By Stephen Thom
The circle of boughs wheeled above him and between them the moon wheeled within its dark meridian. His ears were still ringing with a dull frequency. He saw Abigail's face leaning above him, and he grimaced as the pain came rushing back. His head and hands were crudely bandaged and he cried out as she sloshed the contents of a bottle over his shoulder. There was a strong waft of alcohol and he rolled over and vomited. She held his head as he hacked up.
'Dammit Abigail, you know what you're doin' with that?'
She shivered as she tied a stretch of fabric around his shoulder. Her face was pasty and her eyes were red with tiredness.
'No, I don't know what I'm doin', but you looked all dead so I thought I'd best do somethin'.'
He saw the horse mooching around by the makeshift tent, and part of his immediate fear dissipated.
'Did he come back all by hisself?' he said, wincing as Abigail pulled the makeshift bandage tight.
'I went and got him,' she said. She was blinking back tears, but he could also see a little bit of pride in the way her bottom lip stuck out. 'He couldn't of got far, them trees are like a big wall. He was kickin' and swishin' his tail, but I talked to him all quiet like I seen you do, and I gave him more food in his little bag.'
Emmett nodded, impressed. He lifted himself up on his elbows. His shoulder throbbed. It was still dark. He saw the two bodies and looked away. The rain had thinned and the clearing was a mess of torn blankets, scattered possessions, and puddles of steaming black blood.
'Wait a minute,' he swallowed. 'You went and got Buck first, 'fore you helped me?'
Abigail frowned as she lifted a canteen to her lips.
'Well, you looked all dead,' she sniffed. 'And we ain't gettin' nowhere without him. Stuck on these mountains! Plus he's older'n you.'
Emmett tried to stand and sunk back to his knees.
'If I was all dead we wouldn't be goin' nowhere!' he shouted. He heard the strange ringing in his ears again. It seemed to vibrate and crescendo. Abigail stood up. Her arms were straight by her sides, and her hands clenched.
'Don't you shout at me, Emmett Roach, I done checked that you were breathin'! You know fine well what I meaned! You weren't goin' anywhere. I was tryin' to do the right thing, all quick.'
Emmett waved his hand and clutched at his shoulder. His head swam.
'You done the right thing,' he breathed, 'I'm sorry.'
The rain was thinning. He sat in the mud and tried to let the dizzy spell pass. Abigail moved towards him and squatted down.
'Emmett, we need to get you some help,' she whispered. 'You got cut bad. I was real scared.'
Emmett put his head in his hands. When he looked up he saw the two dark bodies again.The cloth masks obscuring their faces.
'I'm sorry you think I like Buck better'n you,' Abigail said, and hung her head.
'Shush,' he said. He reached out and pulled her close. His hands stung within their bandages. She blinked and nuzzled into his armpit.
'You done good,' he said. The trees whispered above them.
'You kilt two people, Emmett,' she breathed.
'I got lucky,' he said. 'They wasn't right, their... The way they moved, it wasn't right. They was just swinging away as hard as they could, it was... I cain't explain it.'
'I told you you shouldn't of took that box,' Abigail said. 'I told you.'
'They all don't look much like people, anyhow,' Emmett said. He loosened his hold on Abigail, and his hands dropped into boggy folds of mud. 'Cloth all over their faces. Their eyes was all white, like... pebbles, or somethin'. And their blood burned. Does blood burn sometimes?'
He felt a wave of nausea. The horse nickered behind them, and Abigail stood up.
'Does blood burn? Like 'cause they was all angry? Don't be so darn stupid, Emmett. It's devilwork, I done told you. You need to get rid of that box and we need to go. We saw there was more'n two of them, and you're hurt. Please, we need to bury that and find someplace to fix you up proper.'
Emmett stared at the body closest to them. The cloth face lying in the mud. He staggered up, moved towards it, and reached out. Dark fluid bubbled around the corpse. A lance of pain shot through his shoulder and he veered back towards their ruined tent.
'We don't know if it's anything to do with that,' he spat. 'They might be after us 'cause we saw everythin'. They might be after us 'cause of whatever Daddy done.'
