The wind blew through Jare Springs.
Jack Texas rode in with it.
He had traveled forty-six miles from Ogden to the east, forty-six miles through arid desert, through the blistering heat, west to the sea. A thin layer of dust and grime covered him that no amount of washing would ever scrub clean. He rode slumped in his saddle, every rolling lurch of his horse bringing a grimace to his stony face. The scorching heat of the desert had trained him to stillness, and the slightest motion was an unbearable, extravagant indulgence. He was the picture of the people of the Western Reaches, molded by the desert, his clothes the bleached color of rolling sand dunes, his eyes reflecting the pale blue of the cloudless sky. He wore a wide brimmed hat to keep the sun from his eyes and from his face and neck, though for all of his precautions, his skin had long since turned to dry leather, aged and cured by the unblinking sun. His skin was pale once, but that was a memory of another time, another place. At his hips he wore the twin revolvers with the worn ivory handgrips that were his constant companions. Those were a memory, too.
A sturdy wall surrounded Jare Springs, with a large gate on its eastern side the only way in or out of the town. Men in white cloaks flanked the gate, though in truth, their cloaks were the color of pale sand, as was to be expected with the ever present dust storms, from the rigors of traveling the desert roads. The gate could be closed in time of danger, when the desert coyotes, those lawless men who feasted upon the scattered settlements of the Reaches, ranged near the town. Walls were enough to give them pause, but it was the presence of the men in white robes that kept the coyotes at bay. They were men of god, dedicated to their holy mission. These men were part of the order of the Knights of the Silver Road. The knights were tolerant of wanderers like himself, but they made the affairs of all those who traveled the roads their business. In most cases, not an unwelcomed interference, but for someone like Jack, wholly unnecessary. There were other towns in the Reaches, easier prey.
The one nearest to the gate held up a hand to forestall Jack's progress.
"Your business in Jare Springs?" It was a statement, not a question.
Jack Texas measured the man before replying, hands settling calmly on the pommel of his leather saddle, "I'd prefer to keep my business my own affair."
That did not please the man. Most men were intimidated by the Reachers, but Jack was not. "We want no trouble in our walls. Basel Rock is forty miles northwest of here and Cenworth twenty to the south. But... if you have business here in Jare Springs."
Jack raised a conciliatory hand. "We've started poorly. I did not want for a misunderstanding to arise between us." He continued, "I am searching for someone. She is near twenty years, tall for a woman and slender. Her eyes are blue, and her hair is spun threads of sunset on the western horizon. Her voice is sweet music and her movements are as water flowing in the river. She is called Diana and I lost her in one of the great cities of the east, and have searched for her through these lands, dying and newborn, chasing the scraps of a pattern woven by hands too mysterious for my sight."
Jack's gaze had lifted skyward for a moment, but now it returned to the man in the cream cloak before him. He smiled, "I mean only to resupply here and find a bed for the night. Tomorrow I expect to be on the road again."
"There are women here in Jare Springs," the knight said shortly. He waved him through, "This town is under the protection of the Reachers. Go in peace."
Jack inclined his head, raising a hand to his hat and tipped it deferentially as he rode past. Jare Springs was just another of the many unremarkable towns that dotted this part of the Western Reaches. Jack had passed through so many of them: Regin, Twain's Landing, Dunneville, Castor, and many more whose names he had forgotten. But for his lack of facility with the memory of places, he had an uncanny knack with faces. He remembered every man and woman and child he came across, and those faces never escaped him. Especially not that one face, the one he could see on the back of his eyelids when he laid down to sleep, the one that he knew was always and ever over the next hill, always out of reach.
Jare Springs was a town of about a dozen buildings. There were apartments on the second floors of the two-story buildings, above the town's businesses. There was a saloon, an inn, a brothel, a general goods store, a clothiers, jeweler and other sundry. The one building that stood out, and indeed stood out in most of the towns of the Reaches was the temple. The Knights of the Silver Road were powerfully situated here in the Reaches, and it showed in their temples. Not wood like the other buildings, but constructed of stone. The cost of the temple was like to outpace the cost of the building of all the buildings, and perhaps even the combined worth of the people who lived in Jare Springs. Jack gave them a wide berth when he could.
He reined in before the saloon. Dismounting his horse was something he never enjoyed. In his younger years, he felt a great shame from his mangled right leg. He was not a graceful man, not on his feet at least. He pushed himself over his horse, and dropped down heavily to the ground. His knee ached from the long ride into Jare Springs and he would be grateful for a seat, a drink, and a meal. The order did not matter so much as the acquisition of all three of those items at some point in the near future.
