By Stephen Thom
It took several days to round up the remainder of the herd. They let them mill, graze and settle before they moved on again. All told, they pulled into Yuma with about two thousand seven hundred head.
Emmett and Abigail sat on a bench by the tracks whilst the cattle were being driven up chutes and onto the boxcars. It took a long time. The soot-smeared train crew busied about the locomotive, checking grease panels, lubing the pins, and polishing the flanks. A black cat was slinking about the railyard. It was growing dark when Alston ambled over to them.
'Well,' he drawled. 'Fair to say that was a mixed experience.'
'Yessir,' Emmett said. He lifted the backpack up and swung it on. He knew what was coming, and he didn't want to drag it out. Despite the stampede, the quicksand, and the gators, he'd felt safe with Alston, and he knew Abigail had too. It was a feeling of safety they'd been without for too long, and they had been granted it for less than a week. Now it was ending.
Alston sat down beside them. A donkey clopped past. A drunken man was passed out atop it. He was sliding off. The train's brass whistle sounded across the valleys.
'Seems like I found myself a pair of top hands,' Alston said. 'Sure will be mighty sad to lose you both.'
Abigail lowered her head and swung her legs. Emmett could hear her sniffing. He didn't know what to say. He didn't want to go back to the constant fear. He didn't want to have the pins. He didn't want any of it. Alston removed his battered hat. He leaned down and placed his hand on Abigail's shoulder.
'I meant what I said,' he whispered. 'It don't sit comfortable with me leavin' two children all on their lonesome out here. You sure you two are fixed on this?'
'Yessir,' Abigail said. She held her hands over her eyes as they welled up. 'We have to git to the ocean. We have to fix his count.'
Alston took her left hand and held it. Emmett felt his bottom lip quivering.
'Well then,' Alston said. 'I'll grant y'all temporary leave to see to this business. But I expect my top hands to be back as soon as possible. I cain't drink all the buttermilk by myself, and I cain't fight off all the gators in the West by myself neither. I'll be checkin' the horizon for that old booger of yours every night.'
'Much obliged, sir,' Emmett breathed. He blinked back tears, and watched the drunken rider roll off his donkey and onto the dirt. The brass whistle sounded again, and Alston stood.
'If I could make a recommendation,' he said. 'I don't rightly know how you diagnose 'broken counts', but I'd check in with the camp doctor if I were you. Fort's 'bout half an hour's ride north, over the Colorado. You'll git your train there too. Probably no further than Bakersfield, but it's just a short hop to the coast after that. See to your business, and I'll be waiting for you on the other side.'
Abigail broke into sobs. Alston leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. She clung to his hand.
'Aw, darlin',' he said. 'There's more darn good in the world than you can possibly imagine. You will see it again, and I will see you again.'
Someone shouted across the darkness. He gently prised himself free. Abigail buried her face in Emmett's shoulder.
'You see that Doc now,' he said, looking at Emmett. His face was creased with worry.
'I will, sir,' Emmett said. 'Thank you kindly for everythin'.'
The locomotive hissed, and Alston turned and jogged towards it. He kept looking back. The train clicked and huffed, and steam poured out into the night sky.
Fort Yuma was a wreck on a low mesa. The parched, black desert stretched out around it. Emmett nudged Buck through the mesquite and arrow bushes on the fringes of the camp. The rope corrals held no more than a handful of horses and mules. They passed isolated wagons and dirty tents. Some of the homes were no more than holes in the ground; cellars with lids. Everywhere there were signs of a recent earthquake. Collapsed stalls and frame houses. An adobe saloon with a pile of crumbled red bricks where one of its walls should have been.
The Jaeger ferry was a silhouette on the river. The camp appeared near-deserted. They saw a few soldiers, and some drunk miners. The officer's quarters were empty. Emmett asked for the doctor at the guardhouse. They were directed towards a pesthouse in the dry fields outside the camp.
It was late in the evening as they trudged out past the remains of a willow storehouse, and a string of thatched huts. A large lonely shack squatted on the plains. Men with bandanas pulled over their noses were burning clothes nearby. Further out into the darkness people were digging a pit.
Emmett tethered Buck to a spindly smoke tree and dismounted. He helped Abigail down and left her standing in the dark whilst he walked to the shack. He looked back and saw her small figure shaded in the bonfire's flames. It felt like he had pulled her away from Alston, and straight back into the abyss.
A ball of tumbleweed drifted past him. He stepped up onto the shack's porch. A sign hanging on the door read: Sickness here. Stay away.
Emmett pulled his neckerchief over his mouth and knocked. He stood awkwardly. He knocked again. There was shuffling inside, and the door creaked open. The stench that wafted out was overwhelming. He gagged. His stomach tightened, and he dry-heaved for a few seconds.
The doctor stood looking at him. He had a cloth pressed to his mouth. Beyond him Emmett could see a man lying on a mattress in the darkness. His face was ravaged with pustules. A pan was smoking on the stove beside him.
The doctor moved onto the porch and closed the door. He lowered the cloth and placed his hand on Emmett's chest, pushing him gently down the stairs. He wore a faded bowler hat and a cravat, and his face was dripping with sweat.
'Lead acetate poultices,' he said. 'Heatin' them up. That and mercury ointment. I might as well be feedin' them snake oil and doing magic tricks. What you doin', boy?'
