July 1, 1863. Gettysburg, PA.
The 13th Alabama Infantry have all lined up shots.
The Confederates and the Union have been at war for just about two and a half years now. It’s been a long, bloody, violent war with incalculable loss of American lives and both sides mean to make Gettysburg the turning point. Each of them has amassed a force in the tens of thousands, prepared for what should be the bloodiest battle in the history of the mankind. The night before, all of the soldiers have celebrated. The Rebs sang Dixie and drank deep while the Yanks sat around and roasted marshmallows and told ghost stories. No one wants to admit that tomorrow, most of these young boys will be dead. Those that could write have long since sent letters home to their mothers and fathers, to their sisters and brothers, to their wives and children, to their betrothed. All except the 13th Alabama Infantry. They’re all sent to bed well before nightfall and each one was roused before dawn to dig ditches. They’ve done nothing wrong mind you. Nothing save for being placed under the command of one Jasper Stone.
You see, Sergeant Stone had a reputation for being the meanest cuss in the South. His own men often joked that he couldn’t make friends with the devil which only made him meaner and angrier. He’d often threaten their lives if they didn’t complete menial tasks like digging latrines or scrubbing their boots, or pissing their own pants at gunpoint, all for his own entertainment. Just before dawn, all of the 13th Alabama are digging ditches, save for one Jasper Stone, who sits in his tent, drinking, smoking, and gambling. With himself.
By now, the men have been stewing for months and they’re fed up with the Sergeant’s attitude. By now, they’re already in a killing mood for the imminent battle. By now, maybe they’ve gleaned that they’re going to be the first to charge that dawn. By now, maybe they’ve realized that most of them are going to die. And by now, maybe they’ve come up with a plan to take a little something with them before they go. By now, they’ve realized that despite his talk and his attitude, Jasper Stone is still a man and bullets kill all men just the same.
When dawn finally comes on July 1st, Jasper Stone is the first man to charge at Gettysburg and the 13th Alabama Infantry have all lined up shots.
The road back to Last Stand was long but, with two close friends by my side, it seemed to clip by. It felt good to be back on the road in Arizona, riding in the steam wagon with Eli at the helm and Mary Lou on the H-1000 not far away. I don’t recall looking like an aged Librarian in those days, nor do I recall Eli looking like some sort of Lovecraftian cultist
I had time to read a book or two at the Library, sue me but the spirit was all the same. It was a good week. Fitting it should change as we rode into Last Stand.
The sun was just cresting over the horizon at our backs when we turned down the main road. So very little had changed in 200 years that it was almost eerie. The Penelope and the Calypso looked just as I had left them and, in two centuries, no one had taken the time to repaint that old sign above the “Cry a River” Saloon. It was strange taking it all in but the reminiscences would have to wait. We weren’t alone.
There in the crossroads at the center of town were two crucifixes; one holding a man, the other a woman. I knew before I saw them that they were Paul and Sally, just as I knew who the figure was standing on the ground between them. There was no mistaking that tall, lean figure, or the way the dozens of badges clinked together as the duster blew in the wind and only one man “alive” carried old cap & ball Dragoons.
“Danbrook”, spoke that gravelly voice. “Figured I’d find you here.”
I let down the Imposter hex. There’s no sense in hiding. “Jasper Stone. I was wondering when you’d catch up. Here to finish this then?”
“Not quite, gambler. Not here.”
“Then what, Stone? What do you want?”
Stone always had a way of laughing; a low, gravelly cackle somewhere between nails on a chalkboard and Tom Waits gargling asphalt. It had a way of digging under your skin and into your very soul and I hadn’t heard it in two months. This laugh in particularly was a doozy and it took everything in me to keep my cool as he snickered and tossed a small bag on the ground in between us.
“Take that. Take it, find a posse, and meet me in Tombstone in one week.”
My footfalls felt like they weighed a thousand pounds as I approached the bag. I could feel the raw arcane power pulsing from it with every step closer. In my daze I even lost track of Stone but if he’d wanted me dead, I’d be dead. This would play out just how he wanted. Kneeling down, my fingers fumbled for a moment with the ties before the cloth slid away, revealing a black orb. It couldn’t have been larger than a small bowling ball but it had a way of staring at you with its tenebrous, cycloptic gaze that seemed to rattle the earth, like that feeling you get just after lightning strikes outside and shakes the ground beneath you but constant and without end.
