By morning there was little left.
Looking at it from a distance, from safely behind the glass of Gayla’s bedroom, they’d underestimated how big the fire was, how fast the flame was moving, and how quickly they’d be overtaken. Even Greta’s hurried whiff of the night air didn’t garner them enough intel to make a good assessment of the danger.
Everything they’d discovered had come too late.
Had they known they’d only seen the flickering crest of the blaze peeking over the hilltop they might have planned their counterattack more appropriately, or foregone planning at all and saved the time. Greta gave herself mere minutes to rouse the farmhands and tend to the animals; seconds to throw on a coat over her nightclothes; precious seconds more to pull on the muddied boots waiting, silent and still, by the front door. The men who had been sleeping deeply from a hard day’s labor in the small one-room house next to the stables, were roused from their slumber by the woman as she burst in yelling, a lit lantern dangling, its wire handle squeaking, in a fisted, upraised hand, “Up! Up! Fire!”
Paul was the first to leap from bed. A lanky man in his mid-forties, Paul was an ex-military man, a grunt from the Army who’d been discharged on account of the shrapnel that nearly tore his thigh off the bone like a starving, deranged animal. By all accounts, war was such. Paul spent months in recovery and, when he was released by the doctors, was declared unfit for duty and was sent home with a thank you and a handshake. What remained of the incident was a lot of scarring he never let anyone else see and a torrid gimp in his step from the shard of metal still residing in his flesh. He never regretted the injury, though. Taking that hit had saved his buddy from death, though only temporarily. Months after returning home he got a call from his buddy’s wife to ask him to do the eulogy. Ironically, his comrade hadn’t died in arms, but from an episode of binge drinking while on a weekend leave. He’d been prone to binges before they’d even enlisted together. Paul had always told him the fucking stuff would kill him one day.
God, how Paul hated war.
Home was back in Nebraska. Paul came to California to get away from anything that reminded him of his childhood friend. He couldn’t, however, get away from the shrapnel.
Military training doesn’t die easily. Even after his discharge Paul maintained a strict lifestyle: he ate for sustenance, not for pleasure; he kept his hair immaculately short; shaved daily; always wore hats outside and never in; and rushed ahead to open doors for women.
Except, that is, for Greta.
To be fair, Paul was awake before Greta even came in. He was used to restless nights and this one was more restless than most, no thanks to the racketeering mockingbird outside. As he lay in bed, he heard the horses pawing and snorting in their stalls next door and the cattle moving restlessly in their pen just outside. He assumed it was the near full moon that was making the animals batty. Not twenty feet across the room the two younger hands snored or mumbled little nothings in their sleep. Bobby dreamt, from what Paul could deduce, about a redhead in a blue dress, and Chuck sounded as if he were choking on his own tongue.
It was a normal if not noisy night.
Then Paul heard the hurried footsteps of boots approaching, scraping the hardened clay dirt just outside the bunkhouse door. He recognized them as Greta’s.
“Up! Up! Fire!” She burst in with so much momentum that the wood door slammed back and hit its supporting wall, knocking a frame from its nail. The lady was disheveled; her hair was wild, her oversized linen pajamas visible beneath a tattered brown robe, its sash haphazardly tied about her robust waist.
Paul was up in an instant. His feet were in his boots before he realized it. He absentmindedly flung on his coat as he listened to Greta issuing orders and explanations. Chuck and Bobby were still untangling themselves from their sheets like monkeys from vines as she spoke, trying to figure out what exactly it was that had woken them from their peaceful slumber.
Greta looked to Paul, her green eyes blazing orange in the light of the lantern she held. “Get the animals to a safe place,” she demanded. He nodded, his eyes not moving from her. “Get as much tack and equipment out of the barn as you can get out quickly. Don’t linger and don’t go back for the heavy things.” She looked over to the young men, who were hopping over toward her, trying to put their boots on as fast as they could. “You hear me?” She looked back at Paul, sadness suddenly filling her eyes and a shake entering her voice. God, he loved her then. “It’s just stuff,” she emphasized.
He nodded to her again, understanding, his eye contact dropping just a bit as a mixture of embarrassment and respect flooded over him. Immediately the group separated and went to work.
While Greta and the men scrambled outside, Gayla, Trudy, and Daniel gathered what they could from the home and threw their bounty into the bed of Daniel’s Ford parked just outside the front door.
The Victor had to stay behind to burn, as did the mysterious woman in the gilded frame hovering on the wall above Mr. Masterson’s old writing desk, as did the vast collection of maps, charts, and books he had accumulated in his many years of expedition and local sleuthing.
