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Ditch Fire

Jim tried to fight the feeling of dread welling up in his chest as he looked out the GB-7 hover stagecoach window. He had absolutely no clue what Jesse Franklin had in store for him. His thoughts kept replaying the events of the morning over and over in his head; trying to make sense of it all. It terrified Jim just how real it had been. For the longest time he hadn’t thought much of the state of Jesse’s mental condition; only that he was crazy. Jim knew now it was way more complicated than just saying the man was crazy. There actually was something “unseen” following the outlaw around, and according to his word, it was orchestrating everything in their lives. Could Scylla actually have big plans for Maenad? Thought Jim, What does it all mean and how do you stop it from happening?

Jim lifted his hand to his chest where the broken feeling still prevailed. He shivered as he remembered the feeling of the gentle hand on his skin. It had felt so real, there was no mistaking that. He looked around the dark cab for any signs of movement. Jim just knew Scylla was there watching him from a padded seat. He knew because Jesse was in the cab with him; and wherever Jesse went this thing was sure to follow. Jim’s eyes landed on the crazy outlaw. The man had seated himself across from him before leaving the Smash estate. Halfway through the ride he had placed his cowboy hat over his face and went to sleep, or so it seemed he was sleeping. Jim knew better then to test Jesse Franklin; if the outlaw wanted to spy on him, then so be it.

A cold breeze passed through the open windows of the cab and washed over Jim like an ocean tide. It brought with it a strong smell of burning wood; as if someone had lit a ditch fire. Jim pulled his coat closer to his body as he reached up and turned the knob to the heater. If this hover stagecoach was anything like his uncle Frank’s it would have steam heated seats built into the cushions. Warmth encompassed his back and legs as the heat exchanger took effect. It felt like the nicest thing on earth. The smell of ditch fire got stronger and the air around the cab became hazier with each passing second. Jim coughed at the overwhelming smell; his eyes were beginning to burn slightly. He stared back out the window at the constantly changing scenery. In the distance could be seen the billowing up of thick clouds of smoke. The whole mountainous horizon was blackened with ash, as if hell itself were launching an attack on the world.

“Smells like barbecue” said Jesse. He still had his hat over his eyes.

Jim didn’t look over to him, “What happened out there?”

“Maenad escaped from prison a few days ago,” said Jesse almost nonchalant, “He burned the whole damn prison down doing it too; killed hundreds of people. Shot the warden right between the eyes.” Jesse held his hand up slightly over his lap and pretended he was holding his 7 shooter. Bang. Bang. Bang. He motioned with his thumb. “Smash has been worked up about it ever since. He knows what’s coming next and has put a bounty on Maenad’s head worth 5,000 gold pieces.” He chuckled. “They want him dead; not alive. Heck, he is even talking to some yuppie girl up in Ballbaling who says she has the solution.”

Jim didn’t quite know why but he smiled at the news of the escape. While it was true several people had died, he still couldn’t help himself. A new feeling of hope came to life in his chest. A feeling that Maenad was coming for him and that made all the difference in the world. Jim knew that when Maenad put his mind to doing something impossible he would accomplish it. He had seen it with the bullet train, he had read about it in his paperback books, and he would see it with his rescue. Jesse Franklin didn’t stand a chance, and neither did that corrupt old governor Smash. Jim just had to be patient.

“The local Wichita Militia are fighting the tribesmen over the land where the prison stood. Nothing but blood and guts out on the prairie,” said Jesse. “They are taking the destruction of the building as a sign from the Mud God; or whatever the hell they worship. They are fighting to the death, every last one of them. It isn’t a pretty sight.”

“So I am guessing they are going to have a hard time catching Maenad with all this commotion?” asked Jim. He tried not to sound too excited.

Jesse chuckled a deep raspy laugh. “I suppose so.”

“Do they know where he is?” asked Jim. “Do they have anyone tracking him?”

“No, sir, they don’t. The trails gone cold,” said Jesse in matter of fact sort of way. He cleared his raspy throat and continued. “No one knows where that hot headed outlaw went off to. No one except, that is… her supreme highness, the lady of the night…Scylla. She knows everything about the Tarmac.” Jesse lifted up his cowboy hat slightly and looked over to the seat next to Jim. His eyes took on a penetrating stare as he studied the unseen person in the shadows. “And she seems to be keeping her bloody secrets to herself. Aren’t you sweetheart?”

