“We fled Baltimore for the New Territory, desperate to escape the death that hangs ever present over the city. It’s a funny thing, fleeing. You flee danger for safety. You flee to escape, like we escape the oppressive fog that clings to the cities. But even in the distance we put between us and it, the blackness lingers. I can feel it in my lungs, feathers that tickle the back of my throat. A cough I cannot clear. It’s the smoke that billows from the front of the train as we ride further away, hanging in the air. There is no escaping what we’ve done. The steaming beast we ride in, for all of its conveniences, is proof enough of that. The danger follows, it taunts us. We have ruined this world, and there is no escaping it.”
—Elizabeth West, April 2, 1884, journal excerpt
May 23, 2031
“No matter what you hear, no matter how curious you are, never ever go outside during a storm. Do you understand?” The wind howls and something thrashes against the house, waking me from a restless sleep. “Tell me you understand.” Beeswax, faint and sharp, fills my nostrils as a cool gust of wind whips by me, and I blink my eyes open. I’m not sure how long I’ve been sleeping, but the cracked white moulding high above me is visible in the dismal light of the sand-soaked morning.
I stir from my cocoon of blankets, peering around the sitting room as my eyes adjust. The room is cast in a flaxen-colored haze, turning the rich pinks and purples in the floral wallpaper almost brown. Everything is covered in a thin layer of sand. The candlesticks on the table next to me are no exception, finished in dust and burned to almost nothing from the long hours of the night before.
I stare down at my sister. Her chest rises and falls with each steady breath as she sleeps. Her bright red hair—the color of the red saguaro flowers that bloom in the dunes beyond the farm—spreads across my lap. She sleeps so peacefully, so quietly.
The house creaks, a familiar, expected sound for an old ranch house, but when floorboards groan under slow, heavy footsteps behind me, I twist around to find Papa, staring through a crack in the shuttered window. The metal that darkens the windows is a shield and an ominous reminder.
The fuzziness of sleep instantly fades away as I realize the storm is still howling outside and Mama hasn’t made it home yet. “Never ever go outside during a storm.” Her words are engrained in me, the hymn of survival in this place of increasing danger.
“It’s letting up,” Papa whispers, as if he can feel my concern.
Carefully, I extricate myself from my sister. I recall my first memory of Mama and I playing with baby Scarlet, cooing and fidgeting on the plush oriental rug beneath my feet. Tears prick my eyes, and the worried sentiments that had hounded me until I finally fell asleep hours before return.
I watch Papa for a moment, wondering what it is he thinks he sees beyond the crack in the metal shutters, through the whirling sand as the storm assaults the exterior. Mama would never venture out in a sandstorm; she would never risk the blinding, painful sting of sand or the possibility of death.
Stepping up to the other window, I move the damask curtains aside and peer between the slight seam in the shutters. It started hundreds of years ago: the Shift. Mama’s great-great-grandma, Elizabeth West, wrote about it in her journal. Lethal fogs that suffocated the bigger cities after the Industrial Revolution, killing innocents and forcing those who were still able to flee out of their homes. That’s why she came to Sagebrush, all those years ago. To escape. But things didn’t work out the way they’d planned on account of the sandstorms and the drought. It wasn’t just the cities with their big machines and coal engines that changed, but the whole world. Mama always reminds me that it’s the sand that is our greatest enemy, but it’s also the sea of sand surrounding us that keeps us nestled away from scavengers in search of precious water we can’t afford to share—it’s the sand that keeps us safe.
Sometimes, I get too curious about Grandma West and the big steamboats that traveled the world. I try to imagine an ocean, or even a beach, where the water meets the sand, and not coarse sand like we have here, but a soft, malleable thing beneath bare feet. “We are grateful to be in Sagebrush, Jo. Never forget that.” Black lung took nearly everyone, and Grandma herself was ailing all her short life because of it. It’s why Mama’s family is so good with healing, something her family had to learn many years ago and passed down to her. “Grandma would have died in Baltimore and we would not be alive, not when so many others died.”
But Sagebrush is a harsh place, cut off from whatever else is out there, that makes me uneasy and restless in the far-reaching expanse of the desert. It’s the only place I’ve ever known, and I try to think of a world where sand can be beautiful and water stretches as far as the eye can see. My mouth dries imagining it.
“I’ll kill him,” Papa says under his breath, and I glance over, confused. Even if I don’t understand the anger in his voice, I somehow know that even if Mama were to walk right through that door, unscathed and smiling, something terrible would follow. I can feel it, the impending something, alive and humming in the air. It turns my longing and anticipation into fear.
“She’s somewhere safe.” I try to reassure him because Mama knows what to do during a storm, and I know Papa knows that, too.
“If he’s done something—anything . . .”
Even at nine years old, I know who Papa is cursing. The marshal is scary, even if I don’t really know why. I’ve felt the tension between him and Papa during dinner parties and when we see him and his family around town. Although I don’t really know him, the marshal doesn’t seem like a pleasant man, but then none of the Cunninghams are very nice. I don’t like Clayton, the marshal’s son, either. He laughed at me once when I fell leaving church. His sister laughed, too.
I look at Papa again, watch the way he combs his mustache with his bottom teeth and leans against the windowsill, as if it’s the only thing holding him upright. He looks gray and exhausted, and I wish I could do something to make the worry around his eyes soften, but I don’t know how.
