By Stephen Thom
A man burst out of the saloon back door, laughing and staggering, and splashed through puddles towards the outhouse. Emmett kept low, hugging the corral fence, and crawled towards the bunkhouse. Soft lights gleamed from the row of shacks behind it. Rain drilled. His head was throbbing. He reached the steps and walked up as quietly as he could, grasping the rails. The door flapped, and he ducked in.
It was dark. Abigail was gone. He flailed around. The backpack was gone.
He dropped to his knees and palmed about beneath the beds. He pulled the gunbelt out. The Colt was gone.
His hands shook, and he sat kneeling for a moment. His senses were sluggish, and he felt his stomach turning again. He hacked up yellow bile; as he slumped to his side, his hands slicked through pools of black fluid. There was a sharp burst of pain on contact. His palms were burning.
He felt the click. He knew. He should have been more aware. Panic swelled. He struggled up and ran to the wash stand. He rinsed his hands in the basin. They were red and blistered. Steam rose from them. He shook them dry, hunkered down, and slid out the bunkhouse door.
Vapour sifted from his lips. The yard was quiet and still. Horses stepped and nickered. He kept low and raced across the grass, aiming for a wide circle. He almost toppled over as he ran, and clattered against the saloon wall. His thoughts were muggy and confused. Little coloured dots flickered across his vision. He leaned wheezing against the wall. Visions of Abigail flashed through his mind: bound, held captive, hurt, and worse.
There was no-one outside. He had to go back in. He had to get help.
He steeled himself and edged round to the back door. He opened it a crack, and went into the corridor. There was no music now, and only faint noise. He swayed and crossed the dark corridor as if walking through a dream.
There was a heavy crashing sound, and a rustling murmur. He dropped down to his hands and knees and crawled into the bar. He pressed up against the end of the counter, and peered round.
Patten was lying on the floor by the pool table. Jack knife handles protruded from his eyes. Another man's body lay close by in a pool of blood. His head was some distance away, over by the card table. The pianist was sitting stock still on the stage.
There was a wide circle of men and women around the pool table. Within it stalked a large man in a duster coat and a felt crown hat. Emmett felt a wave of nausea. His throat burned with the aftertaste of vomit and whisky. He saw the man turn, and he saw the face wrapped in cloth. In the flutter of the oil lamps it looked as if some demonic ritual was taking place.
Emmett moved backwards and squeezed his eyes shut. A hideous screeching cut through the bar. The piano's fallboard collapsed over the keys, and the pianist jumped in his seat.
Sweat pooled in Emmett's armpits. He crawled forward and saw the cloth-faced man lurch towards the stage. He was holding a large bowie knife, and his right leg dragged as he walked. The shuffling creak-and-drag was intolerable. The pianist stood and pressed himself against the wall.
Emmett heard a scraping noise above him, and glanced up. The canvas roof was soaking and arcuated beneath the downpour. A man stepped out of the circle of onlookers with his pistol raised, and Emmett saw his right ear explode. A cloth-faced man standing beneath the moose's head swung a smoking buffalo rifle round to the group as the man dropped to the floor. Several of the men and women raised their hands.
The stocky cloth-faced man limped onto the stage. The pulsating shriek rose to a crescendo. Emmett heard another rattle above him. He looked up and saw a shadow scuttle across the oil paintings and wooden beams.
The pianist crumpled onto the stage, a meaty smile carved into his neck. Emmett watched the wall beside him. A bald figure in a duster coat emerged from the shadows, scurrying closer, its fingers spidering across the wood. He saw its lidless white eyes. It raced above him and dropped down. There was a sharp cracking sound, and a black hole bloomed in its forehead, flowering into a inky rush.
Emmett struggled up as the figure lay spasming on the floor. His ears were ringing with the sound of the shot. He turned and saw Abigail sitting on the floor behind the bar. She was wearing the backpack, and her shaking hands were outstretched. The Colt lay on the dirty boards before her.
The recoil had thrown her. Emmett ran towards the bar. The cloth-faced man beneath the moose head strode forward and opened fire, pausing intermittently to lower the rifle, slide open the chamber, and reload. Glasses and bottles exploded. Abigail ducked and covered her head as fragments rained around her.
The heavy figure on the stage turned and lumbered towards them. Emmett saw another slippery bald shape scuttle over the canvas roof, and drop onto the front bar. Three of them. There were three of the awful things.