Gayla was able to save one precious memento from the library: her father’s journal. It was the first and only thing Gayla had taken from her bedroom in her rush out the door to wake her sister. She stuffed the small book into an oversized inside pocket of her shearling-lined work coat on her run down the hall.
Upon waking and realizing her sister wasn’t playing a cruel trick on her, Trudy immediately ran out of her bedroom, down the hall, and into the study, where Daniel frequently spent the night on the daybed.
“Daniel! Get up!” Trudy shook him awake.
“What? What? Okay, okay! Stop!” She didn’t loosen her grip on his shoulder until he was seated fully upright.
“Where are your boots? Put on your boots!” Trudy scrambled around the room, scanning the floor frantically for her boyfriend’s footwear.
“What are you doing? What’s going on?”
“A fire, headed this way,” Gayla said, a twinge of anger in her voice. Daniel watched her enter the room, moving significantly slower than her sister but not without her own brand of haste. At the mention of fire, Daniel jumped up and peered out the nearest window, craning his head to see in as many directions as he could.
“From where? Are you sure?”
“I saw it and Greta told me to get us out of here. She’s gone to wake the hands.” She paused, leaning near him. She pointed out the window northward, making sure Daniel saw the ominous glow radiating from the horizon. It was significantly brighter now. “So, yes,” she said, “I’m sure.”
Daniel had experienced his share of fires. His father had been a fire volunteer for a number of years when they’d lived in the city. He stopped his volunteerism after his infant daughter, Daniel’s younger sister, died of pneumonia. Daniel remembered hearing his mother plead to his father about willingly heading in the danger, saying that she couldn’t stand to lose her baby to the cold and her husband to the heat.
But, before then, Daniel would ride in the fire engine alongside his father, then sit patiently in the passenger seat outside a burning house or barn, feeling the heat of the flames and hearing the roar of the hellish monster as it consumed everything it could with an unfathomable rage.
Trudy finally found Daniel’s boots and threw them on the floor in his direction. Within minutes he’d backed up his truck to the front porch and the three of them were chucking anything they felt they couldn’t do without into its bed: relics, cash, valuables, photographs, blankets, coats, food for the next few days.
It was about when the flames were licking the edges of the barn, when they could hear the men and Greta yelling and trying to gather the animals, that Gayla found herself standing blank-minded in the middle of the sitting room, staring at the old Victor gramophone.
It was all Bobby and Chuck could do to calm the horses as they watched first the stables then their living quarters then the barn and then the house itself go up in hellish flame.
Trudy wailed as the family huddled together on the wide dirt road, watching the show, her tear-soaked face illuminated and warmed by the inferno consuming all she’d known her entire life. The tear trails shimmered in the light and as quickly as Daniel could reach up from his embrace with her to wipe the wet from her cheeks they were replaced anew. Still, he persisted, not knowing what else to do and knowing there was nothing he could say.
She was still in her bed clothes. Her oversized cotton nightshirt that used to belong to their father—the one Greta shortened up last summer to Trudy’s shins after they found the clothing in a dusty trunk in the library—was dirty with soot and dust from scouring that same library for anything she might be able to save. Covering her sockless feet were her mother’s field boots. On her head, her father’s hunting cap. Around her wrist, the bracelet of faded shells stringed along a tattered hemp cord, a handmade gift she’d received from her sister for her tenth birthday. Around her neck, their grandmother’s pearls, stolen swiftly from amongst a dozen other adornments in their mother’s big free-standing jewelry armoire. The armoire itself and everything else it contained was sacrificed to the flame.
Trudy hadn’t a single thing on her that was not also someone else’s.
In those things her identity was now sealed. Something about their mismatchedness told the complete story of the quivering girl who’d saved them. Her past, her present, even a little of her future was embodied in the items. In their hurried and near thoughtless collection her world was declared—a mother’s protection, a father’s ambition, a sister’s love, a grandmother’s grace—and in that announcement, however unintended, a change had begun within her; a deep and provocative change that frightened her even more than the physical fire itself. She felt a drying up, an aging of sorts, within her as the shell of her childhood was left for dead and given up to ashes, crackling and popping it’s pain into the black night. She could feel the change in her bones as the dry heat of that consuming fire took away everything else she knew that didn’t really matter.
But she had thought they’d mattered. That was the trouble. Now, here she was, older, wiser, watching as the fiery-eyed child of herself was reduced to a smolder in a matter of hours.
