"The fires of Hades!" he murmured. "A girl! What has harmed you, child? Be not afraid of me."Kane learns from the nameless woman that a gang of bandits led by one calling himself Le Loup had attacked and burned her village to the ground. She fled into the forest to escape but the Wolf and his men eventually caught up her. She then dies and Kane says, as if in reply, "Men shall die for this."
The girl looked up at him, her face like a dim white rose in the dark.
"You -- who are -- you?" her words came in gasps.
"Naught but a wanderer, a landless man, but a friend to all in need." The gentle voice sounded somehow incongruous coming from the man.
The story resumes some time later, as Le Loup's men have begun to grow frightened of Kane -- "a demon from hell," they call him -- who has been stalking them and picking them off, one by one.
"He hunts us down as a wolf hunts deer -- by God, Le Loup, you name yourself Wolf but I think you have met at least a fiercer and more craft wolf than yourself! The first we know of this man is when we find Jean, the most desperate bandit unhung, nailed to a tree with his own dagger through his breast, and the letters S.L.K. carved upon his dead cheeks. Then the Spaniard Juan is struck down and after we find him he lives long enough to tell us that the slayer is an Englishman, Solomon Kane, who has sworn to destroy our band! What then? La Costa, a swordsman second only to yourself, goes forth swearing to meet Kane. By the demons of perdition, it seems he met him! For we found his sword-pierced corpse upon a cliff. What now? Are we all to fall before this English fiend?"Naturally, Le Loup is confident that, however clever and resourceful Kane may be, he is, after all, just a man and, like all men, prone to weaknesses he can use to his advantage. Of course, the bandit begins to wonder whether he might have been wrong when the Puritan corners him in his lair. Le Loup simply cannot understand Kane's actions.
"Who was the girl?" he asked idly, "Your wife?"Le Loup tries to bribe Kane with a share of the wealth he and his now-dead men had stolen, but his foe will not be dissuaded from his pursuit of bloody justice. The bandit does, however, distract Kane just enough to be able to escape into the dark recesses of his cavernous hideout, but, as he should have known well by this point, there is no true escape from Kane. Le Loup flees Europe for Africa and still the Puritan follows him. It's in Africa that Solomon Kane meets N'Longa, a "ju-ju man" who will become his friend and a recurring character in later tales. It's also in Africa where Kane at last catches up with Le Loup and their final confrontation occurs.
"I never saw her before," answered Kane.
"Nom d'un nom!" swore the bandit. "What sort of man are you, Monsieur, who takes up a feud of this sort merely to avenge a wench unknown to you?"
"That, sir, is my own affair; it is sufficient that I do so."
Kane could not have explained, even to himself, nor did he ever seek an explanation within himself. A true fanatic, his promptings were reasons enough for his actions.
Solomon Kane is a fascinating character. Speaking for myself, I find him at once more attractive and more repulsive than Conan. His ideals are far loftier than those of the Cimmerian, but the methods he uses in pursuit of those ideals seem very much at odds with them. Whereas Conan, at his worst, is largely venal and self-interested, Kane seems to veer toward the vicious, his zeal for "justice" becoming so overwhelming that it allows no place for mercy or compassion. Howard seems very much aware of this fact, calling Kane "a true fanatic" and yet he doesn't fail to portray Kane sympathetically. Indeed, "Red Shadows" and the stories that follow go to some lengths to show Kane as more than a red-handed avenger, particularly through his friendship with N'Longa, which is a fair bit more complex than a surface reading would suggest.
"Red Shadows" isn't Howard's best story. It's not even his best Solomon Kane story. Nevertheless, there's something very powerful in its words, something archetypal that I find very compelling. I suspect that most of us have, at one time or another, hoped that Justice might be dealt to some evildoer with extreme prejudice and Kane speaks to that hope. He also speaks, I think, to our fears that our cries for "justice" are all too often a mask for revenge, a desire that can taint our loftiest notions and reveal us as no better than those we denounce. I honestly can't say that Howard would have agreed with me; indeed, I rather suspect he would not have. I don't think that changes the fact that, as written, Solomon Kane isn't just a 17th century Paul Kersey and to reduce him to such is to do him -- and his creator -- a disservice.