Bennet approached the fire with a trepidatious caution. He could see two men sitting by the fire, eating or talking, giving him mostly no notice. The night was cold and he wanted to be near the warmth.
"That's far enough," a voice carried over from the fire. "Talk before I shoot ye dead and leave ye to the buzzards."
"I am cold and alone," Bennet stopped moving and stood there hugging himself. "My horse died on me and I am being pursued by a man with a powerful need to shoot me for which I cannot account."
Silence floated over them for some time. Desert wind blew sand into Bennet's boots and he shivered.
"Well come on by the fire then," the voice said. "No sense in ye freezing thirty feet out from warmth when it sounds like you got a story to tell."
Bennet surged forward and braced himself by the fire, warming his cold extremities.
"Thank ye," he said. "It was gettin' harder to walk."
"Desert nights will do that to ye."
The man who had spoken with Bennet was a tall, slim man with a lanky beard and a pock-marked face. He wore a worn hat low over his eyes, his hands working over a piece of wood with a knife, whittling some small figure or another. On the other side of the fire sat what looked to Bennet to be an Apache, but he admitted to himself that he could not rightly tell all injunes from each other. For all he knew, the man could have been a Mohawk or a Sioux. He wore his hair long and tied at the back with a strip of buffalo leather, his head bent low eating from a small bowl of beans and meat. A rich man's waistcoat bound his chest, a fob-chain linking the two sides together and he had on buffalo leather chaps over faded green trousers, store-bought at one time or another. A sheath on either hip held large Bowie knives and two gun-holsters sat behind them.
"Your injun a quick-draw?" Bennet asked.
"He ain't my injun," the man said. "He's my friend. Calls himself Kuruk."
"It means Bear," Kuruk did not look up from his meal. "My father was Bodaway. Firemaker."
"Right. And I'm Lester Simms," Lester eased his hat up from over his eyes. "Now, how's about you tell us that story about why you're so alone and running?"
"I suppose you got the right to ask."
Lester nodded. Bennet sighed and began his story, telling the two men about the USS Maine, about the Mexicans, about the counterfeit money, the death of his family and finally about the man with the gun. When his tale was done, he sat in silence as the men absorbed the tale. Kuruk had stopped eating, eyes focused on this new man with strange tales of death. The fire danced orange across their faces and the sand, sending sparks like stars up to meet their brothers and sisters in the sky. Finally, Lester spoke.
"You was gonna be stationed on the USS Maine?"
"And you deserted?"
Lester considered this a moment. "Not too brave."
"It was smart."
Lester laughed. "That it was. Better to be a coward for a day and continue living than a hero for the same day and die."
"Some might consider it better to be a hero forever than a coward til you die," Bennet said. He shifted, cooler sand moving up as the warm sand blew away. "But I figure I like your position better."
"Figured you might."
Lester paused a moment.
"And this man," he asked. "With the gun. You don't know who he is?"
"No thoughts on who he might be?"
"Well," Bennet considered this a moment. "At first, I thought he might be some kind of lawman, but in general lawmen don't open fire on ye without tellin' ye first that they's there. Some kind of honour in the way they do things."
"But this man," Bennet continued, "baited a trap with the bodies of dead men and opened fire on us unsuspectin'. Could be Pinkertons if it ain't the Marshalls, but I ain't sure. Could be a mercenary a some kind, though I could not figure who would have hired him and why for to come after me."
"Perhaps a man not too keen on your money business?" Lester offered.
"Or a man wanting to take it over," Kuruk offered from his place further from the fire.
"Thems is all options worth thinkin' over," Bennet said. "But until I find out, they's only unfounded figurins."
"You should face him," the Apache said. "Like a man."
Bennet turned and looked at the brooding native. "How could I face down a man I could not see?"
"Now you are ahead of him," Kuruk said. "You can wait. Face him down when he comes this way."
"This man is a better shot than I am. He will see me from many miles off and take me down before I have a chance to sight my weapon."
Kuruk grunted, annoyed. "You are just a coward."
"We just got done establishing he is," Lester laughed. "Now come on, let's get some sleep and hope this man don't happen upon us in the night."
As it happened, the man did not find them that night. They awoke to a new day, the sun beating down as uncovered and unholy hot as ever, sitting shining and powerful in the endless blue that stretched over the desert and to the end of the earth. Vultures circled on the horizon back the way Bennet had come. They had found the Mexicans and would eat well for days. It was then that Bennet thought of Jake, who was also likely having his eyes plucked and flesh picked by carrion birds of all colours and sizes, leaving him to be more dust on the endless mesa.
"Come on," Lester said. "You can ride double with Kuruk until we find some traders or a town and get ye a new horse."
Kuruk nodded at Bennet and patted the edge of saddle behind him, helping Bennet up.
"Hold on tight," Kuruk said. "We ride fast."
Bennet wrapped his arms around the musuclar Apache, his skin smooth and sun-worn. The Apache let out a whistle and the horses were off, bounding through the sand, racing time itself. But behind them, coming up closer, creeping like death, was the man with the gun.