The two bandidos abandoned their dead horse and wagon, and they began to cross the desert. Their bent backs carried heavy canvas bags whose fabric bulged with the spoils of a robbery. Rather than their burdens, however, the smaller man complained about a previous grievance.
"Eduardo," said Juarez, "I think we were lied to about that banker. I don't believe those guards just happened to be at his home. I think he knew we were coming."
A giant at almost seven feet tall, Eduardo plodded along with a tense expression on his face. His gray shirt, unbuttoned to his navel, exposed chest hair and his ball-shaped belly. Aggressive flies buzzed around his damp, lank hair and his glistening beard. "It doesn't matter. We got away."
"But Eduardo, Carlo was captured. Our horses were shot. The barn burned! That nag was the only thing left to pull a wagon, and it didn't last long. A goat would have been better. A dog, even!"
Eduardo stopped to scrutinize the distance. He chewed his chapped lips, gripped the strap that looped his shoulder, and resumed his grueling course.
"Silencio," snarled the giant. "We got the money. We're rich!"
Juarez's wet mustache drooped like a limp animal pelt. He was a slim specimen of human jerky who struggled to match his companion's strides. "It felt like a set-up," he mumbled.
"Don't be stupid," was Eduardo's only reply.
They slogged across the blistered land. Intermittent cacti made the earth seem like a great, sleeping insect. Juarez raised his hand to his brow and searched the shimmering expanse for a marker. "You're sure we're headed toward your cousin's house?"
Often, Juarez checked the horizon behind them, too. "No posse, yet," he would report. Once, he added, "I knew Carlo could be trusted not to talk."
"Trust," said Eduardo, as if the word were dubious.
Juarez asked his stone-faced partner: "You disagree?"
Eduardo upheld his steady pace. "You see no posse and believe Carlo has been loyal. To me, no posse means he's dead. They gave him no chance to talk." He stared ahead, into the sun's glare. "We're different, you and me."
"Not so different," said Juarez.
"If you believe that Carlo would not sacrifice us to save himself, we're different," said Eduardo.
Juarez frowned. "I've known Carlo since childhood." He blinked against sweat. "Twenty-five years. Like brothers."
Eduardo shrugged. "I knew him six months. It took thirty seconds to see he'd confess under pressure." He gave a sharp backward glance.
"Careful," said Juarez. His eyes were black. "My friend risked a lot for us—"
"And if you were caught, you'd confess, too," said Eduardo. "Now shut up. Save your energy, perrito."
They trudged on. A buzzard circled above them, a dark shape swooping against the nondescript whiteness. As the day passed the midway point, Juarez's hunger demanded attention, but he reserved his complaints. Eduardo had no patience for them.
Juarez's obsidian eyes scanned the sprawling, mummified earth. The man's small, leathery hands swiped the sweat from his forearms. Heat and worry made him perspire. What if the federales pursued them still? Their two pistols and remaining ammunition were insufficient against a posse that would stubbornly endure this southwestern desert to avenge their slain comrades. And if the posse didn't kill the bandidos, a judge would.
From time to time, Juarez made fretful noises, little bird chirps. Eduardo ignored the pathetic sounds as long as possible. Finally, he asked, "What?"
"I never killed a man before," said Juarez. "That deputy shot at me. It was self-defense."
Eduardo offered only more unbearable silence.
Juarez asked, "Ever killed a man before today?"
Eduardo shrugged. "Just a man?"
"Men, women, kids. Anybody?"
"Yes," said Eduardo, as casually as he waved his hand at the flies that swarmed him.
Juarez slowed, then hastened his pace, tottering nervously. He stayed a few feet from the remorseless killer. "Carlo didn't mention that about you when he arranged the job."
"Maybe he planned to," muttered Eduardo, "but he got shot first."
Juarez looked for whatever distant spot transfixed Eduardo's gaze. He adjusted the bag on his shoulders, but the straps bit down upon him painfully. "You wouldn't kill me though?" he asked meekly.
"Not without good reason," Eduardo replied.
They went on across the caked earth, each step disturbing dry dust plumes, their sweat-soaked shirts hanging like rags. Juarez patted his forehead with his shirttails. "Hey. I think we make a good team."
