By: Samuel Evans
Jimmy Whiteman stared deeply into the campfire. Its orange glow flickered and pulsed in the wind. He could hear the distant howling of coyotes piercing through the night, mingling with the sound of the breeze whispering through the blades of grass.
At every howl, Beth’s head pricked up anxiously. It was a testament to her lack of naivete, that she did not once ask Jimmy if they were safe. They were not, nor had they been at any point throughout their journey.
Perhaps it was for this very reason that generation after generation had been drawn westward, like moths to a candle. That was what Jimmy had always suspected. Danger was the price of true freedom, and death was more often than not the reward. But that freedom was worth all the wealth and sorrow in the world.
Looking at Beth, however, Jimmy was not so sure her determination had anything to do with courage. As her red-ringed eyes flicked over the flames, they seemed to be lit with something more volatile. It reminded him of the glint in the eyes of a wounded dog, ready to snap at anything that wandered into its way.
“Not alive,” she said quietly, almost in a whisper. She did not look up.
Jimmy leaned back from the fire nonchalantly. “Pardon?”
“The warrant out for Robert. It says dead or alive. I want him dead.”
“There’s more money if he’s alive,” said Jimmy.
“This isn’t about the money. Not for me. That man killed my husband. You said you saw it yourself.” She added curtly: “I’ll make up the difference if it really is so important to you.”
Jimmy raised his hands yieldingly. “That won’t be necessary, ma’am.” He’d had no intention of taking Robert back alive, and was grateful for the opportunity to do away with the subterfuge of good intentions. If anyone asked, now he would simply tell them he had bent to the wishes of a grieving widow.
Jimmy leaned back on his bedroll, pulling the rim of his worn Stetson hat over his eyes. “You take first watch.”
“You’re a good man, Mr. Whiteman.”
They packed up their camp and were on the move by the time the sun was just beginning to crawl its way above the eastern horizon. In the light, the prairie seemed less alive than it had under the stars. The coyotes no longer howled, and the sun pulled back the curtain on the vast emptiness of the frontier. It appeared almost devoid of life now, except for the grass and occasional bird. It was not unlike the view Jimmy had seen as a child through the hole in the wall that served as a church window. He remembered those days well. He remembered the hard aching feeling that came from sitting too long on the old wooden pews, and being too afraid to shift in his seat lest his movement would provoke his father’s fury. He remembered the deep, resounding voice of the preacher, firing off passionate sermons about hellfire, retribution, and redemption. But most of all, he remembered that view outside the window, the view of open country where you could run and shout and sin and there was no jealous God or father to tell you not to.
At last they came to the River. That what everyone called it at least; it was more of a large creek. It served as the boundary to the land the government had ceded to the natives in some treaty or another— though very few settlers gave much of a damn. In Jimmy’s experience, the only people who cared about the boundary were found in that wonderful little gold mine of humanity— those who were just well-off enough to be honest, and just poor enough to believe the law meant something. Beth certainly was included among such people; the tight, anxious expression on her face confirmed that this would be her first time crossing.
Beth’s arm shot up suddenly, her index finger pointing toward a spot a little ways down-current from where they were. She did not wait for him, spurring her horse and splashing through the ravine.
It was a horse. Or it had been. Now it was a carcass, lying on the bank, no more than two arm’s-lengths from the water. As they got closer, the crows scattered. The horse’s hide had small chunks taken out of it from the scavengers, and one of its front legs was broken at the joint closest to the hoof, a bit of pink bone protruding from the skin. It had not yet begun to decay, and the only smell was the barnyard stench of dung and hay. There was a small red hole right between the beast’s eyes. Even lying completely still with the flies and bits of missing flesh, it looked almost alive. A few hours ago, it probably had been.
“This is Robert’s horse,” said Beth.
Jimmy nodded. Robert must have known they were close, and tried to jump the river to save a little time. It looked like the leap had broken his horse’s leg, and then he’d had to put the poor girl out of her misery. That was good. Robert was trekking on foot now, no doubt carrying all he was able on his back.
“It’ll have to be just me from here, miss.” Jimmy dismounted, snatching his rifle from the saddlebag with one hand as he did. He held out the rifle to Beth.
“Take this. If any Indians get close— or anyone else does— tell em’ to back off. If they don’t, point and shoot.”
“Don’t you need it?” asked Beth.
“No, ma’am.” Jimmy patted his revolver affectionately. “He’s one man, and I’ve got enough in this beautiful lady for six.”
Robert was not a man of the wild, that much was clear. His tracks were plain in every possible way that they could be: distinctive, plentiful, and marching steadily in one direction. After roughly a mile, the tracks led Jimmy into a sparse forest, and in an hour, Jimmy arrived at a cave. It was precisely the sort of place that someone who had the law barking at his heels would consider to be the perfect place to hide out the storm.
When Jimmy had ascended the short stone incline to the cavern’s mouth, he found Robert splayed out on his back. A leather sack was laying on the ground nearby, the handle of a pan sticking out the top and so full it was nearly bursting its seams. The man’s limbs were shaking ever so slightly and he stared up at the cave’s ceiling with a blank expression. It was the expression of a man who had reached the limits of what he could muster, even if he were to feel the cold fingers of death reaching for his throat.
When Robert saw Jimmy, the blankness in his eyes disappeared. His lower lip began to quiver.
“I didn’t do it,” he moaned, his voice breaking into almost a squeal at the last syllable. “I wouldn’t… He was my brother…”
Jimmy leaned up against the cavern’s wall, keeping one hand on his revolver. “Your brother was a real piece of work.”
“Your brother,” continued Jimmy. “He was a drunkard, a thief— he even cheated at cards. The day he died, he tried to beat the life out of an acquaintance of mine for no reason other than being an Indian. Drunk off his ass no doubt. From what his widow tells me though, it sounds like he never took his demons home with him. Suppose you gotta respect him for that, if nothing else.”
Something flickered in Robert’s eyes, something similar to rage or disgust or perhaps even a bit of hope— a desperate hope that Jimmy’s clear contempt for his brother would give him a foothold to crawl out of his dismal predicament. “If he was such a devil then why are you here? To collect the bounty? Even though you woulda killed him yourself, if you had the chance?”
“If I don’t collect the bounty on your head, someone else will. And I never said he was a devil. All I mean is that he was a rat-bastard, plain and simple, through and through.” Then Jimmy smiled. “Are you telling me you did kill him then?”
Robert shook his head bitterly. “Would it matter to you if I did?”
Jimmy shrugged. “I suppose not. But I woulda slept easier knowing I was killin’ a liar.”
There was a moment as Jimmy drew his revolver, that he could see Robert understood at last exactly who Jimmy was. But it was too late.
Four shots rang through the cavern, like the preacher’s angry voice through the sanctuary. Four, like the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Three of them found their target. Three, like the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
It was over. Jimmy watched as Robert’s eyes widened, contorted, filled with terror at the unknown abyss that awaited him, and then dimmed into an expression of absolute nothing. It was the same expression that his brother’s face had made, when Jimmy had blown his brains out the back of his skull.
The guilt would fade, Jimmy knew. It always did.