By Stephen Thom
Sierra Nevada US
Roach knelt near the crest of the rise. He thumbed his hat back. Raindrops pooled in the brim. The railroad was a dark strip bisecting the clay sprawl of the playa below. A cloud of smoke marked the progress of the train, as it navigated its lonely path through a plain some three hundred miles in length.
The horses rustled behind him. Mountains rose around the fringe of the valley as if they would encase it. The fuzzy smoke-column rolled through the gauze of rain until it appeared central.
Gray approached at the precipice. He flicked a roll-up, adjusted the cloth bag slung over his shoulder, and slapped Roach on the back.
'Move out, bud,' he whispered.
Roach nodded. They backed up. The fire on the ledge was a chimerical vision in the darkness. Men moved as wraiths around it. They cut the horses loose. Roach stepped around the flames, ducked into a tent, and sunk down beside a lumpy pile of blankets. He heard men cursing behind him as the horses tottered down the mountainside.
'Emmett,' he said.
The blankets moved and a frizzy knot of hair spilled out. Roach stooped lower. Abigail's bright eyes peeked over the fabric's edge.
'Daddy,' she yawned.
Roach stroked her hair and poked at the larger bundle to her left. The canvas flapped and shook around them.
'Emmett, you sack of shit.'
The boy grunted and flung the blanket off. His eyes were red and bleary. Abigail yawned and scrunched her little face up.
'Do we have to go ridin', Daddy?' she said.
'No, no... ' Roach adjusted to scope out the tent. The girl clasped her fist around his index finger.
'Can I ride up with you?' she said. 'Emmett's smelly.'
The boy sat bolt upright. Wind moaned and drops rattled the tent.
'Maybe cos' I'm sleepin' in a smelly-ass tent with a smelly-ass girl,' he said, scratching his brown mop of hair.
'You all settle down,' Roach snapped. 'Emmett, you're in charge of the camp. You keep yourself hunkered down in here. This is work. It'll not take long. You know what to do. Look after your sister. Hunker down, stay quiet. We'll be back soon.'
The boy flopped back down and pulled the blanket over his face. Roach poked him in the belly through the fabric.
'You hear me, boy?'
The bundle rolled over and away from him.
'Glad we sorted that, then,' Roach said, rising. He uncurled Abigail's fist from his finger, gently.
'I'm bein' quiet, Daddy,' she whispered.
The horse scrabbled tentatively at first, found its footing, and quickened its step. Dust clouded under its hooves. They hit the level plain and sawed right. The scud of gravel spit ahead became the thud of the remuda around them. Rain lashed the plain and a low cloud base obscured the stars. They passed the bleached bones of a long-departed animal. The ribcage yawned like the maw of some terrible inhuman beast.
Roach neckreined his horse left towards the tracks, and the other men followed him. The train burst out of the darkness, its syncopated rumble bound with the thump of the horses as they sheared close. Roach jerked the reins as the boxcars hurtled past. He waited. He drew up parallel to the caboose. Gray drew up behind him. Roach reached. Gray reached.
Roach dropped the reins, seized the curved grab-rail, swung up and kicked off the saddle for momentum. He collapsed over the grab-rail and rolled onto the platform. Everything was briefly a fever of turbid motion. He turned to see a horse buck and thrash, and a man hit the spit. Gray landed beside him, started, and clutched the cloth bag he carried to his chest. A figure barrelled out of the cabin and onto the platform.
Roach rose reaching for his belt. He pushed the muzzle of the pistol between the man's eyes, shot, and moved past him, spraying the shelter. The riderless horses ground to a muddled halt on the plain, stamping and huffing.
Gray helped two more bandits up from the floor of the car. They stepped over the body and followed Roach into the cabin.
Three men on the wooden floor. Wild red spatter. A single table. Wooden chairs. Playing cards. A stack of boxes. Whiskey. Oil lamps. A cast-iron stove. Coal bags. A coffee pot. Roach was flailing around.
'The caboose... you said the goddamn caboose.'
Gray shrugged and seized the whiskey bottle. He cracked it and took a swig.
'Only four boxcars. Best get moving,' he said, wiping his lips.
The men behind him shuffled uncomfortably. Roach stewed. A metallic screeching sound rose above the train's rumble, and they clung to the walls and table for support.
'It's fixin' to be a messy one,' Gray smiled. He chucked the bottle to Roach. Roach took a long draught, lobbed it to the man behind Gray, and clambered up the boxes in the centre of the cabin. He pulled himself into the cupola, unlatched the window on the small look-out post, and slid onto the car's roof.
Wind stung his cheeks. Dense rolls of smoke unfurled from the chimney of the locomotive ahead. Gray slid out the cupola window behind him. They felt the train slowing, and gripped the rotting roof boards.
'Next car,' Gray shouted.
Roach tripped as he rose. He squatted at the end of the roof, swung round, and lowered himself between the boxcars. He landed on the narrow coupling buffers, and clutched the chains for support. Gray scrambled down after. They heard shouts ahead. Shots. Roach tottered on the coupling, strained at the chains, and kicked the boxcar's rear door in. They piled into the compartment and scoped: Bags of coal. Bags of grain. A compact little safe.
Gray lifted the bag from his shoulder, reached inside, and threw a crowbar to Roach. Roach set to work on the safe as Gray heaved the sliding boxcar door open. The train slowed, slowed. Roach scraped for purchase; wedged, cracked, slipped, cussed. They ground to a standstill. Gray held the slide-door and rode the final lurches. He felt it settle, hiss and exhale mechanically.
He swayed and stepped out onto the playa. Rain greased his face and he looked left. Their colleagues were pulling two uniformed bodies from the locomotive. Gray clucked his tongue and lit a roll-up.
