Jim’s eyes shot open quickly as the thunder over head exploded with atmospheric violence. He clinched his chest frantically as each burst sang out and vibrated the hard steel of the packaging container. It felt like God himself was trying to knock down the wall of his makeshift prison and free him from his hopeless situation. In the distance Jim could hear men’s voices yelling out to one another over the thunderstorm. The military personal were trying to keep the lightning from hitting the caravan by putting up lightning orbs. The storms that persisted between the northern country and the Desert Tarmac were notorious for frying anything and everything that moved bellow. Sometimes the lightning orbs were too weak to contain the power of one atmospheric blast; too often the shiny spheres would exploded and send pieces of turnstone steel through the air into people and containers. Most of the people that lived in-between the desert and the cities built their houses underground and thrived off lightning root for nine months out of the season. There was no way Jim could have done that; as a matter of fact the people in the cities call the people of this land, mole people.
Lightning flashed out suddenly and hit the ground by Jim’s container with a deafening boom. A man cried out in anguish as veins of lightning tore through his body and boiled his blood instantly. Jim watched with horror through one of the hole in the container as the man collapsed on the ground and convulsed uncontrollably. Here comes the lightning roots to devour the body, thought Jim with disgust. He hated watching the things move through the thick ground; they always reminded him of distorted snakes. From the thick brown mud the lightning roots appeared and wrapped around the corps almost instantly. Jim watched as they dragged the lifeless body into the earth and feasted on his flesh. Scientists couldn’t tell what gave the roots life; they really didn’t have organs or muscles to help move them, and yet they still moved through the mud with ease. Jim’s dad had said it was the devil that gave those creators life.
Another bolt of lightning struck the earth by the container and rang out with a loud boom. Mud and rocks went everywhere as the lightning roots gathered around the point of impact; they were searching for another victim to feed on. Jim looked away; he didn’t want to see them moving through the earth any more, it was the creepiest thing to behold. Thunder rang out loudly from over head and caused the shipping container to vibrate with fervor.
The constant discharge of the atmosphere was beginning to unsettle Jim’s soul in a way that was almost passed words; each flash of lightning stole away his dreams and replace them with nothing but benighted shadows of his former past. Jim didn’t know if it was the thunder speaking to him, but he could hear his father’s voice call out to him from somewhere in the darkness beyond the wooden boxes in the container. The words that he had often spoken rang softly through Jim’s ears and caused goose-bumps to run down the right side of his face.
The voice of his father repeated over and over, “Are you satisfied Jim?”
“I sorry” whispered Jim to the air. “I was sure I had what it took to be like you, to be an outlaw just like you.”
Lightning flashed again.
“Are you satisfied Jim?”
“No,” Jim whispered.
Jim’s heart sunk deep in his chest as he looked around him for comfort; Maenad was right, the outlaw lifestyle wasn’t glamorous at all. Heavy boxes and wooden crates lay stacked in an orderly fashion all around him; he was alone. The sound of men’s voices could still be heard from the tiny circular air holes on the side of the storage container. It seemed that Jim’s life consisted of waking up form one nightmare and discovering another. The large company had been traveling through the desert for what seemed like days now. The only social contact that Jim had experienced was from an army recruit that would show up in the morning and at night to deliver his food and water. Jim had tried to ask the man questions about his incarceration but found it useless to do so. They were all pawns working for the same heartless master. None would say a word unless told to do so by William T. Smash. Jim didn’t blame them; they would most likely be killed if they said a word to him.
I shouldn’t be here, thought Jim sadly. I should be at home with my family, helping out on the farm. Lightning flashed suddenly and lit up the container all around him. Bright white dots danced around the wooden boxes and then vanished as thunder rattled his cage again. Rain began to pelt the side of the storage container now; water began to drip in at all angles on the supply crates. His makeshift bed of boxes was getting soaked. Jim didn’t know much about the Tarmac Desert, but he did know that it was almost impossible for it to rain in the desert. The strong humidity in the air spoke one thing to him; they were getting closer to Wichita City. They were getting closer to his future as a slave.
