Chapter Twelve

Matt was in a hurry to get back to Bedlam, but his old mare was already giving him her best. It wasn’t long until she fell back to her normally slow pace. They arrived 10 minutes earlier than usual. The old girl was happier to be home than he was, and started prancing as soon as she caught eye of the place. Matt was looking down the road, setting his focus on the legendary oak tree with the graveyard close behind. He was glad to see it hadn’t changed a bit since he’d left. No one was standing around there, and no black stallion stood in the shadows. The skies were clear, and the weather was warm for the sun was shining brightly. In the mid-afternoon of that day, the scene showed no signs of the menacing features for which it was famous, such as being haunted.

Matt never did believe in ghosts, not even as a child, nor did he ever believe that line about the hanging tree, “Home to a hundred killer’s souls, or more.” He thought all that stuff was a bunch of baloney, even though he was the one who’d repeated the story more often than anyone else in town. Matt liked to tell scary stories to people who believed in that nonsense. Although he knew many a fairy tale, he didn’t believe in miracles that could come to pass all of their own accord. He imagined that if miracles ever happened at all, they came into being through action. To him, they were not make-believe stories, they were made-to-happen historical events. According to Matt’s wife, Martha, he was a dreamer who often succumbed to flights of fancy. “He forever has his head in the clouds,” was her claim, but she loved him nonetheless, and looked up to him in many respects. For his part, Matt saw himself as one of those types of men who would think things through before taking action. He’d didn’t enjoy delayed regrets. On his way home that day, he made up his mind in a rational way. He decided on the question he would ask his neighbors about the night before. This is what he came up with. “Did you see, or hear, anything strange last night after you went to bed?” Matt liked questions that were short and to the point.

In her frustrated impatience, Martha waited outside the house for him with her arms crossed. His hound dog lay at her feet and didn’t bother to get up. As usual, Matt was late in coming back with the groceries. He rode up on his happy dancing horse, pulled back on the reins, and began to dismount before coming to a halt, then almost fell off. “Sorry it took so long. I have an excuse. Hear me out first.” His wife looked at the dog and shook her head. “Here we go again,” she thought to herself. She unfolded her arms and put her hands on her hips. “For pity’s sake! What is it now?”

Matt goes on to tell her the entire story, but he tried to tone it down a bit. He didn’t want it to sound too awfully bad, because then she’d be afraid to move. Matt applied for a job with the railroad, and they’d have to leave Bedlam if he were able to get himself hired on. Martha took the news rather hard, to say the least, but she took everything personally, so Matt was not too surprised by her hysterical reaction. He calmed her down best he could. Shortly afterwards, he proceeded to go out and make his way around to each neighbor. Matt repeated his well-rehearsed question to all, but no one had seen anything unusual, nor had they heard any strange noises. Their closest neighbor was an elderly widow. She had a complaint waiting for Matt. She madly claimed to have heard his hound dog late the night before. He was “…barking and howling away for the hell of it!” as she put it. She awakened two hours after she’d gone to bed, and in her anger, she’d gotten up and looked out the window. Upon seeing this “nothing”, she opened it up and yelled, “Just what in the hell are you barking at, ya damn dog?!!” Matt told her he was sorry, and that he was home and in bed the same time as she, and he never heard the dog. “Are you calling me a liar?” she yelled at him. “No, ma’am, no,” he replied as he walked away. He did have to wonder if his dog heard or smelled something, but thought no more of it. Having received no surefire confirmations, he went on back home feeling a little relieved.

That vision he had of the riderless horse in the graveyard? As far as Matt could tell, it was a product of his imagination and nothing else. He had no foresight, and had never had what some folks call a premonition. He didn’t believe in prophecy. Matt didn’t go and investigate the graveyard to see if he could find any evidence confirming his sleepy suspicions. He didn’t go look for trampled down grass near the tombstones. As a matter of fact, Matt had never set foot in that graveyard. Not once since he’d lived there. He’d never read the names, nor the dates engraved on the pocketed mossy faces. He didn’t feel the need to get a close-up view of the famous hanging tree. He’d never seen the rings worn into and around its lowest limb. He never let his curiosity get the best of him. If one were to ask him why he’d never visited the dead, he would have said, “I didn’t know any of those people, so I’ve never had a good reason to go there.” At this stage of his life, Matt thought that youth could conquer all, so he had nothing to fear, which is another way of saying he wasn’t experienced.

