“Matilda, do you remember what happened?” John said when I came back.
Of course I remembered. Nobody could forget a day like that and the nightmares that followed. It was the day after all that madness of the corral and the phrase “Murdered in Tombstone” was on everyone’s lips. Ever since I was adopted, I’d thought the name of this town was just asking for that kinda trouble. Whether it’s the kinda trouble brought by the Earps and their friends, or the kind we were snooping out in the Oriental that day.
After what happened the day before, peoples mouths were shut tighter than a pair of barn doors in a locust swarm. It’s funny really, if the idiots in red sashes hadn’t blocked our path, we might not have found nothing either. Must have seen three women and and old man and thought we would be easy to scare off.
Like I said. They were idiots.
See, I knew the reason the law in town hadn’t looked into the dead workers was because they were too busy dealing with the Cowboy gang and well, we all know what was happening there. But now, a bunch of Cowboy jaspers tell us to stop raising snakes and my journalist’s nose smells a scoop.
“Your gonna stop all that right now, y’hear.” One of them with a stained moustache threatened us. “Cuz right now, things are so hot here, I doubt anyone’s gonna miss a couple of orientals, a savage, and whatever in tarnation you are.” He pointed at me as a brown globule spat from his mouth onto my boot as he and his three lackeys walked out of the saloon. Guess they expected that would be enough to scare us off. What they weren’t expecting was for us to follow them right outside and tell ‘em they weren’t leaving till they told us what they knew.
“HEY!” Sarah stepped forward, tomahawk in hand, as a smile spread across her warpaint. “If you don’t wanna feel like you’ve gone mano a mano with the Drifter, your gonna tell us watcha know. NOW!”
The Cowboys stopped. They turned. They grinned. They went for their guns.
And that’s as far as they got. Soon as things legally became self defense, we’d sprung into action. Within a few seconds, two of them were running away dazed while the other two were unconscious. There was a moment after we’d both called down thunderclaps where He Fang and I regarded each other with mutual respect. Seems whatever God that eastern priest worships liked to do things the same way the Ussen does with me. Sarah stood over the one her fist had laid low and laughed.
“Told you amigo.”
Xui’s pretty white hair blew in the wind as she put her strange chained wooden weapon back in her belt. Cool as ever. She clearly wanted to go after the other two, but we figured these two could tell us all we needed, once I healed them to consciousness
“Y’know” Sarah said as the light faded from my hands. “You might want to make sure nobody mentions what they just saw you and the old moustached guy do. Would be better if the rangers were on our side rather than our heinies.”
“You think people were watching?”
“Mita cola, two natives and two immigrants just beat seven tons of ghost rock outta a posse of red sashed hicks, ain’t nobody in that saloon NOT watching. ‘Cept MAYBE the barman, and that’s a serious maybe.”
I took her point. Thankfully, I ordered a round of the good stuff for the assemblage sufficed to keep the patrons from making a hullabaloo. Meanwhile, my colleagues worked over the two buckeroos in an alleyway. Long story short, as I had suspected, that the Cowboys were working for Bayou Vermillion, capturing transient workers from the camp
and taking them to the Baron’s folks. No doubt the rail warriors were performing all sorts of nasty hoodoo on them if the scarring on the bodies was anything to go by.
That evening found us at Campbell & Hatch Billiard parlor. The clack of balls being potted by Morgan Earp provided a background noise as the sweet smell of bourbon wafted in the evening air. We watched as Xui wordlessly drew us out a map of the Bayou Vermilion depot she’d spied on. Having lept from telegraph pole to telegraph pole all the way there. After she’d finished pointing out where she thought the prisoners were being taken, plus two gatling gun turrets, she looked up and for a moment our eyes met. I wanted to smile, but instead I looked away.
Twin-Souled. That’s how my mother described me. It’s what makes the spirits commune with me so easily and in her culture – commands great respect. That certainly doesn’t seem true among the people of the town I’ve grown up in, and I don’t know how such things are viewed in Xui’s culture – I couldn’t bring myself to risk it. Of course, now ‘twin-souled’ has a whole different meaning for me…
“He Fang? You ok?” I asked the priest who seemed to be staring oddly at Morgan.
