The Desert Parolee

Originally Published on Yahoo voices by David Higgins in 2013.

When most men feared that long walk to hell one man embraced it. The prison was holding a race across the largest desert in America. The prize? Freedom as most see it, but one man saw his death as that freedom.

“Gentlemen welcome to the race!” the small rotund man in the black bowler hat announced.

The prison was in the middle of the Great Basin desert. No relief or fresh water for hundreds of miles. Sentences to imprisonment were served at a quarter of the time ordered by the judges of the territory and the rest was commuted on the condition that upon release from the prison itself if you could survive the crossing if you so chose to volunteer. For the dead whose bones were left to bleach in the desert heat and sun it was either freedom or transfer to the eternal prison of hell–at least that’s what those upstanding church wives thought about it. Any man who survived was believed that they deserved the remainder of the sentence commuted and all who died during the crossing were believed to continue on walking eternity in the fires of hell.

You can walk any direction you please it doesn’t bother the desert, it kills all the same. Once them gates open 8 of the hardest criminals caught and convicted over the past 5 years are released. No one has ever survived the trek. Ray was serving a life and a day sentence which back in those days meant what it described. You never saw anything outside the prison walls ever again and just to be sure your corpse sat rotting in the cell an extra 24 hours for good measure. Chances of getting such a sentence reduced or commuted were slim to none but still slightly better than the odds of running the desert and making it out alive. This time of year the Great basin was one of the harshest environments any man could endure even with the proper provisions. But Ray chose to take his chances. For him it was either wait to rot in that sweltering prison house or die in the desert either way he was dead this way was just faster–he had no real plans of getting out alive just getting out was enough.

It may take hours or it may take days Ray thought to himself as he readied himself at the starting post. He was prepared to meet his maker quickly with his bones bleaching in the sun rather than years later in a dark hot cell. He put on a good show like the rest of the convicts before the starting gun getting himself hydrated at the horse trough and bragging it up that it would be a leisurely stroll, but that was not his intended plan. He would die in that desert, the sooner the better.

Ray was never a well man you see. Not always right in the head, but quite handsome and charming he stood out in any crowd he found himself in, his was a memorable face even if aged by the time already spent in that prison. The things he did that landed him in that devilish place were far beyond anything heard of aside from Jack the Ripper in England around the same time. Serial murderers were still a rarity, even in the wild west. Newspaper stories in the East practically glorified the killings by gun fighters, even some who officially killed far more men than Ray in fair fights. His exploits were barely even known in the papers, Ray was no gunslinger–he was a predator, one of the few and earliest of his kind along with the likes of the Ripper and other future predecessors that would be dubbed with the distinction ‘serial killer’. Psychology of the day was still in infancy, little was known about what made Ray’s kind tick–Freud was just barely exploring his theories on psychoanalysis in Austria.

Some say Ray just did the things he did because the devil had a hold of him while others compared him to a wild animal. Either way, Ray had serious compulsions he seemingly had no control of–killing just to kill seeking little of any sort of gratification from the act alone. Stalking his prey sometimes detaching them from the group disarming them by charm and leading them quietly to slaughter, other times they were already alone and vulnerable. Convicted on 20 murders alone he was given the maximum sentence short of the gallows but that’s only the ones the U.S. Marshals knew of. Hanging was considered far more humane at the time than life imprisonment because it offered comfort in closure, he even requested it but was denied that little dignity when standing before the judge.

Ray had been doing this for decades and had perhaps buried evidence of hundreds more before he was caught one night by a posse laying in the end trails of his last victim. He felt guilt for his crimes but couldn’t stop, nor did he wish to get caught. Shooting a man’s a whole different thing, there are certain unwritten rules abided by the participants of a gunfight. A gun is a tool for defense or aggression only used to protect something or to want something. There is no doubt that a somewhat rational motivation behind killings with a firearm–in the end someone gets something from it. The serial killer has no such motivation other than to kill with nothing tangible gained from it, in war between nations or even local land barons resources are of value. Otherwise what is the need for killing? Fight over land and there is a small amount of collateral damage. These newer kinds of killers were only at war with themselves, but everyone else was a potential casualty. The guilt gnawed away inside him his whole life, struggling to understand why he couldn’t stop himself, now the desert would do it for him. Ray felt something he had not felt in years which was hope. Most of the convicts participating had hope too but not the same, Ray was genuinely happy at the chance to die.

The announcement was made over the gathered inmates the rotund man yelling,”Go!” as the warden fired the starting shot. The eight went their separate ways thinking for sure they had chosen the least treacherous path out of the basin.

Ray walked on not looking back believing he had finally won the war going on inside his head with that Devil or animal–whatever it was.

No one ever found Rays remains in the open desert.

The bodies of the other seven were eventually recovered and given proper burial before being marked down on record as deceased his name was eventually placed there too with an asterisk and a note in the margin of the ledger ‘*whereabouts unknown–presumed deceased’. His description was relayed throughout the continent as a formality to close the record of the race. Later as his story spread investigations launched into similar crimes to his, which all turned out to be opportunists using his methods to cover other motives.

No one ever saw him leave the desert, but no one was sure he didn’t either.

Only Ray could be certain whether or not the war in his head was over.