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As Esther breathed in the sweet, musty smell of the horse blankets in the back of the Librarians’ wagon, she chewed on the I-told-you-so feeling that had overwhelmed her ever since her father had told her the news about Beatriz. She’d known that none of it would come to any good. She’d told Beatriz as much. Tried to tell her, anyway.
But Beatriz never did listen. She always was stubborn, as stubborn as a hot day, the kind that comes too long before a storm breaks, and so she hanged. She swung by her neck while Esther’s father, Victor Augustus, made a speech about the dangers of deviance. Silas Whitmour had stood a few feet behind the podium with his fists clenched in his pockets. His lips had been pressed together tight, his eyes on Esther.
Not on Beatriz. He wouldn’t hardly look at Beatriz at all.
His eyes were on Esther, who had lied to her father and told him she’d make the whole thing right.
* * *
The Head Librarian didn’t find Esther Augustus until they were two whole days outside of Valor, Arizona. She swore so loud and colorful that it snapped Esther right out of the Beatriz-dream she’d been having, and by the time Esther was sitting upright, the Head Librarian’s revolver was pointed right at her face.
“Don’t shoot me,” Esther said, her voice raspy. Her mouth tasted foul from two days with only the bottle of water she’d brought, two days without a toothbrush and without food. “Please,” she added, because her mother had raised her right and because manners seemed like a good idea when a gun was involved.
“Give me a single good reason.” The Head Librarian’s badge glittered in the early-morning sun. It was a hammered copper star with three columns etched into it—one for virtue, one for knowledge, and one for patriotism. It shone as bright as Beatriz’s eyes had.
Esther wasn’t sure if the Head Librarian was asking for a single good reason to shoot or a single good reason not to, but she decided to play her only card.
“My name is Esther Augustus,” she said. “My father is Victor Augustus. He’s—he’s the Superintendent of the Lower Southwest Territory,” she added uncertainly.
The Head Librarian surely knew who Victor Augustus was, but her face didn’t change at the sound of his name. Her square jaw was set just the same as it had been, her flinty gray eyes were just as furious, and her finger was still awfully close to the trigger of her six-shooter.
“Leda!” The Head Librarian didn’t yell, but her voice carried all the same. After a few seconds, Esther heard unhurried footsteps crunching toward the wagon. The Head Librarian didn’t take her eyes off Esther as those footsteps approached, her gaze matching the unblinking eye that was the barrel of her gun. All three of those eyes watched Esther Augustus, and she watched them back, too dehydrated to sweat and unable to draw a full breath.
“Damn it, Bet, if you can’t start dealing with scorpions on your own, I’ll—oh.” A second woman appeared next to the Head Librarian. Bet, Leda had called her. The two women couldn’t have looked more different. Leda was tall and wide where Bet was somewhere between wiry and scrawny. She was pale where Bet was brown, her skin smooth where Bet’s was scarred. Leda’s eyes were gentle. At least, they were. Until they landed on Esther’s little nest among the saddle blankets and dry goods, that is. When she saw Esther’s hiding place, those gentle eyes flashed hard, then went wary and darting.
“Now, Leda,” Bet growled, her eyes still on Esther like a snake watching an approaching ankle, “didn’t I ask you to check this wagon when we left town?”
Leda didn’t answer, but her face told the story well enough: asked to do the task, didn’t feel like doing it, said it was done to move things along.
“Please don’t shoot me,” Esther said, coughing as the words hit her dry throat. “I don’t mean any harm, it’s just—”
“It’s just that you’re running away,” Bet intoned flatly. “You’re running away to join the Librarians.”
“Well, I’m not … I’m not running away from anything,” Esther stammered, the lie loose on her tongue. “I’m running to something.”
“Give the girl some water,” Leda muttered to Bet. “She’s delirious.”
“She’s Victor Augustus’s daughter,” Bet replied.
Leda’s eyes got big as she looked back to Esther. Those eyes were canaries, Esther realized—they sang everything that passed through Leda’s head, loud and clear enough for anyone to catch. “Shit,” she hissed. “We don’t have time for this.”
“Does your father know where you are right now?” Bet asked. Esther hesitated, then shook her head. Bet mirrored the movement. “No? Stupid to tell me so,” she said. “If he doesn’t know you’re here, there’s not a chance of a consequence for me if I shoot you dead and dump your body in the desert.” She sighed, lowering the revolver, and Esther took in a full breath at long last. “Get out of that wagon before you sweat fear-stink all over my horse blankets. Leda, this water is coming out of your supply.” With that, Bet walked away and out of sight.
Esther slid out of the wagon on weak legs, her feet slipping in the gravel. She’d worn her most practical shoes, but she could already tell they wouldn’t keep her upright on the trails the Librarians rode.
Not that good shoes should be her immediate concern, she thought. She couldn’t rightly say that this wasn’t going according to plan, since there hadn’t been much of a plan in the first place, but it certainly wasn’t going the way she’d hoped it might. She couldn’t think of why a Head Librarian would need to carry a revolver instead of a rifle. A rifle would do just fine for whatever might be in the desert, whatever might come across the horizon to make a woman nervous. A revolver was too close-up for a woman to carry, her father’d always said. A revolver was a man’s weapon, made to end an argument.
A Librarian, Esther thought, shouldn’t ever have need of arguing. That was the whole point.
A strong, callused hand caught her by the elbow before she could stumble again. It was Leda holding a canteen. Esther would have sworn she could smell the water inside of it. She drank too gratefully, and that strong hand slapped her on the back hard to make her cough up the water she inhaled.
“You don’t want to lie to Bet, you understand?” Leda whispered, her mouth close enough to Esther’s ear to stir the hair near her temples.
“I wouldn’t,” Esther replied. She decided not to remember the last time Beatriz had been that close to her ear, the things they’d whispered to each other then.
“I mean it,” Leda said. “She’ll know if you lie, and if you do, you can forget about her letting you stay.”
Esther nodded, her heart pounding. If she played this thing wrong, she had no idea what might happen. Maybe Bet would take her home to face her father’s wrath. Maybe Bet would turn her loose in the scrubland to wander, lost and alone. Maybe Bet would pull that iron out again, and maybe this time, she’d use it.
But, Esther reminded herself, that was only if she screwed up.
If she did everything right, on the other hand? Well, then she might just get to become a Librarian.
* * *
A full canteen of water later, Esther was sitting on a rock across from Leda and Bet, and she was lying harder than she ever had before.
“I’ve always wanted to be a Librarian,” she said, looking Bet right in the face, making her eyes wide and earnest the way she did whenever she talked to the Superintendent about the importance of the flag and the troops and the border. Her long hair was matted with sweat in spite of the tight braid she’d bound it in before climbing into the back of the wagon, and she felt like something that had gotten stuck on the tread of a tank, but none of that would matter if she could make herself shine with earnest dedication to the cause. “Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamed of joining an Honorable Brigade of Morally Upright Women, doing Rewarding Work Supporting a Bright Future for—”
Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Gailey