By Jason Pere

The Bayou Vermilion train continued its creaky journey through Arizona’s southern desert.  Its giltwork trim and gaudy colors contrasted with the harsh land it traversed. Xiong “Wendy” Cheng counted cacti as the train began its slow climb up yet another black rock hillside. Wendy turned from the window and scowled at the battered rucksacks stowed above the seats. “Stupid things,” she thought. It all started when Lucy suggested accepting a grubstake from the grateful proprietor of the General Store in lieu of collecting bounty on those three Sloane Gang members. Perhaps Wendy had made a mistake by giving in to Lucinda “Lucy” Clover’s impulsiveness. Lord only knew that Lucy needed guidance and protection. Still, Wendy mused to herself, were self-inflicted obligations to accompany Lucy to Tombstone, Arizona sufficient reasons to leave Gomorra? Perhaps she was only trading one lawless mining town for another? Although “Tombstone” did have a macabre finality to it.

Instead of an easy ride, Wendy and Lucy had endured one hardship after the next as they attempted to reach Tombstone. Compared to the Denver Pacific’s traverse across the sagebrush badlands of Nevada and Utah, this train was beyond doubt the smoothest ride she had ever experienced on the rails. This engine was a vastly superior upgrade to the car that had taken them from Gomorra into Nevada. The seats were nearly twice as big as before and covered in soft fabric as opposed to bare splintered wood. The irony of it all was too perfect, as the crudely laid track did not match the comforts contained within the train itself. Wendy grimaced as the bone-crunching ride counterpointed each and every one of her aching bruises and loosened her improvised bandages. The former Gomorra deputy vowed to sing praises to the angels in heaven the moment the train pulled into the Tombstone station and put an end to this miserable journey. 

Wendy envied the girl sound asleep in the corner of their compartment. Despite her own assortment of battle scars won on the hard trip from Gomorra, Lucy was enjoying a sleep that a dead man would covet. Wendy debated whether or not to elbow Lucy in her side or stomp on her foot in order to wake her and find some company in misery. Before she could make a decision, a stench of rotting meat fill her nostrils. Subtle at first, the odor grew in intensity until it nearly choked her just breathing the air.

“Is this seat taken?” The words swirled like bourbon, at once aged and decadent.

Wendy looked up and much to her surprise saw a man at odds with the suave greeting that she had just heard. He was tall, gaunt, and sickly looking. His sunken eyes had dark circles under them. His cheekbones were well pronounced as the skin over them was taut as a drum. A pale complexion gave the man a deathly pallor. She quelled a gasp of surprise and in doing so breathed in an unpleasant sulfur stench. In spite of the man’s appearance, Wendy thought he could be considered handsome under the right circumstances.

“Ma’am?” He gestured to an empty seat.

“No,” said Wendy. She did not realize she had spoken until the man seated himself across from her despite her rebuff. She glanced about the passenger car and saw plenty of open space. She wondered why this peculiar man had decided to sit here of all places.

“Ah, thank you kindly. I have been alone most of the way to Tombstone. I’ll be glad for a little company before the end.” The pale man stretched out across the seat like he owned it.

The man did indeed have a pleasing voice, but Wendy still resented the stranger joining her. She could live with sharing her space with another person, but she was woefully ill prepared to offer good company in her present state.

“You girls headed to Tombstone as well?” asked the man. His hollow and lifeless eyes drifted to the tin stars pinned on Wendy and her sleeping companion’s vests. Soon after that his gaze came to rest on the pair of six shooters holstered on Lucy’s waist. He leered at the deputy’s guns like a hungry dog eyeing a steak.

“We are,” Wendy said. She wanted to avoid talking to the man but her desire to be polite and cordial kept getting the best of her. She also found the stranger dangerously easy to talk to. He possessed a hypnotic quality, like a rattlesnake dancing just before it struck.

“You sure are a couple of brave ones. You know they say law don’t go around there,” said the man nodding at Wendy’s star.

Wendy’s eyes narrowed. “So I hear. With any luck we are fixing to change that sentiment.” 