I fidget with the butterfly pendant Mama gave me on my seventh birthday. The enchanting creatures were her “favorite” thing from the world before. I saw one when I was a little girl, when I was with my best friend down at the creek. She always had a sorrowful look when she told that part of the story. Perhaps someday I will see another butterfly.
I’m not sure how much time passes between Papa’s cursing and my drifting thoughts, but he doesn’t move from his perch. I sit on the edge of the blue velvet sofa, fiddling with the ends of my dark hair that’s rumpled and grimy from sand and sleep. I pick at the hem of my nightgown and then bite on my nails, even though Mama always scolds me not to. It feels like an hour passes before the storm finally starts to die down. The muted sound of wagon wheels outside barely reaches my ears as Papa turns on his heel, startling me.
He rushes out of the room, his quick, heavy footsteps echoing in the hall. I glance at Scarlet, still asleep, and rush after him. I skid to a stop behind him at the front door and he turns to me. “Stay in the house with your sister,” he orders, his fingers gripping the door handle. “I mean it, Jo. Stay. Here.” He pushes the front door open, steps outside, and flings the door shut behind him. I hear him growl something from the porch, but I can’t make it out.
Unable to resist the earnest nudge inside me, I open the door and follow after him. I stare down at the sand grinding beneath my bare feet as I run down the steps of the farmhouse, colliding directly into Papa’s back.
The muted sunshine is disarming and my eyes are not used to the brightness, no matter how faint in the settling sand. The thump of a horse’s hoof as it paws at the dirt reminds me we have visitors, and I peer around Papa.
Standing at the end of a horse-drawn cart with a jailer’s cage is the marshal. He looks different than usual—he looks sad. His face is exposed and red, like he’s been out in the sand without his sand cape and head scarf. His chapped lips are pulled back in a sneer. He doesn’t have goggles slung around his neck like the other three men I see climbing down from the front of the cart: two older men, one very young and nervous looking.
“What did you do!” Papa lunges toward the cart, all composure gone from his wild, brazen features. I clap my hands over my mouth as two deputies rush to him, their sand scarves falling from their faces and down around their necks as they struggle to hold Papa back. The older one with graying hair elbows him in the face.
“Papa!” I shout, wanting to rush to his side, to beat the men off of him as he struggles and curses, but I’m too frightened to move, too small. Too uncertain.
“Doyle!” the marshal barks, and it sounds like a warning as the deputies wrestle against my father.
“Leave him alone!” I shriek and meet Marshal Cunningham’s cool stare. But it’s the vibrant red hair, flashing through the iron bars of the cage behind him, that catches my attention. When I spot a long, delicate hand sticking out from beneath a blanket, all else is forgotten. I gape at the woman, unmoving in the cart. I’m confused.
I’m not sure how many seconds pass before I actually start to cry, or even register that it’s truly my mother, motionless in the cage. Her hair is tangled and mussed, a stark contrast to the faint bruising around her neck. The squeak of the swinging metal door and my father’s sobs are all that fill the pause. “Caroline!”
“Mama!” I scream and run to her, air barely filling my lungs. Faintly, I register the marshal clearing his throat behind me. “Ashford, get a blanket from the barn,” he commands.
“Let me go to her!” Papa shouts frantically as he struggles against the two men. The young one, Ashford, disappears around the side of the farmhouse, his footsteps almost as urgent as my racing heart. This isn’t real—I don’t understand . . .
The cart sways as antsy horses fidget in place, and I can’t tear my eyes away from Mama’s fingers. They move with the cart, as if she’s beckoning me closer to her, but I’m too petrified to move. My body begins to tremble, the tears catching in my throat as I stare at her in stunned horror.
“I told her to stay,” the marshal starts. He stares down at me. He clears his throat and rests his hand on the grip of his holstered pistol as my father’s pleas become more desperate. His mustache twitches. I glance from the marshal’s face to his pistol and his knuckles clenching white around it. “She tried to leave right as the storm set in.” His voice is more raspy than usual, perhaps sad even, and his unfocused gaze settles on Mama’s limp body. His eyes blur and shimmer, like mine.
“Son of a bitch!” Papa shouts.
The marshal seems unfazed, his attention lingering on Mama even as the deputies stand above Papa, taking turns hitting him in the side of the face.
“—did this!” he sputters. “You did! She wouldn’t have you and you—” They hit him again and Papa coughs, his teeth red with blood.
I find my voice and scream. I want to help Papa, but when the marshal reaches for Mama’s hair, I hit his hand away. “Don’t touch her!” I spit at him, wiping my nose on the back of my arm. I shield her from his touch with my body, clutching the blanket that covers her as tightly as I can. “Don’t touch her,” I squeak.
“I tried to make her understand!” the marshal shouts, leaning in over me. I feel his breath on the back of my neck, and the sour stench of his breath hits my nostrils before he clumsily takes a step back. His chest heaves and he clears his throat.
The hot metal of the cage sears through the thin linen of my nightgown, the lip of the cage cutting into my stomach, but I take little notice and nestle my face into the blanket that’s Mama’s tomb, and I wish everything away.
The marshal says something else behind me, but I can’t hear him over my sobs and the grunting and cursing of the men as they pin my father to the ground.
