Walt was beginning to question the wisdom of his attempt at freedom. Despite severely limiting his water intake, the bottle of water was now less than a quarter full, and it was barely past noon on the first day. He had left the prison with two bottles in his knapsack, but one had broken when he leapt from the moving laundry truck. His only hope of survival lay in the small town about twenty miles directly east of the prison. Unfortunately, those twenty miles were pure hell, with undulating sand dunes that sucked energy with every step and blowing sand that scoured the skin. In fact, herein lay the genius of the Death Valley Penitentiary. After the economic collapse at the beginning of the century, the tourism industry became nearly extinct. Especially so for a god-forsaken place like Death Valley. Not many people were interested in forking over hard-earned money to visit a place where life was even more miserable than at home. It was also a time of rampant crime, and the government quickly ran out of resources to house criminals. So it began opening up correctional contracts to private corporations to build and maintain prisons. One such prison sprang up where a national park once attracted visitors, in Death Valley, California. The beauty of this location was that the very environment discouraged escape, and allowed the prison to reduce the number of guards on the payroll. The only access was via a rutted dirt track across twenty miles of desert, with checkpoints at each ends. The builder of the prison bragged to his prisoners that he waited anxiously for someone to attempt to escape, so that he could demonstrate the difficulty of traversing this barren landscape on foot. Attempts had indeed been made, and so far, the builder's prediction had proven true. Summertime weather ranged from cool days of 95 degree heat to hot days occasionally exceeding 120 degrees. In the wintertime, daytime temperatures were more tolerable, but at night, when the sun disappeared, so did the heat and temperatures would drop within minutes to well below freezing. Many escapees thought to take advantage of the winter cool, only to be found freeze-dried a few weeks later.
The sun was beginning to sink into the western horizon when Walt finally found some shade. The tortuous sand dunes had given way to stony chaparral, and a tortured juniper tree sprouting from the tortured landscape provided just enough shade to sit in. Walt took out his water bottle, but after evaluating the remaining water, thought better of it and returned it to its pocket. It would be better to have in the morning, to set him on his way than to waste it now. Instead, he turned his attention to his feet. The prison issued loafers he wore had survived the sand tolerably well, but as soon as he hit the rocky ground, they quickly began to deteriorate. Now, they were barely holding on, and his feet had taken a beating. Although he tried to keep a sharp lookout, twice he had stumbled into a cactus patch. As Walt inventoried his situation he felt a rising feeling of dread. Careful planning had never been his strong suit, but this latest adventure was turning out worse than most. In fact, he had not planned much about this escape; it was more a matter of several lucky coincidences coming together all at once. He had managed to stash two water bottles stolen from the cafeteria in the laundry room where he worked. On the day of his escape he had also smuggled a wrapped sandwich from the commissary. Then, when he saw who had been assigned the highly distasteful job of inspecting the dirty laundry carts before they were loaded on the laundry truck he made a split second decision to act. Walt had noticed that unlike the other guards, who thoroughly enjoyed dumping each cart out on the floor and watching the inmates reload them, Cliff would simply give each cart a cursory poke with his nightstick and kick the sides a few times. Walt spent an entire pack of smokes to bribe two other prisoners to start a fight during this process, and as soon as the guards were busy breaking it up he jumped in a laundry cart and burrowed underneath the laundry to the bottom. Sure enough, after a few half-hearted pokes and kicks, the unusually heavy laundry cart was loaded onto the truck with all the rest. When the truck was ready to go, Cliff climbed inside and as soon as the doors were closed he found a pile of laundry that didn't smell as bad as the rest and drifted off to sleep.
Fortunately for Walt, the cart Cliff chose was not the one he was hiding in. By the time Cliff woke to the sound of the truck tires skidding to a halt on the dusty road, Walt had climbed out of his hiding place, opened the doors and jump out. The driver noticed the door swinging open in his mirror and stopped immediately, but it was too late. Walt had made his escape. Neither the driver or Cliff spent too much time searching for an escaped prisoner; they both simply assumed that the door had come unlatched on the bumpy road. It was nearly dark before a careful search of the prison proved that Walt was no longer there, and it was too late to start an immediate search.
Walt leaned back on the sand, bunching the knapsack underneath his head for a pillow, and watched the stars appear in the sky. The pain subsided to a dull ache as his fatigued body drifted off to sleep.
Everyone had always joked about how Cliff was able to sleep anywhere, but the worst part was how true it was. He had managed to drift off to sleep sitting on the bed of a pickup truck with a shotgun leaning against his shoulder, bouncing across the desert in search of a convicted killer. When the truck skidded to a halt, Cliff tumbled up to the front of the truck where another guard kicked out with a boot and shoved him roughly back to the center of the truck. Cliff scrambled to recover his weapon, but someone had already snatched it up.
"Don't hurt yourself loser, I'll take care of this for you. Why don't you take something a little more your size."
The guard handed him an automatic pistol. Cliff looked at it for a second, debating whether or not to take a stand. Finally, he snatched the weapon, mumbling under his breath.
"What was that loser? You want to make an issue of it?" The guard, a tall muscular man with a razor edged crew cut looked menacingly down at Cliff. Cliff's breath froze in his chest, the way it always did when someone confronted him.
"You're lucky I didn't leave you without a weapon at all."
Cliff was not inclined to argue, this was the way he always responded to confrontation. This morning he was even less likely to stand up for himself. His head throbbed where the glass hit it, and now he had a dull ache in his back where he had been kicked. Wanting to defuse the situation, he shrugged his shoulders and turned away. He climbed down from the truck, and then tucked the pistol in his belt. Captain Williams had walked a few steps away from the truck, and was standing at the top of a nearby dune, surveying the landscape with binoculars. The guards were beginning to fan out into a rough formation, and Cliff fell in to the last place in line, feeling out of place in his guard uniform next to the others' fatigues. Not sure what would happen next, he stood staring off into the distance until the Captain had finished his recon and headed back towards them.
