By Stephen Thom
The descent was steep and winding. They skittered, swayed, and loosed mini-rockslides. Emmett lifted Abigail over rocky protrusions and guided her around precarious edges. As the decline levelled and the floor of the playa revealed itself she rushed ahead, slipping and scratching herself.
'Abi, hold my hand!' Emmett shouted, racing after her.
'Don't want to hold your smelly hand,' she said, pressing forward, little arms propelling her, straight and jerky.
The midday sun washed over the cracked plain and she stopped to gaze at the train tracks, the debris, and the lonely horses. Her mouth hung open.
'Emmett!' She screeched. 'Emmett, look!'
The boy slid onto the gravel spit and raced towards her. Vultures were circling above the ruined boxcar. He knelt down until his face was level with hers, and held out his hand.
'Do like I told you,' he said.
She was shaking. She placed her right palm in his.
'Good. Now I told you I was worried. We need to go see. Maybe they all had to go off someplace else. But we need to see first. And Daddy said to be quiet. So we best be. You reckon you can do that?'
He pressed her hand. He felt little schisms inside himself as he talked. Stuff tensing. Rushing. Abigail's hand felt limp in his own. She stared towards the train, blinking repeatedly, her lips pressed together.
'Daddy had to go someplace else?' She said.
Emmett stood up and gently prompted her alongside him.
'We'll do this first, Abi.'
Dust swirled around their boots. The vultures sketched a dark circle in the red sky. The mountains seemed stark and violent in the daylight, an impenetrable gateway hemming them into the ancient desolation they had awoken to.
They closed in on the train. Abigail's boots padded on the surface, her eyes searching. The horses drifted towards them, some nickering and tossing their heads, others looking sullen and lost. They passed a man lying awkwardly on the clay floor. Abigail squeezed Emmett's hand.
'Emmett, look, why's his head all funny?'
Emmett recognised Levy from the camp. From the farm. Drinking and smoking in the kitchen with their father.
'His neck's broken,' he whispered.
Abigail tried to pull him back. The wind tousled her hair.
'Ain't you going to help him?'
'I cain't help him now,' Emmett said.
The boxcars loomed ahead. Abigail was quieter. She was sniffling. The horses shifted, huffed, and stepped nervously around them. Emmett felt his line of vision waver mantically in the red light, as if they were crossing some dark threshold.
The air was noxious. Wind sent dust eddying over the bodies, the charred, splintered wood, the twisted metal, and the scorched, static boxcars. Emmett guided Abigail on a weaving path through the debris. She made peaky little noises. He gripped her hand.
'That's Daddy's hat,' she hissed. 'Emmett, is that Daddy?'
Emmett turned and wiped dust from his eyes. He saw the familiar low-crowned hat, the upturned brim; a jaggy, curved hole was burned into it, as if someone had chomped clean through it. Abigail flapped her free hand and strained on his grip.
'That's Daddy's hat. That's Daddy's hat. Is that Daddy?'
Near to the hat he saw his father lying in the dirt. The left side of the face, visible as he lay, was a web of broken red cicatrixes and bulbous pustule-like lumps, from temple to cheek. The earlobe was slicked into the skin behind it like putty. Emmett clamped his right hand over Abigail's eyes. She made odd puffing noises and stumbled.
'Emmett... Emmett... is that Daddy?'
Emmett placed his left hand on her back and led her away, towards the mangled boxcar. He could feel the hand over her eyes moisten and his own eyes welling up. He tried to catch his breath, contain it. He tripped past a shape on the ground and Abigail wrenched her hand away and fell in the process. He looked down and saw the back of Gray's head: the meaty hole in it, and the slick of dried blood. He saw Abigail on her hands and knees staring at the body too.
She looked at Emmett. Her large brown eyes were wet, vacant and lost. She looked at her shaking hands and then, abruptly, out towards the mountains.
'Emmett,' she whispered.
He had one foot on the shell of the mangled boxcar. He saw the safe door on the tracks, and the exposed metal compartment in the corner of the flooring. The horses were stepping back and forth, and pawing the ground. He glanced between them and the safe. He wanted to know.
'Emmett,' Abigail said. Her voice was sharp and strained.
He turned. Abigail was sitting on her knees. Her hands were still pressed to the ground and she was looking intently at him. Emmett picked at his shirt. Words. He felt no good with them.
'Abi, I'm so darn sorry. I'm - I just don't rightly know what to say, I - '
'There's horses comin',' Abigail said.
