By Stephen Thom
It was dark by the time they rode into the boomtown. On its outskirts there was a lonely grove of desert ash. The body of a man hung by the neck swung from the bough of a great trunk. The rope creaked in the wind. Abigail wrapped her fingers around Emmett's hands as they ghosted by beneath it.
They passed ramshackle buildings casting blockish shadows over the dirt track. Stores. Restaurants. More stalls. Clumps of tents, their canvases fluttering in the wind. Fiddle music blared through the broken windows of a dance hall, and stomping feet shook dust from the road. A man crashed out and projectile vomited over the porch's dirt floor. He looked up at them, drew his sleeve over his mouth, and fumbled a cigar into his mouth.
Emmett could see the shapes of riders further down the street, and he felt the old fear returning. Somewhere a bottle smashed, and a woman cackled. Beneath the moonlight he studied the signs of the decrepit buildings. The flamboyant, faded fonts: Brewery. Barber Shop. Pawn Shop. Shoes Shined.
Hollander's Mercantile. They rode past it, and Emmett tugged the reins. The Silver Dollar Saloon. A horse whinnied in the distance. He heard another creaking sound and glanced up nervously, as if he might see a line of bodies swinging from the roof.
They looked across the dusty street. An old man sat in a rocking chair on the porch of a shack. He leaned forward, jabbed a finger at them, and drooled as he spoke. Emmett could not distinguish words. He felt briefly hypnotised by the incomprehensible exchange.
A gun went off somewhere. They both started, and the horse jumped sideways and paced, shaking its head and blowing its nostrils. Emmett leaned his shoulders in and guided it in circles until it settled. Abigail grabbed his arm.
'Emmett, let's go in,' she breathed, 'let's get a room. We're both bushed, and this place is horrible.'
Emmett nodded and dismounted. He helped Abigail down, and tied the horse to the hitching rail. They walked up the steps to the saloon hand-in-hand, ignoring the old man raving in the murk behind them. As they ascended Emmett stooped close to Abigail.
'Mind 'n act all innocent-like,' he whispered.
'I'm nine years old,' she said, glaring at him.
The panelled batwing doors swung behind them, and they felt immediately conspicuous. An oak windbreak kept the gathering gusts outside, but nevertheless the interior was cold. It was spacious and dimly-lit by oil lamps placed on relocated train-car seats acting as booths. A large stretch of canvas served for a roof.
The walls were decorated with discoloured oil paintings and crude, disconcerting taxidermy. A moose's head hung above a group of men playing cards in the corner. Wreathes of smoke drifted over them. To their right there was a small stage made of packed crates, and upon it there was an old upright piano.
They made for the mahogany bar opposite them. Diamond dust mirrors were hung behind it, and there were rows of shelves lined with dust-covered bottles. A bartender moved out from the gloom as they approached, and nodded.
Emmett dropped Abigail's hand, and she hid behind his right leg. He stepped up to the bar and kicked something metallic beneath him. The bartender turned a glass over in his hands, polished it with a cloth, and watched him. He stepped back. There were rows of spittoons spaced along the base of the bar. He floundered for words momentarily.
'Erm,' he said. ''Scuse me sir. D'you have any rooms here? Anyplace warm we could stay the night? Our Daddy's prospectin'. He's real busy, and he said we should git ourselves into town and git a room for the night. He gave us money, and we've just to ask.'
The bartender placed the glass down and rested his elbows on the bar. His greying hair was combed into a side parting. He wore a navy vest with notched lapels over a white shirt, black sleeve garters, and an apron. He clasped his hands together and looked closely at Emmett. His voice came deep and gravelly.
'He did, did he?'
The oil lamp behind the bar flickered. Emmett scratched at his shoulder. He felt Abigail clinging to his duster.
'Yessir,' he said, and heard his voice crack.
The bartender unclasped his hands and tapped a forefinger on the counter.
'He sent you out here. To this town. By yourselves. To find a room?'
'Yessir, that's right,' Emmett said. He stepped back. Abigail reached for his hand, and he shook her off.
'What's wrong with your eyes, boy?' the bartender said.
Emmett drew a blank. Someone slammed a glass down on the booth in the corner, and there was a burst of laughter. Abigail coughed and stepped out from behind him.
'He's got a problem with his sight, sir,' she said. 'He cain't see quite right. He's had it his whole life. He cain't read proper, but he works hard, and he looks after me when our Daddy's busy.'
Emmett looked down slowly at her. His head felt hot again. The bartender slapped the bar and stifled a grin.
