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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Nature · #1432756
Some bets should never be made.
“If you suffer, thank God!  It is a sure sign that you are alive.”
                                                   Elbert Hubbard





         Judd Faust’s eyes snapped open too abruptly.  Bright light stabbed his retinas, forcing him to narrow his gaze to a brow furrowing squint or else be blinded by dawn’s early light.  Daybreak was coming on fast with the force of a runaway locomotive, conveying with it the energy sapping suffocating heat that chaperons the dawning of each new summer day in the low desert of Death Valley.

         Shaking his head alone wouldn’t clear the cobwebs obscuring his scattered thoughts.  His short-term memory was at best hazy; long-term memory non-existent.  There was a fog upon his reason that the light of day had yet to penetrate.  As his eyes began to hold focus, he wondered where the hell he was.  It wasn’t long before he wished his eyes were playing tricks on his muddled mind.  How long he’d been standing there he couldn’t say.

                He noticed a large bandage in the crook of his right arm.  Tugging at the adhesive tape, he recalled his mother telling him to “pull it off quickly so it won’t hurt so much”.  With clenched teeth and a determined grimace, Judd ripped off the bandage in one quick motion.  A coagulated pearl of blood marked the site of a recent needle prick.  What it was from or how it got there escaped him at the moment.

         Miles from nowhere.  Not a road in sight.  He stared out into the far Eastern range of vision as if searching the recent past for some shred of a memory to hang reality onto.  At the moment, however, there was nothing there for him to grasp hold of.  Nothing to cling to as an immutable truth.  Nothing to fill the void which was his troubled mind.  Nothing but the desert.

         Before him, stretching from horizon to horizon was predominately a barren, non-descript, landmark-less vista.  Monotonously uniform, the desert stretched out endless, devoid of trees and foliage, lakes or rivers.  All that met his steady gaze was scant vegetation consisting mainly of the many kinds of cactus plants found in the desert and an unbroken vista of rapidly rising sandy buttes and rock-strewn culverts.  Were it not for the fact that he could still discern a sliver of a morning moon on the flat vanishing point rimming the edge of his vision -- where the Earth meets the sky -- he could have conceivably been out for a moonwalk.

         Finally, the haze began to clear from his head.  He stared down at his feet.  Stacked beside him was a mound of well-wrapped provisions.  Kneeling on the dry, cracked ground, Judd briskly took stock of the equipment like a quartermaster issuing an army in the field its gear.  A map, compass, canteen of water, first aid kit -- including snakebite kit -- dried fruits and meats, signal flares, a hatchet, an entrenching tool, a signal mirror and some salt tablets.  The clothes he wore were warm, perhaps too warm for the climate, functional and very well-made.  He noted the quality of the material, the care and pride of the manufacturer evident in its workmanship.

         It was all there; everything a man might need to survive a trial by ordeal.  Wait a minute, he thought.  That rings a bell.  But why?  He wished he could remember.  If only I could remember, he conjectured, perhaps then I’d know what I’ve gotten myself into here.

         Only now wasn’t the time for reflective contemplation.  He didn’t have the luxury to take the occasion to plan meticulously as is his wont, or be bothered to formulate an alternative plan.  A mounting sun announced the oncoming, all-encompassing fever that would soon coax the sweat from his pores with skin-searing, breath-sucking heat.  He had to find cover from the burning orb that crisped the sandy terrain to a blast furnace degree.  Without shelter, Judd knew his brain would boil inside his cranium before he could traverse 20 miles of this scorching wasteland.

         “Where the hell am I,” he wondered aloud.  His eyes fixed on the vanishing horizon searching for a landmark as a focal point.  Failing that, he unfolded the map provided with the gear, stretching it out on the parched soil.

         The topography manifold on the map was as bleak and desolate as the reality facing him.  Prominent on the map, as if indicating a buried treasure was a big red “X” beside the words YOU ARE HERE.  Next, he found a symbol marking the location of what was once a well near a route named Wild Wash Trail, which ran adjacent to a large outcropping of jagged, irregular mountains.  Guesstimating its distance from his current position, Judd figured it was at least 25 miles to the south as the crow flies, but as a man walks, it’s about two and a half days trek under the best of  conditions – and these were no the best conditions.

         Judd quickly gathered his supplies.  Everything had been precisely packed.  No space wasted or left unused.  He admired the work.  I couldn’t have done it any better myself, he thought as he slung the pack onto his back.  Whoever had gone to all the trouble to place him in this perilous situation was at least sporting about it.  He figured his chances of surviving were greatly improved by the preparations of his bastard benefactor, going from “no chance in Hell” to perhaps as good as “50-50”.

