Monthly Archives: June 2012

No Update Today, 6/29

As you may have noticed, I missed my update yesterday. Unfortunately, the next update won’t come to Monday. It will also be a break from the current piece. “House of AM” will resume next Friday. In the meantime, be here on Monday for a short piece entitled, “Where the World Ends!”

 

The exclamation mark isn’t part of the title. I was merely using it to express enthusiasm.


The House of AM, Pt. 2

Yikes, late post again. Friday’s post will be on time. Scout’s honor.

The front door opened without protest, although it was heavy, far heavier than its size had suggested to Chana. It had required a few moments to swing it open, and to Ander’s amusement, Chana had cursed the entire time. It’s metal all the way through, she thought. There were three holes in the frame that corresponded to three barely perceptible rods fitted into the door, and Chana realized that she had never seen anything that suggested such impenetrability. It was like the bolts that sat in the doors back at the Great Lake, the bolts that fit into the door frames. But where those single bolts were as big as her finger, each of these three were as thick around as her wrist.

“It would seem,” Chana said slowly, “that whoever built this place wanted to ensure that they could keep any who might come along out.”

Ander examined the door and snorted. “Seems excessive. And ineffectual. It’s certainly not sealed now.”

“And would we stand any chance of getting in if it had been?”

Ander said nothing but looked at the building in silence, studied is unornamented, unwidowed facade. In response to Chana’s question, he snorted again.

Chana chuckled to herself. “Well, then. Shall we?”

They stepped inside being certain to leave the door open behind them. Little awaited them inside the front door. A featureless hallway stretching towards the back of the building where the two large doorways had stood side-by-side. A smaller door separated them from whatever room awaited back there, and when they tried to enter, they found there was nothing they could do to make the door budge. A stairway lead upstairs, and they climbed it. The upstairs opened into a large, well-lit room divided into small sections by waist-high walls and miniature staircases. Here there were pots and pans and a heavy metal box and the cast-iron grates that were so common in the Old Ones’ homes at the Great Lake. Here was there shelf after shelf lined with books, some well-preserved and some of them crumbling to dust. A table large enough for a family to gather around and eat at. Comfortable chairs. A couch long enough for the tallest man in the two tribes to stretch out on it and still not touch the armrests. A doorway that led to one of the Old Ones’ restrooms. And everywhere were the devices of glass and metal and plastic that the Old Ones had filled their houses with, devices both large and small, devices that had seemed to define the Old Ones’ existence.

Light streamed in through the windows, and Chana was filled with the desire to relax. To sit and to not move until she felt like it. Everything seemed serene. She and Ander stood there in silence until at last Ander said, “I think this one room is bigger than my entire home.” His head turned slowly, his eyes running over surface in the room, taking it in slowly. “In fact, I am certain of it.”
“This must have been the home of a very wealthy old one, indeed.”

Ander pointed at another large staircase at the back of the room, past the furniture. “Shall we go up?” The pair ascended again and found themselves in a loft overlooking the space below them. A ladder lead to a hatch set into the ceiling.

There were five doors awaiting them. Another restroom. Bedrooms. The smallest was full of toys and stuffed animals and seemed to be meant for a child. The next was simply, sparsely decorated, with little in the way to suggest the personality of its occupant. It seemed to be a room either meant for someone who was only infrequently around or else intentionally left with a generic atmosphere so as to accommodate any guest. The second largest was decorated with trophies and medals and books. Many of them were meaningless to Chana and Ander, but they gathered that the room had belonged to an older child, one just beginning to establish their sense of individuality and self-identity. The largest of the bedrooms was lavishly furnished, doubtless meant for the master of the house. This room had a smaller restroom only accessible by passing through it.

“Let’s go up that ladder,” Chana said. Ander followed as she ascended, pushed the hatch open. Sunlight poured through the hatch, and Chana found herself on the covered roof of the building. Plastic and glass enveloped them like a shell, and there were planters meant for vegetables that had never been sown, a small coop meant to house birds to be eaten.

“Strange,” Ander said. “What is the point of all this?”

“To ensure that they never had to leave this place if they didn’t want to,” Chana said softly. They stood in silence for a while before Chana said, “I don’t know that there is anything in this world more depressing than an untended field. Let us go back inside and see what there is to take back to the village.”

Ander frowned. “I don’t want to take anything from this place, Chana. Suppose its owner returns and sees their things missing.”

Chana snorted. “Whoever owned this place has been dead for lifetimes, Ander.”

“Then whoever it is that is staying here now. There must be someone here, Chana. The door had only been opened recently. We’ve seen no signs of wild animals having made their home in here.”

Chana frowned. Ander may have been superstitious, but there was merit to that point, at least. “Very well,” she said. “Let us return home and consult with Tiris. We’ll return with a larger group and search this place as carefully as we can.”

Ander nodded. “There’s wisdom in speaking with the old man before we go meddling in the homes of the dead.”

They climbed down the ladder, down the two flights of stairs, only to find the entry darker than they had remembered. The sunlight was gone, replaced by dimly glowing bulbs set into the wall.

The front door was shut.

“The wind must have blown it closed,” Ander muttered.

“Please. No wind in the world could have blown that heavy thing shut.” Chana stepped forward and pushed against the door, but it didn’t move at all. She stood there glaring at the door while Ander laughed.

“Allow me.” He stepped forward and pushed against it, but it would no more move for him than it would for her. He stared at the door in surprise only for his surprise to turn into embarrassment as Chana laughed herself. He glared over his shoulder at her before turning his attention back to the door. He examined it carefully, took a deep breath, and threw all of his weight against it. It opened a few inches, and Ander laughed and turned to Chana, a smug grin on his face.

