Falling Star

by Jeff Bailey

 

In most of the world, sunset was the sun’s warm embrace across the world before it receded. In Gomorra, it was the night’s slicing talons through the sky until its grip tightened to darkness. The fingers clawed over ruined rooftops, but hadn’t yet reached the porch of the Nickel Night Inn. A strange trio sat watching the day burn away. A musician plucked slow tones from his banjo, a begoggled woman tinkered with a metallic wheeled horse, while a short red-haired ape-like creature drank from a mug.

Stevie Lyndon looked over the street. “I’m not sure how many more of these sunsets I’ll see in this town. With Abram on his crusade and Jackson meeting a sorry end on Whateley Isle, there’s little light here to hold back the darkness.”

Chuan “Jen” Qí  looked up from her work. “Where has Abram gone?”

Mr. Outang slurped more of his drink and belched loudly, and Chen agreed with the orangutan. “The timing of his departure is poor.”

Stevie plucked another low note. “Abram’s got word that the Fourth Ring is regrouping under a new leader. Bull of a man named Mason Adler. He’s gathering Ivor’s old troupe. Abram won’t let the diseases and demons find their way back here.” Stevie gave a rueful smile. “Reverend Endicott said Abram can’t plan to return soon, but Gomorra must keep watch for trouble.”

Jen paused, missing the beat of Lyndon’s strumming. “The sea needs no warning of rain.”

Stevie nodded. “Abram’s drawing the reserves we do have – he took Butch Deuces into his posse. And the world also moves outside Gomorra. Bayou Vermilion is staking a claim out near Tombstone, and they aren’t shy about painting rails with blood. He Fang is hard fought.”

Jen finished her repairs and looked up at Lyndon. “Yes. Vermilion also struck against the Morgan company. Brilliant science and ghost rock did not keep Dr. Boldman from harm.”

Stevie looked towards the last rays of the sun. “I see shadows lead the darkness forward.” He pointed at shambling human forms staggering forward. “We’d best look to Tombstone as the battle we can win. Take your friend and join He Fang’s forces.” Stevie pointed to the simian, who greedily finished his drink when he saw the move to depart.

Chen raised the kickstand and started the motorcycle. A complex set of gears whirred as the engine’s ghost rock fuel howled to life. “And you?”

Stevie gripped the banjo by the neck and strode forward. “I’ll keep these things occupied until you’re clear. May the Lord keep you safe.”

As Jen rode away with Outang perched behind her, she listened to the receding melee. A clack of wood, a thump of rotten flesh against the earth – and faint notes of Amazing Grace.

 

*******************

 

Curly Bill Brocius thrummed fingers against the table at the Crystal Palace Saloon. The Cowboys weren’t accustomed to waiting, but the gold coins he’d received by courier held a note asking for a meeting of like minded interests. But as the saloon doors opened, the woman who strode inside did not inspire the words “like minds”. Rather, “shattered minds.”

Her white hair matched her bone-pale skin, offset by blood red makeup around her eyes. Where many women who dressed in her lacy garments might wear a feather boa, she wore an actual live and writhing green-scaled serpent that shifted in loose loops around her shoulders. Her hips swayed rhythmically as she moved between tables towards Curly Bill. He didn’t flinch as her leg swiveled over the back of the chair at his table while she languidly lounged in the chair. A snap of her fingers summoned a barmaid with a pair of tankards.

Curly snarled as he corralled one of the drinks, but a bead of sweat starred his brow. “You’ve got my attention for as long as this beer lasts – Cowboys don’t have use for circus freaks like you.”

Avie Cline’s voice was a purring growl. “Why, Mister Brocius, we’ve just met. That is hardly time enough for a handshake, let alone a friendly get-together.”

Bill watched her lean forward with a sly smile – but as the boa shifted, he caught a glimpse of angry red scarring at the top of her neck. “Long enough to say what you came for.”

Avie leaned back again, a slight pout on her lips. “Ah well. As I am here to talk business, I agree. I am here on behalf of a powerful friend who agrees with you that the Cowboys are better for Tombstone than any foolish Earp. They’d like to buy a seat at your table and give you extra muscle to help win the town.”

Bill leaned back, a glint in his eye. “The Cowboys have plenty of muscle. Who’s so tough that we need their help?”

Avie smiled. “There’s a carriage on the street. Look inside.”

