By Stephen Thom
Emmett wedged the saloon back door open and eased into the corridor, his arms shaking with the plates. The hubbub of the bar drifted down. The pianist was banging out Camptown Races.
A bowl started to slide off the top of the pile, and he stooped to readjust. As he knelt, a heavy-set man passed by him in the darkness. The man walked with a limp, and his boots scuffed the floor. Emmett placed his chin on the top of the pile to secure it. He twisted back round to look, but the man had disappeared out the door.
He bent forward and cut a twisting path through the mass of people. Men jostled him and laughed. The rhythmic stomping of the dancers shook the floor. He hit the bar and heaved the stack of plates up onto it. Patten lurched over, winked at him, and lifted the pile over to the back bar.
Emmett sat on a stool, and looked around. A man in a felt hat turned from the pool table, crushed a roll-up under his boot, and ambled up to the bar. He jabbed the man in front of him with his cue, and pushed in beside Emmett. Patten ran a wet cloth over the bar front and lined up a row of empty glasses.
'Enjoy your meals?' he shouted.
'Yessir, thank you,' Emmett said, drumming his fingers in time to the music. 'Abigail wished me to tell you that the custard pie was delicious.'
'I wouldn't expect no less,' Patten grinned, and poured out generous measures from a dusty bottle. The man with the felt hat wedged his elbows onto the bar. He coughed and fumbled an empty glass. It fell and rolled clockwise. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, looked at Patten, and circled his finger. Emmett sat up on his knees and leaned over as the barman came past.
'Mister Patten, sir,' he said, 'do you know how far it is to the coast?'
The felt-hat man laughed, spat, and looked round at him.
'You drivin' cattle, boy?' He said. 'Or jackrabbits? Planning on settin' up a jackrabbit ranch for nippers like yourself?'
Emmett's face glowed red. Patten propped up the felt-hat man's glass, and refilled it.
'Don't mind old Riley here, boy,' he said, 'he's just full as a tick for a change.'
Riley drained the whisky, and turned the glass over in his hand. Patten wiped his hands and thought.
'Well,' he said, 'it depends on where exactly you're thinking. It's a far piece away all directions. If you're thinking 'bout out past California, Monterey way, I'd say you'd be lookin' at a good few weeks minimum on that old nag of yours. Why? Your Daddy given up the gold ghost?'
Emmett swallowed. A woman in a suede-fringed skirt pushed past a group of men behind them.
'Is there a bunch of islands off the coast somewhere?' he said.
Patten folded the cloth and looked at him thoughtfully.
'Well, lots, son. Channel Islands, Santa Rosa, Catalina. But them's a good bit further south. Headin' down towards Bakersfield and Santa Barbara. Yokut territory too, and they're pretty whipped up right now. No shortage of cattle rustlers, banditos and all sorts out there, neither. Why's this on your mind?'
'We was just curious, sir,' Emmett said, avoiding eye contact. 'Abigail, she's always wanted to see the ocean.'
'Plenty of lakes round here,' Patten said, smiling.
'And you can keep your scalp on seein' them,' Riley grumbled, and circled his finger again. Emmett watched him and circled his own finger absent-mindedly.
'Oh no, boy, this prairie dew ain't for you,' Patten said.
The music stopped. Emmett saw the pianist sink a glass and light a roll-up. Men began to queue up at the bar again, shouting requests. Riley shifted his shoulders beside him, pointed at the bottle, and chucked a couple of coins onto the bar.
'Set him up, barkeep,' he said. 'It don't hurt to. He ain't no more bother than half these mops here. Set him up.'
Patten's thick brows lowered. He tipped out two shots, and slid them over.
'Just one, boy,' he said, 'and you keep this between us. I'm a sight older'n you, and I can tell you this stuff's more likely to get you strung up than out to the damned coast. You sure look like you could use a nip, though. I'm comin'!'
He veered off and rattled through orders, leaving the dusty bottle sitting within arm's reach. Riley grinned, and Emmett could see gaps in his teeth. He raised his glass. Emmett paused, and then did likewise. They clinked glasses, and Riley drained his.
Emmett sniffed. It smelled disgusting. He screwed himself up and emptied it down his throat. Riley cricked his neck, wiped his mouth, and peered at Emmett.
'What's up with your eyes, partner?' he said.
Emmett's face screwed up. He placed the glass back on the bar, and dipped his head from side to side. His throat burned, and the aftertaste was horrible, but he felt exactly the same. He wasn't staggering about, dancing wildly, or grabbing women like the other men. He looked at Riley, and lowered the brim of his hat.
'I got a problem with my sight, sir,' he said, and spluttered violently. Riley studied him. He was swaying softly.
'I'm right sorry to hear that,' he said, 'and I think that entitles you to a complimentary beverage.'
'I don't know,' Emmett said. He lowered his legs until they were dangling off the stool, and held his stomach. The pianist and the foot-stomping had started up again. Whoops and claps drowned out the babble. The saloon door swung open, and a draft blew in. He looked round at the card-player's booth, and the purple drapes.
'One more for the road, son,' Riley said. He loosened the 'kerchief around his neck, and reached for the bottle. 'You got a long road ahead, drivin' all them jackrabbits down to Long Beach.'
