by Harry Harrison (1960)
The needle on the gas gauge was touching empty. Kleg looked at it and cursed and knew he would have to stop and refill the tank. It took an effort to make his foot leave the floor-tight accelerator and move over to the brake. Every minute and every mile put him that much farther ahead of them, gave him that much more of a chance. But the tank had to be filled.
From horizon to horizon the road stretched, empty and shimmering with the late afternoon heat waves. One spot was as good as another to stop in that monotonous desert of mesquite and cactus. Now that he had made up his mind to stop, he wanted to do it fast and get it over with. The tyres squealed as he jammed the brake, then stones grumbled and rattled against the fenders as he turned off on to the shoulder. With a final lurch the car stopped and was immediately enveloped in a slowly settling cloud of dust. The silence was intense after the constant roar of the engine.
Kleg took a look at the back seat; the baby was still asleep, rocking gently in the canvas car bed. With a little luck he could get the job done and start moving again before he woke up. The tear stains on the puffy face didn’t bother Kleg, he was only glad that after crying for over three hours the baby had finally shut up and fallen asleep.
Easing the trunk lid open, he pulled out the first five gallon jeep can, then twisted the lid off the gas tank. The funnel gurgled and the sick reek of gasoline hung in the hot air. The third can filled, the tank and he pushed the empties back into the trunk.
Inside of him, the urge to get moving again was like a sick knot. But he forced himself to move slowly and check everything. He had planned too carefully to foul up the deal by doing something stupid now. The Texas heat had baked half the water out of the radiator and he pulled out the can to refill it.
It gurgled wetly, slapping a thick stream against the core. Then the can slipped off the hood, he tried to catch it but he wasn’t fast enough, it fell towards the ground.
A thin brown hand came from behind Kleg, and picked tip the can.
Kleg started in spite of himself and reached towards his side pocket. He stopped the motion just in time and switched the movement to the can. When he turned slowly he saw the small Mexican standing in the dust behind him.
White pants and a faded blue work shirt. Rubber-tyre soled, rawhide topped guaraches on his bare feet. He took his hat off when Kleg looked at him and held it in front of his chest. He smiled, a wide grin that split his face and moved the flesh over his high Indian cheekbones until his eyes were half closed.
“Would you please give me a lift, señor?”
A hitch hiker. Kleg slowly let the air out of his lungs and turned to finish filling the radiator. When he had put the cap on and closed the hood, he turned back to face the man who still stood there, still grinning with the patient hat across his chest.
“All right, get in the front with me.”
Kleg had made his mind up fast, but he had made it up right. The Mex was just a hitch hiker – but he had seen the car and he could talk to someone else. Take him along, now and worry about him later. Time now … time. His gut burned with the urge to get moving.
Clumsy now with urgency, he fumbled and jammed the can back into the trunk and slammed it closed. The engine coughed, then roared; the wheels spun in the gravel for a second, then they were back on the running ribbon of black road.
The Mexican hitch hiker sat quietly in the far corner of the seat against the door, his hands together on his lap. Now that the car was burning north on the road, Kleg could relax and think.
What about the Mex? Stealing quick glances out of the corner of his eyes, he looked the man over. Young, probably not yet twenty. But you couldn’t tell with Mexs. The clothes, the way he sat and everything else about the Mex seemed straight enough. A farmhand or sharecropper, maybe only a few years in the country. There wouldn’t be any trouble here. When he dropped the hitch hiker off – that would be the only time to worry. And there was plenty of time yet.
The hitch hiker turned and saw Kleg glancing at him. He smiled his friendly smile and Kleg looked back to the road.
Nothing to worry about here. Probably stupid as a goat, too.
But Kleg loosened the gun in his left hip pocket so he could get it out fast. Even though his mind was made up, Kleg was still cautious.
They did thirty miles without talking, without any sound except for the baby’s occasional moan in his sleep from the back seat. Kleg didn’t want to talk and the hitch hiker was very polite and did not talk until he was spoken to.
Then Kleg asked him if he came from this part of the country and the hitch hiker said “Yes, sir,” Kleg asked a few more questions, then he ran out of small talk. The other didn’t encourage him to go on, just “Yes, sir,” or nodded his head. They both liked the silence better and rode that way as the burning sun moved down towards the horizon.
The baby in the back seat cried in his sleep once, but he didn’t wake tip.
