This is the story of Jonah Warden. Some say he was a just a man, dealing out the Old Guard’s retribution from beyond the grave, riding a horse black as night, a beast meaner than a hungry wolf. Others say he was so much more than a man, a hurricane trapped in a man’s body, a curse uttered by the Emperor’s dying lips, come to punish us for our sins.
For some, he was a blessing. To others, a plague. The stories said he’d been of the Old Guard, last of his kind. That he’d hidden in the Rift for a decade, amid winds so fierce they could flay the skin from your body, in the invisible heat that would burn you from the inside out. That he had made his black revolvers himself, melting down the Emperor’s Iron crown. That he’d made his bullets out of the badges of his dead friends, whom he’d seen die, on the day the old capital burned.
They said he’d trained himself, made himself a thing that was rough as a rock, its soul tempered in the fires of retribution. Said his horse was a Thing of the Rift, with unimaginable powers, that he’d broken himself, in a battle of wills that lasted for months. Others said the horse was the Devil, which had offered him its service in exchange for his soul, giving him resilience far beyond that of mortal men. Said that was why his eyes were so alien.
Like pitch-black beads, they were.
But I know now, that despite what everyone said, back then, Jonah Warden was a thing of fury and determination. I know this, because I knew him. Knew his ways and his thoughts better than any other human being might claim.
I will tell you this: a man is defined by something more than the sum of his parts. Even the toughest, most merciless, unrelenting, kind, generous, understanding being on God’s green earth is nothing more than an animal on two legs, if it lacks humanity. It is the element that brings these things together, to make him a man in both his own eyes, as in the eyes of his fellow human beings.
You see, when I met him, Jonah Warden was so much less than a man.
I saw him before the Gwynn Gulch massacre, for the very first time. Saw him cross the main road, riding that black, mean horse of his. People all over stopped just to look at it. The children stared at the animal and us, the adults, felt a shiver run up our spine. We hadn’t seen a horse for ten years now. They’d gone extinct after the Vas’Iiri invasion, see.
I looked at this strange sight for a while. He was riding it without a saddle, his back straight, his hands hooked on the reins. You can’t blame me for mistaking him, then. As I looked at him, I could tell: his posture, the line of his jaw, the way he stood on the saddle, crossing the town as if he owned it.
If it hadn’t been for those mysterious, incomprehensible eyes of his, I would have still thought him for the real Jonah.
The town was buzzing at the site. The man simply stood there, like a statue, a monument that seemed impervious to our attentions. My hands shook as I looked at him, thinking how strange, how impossible it all was: the man I was to marry, a captain of the Old Guard that had died when the old capital was bombed, alive and well before my very eyes.
I don’t know how long I stood there, not speaking a word, frozen in place. But as I saw him, coming closer, I thought that he was coming at me. That he had seen me from horseback, recognized me. My foolish eyes thought he was smiling at me, that grim, hard smile of his that crept up to his eyes oh-so-slowly.
I was about to run to him, to take him in my arms, when Dob Haight, the runt of the gang, shoved me aside. I staggered then, the contact with Jonah broken. Terrified, I saw the youngest of the Haights move through the crowd, in his way. Jonah stopped the horse with a tug at its reins. The beast whinnied and let out a groan.
“That’s a mighty fine animal you got there, stranger.” Said Dob Haight, brushing his moustache. “How much for it?”
“You can’t afford it, boy.” He grumbled and I felt my knees give way. His voice, it was so much like Jonah’s. It seemed much rougher, but I couldn’t mistake it. I was a fool then, see.
“Heh. No, I don’t have the money, stranger. So how about we make a trade?” said Dob, grabbing his revolver, pulling it off its holster. “How about, you give me the horse an’ I don’t put a bullet in your belly?”
Dob was a mean bastard, I’ll give him that. He was quick, rough, born a ruffian. He was barely eighteen and second in command in the Haight gang. Most of us feared the damn bastard. Still, he shouldn’t have died the way he did.