         However, if this was someone’s idea of a cruel prank, the joke was lost on him.  Seeing no tire tracks or footprints nearby, Judd surmised he must have been delivered here via helicopter.  It would account for the lack of prints and the ground flora being bent over as if by the force of the blades’ backwash.  He shrugged his shoulders.  Anyway, he thought to himself, if I’m getting out of here it’ll be on foot.  He didn’t know much.  But that much he knew for sure.

         Judd looked at his wrist for the watch that was no longer there.  He couldn’t recall what had happened to it either.  It mattered little now, however.  From the angle of the sun and the still cool air, he reasoned it was about 8 in the morning.  As the sun scaled the pale blue sky, he started off with purposeful steps and a steadfast gaze.

         Under the blazing sun, Judd made very little progress over the next couple of hours.  Weighted down as he was by all the equipment, he shambled along heading in the general direction of the mountain range looming in the near distance across the dip and rise in the valley floor.  What had once been a fecund river valley eons before the advent of mankind, was now an ancient dustbowl of earth's crust, composed of variegated, multi-colored rock and clay.  A few good rains earlier in the spring had left a downy carpet of white primroses, lavender verbenas, orange poppies and yellow desert sunflowers, giving rise to a stark beauty.

         “Deserts cover nearly one-fifth of the earth’s land surface,” he could hear Dr. Ferguson, his college Geology professor, lecturing across the years and the miles, “but contains less than 5% of its population.”  “No shit!” Judd chuckled aloud.  “And that’s even if you count the critters.”

         Cobalt-gray, a well-defined squall line marched steadily towards him.  “A thunderstorm generally announces its approach by a rush of cold air that flows down and out over the ground ahead of the storm itself,” Dr. Ferguson continued.  He could feel the cold, damp air of the advancing storm.  “The cold air is carried down from the thunderhead by rain, and can flow about three miles ahead of the storm itself.  The desert has a thousand ways it can kill you.  Hellish hot days, freezing cold nights.  Dead rivers and dry lake beds can suddenly and almost without warning become inundated with the raging waters of a flash flood”.

         Dust covered, sweat-soaked clothes clung like a second skin.  He panted for breath.  His sweat glands worked at capacity.  He desperately wanted to rip-off the clammy garments but knew the relief would be short-lived.  For once the sun had evaporated the sweat it would broil his fair skin to a crisp; the price of being a redhead.  As the day wore on the desert began taking a greater toll.  Unaccustomed as he was to the searing sun, Judd knew he wouldn’t get far on foot loaded down as he was with all this gear.  “In the desert there are many ways to die -- and only one way to live.  Don’t fight the desert.  You can’t possibly win.”  Dr. Ferguson’s words echoed in his head.  Out here, Judd reflected, not winning is tantamount to death.

         He didn’t need Dr. Ferguson to remind him that “water in the desert is your biggest concern.  Get in the shade as soon as possible.  Wait until nightfall to travel.  Reserve all strenuous activity for the cooler portion of the day or for nighttime.”  Common sense told him that.  Little good it did him for there was no shade to be had.

         Judd also knew the length of the day, as measured from sunrise to sunrise, was not constant throughout the year but varied slowly with the season.  “This effect -- termed equation of time,” Dr. Ferguson lectured, “is caused by the varying distance between the Earth and the sun as the Earth moves through the heavens in an elliptical orbit.  Because of this effect ... noon can be as much as a half hour before or after the time when the sun is highest in the sky.”

         Judd stopped dead in his tracks.  Shielding his eyes with the palms of his hands, he stared out over the blanched countryside.  A patina of hues from beige to pink, brown to blond, greeted his gaze.  The subtle coloring becoming more evident as the sun reached beyond its zenith and plunged earthward.  The shadows deepened.

         As Judd plodded on, Dr. Ferguson continued his lecture over the years, “In the desert, your life depends on your water supply.  You must replace the fluids you lose through sweat by drinking lots of water.  Conserve energy.  Ration your sweat like you would water.  Otherwise, you will pay in reduced efficiency and perhaps even death.”  Judd’s legs and belly had already begun cramping.  His face was flushed and his throat bone-dry.  Heat exhaustion and stroke couldn’t be far off.

         Taking a salt tablet from his first aid kit, he shook the canteen.  The sloshing was anything but reassuring.  It sounded hollow, nearly empty.  Judd regarded the canteen peculiarly.  Not enough water to drink, he thought, guess I should just chew it like a vitamin.  He broke the tablet in two, placed half back in the medicine bottle then slipped the other half under his tongue.  After a moment, Judd threw back his head, pouring a stream of water into his mouth and all over his face.  It brought only momentary relief from the thirst and the heat.

