“Why do you do this?” She asked as he threw his bag over his shoulder.
He pretended to ponder it for a moment. “To see if I can,” he quipped.
“I wish you wouldn’t. You’re going to do too much one day. You’re going to get yourself hurt, or maybe killed.”
“Then I’ll know I wasn’t able to do it,” he said with a shrug.
“What about your wife and child? What are we supposed to do? Sit here worrying about you, wondering when or if you’re ever coming home?”
“I’ll come home.”
“Really? What if this is the day you find out how much you can do?”
He had no answer for her other than the smirk that seemed to say don’t be that way.
“I guess that’s when we get to test ourselves, to see how much we can do.”
“It’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ll be back in a couple of days. Promise.”
She didn’t reply. He leaned toward her to give her a kiss, but she pulled back.
“Come on,” he said. “You can’t send me off like that.”
She didn’t speak, but leaned forward and let him kiss her cheek.
“It’ll be fine,” he repeated.
“You’d better come home,” she said.
“I’ll come home. “
“And don’t get too tired of sleeping in that tent, because you’ll probably spend a few more nights in it when you get back.”
He smiled. “Love you,” he said.
“Love you, too” she returned.
He turned and walked off the porch. “Come on, Rusty!” He called. The Golden Lab came bounding across the yard, tongue lolling in the wind, and followed him into the truck.
He woke to Rusty lapping at his face with a wet tongue and shoved the dog away as hard as he could. A severe pain stabbed at his hip and cut through his body.
“You’re the cause of all this,” he said to the dog angrily. “If you hadn’t gone running off after—“ He let the thought go and winced at the pain still radiating through him.
Rusty just stood there eyeing his master curiously.
“Ah, it’s not your fault I fell,” he said. “You were just being a dog. I could have stepped one inch to the side and maybe I would have never slipped. Maybe then we could have stood up there at the top of the gorge for a while admiring that damn water fall over there. Hell, I probably would have taken you down there to play in it. And then we coulda been on our way instead of laying here, me in agony with my shattered leg and hip, being tortured by how close and yet how damn far away that water is.
“Of course, I could have stepped one side the other way and maybe landed on my head, and that woulda been it. And then—“
He winced again. Talking to Rusty helped him not feel so lonely, but did nothing to ease the pain.
“That stuff don’t matter now anyway,” he said. “What matters now is I can’t move. I can’t get us home, can’t get to my phone or food at the top of the gorge, can’t even get over to that water. It’s burning up in the day and freezing at night. I can’t even remember how long we’ve been down here now. I’m dying of thirst. I’ll maybe suffer here a day or two more before dehydration and exposure take me out. Then you’ll be left here alone. You’ll be fine, though. Probably eat my carcass. Who knows after that.”
He looked to the sky where the only puff of cloud in the sky began to dissipate into nothing letting the harshness of the sun beat down full force.
“Exposure and dehydration,” he repeated. “Those are the things that are going to take me out and make my wife a widow, leave my child without a father.”
He was ready to close his eyes and give in to the elements, but just at that moment something caught Rusty’s attention. He looked to see what the dog had spotted.
Just a couple ducks coming in for a landing at the pool. But Rusty would have none of it. He went running after them, barking like a mad dog and splashing through the water until the ducks took flight again. He watched jealously as Rusty took several casual laps at the water. He couldn’t help but curse the dog in his mind.
But as the dog left the water and began trotting back to where he lay, he could see the water dripping off the dogs for in thick streams. He was immediately thrilled and disgusted.
“Come here, Rusty!” he called in as happy a voice as he could manage. “Come on, boy.”
The dog shoots it’s body, flinging water droplets in every direction.
“No, dammit, don’t do that!” he yelled. “Just Come here, boy!”
Rusty happily trotted over, circled behind his master and sat down next to him the way he had been trained to do.
He looked at the dogs fur, at the water still trapped in it, still running off of it in rivulets. He grimaced, but knew he had to do it. He grabbed the dogs fur, pulled it to his mouth, and began to drink. The flavor was that of wet, dirty dog. His stomach convulsed and he feared he might expel everything he had just taken in, but was just able to keep it down. He took another drink.