He screamed Abigail's name. A large slug brought down a row of optics, and he saw her inch her way over to the Colt. Her arms and legs were bloodied.
The woman in the blue gingham dress was shrieking. Emmett ducked under the countertop. Abigail looked up at him. Her eyes were bright, terrified and wild. He crawled past her, sat up on his knees, and groped along the back bar. He scattered thimble measures, trays and glasses, and grasped a paring knife from a chopping board covered in lime segments. Another shot shattered a diamond dust mirror above them. Shards hailed down.
Emmett turned to the front bar, lifted his right knee onto the glass rail, and jammed the paring knife into the bald figure as it slithered towards them. His arm lifted and fell. Black blood spritzed over the counter. A large bowie knife fizzed by his head, and he collapsed onto the floor.
He felt shards digging into his back. When he looked up he saw the heavy cloth-faced man flip the countertop and stagger towards them. Abigail had the Colt in her shaking hands again. Her face was flushed and smeared with blood. She thumb-cocked the hammer. Emmett saw her trying to get an angle, but she jolted the pin and set off a cartridge. The cloth-faced man's left leg buckled, and he went down amongst a cloud of dust and glass.
Emmett spied the third duster-coated figure climbing over the bar, and he screamed at Abigail again. She rolled and slid the Colt over the floor of the back bar. He slapped his hands on it.
The heavy man was crawling towards Abigail. Emmett wrapped his fingers round the grip. He knelt, slid the ejector rod, cocked the hammer, levelled his eyes with the rear-sight notch, and fired.
As he did so he caught the large man's white eyes. For a split second he had a vision of an enormous rectangular structure squatting against a backdrop of stars. He saw endless rows of white balconies; circular levels spiralling around a great central void; a pantheon of black coffins. He saw emaciated bald figures sleeping within these white cocoons. He saw black fluid leaking from their bodies.
He felt that he understood.
The crown of the heavy man's head burst, and black jets sizzled against the wooden beams. Another dust mirror shattered overhead, and Emmett's stomach heaved. He retched and vomited, and there was a rifle barrel against his temple. Tinny ringing resounded in his ears.
Abigail clambered over his back, racing, grasping for purchase. Her boots clopped against his head. She hit the glass rail and drove a shard of glass into the last cloth-faced man's left eye as he cocked the rifle.
Smoke drifted. The white eyeball bubbled. It popped. It leaked down the cloth-faced man's face. He dropped the rifle and flapped uselessly at the bar.
Abigail slid down from the glass rail. Emmett seized her and held her close. Her chest was heaving with sobs. As he looked past her, he saw white roots scaling the saloon. They flared in and out of existence. He blinked and breathed and there was only the scared people, standing around the pool table. Patten's inert body. The headless body. The pianist's corpse on the stage. He clutched Abigail and dug his hands into her shoulders.
The heavy figure beside them spasmed and stirred, and a soft trembling sound rose up. Abigail pulled away from him, clasped his hand, and they were running. Out from the bar, down the corridor, and out into the cold, wet night.
The horse was pacing and slinging its head near the edge of the corral. Emmett ran into the bunkhouse, pulled his duster on, and fixed the gunbelt round his waist. He threw Abigail her shawl and ran across the yard.
Rain churned the dirt into mud. There were shouts from the street beyond the saloon. He heard horses, footfall, and the saloon door swinging. The fallout would come fast, and there would be some amount of explaining to do. Abigail stood with her head bowed by the pen as he unlatched the gate and led the horse out. Several white horses skulked in the shadows behind it.
He tightened the horse's girth and lifted Abigail up. Her face was streaked red, and in the downpour it looked as if she was crying blood. He twirled the Colt's chamber and slid the pistol into the holster. Someone staggered out of the saloon back door.
Emmett lifted his foot into the stirrup and swung up behind Abigail. The shock of the fight had sobered him up a little, but he still felt woozy and disoriented, and his stomach ached. He gathered the reins and watched the silhouetted figure lurching in the pool of light by the back door. A shrill noise drifted through the rain. Emmett dug his heels into the horse's flank.
They loped around the side of the saloon, and hit the main street. Emmett saw a throng of people gathered at the steps of the Silver Dollar. Through the curtain of rain they appeared as ghostly ciphers.
The horse curved onto the straight of the highway. Emmett tightened his grip and they hit a dead run, galloping past decrepit shacks and tents rippling in the wind. A wedge of moon tracking their flight as the boomtown faded behind them, and they passed into a dark, wide plain.