Steeds 39

4 06 2017

“Sheriff, if I were as profane a man as I used to be, I’d say words to the effect that all blazes broke loose here while you were gone. I know, though, that perdition cannot be contained within a country town.” Chet paused, and then added, “If the situation here weren’t so serious, I’d crack a smile. Blazes did, indeed, break loose.”

“What are you saying, Chet?”

“We had a fire. A big one, just last night.”

“I thought I smelled smoke, even ash, as I approached town. Where was the fire?”

“Over at the wagonwright’s.”

“House or shed?”

“Both. Started in the big shed’s workshop.”

“Lionel and Cynthia Massey? And the kids?”

“All survived.”

“Firemen?”

“All survived.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“Well, yes. In addition to some people taking in too much smoke, there were a number of cuts, scrapes, bumps, and bruises. You can imagine in such a ruckus, in the dark, people would trip and ram into things and bump one another and such.

“Animals?”

“Escaped.”

“House?”

“Ruined.”

“Shed?”

“Badly damaged.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Yes, sir. But first I should add another headline or two.”

“What?”

“Willy and Billy are gone.”

“The fire horses? What do you mean, gone? They died in the fire?”

“No. Stolen.”

“What?”

“Yes. Stolen during the fire. A posse is out looking for them.”

“Where’s Philip?”

“Don’t know.”

“He’s not leading the posse?”

“No. Charlie’s leading the posse. Well, one of them. Frank and Gus and even the fire marshal are each leading other search parties. They left me in charge.”

“Where’s Dorothy?”

“In back, as usual.”

“Inmates?”

“All secure. What’s the word on that horse next to yours?”

“That’s the one that belongs to Adolph Kleindl, the hog farmer up in Fox Prairie township.”

“Really? You found him all the way in Doylestown?”

“Yes.”

“He didn’t wander that distance.”

“No. He was led there. Delivered, you might say, and given as a gift.”

“By Kleindl? He lied about the horse being stolen?”

“His horse was stolen, to be sure. Then the horse was given away.”

“By whom?”

“I’m not sure, but my suspicions are increasing. Tell me about that fire, though.”

Chet commenced. “Well, the fire bell awoke Dorothy and me almost exactly at midnight. I got up, dressed, and ran here, figuring Charlie and Philip would need to get to the fire. Dorothy went straight there.

“Two men heading home after leaving one of the saloons had noticed something amiss. One turned around to alert the townsfolk. The other went onto the Massey property to try and do something.

“Fire Marshal Westra so far thinks Lionel fell asleep in the workshop, somehow dropped a burning cigar, and that lit enough sawdust to result in a conflagration. It was still contained in the wagon shed when the two men saw flames through windows, but by the time people started arriving, the fire had broken through a wall and the roof.

“Well, sir, it was a melee. The bell at the fire station clanging, and then the bell on the fire engine. Tom and Barney trying to get that pumper into a decent position, and then get Willy and Billy out of the way. Volunteer firemen arriving on horseback, by buggy, and on foot. Neighbors running to help. Doug Westra yelling and yelling orders.

“Doug did manage to get two bucket brigades working between the well pump and the shed on one side, and the windmill and shed on the other. Tom and Barney got the engine pumping water out of the house cistern. Other people drained rain barrels. Still others tried to do what they could tossing dirt with shovels and beating flames with wet rugs.

“The Masseys ran to get their vehicles out of the shed while they yelled to folks, wanting them to get the animals moved.

“In spite of all that, the fire spread. The wind just wouldn’t stay put, so to speak. Nearby trees, buildings, the fire itself, they all worked to shift the wind this way and that, and that caused embers to hit the house and set it afire.

“That was bad, real bad. Tom and Barney had drained the cistern trying to get the fire in the shed under control. The bucket brigades just couldn’t move enough water fast enough to do enough good. Some firemen ran into the house early in that phase of the disaster to get whatever kerosene there was in one thing and another out, so the fuel wouldn’t make matters worse. I doubt that helped much. Then it was toss stuff out doors and windows from one side while the other side burned until that effort became too dangerous. Cynthia cried and cried. One wag said it was too bad we couldn’t direct all those tears on the fire.”

“How do you know all this?” Lee asked. “You were here.”

“Yes, sir. Dorothy told me. She was there.”

“Of course. And Charlie and Philip were there.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Charlie is out with a posse.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But you don’t know where Philip is.”

“We don’t.”

“You’re sure he’s not lying dead in the rubble or badly hurt in some tall grass nearby.”

“Actually, I’m not sure. That seems unlikely, though, considering how many times Dorothy saw him trying to help. He was the one most responsible for getting all the animals away, to include the canary.”

“And you say the fire horses were stolen.”

“Yes, sir.”

“They didn’t just run off.”

“No, sir. Tom and Barney are careful about that. They secure the horses so all the commotion can’t scare them off.” Chet thought for a few moments. “I wonder.”

“What?”

“You think maybe Philip noticed the horses were being stolen, and he went after the thief, or thieves? You think maybe they noticed him in pursuit and did something awful to him far away from the fire?”

“I wonder myself. None of the search parties has reported any such thing? I mean, no fire horses and no Philip.”

“Not yet.”

The two men stood on the boardwalk outside the Sheriff’s Department pondering. A Conestoga wagon appeared in town drawn by four horses and accompanied by two other horses with riders. Lee and Chet watched them approach.

“Good day, gentlemen,” called one of the mounted men. He held up a hand to signal for the wagon and the other rider to stop. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the village of Uttica.”

“It is, sir,” said Lee.

“You must be the sheriff, judging by your badge.”

“I am Sheriff Llewellyn E. Leall. This is my deputy, Chester Oakley.”

“How do you do? I am Joshua Stollfus.” He pointed to the wagon. “That is my good wife, Hannah. Beside her is our son, Micah.” He pointed at the other horseman. “This is our son, Malachi.”

“Good day. May we be of some service?”

Joshua said, “We understand there is to be tomorrow a celebration of the summer solstice in this community.”

“At least, there was to be such a celebration,” said Chet. “We’ve suffered a terrible fire overnight. I won’t be surprised if that hasn’t destroyed our plans.”

“That is terrible,” said Joshua. “What? Home? Business?”

“Both actually,” said Chet. “But to be more accurate, the house and the shed have been all but destroyed; the family is intact, and so I believe is the business.”

“That is good news, despite the bad,” said Joshua. “And when will it be decided whether to cancel or continue the celebration? We have come some distance.”

“I believe the city council will meet later today,” said Chet. “Late in the afternoon. You’ve come to town to participate?”

“Indeed, sir. We have come to offer at least one form of entertainment, and of a most memorable kind.”

“What might that be, sir?” Lee asked.

Joshua pointed. “In that grand wagon, sir, is an entire kit for a hot air balloon. We have come, sir, not only to show our grand balloon, but to provide, shall we say, an unearthly experience for all who dare.”

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