The wailing slowed, the fear subsiding as it was replaced with understanding and, then, slowly, acceptance. She sensed a man standing beside her. She felt him her give her a little squeeze. She thought she heard him say something comforting but the sound was distant, muffled, incoherent. He seemed so far away. So… different.
She felt like she was watching her own funeral pyre.
What remained when the sun finally rose was a smoldering skeleton, unrecognizable even in arrangement upon the charred ground. The big chimney stood like a deathly column reaching to Heaven, its skin blackened from soot. It was the only thing left standing firm and it smoked dolefully as if trying to reignite memories held within its stone and mortar.
Gayla brushed her fingers lightly against the still warm stone as she stumbled her way through the charcoal rubble. She couldn’t find words or even whimpers to describe how she felt; there weren’t enough languages or emotions in Heaven or on earth to rightly express the shudder within her soul as she pulled her hand away from the pillar and looked at the black stains on her fingertips. The paleness of her skin flashed out from the recesses of her fingerprints, making the black all the more dark, and the reality all the more striking.
It was gone. All of it.
Something crashed and Gayla spun to see Daniel looming, his lanky frame slightly hunched and out of breath, over a fallen piece of burnt lumber that used to be the front door frame. Grey dust billowed out from the debris at his feet; Trudy was standing just an arm’s length behind him, watching, her eyes wide and pink-rimmed, her hands clutching one another in front of her mouth as her lips made motions without sound. Not quite a prayer but not quite a scream, Gayla thought. She knew the feeling.
Daniel stood up straight once the dust settled. He clapped his hands together to rid them of charcoal as he scowled at the fallen frame, his anger not quite yet gone but subdued enough for him to manage. He turned on his heel and marched off somewhere indiscriminate, passing the still mumbling Trudy with nothing but a quick glance. Gayla watched him go. She understood men did that sometimes—break things, or finish breaking them—when they didn’t know what else to do or feel.
“Is there anything left?” Trudy whispered over her sister’s shoulder. Gayla could only muster a shrug before she continued her march through the debris in search of a particular relic. She heard Trudy’s feather light steps follow hers.
Gayla soon found it: the gramophone, defeated in a crumpled heap of its own skeleton. She found it only by virtue of the brass horn that lay atop the rubble. It alone had kept its shape, but not its luster, through the heat of the fire. The box it sat on had burned and then collapsed in upon itself, the walls of the contraption looking like a blackened mouth attempting to swallow a veritable prize.
Gayla picked up the horn, twisting it from the other parts, and brushed off the ash and charred wood splinters still stuck to it. She turned the piece in her hands, holding it at a distance and inspecting it for she knew not what, then lay it gently at her feet as she reached out a second time to pick up the rectangular nameplate lying nearby. She was wiping it clean on her skirt, revealing the faithful pup engraved on its surface, when Trudy spoke up in a whisper. “What’s that?”
“It’s the plate to Mom and Dad’s gramophone.”
“No, no,” Trudy shook her head, then tapped her sister on the arm to get her attention. “What’s that?”
Gayla followed the line of her sister’s finger as it pointed to the gramophone skeleton. She shook her head. “What’s what?”
Trudy sighed and stepped around her big sister. She pulled pieces of burnt wood away from the remnant, tossing the charcoal chunks impatiently behind her. They fell to the ground with a hollow flutter. She reached her hand into the remains to pull out a small, tin container. Gayla’s eyebrows raised.
“How did you see that?”
Trudy shrugged and stood as she eyed her new little treasure. “I saw something glimmer.”
The box was an unassuming little container about two by three inches wide and long, and less than a half inch deep. It was built of thin metal—the kind used to make children’s toys—and was completely absent of embellishments that might tell of its origins or ownership. The box was neither painted nor engraved, and was not a particularly well-made container; the tin had a number of dents in its top and the edges didn’t fit together quiet right, though they managed to hold themselves together well enough. Whoever had constructed it had made an attempt at a pin hinge by use of what looked like a mauled paperclip unfortunately selected for the task.
Trudy turned the box over in her hands. Though it felt light as a feather, something rattled inside.
She looked over at her sister. Gayla urged her on. “Open it up.”
Trudy wedged a dirty fingernail into one of the small gaps between the box’s lid and bottom. The lid gave way without much effort at all, though its sharp edge made a good effort of slicing off a sliver of Trudy’s nail. Inside the container lay a square clay pendant about the size of a silver dollar.
Trudy and Gayla jumped when they heard Greta shout. They looked up immediately.
