"Hell if I'm not about to die over a woman after all," the stranger Lido half-croaked, half-hissed.
Out loud, but no one could have heard. The gentle amazement in his voice was pitched too soft for even his old dog to pick up on, had he been nuzzling up the stranger's whisker-frayed cheek, as he used to do. Wherever that flea-ridden purebred greyhound cuss had wound up, even he couldn't have heard that lament.
The stranger's eyes would have misted, if his body had any water in it. He tried to pronounce the dog's name. Couldn't. Then he tried again: another name, every syllable cracked, parched, and disbelieving.
The stranger Lido was not the sort of man to lose his head or his heart, at least not over love of a woman. A dog, maybe. Yet here he was. On his belly like a dog, limbs splayed crookedly, lifelessly. Head on its side, jaw slack, mouth open in the sand. Eyes wide - purely by chance. They'd been open, just as his body ran out of energy to blink. By default, he was in a no-stakes staring contest with a far-off patch of low sky. He was going to win.
This hadn't been for any love of any woman. That was for sure. He'd lost his heart, and his head, to fury.
"Rose Althea," he observed. No fury left now.
She was gone now. No telling where, or in which direction. She could be far behind, way back towards, or beyond, or even on - the trail. Or, she could be just a little further ahead! Who knew now, how far she could get. He'd underestimated her. She was lost to view, wherever she was. In the dead scrub trees, hunkered in one of the dry cracked shallow rills or rainless crevasses that now scarred the desert's formerly entirely featureless flatness - somewhere, somewhere, she was gone.
The stranger Lido had seen her on the trail, he knew that much. He was sure of that much: far ahead of him, steadily losing ground, marked out by his own god damn white shirt that she wore, she had been his. She had stolen that shirt. Which wasn't the only thing she stole. His gunbelt. His pants, though he'd gotten those back. How she herself had escaped him then was...well. Beyond him. As she was.
It would have been only a matter of time, he knew. He'd known. But either through sheer genius or panic, she'd hit on the only way possible to save her hide. She tore off that shirt, vanished into a desert colorless as she was. Naked, like a savage Indian trickster spirit! Vanished thick and slick as her thighs into the thin, hot air of this unclaimed, empty territory. It was hers, now. Her tanned skin, shimmering into its distance, a distance composed mostly of shimmers itself. She was lost in an endlessness of earth-toned blur and buckling air, she may as well have rippled herself up into the white-blue sky. He'd found his blood-front, ruined dirty shining white shirt by the side of the track, and that was the last of her he was going to see.
Right then was about when he'd lost his sense of proportion.
He'd gotten it back, since. Burnt brutally by the day's hammering noon, and an afternoon of increasingly frantic searching, burnt worse by his own stupidity - finally, exhausted, he began to get a sense of it back. Proportion: he was a gnat. And if the universe cared, it was the sort of condescension he'd have spit at, provided the universe would kindly give him a drink first. High overhead, stars were now beginning to poke their pinprick light through the deepening velvet, like so many sewing needles in a pincushion.
The stranger Lido's bronzed skin was on fire all over. The heat, stored up daylong along the back and side of his body in the sun's hammering, was almost deliciously reversing its flow. But he knew this would not long be relief. Already, he could taste how cold the desert was about to become. He had his shirt back, but it would be scant comfort.
"Well I hope that bitch freezes to death at least," he lied.
He didn't really care what happened to Rose Althea now. "Rose Althea," he lied again, "I hope you open up a big casino in San-Fran-cisco, and become a millionairess with a litter of spoiled brats."
"And I hope that first little bastard has my eyes."
Either his voice had come back, or he was hearing things, dreaming it.
Hallucinating, the stranger Lido saw nothing but an angle of empty desert.
The thirst, the exhaustion, the sunstroke was bad enough. While he was at it, he'd got himself snakebit. It had come out of nowhere - right there, sank into the meat behind his knee! That was his first inkling he'd made a huge mistake. There'd been an unbroken string of inklings before that, that should have tipped him, but it was the snake who gave him notice he wasn't his right self. That he'd become blinded, to everything except the woman he was chasing, the woman he had no sign of, and that all of a sudden, he was probably going to die. He was so rickety and reeling by that time, he couldn't even catch the snake. Hollering, he'd sprawled after it, dizzy with the need for vengeance, ready to strangle a cactus, even - any living thing if he could lay hold of, he flailed after that snake! Wring every inch of its body, tear its head off, drink its blood! - but he was practically a damn cripple already, fallen in its wake even before the venom started working. His exhaustion had already lost the race. The snake flashed off in a writhing switchback, cheerful, jaunty, he'd swear to god it mocked him with the flip of its tail. But really it was half-seen by then, half-hallucinated. His eyes could barely follow it. He lay there now, in the same place he'd sprawled. This was all hours ago.
His leg was swollen straight, but he knew the snake bite wouldn't kill him. He was dying of thirst, first. He had gone miles out from the road. He'd thrown it all on a gut hunch, plus a few suspect marks in the hard desert pan that he convinced himself were Rose Althea's tracks. One mile out, any fool would have known he was following nothing. Any idiot would have turned back. He didn't turn back. He'd lost his sense entirely, gone simple or psychic. In his mind, he was ready to force his hunch to be right, just by sheer dint of will.
Really there was no prayer now, of making it back to the road. There was no help on the road anyhow, even if he could make it back.
"Hurry up and die, you old cuss."
He was in no particular pain, which he knew by his condition was a bad sign.
With a weird suddenness, he'd become excruciatingly bored. He wasn't sure when that happened. He wondered idly if he'd be able to see and note the signs, as he died, as things inside him began to shut down. His eyes were darkening, but so was the sky. It was hard to assign any blame to it.
He snapped awake with his eyes glued shut.
Behind his eyelids, he knew the sky was dim with morning. Why morning, he had no idea. Morning seemed gratuitous, to him. The night cold should have killed him, but it hadn't. The ground, the sky, his bones all felt frozen, but some piece of working brain told him the night simply mustn't've been nearly as cold as expectation. He was in no position to say any hallelujah of thanks. Dirt was in his dry, open mouth.
He barely moved his head, tried to spit without any spit. Finally, heroically (he admired himself for the effort), he rolled over - bringing a shooting surge of juicy agony all through his snake-bit left leg. He had forgotten about the damn snake! This was the sort of pain you had to order off the menu.
The clench of his face intensified every second, until an impossibly loud, clear shout tore itself out of his throat: "God damn it I'm done for anyway, what are you waiting for?"
"Oh quit whining," came the reply.
Lido's eyes spasmed, tried, failed to snap open. The woman's voice was impudent, well-watered, with a smile in it he could see even with his eyes closed.
The realization hit him like a bolt of lightning, like a bucket of water to the face. An instant later, the stranger Lido was drenched by a bucket's worth of water to the face.