for Dust thou art,
and unto Dust thou shalt return
—Genesis 3:19

Dust adjusted his dark, low-crowned hat, the sun-aged skin of his fingers matching the cracked leather of his holsters as he pulled down the wide brim to shade his eyes. His long brown coat rustled in the dry breeze as he surveyed the small border town, most of which was visible from this one road. It was a distinctly unimpressive collection of ramshackle buildings and yet for life so small to survive alone out here in the dust bowl was itself a remarkable testament to the resilience of its inhabitants.

Rolling his head to loosen his neck, Dust strode slowly but purposefully toward the saloon, his entire body stiff from several weeks on horseback. He glanced up at the faded sign, paint peeling away from the wood, and pushed open the doors. The quiet interior confused him until he realised it was barely noon. The drunken clamour would fill the bar soon enough, but for now the stillness was disturbed only by a few tables of idle chatter.

Wednesday’s eyes widened as she saw him, before her face burst into a guileless smile. She rose and bounded over, wrapping her arms around him and planting a brief, affectionate kiss on his cheek. Dust nodded awkwardly, but accepted the hug. She looked well. Her smooth, dark hair shone as it cascaded down her shoulders. Her dress was all red satin and black lace, provocative without being lewd. Just enough to demonstrate her ample curves without revealing much more. It suited her.

“How long has it been this time?” she asked casually, “A month?”

“Or longer,” he returned. As she well knew.

“Well, you’re here now, so come and join me.” It was an instruction rather than a question.

He raised two fingers to Palm, the bartender, “Shooting whiskey.”

With one hand he dropped two coins onto the bar, whilst with the other he picked up a shot glass and drained it. The second he carried with him to Wednesday’s table and took a seat. She watched him silently, a faint smile playing on her lips, as he searched his pockets, located a stash of chewing tobacco, carefully unwrapped it with his big fingers, broke off a piece and popped it roughly into his mouth.

“So you’re still doing that,” she arched her eyebrows, the distaste evident but not accusatory.

“Where’s your brother?” he parried, ignoring her.

“He’ll be here.”

Dust spat a lump of tobacco into a metal cup in the centre of the table with enough force that it rang like a bell.

“41 days,” a voice behind him stated coldly, “you’re late.”

“Yeah, well, I ran into a little trouble. Still only been gone 40 nights though.”

Ash appeared unimpressed as he stepped into view, blond locks falling boyishly around a much older-looking face. He wore a neatly tailored grey suit with a bowler hat, round spectacles balanced on a faintly rat-like nose. The bulge of muscular arms was evident beneath the suit, like a veiled threat to anyone who mistook his careful appearance for preening. His jaw was set firmly as he stood leaning on the back of an empty chair.

“We had a deal. You’re a Marked Man, Dust,” Ash gestured to the cross-shaped blemish on Dust’s forehead, “and we need you alive. This place is barely hanging on as it is. If you’re gone too long, this town won’t survive. Not without protection.”

“Protection?” Dust snorted, “Case you haven’t noticed, things don’t exactly have a tendency to be safe around me. Could be you’ll end up in the ground a mite sooner, ‘stead of later.”

“The work too dirty for you, all of a sudden?”

“Dirt suits me just fine; we’ll all be back in it soon enough.” He raised his shot in a mock toast before drinking it.

“This isn’t,” Ash paused, using the silence as emphatic punctuation, “a joke.”

“Ash was just worried,” Wednesday interjected to break the rising tension then faltered, continuing quietly, “We both were. We didn’t know if you’d make it back this time.”

Dust shrugged and leaned back in his chair, “I always come back. Where else could I end up, anyhow? After all, they did rename the town after me.”

for Dust thou art,
and unto Dust thou shalt return
—Genesis 3:19