By Stephen Thom
Over the course of four nights the wastelands gradually grew greener, until they were travelling through rolling fields of high grass. The crew rested for no more than a few hours at a time. Emmett and Abigail rode alongside Alston's black mare, but it was hard travel, and after two nights Alston tethered Buck to his mare, and let them ride in the chuckwagon.
They slept on the wagon floor amongst sacks of flour, rice, beans, and cornmeal, whilst pots and pans jangled overhead. The chef, a quiet Mexican called Jago, dished them up generous servings of stewed fruit and buttermilk between meals. Sometimes they sat up front alongside him, watching the two mules pulling them over miles of swaying grass.
The cattle were split into groups, and they grazed peacefully whenever the crew stopped. A soft wind eased the heat, and Emmett felt replenished, and calmer than he had been in weeks. Memories of the hacienda and the comandante festered, and at times he still woke with black fluid leaking from his nose, but for the most part he felt a renewed sense of hope.
Abigail was rosy-cheeked and talkative. The abstract idea of The Farm became a fixed point in the distance, and he saw his recovery in it. He did not know what form it would take, but he allowed his anxieties to be replaced by the hopeful images all the same. The colour and health around him nourished them. It was as if beyond every green hill, the blue spread of the ocean might be waiting for him. He would run to it, splash out into the water, and dip his head in. The past would wash away in gentle waves. Time would reconfigure itself, and a new world would open up before them.
The cook was not much given to socialising, and equally Alston seemed to wish to keep them separate from the crew, eating alone with them at mealtimes. Nevertheless they grew accustomed to seeing the scout, Pickles, and the skinny cowboy, Cal, who'd helped bring them food the first night. They were polite fellows, and their interactions extended no further than enquiring about their days, and touching their hats.
A young boy called Miles, no older than fifteen, occasionally rode in the wagon alongside them. He was bursting with pride at having been taken along for the job, and embellished every trail tale he told them with exaggerated portrayals of his minor exploits. Nevertheless, he was a sweet boy, and they took to him.
On the fifth day they rode into Tombstone. The town was little more than another boomtown, arranged haphazardly on a broad mesa above a mine; there were four churches, a school, and a bank, alongside numerous shops, stalls, and seemingly endless saloons and gambling halls. Alston allowed the men one night off to entertain themselves as they would. Many more men were waiting to work the following morning. They collected another two thousand head from rope-corralled fields beyond the boomtown, and soon the vast herd was strung out across the plains, driving west through a sea of dust towards Yuma.
Emmett and Abigail sat with Miles in the chuckwagon. Jago sat silently up front. Another schooner was rumbling along to their right, but for the most part everything was lost in swirling dust clouds, and the boom of the cattle. The sun was encircled with sand drifts. Occasionally they saw the dim shapes of riders drifting amongst the haze.
The day passed within this wild flurry, and at night the crew slowed the herd until the cattle were grazing again. The cook lit a fire and set about preparing dinner.
Alston rode up to the chuckwagon. He was wearing a canvas oilskin slicker and a bandana tied over his mouth, which he tugged down as he stepped up into the wagon.
'How y'all doing in here?' he said, easing between bags of flour. 'This young whippersnapper ain't chewin' your ear off, is he?'
Abigail smiled, and Emmett glanced at Miles.
'No, sir,' he said. 'Cain't hear much over the cattle anyhows.'
'I telt them how I done roped that spooked cow, Mister Alston, sir,' Miles grinned. 'When we had that thunder down south.'
'I think I saw you rope a saguaro,' Alston said, and took a swig from his jug. 'But good work nevertheless. That darn cactus nearly got away.'
Miles spat and sat back in his bedroll. The skinny cowboy, Cal, climbed up with flasks of coffee. Alston poured some out, and nodded to the man as he left.
'How long to Yuma, sir?' Emmett asked.
Alston sipped at his cup and winced.
'You could float a pony in this darn coffee,' he said. 'And I reckon another night might do it. Just got the Gila to negotiate, and that's what I come to see you 'bout. 'Fraid I won't be dining with you all tonight; gonna scout out a safe crossing with Pickles. Just this last hurdle to overcome, and then you can git yourselves off to your business on the coast.'
