By Stephen Thom
The embers in the wood stove were dying, and they lay exhausted on the horsehair mattress. Rolled-up balls of straw were strewn across the floor. Emmett felt Abigail roll over and clasp his left hand.
'Tell me 'bout our mama again, Emmett,' she said. His chest rose beneath the sack.
'It ain't much and I've told you a thousand times,' he said.
'Tell me all the same.'
He sighed and closed his eyes.
'I remember hair. Long hair. And hands on me. And a nice smell. And maybe shapes. Shapes beside my bed, or in the hall. But I don't even know rightly if I do remember those things, or if I remember them that way because I want to.'
Abigail squeezed his hand. The oil lamp burned out. They heard a horse snorting in the corral outside.
'And what did Daddy say?' she whispered.
'He said, 'You will see her again.''
They were silent. Vapour wafted from the oil lamp and floated through the dark.
'Do you think we will?' Abigail said.
'I don't know,' Emmett groaned. Abigail lifted her left arm and turned her hand in vague circles.
'Maybe now your count's all wrong you might.'
Emmett felt sleep taking him. He let go of Abigail's hand and rolled over.
'Maybe,' he croaked.
'It'd be the first time for me,' Abigail said, ponderously. Emmett flapped a hand back over her legs and squeezed.
'Was she beaut'ful?' Abigail murmured. Emmett opened his eyes and exhaled. The outhouse door rattled in the wind.
'I don't know, Abi,' he said.
'You think she was?'
'Yes,' Emmett said, and suddenly felt a terrible sadness.
'More beaut'ful than me?' Abigail whispered.
'No partner,' he said. Abigail snuggled her head against his back.
In the night he woke cold, confused, and bursting to pee. Abigail was fast asleep. The prospectors, the boomtown, and the Silver Dollar came floating back, and he slid out of the bed, treading with light steps over to the door. It creaked open. He descended the wooden steps and walked out into the night.
Bright stars pierced the dark. The night seemed to have a soft grey hue to it, and as he moved he felt like he was pushing against something. He looked down and saw that there was a white root snaking over his left foot. He cursed and backed up. When he looked up again, Abigail was standing in front of him. She was ash-grey, and she flickered in and out of existence.
'Where in God's name you been, Emmett?' she said. 'Where've you been?'
Her voice sounded peaky and distorted, and the words dipped and rose in volume. Black flakes drifted in the air around her. Emmett tried to move towards her, but it was slow progress, as if he was passing through some thick, gluey substance.
Abigail looked up, but he could not see her face properly. He caught a grotesque vision of her features, strained and distorted, her eyes and mouth skewered in different directions.
Abruptly she was still and grey again.
'Emmett, you've been gone three days,' she said. 'You left me set in that goddamn tent scared out my mind.'
Her speech was sluggish. White roots sprouted and coiled along the ground. Emmett felt a rush in his throat. He remembered this. He remembered her words.
'You've said that before,' he said. Something caught his eye amongst the ashen snow, and he looked up into the sky.
'Where in God's name you been, Emmett?' Abigail said. Her voice was different again; bassy and unrecognisable. Her neck jerked frantically, and her face became an awful blur.
'You've said that before,' Emmett whispered.
White roots crisscrossed the ground. Beyond Abigail's small frame, he could see hills webbed with white branches. Several strange buildings, like great obelisks, had risen amongst the waxy roots. Something was happening in the sky, but he could not make it out amongst the thick black snow. It looked like something was unfolding. Shapes. Shapes unfolding; loose, warped, and ribbon-like.
The grey landscape trembled, and Abigail disappeared. The hills, roots and strange buildings disappeared. Emmett stumbled and looked round. It was a cold night. The bunkhouse was behind him.
There were two lines of similar shacks beyond it. The horses were silent in the corral to his left. A light rain grazed his forehead, and he felt a wet sensation beneath his nose. He lifted a finger to his lips and wiped a streak of black fluid away. His hand shook, and he ran over to the outhouse.
The wooden door flapped uselessly on its hinges as he stepped inside. He urinated and washed his face and hands in the basin, before stepping back out into the night.
Until your count is rectified it may pass at times in an arbitrary manner.
He recalled Piru's stern face. The moon illuminated the corral, and he could see the shapes of three men leading horses in through the fence. He felt a wave of nausea and bent over, clasping his hand to his stomach. He breathed slowly. Through the fine rain he saw one of the men looking over at him. He straightened up and staggered over to the bunkhouse, closing the door softly behind him.
When he woke again, he was heavy-headed and hungry. Abigail stirred beside him, rubbed her eyes, and yawned. Her dark hair was a tangled mess, but there was colour in her cheeks.
'What time's it, Emmett?' she mumbled.
He swung his legs out of the bed. He saw a vision of her flickering grey figure, and shook his head. He knew it was best to keep it to himself. Abigail stretched her arms. He stood, walked over to the door, cracked it, and checked outside.
'Looks like evening again. We must of slept right through the day.'
'Guess it must all of caught up with us,' she said. 'I'm hungry, Emmett. I hope we ain't missed the chance to get somethin' proper to eat.'
'Me too,' he said. 'I'll go directly and see if they can rustle us somethin' up.'
Abigail brushed strands of straw away.
'How quick do we have to find the Farm?' she said. 'Can we be warm one more night?'
'We can do that for sure,' Emmett said.
Abigail smiled at him, slumped back down, and pulled the cloth sack over her head. Emmett felt a chill as he stepped out of the bunkhouse again. He walked slowly and held his hands out by his side, but there was no change of atmosphere, and no awful visions.
The night was cool. There was a steady trickle of rain. He checked on Buck in the corral, and then crossed the yard and opened the back door of the saloon. The noise of music and loud chatter drifted down to him. He walked through the corridor and turned into the bar.