Closing the bag I turned back to Jasper. “What am I to do with this?”
“You’ll figure it out, Danbrook. You’re a smart enough man. Now, before I go there’s the matter of these two fools here.” From his pocket, he produced a coin. “Call it gambler.”
As I turned and walked away from there, bag in hand, I headr the unmistakable shink of a coin being flipped through the air. With everything I had left in me, I kept my mouth shut. The orb is back in the saddlebag before the coin hit the ground with a plop.
“I won’t play this game with you, Jasper. I’m done with you. Take your pick and be done.”
Stone was always quick to draw his pistols in a fight but there was no fight to be had here. Slowly, deliberately, he drew his duster back and moved his hands to both guns. He slid both pieces from their leather and raised his arms slowly. He aimed to kill them both.
It was about that time I heard a voice say, “I’m going to try something. Back me up.” I looked up at Mary Lou as she drew her pistols. “Stupid girl,” I said to myself. My next move was unexpected and my target, even less so.
That same old gambling parlor. It smells rotten like it always does. The wallpaper is peeling off to expose rotting walls beneath and its just me. I take a seat at that poker table the way I’ve done a thousand times before and wait. It’s not long before the dealer shows up. He’s ugly. Always so ugly. It’s not the same dealer as I’ve seen before but he’s ugly just like all of the ones before him, and all of the ones that’ll appear after him. He laughs as he sits.
“So what are the stakes, Ulysses?” he asks with a smug satisfaction.
I wish they could all be more original. “I need to stop a spell being cast. You know the rest.”
“One hand. Joker’s wild.”
“They always are. Deal. I’ve got places to be.”
He deals the cards slow. One to me. One to himself. One to me. One to himself. He looks at his cards first. Amateur mistake. I stare at him long and hard before he realizes I haven’t take a peek at my own.
“Don’t you want to see your hand, Ulysses.”
“I’m fine. Just deal the cards. And it’s Mr. Danbrook to you.”
I stare him down for a long time, never once touching my cards. He waits impatiently. This goes on for a while. Finally I see a bead of sweat on his brow. I snatch my cards up quickly and he jumps. They’ve sent a little manitou this time. Their mistake. First round his mine.
A king and an 8. Both clubs. Not the best suit but I’m in. I have to be in. The flop yields the king of hearts, the 8 of spades, and the 7 of hearts. He grins. Pocket 7’s I’m guessing. He’s got me beat but I don’t let him know. The turn pulls a 5. I don’t recall which.
“One last card Mr. Danbrook. Sure you don’t want to fold yet?”
“Do I ever?”
He laughs, burns a card, and pulls the river. King of diamonds. I smile.
“Three of a kind. Your soul’s mine.” He lets his words echo for dramatic effect. Idiot.
“Full house.” I lay my cards on the table and let him realize he’s beat.
He screams. They always scream. The Kings crawl out of the cards and drag him back in, flailing and screaming.
“Stoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooop,” he cries. They don’t stop and in a instant he’s gone and so is the gambling hall.
“Stop!” I shout. There in my hand was the full house. The hex went off and foiled Mary Lou’s but my eyes were on Stone. “The boy, Stone. I pick the boy.” I turned away.
One gunshot. I saw the look of horror and anger on Mary Lou’s face but I coudln’t bring myself turn back to look.
“One week, gambler.” And then he was gone.
(Prepare for spelling and grammatical errors from this point forward. It’s 6:30 am. I’ll proofread it later.)
I dug the grave with my own two hands. No hexes or help. I found some shovels in the old general store and picked a spot behind the Calypso. I don’t remember what I was thinking or if I was even thinking at all but a couple of hours later, I pulled the body into the grave.
I picked the dress Sally had been wearing the first time we met to bury here in. It must have been February of ‘76 when that fateful train showed up in Last Stand. Sally was one of the first few to arrive in the wake of Crow, Eli and me reopening the ghost rock mine and our friendship was almost immediate. She needed work and I needed working girls. She wasn’t the most beautiful woman but she had a head for business, a kind heart, and good soul. I’ve never been in love with a woman before but if I ever had, it would have been Sally. We could have had a great long partnership. In the old days I could have never taken her hand in marriage but I could have stayed with her in Last Stand. I could have made that town something and we both could have prospered. She was never the jealous type and didn’t mind my dalliances but it was always her I came back to. After all we had been through together she was gone. Sally was dead and there was no coming back. Stone had ended her and as far as history is concerned, no one has ever returned once he’s put them down.
