A Note from the Management: Let me begin by saying that I’m sorry for the radio silence the past month. Unfortunately, J. Augustus will be taking a break from the blog for the foreseeable future. I can’t say at this point when he’ll return, but this blog will remain a joint effort and so this will always be a home for his writing.
Until then, this is going to be a one man show, and to that end, the schedule for updating will remain something of a work in progress. March will be an experiment of sorts to see how much content I can produce on my own, and the schedule may be tweaked in the months to come, but here’s my current promise to you: For the remainder of March, there will be new content of some sort every Monday and Friday. More likely than not, it will be serial installments of a story, but the updates may also feature poetry, art, guest writers, or background looks into the worlds of the stories.
Alright, that’s enough from me. Let’s get this show on the road. Submitted for your approval, here’s part one of a western, “Where There’s More of Reaping and Less of Sowing.” Enjoy, and as always, thank you for reading!
Three shots rang out under the desert sun. Kid Bernie gasped for air, his hand still on the grip of his revolver and his legs rapidly failing beneath him. He staggered forward, crumpled backwards, and lay cursing God and begging his forgiveness with every breath.
His killer, a tall man with dark eyes, a black duster, and an ironwood-shod revolver in his right hand, stood up straight and took a deep breath. The smell of blackpowder hung heavy in the air, the tang of freshly spilled blood just underneath it. The man in black strode forward, his thumb locking back the hammer of his firearm into place as he moved. Down but not dead, Kid Bernie’s hand struggled feebly to free his gun from its holster and exact revenge on the man who had murdered him. The man’s eyes were locked on that hand, ignoring the looks on the faces of Agua Grande’s citizens around him: fear, shock, awe, gratefulness.
The man in black closed the distance, set his boot on Kid Bernie’s wrist and aimed his revolver into Kid Bernie’s face. “You’re dead, boy. You know that, right?”
Kid Bernie gasped for breath, blood bubbling up from the two bullet wounds in his chest and the one in his stomach. “T-t-t-to Hell with you.”
“No, not me. Hell’s something you and your friends have to worry about. Why don’t you do some good with your last few moments on this earth and tell me where I can find the other two? The people of this fine town said there were three of you, and those other two sons of bitches need a firm talking to.”
Kid Bernie coughed a fine red mist. “I ain’t telling you shit. You ain’t… you ain’t–”
The man in black kicked Kid Bernie in the ribs. He screamed. “Just ’cause you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t hurt. Tell me where they are, or so help me, you’ll wish you could bleed out faster.”
Kid Bernie looked up at him with hatred burning hot in his eyes and a crimson sneer on his face. He spat up at the man in black, a useless gesture that did nothing more than dampen his boot. “They’re in Calaveras Canyon. Good luck to you, cowboy. Dead-Eye Dan’s got that place locked up like an army base from the old days. You won’t make it a hundred feet from the mouth of the canyon before he puts a bullet between your eyes.”
“He can try, but I’ll see all three of you dead for what you did to the family of Hector Madrigal.”
Kid Bernie laughed, winced. “The family? That’s what this is about, the family? Hell, I ain’t sorry. I ain’t sorry, and no cowboy rolling into town with his pecker in one hand and a six-shooter in the other’s going to make me repent.”
“Make you repent?” There was sincere disbelief in the man in black’s voice. A low chuckle started at the bottom of his throat, a growl that turned into deep laughter. Kid Bernie’s eyes went wide. “Make you repent? You know who I am, boy? I’m John Quinn, and I’ve come to set the people of this fine town free. I’m John Quinn, and I’ve come to see justice done for the people you and your friends have murdered. I’m John Quinn, and I’m here to see you and your friends’ souls delivered into the hands of the Devil if it’s the last thing I do.”
The man in black fired once more, and the cracked and dirty streets of Agua Grande went silent.
* * *
John Quinn knelt down and sorted through Kid Bernie’s belongings. A revolver, single-action .45. A knife with a dull seven-inch blade. A gold heart-shaped locket that opened to reveal the words, “Mi corazon, para ti,” delicately engraved on the inside. A few dollars and coins and promissory notes.
John stood up, wiped his hands off on his pants. He looked around, realized for the first time that a crowd had gathered to watch the two gunfighters duel, that more had been summoned by the sound of shots being fired. They watched him from a distance, not quite having decided what to make of this man who had come into their town with his guns and his black clothes and his vendettas. One of their number, Byron the shopkeep, stepped tentatively towards him.
