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Trishul had been to the woods a million times... as a young boy, with his cousins - exploring and playing frightfully exciting games - and later, as a young man, with Dash, walking the solitary wilderness.
Dry and scraggy, the place was mostly thorny undergrowth with a smattering of scrawny, stunted trees, almost impenetrable for most part with the invasive lantana. And since there was no habitation within miles and miles of the place, there was neither tracks or cattle-trails... the ground uneven and rocky.
As he swiftly drove down the amazingly well-preserved road, though it hadn't been re-laid once cultivation stopped after his grandmother's death nearly a decade ago (eight years to be precise), Mohan filled him in:
"I left the cycle where the road turns east along the perimeter, and crossed over, Dash running ahead, sniffing and yapping, going deeper into the woods.
"We were in there for nearly an hour, when suddenly he stopped and began sniffing the ground, turning around and heading back, but not the way we had gone, further to the east...
"I kept calling him, but he didn't bother, vanishing in the undergrowth. I ran after him and as we neared the ditch, I saw him scurry down... and there he was, the man, lying on his side, groaning, his clothes torn and dirty, covered in blood.
"I tried to ask him, but he wouldn't reply, or open his eyes... I was scared to touch or move him and so rushed back home..."
They had reached the boundary of loosely stacked stone and hedgerow, and swerving east along the road Trishul asked, "How far east?"
"About two furlongs..." replied Mohan, "we can get into the gully there since a part of the wall has given way..."
The man lay on his right side, slumped over, as Mohan had said, the right foot stuck under him at an awkward angle... eyes closed. Still.
Handing the furious Dash to Mohan, Trishul went forward, crouching down by the man's side...
The man was obviously young... looked very young... covered in dirt and the face grimy; the t-shirt in tatters, the jeans torn at several places, and the fashionable canvas shoes... dirty, scuffed and torn. There was an angry looking bruise darkening his high, left cheek bone, and an ugly gash below the left ear... The hands and arms covered in welts, cuts and bruises... the blood dry.
"Hello..." Trishul called softly, "can you hear me?"
The man flitted his eyes open, staring up, fearful... and then seemed to relax once his eyes focussed on Trishul's face.
"Hi, I'm Trishul," he smiled, "and what's your name?"
"Um..." the man looked around furtively, his eyes scanning the scene, keenly observing Mohan before finally looking back at Trishul, "uh, Ra... Rachit..."
"Rachit. Well, how badly are you hurt, Rachit?" he asked, leaning closer, "Can you walk?"
The man let out a soft moan, "Don... don't know," the voice raspy, barely audible, the lips parched and cracked, "fell into the ditch and when I came to, I couldn't get up, my left shoulder and my right leg hurts real bad."
Trishul knew nothing of broken bones, torn ligaments or emergency aid, "Listen, I live nearby, have a jeep with me, do you think you can make it up that incline? We could take you home and the doctor is already on his way..."
The man turned his head and looked up, "I really don't know..." he murmured, looking back at Trishul.
"You can move your arms and legs?" he asked again, faintly recollecting a programme he had once seen on Discovery Channel, about falls and injured spine...
"Yes," Rachit nodded weakly.
"Listen," Trishul said, reaching out and removing a rock from near the injured foot, "there's nothing around here, not even a village, so you have to try, and once we get you home the doctor will see you. If required we can then shift you to a hospital..."
The man nodded.
"You could try and slowly sit up," Trishul suggested, passing his arm under the man's shoulders, "and then I can help you up that incline..."
Rachit let out a groan as Trishul slowly sat him up... almost falling back as his world swirled into a black nothingness, grabbing for Trishul's arms with both hands.
"You okay?" Trishul asked, holding him closer.
"Um, yes..." the man murmured, trying to steady himself.
"Now, slowly, try and stand up," Trishul suggested, passing one arm around the surprisingly slim waist and pulling Rachit's right arm across his own shoulder. "And don't put any weight on the right leg."
The man swayed, unsteady, leaning heavily on Trishul, gasping, "I really don't think I can make it..."
"Give it a try," Trishul encouraged, "or else we can carry you up..."
The man instantly shook his head, "No, I'll try."
"Good, lean on me and don't use the injured leg..."
The ditch bottom, grainy and littered with loose pebbles and rocks, provided neither grip nor assistance to either men, and Trishul struggled to keep Rachit up as the man shuffled, grimacing with each, tiny laboured step, his forehead glistening with perspiration, making Trishul wonder how they'd ever negotiate the incline and get to the top.
Seeing them struggle Mohan ran up and put Dash down on the other side of the wall, sharply commanding, "Stay!"
Surprisingly, for once, the dachshund seemed to comply, letting out a small whine but remaining still where Mohan had set him down.
Running back down Mohan quickly went to the other side and taking Rachit's left arm passed it over his own shoulder, holding him... and then slipping his arm under the man's knees, lifted him up.
Rachit made a weak protest, but Trishul, still holding him, interjected, "It's okay, let him, you can't make it up..."
"So," Trishul asked as the doctor walked into the solarium, drying his hands, "how's he doing?"