         “If you walk in the cool desert night, you can average about 20 miles to the gallon of water.  Cut that figure in half if you must walk in the daytime heat.” Dr. Ferguson informed him.  Twenty miles to the gallon, Judd nodded bemused.  Hard to think of oneself as a machine that runs on water, but out here that fact was inescapable.  Right now he’d give whatever was necessary to obtain a cold, endless drink of water.

         Like a Godsend, Judd spotted a dark area -- just ahead and off to his left -- that hinted at a shady spot.  He redoubled his efforts immediately.

         Here, among the gigantic blocks of tumbled rocks broken from prominent cliffside outcroppings, Judd found shelter from the all-seeing eye of the sun.  He knew from the grounds dampness that, as with much of life, the heart of the matter lay hidden just beneath the surface.  He used his entrenching tool to dig through the soft soil.  Deep from the primordial, formative bowels of the Earth sprang forth the water of life.  Having tapped into a well-spring, he enjoyed its cold purity.

         Judd lay in the cool and he rested.  The hours passed quickly.

         A persistent buzzing brought Judd back to consciousness.  At first he thought it was a gnat flitting in and out of his ears.  But this sound was far off, distant yet loud and growing louder.  He stirred from his lethargy, taking a moment to reorient himself to his situation.  Judd followed the sound from the mouth of the rock outcropping.  A small plane winged its way as it angled across the emerging canopy of stars.  He raced back to his gear, grabbed something and rushed back outside.  He raised the signal flare above his head, ready to ignite it.  He snapped the seal that combined the chemicals that ignited the flare into an angry red sparkler that sputtered and spewed out falling embers of phosphorous.  He stood out in bright relief against the gathering twilight.

         But it was too late.  The plane had suddenly veered north and was too far down-range to see his flare.  It seemed hopeless.

         Night swept across the land as the Earth rolled over in its sleep.  A heaven full of stars dipped to embrace the skyline.  The day’s heat quickly dissipated with the arrival of nightfall and the absence of clouds.  How rapidly conditions shift in the desert, Judd thought.  Much of the desert’s vitality and life lies underground or dormant in the day’s heat.  Nocturnally, the desert abounds with activity.

         Judd gathered up his gear, preparing to travel during the cooler nighttime hours.  Somewhat rested, but hungry, he took some of the dried meat and fruit from the food satchel.  There wasn’t much left.  He stashed the remainder back into the knapsack.  He used the entrenching tool to bury his trash, leaving no sign of his passing.

         Outside the alcove, the night was still.  The air, what movement there was, was languid and chilling.  A billion to the Nth power of stars filled the cloudless heavens above.

         But down here on Earth, it’s Hell. Out here at night, shapes and shadows and sounds can play tricks on the mind.  Each new step brought on more pain and fatigue.  Even in the cool of the night, Judd’s blood broiled, but still coursed through his veins.  His brain, bathed in his body’s hot juices boiled, reducing his vast mental capabilities to a single frontier, a singular thought and a singleness of purpose -- to survive.  “Sometimes survival requires no special skill besides the ability to trudge on.  Sometimes, it all comes down to a will to live,” Dr. Ferguson proclaimed.  “Like Winston Churchill said, “When you’re going through Hell, keep going.”

         Once Judd wanted so much.  Now, however, survival was the only image he could conjure.  The brief interlude of night wouldn’t last long.  What progress there was to be made must be crammed into the next few hours.  Before long, in fact, the first blush of the coming dawn would paint the eastern sky pale pink.  Relief from his present torments could only be found at the terminus of this ordeal.

         Strange, he thought, how a near death experience separated the wheat from the chaff and focused one on what was most exigent and relevant.  Odd too, he mused, how he’d never felt more alive.

         He walked on.  And as he walked he slowly unraveled the mystery.  In the brisk pre-dawn air, it all started coming back to him.  And as it did, it overwhelmed him with the sudden intensity of a desert sandstorm.  His dry, split lips bled as he cracked a knowingly derisive grin.  He couldn’t help smiling to himself despite the pain it occasioned.  Soon, the plan became unambiguous as if he viewed this all through a crystal ball.  It was brilliant.  Simple but brilliant.