Bill shrugged, and got to his feet, making a point of chugging most of the tankard’s contents. “It’s fifteen seconds of your time, so sure.” He walked to the front window and looked outside. The carriage was painted bright colors, held together by straps of black iron and large chained padlock. He narrowed his eyes to the carriage window – and jumped back a step as the glass filled with the biceps of an impossibly large arm. The carriage swayed awkwardly as the thing within twisted and writhed. Bill saw a flash of animal skin garment across a shoulder, and a wild green eye filled with rage.

Bill walked back to his seat. “Whatever that is, it’ll be fun to watch it romp over the law. What’s the catch?”

Avie’s lips formed a mild pout. “So suspicious! My friend only wants to strengthen their business interests in Tombstone – and a friendly rail can bring the world to your door.”

Bill smiled. “I had a feeling the Baron might come calling. A seat at the table doesn’t buy me or any of my boys – but it can buy a depot where we won’t go looking for trouble.”

Avie offered a hand touched by glittering green nail polish. “Respectful distance is exactly what we want. We each have our goals, and can ride together on the way.”

Bill took Avie’s hand – and for a moment, the eyes within his eyes met the eyes within her eyes.

Nodding in understanding, Avie moved the boa away from the deep gash in her neck. “It was awfully hot.” She extracted an ornate skeleton key from her pocket and put it on the table. “Keep feeding him beef twice a day. When you need him, unlock the door and stand well back. The Brute is not one to mind who he fights for.”

Bill smiled as he picked up the key. “Oh, he won’t stay in there long. His time, and ours, is coming very soon.”

 

*******************

 

In the front room of Cliff’s #4 Saloon, Alice Stowe slowly spun her revolver in her hand. She looked at it coolly. “You know, sometimes winning isn’t winning.” She took the glass of Cliff’s special she’d been nursing all afternoon and took another swig.

Sanford Taylor strode into the bar room, kicking dust off his boots. “That drink looks mighty good, Alice.”

Alice swung the bottle up off the floor and onto the table. “Cliff’s not around, so I’m “inspecting” the goods. Help yourself.”

Sanford sat at the table, uncorked the bottle, and slammed down a third of it. “There ain’t a lawman showing their badge within two miles of here. Wish I felt better about that.”

 

They looked at the bottle for a moment, then spoke at once.

“Jonah…”

“Mario…”

 

They laughed – Sanford a loud bark, Alice a slow snarl. Sanford reached for the bottle again.  

Alice nodded. “That’s the problem, isn’t it? Or was.” She holstered her weapon. “Mario’s disappeared to who knows where, leaving this town to burn itself to the ground? Jonah’s gathering up friends for a play, but it’s not Gomorra that interests him.”

Sanford rolled his eyes. “And everyone and their cousin is fighting over what’s left. The worst of it is how the cow they’re fighting over has been sick for years, and looks about ready to die.”

Alice continued Sanford’s train of thought. “Word’s floating around even those circus freaks are slithering back from the shadows to feed on the corpse.”

Sanford took the bottle and kicked the table over. “Then let’s get out of Gomorra once and for all. There’s plenty more territory with lawmen what need killin’.”

Alice slowly stood up. “I’ve been thinking about that all day. Yeah, I’m with you. And what’s more, I’ve got somewhere we can go. An old friend we can visit.”

From inside her coat, she pulled a dusty newspaper. The banner read Tombstone Nugget, and the headline read Theater Brawl Turns Deadly. “You recognize that face at the side of the picture?”

Sanford looked for a moment, then snarled and drew his own weapon. “Lucy. Yeah, there’s unfinished business.” The pair of outlaws walked outside, got on their horses, and rode out for Tombstone.

 

*******************

 

Wendy Cheng heard it again, her own words. “Yes. We’re with you.”

She’d heard it when she said it two days ago, at Virgil Earp’s house, when the Earps swore blood vengeance against the Clantons.

She’d heard it when they rode up on Ike’s Place yesterday. It’d been boarded up and defended by shooters. Wyatt had pulled two bottles of whiskey, lit rags on top, and hurled them against the back door. Each of Ike’s gunmen met hot lead greetings when they tried to break out the front door.

She’d heard it when Virgil had gone through the dead and found no trace of the Clantons. A waste of time, and a waste of life.

She’d heard it this morning when they set out for Charleston and the Clanton Ranch. Five people sworn to uphold the law, now three days into a rampage of shouting and shooting.