Abigail went to him. She helped him to move underneath the torn canvas.
'Why're you so stuck on this?' she said. 'You know I'm right. It don't take a genius to put these things together.'
He looked round at her. His eyes were scored with red lines.
''Cause we ain't got nothin', Abi, and it sure as hell looks like somethin'. Right? And I want to know. I want to know what's worth gettin' kilt for.'
Wind brushed the tent and the trees moaned. Within the wooden rattles there were phantom movements and sounds, and they both tensed.
'You got sawdust between your ears,' Abigail hissed, 'but we need to get gone.'
They gathered their bags and possessions together as best they could in the darkness. Emmett tried to roll the bodies out of the clearing and into the undergrowth, but as soon as he set about the task the strange screeching noise filled his head, and the puddles of black blood made his eyes sting and water. His wounds ached. They covered the cloth-faced shapes haphazardly with leaves and branches, mounted Buck, and rode out of the clearing.
They were reluctant to stick to the original path. Several times they veered into the dense trees on either side, but there seemed to be no apparent route through the walls of sequioa. They returned to the twisting track, and climbed in a steep curve for several hours.
Emmett clung to the reins and dipped in and out of consciousness. The air became colder and the trees thinned. Strips of dawn light leaked between the trunks. Eventually they hit a plateau where the land became rocky and barren. A membranous mist coated the cliffs and stark treelines beyond, as if a great, malevolent entity cast from a thousand lost souls had moved to reclaim the land whilst the world slept. Sharp peaks jutted out from the haze, stretching away on either side of them.
'How long does it take to get through the mountains, Emmett?' Abigail asked. Her voice was carried away on the breeze. The path sloped before them, winding between steep banks littered with scree, stones and boulders.
'I don't rightly know, Abi,' he whispered. They trotted beneath a rocky overhang, and the wind found a frequency that matched the piercing vibrations burrowing into his skull. Dense, low-hanging clouds obscured the sun, and within the mist they could see an ash-grey landscape unfolding in broken slopes and rises.
Vast stony walls towered ahead, and huge hewn boulders blocked their route at intervals, squatting like ancient sentinels turned to stone by the passage of millenia. The horse stepped gingerly through the desolation, and despite the protective blanket of fog Emmett and Abigail both felt a paranoia growing within themselves. Every abstract form assimilating through the haze had the potential to be another cloth-faced rider, and every shriek of wind felt like their terrible calls.
They passed for hours through the barren mountain-pass. Emmett was feverish and he could do little other than hold Abigail's hands upon the reins. The horse skittered down a thin cleft hemmed between granite cliffs. Wind howled within the stone tunnel. The cleft ran out near a dry gully fenced on one side by a line of wind-battered hemlock trees. They stopped beneath the twisted trunks, and Abigail removed Emmett 's bandages. He was shaking badly. His forehead looked sore, but the cut was superficial. The shoulder and arm wounds, however, seemed livid and swollen. They were tinged yellow, and stringy pus leaked from their depths.
Abigail gathered some branches and twigs, retrieved matches and pans from the saddlebags, and lit a small fire. She boiled some of the water in their canteens, and dried, cleaned, and redressed the wounds again. Darkness fell and a glassy moon pierced the murk above. Emmett instructed her in choked whispers whilst she watered and hobbled the horse. Then she set about heating some beans and tortillas over the dying fire. Emmett ate little and fell asleep soon after. Abigail doused the fire out and huddled up close to him as night wrapped a near-impenetrable darkness around them.
The next morning the sun rose blood-red and cast an evil flaming glow over the dry rocks. The land before them sloped and they passed groves of stunted whitebark pine; vegetation deformed by the elements until they resembled gnarled, bearded old mountain-men, frozen mid-passage and hunched against a permanent oncoming gale.
At the base of the slope they reached a rocky plateau. The mountain-side swelled abruptly to their right, and beneath the shadow of the cliffs they saw the dip of a scabrous dale. Patches of scorched yellow foliage, dead wildflowers and grass were surrounded by blackened red firs. At the ostensible centre of the dale a wide spread of dessicated dome-shaped huts were dotted around.