Behind him, the door slammed shut with a heavy thud. There was a loud click as it’s locking mechanism engaged and the bolts slid into place, and the noise echoed all throughout the house.


The House of AM, Pt. 1

Yikes! Late post. Funnily enough, this one was ready early; I was just away from my computer and unable to post it. At any rate, we’re back in the world of Chana and Ko-Ta! Enjoy!

Do you see it, Chana? Do you see?” There was excitement in Ander’s voice, something she didn’t usually hear there. He was excited by his discovery, he was excited to show it to his leader, and he was excited by what it might mean for the two tribes.

“Yes. I see.” Where Ander felt unbridled excitement, Chana felt suspicion. It had been a few winters since she had ventured far to the south, and Wa-Vi’s sad, slow death still weighed heavy on her mind. The way his hair had fallen off of his body. The way small wounds seemed to bleed and bleed. His gradual weakening until his eventual collapse. She did not believe in curses herself, but her beliefs put her in the minority. Whispers spread that he had grown sick when he had dared to steal from the Old Ones and they had taken his life for it. He did not have a family, and when he died, his people opted to burn his house with all his belongings as a pyre for him rather than venture inside to take his body to the Fields of the Dead.

What she saw was a building larger than any she had seen around the Great Lake, or even during her trip to the Wastelands. It stood half as tall as the great trees that surrounded it and as wide as two of the the Old Ones’ homes. Perhaps not two of the largest, but certainly two of the smaller ones. Most of the surface was covered in moss and green vines, and what wasn’t was an off-white color that had long since become mottled with dirt and decay. She thought back to the great black thorns that had surrounded the Old Ones’ tomb; those had seemed menacing, as if they had erupted forth from the earth itself to stand as both a warning and a barrier to any who might venture near. It had seemed not just ancient, but timeless, like a monolith that had existed before the Old Ones and would exist after her and her children and her children’s children had joined their ancestors.

In comparison, this building seemed like it had been built to stand the test of time only to be found wanting. It was not crumbling, like so many other buildings she had seen, but its presence this deep in the woods, the way it seemed intended to stand in contrast to the natural environment around it, suggested that it had been built as a challenge. She imagined the Old One who had ordered it built smiling to himself, thinking that the woods would make a beautiful backdrop for whatever life he saw fit to live. And now here they were centuries later, the Old One long dead and his house claimed by the natural world he had saw fit to assert his authority over. Even the road that had led to this place in days long past was gone. At least, Ander had stumbled across it through sheer chance while hunting, or so he claimed. It was as if everything that had ever suggested this building existed save itself was long gone. No one would ever find it, save through dumb luck.

Perhaps that was what its creator intended.

“Have you ventured inside?” Chana asked. Ander’s smile wavered, and he shook his head.

“No, my lady. I am sorry, but I thought it prudent to wait for you to see it yourself, for you to seek the counsel of Tiris before sending anyone inside.” His smile finally became a frown, and he looked away from her. “In truth, I did not want to find myself cursed.”

“There is no such thing as a curse, Ander. But I can appreciate your prudence. It is always better to explore the unknown with a partner than to do so alone.” She turned to him and grinned, and despite himself, he grinned back. “And now that I am here, we owe it to ourselves to take a closer look, no?”

Chana approached the building with the same ease and confidence she approached all of the abandoned works of the Old Ones. They had done a sweep through the woods around the structure, and neither her nor Ander had found any evidence of a human presence anywhere. There were not even traces of hunters who had passed through the area. “Tell me, Ander,” Chana said. “What would lead you to venture to a place so remote?”

Ander shrugged. “It’s not that remote. No more than a few day’s journey, if one were to cut straight through the woods. And we trade with the people to the west from time to time by following the roads the Old Ones left behind.” He turned to Chana and smiled. “I just decided to take a shortcut.”

“This is hardly a shortcut.”

“Then I decided to take a more scenic route! In any case, we are here and we are the only people in all of the two tribes who know of this place. Not Matau, not Jo-Sing. Not even Tiris!” He paused, and his voice dropped in volume. “Not even Ko-Ta.” He coughed, cleared his throat. “Isn’t this exciting, getting out and exploring? You spend too much time tending to our peoples and their minor quarrels. The world will not end if you take some time for yourself as you used to.”

“Perhaps.”

“I mean no disrespect, my lady. I’m just a simple hunter given to flights of fancy.”

Chana laughed, a single high note that seemed to echo in the empty glade they walked through. She looked over her shoulder at her companion and smiled. “Hush, Ander.”

* * *

They walked around the building, considering it’s tall sides carefully. There were no windows on accessible from the ground, and the walls were too smooth to permit climbing without tools. There were two large metal doors inn the back that would not budge no matter how Chana and Ander pulled at them and a single door the same size as any of the homes back at the Great Lake had. As Chana pondered the building, its monolithic architecture, its relative isolation, she became more and more certain that it was intended to be a fortress of some kind or another. She ran her hands over the cool stone. She considered the vines that grew on it and wondered if they were not meant to be camouflage of a sort.

“What do you think?” Ander asked.

Chana was silent as she stood before the front door. It was simple and unadorned, with none of the symbolic carvings that had covered the door to the tomb. Whatever this building hid, it betrayed no secrets, made no promises.

“I think,” she said slowly, a smile gradually creeping across her face, “that we should see whats inside.”