         Marko de Gregorio!  Of course, who else could it be?  Who else could manage such an outlandish undertaking.  This insight struck him with the force of a sucker-punch delivered by the world heavy-weight champ.  He had to hand it to Marko.  As befitted his style, Marko had once again maneuvered and manipulated Judd into doing the last thing he should have done.  The last thing he would have done if he’d been in his right mind.  But Marko had a penchant for putting people in a bad frame of mind.  Intrepid traveler though Judd was, this exceeded the limits of discretion.  He had been duped.  That fact was plain and unmistakable.  How could I have been so stupid? Judd mentally berated himself.  Of all the dumb things I’ve done in my life, this beats them all.

         To say that it all began just the other night would not only be misleading but grossly inaccurate.  For the genesis of his current conundrum relative to Marko began long ago.  So long ago, in fact, that he hardly remembered when it started.  If he had to specify a day that his rivalry with Marko commenced, it would be the day they met at college.  On that day, they became concurrently roommates and archrivals.  Only Judd didn’t realize this latter fact until some years later.  He viewed their competition for grades, girls and jobs as just something guys do.  Marko, on the other hand, viewed all competition as win or lose and life or death struggles, where losing was not an option.

         In retrospect, Judd knew he was more than a bit unschooled in the ways of the world.  Leastways the unprincipled world as Marko saw it.  “Let me tell you something,” Marko always said with his Italian Brooklynese accent, “the world is made of two kinds of people: Them that stands for anything, and them that fall on principles.  As I see it, the winner is the one left standing’!”

         Marko belonged to that peculiar class of people who couldn’t give a damn about doing the right thing for the sake of propriety or the collective welfare of their fellow man.  Men like Marko thrived -- better yet, make that survived -- on the weaknesses of others and their own innate ability to manipulate them in order to make money by exploiting them.  Greed, in essence, was the deity they worshipped.  He was charming.  Cold.  Personable.  And very capable of murder.  The sort of man that would bring a person dying of thirst in Death Valley a glass of vinegar just so he could watch them gag.

         Marko had dropped by Judd’s office, inviting him and Helena, Judd’s wife, for a celebratory dinner party at Marko’s Hollywood Hills estate.  Marko had just closed some big deal that netted him more money than any single man needs, and he wanted to rub his “friends” noses in it.  It all seemed innocent enough to Judd; leastwise as innocent as anything Marko indulged in.  As Judd was to discover, the personal rancor was to come later with the after dinner aperitifs, tasting more of bitter bile than sweet Frangelica.

         For Marko de Gregorio, life boiled down to risks.  Those bold enough to take them, smart enough to pick the right ones; and those who were too timid to take the leap of faith required and too stupid to distinguish between the winners and the losers.  Into this last category, Marko steadfastly placed Judd.

         A sumptuous dinner for three was served lavishly by white-gloved, tuxedoed waiters with polished silver on handmade Delft porcelain.  Perfectly chilled 1914 Lafitte-Rothschild champagne effervesced in hand-blown crystal from Italy served upon 17th century Louis XIV silver platters from Paris.  Marko validated the old saying “he knew the cost of everything but the value of nothing.”  For Marko was a man to whom things, people included if not especially, were nothing more than possessions, baubles and little trinkets to adorn him, clothe him in the trappings of the demigod status he so desperately sought.

         “I remember a time when you were up for practically anything, Judd,” Marko remarked almost too casually.  “Guess life has made you timid.  And perhaps more than a bit afraid.”

         “It’s not that,” Judd stated cryptically in his own defense.

         “Well ... what is it then?”

         “I’m still learning to pick the winners from the losers, as you might say.”

         “And the doers from the whiners?  Do you understand what separates them from one another?”  Judd knew Marko neither expected nor wanted a reply.  Marko was like a fisherman who had cast his line and was now willing to bide his time, wait and see what (or who) was biting.  His stone-faced stoicism gave him all the lacquered artificial qualities of a storefront mannequin.  “The doers,” Marko continued, “think things out until they have a plan, a course of action.  They then implement their plans.  While the whiners offer up all the myriad reasons and excuses for why they can’t do anything.  Guess we know who’s who around here, huh Judd?”  Marko paused a long moment to allow his words to have their desired effect.  He shot a quick look at Helena, catching her slight wince at the implied insult of her husband.

         The barb had struck its target dead center.  Judd bit into his tongue as if it was a fifty-cent steak, choked on the words his pride made him swallow as he sat there, felt the upset of his stomach as he digested Marko’s words.  “Sometimes the breaks don’t go your way.  Not everything works out. `The best laid plans of mice and men doth often go astray.’”

