Seven miles northeast of Wichita Falls
Gavin scanned the ruins of a once-growing community, eyes straining against the smoke and a sting of tears he would have denied, had anyone seen them. What on earth happened here? I've never in my life seen such utter destruction, so few survivors. Surely someone must be alive somewhere.
He turned to the left, searching for signs of movement, but saw nothing. Only a hot, stale breeze sent wisps of smoke toward the horizon. Before him, the same. Nothing but death and carnage, charred wood and ruined plaster. He shifted to the right and blinked in surprise.
In the smoldering ruins of a burned building, a woman knelt. Soot smeared the back of her loosely-cut gingham dress. Weak sunlight filtered through the lingering smoke to glint on golden hair—messily pulled into a hasty knot—as well as an object clutched in her dirty hands.
A bent and twisted pot-bellied stove lay in front of her. It appeared to have been partially crushed when the ceiling fell in—a ceiling that now lay in chunks, like morbid stepping stones—beneath the woman's knees. If she was aware of the man standing a short distance away, she gave no indication.
It seems prefabricated houses burn just as easily as a hut made of twigs. Someone should write the company. The irreverent thought needled him with guilt. Cut that out. What's wrong with you?
Trying to quell his inappropriate humor, he scanned the grim scene. Twenty houses, a store, a church and a livery stable had been reduced to smoking splinters and yawning, open cellars.
Here and there, a shattered wall stood unsteadily, its height chopped off as though by a blunt ax—a blunt ax of flame, judging by the charred edges. Beyond, the open prairie stretched far as the eye could see, but closer in, where any part of the small town had stood, only devastation remained.
What a strange fire that it could burn a town to cinders and not ignite the summer-dry grass, he thought.
“Yes, I can see you.” A softly-pitched voice cut into his swirling thoughts, drawing his eyes back to the woman.
Curious, Gavin drew closer, forcing himself to ignore the moaning from his cart. The borrowed draft horse whickered. In front of the crouching woman, the air vibrated, as though with heat.
“You died,” the woman explained. “There was a fire.”
Wind whipped through the shattered remains of the once-vibrant frontier town, bringing with it the stench of burned lumber and scorched flesh. As it passed over the ruined structures, it seemed to wail.
“Oh, now don't carry on so,” the woman urged. “It's not as bad as all that. Dying is part of living, you know. Any moment now, you'll see the gate. Go into it.”
Another mournful wail of the wind set Gavin quivering. He paused in his forward motion.
“Trust me, there's nothing here worth loitering for,” the woman explained. “New people will come and rebuild. Your home and shop are gone. They'll become something else. Your time is done. I know it was a shock, but you're going to be all right. Let go of this life.”
Gavin resumed his approach. His boots crunched on the crumbling remains of some unidentified object. It immediately collapsed to powder.
The woman ignored him. “You see, I told you,” she said. “It's time for you to move on.” Then she paused, tilting her head toward the shimmer. “If you'd like, of course I can do that. 'Our Father, who art in Heaven…’”
As she prayed, Gavin crossed the last several steps between the wagon and the woman. He reached out a hand to grasp her shoulder, idly noting that his own skin bore many smudges and more than a few burns.
“Now, go on,” she said to… nothing. “Your place is in the light. Be well, and rest in peace.”
He touched her. Beneath his fingers, he could feel the hollow places between the bones. She started at the touch, and then turned sharply, staring up at him with a gasp. Her oval face had sunk between the bones, the skin pale and corpse-like. Her bright green eyes glistened as though with tears that could not compete with their own internal luminescence. She blinked slowly, drawing golden lashes down toward jutting cheekbones before raising them again.
“I beg your pardon,” Gavin said politely, wondering what drew him not only to approach this strange woman but to touch her. “I didn't mean to startle you.”
She shook her head, not in denial of his words, but as though to reconnect with reality. “You succeeded, trying or not,” she pointed out tartly.
“I'm Doctor Gavin Morris,” he said, awkwardly shifting his weight from one foot to another. “I, uh… um…” He slapped his hand over his face, annoyed at himself for his visible discomfort, and wondered how many smears of soot he'd spread across his skin.
“Sis…” She broke off, cleared her throat, and tried again. “Annabelle Smith. Sorry. The smoke, you understand.” A dusky color appeared along her cheekbones.
Gavin screwed his lips to one side. Her response was as awkward as mine. Of course, standing in the smoldering wreckage of this town, knee deep in the dead, isn't likely to create comfortable conversation between strangers. “What are you doing?” he demanded.
She levered herself to her feet, as though the weight of her own bones were almost too much for her scrawny body to lift. “I'm sure you saw well enough. Why are you asking, Dr. Morris? Trying to determine if I'm crazy? I'm not, but I learned long ago that people such as yourself label as crazy anything they personally don't believe in.”
The venom in her tone startled him. “I beg your pardon, ma'am,” he said again. “I just… I saw you, and…” he broke off, swallowed, and tried again. “I'm looking for survivors. You were talking to someone.”