It was rammed. A pianist with a red bowtie and red cloth suspenders was hammering out 'Oh Susanna' on the packed-crate stage. Groups of men in flannel and checked shirts milled around, drinking, smoking, shouting and cursing. Some were playing pool. Some were playing cards at a plank table with a canvas strung over it. Clouds of smoke floated above various hats: bowlers, derbies, low-crowned, wide-brimmed, toppers. The place reeked of booze. The pianist pounded out the final few bars, and dragged his elbow over the keys in a honky glissando. Someone lobbed a bottle at the stage.
Emmett squeezed between elbows and shirtsleeves. A woman in a blue gingham dress leaned down as he passed. Glossy curls fell over her shoulders. She stroked his face and said something, but it was lost amongst the din. Emmett blushed and fought through to the bar. It was lined with men. He pulled himself up onto a stool. As he sat and found his bearings he saw the woman disappear behind some purple drapes in the far corner, arm-in-arm with a staggering man.
Patten was dripping with sweat, and his greased fringe was hanging over his forehead. He planted two glasses on the bar, caught Emmett's eye, and winked. He waved away men yelling orders, and lumbered over to him.
'Busy night, young sir,' he wheezed. 'Hope you both got a fine night's sleep. What can I do for you?'
'Yessir,' Emmett said, 'we slept just fine, thanking you.' He glanced around again and frowned. 'What's behind them drapes, Mister Patten?'
Patten dabbed at his forehead with a dirty cloth.
'Wickedness, young sir, and you don't want no truck with that. Now, I'm just 'bout treading water here, so what can I get for you?'
The pianist started up a stomping barrelhouse number, and there was a crescendo of whoops and claps. Another glass arrowed overhead, and Patten threw his arms up and roared. Emmett stood on the stool and leaned over the bar.
'I think we'll stay another night please sir, if that's okay with you,' he said, 'and we're real hungry if you've got any food goin' at this time. Our horse, he needs feedin' too.'
Feet crashed against the wooden floor, and Emmett saw women in corsets and garter belts spinning round with men near the stage. Patten pressed his dripping face close and yelled above the din.
'That all sounds just dandy. It's maybe a bit late for proper meals, but we can do you plenty of eggs and cold meats, no problem. We'll throw in some desserts too. And your horse has been seen to already, along with the others today. How does that sound?'
'Aces, sir,' Emmett said.
'If you can manage to cross my palm with another fifty cents, I'll get the cook right on that.'
Emmett reached into his pocket and dropped a silver coin into Patten's hand. He had no idea of the value, but he knew that the gold coin had been too much. Patten shook his head and smiled.
'Big platefuls it is,' he said, 'and you can stay as long as you darn like.'
He cracked open two lemonade bottles, and slid them over to Emmett. There was a scuffle over by the card table, and two men stormed outside. Patten went about pouring glasses and shots, and Emmett swung on the stool and watched the pianist and the dancers. After quarter of an hour Patten came bursting out of a swinging door to the right of the bar balancing several plates on his hands and forearms. He walked into the crowd, yelling for folk to move out of his way.
Emmett slid down from the stool and trotted after him as he carved a path to the corridor. They reached the back door. Emmett wedged the lemonade bottles in his back pockets, and Patten stooped and passed the plates over to him.
'All in one piece. You enjoy your meal, young sir.'
Emmett looked down at the plates balanced on his arms. There were boiled eggs; cold cuts of beef and ham; cheese, sourdough biscuits, bread, and two bowls of custard pie and plum pudding.
'We sure will,' he breathed. Patten smiled and held the door open for him, before jogging back to the frantic bar. Emmett crossed the yard, stood wobbling outside the bunkhouse door, and kicked the door open.
Abigail sat up and stared wide-eyed as he teetered in with their food. Her hair was scraped back into a ponytail, and she had washed and changed into a worn blue cotton dress. She jumped off the bed and helped him with the plates.
They spread them out over the cloth sack and ate silently and methodically, working through every scrap. Afterwards they stacked the plates on the chair, and lay back on the bed. Emmett sipped his lemonade. Abigail had custard on her chin. They both felt stuffed and content, save for the chill creeping into the bunkhouse. Abigail wiped her mouth and looked round at him.
'You know Emmett, we're gonna have to try n' find out more about this Farm,' she said. 'You need to look in that little book you got, and see if there's anythin' there can help us. You ain't studied it proper. We're just going blindly forward.'
'I thought I cain't read proper,' he said. Abigail rolled over and glared at him.
'But this is true,' he said. 'I just knew we had to get off them mountains first. I ain't given much thought to the next part.'
'How do we get to the sea anyhow?' Abigail said. 'Is that the coast?'
'I guess so.'
Abigail shivered and pulled the sack up to her chin.
'And how far away even is that? Just anywhere on the coast? Will we know when we git there?'
'Miss Piru said that maybe it was near a bunch of islands,' he said. 'You're right that we need to start mappin' this all out. This here is the first chance we've had to think straight since we left her. And I am beatin' the devil round the stump. Most days now all this worrying gets on top of me. I just let myself get carried along, hopin' that things will work out so's we're both safe and alive.'
Abigail moved closer and rested her head on his shoulder.
'Maybe that is enough right now, Emmett.'
Wind shook the shack, and Emmett pulled his legs up to his chest.
'Where'd we get more wood for the stove?' Abigail said. Emmett swung his legs off the bed and stood up.
'Now that we can find out,' he said. He collected the plates from the chair, and made for the door.
'Mind and say thank you, Emmett,' Abigail said, ''specially for the custard pie, tell him it was delicious.'
'Will you tell him it was delicious?'