Stories and Perfume
Hannah Whitecliff opened her eyes and stared thoughtfully at the dirt ceiling above her. The old wooden cot she was now laying on wasn’t the most comfortable thing on earth; but it was better than nothing. Maenad had guided them through the rough terrain to a slotted canyon several miles east of Wichita City. The outlaw had told Hannah it was one of his old hideouts during his stagecoach and bank robbing days. At first glance, it felt like nothing more than a dingy old cave, but with the fire now glowing hot, it brought a new warmth that was almost magical. Hannah actually felt excited about it all; as if she were finally living life for a change. It surprised her how much she loved the smell of the open air. How much she loved the feeling of the mountainous dirt on her skin. She couldn’t explain it, but it felt liberating.
Hannah let out a sigh of relief as her thoughts turned to her poor mother. She’s most likely at the eastern colonies, or somewhere close to. Hannah could see her surrounded by Smash’s thugs, worrying her head off about her precious daughter’s location. Hannah hated Smash for displacing her family, and killing her dad. The strange fire in her chest ignited at the thought of ending the fat, pathetic, little man… of putting a bullet straight through his forehead. The strange sensation seemed to spread through her body like desert wildfire; stoked by her thoughts. Hannah didn’t quite know where these new abilities of hers had come from but she was going to use them to redeem her family’s name.
Hannah turned and stared at the outlaw stoking the fire and studied him with her deep blue eyes. Maenad had told her everything about his encounter with Smash, right down to the killing of Jessica Maxwell. The story had been unbelievable. The outlaw had gotten quiet shortly thereafter, and it had been like pulling teeth to get anything else out of him. The only thing he would say was that sins needed to be atoned for. He had to save a kid named Jim who had gotten involved in the bringing down of the bullet train by mistake. Hannah could see at the time that Maenad was pained inside, as if this Jim guy held the key to his salvation. She hoped he was right, because Maenad seemed like he was hell-bent on doing whatever it took to set it right; even dying, or worse.
The oddest thing to Hannah wasn’t so much the story that Maenad told, it was the feeling she got about him as he told it. Maenad didn’t quite seem like the outlaw type to her; there was something deeper about him that she just couldn’t place. While it was true that back in the day he might have been the rough and tumble type, he certainly didn’t match the part now. Maybe this change in attitude really had to do with this Jim guy, or maybe it was something deeper that Hannah couldn’t see. People were complicated and deep subjects.
Hannah reached over and grabbed her revolver. She kept her thoughts to herself as she watched the light from the fire cast shadows on the cavernous walls all around them. It seemed that the whole place was spotted with random holes that had been made by some desert creatures. If she was patient, and watched one of the bigger holes long enough, she could see the occupant of the hole stick its head out and watch the newcomers. The thing looked round like a small ball, and had two big black eyes that blinked at the fire light. The mouths were heart shaped and had long whiskers sticking out just below the nostrils. Hannah noticed every time the creature yawned a little tongue would come out and lap the air.
She sat up in her cot and watched as one of them toddled out of the wall and hit the floor with a thud. It rolled around the fire until it came to a stop and pivoted up on its two feet. Its pointed ears twitched back and forth as it examined the fire in the steel basin. Hannah scooted to the far side of her bed and watched the creature in amazement. She had never seen these things before in her entire life; how was this possible? She was the daughter of a high governor and had been given access to the best education. She had learned about history, language, math, and biology. She was at the top of her class, and yet, this thing eluded her. Was it a new species?
“What are these things?” asked Hannah.
She reached out slowly to touch it and paused.
Maenad didn’t turn around. He was hammering on a round piece of steel he had removed from the fire moments ago. The rhythmic banging sounded throughout the cave as he shaped the metal in front of him. His voice was low but audible.
“The local tribesmen call them “CocoVox” which roughly translated into city-girl talk means Rock Cats,” said Maenad as he dropped the hot piece of steel into the water next to the work bench. The thing sizzled loudly as it cooled down. He grabbed the tongs off the wall and picked up the big crucible from the fire. He poured the molten metal into the white sand form he had designed hours ago. When he was done he place the thing back on the fire and dropped more metal ingots into it. He stomped on the bellows and turned the crucible slowly through the flames. The thing began to glow red hot again.
“Rock Cats?” said Hannah.
She poked the thing and pulled her hand back quickly.
