They were making for Gregor's Gulch, all right. It was easy following their trail and it led down a rough, rocky slope into a hole in the cliff on the Masthead side of the Gulch's river. Eric and I followed them right inside, like a couple of goldanged tenderfoot greenhorns!
I shoulda remembered that Burns was in the War too, and that he made it to a higher rank on the Confederate side than I ever did on the Union side! He'd no sooner be fool enough to leave his lair unguarded than I'd forget to clean my shotgun.
They came for us as soon as we reached the first cavern, one filled with crates. Eric and I pried up the lids of a couple and I discovered a box full of gold bars, while Eric found a heap of gold nuggets. Bending down to look into my crate might have saved my life, because that's when the punch whistled through the space where my head had been.
We hadn't paid no attention to them outside because they'd been sitting in positions and places where they blended right in with the cliff walls. Once we were inside the tunnel they'd come after us, a trio of men mostly encased in solid rock and Dark Stone!
I'd heard Scafford had gang members like this, but this was the first time I'd seen any. They hit awful hard and Eric could barely hurt them, what with the natural armor they had. My shotgun did better, even knocking a few of the pieces of Dark Stone off one, but it took me two separate blasts of my firearm to kill him! If Eric hadn't lit and tossed that stick of dynamite we would have taken even more of a beating than we did!
Still, these outlaws had accomplished what they'd been put there for. Gunshots echo a lot underground, and even if the rest of the Scafford bandits were in deep enough to miss the sound, they'd have had to be deaf not to hear that dynamite go off! So my plan to ambush them and capture Captain Burns was already dead. They'd be ready for us when we came. Worse, if there was another way out of here, they could be heading for it!
I didn't think they would, given all the loot they'd be leaving behind, but then again Captain Burns had no way of knowing how many lawmen had followed him after his Masthead raid, and he just might decided discretion were the better part o' valor.
So Eric and I hurried into the next cavern, only to find another one of those cursed summoning circles drawn on the floor!
That really threw me for a loop, since so far as I knew it was the red hand fellers who were messing with that magic. Had one of Scafford's boys learned how to do it too? Was that how they'd got that giant worm working with the gang members we found in Mt. La Terra? Or had Scafford actually allied with the red hand people? Lord if that idea wasn't a nightmare! Scafford and his gang were dangerous enough without being able to call up and control monsters!
I wanted to break the circle, but the last time we'd done a dozen Void Spiders and half a dozen Stranglers had just up and appeared out of nowhere! So Eric and I left the circle alone and hurried on.
Burns and his men hadn't been making for an exit after all. They were waiting for us on the opposite side of a gorge spanned by a single bridge: Burns, four mutants, and another trio of stone-encrusted giants. Eric opened up on em as soon as we could see them, his shooting faster than blue blazes, and he dropped two of the gunfighters into that gorge. Burns and another man moved onto the bridge, and while the second one's shooting weren't nothing to get excited about, Burns was quicker on the trigger and much more accurate in aiming his gun barrel.
I didn't want to kill him; I had plenty of questions to ask him, and it's always better to see them swing than have to shoot them down. So I tried. I flashed my badge and hollered to the Captain, "You're under arrest! Surrender!", but he just wouldn't listen.
I shot for the belly, hoping I could take him out of the fight without killing him. He went down, all right, but there was no time to check on him, since those three brutes were heading my way across the bridge.
They crowded around me, nearly broke my jaw, and bruised my ribs something awful. Then a lit stick of dynamite came flying out of the air, hit my shoulder, and rolled between two of them. I threw myself down, but their forms shielded me from most of the blast, though it didn't do them no good.
Eric put his invisible wall across the third one, and we took the first two and then the bandits, who couldn't shoot for shit, before downing the last hulking brute.
We found a lot of cash in bank bags, and Eric found some kind of amulet, but what I wanted was information! Soon as the shooting was done I hurried to Burns on the bridge, and when I saw him I cursed. His guts were practically hanging out and maybe my little stone could have saved him, but I'd already used it and I knew it didn't heal no more than once a day.
I ain't proud of what I did next, but I don't regret it none neither. I leveled my shotgun at Burns' groin and told him I'd send him to Hell screaming if he didn't tell me where the Colonel was, right now! Well, he broke, as any man might in those circumstance; I could see it in his eyes. He said Scafford was holed up in the Golden Road mine north of and over the railroad tracks from the town of Flamme's Folly. I asked how many men were with Scafford and he told me no more than a dozen.
Normally I'd find that hard to believe, but from what I'd found here and in Mt. La Terra it looks like Scafford's split his gang up into a number of groups; I could see him only having one with him while the others were out raising hell and stealing everything that weren't nailed down.
I wanted to ask him more, about the giant worm and the circle, but by then Captain Burns was past the point where he'd be answering to anybody except God.
We made it to the mining town of Masthead on the last dregs of our energy, carrying the stolen bank bags slung over our shoulders. I was shocked to learn the town had no Sheriff, but the Mayor paid me the $500 for putting an end to Captain Burns, as the wanted poster promised.
Tomorrow I'll see about maybe getting that other army regiment stationed here to do something about the giant worm, and if I have a chance I'll get my shotgun separated from my hand. Then Eric and I are going after Scafford! FINALLY!!!
I went to the campsite to talk with the officer leading the army detachment, only to find he'd been killed in an ambush two days ago along with a lot of his men! Once again the camp sawbones had more work than he could handle, so I pitched in again and after he sold that fancy amulet he'd found Eric helped out too.
I asked one of the Sergeants what had done this to him. He was past the point where he could speak, but he reached into his pocket, pulled out a belt buckle, and handed it to me.
The belt buckle had a large S engraved on it.
