By Stephen Thom
Sierra Nevada, US
There were many cold and hard days, when it seemed like the frozen expanse of the mountains would never end. Emmett was ever attentive for signs of the nochuza, but they did not sense pursuit in the bleak pinnacles, and they did not hear the terrible screams. Nevertheless, his nights were plagued by visions of strange obelisk-buildings, and white roots. Abigail grew quiet and frail, until her skinny arms and legs resembled spun glass.
They progressed slowly through highpoints, whipped by blizzards and hindered by thick drifts of snow. Intermittently the land would dip, and they passed across barren buttes and down into valleys thick with chaparral and scree. They slept in layers of blankets, and their food and water rations began to run low. The horse slowed and, at times, stopped responding to weight shifts and leg-cues.
Just as they both felt they could lie down in the snow and die, they hit a promontory and saw the mist clearing, and the land beneath them falling away in a succession of steep, treeless slopes. The base of the crest was thickly forested, and beyond the wash of greenery they could see a broad turquoise lake, bright and beautiful beneath the blue sky.
They tackled the severe slope over several days, dismounting and leading Buck by the hackamore rope, slipping and skittering through a granite wilderness. They climbed through the steep bowl of a vast concave cirque framed with glaciated granite; immense rock walls scored with geometric shapes, like the pictographs of ancient behemoths.
Over the broad lip of the cirque they zig-zagged down the mountainside, and into a narrow valley boxed in by boulders and talus. They followed a spur trail down to a dead end and had to turn back, sticking close to a stream and wandering through dense patches of sage brush and pinyon pine.
The snow had left them at the peaks, and the weather was humid and close. They filled their water bottles in the stream and traced its twisting ribbon down to the great lake. There they camped beside the water, and watched its sapphire panels glistening beneath the moon. There was shade among the pinyons, and a profusion of edible nuts. For the first time in many weeks they began to feel hopeful, as if a weight had been lifted from them.
Past the lake they wound around the frosted base of a glacier, and the land levelled. They were able to mount the horse and ride through meadows and marshy patches, ephemeral pools lurking between moss-strewn boulders and avalanche debris.
Beneath a bloody sun they passed out of the shadow of the mountains, and through a line of sycamores. Noise drifted up to them, and they heard voices, and the sounds of tools and machinery. They rode carefully, lurking within the scant cover of the trunks.
The sycamores thinned and they hit a gentle slope. Beyond it they could see a sunken river splitting the land before them. It seemed like there were thousands of people lining the deep vein of water. Covered wagons and wooden stalls filled the banks. Camps and log cabins were scattered down the hillside. Flumes spanned great lengths of the river. Water was being fed into large shelved wooden wheels, prompting them to turn laboriously.
In the dry land beyond there were circular pits, horse-drawn arrastres, stamp mills and cradle-like rockers, and further away smoke rose from a sprawling, filthy-looking boomtown. Through the midday haze they could see its rickety buildings. Tents. Stalls. Shacks.
Men in knee-length rubber boots waded into the river. They lowered panfuls of gravel beneath the water, and moved them gently in circles. Men were examining sluice boxes. Men hauled buckets of dirt, and moved boulders. On the slope beneath them men lounged by tents and cabins, playing cards, drinking, eating and reading.
The horse stepped nervously and swished its tail. Emmett squeezed with his calf and heel and they descended slowly, weaving between the trees. Abigail fingered her bead necklace.
'There's so many of them, Emmett,' she whispered.
Emmett transferred the reins into his right hand. He clasped his left hand around Abigail as they rode the bumpy decline.
'We just have to keep our heads down here,' he said. 'We could be anyone. We could belong to anyone. Don't be gettin' into any conversations we don't need to.'
'You don't think we should be going back?' Abigail said. 'Try n' find a way round?'
The horse skittered, and Emmett pulled tight on the reins.
'You want to go back up them mountains as soon as we got ourselves out? You missin' them already?'
'Dang no,' Abigail said.
'You sure? Piru said you was a mighty warrior and all.'