“—did this! I know you did . . .” Papa coughs again, his face shoved in the dirt, his nose already swelling. His eyes are bloodshot and wide as he strains to see her, his lip curled, bloody and broken. Papa’s body is shaking. I hate what they’re doing to him, but all I can do is squeeze my eyes shut and inhale the scent of my mother. But there is nothing left of her; something foul clings to the blanket instead.
When I open my eyes, Papa is staring at me. The anger is gone from his expression and his eyes are filled with tears. “You . . . killed her,” he chokes out.
As the words, broken and filled with anguish, pass Papa’s lips, something angry and protective stirs inside me. I turn to the marshal—hit at him and scream—but he acts like my fit of fury is a brush of the breeze against his skin and he barely sways in place. He doesn’t even care . . . “That’s my mama!” I shout and sob between kicks at his shins and punches to his stomach. I pull at his vest, smack him. Push him. “You killed her!” I shriek, and Marshal Cunningham shakes out of his trance.
He pushes me to the ground as anger, red and dangerous, narrows his features.
“No,” he snarls and points to Mama’s dead body. “She did this. If she hadn’t left, this wouldn’t have happened. She chose to leave . . . and she was attacked by drifters in the storm.”
“You’re lying,” Papa snarls.
I climb to my feet, prepared to run to him, when the marshal grabs hold of my arm and yanks me beside him.
“Don’t you touch my daughter, you murdering son of a bitch. I’ll tell everyone what you’ve done. I’ll kill you myself—”
I vaguely hear Scarlet crying from the porch as I try to break free of the marshal’s hold, but his grip tightens.
“Watch what you say, Mr. Mason . . . slanderous accusations have consequences.”
“Let me go to her—she was my wife,” Papa whimpers between gasps.
The deputy that disappeared behind the house returns, a blanket in his hand as he walks toward us, toward my mother.
“She wouldn’t have you, and you—”
“You’re hysterical, Mr. Mason,” the marshal says warningly, and I cry out as his fingers press into my arm more painfully. “Calm yourself before you make yourself sick or cause an even bigger scene.”
I notice Jane, the housemaid, and the ranch hand peering around the edge of the house, mouths agape and uncertain what to do. Jane pales when her eyes land on me. I point to Scarlet, but the instant the deputy uncovers my mother completely and lifts her body into his arms, I’m unable to look away. Her head hangs limply over the crook of his elbow, her dangling arm bouncing with each hurried step.
“I’ll . . . tell . . . everyone,” he says unevenly as the two men drag him up to his knees.
The marshal tosses the blanket off another body with his free hand—a body I didn’t notice before—exposing a sickly-looking man in leathers with impossibly dark hair. I’m so close I can smell him; the foul aroma is stronger, and I scream, desperate to get away.
“Your wife was attacked by drifters!” the marshal says, growing angrier. He shoves me closer to the dead man, my insides roiling as I take in his green, sunken face. “See? She made her choice and yes, it killed her. Perhaps you should be blaming yourself—your stubbornness, what you’ve put me through!”
I try to pull away from the marshal’s hold, but he shoves me closer to the body. I grip the hot metal bars of the cage, afraid he’s going to shove me inside. “This, little Josephine, this is what I protect you from. This is your future without me. Your mother didn’t understand any of that.” When I peer up at him, eyes bleary and beseeching—pleading with him to let me go—his gaze shifts back to the servants, at Deputy Ashford forcing them and my sister back into the house.
My eyes rest on my mother’s discarded body on the porch, covered with the blanket.
“You’re a liar,” I seethe. “And a monster . . .” I tear my arm from his grasp with all my might, and as I’m about to run away, the marshal’s other hand grips my throat.
“Monster?” He laughs, a throaty, vicious noise, and I can hear Papa shouting, begging the marshal with renewed desperation. “You want to see a monster?” The marshal’s hold tightens around my windpipe and squeezes the air from my lungs. I can’t breathe. “You’ll calm yourself, Charles,” the marshal demands.
I hit desperately at the marshal’s strong hand and try to see Papa—to call for him—but my vision blurs and my heartbeat pounds, loud and overwhelming. Everything begins to fade to black as I pull and pry at his fingers until I can’t feel my own anymore. I can’t think. I can barely see . . .
“Okay—okay! Please, don’t—”
“You’ve nearly cost me everything, Mr. Mason, and I can’t have that.”
The last thing I remember is being lifted up into the marshal’s arms, the faint tang of whiskey touching my nose before everything goes completely black.
Eleven Years Later
The sun has barely risen and is already intense against my neck as I wait for the final cows to meander their way out of the barn. Days like this, when there is upkeep to be done, they don’t get to stay in the drafty barn, in the shade. Old Clover, the matriarch of the dairy herd, gives me an eye-scolding as she clomps by, chewing her cud, slow and stubborn.
“Sorry, old girl,” I say, wiping my brow. “You’re just lucky you don’t have to fix the blasted steamer, since you’re the one who broke it in yesterday’s storm.” She moos at me, a defiant cry, and I swat her on the rump with my grease rag. “You’ll get over it.”
She hustles past, joining the rest of the girls in the pasture. It’s not a verdant meadow by any means, and half the time it’s covered in a fine layer of sand, but somehow us Masons have been blessed to have a few green patches left in this cracked, desolate place. Unlike last year, when the rainy season came late, this year the rain has yet to come at all.