Later that afternoon, Martha sent him out to get wood for the stove. She was sickened by the news her husband brought home. She wished to forget the whole thing, and would do so by starting dinner and fixing her mind on her work. Not wanting his dearest beloved to have another tizzy fit, Matt immediately set his will on the task set before him, and went out to the back to fetch a few logs. The first thing he noticed was a change in the wind, which was now from the north and much colder. The skies were getting hazy, and he knew he should expect there’d be rain or snow by morning. His ability to forecast the weather, now that he believed in. He was a hunter, so he knew these things. He wasn’t guessing. As he began to choose between the logs, he fell to daydreaming again. This time around it was about building a new house in the new city. For no good reason, he raised his head and broadly cast his gaze up the road. A half a mile or so away, he could see a cloud of dust rising up and circling about in the wind. Quicker than he could say “horses”, he thought he knew who it might be. Matt ran around to the other side of the stack, ducked down, and took off his hat. He didn’t know why and didn’t question his motive. “I bet it’s Sam and his men,” he whispered to himself. The rolling sound of thunder headed his way. They rode up fast and went right past, then he popped up his head to look. The big man at the head of the posse was Sam alright, and they seemed to be in a hurry. But as they reached the edge of town, they all pulled up right fast. Matt watched in suspense as Sam walked his horse over to the hanging tree, stopped, looked up, and just stared at it for a minute…a long minute. He unhooked a long winding rope from his saddle, and dropped it to the ground. Then just as fast as they’d stopped, Sam yanked at the reins and took off with a start. His men followed him south down the road. The cloud of dust was reborn and was closing in on their heels. The northern winds were fast behind, pushing them away from Bedlam.

Chapter Eight

Luke cringed in his chair after hearing Sam mention a hanging. He wasn’t sure if Sam meant for him to join this posse or not. He’d never in his life committed a crime, as far as he knew. White lies don’t count, and that one time he borrowed a tool, he returned it, so there was really no harm done on his account. Luke didn’t see himself as being particularly capable of helping Sam carry out a plan such as that, and more than likely, it was showing on his face. He thought, “Sam doesn’t know me all that well. I should speak up.”

After hearing Sam’s pointed question, the deputy’s pulse quickened. His first response was physical. Fear and anxiety made him straighten up in his chair. His first thought was, “Sam’s going to ring my neck, if I say no.” So he hesitated, and silence permeated the air. Now everyone was nervously on edge. All except for Sam that is. He was always sure of himself, and he thought he knew beforehand exactly what the deputy was going to say. Deputy McCoy knew Sam was waiting to hear, “Yes. It’s okay. Go ahead. It’s fine with me. Do what you want, sir.” But our fine officer also had a future to consider. He wished to be a sheriff some day, Lord willing, so he didn’t want to get his hands dirty. He wanted no part of this, even though it was sort of his job to enforce the law and catch the bad guys. To calm himself, the deputy decided to give Sam what he felt was a reasonable answer, one that was in line with his badge. “Sam…sir, I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you say that.”

Sam raised his voice for the deaf man, and repeated himself, “Can we? Can we hang the murderer if we catch him? Yes or no.” Sam paused ever so slightly, then grinning he shouted, “Wait! You’re right. After we catch that sonuvabitch, we’ll bring him to you, Deputy. We’ll bring him back safe and sound and you can lock him up in your bedroom and teach him some manners. Is that what you want?” Sam didn’t give the deputy time to answer. Instead, he turned to Luke, who was sitting close by. Sam changed his angry facial expression to one of a more sympathetic nature. The tone of his authoritative voice transformed into one of a more consolatory fashion. “Listen, son, I can see your troubled by this. I never said I was going to hang anyone. As you heard, I was only asking the deputy a question.” Sam turned and glared once again at Deputy McCoy, “Hold your tongue for a minute and think about it!” But Sam was the one who needed a minute. He figured Luke had heard enough of this conversation. Perhaps, too much. It was time to send him on his way.

