By Jason Pere
The old church was a suitable temporary base of operations. It had four walls and a roof and that was all Abram’s Crusaders really needed. The Tombstone Posse and their Navajo allies had been able to hole up with Abram and his flock. The sting of the Petrified Forest was still fresh on the mind and body of the surviving members of the posse. The daily hymns and constant prayers that filled the repurposed house of faith served as a welcome distraction for the gunslingers that had just had their second throw down with Jasper Stone. In truth the Crusaders’ stronghold between the Petrified Forest and Tombstone was as good a place as could be for the group to mend their collective wounds.
“If they were cracked then you would be a lot worse off,” said Chuan “Jen” Qi. She finished tying off the bandages around Nathan Shane’s chest.
“I can hardly breathe. Air is clean as can be but it feels like I’m holding my breath in a coal mine,” said Nathan. He looked down to observe the purple and red bruises that adorned his torso.
“That’s to be expected, you did have a small mountain fall on top of you. I suppose it’s what you get for playing with dynamite,” said Jen.
“Playing?” said Nathan. He gawked as he echoed the word. “Would you rather we kept on plinking away at that overgrown lizard with buckshot and forty-fives? Those explosives were about the only reason any of us got to walk away from that skirmish upright.”
“I know. I was just giving you a hard time about it,” said Jen. She looked around the main hall of the church turned fortress. Her eyes wandered over to her party’s host, Abram, as he nursed wounds of his own and instructed his favored disciple, Deborah West, in the use of the legendary sword Evanor. “You think they are going to get sick of us staying here?” she asked.
“I reckon sooner or later we’ll have overstayed our welcome. It would be one thing if we were all whole and able to pull our own weight but as it is, we ain’t much good to anyone. We are here on their mercy and that’s that,” said the bounty hunter. He winced and grunted as an unstifled cough inflamed his damaged ribs.
“Sad to say but you are far from the worst off in the group. I think some of us may not leave here,” Jen said. She quietly voiced her concerns as she looked over towards Padre Ernesto de Diaz as he tended to some of the most gravely injured fighters.
“I know, as bad as I got it, there’s folks who got it worse,” said Nathan. “Still, it feels like the Padre has worked miracles with how well he’s managed to patch us back up.”
Jen and Nathan nearly gagged as a pungent rush of sweat and moonshine wafted into the Crusaders’ stronghold. The bold mixture of odors served as a harbinger for the posse members’ erstwhile companion, Coot Jenkins. The dusty old prospector sauntered through the main doors of the church, followed by allies last seen in Tombstone, the grim, determined law dog Wendy Cheng and the simian martial artist Mr. Outang. Coot made his way over to the machinist and the renowned bounty hunter and offered the pair a wide and equally gummy grin.
“Well I’m pleased as can be to find y’all here. I heard about the Petrified Forest and I had feared the worst,” said Coot. He punctuated his words with a long swig from a jug that he pulled from his trusty black travel satchel.
“You should have joined us. You missed out on a grand ol’ time,” said Nathan. His sarcasm was matched with a wry arch of his left eyebrow.
Jen smiled and gave Coot a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Padre, Rafi, look who decided to visit,” she said. Jen waved the pair of men over from where they were tending to their wounded allies.
“Good to see you, amigo,” said the Padre.
“Good to see you,” said Rafi. He followed behind the Padre as the man made his way over to the small reunion of old friends.
“I see you are all still in one piece. I had heard that Stone might have gotten the best of y’all,” said Coot. He paid special attention to Rafi as he spoke.
“And where and who did you exactly hear that from?” asked the Padre.
“The Agency is still keeping an ear to the ground for all things pertaining to the Deathly Drifter. They know he’s still a threat. Y’all did a good job thwarting him again but…” Coot said. He started his words as chipper and upbeat as he was able but his mood waned as he was afflicted by the reality that Stone was still at large.
“But he is still out there, plotting and scheming,” said Rafi. He finished the unfinished thought that the prospector had left hanging in the dead air of the church.
“Yep, and that’s why I come to find y’all… I got someone y’all need to talk to right away. Lil’ spot up New Mexico way called Aztec Trading Post. Any of ya that can ride out now should do so,” said Coot.
“What’s in New Mexico?” asked Nathan.
“A way to win once and for all,” said Coot.
The trading post had been a welcome oasis for the Tombstone posse. The sleepy little settlement had offered the band a chance to resupply and rest their horses before continuing on the journey with Coot Jenkins. Jen likewise added more ghost rock to her Velocipede’s reservoir. Try as they might, none of the men or women following Coot had been able to get a straight answer from the prospector when it came to matters of exactly who they were after or where they were going. The limited comforts that the trading post offered disappeared almost as soon as they had arrived. Coot had seen to it that the group stayed not one heartbeat longer than was needed to press on.