In one her pockets I found my old deck, the one I had carried with me from Savannah. I almost cried at that.
I found Eli and Mary Lou in the saloon. They’d moved Paul from the crucifix and Eli had cleaned and patched the boys wounds. He’d make it. At least there was some kind of silver lining.
“Eli, leave us.” He stood in place, confused, as he processed my words and for a moment I expected he’d stay but he gave Mary Lou a worried look and left. I shut the door behind him and turned to her. My first instinct was to hit her, to slap her across the face and put her on the floor. I didn’t. She hadn’t killed Sally but she had almost gotten herself killed.
“You idiot child. What the hell were you thinking?”
The look on her face was surprise at first but it was soon replaced by anger. She clearly wasn’t accustomed to taking shit from anyone. In hindsight, I’ve never been prouder of her but pride would have to work its way through humility first. She hadn’t gotten to fire a gun but she’d have a chance to unload her words on me. “I was thinking it’s about time one of us stood up to that monster. More than I can say for you.”
“‘That monster’ isn’t one to be stood up to. He’d have put you down whatever you had tried. I’d be burying three bodies, not just one. Think on that.”
“I’m done thinking. We’ve spent two months thinking and it’s gotten us nowhere. Maybe it’s time we start acting.”
“‘Maybe it’s time we start acting like adults’ is how that sentence ends. You know, I figured that 200 years would have made you wiser but clearly that’s not the case. What did you plan on doing? Shooting him? Shooting Stone? You and I both know how that ends. In the dirt.”
“NO! For your information, Ulysses, I planned on stealing bullets from his own gun and shooting him with them. Maybe he’s weak to his own bullets. Did that ever cross your mind while you ‘slaved’ away at the books for a month?”
She was right. It hadn’t crossed my mind. It should have and I don’t know why it didn’t but she was right and we both knew it. The kill wasn’t far off and I should have quit while I was behind. I didn’t.
“I spent enough time in those books to know a stupid idea from a good one. One of us knows more about Jasper Stone than the anyone else alive and that one of us isn’t you, Mary Lou.”
“Yes, it’s YOU. You’ve always made this about YOU. YOU have to be the one to kill Stone. Bill was YOUR friend and this is YOUR story. YOU were the one to sacrifice their future to save us all. Well newsflash, dad. YOU failed. And while YOU were busy failing, some of us had lives to lead. Bill wasn’t just your friend. He was all of ours. Hell, he was more our friend than yours. In the story of his life, you were just a bump in the road. Maybe YOU should think about that. I’m done here.”
“Fine. Leave. Try not to do anything stupid while you’re out there.”
“No,” she said, “I’ll leave that to you.”
And with that she was gone. I think she slammed the door but I was already lost in my own mind. She’d struck home with everything she had said and she knew it. I knew it. I knew she was right but the taste of crow is seldom a welcome one. I don’t know how long I sat in that room with Paul but it was well after noon before I finally got the nerve to head downstairs.
Mary Lou and Eli were nowhere to be seen so I grabbed a bottle of whatever from behind the bar. Eli had left my saddlebag on lying about when he unloaded the steam wagon. The room was covered in mad science and junker gadgets but I made my way to the place I had sat so many times before, pulled out the cards I had played with so many times before and I drank. I drank and I thought. Somehow, the black orb found its way out of my saddlebags. Or maybe I pulled it out. I don’t recall but one way or another it found its way onto the table and I found myself staring into its murky depths. And as I gazed I found my thoughts wandering.
I thought of the posse we had left behind two months ago in Junkyard. I thought about all of the people we had met in our time in the Wasted West. About the people I needed still to meet. Simon Mercer. Joan the Schismatic. Jo the Templar. The people we had met wehen we first arrived. About everyone we left behind in the Weird West. About the the clockwork cowboy. About Doc Holiday. About the Pinkerton woman we’d met.
He was supposed to have met us in Wyoming when we came out the other side. This was all supposed to have gone differently. He was supposed to be here.