It seemed to Jim, that Wichita City was the most awful place in the world to be. The people were prideful and deceptive. The streets were narrow and dirty. The merchandise was overpriced and deprived. He lay back down on the box he was sitting on and closed his eyes tightly to keep out the lightning. He thought about other things to try and calm his nerves. He thought about his uneventful life before he had moved to the city and met Maenad. He thought about his life before he had even read all those stupid books about heroes and legends of the Wild West. He thought about his life back on the farm with his family. It was a simple life but it was a good one to have. They had everything they needed out there.
You don’t know what you have until its gone, thought Jim longingly. The grass is always greener on the other side. After a while his thoughts dissolved, and he drifted off to sleep. The sound of the pouring rain was almost soothing as it soaked the steel container and dripped in through the holes. Jim’s body swayed back and forth with the motion of the storage bin as he let out a deep breath. His muscles relaxed again.
Jim’s little sister was standing in front of him on the cool earth. She was wearing the little summer dress that mother had made for her last spring, the year that daddy had left on business to buy more grain for planting. It was the same year that Jim had left for the big city. Sissy looked so sad standing in the gray moonlight this night; the atmosphere seemed only to add to the anguish welling up in her eyes.
“Jim, where are you going?” she asked.
Jim took a step backwards from his sister and straightened his pack. They were on a dirt road, just outside the farm house in the providence of Winterberry. It was dark and the wind was blowing slightly through the tall woodwind grass. It was one of the nicest times of the year, even when it was dark it looked like heaven on earth. “Away sissy, I am going far away from here. I have to show dad that I’m more then what he sees. I am just like him.”
“Where to, Jim?”
“To uncle Franks in the city” said Jim quietly, “To become something other than a farm boy. I hear Uncle Frank helps the rich Governors up in Wichita transport thing into the desert regions in the south. Like supplies and food and stuff. They get paid a lot to do that and I just might find what I am looking for over there,” Jim looked up at the stars and smiled at the thoughts of having a better life than this one. The night sky was dark and almost magical to behold. It looked like God had incrusted the darkness with jewels, “it’s also Outlaw County in the Tarmac Desert. They say that only and outlaws can survive its wild terrain.”
“Can I come too, Jim” Sissy asked with excitement, “I want to be an outlaw too.”
Jim turned and started to walk away. He didn’t have time for Sissy’s small talk right now. He had to leave before anyone spotted him and convinced him otherwise. “No, sissy, you can’t come. Go back to the house and keep Mom and Dad safe while I am gone. Okay?” Jim walked a bit more, than paused. He waited for her to response, “okay?”
Jim turned around and faced his little sister again. She was trying not to cry; Jim could tell because she always pushed her lip up when she was holding back tears. He walked up to her and wiped her tears away, “it’s okay Sissy, I’ll bring you back something nice form Uncle Franks shop in the city. I’ll probably be back next summer, Okay?”
She was quiet.
“Okay?” Jim persisted.
She nodded her head slowly.
Jim kissed her forehead softly and smiled, “I’ll see you soon, Sissy.”
Jim turned and was going to walk away when a sudden movement through the grass caught his eye. An eerie feeling washed over his frame, it felt like something evil was coming their way. All at once the fields all around them seemed to come to life with malevolent excitement. Jim’s body went cold as he saw the lightning roots slithering through the fields in all directions. They were searching for food to consume and destroy. They looked like distorted snakes as they tore up the earth and headed for the closest thing; Jim’s sister. Their bodies flopped and wiggled.
“Run Sissy!” yelled Jim.
Sissy saw them approaching from all over and screamed. The evil creators were now wrapping their roots around her legs threatening to pull her underground and feed on her flesh. Jim ran for her and tripped over one of the lightning roots mangled limbs. His body hit the earth with a thud and slid with protest. Lightning roots started springing up from the ground and wrapping around Jim’s arms and legs. Smaller roots began to dig deep into Jim’s skin and inter his veins like little needles. Jim could feel them sucking his blood out of his body. The more he struggled the tighter and deeper the roots became. Jim watched in horror as his body withered away to bone and skin. He could feel each organ as it was dissolved and absorbed by the lightning roots. In the distance he could hear is sister screaming; then there was silence.