Sam never intended on taking Luke along with him. After the interview of the night before, Sam could tell Luke was an honest young man; the type of man who attempted to stay true to his faith, and act accordingly. Sam desperately needed someone he could trust back at the ranch. He saw no reason to try to teach him otherwise. But there were several factors weighing in on his decision. On the one hand, Luke was the lone witness, and they couldn’t afford to let anything bad happen to him. On the other hand, Luke wasn’t cut out for such a thing as aggressive enforcement of the law. And frankly, it appeared to Sam that Luke was still in recovery. His face was pale, his eyes were watery, and his gestures slow-moving. Lastly, and possibly the most important reason of all was that Sam hated being upstaged, especially by someone like him.

Facing Luke once again, Sam prepared to give him a good send off. It was high time for Luke to begin a daylong sentimental journey. “I wasn’t planning to take you along, so relax. You had a very rough night, and probably didn’t get much sleep. You may take your leave now. Go on home. Enjoy your wife. Enjoy your kids. I bet everyone in town wishes to talk to you. Go bask in your glory for a day, if you know what I mean.” Sam winks at Luke. “You’re a hero because of what you did last night. No need to take on another challenge so soon. These here men, along with me of course, we can and will take care of this. Don’t you worry about it. I want you healthy and in tip-top shape come Monday when you report for your first day of work. Now, go and take care of yourself and your family. They’re probably worried about you. Go and comfort them.” As a code of honor and a sign of their agreement, Sam walked up to Luke for the fellowship contained in a handshake.

Luke was perfectly relieved by the news. He stood up smiling and grabbed Sam’s hand with a strong grip and lifted it up and down. Luke tried to conceal his current state of exaltation. “Well, okay, sir. If you don’t need me right now, I’ll do as you say. I am pretty tired. Goodbye, and good luck with whatever it is you decide to do!” Luke nodded to his future co-workers with a look of optimism on his face. Then he turned back to Deputy McCoy. Luke put on a face of acceptable resignation, and silently waved to him as if to say, “Oh, well.” Opening the exit door, he turned back to the rest of the men in the room and waved, “See y’all later!”

Sam would have one more tiny favor to ask of Luke that day. As soon as Luke shut the door, Sam turned back to the deputy and calmly said, “Your turn.”

Chapter Seven

Luke spent most of the morning pacing the floor and torturing himself over a certain secret and the type of confession he’d deliver to the deputy in the form of a testimonial. He liked to think of himself as an honest man. His parents brought him up to believe that honesty was the best policy. But was it? In every case? He was beginning to believe otherwise. The talking to he gave himself went something like this: “What harm is there in withholding this kind of information? Besides, if I answer truthfully with a full disclosure, it will only exacerbate the future consequences that shall stem from this particular crime. It wouldn’t diminish the hardships that are sure to follow for all those concerned, namely those two kids. Quite to the contrary, telling the truth would surely increase their emotional pain for many years to come. Those kids have been through enough. Haven’t they? Why make matters worse? And what about our town? We want folks to move here. We wish to be a thriving community. We’re just getting started. We simply can’t afford to let this kind of news get out and damage our town’s reputation. It’s not worth it. Case closed. I will not tell all. No way.”