The trading post sat across a river from some extensive, and no doubt erroneously named Aztec ruins. Coot led the posse past the crumbling remains of palaces and temples to an opening off the side of an ancient plaza. A carved stairway disappeared down into the subterranean darkness of a labyrinth of caves and tunnels. Coot produced a lantern from his satchel, and thus the fated Tombstone posse now found themselves cautiously navigating an underground nest of passages and throughways. With Coot at the forefront of the expedition’s dozen or so gunfighters, they made their way deeper and deeper into the caverns. With each step, their collective trust in Coot gradually wavered. Not that anyone in the posse thought the prospector would actively seek to do them harm, but there was the unspoken question of how likely it might be that good old Coot’s best intentions overshadowed his ability to deliver.
Coot had finally finished whistling his seventh off-key rendition of “Oh Susanna”, when the tunnel opened up into a much larger chamber. The posse’s dim assortment of lanterns, torches and other light sources flickered over a peculiar collection of copper pipes and deflated rubber bladders that converged at a large bellows in the middle of the chamber floor. Coot set about lighting some old oil lamps previously hung at strategic points around the chamber. The glow offered by the lamps did little to ease any tensions, instead heightening the already eerie ambiance with a sinister display of dancing shadows upon the rock and clay walls. Once all the oil lamps were lit, Coot went to a sheet of cloth hanging on the wall and yanked it clear. Behind the cloth was a severed human head, its skin long dried and gray and its expression contorted into a rictus grin, stuck on the end of one of the pipes.
Chuan “Jen” Qi was the first of the posse to audibly exhibit any reaction to the head. She gasped with equal parts revolt and shock. A hand went to her mouth to silence herself from betraying her feelings any further.
“Dios mio,” said Padre Ernesto de Diaz.
There was a chorus of similar remarks and a few choice profanities uttered by several of the other posse members. A few of the gunslingers were taken by a dumbstruck silence. Each in their own way found a means to come to grips with the freakish sight before them. While the severed head was a harsh enough visual, the harder issue to cope with was how alarmingly familiar and comfortable Coot was with the morbid display.
“What in the blazes?” asked Nathan Shane.
Coot did not respond to the bounty hunter, he only grinned in a macabre imitation of the mummified head that he had just revealed. The prospector proceeded to root about in his travel sack, and after a few moments withdrew a vial of his green elixir and a small parcel wrapped in blood-soaked brown paper. Coot unwrapped the parcel to reveal a dead lizard which he then promptly placed to the severed head’s lips. As soon as the scales of the little beast touched the grayed flesh of the head, the latter’s eyes snapped open and it began to viciously tear into the dead lizard with a feral hunger.
“Coot…” said Wendy. She nervously fiddled with the tin star on her vest as she watched the odd horror unfold before the posse.
“This is Marshal Rex Tremendae. Used to be Stone’s trail partner and fellow murderer. Now he’s Harrowed. He wouldn’t confide in me, so I had to…reduce him to a more compliant state.
“Hey, Rex! Need to ask you some questions, Hoss.” Coot stomped on the bellows to fill the bladders, which in turn blew air into Tremendae’s windpipe.
The severed head snapped its beady yellow eyes onto the prospector and it spat a vile hunk of slime and lizard meat in the other man’s direction. “Damn you, Coot Jenkins!” gasped Tremendae. “I will burn you down, old timer!”
“You’ll do no such thang,” Coot snapped. “Fer the love o’ Pete, you’re only a head! Now—we need to know where Jasper Stone’s hideout is. I reckon you’re the man to ask,” said Coot. He pumped the bellows the whole time he spoke to the Harrowed head.
“Ha, if keeping that little piece of information to myself is the only way I can stick it to you, best believe that’s what I’m doing,” said Tremendae.
“Figured, you’d say as much. Ok here we go,” Coot stabbed the head of Tremendae with the syringe of serum and injected the full contents. The head screamed and yelped in pain as the concoction went to work on his unliving husk. Coot then doused a large burlap sack with a nearby water jug and wrapped the head in the sack. Once Tremendae was fully enclosed in the soggy cloth, Coot began pouring more and more water over the severed head. The chamber filled with muffled screams and the slosh of water spilling on the ground.
“I’ve seen a lot but this…this is a new one,” said Nathan Shane.
“I’m not even sure what I’m seeing right now,” said Rafi.
The posse looked on as Coot continued interrogating the remains of the late Marshal. Every so often Coot would let the head out of the bag which promptly let loose a slew of threats and curses aimed at its tormentor. With each lull in the interrogation Tremendae’s resolve eroded just a little more. Finally Coot pulled the bag from the Hallowed head one last time.
