The white-hot California sun filled the sky and pressed relentlessly down on Jack Raynes and his exhausted roan as they plodded across the salt flat. When they had started this desert crossing the man had looked backwards occasionally, and the horse had stepped forward lively enough, but that was when they had both been full of life-giving water. Now the horse was well passed thirsty, and the diminishing sloshing sounds coming from Raynes' canteen only infuriated the man instead of satisfying him.
Raynes swayed in the saddle, his mind wandering back over the events that had made him try this dangerous crossing. He had quit his job at the Bar D ranch on a whim, and started drifting north figuring to double the desert to the west in a day or so, then maybe head toward the ocean, or up to Oregon. That was when he had heard the three men arguing up in the pines, and had stopped in some deep shade to watch as they alternately yelled at one another and drank from a bottle of cheap whiskey.
From listening to the three men fuss, Raynes gathered that there was some sort of disagreement over the split from some theft, and the cowboy had promptly decided to move on, because these yahoos were certain to shoot anyone ease-dropping on their deliberations. But as Jack prepared to leave the argument seemed to reach a crescendo that was punctuated by first one gunshot, and then several more. Raynes paused and looked back at the suddenly quiet camp, knowing that the desperados had killed each other in a drunken rage.
Being a practical man, Raynes decided to explore a bit, after all, if the outlaws were dead, they wouldn't need the money or supplies, and he could put it all to good use. "Who knows," Jack thought, "there might even be enough there for me to ride clear to San Francisco and see some of those tall buildings folks talked about." And with that thought in mind, the cowboy set about collecting whatever he thought he could use from the dead men. Jack had just stuffed the money into his saddlebags when he heard horses approaching.
"Damn!" Jack thought, "someone else heard the shots!" He barely had time to conceal the roan and himself when six men armed to the teeth and sporting shiny badges rode into sight. Raynes hadn't figured on a posse following this close, now he had to slip away before he was seen, because these men would never believe his story, they would assume he had been in on the original robbery, and then had killed his partners. Jack thought for a moment, and then made his decision, he would head west out into the salt desert. It was open ground, but only a fool would try to cross that stretch of salt in the summertime, the posse would never look for him there.
Raynes grinned sardonically at that thought and twisted around in his saddle to stare hard at the horizon behind him, he didn't see any movement, and that was reassuring. He had waited until the posse was busy burying the dead, and then had tried to slip away, but one of the deputies had heard him making his move, and Raynes knew the man had at least seen him from a distance as he headed out into the salt.
Now Jack looked westward, in the distance he could see the gray-green line of more mountains, and he realized that both he and the horse would need water long before they reached the coolness of those peaks. But where was he to find that life-giving liquid out here? There weren't any seeps or springs, no natural basins brimming with clear water, only miles of salt . . . and then the weary rider spotted a strange group of weathered grey buildings off to his right.
Buildings met people, and people had to have water! If the structures weren't a mirage perhaps Jack Raynes would make it out of this Hell after all. The roan seemed to agree, the horse actually picked up its pace when Raynes guided it toward the buildings. Perhaps the animal really did smell water there. Raynes hoped so, but the closer he got to the structures the more disappointing they seemed. Jack could see that the wooden siding on the buildings was cracked and split, and the few windows visible were empty of glass. No people seemed to be stirring, and Raynes began to think that the best he would get from this detour was a spot of shade for as long as he chose to rest here.
The place was even more disappointing when viewed from up close. There obviously wasn't any water around, and Jack realized that he had stumbled out of the desert, and into another type of Hell altogether. The white, dust-caked vats sitting under their sheds, next to the horse-power treadmill, and the piles of hard white nodes of minerals all pointed to the fact that this place had been a borax mine. Disgusted at his bad luck, Raynes decided to rest the roan in the shade of one of the sheds while he looked through the buildings, thinking that maybe there was something in one of them he could use.
But again, the cowboy was disappointed, the first two buildings looked as if they had been picked clean. There wasn't so much as a loose piece of paper on the floors, but the third building was different. When Raynes opened the door, he was greeted by an old-fashioned rag rug on the floor. A bed was made up against the opposite wall, and there was a ramshackle table and two chairs positioned under the window. On the table was a tin plate of still warm beans. Raynes rested his right hand on his gun, he didn't want to be surprised, and he had no idea how many people might be out here. "Hello?" He shouted. No answer. The cowboy pulled his pistol now and tried again, "Is anyone here?" He called out, but the only answer he got was the desert wind whipping across the salt.