         “Ah, how poetic,” Marko smirked.  Condescendingly he said, “In this life Judd, you can’t just wait around for your big break to come waltzing up to your door -- easy as you please -- announcing its arrival.  Life is like red-hot iron just out of the blast furnace: it’s malleable; you can mold it into whatever you desire.  But once it sets, it must be returned to the fiery crucible from whence it came to be melted down to a molten metal, then recast into a new mold.”

         Marko sat back in his chair, sipped his champagne.  He delighted in the perplexed frown on Judd’s countenance.  Lately, confounding Judd had become one of Marko’s favorite diversions.  He has the annoying habit of casually looking over people he first meets to determine their social standing and their value in his time.  He turns the same appraiser’s eye on his friends.

         “What’s your point, Marko?  I assume there is one,” Judd inquired facetiously.

         “I’m getting to it.  Be patient.  Indulge me a moment longer.”  Marko took a second to refill their glasses.  His eyes lingered on Helena a beat too long for Judd.  His unrepentant gaze made her simultaneously uncomfortable and aroused.  A blush came to her flushed cheeks before he broke off his flirtatious stare.  Marko had the same affect on many women.  Helena, however, was the only woman he ever loved and lost.  A fact that Marko had always sworn he’d correct someday.

         “If you gentlemen will please excuse me.”  Helena dabbed the cloth napkin at the corners of her mouth careful not to leave any smudged lipstick.  She pushed her chair away from the table and arose.

         Marko stood erect as she stood up.  Judd arose more slowly, slouching a bit as he waited for her to leave.  They sat down in unison, eyeing each other somewhat warily.  A momentary awkward silence passed.

         “Congratulations on the merger.  Your company must have doubled in value,” Judd said by way of making conversation.

         “Actually, it quadrupled.”  Marko sat back with a satisfied smile.  “Did you buy the shares when I told you?”

         “I was short at the time.”

         “Too bad.  Once short always short.  You would have made a killing!”

         Judd shifted nervously in his seat.  Glanced off in the direction that Helena disappeared.  “Is that why you brought us here … to gloat over your latest financial triumph?

         “No.  Not exactly.”

         “What is it then?  Am I supposed to guess?” Judd asked more than a little perplexed and annoyed.

         Marko glanced over to see if Helena was heading back their way.  There was no sign of her.

         “Okay.  Here’s the deal.  You see Judd, you have Helena but feel you don’t deserve her; I deserve her but don’t have her.”

         Judd seemed confused.  “Yeah.  So?”

         “So, I propose to settle this matter right here, right now, once and for all!”

         “How you aiming to do that?  Kill me?” Judd said half-serious.

         Marko sneered a grin that sent chills down Judd’s spine. Smugly Marko drove the stake in.  “The one thing that sets us apart is attitude.  In fact, you’ve become so passive that you’re all too wiling to accept being treated like a loser.  You’ve come not only to accept it but to expect it as well.  In fact, you seem deeply disappointed when the worst doesn’t happen.  It’s your lot in life.  It’s inevitable.  You believe you’re largely at the mercy of the whims of others.”

         “You don’t know me.  You don’t know how I feel about things.”

         “Oh but that’s where you’re wrong, Judd.  I know you all too well.  Perhaps even better than you know yourself.”  Judd slumped back in his chair, crossed his arms defensively as his only resistance.  Marko leaned forward, ever on the attack.  “Let me tell you another thing you might not be aware of.  All women are fickle.  And Helena is certainly all woman.  I know we can agree on that at the least!”

         “I hear what you’re saying.  You’re saying that all women are fickle, it’s in their nature -- Helena is all woman – therefore she must be fickle like all other women.”  Judd glared surprisedly taken aback.  “When did you become such a misogynist, Marko?  What woman hurt you so badly that you hold them all in such high contempt?”

         Marko unconsciously peered off in Helena’s direction.  “I love all women.  I just understand them better than you that’s all.  And I can love a woman despite her faults.”  The knife had been inserted between Judd’s ribs, so to speak; all that was left was for Marko to twist the knife to deepen and widen the gaping wound to Judd’s heart.  “Helena loved me once too, remember!”

         One small seed of doubt may give rise to a great shadow of suspicions, impossible to prove or disprove and therefore not possible to forget.  Marko had planted his particular seed deep within the fecund soil of Judd’s lurid imagination.  Marko’s words provided all the nourishment Judd’s growing misgivings needed to flourish and bring forth the rotten fruits of mistrust and envy.

         “It’s not too late, Judd, to take destiny into your own hands.  Go for broke.  Gamble what little you have to gain all I own.  Just think of the satisfaction you’ll experience when you come waltzing up the driveway to claim your trophy, like some game show guest walking off with the grand prize.”  Judd sat there dumbfounded, taking it all in without offering any reply.  “So, here’s the deal.  I propose a challenge.  My fortune for your wife.”