Around 10 o’clock that morning, Luke headed out and made his way to the deputy’s office. Building a jailhouse was on the town’s agenda, but not yet in the works, and they were still awaiting their duly appointed County Sheriff. Deputy McCoy did his best to play the part of a lawful, but temporary keeper of the peace. He was a meek and timid man who’d had an easy go of it so far. The town was nearly crime-free before he arrived, and was still free from violent crimes since he’d taken on the job. The horrible goings-on of the night before were unlike any he’d ever seen, and he was beside himself as to what he should do next, and how he would go about carrying out the law given what he had to work with, which wasn’t much. He was expecting Luke that morning, but not the group of men who showed up a few minutes before Luke’s appearance. It was Luke’s new boss accompanied by a half-dozen hired-hands. The deputy knew Sam as the most powerful man in town, and thus showed him due respect.

While in the general store, Sam and his men heard the news. Their sadness quickly turned to anger, and now they’d come to see what was being done about it. Sam wasn’t too happy when he saw the deputy sitting there doing nothing, although he was impressed to hear that his most recent hire was the new hero in town. Sam, by the way, was not averse to killing. He’d lived through a couple of gunfights. The result was death for both opponents. Being a rich landowner, when it came to taking the law into one’s own hands, he knew the ropes, so to speak. A killer was on the loose, and he intended on doing whatever was necessary to apprehend the criminal. Then he’d mete out justice according to the unspoken rules of the West.

Luke knew going in what he’d say, and how he’d say it. He knew that if he told them he saw the foreigner leaving town just as the fire started, and that he was the only one in the vicinity at the time, then obviously they’d have to assume that the stranger was the guilty party. Instinctively, Luke had his doubts about that assumption, but he also looked at the big picture, and by that I mean the future. This was his town, too, and he wanted the best for his family. Someone was going to pay for this and they only had one suspect. He had to tell them who he’d seen. Whatever happened after that was beyond his control. That he knew. Furthermore, there’d be no more blood on his hands, not if he could help it.

Luke walked in and received a warm reception. Everyone wanted to shake his hand and brand him a hero. Luke had no way of knowing his new employer would be there. It threw him for a loop, and knocked him somewhat off balance. Sam was proud of him, no doubt, and told him as much in no uncertain terms. Luke was flattered, but also embarrassed from all the attention. Sam proceeded to take over the whole affair from there, and the deputy shrank back into the corner. “Have a seat, Luke, and tell us what happened. No need to spare the details. We’re all men here.”

Even though Luke had just been through hell, he was none the worse for wear. He enabled himself to remain calm, and gave an overall coherent account of what he’d seen, and what he’d done. Here and there he’d feel the need to explain himself. Naturally, he got emotional, and a few tears escaped their entrapment. When it was time to purposely skip over the unbelievable part of the story, his heart began to race. He stammered a bit, but kept it to himself as planned. The secret was his, and his alone. He already felt its weight.

Sam thanked Luke for the pertinent information. It was enough and all he needed. There was a suspect and they had sufficient cause to go after him. The evidence was circumstantial. No motive could be comprehended. That didn’t matter to Sam, he could overlook those things. What they needed was justice and someone to blame. They already had the latter, and he’d take care of the former.

Proceeding to put forth his plan, Sam glared at the deputy, “If my men will help form a posse, will you swear us in?” The deputy immediately consented. Raising one eyebrow and wearing a smirk, Sam asks, “Will it be legal? Officially, that is?” The deputy replied, “I think so. At least, I’m pretty sure it would be, sir. I know the words. All you’ll have to do is raise your right hands, and repeat after me.” Sam was content with his answer. The law would be on their side. He offered his men a substantial bonus, and asked them if they’d agree to join him in this exceedingly dangerous endeavor. All the men nodded in agreement. “Good!” Sam continued, “As you know, we have no way to keep this man jailed and locked away. I say we swap the speedy trial for a speedier delivery of the penalty. It might be months before we could get a court and judge to convene. We haven’t the time nor the patience to wait around for who knows how long? That foreigner is guilty. Who else could it be? We have a witness.” Sam turns to Luke and smiles. “He is trustworthy, and comes highly recommended.” Luke remained silent, and kept a straight face.

“Now, Deputy McCoy, answer me this,” says Sam with an imploring tone. “If we catch this vicious wanted murderer…can we hang him high tonight? Yes, or no, Deputy. Answer me at once!”