In a Shallow Grave, No One to Grieve, Pt. 5

The two men stared at each other in silence. The gun wavered in Elliot Whitmore’s hand, John Quinn’s own revolver with its ironwood grips, but it stayed trained on John Quinn. He watched the end of the barrel dance, rising and falling with Elliot Whitmore’s every breath.

“What are you waiting for, son?”

The kid said nothing. He did not move. He seemed barely to blink or even breathe. The sun was above the horizon now, and already it was promising to be a hot day, a senselessly hot day. John Quinn held the kid’s gaze, determined to meet his death with open eyes.

Tears welled in the kid’s eyes. His mouth quavered. The gun sank slowly but steadily towards the ground. It fell from his hand, and he looked down at it, and he shook his head as if trying to wake from a dream. “Let’s go, Mister,” he said, his voice cracking under the weight of his mistakes. “Let’s just go and get this over with.”

John Quinn stood up slowly, never taking his eyes off the kid. He looked down at the gun and wondered if there was any way he could grab it before the kid. Elliot saw his gaze and backed away from the gun. “Take it. I don’t want it. Take it.”

John Quinn didn’t move. He studied Elliot Whitmore carefully, saw the sadness behind his swollen and distorted features. “What are you doing?”

“I’m giving up. There ain’t no escape. I see that now. As long as I live, there’s always going to be somebody trying to claim me for a bounty. I ain’t cut out for this kind of life, Mister. Not like you and not like him.” He pointed at Keith’s body and then at his own face. “Look at me. Look at what’s happened to me.”

John Quinn said nothing, his eyes considering Keith’s motionless form, Elliot’s broken face. “I don’t want to die out here, Mister. I don’t want to wind up like that. Just take me back so they can hang me and bury me in the churchyard next to my ma and my pa. That’s all I want now. I know that’s the best I can hope for.”

“Shut up a second, son.” John Quinn carefully stepped past Keith’s body around to where Elliot had dropped the gun. He picked it up, watching Elliot all the while, and stepped back to Keith. He knelt down, cocked the hammer, placed the barrel of the gun against the crown of Keith’s head, and used his free hand to check Keith’s pulse at his neck.

Nothing.

John Quinn grunted, stood up, holstered his gun, sighed. “Alright, son. What are you going on about?”

“Just take me in, claim the bounty, and leave me to get on with my dying. That’s all I got to say to you.”

“Because even if you escaped now, me or someone else like it would hunt you down, is that it? Turn yourself in and die a quick death in the town, or run for it and die a bad death under the desert sun? That’s it?”

“Ain’t it?”

John was silent for a few moments. “It seems to me,” he said, “that no one would come looking for you if you were dead.”

Elliot Whitmore snorted, the sound strange through his broken nose. “Well, imagine that.”

“If you were dead, there’d be no reason for anyone to come looking for you. Your wife would be a widow with a little boy, and whatever she did, folks would just say, ‘Oh, poor Mrs. Whitmore. Her husband’s dead, you know. Made her a little crazy, poor thing.’”

Elliot’s broken features twisted into a frown. “I ain’t dead yet, Mister. Don’t you talk about my wife like that.”

John Quinn sighed and shook his head. “You’re not following me, boy. Think about what would happen to your family if you died. The folks of Potterville would pity them. A young woman raising a boy all by herself because her fool husband up and robbed a bank and got himself killed. That’s sad, ain’t it? Now, think about what would happen if her husband hadn’t just gotten himself killed, but had died a hero. Say the bounty hunter that was coming to get the gang found them in the middle of an argument, the husband trying to persuade them to do the right thing and the others arguing against him. Maybe they were trying to rob some poor travelers on the road, even, and the husband picked that moment to speak his conscience. A fight breaks out, the husband takes up arms against his onetime companions, and he takes a bullet. The robbers are killed, the travelers saved, and the husband dies recanting his evil ways and begging the bounty hunter to tell his wife that he’s sorry for all that he’s done. Ain’t that downright tragic? Killed because he tried to be an evil man but was a good man all along.”

The beginnings of a smile appeared on Elliot Whitmore’s face. It disappeared as soon as John Quinn asked his next question.

“Where’s the money you and Bill McDougall stole?”

“You want the money and you’ll let me go,” Elliot Whitmore said. It wasn’t a question, and he somehow looked to be even deeper in the throes of despair than when he had thrown down the gun.

“I didn’t say that.”

“You’re going to kill me. You want me to tell you, and then you’re going to kill me!”

“Calm down, boy. Did you keep the money or not?”

“I kept my share. I don’t know what Billy did with his. Buried it somewhere, likely as not.”

“And where’s yours?”

“Buried, too. The night before I shot Billy, I woke up, walked away from camp, buried, it, and came back. I thought I’d be able to come back and get it someday.”

“And what if you’d got caught, or if Bill killed you? What would happen to your money then?” Elliot couldn’t hold John Quinn’s gaze. “Yeah. That’s what I thought.”

“So you do want the money, then.”

John Quinn shook his head. “It’s never been about the money, son. Now, are you going to listen to me or not?”

Elliot was silent. “Alright,” he said. There was a hint of uncertainty in his voice, but the desperation was gone. “What do we have to do?”

“You need to write a letter to your wife telling her the truth of what’s happened. You need to get some blood on your shirt and give it to me so that folks the folks in Potterville will believe that you’re well and truly dead.” John Quinn turned and pointed at Keith. “But first we have to bury him. The other one, James, too.”

Elliot’s good eye went wide. “These sons of bitches beat us black and blue, and you want to dig graves for them? Are you crazy?”

“I ain’t.”