         Judd’s jaw dropped to his chest in disbelief.  “You’re joking – you can’t be serious!”  Judd shakes his head as if trying to dispel the sorry feeling that overtakes him.  “That would be a new low for you, Marko.”

                “I have never been more serious in my life.  Everything is arranged.”  Marko regarded Judd deadpan.

                   Helena was the sort of woman who drew men in much the same way as bees are drawn to honeysuckle.  Helena was also the type of woman that would make most men forget all other women.  But Marko’s eye had always strayed.  Perhaps that was what attracted Helena to him in the first place.  Of course, his male-model to-die-for good looks had something to do with it too.  But as a girlfriend of Helena’s once so eloquently put it: “Marko is every woman’s impossible dream.  To snare him is to attain the unattainable.”  Yes, there is that, she remembered thinking.  But for Helena, it represented more the challenge of holding the elusive butterfly or capturing the wind.  Indeed, she regarded it as holding onto a fistful of water, because for Helena, Marko was certainly within her reach.  For Helena, men were neither much of a mystery or a challenge.  And she too liked a good challenge from time to time.  Together, however, Helena and Marko mixed like fire and oil.  Each consumed the other.

         “Where’s Judd?” Helena queried as she approached her seat at the table.

         And so, the mystery of how he’d gotten himself into this predicament in the first place was settled.  What remained to be seen was how he’d extricate himself from this life-threatening plight.  He wanted to dig a hole and crawl right in.  But what good would that do now,  he wondered.

         The sun’s pitiless rays fell upon Judd with all their blazing force, subjecting him to nearly intolerable heat.  It’s was as if Heaven and Hell, Earth and Sky were all on fire.  He bent down to pick-up a stone, examined it closely.  “Ventifacts found in deserts are pebbles or cobbles that have developed polished surfaces and sharp edges under water and wind abrasion,” he remembers the professor lecturing.  He felt the roundness and the smooth texture of the stone as he caressed it in the palm of his hands.  This is not a skipping stone, he thought to himself.  Strange how random thoughts come at the most inappropriate time.

                Later on, in the dead of night nothing could be seen.  A mournful penetrating wind whorled through the narrow, claustrophobic walls formed by the converging dry river beds.  Which one to take?  He pondered this for only a moment when a distant sound drew his attention.  Before he had a chance to consult his map as to the proper branch to follow, a tidal wave of water cascaded over boulders and crashed against the river bed walls.  The force of the water knocked him off his feet and swept him downstream with the foaming waters as it plunged down the steep incline of the resident topography.  The waters carried him for several hundred yards, pulverizing him against the mammoth stones and nearly drowning him in the process.  The flood waters disappeared just as quickly as they had materialized.

         Bloodied and battered, Judd crawled to the nearest bank.  He patted himself down reassuringly.  He scanned the debris for signs of what little of his gear remained intact.  The backpack was in usable shape, with the entrenching tool still attached.

         After an all too brief time for collecting his gear and his thoughts, Judd started off again.

         “Actually, the chances of being bitten by a poisonous snake are very small.  The danger of death from snakebite is considerably less than the possibility of being killed in a jeep wreck or getting shot by accident.  And furthermore, a normally alert person should be able to see the snake before it gets within striking distance.  Most bites occur when a snake is stepped on unwittingly.  The problem isn’t so much from rattlesnake bite itself .  Few people anymore die of just a bite.  It’s the lack of emergency care that kills.”  Dr. Ferguson was as usual correct in his facts, Judd knew, but the facts offered him little comfort at the moment.  If there had been a pre-attack warning from the rattler, he hadn’t heard it.  His stumbling about exposed him to a pit of baby rattlesnakes; but they weren’t the real problem.  It was the mother of the hatchlings that latched onto his ankle, injecting her toxic venom into his lower extremity.  Then it rattled like hell.  Man, oh, man, did it rattle after that!

         Only after he had nearly hacked off the head of this mature, 6-foot long diamond-back rattler, also known as the death adder, did the moribund snake’s jaws relax enough for Judd to retract the sunken fangs.  He discarded the snake’s carcass, throwing it into the pit with the wriggling, now-orphaned hatchlings.  The actual bite couldn’t have been anymore inaccessible, inconveniently placed as it was on the outside of his left ankle.  He could lance the wound, but he couldn’t bring the ankle to his mouth so he could suck out the contagion before it spread.
So he did what little he could to treat it.  Using his pocketknife, Judd made an incision connecting the two bite marks.  He then applied pressure above the ankle by compressing the leg with his hands, attempting to extract the poison by bleeding the wound.  What effect it had – for good or ill – he didn’t have time to hazard a guess.  Judd bandaged the wound with a tourniquet, thereby somewhat mitigating the immediate hemo-toxic venomous effects of the snakebite’s damage.

