All Tag needed was a little rain.
The moment dawn broke over the rim of the eastern ridge every living beast hunkered deep in its burrow. Waiting out the heat. Except Tag. With a decent glass you could see him miles away across the flat salt pan. Stooped. Falling every so often. A crippled spider on a sheet of paper. His tortured breath carried over the soft moan of the wind.
He looked back to spot the trackers. Six, three days ago. Down to two the last time he saw them, their spare horses gone. He looked back but was nearly blind from the searing sun reflecting off the salt.
The baby cried and he hushed her, tapping the basket strapped to his back. He'd wrapped her against the sun. She had a damp cloth to suck on, all the water they'd had for days.
There wasn't a cloud within a hundred miles. Tag figured if they were lucky, they had an hour to live.
* * *
A woman named Clare had found him at the station waiting for the train to Laredo.
"They took my baby." She stood tall and strong, not the kind of woman to cry. "They shot my husband dead and took Evangeline."
The train whistled in the distance as it cleared the pass and headed in.
"I'm going east," he'd explained.
"He was the mine superintendent and they took him for the ransom. Took Evangeline for good measure. He must have put up a fight. They found his body alongside two dead bandits. They took my baby, thinking I'd give them the mine's gold. I have one hundred dollars to my name. It's yours if you'll bring her back."
The train rumbled over the bridge. The engineer pulled the whistle. A team of bays hitched to a post skittered in place and every bird for five miles around took to the air.
"I've been all over this territory. They say you're the man to do it." She reminded him of a face he'd seen on a Greek coin in the museum in St. Louis. Her hair was the color of buttercups.
"I'm going to Laredo to get married," Tag said.
"And take up farming." She said it as though farming was a miserable occupation. Two steps down from what he'd been doing.
"Bring my Evangeline home and I'll give you the hundred dollars." She had a way of studying his face as though she was going to smile. "Then I'll marry you myself."
Tag kicked at the dirt. The train rushed in. Flags mounted on the engine rippled and snapped. Burning cinders fell around them like hail. The engineer vented the boiler. The escaping steam matched Tag's long sigh.
"Bandits won't keep a baby," he said. "They'll drop it on the trail and push home."
"That's what I thought. Till a man came with a note." She fished a piece of paper from the bosom of her dress and unfolded it. "Can you read?"
"You want to marry me and don't know if I can read?"
"I figured I could teach you." Clare handed him the note, warm from her flesh. It looked like it had traveled far.
"Send a thousand dollars in gold and they'll return Evangeline. You shouldn't give this any credence."
Passengers began to disembark, looking at the town, the mountains and the sky. Realizing they were in the middle of nowhere.
"She's my baby. I have to."
"They kidnapped your husband without disarming him. They took your baby. These are not intelligent people."
"Everyone I spoke to said you're the man to bring her back."
"I'm going to Laredo and get married on Sunday." He picked up his kit to board the train.
Clare stepped close and gripped his shoulders. She stood on her toes and kissed him the longest he'd ever been kissed. She smelled of mountain clover and tasted like honey. "Bring her back and that's what every day of your life will be like."
"I bought a gun. You can teach me to shoot on the way."
* * *
He wouldn't let her go with him, instead telling her where to wait.
A rifle fired in the distance, startling the baby. Out of range. Tag had driven cattle dead on their feet, calling desperately for water. Shooting over their heads to get them moving.
They wanted him up. The faster Tag moved, the sooner he'd die. He did his best to oblige, digging his fingers and toes into the salt. Pushing himself to his feet, careful not to tip the basket.
He'd stopped sweating yesterday and knew time was running out. He aimed for the mountains humped in the distance half-buried in the heat haze. They looked so dry if you put them to the match they'd go up like kindling. Though he staggered and fell, his course ran true.
A half mile ahead a black thumb of rocks rose out of the salt. Tag couldn't imagine how rocks had gotten there so far from the mountains. Who'd formed them into a pile.
He'd been seeing things since the water ran out, so the pile of rocks could be a petrified tree stump. Could be that one of the trackers had looped around to cut him off. Could be nothing at all. He'd given up believing his eyes or the voices that spoke to him. He trusted the weak sounds the baby made and his own muttered curses.
The salt made a noise as though he'd punched it with his fist. A moment later the rifle shot echoed. In range now.
Tag picked up his pace. He'd been known to cover a lot of ground. Long loping strides that went day and night without faltering. Now he shuffled. Bent over like an old man. Breathing as though he was in a race. He went a little left and a little right, crazy footed so he'd be a poor target.
He'd explained it to Evangeline when they stopped to rest in the night. She sucked on the cloth, nearly dry to the touch.
"We'll go until we can't. That's our way. I won't let those heathen bandits take you back. You'll stay with me until it's over. I can promise you won't die alone. Someday they'll find us curled together on the salt and understand there was a man and a child who didn't give up on each other." The baby never opened her eyes.
A rifle bullet struck the heel of Tag's boot, knocking his foot out from under him, burying his face in the salt. He pushed himself up, a hundred yards to the rocks. His leg started giving him hell.
The rock mound stood twenty feet high. Abraded into exotic shapes by the wind.