“We ain’t got tools!”

“I guess we’ll have to improvise.”

“Look at what they did to us!”

“Don’t let it make you mean, son.” John Quinn frowned, turned to look at where Keith lay face down in the dirt. “This world’s a cruel place filled with cruel people, and there ain’t too much that can be done about that.” He turned back and looked Elliot in the eyes, and his expression was as hard as the ironwood grips on his revolver. “Don’t let it make you mean.”

* * *

Keith Rivers had brought with him a shovel for reasons that neither John Quinn nor Elliot Whitmore could guess, and even with that tool it was the work of hours digging two graves. The men took turns digging, the other resting or else gathering rocks to lay over the graves so that wild animals would not come along and dig up the bodies. It was after one such trip that Elliot asked John in a voice as hesitant as a frightened animal if what Keith had said was true, if what he had said about the women and the children was true. John Quinn did not answer, and Elliot did not ask again.

John Quinn and Elliot Whitmore buried the two dead men under a mesquite tree . They carved the names of the dead into the bark of the tree and then they went their separate ways.

This concludes the story. Be here on Friday when we visit another previously established character!


In a Shallow Grave, No One to Grieve, Pt. 4

James and Sam stood guard over John Quinn while Keith bound his hands and feet. Even unarmed, the younger man still feared him enough not to take any chances. All the while he chattered away, gloating, mocking. Elliot Whitmore came to, groaned in dismay behind his gag upon realizing his situation.

His work done, Keith stood up and chuckled. “I been dreaming of this day, John. Dreaming of this day ever since that night at Zechariah’s old farm. You’re an easy man to follow, you know that, old man? I mean, look at you.” He pointed at John’s black attire, his shirt, his jeans, his hat. “You’re still wearing the same clothes you was wearing a year ago. You still trying to… trying to create that certain look, like you’re larger than life and twice as ugly. Well, I’ll give you this: you certainly got something memorable about you. Wasn’t hard to follow you at all.”

“What, then? Your balls so tiny it took you a year to find them and make a move?”

James laughed at that, a single sharp bark coming from deep within his massive frame. Keith spun on his heals and glared at him, and to John’s surprise, the giant of a man looked away, his pale flesh blushing as if shamed. Sam said nothing, but a faint smile appeared on her face. If it were at Keith’s expense or at James’s, John couldn’t say.

Keith turned back to John, opened his mouth for a moment, closed it, clenched his hand into a fist, and hit John as hard as he possibly could in the face. There was force behind the blow, momentum gained from throwing his weight behind a punch he couldn’t have hoped to land if his enemy hadn’t been bound and helpless.

The world spun. There was warmth oozing down the left side of John’s face. He shook his head, tried to clear the fog that threatened to settle over his mind and render him unconscious. He spat out one of his molars.

Above him, Keith gingerly rubbed at his right hand. He knelt down and grabbed John’s chin in his weak hand, slapped him with his good one to focus his attention. “If I hear another word from you, I’m going to cut out your tongue.” He leaned back for a second, considered the older man, and then dug his fingers into the fleshly bleeding wound on John Quinn’s face. John Quinn screamed. Pain shot all throughout his face like someone had taken a red-hot branding iron to it.

The world went black.

* * *

It was dark when John Quinn regained consciousness. His sleep had been dreamless, as it always was, and would have remained so until the morning, had he not been roughly awakened by the feeling of a rough and callused had grasping his face. It was too dark to see who stood before him; the figure blotted out the stars and the stench of whiskey filled the air. “I don’t understand it, John,” Keith said. “I don’t understand it at all. I followed you long enough to hear what people said about you. I heard people talk about you like you was some kind of supernatural being. I heard people talk about you like you was a saint. I’ve heard people talk about you like you was some uncontrollable force of nature. But I ain’t never heard anyone talk about you like the monster you are.”

John Quinn was silent. His eyes were slowly beginning to adjust to the darkness, and he could make out Keith’s perpetual sneer shining slick and wet in the starlight.

“You killed so many people, John. I’ve seen it. And I’ll bet money I ain’t seen half of it. You’re too cold, too cold by far to be anything but practiced.”

“You wanted to come with me to Wharton’s, boy,” John said, his tone flat. “I told you not to, and you did anyway. If I’m a monster, then you wanted to be one, too.”

“No,” Keith growled, his voice low, the letters spilling thick from his throat. “Not like you. Never like you. I never would have set that house afire. There was people in there! Women! Children!”

“They had plenty of time to get out.”

“And the ones that didn’t?”

“Then they died trying to carry their ill-gotten wares out of the house. They died cause they were greedy, greedy for things paid for in other people’s blood.”

John could just make out the silhouette of Keith’s head turning emphatically from side to side. “You’re a murderer, John Quinn,” he said. “I’m a killer; you made me one. But you’re a goddamn murder. I ain’t like you”

There was a moment of silence, and John Quinn slowly said, “Boy, you followed me. You said yourself. If you’re telling me I carved a path across this desert and tiled it in blood and the bodies of the fallen, then I’m telling you you’re the one that chose to walk it. I saw my father shot dead before my eyes by a man who laughed as he pulled the trigger. In your weakness, you kept me from killing him.” John Quinn gritted his teeth, painfully aware of the hole left by the one Keith had knocked loose, of the pain that flared up as his muscles pulled taut against his open wound. “You got shot, lived to talk about it, and decided to abandon everything you’d ever cared about to get revenge! Don’t you see, boy? You could have gone home, put down your gun, gone to a doctor, gone back to Rebekah! You could have started over, a little uglier and a lot smarter! And what did you do? You threw it all away so you could go kill a monster.” John Quinn took a deep breath. His words hung heavy in the air, and despite himself, he chuckled. “Don’t you see, boy? You threw it all away so you could go kill a monster. If you ain’t me yet, you will be. You will be.”