Miss Smith bit her lip. “Sorry, that was rude of me. Of course, I was. There are no survivors here, but there is a dead man. He's under this ceiling beam, and I can't get to him. His spirit will do no harm now, but it would be wise for someone to remove the body soon for burial.”
“Naturally,” Gavin agreed. “We need to find and bury as many as possible, for sanitation's sake. Can you put a flag of some sort on the spot for easier retrieval?”
Miss Smith's eyebrows lowered, and her lower lip drooped slightly. “You believe me?” she asked.
Gavin shrugged. “I've been awake all night and inhaled enough stale smoke to cook hams. Maybe I'm not thinking clearly either.”
The drooping lip snapped upward into a tightly pursed posture.
“What do you expect, Miss Smith?” he added.
Her shoulders sagged. “Nothing, I suppose. It's not the rudest reply I've ever received. Never mind.” She tore a corner off the tattered hem of her skirt, dug a partially-charred stick out of the rubble, and erected it like a flag. Then, she groaned and rubbed her lower back.
“Are you all right?” Gavin asked, his medical training kicking in.
“I'm fine,” Miss Smith replied. “Just a bit tired and sore.” Her stomach interjected into the space with a loud growl. “And hungry,” she added, cheeks flaming again. “Disasters take a lot of energy, but I can't help it. When something like this happens, I'm helpless to resist the call of the confused dead. I have to help them move on.”
Gavin twisted his lips to the side. “That urge to help, at least, I can understand, though in my case, there don't seem to be many survivors to rescue or treat. Even if I did find someone alive, the infection that so often follows bad burns would probably make my help useless.”
“You never know,” Miss Smith answered. “I knew a girl back East who was badly burned with boiling water when she was a baby. She had scars all over her chest and belly, but she lived. She was such a happy woman, always singing. You do the best you can. God takes care of the rest.”
She spoke with such simple conviction, it touched a stinging wound in Gavin's heart. His mouth formed a sarcastic reply, but the lump in his throat would not allow it to pass. Then, Miss Smith's eyes grew large.
“Ooooh, come this way, doctor!” She lurched forward, kicking aside charred rubble with the toes of her dirty boots.
Confused, Gavin trailed along, almost forgetting he had a cartful of injured people who would need a hospital, which the town would never have supplied. Even the doctor's small clinic, once housed on the first floor of a skinny row house, had been reduced to a smoking ruin. It would provide no more help than the town's injured doctor, who lay wheezing between a saloon girl who no longer had any fingers or toes, and the pastor, whose cough alarmed Gavin more than the ugly red patches on his arms.
As she said, I'll do what I can for them, but even if I had the full complement of doctors and supplies of my father's clinic, it's unlikely any of them would last the night. The soothing salve, bandages, and cool water were all Gavin had to offer, and they represented more of a gentle passing than a treatment. Half the town is dead, and half of the survivors won't last the week. Damn, this was a terrible fire.
Rubble crumbled under his shoes. Lumps of charcoal threatened to turn his ankle. Through all the devastation, Miss Smith made her way, almost without thought, toward some unnamed destination. To Gavin's eye, it seemed she paid no heed to where she stepped, and yet, a fallen beam did not trip her, nor did a ruined wall impede her way. She navigated it all, her attention fixed on an unseen guide. At last, she paused, falling to her knees.
Gavin approached tentatively.
“Stay back,” she warned, waving a careless hand in his direction.
He froze. “Why? What's wrong?”
“There's a cellar here,” she explained.
“How could you possibly know that?” he demanded.
She glanced over her shoulder in his direction, though it didn't seem her eyes focused on him at all. “She told me.” Miss Smith gestured to the empty air in front of her.
Is it really empty? I see a shimmer, like heat. But with the fire extinguished, only a few warm spots remain. Gavin rubbed his eyes, which actually felt good given the amount of stinging smoke lingering in the air and looked again. The shimmer remained. He frowned at it. Must be a hot spot.
Miss Smith clearly didn't agree with his prosaic assessment. She addressed the shimmer with a serious voice and expression. “Yes, I can see you.”
Gavin crept forward and froze. Directly in front of Miss Smith's scuffed and filthy shoes, a strange sight set his teeth against his lip. Above the stink of burned lumber, the rank stench of scorched flesh assaulted his nostrils, telling him in no uncertain terms that the object before him could only be what his fevered imagination insisted it had to be: a badly burned human leg.
Sickness rose in his belly as his eyes traced the leg upward to a charred back, pinned in place by a fallen beam. Of the head and arms, he could see nothing.
“Are you sure?” Miss Smith asked, her gaze fixed, not on the gruesome corpse, but on the strange patch of air directly before them. “All right, I'll look. Then, will you move on?”
The shimmer bobbed. A heat spot shifting in the breeze, he told himself, though he couldn't quite believe it. Spooks and fairy tales today, is it, Doctor? The stinking wind trailed down his back and set him shivering.
“Doctor, we need to shift this beam,” Miss Smith informed him.