The horse, you see, it bit into his face as he was about to point his gun on its rider. Its teeth clamped on his cheeks and tugged, ripping flesh and muscle. Dob tried to fire his gun, when the horse got up on its hind legs and struck him across the chest with its hooves. He fell on the ground, wheezing. I could tell the blow had shattered something in his ribcage. Blood was gurgling out of his mouth, his hand desperately trying to raise his gun, defend himself, when the horse got up on its hind legs and stomped his head.
Dob Haight twitched, then was dead.
It had all happened so fast. We all just stared at this black horse, its mouth stained with blood, its hooves planted inside the boy’s caved-in skull. And all the while, the man I thought was my betrothed just stood there, expressionless. When at last he spoke, the crowd jumped back.
“I’m looking for Simon Haight!” his voice echoed through the street. A thunderous roar, like a shot from a gun. He sounded so much like Jonah, then.
From the salloon’s door, I saw them come out in single file. The Haight gang, the six roughest bastards to ever plague the South. All of them armed, dressed in black. Long faces, full of angles, with beady eyes, all of them. They’d come here a year ago, made Gwynn’s Gulch their own and not one living soul ever stood up to them. They’d heard the challenge, but hadn’t seen the sight.
Standing in line there, backs straight, chests out. You could tell they used to be military men. One-time Expungers, they said, kicked out of the force. Their hands on their holsters, as if they’d been born with sidearms strapped to their hips.
Took them a minute to realize who the man with the crushed face was, under Jonah’s hooves. Then they started raving. Every one of them but Simon.
“Sonuvabitch killed Dob!”
“Kill the bastard!”
“Poke his damn eyes out!”
Simon Haight raised his arm then and they fell silent. He was the eldest, the tallest, roughest one of them all. He was hardly phased at the sight. After all, everyone in town knew Dob meant nothing to him.
“I heard you’re looking for me, stranger.”
The words that Jonah spoke then, he repeated to me, a few days later:
“Simon Haight, of the Irregulars. With your brothers, Farrel and Ned, you swore an oath to serve the Emperor in exchange for pardon from your execution, during the Vas’Iiri war. When the war was over and the Irregulars officially disbanded, you instead chose to turn against the very hand that fed you and opted to use your expertise and the aid of your colleagues, ex-convicts like yourself, to support the coup.”
“Yes, I did. And I won, too.” Said Simon, looking at his brothers. Farrell and Ned smiled at the stranger.
“Before the coup, you took place in a number of operations aimed to destabilize the Empire. One of them took place in a small town housing a Gunsmith facility, called Prosper. There, you attacked the garrison and took the populace hostage, in exchange for the foundry’s weapons stockpile.”
Simon stopped smiling then. He looked at the stranger with a puzzled look on his face, as if trying to remember him.
“When the Gunsmiths gave you the weapons, you set fire to the town hall, where you had placed the populace, leaving them there to burn alive. You doomed three hundred people to an agonizing death. I am here to make sure you repay this debt to them.”
Then Jonah drew his guns, those black, heavy things of his. The Haights were halfway through the draw, when he opened fire. To this day, I swear I can’t explain how he drew so fast. There was just this blur and then the cocking of hammers, before the roar.
Clive was killed first. Saw him stumble as he was about to take aim, his gun drawn. His head jerked backward and he fell on the ground like a ragdoll. The rest scattered, but I saw Pearce stumble, blood dripping from his thigh. The stranger must have got him.
They ran for cover, then, into the crowd who were running away in panic, throwing themselves behind old stack of crates. I felt a hand grab me by the neck, pulling me onto him. Simon was using me as a shield.
Jonah spurred his horse. Saw the beast run across the street, straight toward the crates Ned and Pearce used for cover. Farell took a shot at him from the saloon’s window. Saw the bullet tear through Jonah’s shoulder, blood dripping from the hole in his duster coat. He hardly took notice. This should have been my first clue, but I was a scared fool, then.
His horse crashed through the crates. Ned, who had raised his head to peak, had his neck broken, as the horse rammed onto him. Pearce cursed and took a shot at him, missing in his panic. Jonah shot him twice in the head. I’ve been told he put one bullet in each of his eyes.
