By Jason Pere
Two hours of riding into the Petrified Forest had so far gone by without incident. Dark clouds gathered above the cracked earth and jagged stones that filled the canyon, setting an ominous mood. The stillness only increased the tension as members of the Tombstone posse and Navajo war party alike sweated from both the sweltering heat and nervous anticipation of encountering Stone and his undead minions.
At the forefront of the mounted vanguard Yiska and Klah rode side by side, with Padre Ernesto De Diaz following one horse length behind. A collation of shadows further down the trail brought the procession to a quiet halt. The pair of Navajo tribesmen peered ahead, assessing the flickering shapes moving to block their path. As they took stock of the situation, the Padre rode up to join them.
Yiska turned to the Padre and whispered with a nod at the distant figures. “Yei Tso,” he said. Though his voice was almost inaudibly low, the fear in his words sounded loud and clear.
“Who…what are they?” asked the Padre. He kept his voice as quiet as he was able but his tone carried a volume of curiosity.
“Yei Tso. Spirit, beneath forest. It took them. Stole their thoughts. Twisted their bodies. Look, the eyes…” said Yiska. His words came with some labor but he spoke them clear enough for the Padre to piece them together. The Padre followed Yiska’s gaze to see the blank, entirely white eyes of the corrupted braves staring emptily at the posse.
“They stand between us and Stone? This ride gets worse by the second,” said the Padre. He muttered the words under his breath while adding a fervent Paternoster, though he was fairly certain that several of his companions had heard him.
The tense silence transitioned into chaos and madness before any of the traveling party had time to react. In the span of a heartbeat, the air in the canyon trail filled with the whoosh of arrows and war cries of Yei Tso’s puppets. Over two dozen ambushers set upon the party, leaping from behind the rocks on either side of the trail.
A Navajo fell to the Padre’s left with an arrow buried deep in his chest. As the dead man went down, he unwillingly knocked the Padre from his saddle. Padre Ernesto was lost to the fray for a split second. It could not have been more than one or two breaths from the time he was unseated to the time he picked his face up from the dust. Even with the miniscule lapse of time, the battlefield had changed dramatically. His fellow posse members, the Navajo, and their assailants were all engulfed in one formless swill of blood, arrows, and gunfire.
By a quick count the Padre noted at least five dead that he could see. He felt a momentary pang of disappointment with himself that the battle had advanced with such a body count and he had yet to draw iron, let alone fire a shot. He quickly redeemed himself as he felt the pulse of movement to his right. With a practiced gunfighter’s alacrity he spun to face the potential threat. He saw one of the attackers preparing to drive a tomahawk into the spine of Nathan Shane. The Padre drew his pistol and fired two quick shots that ended the threat on the bounty hunter’s immediate safety.
As the lifeless body of Nathan Shane’s would-be attacker crumpled to the ground, the Padre noticed a slew of peculiar details about the abomination. The war paint that marked his lifeless body denoted that he was Navajo or possibly Apache, or at least had been once upon a time. In addition to his pupil-less white eyes, an odd rubbery web akin to spider’s silk covered his body. Instead of red blood, a thick, purple, sap-like sludge oozed from the pair of bullet holes. Whatever the assailant was, it was no longer human.
“Padre, get down!” came the voice of Chuan “Jen” Qi.
Ultimately reflex and instinct saved him as much as his friend’s warning. The Padre prostrated himself just in time to avoid the arrow that would have opened his throat, lodging instead in the face of one of the Navajo. He rolled onto his back in time to see one of the twisted fiends preparing to crush into him with a makeshift club. Before his assailant could deliver a lethal blow, Klah leapt from his horse’s back and tackled the enemy to the ground. The Navajo warrior rained down a savage set of stabs with a deer-bone handle knife that dispatched the foe while the Padre regained his footing.
“Gracias,” said the Padre. He managed to direct his gratitude to both Jen and Klah at the same time. He resolved to join the fray in a meaningful way. Uttering a quick prayer asking The Lord to guide his aim, he fired two more shots from his gun bringing the total dead littering the canyon floor to well over a score in number. The Padre quickly scanned the surrounding fight and judged where he could best send his remaining lead. He fired the cylinder’s last pair of bullets and saw another attacker breathe its last.
Gunfire and war cries echoed in the canyon for a few moments longer then suddenly the last rifle report faded. The murmurs of the wounded and dying wafted up to overtake the silence left by the end to the skirmish. The Padre looked around to see if any of his friends had met their end in the ambush. Fortunately, he did not see any familiar faces among the slain. He walked over to reclaim his horse and saddled up before trotting over to rejoin what was left of the combined war party.
“We go on,” said Yiska. The Navajo tribesman pointed down the canyon that led further into the belly of the petrified forest.
“We go on,” echoed the Padre. He heeled his mount to press forward as the clouds took on a sinister dark purple energy not unlike the blood that seeped from the corrupted braves’ corpses.
