Thursday, December 28, 1893
Wind rips through the crags a thousand feet above, nothing moving in this godforsaken town, and the mule skinner knows that something is wrong. Two miles south stands Bartholomew Packer’s mine, the Godsend, a twenty-stamp mill that should be filling this box canyon with the thudding racket of the rock crushers pulverizing ore. The sound of the stamps in operation is the sound of money being made, and only two things will stop them—Christmas and tragedy.
He dismounts his albino steed, the horse’s pinked nostrils flaring, dirty mane matted with ice. The single-rig saddle is snow-crusted as well, its leather and cloth components—the mochila and shabrack—frozen stiff. He rubs George’s neck, speaking in soft, low tones he knows will calm the animal, telling him he did a good day’s work and that a warm stable awaits with feed and fresh water.
The mule skinner opens his wallet, collects the pint of busthead he bought at a bodega in Silverton, and swallows the remaining mouthful, whiskey crashing into his empty stomach like iced fire.
He wades through waist-deep snow to the mercantile, bangs his shop-mades on the door frame. Inside, the lamps have been extinguished and the big stove squats dormant in the corner, unattended by the usual constellation of miners jawboning over coffee and tobacco. He calls for the own er as he crosses the board floor, moving between shelves, past stacked crates and burlap sacks bulging with sugar and flour.
“Jessup? It’s Brady! You in back?”
The twelve burros crane their scrawny necks in his direction when Brady emerges from the merc. He reaches into his greatcoat, pulls out a tin of Star Navy tobacco, and shoves a chaw between lips and gums gone blackish purple in the last year.
“What the hell?” he whispers.
When he delivered supplies two weeks ago, this little mining town was bustling. Now Abandon looms listless before him in the gloom of late afternoon, streets empty, snow banked high against the unshoveled plank sidewalks, no tracks as far as he can see.
The cabins scattered across the lower slopes lie buried to their chimneys, and with not a one of them smoking, the air smells too clean.
Brady is a man at home in solitude, often spending days on the trail, alone in wild, quiet places, but this silence is all wrong—a lie. He feels menaced by it, and with each passing moment, more certain that something has happened here.
A wall of dark clouds scrapes over the peaks, and snowflakes begin to speck the sleeves of his slicker. Here comes the wind. Chimes clang together over the doorway of the merc. It will be night soon.
He makes his way up the street into the saloon, still half-expecting Joss Maddox, the beautiful barkeep, to assault him with some gloriously profane greeting. No one’s there. Not the mute piano player, not a single customer, and again, no light from the kerosene lamps, no warmth from the potbellied stove, just a half-filled glass on the pine bar, the beer frozen through.
The path to the nearest cabin lies beneath untrodden snow, and without webs, it takes five minutes to cover a hundred yards.
He pounds his gloved fist against the door, counts to sixty. The latch string hasn’t been pulled in, and despite the circumstance, he still feels like a trespasser as he steps inside uninvited.
In the dark, his eyes strain to adjust.
Around the base of a potted spruce tree, crumpled pages of newspaper clutter the dirt floor—remnants of Christmas.
Food languishes untouched on a rustic table, far too lavish to be any ordinary meal for the occupants of this cramped one-room cabin. This was Christmas dinner.
He removes a glove, touches the ham—cold and hard as ore. A pot sits there, the beans frozen in their broth. The cake feels more like pumice than sponge, and two jagged glass stems still stand upright, the wine having frozen and shattered the crystal cups.
Outside again, back with his pack train, he shouts, turning slowly in the middle of the street so the words carry in all directions.
His voice and the fading echo of it sound so small rising against the vast, indifferent sweep of wilderness. The sky dims. Snow falls harder. The church at the north end of town disappears in the storm.
It’s twenty-seven miles back to Silverton, and the pack train has been on the trail since before first light. The burros need rest. Having driven mules the last sixteen hours, he needs it, too, though the prospect of spending the night in Abandon, in this awful silence, unnerves him.
As he slips a boot into the stirrup, ready to take the burros down to the stables, he notices something beyond the cribs at the south end of town. He urges George forward, trots through deep powder between the false-fronted buildings, and when he sees what caught his eye, he whispers, “You old fool.”
Just a snowman scowling at him, spindly arms made of spruce branches, pine cones for teeth and eyes, garland for a crown.
He tugs the reins, turning George back toward town, and the jolt of seeing her provokes, “Lord God Amighty.”
He drops his head, tries to allay the thumping of his heart in the thin air. When he looks up again, the young girl is still there, perhaps six or seven, apparition-pale and just ten feet away, with locomotive black curls and coal eyes to match—so dark and with such scant delineation between iris and pupil, they more resemble wet stones.
“You put a fright in me,” he says. “What are you doin out here all alone?” She backpedals.
“No, don’t be scart. I ain’t the bogeyman.” Brady alights, wades toward her through the snow. With the young girl in webs sunk only a foot in powder, and the mule skinner to his waist, he thinks it odd to stand eye-to-eye with a child.
“You all right?” he asks. “I didn’t think there was nobody here.”
The snowflakes stand out like white confetti in the child’s hair. “They’re all gone,” she says, no emotion, no tears, just an unaffected statement of fact.
“Even your ma and pa?”
“Where’d they all go to? Can you show me?”
She takes another step back, reaches into her gray woolen cloak. The single-action army revolver is a heavy sidearm, and it sags comically in the child’s hand, so she holds it like a rifle. Brady is too surprised to do a thing but watch as she struggles with the hammer.
“Okay, I’ll show you,” she says, the hammer locked back, sighting him up, her small finger already in the trigger guard.
“Now hold on. Wait just a—”
“That ain’t no toy to point in someone’s direction. It’s for—”