White hot sun streamed down from a cobalt sky and soaked the desert sand, turning the desert into an inferno until the temperature was a hundred twenty degrees. It became so hot it could not get any hotter. It was hotter than it had ever been. Over the white hot Nevada desert marshal Cody Justus walked his horse. The horse carried his saddle and saddle bags, a bed roll and two five gallon casks of water and a feed bag. Every hour Cody stopped and allowed the horse to drink from a canvas bucket. And Cody drank too. Not to drink was to die.
They had been walking under the torturous sun since dawn. It had been cool and dark and then the sun came up and the furnace lit and everything was hot. Cody was on the trail of Thaddeus Deaver. Yesterday Deaver had shot and killed four people in Reno while trying to rob the Nevada National Bank. He killed the sheriff and two deputies and a woman and shot and wounded a young girl.
Cody pulled his horse up and took down the canvas bucket and spread it open and poured water from a cask. While his horse drank Cody took a long pull from one of his canteens, then wiped his head and face and the back of his neck with a handkerchief. He was dressed all in white in protection against the savage heat. Even his hat was white. But he was dripping with sweat. So he took another long drink of water. The water was warm and tasted brittle but he drank it. Then he folded the canvas bucket, hung it over the saddle horn and set off again.
Cody had been across the desert before and it amazed him how it was a red hot furnace during the day and turned icy cold at night. The sand was hot under his boots and Cody could look out in the distance and see heat waves shimmering up into the sky, crashing together in undulating agony.
It was easy for Cody to track the outlaw for he was leaving a deep trail in the sand. There were foot prints from the horse but no boot prints. That meant Thaddeus was riding. And it meant he was killing his horse and would soon be on foot. Cody vowed to catch him before he made it to Break Out, a small windswept town on the California border.
Cody kept watch on the sky ahead for buzzards. Buzzards would be the first indication that the outlaw's horse had been killed. Not even a butcher like Thaddeus would leave a sick horse dying on the white hot sand. He would shoot him and leave him for the buzzards. And Cody was counting on that. Being on foot would slow Thaddeus down.
Cody led his horse up a rise. There were burnt out cactus on top of the rise and the sand turned brown and then the sand was white again and the tracks led down the other side and off into the distance.
And all the while it was endlessly hot. Cody paused and watered his horse again. He rolled a cigarette and smoked and when he was finished stripped the cigarette and scattered the tobacco across the sand. They started off again and the sun was straight up in the sky. As they walked the sun began to move to the other side of the horizon and it blistered Cody and his horse with new found agony. He did not believe it could get so hot. He stopped and watered his horse and poured water over his handkerchief and tied it loosely around his neck and took off his hat and poured some water over his head and let the water run down his face and neck. He replaced his hat and they set off once more through the afternoon inferno.
For an hour they trudged across the burning sand under the tormenting sun and when he stopped again to water his horse he used the last of the water from the first cask. He left the empty cask on the burning sand and set off again.
Meanwhile, not far out ahead, Thaddeus was having a hard time. He had ridden his horse savagely and the animal was giving out. And he was down to half a canteen of water and the scorching sun was a constant agony and the hot sand seemed to go on forever. Break Out was an hour away and he began to wonder if he could make it.
He slowed his horse to a crawl, but the animal staggered over the hot desert and fell panting onto the sand, throwing him from the saddle. Thaddeus knew it was the end. The animal had no more to give and he would have to shoot the horse and walk the rest of the way to Break Out.
With a single shot he killed the animal and left the horse where it lay and set off on foot, his canteen slung over his right shoulder. The sun was halfway down the horizon. When the sun set it would set quickly and the sky would turn inky black and the night turn cold as the desert gave up its heat. And when it got cold it would be very cold and he had no bedroll. He was sweltering now, almost choked by the stifling heat, but in a few hours he would be freezing. And that marshal was tracking him and he knew the marshal would not give up because that marshal never gave up. His only hope was to make it to Break Out where he would steal a horse.
Half an hour in front of Thaddeus a big wagon pulled by eight mules was making its way from Break Out to Reno. The wagon carried an assorted supply of various sundries and two large barrels of water. The sundries were for trade with the general store in Reno.
The wagon driver sat on his wooden seat with a towel wrapped about his neck to absorb the sweat he was leaking like a stuck pig. He was a man of ordinary height with very little hair on his bullet shaped head. His name was Evert Sims and he was fifty years old. He drove for the Break Out Freight Company and found it to be steady work. He liked driving freight wagons. It was easy work and did not strain him and it paid him thirty a month. Every week he drove the wagon from Break Out to Reno and then back across the scorching desert and he knew the rout by heart. But sometimes the dessert could look different. If there had been a sand storm he would see the desert piled with new dunes and parts of the trail invisible and the tallest cactus bent over into the sand. In the winter the daytime sky was soft blue and the nights would come sooner and it would be colder and the stars brighter. In the desert nothing stayed the same and that's the way Evert liked it.