Greta was standing by Daniel’s truck. Her clothes were covered in ash and soot and her face looked no less bedraggled. She waved one hand eagerly at her charges, calling them to her, while the other rested on a hip.
“We have a visitor.”
The girls just then noticed the rumble of a hay truck coming up the driveway. It stopped momentarily by the pile of belongings stacked in the gravel where the Mastersons and company had camped out the night before. The driver leaned out the window and spoke briefly with Paul before tipping his hat and rolling slowly up toward the house.
Gayla recognized the vehicle and the man behind the wheel. “Come on,” she said to her sister. “Let’s go.”
Trudy closed the box and stuffed it into her skirt pocket before following her sister through the rubble. Though she could have easily trudged a beeline toward the truck, Gayla turned to follow the line of what used to be the hallway and stepped through where the front door used to be. It seemed wrong to do otherwise, as if, if she were to walk through the space where the walls used to stand, it would be a symbolic gesture of her acquiescence to what had happened.
As they made their way down the front stone steps a gangly old man hopped out of the hay truck to greet them. Another man, much younger but similarly featured, opened the passenger door and emerged but didn’t come down. He stood from the vehicle’s cab and leaned on the top edge of the door, as if poking out to disinterestedly watch a few lumbering cattle cross the road. Gayla did her best to avoid eye contact with him.
“Goodness, dearie,” the older man said. “What ‘appened?”
“Hello, Mr. Riley,” Gayla nodded at the older man, who slipped off his straw hat and held it in both hands, as if to honor the dead. “There was a bit of a wildfire.”
“So I see.”
The group stood speechless for a few moments while Hubert Riley gathered his thoughts and absorbed the scene.
In reality, Hubert Riley wasn’t too old—just under 50—but it was apparent that his family line didn’t age well. The man’s face was wrinkled and sagging like that of someone twenty years his senior. Greta, who was older than him by half a decade, appeared a spry hen in his presence, and she had decided long ago that a man aged like a raisin when he didn’t have a woman around to keep him from drinking and eating like a vagrant, filling his belly with nothing but whiskey and dried beef.
“Well,” Hubert stuttered. “Is there anything I can do? Any way I can help you out? I know we haven’t been too neighborly and I hardly see you—”
It was true. Gayla recognized the man only from passing because he often rode his tractor or truck to and from town, passing the Masterson residence on the way. She couldn’t recall any time he’d actually stopped at their homestead to greet or visit with them in any neighborly fashion. That he stopped at all today was a surprise to everyone, Gayla especially. After the confrontation with Mr. Palmer just a few days ago and his assurance that he’d get her help with Cherie whether she liked it or not, it was hard for Gayla to put anything—even sending an innocent old friend to do some spying or, Gayla cringed, setting a wildfire that put his own property in danger—out of that vile man’s capability. And Hubert didn’t know the Mastersons were aware of the marriage arrangement made between farmers over the young girl in question, so, whether he knew it or not, the elder Riley did have some interest in keeping on friendly terms with the Mastersons, if only because Gayla had been unwillingly recruited to fetch his betrothed. Gayla still wondered what Henry Palmer had to gain from the deal.
Still, Gayla tried to keep her suspicions in check. Though he was no friend, Hubert Riley was also no enemy, and neighbors out here were few and far between. When something happened to one, it usually happened to them all, and though Hubert had never stopped by exchanged friendly greetings he always waved as he passed and the townsfolk believed him to be as straight an arrow as they come. Awkward sometimes, and perhaps dull-minded and slow-witted, but well-meaning. Maybe even a bit of a dog, too, because he was said to unashamedly let his eyes linger on bosoms and ladies’ backsides longer than socially acceptable, but he was also a long-time widower, and even Gayla understood a man had needs. So this stopover could very well be a genuine act of good will, nothing more. Besides, Gayla knew Hubert had a deep emotional interest in the area: his father, a wealthy man by inheritance, was the original owner of this land. Every property within ten miles was purchased as a slice of the original Riley estate, including the Mastersons’.
“—but, Lord Almighty,” Hubert went on, “your place burning down like this.” He clicked his tongue and replaced the straw hat upon his head. “There’s little worse than losing your home to fire, I tell ya. I been there before, you know, when Amos wasn’t yet born. We had a fire come through after a dry summer, took everything. Even God himself couldn’t’ve stopped that blaze. Myrna, she—” His voice broke then, remembering his late wife. “Well,” he cleared his throat, “she came out of it alright, except for in the head, you know.” He tapped his skull with the end of a thick finger and shook his head, his eyes moist.