“What’s it gonna be Hoss? Still got plenty more water if yer thirsty for it,” said Coot. He gave out a slightly deranged cackle as he spoke. While he was not known to be a sadist it was clear to all he was at least deriving some enjoyment for the interrogation.
“All right, you rancid ol’ parallelogram!” Tremendae said. “It’s yer funeral. Stone’s got a hideout in Canyon del Muerto, over the dividin’ line in Arizona Territory. Way down in the Massacre Cave.” Tremendae chuckled so hard, a harsh rattle shook the copper pipes embedded into the stump of his neck.
“That’s close,” Coot said. “Canyon del Muerto ain’t but 120, 130 miles away.”
Tremendae laughed. “Of course it’s close, you dang fool! Stone knows all about this little hideout o’ yours and he knows about me too. Comes to visit sometimes. That sonuvabitch wouldn’t set me loose neither.”
“Well then I suppose it’s a good thing that we know that he knows,” said Coot. He doused the burlap sack one last time and then slung it back over Tremendae’s head before rehanging the original sheet that had obscured the Harrowed revenant.
Garbled insults and strings of profanity followed the posse out as they left the chamber. Nobody could fully understand Tremendae’s cursing, but none of them cared. Everybody’s mind thought forward to what kind of welcome Stone would have waiting for them in the Massacre Cave.
“Bar the door. Wedge it shut. Vamanos,” said Padre Ernesto de Diaz. He counted the last of the posse through the sandstone door and proceeded to push it shut with all his might. The added weight of Rafi Hamid and Mr. Outang helped the Padre to move the door into place.
“Here let me through,” said Chuan “Jen” Qi. She braced the door with a heavy piece of timber.
A few thuds came from the other side and confirmed that the makeshift barricade was solid. The rhythmic blows against the door were accompanied by a disconcerting chorus of howling and wailing. The lengthy tunnels that composed Massacre Cave allowed the voices to echo in a blood chilling malevolent way.
“What in the blazes were they? Navajo?” asked Nathan Shane.
“Yep, I’m guessing that’s what they were. This place is called Massacre Cave for good reason, Union Army saw to that some years back,” said Coot Jenkins.
“Are we all here?” asked the Padre.
The members of the posse all sounded off in turn or otherwise made their presence known. Fortunately none of their number had been trapped on the other side of the door with the hostile denizens of the cave system. So far the only injuries that could be counted among the members of the expedition were some scrapes, bruises, a twisted ankle and the ringing of the ears that came when gunslingers doled out hot lead in confined spaces.
“Oh, God in Heaven!” cried Nathan Shane. The bounty hunter’s shrill voiced terror seemed at odds with his burly frame.
The posse all turned to see the source of Nathan’s dismay. The group stood atop a large spiral staircase carved into the guts of the cave. At the bottom of the staircase was a sizable hall filled with countless tomes, morbid trifles, and other occult paraphernalia. Dominating the room was the carved figure of a massive black gargoyle. It had cloudy white streaks adorning its body almost like ghost rock. The gargoyle’s claws spread out and merged with the stone overhead. The beast served as a silent watchman for the room. Across the hall there was another sandstone door carved into the rock.
“Looks like we found ol’ Stone’s hideout,” said Coot. He proceeded to make his way down the carved rock stairs and across the hall.
The rest of the posse followed behind the grizzled prospector. As they made their way across the hall, the lifeless jet gaze of the gargoyle seemed to follow them. The posse members lingered outside the door for a moment to regard the assortment of strange pictograms and petroglyphs chiseled into the sandstone. While none of them could cleanly translate what they saw, the foreboding and brutal meaning displayed in the icons was evident enough. The group pushed through the second sandstone door and into the chamber beyond.
The second room was similar to the outer chamber though, far grander in scale. Shelves pushed back against rock walls brimmed with texts and artifacts of dark nature. Worm eaten tomes littered the dusty shelves and tables around the room. The whole pace stank of death and radiated the evil energy that cut the air in Jasper Stone’s presence. The posse stood in the lifeless air and decay for several dumbstruck moments.
“You said there was a way to win once and for all in here, so where is it?” asked the Padre.
“I’m sure it’s here, we just need to find it,” said Coot.
“What about Stone? He could be here?” asked Rafi.
“If he’s here we deal with him when he shows his hide, for now best spread out and look for some answers,” said Coot.
The posse descended upon Stone’s sanctum and began scouring the collection of relics and notes for clues. Most of the gunslingers turned up little more than dust, mold, and confusion. Mr. Outang got everyone’s attention when he knocked over some glassware next to an alchemist’s station that was in the midst of brewing fuming and boiling concoction. Another misstep as he tried to correct himself saw a small elixir of the connection topple from the workbench and shatter on the floor. The nascent potion erupted in a small plume of fire and smoke with the force of a double barrel shotgun.
