Dragon groaned as Dave dealt more cards out to people. He took three, holding on to the only matched suit that he had, a two and a six of hearts.
Dave got back another two, but nothing else that helped at all. "Dragon, what do we do? I don't want to fight these people."
Dragon was at a loss, but a distraction walked in the door. A man, six and a half feet tall, dressed all in black, and exuding an aura of evil. Red-rimmed eyes gleamed from beneath the brim of his black hat. When he spoke, his voice was low and grating, and it sounded as if his throat had been cut.
"Three here disobeyed the law last night. They will be punished. And the one who brought them here will be punished as well."
The man reached for the ebony handles of his revolvers. He didn't even have his hands on them before Dragon was on top of him. Dragon landed a punch to his jaw, coiling back in a defensive stance as he connected. I might not have the strength, Dragon thought, but I've still got the training.
The man stood up, leaving his hat on the floor. It was now clear that he was no man. His face was dried and dessicated, with dark weathered skin and solid red eyes. His nose was mostly gone, leaving only two nostrils in the center of his face, and his lips were drawn back to reveal the impression of his teeth through the skin. His bubbling voice echoed through the tavern again.
"Your suffering will be legendary, mortal."
"You've made a mistake," Dragon said, swinging another shot to the creature's body. "I'm not a mortal. I'm a Golden Dragon."
The creature began laughing and casually swung at Dragon. Dragon blocked the punch, but the force of the blow cracked his forearm. "Deluded mortal! There will be no Golden Dragon for at least 100 years!"
If they were sometime in the 1890s, which seemed likely, the creature was right on the mark with that date. That made Dragon nervous. He struck out again, this time with his left arm, but he kept his eyes on the creature's gun belt.
The creature blocked the jab and returned with a round house, catching Dragon in the chest. Everyone in the tavern heard his sternum crack. Dragon fell to the floor, ashamed of his weakness but unable to do anything more.
"Goodbye, Golden Dragon," the creature said in a mocking tone. He pulled out his pistol and put it to Dragon's head.
Dragon heard a gunshot, and it took him a second to realize that he wasn't dead. He opened his eyes, only then realizing that he had closed them, and looked at the creature. It was lying on the ground with a surprised look on its face, a bullet hole dead center in its forehead.
Dave was standing on the poker table with his .45 aimed directly at the creature. His face looked more serious than Dragon had ever seen it. He put the gun away and his face returned to that half-goofy look Dragon expected from him. He shrugged and sat back down on his chair, "accidentally" tipping the table over.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Dave said. "Tell you what, you better deal me out. My friends and I have places to go."
Dragon stared back down at the creature. He realized it wasn't human, but it looked enough like a man that he felt remorse for his death. He didn't know he was brooding until he heard Brimstone's voice beside him.
"The human host died a long time ago, Dragon. Dave killed the thing that had taken his body."
"What are these things?" Dragon asked.
"I don't know. If I had access to my library, maybe. But just based on my own knowledge, I couldn't tell you. All I know right now is that they are definitely extradimensional, probably unable to exist physically in the world. But even that is nothing more than a logical guess."
Dave walked over to the two of them and looked down at the body. "Ugly sucker, ain't he?"
"Thanks, Dave," Dragon said.
Harlan walked over and whispered, "Come on, I'll take you to the doc. He'll fix you up."
Dragon tried to wave him away, but he couldn't move his arm. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt this much pain. The room started to spin and everything went black.
When he woke up, Dragon was lying on a rotted mattress in a room that smelled of old gin. The doctor was bandaging him with gray, bloody bandages and talking in his loud, old voice.
"I tell you, this boy got hisself beat up good! This stuff gotta be broken! Well, whatta you know, he's awake. Lie still, this don't hurt that much."
The doc was a hunched-over old man with a wrinkled face and thinning white hair. His brown eyes were a little wild, and his breath smelled like his office, only stronger.
"You kin sit up if you want," Doc said to Dragon. "But it's gonna hurt."
Dragon grimaced and sat up. He saw Brimstone and Dave talking over in the doorway with Harlan. He saw a flash of light as Harlan handed something to Dave. They shook hands and Harlan walked off.
"Give me one of those, Dave," Dragon said. Dave tossed a metal object to Dragon. Dragon looked down and smiled, pinning the gold star to his leather vest. He looked down at the engraved letters reading, "Deputy."
"Why am I a deputy?" he asked.
Dave turned around to reveal the sheriff's badge on his chest and his .45 strapped to a new holster on his left hip. "Because I killed the bad guy. And I got a better gun."
"No argument," Dragon said. He pushed himself up to stand with his left leg and wavered a little, feeling the pain in his chest. Brimstone rushed over to steady him and Dragon saw the gold star on his chest as well.
"Let's saddle up, boys," Dave said.
"Where do these dark men come from, Harlan?" Dragon asked.