When I finally looked up from the orb I reached for my drink. It was full. I thought I had drained it. Oh well, more to drink.
And O’Malley was there.
I had clearly been drinking too much because he couldn’t be sitting across the table from me but there he was. I stared at him for a long time and he stared back before he spoke up.
“No, you’re late. And where’s my money?”
“It’s tied up at the moment but you’ll get it. So answer me something, Danbrook. How did I get here?”
“I don’t know, I’m drunk.”
“Well maybe you should sober up because a lot of us are wondering the same thing.”
It was about that time I realized that there was a lot of noise outside of the saloon and it wasn’t just the pounding in my head. Stumbling to my feet, I made my way to the front porch and looked out at a crowd of faces, some strange but most of them familiar. It must have been a full minute before I turned to Eli.
“Eli, who are these people?”
“I was wondering the same thing, Mr. Danbrook. A chime just started playing and they all just appeared.” He shrugged which was out of character for Eli. It wasn’t often that the both of us were dumbfounded. Its the little things I guess.
And then it hit us. “The orb.”
The both of us turned to look at it. It sat motionless on the table and thrummed, the only thing it ever did. It had to be the orb. It was the only explanation.
“Maybe you should say something?” said Eli.
“Yeah, maybe.” I turned to the crowd and spoke. “So you’re probably all wondering why you’re here….”
By nightfall everyone had settled in. We had sorted out that the black orb had pulled them all to Last Stand – or at least that’s the assumption we were operating under at the time- but I had calmed every one down and thanked them for coming, not that they had a choice in the matter. When I explained that we’d be heading to Tombstone to face Jasper Stone, I was surprised by the amount of people who volunteered to stay. We had done enough in our travels to give people hope and a reason to fight. If I died this week, I’d die knowing that much at least.
Later on in the saloon, I spoke to Simon Mercer and Joan about possible ways of killing Stone but both proved to be less helpful than I would have hoped. Simon made me a companion for all the good I had done in hopes that the martyr’s would bless me. It was a nice gesture but nothing more.
I took my old room in the Calypso. It was
strangely much the way I had left it before; a comforting thought but strange given the amount of time in between. It might have been the last night I ever slept in that bed. I should have been there with Sally but that’d never happen again.
There came a rapping at the door and slowly, I climbed out of bed. In the doorway stood Nathaniel Van Houten, one of the people I’d met when I first arrived in Texas a couple of months back. I invited him in and took a seat at my old desk. I offered him a drink which he took and sipped on. Despite his brawny build, I never took him for much of a drinker. I’m usually a good judge of character.
“What can I do for you, Nathan?”
“Well, sir, I don’t exactly know how I should go about this so I’ll just out and say it. I want to marry your daughter.”
No word play, just straight to the point. The honesty in that was refreshing. I was shocked at first but the memory of secretly read letters came rushing back to me and I couldn’t help but smile. “Well, I don’t know how to answer that.”
“If you don’t want me to, just say no. I’ll understand.”
“No. It’s not that. I just don’t exactly have the right to say either way. We’re not really on speaking terms at the moment.”
“Oh,” he sat silently for a moment before he started again. “What do you suggest I do?”
I shrugged. “Ask her. You have my blessing, for what it’s worth. I’ll even walk her down the aisle if she let’s me.”
Nate rose to leave but as he reached the door I stopped him. “One last thing. You’ve only seen half of the power I have and if you ever hurt that girl, I’ll show the other half.” He left quickly and shut the door behind him. Crawling into bed I smiled to myself, I always thought I’d be a good father. Turns out I was half right.
The wedding was the next day. It was rushed but with the world ending and a lot of us dying at the end of the week, it felt appropriate to put a rush on things. Love is fleeting enough without Hell just outside your door and if my daughter had found it, I was happy for her no matter the state of our relationship.
I swallowed my pride and made may way to the church where I found a small gathering of people. Nathan had cleaned up well. They’d have good looking kids together assuming they made it through the end of the week. Simon Mercer himself had agreed the perform the ceremony and even if I couldn’t walk her down the aisle, I could at least sit in the back row. Hopefully she wouldn’t take that from me.
Needless to say I was surprised when Simon called me to the front and led me into the backroom. It was as it had been many years before, meant to house a single cleric in a spartan lifestyle. Inside I found Mary Lou in a white dress someone had scavenged for her. It fit almost well but it didn’t matter, she was beautiful. There was a long silence between us but it was me who broke it.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have treated you like a child.”