“Maybe you should guard the door, mi amigo,” said the Padre.
Outang gave a sheepish pair of hoots, then took a swig from his baijiu jar and moved to where he could do the least damage.
Coot rooted though some of the texts that seemed to have been most recently visited. After pawing through several pages, his eyes caught a gleeful sparkle. “Hmm, seems like our ol’ friend is working on some kind of ritual to bind thirteen souls into one. This here mentions a relic referred to as a Heart of Darkness.” He said.
“Sounds like that was what Stone was up to out in the Petrified Forest,” said the Padre.
“Any mention on how to stop the ritual or destroy the…Heart?” asked Wendy.
“Says something here about a Heart of Light. Supposed to be a flawless kind of diamond that has the power to stop the ritual Stone is trying to complete,” said Coot.
“Flawless diamond? Like this one here?” said Nathan Shane. The bounty hunter grinned wide as he pulled a fist sized gem from a hidden compartment in the floor where he had been searching.
“I reckon that would do. Told y’all there was a way to win out here. Now it’s just the restless dead back in them tunnels between us and stopping Stone once and for all,” said Coot, tearing a page from the occult tome and stashing it in his pocket.
The posse only spent a few more seconds lingering in the sanctum to make sure they had not missed anything. They all quickly filed out the sandstone door and back into the large hall with the spiral staircase. As they reentered the vast room, the walls trembled and the air charged with a palpable sense of evil.
“Somehow I think it’s more than the restless dead between us and getting out of here,” said Rafi.
The great stone gargoyle that watched over the room began to move. With a sick cracking noise, the black arms and claws of the creature freed themselves from the stone of the ceiling. The animated beast fixed its eyes on the posse and gnashed it’s teeth. It abandoned its perch and roared loud enough to split a man’s ears and gave off a noxious odor foul enough to choke a horse.
The chamber plunged into absolute madness. Gunshots ripped through the dead air and volleys of bullets and buckshot chipped flecks of writhing rock from the gargoyle’s body. The beast moved in slow menacing fashion stalking members of the posse all around the room. The band of gunslingers took turns shooting and running for their lives. The creature gave off the sense that it could kill the interlopers at any moment and it was only toying with them before moving in for a lethal blow.
“This aint cutting it,” said Nathan. He abandoned the corner of the room he had taken refuge in as the beast pressed in on him. He left a trail of empty bullet casings behind him as he reloaded his pistols on the run.
“Keep shooting,” called the Padre. He darted out into the middle of the room, waving his arms wildly overhead. His gambit worked and failed at the same time. He managed to garner the gargoyle’s attention and the attendant danger that came with it. He ran for his life, doing everything he could to keep the beast on his trail and avoid leading it into any of his compatriots.
Wendy fired the last load of buckshot she had, but to good effect. The flurry of pellets struck the beast in one of its sinister glinting eyes and blew a sizable chunk of rock free and clear. The roar that followed shook the floors and threatened to collapse the whole of the room. Fortunately, only dust and pebbles fell from the ceiling.
“We need you to kill it, not make it more ornery,” Coot said. He fired off a pot shot from his sawed off single barrel before taking cover under one of the few remaining tables that the gargoyle had not rendered to splinters.
“Bullets are not doing so well, if you haven’t noticed,” Wendy said. She slung her shotgun and drew her Colt as the gargoyle charged her with murderous rage.
“How about we try this,” said Rafi. He wheeled in a small cart from the adjoining room. On the cart were bottles of the mixture brewing at the alchemist’s station. The Harrowed gunslinger tossed one of the glass containers at the stone beast and struck it square in the chest.
It sounded like someone had just fired a cannon. As the glass shattered, the gargoyle staggered back as a blast of flame and smoke engulfed the stone monstrosity. It roared again, this time its voice carried notes of fear and pain, instead of power and menace. The posse seized the moment and flocked to the cart. The group began lobbing the alchemical firebombs at the beast. Every blow struck home and blew chunks of the rocky flesh free from its hide. By the time the last bottles were thrown, the once menacing gargoyle was little more than a heap of rubble.
“Well now I guess we just got to shoot our way through a horde of risen Navajo,” said Nathan.
“Come on boy, after this a few walking bags of bones should be no trouble at all,” Coot said. He boldly went to stand victoriously atop the shattered fragments that had moments ago been the animated gargoyle.
“Glad you feel that way. I guess that means you can go first,” Nathan said. He smiled wider and wider as his words robbed the cheeky self-assured grin from the prospector’s face.