Next to him on the wide wooden seat rested a Winchester .50 caliber repeating rifle, a canteen, a plug of chewing tobacco and his grey hat and a silver flask of whisky. Now and then he would take up the flask and have a sip of the whisky. He timed his drinks by the half hour and chewed tobacco and stared out at the hot sand and the blue sky and watched the gyrating heat waves floating up off the dessert. Then out in the distance he noted a flock of buzzards drifting in the sky and a shiver went through him and he took up the flask and had a long swallow. He did not like buzzards. Out in the desert buzzards meant death. He took another drink and put the flask back on the seat and reached over and pulled the rifle closer. If there were buzzards there was trouble. He had driven this route for years and never had trouble but today could change that in a bad way.
And trouble was coming in the form of Thaddeus who walked up the crest of a small dune and looked out and saw a wagon pulled by eight mules making its way slowly across the hot sand. The wagon was heading right for him. He could see a lone driver up on the seat. A smile crept over his face and he took a long drink from his canteen, took out his pistol and then lay down in the sand on top of the rise and waited for the wagon to draw closer.
But Evert had been in tough spots before and was not easily frightened. He knew the desert well and knew it could do bad things to a man who was not careful. Besides, it was time to water the mules. He pulled the wagon to a stop, grabbed his rifle and climbed down onto the hot sand. He took down two large tin pans and filled them with water from one of the barrels and let his mules take a long drink. He reached up on the seat and grabbed his hat and put it on. He put a new plug of tobacco in his mouth and cocked his rifle and stood looking out into the desert. Out ahead less than a mile away was a dune and Everett thought the dune would be a good place for someone to wait in ambush. He spat out the wad of tobacco, took up the empty tin pans and stowed them in his wagon, took out his Bull Durham kit and rolled a cigarette. He lit up and stood smoking while he studied his next move. His mules were well trained and paid him good attention. He would get the wagon moving and walk behind the left rear of the wagon. If somebody was lying in wait he would make a much harder target walking at the rear of the wagon. And if there was nothing to it then all he had wasted was a few minutes.
He stripped his cigarette and scattered the remnants over the sand. He went to the water barrel on his side of the wagon, removed his hat and opened the spigot and bent down under the little stream of water which ran over his head and down his neck. He closed the spigot and wiped his face and neck with a handkerchief, put his hat on, took up his rifle and called the mules to move.
Thaddeus had watched these proceedings with concern, for he had not expected the driver to climb down and walk behind the big wagon. And when the driver had removed his hat and soused his head and neck with water he had not expected him to be a Negro. He had never known a Negro and it came as a shock to him. Why was a Negro driving a big wagon across the dessert? It also came as a shock that the man was carrying a powerful rifle. Suddenly, hijacking the wagon was not going to come off without a fight. And Thaddeus was certain the man would fight. So if he was going to act he would need to act now.
Besides all his other woes he was hungry. He hadn't eaten in two days. There must be some food in that wagon, at least some jerky he thought as he lay on his stomach in the hot sand, figuring his next move.
Cody had also seen the buzzards and knew that Thaddeus had killed his animal. Cody climbed into the saddle and urged his horse into a fast trot. The sun was going to set and the going would be easier when it cooled. Then Cody came upon the dead horse and the swarming buzzards and kept on riding. He was going much faster than Thaddeus could walk and felt good about catching him soon. Cody knew there would be a gunfight but he was not afraid. If Thaddeus would not surrender Cody would kill him.
Thaddeus lay in wait and was surprised to see the man pull his wagon up short and stop. Evert was being cautious. He would stop now before it became dark. Thaddeus watched as the man watered the mules and reached under the wooden seat and brought out a paper bag and took out two sandwiches and ate standing up, washing down the sandwiches with a long pull from the silver flask. He put up the empty paper bag and sat down in the hot sand, rifle at the ready. He would sit here and wait for the sun to set and when it had set and the cold came he would drape himself in blankets and wait out the night. He was in a good position for it. The stars would light up the dessert and he would be able to see for miles.
Thaddeus crawled over the sand, keeping low. He held his pistol in his right hand and kept watching the man sitting in the sand by his wagon. The sun was setting now and he could clearly see the man outlined against his wagon.
Everett kept watching out into the dessert towards the dune. He had excellent eye sight and kept a careful vigil. His gray hat was pulled down against his forehead and he had jacked a round into the rifle.
Thaddeus had crawled down the back of the dune but was not moving fast enough. It would be dark soon. He would have to make a daring move. Then without warning he heard Cody ride up behind him and Cody called out his name and Thaddeus rolled up into a sitting position, his pistol aimed at Cody.
Everett had seen Thaddeus roll up from the sand and brought up his rifle and took aim and squeezed off a round. The rifle barked and he saw sand kick up in the distance. Then he heard another rifle fire and looked out and saw a man sitting a horse up on the dune. Everett watched as the man fired again and he saw Thaddeus slump over. Then the man who had fired the rifle rode fast over the sand toward Everett, not stopping to look at the dead man.
"I'm Cody Justus, U.S. Marshal", the man said, pulling up to the wagon and dismounting. He was dressed all in white and wore a silver star over his right breast.
"I'm Evert Sims", Evert said, shaking Cody's hand. "I saw that man pointing a pistol at you and I shot him", Evert said matter of factly.
"I'm grateful to you Mr. Sims", Cody told him. "You helped me kill a very bad man. He killed four people yesterday in Reno", Cody told Everett.
"Well sir, then he needed dying", Evert said.