Jack shouldered open the door and pushed it the rest of the way with his forearm. The hinges of the door squealed desperately for oil. Inside, the bright sunlight filtered through dilapidated curtains to haze the room with dim light. The denizens of the bar hid in the shadows, eschewing the tables near the windows, drinking in a silence of low, murmured conversations, the clinking of chipped, scratched glasses, and the groaning creak of floorboards as heavy chairs scraped over the dusty ground. A few of the tavern's patrons looked up as he entered, but most kept their attention studiously on whatever they were occupied with.
Behind the bar, the saloonkeeper was leaned over the bar, studying a broadsheet. He was pouring himself a drink, though is eyes never left the page. He looked up as Jack entered, then looked back to his paper, leaning over it, propping his thick head onto his elbow that was leaned on the bar. His eyes tracked back and forth, his fingers drumming without rhythm on the battered bar top. There were seven stools along the long bar, three occupied (Jack counted). The men at the bar were there alone, shared no conversation or companionship between them, drinking amber colored liquors from flat, blown glasses. At a table in the deep corner of the room, a trio of men huddled together in a game of cards, cigarette smoke drifting unseen into the darkened rafters, the only words exchanged between them a call or a raise, a mutter. The cards were brittle, bent, their faces discolored, the printed faces of the people on the cards a silent mirror to the men who sat around the table. Sitting at another table along the wall was a lone man, the stubs of three cigarettes in the tin ashtray, a glass and a bottle sitting before him. He, unlike the others, watched Jack as he walked into the room, as he puffed from a fresh cigarette, the end glowing with the flame trapped at its tip.
Jack's eyes took it all in.
His hands flashed to his sides like lightning, the booming of his twin revolvers the thunder from distant hills.
The first shot took the smoking man at the waist, the second in his head. A third thudded into his chest. He was thrown from his seat and against the wall, slumped to the ground, tangled with the chair. His hand reached fruitlessly to his own gun, then fell at his side, lifeless.
The others hadn't moved, they looked at the carnage, looked at Jack. Jack ignored them and walked over to the man. The game resumed, though their eyes glanced warily over to Jack as he searched through the man's belongings. The bartender looked in Jack's direction.
"I presume you had just cause to take that man's life."
"I did," Jack replied tersely, not bothering to acknowledge the bartender but for his words.
"Not my place to say you did or you did not. But the knights don't take well to murder in their town. They'll have their say."
"I suppose they will."
The bartender nodded. "I don't take you for a lawman. Bounty hunter?"
Jack shook his head. "Man was one of the Kin. Shooting would have come eventually. Didn't feel like going through the pleasantries." He continued to rummage through his possessions, removing papers, looking at them, his wallet, the items pulled out tossed one after another onto the sawdust and grime on the ground.
The bartender watched as Jack continued to go through the man's belongings. "One of the Kin?" he said incredulously.
Jack looked up at the bartender as he rose to his feet. "How about a drink? He reached into his pocket and drew forth a creased bill, holding it up.
The bartender nodded and grabbed a glass from the bar and filled it with a generous amount of the rich liquid from the bottle at his side. Jack brushed his hands off on his coat and went to the bar, pulling himself into the stool. If any of the others noticed his limp, they didn't comment on it. The bartender put the glass in front of him and Jack nodded. He raised it to his lips and drained it.
"Another," he said, indicating his glass with one finger.
The bartender uncorked the bottle again, then looked over Jack's shoulder.
The saloon door swung open. The other men in the bar huddled down into their jackets, coats, and chairs. Jack didn't turn around.
Jack made three pairs of boots tromping into the saloon.
"Another," he repeated.
The bartender poured him another. Jack drank.
"Trouble, Mr. Atherton?" came a voice from over his shoulder.
"You can see clearly enough," the bartender replied.
Jack rose up, gritting his teeth as his leg groaned with dull agony. The three men were dressed in those dusty white cloaks, one in the lead, two behind. The two slid hands to their holsters as Jack rose up. The other was unperturbed. Jack noticed that the badge that held the cloak closed, an open hand and forearm, burnished steel, looked as new as the day it was minted.
Jack looked that knight in the eyes. "That man meant to take my life."
The man looked unimpressed, "Your word against his," he said dryly. He went over to the body, prodded it with the toe of his brown boot, the dead man's unblinking eyes looked up at him in silent protest. "Seeing as he can have none, it stands to us to judge." He turned back to Jack, "You'll come with us." He looked down to his waist, at the twin pearl-handled revolvers and extended his hand, "Your guns." His eyes settled upon Jack, measured him.
"Wouldn't have it any other way."