“Yes.” He shook his head and focused back on us. “Just a shadow from another world…”
“So, Xui and the 108 will disable the gunners, and the rest of us will provide the frontal distraction as it were.” Sarah said. “Except you, Mita.”
“Yup…” I said, “Can’t forget the bait.”
“As we agreed.” He Fang his eyes closed, I couldn’t tell if he was meditating, or just tired from all the shenanigans of the day.
“It makes sense.” I agreed. “If anyone’s getting hogtied by the cowboys, best it be the one who can turn into a mouse.” I took a shot and poured myself another.
“Careful.” Xiu spoke and I couldn’t help but look up. Her voice was like a Siyotanka’s lilting melody dancing with the wind.
“It’s ok,” I smiled. “Daddy taught me to hold my liquor, and if I’m on the verge of tipsy when we get to the workers camp, it’s more likely I’ll be the one they kidnap.”
She nodded. But she didn’t take her eyes off me.
“Anyway, guess we should get going.” I almost stammered. “I Got a bit of a journey south east if I’m gonna be there by kidnapping time…”
We split up, but not before agreeing too reconvene to spring our plan at the depot. We couldn’t have known we weren’t the only ones with our eyes on the depot that night…
The previous day Wyatt Earp approached a posse lead by Wendy Cheng and Lucy Clover.
“We could use some help.” The deputy Marshal said. “That business with Ike and McLaury has got the town crawling with cowboys, all of ‘em heeled. Virgil’s heading to confiscate their arms now, but I got a feeling it ain’t going to end well.”
Of course, it didn’t end well. Everyone knows that. A lot of people didn’t leave that fight alive… but then some didn’t make it there at all.
Just as the posse approached Front and Allen, Larry Slim, Barton Everest, and a fistful of lackeys emerged from a side street
“Y’all go on ahead.” Hattie DeLorre called to the Earps, whipping back her braided hair. “This is our fight.”
“Hattie, Hattie.” Barton stepped forward, his voice like baked treacle. “This ain’t necessary, light a shuck back for Gomorra.”
Behind Hattie, Warren Graves’s hand twitched near his holster, sweat dripping from under his hat.
“Oh we ain’t going anywhere.” Hattie said. “We’re bringin’ law to this town, and Hell’s coming with us!”
Nobody knew who shot first, but a cloud of gunsmoke filled the air, followed by Barton bleeding on the ground. Hattie shook her head and was about to rejoin her allies when a figure came out of the smoke. Miranda Clarke’s blond hair all but melted into the sunlight behind her as she looked her enemies dead in the eye.
“No.” She said. “Hell is already here.”
Then in two seconds, two guns fired two bullets, leaving Hattie and Graves dead upon the Tombstone’s hard-packed earthen street.
“Avie, I don’t care if they’re at our door, the ritual must be completed.” Papa Marias told me as he prepared the bones we’d gathered. Thus it fell to me to provide enough distraction to ensure the Fourth Ring wouldn’t be bothered.
“Such a beautiful night for a carnival,” I cooed. “Wouldn’t you agree Henry?”
The indigo snake hissed in my ear like air coming out of a bellows and coiled itself back around my neck and then again up my neck, ultimately coming to rest and peeking through my hair. Tombstone nights seemed to be significantly colder that Gomorra’s, so I felt my reptilian scarf was more appropriate than usual. Even if I couldn’t feel the difference.
“Shame the only entertainment tonight’s gonna be your shenanigans Mr. Hitchcock.” I patted the shopkeeper on the shoulder. “But that’s what happens when you don’t show proper courtesy to the Fourth Ring. Ok, off you go now.”
There was a brief glow from my playing card planted in the hapless shopkeeper’s coat – a coat that did precious little to cover the rest of his now naked frame. He took our leave by whooping and hollering as he skipped off down Fremont.