Outside the roan suddenly whinnied, and Raynes knew he was in worse trouble than when he had been spotted by the posse. Cursing his own stupidity, Jack bolted out the door, only to see that the horse was gone. As he started to look around for the animal, he caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye, and the world erupted into white-hot sparks as something crashed into his head, and Jack Raynes fell into darkness.
Time passed, and the sound of footsteps on the wooden floor woke the cowboy. Raynes opened his eyes and tried to focus on what seemed to be a set of wooden beams overhead, but the supports kept spinning, and he closed his eyes again. From somewhere off in the distance, a raspy voice spoke. "Ya' wake boy?" Jack didn't answer, but something hard poked his side, and the voice spoke again this time sounding more perturbed. "Hey boy, I axed ya' a question."
Raynes decided to risk opening one eye a bit and was gratified to see the face hovering above him wasn't spinning now, he groaned and started to sit up, but something poked his stomach, and the face grinned showing bad teeth between the ragged beard. "Ya' best stay put boy," the stranger said. "Ya know, yer lucky to be alive." There was a scrapping sound that Raynes recognized as a chair being dragged across the wooden floor. "Yer plenty lucky boy. Not many men would ever wake up from takin' a mule-billy upside their heads."
The stranger brandished a short heavy club whose end was wrapped in a grey metal that could only be lead. "Freighters use 'em to put an animal down that's pulled its last load." He eyed the man on the bed. "They's cheaper than a bullet." Here the stranger straddled the chair and rested his arms across the back before he continued. "Now let's get down to it boy," the man said as he leaned forward. "Where ya' headin' with all 'at money?"
Raynes groaned. Of course, the stranger had went through his saddle bags, and the first thing he found was all that cash. Jack tried to explain, but his jaw was swollen, and some of his teeth felt loose, there also seemed to be sticky caked blood matting his hair and beard. He attempted to raise a hand to his aching face, and discovered he was tied up. He glanced at the man in the chair, the stranger remained sitting there facing his prisoner, idly swinging the weighted club, and waiting for an answer.
"Water," Raynes whispered.
The stranger made a face, and dropped the club on the table and picked up Raynes' pistol. "Why don't ya' jus' axe fer yer damn gun back?" He hooted in delight at his own cleverness, then turned serious. "Ya' better listen boy, cause sure as I'm Bill Hawkins I'll plug ya if'n ya don' answer true!" He gestured with the gun. "Now where ya headin', and why is they a mess o' dollars in your saddlebags?" Hawkins suddenly cocked the pistol as he looked suspiciously at the man on the bed. "Ya' wanted boy?"
Raynes thoughts were still swirling from being slugged, but he managed to shake his head "no," a gesture Hawkins didn't care for. "Yer lyin'," he said. "Sure as I've been stranded out here fer the better part o' a year ya' is lyin!" And he switched the cocked pistol to his off-hand so he could pick up the club again and looked menacingly at the man on the bed.
"Hold it mister!" Raynes croaked, "I could answer your questions better if I had something to drink." It was only then that Jack noticed the stranger was wearing his clothes, leaving him in his cotton longjohns.
Hawkins noticed Rayne's look, and stood up fingering the shirt and pants he had stolen. "Hope ya don' mind boy, ma duds was a little threadbare, and we is of a size. I'm sure you won't mind tradin' me somethin' fer a drink or two." He backed away across the room keeping the pistol leveled at the man on the bed. "Now ya' gets ya' drink old son, but jus' memeber it comes out o' yer share o' water fer the day!" With that the man uncocked the pistol and jammed it into his belt before pouring a short shot of water from an earthware jug into a tin cup.
While the man was doing this Raynes managed to work his way to a sitting position on the bed, but when Jack held out his bound hands for the cup Hawkins pulled the pistol again, "Oh, no boy. Ol' Bill has waited too long fer a chance to leave this patch o' Hell." He sat the cup on the chair and took a long step back. "Ya' jus' figure a way to get to 'at cup an I'll watch." Raynes swung his legs to the floor realizing as he did so that his feet were shackled with a short length of rope. He had just enough line to take a short shuffling step, but not enough to get any sort of momentum.
The water was brackish and tasted like the inside of a barrel, but it was clear enough and Raynes swirled it around inside his parched mouth before he swallowed. As Jack set the cup down Hawkins prompted him with a gesture of the pistol, and Raynes started talking. He said he found the money, and decided to try to go see San Francisco with it. Jack didn't mention the posse though, and he concluded with a request. "Now how about untying me?"
Hawkins only hooted at this, so Raynes tried something else. "How come you're out here all alone anyway?"