'Ain't nothing to worry about, bud,' he said, sticking his head back into the boxcar. 'Was a skeleton crew.'
Roach sighed, tossed the crowbar away, and stood, dusting his trousers off.
'You dumb son of a bitch. Give me the dynamite.'
Gray blew smoke, picked the cloth bag up, and passed it over.
'You want to be real careful there, partner,' he said. 'You let me git a good half a mile away 'fore you start blowin' shit up.'
Roach sank to his knees and removed the sticks from the bag. Gray cocked his head.
'Sure is a small safe for bullion,' he whispered. Roach glanced back. Gray took a long drag and stepped out into the rain and darkness again.
'Sure was a small crew for bullion,' he said, loudly.
Roach wiped grime from his forehead, stood, and shot Gray in the back of the head. The two bandits walking down from the locomotive started running towards the boxcar when they saw the body crumple to the ground. Roach stepped out and shot them too.
The rain had thinned to a drizzle. Clouds sifted to reveal flowering stars and the sharp geometric patterns of constellations. Roach watched the trail of blood leaking from the back of Gray's head. He looked up and saw the horses approaching from the aphotic depths of the plain. He felt the isolation, the barren spread of the playa; his chest tightened and he stifled the sudden euphoric rush.
You can keep it all.
He tripped back inside the boxcar, his hands shaking. He knelt by the safe and stacked three sticks. He sat blinking for a while, tracing circles on the dusty floor. Something passed across his mind's eye and he held it; pictured it as infinite, unending. He swallowed and added a fourth stick to the stack. He struck a match and lit them, pulled himself up, and paced out onto the plain.
Fuses fizzed. Roach took ten steps back and lit a roll-up. The boxcar exploded, and flames engulfed him.
Emmett woke up and rolled over. Abigail was snoring softly beside him. He rubbed grains of sleep from his eyes, reached out, and ran his fingers through her knotted dark hair. She sniffed and pulled the blanket closer around herself.
A shaft of light cut through the canvas opening. Emmett slipped out from under the blanket and crawled towards the entrance. He saw the embers of a dying fire on the ledge. Bags. Blankets. Clothes. Guns. He shivered and pulled on a cotton shirt, canvas trousers, and boots. He stepped out of the tent and walked past the discarded items to the remains of the fire. His father's absence was not peculiar, but it was a concern. The absence of all the men was a concern.
Above the mountains the sky was scorched red, and when he looked beyond the precipice he saw the wasteland and the distant thread of the tracks and the motionless collection of boxcars and the statuesque horses and the wreckage and he knew that things had changed.
He glanced back towards the tent and bit his lip. He shivered again. Picking a mucky duster coat up from the ground, he rustled in the pockets and retrieved a handful of corn shucks and some tobacco. He looked out again at the sprawl of the playa, the ruined boxcar. His bottom lip quivered and he turned away. He spent several minutes furiously attempting to make a roll-up.
He worked through four corn shucks, tearing, licking, spilling tobacco. Eventually he had something that vaguely resembled an acorn. Far too big. Still, twelve years old. Had to start somewhere. He rummaged in the coat pockets until he found matches. He lit up, coughed and hacked until he almost threw up, and ground the acorn-thing out.
Wind brushed the thin grass on the ledge. He sat with gloomy thoughts for a while. The basin stretched away beneath him as if it was all there ever was. He pulled the duster coat on and stood up. Also far too big. It looked like he was wearing a goddamn dress. Still: warmth.
Look after your sister.
Memories washed through him. Outside of time, he saw his father dressed in black. He was holding his hand. There was the priest and the grave and the coffin and his father was saying you will see her again boy in good time and he didn't understand and he still didn't understand now.
He sighed and crunched over gravel to the tent. He ducked inside and stifled a twinge when he saw the little bundle beneath the blanket, wiry tufts of hair curling from the edges of the fabric. He crawled forward and sat cross-legged beside her.
'Abigail,' he whispered.
The bundle moaned and turned away from him.
'Abi,' he hissed.
Abigail sat up and rubbed her large, milky eyes. Her pale face was blotched with reddish marks from the coat she'd been using as a pillow. Her white blouse was grubby and stained. Her skinny arms fell to her sides, and her head dipped forward sleepily. Emmett swallowed impatiently.
'Abi, I think - they all ain't come back. I think we got to go see. See if - '
Abigail looked round and laughed.
'Why are you wearing a dress?'
Emmett flushed and looked down.
'I ain't wearing a goddamn dress. I'm wearing a coat I went found because I was cold.'
Abigail snorted and slumped back down, tugging the blanket over her shoulders.
'You look like a girl.'
Emmett ground his fingers into the dirt floor. He struggled up onto his knees, lifted the duster coat off over his head, and threw it in the corner of the tent. Abigail drew her breath in sharply, laughed, and clapped her hands.
'Grumpy boots!' she giggled.
Emmett leaned over the blanket and pressed his face close.
'Abi, I'm set here tryin' to talk to you, because I'm worried somethin' bad's happened. Can you not git that in your head?'
Abigail's eyes widened. She frowned.
'What d'you mean, Emmett?' she mumbled.
Emmett pressed his hands into his face.
'I don't know,' he said, through the gap in his hands. 'Git up. We need to go see.'
Abigail's face crumpled and turned red.
'What d'you mean, Emmett? Why you not tellin' me? Where's Daddy?'
Emmett reached over and lifted the blanket off her. Rain was drumming the canvas again.
'Git up,' he breathed, as she stared sulkily at him. 'I cain't tell you nothin' I don't know.'