Chapter Six

Fortunately for Luke, his second cry for help was heard. A couple of men he knew from the neighborhood heeded his call and came running. They soon realized they’d arrived too late. The men found the children kneeling between their dear mother and older brother. “Oh, my! What happened?” asked the elder of the two men. The ladies shortly filled them in. The more nervous of the two women said, “Luke went around the back. No more than two minutes ago or so. Hurry on and go help the poor man! Will ya?” Then the little girl spoke out earnestly, “Daddy’s in there, too!” By now she was thoroughly shaking and trembling in her fright. The pastor’s youngest son sat in shock and disbelief, fighting back tears and trying to act like a big boy.

The men dashed on and away to the rear of the church. They could tell the fire had reached its peak, and weren’t sure if they’d go in there or not for any reason. It was a death trap. That much was for certain. No one in there could be alive. Luckily for them, they were too late, and didn’t have to make the choice. They found an unconscious Luke lying on his belly, far too close to danger. The full moon was bright up above them that night, and they could plainly see the blood on the palms of both his hands and on his pants from the knees on down. By the looks of him they could tell he’d just come out from inside the place. Seeing him there like that scared the living daylights out of the two of them, and they feared the worst. “Luke! Luke! Wake up!” Each of the men grabbed an arm. They lifted him halfway off the ground, and started dragging him away to safety.

Next thing Luke knows, two men are pulling him along on the ground. He started coughing and gagging again. “It’s alright, Luke! We got you,” said the young man fervently. “Are you alright?” Groggy and delirious Luke replied in a rough and barely audible voice, “Preacher man…in there…gotta get ‘m out.” The older man firmly spoke, “It’s no use, Luke. It’s too late. You’re lucky you made it out alive. No one’s going in there now. I won’t allow it. It’s over. You did all you could. Those two kids out front are alive because of you. Thank God for that!” Turning to his younger companion, he proceeded to bark out an order.”This man needs a drink. Go get him some water. Pronto!”

October 31st, 1869

Luke woke up in bed the next morning after a restless night’s sleep. Every move he’d made during his rescue mission kept flashing through his mind in off-sequence bits and pieces. He began to ponder over the stranger. “What was his motive for committing such a horrendously bloody murder?” Then it occurred to Luke that he didn’t have to tell everyone about everything he’d seen. He thought, “Wasn’t it enough that the pastor’s throat had been slit? Why put their kids through all that senseless rigmarole? What difference does it make anyway?” He knew he’d have to visit the deputy that day. Luke’s conscience notified him that he was now considering keeping this terrible secret to himself. Then a quiet voice reminded him that withholding information is seldom a good idea, and it might be something he’d often remember for the rest of his life. Luke shook off these pestering thoughts as he got up and out of bed. Somewhere deep down in his soul, he just knew he’d make the right choice when the moment of decision presented itself.

Chapter Five

Luke wasn’t about to rush into the fire ill-prepared. He knew he needed to preserve his strength, but there was something above and beyond that, and that something was his life. He wasn’t ready to make that kind of sacrifice for another. He couldn’t afford to lose his neck over this. He had to be cautious. He had a wife and kids at home who needed him…who loved him. As he trotted slowly towards the rear of the now defunct church, Luke knew he had to make it back out alive. He simply had to. That was his first priority. “The pastor might not be in there anyway.”

A few steps later, the magnificent sight of the ongoing blaze challenged his reasoning. He thought, “I have to be stupid to be doing this.” At that exact moment, his memory brought up a good point. It allowed him to remember the last time he’d used that word. It was when he’d called the stranger ‘”stupid” for leaving town that very night. “Oh, my God! Did he start this? Why would he do such a thing? He wasn’t even running away.” But he’d made it around to the back by now, and he hadn’t the time to question himself further. As Luke stood right there in front of the door, his fears came to the surface once again.