Hawkins eyed his prisoner, and then looked out the window remembering the circumstances that had brought him here. "I had a contract to haul freight out ta this mine," he started. "Every month I brought a thousand-gallon water tanker, food and mail." He kicked the wall in anger, "But on my last trip I drove all the way out here, damn near a hundred miles across the salt, and find that the contract miners had all quit! The place was empty!"
He turned around and shook the pistol at his captive, "So's I turns the rig aroun' and start's back, but about a mile out I hit a soft patch o' sand and the mules went down. First up to the bellies, then the withers. I tried and tried to pull just one of the critters out so's I could get out o' here, but couldn't do it alone. When the last mule went under the salt I was stuck. I had plenty of food and water though, just no way out o' here!" Now he grinned. "Until you came along."
"So, what happens now?" Raynes asked.
"Happens?" Hawkins almost shouted the word. "When it gets dark, I's goin' to mount your horse, and ride out o' here wearin' ya' clothes an' carryin' ya' gun. Then I's goin' to the first town I can think of an' buy a bottle an' a bath!"
"That tells me what you want to do," Raynes said. "What happens to me?"
Hawkins laughed hysterically. "You! Why boy I's gonna give ya two choices!" He calmed down a bit and went on, "First I kin jus' leave ya what's left o' the food an water. Should last a while if you watch yourself. An ya never know when somebody else will come by." He looked at Raynes thoughtfully. "Or I can jus' kill ya now if'n ya want. Spare ya a heap of sufferin'," and he abruptly turned and left the room, leaving Raynes to wonder how he could keep the crazy man from either shooting him, or leaving him here to die.
Hawkins returned sometime later with two cans without labels which he began opening with a knife while he looked accusingly at Raynes, "At animal of yor'n is pretty wor' out. Serve ya' right if'n it just folded up on ya' and left ya stranded," he said.
"I was in a hurry," Jack managed to answer as he eyed the cans of food.
"Well, I'd leave it rest fer a couple of days," Hawkins grunted, as he eyed the contents of the cans, and placed one where Jack could reach it. "But I'm in a hurry too," he grinned, and sat back down on the chair before continuing. "Eat up boy, and make sure ya' suck all the juice out of whatever's in there." He stuck a spoon in his can. "Yours looks like tomatoes, although ya' can hardly tell anymore, all the damn labels came off long time ago."
Raynes awkwardly worked the chair around so he could spoon the food from the can. He decided to make a play. "There's a lot of money in those saddle bags isn't there?" he asked as he raised the spoon to his lips.
Hawkins looked at him. "Fair amount," he answered suspiciously.
"You want to make some more?" Jack asked as he raised a tomato to his parched lips.
Hawkins watched Raynes carefully as he sucked at the juice in his own can of food. Outside a fly banged itself against the rusted screen tacked over the door, the insect's buzzing accentuated the silence. Finally, Hawkins set the can down on the table and pointed his spoon at his prisoner. "How?" he said.
Raynes ate a tomato, squishing the food so that all of the juice ran out of it before answering. "I may have stretched the truth a bit when I said I wasn't wanted," he lied.
Hawkins' eyes squinted into slits. "I knew it! Nobody carries 'at much money round! How much ya worth boy?"
Raynes watched the man knowing he had to be careful here. If he claimed too much money Hawkins would figure he was lying. But if he named too low a price the ex-freighter might just figure it wasn't worth the effort. He took another bite of tomato, and sucked at the juice. "Six hundred dollars," he said.
"At's a powerful lot of money boy," Hawkins said as he ate a peach from his can. "What'd you do to get 'at price on yer head?"
Raynes had to think fast, whatever lie he told Hawkins had to be believable, but what would a crazy man stranded in the desert think was true? "It's a mis-understanding between me and the Union Pacific," he answered.
"Train robber!" Hawkins laughed gleefully, and took a large pull from his can of fruit. "So you got seen somewhere, and now yer on the run!" He cackled with glee. "Well, I'll tell ya what boy, I'll just trot yer ass back the way ya came from and we'll see who's interested in ya!" He leaned toward Raynes and looked at his feet. "Yo' boots look in good shape yet, I figure they should last the walk I got planned fer ya!"
At this Jack breathed a sigh of relief as he sagged back onto the bed. Hawkins had taken the bait, and Raynes had tricked the man into saving his life, at least until they got out of the salt flats. Now the prisoner needed to rest and recruit his strength, because if he was right, Hawkins was intending on marching him back across the desert.