"Sleeping it off," replied the doctor, sitting down at the table.
"Sanjeev, how serious is it, do we need to shift him to the hospital?"
"Not required," Sanjeev shook his head, "I've given him a few shots, dressed his wounds, and that's it. Oh, by the way," he said looking up at Ashu as the man began serving their breakfast, "you did a splendid job of cleaning those wounds, I could use you at the hospital!"
"Had a lot of practice when they were small," Ashu smiled, tilting his head towards Trishul, "there was always a cut or a scrape to clean and dress..."
"And that's it?!" Trishul interjected, looking at the doctor in astonishment.
Sanjeev nodded, turning to face Trishul, "No broken bone and no torn ligament..."
"Sanjeev, what about his leg, he could barely stand?"
"It's just a sprain..." the doctor replied, "well, a very severe sprain, and a few days with that bandage on, his foot propped up, that's all he needs!"
"And the shoulder?"
"He took a nasty tumble," Sanjeev replied between mouthfuls, "must have hit a larger rock as he fell, a severe bruising, nothing more, no dislocation."
They remained silent for a while as they ate their breakfast, when Sanjeev looked up, "You know, that man seemed a bit evasive with his answers about the incident... inconsistent..."
"Evasive? What do you mean?" asked Trishul, looking at the doctor, an old family friend and head doctor at the vineyard hospital that not only served the personnel and workforce, but also over a dozen nearby villages who otherwise had no access to any sort of healthcare.
"Well," Sanjeev began with a shrug, "he doesn't seem to know his exact location, or where he was headed... how he got to the woods..."
"C'mon, Sanjeev," laughed Trishul as he put down his fork and stared at the doctor, mildly amused, "the poor guy crashes his car, stumbles around blindly in the woods all night, falls into a ditch and passes out, and you say he's evasive, inconsistent?!"
Sanjeev gave another shrug, going back to his food.
"Rachit's simply disoriented, still in shock."
"Trishul, the highway cuts through farmland and villages, over thirty miles away from here... doesn't even touch the woods, and there's no other road, or even a track, leading to the woods," Sanjeev said after a brief pause. "The only road is this one, coming here, a private road... and this too goes nowhere near the woods."
"So, how come each place he named, places that he claims he was planning to visit, can't be reached if you take this route. The guy's way out, lost!"
"He's never been to this part of the country before... this is his first visit, so, maybe, he was confused, er, maybe even lost..."
"Where's he from?"
"Some small town up north," Trishul answered.
"Did you contact his family?" Sanjeev asked after a moment, "Is anyone coming over?"
"His dad's out of the country, on business, and his mom's on vacation, some remote part of the north-east. I told him to use the landline since mobile phones don't work here..."
"Who did he call?"
"Guess he called home..." Trishul shrugged, "c'mon, I left him alone, you don't expect me to sit in there and eavesdrop?!"
Sanjeev nodded, remaining silent for a moment before observing, "Well, his appearance, and his accent... a bit too clipped and western for a guy from a small town..."
"Sanjeev," Trishul exclaimed, "he could have studied abroad... and these guys working in the BPO sector, they all have a western accent, what's the big deal, huh?"
Sanjeev shrugged, "I don't know, but somehow his story just doesn't add up. Besides, the bruises, and he's covered with them, and the welts, especially the ones on his wrists, aren't consistent with a fall... and they didn't come from any bramble or bush either!"
"What do you mean?" Trishul asked, surprised and shocked.
"I'm a doctor," replied Sanjeev with another shrug, "and I know an injury when I see one... the contusions on his back, arms, thighs and buttocks... the pattern... well, a crash doesn't usually result in such wounds."
"Why does he need to lie, or make up stories... I mean..." Trishul asked, confused, leaving the sentence incomplete as he pushed away his plate, suddenly losing his appetite.
"Listen, I don't know what, and I don't know why," Sanjeev stated, "but this man has more to say than he's letting on... and, he's very weak, close to dehydration, probably hasn't had any food, or fluid for at least thirty-six to forty-eight hours..."
Trishul sat silent, watching Sanjeev, wondering.
"I really don't know," Sanjeev continued, "but you should talk to him when he wakes up. And I think you should be careful, keep an eye for strangers..."
Suddenly Trishul burst out laughing, "You and your conspiracy theories! You haven't changed much, have you?"
Sanjeev shrugged as he wiped his mouth, turning to look up at Ashu, "Thank Madhuri for me for the marvellous breakfast, and tell her that she's as brilliant as she was twenty years ago!"
"She'll be thrilled with that!" observed Trishul with a grin and then asked, "What about Rachit's food?"
"He may wake up in the evening, give him a light soup," replied Sanjeev standing up, "and from tomorrow he can have regular food, but yes, lots of fresh fruit juice and fluids."
Both Trishul and Ashu nodded as they walked out of the solarium towards the doctor's car.
"And Ashu, about the medicines, you understood, right?"
"Good," Sanjeev smiled, getting into the car, "give him the tablets as I explained, and lots of fluid."
Ashu nodded once more.
"See you on Monday," he waved at Trishul, driving away.
... to be continued
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