© 1999 t gregory
all rights reserved
There was a volunteer fire department in Laramie, with one pumper. The burning cabin was far enough out of town that no-one was worried the fire would spread. Laramie’s volunteers hadn’t had much excitement lately, though, and when the alarm bell rang, they rushed to the fire house for entertainment as much as anything else. They rode to the smoldering ruins of the cabin, in cars and pickups, behind the pumper. Wetting the cabin down for practice (there was no saving it), they would refill the tank from the river in the morning.
“Think there’s anybody in there, Jeb?” A tall man spat, then asked the fire chief.
“If there was, there ain’t’ now.”
The cabin was reduced to a blackened outline of the form it had been. Occasional rafters lay at angles from the roofline to the floor making odd geometric shapes. The stone fireplace rose from the rubble unscathed, the chimney pointing to the sky, oddly exposed in the moonlight. And the ruin.
“Think we oughta poke around in there anyway? Just to make sure? Old truck’s still parked under the tree there.”
“Who lived here, Jeb?” asked another.
Jeb ignored Tom Blake’s questions and answered the second man. “Della and that good for nothing Barnes from upriver. Had a young-un, too. Little girl, I think.”
“Think there’s bodies in there, Jeb?” Blake asked again, ghoulish in his eagerness to find carnage.
“They’re a might crisp if there are, Tom. You aimin’ to go in there pokin’ around them coals?”
“No. Thought I’d wait’ll it cools.”
“Uncle Jeb! There’s been riders here tonight!” A boy, fifteen or sixteen, broke into the circle of men, interrupting them in his excitement.
“What’s that you say, boy?”
“There’s been riders — eight or ten looks like — they took off west. One of ‘em went through the woods alone, you can see where he crashed through the branches.”
“Riders? Branches? Teddy, where do you come up with this stuff, boy?” his uncle put him off.
“I’m learning to track, Uncle Jeb, and there’s been horses here tonight,” the boy insisted.
“Tonight? How would you know that?” Blake interjected, in disbelief.
“Soft dirt. Moist, holds the print. Uncle Jeb, we’ve messed up a lot of them with the pumper and all, but they tore in here and tore out. In a hurry!”
“Onliest people around here who would ride at night is the Sioux, Jeb,” one of the volunteers remarked a little shakily.
“Aw, they wouldn’t be this far afield at night . . . and on horses!” another strove to reassure the others (and himself).
“That Della, she’s from the reservation. She left with Barnes three, no four years ago.”
“I bet it was a raiding party, Uncle Jeb. I bet it was!” Teddy still seemed the only one pleased with the thought.
“Teddy, you read too much — a raiding party! This is the ’40′s. Them Indians have been peaceful 50 years or more.”
“That one rider, Uncle Jeb, he followed someone into the woods. I saw the footprints. He was riding alongside ‘em. Then they disappeared. The woman’s prints. Like she was snatched up!”
“Teddy, that’s enough of that! We’re turning this over to the Sheriff. Tom, you want to dig in them ashes, you come back with Sheriff Tate. Anybody’s in there, can wait till morning.”
“Uncle Jeb. . .”
“Hush, boy! I’m goin back to town. And you’re goin home,” he cut Teddy off.
They climbed back into the odd assortment of cars and trucks and made a great commotion turning around to go back to town. The boy, Teddy, tried his best to keep them off the hoof marks he’d discovered in the half-light of the moon, to no avail. After an early morning shower even the prints of the woman and the horseman who’d chased her down were obscured by rain and falling leaves.
Teddy was back with the Sheriff when the rain cleared off the next morning, knowing his evidence was most likely gone. Tate was greatly relieved. He wanted the pension that came in another two years. The idea of a problem with the Indians now seemed an obstacle to that monthly pittance that could stand in his way forever.
Tall, thin Tom Blake was back too, even more eager in the daylight to search for bodies.
“Honestly, Tom, somebody’d think you got paid for bringing bodies in to bury.” The Sheriff waved him into the debris.
He stepped gingerly, afraid that there might still be coals even after the rain. It was a small place, one big room really: a sleeping corner, a table in front of the fireplace where the stones were still standing.
Teddy watched a moment or two and started into the cabin’s ruins behind the lanky Blake.
“You, young ‘un, stay out of the way there!” the sheriff called, but it was half-hearted and the boy knew he could proceed.
The bed was empty, he saw, picking his way through the rafters.
“Fire probably rolled right out of the fireplace and caught a rug or something. After that the place went quick.” Looking around, Blake called out, “Lookit this! A bottle of whiskey. Still got some in it! Musta been drinking himself to sleep and didn’t notice the fire.”
At the time Teddy’s eyes caught sight of a charred hand, Blake was lifting the remains of a table next to it. “Sometimes hard to distinguish remains in a fire, son,” he said, of a mind to impress Teddy. “Not a pretty sight when you find ‘em either.”
He groaned with the weight of the table and when he’d moved it he looked from Teddy to what was left of Barnes slowly and incredulously.
“Table musta kept the fire offa him, ‘cept for that hand, what’s left of it.”
The boy looked at Barnes, eyes wide as saucers. “Where’d all that blood come from,” he asked, aloud and of himself. Blake gaped as the boy pulled Barnes’ shirt away from his chest, slowly at first and then with some strength as it was stiff and board-like from the bloodstains.
“Lord above, Boy!” the man gasped as they looked in a great gaping hole in the man’s chest. “Where’s his heart?”