It’s laughable, really, the thought of changing seasons. Rain or no rain, everything else stays the same; the prickly-pear blossoms open in the evening and close at night, the sagebrush blooms, even in the heat of the hottest days, but everything else is dull and weathered, bristled and hardened. Even the tallest cacti, once the most prominent and yielding in the valley, are red, burnt and shriveled. Their ruby-red fruits overly harvested for food and fermented Devil’s Juice or wine, their roots dug up and dried for fences and furniture in a place surrounded by sandstone and nothingness as far as the eye can see. This land is dying and the seasons, it would seem, have disappeared with the water and the rain.
And yet, as life becomes harsher, the farm continues to thrive, just as it has for over five generations. The Shift didn’t change that, even if the soil has begun to fissure, mimicking the rest of the world, and the water supply continues to deplete. Though I can’t explain it, I don’t question it either.
The rusted hinges of the heavy barn doors protest and squeak as I latch them shut, and I mentally remind myself to fix the spindles someday soon. The barn and parts of the farmhouse are the last remnants of this farm from before the Shift. In a climate ravaged by sand and lightning, our resources are long gone, and every bit of iron, copper, and steel the deputies find on their expeditions to the Dead Lands is smelted down into impenetrable protective sheets that cover most of the city and allow us all to live.
I peer out at the rusted steel housings that cover plots of crops spread out over the acreage, produce shuttered away from the sand that so adamantly tries to consume everything. I often wonder if it’s alive: seeping its way in whenever and wherever it can, leaving a layer of dust behind.
My great-great-grandmother and uncle Teddy were alive during the Shift. Had it not been for the marshal at the time and his town-changing plans borne out of desperation, my family would’ve lost their livelihood. There would be no farm to gaze out at now, and we would have no crops to grow or sell. My family would be no better off than the steel workers and trappers scrimping pennies to make ends meet in town. But the greenhouses saved us; grounded by steel siding to protect against the wind and lightning, pitched glass ceilings pitted from sand but allowing in sunlight, and rolling metal doors to close during the storms—all of it necessary to keep the sand at bay. All of it is a reminder of how vulnerable we are in this place.
Everything here is a rusted box with steel doors. What buildings aren’t already covered are too far gone or their inhabitants too poor. But even being encased in steel isn’t enough. Much like black lung all those years ago, the sandstorms are taking their toll, and Sagebrush is starting to feel the effects of it.
I startle when I feel something press against my leg, happy to find Sweetie, the barn cat, winding her way between my feet as she meows up at me. “Well, good morning to you, too,” I say, bending down to stroke her coarse tabby fur. She’s old but scrappy with her snaggletooth smile as she purrs in the morning sunshine.
The sound of crunching gravel up the road catches my ear, the laughter and mutters of the marshal’s men and ranch hands following. I let out a steadying breath. “And so, the day begins,” I mutter.
The creaking wagon makes its way down the crest of the hill, the men’s laughter booming in the crisp morning air. While I know the steel casing is protection from a storm, I wish they kept the panels closed indefinitely.
I peer up at the sun, big and round and burning in the expansive blue sky. Thankfully, there isn’t a storm in sight, though vultures are circling something just shy of the Dead Lands a few miles out. A lewd whistle meets my ears, and, pinning on an apathetic face, I turn to the two old bay mules that pull the wagon to a halt outside the barn.
Predictable as the marshal’s men are, I know all too well why Doyle and the rest of the deputies are late this morning—Ms. Hannah May and her ladies at the Brass Rail Saloon. Ms. Hannah makes it her business to ensure that the marshal’s men get their needs met—multiple times a day, if they demand it.
Another whistle greets my ear, but I busy myself, checking the lock on the barn door before wiping the grease from my fingers with my rag. I can handle dirt and grease and muck and manure, but some of the deputies never fail to make my stomach curdle with their loose tongues and slimy thoughts.
Steeling myself for the onslaught of stench and vulgar looks I’ve come to expect, I crack my neck, apathy pinioned in place, and head toward the house. Fixing the steamer can wait until the men are off in the corn and wheat fields that surround the ranch, busy with work.
“Mornin’,” the king of lechery, Deputy Doyle, says as he climbs off the wagon. His leer could shake a serpent itself out of its own skin. He clears his throat, and against my best effort, I meet his attentive gaze. His eyes travel the length of me, appraising my trousers and then my dirt-speckled shirt. “And where might your sweet sister be this morning?” he asks, his voice dripping with heathenish delight.
I don’t give him the pleasure of a response, instead continuing to the house. Though I venture into town only for church, even I know Doyle’s one of the most boorish men in this place, only liked by his half-witted peers. His father was a malicious brute, like him, and the marshal’s right-hand man, before he died out in the Dead Lands some years back. Unfortunately, Doyle more than happily took his father’s place at the marshal’s side soon after. Now only Mr. Ashford is higher in rank than him.
A few more of the marshal’s posse lumber past me as I make my way up to the house. Some of them meet my eyes; others ignore me completely, which is the way I’d prefer it.
