Walt had not made as much progress today as he would have liked. His progress was being impeded by the helicopters that were criss-crossing the country in search of him. Each time he heard the sound of one approaching, he had to find some place to hide. Normal procedure for an escape from Death Valley Pen called for more of a body search than an actual manhunt. In the dozen or so attempts made in its history, only one person had actually made it to the nearby town of Stump Springs. This prisoner had wandered into town, out of his mind with thirst. He burst through the back door of the first house he came to and went straight for the kitchen sink. The resident quickly got his family out of the house, and then returned with a double-barreled shotgun. By now the prisoner lay on the floor retching up the water that he had just guzzled. Nonetheless, the homeowner put him out of his misery with both barrels. All of the other escapes ended much less dramatically. A body would be found, well gnawed by coyotes and buzzards, less than ten miles from the prison. Stump Springs was nearly thirty as the crow flies, with the first ten miles consisting of the murderous sand dunes. The rest was hilly brush country covered with volcanic rock that shredded shoes and twisted ankles. Walt was a special case, in that he was the first escape to have acquired a supply of water and food, and especially because he was now armed. Up till now, he had been lucky to find some brush or terrain to hide under each time the chopper would pass. In one frantic dive for cover, he ripped the knapsack open, and a few of the bottles of water worked their way out of the hole and fell out before he noticed. About noon, Walt found a ravine running nearly parallel to his course which provided excellent cover. He decided to wait here for dark before continuing, believing that he could make better time if he did not have to look for a hiding place every few minutes. He ate some more of the freeze-dried rations, then laid his head down on his knapsack and fell asleep, the drone of the search choppers buzzing harmlessly overhead.
Cliff was lost. The road he had been following was, he thought, the main road. However, he was not so sure now. Where he had left the search truck had been at the edge of the sand dunes, and by heading back towards the prison he should have been getting deeper and deeper into them. However, he was getting into more and more brushy country littered with rocky debris. Worst of all, he was thirsty. In fact, he was beyond thirsty. He had never imagined that he could be this thirsty, not without also being dead. His tongue kept sticking to the roof of his mouth, and his lips had cracked in several places. He had not had any water since yesterday morning, and if he did not get some soon, he was sure that it wouldn't matter whether the warden or his wife were waiting to punish him. Maybe this was the best way; death would end this suffering as well. He was beginning to hallucinate, and more than once he had broken into a stumbling run towards what looked to be cool ponds of water but finally turned out to be mirages. To prevent himself seeing them, he found that if he half-closed his eyes, he could focus directly on the ground in front of him. Although this made for tough going at least he wasn't tortured by the false hope of water ahead. Stumbling along through the rocky terrain with his eyes half closed practically guaranteed that he would take a tumble sooner or later, and of course it happened sooner than later. He fell face first into a pile of rock, splitting his already cracked lips wide open, and scraping the skin off of his knuckles where they had been wrapped around the stock of the shotgun. After laying there cursing hoarsely for a minute or two, he rolled off of the rocks onto a sandier area, and sat up to assess the damage. He licked the blood off of his lips, perversely thankful for the small moisture it provided for his parched mouth. He pulled a few rock fragments from the skin of his knuckles, and then just sat there, not having the strength to go on. "Maybe this is where it ends." He thought to himself. Just then, he noticed something out of place a few feet ahead. Something that looked too clean to have been out in the desert for long, too bright to be natural. He shuffled closer on his hands and knees, his curiosity overpowering his surrender of a few moments before. As he got closer, his mind refused to comprehend what he thought he saw. The mental anguish of chasing mirages all morning had hardened his mind to the possibility of simply stumbling across water here in the desert. Yet here, hardest of all to believe, was a water bottle. When he reached its resting place, he sat there on all fours, staring down at it, not daring to reach for it, lest it disappear as all the other images had. Finally, he reached out one bloody knuckle and nudged it. It didn't disappear, but rolled over a bit, then settled back again. Gingerly, he clasped the top with a finger and thumb, as one picks up something of extreme fragility. Quivering with anticipation, he held it in front of his eyes, refusing to let it be anything but the exact center of his existence for even the tiniest instant. Trying not to disturb his vision of the bottle, he shifted his legs around until he was sitting on his bottom. His other hand slowly moved up and carefully grasped the plastic bottle. It was warm, but that was nothing more than proof of its reality. Cliff tightened his grip on the lid, and strained to turn it. For a second, his heart raced with panic that he would not have the strength to turn the cap and open it. That he would die here, holding a full bottle of water as a symbol of his one, final failure in life. Then, the plastic seal cracked audibly, the lid turned and he removed the cap. It was with great reverence that he put the bottle to his lips, and the cascade of moisture through his mouth was the purest pleasure that he had ever experienced. He wanted to prolong that feeling forever, so he lowered the bottle and simply savored the feeling of having water in his mouth. Never in his life would he have imagined that something this small and simple would have given such pleasure. Never in his life had he experienced such a wonderful sensation. All too quickly the moisture was absorbed by his dehydrated body and he tipped the bottle up again for another mouthful. When he swallowed it left a trickling trail of pleasure all the way down to his stomach, which immediately began a grinding, burbling protest for more. Cliff had the sudden irresistible urge to turn the bottle up and keep drinking until it was gone, but a sudden buzzing noise overhead startled him. He jerked in fright and spilled a tiny drop of water on his hands. He nearly panicked at that, at the thought of losing a single drop of this precious substance. He quickly sucked the droplet off his hand, and then replaced the cap with deliberate slowness, before looking up to see what had startled him. A helicopter was buzzing back and forth overhead, only a couple hundred feet off the ground. It was going slowly enough that he could make out the insignia of CSP on the side. A search helicopter was a rare sight. Usually they were only used when bigwigs came out to inspect the prison. No bumping along a hot dusty road for such important people as the owner of the company, or a member of the board of directors, or the senator they were currently courting for another corrections contract in that state. Cliff realized that the extra effort was most likely due to the fact that this particular escapee was carrying a gun that he had taken from Cliff himself, and once again the familiar tightening of his stomach reminded him of the abject failure he had become. Cliff sat there for a few minutes, pondering his situation, while the whine of the helicopter got quieter and quieter, and then disappeared altogether.
