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Bite the Bullet

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Jack had only been a petty thief when he’d met David. Hardly anyone at all, really. His face was still unrecognizable; he could still walk into a diner without worrying about who he might run into.

There was one diner in particular called Tibby’s, which was well-known throughout the area for serving “the best desserts in the state of Oklahoma!” Whether this is in fact true remains a matter of personal preference, but what really kept the diner in business was a nineteen-year-old waiter named David Jacobs who, ironically enough, was considered the worst of the staff when he actually worked there. His sharp tongue and short supply of patience were considered less-than-ideal qualities for a member of the waitstaff, but his association with outlaw Jack Kelly made him a small celebrity.

Jack had actually only been to this diner once. He never did end up trying the desserts, because he was too busy taking advantage of the noisy entrance of a rather large lunchtime crowd and using it as an opportunity to dash out the back door without paying.

In doing so, he landed right in the middle of a fight. Two frustrated customers were in the process of taking their anger out on a waiter who’d picked the wrong moment to take a smoke break. Now, normally Jack would not have intervened. But there was just something about this waiter that caught Jack’s attention. Maybe it was the determination with which he held out against two men who’d clearly caught him off guard. Or maybe it was just the look on his face when he’d locked eyes with Jack.

Whatever the reason, Jack found himself cutting in. He grabbed one of the antagonizers by the neck and shoved him into the side of the diner. The other required less encouragement; after seeing Jack make quick work of his friend, he took off running. His companion was quick to follow.

“You okay, kid?” Jack had asked as he’d helped David to his feet.

“I think so,” David said, wiping blood from his lip. “Goddamn customers act like they’re entitled to everything.”

He sighed wearily.

“Welcome to Oklahoma,” he continued, in a voice that was almost too bitter for someone so young. “If the weather doesn’t kill you, the people sure will. Or they’ll just bleed the life out of you until you kill yourself.”

He stared ahead bitterly, and for a moment, he seemed to have forgotten Jack was there. But then he turned to him and asked, “Are you from around here? I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”

“I am,” Jack grinned, “But I won’t be for long!” Had he been paying more attention, he might have noticed David’s eyes grow as big as saucers. “Got a car, a map, a full tank-“

“Take me with you,” David demanded, grabbing Jack roughly by the shoulders.

Jack had just stared for a moment and then sputtered something incoherent, but David just plowed on.

“Please,” he pleaded, “I know we don’t know the first thing about each other, but I’ll do anything. I’ll be useful, I swear. I just … I have to get out of here, I have to. Please,” he begged, “I’m dying here.”

Jack hesitated. The look in this kid’s eyes was one he’d recognized. He’d seen it in his own reflection every time he looked in a mirror.

He heaved a sigh. “You got folks?”

“I’m nineteen.”

“Didn’t ask how old you were, I asked if you got a family.”

“They’re better off without me, anyway.” David said quietly. After a long pause, he added “I’ll write ‘em tomorrow and tell ‘em I’m safe if it’ll make you feel better.”

Jack groaned. He felt for this kid. He really did. But wanting to get out of Oklahoma was one thing, and leaving his family to live on the road with a perfect stranger was quite another matter altogether.

“What I do is … well, dangerous.” Jack warned.

“Nothing could be worse than this,” David replied immediately. “The land is dead, the economy’s dead, the people are dead. If dangerous is what it takes to live just a little bit, then I’ll take it.”

“What’s your name, kid?”

“David. David Jacobs.”