I hear the front door swing shut and Jonathan Ashford himself comes into sight, adjusting his hat. Just as he’s about to step off the porch, my sister Scarlet hurries up behind him and reaches for his hand. I pause, my heart thudding a bit as they exchanged a long look. She hands him a small basket of something—food, most likely—and Scarlet smiles shyly at him as if there’s a secret between them.
Mr. Ashford dips his head in return, watching her as she disappears back into the house, and my stomach churns. Kip, my father’s dog, rushes out as I hear the screen door slam shut, but I don’t mind his barking as he runs past me, not as I contemplate their affections for one another and wonder how long whatever’s between them has been brewing.
“You’re up early, Miss Mason,” Mr. Ashford says with forced affability as he steps off the porch. The easiness in his expression wanes, as it generally does when we are in one another’s presence. Even in his finer clothes and with his more refined pastimes and demeanor, he is the most unnerving of all the deputies—the marshal’s closest confidante. After eleven years, my chest still tightens in his company, and I resist the urge to avert my eyes. Instead, I turn to face him fully.
“Good morning, Mr. Ashford.” I raise a rebuking eyebrow. “I fixed the windmill for you this morning—thought I better put myself to good use since your men are late, again.”
Mr. Ashford pulls his pocket watch out and flicks it open.
“I’m sure they are quite exhausted,” I continue, “from all of their drinking and philandering last night.”
He peers out at his men, who are barely walking upright in their drunken haze. When he looks at me again, no doubt trying to think of some excuse, he eyes my trousers and grease rag instead. After ten years of working so close with my family, he still looks at me like I’m a conundrum. “I’ll make sure they work their hours, Miss Mason. And their work for today will get done, I assure you.”
I nod, and, not wanting to linger in his presence, I head for the side door to the kitchen.
“Get to work!” Mr. Ashford hollers to the men behind me. There’s more disappointment and urgency in his voice than he’d let on to me, but it’s easy enough to guess why. The marshal doesn’t take kindly to his men skirting their responsibilities, especially when he’s assigned them to it and their duties are to his benefit—his grain, his dairy, his wool. A temper, the marshal has, one I know Jonathan Ashford is aware of firsthand. I do my best to drive dark memories back down deep as I step onto the creaking porch.
When I notice the grease and dirt on my trousers, I brush the grain dust and cat hair away, though the grease only smears into the leather. “Wonderful,” I mutter. Scarlet is going to kill me for coming to breakfast in such a state.
The kitchen door flies open and I take an abrupt step backward.
My sister steps out with a wooden spoon in her hand. She flashes her famous good-morning smile at me, green eyes crinkling in the corners. “Perfect timing! I was just about to ring the bell,” she chirps and twirls back into the kitchen, only to stop short. Her pale blue skirts brush against my legs as she spins back around, eyeing my attire with a sigh. “Get rid of that greasy rag, would you? And wipe off your boots,” she demands, and I follow her inside. The door swings shut behind me and mesquite-smoked ham fills my nostrils. “And for goodness sake,” Scarlet says, leaning closer. Her eyes bore into a spot on my cheek. “Wash your face before the corn cakes cool.”
“We can’t have cold cakes,” I mumble and brush my cheek with the back of my arm. Scarlet flashes me a warning glare over her shoulder. While I’ve become the mechanic and nurse in the family since Mama passed, my sister is the woman of the house—younger she may be, but she’s fierce and capable, and she cooks and sews and commands what few house staff are still around as if she were Mama herself.
“Oh, before I forget . . .” I pull two quail feathers from my back pocket. “I thought you might like these for one of your bonnets.”
Scarlet’s bright eyes widen big as biscuits, and she grins. “Yes, they’re perfect.” She leans in and kisses me on the cheek. “But you still have to wash,” she teases.
Submerging my hands in a pail of water in the back corner of the kitchen, I lather them with Mrs. Hill’s famous oatmeal soap and scrub the dirt and grime away.
“Don’t forget to get under your fingernails, Jo,” she says, and a kitchen chair scrapes the wood-planked floor behind me. “You know how I hate that.”
I shake my head and scrub as much of the dirt from beneath my fingers as I can. “Yes, dear.”
“It’s not my fault you’re such a boy,” she says playfully. “I can’t imagine who you take after—Papa hasn’t a mechanically inclined bone in his entire body.” She laughs to herself. “He only meddles with polish and bridles.”
“But Mama has,” I remind her. It’s one of the many reasons she’s so missed.
“Yes, and you like mysteries and puzzles, I know. I wish you’d solve the enigma of your hair,” she teases, and I whip around to face her, patting at my hastily coiled chignon.
“What’s wrong with it?” I ask, tossing the hand towel at her.
“Oh, nothing, if you like the windblown, fresh-out-of-bed look.” She tosses the towel back at me with a smile and turns back toward the stove.
I step over to a metal grain box on the counter to appraise my reflection.
“Oh, don’t worry about it, Jo,” Scarlet says, patting my shoulder as she grabs the kettle of hot water. “We’re used to it. Now, sit.”
She winks at me, and I shake my head. “If you’re not careful, I won’t fix the timer on the toaster.”
Her mouth parts in feigned horror, and I turn back to the table with a satisfied grin as our father walks into the kitchen.
