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.
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.”