His hands shook as he spilled out a couple of large shots. Emmett sighed and clinked glasses again.
A glass smashed. Patten was over by the card table. He had a man in a head-lock, and was dragging him towards the door, whilst a red-haired woman in a prairie skirt chased after them, aiming slaps at the man in the head-lock. The crowd had thinned, but there were still folk lurching about by the stage.
Emmett felt warm and fuzzy. His head drooped as he reached for the glass. He wondered why he had never drank before. All the thoughts of pins, dark mountains and death had left him. He felt like a champion.
Riley pawed at the sticky bar. He clasped the bottle and spilled whisky into the glasses. His head bobbed, and he swivelled back round to face Emmett. He slurred as he spoke.
'So he learns hisself how to use nitro... nitro... nitroglycerin to blow things up, and he uses that to blow up a safe on a train in Oklahoma. But he uses too much, and he melts all the coins into the safe.'
He laughed and coughed. Emmett swayed. His glass fell from his hand, and rolled away across the bar.
'Next he tries robbin' a bank,' Riley wheezed, 'and he manages to blow the whole damn joint to smithereens. The only thing the marshals found standin' was an unscratched safe. Eventually he gets hisself shot up by a sheriff's posse, and would you believe it, he gets embalmed and put on display. I'll swear an oath. Folk called him the 'Demolition Desperado'. Then he gets his dead-ass self sold to a carnival. His mummified body's hangin' in a funhouse in California right now. Folk think he's a well-made prop.'
'Crimany,' Emmett said, and felt dizzy. The bar and its patrons came to him cloudy and amorphous as he looked round. 'He sounds pretty bad at blowin' things up.'
'Or pretty good,' Riley slurred. 'Dependin' on your perspective.'
Patten struggled back to the bar. He picked up a spoon and banged at a bell hanging from the rafters. A cheer went up, and groups crowded the bar again, seeking a final drink. Emmett burped. Patten swung past them and grabbed the half-empty bottle. He glanced at Emmett, slapped his hands on the bar, and eyeballed Riley.
'Goddamn it, you scaly bum,' he said. 'You're squaring up with me 'fore you roll out of here. This boy ain't built for this horseshit yet. You ought to know better.'
Emmett gurgled and tried to reach across the bar towards him. Flannel shirts pressed against his back, and arms waved. The pianist was playing 'Fair Lady of the Plains'; soft, sparse, mournful chords.
'I's sorry, sir,' Emmett said, 'I was just jabberin' with my bud here... '
Patten rolled his eyes and turned back to Riley, who waved a hand apologetically, and smacked a wad of notes on the bar.
'I'm sorry, chief,' he said, 'I guess things got a little out of hand.'
Emmett felt a sadness wash through him. He remembered Abigail, and his shoulders tensed. He groped in his pockets and dropped a handful of coins on the floor. Riley placed a hand on his arm as he slid off the stool.
'Good luck with them jackrabbits, son,' he said, and hiccuped. 'I sure hope you git them all out to the coast or wherevers.'
'I ain't got no rabbits,' Emmett said, and his left leg buckled as he tried to stand. 'My count's all wrong and I got to fix it.'
Riley's shoulders sagged. He stood wobbling for a moment, looking utterly perplexed. Then he waved a dismissive hand and stumbled off towards the door. He staggered to the left, crashed into a booth, and was pushed back towards his target by a group of laughing men. Emmett picked up the coins he'd dropped and placed them on the bar, sliding them slowly towards Patten. The barman was rushing about, dispensing final drinks.
'I'm real sorry, sir,' Emmett mumbled, 'I got my count all wrong, I don't mean no harm.'
'You git yourself to bed, boy,' Patten yelled. 'Gittin' yourself all fuddled on my watch.'
There was a gunshot somewhere outside. The barman cursed and threw his arms up. Emmett lifted his hand in acknowledgement and turned laboriously, pushing his way out through the queue.
It was so much harder standing than it was sitting down. His legs felt like jelly. He squeezed between tightly-packed figures, and felt his stomach turn. Once he'd escaped the rush for the bar there was more room, and he tripped and clutched at the pool table. Someone slapped him on the head. There was more guttural laughter. He smelled perfume, and felt a woman's dress brush by him.
Arms groped and clapped his back. He lurched forward, and his head veered towards the floor. He reached the corridor and groped for the wall, pulling himself up. The music swelled as the pianist reached the end of the ballad. There was a hearty round of applause.
Emmett stood in the darkness of the corridor, leaning against the wall, his head spinning. He bent over and vomited. Shadows moved around him. He drew his sleeve across his mouth and breathed. His head felt slightly clearer after throwing up. He tottered down the corridor, describing an elaborate zig-zag path, and crashed out of the back door.
The yard was dark, and a heavy rain was falling. A coyote snapped its head around, before darting away. Emmett traipsed out. The horses stood uneasily. He saw Buck staring at him, and he saw several white horses stepping amongst the shadows of the corral. They were gaunt, as if ridden down to the bone. Emmett's legs straightened. He felt a malign sensation wash through him.
He crossed the yard, staring at the corral. His hand fell on the fencing. A snake slithered under his boot and he fell back, spooked. His hands slapped at mud, and he looked round and saw the bunkhouse door hanging open. It flapped and creaked in the wind.