"Gentlemen, you know the drill, take some water, a radio and extra ammo. Fan out and maintain visual contact with your left and right. Mahoney, you have the left flank, Rogers, take the right. We believe he is headed west towards the interstate, just look for any sign and report in immediately if you see anything."
He turned away from the guards, and they all started moving at once. Cliff was still quite befuddled and unsure what to do when Captain Williams suddenly seemed to remember that he was there.
"Oh yeah, Cliff, stay here and watch the truck. There is a radio inside on the dash, and some water in the toolbox in the bed. Try not to hurt yourself and for heaven's sake, if you see this guy, don't try to be a hero or anything stupid. Just get on the radio and call for help. We'll come back to get him."
Cliff nodded, his emotions surging at this sudden stroke of fortune. Trudging through the sand looking for clues was not nearly his idea of anything like a good time. He stood next to the truck as the guards spread out and moved off, shotguns held casually, like a group of bird hunters on opening morning. When their outlines began to blur with distance, Cliff opened the door to the truck, and climbed in. He thought about turning on the truck and cranking the air conditioning, but naturally, they had not left the keys. So he cranked the windows down, and stretched out on the seat. As always, sleep came easily, but just before he drifted off, he felt the pistol in his belt dig into his side. More than half asleep already, he absently pulled it out and dropped it to the floorboards. A hot dry breeze stirred his hair and cooled him enough that he soon settled into a heavy sleep.
Walt had started ignoring the mirages and hallucinations created by his overheated brain. Being much too realistic to spend much time fearing such obviously imaginary demons, they soon faded into the background of his mind. For this reason, when he topped a dune to see the prison SWAT truck parked a few hundred feet ahead, he barely missed a step. Unlike the other images, this one failed to dim as he neared it, and he was close enough to touch it before he decided that it was real. He reached out a tentative hand and brushed its dusty surface, still wondering with half his mind how a hallucination could be so real. Finally his groggy mind grasped the fact that he was standing next to a real truck, belonging to the very prison from which he had just escaped. His first instinct was to turn and run, but blind panic was quickly overridden by cool reason. There had to be water somewhere on the truck. Life-giving water that would quench the thirst which threatened to destroy his sanity. This thought gave him renewed strength and clarity of thought, and he climbed up into the back of the truck to search for it. Up next to the cab, underneath the benches he spotted a cooler and oblivious now to the possibility that his pursuers could be nearby he gasped in pleasure at the sight of beads of condensed moisture running down its sides. He frantically opened it and plunged both hands into its icy coolness, coming up with two beautiful bottles of water. At first his frenzied mind froze at a method to open either bottle without letting go of one. His mad desire nearly drove all reasonable thought away, and for a split second, he simply stared at the bottles, grappling with an unreasonable loathing to let go of either one. Finally, he dropped one back into the ice, and twisted the top off of the other. He upended it over his cracked and bleeding lips, pouring as much outside his mouth as in. He gulped and gasped and choked until his dehydrated stomach retched at the sudden freezing moisture. He vomited unashamedly into his lap, and then immediately finished pouring the bottle into his gasping mouth. Having either spilled or vomited most of the first bottle, he tossed it away and grabbed another. Some semblance of reasonable thought was returning now, and he forced himself to sip this one slowly, and forced himself to re-cap it after only drinking about half. Feeling the strength and sanity returning to his body and mind, he suddenly remembered the situation that he was in. He stood up in the truck, and turned in a small circle surveying the surrounding landscape, looking for signs of the prison guards that he knew must be nearby. He saw the evidence of their departure in the muddle of boot-tracks leading away from the truck on the side of the road opposite that from which he had come, but nothing else to indicate that they had ever been there. Understanding finally the good fortune upon which he had stumbled; Walt quickly went into action to take complete advantage. He unslung the knapsack from his back, dumped out the empty bottle and the last, half-eaten and stale sandwich. He stuffed as many water bottles as the battered bag would hold, then found a carton of freeze-dried rations which he also plundered. He filled his pockets as well, and then jumped down and moved towards the cab. He pulled the passenger door open, and nearly jumped out of his skin when Cliff suddenly jumped upright in surprise. Still groggy from sleep, he moaned in terror and crab walked backwards across the seat until he smashed his head against the driver's side door. The apparition who had woke him was as terrifying as anything he had ever seen in a horror film. All of Walt's exposed skin had been burned to a deep shade of purple, where it had not already cracked open or blistered. His eyes were bloodshot and, due to his own surprise at finding Cliff sleeping in the cab, were also wide open and appeared to have lost all reason. The inmate uniform that was once blue denim was shredded in places. Cliff's panicked flight continued and he turned himself and managed to crawl out of the window where he fell to the ground with a dusty thump and knocked the breath out of his lungs. As he lay there gasping on the ground, he watched a pair of feet clad in a pair of shredded prison-issued loafers step down from the other side of the truck and begin a determined path around the front end of the truck. Cliff, paralyzed by fear and pain, could only lay there and watch. When Walt rounded the front of the truck, he was holding in one hand the pistol which Cliff had dropped on the floor of the truck.
Walt's first instinct was to gun the guard down where he lay gasping on the ground, but when he recognized Cliff he lowered the gun to his side.
"Never got to thank you for helping me out the other day Cliff." Walt smirked.
To be continued...
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