. The Great Fire
. Part 1
It was a strange darkness into which he awoke. The fire produced a tremendous and pervasive whoosh that was so deep it almost sounded like a roaring beast as it tore into buildings, snapping solid wood beams, releasing enough energy to send explosions of embers to the chaotic gusts. All about he could hear the choking cries of panic. Where was he? This is not the Royal Oak.
In the fourteen years he had lived, Thomas Chandler had never imagined he could die— not even in that moment when the finality of an ending was so close to being an actuality. Alternating waves of searing pain and cold numbness pressed upon his chest and face like a pulsating blanket. The back of his head throbbed.
He knew that he had been badly burned about the eyes and nose yet he could still see. A dense smoke was hanging a few feet above him; thick and noxious even at the level of the street. It was enough to force him to turn his head to the side and retch. Everywhere he saw others fallen to their hands and knees, coughing, gasping for enough oxygen to maintain consciousness. So many people crying and shouting and screaming, it was impossible to isolate just one.
He stared straight up and followed the dancing flakes of cinder swirling upon the eddies; trailing glowing tails in their wake. They looked soft and airy, as if a snow globe had been filled with rose petals. The wind had shifted. The scent of ammonia was stronger now. He tried to move but it was such a painful effort. Easier to lie still. He had a ringing in his ears, like a steady and sustained echo from a bell.
Long arms grabbed him from behind. “You’re hurting me!” he cried. He could hear a laboured breath, someone struggled to drag him; his back was scraped over the rough and uneven cobblestones until it bled. Further and further he was being pulled. Just drop me and let me be!
“Not dead yet!” It was a man’s voice that called out from behind him. “No, you are not yet dead!” Each time someone approached he would call out to them, “He’s not dead, this boy’s not dead,” though no one took heed.
It became apparent to Thomas that he and the stranger who had pulled him a further distance from the flames were nothing more than obstacles to be stumbled over. He looked about. Every building on the far side of the street was on fire. Even at this distance he could feel the heat. He shut his eyes to it.
“Look at them there, Randall.” Someone, finally, had taken notice.
“Damn pity how he’s all burned like that ain’t it?” another voice responded.
“Take him, he’s not dead, not yet,” the man called out once more in a strained and smoke-choked voice. “I found him across the way.”
“He’s just a boy,” said a woman. “We can’t leave him here, he’ll be trampled. We need to put him in the back of your wagon, Mr. Farquhar, and take him with us.”
Thomas heard a baby start to cry before being quickly calmed by the woman who had just been speaking. He brought his eyes into focus. There was a group of about a dozen people all gathered about a lorry that was being walked through the streets. The two miserable horses, with blinders secured in place, held their heads as low as they could manage. Thomas tried to discern who was there. Two men held the horses secure; a pretty young mother with a child of about one; a man that Thomas took to be her husband; a boy just a little younger than himself—
Before he finished his survey, Thomas felt the long arms of the stranger wrap around him once again. An explosion of pain as the man’s boney fingers dug into his sides.
“Hold to Slim,” said the big man with the gruff voice. “Me and Randall got this one.”
The two men did a much gentler job. They easily carried Thomas to the back of the wagon. “I’ll ride with the boy,” a woman announced. “Help me up.”
A sharp gust forced Thomas to close his eyes and hold his breath for the burning of the smoke was so intense. He felt himself lowered flat on his back with, his head resting on something soft. A lap? “Mother?” he managed to croak, his voice parched and cracked.
“Shhh…” a hand touched his. “You are safe. My name is Mrs. Sharp. These men are helping us to get past the range of the fire.”
“Abigail,” the woman with the child called from the side of the wagon. “Crouch low.
“I don’t know how long me and Randall can hold the mares, we have to move,” the big man called back. “hold on.”
Thomas felt the wagon lurch forward. He turned his head. There was a strange man with straw coloured hair and stark pale blue eyes staring at him over the edge of the wagon.
“It is the breath of the foul spirit that burned you,” the man said. Thomas recognized the voice of the stranger that had pulled him out of traffic. “You still have a head.”
“Oh my festering bullocks!” The wiry dark-haired man named Randall swore from nearer the front of the lorry. “He’s one of them crazy bastards, from the cuckoo’s nest over near the marshes.
“Poor dumb bugger!” said the big man with the beard. “Ran right into the middle of a fire. Had he any sense he’d have stayed put. It’s a lot safer in the marshes than here.”
“Were you over on the south side of the Telford, sir?” asked the man accompanying the pretty woman with the baby.
“It’s all burning,” the tall, gangly man said, “All dead, they’re all dead over there.”
“They are not!” it was the boy of about eleven who had been walking quietly beside the lorry who shouted out
“Did you not hear me? It’s all burning!”,” the man repeated.
“Buggering Builder, look at those flames!” Randall exclaimed. “Ain’t that the bakery we was at this morning Whiskey?
“Wally,” the woman with the baby called out. “Honey, come here!”
There was a moment of silence during which Thomas was unsure what was happening.
“NOOO!” he heard boy scream with broken-hearted emotion. “No! No!!” The boy started to cry then bolted from the group in a full out run toward the blazing structure that had been McNettle’s bakery. “MAMA!”
“Wally Stop!” the lady called after him though it was doubtful Little Wally could have heard her. “Blessed Builder, Ezra go get him. That child is going to run into that burning building!” Ezra didn’t hesitate, he ran after the boy closely followed by Randall Flax.
“Randall!” Whiskey Jack shouted. “I need you to calm Poppy!” but his shout came too late. Ezra Crumb and Randall Flax had already chased Little Wally McNettle into the burning bakery. Nobody spoke, all eyes upon the door. Nothing.
“Mr. Farquhar,” the pretty lady with the baby started to speak but a sudden, sickening crack wrenched her attention from the lorry driver back to the burning bakery. Through the haze of smoke, flame and ash, Thomas could see the entire front wall of the former North Telford bakery had collapsed upon itself sending sparks and embers into the air, several landing on the lorry.
The two horses, despite the blinders could endure no more. They reared, giving the wagon a nasty jolt. Thomas and Mrs. Sharp were flung to the side.
“Poppy! Ginger! Whoah! WHOAH POPPY! ” Whiskey Jack, as big as he was, struggled to control them. “Slim! Help me calm the mares!”
The scarecrow man seemed reticent, approaching with caution. “Ichabod,” he said, “My name is Ichabod.” The gangly man took another step towards the horses then a step back as they reared again.
“Abigail get out of there!” Martha Shouted out. “THE WAGON IS BURNING!”
The horses continued to struggle, throwing the wagon about. Thomas felt himself lifted again, pulled over the side. He turned his head to see the lorry, now in flames, careening riderless off into the darkness.
((Off on Spring Break for a week – will post the concluding chapters on my return))