“Stranger,” the older man began, his eyes darting back and forth between John’s face and Kid Bernie’s corpse. “Are you really going to go hunt down Dead-Eye?”
John sniffed, as if the question were somehow asinine. “Hunt him down or die trying.”
Byron watched him for a moment. Plenty of men and women had passed through Agua Grande since he was a boy, and he’d learn how to tell the ones who were full of themselves from the ones who spoke the truth. This man spoke the truth.
“Well,” Byron said, the corners of his mouth turning up in a smile. “I think that’s the kind of notion that deserves a drink.” He turned to the gathered crowd, pointed at those idling in front of the Thirsty Cactus saloon. “Stand aside! This man’s going to see Dead-Eye Dan and his gang brought to justice, and I’m going to be the first to buy him a drink!”
A few shouts of assent went up. People stood aside or else went into the saloon ahead of them. Some followed behind John and Byron as they passed through the doors.
Inside, the saloon was quieter than it had been the night before when John Quinn had first come to Agua Grande, when Kid Bernie in his drunkeness and his arrogance accepted the duel that sealed his fate. Then a pianist had played while a drunken chorus sang “The Streets of Laredo.” Men and women laughed under the lights, giggled in the dark corners of the bar. Boot-clad feet danced atop wooden floors reclaimed from buildings erected in the old days. The saloon was emptier now, the liveliness diminished in the daytime, the only human presence the devotees that sat at the heavy wooden counter and were as much a fixture of the place as the furniture, the bottles behind the counter, the glass screens that had been pulled off the wall, painted upon, and put back up.
“Look alive,” Byron shouted. “This man needs a whiskey and he needs it now!”
* * *
Word spread quickly that the people of Agua Grande had a hero in their midst. Men and women came to the Thirsty Cactus to see him. Children walked up, their eyes wide with awe at the stranger with his dark cloak and his ironwood and ivorywood revolvers.
The rumors began quickly. “He’s been tracking Dead-Eye Dan all the way from Kirsty. He’s killed two dozen men with those guns, two dozen each. He’s a government man, an agent of the powers that be from the old days. He’s a vicious outlaw himself and he’s only hunting Dead-Eye ’cause he’s got a personal grudge against him.” The people talked, and John Quinn just sat there and nursed the drinks that they bought him. When they asked him why he didn’t celebrate his victory over Kid Bernie, he said he wasn’t done with his work yet. When they asked where he’d come from, he only said, “West.” When they asked him how he’d come to be a hunter of men, he said, “My father taught me to shoot and to track. My mother taught me to read and to reason. Bringing evil men to justice seemed liked the logical combination of the two.”
The day wore on, John Quinn asking the people of Agua Grande almost as many questions as they asked him. Calaveras Canyon was three days’ ride to the north. It used to be a good hunting spot some years back. The people knew who Dead-Eye Dan was, but he tended to attack travelers and farmsteads rather than established towns, and so the people of Agua Grande didn’t form a posse to stop him. He’d been a bandit for some years now. Outlaws joined his crew and left, but him, the late Kid Bernie, and a wild-eyed maniac known only as Firebug stayed constant. It was surely Firebug that burned down the Madrigals’ farmstead, but it was surely Dead-Eye who’d taken the notion to make sure they were still inside when it happened. No witnesses that way.
Hours passed. The sky slowly turned the color of a bruise, then darker still. The stars began to shine.
“Listen,” Byron said leaning forward in his seat, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “Let me know what I can do to help. There isn’t a soul in this town that doesn’t want to see Dead-Eye laid low, but they’re afraid. If you don’t get him, they don’t want to be the ones that supported you the next time he rolls through town.”
“They’re brave folk, the people of Agua Grande are.”
Byron shook his head. “You don’t know what it’s like living under the thumb of a man like that. It breaks you. Teaches you to keep your eyes on the ground so you don’t have to look at the world around you.”
John Quinn said nothing to that. He took a sip of whiskey and let it sit on his tongue, tasting it like he tasted Byron’s words. “You want to help,” he said finally, “get me a horse.”
“I can do that.” A smile slowly spread across Byron’s face. He leaned forward again. “In fact, I think I can do something even better. Finish your whiskey and come with me.”