As he rested, Raynes could hear the ex-freighter's frenzied preparations for leaving the mining camp. The man rushed about, cursing the sun and the heat as he grabbed up cans of food, and every stoppered container he could find. Then there was silence for a while as the madman hiked out to the stranded water tanker and filled everything. Raynes heard the freighter drop the containers on the porch when he returned, and then the screen door creaked open as the man walked back inside.
"We leave when the sun starts to go down boy. I ride, you walk," Hawkins announced. "Ya' better slip them overalls o' mine on afore we leave young feller, cause it gets coolish out here at night." He grinned. "Wouldn't want you to catch yer death 'fore I can collect my money!"
"I rode two days to get to this place," Raynes pointed out. "Walking back will take longer."
Hawkins grinned. "Nah, you'll do fine! We'll move at night, and rest up during the hot part o' the day. 'Sides, I figure the reward will be paid for ya' dead or alive." Here the crazy-man eyed his captive. "Course, I'd prefer you stayed alive fer a while yet. I hate totin' yer dead ass across the salt."
"Thanks for your consideration," Raynes sighed.
They started out at sundown. Hawkins had watered the horse, and allowed Raynes to drink as much water as he could get down before they left the mine. Then the pair headed east, Hawkins perched on the back of the roan, and Jack Raynes trying manfully to keep up as he was towed along on a lead line from the horse's saddle. Fortunately, Hawkins didn't push too hard, but even so, it was still all Jack could do to keep up. By midnight, the desert sky was swept clear by a cool wind blowing from the distant mountains in the west, and the man on foot was shivering as his sweat chilled his body.
"How ya' doin' down there boy?" Hawkins asked at one point as they started across a section of hard packed sand, and Jack, who was already too tired to get into an argument with his captor had mumbled some reply. They kept moving until the sun was well up, then Hawkins stopped, and built a little shelter for himself out of a saddle blanket and some sticks he had brought along, "This here shade's fer me. You'd do well ta cover up with a blanket til' we leave come dusk," he rasped. "You thirsty boy?" Jack's face and throat were coated in salt dust, and he could just nod his head as he held his hands out for the old ketchup bottle Hawkins handed him. "Now 'at's your'n share o' the water, don't be wastin' it," the man warned.
Jack poured some of the life-giving liquid on his mouth to wash the salt away before taking a deep drink. The water was brackish and tasted of the ketchup that had caked inside the container, but it seemed like the best liquor Raynes had ever had in his mouth. He used a tiny portion to wipe the salt from his eyes, and looked around. "Where are we?" he croaked.
"I figure we're just shy o' halfway across," Hawkins grinned as he pulled out a piece of rope, "How's yer legs doin?"
Raynes looked at Hawkins and didn't lie. "They hurt like Hell," he answered truthfully.
Hawkins hooted. "Well, they gonna be ached some more, cause I got to tie ya' up so's I can get some rest. But cheer up mister! Pain means you're still alive! So, be glad ya kin feel anything!" Then Hawkins suddenly sobered and looked around, "Wish there was some shade fer the animal though, it's gonna be a scorcher fer sure today." He turned his attention back to his prisoner, "Now you just sit there quiet, we start back out when the sun goes down."
So began one of the longest days in Jack Raynes life. He made a little shade for himself with the blanket as Hawkins suggested, and tried to sleep, but his legs were racked with cramps from lack of water, and the sun seemed to burn right through his clothes, making even the covered parts of his body seem like they were exposed. The roan stood stolidly nearby with its reins pegged to the ground while Hawkins snored in the shade. Briefly, Jack considered pummeling the crazy man in his sleep, but he realized that he was already too weak from thirst to overpower Hawkins, so he drifted off himself, and prayed he would survive this hike through Hell.
True to his word, Hawkins started marching Raynes eastward as soon as the sun went down. The desert changed from salt flats to low sand dunes, and Jack fell several times until Hawkins slowed their pace. At first Raynes thought this was out of consideration for him, but then he noticed that his captor was staring at the little clumps of grass and brittle brush like they were something he had never seen before.
The pair kept moving eastward even after the sun began to rise, and the ground continued to improve until there were small pinyon pines nestled in some of the sheltered rocks offering blobs of real shade. Gnats began to plague them and the horse began whipping his tail at the flies, but Hawkins remained silent, although more than once Jack caught the man looking at him strangely, until finally his captor yanked on the rope and asked sharply, "How far is it ta' the last spot where you camped?"
"That's it," Raynes thought. "He's thinking about water and figures I'd camp close to it." Jack looked around vaguely. He didn't remember crossing this piece of desert, but it didn't matter much at this point. He nodded toward the surrounding brush and gestured with his bound hands. "Look for a spring at the base of a rock wall," he croaked.
