A Duel For The Ages (Short Story)

With the harsh rays of the summer sun beating down on their necks, Caleb Down and Jake O’Brien trudged through the sandy dunes of the Sahara, the wreckage of their crashed fighter plane still burning behind them. All they had with them were their weapons, some emergency rations they managed to salvage, and the last shreds of their dignity.

“We have to keep moving,” Caleb said turning to Jake, who had been starting to slow and fall behind. “Once we find cover we can set up camp and rest, but until then we need to get out of clear sight. We’ll be better off dead if the enemy finds us.”

Caleb tried to muster up a reassuring smile to his comrade, but all he managed to flash was a grimace. Though a hardened combat fighter with many years of training, he felt completely unprepared for their current situation. Lost in the desert without sufficient tools and equipment, Caleb was just a scared man feigning courage for the sake of Jake’s morale.

“It’s just…,” Jake began, each word seeming to take his entire body’s worth of effort to get out. “I just don’t understand.”

Jake’s walk grew progressively slower until he was finally just standing still. Caleb turned around just in time to see him collapse to his knees. As he rushed to him, Jake’s arms flopped defeatedly to his side, dropping the rations that he was carrying

“How could this have happened?” Jake mumbled, his eyes staring forward numbly as sweat from the blazing heat cascaded down his cheeks. “This wasn’t how the attack was supposed to go. What did we do wrong…?”

As Jake’s voice trailed off, Caleb got down next to him and gripped his shoulders tightly, as if doing so would transfer some energy to sustain him. Caleb was Jake’s superior officer after all, and to see one of his own in such a dispirited state crushed him. Though the same age, Jake had always struggled with being handed responsibility, which kept him from rising through the ranks like Caleb had. Still, the two had been close friends ever since they were assigned to work together. Compared to Caleb however, Jake was a fledgling handed a gun and thrown into war. He was never expected to succeed. War sometime called for desperate measures.

“This wasn’t your fault, Jake,” Caleb said assertively. “And don’t you dare let me hear you saying that again. Once you go down that path and start blaming yourself for things outside of your control, you won’t be able to ever come back and forgive yourself.”

“It just doesn’t make sense though,” Jake replied. “How could they have known about our plans? That fight wasn’t a battle, it was a massacre. They knew where we were coming from and where we were going to be. ”

Caleb’s grip on Jake’s shoulder tightened even more so, and he forced his comrade up to his feet. As he bent down and began picking up the rations that Jake had dropped, brushing off some sand that had accumulated on them, Caleb tried hard to suppress a knowing grin.

“Whatever happened is in the past now,” Caleb said composing himself pointedly. “We need to focus on the present and right now we’re in a bad situation. We can’t be spending our energy worrying about things we can’t change.”

Caleb began marching forward, expecting Jake to fall in line and follow him. After a few steps though, he realized from the silence that Jake hadn’t moved at all.

“Why did you say it wasn’t my fault?” Jake asked suddenly.

Caleb stopped in his tracks. He didn’t turn around, but he did suddenly become very aware of the weapon he was carrying.

“When you said it wasn’t my fault, you didn’t include yourself in that statement,” Jake went on, his head cocking suspiciously to the side and his eyes narrowing. “Why didn’t you?”

As adrenaline began pulsing through his veins, Caleb finally turned around. Jake didn’t wait for him to reply.

“You did this…” Jake said slowly. “You’re the one who told them our plans and where we were going to be. It’s because of you that everyone in our team is dead. You were the mole.”

A moment that seemed like a year passed in silence. Jake had figured it all out, Caleb thought sadly, it was such a shame because he really wanted him to live. Still, he never expected to be called out for his betrayal, and having to hear the accusations from such a good friend did strike hard and leave a mark.

“I did what I had to do,” Caleb said finally in such a small voice that it was practically a whisper. “You and I were supposed to make it out, but they double-crossed me. I never expected us to be in this situation.”

“Traitor!” Jake yelled, his suspicions confirmed. “Caleb, after all this time, how could you? How dare you!?”

“They said they would make me rich,” Caleb admitted. “I was going to use the money to take care of my family. My wife, you know, she’s expecting our first child.”

“And that evens out trading in your honor and dignity!?” Jake cried angrily before shaking his head. “I saw you as many things Caleb, but I thought you were a greater man than this.”