         Hours later, Judd stumbled blindly onward.  Inevitably, the fire in his ankle worked its way with breakneck swiftness up his spine.  His arms ached so bad that he could barely lift them to swat off the flies that settled on his lips, the corner of his eyes or his ears.  Their incessant buzzing lost in the desperate wheezing Judd’s labored breathing made as he sucked the hot air for a cool breath, their prying and stinging a minor annoyance compared to the unbearable agony each new step brought him.  Before long, his swollen foot spilled out of the loosened boot.  Purple discoloration crept steadily up his leg.  Tingling sensations advanced before it as the nerve sheaths of his leg muscles absorbed the snake venom.  If he didn’t do something immediately, he would go septic as the poison entered his heart and then his entire blood stream.  Within a very short span of time he would be dead.  Still, knowing this didn’t make his decision any easier.

         Judd’s fever spiked.  His pulse beat rapidly.  His skin became pale and clammy.  Then his skin turned dry.  Heat stroke was hurriedly overtaking him.  Judd found some shade in the shadow of a collection of huge boulders.  Reluctantly removing the hatchet from the knapsack, Judd sat down on the dusty ground.  The pain he had experienced up to this point would seem infinitesimally minuscule compared to what was to soon follow.  He wondered how he’d ended up here.  It’s as if every step he’d ever taken in his life had led him here to this exact moment in time.  Had he done any one thing different perhaps he wouldn’t be here at all.  Time for contemplation, however, had long since past.

         His entire body tensed.  A glazed, hollow look came into his eyes.  He was numb.  His heart crashed around his chest like an Indy-car out of control.  He fell back with a pitiful air of hopeless resignation.  Steeling his nerve for what had to be done, tears stung Judd’s eyes for the first time in many years as he raised the hatchet high over his head.  The late afternoon sunlight burnished the polished metal with an amber glow.  Grim resolve on his face, he closed his eyes tightly, turning his head just before bringing the hatchet down with all the force he could muster.

         The wail of pain that erupted from the back of his throat sounded inhuman.  And far off.  It echoed out over the vast empty prairie.  Off in the distance, coyotes howled in mournful response.  The pain Judd felt was indescribable.  Excruciating, beyond endurance, these were mere words.  They failed to encapsulate the degree of suffering brought on by his willful act.  Before he passed-out from the pain and loss of blood, Judd had the sense to ignite one of the signal flares and use its white hot phosphorous flame to cauterize the twitching stump where his foot used to be.  In a daze, he wrapped the bloody remnant of his leg in a make-shift bandage.

         Mercifully, Judd lost consciousness.  When he awoke, it was night again.  His dismembered foot stood upright in the blood-soaked boot, as if mocking him, daring Judd to go on without it.

         Despite the all-encompassing anguish, and with the aid of the entrenching tool, Judd forced himself to stand.  Then he trundled off.  Each step brought a thousand points of excruciating pain.  He had long since passed incoherent, and was now delving into delussional territory.  For Judd, the end was surely very near at hand.  A weak voice inside his head drove Judd inexplicably on.

         The desert heat soared till it was well above 120 in the shade.  Only problem for Judd was there was no shade to be found out here.  Out here, there is only burning sand and sun-baked rocks and parched earth.  An endless, harsh and inhospitable terrain.  Judd looked out over the dunes.  Noted the ripple marks in the sand carved out by the howling desert winds.  He had “as much chance of survival as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest”, he considered.

         Meanwhile, back at Marko’s, there was a crisis of an altogether different sort playing itself out.  Marko and Helena had argued over the bet between Judd and himself.  She wasn’t buying it.  Her smoldering eyes were accusation enough.

         “Don’t you love me anymore?” Marko implored.

         “Once I did.  But I can’t love you anymore!”

                Marko got up from the table and started pacing.  He doesn’t like to show his weaknesses, especially to Helena.  But control was slowly slip-sliding away,
“I don’t love a man who is more enamored with material possessions than personal relationships.  I won’t love a man who values social standing over strength of character.  And I can’t love a man who would cheat on the woman whom he called – “’the best thing that ever happened to me.’”  Her words rang out like a cannonade, striking their target with laser precision and lethal accuracy, blowing Marko’s mind to smithereens.

                Suddenly, just then, the phone rang.