Hawkins nodded in agreement, and urged the roan on, with Jack finding it harder and harder to keep up with all the rocks and roots strewn across the ground. Finally, Hawkins stopped and Raynes could hear a sound that he thought came from Heaven itself. Birds chirping! They had to be close! Hawkins yanked on the rope again and brought Jack up beside the roan. "Now you listen sharp mister," he hissed. "You're a'goin' ta walk ahead o' me, I'm this close to a big payday, and I ain't letting ya' outta my sight."
Raynes nodded, he was too tired and thirsty to argue the point even if he could. Once Hawkins dismounted and tied the horse's reins the pair set off through the brush. Jack hoped like Hell there was water here, he could feel that he was nearing the end of his string. Hawkins prodded him with the pistol. "Keep movin' boy," he hissed.
The brush suddenly fell away revealing a small pool of clear water nestled in the shade of a jutting red rock wall. At the sight of the life-saving liquid Jack lurched forward, intent on getting some of the water into his mouth, but Hawkins stopped him. "Easy boy, you're way down on the list for drinkin' right now!" The former freighter looped the rope around a tree, "You just stand guard here while I see to our animal," and with that Hawkins brought up the horse and allowed it to drink before helping himself. Raynes stood there watching, hating the crazy fool with all his might, while his sweat dried into white stains on the ragged overalls Hawkins had traded him. Only after both the horse and captor had drank their fill did Hawkins allow Jack to come up to the pool.
"Get'cha some now boy, but don't be too long about it," he crackled.
"Why? What's the rush?" Raynes asked as he knelt down at the water's edge.
Hawkins grinned and raised the pistol, "Cause I got to shoot ya now boy," he gestured toward the horse where the pack with their supplies dangled emptily, "We're 'bout out of grub, and you've done your share as far as haulin' you ass across the salt, nearest town can't be too far away, so I'll jus' plug ya nice and quick, then toss ya over the saddle and trot ya in fer the reward!" He laughed and cocked the gun while Raynes stared up at him stupidly.
"HOLD IT RIGHT THERE, MISTER!" an authoritative voice shouted from the brush. "SHERIFF'S POSSE! DON'T MOVE OR WE SHOOT" Hawkins turned the pistol toward the sound of the voice. Someone shouted, "Watch it boys! He's goin' for it!" Shots echoed off the red rock wall and Hawkins stumbled backward onto Raynes, who could see the light fading from the dying madman's eyes.
Jack Raynes sat slumped in the mud, and watched dumbly as the posse appeared out of the brush. It was the same six men he had run from four days ago, led by a big burly Sheriff in a ragged linen duster, but now the sheriff extended his hand to help Jack up as he said, "Lucky for you mister, that we decided to stake out the waterholes around here." He nodded toward one of his deputies, "Ol' Titus there saw you comin' and recognized that roan horse. This fellow slipped out into the salt four days ago, and we figured he'd be getting thirsty about now."
"I recognized the horse he was riding and them clothes!" Titus chuckled gleefully, "Brought the sheriff first thing, and probably saved your ass too, partner!"
Someone handed Raynes a canteen and he gulped down his first real drink of water in four days. Once his throat was wet again the cowboy nodded toward the dead man. "He ambushed me out there at the borax mine. He acted plumb crazy the whole time we was together. Why was you chasing him?"
"The heat must'a got to him," Titus allowed, as he toed Hawkins's body.
"Hey Sheriff!" One of the other deputies said, "Here's the payroll from the stage hold-up! He's our man alright!"
Raynes took another drink from the canteen and sloshed the water around his mouth. He probed the teeth the mule-billy had knocked loose with his tongue, and asked quietly, "Is there a reward for the hombre?"
The Sheriff laughed and looked at his posse, "There sure is. Him and three other desperadoes robbed a stage out of Carlisle. They must have got into a fight over the split though. We heard the shots, but didn't see anyone else until we was burying the dead." He nodded toward Titus. "Old Eagle-eye there spotted our man as he took off into the salt." The sheriff looked Jack Raynes over and shook his head, "I reckon we can share the reward with this fellow don't you boys? He sure looks like he could use a hand."
"Give 'im the horse and pistol Sheriff," Titus said magnanimously.
The Sheriff nodded and watched as the deputies started to dig a hole for Hawkins's body. "Just as well we kilt him out here, saves the county the trouble of trying him."
"Yeah," one of the deputies laughed as he kicked at his spade, "The sombitch would'a got Life fer sure."