His blue eyes briefly meet mine before his lips pull up in a little quirk and he glances between my sister and me. He’s much altered from the past few years, I realize, just as we all are, but it strikes me that he, like most men in Sagebrush, has let his goatee grow fuller than usual to protect his face from the sun and wind.
He slides a chair out for me to the right of his own. Scarlet sets her basket of cornbread biscuits in the center, followed by a plate of eggs and a platter of sliced ham. She takes her seat in the chair across from me, and once she’s situated, we bow our heads.
“Bless this day,” Scarlet starts, “the clear sky, and this nourishment to our bodies. We are grateful for this roof over our heads, our good fortune when so many others are struggling. We hope for water, we wish for rain, and we pray that we stay safe.” She pauses. “To a more prosperous future,” she whispers.
“To a more prosperous future,” Papa and I mumble in unison. I’m not sure when those words turned repetitious and empty, but that spark of optimism I felt when saying them when I was a little girl fizzled out a long time ago. There is no hope for things to get better. Not when the marshal won’t even try. Our prayers only serve as reminders that things are getting worse.
My father pours himself some hot ginger-root water and sets his chipped teacup on his saucer, waiting for us, as usual, to plate our food.
“Pass me a corn cake, please, Jo,” Scarlet says, unfolding her napkin in her lap.
“This looks delicious, Scarlet,” my father says, examining the small feast decorating the table. He doesn’t smile much, not wholeheartedly—he stopped smiling a long time ago—but he’s proud of her; the pride lighting his blue eyes says as much. Scarlet, on the other hand, she can always find a reason to be happy. Whether she does it for us or for herself, hers is the fullest and best out of all of us.
“Where’s Jane this morning?” I ask, realizing she’s not here cooking breakfast for us herself. Though she is ten years my senior, she always felt like a sister to me—doing my hair as a little girl, helping our old cook in the kitchen before she passed away shortly after my mother’s death. Jane and her father have been the only two steady staff we’ve had throughout the years—one of the only remnants of our lives before. Them, and this old house.
“Mary isn’t feeling well,” Scarlet said, dabbing her lips with her napkin. “Papa received word last night after you’d gone to bed.”
Although I don’t say anything, I’m sure it’s dehydration. The townspeople have been bordering on it for weeks, though everyone’s fear increases with the sandstorms and the lack of rain. I meet Scarlet’s downcast expression. “Did you send the rider with a canteen?” I ask, knowing Scarlet thinks similarly in these regards.
She nods. “Two of them.” Then she clears her throat, as if she’s unaffected. “So, I tried something different with the cakes,” she says, handing my father the ham.
I break off a piece of my biscuit and take a bite. “Did you?”
Her eyebrows dance. “I added some of Mr. McGregor’s honey. Let me know what you think.”
Corn, meat, and dairy are three things that always stock our larder, and Scarlet and Jane find new ways of switching things up every so often. “I like it,” I say, licking my lips. “Gives it a bit more flavor.”
My father takes a bite, then licks his lips. “It’s very good. Sweet, but good.”
“I’m not sure I’ve ever liked your corn cakes this much before,” I tell her, stabbing the rest onto my fork.
She shrugs and takes a sip of her ginger water. Like me, Scarlet savors every sip, knowing it’s only a matter of time before we can no longer indulge in such frivolous traditions each morning as water becomes scarcer by the day. “Last week, when I went to the mercantile, I saw Mrs. Pelley. She told me that her grandmother used to speak of things people used to have before the Shift, like coffee and tea and maple syrup.”
“We have tea,” my father says, taking a sip from his steaming cup. After he sets his teacup down, he pats his damp mustache—the only kempt part of him—with his napkin. His hair is rumpled and his clothes wrinkled, like he hasn’t even been to bed yet. I’m not sure what he does in his study, but he retreats there each night after supper as surely as the sun rises each morning.
Scarlet tips her head, incredulous. “We don’t have tea,” she says. “We have ginger water and sage leaves and saguaro wine—and lots of whiskey—but we don’t have the fine, exotic teas from India or the coffees from the plantations that used to grow to the east.” Scarlet’s eyes widen with wonder. “Just imagine what it would’ve been like,” she says, leaning back in her chair. “Two hundred years ago—lights that would turn on and off without a flame, traveling the continent in a train car, free from the stench of horses and the sun beating down on your face.” She lets out an exaggerated sigh and sits up again. “The point is, Mrs. Pelley mentioned honey was the next best thing to syrup, and I realized I’ve never tried cooking with honey before, it’s too sweet. So I got some from Mr. McGregor since he’s so proud of his honey beer—I got it at no charge, of course. He still owes us for the last-minute grain order last month.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” I say with a swallow and dab any crumbs from my lips. “I oiled the pistons for the millstone, Father. It should be good as new. If Mr. Ashford would do as I ask and make the men grease them before they leave each night, it would stop locking up so frequently.” It’s a request I’ve made a dozen times, but it seems some of the men pay less attention to us as the weeks go on.
“Thank you, Jo,” my father says without looking at me and takes a bite of ham. “I’ll speak with Mr. Ashford again.”
Though I’m certain I already know the answer, I can’t help but ask, “Did you happen to speak with the marshal about the steam engines yet?”
He nods, reluctantly. “Mr. Ashford did, yes.”
Knowing my father wants as little to do with the marshal as I do, I’m not surprised he left it in Ashford’s hands. “And?”