Harlan pointed to the west. "They have some kind of hideout set up out that way. You'll need transportation to get there. We can't spare any horses, but we're still running a stagecoach during daylight hours. Should leave in a couple hours. I'll get you boys some seats."
Dragon, Brimstone and Dave spent the next few hours practicing their marksmanship behind the saloon. Dave used one of Dragon's pistols, since he couldn't afford to use all of his ammunition. Harlan was the local blacksmith, so he offered to make them as many bullets as they needed. When he came back with their tickets, he had one large bag and one small one.
He handed both bags to Dragon. "The big bag has about 1000 rounds of ammunition for your six-guns. The little one has 20 silver bullets. I don't know if it'll help, but we had a redskin in town who swore that silver would hurt spirits."
"Thanks, Harlan. We'll stop these men," Dragon said.
Harlan nodded grimly and walked back to his shop. Brimstone watched him walk away.
"He thinks we're dead," Brimstone said. "And without our powers, he might be right."
"Lighten up, Brimstone," Dave said. "We're in a Western! We're the good guys, we have to win."
Brimstone and Dragon let out exasperated sighs and went back to their target practice. Even without his luck, Dave was overconfident.
When it came time to leave, they went to the station to get on the stagecoach. It was a beautiful vehicle, made of brown wood and inlaid with colored rocks to form a southwestern pattern on the doors. The driver sat up top, his shotgun at his side. He was a young man, with dark hair and a mustache. He nodded at his passengers as they climbed into the coach and then snapped the reins, setting the coach into motion.
Dragon's group was alone in the coach. They rode in silence, looking around at the desert surrounding them. When they passed the butte they had landed on, they looked up, but the angle was too steep for them to see the Vagabond.
"Dave, maybe we should let you off and you could fix the plane. It would give us an edge."
"Dragon, it's going to take me days to fix the plane. You just want to be Sheriff. But you can't, cause I am."
The steady clop-clop of the horses' hooves was disturbed by another sound from behind them. Brimstone cocked his head. Dragon and Dave picked up on it right after he did. It sounded like a faster horse.
Sure enough, a brown horse darted past the stagecoach doors. They heard a gun fire and the horses whinnied in terror. The stagecoach started to speed up. Dragon poked his head out the window and saw that the horse riding alongside had a masked rider. He looked human, but he was holding a smoking pistol. He aimed it Dragon's direction, and Dragon ducked back in just as a bullet struck the stagecoach in the side.
"We've got problems," Dragon said. "And this guy is human."
The stagecoach jumped as if it had just hit a huge bump. There was a sharp crack, like wood starting to break. When the stagecoach landed, it was riding a little rougher, jostling from side to side.
Brimstone poked his head out the other side of the stagecoach and looked up at the driver's post. There was no one up there.
"I think I know what we just rolled over," Brimstone said. He ducked back inside as a bullet struck his side of the stagecoach.
The masked man rode up and matched speed with the stagecoach. He was keeping a distance of about five feet from the coach. He slowly aimed his pistol into the passenger compartment.
Dragon swore in Japanese and leaped with all his strength. He managed to catch the stirrup and hold on as his body scraped the desert. The masked man laughed and pointed his pistol at Dragon's face.
Dragon swung back his free arm and knocked the pistol away. He then grabbed the man's leg and yanked, pulling him out of the saddle and onto the ground. The man reached for Dragon's leg, but Dragon kicked out and struck him in the chest. The masked man watched as Dragon was dragged away, holding on to the stirrup.
Dragon gritted his teeth against the pain and pulled himself, hand-over-hand, into the saddle. He tried to direct the horse back to the stagecoach, but it was clearly not willing to listen to him. It started to buck, trying to throw him off.
With a tremendous effort, Dragon guided the horse close enough to the stagecoach to jump off. He barely avoided the beast's kick that followed him. He was hanging onto the outside, looking into the passenger compartment. Dave was the only one in there.
Dragon looked up and saw Brimstone in the driver's seat, yanking on the reins. The world was rushing past, faster than he could follow. He tried to yell, but the noise of the stagecoach drowned him out.
Dave was pointing frantically behind them. Dragon looked and saw ten more masked horsemen, waving pistols and spurring their horses, trying to keep up.
Dragon pulled himself up into the driver's seat.
"Brimstone!" he yelled. "Get us going as fast as possible. If those guys catch up to us, we're dead!"
Brimstone took a quick glance behind them and then snapped the reins, urging the horses on. The coach began to move even faster. Brimstone reached under the wooden plank they were sitting on and handed a burlap sack to Dragon.
"Give these to Dave."
Inside the sack were about thirteen solid red apples. Dragon reached back to the passenger window and tossed them inside. Dave looked up, and then got a look of understanding on his face. Dragon swung back up to the driver's seat and bent down, making himself a smaller target for their pursuers.