She’d heard it when Dave Montreal had set out to take on Sloane.

She’d heard it even before that, when Nate Hunter was assembling forces to take on the Whateleys.

She wondered if the demons who ran through Gomorra, Tombstone, and all of her life would say it to her when they finally caught up with her.

She answered herself as she had all day.

 “C’mon, Wendy.” Lucy, on the horse next to her, looked over. “You named your horse as yourself?”

Wendy smiled. It was too hard to actually laugh. “I’m still looking for the shadows. I’ve seen this before – and while it could just be men being men, the air never seems to be free to breathe. I can’t help but think something’s coming. This much blood, it puts the scent in the air.”

Lucy pulled the reins of Wendy’s horse so it wouldn’t have to jump over a cactus. “Mind on the present, Wendy. If something does come, we’ll be ready for it. With all that we’ve come through, what’s left to be afraid of?”

Wendy nodded. In her mind, she put a jar of worry back on the high shelf. It’d keep.

 

*******************

 

Alice pulled the reins of her horse up, with Sanford close behind. The signpost at the bridge over the creek had a few bullet holes, but still clearly read The Clanton Ranch. A short ride up a winding path led them up to the ranch. “This is it.”

A man named Stillwell had met them at Fairbank when they were switching trains. He’d told them the Clantons were looking for guns to defend their ranch, and that the law posse was heading there. The timing was fortuitous, so they took the Bisbee train out and snagged a few horses to get out to the ranch. And now, Alice was at the door.

Sanford fired a round into the air. “You want guns? We got guns!”

A rough looking man with shaggy hair came from behind one of the side buildings. He gave a ragged snarl. “You here to sign on with the Cowboys?”

Sanford sat in the saddle. “I’m here to help you take down the lawman. When that’s done, we’ll see what’ll happen next. But Alice and I will stand with you now.”

The man coughed a laugh. “I suppose it’ll do. I’m Curly Bill. The names you need to know are Ike and Johnny Ringo. Johnny will get you set up, and fill you in on the plan.”

Alice looked to where Bill had come out from. She saw a wagon parked behind the building, with colors she recognized quite well. “I see you have some help already. What’s that in the clown car?”

Curly looked back, and tapped the large key hanging from his belt. “That’s another part of the plan. One you probably shouldn’t poke at.”

Alice nodded. “Fine by us who you deal with. Hope you read the bill of sale well.”

 

*******************

 

Jen looked back to Mister Outang. “We arrive at the frozen moment. Time waits for us, it seems.”

Once in Tombstone, they’d caught word of the law posse’s war against the Clantons. A ride straight towards the ranch had passed them through a small town called Pick ‘Em Up, where they’d stopped for provisions. Food for her, hooch for her simian companion. And now, off in the distance were figures Jen recognized. Lucy and Wendy, accompanying a posse, set up to observe the Clanton ranch and scouting  for the best approach. 

A few minutes later, Jen and Outang approached the posse. Lucy waved them closer. “It’s a fine time to see you, ma’am. We’re even matched, and they have the familiarity of their home ground.”

Wyatt looked at the monkey, his eyes wide. “Why… what… who…”

Outang pulled a sixgun and fired to his right, without even looking. A coyote who’d been lurking over the ridge fell dead.

Jen smiled. “Mister Outang’s services are available, as are mine.”

Doc Holliday looked over at the sound of the shot, and smiled as he gave a slight bow. “The world is full of surprises, madam and sir. And surprise is just what we need now.”

 

Wendy’s eyes flitted back and forth as gunshots rang all around her.

In dime novels, a gunfight takes forever. In real life, it’s over before you know it.

 

They’d given Jen some tinder and a flint to start a commotion from the haystack behind the house. They’d sent Mister Outang out to the cattle pens, to clamber inside and wait for the moment to strike. The rest – Wyatt, Doc, Virgil, Lucy, and Wendy – were crawling behind the palo verde trees and scrub that lined the wash leading to the main property. The plan was to panic the Cowboys by seeming to come at them from every angle. The posse had help within the city limits, but Wyatt had only taken the truly committed out here to Charleston. His mind was on the kind of justice that could scar the average deputized civilian. Hell, he was intent to scar everyone with him, as he had been scarred by the death of his brother Morgan.

