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.
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?”
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?”
“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!