“Pathetic.” Zeb snarled at me. “I suppose you find that amusing?”
“What’s pathetic is throwing an unarmed prisoners off a roof for no gain.” I hissed and several voices wrapped around me joined in.
“Oh how sweet.” The mongrel laughed “You believe in showing mercy to our enemies?”
“I believe in getting the job done. Sometimes that means not drawing undue attention to ourselves. After that shootout yesterday, I’m pretty sure the Earps finding a body decorating half of Allen street would draw a fair bit of
attention our way. And right now, they and half the town are going to be too busy trying to stop a crazy man running nekkid as a jaybird to wander this way.”
Tunk! Not being trusted to help with the ritual was bad enough, without being put on guard duty with this sick idiot. Turns out the only way to make a Whatley any more crazy was to throw a splash of good ol’ New Orleans Dupont in there.
I’d like to think the reason I was here and not aiding papa was because they needed someone like myself to keep Zeb from a full on murder spree. But the slithering rattle in my brain reminded me the real reason I couldn’t be trusted to be part of the ceremony.
“You tell yourself that woman. But when folks show up, you better not hold me and my new pet back.” Zeb stroked the head of the abomination he’d summoned. Crooked and coated in shadows, the monster roared and whirled a large burlap sack around its head.Which oddly enough, was enough to bring attention our way.
“Everything alright down there.” The voice came from around the corner, followed by its owner. My mind’s rattling became louder with glee. I told it to quiet down as I fanned my cards. There was no way Zeb was going to let this poor fool live. All I could do was control the damage.
A full house later, a mesmerising spring of pasteboards flew from my hands, hypnotising the unlucky buckaroo before he could scream. Zeb’s monster opened its jaw wider than the entrance to a ghost rock mine and swallowed him whole. A moment later there was a wet thud, and something weighty appeared to land in the creature’s sack. Zeb was grinning, the kind of bliss on his face you see in opium dens when someone’s taken their first puff in a while.
It would be so easy.The rattle in my head conveyed. You could blame it on me.
I almost listened as well. Before I could, a spiritual shockwave popped behind us and I felt the air change. The shadows grew longer, and the wind harsher. It was complete.
Back at Fourth and Allen I found Ambrose smiling to himself, as Papa Marias collected what remained of his gris-gris.
“So that’s it?” I said. “Wards all gone?”
Papa nodded, the painted skull on his face running a little. He’d have his words back soon – that kind of hoodoo must take it out of a guy.
“The First Peoples are no longer protected from the Baron’s scrying.” Ambrose took his time speaking, with all the confidence of a general who’d already won the battle. “In fact, at this minute they are arriving at Bayou Vermillion’s Rail Depot, seeking to free some prisoners there.”
“And…” I asked hopefully.
“I believe the Baron would be only too happy for us to assist in that matter. Papa, would you be so kind?”
I grinned as Papa screamed, ripping apart the rift between us and the spirit world. Zeb’s insanity was a wasteful sideshow, but a coordinated strike against our enemies, that was the sort of circus I gladly performed for.
The circus in question was already in full swing when we jumped out of the portal and into the ring. Two orientals had overpowered the guards on the gatling towers and were showering the whole depot in bullets, while someone had managed to derail a train at the back and burst open its door.
“Avie, Zeb, handle that will you?” Ambrose flicked his fingers gently towards the train as he and Papa turned their attention to a native woman that had just landed in front of them. She held an axe in one hand and at her side a the translucent form of a tiger growled. “Miss Meoquanee, I presume?” Ambrose asked and I heard Papa’s arcane roar echoing behind us as I ran to catch our train.