He had no idea how many days he’d been out here. Long enough that his wife had realized something was wrong and had called someone. He was sure of it. But he was also sure that there wasn’t much she could do. She knew the general area he’d be in, but not exactly where or when he’d been hurt.
His plan had been to go out with Rusty, only a few essential supplies, and live off the land as he hiked through the wilderness for a week. He could be anywhere as far as she was concerned.
He’d hoped after the week was up he’d start seeing helicopters coming around looking for him. He had seen only one, far off in the distance, and nothing about the way it flew suggested to him that it was looking for a lost person.
Surely someone was looking for him, though. Maybe they’d already looked and given up the search?
No, don’t think like that, he told himself. That’s how people give up. That’s how people die. Gotta trust they’re still out looking for you.
If only he had stuck his cell phone in his pants pocket that morning instead of in his backpack.
Were they trying to track him by his phone? he wondered. And if so, could they get reception out here in the middle of the forest? Probably not. He didn’t know how tracking a phone worked but knew the phone didn’t get a very strong signal out here. He almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to call out from the bottom of the gorge.
He was thirsty. Even after discovering how to get water from the pool via dog, he had had very little to drink. It was harder than it seemed to order even a decently trained dog to go play in the water and come back. And the few times he had been able to get water from Rusty’s fur had left his stomach cramping. He could imagine a ball of fur and dirt sitting inside of him, unable to be digested or passed, and he didn’t want another drink.
What he really wanted was food. He had hoped some critter-a mouse, a lizard, anything-might wander close enough for him to grab. But with Rusty running all over the place chasing everything that moved, he didn’t have a chance.
The only thing that did come within reach was…Rusty himself.
Dont do it he thought, even as he felt for a large rock. He’s your friend, he brings you water!
“Come here, Rusty. Come on, boy,” he called. He wasn’t sure Rusty would even be able to hear his dry, hoarse voice, but the dog came running and sat obediently next to him.
“Lay down, boy,” he said. The dog laid down putting its muzzle on the ground next to him. He lifted the rock as high as his weak arm would let him. Rusty looked up at the rock curiously, then licked his master casually on the cheek, confidant in his safety, and put his head back down.
He let the rock fall.
“Can’t do it,” he said as he ran a couple fingers through Rusty’s fur. “Can’t do it. You’re too trusting, you know that? It’s okay, though. They’ll be here, soon. I know it. But you better get out of here all the same, Rusty. I’m getting hungrier all the time. Next time I can’t promise I won’t do it. Go on, get out of here. They’ll find me, then they’ll go find you. It’ll be fine. Get out of here.”
The dog didn’t move.
“Go on, I said. Get out of here!”
It took everything he had to scream at the dog. Rusty stood up, but didn’t go anywhere.
He grabbed the rock and threw it as hard as he could at the dog. Despite being right next to him, Rusty was able to easily dodge the rock.
“Get out of here!” he yelled again before going into a coughing fit. His legs flared up in fresh pain.
Rusty looked at him for a moment with confusion. Then he trotted over to the pool, lapped at the water for a moment, and ran off into the forest.
“They’re coming,” he said through rough, raspy coughs. “They’re coming, I know it.”
He opened his eyes to the harsh glare of electric light. Everything seemed to float around him. That was the medicine they kept him filled with. He was still too foggy to remember much. Something about his leg. He remembered something…
He looked down at his leg. The lower half of his body was wrapped in casts. They made his legs look like the design on the front of a men’s room door. Except one of them didn’t look quite right. It was too short, too stubby.
“They took my leg,” he mumbled, wondering how many times in his groggy state he had discovered that.
“Yes, honey, they had to take your leg. But they saved your life.”
It was his wife. He didn’t see his child there.
“She’s at home. My parents are watching her,” his wife interrupted. Her answers were very calm, very practiced. He couldn’t express it but knew somewhere inside that she had explained all this to him many times before. He wondered if he’d remember it this time.
“The doctors say you won’t walk again for a very long time, and even then only with a lot of pain and practice. But it’ll be okay. We’ll be okay. Because you won’t be able to go out there and risk your life in the wilderness anymore.”
He tried to speak, but couldn’t express himself. He could only let the thought float around his mind.
But I have to keep going. How else will I know if can do it?