Caleb paused before answering, at this point he would have to choose his next words carefully. It didn’t seem likely that he would be able to talk Jake into letting him go, but he was still going to give it a shot.

“It doesn’t matter anymore now,” Caleb said, bowing his head strategically. “We’re still in the middle of the desert and we don’t have much food. We need to focus our energy on finding a shelter. Like it or not, we have to work together now to survive.”

“To hell with survival, justice needs to be served for all the people you got killed!” Jake cried, pointing a finger at Caleb. “I’m not going to wait until we get home, your justice comes now!”

Jake reached to his side where he kept his weapon, a sword. Pulling it from its sheath in one swift motion, he held the blade ridiculously with two hands over his head. Caleb sighed as he dropped the rations he was still carrying and reached to his side where the sword’s twin lay. Brandishing the blade, he pivoted his feet and readied himself with a composed stance. Despite his betrayal, Caleb really meant it when he said he hoped Jake made it out alive. He never wanted things to come down to this.

“Any last words, Caleb?” Jake asked finally.

Caleb shook his head and gripped his sword tightly. It was such a shame that the twin swords were going to have clash against each other. They had been a gift from his mother, who had them custom made. Caleb had been so close with Jake that he gave him one of the twins as a showing of their friendship. Now they were meeting in battle as enemies.

As this thought flashed through Caleb’s head, he looked up and saw that Jake was smirking.

“Friends ’till just about the end with your betrayal,” Jake said finally. “This will be a duel for the ages.”

“It will only be memorable if you end up winning,” Caleb replied simply.

With a final smirk, Jake lunged forward, screaming a ridiculous battle cry as he swiped at him. Dodging the first strike, Caleb leapt back and held his sword up defensively, brushing off the attacks as best he could. His strategy was to let Jake wear himself down until his swipes became wild and uncoordinated. Having been friends for years, he knew how Jake fought and that it was only a matter of time before he would overly exert himself and be an exhausted mess. Still though, Caleb found himself enjoying the fight and he allowed it to go on a few moments longer than it could have been. The fights were always the best part, after all.

When the time came and he finally saw an opening, Caleb dodged a final blow from Jake and plunged his sword straight through his heart. In that moment, their eyes met and time screeched to a halt. Jake’s eyes moved to the wound, and then up to Caleb, his eyes filled with anger and hatred.

“Traitor…” Jake mumbled before Caleb pulled his sword out of him and he crumpled to the floor.

Barely breaking a sweat, Caleb breathed deeply a single time. He held his sword up to his face, saluting respectfully to his victim. As he moved closer to Jake’s corpse, he bent down and closed his old friend’s eyes before taking the twin blade from his dead hand. It was such a pity after all, as Caleb never wished ill will on Jake. If only they could have just talked out their differences, things might have played out differently. If only-

“Caleb! Jake! Lunch is on the table!”

Just like that the fantasy melted away. With the sound of his mother’s voice, Caleb and his friend Jake snapped back to being the 10-year-old boys that they were all along. Where the plane wreckage had been now stood a rickety old swing set, and the twin swords in Caleb’s hands were merely foam blades, though it was still true that his mother had them custom made and he gave one to Jake. As for their rations, those were just packets of Oreo cookies, which lay pitifully on the ground. Under the summer’s sun, Caleb’s backyard had served as the desert, and though it wasn’t as hot as they pretended, there was an ancient sandbox near his garage that might have had a few specks of sand somewhere still in it.

With the scenario now over, Jake bounced to his feet, wiping some dirt off his shirt. His “wound” that he sustained was not even a bruise.

“Can I win next time?” Jake asked earnestly.

“You have to earn it,” Caleb replied with a laugh before sticking out his tongue.

“Kids, I’m not going to ask you again!” Caleb’s mom called, her tone growing impatient.

Caleb and Jake exchanged a glance.

“Three, two, one,” Jake counted down, but at “two” Caleb had already started racing ahead as fast as he could towards his house.

“Wait up, Caleb!” Jake called as he made out after him.

Inside the house, Caleb’s mother had no idea of the the glorious exchange and battle that had just taken place in her backyard. To her, she just saw two children bickering pointlessly before breaking into an overly dramatic sword fight, unaware of the scope of their imaginations. The innocence of summer youth was lost on her.

As for Caleb and his friend Jake, tomorrow they would go through a similar chain of betrayals, except this time they would be pirates.

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