The man’s eyes held an unholy gleam. “It will take more than luck, I think. A whole lot more. Them Cowboys are a real hard bunch. It would be a shame to see a couple of pretty little things like you and your friend get all mixed up with that sort.” He smiled wide and his lips parted to reveal two rows of black teeth rotting down to the gums. The source of the stench in the car was no longer a mystery. “And by the looks of it, you girls have already had a rough go of it.” He indicated the discolored bruises and various bandages.

Wendy reconsidered the man’s handsomeness as she used all her willpower to keep from gagging on the revolting aroma emanating from the stranger’s mouth. “Well, my friend and I got plenty more left to give. We can handle whatever Tombstone throws at us. The world has been trying to kill us both for a while, but it appears that we are too tough to die.” 

“Well you sure have a lot of spunk. He’s going to like that,” said the stranger.

Wendy raised a surprised eyebrow at the man’s words. “Who?”

The stranger grinned at Wendy’s confusion. Once again his eyes looked at the deputy’s guns. His rotting teeth somehow managed a crooked grin. “You look like you are pretty fast. You need to be fast.” He continued with a note of grief and self-pity entering into his speech. “I was fast but not faster than him.” 

“Who?” Wendy asked once more. The aches shooting throughout her body faded as she sat with eyes locked on the man in front of her. She found herself being pulled into his unblinking stare as she and the gaunt man entered into a tense, but silent, standoff. She had no idea if seconds, minutes, or even hours had passed as she looked into the stranger’s eyes. The frozen moment ended when the man’s hand moved a little too fast for her liking. She half raised her shotgun before she knew it.

“You’re fast.  A little jumpy though,” said the man. “A gun can be a God-send, or just another stupid thing in the wrong hands.” His fingers stopped moving near the edge of his jacket. He paused before gingerly pulling his jacket to the side, revealing a tobacco pouch tucked into his shirt pocket. He pulled out a hand rolled cigar and let out a sinister chuckle. “May I offer you one?”

“No thank you,” Wendy said. “Look sir, I ain’t trying to be rude but since we been heading for Tombstone, my friend and I have been disparaged by a full platoon of CSA cavalry, nearly made a meal of by sand vipers, and been mixed up in more than one running gun battle with some real ornery varmints that’s taken us all up and down the Grand Canyon. We are headed into a hornet’s nest where villains and bandits outnumber tin stars at least five to one. We should have made Tombstone three days ago and I am hurting, hungry, and need a change of clothes. Most of all I just wanted to lay my head back and close my eyes for a few hours of rest before getting to town.” Wendy almost screamed at the man as her irritation boiled over into outright rage.

The man took a puff on his cigar and followed it up with a long smoky exhale.  “Well then ain’t it a shame that we are here,” said the man. The squeal of the train’s brakes and a blast from the engine’s whistle punctuated the man’s words.

Wendy broke her attention from the man and looked out the railcar window. The Tombstone train station now replaced the numbing views of the desolate Arizona desert. She tried to make sense of where the last hours of her trip had vanished, but found no explanation.

“When it comes time for you and Stone to meet, the end will be painful, but quick. I know,” said the man.

Wendy turned back from the window to the seat where the Stranger had been sitting, but it was empty. All that remained of her unsettling guest was the smell of rot and ash.

“Oh, are we here already,” Lucy said. She yawned and smiled at the sight of Tombstone. “What did I miss?”

Wendy stood up and collected their baggage. “I don’t know how to answer that.” Wendy debated whether or not she was beginning to lose her mind.

“I’m guessing you got no sleep. We can get ourselves a room and you can lay down in a proper bed for a bit. That will make you feel worlds better, I’m sure.” Lucy accepted her worn rucksack from Wendy.

“As much as I would love to sleep away this trip, I think some shut eye is going to have to wait,” Wendy said. She pointed out the window of the train. On the main thoroughfare of Tombstone she could see the unmistakable image of a lawman, clad in black. The afternoon sun glinted off what could only be a peace officer’s tin star. Three men wearing red sashes formed a semi-circle around the lawman. Wendy shuddered as she recalled the crimson bandanas of Gomorra’s ruthless Sloane Gang and realized that this dispute was about to turn bloody.

Wendy hefted her double-barreled shotgun and checked the tubes to make sure each chamber held a shell. “Looks like some Cowboys are fixing to do something foolish.” 

“I imagine they like three to one odds. Probably wouldn’t care for a fair fight much. I reckon they’d just as soon turn tail before any shooting happened,” Lucy said.

