Far on the horizon, a single column of smoke rose like a giant gray finger piercing the blue cloudless sky. It offered hope, hope of rescue. It had to be a campfire and that meant people. Vern Radford rubbed his eyes and squinted into the sweltering heat. His eyeballs were like sandy orbs that burned when he moved them in their sockets. Nothing seemed real, for some time ago dehydration had set in, causing his half-baked mind to play those dirty games that often plague those who go without water in the desert for more than a day. The thirty-something year old man had crossed this same dessert several years earlier, only that time, he had ridden in the company of three other men, his former partners in the cattle business.
Forty-eight hours ago, Vern's horse ran off with all his gear after throwing him when a rattlesnake spooked the skittish equine. His best friend of late had been his horse, Prince, who Vern had ridden for the past three years. Three days ago he had left Crooked Crossing, a little town nestled at the foot of a monolithic mountain, riding on his friend's back. Out here, a horse can become a man's best friend very quickly, especially when there is no one else around to talk to. Now, Vern was afoot in some of the driest and cruelest type of terrain in Nevada and he had no water. He did have a small amount of jerked venison that he carried in a pouch made of buffalo scrotum that an Indian friend had given him, and for a short time the jerky helped to bring a little moisture through the salivary glands, but there was now no such moisture in the man.
This hope that Vern saw off in the distance could be another hallucination, or it could be real. To be able to smell the smoke at this great distance he knew was impossible, yet it sure seemed like he detected the odor of campfire smoke. "If my nose is imagining maybe my eyes are too", he thought. Regardless, what appeared to be smoke from someone's fire was his only chance for survival, and it would be near impossible that; way out here, where a man would be lucky to find a jackrabbit for company and nourishment that he would find people.
A buzzing sound hummed in his ears, growing louder, then faint, then blared above every thought in his mind as the earth began to spin. Stretching out one leg at a time, he set each foot ahead of the other in the direction of the distant smoke. It was difficult to gauge how far off this magnetic visage really was, and with each step the effort of walking weakened the man. Vertigo too, grew worse with each step Vern took.
He tried to calculate how long he had been making towards the gray stack, which seemed a little puffier than before, a sign of getting closer, but then, time also seemed hazy. His tongue instinctively tried to moisten his cracked and burning lips but only rasped against them making them sorer than before. Suddenly, the dusty ground jumped up and hit him in the face, hard. Now the spinning world was sideways as he realized that he had fallen. "Just lie here awhile" He thought, "Rest a bit and build your strength". A scorpion scurried past his face just six inches from his nose. It paused to see what sort of critter Vern might be, and then continued its search for a suitable location to ambush a meal. "Just two minutes of rest" Vern mumbled as he closed his eyes. This was the last conscious thought for some time. He passed out and slept in the heat, in the sun, in the desert, and this was a sure death sentence.
Oh the sweetness of subconscious thought when the real world is cruel and mocking. Oh the sweetness of dreaming--where one can be transported as far as their mind might conger. He found himself now at his father, Pops' home at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, nestled alongside a gurgling creek that bent three quarters of the way around the little cabin. The heat of Pops' fire felt as if it would soon catch his face ablaze, but he could not seem to back away from the fire to gain any coolness. No matter, for soon, even that sensation passed, as one side of his face in the real world became numb from prolonged exposure to the sun. He could smell fathers' sweet pipe smoke that always brought a comforting assurance to him. He had always liked the pleasing scent as a boy of ten, especially the tobacco that was scented with apple, and here he was again at this tender age when everything was wondrous and new.
The boards on the tiny front porch creaked in that familiar way they always did when Pop leaned back his chair on two legs against the outside wall of the cabin. Inside, the fire crackled and popped. Vern's mind had transported him in an instant, across miles, across time, bringing rest and comfort to his soul.
Now moving out the cabin door, he more floated than walked, but there, there was Pop, that slight smile on his face, with that look that made the boy feel as though Pop knew everything there was to know, and had the answer to every question. "Sit boy, tell me what's botherin ya." Pop said in the voice that held all the mysteries of the universe to Vern. This was a re-living of a conversation, one that Vern remembered well. "I don't have any friends out here, no others kids to talk to and play with," Vern heard himself say.
Pop answered, "So that's it. Friends are nice to have, but they will always let you down eventually boy. But now you take a dog or a horse--you treat em right, care fer em, they'll be a friend that will always be faithful."
In a millisecond Vern was transported again. This time he was fishing on the river bank at twelve years old and his new friend, Clifford, was there. The two were arguing over a girl that had caught Vern's eye and Vern had acted the fool in getting her attention. Yes, Ruby was a pretty little thing of 13 years, and she already was mastering the art of mastery over men and the boy did not know what to do, or how to win her affections. She played the game of liking another boy who happened to be Clifford, and Clifford fell also to her wiles, but she was baiting a hook for Vern.
"It is betrayal in the worst sort of way." That's what Vern had told Cliff.
Cliff said he didn't care, that he was going to court Ruby anyway; he then pushed Vern into the river and headed for home.
Sitting on the bank of the flowing water alone, drying in the sun, in his soggy despondency, Vern remembered what Pop had said about friends and how they always seem to let us down eventually. But Pop had also said, at another time, that friends were necessary and that we need to learn to be friendly to others, so that we could gain friends who would stand by us, sometimes at least, but not all the time. Unless of course we find one of those few extraordinary people, who in love, have a strong sense of commitment and faithfulness, but they are a rare breed.
In the desert Vern's body was quickly withering away. The arid sand that he lay on seemed to suck all the moisture out of his body, with the blazing sun above scorching and drying him out all the more. He felt nothing...no pain, for his mind was protecting him from reality...a horrible, harsh reality. Somewhere in his mind Vern was aware. He knew he was going to die, but this was repressed, tucked away in some dark compartment of the brain so that the pleasantry of subconscious dreams could flourish.
It was Christmas time now in Vern's wonderful imagination made world and he sat at the bar in his favorite saloon jawing with Mickey the owner while drinking a warm beer. Somehow the beer just did not quench his thirst no matter how much was swallowed. Perhaps something of the real world was getting through. Mickey was talking about the unusually warmer winter they were having there in Bullhead City and it just did not seem much like Christmas without the lower temperatures even though it never really gets too awful cold in Arizona.
Gazing out across the saloon, Vern's eyes met with the eyes of Darlene, the beauty of Bullhead that made all the males in town from fifteen to fifty goofy with fantasies. She blinked just once, giving that innocent yet coy look that she loved to flash for attention and sashayed over to stand next to him at the bar.
"I saw you lookin at me Vern, you must want to buy me a drink."
"Well now, I think I will."
Yet, before he could enjoy the lady's company he was taken away again and deposited in his body during the time he had fallen down the side of a rocky slope. Vern could again feel the pain from a broken leg, a sprained wrist, bruises and multiple cuts and scrapes. "I'm dreaming," thought Vern. "But how can a dream hurt"?
Then the dog that Vern had raised from a pup was there beside him just as it had been before, after his fall. He had named the dog Mojo, and here was Mojo licking his face in an assuring show of friendship. This licking suddenly brought Vern out of his dream world, back to the present where he was dying from heat and dryness, only his face was now sticky. It was sticky from Prince's tongue. Standing over Vern, his horse, Prince, was bending his head down to lick his masters face as if to say, "Wake up, I'm back, what are you waiting for?"
Vern grabbed hold of a stirrup and pulled himself up to stand on wobbly legs. The canteen was there, still three-quarters full. He drank, and Prince drank, then they were off.
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