“It’s okay, dad. I said a lot of hurtful things that I didn’t mean.”
“That didn’t change the fact that they were all true. I’ve been an idiot. Forgive me?”
“If you forgive me.”
“Of course I do.” I moved in and hugged my daughter and as much as I hate to admit it, I cried (it was the day of my daughter’s wedding so I’m allowed to feel something). The ceremony was short and sweet and it gave us all a reason to be happy. I spent most of my time talking to Simon about the martyr’s he’d mentioned.
It was a beautiful day. A perfect day to forget about the world going to shit.
For most of us anyway.
The journey to Tombstone was a quick one. We caught the Convoy as they passed through on their way passed Tuscon and when they heard our tale, they agreed to join us. It brings a smile to my face to hear so many people lining up to do the good thing but I couldn’t help but wonder how many more of these people would die before the day was through.
At Tombstone, we all climbed off or out of our respective vehicles and it soon became clear that all eyes were on me. I thought long and hard for the proper words to say but nothing came to mind. We stood there, all of us waiting on the words to say when I finally spoke. I had no speech ready at the time. I just spoke from the heart. Sometimes, that’s your best bet.
Every turned to look at me.
“The Reckoners. They cheated.” I let the words sink in before I continued.
“I don’t know how they did it. If I did, things would be the way they were supposed to be but we all have eyes to see the state of things.”
It took me a moment but I pushed forward.
“200 years ago a woman named Jackie Wells found a way back to the past to warn me and mine about the coming doom, about the Reckoners and the fear they needed to thrive on. She’s dead now. I watched her die with my own two eyes. She gave up her life to come back and try and stop the world from becoming the way you all know it and Eli and I gave up our future to do try and do the very same. And for what? For this shit hole? For this Godforsaken rock we called Earth?”
I let them all think on that and continued.
“Now don’t take my meaning wrong. I have no regrets and given the choice, I’d make the same one over again because its the only choice there is. Two of us give up their lives so that countless millions can live in blissful ignorance. I’ll take those odds any day. But we failed. I’ve spent the past few months blaming myself for all of your problems, for all of my problems, but I’ve come to realize that this could never have been my fault. I didn’t bring any of this upon us. They did. Pestilience, War, Famine, Death, the lot of them, they took our futures away for a tiny bit of fear. Soon enough they’ll leave our wold and move to the next and Earth will be a faded memory of a couple of good scares. Well today we show them we’re not afraid. Today, with a resounding fury we charge forth to look Death’s right hand in the face. Just down that road waits Jasper Stone and he aims to kill every last one of us and I won’t lie, quite a few us will die. I wouldn’t blame any of your for turning and running away now. None of us would. But if you do, you only feed the fires of Hell on Earth. You only make them stronger. But if you stay, if you stay and you fight, you show them bravery beyond bounds. You show them that you can’t cheat to win and that humanity won’t fear them any more. With one furious, righteous scream, you show them we’ve had enough. We won’t hide under our sheets from the monster under the bed. We won’t cry out for our parents for the monster in the closet. Our parents are gone, the sheets are gone. It’s time to look Death in the face and smile. Today, there WILL come a Reckoning. Today, we settle the score. Today, Jasper Stone meets his maker and the Reckoners learn the hard way just who they’re dealing with.”
I lost myself in the din of jubilant “hurrahs” and as the noise hit a crescendo, there was only one word left to say.
And charge they did.
It must have sounded like thunder to Stone as the horde of us turned that corner. I remember his smile as the crowds ran past me, sword drawn, guns blazing. Twelve shots rang out and twelve of us died but still they charged.
I remember O’Malley next to me, knife in hand, revolver leveled at Stone’s head. He took a bullet to the shoulder but still they fought on.
Brubaker, the psyker leveled his rifle and shot only to have his gun back fire and hit him in the leg. But still he fought on.
Nathaniel and Bushi were there in the front line, slicing at Stone to no avail and even when Bushi died, Nathaniel fought on.
Jed Smith let a magazine hit the Earth and even when none of his rounds phased Stone, he fought on.
It was beautifully futile. I can still hear the percussion of the gunfire and the symphony of steel and none of it phasing him but still we fought on. We were stupid. We were fools but we were none of us afraid. I smiled.
