30-Day Flash Challenge, Day 29
But there is a marvellous thing related of this Desert, which is that when travellers are on the move by night, and one of them chances to lag behind or to fall asleep or the like, when he tries to gain his company again he will hear spirits talking .… Even in the day-time one hears those spirits talking. And sometimes you shall hear the sound of a variety of musical instruments, and still more commonly the sound of drums.”Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo
Something skitters across my shin; I wake in an oven. The heat is fierce here. I sit up; whatever it was is gone. I squint upwards; the sun is an enormous, pounding ball of rage. It looks close enough to touch. The sun is so intense, some people say, that it would bake the brain of a ghost.
I don’t remember lying down to nap; I usually wait for the hottest part of the day. But the sun is less than one fist above the horizon. Curious. I need to stay focused; the margins between life and death in this wildness aren’t merciful to the distracted.
Get up; you’re going to lose the trail.
The man in black wandered into the desert, and I followed. My prey moved with preternatural confidence born out of knowledge, experience, stamina, and arrogance.
I will kill him when I catch him.
I stand up, take a sip from my water bag; I’ll need to find more soon. I squeeze the end of the bag, maybe half a quart, today or tomorrow, I think.
I lost track long ago, but I believe I’m somewhere where the Gibson and the two imaginably named Sandy deserts (Great and Small) merge. I’ve been out here 37 days, but I have no idea how I know that when I barely remember my name, Greg Bannister.
For the most part, the desert is eerily quiet. Death lies coiled under every scraggy, stunted bush, under every rock. The Australian outback has deadly snakes, spiders, and millipedes. The result is you never relax. Stress increases how quickly you sweat precious fluids, but you never relax when walking in the outback. To relax, for even a moment, is to gamble with your life. I rest for three hours out of every twenty-four. Then, I’m up and tracking Gerald again.
Why am I pursuing him?
Vague memories form themselves in my mind’s eye, a petite brunette with a crooked smile, my wife, and three beautiful blond children, my children, coming home to all that blood. He deserves to die; he will die.
At times it is dead calm. Usually, there’s the low background chord of the wind humming as it wends between dunes. At times it even sounds like drums or voices, as it interacts with the dunes. The creaking of the crickets slowly seeps into my brain like water. I feel it working on me, tirelessly hammering away at my sanity, day after day.
There will be a tiny stream around that next bend.
I round the turn, see the stream.
That’s strange; how did I know that?
I fill my bag, then my belly. The best place to carry water is inside you. I take frequent tiny sips, not gulps. In a while, I feel like a new man, my belly a sloshing, distended mass.
The sun is setting, which makes tracking Gregg more difficult. It cools some at night. I can make good time, but I have to remember to watch for snakes. The moon is new, so today, this will be a challenge.
But I’m Gregg. My enemy is Gerald.
I walk on. I see a dark branch shape. It might be wood; it might be a sleeping snake. I give it a comfortable berth.
The chortles of a pack of dingos tell me I’m closer to the desert edge than I’d thought. Crickets chirp at me as I skirt along the edge of a gorge.
It opens into a valley just ahead.
There, a series of footprints; he thinks he’s clever, traversing back and forth across the arroyo, the wind sweeps at least one side of the gully clean every few hours, but I’m a patient tracker.
“I’m right behind you, Gregg,” I whisper. The dingos start barking again; they sound mournful and miserable. Hungry.
I feel the lump of metal that will end Gabe’s life, at the bottom of my pack, a revolver, old-school, rugged, reliable.
As I hike along, I pull out a tiny length of jerky and slowly eat it.
End of the line, for Greg. Or Gabe; it doesn’t matter. The trail ends here.
I pull the revolver from the pack and float to the front door of the mud hut. Gabe is probably sleeping. But I will wake him first; he needs to know.
“Wake up,” I say to the figure on the bed. The sheet is a historical record of sweat stains. He sits up.
“You’re late,” he says.
What’s this; he’s not surprised I’m here?
I can hear the dingos, very close now. Maybe just one in the leg, then let the dingos finish the job.
“This is for my…”
“Yeah, I know for your family,” he cackles hoarsely.
He starts to laugh then. It’s a bitter sound, and I don’t care for it. It’s the laughter of a man who knows some secret thing.
I raise the pistol and end his life. I will eat whatever food he has, then drag his corpse out for the dingos.
I search through the other end of the dwelling. On a low shelf, I see a picture frame.
Don’t pick that up.
In the silver-framed picture, I see a brunette with a crooked smile and three blond children.
And a man.
The man in the picture is the man who is bleeding out on the dirt-packed floor a few feet away.
Suddenly there’s no air in here. I have to get out; my vision is swimming. I stumble out of the hut. Overhead, vultures are circling. I try to make it to some shade, but I feel myself sink and slide; I’m blacking out. I gracelessly fall onto my ass and topple onto the sand and rocks.
Something skitters across my shin; I wake up in an inferno.
Whatever it was is gone now.
I need to be up before his trail grows too cold for me to follow.