Chapter 1 Stranger than Westerns 3:33 A.M, John Yearly’s Farmstead A cool mist washed over the faded white-washed fence separating Yearly’s farmstead from the wildlands beyond. It rolled in without sound, covered the sun scorched pastures and rolled past the stables where the horses bucked and brayed, eyes rolling madly in their sockets. The strangest thing was the still; it brought a powerful silence in its wake, left even the earnest cricket in hushed anticipation. It moved deliberately, fell upon the silent house beyond the faded barn and settled there, abided. From that silence, shapes moved within the fog, horses that fell still without even the sound of their hooves and shapes that stopped outside the door, looked to each other, and then kicked it in. All without sound. Moments later the mists fell away from the edges, moonlight falling on the shape of a man leaning up against the fencepost between property and badland. He wore all black and dangled a spinning gold watch from his right hand, the chain wrapped lovingly around his fingers. He was humming when the fog parted, when two grim faced Indians approached him, a boy clasped between them. The child wasn’t more than ten, struggled with the desperation of a rabbit in a trap. “He struggles,” Captain Jack said, his deep voice thrumming life into the air around them, “Strong will to live.” “Bring him.” The black clad man said quietly, extending the golden lassoed fingers and beckoning. Captain Jack frowned, seemed to wrestle with himself. The only sign of his resistance was the vein pumping at his temple, thick like a caterpillar it wriggled and then fell still. He and the other Brave stepped forward and forced the child to his knees, inclining his head up at their commander. ‘Blackheart’ looked down into the child’s eyes, the way they thrashed with fear and pushed off the fence post. He knelt, tugging off the glove around his left hand and caught the boy’s chin, bringing his face uncomfortably close. The boy was stricken mute by the terror, shaking as the strange man brought his face down against the boys, as he took in a deep breath through his nose…smelling the child, tasting his fear, before letting the chin drop and standing. “Dissapointing,” Johnny murmured, barely disguising his disdain, “Return him to his kin…and burn them to the ground.” “No!” The cry was not from Captain Jack this time, but his companion, a scarred man they once called Scarface Charlie. “We will not.” Muscles flexed beneath the clothes he’d been buried in, anger burning in his eyes. Captain Jack struggled, spitting his words in broken syllables, his native language, frozen in place. “Beg pardon?” Williams asked, all hint of scowl and growl gone from him now, vanished like a summer rain. “I heard you cut down near a hundred men, Charlie, having trouble with a few more?” “Soldiers,” the Indian spit, “Not…children." “All children are soldiers,” Johnny drawled, tipping his hat down, “They just don't know what war they're fighting, yet.” “I will not” “You will,” Johnny assured with a disarming chuckle, "And you’ll do it with a grin.” Somewhere in the mists, beads clacked against bone and both the Modoc tribesman straightened, eerie smiles plastered across both their faces. “Burn it down,” Johnny whispered to them as the dragged the boy away, “Leave us a fire our lawdog friends can warm themselves by.” He turned away from the farm, the mist washing over him as the ghostly shadow of flames began to crawl up the sides of the home. “All stories start with a beginning. Let’s make sure this one is memorable.” 7 hours later-Sunset Saloon Mariposa, California No one spoke today, and the bar was drenched in solemnity and liquor. Bottles sat out on the counter, a collection hat in the corner…in case the outlaws felt in the giving mood. No one manned the bar, the tables, and no girls danced on the stage. Most of the regulars had stayed home, only the two or three washouts hugging the table closest to the door, supping their free spirits. The governor had yet to arrive, but the morning the Sunset Saloon opened, no one crossed its threshold save the desperate and the wretched. And the killers A stranger tied his horse up outside the saloon, slipping inside. His hat was skewed on his head, but what drew the eyes were the knives criss-crossed along his chest and the sword at his waist. They all glimmered with a tired kind of polish, bright despite the dust clinging to their handles and blades. He took the hat from his head as he entered, casting his eyes around the room and tossing it onto a table. It landed in the center with a dry shuffle, but no one said a word. The drunks near the door just watched, biting their own inebriated tongue lest it offend. Even for the burned out shells huddling round their glasses and bottles, they had enough of a care to their beating heart to leave well enough alone. Bad folks were coming round these parts, the devil's own ill-reputed soldiers. Not a one wanted to test which one had a tempter, and which one killed for less. Grabbing a bottle of alcohol and several cups he sat and poured them out, four glasses of whisky round the table. He placed one before him and three other before different seats, turning his gaze to the door. He did not smile, did not expect, simply leaned back and brought up two bootheels onto the table, thumping onto the stained wood with all the ardor of a judge’s gavel. There would be company soon, and it was a fool man who didn’t prepare for guests….even if he didn’t know who they were.