He winked and poured whisky into the coffee, looking at Emmett.
'So aside from all the astoundin' tales of heroism young Miles has regaled you with, how are you faring?' he said.
Abigail brushed her fringe from her eyes, and leaned forward.
'I've been tellin' him he's a five now,' she said.
Alston looked confused.
'Like how scared you are, out of ten,' Abigail said. 'I said I'm a five, and he said he's a ten.'
The evening was cool and dark outside the wagon. Alston stroked his moustache.
'Five sounds good to me, too,' he said. 'Don't want to be gittin' complacent, I suppose.'
'I'm a zero, boss,' Miles chipped in. 'I ain't scared at all. I'll keep them safe from dirt-worshippers while you all are scoutin' out the river.'
Alston frowned and stepped off the wagon.
'Some may take umbrage with that kind of vocabulary, boy,' he said. 'Maybe best adjust that first. You all stay safe now.'
He touched his hat and disappeared into the night. Miles jumped down onto the plain, and Emmett and Abigail followed him. They walked towards the cook's fire, watching shadowy riders move around them. Cattle grazed in groups. Miles pulled his pistol, twirled it, and dropped it.
'Guess I still need some practice there,' he sighed. 'Let's see what the coosie's got for us. I hope it ain't dang cow brains again.'
'Brains?' Abigail whispered. Emmett swallowed.
'Brains and flour in a stew,' Miles said, tapping his head. 'Sometimes he adds onions and chillis for flavour.'
They stopped beside the fire. To their right, there was a large ironwood with pale-pink flower clusters, and several of the crew were sitting playing cards at its base. A soft breeze brushed the night air.
'What're you making, Jago?' Miles asked.
The cook looked up slowly. He was stirring a large pot.
'Cow brains,' he said. His voice was a dry rasp.
Miles looked at Emmett and Abigail, and shrugged. He removed a roll-up from behind his ear, and put it between his lips.
'I am not making cow brains to eat,' the cook said, looking at Emmett. 'I merely tell him this as he has a cow brain in his own head.'
Abigail snickered, and Emmett smiled. A horse trotted up behind them. The evening sky was a purple sweep, with a livid orange underside. The men beneath the ironwood were laughing. Miles turned against the wind and lit a match. The tiny flame flared in the darkness, and the horse behind him bucked and threw its rider. Miles dropped the match, stepped backwards, and tripped. The rider was pulling himself up off the ground when the horse bolted.
The cook dropped his ladle. The horse charged across the camp, and ploughed into a drove of grazing cattle. Abigail grabbed Emmett's arm. A low rumble passed across the camp. The cattle were running. They broke in confused clusters, charging into one another, and scattering aimlessly in the dark. Horns clashed. The ground shook.
'Shit,' Miles said.
He loosed a length of rawhide from his belt, and ran off into the night. Emmett seized Abigail's hand and pulled her towards the horse pen. Men were racing past them, cursing. The night was inky-dark out on the plains. Emmett felt along the length of the rope pen, and waited for the crew to mount and ride out. Abigail shivered beside him. He found Buck, and lifted her up onto him. He mounted and guiding the horse out behind the crew.
The herd was a wild rush before them. More groups broke and ran before the oncoming roar, merging until an enormous stampeding column tore across the flats. Emmett spurred Buck into a dead run. He saw several riders sawing towards the right-hand side of the column, loping recklessly, seeking to get alongside the leaders. They tried to curve the rushing herd, but it barrelled on.
Dust churned up into a thick blinding smog, and the boom was like an earthquake. Emmett pressed close to Abigail as he felt the ground rising. Riders ahead hollered and posted their locations with shots in the air.
They hit the crest of the rise, and for a brief moment there was dull clarity amongst the wall of dust. Emmett saw an avalanche of cattle pouring down the slope, and beyond them the twisting line of the river. He descended at the rear. The dust drew down and around them again, and they were lost once more in the storm.