The Rock Cat toppled over at the jab and rolled around on the floor like a goose-pin. It bumped into the bellows Maenad was stomping on and pivoted back up on its feet. Its voice chittered with frustration as it tried to keep from falling over again. It stared at her with its big black eyes and frowned. Hannah couldn’t help it; she laughed for the first time in what felt like forever. Her voice echoed off the walls and down the back corridors of the cave. The creature toddled back over to the fire, its whiskers twitching to the sound of the hammering. It was comical to watch; like one of the characters in the morning newspaper’s back at home.
“What do they eat?” asked Hannah as she studied the walls of the cave around them. It looked like there was no real visible food source present. No bugs or small creatures to feed on. The place was oddly vacant; it was only now this was dawning on her. The Rock Cats can’t eat dirt, can they? She thought in wonder.
“Lightning Roots” said Maenad. “When it’s not raining they eat the lightning roots. They are a sign of good luck, or at least the tribesmen say they are.”
“Fascinating.” Hannah’s lips formed the word but nothing came out.
Maenad put down the metal tongs and threw off his leather gloves. He grabbed a small measuring chain from off the wall and came over to Hannah.
“I need to see your hands again,” asked Maenad.
Hannah looked up from the Rock Cat on the floor. She studied the outlaw for a second then reluctantly put her right hand out to him. She kept her left hand on her revolver in case he tried something foolish. Maenad’s hands felt warm and rough as they moved across her skin. He opened up her hand and ran his fingers through her soft palm muttering to himself has he did so. Hannah could see he was honestly concentrating on the task at hand. In the dimly lit light, he looked like an over grown school boy. Hannah watched as he wrapped the small carbon chain around her index finger and stretched the length of it to her wrist. Next he wrapped the chain around her palm.
“8 and a half” said Maenad.
“What is all this about again?” asked Hannah
Maenad didn’t look up, “You need a proper weapon.”
“I have a proper weapon,” said Hannah as she held up the revolver. “It’s right here.”
Maenad’s expression was flat. He looked at her and then he looked at the gun she was holding in the air. The thing looked out of place in her hand; as if she were holding a lumpy piece of driftwood. His voice was soft but firm. “That’s a generically issued service weapon that has been manufactured to fit the average man.” He held up her hand displaying the thumb and fingers in front of them both; the contrast was apparent. “Your hand wasn’t designed to carry this clumsy weapon. Whether you like it or not you have dainty girlish hands that need to be accommodated.”
“I shot it just fine back at the prison,” said Hannah.
“No you didn’t,” said Maenad as he took her wrist with his left hand and bunched up her fingers into a fist in his right. He squeezed slightly, “You hit your mark on the first shot but would have been off on the second by a factor of two. The grip had shifted from the initial recoil because the thumb wasn’t locked in place. The stock of the pistol was too big.”
“So, you’re making me a gun?” said Hannah incredulously. It was weird to think that only a few days ago she was being taken out east for relocation, now she was here in a small cave talking with one of the deserts most notorious outlaws. Life had its way of pushing you in all directions and dropping things in your lap when you least expected it.
“No,” said Maenad as he let go of her hand. “I am making you two. Each one will have seven shots.”
“Why seven?” asked Hannah. She was genuinely curious now.
Maenad stood up and walked over to the work bench. “Because the standard issued gun throughout the Tarmac only has 6 rounds. If you are ever in a fight, one that actually matters, your opponent will be counting on 6 rounds.”
“Oh,” said Hannah. “I guess that makes sense.”
The sound of hammering flooded the cave again.
“Why are you doing this for me?” asked Hannah. She hadn’t known anyone to work so hard on a gift for her. Not her mother. Not here father. Not her friends or relatives. It was a new concept and the idea of it was exciting, “You only just met me.”
Maenad was silent as he pulled out another bag of white sand from under the table and prepped the molding on the workbench. He cut open the bag and poured it into the wooden framework slowly. His hands were steady and firm as he zig zagged back and forth. Hannah could tell there was going to be no response from this man as to why he was doing this. He was keeping something to himself.
“If you’re not going to answer that question, then could you please tell me who taught you how to do all this?” asked Hannah as she watched the outlaw flatten the sand with a flat metal blade. “I mean, is gunsmithing something all outlaws know how to do innately? Am I going to wake up one morning and start building elaborate weapons like you?”
“Gunsmithing is a trade,” said Maenad. He lifted a hand and wiped the sweat and dirt from his forehead onto his flannel shirt. Sweat was always getting in his eyes when he crafted like this, “And it takes several years to master.”
“Who taught you?” asked Hannah as she pick up a tool from the table. The thing was long and pointed. It looked like an ice pick only thinner.
