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.”
“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.