"Right," said Eduardo.
The sun tortured the men. They stopped at a rock outcrop—large, gritty boulders protruded from the dirt to form a basin—and sat on opposing stones. Juarez nursed sips from his canteen.
Eduardo reached into his bag and scowled. He rooted around inside, closed the flap, folded his hands upon the bag, and sat in silence.
"Where's your canteen?" asked Juarez.
"Must be at the wagon."
Juarez laughed callously. "Oh, man!" He wiped an eye. "That is muy malo for you. Oh, man. How could you forget that?"
Eduardo stared ahead. His jaw flexed. "Give me some," he said.
"Lucky for you," said Juarez, holding up his container. Its dented metal glinted sunlight and sweated tiny droplets. "Mine's pretty full."
Eduardo's eyes crawled over Juarez. "Give," he said.
Juarez raised a finger. "It'll cost you. Say . . . one bundle for one drink?"
Eduardo, expressionless, mulled this proposition. He threw a bundle of bills that bounced off Juarez's chest. The smaller man tossed the container and snatched up the bundle.
The giant caught the canteen and drank long and deep.
Juarez shook his head when he got back his water and weighed the canteen. "That was two bundle's worth," he said.
As they shuffled across the rolling landscape, the sun descended the sky. Juarez became anxious about the oncoming night. They had no prospects for shelter, and the night harbored many threats.
"Don't coyotes worry you?" he asked. He searched the ground for animal markings.
Eduardo stared at the far off, hazy scrawl of earth.
"Maybe you're not concerned because I'm the little guy," said Juarez. He spat. "They'll eat me first."
A smirk cracked Eduardo's sun-blasted face. "Not enough meat for the trouble."
As Juarez's spirits fell, Eduardo's rose. "Maybe they'll take you in," he growled at Juarez. "You're a scrawny dog. Maybe you'll be a big dog's bitch?"
Juarez smoldered in uncommon quiet about his cohort's bitter humor. Eduardo simply chuckled to himself.
They hadn't traveled far when Juarez needed to rest again. He brought out his canteen, drank, and then gestured it toward Eduardo. From his bag, the giant produced another bundle that he tossed to Juarez's feet. The small man passed him the canteen and stashed the money away. The two men sat on the dirt.
Juarez panted and fanned tiny flies from his face. "You're sure your cousin is waiting? It's getting late. I don't want to spend a night in the desert."
"He'll be prepared for us," said Eduardo.
The bleached earth blended into the white sky without demarcation as the sun drew closer to sunset. Juarez shifted and asked, "You spoke to him?"
Eduardo held the canteen while watching Juarez. "Not today," he said, sarcastically.
"Then how are you sure?"
Eduardo took a slug from the canteen. "Intuition. I'd sense if there were problems."
Juarez rolled his head. "That's not reassuring."
Eduardo said, "Reassuring you is not my job."
"But we're partners."
An exaggerated smile broadened Eduardo's face. He had pale pink gums and dagger teeth.
Juarez grunted and wrenched back his canteen. "Enough water for you."
"Partners," Eduardo muttered.
Later, they spotted a lizard, a big dragon monster, perched on a boulder. With his eyes trained upon the prehistoric creature, Juarez unshouldered his bag.
"Dinner," he muttered.
Eduardo grunted. He stood and watched Juarez creep toward the prey. Juarez, now bareback, stretched his shirt between his hands as a net. Eduardo cackled when Juarez dove and emerged from a dust cloud, empty-handed. The lizard raced away and vanished in the dust.
When he returned to where he had discarded his bag, Juarez cursed Eduardo.
"I don't see you trying," muttered Juarez.
Eduardo opened his mouth to retort but froze. Juarez followed his gaze.
Poised on the ground in front of the larger man was a brown scorpion. It was the lethal, Arizona Bark variety of the species. Immobilized by fear, Eduardo whispered, "Get it away."
It was Juarez's turn to laugh. He approached with a swagger. "That pipsqueak scares you, big man?"
The scorpion aimed its crescent tail at the behemoth. Eduardo moaned quietly, while sweat drained from his forehead. "Get it away!"