“My father taught me this trade,” said Maenad as he reached over and took the tool from Hannah’s hand. “He taught me and my brother when we were younger. He said it was something respectable men did in society. That we should be respectable men when we grew up.”
“Oh,” said Hannah as she leaned against the bench. The thing creaked slightly under her weight. Maenad had definitely chosen a different path, “And your mother?”
“My mother taught us how to shoot the guns my dad made for us,” said Maenad. He scooped out some water from the bucket on the table and drank it slowly. He was trying to look for the right way to say everything, without saying much at all, “She was…” Maenad paused and got quiet as he sloshed the water in his mouth.
Hannah rolled her eyes at the annoying silence; this guy was completely hopeless. He was clamming up again. “She was what?”
Maenad went back to working on the form. He compressed the sand in the box with a heavy steel plate. The sand gritted with protest under the pressure.
“Come on!” said Hannah. “Tell me the story!”
Maenad paused again, this girl was proving to be nothing but a chatter box, but oddly, he like the presents of her company. In a lot of way she was a breath of fresh air after being in prison for so long. He set his tools down and looked over to Hannah. “My mother was an outlaw like me and my brother. She met my father in a central desert town called Ustead. He was one of the best gunsmith in the whole Tarmac. She went into his store to rob him one day and couldn’t do it. She told me she looked into his eyes and saw the man she was going to marry.”
“So what happened?” asked Hannah.
“She purchased a box of bullets and asked if he would take her out dancing to the All Ace’s Saloon that evening,” said Maenad. He paused and shook his head as if finally realizing what he was doing. “Why am I telling you this?”
Maenad picked his tools back up and started working again.
“And the rest is history, I guess?” said Hannah encouragingly. She wanted to know more about this guy. There was a mystery around him that needed to be cracked open. She felt so close to discovering it, “They got married and rode off into the sunset!”
“They got married in the local church in Ustead. The small community found out she was an outlaw because she was teaching us how to shoot at targets in the backyard of the gun shop. Not only is it improper for a lady to shoot guns. It’s also a sin to be an outlaw; you’ll learn this as time goes on. The people of Ustead started filling my father’s head with religion,” said Maenad almost bitterly. He had to stop the old feeling from encompassing his chest again. That was the old him. That was the part of him he need to keep at bay if this change of heart and mind was going to keep beyond the winter months. There was no satisfaction in vindication, he had learned that the hard way, “So my dad eat it all up and it strained his relationship with my mother. The community of desert zealots didn’t help either; they “gaslighted” my mother any chance they got. It’s amazing how gossip can burn down the lives of a family,” Maenad wasn’t looking at Hannah. He was staring at the wall watching the memories all unfold in his head, “The religious types in town have a superstition about outlaws. They say that female outlaws can get into the heads of the men and make them fall in love, or at least think they have fallen in love.”
Hannah perked up at this tidbit of information. She was learning all sorts of things about her new found powers. “What?!”
“Don’t read into it too much, kid. It’s a load of crap in my opinion. All the religious yuppie types come from the cities up north down into hell to preach to the local farmers. They preach that God, or something, had two daughters.” Maenad was fighting the feeling in his chest again; the old feeling. The old him wanting to come out and start the old ways. He forced it back down and continued, “They say that one of the daughters give this abilities to the female outlaws. To bring more chaos into the world.”
“No, you can’t be serious,” said Hannah with a chuckle. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing at the present moment. She hadn’t been to church much growing up; only when her father had campaigned in the major cities around the Tarmac to win votes. Her father use to say that religion was a drug for the masses; but only in private. She had never heard anyone say anything like what Maenad was saying to her right now, “I am going to use my mind powers on you to make you love me Maenad.” She wiggled her fingers and in the air around Maenad; as if casting a spell. “You will be mine soon.”
Maenad sighed at the ridiculous gesture. “I should have kept this to myself.”
Hannah stopped laughing and got serious again. She was running the risk of never getting any more information from this man, “Please don’t stop now. I like hearing about your past. I wasn’t making fun of you, I promise, just the way the people treated your family.”
“My mother died when I was 17 of the disease called ‘red-ear’. The town believed it to be from God and celebrated; not in public mind you, but they still celebrated.” His jaw clinched at the very thought, “My father gave up gunsmithing and became a preacher. My brother and I gave up on my father. He never really stood up for mother. Just wanted peace.”
Hannah could hear the blood thumping in her ears as she regarded Maenad in the glow of the cave light. For a brief moment she could see the old outlaw underneath the calm demeanor; and it scared her. It was like the story she had heard growing up about the explorers that had found a nice peaceful lake in the Blue Mountains. They set up camp and drew from the quiet blue water to stay alive, but as the sun set in the west they began to notice the thing was full of all kinds of terrible monsters. There was nothing beautiful about it.
