Episode 8: From the Wreckage
My ears rang like someone had used my head to smash in the keys of an out-of-tune piano. Debris rained around me, and the dust was as thick as fog. I stretched to rub my aching back, my chest tight from having the wind knocked out of me. Clouds of smoke swirled around me, and for a second, I flashed back to my days on the battlefield.
My body buckled as someone shook the life back into me. “Mr. Al, you alright?” I groaned as Lloyd helped me sit up.
When the trees stopped spinning, I pushed myself to my knees and spit out a mouthful of grit and blood. Noxious fumes hung thick in the air, an odor strong enough to make me dry heave. The blast had been more powerful than anything I’d seen from gunpowder or cannon fire. If I hadn’t been as far away as I was…
He’d yelled a warning just as I was mounting my horse. He and Ellie had been right next to the wreckage. I prayed they’d been beyond the reach of the explosion. We had not made it through battle after bloody battle only for him to be taken now.
I stood on shaky legs and looked for my brother. Halfway between me and the burning remains of the airship, my eyes fell on two bodies pressed face-first into the dirt. Black ash floated in the air around them like a widow’s veil. As the dust settled on their bodies, it reminded me of the first fist-full of dirt sprinkled over the top of Ma’s casket as it was lowered into the ground.
“Pike!” I stumbled over to where they lay, my heart pumping faster than a piston cranking a locomotive wheel. I flipped over his body and he let out a groan.
“Easy, there,” he said as he cleared the dust from his throat.
“Thank the Lord, you’re alive,” I said, letting out the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.
Ellie coughed, her eyes fluttering as she stirred. “What…what just happened?”
I knelt next to Ellie and helped her sit up. “Don’t know, but it sure packed a wallop.”
“And what’s that smell?” Ellie scrunched her face as the sting of lingering fumes wafted toward us.
“Not sure about that either, but I did catch a whiff of something sweet and earthy before the blast. Something familiar. Can’t place it though.” I cocked my head up to see if I could catch its essence on the wind. The trace was gone, overpowered by burnt rubble. “Lloyd, round up the hands and the horses. We’ve had enough fresh air for one day.”
Pike hoisted himself up. “Smells like nitroglycerin.”
“Nitro-what?” I asked.
“Nitroglycerin, it’s an explosive. You remember when we were holed up at Ball’s Bluff and those two Irish boys passed through only to come back to camp for help with a wheel that had fallen off their wagon?”
“Yea, I remember.”
“Well, I was one of the soldiers who went to help them. I could smell that scent before we even got there. When I asked them what it was, one of them got all uneasy about it, like they weren’t supposed to tell anyone. Anyway, the other one was pretty excited to show us how it worked. Pulled a stick out from a crate and nearly took out a tree when he threw it.”
I chuckled. “We heard the blast all the way from camp. The general sure wanted to get his hands on some of that.”
“That he did.” Pike took Ellie’s hand and lifted her to a stand, but his focus was somewhere else. He searched the blast remains, pushing aside shrapnel of metal and wood. “Looks like someone else managed to do what he couldn’t.”
He circled the site, every once in a while picking up debris and tossing it aside, until finally he knelt in front of a lump of twisted metal panels. The mechanical man was a mess of wires and springs, but by some miracle his head was still attached. Pike shifted the warped body and pulled some something out from under it. He dusted it off as he walked back over to Ellie and me.
“What’d you find?” I asked, curiosity nipping at me like a mosquito.
He unfolded a crusty piece of paper. “Looks like a letter.” His eyes trailed over the words, his brows creasing as he read its message. “Instructions of some sort.”
Ellie and I looked at each other, then back at Pike, waiting for him to share its contents.
“Well, what’s it say?” I reached out to grab it from him, but he jerked it out of reach like so many toys he had taken from me when we were children.
Using his sleeve, he lightly rubbed the page and examined it again. “What do you make of this?”
I took the letter from his outstretched hand and was disappointed to find it so singed and smudged that it was almost illegible. Almost, except a numbered list.
- Survey ….right Acres
- Bank of Richmond
- Power wind…
The last word had a hole burned through it. But I didn’t pay it any mind, because my focus popped back up to the first item on the list. “Why’s our name on this list?”
“The question is, who has the resources to send an airship piloted by a machine, and what’s their purpose?” Pike looked up to the sky as if he expected another vessel to be hovering nearby. “I don’t like being a target in other people’s schemes, and for some reason, we’re first on the list for something.” He folded the letter back up and slid it inside his jacket.
Heavy clouds passed through the sky, blanketing the afternoon sun. I motioned to Lloyd and the other men gathered near the trees, tending the horses. “We’d better be on our way. Don’t want to be caught in a storm. We can go over the letter at home.”
We mounted our horses and headed back through the woods. As we left the blast site, the smell of explosives dissipated, leaving only the scent of an incoming rain storm. The wind gently rustled the leaves, a sound that chased us like whispers only to be joined by the chimes of glass bottles as we approached the old, creepy tree.
As we rode by, the branches groaned with the weight of a thousand tortured souls. I trailed behind the others, trying to catch a glimpse of anything that might explain why everyone was so spooked by this place. For the first time, I noticed a break in the treeline just north of the grove. A path had been cleared, an entrance.
I strayed from the trail and made my way over to the opening. A simple split rail fence had been constructed around a small plot of land, mostly overgrown by thick grass and buttonweed, except for uniform rows of mounded dirt.
I sucked in air as my eyes rested on four holes in the ground. They looked like they’d been dug and filled, and then recently dug again. “Pike, come take a look at this.”
He rode up beside me, and his expression grew stern when I pointed to the disturbed ground. “Ellie said they’d buried those soldiers once before.”
“You mean the bodies in the barn?” My brows heaved together as I pieced together the meaning of his words.
Pike nodded. “Found them once in the forest, then again in the corn field. I doubt animals would dig them all up and drag them halfway to the house. Of course, grave robbers wouldn’t take the time to move the bodies either.” He rubbed his hand over the stubble growing on his chin, as he always did when he was trying to figure something out. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
A large black crow swooped from the treetops and landed on the fence. Known as a messenger of bad omens, the bird’s presence spooked me. “We ought to move on home. Miss Mae will be worried about us.” My voice cracked with a worry all its own. I didn’t put much into voodoo trees and superstitions, but graveyards and deathbirds weren’t to be messed with.
Pike cast a questioning glance in my direction, but didn’t comment on my apparent apprehension. He clicked his tongue against his teeth and nudged his horse back toward the others. “Don’t want to worry Miss Mae. Home it is.”
I turned my horse around, snapped the reins, and darted ahead of Pike. I didn’t want to be the last rider. The sooner we left this place the better.
Stay tuned! Episode 9 posts Friday, January 23, 2015.