Walt woke with a start. The cool night air brushed against his sunburned forehead, sending cold shivers down his spine. Not sure what had awakened him, he sat still for a few minutes, listening to the night sounds. Having been an urban creature for his entire life up to this point, he had adapted very well to the wilderness. Just as in the city, every place has its own particular range of sounds, smells, and feels. By concentrating for just a few minutes, it was usually possible to pick out the one sound, smell or feeling that was out of place. In the city, it might be a car idling by more slowly than normal, or the sound of running footsteps where most were no more than a fast walk. The wilderness had constant noise, although the differences could be more subtle. Then Walt isolated it. The constant sound of crickets had ceased. Instead of a steady rhythm, only the sound of the night breeze rushing through the trees could be heard. Crickets stop singing for many different reasons, but for Walt, the presence of another human was the worst case scenario for now, so he took that one as his guess. Remaining perfectly still, he continued to listen for any further sound. Finally, he picked out a sound between puffs of breeze. It sounded like someone coughing, or choking. No matter what the person was doing, and why they were making such a sound was beyond Walt's sphere of interest. The fact that another human was out here in the desert made him nervous. Not many humans wandered in this environment without a specific purpose, and right now, he was the only purpose he could think of. He cautiously slipped the pistol from his waistband, and checked the safety. Leaving it on safe, but resting his thumb on the lever, he shifted his weight to his feet. Here he paused again, to listen again for the sobbing, choking sound in order to get a bearing on its direction from his location. When he was sure that he had located it again, he slowly straightened. The sides of the gully were not much higher than his own head, so he kept himself from standing fully erect by bowing his head and bending his back slightly. Moving to the side of the gully in the direction of the sound, he straightened until he could just see over the side. A few hundred yards away, he saw the source of the strange noise. A human figure sat on a rock, his shoulders hunched over and his head hanging in his hands. He could see the shoulders rocking up and down, as if with uncontrollable sobs. In the darkness, he could not make out anything about what the person was wearing, but he could clearly see the familiar outline of a short-barreled shotgun propped against the person's shoulder. This then, must be one of those searching for him, marking him as a danger to be avoided. Walt's curiosity was peaked however, by the apparent distress of the searcher. Why would a prison guard be alone, in the middle of the desert in the wee hours of the morning, sobbing? Perhaps he had been separated from his group. Regardless, Walt did not think that his group would be far away, and that boded ill for his own situation. Being a simple creature, Walt did not spend much time wondering, but decided that the time had come to put some distance between this odd searcher and himself. Before the rest of them returned and began a careful search of the surrounding area. Hooking his knapsack with one hand, he returned the pistol to his waistband, and quietly moved on up the ravine towards freedom.
Cliff had never experienced such a conflict of emotions in his life. To return to his life, to continue to endure the daily punishment inflicted by his sadistic wife and her father was more pain than he could convince himself to endure. On the other hand, he had the means at hand to end it all, to stop the pain and leave this whole miserable existence behind, if only he could find the courage to do it. He could wait for the desert to do it for him, but down that path was only more physical pain and suffering, nearly equal to the mental anguish that awaited him at home. The final path and the one he saw as the easiest and best, was out of his reach due to his lack of skill. To track down the prisoner and kill or be killed by him would be the best. A quick and painless death, not inflicted by his own hand would be the best of all worlds. But the ability to find another person in this wide open desert was one he did not nearly possess.
The mental strain of having horrible options, each of which with its own unique flavor of torture was too much for him, and he found himself sitting on a rock sobbing uncontrollably. What had he done to deserve such a dilemma? Realizing that he was starting to shiver again, Cliff stood up and began wandering aimlessly again. Being dehydrated, malnourished and sleep-deprived seemed to have thrown his internal thermostat out of whack. Although the temperature never dipped below the high 60's at night this time of year, he started to shiver anytime he stopped moving. The half-light provided by a half-moon didn't provide much to navigate by, and he was continually tripping on some rock or plant that was hidden in shadow. So it was not with a great deal of surprise that Cliff took a step and somehow the ground was no longer there to support him. He tumbled to the bottom of a deep ravine nearly headfirst. On his way down, he smacked his already throbbing head against something hard and mercifully he spent the rest of the night unconscious.
To be continued...