Firebug stood twenty feet back from the shack, his eyes wild, a manic grin on his face. This was his favorite thing in all the world. This was why he ran with Dead-Eye Dan; no one else gave him the opportunity to burn things and watch them dance, encouraged him to pursue his life’s calling. He was only dimly aware that Dan thought of him as something between a tool and a pet, but he wouldn’t have cared even if he truly understood. The fire was the important thing.
A warm desert storm was beginning to fall, but it wouldn’t be enough to put out the shack before the whole thing was engulfed. Firebug stood there, reveling in the sound of breaking glass and crackling wood and unaware of the movement just behind and to the side of the blaze. Lightning flashed and thunder roared somewhere nearby, and Firebug jumped. It was then that he saw it.
It was a dark outline against the blaze, tall, wisps of smoke trailing from its body. The rain ran down its face, mixed with the ash and the soot caked there, and with every crash of lightning Firebug saw a demon from hell crying tears of pitch striding ever closer.
His breath caught in his throat. A frightened animal cry escaped from his mouth, and he raised his revolver. His hand trembled with fear and half of his shots went wild, but the half that hit had no effect whatsoever on the monster before him. He threw his empty gun at the thing, but it fell laughably short. He looked around in a panic. The horse Dead-Eye had left him was far, so far, and he was alone with no one to save him.
The demon in black raised its arm and a revolver reported twice, like the barking of a feral dog. Firebug fell over backwards, two holes in his chest gurgling and sucking and oozing blood as the life left his body.
John Quinn stepped forward, his gun still firmly trained on the dying man as if he were a viper that could bite even in death. Three of the maniac’s bullets had hit him square in the chest, and it was only through sheer force of will that he had stayed on his feet. That, coupled with the smoke he’d inhaled as he’d tried to undo the ropes after rocking the chair over and smashing it against the floor, made it almost impossible to breathe. Convinced that Firebug was dead, he holstered his revolver. Flashes of light danced before his eyes. He brought a hand to his chest, tried to feel for the tell-tale heat of blood flowing from open wounds, but it was hard to focus, so hard.
He stumbled forward, caught himself on his hands and knees. Every breath came ragged, and as the desert rain washed down upon him, he shut his eyes and lost consciousness.
* * *
John Quinn opened his eyes. The world made no sense to him, cold and wet and bright and green. His mother had never said that Heaven would be cold and wet, and he certainly hadn’t expected Hell to be bright and green.
“This one’s alive!”
With a groan, John tried to push himself to his feet. Sharp pain shot across his chest as he did so, and he let out a small cry before collapsing back into the grass.
He could feel as much as hear the presence of other people gathering around him, watching him in silence. “Would someone be so kind as to help me up?” John Quinn muttered. Within an instant, hands were upon him, pulling him to his feet, and just as quickly, spears tipped with scrap metal blades were at his throat.
“Explain yourself. Now.” John looked up to find himself staring into the unblinking eyes of a raider. The man was close to John’s own age, perhaps a bit younger, as Kid Bernie had been, but there was something cold and confident about him, calculating. He had light eyes and skin tanned by the desert. His clothes were a patchwork of animal furs and items stolen from travelers, but where his followers had simple weapons crafted from the wood and metal that they had scavenged, he had a revolver. The finish was wearing off, and the gun was impractically large, but John Quinn had no doubt that it would fire, that this raider was a good shot with it.
John stared at the man for a moment before nodding towards where he remembered Firebug’s body laying in the grass. “Crazy piece of shit tried to burn me alive. So I shot him. Then I passed out, I guess.”
“You passed out?”
“Yeah, on account of breathing smoke and getting shot three times in the gut? Takes something out of a man.”
“You’re awfully mouthy for a man that claims to have been shot.”
John Quinn’s eyes narrowed to slits. He grinned at the man. Despite John’s obvious helplessness, the raider’s hand dropped to the gun at his hip. “I’m tough,” John said. “Now, are you and your boys here going to kill me, or are you just going to stand here trying to tickle me with those pig stickers?”
The raider said nothing, but turned from John to look at Firebug. “Why’d he try to kill you? Do you know who he is?”
“Yeah, he runs with Dead-Eye Dan. He tried to kill me because I’ve come to kill them.”
“Are you from Agua Grande?”
The raider turned back to look at John, eyed him suspiciously. “Why did you come for them?”
“There was a family farm a few day’s south of here. Someone burnt it to the ground with the family still in it. When I got to Agua Grande a few days ago, another one of Dan’s boys was there, and he was bragging about how they’d done it. Challenged him to a duel, shot him dead in the street, and made my way up here to finish the job.”
The raider watched John for a moment, considering his words before motioning to his followers to lower their weapons. He reached his hand out to the gunslinger. “My name is Jeraad, and anyone who would see Dead-Eye Dan killed is safe in my lands.”