Two bayou vermillion guards were lying unconscious on the floor as we charged in, prisoners – loosed from their bonds were piling out a hole that had been blasted out the far side. Zeb howled in delight and prepared to unleash his Soul Blast when a roundhouse kick caught him in the face. In front of me stood a Chinese man with a black moustache and blue kimono. My pets coiled around me and hissed ready to strike but he raised his hands and a sickeningly holy thunderclap knocked me reeling. When I recovered, I could see he was going mano-a-mano with Zeb. Zeb looked like he could use a hand, but someone was still letting the prisoners out and I felt he could handle himself. Besides there were two natives and a dead guy between me and whoever was letting out the prisoners. The dead guy’s skin had emulsified and his teeth were barely hanging on, but the rail warrior uniform that really caught my eyes.
“Hey, zom-boy, we’re on YOUR side!” I shouted at him as my boa wrapped himself around a native and proceeded to ignore his attempts to breathe.
“Joe Vermillion will be redeemed!” The deader croaked through what once was his throat and lunged at me. A flick of my wrist sent a stream of three hundred and sixty five pips towards him. The paper missiles tore through the shambling corpse, ripping chunks of desiccated flesh out as they passed through him. What remained of the zombie fell groaning to the floor just in time for a tomahawk to go flying through the air by my head. I turned to the brave and rolled my eyes, as Arlecchino, my albino diamondback, leapt from underneath my skirts and sunk its teeth into his neck. He fell back with a scream and I left Arlecchino and his venom to do their work.
At the back of the train, a pile of ropes lay where the prisoners were, frayed where they’d been cut through… or bitten through? It looked like a set of tiny teeth had chewed through and…
SLAM! A gaping hole erupted in the side of the train as an eldritch blast blew a body straight through the metal. On the floor lay the smoking corpse of one of the immigrants I’d seen manning the gatlings, her body broken in several places while the ends of her white hair still burned. I found out later she’d singlehandedly tried to take on Papa and a horde of zombies he’d risen. Stupid girl. But the timing of her death couldn’t have been any better.
A loud squeak, like a cry of anguish, drew my attention to a mouse that had been hiding in the corner of the room, a few strands of hemp still in it’s teeth.
“HENRY!” I commanded but the indigo snake didn’t need to be told, his tail flicked the pseudo-rodent in the air and a single bite followed by a swallow finished the job.
“Drop it! Now!” I said. With a confused look, Henry released what he’d hoped was to be his meal onto the floor. Inn death, the shaman transformed back into her rightful form. “See! That’s why we listen to mummy. That could have happened inside you.” I scolded Henry as I examined the body of what appeared to be a mixed race girl with a camera around her neck. Closer inspection revealed the the Tombstone Epitaph’s masthead emblazoned on the camera.
Back at the entrance, Zeb lay on the ground, barely conscious, his arm bent at a truly ridiculous angle.
“Avie, get me up you idiot.”
I reached towards his crippled body then stopped, glancing outside. The native girl with the spiritual tiger was still in a battle with Ambrose and Papa’s attention was turned to group of prisoners cowering in a corner.
“What the heck are you waiting for?” He barked, spit flying from his teeth in anger. Along with blood curling from his swollen lip. I turned back letting my smile show.
“Now Zeb… what was that you said about showing mercy to our enemies?”
His eyes grew wide as the realisation hit him, almost as hard my heel went into his eye socket and lodged in whatever passed for his brain.
“Goodbye Zeb.” I kicked his remains off my shoe and walked back outside. Ambrose had just finished off the tiger and in some act of foolishness, the native girl had jumped in front of the prisoners who ran as Papa – having grown to gargantuan size – picked the girl up by her head and crushed it. So much for Miss Meoquanee. The enormous Papa turned to the retreating prisoners, who had been joined by several easterns and natives.
“Relax Papa.” Ambrose patted him on the hip. “Not worth the effort. We’ve done enough here I feel.” Papa nodded as he began to shrink. “And Zeb?” He asked turning to me.
I shook my head. “Some kung-fu guy finished him off. Sorry.”
Ambrose sighed. “He had such potential, but he was too reckless, it was inevitable. We should leave Avie, let the Baron’s men clean up this spectacle of death we’ve created.”
I grinned as I surveyed the scene. A spectacle of death was exactly right… and it was such a perfect night for a carnival.