The huts, too, bore the destructive marks of a great fire. Many were blackened and collapsed. Curved willow-branch walls were burned, disfigured and cracked; reed mat partitions hung ragged and full of holes, flapping in the wind. The air was heavy and thick with ash.
The horse clopped through the dale. Emmett swayed, coughed and swallowed bile as he guided it away from the burned domes. The cliff-face loomed above them like a monumental tombstone over the death-valley beneath. Abigail looked away from the huts. Her eyes followed the trail of charred lupine and yarrow below them.
'Emmett, what was this place?' she whispered.
Emmett's head swam as he lifted it. Red dots danced across his vision.
'Chumash place,' he choked. 'I think. Daddy said the army came all 'round here.'
He glanced back at the ruined domes and heard an echo of the cold shriek flowering in his ears. His head stung and he winced.
'Came with bayonets, knives, fire... '
He felt Abigail gripping the reins tighter beneath his own hands.
'Why?' she said.
Emmett's brow furrowed, and he wiped cold sweat from it.
'I remember... I remember Daddy said it was to teach them a lesson.'
Their path opened up and rose again, and the dale receded to be replaced by a ridge of grey craggy land. Distant peaks wavered through the gloom. They ascended the slope.
'Why did they need teachin' a lesson?' Abigail said, and her words were carried off in the wind. Emmett sighed.
'To be honest I think we was just makin' ourselves at home, Abi.'
Abigail said nothing. Emmett watched her head bobbing in front of him and knew she was deep in thought. He searched for words of reassurance, or some kind of explanation for the way the world was, and came up with nothing.
He had seen plenty of bad things whilst their father was alive. Their life had been one of constant movement, and they had spent many cold nights on the plains. Their father had gone from place to place and job to job, hiring men as he saw fit. Emmett knew, however, that he'd been a small-time criminal. A thief; horses, homes, anything that could turn a profit. He had not been a killer. Not in the truest sense. When he killed, it had been out of necessity. He had not derived pleasure from this, and he had preached it. It seemed a slim and debatable moral difference, but nevertheless important. Life was harsh. They had to do what was required to survive, but no more.
The destruction here seemed to belong on another level. It was the work of real killers. People whose sole aim was to kill, burn, destroy, and eradicate.
Emmett's shoulder stung afresh, and alongside it he felt a surge of awareness of his own ignorance, stupidity and incapability. The horse lurched between two large totemic stones placed like some dreadful gateway on either side of them, and negotiated a jumble of talus beyond.
At the crest of the ridge they passed a small skeletal body lying face-down in the dirt. They both looked away and they both pictured a terrified Chumash child escaping the burning village on foot. Soldiers behind. A knife in the dark.
The ridge fell away to their left, and a small stream ran like a ribbon through a gully eroded sharply into the rock. The fringe of the gully was splashed with greenery, and they followed this trail of colour. The path of the stream wound down to a grassy saddle dotted with scrawny whitebark pine, and partially roofed by a crested overhang jutting out violently from the cliffs above.
Emmett fed the horse and hobbled it to a withered trunk. He rubbed his hands together, and tried to warm them on its breath. The old gelding looked sad, and fed up with him. They camped by the stream, in the pool of deeper darkness spread beneath the protrusion.
Moonlight cast a frosted sheen upon the running water and they descended the near bank and washed themselves, shivering and splashing in the cold. Afterwards they lit a small fire and prepared some beans and rice. Abigail ate, her wet hair hanging over her face, but Emmett was pale and shaking again, and could not stomach food.
Abigail's head drooped with tiredness as she tried to redress the wounds. Emmett's own head burned. The cut above his left elbow remained swollen and disconcertingly yellow. The wound on his shoulder was putrid and leaking green-tinged fluid. Abigail washed the cuts with boiled water and wrapped fresh bandages.
They doused the fire out for fear of milky eyes and faces wreathed in cloth, and lay huddled up in the tent together. Abigail fell asleep almost immediately, her hair fanned out over Emmett's chest. Emmett lay in the darkness, blinking and sweating, and listened to the wind moaning. His stomach tightened. He eased Abigail over onto her side, and lurched out to vomit.