 

After a few moments, when everyone knew they were all in position, there was a flash of flame from behind the house to the south, and the sounds of gunshots and frightened cattle came from the west side. Wyatt, as planned, jumped up and immediately took out the two Cowboys who had been standing guard behind a log wall at the north end of the house. The Cowboys had turned around at the sound of the cattle, much to their regret.

 

“Ike Clanton! You know why I’m here! You know what you owe, you bastard!”

 

And then, a rough hand slipped around a wagon near the icehouse on the east side of the main ranch building, and opened a padlock with a key. With a deafening slam, an iron door flew off the hinges, and a gargantuan figure emerged from the wagon. Clad only in animal skin, the figure’s muscles were so impossibly large that his skin wasn’t altogether holding together. Fine red scarring blurred with blood oozing from within, and the Brute’s eyes couldn’t seem to close.

 

Wyatt flinched as the door rolled off to the side, and he drew a bead on the Brute’s head. However, the Brute had immediately reached for the pole of a wash line hung with red sashes and denim jeans. The pole snapped near to the ground, cords snapping loose behind him. He hurled the pole directly at Wyatt’s head. The cords pulled the pole downwards – and it plunged deep into Wyatt’s stomach. Wyatt’s suddenly limp body hung off the pole as it continued, slamming him up against the fence behind him.

 

Doc and Virgil gasped and turned. Lucy started shooting at the Brute to gain his attention. Johnny Ringo bolted out of the icehouse, Ike Clanton a step behind him.

 

Ike bellowed. “You don’t die until I say you die, lawman!” Ike and Johnny unloaded their revolvers into Wyatt’s frame. He twitched, but the pole prevented him from making any move for cover. He coughed up a gout of blood as bullet holes sprang out of his chest and neck. His arms thrashed around, but only succeeded in flinging the cords around and throwing red sashes over his face. With one more ragged breath spent, he became still.

 

Doc Holliday’s eyes narrowed, his pistol at the ready. He aimed for Ike Clanton, but Ike saw it and darted behind the remains of the iron door. Doc’s first shot ricocheted off, and he coolly cocked the hammer back while walking forward. Johnny had dived next to the outhouse, using it as cover while he drew aim. But as he did, a hail of bullets slammed into the wood next to his head. He pulled back, out into the open – and Doc’s next bullet found Johnny Ringo’s left ear. He spun wildly and flipped over on the ground. Jen slid sideways off the main house roof, flitting easily through an open window into the house.

 

Wendy’s eyes had been looking for targets – and she found one she knew. The taint of decay hung all around Curly Bill, and she’d seen it time and time again. She flagged Doc’s attention towards Curly. Doc took the hint and put a round into Bill’s knee. He howled with the shrill tones of something inhuman. Wendy’s hand had already slipped inside her coat and pulled out a bottle of Ike’s finest. Using a match, she lit the red sash in the neck, and threw it straight into Curly Bill’s howling face. Curly Bill Brocius, no longer a man, but still a once and always notorious outlaw, shrieked and thrashed as his clothing burst into flame.

 

Doc looked on with disgust. “Does fire kill it?”

Wendy snorted. “No, but it’s a hell of an attention getter.” As the thing that was Bill flailed and kicked, Wendy put two rounds into his eyes, one shot each. A blurry smoke left Bill’s mouth as he dropped to the dirt, puppet strings finally cut loose.

 

Virgil had Alice pinned down behind the stable, but couldn’t get the advantage one-on-one. Lucy was leading the Brute off the property and towards a nearby gully. The beast brainlessly followed her, screaming in incoherent madness.

 

Wendy and Doc turned back towards Ike’s sheltering form. As they assayed an approach, the front door of the house itself burst open. There was a flash of Jen’s limp form on the floor, a welt on her forehead matching the butt of Sanford Taylor’s revolver. That revolver, and its mate, fired two rounds into the left shoulder and side of Doc Holliday. Wendy immediately returned fire, but Sanford got another shot into Doc’s leg before he ducked back into the house. Doc sprawled on the ground, rolling backwards. He held his gun tightly, and his purpose did not waver. Wendy turned to see Doc shoot Ike Clanton in the chest, pushing him back from the door. Wendy took the opportunity of Sanford’s retreat and joined Doc in attacking Ike. Her shotgun was primed with two shells, but before she could fire, five from Doc Holliday served to ensure the Clantons would never lead the Cowboys again.