Jim opened his eyes and stared at the dark ceiling of the cold container; the nightmares were getting far too common for him to panic. As a matter-of-fact, it took him a minute to realize he was not dreaming anymore; he was back in the cruel reality of the western world. He hadn’t seen his family in just over a year. He hadn’t even gotten Sissy anything from Wichita City yet. Like a stampede of rushing bulls, life was coming at Jim too quickly. Soon he was going to get married to some strange aristocratic girl that he had only met a few days ago. He didn’t even have time to write his parents and tell them he was engaged; at least, engagement was the only thing that Jim could think to call what had just happened back in the desert without being negative. If his dad only knew he was being force to marry rich, he would come unglued. If only his dad knew that he was practically going to be a slave for the rest of his life.
Jim came out of his winding thoughts and sat up. He realized suddenly that they were not moving anymore. He looked around the storage container at all the boxes, nothing had been unloaded while he slept. There was something unsettling about what was going on right now; Jim couldn’t quite put his finger on the feeling he was getting. It was really quiet, almost too quiet. The sound of men’s voices had stopped ages ago and the only thing that could be heard was the pitter patter of the rain on the steel paneling outside the container. Jim stood up and looked at the door on the far end of the storage unit. It was open now and a dark figure was standing watching him; it almost looked like Maenad. Jim squinted to get a better look at the stranger.
“Enjoy the ride, boy?” came raspy voice from the figure.
Jim’s heart sank; it wasn’t Maenad.
The dark figure at the entrance whispered something to someone outside the container and pointed at Jim. Ten seconds later two armed guards came rushing into the storage Unit. Their boots thudded loudly on the floor boards as they grabbed Jim by the arms and forced him out of the vehicle. Jim tried not to trip on the ramp as the soldiers brought him before the dark figure and held him at bay. The sky was cloudy and grey still. They must have interred the city while Jim was sleeping.
“My name is Jesse Franklin” said the dark man with the cowboy hat, “I am going to be your new master, you hear me, boy?”
Jim stared wide-eyed at him.
“This will be your new home” said Jesse as he turned around and stretched his arms out over the massive yard they were standing in. He indicated to everything resting on the estate, “this is where I will break you and turn you into a servant of the Smash’s house hold. This is where I will see if you have what it takes to become a Smash.” He smirked devilishly, “many have failed to meet the requirements, many have failed.”
Jim looked around the yard; it was covered in the greenest grass he had ever seen in the northern colonies. In the middle of the property sat a massive white mansion with tall windows and a broad porch. Gray pillars the size of tree trunks acted as support coulombs for most of the upper balcony structure. Rare desert flowers hung on the building in all varieties; red, gold, silver, and gray. The whole estate was surrounded by a 12 foot wall made out of thick round stones and abraded with broken glass. The rich were always afraid of someone getting in to take this all away from them, hence the high walls.
“Bring him over her boys” Demanded Jesse.
Jim was brought over to a sturdy wooden structure that was resting in the middle of the eastern yard; almost catty corner to the mansion. It was a high platform with a single wooden beam that ran over its top. From the wooden beam swung hangman nooses of all sizes and shapes. Jim knew perfectly well what this structure was designed to do, he didn’t need an explanation. He had seen men get hanged before back when he was still working for his uncle Frank at his shop. The Wichita City police department did it to help keep crime down in the cities. Most of the wealthy in these parts would hang convicts at their parties as well. It wasn’t a surprise to see a structure like this on Smash’s property.
“This is where we hang the disobedient.” said Jesse with a smiled, “Will have to give you a demonstration while you’re here some time, maybe even some time in the near future.”
Jim felt sick inside. he didn’t know if Jesse was referring to him or another person.
“This is where we will put you if you don’t comply. You got that boy?”
Jim shook his head slightly. Sweat, from the humidity, was now dripping off his nose.
Jesse walked up to him and stared into his eyes, “I didn’t hear you, boy.”
“Yes, I understand.”
Jesse smacked Jim across the face with is open fist.
Jim cried out in pain.
“You call me master you hear?”
Jim nodded his head.
Jesse smacked him again across the face, this time a little bit harder. He wanted his point to get across to this worthless cow turd, “I didn’t hear you!”