Every few minutes Kleg’s hand would move towards the radio knob, it took all his control to stop it each time. He wanted to listen, had to listen – but the Mex might catch wise. With each slow minute the pressure grew greater, until his hand moved with a mind of its own, snapping on the radio. He had to know what was going on, even of it meant the hitch hiker would know, too.
Quickly he found a news programme and listened tensely, scarcely noticing the road. When it was over he snapped the knob off, unable to stop the relaxed sigh that escaped front his lips.
The radio station was in San Antonio, north of them, and came in loud and clear across the desert. They had a news broadcast every half hour and Kleg listened to every one.
It was almost dark at 6:30 when he listened to the news again. In the middle of the weather report the announcer broke off suddenly, then started talking again, a new tone in his voice.
“… a special bulletin just in from Laredo. Some time earlier today, young Tommy Sanders, age twenty-two months, was…”
Kleg’s hand hit the station knob and a flood of tango music washed in from XENT in Mexico, then he snapped the power off.
With quick glances Kleg searched the hitch hiker’s stolid face. Had he heard… you couldn’t tell… you could never tell what these damn Mexs were thinking… The tension drained slowly from Kleg’s arms and legs as the other man kept his eyes on the road ahead. He had just made his mind up that the other had noticed nothing, when the man turned suddenly and smiled at him.
Then he glanced over his shoulder at the boy sleeping in the rear seat.
For ten miles more the car tore across the darkening desert while Kleg’s mind went around and around like a dog chasing its tail.
Did he hear it… did he notice… why did he look at the kid like that and smile… that was just a coincidence, it has to be… or was it…?
Too much was at stake to risk taking a chance now. He had planned too long. Since that day in the country club when he heard old man Sanders talking. Kleg had been a bartender then – and who ever notices the bartender? They would have noticed him quickly enough if they knew he was not from New York, but fresh out of the Illinois Penitentiary. That he had a criminal record dating back twenty years and that he had only taken the bartending job to look for a mark.
He had found the perfect one when he heard Sanders say, I don’t care what anyone says, I can make more money but I can’t bring my baby back to life. If Tommy was kidnapped I would pay instantly every cent they asked!” That was all Kleg heard, but it was enough. That had been six months ago, a half a year of careful planning and timing so that nothing could go wrong.
And nothing would go wrong, he would see to that. The Mex would be dead before he had a chance to make any trouble.
It was dark now and the light from the dash lit up the soft angles of the hitch hiker’s face. He was still watching the road, his hands resting in his lap. The man’s quiet position had a calming effect on Kleg. He still couldn’t be sure about the Mex, but he would be easy to keep an eye on. The gun was a hard weight in his pocket and he almost wished the Mex would try something so they could settle it once and for all. But nothing happened and the tyres hummed as the car moved east at a steady ninety miles an hour.
The diner lights were an orange spot next to the highway, miles ahead. As soon as Kleg spotted them he realized how hungry he was. He had planned to buy sandwiches that morning and put them in the car, but even the thought of food had made him sick then. It was at least twelve hours since he ate last, he had to swallow the saliva that suddenly filled his mouth. He slowed down as they came near the dilapidated diner and saw that there were no other cars nearby. That decided him. Braking suddenly he stopped the car about thirty yards past the diner. He slipped the keys into his pocket as he climbed out.
“I’m gonna get some hamburgers – you want one too?”
The hitch hiker nodded and said, “Yes, sir.”
The sleepy looking counterman was alone in the diner. Kleg ordered, and while the burgers were smoking on the grill, he sipped a cup of weak, cool coffee and watched the car. He could see the outline of the hitch hiker’s big hat through the rear window. It moved once or twice but the man didn’t try to get out of the car or go near the kid in the back scat.
Carrying the sandwiches back to the car, Kleg stopped suddenly at the sound of a low voice in the car. Moving quietly he slipped up out of sight of the hitch hiker and heard the tail end of a news broadcast.
“… no further news of the kidnapping of little Tommy Sanders. While State troopers blocked all roads out of Laredo, the kidnapped boy’s mother made a tearful plea to the press…”
The hitch biker had turned the radio on – he was listening to the news. The gun was in Kleg’s hand and his finger quivering, tightening on the trigger. He took a step forward before he got himself under control. This wasn’t the way to do it – not here on the highway next to the diner. Putting the gun away he went back about fifty feet on the road then stepped off on to the gravel shoulder.
This time the gravel was loud under his feet as he approached the car, and the radio was turned off when he got there. They ate the hamburgers in silence, then he threw the papers out of the window and started the engine. When they were moving down the highway again Kleg made a careful plan.