And then it was there. The sharp pinprick in my back. It wasn’t a bullet; I’d been shot before. No, it was smaller. I turned to look and there he was. Stone was right behind me and in his hand was a syringe. In the chaos, no one noticed him and why should they. Only two of us knew that there were two Stones. Why should the others even care to notice? He laughed the way he always did and stared down at me triumphantly. I was so warm and sleep felt so good. Why fight it? Why fight the end? The black set in around me. Who was I to resist?
Ulysses Goddamn Danbrook. That’s who.
“JASPER!” I shouted loud enough that I could hear myself over the cacophony and when the gunfire began to die away, I knew he had heard me, too. A few more shots and a few more corpses hit the ground between him and me and I could see in the looks of the others around me that they had noticed the second Stone.
“Given up, gambler? You finally quit?” laughed the second Stone. “Let’s me and you finish this.”
The sheer arrogance of this fool. He’d pay for it in blood. “No. You’re next.” There was hellfire in my voice, so much so that I almost scared myself and for an instant, the second Stone staggered. It was all the time I needed.
“Call off your hound, Stone. It’s me and you now. It always has been me and you. It ends now.”
He cackled but I ignored it. The world was red and in my sights was the right hand of the devil himself. He’d lie low in the dirt before the day was through, I’d see to that. “Is that so Danbrook? Then tell me, how does it all end? Go ahead and tell us all before I end you.”
I took a quick survey of the crowd, looking for words. Most of them lie injured or worse. Brubaker was nursing his leg but he looked up at me and nodded. Eli was there, dragging a wounded man out of Stone’s path. O’Malley was nowhere to be seen but there was no time for him. If I saw his corpse, I’d lose this fire and that was the last thing I needed. It was blood I wanted. The mutant was there, healing the wounded while Jed Smith reloaded his gun and readied his aim, the damn ballsy fool. And then I saw Mary Lou. She was fine, hardly scraped at all. She stood firm by her husband and cried. She never quavered or made a sound but I could see the tears. She knew before I did that this was the end of my story.
I thought about what she’d told me. About how arrogant I’d been. I’d made this personal but it was bigger than me. All of these people dead in the street, it was their story, too. And Brubaker’s, and Eli’s, and O’Malley’s, and Nathaniel’s, and Mary Lou’s. All of them. It was the end of my story but the beginning of ours and it would start with the death of Jasper Stone. It was time to stop playing the protagonist and start playing the hero.
And then it came over me, a white light, like a rush of wind, cool and calming and a single word came to my mind. Blaze. And then I knew what to do.
“You’re a pawn, Jasper. A small fish in a big pond and I’m done with throwing you back. So this story, your story ends with you putting one of those guns against your head and the other against the other you and pulling both triggers.”
Stone smirked a moment before he realized that his Dragoons had found their own way up, one against his temple and the other against that of his doppleganger. They both stared at me and then one another confused.
Two guns fired. Two bodies hit the ground.
One was Jasper Stone. The other, Michael O’Malley. Sometime later I’d find out that he’d become a cyborg in the interim and that his AI chip had been the personality of Stone. Stone had wanted insurance and he’d gotten it. He’d been the one hounding me all this time. Jasper had used my own friend against me and he’d won.
O’Malley and Stone lie motionless in the dirt and for an instant there was silence.
Had we really done it?
Was Stone really dead?
When Jasper crawled out of the dirt and looked me in the eyes, I knew the answer all too well. “My turn now, Danbrook. Goodnight.”
Until that moment I had never heard the hammer click of a gun so close before. It was almost refreshing that it would end this way. Stone laughed the way he always did and pulled the trigger.
Or he would have if his gun hadn’t been melting.
He looked around for an answer and when O’Malley dug himself out of the dirt, he got the answer he’d been looking for. I’m not from the future but I’m smart enough to know that the rapid beeping I heard was a bomb. O’Malley placed his gun and knife in my arms and shoved me backward. “You know what to do with these, Danbrook.” I pulled the cards from thin air and fell through the shadow of the setting sun, tumbling out of another not thirty feet away.
Jasper Stone stood confused and leveled his gun at O’Malley. He fired six shots and O’Malley took all six hits and kept coming. Stone spun the chamber but before he could fire again they were grappling. The beeping grew louder as they wrestled, Stone firing off shots into O’Malley’s arms and legs and guts but still he came forward.