Jasper Stone stood atop a jumbled mass of petrified logs. He gripped a fist sized chunk of black diamond that radiated with a malevolence that could turn the hair of the bravest gunslinger stark white. Clouds of roiling purple and black smog had gathered over the Petrified Forest canyon where Stone stood as he continued chanting an ancient ritual. The sinister words that the Deathly Drifter invoked as he unleashed the artifact’s sinister power appeared to twist and invert nature itself. The diamond began to glimmer and glow with dark evil light as Stone continued his shouted chanting.
As if in response to the legendary undead gunman’s ritual, the surrounding canyon took on a life of its own. The natural cracks in the ground widened until some became the size of proper trenches. The petrified logs where Stone perched chipped and crumbled into a white powdery dust with every passing second. Bolts of purple lightning lanced from the sky and struck down within arms reach of the Deathly Drifter. Clouds opened up and let loose a torrent of black rain down upon the canyon. It was a most inhospitable welcome for the arriving posse.
There were at least a score of men and women still remaining that sought to find Stone and end his deadly trail of terror. He recognized several of the faces from the fateful shootout at Canyon Diablo Crater. As much as Stone wanted to spit lines of foul words and curses at the group who had come to stop him, he knew he could not indulge his hate. Stone continued on reciting the sinister chant into the ever growing fury of the surrounding storm. By now he could feel the searing heat of the black diamond starting to burn into his cold dead flesh as it absorbed the energy generated by the ritual.
Stone saw the posse shouting something at him but could not hear a word above the storm, not that he cared anything about what his enemies had to say. He could only assume the group were casting idle threats and promises of stopping him. Finally something Stone could hear found him in the midst of the chaos he had shielded himself with. Gunshots struck a rhythm with the crash of thunder while bullets whizzed past Stone’s face as the wind continued its cyclone dance. It tormented the dead man to not be able to wade into the fray guns blazing. He craved the thrill of facing stacked odds and shooting down foes by the fistful. Still, he could not abandon the ritual, not when he was so close. Stone pressed on, delivering the arcane words that charged the black diamond. With some measured reluctance he drew one of his Colt Dragoons from his gun belt with his free hand. Stone took aim at the ropes that had his insurance policy at the ready and fired once and then a second shot for good measure. Both bullets neatly sliced the ropes and sent a pair of counterweights crashing to the ground.
A wooden gate swung open and cast aside the shoddy dusty canvas camouflage that had concealed it to the newcomers. A hole opened up in the middle of the canyon clearing and from within the hole spewed out a geyser of flame. Quick behind the trail of fire that shot from the earth came the orange-scaled head and neck of a most ornery Mexican Dragon. The oversized iguana lifted itself from the deadfall where Jasper Stone had imprisoned it and towered over the combined posse. The great lizard had not fully reared up and yet it was at least fifteen feet tall. It wasted no time with any form of warning as it promptly unleashed another breath of flame at the newcomers.
Stone could feel the palm of his hand nearly blistering with the heat emanating from the relic he held. His victory was close enough that he could feel it within reach. The gunshots that had nearly struck him moments ago were now no more. Every bullet and arrow his assailants had at their disposal were not directed at him, but the gigantic reptile in the middle of the canyon. As much as Stone wished he could have blown his enemies to smithereens with his Colt Dragoons, he still derived some measure of enjoyment from seeing them set ablaze by the fiery breath or crushed by a deadly tail whip from the Mexican Dragon. The screams of men burning to death gave voice to a sweet music that Stone relished as he stood on the precipice of completing the ritual.
An explosion rocked Stone and instantly fractured his sense of confidence. It was not thunder that was the culprit, but dynamite. The surviving members of the stalwart little band of do-gooders had brought with them a liberal quantity of explosives. While the dynamite was not powerful enough to break the scaled armor of the Mexican Dragon, it generated enough force to destabilize the canyon walls. In a moment, the world went from black and purple to red and yellow. When Stone’s sight returned to normal, his eyes bore witness to a terrible shift in the tenor of the battle.
As fast as the great cold-blooded beast had appeared, it vanished beneath a massive rockslide. Stone had no time to curse his enemies or regret the loss of his sole defensive asset. The salvo of dynamite kept on coming and proceeded to collapse the petrified logs that had formed his perch. The Deathly Drifter scrambled to get the last words of the ritual to pass from his lips, but his footing betrayed him. The concussive blasts shifted the mass of petrified logs enough to shake Stone. While the unliving gunman scrambled to keep himself from going over, he felt the black diamond tumble from his grasp. As soon as it left his touch, Stone screamed every profanity he had in his vocabulary loud enough to make the explosions from the dynamite sound like a gentle mother’s lullaby.
With the ritual ruined and no time to start over, Stone leapt from his point of safety and thudded to the canyon floor. He scooped up the diamond relic, rueing its dissipated energy and bolted for the nearest canyon wall. Renewed gunfire and arrow shafts lodged in his back, to no effect. Undeterred, he cast himself into the rock face of the cliff walls and then into the mass of petrified minerals as he shed his physical form and transitioned into a wicked sickly green vaporous mass. As he seeped through the cracks in the petrified canyon in his spectral form, Stone heard the voice of Rafi Hamid follow behind him.
“This is twice now we beat you. Third time will be forever,” said Rafi. Imbued with frontier righteousness, his words chased after the fleeing pale rider.