He hesitantly paused to listen to his conscience. Luke figured he ought to put forth an earnest plea to God Almighty, even though he was more than a little upset with Him and His Will. He sighed, and shook a bowed head, “It’s all stupid.” But Luke was a man of habit, so he stuck to his guns and prayed out loud, “Lord, have mercy on me.” Then silently he added, “After all…this is your house!”

Not wishing to waste any more precious seconds, Luke kicked the door with the bottom of his boot smack-dab beside the handle. It flew open. He ducked and covered his head with his arms as the smoke and heat rushed out. Two seconds later he opened his eyes, and peered into the building. In the forbidding sight, he light from the flames could dimly be seen flickering here and there. He couldn’t make anything out, except for the floor at his feet. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled through the doorway. “Hello? Hello? Anybody in there?” But no answer came forth. He wasn’t surprised. Luke visualized the last time he’d been in the church. He remembered that there was a low platform not far from where he was right then. A piano and a pulpit were the only things on it. He’d seen and heard the pastor rehearsing his first sermon in there a couple of days before. Luke aimed himself for center stage.

The wooden floors had begun to absorb the heat, and felt warm on his hands. Creeping along quickly, Luke soon reached the platform. He got himself up on it and continued on anxiously. Barreling ahead, he suddenly ran his shoulder into the piano. “Almost there.” He slowed down to get a better view, but the dark grey smoke was thickening fast. Using both hands, he reached and searched around on the floor as he moved along. Just a little further on he touched something hard. “Ah, here it is.” Luke stuck his right arm out in front of him, and waved it back and forth, afraid of what he might touch next. He was hectically zigzagging here and there when his left hand felt a cool wetness. He looked down at a puddle of blood. Instantly Luke became dizzy and felt even more nauseous. His right hand reflexively covered his mouth, as he stared aghast at the other hand and gagged. In a fit of determination, he willed himself to move and follow the dark red trail. A second later he found what he was looking for, but it was worse than he expected. He blinked and squinted to get a better view, hoping his eyes had deceived him. No such luck. The pastor’s throat had been slit. He lay there on his back with both arms straight out to the sides. His shirt was ripped open, and there was a large gash at the bottom of his rib cage on the left side. It was a deep, wide, gory open wound. It appeared to Luke as if someone had taken a knife and cut out his heart. But he couldn’t make himself believe it. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever do such a thing, and he made himself ignore the very thought of it. The pastor’s silver cross was still around his neck, hanging off to the side. Blood continued to flow from his throat, and on down the chain. Drip after drip, it dropped from the cross and onto the killing floor. Stunned and stupefied, Luke’s heart skipped a beat. The terrifying cruelty behind this horrid scene became too much for Luke to bear. Tears of grief streamed down his cheeks from his burning, inflamed eyes, blurring his vision. Luke convulsively shivered and shook from his head down to his toes. He turned his head to the side and vomited, adding the contents of his stomach to the gross pool of blood. He felt the nearness of death in his own person, and he knew he had to act quickly.

His first thought was to grab the still warm corpse by the feet and drag it out. He could leave it behind the church, so the children wouldn’t have to see this gruesome sight; a sight they’d surely remember for the rest of their lives. With an abrupt realization, Luke felt that his heart was beating at too rapid of a pace, and he found himself gasping for air right then and there. All the symptoms of asphyxiation were settling into his system. He had to get out, and get out now before he fainted. That much he knew. He looked around at the flames of destruction to size up the situation — to see if he could buy himself a little more time. In his current state of confusion, he concluded he did. He’d leave the pastor’s body there for now, and come back for it as soon as he’d recovered a bit. Begrudgingly, he turned himself around and began crawling towards the exit. Luke was fast losing his strength. It took everything he had to close the distance between himself and the door.

He’d barely made it through the door when his strength gave way. He collapsed to the ground, and lay there on his stomach. His head was throbbing in pain. His clothes — soaked in sweat. “I’ll go back in a minute…need a few seconds…need to rest.” His thoughts dropped away and he shut his eyes. He fell unconscious an instant later.