I clenched that cursed piece of metal in my hand until I nearly drew blood. No wonder Captain Burns had felt free to rob the bank here, after one army detachment had failed to return from patrol and that stinkin coyote had ambushed the second one!
At the end of the day I filled Eric in on what I'd learned. He asked if he could have the belt buckle and I shrugged and passed it over. With his mutations, gun and now belt buckle he really could pass for a Scafford gang member, but I warned him not to go relying on that. Like I wrote in this book before, having him try to infiltrate that gang is just too dangerous. Better for us to go in guns blazing and rely on the good Lord to see us through.
In exchange Eric gave me a string of rattlesnake fangs he'd gotten from wounded soldier. I kinda liked the look of them and hung them on my bandolier.
We're ready to take a long trip cross-country and hit the Colonel's hiding place, but Eric wanted to stay in Masthead one more day. I agreed, but made him swear it would be no more than that.
Since we'll be here tomorrow anyway, maybe I can find someone other than the doc who can get my hand loose from my shotgun.
WHY, Lord??? Why have You cursed me with this affliction?!?! Is this my punishment for all those I've failed to save since coming here, all the innocent lives which have slipped through my fingers? I'd almost a rather You'd taken my life than . . . than this!
I'll have to explain to Eric in the morning, assuming he'll still stay with me once he's seen it. But first I gotta try to get what's happened today right in my own mind, if I can.
This morning I made the terrible mistake of trying to see if a surgeon in the Mutant Quarter could get my shotgun free of my hand. I asked around and headed for the office of a mutant doctor named Enos Hopewell.
On the way there a street vendor called me over to his stall. He tol me he was grateful for my bringing down Captain Burns and for being an advocate and good example for the rest o mutankind. Well, I didn't really appreciate that last part, but he gave me a roll of bandages and a stick of dynamite as a token of his gratitude, free of charge! What could I do after that but thank him kindly and move along?
I shoulda known what I sawed him not to put myself in Enos' hands! He had a set of horns coming out of his gray hair, glowing skin, and a tentacle for a leg. He had me lie down on his table and he rubbed some kind of liquid on my hand. Soon I couldn't feel it anymore and then he started a carefully cutting my fingers apart from each other, restoring my hand. He was almost done when it happened.
A felt a great roiling in my gut and then . . . then it grew out of my torso. It's head was that of a little blond boy, three or four, with these little tiny arms. As soon as I saw it I grabbed my shotgun with my other hand and damn near blew Enos threw the wall of his office! I was screaming at him, demanding to know what he'd done to me, and my finger was white on the trigger.
He didn't beg or make excuses or even cower; he faced me like a man and told me he'd fixed my mutation, but the Dark Stone dust still in my system had caused a different mutation. He said he'd done his best and if I wanted to kill him for that, then I should go ahead and do it.
I was came nearer to committing cold-blooded murder today than I've ever come before in my life. I don't know what I mighta done if that little child thing hadn't a grabbed my shotgun, pulling it down with his little hands and begging me in a tiny voice not to hurt the doctor.
I just about collapsed at that point, and I wept, out of terror, shame and self pity. The doc set aside my shotgun, but he didn't do nothing else until I'd cried myself out. Then he told me that mutations like this were called Void Children. They weren't like normal kids because they were born with a whole mess of knowledge from the Void and from the mind of the person they were growing out of both. He said they loved the person they were born from and wanted to help them.
I yelled at him that this abomination could never help me, and he knocked me back down on his operatin table with one punch. For an old feller, he sure hit hard.
Then he took a handkerchief out of his pocket and gave it to the thing coming out of my waist, which was crying now.
He told me attitudes like mine were why so many mutants felt there was no hope for them anymore in society. So they rioted, or joined the Scafford gang like Pete and Tom had done. He said those were two of the outlaws we'd killed with Captain Burns, and that they'd just been ordinary miners until the Dark Stone had mutated them. After that Pete's young wife had left him and they'd both been shunned by all the normal townsfolk. He told me mutants were just people the Dark Stone had changed, but treating them like monsters instead of people was the best way to make them monsters. Then he asked me how many mutants I wanted to see join the Scafford Gang because they felt there was no other way.
I couldn't talk to him no more after that. I staggered out of his office feeling numb, like I was just waiting to wake up from a nightmare. When I was almost out of the Mutant Quarter the thing told me in a little kid excited voice to wait, go over there, and pointed to a street vendor. I just wanted him to be quiet, so I went over there.
The mutant behind the counter greeted me warmly and asked the little kid thing what its name was. He told the man Xotc, like he was real proud of that, and then he asked to please hold the little pistol on the table. It wasn't much bigger than a derringer, but it was the perfect size for him. He told me that he could shoot, that he knew how from me and that he could help me git Scafford.
I didn't know what to say to that, so I just handed over the money to the stallkeeper for the "Void Child Pistol", as he called it, and came back here to my hotel room.
Tomorrow me and Eric, if he'll still come, are going to get Scafford. We're not stopping in any towns along the way; Scafford's sure to have spies in the towns near his rathole and if Enos was right, than he could have recruiters anywhere there was mutants. I'd thought Scafford split up his gang so he could hit targets in plenty of different places at once, but maybe that wasn't the only reason. Maybe he also did it to try to recruit more members for his gang from all over the Brimstone territory, from those who'd been rejected for what had happened to them.
I don't know for sure. All I know is that I'm taking down Scafford if it's the last thing I do! If it is and I die in the process, well, then maybe that's for the best too.
the Journal is building up nicely! an enjoyable read as always.
And that brings you guys up to date on our campaign. Our next session, starting with the second Scafford Gang mission (which centers on collaring the Colonel), will take place on August 7th and will include the Shadows of Brimstone stuff I'll be buying at GenCon!!!
So please wish Clyde, Eric and Xotc luck; they're going to need it!