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April 15, 2024

The Prisoner, Part 6

By Tyler Willson

He woke the next morning, his mouth full of dust and his head throbbing from a new lump somewhere near the back. He wondered to himself how many times a person could be knocked unconscious and not sustain some sort of brain damage... although the thought of a coma was somehow comforting right now. He rolled to an upright position, and worked on focusing his eyes. There, in front of him was a shallow overhanging bank that created a very small shelter. Underneath this shelter was an empty water bottle, identical to the one he had so miraculously found yesterday. For an instant, he was terrified to think that he had punctured his own bottle and the precious liquid had leaked out overnight. His hand slapped the cargo pocket on the leg of his fatigues, and the heavy weight of the half-full bottle reassured him that he was at least that lucky. He crawled forward to where the bottle lay, and it was then that he saw the imprint that a body had left on the ground. Further investigation revealed the tracks of someone who had stood up and walked away on up the ravine. His head buzzing, Cliff quickly guessed who this mystery person may have been. Somehow his horrible luck seemed to be turning. First he stumbled on the bottle of water, and now, he had stumbled upon the trail of the prisoner. His delirious mind had failed to make the connection between Walt and the full bottle he had found yesterday, but today, he finally got it. For whatever reason, his own aimless wandering had brought him along the same path the Walt was using to make his way out of the desert.

Suddenly, he felt a burst of energy. The light at the end of the tunnel was back. He just might accomplish his goal of escaping his pain. In this moment of sudden triumph, he even imagined it was possible that he could somehow get the drop on him, and perhaps even kill him personally. He snapped himself out of his reverie, found where the shotgun had come to rest in his fall last night, and set out. He could clearly see where the tracks continued up the ravine, and he hurried along it, every now and then marking where the man had dislodged some rocks from the side, or where he had sat down to eat or drink. He was giddy with achievement. For the first time in his life, Cliff had a specific goal, and a plan to achieve it. As the sun rose higher in the sky, Cliff stopped and drained the last of the water from the bottle in celebration. Before nightfall, he was sure he could catch up to and capture Walt. And the anticipation of success was something that Cliff was not quite accustomed to, but he was learning very quickly to enjoy.

Cliff was on a roll. First, he had stumbled onto a full water bottle at just the right moment to save himself from dying a miserable death. Then, he had stumbled, literally, onto the trail of the convicted murderer who had been the main cause of his recent catastrophes. Now, he had the man in his sights, and had what he thought was a pretty good plan to take him down.

He had followed the man all through the morning, seeming to always find another footprint just when he thought he had lost the trail. For once in his life, his instincts were serving him well. Whenever he would lose the trail, he would just stop for a moment, and try to imagine where he would go next. Then, he would go there, and look for some more sign. So far, he was batting a thousand. He had yet to spend more than a few minutes circling before he picked up another indicator that led him further down the escapee's trail. He was feeling good for the first time in years, even his pounding headache had settled back to a mild throb that was easy to ignore in the euphoria of success.

Finally, after a few hours of tracking, he began to hear the sounds of traffic on a highway. He felt a stab of panic, hoping that the man had not been able to get a ride. He doubled his pace lest some other lucky person found the escapee first and stole his glory, or his bullet.

Walt heard the highway long before he saw it, and knew that he had veered way too far north during the night. He would have to turn south, and follow the road into town, although he would definitely have to maintain a good distance to avoid being seen from the road. But he wanted to get a good look at it first, to make sure that it was the correct one and to see if he could tell how far he had to go to make it to town. He topped out on a ridgeline and suddenly hit the ground. The road was less than a half mile away, and like an idiot, he had silhouetted himself against the setting sun in full view of the road. He cursed himself for a fool, but didn't waste a whole lot of time worrying. If he had been seen, it was too late to do anything but disappear back into the desert again. He still had plenty of food and water, and could survive at least a couple more days. He lay flat on his belly, surveying the scene. The ridge line he was on ran in a large circle a couple of miles in diameter around a small valley. The road split it nearly in half, closer to Walt's position than the other side, with a dug way on the north side bringing the road down to the valley floor, and another climbing back out a few miles further south. Traffic was steady, but not congested. He was not close enough to really distinguish which cars might be patrol cars, and the setting sun at his back glinted brightly off of the windshields, further disrupting his vision. He decided to turn south, following the course of the road, but staying behind the ridgeline. When the ridgeline naturally brought him closer to the road, where it climbed out of the valley, he would try again to get close enough to see a road sign or mile post, in order to get an idea how far he was from town. Then he would decide if he should risk trying to get a ride, or if he should continue to walk. Either way, he was going to have to spend at least one more night in the desert. He dropped back off of the ridge line a couple dozen feet to ensure that he would not make the same mistake again and plodded onward.