“Kill him! Somebody take that bastard down, for God’s sake!” shouted Simon, at the top of his lungs. He dragged me inside the hardware store, wheezing and cursing. I couldn’t stop smiling. Thought myself as a damsel in distress and pretty soon, my vigilante would burst through the door to save me.
Dougal and Farrel got help, then. I couldn’t see it, since Simon was cowering, looking for cover, but I know this much: their lackeys, ten highwaymen they had dragged into Gwynn’s Gulch with them, came blazing out of the town’s houses, rushing to aid their bosses, weapons in hand.
There was thundering and the roar of guns and the chocking smell of gunpowder in the air, mixed with blood. There were curses and commands and screams of terror. Then, there was silence. Just the sound of a horse’s hooves, trotting closer to the store.
Click clack. Click clack. Click thunk. Thump thunk.
Simon got out of cover. He saw the figure of Jonah, on top of his horse. He’d led the beast all the way to the wooden steps to the store. Standing in the terrace, blocking the sun, he looked like an eclipse, shaped like a man.
“Let the woman go, Simon.”
“You want her you bastard, you come take her!”
As the man I thought was Jonah climbed down his horse, I felt a shiver of delight and terror at the same time. Felt like the helpless dame, used to lure the brave gunman. Wouldn’t have that. Searching around, I saw an old screwdriver tucked under the counter. If only I could reach it…
Creeaakk. Thump. Thump. Thump.
“Not a step closer, you bastard!”
“I have killed your brothers and their lackeys, Simon. Let the woman go. Now.”
“Put your gun down, or I smear the wall with her brains, swear to God!”
He put his black revolvers down. My eyes were fixed on the screwdriver, my fingers inches away.
“Did as you asked. Now let her go.”
“Kick them toward me.”
Simon tossed me away then, as he reached for Jonah’s guns. I grabbed the screwdriver and lunged at him, shoving it into the back of his thigh.
“AAAGH! YOU BITCH!”
He tried to turn, but the man was already on him. Simon tried to raise his gun. I saw Jonah grab his arm, breaking it at the elbow, before he smashed his face into the counter. The last surviving Haight fell on the floor, unconscious.
I saw him then, covered in blood, his duster coat full of bullet holes. Saw him caked in blood and gunpowder and was very much afraid of him. His eyes looked at me and I felt like I was falling in pools of boiling tar.
“Jonah? Jonah Warden?” I asked, my voice trembling. “Is that you?”
The man I thought was Jonah helped me on my feet. Then, he took Simon away, on his shoulders, put him on the back of his horse, as if he were a goat, knocked out from the heat. I stumbled after him, waiting for a reply. He looked around and said:
“I will need rope. And fuel for a large fire.”
Someone rushed and gave him a tank of vegetable oil. Another brought him a length of rope. He nodded and got back on his horse, galloping away, without a single word. The man I thought was my betrothed was running away from me, again. I had to know, though. I was still young and reckless, see.
I ran after him, following him for many hours, until nightfall. Found him setting up camp by a cave. Hidden in the nearby bushes, I saw him tying Simon Haight up against an old, dried up tree. The horse whinnied as the man woke, screaming.
Jonah was talking, but the Haight was screaming obscenities at him. Couldn’t make sense out of either of them. But the gunman kept talking, on and on, despite Simon’s screams. When he was done, he took the stopper off the tank of oil and showered the poor bastard with it. Took him a while to realize what was going on.
Simon sobbed and pleaded and cursed. But the gunman didn’t stop until he’d emptied every last drop.
Then he struck a match and threw it at him. Simon caught fire immediately then.
To this day, I cannot believe there can be a worse death, than the one by burning. The screams he let out, as his clothes, his skin, his hair caught fire, the steady roar and crackle of the flames as they devoured him, this is a sound that creeps into your dreams at night and pushes your sleeping mind in lightless, terrible realms, that smother you. And the smell, that terrible smell, of human flesh burning black, skin cracking, muscle popping. The body makes small, crackling sounds, like when setting fire to a log full of termites. You hear it screech and pop and make terrible noises, noises that go on for much longer than the screams.
I saw the burning remains of Simon Haight fall on the ground, and then lost consciousness.
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