'Well, I'm real sorry to hear that. Can you see your wallet, boy?'
'Yes,' Emmett said, quietly.
'You can git a room here at a good lay,' the bartender said, turning to the back bar and retrieving a key from a wooden cartridge box. 'They're round back. They ain't proper rooms, more bunkhouses, but there's a wood stove and an outhouse, and we can do you meals. You got a horse out front?'
Abigail looked up at Emmett with a broad smile.
'Yessir, at the hitchin' rail,' he said.
'The corral's out back too, you bring him round there and he'll get fed n' watered,' the bartender said, dangling the key before him. 'You can manage fifty cents for this?'
Abigail clapped excitedly. Emmett slung his backpack round, and retrieved a gold coin from the money the prospector had given them. He dropped it into the bartender's hand. The bartender bounced it in his palm. His wispy eyebrows lifted.
'That's too much,' he said.
'Sorry,' Emmett muttered, waving a hand before his eyes.
The bartender blinked and closed his fist. He opened the till and handed some change to Emmett.
'Good deal, young sir. Name's Patten, and if you need anything else just holler. You picked a good night to come down here, anyway. Most of the mops we get here are aways at some fandango down town. You watch out for some of these mops in here. Room's out in the back yard, down the hall and to the left.'
Emmett thanked him. Abigail reached for his hand again. He led her around the side of the bar, and down a dark corridor.
The bunkhouse was little more than a shack. Emmett hung his duster and backpack over a hook on the wall. There were two narrow beds; mattresses stuffed with horsehair, and cloth sacks stuffed with straw atop rusty-springed iron frames. He undid his gunbelt and slid it beneath one of the frames.
Abigail removed her shawl and sat on one. It emitted a grating rasp. There was a porcelain chamber pot under one bed, a wash stand with a porcelain basin and a small mirror, a single wooden chair, and a wall-mounted oil lamp. A wood stove burned in the corner, its flue rising up through the roof.
Emmett drew the chair over to the stove, sat down, and held his hands out before it. He looked round at Abigail.
'I cain't read proper, huh?'
'Nope,' Abigail said. Emmett frowned. Abigail laid back on the cloth sack.
'We got real lucky there,' she said.
Wind moaned outside. The lamp quivered. It cast a thin amber puddle over the wall it was afixed too, and the floor beneath. The stove spilt a similar wash, but shadows played in the darkness outwith, and Emmett appeared as a caliginous mass bowed before it.
'Maybe we were due some luck,' he muttered.
Abigail played with a tear at the corner of the cloth sack, and watched the oil lamp flicker. She pulled a small handful of straw free, balled up a wispy bit, and threw it towards the wash basin. It arced through the air and fell short, floating down to the floor.
'Missed,' she said, puffing out her cheeks. Emmett stood and walked over to the mirror. He wiped a streak of grime away and examined his eyes. The snowy drops of his pupils. He felt a tightness in his chest, and gripped the porcelain rim.
'What did you see in them caves, Emmett?' Abigail whispered.
'You don't want to know, Abi,' he said. 'I just think I'm in some real serious trouble.'
Abigail sniffed behind him. Emmett splashed water on his face, pulled his shirttail up, and dried himself. A bit of straw fluttered past him and landed in the basin.
'Woo-hoo,' Abigail said. 'You try.'
Emmett glanced back at his reflection.
'You ought to be careful, they might charge us for that, Abi.'
'You think they'll be after me in this town for a few bits of straw, Emmett?' Abigail said. ''Cos I think there's enough shecoonery here. Here, it's your turn.'
Emmett tore his face away from the mirror and stalked over to the bed. He slumped down beside Abigail, rolled up a piece of straw, and lobbed it at the basin. It hit the rim and drifted down to the floor. Abigail grinned and jabbed her finger in his ear. Emmett's lip curled.
'That's me one up,' she said. 'Gonna be another victory for the mighty warrior. You ain't ballin' yours up proper, that's your problem.'
'I was just findin' my range,' Emmett said, and twisted another stem. Abigail chucked one through the wash of lamplight, and it feathered lightly into the basin. She whooped and sat up on her knees, patting the cloth sack. Emmett crawled forward to the end of the bed.
'What're you doin'?' Abigail shouted. 'That ain't in the rules.'
'What rules?' Emmett said, his left eyebrow lifting.
'The rules of the Crummy Bed Straw Throwin' Championship,' Abigail said, and tugged him back by his shirt-tail. Emmett laughed and shuffled beside her. He cast the ball of straw into the air, and it fluttered down to the floor.