 

Inside the house, Alice hissed at Sanford. “It’s over! Everyone we came here to help is gone. This ranch isn’t where we need to be. The new play is for Tombstone itself. Let’s get out of this deathtrap.” They quickly dashed through the house to the stable, heading for the horses and freedom.

 

Wendy saw Lucy returning on foot, but she dipped below the rise as she walked the path towards the ranch. Wendy turned back to the house to pursue Sanford, but now a new form stood in the doorway.

 

Wendy’s eyes stared directly at the scarred and pitted face of Jasper Stone, the Deathly Drifter.

In dime novels, the good guys win in the end. In real life, the end only comes with the darkness.

 

*******************

Wendy stopped. Whispered rumors stared at her in the face.

Stone sneered at the wash of blood and bullet holes over the landscape of the Ranch. “Well, this was just a right mess. The more I see, the more it becomes apparent that normal folks’ success is just coincidence all dressed up in Sunday finest.”

Wendy gasped as she realized that she was face to face with Morgan Earp’s killer. She breathed once, a private admission of both relief and shame that her Gomorra badge was far away and her Tombstone badge was sitting in the Tombstone Town Hall. She hadn’t felt comfortable wearing it for Wyatt’s rampage, and serendipity might buy her another day. She recited Kuan Yin’s calming mantra to herself before quietly addressing the spectral gunfighter.

“There’s certainly nothing left for you to do here. I’d hope you have other things to do.”

Stone laughed. “Oh, that’s true – I do have other things to do. But some of them are still here.”

Virgil Earp had crept around the side of the house, watching Stone confront Wendy. His breath came in hitching gulps, his palms slick with sweat around his guns, and his legs quivering and tremulous. Only his head and part of his shoulder were visible, yet the Drifter drew his Colt Dragoon and fired directly at the corner of the house. Virgil cried out and fell back, revealing shiny tin covered in heart’s red. The last of the Earps fell with a gurgling cry, his own weapon still holding all its bullets.

From around the far side near the ice house, a deep voice softly called to Wendy. “The man took Blackjack like a child. The man is not a man. You must run.” The sound of four limbs clambering into the house was followed by Jen’s unconscious form being dragged out of view.

Wendy shuddered with horror at Virgil’s quick death, and dropped her own weapon. “I’m not a threat. The Earps are all dead, their friend Holliday is dead, the law of Tombstone is no more.”

Stone looked around, holstering his gun slowly. “Maybe you’re right. There ain’t nobody else here worth the lead. And you – you’re too perfect to kill. You carry history with you like a pallbearer. You might be someone I need to meet one day, or you might be just plain fun to watch.”

 

“Wennnndy!”

 

Wendy Cheng gasped as she heard footsteps coming up the trail. She couldn’t help herself.

“Lucy! Run! It’s not safe!”

The footsteps sped up. “I’m coming, Wendy!”

The Drifter put his hands on his sidearms. His voice was soft, like dead leaves fluttering to the ground.

“Oh, that’s riiight. Tombstone’s law is dead, but I’ve been collecting Gomorra’s badges as well. Just picked up another Sheriff’s star a few days ago. And wouldn’t you know, its last defender is coming up the lane.”

Wendy shouted, her voice drowning out his words. “DROP YOUR BADGE, LUCY! DROP IT NOW!”

Lucy’s steps quickened, and Wendy heard iron clear leather. “I’m coming, Wendy! Just keep down, and I’ll-”

 

Lucy sucked in a breath, her lungs drawing air through blood in the two holes through her badge. Her eyes wide, meeting Wendy’s dull flat stare. Wendy watched the form of the woman she’d known as an orphan her father took in so long ago. Watched the form slowly sink to her knees, coughing and gasping.

Lucy only managed two more words on this Earth.

“Wendy… don’t…”

Her eyelids fluttered, and she slumped sideways.

Lucy’s badge, given to her by Dave Montreal, was taken by Jasper Stone’s decayed hand and pocketed without a sound.

“That concludes my business here today, Miss. Cheng. Take care, and maybe I’ll see you again soon.”

Wendy never saw the Drifter walk slowly away from the ranch. She never heard the baying howl of Mister Outang as he ululated a mournful cry. Her eyes closed, her ears deafened by the loud pounding of her own heart, she could only feel the cooling form of her best friend in the world. Someone who had walked the path of death and terror with her side by side, and would only follow now in her nightmares.