Jim looked to the empty seat next to him. He couldn’t see anyone there but he wasn’t going to question Jesse Franklin anymore on the matter; not after what happen in the barn. Jim tried to direct his words to the goddess in the cab with them. He didn’t know if this would work but he was going to try it any way. “Maenad is going to find me. He is going to find me and throw a big wrench into this operation of yours.”

Jesse tilted his cowboy hat up completely now with his thumb; he was no longer trying to sleep. The outlaw started smiling as big as a desert fox. “Well look who just grew a back bone. I want to warn you now, you can get into a lot of trouble talking to The Lady of The Night that way. Take it from me Jimbo, she isn’t a fan of her servants talking back and spoiling the fun. When she is done with you, she’ll tie up the loose ends.”

“Loose ends?” Asked Jim. He didn’t want to guess what that might mean for him.

“Yep,” said Jesse as he looked over to the goddess in the seat, “She has been treating me like a Blue Mountain Mushroom. Kept in the dark and fed a lot of cow crap.”

The cab was silent for a moment as Jesse listened to the unheard words of the desert goddess. Jim wondered how often she spoke and how often Jesse translated her words correctly. It must have been frustrating having to us this outlaw as a mouth piece every time a thought needed to be conveyed. While it was true the goddess seemed to have Jesse corralled pretty good, there was still a small measure of freedom on the part of the outlaw. It was that small bit of freedom that allowed Jesse to rebel in his own little way. Jim could see that this outlaw didn’t want any woman or man pulling his strings; yet they were.

Jesse smirked slightly as he took in what the Lady of the Night was saying. After a second or two he reached for his 7 shooter with lightning speed pulling back the hammer of the weapon as he came to a stop. He pointed to Jim with his other hand. “You want me to shoot him now? I mean he did just disrespect you just a moment ago.”

Jim’s heart sank as he shifted in his seat.

“I can shoot him now if the lady doesn’t mind.” Jesse pointed his gun at Jim’s chest and pulled the trigger. The gun in the outlaws hand lurched violently to the side and smacked into the cab wall. The bullet barely missed Jim and collided with the seat next to him with a bang, and a ting. Hot steam shot out from the dark leather and filled the compartment with atomized water almost instantly. Jim’s heart was thudding loudly in his chest as his eyes landed on the brief outline of a woman in an elegant dress holding the outlaw at bay. The image was frightening; like seeing a ghost for the first time. The woman had the outlaw by the throat and was shoving his hand into the wall so hard Jim though he heard the snapping of bone. She turned her head towards Jim and their eyes met for the first time. Her eyes were sharp with anger and her jaw clinched. Before Jim could make sense of what he was seeing, she vanished.

Jesse dropped his 7 shooter as the goddess retreated into thin air. The thing hit the ground with a thud. The crazy outlaw started laughing a deep throated raspy laugh as if he had seen the funniest thing in the world. Jim could see a dark red hand mark on the outlaw’s throat. Jesse got back up to a seat positon and held his right wrist gingerly. It was the most bizarre sight he had seen in his whole life. Here Jim was witnessing an outlaw goad a goddess of the desert into violence against him; could people actually do that? The face of the woman flashing in his mind like lighting. There had been a fierce beauty and a commanding presence about her.

“That’s going to take a day or two to heal,” said Jesse who was coming out of his laughing fit to examine his broken wrist. The thing was swelling up now and turning an angry shade of red. Jim noticed the same hand mark as before on the appendage.

“I saw her just now,” said Jim as he pushed his back into the corner of the cab and breathed out an anxious sigh. He felt suddenly caged in with a wild animal. The dark wooden molding of the hover stagecoach door was sticking into his back. The hot steam from before had stopped spraying into the compartment. Everything was covered in water droplets and the temperature was dropping fast. Jim pushed back the shivering as he continued, “I saw her outline in the steam just a moment ago.”

Jesse looked over to Jim, “did you see the dress too?”

Jim nodded his head.

“Isn’t she just the prettiest thing you ever did see?” said Jesse half convinced. He pulled a red bandana out of his coat pocket and began wrapping the thing around his broken wrist. “Truly a sight for sore eyes. She didn’t always dress that way in the past. Its only recently she had been changing outfits like the Tarmac changes seasons. If you ask me, she is trying too hard.” He finished his wrapping job and tied the bandana into a knot using his teeth.