“John Quinn, and forgive me for saying so, but Dead-Eye Dan seemed to think these were his lands.”
Jeraad snorted. “That is the way of all thieves, to think that all that they see is theirs. He and his men attack our village for sport, stealing our food and kidnapping my people for ransom.” His expression darkened. “Or worse.”
“Well, why don’t you and your boys here do something about him? You got enough muscle here to handle one old man.”
Jeraad shook his head. “He has turned the canyon into a fort. There is a wall across the entrance, and he leaves men standing guard there with guns. It would be suicide to attack it during the day, and even at night, more would rally to defend it before the wall could be brought down.”
“I thought it was just him, Kid Bernie, and Firebug in that canyon.”
Jeraad shook his head. “There are others who come and go, evil men who seek to create an easy life for themselves by preying on others. Those three are the heart of the gang. They are the ones who leave the canyon most often, as the people of Agua Grande fear them too much to stand up to them.”
“And you?” John asked, arching an eyebrow and eyeing Jeraad suspiciously.
Jeraad could not hold John’s gaze. “Perhaps… perhaps the same could be said of my people as well.”
John Quinn frowned. “Well, hell. I didn’t think this was going to be simple, but you’re making it sound impossible.”
“They’ll shoot anyone they don’t recognize who gets close to the canyon.”
John Quinn stood with his arms crossed carefully considering this new information. He didn’t have a rifle he could use to pick off the guards at the wall, and judging from the weapons Jeraad and his men were carrying, they didn’t either. He supposed that he could wait until dark and scout out the canyon under the cover of night, but the horses were gone. Either they’d run off in the storm or else Dead-Eye Dan had taken them with him the night before. Finishing the trip to the canyon on foot would take some time, and the longer he waited, the more likely Dead-Eye Dan was to grow suspicious about Firebug’s absence.
John looked over to where Firebug lay on the ground. He walked over and examined the body. They were about the same size, with Firebug maybe a bit thinner and John maybe a bit taller. The man’s hat lay a few feet away, tattered and dirty from constant use and neglect. He was dressed simply: jeans, boots, a bright serape that was now soaked with blood.
A smile crept across John Quinn’s face. By the time he turned to face Jeraad, it had become a grin. “I think I have a good idea.”
* * *
The two men standing guard at the entrance to Calaveras Canyon by the light of the full moon were bored and tired. Each armed with a rifle, they watched the dark horizon for any sign of trouble. They saw it at the same time, the lurching, shambling figure stumbling towards them from out of nowhere.
“I don’t know, but if he gets too close, we waste him.”
The figure fell to his knees then and let out a low, plaintive wail like a wounded dog. The men looked more closely, recognized the absurdly bright colors of the serape, the shapelessness of the hat. “Oh, Jesus,” one of them said. “Is that Firebug? What in hell’s he doing?”
One of the men left his post, the other standing watch from atop the wall. The man cautiously approached, saying quietly, “Firebug, that you? Firebug?” The figure didn’t respond, but crawled on hands and knees towards the man. The man could see that the figure’s serape was caked in what looked like dried blood, its boots and hands were muddy, its features obscured by dirt. “Firebug, what in hell happened to you?”
The figure looked up, and the man realized too late that it wasn’t Firebug before him at all. The features were a bit off, but the eyes were all wrong. A cold intelligence burned there, and its gaze pierced him almost as much as the knife that it slid between his ribs did.
Up on the wall, the remaining guard was trying to figure out why Firebug had sprung to his feet in search of a hug. The two men grappled in the moonlight for a few seconds when the other guard went limp and collapsed in a heap. The figure then looked up at him, and the guard saw the glint of steel in its hand by the moonlight. His eyes went wide and he moved to shoulder his rifle. The figure pointed at him, as if issuing a challenge from below.
An arrow pierced the guard’s throat, the fletching quivering in the air before him. He tried to call out, but could make no sound. Another arrow struck him in the chest, and another a second after that. He pitched forward off the wall, his neck snapping as he struck the ground.
Jeraad and his men moved forward from their hiding places in the brush near the canyon’s entrance and joined with John Quinn. There were five of them all together, Jeraad and his best hunters. Quiet. Good with a bow. Efficient. “Do you think they know we’re here?” the raider asked.
John looked to the gate built into the wall and shook his head. “They’d be shooting at us if they did. We were quiet. We’ve got surprise on our side for now, at least.” John picked up one of the guards and began dragging him towards the brush. “Better not to waste it.”
Once the bodies were hidden, the rifles passed out to two of the raiders, the group crept towards the wall. “Give me five minutes to check the place out,” John said. “You hear voices or gunfire, you come charging in.” Jeraad nodded.
John Quinn took a deep breath. His revolvers resting on his hips, Kid Bernie’s bloodstained knife tucked into his belt, he slinked through the gate. The night’s work had just begun.