"O.K., O.K." Juarez bunched his shirt for extra padding, bent over the tiny assassin, and, in one swoop, pinned the arachnid under the cloth. He lifted the balled shirt with the scorpion inside and gestured toward Eduardo.
"Give it a kiss?" he taunted.
Eduardo was unamused and began marching forward. Juarez called, "Hey, wait for me."
It took Juarez a few minutes to retrieve his bag and catch up.
"Don't leave me behind," he said. "We're in this together."
"Water," grunted Eduardo, extending his hand.
Juarez shook his canteen and gave Eduardo an eyeball. "Sorry, amigo. Getting low. The price is double."
Eduardo stopped. He dropped two bundles into the dirt and yanked the canteen into his possession. While he drank, Juarez stuffed the money into his bag and said, "How much farther to your cousin's house now? The sun is setting."
Eduardo dropped the canteen to the ground where it clanged, hollowly. He pointed at a distant spot. "That way. A few more miles."
"We're getting nowhere," grumbled Juarez. He bent to collect the canteen. Its lightness startled him. "Damn you!" he cried.
Eduardo dropped another bundle to the ground to pay for the water he had finished.
Onward they traveled, growing more dehydrated. Both men struggled beneath their heavy bags—especially Juarez, whose bag had gained a small fortune from his water enterprise. Without the water, however, the money was merely a hardship that lost value with each difficult footstep. Juarez browbeat his companion for exhausting their resource. His hunger intensified. Juarez fretted anew that they would never reach their destination, the sanctuary prepared for them by Eduardo's cousin.
The night came. At least its coolness brought relief from the heat. The two men lay on the desert floor with their bags as pillows under their heads. They spoke not at all, except for one snide aside from Eduardo: "I bet you wouldn't mind a posse finding us now."
The sun rose. The travelers limped onward. By noon, Juarez fell to the ground. His insides twisted with cramps, and he felt lightheaded. He gazed up at Eduardo, who towered over him and regarded Juarez with dim curiosity.
"Are you finished?" Eduardo asked.
"I'm dying," said Juarez, paralyzed by pain on the ground. His limbs trembled. "How . . . are you . . . still standing?"
Eduardo smiled cruelly and retreated a few steps. From his bag, he produced his heavy canteen, which he flaunted for Juarez.
"Guess I had water after all," said Eduardo, smiling.
Juarez gasped a soundless scream. He flopped to his belly and clawed forward, raking the earth, trying to reach Eduardo.
The big man stepped backward, like a teasing matador. He lofted the canteen high and slurped. Water spilled down his face and chest.
Juarez crawled by inches toward the man, but the effort was futile. Eduardo clucked his tongue and took up Juarez's bag from the dirt. He propped it against his own. Sitting on the bags, he listened to Juarez gasp and sputter curses and prayers, until, within the hour, the small man became silent.
Eduardo went to Juarez's side and toed his ribs. Then he returned to the bags. Together they were too much to carry. He dumped the remaining bundles from his bag onto the ground. He threw half the stack at Juarez—a tribute for the dead. He took what was left and opened Juarez's bag, intending to combine the total. He reached inside—
—and was stung.
Juarez had kept the scorpion to guard his treasure.
In rapid succession, Eduardo felt the hot venomous stings upon his hands and wrist. Immediate pain sprung up his arm. He leaped to save himself and run—but where? With agony shooting into his torso, Eduardo knew the futility of running. He fell to his knees, collapsed onto his back. Pain made him writhe and begin to vomit. He laughed, maniacally, between his coughs and gags.
Eventually, he stiffened and died.
Not long afterward, Eduardo's cousin arrived on horseback. He stopped beside Juarez to collect the money scattered there. Then he came to Eduardo. The cousin kicked at the buzzards that had already begun to gnaw on the cadaver. He squatted to mutter a brief prayer over his kin and then lashed the fat bag to his saddle.
As his horse galloped in retreat across the desert, he fondled the bag at his hip. He couldn't believe his good fortune. He groped inside for a bundle of cash—
The scorpion was waiting for him.