Chapter Four

Luke was shaken to the core by the little girl’s question, but it was all the inspiration he needed to do what must be done. Determined to carry out her wish to the fullest measure, Luke vanquished any and all misgivings he had about going back in there. He didn’t hesitate for a moment, even though he was putting his own life on the line in doing so. The little cozy home had turned into a fiery furnace, and he hastened to make his way through the harsh smoke. It had worsened. Thick and all-encompassing, the dark gray fumes escaped through every nook and cranny. Smoke was enveloping the entire house, and Luke was doing his best to remain calm and collected.

Once at the entrance, he could vaguely tell the furniture had also begun to go up in flames. To the smell of burning wood, the upholstery added another dimension. The foul stench and stinking scents forced Luke to take short, quick breaths and he remained close to the floor as he coursed through and around the dangerous obstacles in his path. Once safely into the bedroom, he found the bed and attempted to awaken the mother one last time, even though he knew it’d be useless. Luke’s instincts informed him that he needed to get out of there immediately! He got down on his knees and pulled her onto and over his shoulder. She was a heavy load, but he would bear the burden. He slowly stood up and found his balance, then lugged her out the bedroom door. He was feeling the weight, and physical exhaustion was settling in from exertion and lack of oxygen. Finally, they reached the front door and stepped out. Just in the nick of time! They were only a few feet out into the yard when he heard the crash of the roof caving in right behind them.

Luke spotted the children on the grass, and continued walking directly at them to bring them their most precious possession. “These kids have lost their mother, their brother, and possibly their father, too! How on earth do I tell them? What’ll I say now?” he pondered. The little girl and boy were now huddled around their big brother. He sees two older ladies coming quickly towards them in bedclothes and house robes. “It’s about time someone showed up,” he thought with a sense of relief. But they had already been bewitched by the magic of the huge healthy fire, and its hypnotic effects were clear. Luke could see it in their eyes. “Not much help,” he mumbled to himself in his frustration.

Feeling his strength draining away, Luke reaches the children and goes down on one knee, gently laying their mother beside their brother. “Mommy? Mommy? What’s wrong?” the kids ask, rushing over to surround her. Their sobs increased tremendously, because now they knew something was wrong. Very wrong! Luke backed away indecisive. Looking at the two children…blackened from the smoke, but alive and basically unscathed…seeing them there in a panic, confused by the concept of death…all together now…the whole scene for Luke was bewildering. Coming out of this perplexed state of mind got easier for him when the neighbor ladies arrived. They seemed to understand what happened without even asking. Luke had been wrong about those two not being able to help, and he felt sorry for having assumed as much.

Luke stared in amazement at what was once a home, and realized how lucky he was to make it out of there. His gaze turns to the church, then it strikes him. “I have to go in there?” He looks back at the kids, “Is that where your father is?” The two worried little ones nod in the affirmative. Luke knew he must steady himself, although he had no time to waste. He concentrated on gathering up his strength and courage by taking a deep breath, but as soon as he tried, he activated a coughing fit. Beads of perspiration instantly formed on his forehead. An invigorating cool breeze caught him by surprise, and sent chills up and down his spine. He shivered and shook for a moment or two. “Take little breaths,” he told himself, and he found that this he could do. This small amount of brisk air sprung him back to life somewhat, and alerted him to his current predicament. Now having the will to go on, he clearly saw the task set before him. “I must go get their father,” was the only thought he had. The strength behind this thought banished any and all fears from his person.

Until, that is, he took his first foreboding step towards the inflamed building. Doubt has a way of getting around the strongest of wills, and Luke was no exception to this rule. He knew he had a fight on his hands, and that it was going to take place inside him. The front half of the church was getting the worst of it, so he headed on around to the back door where fear would meet hope head on.