Keith was silent. He stood there before John Quinn, a shadow in the darkness, his form blurring indistinctly as he swayed gently in place. He turned and walked back to the embers of the campfire, and before long, the night was still save for the chirping of strange animals, the snoring of John Quinn’s captors, the gentle and rhythmic breathing of Elliot Whitmore who sat beside him.

* * *

“It’s really you, isn’t it?” the voice said. It was soft, feminine, but with a hint of smokey thickness to it. It whispered into his ear, the woman’s breath warm and ethereal, and in John’s half-awakened state, he thought that the voice and the hand placed over his mouth belonged to some long forgotten lover. “You really are the bounty hunter John Quinn.”

He nodded.

“And you know Keith like he says? You shot him in the mouth and ruined his face.”

He nodded again.

“How’d you let yourself get caught like this? You getting old?”

John Quinn did not move. The woman laughed softly.

“Not too old, I hope. You know who I am?”

John Quinn shook his head.

“My name’s Samantha Smith, but everyone calls me Sam. I’m a bounty hunter, too. Just starting out, but I’m going to be the best there ever was some day. Better than you, even.”

John Quinn had nothing to say to that. There was a rustling sound as Sam rifled through her pockets for some small item. John Quinn felt a sharp prick in his hand, and then cold metal being placed there.

“I’m leaving, and I’m taking James with me. Won’t be hard to convince him to come. If you’re what everyone says you are, we’ll meet again some day. If you’re not, well, I hope Keith enjoys not having to split the reward money three ways. At least, not until I come to take it all.” She laughed again, leaned forward, planted a kiss on John Quinn’s wound. “Good luck, handsome. I’m looking forward to killing you some day.” With that, she was gone, her footsteps soft in the dirt until John Quinn could hear them no more. Once he was certain that she wasn’t coming back, he took the small knife she had placed in his hands and began desperately sawing through the ropes that bound him.

* * *

John Quinn couldn’t say for certain how long it took for him to free himself, but by the time his hands were working at untying the knots that bound his feet, the morning sun was threatening to rise in the east. He worked furiously, knowing that James or Keith could awaken at any moment, that there would be no escaping their wrath if they did. He had to remove that possibility immediately.

James was his first priority. Even in his youth, John Quinn could not have hoped to best the giant of a man in a fist fight, and with the weight of years settling on his shoulders, there was even less chance of it. And so he quietly crept over to where the man was sleeping. He’d left Sam’s knife with the ropes, opting instead to grab a longer blade that had belonged to one of the other men. They were smart enough to sleep with their guns nearby, evidently, but not with their other weapons.

He stood astride the sleeping giant, grabbed the man’s hat with the intention of using it to muffle the screams. John Quinn took a deep breath, clamped the hat down over the man’s mouth, and slid the blade between his ribs.

He flailed, bucked like a wild animal. John Quinn had hoped the knife would puncture his heart and kill him instantly, but he’d missed. The hat muffled James’s cries, but they did not silence them completely, and John Quinn frantically stabbed him again and again hoping to end things quickly and move onto Keith. Slowly, all too slowly, James’s struggles ceased, his panicked breathing falling still.

“What in Hell’s going on? Shut up, damn you, I’m hungover,” came Keith’s groggy voice from behind him. John Quinn turned to see Keith pushing himself to his feet in his drawers, a revolver in his hand. The man’s eyes went wide, and he raised the gun and fired, missing completely. John Quinn left the blade buried to the hilt in James and ran before Keith could fire again, ran in a crooked line for the relative cover of the rocky hillside.

Keith fired again. John Quinn expected a third shot, but instead he heard a shrill cry. “James, no!”

A third shot. “John Quinn, I’ll kill you!”

A fourth. “I’ll kill you, you evil bastard!”

John Quinn had no idea where Keith was behind him, didn’t dare to pause and look over his shoulder. He’ll chase me, he thought. He’s not smart and he’s mad with rage. He’ll chase me.

John Quinn reached the safety of the rocks, got down on his belly and began crawling amongst them. He heard Keith charge blindly up the hillside, knocking loose small rocks with every step. “Come here, you coward! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!”

John Quinn picked up a rock and threw it away from himself. It clattered, and Keith turned and fired at the sound, his last bullet. John Quinn leapt from his hiding place and ran back to camp, back to where there were more guns.

“No! Get back here! Damn you! Damn you!”

* * *

John Quinn’s lungs were burning by the time he reached the edge of the camp. He didn’t know where his guns had been kept, and he knew Keith would be on top of him at any moment. He was younger, driven by rage. He would beat John mercilessly with the heavy revolver, beat him until the barrel warped and the wooden grips splintered. He had to find a gun first.

Something crashed into John Quinn’s back and drove him into the ground. He felt someone grab a fistful of his hair and smash his face into the dirt. He rolled away to find Keith’s broken face sneering down at him. John Quinn headbutted him, felt the younger man’s nose splinter beneath the blow. Keith screamed and John Quinn pushed him away. He struggled to his feet, ran towards James’s body, hoping against hope that the dead man’s revolver was nearby.

A shot rang out. John Quinn fell forward, fire spreading through his chest. He gasped for breath. He clawed forward, still struggling to reach James’s body.