“And Marcus,” he bites out, perturbed, then he clears his throat. “The marshal doesn’t think we should take the risk of using our precious resources for a return we can’t guarantee. Steam engines need coal—”
“And the use of coal is outlawed, I know that. That’s why we use wood to keep them burning—or Saguaro root, perhaps?”
“Wood we have very little of, Jo, and you know the cacti are in even shorter supply. He would never go for it,” my father adds. “Come up with an engine that will run on sand and he might listen to you, but in the meantime, Ashford says he won’t be swayed.”
“Of course he won’t,” I grumbled. “The possible gain would be everything we need to get Sagebrush up and running again—we could have water and then what would he hold over us?”
My father’s eyes pin me against my chair, and though I’m not sure what I’ve said, I can tell I’ve upset him.
“Don’t worry, Jo,” Scarlet says, oblivious to my father’s anger. She grins, amused by whatever thoughts fill her mind. “It will be better for you in the end, you’ll see.”
“What do you mean?”
She looks pointedly at me as she forks a small slice of ham onto her plate. “You’re already covered in grease and cow poop half the time. Smoke and soot would ruin you completely. And I swear I saw you spit the other day when you were bringing the horses in from the field.”
“I did not!” I balk, but of course I did. It’s something Scarlet would understand if she spent more time outdoors in the wind and sand, like I do. “It’s not like it matters though, anyway.”
“Oh, it matters,” she says. “We’ve not fallen so far from the propriety of old, Jo. You still have to act like a lady. At least some of the time.” She shakes her head, as if I’m simply too much to bear. “Add ‘mad scientist’ and ‘inventor’ to your list of oddities and you’ll never find a husband.”
I frown. “Nor would I want to marry any of the men in this hellhole, as you well know.”
My father glares at me, but Scarlet laughs. “You have to at some point, both of us will. Isn’t that right, Father?”
His eyes skirt to mine briefly before they dart away. “Eventually, yes.”
“And you’re the oldest, so . . .”
“Unbelievable,” I say and drop my fork. It’s the one topic I dread. Scarlet crinkles her brow. “No, seriously, why do I have to marry someone? I can manage just fine on my own. I don’t need some depraved ingrate as a husband.”
“You know why, Jo,” my father says.
“No, not really,” I say, adamantly shaking my head.
“They aren’t all so bad, Jo,” Scarlet chirps. “Mr. Trainer likes you well enough. One might venture to say he’s infatuated with you. I’ve heard him propose to you before, right out on that very porch.”
I glare at her. “He was joking. Obviously.” I pin Scarlet with a pointed stare. “And what about you, Sister? Mr. Tomlin is quite normal, I dare say. Well, save for his mutterings and hand flailing as he wanders through town. There’s also the vicar’s son—”
“The vicar’s son is only fourteen!” Scarlet cries.
“You’re barely nineteen. Men like an older, wiser woman, anyway,” I tease her.
“That’s enough,” my father says and takes another sip from his cup. His eyes cut between us over the brim.
Scarlet and I exchange a wide-eyed expression and settle primly back into our seats.
“Why could I not have had any sons?” he mutters to himself, lightening the mood again, and Scarlet and I withhold an amused laugh. “They would have no qualms about marrying.”
“But, seriously, Father. What’s wrong with being unmarried?” I ask. “Things aren’t like they were before—there is no one to impress.”
“Lineage, Jo.” He sighs and wipes his lips before he looks into my eyes. His gaze rests on mine long enough that I can see the ever-present shame and life-sucking regret behind the specks of green and blue. “It’s about linage—about keeping this place in the family. Surely I don’t need to explain any of that to you.”
I glance down at my mostly clean fingernails. Unlike me, Scarlet has been planning her wedding day most of her life. “Mother’s dress with more lace, and I’ll have to extend the hem a bit because I am an inch or two taller.” Scarlet is where the future of little Mason children lies, not me.
“Oh, I forgot to mention that I plan to visit Mrs. Pelley after church on Sunday.”
My father’s gaze lingers on me a breath longer before we both look at Scarlet.
“She’s so poor and lonely now that Mr. Pelley’s died, and I have such an affinity for her. She was always so nice to me,” Scarlet says. I can imagine her only six or seven years old with fire-red hair that always set her apart from the other children at the schoolhouse. Seven-year-olds didn’t care about propriety then; they teased her despite her special standing, but Mrs. Pelley looked out for her. She was a good teacher to Scarlet, especially after I was brought home to study.
My sister’s eyes meet mine as she sets her cup down, then she looks at my father. “She mentioned only being able to pick up the necessities at the grocer’s the other day. I think with the heat and the drought . . . I’ll take her some meats and cheeses.”
My father nods.
“I’m sure she’d like that, Scarlet,” I tell her.
“Actually,” she says, her face falling a little, “Jo, she’s looked a little peaked the past few times I’ve seen her. Do you mind terribly coming to church this Sunday and going with me to visit her? I want to make sure she’s doing okay.”
My father looks at me and combs his goatee with his dirty fingernails. He’s watching me, waiting for me to find some reason to stay home and away from town. “All right,” I say, knowing my father will push the marriage topic again if I don’t start making appearances in town a bit more frequently. “I’m not sure what I can do, but I’m happy to visit her with you.”