Jim didn’t respond to this.

Jesse continued without provocation, “Aren’t I just so lucky to have this wonderful woman in my life? Following me around forever and ever. Why she is just like any other dedicated desert farm woman; strong and firm… and she sure as hell knows what she wants in a man Jimbo. She wants them to be seen not heard.” He leaned over and picked his gun up off the floor. He holstered the weapon and laid back in his seat. Jim watched him closely as he did this; trying to ready himself should the outlaw feel like shooting him again.

“You tried to shoot me,” said Jim.

Jesse nodded. “Yep, and Scylla ruined all the fun.”

“Why did she save me?” asked Jim.

“Because you haven’t served your true purpose yet, Jimbo. Everyone has got a part to play in this world before they die, and you aren’t done fulfilling yours,” Jesse looked at Jim. There was a deep sorrow there that couldn’t accurately be expressed by words. The outlaw looked like a caged fighting dog; beaten and whipped and bad-tempered. Jesse’s eyes were serious, “you are going to learn real quickly that all this…” Jesse waved his hand around the air of the cab; indicating to everything and nothing all at once, “all this is just an illusion to placate us mindless humans. We are nothing more than pawns in an unseen game between two crazy sisters. One makes her move and the other counters.”

“What do you mean?” asked Jim.

“Let me put it to you this way. The reason I am not nervous about Maenad or Smash, or anyone for that matter, is because Scylla is pulling all the strings. Did you know she helped Maenad escape from the Wichita Prison? Helped him burn the whole damn thing down. She came back that night bragging about it to me like it was the best thing in the whole wide world. I knew she was truly excited because she was changing her form from this to that. She finally settled on taking the form of my dead brother to get me to listen.” Jesse paused and cleared his throat. He was holding back the emotion, “She knows that it gets me all twisted up inside seeing him again. She knows that she can use it as a weapon.”

“She helped Maenad escape,” said Jim incredulously. “Why?”

“I have been with her for 6 years now, Jim. She hasn’t said a word why she wants me to run her little errands for her. She tells me to go into this town and kill this particular person; no questions asked, just do it. Or why she wants me to deliver a message to this yuppie girl in the city; no questions asked, just do it. She wants me to deliver samples of this to a bunch of eggheads in north. She even wanted me to treat you the way I have been treating you. It’s all part of some unseen plan of hers.” Jesse pulled out a tooth pick and placed it in his mouth; the taste of cinnamon and kellwood washed over his tongue. He pointed to his head as he continued. “But I have been thinking to myself. I know I am not the smartest man but I ain’t stupid. The only thing I could figure is that she is either in love or planning something big for her sister,” said Jesse. “I tease her about the love thing all the time.”

“Is she still here?” asked Jim.

“Nope, she’s somewhere else,” said Jesse. “But she’s listening; she’s always listening.”

“How do you stop her?” asked Jim. “Is there a way to stop her?”

“You don’t stopper her Jim.” Jesse leaned back in his seat and placed his cowboy hat over his eyes. “You just wait to serve your purpose and when you are done she gets rid of you like a used hanky. She blows her nose all over you and then drops you in the fire.”

The cab was silent. The smoke from the prison fire began to fade as the hover stagecoach veered to the right and into a narrow canyon. They began to climb upward into the mountains, and off the beaten path. The nice thing, and the worst thing, about hover stagecoaches was that they never left any tracks.

“Is she going to get rid of you?” asked Jim

Jesse didn’t move a muscle at the question. “I would like to think that she is too attached to me to make that decision, but in all reality, when I am done doing what she wants me to do… It will be about my time to meet my maker.” Jesse’s voice sounded like he was smiling, as if the thought was a sweet release from the hell he was living in. “Tried to kill myself on several occasions Jim. Tried to put the gun to my head and pull the trigger but she always intervenes. She’s got big plans for you, Jim. I don’t know what they are, but she’s got them.”

Jim could feel is stomach twist into a knot at this declaration. Was he going to face the same hell that Jesse was subjected to? Would he be the next obedient little slave in Scylla’s game? If he tried to escape now, would it only play into her plan? There were so many questions running though his head.

Jim sat quietly and examined each one.

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