“With your own gun, you bastard!” Keith shouted, his voice cracking with glee. “Shot you with your own gun, and… Goddamnit, you’re still wearing that armor, ain’t you?” Keith said. “Oh, well. Guess I’ll just have to aim better next time. He walked over to John Quinn, kicked him in the ribs, rolled him onto his back with his foot. He stood there staring down at the older man, the cold disinterest on his face slowly being replaced by a burning hatred. He leveled the gun and aimed at John Quinn’s face.

“You know what? To Hell with Zechariah Wharton. I think it’s high time you paid for all that you’ve done.” Blood ran down Keith’s face. His torn and ragged lips pulled back to reveal a skeletal grin. “You must have known it was going to end like this for you, old man. Dying alone in the desert. Your worthless carcass left for the coyotes and the buzzards and whatever mean creature wants to make a meal of you. Rotting in a shallow grave with no one to grieve your passing.” The grin disappeared from his face, and there was nothing there but hate. “Goodbye, John Quinn. I hope whatever Hell I send you to is worse than anything you can imagine.”

John Quinn took a deep breath and shut his eyes. A gunshot. Silence.

John Quinn opened his eyes. Keith Rivers was face down on the ground in a slowly spreading puddle of blood. Elliot Whitmore stood behind him, one eye swollen shut, his nose bent at an unnatural angle, the still smoking gun in his hand trained on John Quinn.


In a Shallow Grave, No One to Grieve, Pt. 3

Saturday marked a milestone in views for the site! An embarrassing, laughably low milestone given that the site’s been up since before New Year’s, but a milestone nevertheless! Thank you to all the readers, from those who check in every day to those who came once while looking for something else. It’s my sincere hope that the writing here has brought you some entertainment and enjoyment you might not otherwise have had and that it continues to do so.

Anyway, the story of John Quinn continues below. Enjoy!

Put that gun down and put your hands in the air. You even think about turning around, and I’ll shoot you in your spine,” the voice said.

John Quinn did as he was told, setting his revolver down on the rocky ground. “The other one, too,” the voice said. “I know you got two of them on you.”

John cursed, loudly. The voice chuckled again. “Keith Rivers, is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Put down the guns, put your hands in the air, and turn your ass around.”

John did as he was told and turned around to find Keith’s ragged sneer greeting him. His left cheek was a patchwork of pink flesh and scar tissue, his teeth unnaturally exposed from his wound and giving him half of a perpetual, skeletal grin. “Afternoon, Keith,” John Quinn said. “You’re looking well.”

Keith snorted, grinned wider, revealed more of his teeth. “Looking like a ghoul, more like. Your handiwork, John. I ain’t forgot that.”

“You’re lucky I didn’t blow your brains out, boy.”

“Lucky ain’t the word I’d use, old man.” Keith stepped out of his hiding place amongst the rocks on the hill and walked forward to jam the barrel of his revolver into John’s stomach. “I know you got at least one more gun on you a knife. Something. Save us both some trouble and don’t go for it. I know you don’t want to bleed out alone on the prairie.” Keith grabbed John by his shoulder and spun him around, prodded him forward down the hill with his gun.

“You make me turn around just so I’d have to look at your ugly face, Keith? That’s torture, you know.”

“Shut up, old man.” He bent down to pick up John Quinn’s guns keeping one on the man all the while. John Quinn walked forward heedless of the fact that Keith wasn’t immediately behind him. “You and me got a lot of unfinished business, you know.”

“I don’t have no unfinished business, save delivering that kid you roughed up to the authorities for his lawful trial. Whatever unfinished business you think we got, it’s all in your head.”

Keith grabbed at John Quinn’s shirt and threw him to the ground. He stood astride the man, aimed his gun in his face. The sun was behind him, and he was a black and evil shade, a creature of indistinguishable fingers save for his stained and yellowed rictus. “All in my head? All in my fucking head? You jam the barrel of a gun in my mouth and pull the trigger, and you tell me our unfinished business is all in my fucking head? You think I’m going to let you do that and not make you pay for it?”

“Of course not,” John Quinn muttered under his breath. “You never were very smart.”

* * *

Keith Rivers marched John Quinn to the mesquite tree and sat him down alongside Elliot Whitmore. The boy was badly beaten, and John could see now that his nose was broken, his face a mass of purple bruises. “What in Hell’d you do to him, Keith?” John Quinn said, not truly expecting a reply.

He didn’t get one.

The three men sat there in silence, Keith watching John intently and turning his attention to the horizon for a few brief moments every so often, John wondering why Keith hadn’t killed him yet, and Elliot still unconscious. Time passed, and John became aware of a cloud of dust on the horizon, a cloud that slowly coalesced into two figures on horseback.

Keith grinned. “Good. As soon as James and Sam get here, we’ll take care of you and the brat.”

Twenty minutes later, a pale hulking brute of a man and a thin, dark-skinned woman in a sarape and wide-brimmed hat reached the group. The man spoke, smiling like a child eager to please their father. “Good news, boss. Old Zeke said the bounty was still good. Said if you could bring John Quinn in alive, he’d pay double.” John Quinn’s eyes went wide at this, the name at once filling him rage and fear.

Keith smiled. “Course he will,” Keith turned to John Quinn, grinning his corpse grin at the man. “Zechariah Wharton ain’t the type to forgive and forget, is he?”

John Quinn said nothing. His face was stone, his eyes firmly trained on the ground before him.

“Come on, John. Ain’t you got nothing to say about our mutual friend?”