'That's right,' Abigail said, 'not a mighty mountain climber.'
Emmett laughed. A circle of tents appeared to their left, and they tried to keep a wide berth. Wind tossed leaves in their path.
'You know, she didn't say nothin' about me being any kind of warrior,' Emmett muttered.
'No, but we got to hear plenty 'bout what are mush-head you are,' Abigail said, and pulled her shawl tight.
They saw a man lying reading as they crunched through the brush several yards away. He placed the book down, stood, and watched them. Several more men, engaged in a game of cards, looked up as they trotted past.
'Your Daddy'll be lookin' for you,' someone shouted, 'you shouldn't go up that way. There's bears in them mountains.'
'And night-birds,' Abigail whispered.
Emmett lifted his hat.
'Yessir,' he said. 'We ain't gone too far. Gettin' right back now.'
The man nodded and grumbled, and the group turned back to their cards. Emmett nudged the horse forward. They broke out from the trees and rode down to the river. The banks were a bustle of activity, and they drifted unnoticed into the throngs.
Emmett glanced about as they trotted through. They hit the edge of the river and passed down the length of an open wooden trough, watching as it became narrower and lower. Water laced with dirt and gravel washed through it. A man in a checked wool shirt was rustling through the riffles at the bottom of the sluice box.
They passed more men slopping out into the river, their shirt-sleeves rolled up, lowering pans with concentration. The sun baked the banks and the desert beyond, and crowds pushed past them. The smell of bacon wafted from a nearby stall. The noise of churning water, clanking equipment and shouting rose to a bubbling soundscape, and Abigail covered her ears.
A horse-led wagon rattled past. Emmett glanced to his right, and saw a sweating vaquero riding behind it. He wore a braided cloth jacket, canvas trousers, and a sash across his waist. His receding hair was greased back across his scalp, and he was picking his teeth.
He met Emmett's gaze with indifference, and then abruptly his eyes widened, and he pulled on his horse's reins. More riders and panhandlers passed between them, and Emmett pulled his hat down over his eyes. He saw the vaquero through the crowd again, and he was neckreining his horse towards them.
'Espere!' the man shouted. 'Espere!'
Abigail turned her head and looked up at Emmett, who dug his heels into the horse's flanks. The horse quickened its pace, but the crowds were dense, and men cursed as they tried to push through. They overturned a bucket of gravel. Abigail hissed, and suddenly the vaquero was beside them. He reached from his horse and seized Emmett's arm.
'Espere, niño,' he wheezed. His face was slick with perspiration; he peered into Emmett's eyes and inhaled sharply. Emmett pulled his arm back and nudged Buck in the ribs. The vaquero swayed. His horse kicked up dust as it veered awkwardly to the left.
'Tienes el nochuza en ti!' the vaquero shouted. Emmett flinched at the word. A large group of men turned from the flume ahead, and he was aware of a mangy dog barking amongst them. The vaquero drew up close and reached out for him again.
'Tus ojos!' he hissed, gesturing at his own face.
Emmett neckreined the horse left and clattered against the water trough. The men looked at them. The vaquero missed Emmett as they turned, and caught Abigail with his forearm. She screamed, and the men made for him. A gap opened in the crowd ahead as a wagon ploughed through, and Emmett nudged the horse into it. They looked back to see the vaquero on the ground. Men were kicking him within a cloud of dust. The dog was snapping at the men's heels. Emmett's head sunk.
'We need to get your count fixed prompt, Emmett,' Abigail said.
They passed along the banks without incident for several more hours. The crowds thinned and the stalls, wagons and cabins were replaced by a scattering of flimsy tents. The flume ended and they saw a wooden bridge ahead, spanning the length of the river. Abigail whistled half-heartedly as a group of Chinese prospectors shuffled past them, laden with pans, shovels and picks. Emmett noticed that several of them were in chains.
Dusk was setting. They were both hungry and exhausted. The boomtown lay shrouded in shadows on the other side of the river. Emmett nudged the horse towards the bridge.
