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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Duel in the Sand
Duel in the Sand
by Gordon H Sharp

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Stepping down from the old pick-up truck, Dave Chapman eyed the unimpressive wood and asbestos structure that housed the ‘Warramata Social Club.' Removing his wide-brimmed hat, he knocked the clinging film of dust from his clothes and strode up to the fly-wired entrance.

He paused at the door for a moment as he mentally rehearsed what might well be the most important speech of his life.

The Chapman family, Sam, his wife Janice, and their son Dave, ran a sizeable cattle holding in Queensland called 'Marinamaroo.'

To date, Dave had led a pretty isolated life. He now had plans to change that situation. Dave Chapman, at twenty-five, was five foot eleven inches tall, fit and strong, but only weighed a little over ten stone. He would have been quite happy to be described as wiry. However, most people when asked about him would say unkindly, "Oh you mean the tall thin guy!"

Every few months Dave took off for a couple of days and drove up north to the little coastal town of 'Warramata.'

For the past year he'd been paying court to a special young lady, namely Cindy Barstow, daughter of Warramata's postmaster. Dave worshipped the ground Cindy walked on and, although his experience of the opposite sex was strictly limited, he had reason to think she felt the same way about him.

As he hesitated in the doorway, the ever-present bush flies made a target of his moist lips. He waved his hand briskly in front of his deeply tanned face in a vain attempt to drive away the persistent, marauding insects.

"Damn you - get out," he growled. He hated these bloody flies.

With a feeling of angry disgust he spat out one of the offending insects that still clung obstinately to his lower lip.

For as long as he could remember the government had been banging on about doing something drastic to get rid of the bush fly problem, but every year the problem seemed to get worse.

There'd been talk for years about spraying them from the air, or other remedies that verged from the sublime to the ridiculous.

But every year the problem grew. The bush flies were one of the biggest drawbacks of life in Australia. Donning his hat he squared it up carefully, and with a quick intake of breath he stepped forward to make his proposal of marriage to his beloved Cindy.

As he entered through the creaking door his buoyant spirit flagged. What if Cindy had met someone else since his last trip? It had after all been three months since he'd been to Warramata. For all he knew she may have got married?

Casting aside what was pure speculation, he stepped into the club.

Standing just inside the doorway he gratefully gulped in the cool air of the conditioning system. Moving forward, his eyes gradually became accustomed to the harsh artificial lighting at the long bar. The hooded fluorescent lights seemed strangely alien, emitting a harsh blue glow after the glaring white sunlight he'd just left outside. The Queensland summer was now at its height and the temperatures were soaring. He'd driven for over three hours, mainly on dirt roads, to reach Warramata, and the unrelenting sun had blazed into his eyes for most of the time.

His eyesight gradually became accustomed to the dimmer surroundings. "G'day mate - beer?" the wizened barman said by way of a greeting. Dave's answer was a curt nod of agreement. "Bloody hot out there!" the old man said; Dave nodded, again not sure whether the barmans word's were a passing comment, or an enquiry. Trying to appear casual, he looked around the half-empty club hoping to see Cindy, but she didn't appear to be around.

"Cindy Barstow been in today?" he murmured quietly to the old barman.

"You're in bloody luck mate, here she comes now!" the old man said brightly; he grinned knowingly, showing a set of teeth that resembled a piano keyboard. The problem was that the black keys far outnumbered the white! Wonder when he last saw a dentist, Dave thought idly.

He looked around, and sure enough, his Cindy had just entered the room. As he turned, eager to greet the dark-haired girl, a very large young man walked quickly along the bar and stood facing him. Feet astride, he stood directly between Dave and his view of the girl.

The man was big, very big. His bulk completely blocked Dave's view of the doorway. The big man began to speak, and as he did so he prodded Dave hard in the chest with a banana-sized finger. "Forget it, little man, she's spoken for!" The voice was deep, and full of menace.

Dave looked up and into the face of the giant figure, annoyed not so much at what the man had said - he could take that up with Cindy herself - but that the man had poked his large finger into his chest.

Dave Chapman was no coward, but he had sense enough to know his own physical limitations. The man who stood glaring down at him must have scaled a good twenty stone or more, and although he was a bit on the fleshy side, he was by no means fat. He had a strange, square-shaped head, from which his dark hair sprouted like spines on a porcupine.