That was the way he always did it, made a good plan and stuck to it. The hitch hiker had caught wise – now he would have to pay for it. He might even be a plainclothes cop, but that wouldn’t make any difference. The chances were, though, that he wasn’t. Just a hitch hiker who had been too nosey for his own good. He had guessed who the baby in the back seat was and then listened to the news just to make sure. Probably shout to the first cop they came to or call on the phone as soon as he got out. Well, he wasn’t going to get the chance. They were almost to the border, and just across the line in Louisiana was the cabin he had fixed up for a hideout. He would take care of the Mex there. No, better do it now. As soon as they were away from any buildings he would pull off the road and let the .38 do all the talking.
The highway ran through a small town. Kleg kept the speed down and tried to control his patience. A few minutes more. They would be through the town and out in the country again. Just a few minutes more.
The road made a slow turn and he could see a junction with another road up ahead. He had just started to pour on the gas when he spotted the car parked at the junction and the two uniformed men just stopping a car ahead of him.
Kleg acted fast – because he had even planned for this too. Twisting hard on the wheel he bumped into an empty lot next to a dark store. There was a dirt road about a mile back that would take him around the road block. That was the plan.
The sudden turn had thrown the baby against the side of the car bed and he woke up screaming. The sudden noise rattled Kleg and he killed the engine putting the car into reverse. He cursed and thumbed the starter and its high whine mixed with the baby’s yells.
Kleg almost forgot about the hitch hiker – but not quite. Even with the baby screaming and the dead engine and the cops just around the corner, he found time to shoot a glance at the Mex.
The hitch hiker was looking at the baby in the back seat and his hand was going into the front of his loose shirt.
There was a bulge there, right at the waist and Kleg cursed himself for a sucker. The Mex had a gun and he had just been waiting for the right chance to use it. His hand fumbled for a second then started to draw it out. He was fast but Kleg was faster.
It was hard to get the .38 out sitting down, and then he had to fire with the steering wheel jabbing him, but he did it. The gun boomed like a cannon inside the car and the slug that should have gone through his head crashed through the window instead.
There was no plan now, Kleg just knew that he had to get out fast. He tried to swing the door shut and start the car at the same time, and he did both of them badly. Someone shouted and a car engine started and he slammed it into second, breaking the tyres loose and jumping the car forward.
He was too late. The police car was in front of him and he slammed into it.
The gun was still in his hand and he managed to get one shot off at the two men who were piling out of the car.
Just one shot. The tall man with the big Stetson was out of the police car on the far side. His gun came up with a slow speed and his single bullet went through Kleg’s head.
The two troopers moved ahead warily through the settling dust.
The hitch hiker lay on the ground and talked to trooper Perez in soft liquid Spanish while his side was being bandaged up. Trooper Abbott came towards them carrying Tommy Sanders who had finally stopped crying and was sucking his thumb.
“This is the kid, all right,” Abbott said. “He fits the description they sent over the wire. The big punk is dead – how is this one doing?”
“He’ll be all right, just a hole in his shoulder, too high to do much damage.”
“What does he say – why did the big guy shoot him?”
Trooper Perez shrugged his shoulders in a swift Latin gesture. “He doesn’t know, he thinks the guy was crazy. All he knows is that he hitched a ride from the guy just this side of the Rio Grande, and they were having a fine trip until this guy suddenly shot him.”
“That sounds screwier than hell,” Abbott said. “Didn’t the kidnapper say anything to him?”
“He wouldn’t know if the guy did. He’s a wetback who just came across the river, all he can speak is Spanish. Says he paid a man in Tamaulipas ten pesos and the man taught him to say, “Would you please give me a lift, señor?” and “Yes, sir.” That way he could get a lift and get away from the border before he was spotted.”
The man on the ground broke in with a flood of words. Perez listened and nodded sympathetically, then turned to Abbott.
“He doesn’t understand what happened or why he was shot, all he wants to do is get back to Morelos and away from crazy gringos forever. At first the big guy was so friendly, played music on the radio in the car and even stopped and bought them both something to eat. He felt very grateful to him, so when the baby started to cry he wanted to help. He had a hunk of nice, sweet sugar cane stuck in his belt and he started to give it to the kid. That’s when the guy shot him.”
Trooper Abbott scratched his head in thought for a moment, then settled his big hat down with finality.
“Just a screwball, I guess. He’s dead now so I suppose we’ll never know why the hell he did it.”
First published in The Saint Mystery Magazine, December 1959. (February 1960 in the British edition).