Picture a desert. You are no doubt picture a vast and seemingly endless expanse of golden sand that makes the air shimmer in a haze of rising heat, the sort of heat you’d normally reserve for furnaces, forges and ovens. The kind of heat that makes you feel like your skin is only fractions of a degree from melting right off your bones. Desert is a word synonymous with heat and sand. Sand; the ubiquitous nightmare that worms its way into every nook and crevice of every item of clothing, every bag and bottle. The stuff gets absolutely everywhere. You thought it was bad on the beach? Spend any time in a desert and you will learn very quickly just how much of a bastard sand can be. Especially if the wind gets up, then it moves from being annoying into a wonderful and special category of viciousness, a viciousness more than capable of stripping flesh from the bone. It is nature’s equivalent of rubbing ground glass in your face.
What people so often forget is that despite the cast-iron fact that deserts mean sand and heat, it is a fact that is not entirely, you know, factual. It was in fact, this specific factual alteration of the aforementioned fact that was now afflicting two men, a woman and a motley trio of horses. They were learning first hand the precise and scathing fallacies of this common held belief. They were learning that in some of the more isolated corners of the world you got deserts which were a vast and seemingly endless expanse of featureless grey rock. A place where the air clouds in a cold fog of freezing breath, the sort of cold you’d normally reserve for winters, mountains and deepest, darkest, Stygian depths of the underworld. The kind of cold that makes you feel like your skin is only fractions of a degree from freezing solid and flaking right off your bones like chunks of smashed ice. To them, Desert was most assuredly not a word synonymous with heat and sand.
They had ridden in silence for the last three days. Cold, weary and utterly drained. Talking hurt and there was nothing to say. The desert was timeless, not in the sense that it ageless, but in that hours and days seemed to have little meaning here. One was much like the other, the monotony of it all just blurred together into one big fuzzy haze. It was some time in the afternoon that one of the riders deigned to speak.
“I would just like to state for the record, that when we run out of food I am going to eat you first Jones.”
“Why me?” Jones replied, his dry, croaking voice indignant.
“Firstly, it is your fault we’re stuck out here in the first place. And secondly even in his enervated state The Big Fucker would still beat me in a fight.”
“Fuck you Bill”
“No Jones, fuck you. Fuck you…” Bill finished in a mumble “Why’s it so bastard cold?”
The man which Bill had so affectionately referred to as The Big Fucker stirred in his saddle. His beard crackled with ice as he worked feeling back into his jaw, working up to speak.
“My name…” he paused, words coming slowly, his voice thick and heavy like the bastard offspring of tar and mountains “…is Irving.” He finished. “And this ain’t cold.”
“What do you mean it ain’t cold? I’m freezing my damn balls off here.” Shouted Bill
“It don’t hurt to breathe and you still got your fingers.” replied Irving “It ain’t cold.”
There was silence for a moment, they settled back into the numb silence of men far from home, doing something they wish they didn’t have to.
“We should turn back.” Said Bill. “Before we die out here.”
Jones sucked through his teeth “Can’t do that.”
“Why the hell not!” Bill screamed. Jones flinched and fell silent. Irving, The Big Fucker stirred in his saddle again.
“Because it’s further home than it is to the other side. Best just to push on and hope we make it.”
Bill massaged his hands, blowing his icy breath into a cupped hollow, all desperately trying to force some warmth into them.
“How did I get roped into this?” he asked.
“Because Bill” began The Big Fucker “I was lead to believe, perhaps mistakenly, that you were a patriot, a steady hand and cool head and that you had some steel in your spine.” Irving paused “Was I wrong Bill?” His words echoed with silence. “Do you know how many people will die if we don’t get that message to the garrison?”
“No…” replied Bill
“Neither do I. We just have to make it through. That’s all that matters”
One of the horses started to stumble, its legs cold and unsteady. It regained its footing, but it was an omen. Anyone who heads out into the desert, no matter how prepared they are, are living on borrowed time. That slight stumble was a warning, a warning that the bank of life was not far from foreclosing on that loan.
“We’ll see this through to the end.” Said Irving, more to himself than anyone else “We’ve come this far after all”
And so the three men rode on. Riding through a wasteland that held no love for them on a task which they might not even succeed in, but they kept going. They kept going because they had to, because they needed to. It was now far, far beyond any sense of duty, now they were deep into the territory of just wanting to live long enough to finish the job, just so they could give one big, and possibly final “fuck you” to life, the universe and every benighted soul in it.
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