John Quinn left Agua Grande the next day to little fanfare. Whether the novelty the people felt at seeing the gunslinger had worn off or their fear of Dead-Eye Dan returned, John Quinn didn’t know. The only one to see him off on his journey was Byron, eyes bloodshot and drooping from his overindulgence the night before. They walked together in silence to Agua Grande’s stables, where Byron handed John the reins to a chestnut brown stock horse. The horse’s withers were as high as John’s shoulders, its back straight and strong. The creature snorted when John hopped astride it.
“Her name’s Delia,” Byron said. “Quarter Horse.” Byron scratched behind her ear and smiled at her. “She’s a smart, strong girl. She’ll get you to Calaveras no problem.”
John nodded and turned Delia towards the north. “Don’t you worry. I’ll bring her back.”
Byron smiled sadly at John. “Oh, she’s smart enough to find her own way back if she has to. Just don’t go getting her killed.” There was a moment of silence as Byron tried to think of what else to say to the gunslinger. “Take care on your ride out, friend. The raiders in these parts are like a force of nature.”
“I’ve fought with raiders before. I don’t much fear them.”
Byron shook his head. “I’m not talking about toothless hillfolk that ambush a wagon, steal whatever’s edible and shiny, and slink away like dogs. These are wildmen, little more than savages. They catch you with that horse, they’ll kill and eat you and save the horse for themselves. Better to shoot yourself and be done with it than let them have their way with you.”
John Quinn shook his head. “What in Hell’s wrong with this land?”
Byron shrugged. “It’s just the way the world is, friend.”
John Quinn grunted. With a flick of Delia’s reins, he rode out into the wilds, out towards Calaveras Canyon.
* * *
The ride was quiet and easygoing, the day cooler than the one before. John Quinn looked up at the sky. Dark clouds were blowing in from the east and it would almost certainly rain that night or the next day. Best to stop early if there’s shelter to be had, John thought.
The sun climbed overhead and began its journey back down. John’s mind wandered. This was an old land, an open land, and it always had been. There were no grey ruins jutting out of the ground, not paved roads fallen into disrepair. Animals had worn trails into the dirt with their wanderings and people had come and worn them in deeper chasing those animals. What would his father have thought of this land, so different from the farm where John Quinn had been raised, so different from the fallen cities to the south? What would his mother have thought, she who would read him stories about heroes from books with pages worn as brittle as dried grass by years?
John Quinn let his eyes wander across the open fields that surrounded him. A little ways away, a jackrabbit snuffled in the dirt. Farther still, a coyote watched the rabbit with eager eyes. And beyond that, the hills that squat on the horizon.
* * *
John Quinn and Delia rode onwards spurred by John’s desire to cover as much ground as quickly as possible. The sooner he got to Calaveras Canyon, the sooner he would be able to begin gathering information on Dead-Eye Dan’s proclivities, the numbers of his gang, their comings and goings. But the clouds moved in quickly that night, and with them, the threat of a sudden, torrential desert downpour. Delia began fussing, and John knew she would not let herself be ridden much further. It was then, in the dim light cast by the shrouded moon, that John saw a shack standing alone in the field. It was old and crumbling, but it would be dry enough.
As he approached, the details of the shack began to stand out to him. The walls were patchwork and it was impossible to say what the building had originally looked like. In some spots, it seemed that the only thing keeping out the elements was a canvas tarp. Such a tarp lay tethered between the shack and adjacent post, likely to provide cover for the animals of any who stayed there.
Someone’s been here recently, John Quinn thought. Hunters, perhaps.
But there were no lights burning in the windows of the shack, no animals tethered underneath that tarp. To his eyes, it looked empty that night.
He hopped down from atop Delia and led her by the reins towards the makeshift stable. She whinnied loudly when he tied her to the post, and he silenced her with a finger before drawing one of his revolvers and walking around the perimeter. Best to check the outside before venturing in.
There was nothing. Taking a deep breath, he put his hand on the door and pushed it open. Silence greeted him. He stepped forward and shut the door behind him, taking a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
The room was sparsely furnished. Three chairs, a stool in the center to serve as a table of sorts. Nothing on the floor or the walls. A pile of discarded animal bones and other refuse in one of the corners. A doorway leading to another room.
The sound of shuffling feet. John Quinn turned in the direction of the noise, his revolver raised, the hammer cocked. “Who’s there? Say something!”
John Quinn stepped forward through the doorway. A beam of moonlight poured through a window, illuminating a man huddled on the ground. He looked up at John, his eyes wide with animal terror and let out a single frightened gasp.
“Hey, it’s okay,” John said. “I’m not going to shoot you?”
The man looked at John with the same unchanging expression.
“Can you talk? What are you doing here? Are you alone?”
“He ain’t,” came a voice from behind John. There was a note of amusement in it, and as John Quinn turned, he was struck in the face with the butt of a rifle. The world went black.
* * *
John Quinn dreamed. The murderers fled across the desert, and the man in black followed.