Maenad was just like the peaceful Blue Mountain Lake in the story. He had these terrible creatures living inside of him that he didn’t like talking about. The death of his brother was only one of them. Hannah could understand the “silence” now in a way she hadn’t before. The only thing that could be heard was the crackling of the fire and the low thud of an occasional rock cat as it fell out of the wall and hit the floor. Hannah watched the little creatures as they gathered around the fire for warmth.
“I guess he preaches in Ustead now?” ask Hannah.
“Nope,” said Maenad as he began digging into the compressed sand in front of him. His hands were now sculpting the right hand gun, “he moved up north and became a preacher. He lives here in Wichita City. On the east side of the city. I haven’t spoken to him in 8 years.”
“You going to see him again?”
Maenad nodded his head, “That’s where we are heading tomorrow. He might have some information we need about Smash.”
Hannah perked up, “we get to meet your dad?”
Maenad nodded his head reluctantly. He looked at the young girl in front of him as if seeing her for the first time sense they left the prison yard. She was dirty and looked homeless, well, more homeless then she already was. Her blond hair was matted to the side of her head and looked like an abandoned birds nest. Her dress was torn and dirty from the trek in to the hideout. All dignity and refinement gone in just a few short days.
“You look like cow crap.” said Maenad.
Hannah looked down at herself and touched her dress, “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me Maenad. You are a true gentlemen.”
Maenad picked up his tools again and pointed to the back of the cave. It was dark and uninviting, “There is a washing basin in the back if you would like to use it. The water from the pump is as cold as ice; but it will get you cleaned up. I won’t bother you if you would like to bathe in the troth completely; just move the shawl over the entrance.” Maenad indicated to the tarp looking thing hanging from a rope at the opening. “If you want the water to be warmer you can heat it on the fire. We have another fire pit in the back. We have some soap on the shelves.”
“That’s nice and all but I don’t really have anything to wear afterwards. I don’t know if you caught this but I didn’t really pack anything in with us,” said Hannah as she walked over to the back of the cave and peered into the blackness at the setup. It was exactly what she envisioned it to be; against the far wall sat a big tin basin with a faucet hanging over it. Her eyes studied all the shelves of food encircling the room. Who knows how long it had all been there…weeks…months…years. She was sure most of it was rotten. She could see the second fire pit empty and dead in the center of the room.
Hannah walked over to a big wooden crate and opened it up slowly, as if expecting something to jump out at her from the depths. It was full of old dusty clothes. She reached in and pulled out a long slender leather jacket. The thing actually looked like it might fit her. Why were there clothes her size in here? Thought Hannah. She held up the nice jacket and studied the elaborate white stitching. This thing had been crafted by hand and was masterfully done. There was a slight smell of perfume that she just couldn’t place.
“You can wear whatever you find in that crate back there.” said Maenad. He was looking down at the bench again, “There might be something that will fit you.”
Hannah opened up the inside of the jacket. It was lined with a smooth black silk. She fumbled through the pockets looking for clues as to who owned the thing; a jacket like this had to have clues. Her fingers landed on a small glass bottle with a string attached to it. She pulled the item out and examined it in the darkness. She recognized the thing almost instantly from the shops up north. It was a perfume bottle, the shop keepers gave these ones out as samples to paying customers. Hannah uncorked the thing and took in the fragrance. It wasn’t bad; it smelled of Mountain Seagull Lilly.
She turned the tag over on the cork and read the name in her head.
To: J. Maxwell
I’ll be seeing you soon,
Hannah’s thoughts turned back to the lake with all the monsters in it. Maenad was just like that lake. He had all kinds of monsters he wasn’t talking about. Hannah turned and studied the outlaws as he designed her guns on the table. His relationship to Jessica was something different. Something he wasn’t completely telling her. Did Maenad and his brother fall for the same woman? Thought Hannah. She placed the cork back in the bottle and slipped it into the jacket again. She smiled to herself.
“Did you find anything that will fit?” asked Maenad
Hannah looked back into the crate at all the clothes. She wondered what other treasures she could find hidden in the depths; she just needed more time. The bath would give her that time. She could get cleaned up and find out more information on this outlaw. Hannah walked back over to the tarp dividing the two rooms.
“I think I’ll take that bath,” said Hannah
“So I take it you found something,” asked Maenad
“Yep,” said Hannah.