The masked men were losing ground, but they weren't giving up. They fired their pistols at the coach, hoping to hit someone. The leader was yelling gleefully in Spanish. He laughed when he saw an arm poke out from the passenger window and aimed for it.
Before he could squeeze off the shot, an apple hit him right in the face, leaving him with a bloody nose. He rolled back in the saddle and nearly fell off his horse. He had to drop his pistol to regain control. His men were dodging other apples as they came flying back at them. One man was knocked off his horse when the apple struck him in the throat, and another went flying when his horse was hit in the knee, causing it to tumble for a minute before getting up and running again.
Dragon looked up ahead of them. They were raising quite a cloud of dust, and it was getting hard to see. Still, he thought he could make out a strange formation in the distance.
He realized that he was looking at a butte rising from a lower elevation point. He looked closer and realized that they were heading for a cliff.
Brimstone pulled the reins, hard, and the horses began slowing down. There was a sudden crack and the stagecoach lurched like the end of a whip, swinging out past the horses and skidding sideways towards the cliff. Dragon looked and saw a fractured wheel behind them in the dust.
Dragon grabbed Brimstone and dove to the other side of the stagecoach, tumbling as they fell into the desert. Dave looked out and realized what was going on. He dove out the side, carrying the bags of bullets with him.
They watched the stagecoach slide off the cliff, dragging the frantic horses down with them. There was a loud crash as the entire mess hit the desert floor.
Suddenly, they were in the middle of a circle of gunmen. Ten men on horseback pointed guns at them. Their leader, a fat Spanish man, said, "We been hired to take you to someone. Dead or alive. It's your choice."
Reluctantly, the three men raised their hands and surrendered. Two men stepped down from their horses and took their gun belts. Then they struck them on the back of the head.
"Unconscious, it's much less likely you will try to escape."
* * * * *
The black man closed the metal door behind him, wiping sweat from his brow as he exited the hot room. He walked up to a beautiful black woman, dressed in a dark robe, who was standing outside expectantly.
"I'm sorry, mistress," he said in his native tongue. "He is very strong. He will not break."
The woman replied in his language, "He doesn't need to, I suppose. I will alert our agents to send us the Dragon. He will find the gem."
She pulled a curved dagger from her robes and plunged it into the man's chest. He didn't even have time to scream before his eyes glazed over and he fell to the ground. She licked the blood from the knife and said, "But you assured me you could break him. And DEMON does not tolerate failures."
* * * * *
Dragon woke up to the smell of smoke. He coughed as it entered his lungs. A hoarse laugh was the only response.
"Welcome back to the world," said a crackling, inhuman voice.
Dragon opened his eyes and saw blazing light. He realized that his face was inches from an open camp fire. He saw stone around him and realized he was lying on the floor of a cave. His arms and legs were tied behind him with rope.
A dark figure leaned against the far wall, about three feet away. He was dressed all in black, with a long black duster and a black hat. The only thing that wasn't black was the red gem set in the center of the hat. The figure raised the hat with his gaunt right hand and revealed a horrifying face.
It looked like the flesh had melted away, with drippings still rolling down the neck. The face was red, with bits of exposed bone showing through. Instead of eyes, there were two glowing red coals, instead of a nose, a fleshy black knob. A cigarette dangled from the exposed lips.
"You've possessed this host for a while, haven't you?" Brimstone asked. Dragon saw that Brimstone and Dave were lying against the back wall of the cave, also tied up. Their gold stars were gone. A quick visual check confirmed that Dragon's was too.
The creature raised up his other hand and held the golden stars out, letting the fire light glint off them.
"Thanks for these," it said, in its hoarse voice. "I've been collecting them. Didn't think there was any gold left to make them. Thought I told the townspeople to give me all their gold."
The creature paused for a minute, and then threw the stars into the fire, where they erupted with blue sparks. The smoke formed, momentarily, into a skull, then drifted away aimlessly, to fill more of the cave.
"They'll have to be punished," it said, glaring at Dragon.
"Who the hell are you?" Dragon asked.
"The townspeople call me the Dark Man, and that suits me. To tell you my true name would be foolish, although I can't expect you to understand why. Not many in this worthless dimension could understand."
"Vincent Dimitrios can," Brimstone said.
The creature turned its blazing eyes on Brimstone. The hoarse voice rose in a scream of fury. "How do you know of that upstart magician? Did he send you?"
Brimstone shook his head no. "We have a lot in common, though, Dark Man. And I'm starting to figure out a little more about you."
The creature stared at Brimstone for a few seconds, and then turned away, walking to the other end of the cave. He exited into the night and called back, "What little you have learned won't help you now."
Dragon watched as the starry sky was slowly blocked from vision. He heard the sound of a boulder being rolled and eventually the rock blocked the cave in completely. He coughed as the smoke got thicker.