John Quinn drained his glass and stood. Byron threw down a handful of money and grabbed a bottle from behind the counter.
The streets of Agua Grande were quiet. There was little evidence of the afternoon’s violence, the blood having long since soaked into the thirsting earth, Kid Bernie’s body having been moved. To be buried or to be left outside of town for wolves, it didn’t matter.
“Where are we going?” John Quinn asked.
“My shop. I got something in there I want to show. Something I think’ll help you.”
The inside of Byron’s Goods and Supplies was almost as large as the Thirsty Cactus. Byron pulled a lantern off the wall by the door and lit it, revealing a showroom full of an assortment of things: furniture, some tools, preserves and smoked meat. “Folks around here tend to make what they need,” Byron offered. “Go hunting, carve and smith their own tools, but I always tell them, ‘I’ll buy any extras,’ and so–”
The look John Quinn gave Byron told him he didn’t have much interest in the finer points of small town politics or economics. “Right, right. Sorry. Here, it’s in the back. Just one second.” Byron opened a door and stepped through. John caught a glimpse of a storeroom filled with all manner of junk, but he said nothing. A few moments later, Byron returned bearing the torso of a mannequin with a preposterous-looking vest on it.
“So, this building’s been in my family for as long as I’ve known. My daddy ran a shop here, and his daddy ran a shop here, and I’ve got to imagine that stretches back a hundred years or so to the old days. But anyway, when I was just a little kid, this old, old man comes in. Says he was a soldier when he was young and all he wants is a quiet place to live out the rest of his days.
“So he offers my daddy everything he owns in exchange for room and board in perpetuity. And he’s got strange, strange things. Guns the likes of which you’ve never seen. Medicine bottles full of God only knows what. Little bars that he says will keep a man nourished for a week, drinks that’ll keep a man awake and alert for three days straight. He says he’ll give it all for a place to live and food to eat, but more than that, he’s just this sad, lonely old man, so my daddy gives him one of the rooms above the shop.” Byron stopped, as if some long forgotten memory had suddenly come to him unbidden. “He was an alright sort. Quiet. Sometimes he’d get nightmares and wake up screaming, but a man can’t hardly be blamed for something like that.”
“What’s that, then?” John said, pointing at the vest.
“One of the things he gave us. You wear it. Put on an undershirt, put this on, throw the rest of your clothes on top of it. With that duster of yours, no one would even know you had it on.”
Byron grinned, obviously pleased with himself. “Because it stops bullets.”
John Quinn arched a single eyebrow, but the grin stayed firmly affixed to Byron’s face. John moved forward to touch the strange vest, expected to feel unyielding metal plates sewn into it. Instead it was soft, only a bit firmer than the heavy canvas workpants he and his father had worn when he was young. “Bullshit.”
“I’ve seen it. Saved my daddy’s life once when a drunk pulled a gun on him. Bullet should have gone through his heart, but instead it just knocked him on his ass and left a nasty bruise.”
John picked up the vest. It was light, so light he didn’t think he’d notice it at all underneath the weight of his duster. “And you want me to have this.”
Byron nodded. He opened his mouth, then shut it, paused to think about what he wanted to say carefully. “That old man,” he began, “was a hero. You could tell it just by looking at him, even though he was an old cuss. He just… stood tall. Carried himself like the good Lord had given him a purpose and seen fit to let him know it. Plenty of different folks have come through Agua Grande over the years, but most of the gunfighters have looked like Kid Bernie, all smug and sneering. Acted like him, too, like they could take whatever they wanted from the world just ’cause they were good with a six-shooter. But that old man was different. Just like you’re different.” He took a pull from the bottle. “It’s right that you should have it.”
For the first time since he’d arrived in Agua Grande, John Quinn felt uncomfortable. He looked at the armor, wondered if it could really offer any protection, wondered about the man who had worn it.
Byron watched his thoughts play out on his face. Emboldened by all the drink he’d had that day, he put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “Friend, if you’re going to make it a habit of coming into towns and putting a bullet into the local villain, you’d best get used to being a symbol to the people.”
John Quinn shook his head. “I’m no symbol and I’m no hero. I just don’t like seeing families burned alive.”
“That’s more than some,” Byron said. He took another pull from the bottle, passed it to John Quinn. “That’s more than some.”