He shuffled, waiting for the rifle shot he wouldn't hear. He'd kept ahead of them all this way, pushing every mile. He wanted to be first to the rocks and claim them as his own.
Tag looped around the base and collapsed in a band of shade on a rock shaped like a chair. His breath rasped like a broken squeezebox. He was too dry to spit or cough.
The horse walked up, breathing as loud as Tag. It stopped in front of him, looking like a pencil sketch. Skin stretched as tight as a drumhead across knobs of bones and ribs. The line of shade cut across the bandit's face. An old scar started at his forehead, closed one eye, and ran down across his mouth to his chin. He moved the rifle and the saddle creaked.
"Just me and you," Tag said.
The bandit sat tall as though neither his thirst nor the heat could break him.
"I figure to wait here until it rains," Tag said, making a joke. It might not rain for a year.
"Me and Evangeline got a plan. We're going to stay right here." Tag was so dry it came out as a whisper.
The bandit leveled the rifle at Tag's face. "The baby."
Tag buried his face in his palms, grinding the course salt into his skin. "I promised her."
"I take the baby now."
"Her momma doesn't have a thousand dollars. She never will. Her husband ran the mine. He didn't own it."
The bandit's shoulders went up an inch and back down. "Mi jefe."
"He must be one smart fella."
"Is cruel." The bandit raised his left hand off the saddle's pommel. His two middle fingers were stumps.
"What happened to your amigos?"
The bandit tilted back the brim of his hat to look in the distance. "The salt."
The wheezing horse seemed to float above the salt and now looked like a dog.
"I hurt you before you die," the bandit said. "Or I leave you here."
"Hurt me how?"
The bandit carried a wicked looking knife on his belt. "Cut you open. Pull you inside out. Skin you."
"Since you're giving me a choice, I'd rather you leave me."
"Give me the baby. Time to go."
Tag worked the basket off his shoulders and cradled it in his arms. He kissed the cloth, feeling the baby's forehead underneath. It was all he could do to stand and hand the basket up to the bandit.
The bandit looped one arm through the straps.
Tag sat on his rock. Used up. "You know about babies?"
The bandit shrugged. "Is for mi jefe."
"She's dyin'. Another hour and she'll be gone."
The bandit lifted the cloth with his tortured hand. He licked his lips where the scar puckered them.
"She'll die without water."
The bandit wet the cloth from his canteen and touched it to the baby's mouth. She started sucking.
"Rub it across her face. She has a fever."
The bandit pulled the bandanna from his neck, wet it and washed the baby's face and head.
"You need to do that every hour. You have biscuit?"
The bandit tilted his head to see if Tag was joking. His skin was the color of his saddle. The salt had starved him down to bone. He opened his palm. "On the salt?"
"Break a biscuit into crumbs, wet it into a paste and she'll eat it off the tip of your finger. She needs to eat every hour."
The bandit looked at Tag like he wanted to skin him.
"Four days to get back. No. We started with fresh horses. Six days."
The bandit studied the horizon.
"Think you'll make it?"
The bandit nodded.
"She'll die," Tag said. "She's been dying since my water ran out."
"Then she dies."
"You make it back carrying a dead baby and what will your jefe say?"
The bandit shook his head. "Is cruel."
"You'll never make it back."
The bandit lifted his canteen. The water sloshed heavy inside.
"You don't have enough."
They'd both studied the calculus of the salt. How much water was left. How far there was to go.
"When you started out your saddle was heavy with water bags. Now they're all gone. That horse of yours hasn't seen water in days and is dead on its feet. Take a minute to think about it and you'll realize you're going to die crossing the salt."
"I'm not afraid," the bandit said.
"You tried to shoot me with that rifle from a hundred feet away. You aimed for my head and hit my boot heel." Tag lifted his ankle with both hands to show the bandit. "You're as blind as I am."
The bandit wiped his good eye with the bandana, leaving a wet smear across his face.
"I crossed the salt before," Tag said. "I know the way."
"You are dying."
"This is my marker. I guided you straight to it. I know the way."
The bandit studied the pile of stones. The horse shuddered as though it was going to collapse.
"There's a spring just before the mountains. I know the way."
The bandit turned in his saddle, stood tall on the stirrups and looked into the distance. "Far."
"We can be there before sun up."
The bandit sat still as a statue.
The baby made a noise in the basket.
"We go north. I know the way."
The bandit watched him, the rifle steady on Tag's face.
"We share the water," said Tag. "If the baby dies, there's no sense going on. If I die, you'll wander in circles and never leave the salt."
The horse sidestepped, nearly falling.
"There's help up ahead. Water and supplies."
"Waiting to kill me." The bandit drew a circle around his neck with his finger.
"I'll carry the rifle. They'll see us coming and know you're not a danger."
The bandit sat for so long Tag wondered if he'd gone to sleep. "Mi jefe."
"We'll rest up then head out to California. Your jefe won't ever know."
The wind moaned through the rocks. The hot air leached the moisture from their skin. Tag leaned back and closed his eyes. The truth was he never thought he'd make it this far.
The canteen clattered against the salt. Tag stooped to pick it up and took four deep swallows. The bandit handed down the rifle.