The guard’s that where holding Jim let go. Jim fell to his knees and landed in the wet grass with a squash. Blood was now pouring freely from the cut on his face, “Yes, master, I understand.” he felt like crying; something deep down inside was telling him he was going to be here for a very long time. Maenads not going to come for me, thought Jim despairingly. He’s gone for good now.
“That’s more like it, boy” said Jesse as he signaled for the guards to come pick him up again. The guard’s dragged Jim over to a massive wooden shed resting on the other end of the yard; the place looked more like a barn from the outside. Jesse walked up to the double doors and gripped the brass handles tightly, “This is where William Smash marks all his property.” He smiled devilishly, “this is where he will mark you, boy.”
Jim was dragged into the barn and brought before a Massive wooden table in the middle of the room. The musky air smelled like a combination of hay, steel, and pine wood shavings. In the far corner was a roaring fire being stoked by what looked like a tall, unhappy, Blacksmith. The man was prodding the hot coals with a brander.
“Put him on the table and hold him down!” barked Jesse.
Jim struggled to get free “you can’t do this!”
Jesse walked up to Jim and pointed his seven chambered revolver in his face. The steal hammer was already cocked back and ready to go. The dark outlaw was quick and deadly like lightning, “Get on the table.”
Jim paused for a second, than climbed onto the table. Outlaws were people that you didn’t want to negotiate with, they wouldn’t think twice about shooting you.
“Lay down on your back, boy!”
Jim laid down on the table and stared up at the high ceiling before him. Smoke from the fire drifting over head like a dark rain cloud as the guards from before held him down. Once he was secure Jesse grabbed Jim’s shirt and ripped it open revealing the white, clammy, skin underneath. Jim’s heart was beating rapidly now. He had only witnessed the branding of cattle back on his farm in Winterberry, and they always screamed like hell when the poker touched their skin. Would he do the same?
“Welcome to the club, Kid” said Jesse almost sadly as he hung over Jim’s head; his eyes were watering now with what seemed like tears. The outlaw looked like he was going to cry or something, than the emotion disappeared as quickly as it had come, “You’re going to be with us until you die, boy. This is only a precursor to eternity in hell.” He moved out of the way as the Blacksmith came over and plunged the hot metal into Jim’s smooth, white, skin. Jim screamed out in agonizing pain and thrashed around as the steal sizzled in protest.
“hold him down!” barked Jesse.
The guards held Jim tighter as the Blacksmith pulled away and grabbed another hot brander from the fire. The smell of burnt flesh filled the air around the table. Jim had never felt something so painful before in his life.
“Hold open his palms,” demanded Jesse.
Jim’s eyes were watering now with pain.
The Blacksmith dropped the hot steal into the palm of Jim’s right hand.
Jim screamed and struggled to get free. It felt like hell!
The left hand came next.
Jim screamed again and then blacked out from the overwhelming pain. His mind couldn’t withstand the torture; he had shut off and fallen into unconsciousness. Once it was all over Jesse demanded that everyone leave the room so that he could be with Jim alone. When they were all gone, he watched Jim while he slept on the table. The smell of chard flesh was floating in the air all around the massive barn. Shadows from Jesse passed began to take flight, as he thought back to his own branding. There was nothing he could do.
“You have to be obedient” came a voice from the side.
Jesse turned and stared at the apparition standing before him. It had the shape of a boy in tattered clothes. His eyes looked forlorn and sad. Jesse recognized the spirit from his passed, “what do you want.”
The creature smiled, “obedience.”
Jesse yelled, “leave me alone!”
The thing took a step forward, “you have to comply to smash.”
“No,” yelled Jesse as he withdrew is revolver and unloaded all seven rounds into the creatures head. The spirit screamed out in shock and then disappeared from sight. Blood was now dripping from the scars on Jesses palms; he had been disobedient would pay for it later. He turned and looked at Jim resting on the table, “Welcome to the club, brother.” He whispered after a while of ominous silence. Jesse looked down at the palms of his hands and cringed inside at what he had become. The scares from his own branding were still there staring him in the face, “welcome to the club.”