Emmett tugged his neckerchief down and sucked in air. The rank smell lingered.
'I ain't well, sir,' he said. 'I was advised to see you prompt. My sister's waitin' on me.'
The doctor looked out into the night. Flames crackled amongst the dust. He removed his bowler and scratched at his greasy hair.
'I'd find Hell cool after this dang camp,' he muttered impatiently. 'Here. Over here.'
He led Emmett over to a stack of crates and barrels. He gestured for him to sit on an upturned crate, and squatted down opposite. Emmett stared past him towards Abigail and the horse. A man with a spade over his shoulder lumbered past. The doctor pulled on a pair of gloves and studied him. His eyes narrowed.
'Name's Glanton,' he said. 'What's yours, boy?'
Emmett thumbed his hatbrim up.
'Emmett, sir,' he said.
Glanton reached out and grasped his face. He placed a finger beneath Emmett's left eye and peered close. His lip curled, and his moustache ruffled in turn. He let go and exhaled.
'Well, Emmett,' he said, 'you ain't got the pox. What you got I reckon I only seen once in my life before.'
'Yessir,' Emmett mumbled. Glanton rolled his shoulders and stood.
'And if you got it, you know how you got it,' he said. Emmett hung his head.
'Yessir,' he whispered.
'And you know I cain't help you,' Glanton said.
Emmett was silent. Glanton wiped sweat from his brow and looked back towards the shack. The heat was oppressive. His voice cracked when he spoke.
'These folk,' he said. 'I cain't do much for them. Short of sittin' with them. And screwin' about with cloths and ointments like I have some crumb of darn control.'
Emmett sighed and looked up. Glanton yanked a crate over and sat down beside him. Smoke plumed over the desert.
'I don't know what will happen to you, boy,' he said. 'Just like I didn't know the first time I seen this, and I didn't git to see how that panned out. I prefer to deal in certainties. What I would say is that if neither of us has a darn clue, then I'm inclined to be hopeful. I would much rather that. I cain't give you a clear diagnosis, and I cain't prescribe you nothin'. But you ain't in that shack, and you ain't in that pit yonder, and we can control how we think about and attack this.'
Emmett wiped his eyes. Darkness swam around him. Glanton dabbed at his forehead with a cloth and looked out towards the fire.
'That your sister standin' over there with that skinny-ass horse?' he said.
'Christ's sake,' Glanton said. 'We're fallin' at the first hurdle if we go leaving each other beside fires and pits.'
He stood and hollered. Abigail led Buck over and stood timidly before them. Glanton introduced himself, and beckoned for her to sit.
'Don't let that happen again,' he said to Emmett. 'You stick close on the frontline.'
Emmett turned red. He removed his hat and opened his mouth, but Glanton held up a hand.
'So,' he said. 'We done made our minds up how we're goin' to think and attack. What's your next steps?'
'We're goin' to the ocean, sir,' Abigail said. 'Some island. Santa Rosa or Catalina or somethin'. We was told he can fix his count there.'
'Can he indeed?' Glanton nodded. 'Well, that does sound suitably vague and mystical. Who told you that?'
'Chumash girl,' Emmett said. 'She said it was a Halfway Place. She said I can rectify it there.'
Glanton's eyes widened.
'Huh,' he said. 'A novel prescription. I guess it's a sight better than loppin' off your scalp. What'll you do if that don't work?'
'I don't rightly know,' he said. 'I hadn't even considered it.'
Glanton stood and dusted off his trousers.
'You'll come right back to me,' he said. 'And we'll work out what to do next, and we'll be darn hopeful doin' it, 'cause we don't know how to be otherwise. Is that our deal?'
'Yessir,' Emmett said. The horse stepped and nickered. Glanton turned to Abigail.
'You make sure he don't renege on that there deal,' he said. Abigail smiled.
'I will,' she said. She looked back towards the camp.
'Why's there hardly any people here, sir?' she said.
'Them soldiers,' he said. 'They mostly withdrew. They've been having problems gittin' rations out this way. Had one darn sack of flour between them at one point. Scurvy going round. The pox. Mojave too. Clubbed a bunch of them to death. Then it seems you git past the famine, the plagues, and the injuns, and a dang quake flattens the whole caboodle. And therein lies our appointed paths, ma'am. I will sit with these fine people in their darkest hours, you will sit with him, and he will sit with you, and we all got that goin' for us.'
Abigail looked thoughtful. Her eyes were bright. She passed Buck's hackamore between her hands.
'Yes,' she said. 'We do.'
Glanton placed his bowler back in his head. Emmett looked at him and scratched his neck. He felt his throat tighten.
'We ain't got no idea what to do when we get our there,' he said. 'I've already dragged her through all sorts, I don't - '
'Goddamnit,' Glanton snapped. 'We ain't got time to read all the small print. We cain't sit on every detail. You and me both now, we need to be lookin' over the next hill. If the darn small things fail you, or you feel you've failed them, then you lick your wounds and make some new things to linger on. Better things. We also got that goin' for us, and we're darn lucky like that.'
Emmett turned the words over in his head. Abigail smiled and gave the Doctor a thumbs-up.
'My poultices,' he said. 'I got to git back. It was real nice to meet you both. You come right back here if that island thing don't work out. And stick closer.'
He kicked up dust traipsing back to the shack. Emmett stood up and took Abigail's hand. The backpack felt heavy on his shoulders.