“Thank you, Jo,” Scarlet says, a grateful, toothy smile parting her lips.
“This place isn’t kind to the elderly or the poor,” my father says quietly as he tosses his napkin on the table beside his empty plate. “And you two will do well to make your visit quick. The Grunge is no place to be dawdling.”
Stacking my father’s plate on top of my own, I shake my head. “Trust me, we won’t, Father.” Scarlet and I begin to clear the table together.
My father leaves us to tend to the kitchen and disappears to his study. The kitchen feels cramped, compared to the rest of the house, but having spent our childhood in here with our mother and having picked up more duties since her death, Scarlet and I fall into a natural rhythm. She covers the leftover corn cakes with a towel and sets them back on the table. I know what she’s going to do with them, but I don’t say anything. Then, she pours my father’s leftover tea back in the teapot. “Shhh. Don’t tell him.”
I laugh. “It’s not like he’ll know the difference.”
With a jostle of the doorknob, the back door opens, and Mr. Ashford steps inside. He removes his hat when he finds us amidst our cleanup.
“Mr. Ashford,” Scarlet says with a slight curtsy.
“Ladies . . .” He nods at each of us, though his dark brown eyes linger on my sister. “I hope I didn’t interrupt your breakfast.”
Scarlet’s cheeks flush a rich pink and her expression warms. “No, we’ve finished. Thank you.”
Eventually, he tears his eyes away from Scarlet and remembers I’m in the room. “Is your father in his study?” he asks me, and his eyebrows pull down in concern.
“Yes,” I tell him. “What is it?”
He glances between us, pondering whether or not to speak, it seems, before he opens his mouth to explain. “There was a shooting last night in town—the glassblower’s son was killed trying to help a young woman and her boy move out of the way when two of those—well, two drifters rode into town.”
Scarlet gasped. “That’s terrible.”
“Drifters rode into town?” I ask, truly frightened of them for the first time. The Puebloans have always hated us, from our long-ago history, fighting for this land, to the day the world ended and would do anything and kill anyone to get it back.
We’d heard stories of their ruthlessness all our lives; we’d seen patrols come back mangled or worse. We’d seen the bodies of drifters who’d gotten too close in the Dead Lands, shot and killed before they could make it into Sagebrush. Never had they managed to hurt one of ours. Other than my mother. At least that’s what the marshal would have everyone think.
“He’s in there.” I nod toward the back of the house, but Mr. Ashford’s gaze finds Scarlet’s once more. It’s as if he’s worried the news has upset her, and I watch as an unspoken conversation passes between my sister and the marshal’s most elevated deputy. Finally, Mr. Ashford nods to us both and passes through the kitchen.
Scarlet’s gaze lingers at the empty doorway long after he’s gone.
“You do realize,” I tell her, barely able to hide my displeasure, “that Mr. Ashford is ten years older than you and is in the marshal’s pocket, don’t you, Scarlet?”
The spell seems to break and she looks at me, reluctant. “Yes, of course I do,” she says, turning back to her tub of dishes. “And I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I almost smile. “Scarlet, I’ve never seen you blush over any man, and heaven knows there are plenty throwing themselves at you.”
“Oh, stop it,” she chides. But I stand there, waiting for her to take me seriously.
When she finally looks at me, I raise an inquisitive brow. “What’s happened between you?” Unease slithers inside me, but I must know how far things have gone between them. “How long have you cared for him?”
Her cheeks redden. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says, turning back to the sink. “A few months, perhaps.” She blows a strand of scarlet-red hair from her face. “I know he’s older, but I like that about him. He’s not some greedy lust monger like the rest of them. There’s a gentle side to him, something different than the others. It’s as if he’s felt loss—I can see it in his eyes when he looks at me.” Scarlet shakes her head. “I know you dislike him, but I can’t help it.”
If she only knew.
She grins to herself. “I think it may have started when he shoved Carlyle against the wall and threatened him within an inch of his life for grabbing hold of my arm. I noticed then how protective he was of me, and I haven’t forgotten it.” She pivots to face me. “He might’ve been placed here by the marshal, Jo, but . . . don’t you consider him a part of this place, perhaps even a friend of Papa’s? They are very close, and he’s kind and gets along well with our servants—”
“And he works for the marshal, Scarlet,” I remind her again. “Don’t forget that. He doesn’t work here out of the goodness of his heart. There’s a reason Marshal Cunningham placed him here.”
Her brow furrows and her eyes turn sad. “You don’t know that—”
“Yes, Scarlet, I do.”
Drip. Drip. Drip.
The past comes back to haunt me, and I silently plead with her to reconsider her feelings, as burgeoning as they might be.
Her eyes narrow.
“Besides,” I add a bit more playfully, “it’s the quiet ones, like Mr. Ashford, that we need to watch out for. Who knows what’s going on inside that head of his.”
Scarlet rests her hand on my forearm, and I set down the dry dish in my hand. “I know you’ve been scarred by the marshal”—she cringes—“you know what I mean. But not everyone is as evil as he is, Jo.”
I cross my arms, staring at the faded nightingales on the peeling wallpaper. I know she’s right, partially, anyway. There are still good people in this town, but the terrible ones are at the head of it, and we are all just pawns in this devious game they’re playing: survival.