He was wearing a grubby boiler suit that was unbuttoned above the waist, and didn't seem to be wearing anything at all beneath it. The matted black hair that protruded from the opened overall covered him from his thick neck to his equally thick waistline. An odour caught Dave's nose, it smelled like a mixture of fish and stale sweat. The man was probably in his mid-twenties, about Dave's age, but Dave's five foot eleven, and ten stone wringing wet, were obviously no match for the six foot seven inch giant standing ominously before him.

As Cindy approached the big fella suddenly reached out, and very quickly for such a big man, without warning, grasped Dave's nose between the middle finger and forefinger of his right hand. As he did so, he growled threateningly. "Don't you give me any trouble my little matey!" He leaned back, his long, outstretched, apelike arms keeping him well out of the luckless Dave's reach. The grip of the huge fingers now tightened like a vice, and then twisted. Dave, tears forced from his eyes by the monstrous pressure, thought that his nose was about to break, when suddenly, as he reached out to grasp the man's wrist, a strong clear voice that sounded like music to his ears, said sharply and commandingly:

"You let go of him Mel Watkins, you big, bullying ape!"

The vicelike grip slowly relaxed, and through a watery mist Dave could just make out Cindy Barstow by his side, her pretty face grim with determination and concern.

"Are you alright Dave?" The girl spoke softly, caringly, as she carefully wiped the enforced wetness from Dave's weathered cheeks.

Dave blinked furiously to clear his blurred vision, then looked around seeking out his tormentor. The girl immediately took hold of his arm, and with a firmness that belied her size she restrained him.

Her dark head shook slowly as she said quietly. "Let it go, Dave; he's just a damned big bully, always has been!"

Dave, his sharp mind racing, as if to solve some complicated equation, soon reached a decision regarding his present dilemma.

Cindy, seeing the look of grim determination that crossed Dave's face, sighed as he gently removed her hand from his arm. She held her breath as he walked slowly along the bar to where Mel Watkins had returned to rejoin his large band of cronies. The group of misfits stood grinning up at their large leader as he curled his thick lips disdainfully.

Mel looked balefully along the bar at ‘The little man from the outback' as he'd just christened him to his cronies. Surely he wasn't coming back for more of the same?

He stood guardedly, his back up against the bar, but Dave didn't appear threatening, instead, he said astonishingly, and in a manner that was almost friendly. "You afraid of a contest Mel? You just insulted me, so I'm challenging you to a duel!" He paused, eyeing the big man coolly before continuing. "As the injured party, I naturally have the choice of weapons and venue. Now then, are you up for it, or not?"

The question was clear and concise, and the calm, unhurried voice of the questioner left no one in doubt that he was deadly serious. No one, that is, except perhaps Mel Watkins.

His big mouth now gaping wide, he listened without comment as Dave spoke. He wasn't sure whether the little guy was really serious?

The raucous laughter from his gang echoed loudly in the strangely quiet room when the incredible challenge was issued, and Mel was suddenly very convinced that the challenge he faced was both sincere, and serious.

One local wit, assuming a serious note, said mockingly, "Don't let him choose swords Mel, maybe he's the son of the Count of Monte Cristo?"

Mel glared balefully at the speaker. There was now total silence in the large room, and Mel realised that everyone was awaiting his reaction with bated breath.

With a wolfish, lopsided grin he said slowly, and hesitantly. "Go on then matey, what sort of duel?"

Dave quietly outlined the terms of the contest. As he spoke he watched the big man closely. He could see from Mel's well-satisfied expression that the terms seemed to suit him just fine.

Cindy, standing on the edge of the crowd, wore a very worried expression on her lovely face. She, like most of the onlookers, just couldn't understand how a young man as smart as Dave appeared to be, could be so foolhardy as to propose this type of contest against such a dangerous, violent – and, not forgetting, huge – opponent. With a heavy heart she thought sadly, he might even be killed!

Dave's challenge was perfectly simple, if seemingly foolhardy.

Warramata boasted one of the longest stretches of beach in Australia. It was over eight miles long, and the sand was soft and dazzlingly white. The conditions of the contest were straightforward, and were as follows.

First, the two contestants would be armed with baseball bats only, and must be dressed in tracksuits.

Second, they were to start from either end of the long beach, coming towards each other until they finally met up; then they would battle it out to a finish with the baseball bats.

