Walt hadn't felt this good since the day before he killed his girlfriend and her would-be suitor. With a sufficient supply of food and water, decent shoes and some rest, he felt confident that he could make the small town of Stump Springs later today. He would have been there already, but wandering in his dehydrated and delirious state, he had made a complete circle and had hit the road again very near to where he had jumped from the laundry truck. The search party had fanned out in the direction that he had headed, but by circling around, once again fate played an ace to Walt, and he evaded capture. Now, if he could make it into town, and steal a car he could be in Mexico in a few hours.
Of course he knew that there were many more obstacles yet to conquer but in his mind there was no use spending a bunch of time pondering things over which he had no control right now. The sun was rising on his second full day of freedom, and he felt pretty good today. A thousand aches and pains all clamored for his attention, but he was able to effectively smother them all with a long drink of cool water. He still had more than a half-dozen liter bottle of water in his bag, and plenty of food, so he allowed himself a small celebratory breakfast of freeze-dried peaches and beef jerky. When he had finished, he stood up, carefully surveying the surrounding terrain for any sign of the search party. He knew that they would begin stepping up their search, knowing that he had water, food and a weapon. Knowing that he was armed would mean that they would be less likely to attempt to capture him alive, and more likely to simply shoot on sight. He had stripped all of the insignia from the guard's uniform, and wore it wrong-side-out just to be sure. Once again setting his face to the rising sun, he strode out purposefully, confident of the possibility of a real bed in an actual house by nightfall.
Cliff was not so comfortable when he awoke the next morning. Having slept where he collapsed the day before, he woke to muscles and joints screaming in protest. He moaned and stretched his arms painfully. He struggled to his feet and slowly straightened his back. After a few minutes of tentative stretching, he was able to move more or less normally, although the crick in his neck was certain to remain for most of the day. Finally, he turned to the task of putting on some clothes. Arnold had been at least a head taller and fifty pounds heavier than Cliff, and he had to roll up the sleeves and pant legs to keep them out of his way. When he picked up the boots however, he realized with a fresh stab of frustration that although Arnold had been taller and bigger, his feet were small and narrow. Cliff could squeeze his feet into them, but his toes were cramped and his heel pressed painfully into the back. Stumbling through sand dunes would not be much fun in these boots, but he really had no other choice. The shotgun was lying on the ground nearby, its empty chamber halfway full of drifted sand. He briefly considered leaving it, but felt like he needed something to occupy his hands. So he picked it up and dusted it off and started down the road in the direction the truck had gone the day before. He kept his eyes out for the promised shell, not sure if Captain Williams had been serious or not. However, just as promised, Cliff had not gone a hundred yards before he saw the brass glinting in the sun. He picked up the shell and stared at it for a moment, not sure what to do with it. He had always been nervous about guns; one of his chief reasons for despising his current job. As he fingered the bright red plastic shell with its shiny brass base his mind wandered back to the day he had acquired a distrust of guns. He was looking for his father one Saturday morning and finally found him slumped over the picnic table in the backyard. He thought perhaps Dad had fallen asleep, as he was wont to do anywhere. (Like father like son?) But then the buzzing of flies around a dark scarlet pool under the table caught his attention. Still not understanding the deadly import of this, he tapped him on the shoulder, then shook him, then pulled on his collar. His father's upper body slumped to its side on the bench, and then rolled off onto the ground. Cliff still had nightmares where he imagined at that moment that his father had grown a third eye in the middle of his forehead, red and pulsating with evil. But his rational mind quickly made the connection between the third eye and the revolver still clutched in his stiffening fingers. His father had battled depression as long as he could remember, but the final straw came in the form of the discovery that his wife had gambled away everything that he had and left him for a blackjack dealer. Almost a clich? for residents of Sin City, but Cliff's father never quite recovered and this day decided to end his life with a collector's edition Smith and Wesson revolver. Since that day, the sight of a gun had the ability to bring the memory of that day back with unexpected clarity. Cliff did all he could to avoid them. Naturally this was one of the arguments he had made to Judy when she informed him that he was getting a job working for her father at the prison. But then, arguments with Judy were rarely good for anything except entertaining Judy, and this one had been no different. He consoled himself with the thought that he was being noble in facing down one of his primary fears to support his new wife. At the same time he knew that this was just another rationalization for another abject failure.
Cliff realized that he had been standing there staring at the shotgun shell for several long minutes. Pulling himself back from his thoughts, he dropped the shell absently in his pocket and started plodding slowly down the road. He only took a few steps however, before he stopped again. A terrifying realization had just dawned on him. By simple instinct he was walking back towards the prison. Then he remembered what awaited him there, assuming that he made it. Another humiliating and possible painful confrontation with the warden and Captain Williams. Then, provided that he survived that, he could look forward to the pleasure of going home to more hell with Judy. Where should he go then? What should he do? The weight of the shotgun in his hands registered in his brain, and he seemed to hear again the voice of Captain Williams reminding him that injuring himself with the shotgun would be preferred. He remembered the near ecstasy that had engulfed him when he thought that he was about to die at the hands of the prisoner yesterday. He stared at the shotgun for long minutes, trying once again to capture that feeling, the joyful knowledge that the light at the end of the tunnel was only inches away, but nothing came. He even pulled the shell from his pocket and chambered it. He reversed the shotgun, intending to place the barrel between his eyes, but as soon as he saw that gaping hole of death his stomach lurched with sudden nausea and he dropped the gun to the sand at his feet and started to retch. His empty stomach had nothing to vomit however, and so he just suffered through a series of painful dry-heaves. When that had cleared, he realized that although death seemed to be a quick and painless solution, he had neither the courage nor the strength to initiate it himself. His hatred of guns, the memory of his father, and his own weak will combined to make that impossible. This realization left him still in the same quandary however. He could not bring himself to even consider returning to the prison for more abuse, but neither could he persuade himself to end his own miserable existence. He could strike out for the highway and hope to hitchhike out of town and try to start a new existence somewhere else, but twenty miles of torturous desert made that an unlikely choice as well.
Then, the solution came, and he was surprised at its beautiful symmetry. The only way out of the desert alive was through the prison, but that way lay more pain and suffering unless he was able to capture the prisoner. If he did manage to find and capture or kill the prisoner, he could return a hero and avoid any further torture from the warden or Judy. He stood there, motionless for a few minutes reveling in the vision of the warden shaking his hand, of Judy welcoming him home instead of not nagging or criticizing him; at least for a few hours. On the other hand, if he were to confront the prisoner while armed, he would certainly be forced to use his own gun and kill Cliff. Then he would have the painless death he had so desired before. He could not lose! Suddenly happy and feeling like he had a purpose for the first time in years, he bent over and picked up the shotgun. He realized that he had absolutely no clue how to find a convicted killer in thousands of square miles of desert but in his present frame of mind that was nothing more than a trifle. Cliff was feeling something strange and foreign for maybe the first time in his life.
To be continued ...