John Quinn looked up and locked eyes with Keith, and for a moment, the smile fled from what was left of the younger man’s lips. There was cold steel in John Quinn’s eyes, steel that had meant death for many just as sure as the steel of a revolver. “Boy, I’m only going to tell you once. Walk away now and I’ll do my level best to forget this ever happened. You can crawl back under whatever rock will hide your ugly face from the light of day and go about your miserable life. But if you take me to that man, I will kill you. I will kill your accomplices. I will kill him. I will kill whatever is left of his gang. I will kill whoever is left from his family. And when I am done, I will burn all that he has built to the ground and I will salt the earth so that nothing living may ever find respite in that land again.”

The brute’s eyes went wide. The woman’s hand dropped to her waist where a pistol sat in a holster. Keith Rivers was silent, and there was no sound at all to be heard save for breathing.

“Ah, Hell,” Keith said. “You ain’t got nothing but words, old man. Nothing but words.” He stood up and turned to the others. “Tie him up. Come sunrise, we’ll take the brat to Potterville, get the bounty, and take the old man to Zechariah’s. This time tomorrow, and we’ll be richer, happier people.” Keith chuckled, and his chuckle turned into a deep laugh, and the others joined him in a chorus that echoed under the setting sun.


In a Shallow Grave, No One to Grieve, Pt. 2

John Quinn was on his horse riding back towards Potterville, Elliot Whitmore bound and gagged astride one of the two horses he and Bill McDougall had stolen during their bank robbery, when the kid finally came to. The third horse, its reins in John Quinn’s hands, whinnied at Elliot’s hesitant, uncertain movements. John Quinn noticed thrashing out of the corner of his eye, heard the sound of muffled curses and then the sound of something hitting the earth and cursing all the louder. He sighed, slowed his horse, and hopped off. Elliot Whitmore was on his back, rolling ineffectually from side to side like a tortoise flipped onto its shell. He stood over the kid for a moment and went to go sit on a rock and watched as the boy struggled helplessly against his bonds. “You’re not getting free, son,” John Quinn said. “And even if you somehow did, I’d just shoot you in the leg.”

The kid’s struggles slowed at that comment, and the two of them sat there in silence save for the nickering of the horse, the muffled panting of Elliot behind the gag in his mouth. John Quinn nodded.

“Sensible. We got at least another day’s ride back into town, and if you’re going to insist on falling off the back of the horse the whole time, I’m just going to have to drag you behind me.” Elliot glared up at John Quinn with hatred burning in his eyes. John Quinn just looked down and smiled. “And that ain’t apt to be pleasant.” Elliot let himself be hauled up off the ground, pushed astride the horse, his hands bound to the saddle’s horn this time.

The pair rode on in silence for some time, the sun bearing down on them and then slowly setting behind them, until Elliot began fussing and grunting incomprehensibly in his seat. John Quinn looked at him with disinterested bemusement for a few moments before he realized the kid was trying to say “Thirsty.” “Well, alright then. I suppose this is as good a place to stop for the night as any.”

John Quinn went to work starting a fire, the kid watching him, silent behind the gag, silent and angry and then silent and frustrated and finally just silent and tired. Once the fire was burning to his satisfaction, John Quinn turned back to his prionser and undid the gag and fed him water from a beaten old canteen.

Elliot Whitmore said, “Thank you,” and this politeness was not lost on the older man.

John Quinn cooked a simple meal. Beans set in a blackened iron pot with water and a small handful of spices he’d picked up in Potterville, flour mixed with lard and water to form a dough wrapped around a stick. If he’d been on his own, he would have shot and dressed a rabbit, but it seemed like unnecessary work with the kid in tow. The point was to get the boy back to town and collect the bounty, not to take his time enjoying the wail of coyotes and the blowing of the wind.

He waited until the beans were almost done, then wrapped the dough around a stick and cooked it over the flame. He fed himself, then Elliot. “You know,” the kid said. “If you untied my hands, I could feed myself.”

“Boy, you can’t be serious.”

“I ain’t going to run. You can trust me.”

“I could hobble you, too. Break your ankles.”

Elliot stared at John Quinn blankly for a moment before shaking his head. “You won’t.”

John Quinn said nothing.

* * *

After their meal, they sat around the campfire in silence. It was some time before John Quinn finally said to Elliot, “So. Tell me about your family.”

Elliot snapped to attention, eyed John suspiciously. “I ain’t telling you a damn thing about my family.”

John shrugged, nibbled on a piece of frybread. “Suit yourself.”

More silence. Elliot squirmed in his seat. “What do you want to know about them for, anyway?”

“Wanted to know who I was going to have to apologize to when we get to town.” John took another bite of the bread. “Or who was going to try and put a bullet in me, if you like.”

“Just my wife and my son. Ain’t nobody going to try and shoot you.”

John Quinn grunted. “You’d be surprised. “

Elliot watched the older man chew lazily on his meal, and his heart caught in his throat and his words spilled out of him like water running down a cliffside. “Her name’s Rosalinda. Family’s from down south. She’s… you ever had flan? She’s like that, soft and brown and sweet. She’s a good seamstress, too. Made me this shirt I’m wearing.” There was pride in his voice. He smiled. “And our boy’s named Jose, but I call him Joe. His skin’s lighter than hers, but not as dark as mine, and he’s got light brown hair, and these big brown eyes that make him look surprised all the time, like everything’s new and exciting and just a little confusing to him.” Elliot’s voice quavered there, a few tears welling in his eyes and sparkling by the firelight. “He’s just beautiful, man. She is too. They both are.”

“Sounds like a real fine family,” John Quinn said. He kept his voice neutral. He didn’t want the kid getting his hopes up.