Gayla didn’t know the full story on Myrna Riley, but she’d heard rumors that the woman had had a bit of a crazed personality: erratic, loud, and hot-headed at everyone and no one. Perhaps her experience with the fire had broken something inside of her. All Gayla knew for sure was that Myrna Riley had committed suicide shortly after the birth of her only child, who now stood dangling out of the passenger door of a truck frowning at the backside of his father’s head, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else.
“We appreciate your empathy, Mr. Riley, and for stopping to check in on us.”
“Anything I can—”
“I saw you were coming from town,” Greta cut him off. Her volume was tender but underscored with persistence. It was the tone the Masterson girls remembered from years of whoopings, or threats thereof. “Were you able to see where the blaze started?”
“No, ma’am, I didn’t. Of course, I was jabbering in the truck with Amos on the way and wasn’t much paying attention to the scenery. We was talking business and I was getting distracted with the conversation. All I know is I snapped out of a tirade and noticed the land was blackened on one side of the road. That’s when I stepped on the gas and hurried over this way. I was worried it had reached my place, but I saw from just down the road, at the crest of the hill, that it hadn’t.” He looked back at Gayla and then glanced quickly at Trudy standing behind her. The girl fidgeted when their eyes met. He looked away.
“It hadn’t?” Greta asked.
“No, ma’am. Looks like it burned itself out just at the far edge of the dead field there.”
Hubert gestured to his right, pointing toward the overgrown square of Masterson land that bordered his.
“So it stopped after it had burned everything of ours,” Gayla said, sourly.
The man winced, realizing the salt he’d put into Gayla’s wound, then nodded shamefully as he dropped his hand. He scratched his nose, pulling a rag out of his back pocket to wipe his brow. The sun was fully out now and beating down ruthlessly. It was the first time Gayla realized her family would have to find somewhere out of the sun to set camp, or else fry.
“Though,” Hubert went on, “that field on the other side was just plowed a day or so ago. So it’s topped with fresh soil, none of the brush that used to be there is exposed for burning. If it hadn’t been plowed the fire woulda run over it and straight through the next field to our place. Guess we just got lucky, huh, Amos?”
Amos snorted and disappeared into the truck like an irritated coyote into its burrow. But he didn’t close the door.
Daniel cut in, suddenly interested in the possibility of finding work away from the Palmer plantation. “Oh? So you’ll be planting that field again, then?”
Hubert shook his head. “No, not me. I actually sold it, not two days ago. That’s what I went to town for yesterday: to deposit the money. But Amos and I stayed the night. Got caught up in a game of cards, nearly lost the farm.” His face contorted into a grimace as he twisted around to issue a jabbing glare at his son. Amos was visibly uncomfortable, obviously overhearing the entire conversation. Gayla guessed it was the card game that had Hubert spun up on the return drive this morning.
“Sold it?” Daniel continued his interrogation. “To who?”
“Little Jimmy. He’s been saving up for a while, has been eyeballing for available land since he turned of age. He wants to start ‘imself off, you know. Settle down, have a family. Seems he finally arranged the money to buy the lot from me.”
“Little Jimmy? You mean James Richards, the kid who used to work for Palmer?”
“That’s the one. Nice boy, but hardly a kid anymore. A landowner! Can you believe it?” Hubert said, with a twinge of pride. “He works for me now, anyway. Hard worker, doesn’t talk much, just keeps his head down and gets his chores done, no questions asked. And—by God—what an ox! The man’s nearly as strong as a bear, though you wouldn’t know it as gentle as he treats the animals.”
“I didn’t realize he was on your staff,” Gayla said. Obviously she had fallen out of the loop of the neighbors’ business affairs. Damn Amrid and the distraction he’d caused. Had she known Jimmy intended to stay in the area after his being let go from Palmer’s—had she even known he’d been let go from the Palmer’s—she would have encouraged Greta to scoop up the young man for their operation. Paul was always saying he needed more help and Gayla would have gladly sold him their unused field when he came up with the money. The question was how much money could a nobody stable boy really get his hands on in a handful of years? It was well known Palmer didn’t pay much, despite his riches.
Hubert went on, undeterred by the change of atmosphere since mentioning the sale of his property. “I agreed to let him use my equipment to till his field, on his off days, of course. Looks like he tilled that field just in time to avoid the fire. Like I said, guess Amos and I just got lucky.”
Gayla scanned his face for any signs, but she couldn’t find any. The man didn’t understand, Gayla realized. He had no idea what was going on.
And now she had to have a talk with Little Jimmy Richards.