The jungle came alive with a myriad of sound that Violet had never heard before. Some sounds were familiar, crickets and the like. Many were down right alien. Hester kept to the center of the tracks, away from the tree line on either side of them, and Violet followed suit.
The moment Hester had spoken of, when it felt as though fire covered her entire body and she wouldn’t be able to carry on, had come and gone. And come again, and gone again. Four times the wave of pain hit her, and each time proved more difficult to push through than the last.
Hester slowed the pace when these pangs hit, but did not stop walking. Violet wasn’t sure if it was out of genuine concern or a feeling of safety in numbers.
“I’m just slowing you down,” Violet said after the last. “You should go on ahead, find out where the ships were headed, and find Eli.”
“If I felt we were in jeopardy of losing the trail, I’d ditch you in a heart beat,” Hester said. “But we’re still making good time, so I don’t need to do that just yet. As for Eli, he isn’t the mission. If he’s there, and by some miracle he’s still alive, we’ll do what we can. Until then, shut up and walk.”
Violet did so.
Several times through out the night they came across other survivors of the attack on the train, following the tracks to the next town in the same fashion they were. Many were alone, a few were in groups. Hester watched them all with the same steely suspicion, racking the bolt of her rifle whenever somebody got too close. There fellow travelers took one look at them and made way.
Well, one look at Hester, anyway. Violet doubted that she, hunched over with a patch on one eye and a hand clutching her side, was capable of intimidating anyone.
Violet had never met anyone like Hester. The woman could be invisible if need be, or she could exude a presence as big and powerful as a bear. Violet watched her in these moments, studying Hester’s posture and attitude, learning.
This is who I want to be, Violet thought to herself. This is the ideal Cartographer.
Eventually, they ran out of stragglers to encounter. Day bled into night. As the rising sun began filtering through the canopy, Violet felt a renewed sense of vigor. She tried to restrain herself. Despite feeling better, she knew she was exhausted and severely dehydrated. A sudden burst in activity would take its toll later.
It didn’t take long for the air to heat up. It had already been warm, and humid, as was expected. However, even Hester gave pause at the heat.
“We need water,” she said, reaching down to her belt. She opened up a pouch and pulled out a small flask, unscrewed the top, and tipped it over. An amber liquid poured out in a thin stream that spoke to Violet’s thirst, despite knowing the whiskey would do her no good.
Hester shook out the last few drops, then walked over to the tree line. She searched the foliage at medium height, her hands brushing the tops of several broad-leafed plants. She checked her fingers periodically, frowning each time.
They continued in this fashion, with Hester grazing the tree line and Violet following on the tracks. Eventually, the sun came over head and shined straight down, and Violet moved closer to the trees for shade. I didn’t do enough to stop the heat, however.
First, her head began to pound, followed by a strange cooling of her skin. The vision in her good eye receded, and the jungle became a green and yellow swirl around her.
“Vi–I–can–g–any–mm–more,” she said, not entirely sure what it was she’d been trying to say, and fell face first to the ground. The pain in her side was nothing more than an after thought now.
Violet thought she heard footsteps coming toward her, and a voice telling her to sit up, not to fall asleep. She didn’t care, though. The pain was gone, and she was floating. If not for the nausea, she’d describe the experience as pleasant.
Sense crashed back down on her more quickly than it had left. The darkness in her vision vanished and the world became brighter than it had been. Her side pulsed steadily with pain, making every heartbeat excruciating.
Hester helped her sit up.
“Keep your head down,” the veteran said.
“Wh-what happened?” Violet asked, barely able to formulate the words.
“You overheated.” Hester put a hand on top of Violet’s head. “Nearly fried your egg.”
They sat together in silence for a moment, Violet taking deep breaths and regaining her bearing. Eventually, she turned to Hester.
“This is it, isn’t it?” she asked. “I really am holding you back now, aren’t I?”
“Go on, then. Get to town, find the pirates. Finish the mission.”
“Finish the mission,” Hester said. “Right. And save Ali.”
Hester stood, brushing dead leaves and dirt from her bottom.
“I’ll send someone back to find you. Just try not to get eaten.”
Violet felt her eye widen and looked up at Hester.
“Hey, I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t a real possibility. I any case, you have your guns. And jaguars are mostly solitary and territorial, so worst case, you’ll only have to shoot one.”
Violet nodded and said, not entirely sincerely, “Thanks.”
“Alright, then,” Hester said, turned and began walking away. Violet watched her go, and pulled the revolver. She checked to make sure everything was in working order, and checked again. When she looked back in the direction Hester had gone, the woman wasn’t there, having disappeared around a bend in the track.
“Well, Violet,” she said to herself. “Here you are, injured and alone in the middle of the jungle. What would your sister say, now?”
Violet lost track of time. The sun had reached its peak and was now falling again. She guessed it was around three o’ the clock in the afternoon. She had found a stick and begun drawing little figures in the dirt, an old past time from when she was a kid. She remembered sitting on the bank of a river near her child hood home, doing the same thing in the mud. She always came home covered in filth, much to her mother’s chagrin.
A new sound drifted on the wind from the direction Hester had gone. It was a soft, churning sound. Violet turned her ear toward it, but lost it. Her eye fixated on the train track as she strained her hearing. There it was again, closer now.
What could it be? It didn’t sound natural, whatever it was.
She noticed movement in the dirt around the track. It was slight at first, but eventually picked up in intensity and the dirt began to slide down. The sound became louder. Violet identified it as mechanical. She looked down the track again. A trail of steam rose above the jungle canopy. A few moments later, a rail car rounded the bend. Hester hung from the side, scanning the tree line. She saw Violet and waved. Violet waved back, and Hester disappeared into the car. Violet saw her through the window, talking to the man driving the rail car. It began to slow, and rolled to a stop right in front of her. Hester hopped down and came over to help Violet to her feet.
“Found a ride,” she said and led Violet into the car. The engineer smiled at her, said something pleasant in Monteddorian, and started to get the car rolling forward again. Hester said something, and they argued. The argument didn’t last long before Hester pulled one of her own revolvers and held it to the man’s ear. The man capitulated, throwing the rail car in reverse.
Violet tried not to think about the other survivors on the track the man had surely been sent to check on as they rolled toward the next town on the tracks.
To Be Continued…
This is part eight of The Shroom Job. The whole story can be found HERE. The Shroom Job updates every Saturday, usually with an illustration, except for this week, because time. As always, constructive feedback on how to make it better is always appreciated!