Emmett tensed. He looked at her hands on the spit again, and at the braying horses. Machinations and scenarios fizzed before him. Questions. Cells. Separation. Orphanages. Servitude. He ran his fingers through his hair. Dug them into his scalp.
'What you want to do?' He choked.
Abigail lifted her palms from the ground and stared at them.
'I wanna go,' she whispered.
'With the people? They all might be bandits, or... '
He trailed off. He looked at her and his face crumpled. Abigail frowned.
'Like Daddy was?'
Emmett sighed. Abigail's head dipped, and curls of hair obscured her face.
'What happens if we don't have no Mama or Daddy?' She said, quietly.
The wind picked up. One of the horses bolted.
'Goddamn it,' Emmett said.
He dashed to the safe and knelt before it. A little wooden workbox with a carved lid was nestled in the corner. He fished it out. There was a faded bronze lock, but it was keyless, and the lid opened without resistance. The interior of the box was lined with red fabric. It held a small leather notebook and a collection of thin black tapered cylinders. Emmett rustled and cursed. No money. No gold.
He lifted one of the black things out and held it up by the tapered end. It looked like a pin, with a tiny spherical tip.
He squinted. It seemed as if miniscule dots of colour and light were swimming within the tip. He tilted his head. He heard Abigail shout and looked round. She was looking imploringly at him.
'I don't want to see no people!' She moaned.
Emmett looked back down at the pin. For a beat it appeared not as a pin, but as a spitfire series of increasingly complex shapes, beyond his comprehension; at once a dipping line, a wavelength, a circle, a compact torus, an icosahedron. He flinched and it was a pin again. It was a pin he was holding.
He shook his head, dropped it back into the box, and snapped the lid shut. He spun around. He lifted the cloth bag from the boxcar floor, removed the remaining dynamite, placed the box inside the bag, and shouldered it.
'Pick a horse,' he said, jumping out onto the plain. Abigail was watching the horizon. Distant black shapes. Clouds of dust.
'We cain't take them all?' She said.
'Buck,' Abigail said, nodding firmly.
'You sure?' Emmett sighed. 'Cos he's kind of an old-ass booger, if you ask me.'
'Buck,' Abigail said. 'He's old, so he needs lookin' after too.'
Emmett clucked his tongue and ran over the horse, an aged dapple-grey gelding. It was stamping and huffing. He clasped the reins. He put his left hand on the stirrup, and his right on the saddle horn. Abigail was kneeling beside their father's body. He put his weight on the stirrup and swung his right leg over. He jerked the reins and nudged the horse's girth with his right boot.
It trotted towards his sister. She was untying the neckerchief from the body. Emmett scanned the wilderness. The distant remuda was taking shape, galloping towards the tracks.
'Abigail, look yonder. You're fixin' to get us throwed in some orphanage. You can talk to me about this all you want. But we got to go.'
Abigail looked to the approaching cloud. She slung the red neckerchief over her shoulder and picked the hat with the hole in the brim off the ground.
'Goodbye, Daddy,' she said. 'I love you. I'm real sorry you got kilt. I love you.'
She dipped near to the blistered face, swallowed, shivered, and squeezed the body on the shoulder. Emmett nudged the horse close, leaned down, and scooped her up. She twisted round in the saddle to face him, removed the neckerchief from her shoulder, and tied it round his neck.
'So you can be warm now you ain't got your dress on.'
Emmett rolled his eyes. Abigail patted the neckerchief.
'Say goodbye to the other horses,' she said.
Emmett looked at the nervous animals, snorting and shuffling.
'Goodbye, horses,' he mumbled.
'Say it nice, bub.'
Emmett's shoulders dropped. He leaned around Abigail, grasped the rein, and squeezed the horse with his heel. It broke into a canter. He looked round at the sad dark eyes following them.
'Goodbye partners,' he said, mustering enthusiasm. 'I reckon someone'll happily give you all a good life.'
Abigail kissed him on the cheek and dropped the burned hat on his head. The upturned brim fell over his eyes.
'I cain't see.'
Abigail ignored him and squirmed round to face forward, nestling between his legs. Emmett thumbed the brim up and squeezed again with his calf and heel. They hit a gallop and he neckreined the horse towards the mountains. Abigail's shoulders shook against his chest; he could feel her crying. He could feel the wooden box bouncing against his back through the cloth bag. Vultures see-sawed overhead. The red sun at its peak baked the plain; made it primal and livid. The cliffs skewered the skyline and seemed to grow, as if waiting to swallow them.