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Card Challenge: Day 45

Card Day 45: A snake shaped thermometer sits on a barren landscape under a moonlit sky. The red liquid leaks out of the thermometer and onto the ground.

 Vernon was groggy as he woke up, his eyes stinging with sand and his face raw from his unconventional pillow on the hard ground. He pushed himself to his feet, taking a deep swig from the canteen on his side in an attempt to wash the dry, musty taste from his mouth. It was unsuccessful, and he grimaced at the foul taste of his own tongue.

The sun was low on the horizon, already baking the ground with waves of heat. It promised to be another hot one. Vernon grumbled as he bent to grab his hat from the ground, slapping it against his leg a couple of ties to rid it of the windblown sand. His cold, grey eyes sufficiently shielded from the staining light of the sun, he surveyed his little camp. He stomped along the hard ground, sand skittering around his imposing steps, and quickly gathered the last of his meager belongings, tossing them into his knapsack.

By his judgment, he had another day, maybe day and a half before he reached Fortune Falls. It would be a long, exhausting day in the heat, and he was aware that his supplies were beginning to dwindle. But it was nothing he could not handle and, frankly, he had been in far worse situations. As he took his first begrudging steps for the day, he remembered the time back a couple years ago he had been caught up North in the midst of a blizzard with a hunting jacket and a hole in his shoe. The doctor—when he had finally gotten to him—was amazed that he had not lost a few digits to frostbite. But Vernon still had his ten fingers and ten toes, and he curled them quickly in appreciation. Yes, the heat and sun of the desert was unpleasant, but passable.

The “road” into town, if you could even call it that, was little more than a set of wheel tracks in the dust. It wove around a few large rocks and cacti, leaving a meandering shadow of a trail all the way to the horizon. A couple of wagons had passed him the day before, but Vernon waved them off. They did not trust him and he did not trust them; it was better to avoid the unhappy partnership and expectation of payment for the service. He might have been cheap, but that had served him well in his life. Old as he was, Vernon was not interested in changing any time soon.

Four days of travel, but he felt sure his journey was nearing an end. He went to wipe the sweat from his brow, a reflexive response to the searing heat of the sun, but there was nothing left to clean away. He chuckled at his instinctive response, and took pride in his evident adaptation to the incredible heat of the past days.

A slight pain re-emerged in his head, a spike of pain that arced across his skull. Must be the bright light, he surmised, squeezing his eyes shut and moving forward. Hopefully it would go away once he got to the inn at town, taking a chance to relax and get out of the sun. He was not about to let a minor inconvenience annoy him.

Shifting his bag from side to side, he thought of the few provisions left, trying to decide if breakfast was warranted for his walk. As he considered the limited rations and his own current nausea, it seemed unwise. Later in the day, once he had woken up and gotten prepared for the day, he could have some lunch. Save up the extra for a nice dinner should he have one more night of camping in the sticky desert.

The path before him seemed to swim, and Vernon found himself pausing to look at the dancing trail. Up ahead of him as a mirage of shifting sands, the trail wandering and doubling back on itself. His brain felt fuzzy, his mind distant and not able to put all the pieces together. The early morning sun glared down at him, baking his exposed arms. His hands shook as he paused and took a sip from his canteen, hoping to calm his nerves and sight.

Looking up, nothing had improved. Instead, he imagined he saw a bandit waiting, watching him. If he had been clear of mind, he might have recognized instead the waving arms of the cactus, but in the moment he was certain the scoundrel was lining up his shot. Panicking, Vernon dove for cover among the nearby rocks.

His breathing was rapid, his heart was thundering, and his head was pounding in time. Vernon contemplated his next move carefully. While it was risky, the best option was to dessert the desert path, try to circumvent the ne’er-do-well. He crawled carefully along the ground, keeping in mind the meager directions he knew to get to his desired destination. Fortune Valley was in between two mesas, one of which he was pretty sure he could see on the horizon. A river ran behind the town, so he would have gone too far if he hit that.

Crawling along the ground, he watched for the man to move or see him, but he stood stalwart, watching the path. Vernon considered turning back to warn any approaching travelers, but ultimately decided that was their responsibility. He had a mission, and he needed to reach Victory Falls before night.

Once he was certain he had skirted far enough from the shadowy figure waiting, Vernon took to his feet and began his measured walk again. With all the force of concentration he could muster, he placed one foot in front of the other, trying to figure out why they seemed to be dragging and scuffing through the sand. His feet felt heavy, uncoordinated. But he pressed on, pushing himself forward.

“Howdy,” he heard, a word blown on the wind. Vernon spun around, trying to find the stranger, but there was no one nearby. The sun stared down form overhead, proclaiming noon. But, even in the clear, shadowless light of the day, he could see no fellow traveler.

“Hello?” he asked, his voice cracking like the dry ground around him. No one responded.

Stumbling, he turned back towards the direction he was fairly certain he had been heading. The landscape all looked the same, but he was certain he had been heading toward the bush to his right. As he passed it, he realized that there was not, in fact, a bush of any sort. Still, he knew his landmarks.

The desert land swam beneath his uncertain feet, and Vernon began whispering to himself, discussing the world around him as it passed. Every now and then, he heard a voice speaking to him, random words and phrases. But he never found the source.

“Keep going and I’ll put a bullet between your eyes,” he heard, clear as day. Drawing his pistol, Vernon snapped around, his aim roving wildly to find the aggressive stranger. Again, there was no one in the desert to threaten him. He scanned the horizon closely, trying to find any evidence of life. Nothing.

“You stop following me now, you hear? I got a gun to, and I won’t hesitate to shoot you where you stand!” he yelled, circling slowly to find the fleeing enemy. Still, nothing moved besides the sand over the rocky ground.

“I’ve got him in my sights. Whatcha want me to do, boss?” Another voice picked up, and his search took on a more frenzied turn. The sun was heavy and red on the horizon, casting long shadows, but none of them solidified into humans. Except, wait, was that someone? One of the shadow stretched long, seemed to be sighting him. He had a dead shot on Vernon, and Vernon felt his heart leap into his throat.

With the speed of self-preservation, Vernon took flight. His feet stumbled over one another, tangling and dancing wildly as he fled the impending danger. He thought he heard their yells behind him, the sound of approaching footsteps. Vernon pushed on, driving himself deeper and deeper into the desert. He had hoped to reach Fair Valleys tonight, but that was looking less likely, especially with all the dangerous bandits hiding in the desert.

He was panting heavily, his heart thundering, pain arching up and down his legs with the fury of his flight. Finally after what felt like hours of travel, he felt his legs give way beneath him. The ground jumped up to meet him, and he felt his face scrape along the rocky soil. Vernon scrambled to look behind him, but saw no sign of pursuit. Baffled by their sudden disappearance, Vernon let himself collapse against the ground, trying to regain his breath so he could push on. His vision swam, blurry around the edges. As he lay against the ground, he watched a snake slither into view, eyeing him curiously.

With a snap of its tongue, the snake opened its mouth wide. “You don’t look very good, friend.”

Vernon’s head hit the ground, overwhelmed by the impossibility of the endless desert.

Creative Commons License
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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