Third, the first to cry, "Enough," was the losing contestant. Dave also declared that in fairness to both contestants, and to lessen the likelihood of a mortal injury (he wore a secretive smile as he mentioned this concession), "Contestants can wear any amount of protective padding they want to, even a crash helmet if they so wish." He also added, still smiling, that should contestant's supporters want to run alongside their man, they could feel free to do so.

The following morning at the appointed check-in time, eleven a.m., almost the entire population of Warramata were to be found at either end of the long stretch of soft, white sand. The needle had now topped thirty-eight degrees centigrade, and the sand was blistering hot. Watkins supporters watched in awe as the big man completed his preparations. He wore large elbow pads made of good, heavy, solid leather. These were accompanied by a heavy-duty box, as supplied to the state cricket team, plus roller-skater's kneepads. He also wore a very heavy, leather-quilted back protector. One of his cronies had loaned him the latter, "Just in case he has a go at your kidneys Mel!" Rounding off his protective armour, Mel, who at first had demurred, wore a large, full-face crash helmet. "You should wear a helmet Mel," his adviser said seriously," he must be going to, otherwise he wouldn't have mentioned one."

Mel couldn't really argue with the logic of the suggestion.

The contest proper was due to begin at eleven thirty, but Mel was forced to remove the helmet for a few minutes even before the start.

Already the sweat was running copiously down his enclosed form, and the woollen tracksuit clung to him like a second skin.

The timekeeper, an old cricket umpire with wizened features and skin that resembled tanned leather, looked closely at his ancient stopwatch, and then began the countdown. "10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 - Go!" he cried excitedly.

Mel and his noisy entourage went charging along the beach howling like Banshees. The virgin sand was quickly disturbed as the unruly mob of young men churned it up, most of them with the hardened soles of their bare feet.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the beach, everything was strangely quiet and orderly. The crowd that had gathered there were comprised mainly of older townspeople, and youngsters. They watched quietly as the young man from the outback began his preparations for what could turn out to be a bloody, and possibly fatal encounter. They were all well aware of the vicious streak that Mel Watkins possessed, but some were equally intrigued by the cool demeanour of the young man from 'Marinamaroo.'

Cindy was completely bewildered by Dave's apparent nonchalant attitude towards the forthcoming battle. She stared in utter astonishment at his appearance. He was coolly clad in just a black, silk, lightweight tracksuit. He sauntered out from the shade of his vehicle clasping a baseball bat just minutes before he was due to head off up the scorching beach.

Slowly strolling along with the bat under his arm, he looked as though he was about to take up his innings in a friendly cricket match!

She was even more astounded when he suddenly exclaimed, "Oops!" and turned back to his vehicle. He returned moments later sporting a large, bright yellow, sun umbrella. Placing the umbrella on the sand with one minute to go, he grinned, and casually swung the bat a few times in practice; then, picking up the umbrella, he opened it and held it in his left hand whilst gripping the baseball bat in his right. He stood quietly at the starting line.

Just like many others in the large crowd, Cindy wondered how on earth he was going to run with an opened umbrella in his hand? Secretly she also felt more than a little embarrassed at the spectacle he appeared to be making of himself.

Cindy held her breath as the excitable starter began his count. When finally he yelled Go! everyone stared in utter disbelief.

The young man from the outback strolled slowly and quietly away from the starting line, the large yellow umbrella shading him from the sun's scorching rays.

At first there was an eerie silence, this was followed by a nervous giggle, then a chorus of hearty laughter broke out. Finally, a round of generous applause erupted as the crowd began to realise what Dave was up to.

Cindy heard a man behind her say excitedly, and knowingly, "He never said you had to run, did he? He just said that they must come toward each other, and, let's face it, he is going forward down the beach toward the other fella. He only said the supporters could run alongside if they wanted to!"

Dave had barely covered a mere twenty yards when a still slightly bemused Cindy walked over and joined him. "What are you up to?" she asked worriedly. Dave, still smiling broadly, silently adjusted the umbrella to a position that gave them both shade. "Strewth, it's a hot one today Cind!" he said sociably as they strolled slowly along the scorching white sands. Cindy realised that she'd have to wait a bit longer for her answer. Meanwhile, a long way ahead of them it was a very different situation.

After the first mile, many of Mel's vociferous and seemingly unfit supporters had fallen silent and were quietly slipping away from their erstwhile leader.