He scowled at her. “Why? It's clear she's beyond help.” And exactly how do I know the corpse is a she? he demanded of himself. There are no identifying characteristics. No answer emerged, though he studied the gruesome mess of flesh with clinical dispassion for a lingering moment.
“She is,” Miss Smith agreed, “but that's not why. She says she dropped her baby into the cellar before the fire caught up with her, and she's not sure whether he made it. Once we find out, she's willing to move on. This is most fortunate for us, her, and the town, because ghosts seeking their babies are some of the hardest to get rid of. That maternal instinct transcends death better than almost any other emotion.”
Gavin shook his head. “Even if the infant survived the fall into a cellar, he probably died of the smoke.” Idiot, what are you doing? his rational mind demanded. You're getting sucked into her fantasy. Stop it! You have no idea if there is a cellar, let alone an infant. And yet, Miss Smith's insistent assuredness seemed to infect him.
Stepping carefully around the body, he took hold of the beam and heaved. Fire had lightened it considerably, crumbling a sizable portion of its bulk and infiltrating what remained with fissures and ash. It disintegrated in his hands, but not before he could haul it away.
The portion of the dead woman that lay beneath the beam had survived the fire, more or less intact. A broad swath of a back, clad in a white nightgown, showed just how quickly the fire had taken the home. She had so little warning. Still, he could see nothing of her upper body. Bile rose in his throat as he considered touching the woman, but he knew Miss Smith would accept no excuses. And just how do you know that? You've known the woman all of ten minutes.
Carefully laying his hands on the intact portion of the body, he pulled upward, and as predicted, an upper back, head and arms emerged from an opening in the floor. Like the flesh under the beam, this part of her remained unburned, a long swath of dark hair spilling onto the remains of her home as he laid her gently on her side. What a horrible death she must have endured. Poor creature.
Without thought, he smoothed her hair away from her face and shuddered at the agonized expression etched forever into soft, supple features.
A quiet whimper cut through the night, and Gavin whipped his head to the side so quickly, the vertebrae in his neck popped. He groaned. All the aches he'd amassed in his late-night run through the burned-out town flared into burning pain. Then, he realized what he'd heard.
“Was that…?” he began.
“A baby,” Miss Smith breathed. Before he could stop her, or even offer a word of caution, the woman bounded forward and disappeared down the opening from which the dead woman had just been withdrawn. A moment later, she reappeared, a blanket-wrapped bundle in the crook of her arm. “The smoke wasn't as bad down there,” she crowed. “Just look!”
She peeled back the blanket to reveal a plump, pink form. It twitched and whined, one fist flailing in the air, the other hanging awkwardly to the side.
“Easy,” Gavin urged. “Was it a long way to the floor? He might be injured.”
“It's a bit of a drop,” she admitted. “Will you look him over?”
She extended the baby, and Gavin noted in passing that the child appeared to be about six months old. Big enough to be a bit sturdy. He gently rolled the boy over, so his body rested along Gavin's forearm, and cradled the baby's chin on his palm. Bruises marred the little back. At the change of position, the baby shrieked, and Gavin noted his left forearm still hung at an unnatural angle.
“Broken arm,” he said, “and I'll need to watch closely for concussion or other internal injuries, but I do believe we may have found our first true survivor.”
“What about…?” Miss Smith began, looking back toward the wagon.
Now how did she know that was there? I never saw a hint she was aware of me until I touched her. “I doubt any of them will last the night,” he muttered for her ears only, hoping the sound would not carry back to his cart.
She lowered her head, eyelids fluttering in sorrow. “I'll help them if they need it,” she offered. “Sometimes it's hard to move on when the passing is so sudden and violent.”
Despite the strangeness of the comment, Gavin nodded. Crazy or not, she means well, and sometimes, that's all a person can offer… or accept.
A change to Miss Smith's posture showed him her attention had been diverted. When she spoke again, it was clearly not to him. “Yes, we found him.” She paused. “Benjamin is such a nice name. He looks like he's going to make it and be just fine.” Another pause. “Should we try to find him a family? What?”
She turned her face toward Gavin, but her expression remained far away. “She says we should contact her sister, Judith Hart, who lives in Abilene. She's sure she will take the baby and raise him.” Miss Smith looked back, and Gavin could see, again, one of those damned heat shimmers; this time hovering directly above the face of the dead woman. He blinked hard, but it didn't dissipate.
Miss Smith continued speaking to her invisible companion. “Will you go on then? It's time.” Another long pause. “That's not the best way, you know. I promise I'll deliver him to your sister as soon as I can… oh, very well, but be careful not to linger too long. You don't want to become trapped here.”
Shaking herself, Miss Smith sighed and turned again toward Gavin. “We're done here, and I don't feel any more dead lingering in this place.”
“It's not as easy hunting for the injured,” he replied, “but there are plenty of folks searching.” He indicated the devastated scene, where at least a dozen other people, most of whom he recognized from Wichita Falls, hunched or knelt, poking into the ashes. “Let's get this little fellow over to the hospital tent and set his arm.”