In the quiet that followed, Elliot studied the older man. He was still young enough not to be called old, but there was a certain weathered quality to him. By the firelight, shadows pooled in the lines at the corners of his eyes. He was trim, his skin like tanned leather from the sun and the wind. This was a man who’d spent a good part of his life not just outdoors, but on the road.

“What’s your name?” the kid asked.

“John Quinn.”

Even in the flickering glow of the firelight, John could see the boy’s eyes go wide, his face turn a shade more pale.

John chuckled. “You’ve heard of me, then?”

“Yeah,” the kid said, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Yeah, I heard of you. I heard of what you did to the Wharton Gang. Oh, sweet God…”

“You ever heard of Dead-Eye Dan?”

The kid shook his head slowly. John Quinn chuckled again.

“Yeah, no one’s ever heard of Dead-Eye Dan. It’s a shame. That story makes me look a lot better. But then, there’s a lot of stories that make me look better than the one about the Wharton Gang.” John Quinn looked up and stared into Elliot’s eyes. The kid couldn’t hold his gaze. “Son, what in God’s name led you to rob a bank? You ain’t a cold-blooded criminal, and I should know; I’ve seen plenty of them.”

“I already told you. I wanted to provide a better life for my family.”

“You must have known this wasn’t going to work. You’d never done this, McDougall was too unpredictable to be trusted, and no town in all this land’s just going to let you take their money without crying out for blood. What were you thinking?”

The kid went silent and looked at the ground. “I thought it’d be easy,” he said. “I thought, ‘Just one afternoon’s worth of trouble, and I’ll never have to work again. My wife and I can have all the things we ever wanted, our boy can have everything he’ll ever need. We’ll move far away, and no one there will know who we are, and no one from Potterville will know where to find us. It’ll be perfect.’ That’s what I was thinking.”

“You were wrong.”

“You from Potterville?”

“I ain’t from anywhere.”

“Then I guess I wasn’t.”

John Quinn chuckled at that. “Smartass.” John Quinn sighed and looked up at the open night sky, the stars twinkling above him, the moon a thin crescent, the Earth spinning around the sun, and him right here with a boy he was most likely bringing to his death. Except for that last bit, it was almost beautiful in the sense of rightness, of correctness, it filled him with. And if you thought that him being a bounty hunter and the boy being a criminal made the kid’s probable and pending death right, then that was beautiful, too.

John Quinn didn’t think that, but he thought about thinking that.

“You like being out in nature, son?”

“I like it enough. I usually like getting back to town more, though.” Elliot sniffed. “Usually.”

“I like it a lot, myself. Man was meant to move. Those who came before us knew that well. Why else would they have belt so many winding roads?”

“I hear tell that there’s great dead cities all about. Buildings so tall that even as they crumble to the ground, they block out the sun and the stars. Whole worlds of grey and metal and stone. Lots of folk must have lived in those cities. They must have liked staying put well enough.”

“They were wrong, then.”

“You got a family?”

John Quinn took a deep breath, shifted in his seat. “Not as such, no.”

“You might not like moving around so much if you had one. It’s hard on the women and the kids, and anything that’s hard on them is hard on a man, if he’s any kind of decent man at all.”

“And if he isn’t a decent man?”

“Then he shouldn’t have a family.”

John Quinn said nothing until much later he said, “I’m going to sleep.”

* * *

In the morning, Elliot Whitmore was gone.

John Quinn stood over the spot where the boy had fallen asleep, and did his best to maintain his composure, to be rational about things. There was no trace of the ropes that had bound the boy, so he hadn’t freed himself. There were no tracks in the dirt to suggest that he had struggled wildly to upright himself and walked away. He hadn’t dragged himself to a rock or anywhere where he could have pushed himself to his feet.

John Quinn leaned closer. In the dirt, there were footprints, at least three different sets. There was a fourth set, the feet painfully close together, that seemed have only left a few marks before disappearing altogether.

He had been carried away. Someone had come in the night for Elliot Whitmore, and carried him away.

John Quinn spit in the dirt. The little bastard had had accomplices. They must have seen him capture the kid, decided to hang back and watch until it was safe for them to close in and take action. They’d waited until he was asleep, maybe waited for the kid to give them some kind of signal, then freed him.

But they hadn’t freed him. It would have been the work of a silent instant to cut the rope binding the boy, and they’d opted instead to pick him up and abscond with him as he was, fetters and all. And of the three horses, they had only taken two. And those weren’t the only oddities.

“They didn’t kill me,” John Quinn muttered. Who would come and take the boy in the night, but not kill his captor? There wasn’t any sense in it. There was too much that could go wrong. It was the kind of mistake that they could come to regret, and it could have been solved all with a bullet or a knife in the dark.

John Quinn gathered his things, mounted his horse, and began following the trail. By the time he found Elliot Whitmore, it was midday. He found the boy sitting under a mesquite tree at the bottom of a rocky hill, once more gagged and bound. A line of dried blood ran under his nose, his eyes were bruised and blackened. He was still, as if beaten into unconsciousness.

John Quinn drew his gun, thumbed back the hammer, surveyed his surroundings. The landscape was barren, save for a few rocks, a few trees, some grass. He began walking towards the boy.

There was a clicking sound that echoed through the midday quiet like a gunshot in its own right, and then a low, harsh chuckling. John Quinn froze, winced, cursed to himself.

“John Quinn,” that same low, harsh voice said. Another chuckle. John Quinn could hear the sneer in the voice of the unseen man. “It’s been a long time.”


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