                   The sun was more intense than he could ever remember having felt.  It set the air aflame, sucking it dry of all moisture.  Judd lurched onward, driven by the most primal of nature’s forces: the will to survive.  Half-blinded by the sun’s inescapable blinding stare, nearly mad from heat exhaustion and the searing pain of his truncated leg, he stumbled forward.  He was further driven on now by the gathering prospects of success.

         Marko lifted the receiver slowly to his ear.  “Hello?” he said mechanically.
         “I’m coming, Marko,” Judd snarled into the phone through his parched throat and sun-blistered lips.  Despite the pain, he allowed himself a self-congratulatory chuckle before he disengaged the line.  He couldn’t wait to see the expression on Marko’s face when he showed back up at the mansion.

         “Was that Judd?” Helena simply asked.

         Marko’s eyes mirrored a psyche shattered into a million shards.  Losing her once was almost more than Marko could bear.  Losing her a second time was the weight that rent his spirit asunder, breaking his will to live.  Without her his life would be a living death.

         “Excuse me, Helena.”  Marko bowed slightly, almost deferentially then took his leave.

         In Marko’s lavish master bedroom, surrounded by all the opulence his greedy grabbing ways had afforded him, Marko was lost and all alone.  He recalled reading a quote that had, up to now, escaped him completely.  However the quote succinctly summed-up his present situation.  His wayward mind latched onto it as a drowning man does his rescuer: “I’ve heard it said that the blind pursuit of false notions leaves us lonely, tormented and devoid of happiness at the end of our lives.”
Marko took one long, last look around at the lavish surroundings.

                Somehow, in light of recent events, it doesn’t add up to much he thinks as he stared down on the weapon in his hand as if it were foreign to him.  So, he cocked the hammer back on the .357 Magnum.  Slowly he brought the gun up under his chin.  Better this than that he reasoned as he squeezed the trigger.  The hammer fell.  The firing pin struck the butt-end of the shell casing.  Exploding gasses inside the bullet shell propelled the bullet out of the chamber and sent it speeding thru the barrel.  Rifling grooves inside the barrel spun the projectile keeping it on its true trajectory.  The gun discharged with an ear-splitting crack.

         An instant later, Marko, his brains decorating the expensive Italian fresco mural on the wall behind him, fell dead.  Another victim of that little thing called love.

         Helena reacted startled at the report of the weapon in the upstairs bedroom.  A glassy look came over her eyes but she refused to shed tears.

         Judd slid out of the beat-up pick-up truck.  With the help of his walking stick, Judd hobbled up the brick walkway.  If Judd’s disheveled appearance shocked Helena, her staid look did not betray her.

                “Where’s Marko?”

                “He’s inside.  Waiting for you”

                Judd managed a humorless smile.

         “Congratulations,” Helena said inimically.  “You win.”  She looked him straight in the eye, an air of defiance informing her posture and outlook.  “But by winning, you lose.  It seems you can’t win for losing, Judd!”  With that, she picked up her luggage, walked past Judd who stood there as if fixed to the spot at the threshold of his new estate.  God, thought Judd, she’s never looked more beautiful in her defiance.  She glanced back over her shoulder -- “Good-bye!”  Thus having spoken she turned away.  Judd, struck dumb, could think of nothing to say that would make any difference.  Helena sauntered down the broad steps, her head held high and majestic, leaving him standing all alone, dwarfed by the huge columns on his stately new mansion.

         “What are you doing?  Where are you going?” Judd blurted out in a panicky voice, finally catching on to what’s happening.

                   “I’m leaving you,” Helena said without a trace of emotion.  “As to where I’m going, well, that is no longer any concern of yours, now is it!”

                              Judd was rooted to the spot like an ageless redwood, intractable and stoic; a silent witness to the proceedings evolving all around him.  The pains of his recent ordeal were no match for the abject heartache that he suffered now.  What a fool he’d been not to realize the treasure he possessed in Helena, blinded as he was by the glittering allure of another man’s riches.  He had risked all for once in his life, and gained all he wanted.  In the bargain, however, he ended up losing the one thing he needed most -- the love of a good woman.  Helena strolled down the pathway and out of his life for her own good.  And for good.  Alone she left him standing there.

                                Judd was in utter and completely abject defeat.  A tormented, tortured soul bereft of any solace or solitude.  Now a fabulously wealthy man but now also a completely worthless human being.  All that came to his frazzled mind was the old saying: “The hand of God and mankind's self-inflicted blows seem equally heavy. . . . giving a strong cumulative impression of the world as an abattoir”, he reflected just before collapsing on the veranda.

The End

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