“Well the thing is, David ...” Jack trailed off, “Oh, just get in the car before I change my mind.”

~~~

Three years had passed since that afternoon, and since then Jack Kelly had gone from petty thief to Public Enemy. David, as it turned out, was fairly good in a crisis, and knew a thing or two about patching up injuries. Had Jack left him in Oklahoma, he probably would not have survived the first gunshot wound.

They lived out of stolen cars for the most part, but tonight they had managed to find an empty garage to settle in for the evening. Spirits were running high. They’d robbed a bank, gotten out with few complications, driven back through Oklahoma to leave some money with the Jacobs family (which was always tricky, thanks to the law, but David had a very clever younger brother), and still had a considerable amount of cash left over.

David was indulging in a bottle of wine and listening to the radio, while Jack lounged nearby and allowed himself to reminisce. Three years ago, he had never imagined that he would be here. He’d simply wanted freedom. He wanted to get out of the dust, and away from the town that was sucking the life out of him. He wanted the means to get what he wanted when he wanted it.

And now he was an outlaw. He and David had carved their way across the Midwest with a rifle and .45 pistol, and somehow they’d ended up on top. And maybe they were living out of a car, but they’d also made every newspaper in the United States. He was hated. He was a hero. He was famous. Little boys would grow up wanting to be him the same way he’d grown up worshipping outlaws like Spot Conlon and Racetrack Higgins.

He grinned at David. Three years ago, he’d have never thought he’d end up with an accomplice, either. But David had turned out to be the best thing he’d never planned on.

David had driven the getaway car their first time, the time they’d robbed that hardware store in Atchison. It wasn’t long until he started helping Jack plan robberies, and then pretty soon he was going in with him, pistol in hand. His appearance hadn’t changed much over the past three years, but when Jack thought back to the desperate kid he’d first met in the back of a diner, he marveled at how much happier he seemed. Despite the danger of their lifestyle, David was more confident and at ease now than he’d ever been before.

Jack smiled over at him, and David grinned back, and a warm rush of affection pooled in Jack’s chest.

But then David froze.

Slowly, he reached to turn off the radio.

"Jack,” he said quietly, urgently, “it’s the law. They’re outside.”

“Which direction?” Jack asked, hoping his voice didn’t betray the panic he suddenly felt.

“We’re surrounded.”

Now that the radio wasn’t playing, Jack could hear them too.

Shit.

They’d talked about this. He’d known that this could happen.

But he’d never really believed it.

A thick, heavy wave of dread washed over him, paralyzing him.

David, on the other hand, was calmly bustling about the garage.

“Do you have a lighter, Jack?”

“Huh?”

“A lighter.”

And then Jack saw what he was doing. David was holding the briefcase that contained all their money, and he dumped the entire stash on the floor.

“You’re burning it?”

“We may live through this or we may not. But if there’s one thing I can guarantee, it’s that no man will ever get rich off my corpse.”

He said it with the air of someone who’d come to terms with his mortality long ago. He’d prepared for this.

Jack reached for his lighter, but hesitated before handing it to David

“Wait,” he said, “I have to tell you…”

He paused. He knew that by saying it out loud, he was admitting the possibility of defeat. Jack Kelly, the legend, might be immortal, but now? Well … he wasn’t really Jack Kelly anymore. He was human, and he was scared.

“My real name is Francis.” He finally admitted.

“What?” David half-laughed.

“My real name is Francis Sullivan. And I just … If we die tonight …. I just thought someone oughtta know.”

David was quiet for a moment.

“Well if it makes you feel better,” he said finally, “my middle name is Tangerine.”

“You’re joking.”

“Yup,” David grinned, “It’s Aaron. But you believed me for a second there.”

And seeing him smiling and joking like that, right in the face of the biggest threat they’d ever encounter, prompted Jack to try to be the hero once more.

“David, I’ll go out first. They’ll be focused on me, and maybe it’ll buy you some time. You sneak out the other door and just run. Just leave me-“

“No way in hell, Jack.” The calm, smiling-through-the-crisis expression had evaporated, and had been replaced with a sort of passionate desperation he hadn’t seen in years.

“Jack,” he said again, quietly. He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.

“Jack Kelly, I have loved you from the moment I first laid eyes on you. And if you’re idiot enough to think that a future without you is in any way preferable to dying beside you, then think again, because I would rather face hell by your side than live a day without you.”

That feeling was blooming in his chest again; that warmth.

Jack surged forward, grabbing David by the lapels and pulling him into a kiss.

“We could have had years, David, if I’d have known,” he whispered sadly when they broke apart.

David kissed him again.

“This is enough.”

“I love you, Davey.”

Someone outside started shouting, and someone else pounded against the side of the garage.

Jack and David flinched apart.

David flicked open the lighter and set the cash ablaze.

“We’ll shoot our way out,” Jack said, reaching for the guns.

David took one, kissed Jack one final time, and nodded.

And then they started running.

ST. LOUIS POST DISPATCH

June 9th, 1934

OUTLAW JACK KELLY AND ACCOMPLICE KILLED IN POLICE SHOOTOUT NEAR JOPLIN