintah.
“All right, this is as far as I take you,” said Tawodi. She looked to her side at the Padre and Jen and then glanced over the back of her shoulder towards the rest of the posse that followed. She registered the assorted disgruntled looks from the men and woman she had guided thus far and then turned her focus to what lay ahead.
A massive sprawl of split earth divided the Painted Desert that loomed ahead of the group. It was not so dissimilar to the trek that they had undertaken so far. A dark energy hung in the air and a few animal skulls and other bones tied to some ground markers served as silent warnings for the posse. The eyeless sockets seemed to dare each of the adventurers to press onwards.
“We were told you’d take us where we were going,” said Jen. She shifted in in the seat of her mechanical horse and conveyed the rest of the group’s ire with their guide using a well-honed narrow gaze that cut the woman seemingly down to a fraction of her size.
“I don’t know what kind of promises the Office made you, but I go no further. From here on out it’s Navajo land. Anyways you don’t need me anymore,” said Tawodi. She pointed towards a line cutting above the otherwise flat terrain in the distance. “See that ridge?”
“Si, Señorita,” said Padre Ernesto de Diaz.
“You just ride towards that ridge and it will funnel you straight into the Petrified Forest. You can’t miss it. Good luck to you all,” said Tawodi. She turned her horse and started to trot back the way the group had come. She stopped just before she left earshot. “And should you folks see any Navajo on the way, they won’t likely pick a fight with y’all so best don’t give them a reason to.”
The posse watched as their guide left them in a cloud of dust. Most of them took the opportunity to check the condition of their weapons. Jen tinkered with the gears of her mechanical horse. Some of them took a swig of water and a few a sip of something stronger. They all shared in a tense moment of apprehension before the Padre took the bold move to end the lull in the journey.
“Come on, amigos, vamanos,” said the Padre. He wheeled his horse and was joined alongside by Jen as her transport roared to life and leapt forward. In varying levels of reluctance, the remainder of the posse followed.
The posse made their way along the expanse and headed for the ridge in the distance, but the pace their mounts set was hardly breakneck. Whether it was the oppressive heat or the fears of what lay ahead that caused the reduced speed nobody could say for certain. After a couple of hours riding in silence, the wordless trek pushed into unbearable territory.
“How many times are we going to have to kill this bastard?” asked Nathan Shane.
“It could be nothing. We are out here on a rumor,” said Rafi Hamid.
“We can hope that this is all just a waste of time, but if it isn’t…” trailed Jen.
“We may not get Stone, but I don’t think we get away free and clear,” said the Padre. He motioned towards a line of silhouettes poised atop of the ridge.
The posse slowed to a halt as the Navajo war party descended upon them. The braves did not emit any battle cries and maintained a slow, but inexorable approach. The show of good faith was enough to keep the weapons of the Tombstone posse neatly holstered. The war party encircled the posse and a venerable looking member of their tribe rode to the forefront, accompanied by a young and lean muscled brave sporting equal parts warpaint and battle scars.
“Yiska,” said the wizened tribesman. He motioned to himself and then to the brave at his side next. “Klah,” he continued.
“Jen,” said Jen as she patted herself on the heart.
“Padre Ernesto,” said the Padre. He followed his companion’s introductory gesture.
“Danger that way. You go back,” said Yiska.
“We can’t go back,” said Jen.
“Too much danger. Go,” Yiska said. He raised his voice enough to accentuate his point but not infer any anger on his part.
“We know the danger. We come to stop it,” chimed up Nathan Shane from the back of the posse.
Yiska’s face crinkled with incomprehension. He began to prepare what was likely another and final warning for the posse but Jen leapt on the silence.
“Jasper Stone,” Jen said. She pointed down the line of the ridge at the Petrified Forest waiting beyond.
Yiska’s face went to a sickly hue and his eyes widened to full measure. “Yei Tso”, he said. The words put the rest of the war party into a near panicked state.
Some seemingly reassuring words from Klah in Navajo helped regain control of the war party and maintain a relative diplomatic silence. He exchanged a few words with Yiska that sounded like something between debate and excitement.
“I think they’ve heard of him,” said Nathan Shane under his breath.
Jen looked back to the bounty hunter and the rest of the posse riding along. “I’d say there’s more than a rumor going on here.”
“Jasper Stone,” said Yiska. He struggled with the name but was able to speak it clear enough for the posse to understand. He held out one fist. “Yei Tso,” Yiska said. He then held out his other fist and brought his clenched hands together. “You here to fight?”
“Yes,” said Jen.
Yiska and Klah shared some more words in their native language. Yiska looked at the Tombstone posse and motioned for them to follow. “We fight together. Come,” he said.
The Tombstone posse and Navajo war party made their way into the Petrified Forest united in the purpose to battle the evil that awaited.