Violet opened her eyes to a blurry swirl of orange and green. She rolled over onto her back and pain shot through her body from her right side. Her teeth grit against the pain and tears welled up in her eyes, further blurring her vision.
Trails of smoke led by bits of flaming wood still arced through the sky above her. The sky itself had deepened to shades of red and purple. The shape of a person limped into view above her.
“You alive, kid?”
Hester reached out one gloved hand. Violet tried to move her arm to take it, another bout of pain racking her body for her efforts.
“Yup,” Hester said over her cry of pain. “You’re alive. Come on.”
She bent down, grabbed Violet’s arm and hauled her to her feet. Violet’s legs threatened to fold under her. She braced herself against Hester until the worst of the agony faded and found her footing.
A fog horn sounded in the distance. Hester turned toward it, giving Violet no choice but to move as well. Every step sent fresh waves of protest from her side, but what she saw overcame it.
The airships lifted away from the track with one of the cars suspended between them. She was no expert, but it appeared to be a baggage car.
“Have you seen Eli?” Violet asked.
“Who? Oh…the boy. No.”
The complete disregard for Eli’s existence bothered Violet a little bit, but she kept it to herself, instead pulling her arm back from around Hester’s shoulders and backing away from her.
“You good?” Hester asked.
Violet nodded, still not speaking. Even the simple act of breathing hurt.
“Alright.” Hester unshouldered her rifle, looked it over, and then held it at the ready. “Those airships are making off with what we came here for, and we need to make tracks.”
Violet looked over in the direction of the airships. They were little more than tiny specks now in the distance, the train car dangling between them above the tops of the trees. A few more seconds and they would be out of sight.
“Do you have another airship stashed away somewhere?” Violet asked breathlessly. “Because I don’t think we can keep up on foot.”
“Don’t need to,” Violet said. “I recognize the ships. We need to get to Mission Isiarro, the next town on the line. If we hurry, we can make it there before tomorrow evening.”
Violet frowned at the prospect of walking all night and day. Hester saw it and came over.
“Look, you’ve got at least two broken ribs,” she said. “I’ve been there myself, and I know it hurts like all hell, but you can take the pain. There’s going to be times when it feels like you’re on fire and can’t take another step, but you can push through it. I can tell. Or am I wrong?”
Violet didn’t speak. She instead took a few tenuous steps forward, found a pace, and walked past Hester toward the tracks.
Only one car remained on the track, another baggage car, from the look of it. Violet stopped and did a quick scan of the area. There was no sign of human life, and no sound except for insects buzzing through the plants around them.
Hester looked back at Violet and nodded curtly in the direction of the car, then flicked her eyes down to Violet’s hip. Violet looked down and saw that by some miracle, she still had the six-gun. She drew it and followed Hester to the baggage car.
Hester clambered up onto the platform, turned, and then helped Violet up. It didn’t hurt so much anymore. Violet didn’t know if that was a good thing or not.
They took up positions by the door, weapons at the ready. Hester’s eyes met Violet’s in a question.
Are you ready? her eyes asked. Violet nodded, and Hester opened the door, going in low. Violet took a deep, numbing breath and followed, scanning high. Nothing but bags and crates lined the inside of the car.
“Wait here,” Hester said, and crept further inside. She did a quick sweep, stopped about halfway in, and lowered her rifle. “Come in!”
Violet joined Hester. The senior cartographer had opened a box and was rifling through it. She stopped, reached in, and pulled out two gun belts. The revolvers in the holsters were dull, but not unclean. Violet’s misgivings of the weapons’ condition must have shown on her face.
“Look,” Hester said, shoving her rifle at Violet to hold while she put on the belts. “A pair of silver revolvers looks flashy and all at parties, but that same flash can get you killed in the field. I’ll show you how to get a nice patina going so people you’re trying to get the drop on don’t see you coming from a mile away.”
Violet didn’t much care for the idea of mussing up her six-guns, not after just receiving them, and recognized the sentiment as foolish. Until now she had regarded them as trophies, a badge of her commitment to the organization, a symbol of her status as a Cartographer.
However, the six-guns were also tools, first and foremost. A thing to be used. And, watching Hester strap the guns to her hips, Violet saw that the worn out, dull metal of the guns could be a badge unto itself. It spoke of work in the field, of past jobs done well, of experience and wisdom.
“Careful, girl,” Hester said, buckling the second belt and taking back her rifle. “Your eyes are liable to pop out of your skull.”
“I-uh…” Violet stammered stupidly. Hester smirked and turned back to the cargo.
“Where’s your other revolver at?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Violet said. “It’s in the box the handler gave me.”
Hester shook her head and said, “Well, we best get looking. Sun’s going down quick and a box that small is like to be hard to find in broad daylight. It’ll probably be up top, though.”
They searched and searched, but found nothing. The top of the sun sunk below the tree tops outside, leaving them in twilight.
“We need to go,” Hester said. The words felt like a punch in the stomach to Violet. It was bad enough that she had already lost an eye and broken her rib. And she had failed her final test, when she hesitated to kill Eli.
Now she had lost her six guns, one given to Eli and the other lost in the attack.
“Come on!” Hester urged. The older cartographer didn’t seem to care, which was somehow worse. Violet followed, feeling like a failure with every step she took.
“There’s more to Cartography than running around with a couple of irons in hand, mowing down things that are trying to kill you,” Hester said when they were further down the track. “But it is a pretty big part. The guns are just a tool, though. They can be replaced. And besides, that one on your hip?”
Hester pointed to the gun she’d pulled off a dead pirate.
“That gun in particular, well, let’s just say it’s special, and leave it at that.”
Hester walked ahead a few paces, not far enough that Violet would lose sight of her in the night, but far enough so that she could have whatever served as privacy at that moment. Violet wondered what Hester meant about the gun being special, but didn’t press the matter.
Up ahead, the seasoned vet cried silently.
To Be Continued…
“The Shroom Job” updates every Saturday. You can read the first seven parts HERE. Don’t be afraid to give feedback! Really let me have it…it’s the only way I’ll get better.