Thick clouds of smoke could be seen billowing in the dusky-pink sky as Nick rode in the outskirts of the small town of Morganville. He momentarily halted his mount to stare into the distance at the dense charcoal-black whirls before spurring Coco forward at a full tilt.
He reined in his horse as he saw a sea of flames engulfing the freight yard, where Heath was to pick up a package.
Throngs of curious onlookers flooded the street, the unwavering fire mirroring in their terror-stricken eyes. Men were toiling to douse the roaring flames with pailfuls of water, but their efforts were fruitless. Realizing they were fighting a losing battle, they bow down to the raging inferno doggedly intent on devouring every inch of the warehouse to level it to the ground.
Nick jumped down his mount and tethered it to a hitching post, his heart throbbing against his ribcage at the thought of Heath trapped in the burning hell. He stepped up to a stable boy sitting on a bale of hay, wiping his puffy-red eyes of the stinging tears that were leaving grubby streaks down his soot-covered cheeks.
“There was an….” His voice tailed off as he ran out of breath. He inhaled deeply to finish his sentence, “an explosion. Blew the warehouse to smithereens.”
Nick glanced back at the ferocious fire, swallowing hard the growing lump rising to his constricted throat to ask the dreaded question. “Was anyone in there?”
“Mister Cummings, the owner. They brought him to the doctor’s.”
“How is he?”
The boy looked up at Nick with a forlorn expression and gave a despondent shake of the head.
“Anyone else in there with him?”
“If there was…” the boy needed not continue for Nick instantly translated his thought.
Nick was a heartbeat away from a panic attack when he caught sight of Charger in a sidelong glance. His eyes raked the crowd, seeking a fair-haired man clad in a light blue shirt and tan vest. He unhitched Charger from the post and steered him and Coco further down the street to tether both horses in front of the doctor’s office. He came bouncing inside, anxious to enquire about Cummings’s condition.
The attendant nurse stepped in front of him to deny him access to the examining room. “I’m sorry, sir. No one is allowed in the examining room while the doctor is treating a patient. You’ll have to wait here.” Her imperiousness stung Nick momentarily whose anguished mind was a maelstrom of questions desperately seeking answers, the most important being if his brother was inside that warehouse when it exploded.
In a mollifying tone, she reasoned with the distraught man to sit and wait for the doctor to finish. No sooner had she disappeared behind the curtain that Nick sprung to his feet and began pacing the floor while wringing his hands and trying to regulate his breathing. He eyes flew wide open when it suddenly dawned on him that Heath could be at the saloon. He dashed out of the office and up the street to the saloon where he flung open the swing doors and discovered the room empty.
He ran down to the hotel where he spoke with the clerk standing outside on the front porch about his brother renting a room.
“Yes. I remember a man by the name of Heath Barkley. He asked for the two best rooms in the house.”
“When was that?”
“’Bout half an hour ago.”
Nick clamped his eyes shut and his heart sank deep as the evidence thus far placed Heath at the site of the devastating blast.
He hustled his way through the crowd back to the doctor’s office, where he found the physician conversing with his nurse.
“Doc, how’s the patient?”
“Are you family?”
“No. I just want to talk to him if I can.”
“I’m afraid you’re too late. He died. What did you want to know, mister…?”
“Barkley. Nick Barkley.”
“Barkley. Cummings mentioned someone by the name of Heath Barkley.”
“He’s my brother.”
The doctor lowered his eyes while the nurse gazed despairingly at Nick.
“Cummings said your brother came to see him about a package. He went inside the depot to get it when…”
Nick was flabbergasted. He stood transfixed with prostrating grief, his body racked with involuntary tremors.
The doctor edged up to him and placed a sympathetic hand on his quivering shoulders. “I’m sorry for your lost.”
Nick stared vacantly at him. “Lost? No, he could still be alive.” He searched the doctor’s eyes for a flicker of hope. When he failed to find any, he felt his body and soul raring to burst apart.
With leaden steps, he slouched out of the office, picking up speed as he bolted down the street to the scattering crowd. He homed in on the smoldering flames, knocking down people as he streaked past them.
“Heath!” he bawled his lungs out, throwing himself into Satan’s Hell to search for his brother.
The flames were beginning to lick at his flailing arms when the sheriff and his deputy grabbed him from behind to wrestle him out. They hurled the hysterical man to the ground and covered him with a blanket to stifle the flames already singeing his shirt and skin. Nick put up a struggle against the men’s weights pinning his body down on the ground.
“Listen to me!” the sheriff yelled over the roaring fire.
“No, let me go! My brother’s in there. I’ve got to get him out!”
“There’s nothing you can do for him now.”
“Please,” Nick begged with tears streaming down his face.
“I’m sorry, son. There’s nothing more anyone of us can do.” The heavy-hearted sheriff stared into Nick’s pleading eyes to send the message across.
Both men hoisted Nick to his feet, taking hold of his arms to help him stand on his shaky legs. They felt him going limp and let him slump to his knees. The shimmer of the dwindling flames in his tear-glistened eyes ate away at his heart and soul. The fire had not only claimed his brother’s life but had destroyed the very core of Nick Barkley.
The sheriff gave Nick a few seconds before asking if he had a place to sleep, but his question was left unanswered as Nick’s addled mind could not process the spoken words. He remained stock-still, with a dull stare riveted on the haunting fire . The sheriff tugged at his shoulder. “Son, can you hear me?”
“What?” Nick answered absentmindedly.
“Do you have somewhere to bunk down?”
Nick blinked heavily. “Yeah. I…I have a…a room at the…the….”
“Hotel?” The sheriff finished.
“Why don’t you go get some sleep. We’ll call on you in the morning when we start sifting through the rubbles.”
“Sleep? No.” Both men assisted Nick as he staggered to his feet. “The saloon, that’s where you’ll find me,” he heaved out before shuffling toward the establishment.
He nudged open the swing door and headed to the counter. The bartender absent, he grabbed a bottle of whisky and slouched over to a table, where he flumped down in a chair and took a long swig. He stared catatonically at the bottle, caressing its alluring curves and marveling at its power to deaden his pain. He took another gulp and choked back his tears before he pillowed his head on his arms to sob himself to sleep.