“Probably,” Wendy agreed. “Did we make a mistake by coming to Tombstone?”

 Lucy readied her six shooters. “I don’t know but I would say we are about to find out.”

They stepped off of the train. With fire in their hearts, guns in hand, and righteousness at their backs, Wendy Cheng and Lucy Clover stepped forth onto the streets of Tombstone. They strode towards the brewing conflict between the lone deputy and trio of cowboys. Fearful townsfolk passed them by, fleeing the scene before blood was spilled.

“We told y’all that the law don’t come around here,” the largest and scruffiest of the three Cowboys said. His words were jumbled and labored. “Tombstone is our town.” 

Another Cowboy worked the lever action on his Winchester rifle. “You toss that stupid star in the dirt and we can let you leave, just as you please. No trouble.” His speech, like that of the leader, also slurred.

“You men need to disarm right now,” said the deputy. His loud voice carried command, but Wendy detected a trace of a quiver. It was clear that the man knew he was in a dire situation.

The third Cowboy grinned. “I don’t think we will.” An overly pungent cigar hung from his lips and flicked ash everywhere as he spoke. “Your big brothers ain’t around to help you out of this one.”

“Then it’s a good thing we showed up just now,” Lucy said. Her hands rested on the butts of her holstered guns.

The three Cowboys turned to look at Lucy and Wendy. The ladies also drew the attention of the lawman. All four men wore expressions that ranged from shock to full on disbelief.

“Ladies, you best clear the street now,” said the deputy. 

The Winchester-armed Cowboy laughed. “Well I’ll be, I seen a lot but I ain’t never seen a lady deputy. Let alone two of them.”

“Are those stars real?” said the man with the ripe cigar.

“My star is as real as my shotgun,” Wendy said. She shifted the barrel of her weapon forward, but kept it pointed at the ground.

“Well like we said before law don’t come around here. Y’all can clear out too,” said the unshaven Cowboy. He was the closest of the three to the two Gomorra deputies. They smelled liquor on his breath from where they stood.

“They’re drunk,” Lucy said.

“I know,” said Wendy.

“It’s not even noon yet.” Lucy’s widened in a fretful realization.

“I know.”

“Drunk men do stupid things.”

“I know.” Wendy stifled her increasing frustration with Lucy’s obvious statements about their perilous situation. “It’s going to be what it’s going to be.”

“We ain’t saying so again. Lose that star and git.” said the large Cowboy. He turned towards Wendy and Lucy. “You too, lil’ missies. Toss ‘em and light a shuck back from where you came from.” He splashed a spitwad in front of the three law officers.

“You three do as the sheriff asks. You turn over your guns right now,” Lucy said. A hardened stare at the Cowboys backed up her words. “We ain’t saying so again.” Her inflection perfectly mocked the Cowboy.

Lucy’s imitation goaded the Cowboys into action. The large, dirty Cowboy went for his Peacemaker. “You want our guns. You got them,” he said. He never cleared his holster as a bullet from Lucy’s right hand six shooter hit him in the gut and doubled him over.

The Cowboy with the Winchester went to raise the rifle to his shoulder but a double load of buckshot from Wendy’s shotgun shredded his chest and his lifeless body dropped to the street. Two shots from the cigar-chomping Cowboy rang out, but another quick shot from Lucy’s gun silenced him. 

“Curse you,” growled the gutshot Cowboy from his knees. He raised his arm and took aim at Lucy as she cocked the hammer of her gun back for a final shot. A .45 bullet from the Tombstone sheriff’s Peacemaker put the Cowboy out of his drunken misery. All was silent for a few heartbeats after the last of the Cowboys had been slain. 

“You girls just showed up in the nick of time. I don’t think I could have taken all three of them on my own,” said the deputy.

“Funny that, we were three days behind schedule. I’m Wendy Cheng and this is Lucy Clover, late of Gomorra, California.” 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you ladies. I’m not familiar with how they do peacekeeping out west, but after seeing you two shoot…” The deputy looked over the lifeless bodies of the Cowboys. “I’m Morgan Earp. My brothers are going to want to make your acquaintance right away. I think we’ll be proud to have you here in Tombstone, Arizona.”