Three hot, blistering miles later, only four of them still accompanied him, including Mel's younger brother. After five miles, Mel fell for the first time. No one laughed, or bent down to assist, because Mel was alone.

He had discarded the hot and cumbersome crash helmet after covering the first three miles. He was sweating so badly that the heavy helmet had rubbed his streaming neck raw.

One of the worst moments for Mel came when his brother, the last of his band of supporters, had dropped down exhausted into a sitting position after four gruelling miles; Mel had then felt he was really alone.

His brother, in tears, called out desperately, "Kill the swine for me Mel!" Breathless and wordless, Mel had staggered on. His sun-scorched eyes searched the desolate beach ahead. "Where are you, you bleeding drongo?" he shouted angrily as he peered ahead.

He staggered on drunkenly, and almost fell. Ha! he thought hopefully, he's probably worse off than me, and that's the reason why he's so much slower. Dave in fact couldn't have been feeling better. With the exception of two young boys, he was now alone with the delectable Cindy. The majority of the people who had followed at the start had left ages ago. It had rapidly become boring, and they needed to get out of the sun and into the shade. Most felt that they were intruding on what was obviously a young couple in love.

The pair strolled casually along for almost three quarters of a mile before Dave asked the girl a question, "What's the time Cind?" Cindy told him. Dave paused for a moment; then, producing a tiny telescope from his pocket, he peered through it up the beach. After a second or two Dave said quietly, "Ah! Here he comes now!" Cindy stared hard into the distance, but through the heat haze she couldn't see any sign of the hateful figure she now dreaded.

Mel, by now, was very badly dehydrated, and fell constantly.

Although his sheer bloody-mindedness drove him on, his forward progress was very limited. He would stagger four paces forward followed by two paces to the left, or maybe to the right. These uncalled-for, energy-sapping moves were often followed by a heavy fall.

Approaching seven miles, he fell awkwardly on his side, then got up and ran a few paces until eventually he noticed that the ocean was on the right side of him, and not on the left as it should have been. When he'd fallen he'd got up and started off again in the wrong direction. He stared stupidly, unbelievingly, for a full minute at the rolling surf. Then, turning on his heel, and cursing his opponent loudly and obscenely, he lurched on. Once he dropped exhaustedly to his knees and a large seagull swooped down low before him. He blinked owlishly as the lone bird suddenly became three birds. He shook his dark head angrily, and a spray of sweat droplets hit the scorching sand. His vision was now becoming badly impaired. Twice he dropped the baseball bat, and it took seemingly an age to find it in the soft, hot sand.

Dave had intended to dish out two telling blows once he came up against his big bullying opponent, one to the stomach to knock the wind out of him, and one behind the man's knees to floor him. He had then planned to put his foot on Mel's throat and force him into submission, to utter the cry, "Enough!"

He had expected to meet up with an exhausted man, but when Mel's figure finally staggered into view, the sorry and melodramatic sight that confronted him shocked him.

Mel, who still hadn't seen them, was all over the place. He took two steps forward, then one left, and one back.

He almost fell over backwards when Dave, who had now handed Cindy his baseball bat and umbrella, seemed to suddenly appear out of the sand right in front of him. With an angry, agonised, high-pitched moan, that scared the life out of the two little boys who were determined to see the finalé, Mel viciously swung the bat and missed Dave by a good five feet. Then, with a final moan of despair he dropped heavily onto his knees and slowly slid face forward onto the burning sand.

Placing a foot on the back of Mel's raw and blistered neck, Dave gently, but firmly, pushed the reddened, sweat-streaked, scowling face into the hot dry sand.

The two little boys crowded forward eagerly. "Enough?" Dave asked coaxingly as he pushed a little harder. Finally, spluttering and spitting out the hot sand, the hoarse, weakened voice of Mel Watkins croaked faintly "Enough, Enough!"

Turning on their heels the two boys rushed away excitedly, anxious to be the first to carry the news back to the waiting populace of Warramata.

Before leaving the large figure where it had fallen, Dave, with some difficulty, rolled the slowly recovering Mel on to his side. He lay inert on the disturbed sand, and the only sound he made came when he spat out the sand that still encrusted his blubbery lips. He resembled a beached, half-dead whale.

Dave now walked back to a smiling and very relieved Cindy. He had some very pleasant unfinished business, and, judging from the proud, adoring look he was receiving from his lovely companion, he had every reason to believe that his business was bound to reach a very satisfying and successful conclusion!

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