by Jason Pere

The musty smell and coarse scratch of fabric secured by a rope suggested to Rafi Hamid that a burlap sack covered his head. The chains binding his hands prevented him from confirming his suspicions. He did not know exactly how long he had been confined in his present accommodations, since the completely bungled mission in the Military Preserve and subsequent capture blurred together. The loss of his sight and the dulling of his other senses due to the itchy shroud covering his face only served to exacerbate his inability to separate the passage of minutes from hours.

While his eyes were all but useless, the marshal still had some of his sense of smell available to him. Unfortunately, he would have gladly forsaken a working nose at the moment. The foul odor of mold and mildew assaulted him. Rafi attempted a rasp followed by an ineffective flaring of nostrils as unpleasant memories triggered nearly forgotten reflexes that vainly attempted to clear his sinus of stale aromas. At best he managed to distract himself with the feel of cold damp stones pressed against his fingertips. If there were any piece of mercy to be appreciated in his current plight, it was the fact that he was at least bound on something resembling a bench. At one time, he would have welcomed any opportunity to rest his aching arches. But in his current harrowed condition, not having to focus on self support simply meant one less facade to maintain.

Rafi’s ears perked up as he was able to make out the sound of keys clinking in a lock. Seconds later the groan of squeaky iron and wood shifting met his ears and soon after that the sound of boots walking upon stone. The echo of his captor approaching intensified as the oddly timed click of footfalls came closer and closer. All went quiet for a split second. Rafi discerned the sound of a man’s labored breathing and felt the presence of another body close to his. In the blink of an eye, Rafi’s world went spiraling into a flash of silver as the bag was pulled from his head. He blinked his vision back into focus just in time to see his new companion limp back across the cold stone floor of the cell and sit down in a plain wooden chair. 

“Maintain control. Organize and present yourself as a man of flesh and blood.” Rafi sat straight on the bench and resigned himself to once again focusing on ‘keeping up appearances.’ It helped that by this point, he realized that thanks to the utility of clothing, he only needed to put effort into normalizing his features, the ‘Death Mask’ as he called it. Thus composed, Rafi looked at the man in the cell with him.

The man sitting across from the marshal was a nondescript gentleman of medium height. He wore a coal-black suit and waistcoat with silver fob and chain, and a black derby. He appeared unarmed, but as a former lawman, Rafi knew enough not to dismiss the man as a non-threat simply due to the absence of a gun belt. The worn and pockmarked cane that the man rested his hands on looked as though it could deliver a proper beating. Rafi recalled many occasions where he used a similar wooden cane to bring wanted fugitives to heel. From behind narrow eyes and a pencil thin black mustache, the man took his time to size up the prisoner. 

“All right, no bull pucky! Here’s how things stand. We know about the Padre and we know all about you and the demon spawn that’s rattling around inside your noggin. We can put you and it down for one long, and rest assured, most final dirt nap. But we need some answers more than you deserve lasting peace. What we don’t quite understand is why you’d do something so insane as go to Gettysburg. Hadn’t you heard the stories? Don’t you read the papers? That’s where this whole blasted mess got started! What did you hope to achieve at the military preserve?” asked the man. His voice came out akin to the bark of a bloodhound that had just gotten a wind of a scent trail.

Rafi endured another moment of disorientation. The feeling of being out of sorts was rapidly becoming his new normal. He spared only a moment to think of the possibility of lying his way out of his present plight, but he quickly realized that he actually had no desire to tell anything but the truth. “Jasper Stone,” he rasped on parched lips. The name was the only thing he was able to say before his words left him.

“That’s a good start. Go on,” said the man. He produced a small tin canteen from inside of his waist coat, unscrewed its cap and offered to assist his prisoner with a sip from inside. “It’s water,” he said as he held it to Rafi’s lips.

Rafi figured that if his captors wanted to do him harm, he was at their mercy and thus no need for some grand theatrical poisoning. As best as his senses allowed him to perceive, the contents of the canteen in fact only contained water. While he could no longer savor nor take refreshment from the liquid, the trickle helped his dry scratchy throat and mouth once again form necessary words. “We got word the only thing that can kill Stone was somewhere on that Military Preserve, thirteen bullets dug out of his back. That’s what we were after,” he said.

“Hmm, you are now the eighth one from your posse that’s told me as much. I’m inclined to think that you lot are on the level here,” said the man. He rubbed his mustache with his thumb and index finger as he retreated into some quiet moments of reflective thought. “So that’s it—the bullets. Well, we are going to help you find your bullets. Fact is, we want that miserable bastard dead just as much as you do. So it’s simple really. We tell you exactly where to find Doctor Ingoldsby—the sawbones who worked on Stone at Gettysburg—and you get the lead and kill Stone with it. Deal?”

The marshal blinked in a stunned moment of disbelief. “Not that I’m inclined to refuse but if I did?” asked Rafi.

“Then we shoot you and forget about you,” said the man. His statement came out flat and unfeeling, but there was a faint dark gleeful twinkle in the corner of his eye.

“Then I say you’ve got yourself a deal,” said Rafi. 