John Quinn had sworn an oath when he found the burnt bodies of two adults and three children on bended knee with their hands twisted before them. He was dimly aware that the heat had made the muscles and sinew in their arms and legs draw up and tighten, but he couldn’t help but think that their last moments had been spent in prayer, begging for an escape from their horrible fate. His mind stayed on this, expanded on it, and before long, he was trembling, his mouth fixed in a snarl, his vision blurring at the edges.
“Men will die for this,” he whispered to the unhearing remains of what had once been a family. “I swear to you, men will die for this.”
In his black felt hat and his black duster, he knelt in the dirt outside the house. His dark and pitiless eyes found the confused and unshod hoof prints some horses had left in the soft soil, and he determined that the murderers had gone west. He pulled his hat from off his head, held his hand bladed over his brow, and squinted. There were no men to be seen on the road, not even a cloud of dust kicked up by horses. This would be a difficult hunt.
He stood up straight and brushed the dust from his chest. His hands dropped to his hips and came to rest for a moment on his ironwood and ivorywood-gripped revolvers. He adjusted them slightly, laid the satchel he wore with his provisions across his back, and pulled the brim of his hat down. Then he began.
They rode on horses, and he walked in his boots, but still he followed. They had at least a day’s head-start, but still he followed. He could only guess at their number and he didn’t know where they were going or how they were armed or who would be waiting for them at their destination, but still he followed. They were men in desperate need of killing, and the years John Quinn had spent on this earth had made him a fine killer of men.
* * *
Someone was slapping at John Quinn’s face. “Wake up, boy. Wake up. We got talking to do.”
John Quinn opened his eyes to find an older man sitting across from him. His hair was black spotted with flecks of grey, as was the stubble on his face. A long scar ran down the front of the right side of his face, from his brow down to his chin, and the eye was clouded over. He regarded John Quinn with a smug smile.
“You must be Dead-Eye Dan,” John said. His face throbbed, with most of the pain centered between his eyes. When he tried to move his limbs, he realized he’d been bound to a chair.
“That I am. Who are you?”
“My name’s John Quinn and I’ve come to kill you.”
Dead-Eye Dan smiled a bit wider. “Is that so? You’re doing a piss-poor job of it. Tell me, who sent you?”
“No one sent me. I’ve come on my own.”
The older man laughed. “And why in the hell would you do that?”
“This past week, you and your buddies burnt a farm to the ground. There were people in that farm. A family. You’re no-good thugs and you won’t be terrorizing this land any longer.”
Dead-Eye Dan smiled and leaned forward in his seat. “I see. Let me tell you something, John Quinn. I own this land. I own everything in it. I own the people, I own the animals, I own the shack, and I own you. A few years back, I decided this was true, and the people of Agua Grande decided they weren’t going to do a damn thing to convince me otherwise.” He smiled, inhaled deeply. “So here we are. I’m king of the desert, and I ain’t about to give that up because you decided you were going to play avenging angel for a bunch of dead farmers.”
He stood up then and John Quinn stared at him, tried to commit every detail he could to memory. The man was tall and thin, his clothes comfortable and practical but with a few embellishments of jewelry that had undoubtedly been acquired at gunpoint. The gun that sat on his left hip wasn’t a revolver, but a black pistol with the same profile as a gun John Quinn’s father had once owned.
“Maybe after a few days without food,” Dead-Eye Dan said, ”you’ll be thin enough to slip out of those ropes and go back to Agua Grande with your tail between your legs.” He paused, considered this. “Assuming the coyotes don’t get your scent and come calling first. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
“Tell me,” John Quinn said. His voice was cold and calm as one of the desert’s winter nights. “Tell me why you did it.”
Dead-Eye Dan simply laughed. He leaned forward until his face was inches from John Quinn’s own, his breath hot and tinged with the faint scent of alcohol. “I raided their farm and burnt it to the ground for the same reason I’ve done everything in my life: because it was easier.” He stood up straight and looked down at John. “I can’t hardly be blamed for that, can I? For wanting a life where there’s more of reaping and less of sowing?”
“I’ll see you dead for what you’ve done. I killed the runt, and I’ll kill the two of you.”
Dead-Eye Dan’s eyes went wide at learning of Kid Bernie’s death, but the surprise was gone almost as soon as it had appeared, replaced by anger. “Believe whatever you want in your last moments on this earth,” Dan said. He regarded John Quinn for a moment and then chuckled to himself. “You know, I ought to just put a bullet in your head, but if you feel so strongly for the dirt-farmers, maybe you’d like to know what they felt when they died.” He turned to his companion. “Firebug, do your thing. I’ll see you back at camp.” With that, he turned to leave.
Firebug went to work, shattering some of the old furniture for kindling and scattering it against the walls. John Quinn watched in silence, tested the strength of the knots they had bound him with. He watched as Firebug produced a flint and steel, struck it against a pile of dried grass, and waited for it to catch. Once the flames had spread to the tinder, he ran giggling from the shack, leaving John Quinn to die alone.