With one furious move, O’Malley grabbed him in a bear hug. The beeping grew louder and then stopped. Everyone nearby that hadn’t scrambled away quickly cleared out and left the two of them there in the street.
For a long time there was silence. Then Stone spoke.
“Why won’t you die?”
O’Malley smiled and, with the smug air he always had, stared the right hand of Death in the face. “Didn’t you know? I’m you.”
I’m guessing this wasn’t according to plan for Stone but I’ll never know.
There was one final beep and then darkness.
The smoke cleared long before my ears stopped ringing. It was Nathaniel who helped me up off of my back and out into the street. Where once O’Malley and Stone had stood there was nothing but a black crater. I looked for a sign of anything but there was nothing to be found. No gun, no scrap of clothing. Nothing but a hole and the bittersweet taste of victory. Stone was dead, but at what cost?
It wasn’t long before the first cries of joy rang out in the streets of Tombstone and why shouldn’t they? We’d earned it. But if it was cause for celebration, why did I feel so empty. I sat down at the edge of the crater and stared for a while and spoke a few words at the emptiness that would have been Jasper Stone.
Eli was the one to help me off of the ground this time and with the help of the others, we gathered the dead into the O.K. Coral. With solemn words and drinks, we burned it down. Too many had died to kill just one man and I couldn’t help but wonder if the cost was worth it. Many people had lost loved ones and Eli and I had lost a dear friend. And it wasn’t really us who did it.
Stone had made the mistake of shooting O’Malley’s fetter and giving him control. Most cyborgs don’t last too long after that but O’Malley always was a tough Irish bastard. With his last moments on Earth, he’d taken the devil with him, right back to Hell.
I watched the fire burn late into the night as the town of Tombstone came to life with celebration. Singing and dancing could be heard for miles around in the wake Jasper Stone’s death and as far as anyone else was concerend, we’d earned it. It was luck really, or unluck. A poorly aimed shot ended Jasper Stone but I guess that was always the case with us. Just getting by on the skin of our teeth. I smiled and joined the party.
The next morning I awoke in a bed I’d never seen before. The room was large and fancily decorated and in the bed with me was a beautiful woman, nude. It was Joan, the leader of the Schismatics. I climbed out of bed and made my way to the window. The sun was just cresting over the horizon. I turned and looked back at the gorgeous figure in the bed.
“Well, Ulysses. You’ve really outdone yourself this time.”
There came a tapping at the window and on the sill I spotted a crow. My whole life every crow had looked the same as every other crow before but when I saw this one I knew it was the one that had followed O’Malley for all those years. I opened the window a tad to let the bird in and I’m guessing the breeze woke Joan.
“Ulysses? Why are you up? Come back to bed.” She rolled over and I followed the curves of her hips to where they met the covers. I was never a man to turn down curves.
Halfway to the bed I stopped and turned around. I found my clothing and gear strewn on a chair and thought for a moment. I reached inside the coat pocket and found a metal star, the badge O’Malley had given me years before when he’d tried to recruit me. I swore then I’d never wear it but time has a way of making liars of us all.
Back in bed, I wrapped my arms around Joan and pulled the covers over us. I took a long, deep breath and caught her scent, the smell of a woman, the way a woman ought to smell. She was beautiful ,the way she slept, and at peace. I pulled her close against me and thought of the day that had gotten us here. We’d killed Jasper Stone and I wished I could say our journey was done but I knew it wasn’t. There was still Raven and Grimme to worry about. Them and whoever Pestilence had shackled to do her dirty work. And once they were worm food, we’d have to worry about the Reckoners themselves. If Death’s servant was so hard to take down, imagine killing Death itself, not to mention the fact that there was still probably another Stone out there somewhere. The work of a hero is never done.
I rolled Joan over and kissed her and when she was awake and kissing back I took her as I had the night before and for a few moments, there was just us. When we’d finished and she’d roll off back to sleep I stared at the chair and the badge on my jacket. The sun would be up soon and we’d have a whole new batch of problems to deal with when it did. But for now there was rest to be had and we’d damn sure earned it. It was time to sleep, if only for a few moments.
And for the first time in a long time, I did just that.