'What d'you reckon, Abi?' he said. 'We could camp out in the cold again, but I reckon there's lodgings over there.'
'Like a room?' Abigail said, lifting her head. 'Food that ain't beans?'
'Sounds awful good, don't it,' Emmett sighed.
The bridge drew closer and they saw the dark shape of a man, sitting on the banks. The clanks and groans of the flumes and pits drifted down the river to them.
'We ain't go no money, though, Emmett,' Abigail muttered.
Emmett held the reins as the horse stepped carefully down the embankment.
'Maybe we can spin some kind of story,' he said. 'If it don't work out we can come back and camp. It's worth a shake. I feel like I ain't slept proper in years.'
''Member your eyes, bub,' Abigail said. Emmett lowered the brim of his hat, and they descended down to the bridge. As they reached the head, the man sitting on the bank looked up. There was a dirty pan on the grass beside him. His forehead was heavily lined, and his hair was lank and messy. He wore a cotton flannel shirt, corduroy trousers, and cloth suspenders buttoned at the waist. The horse quick-stepped as Emmett tugged the reins.
''Scuse me, sir,' he said. 'D'you know if there's rooms goin' over there?'
The man sniffed and looked towards the boomtown.
'There will be,' he said. 'In that hole? Dog cheap.'
Emmett looked back at Abigail.
'Where's your Ma n' Pa?' the man said, wiping his hands on his shirt front.
'We were telt to go git ourselves a room tonight,' Abigail said, and Emmett frowned at the unexpected improvisation. 'Our Daddy's got business to do.'
The man swung his knees round and studied her.
'He hit pay dirt?' he said.
Abigail glanced with wide eyes at Emmett, and he realised that she didn't know how to continue. Wind brushed dirt clouds across the banks. Emmett breathed. He remembered desperately packing, on the cliffs above the train line. Where it all began. He ran through an item checklist in his head.
'He's just got some business to attend to, sir,' he said. 'Is there any chance you'd like to buy some tobacco? Just we've got a fair amount with us, and Lord knows we don't need it.'
The man placed a flat-crowned felt hat on his head, stood, and put his hands on his hips.
'You all ain't tryin' to sell your Daddy's weed, are you?' he said.
'No, sir,' Emmett said.
'How much you got?'
'A few twists,' Emmett said, glancing down at the saddlebags. The man's eyes widened.
'And how much you want?'
'How much is a room?'
The man pushed his hat back and scratched his head.
'You mean to say your Daddy telt you to git yourselves a room, and he ain't given you any dough?'
He pulled himself up the bank. The horse nickered, and Emmett felt himself sweating. The man closed in and peered at them. At their gaunt features, and dirty, torn clothes. He chewed his lower lip.
'Alrighty,' he said, quietly. 'Show me how much weed you got.'
Emmett swung down and unclipped a saddlebag. He rummaged inside and pulled out the leather pouch of tobacco. The man took it silently, opened it, and lifted a twist out. Abigail's hands worried the reins. The man fished in his pocket, lifted a clenched fist out, and dropped a collection of gold and silver coins into Emmett's hand. He paused, rummaged in his pockets again, and thrust a wad of bills over. Abigail clasped a hand over her mouth.
'I don't want to know,' he said, looking up at Abigail. 'But whatever troubles you've got, I hope you find your ways out. You all should get some proper rest, good food, and clean clothes. There ain't many safe places out these ways, but I hope you can stay safe. 'Cos this right now just looks plain wrong. I git that you would keep your cards close. I do. But you promise me you'll git yourselves warm tonight.'
'Yessir,' Emmett said. 'We'll find a room directly. We cain't thank you enough. You don't know how much of a blessin' this is.'
'Don't thank me, bud,' the man said. 'Thank my pan.'
He picked up his dented pan, and ran his fingers through it. The moon sent a frosted streak over the skin of the river below. Emmett looked down at the shallow bowl. Through the gravel and dirt he saw sparkling gold flakes, and amongst them there were solid, misshapen nuggets.