Cliff could not believe his luck. He had spotted the prisoner. No mistake about it, he had been carrying the same ratty backpack he had when they had met back at the truck, and he was definitely wearing Cliff's uniform, although it appeared to be wrong side out. Cliff had even been close enough to make out the shape of the pistol tucked into the back of his waistband. He had brought the shotgun up, but even Cliff knew he was out of range of buckshot. Cliff watched him as he climbed up a ridgeline, keeping the bead at the end of the gun trained on the middle of his back. Never in his life had he ached to injure another human as he did now. He hated this man with an intensity he had hitherto reserved for his wife and her father. In fact, all of that hate was included in the feelings he felt for this killer. His finger tightened on the trigger, he imagined that he had a rifle instead of a shotgun, and that he would squeeze slowly to send a bullet speeding into that hateful body. Suddenly, the shotgun dry-fired, the sudden click startling him out of his reverie. Simultaneously, the convict dropped to the ground and disappeared from Cliff's sight. His mind struggled to understand what had happened. Was his hate intense enough to kill someone just by thinking about it? Had the gun really fired and taken the man down? Or had he heard the click of the firing pin falling on an empty chamber and suddenly dived for shelter? Cliff's heart raced as he saw his fantasies dashed in an instant. What to do? Should he jump and run after him, try and run him down and finish the job? Or should he wait to see if he would break and run on his own, giving Cliff a chance to stay on his trail? Cliff stood up, and in a hunching run, began to hurry towards the last known location of his quarry. At any minute, he expected to hear the pop of the pistol and feel the thudding impact of a bullet, but nothing came. Then, as he gained the top of a small hill, and his angle of observation changed enough, he saw the body of the convict lying prone at the top of the ridgeline. He skidded to a halt, huffing and puffing at the sudden exertion, and began to wonder again if he had suddenly obtained some sort of psycho-kinetic power to kill people over long distances by merely concentrating enough hate. Then he noticed his head swiveling side to side as he surveyed the valley ahead, and reality settled back in. He was not dead; neither was he hiding from Cliff. He had merely dropped to the ground to avoid being seen by someone over the ridgeline. As Cliff's breathing slowed, he again heard the sound of traffic, much nearer now, and realized why Walt had dropped so quickly. The highway must be just over that ridge, and Walt was thinking of a way to either get past it, or to get a ride from a passing car. Either way, he was stuck where he was for a time at least, and Cliff was still unknown to him. He still had the upper hand. Euphoria once again gripped him, and he settled back to watch and wait. After a few moments of surveying the landscape beyond the ridgeline the prisoner crawled carefully back from the edge until he could not be seen over it and started walking south. Cliff's heart was hammering in his chest as he got up and as quietly as he could, began following.

Walt was approaching the area where the highway climbed out of the valley when he had to traverse a deep wash that cut through the ridgeline and descended into the valley. He slid and fell down the near side, then realized that the other side was far too steep and crumbly to climb out of. He turned to his right, away from the valley and directly into the setting sun, thinking to follow the wash upstream for a while until he could climb back out. A few hundred feet upstream he turned a corner and gasped as the setting sun shone directly into his eyes. He quickly put one hand up to shield his eyes and paused for a moment for the purple spots to disappear. It was then that he heard the sound of a shotgun shell being pumped into the chamber.

"I got you, you bastard. Put your hands up and don't try anything stupid." Cliff's voice was cracked and hoarse, and his throat was so tight that he could barely make any sound, but Walt apparently understood well enough. He kept one hand in front of his eyes and slowly raised the other one over his head. He blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision, trying to discover who it was he was dealing with but for now all he could see was a dark silhouette against the blinding sun.

"C'mon man, can't we work somethin' out? I can't go back to the pen, I can't take being locked up." Walt's words did not have the conviction of belief. He was simply buying time and Cliff knew it. The thought that he was finally getting some respect from one of the prisoners was a heady feeling, and he tightened his grip on the shotgun and tried to make his voice sound gruff and authoritative.

"I don't think so scumbag. You just go ahead and get down on the ground and keep your hands away from your body or I will blow you in half."

Walt paused, trying to place that voice. He had the nagging feeling that it was familiar, but it was so cracked and broken that he could not find the memory.

"OK, you got it. Relax, there's no need to get hasty." Walt felt his own voice trembling with equal parts fear and frustration. He was so close to freedom, to have it pulled away from him now seemed too cruel even for him.

"I ain't gonna relax till you are face down in the dirt. So get there right now or I will indeed get hasty and you will get dead!" Cliff was starting to enjoy being in control, it was such a rare thing for him. But then he saw a look of recognition cross Walt's face that soured his triumph. The sun was setting quickly, and his eyes had finally adjusted enough that Walt was beginning to see. And he recognized the voice. Freedom was once again within his grasp.

"Cliff! Is that you? I thought so. Put that thing down before you hurt yourself. You don't need to start acting all tough now. You ain't never, and you will never be the kind of man that can order others around. Let's just see what kind of deal we can come up with here to remedy this situation." Walt was grinning freely now, and his hands were creeping lower. He felt no fear at all, and was just happy enough to consider letting Cliff live again.

Cliff was beginning to feel his moment of triumph slipping away. How could this man not see what a spot he was in?

"Get your hands back up! There ain't no deal, and you are about to die!" Cliff screamed, his voice breaking with pain and fear. Walt saw that this wraith before him was not the same sane, cowardly being he had harassed so harshly in the prison. Cliff was no longer sane, and that alone made him dangerous. He wiped the grin off his face and kept his hand creeping closer to his belt. Where the pistol sat pressing against his back. Cliff took half a step forward, trying to recapture that look of fear and defeat that he had so recently seen on Walt's face. Walt didn't flinch, just kept one hand up to shield his eyes from the sun and one creeping closer and closer to his belt.


Walt had a moment to wonder why Cliff had called him Judy before he made his move and shot his hand back in a desperate grab for his pistol.

A coyote loping rapidly across the desert in the setting sun froze suddenly as the hollow boom of a shotgun and the sharp crack of a pistol rang out breaking the silence of the desert. His ears cocked to listen, the coyote sat there tensed for action. After a few more moments of silence he relaxed, and continued on his way as the sun slipped finally behind the distant mountains and the stars began to appear in the darkening sky.

-- Tyler Willson

Article © Tyler Willson. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-12-22
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