*** 

Fragments of light, flashes of memories mixed with dreams, bouts of total silence and then a high-pitched drone that seemed to last for hours, but most of all long stints of formless black unconsciousness. Chuan “Jen” Qí suffered all of these ailments and more. The hazy stupor that she found herself in surpassed any night of heavy drink or sickly fever dream she had ever known. The last thing she could recall with any clarity was the battle at the Military Preserve, being pushed from her own mind by a screaming red mist and the subsequent rescue at the hands of Colonel Woodson Geppert and his detachment of cavalry. Attempting to recall any memory since then was like trying to hold the whole of the ocean in cupped hands. Jen felt no pain, but whenever she dared to try and put the missing puzzle pieces of her recent past into place, she quickly relapsed back into a black dreamless nothing.

A gentle rocking pulled Jen from one of her countless blackouts. The click clack of a rail car speeding over track reached her ear. At first, the sound and motion nauseated her, but she closed her eyes and took seven cleansing breaths. In that time, she was able to find her center and come to a new sort of appreciation for the rhythm of the locomotive currently transporting her. In her state of calm, she ventured one innocent attempt at reconstructing the missing gaps in her memory. But the moment Jen let her mind run to the past, her senses became dull and her head went light and fluttery. She rapidly abandoned the past in favor of the present.

Jen slowly opened her eyes and let out the last of the air she held from her seventh breath. Her vision was not clear, it was akin to looking at the world through a seriously smudged window pane. Despite the challenges that her vision endured, she was able to confirm with her eyes that she was in fact riding in the passenger car of a train, and a rather comfortable one at that. The car was clean and neat, but void of attendants or staff. To her joy, Jen saw that she was not alone in her travels. To a one each of the men and women who had ventured with her from Tombstone occupied seats throughout the car with her. 

A familiar pungent aroma met Jen’s nostrils and she turned her head to investigate the smell. She found herself looking at Coot Jenkins, who sat in the seat across the passenger’s car’s main walkway. He had the same fluttery eye grogginess and head bobbing in and out of waking that marked the rest of the travelers. Amid the Prospector’s disoriented stupor, he managed to meet Jen’s eye.

“Is this real life?” Coot asked.

Jen heard the man’s question like he was speaking underwater. She tried to process the query and formulate an answer but remained unsure that her current experiences were in fact the reality of the waking world. A swirl of nausea hit her and coupled with the rhythmic click clack and soft rocking of the train as it sped over miles of track, Jen felt herself slip back into the calm black nothingness. 

Some amount of time passed, but Jen could not tell if it was seconds, hours, or even longer. The wafting of fresh air on her face and heat upon her skin pulled her back from the dreamless void to wakefulness. She felt her body in movement again, but it was not the same as before. The cradle soft to and fro rocking of the train had been traded for the jarring bumpy sway of a stagecoach. Jen saw she was accompanied by several other members of the Tombstone posse. To her immediate left slumped the still unconscious Coot Jenkins, reeking of spirits and sweat the same as always. Even worse odors mixed and filled the coach, emanating from Mr. Outang’s animal musk and Rafi Hamid’s animated, but nevertheless decaying husk. At least Nathan Shane did not add to the malodorous mixture. She sought refuge from the repellent odor of men and ape perspiring in close quarters by turning her head to the half open sliding window on her right hand side.

Jen was not only freed from the stench of her present company but she was welcomed by a verdant field of lush green and a rainbow array of springtime blooms as far as she could see. Majestic throws of creeping Spanish moss draped from noble tall trees filled her spirit with a measure of serenity that she had not enjoyed since embarking on the eastward journey. Abruptly as she had awakened, the view of Mother Nature in all her seasonal splendor gave way to the storefronts and muddy streets of a lively little town. Soon afterwards, Jen heard the stagecoach’s driver signal the horses to stop.

Jen was the first to exit the cab. The groggy bunch of her traveling companions made their way out of the coach behind her on unsteady legs, yawning and stretching the whole time. Jen looked to the road just behind the mud-spattered stage and saw a second coach. Padre Ernesto de Diáz disembarked along with the rest of the ragtag little group of heroes in the making. As Jen and her companions stood in the glorious warmth and sunlight, the world finally started to come up to full speed for her and the fog that had clouded her head began to thin by the second.

“I said—we’ve reached Girardelle Bayou Village!” yelled the driver of the first stagecoach.

“I’m sorry,” said Jen. She was the first of the group to have all of her wits about her. She moved to the front of the coach to better speak with the driver. 

“This is as far as yer paid up. If you want to continue on, it’ll be another fare. If not we can help y’all unload yer bags,” said the driver. He nodded to the shotgun rider at his side and the two offered the weary group of travelers a pair of odd but friendly smiles.

“I’m not sure,” stammered Jen. She raced to find some scrap of memory that might help her better understand her present circumstance but her mind was only a blank field.

“No, this will be fine. I think this is where we are supposed to be,” came the voice of Rafi Hamid from behind Jen’s shoulder. At this point, it barely registered with Jen that the marshal once again chose to convincingly pass for a human lawman. A series of rumbling grunts announced Otang’s egress from the stage as the ape swung out the door. Rocking back and forth, Mr. Outang swung back in and then back out, now wearing his trusty hat. Releasing his grip on the doorframe, he landed with a soft thud between Rafi and Jen. 

Jen looked back to the marshal scanning over a torn piece of white paper in his hands. He raised his eyes to meet hers and then handed her the paper. Jen read the neat words printed on black ink: Isaiah Ingoldsby, M.D., Boggy Trail, Girardelle Bayou, Louisiana. The name and words seemed to unlock some missing puzzle pieces for Jen and all of a sudden they reminded her of her purpose in this place. She let out the breath that had started to grow stale in her lungs and felt completely focused and ready to take on the next labor in the fight against Jasper Stone.