Chapter Three

Luke was flat-out flying towards the fire! Then suddenly a thought crossed his mind. He dug in his heels and stopped in his tracks. After turning around to face the town, he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Help! Help!”, as loud as he could. Then Luke took off again at a mad speed, deciding on the way he should go to the pastor’s home first. They were probably all in bed with no clue as to what was happening. He arrived at their front door in less than a minute and reached for the handle. Luckily, before he touched it, it occurred to him that the handle might be hot. He also remembered to expect a lot of smoke. Then he pounded a closed fist on the door thrice.  He reached both hands behind his neck, untied the knot on his bandanna and used that on the door handle. In a flash, he swung open the door, jumped back and over to the side letting the smoke billow out. After a few seconds, Luke could see in through the doorway pretty well. Before he entered, he stopped and tied the bandanna over his nose and mouth.

Luke knew the whereabouts of the two bedrooms. He instantly decided to head toward the larger bedroom to awaken the pastor and his wife. The flames and smoke were obviously coming from the kitchen area. He might have thought its cause accidental, if not for the fact that the church went up in flames simultaneously. Luke absolutely knew he had no time to investigate, and continued his march towards the bedroom. The door was open. He entered and looked at the bed, seeing only the mother laying there immobile, flat on her back. Luke was sorely afraid that preacher man was over at the church. “Get up! Get up!” he yelled as he ran to her. He took hold of her shoulders and shook her, “Wake up! Wake up!”, but there was no response forthcoming. “The children, the children,” he thought, and let her be. As he was leaving the room he noticed the wad of sheets ruffled up at the end of the bed. Two blankets and one of the pillows lay innocently on the floor. The air was becoming more noxious by the minute. As he hurried through the doorway, he remembered hearing these words that once came from the voice of his father, “Stay calm. Stay calm.”

As he made his way to the children’s room, he distinctly heard the little girl cry out, “Mommy? Mommy?” He rushed in,”C’mon! C’mon! Get up! We gotta get outta here!” The girl was fine, but extremely frightened. She recognized Luke, even though he was wearing the bandanna, and allowed him to wrap her up in the quilt, and pick her up in his arms. He spun around to look in the boy’s direction, and the youngest was already coming towards him, coughing and carrying his blanket. Luke moved the girl to hold her in one arm, grabbed the boy’s hand, and began to walk them out, stooping down a ways into cleaner air as he went. He turned his head back towards the other boy who also lay there still as could be.  Luke let out a another quick,”Wake up! Wake up!”, but the boy wasn’t moving, so off he went, pulling the little one behind him. “Thank God, these two are okay, at least!” Luke thought to himself, instead of thanking the Lord directly.

The kitchen was all ablaze by this time. Crackling and loud popping sounds could be heard as the group exited through the front door, and on out into the fresh chilled air of the night. Luke didn’t see anyone else out there, and began to wonder if he was going to get any help at all from the neighbors. Ten seconds later, they were a safe distance away from the nasty smoke and scorching flames. As he sat the girl on the slightly wet grass, he bade the two sit down. “Stay here! I’ll be right back.” Shooting a glance over at the church, it looked to him like the entire front half of the structure was aflame. “Holy smokes is right!” came to his mind for the very first time in the truest sense.

Smoke was rolling out of the door by now, so he crouched down low to make his way back to the bedroom for the eldest. The boy still hadn’t moved. Luke grabbed his thigh and shook him, but gathered no response. “Damn, Lord! He was a good kid!” Luke pulled him off the bed, and slung him over his shoulder, staying low as he trudged his way back out. He’d never carried a dead child before, and it felt horrible. Simply horrible! He finally reached the other two and lay the boy beside them. Pleadingly, the girl asks, “Where’s Mommy?” Luke’s heart sunk to his stomach. Their mother had already given up the ghost. He was sure she’d taken her last breath some time ago. “I’m going to get her now, dear. Let your older brother be. He needs rest.” Luke had no qualms about telling this lie.

Catching what breath he could as he headed back in, he found himself angry from the turmoil, but all the while he felt his heart being broke in two. “Here we go again, Lord. Stay with me. What will I tell the children this time out?” But Luke didn’t have time to wait for an answer. He wondered, “Where is everybody? I wish my wife was here.” Again he blasted out to the town, “Help! Help!”