A barn only two houses down from where they were staying had gone up in flames, and Helen scrambled to her feet, saw the ominous, flickering light, and ran for Jett. All around her those with horses were doing the same, mounting up, going to help. Jenae found Helen in the dark and grabbed her arm, eyes wild.
"You can't go!" she said.
"I have to, we have to help!"
"You don't know what caused the fire! What if it's Them? You could put everyone in danger if they know we're here, and it'll be hard to hide when you ride up in one big group!"
"Jenae, you don't get it, we HAVE to go," Helen snapped, shaking her off. Was it her imagination, or could she see more flames now than she'd seen a moment ago? "Fire like this will spread, to the fields, to the grass. Look around you! It's all grass! If we don't stop it now the whole world will go up, and a brushfire doesn't care what side you're on." Jenae opened her mouth to say something more but Helen shook her off and swung into the saddle. Jett hardly needed any prodding to get him to gallop- the smell of smoke was in the air, and he was in such a nervous frenzy moving quickly was probably as much a relief to him as it was to her. They sprinted down the side of the road, following three other riders who had gotten out of the camp ahead of them. One of them was Cassandra- Helen recognized her by her hair- and she urged Jett to go even faster to catch up. She almost didn't rein him in in time to make the short corner into the driveway but he took the ninety-degree angle like a champion barrel-racer, hooves skidding in the dirt, nearly unseating her before he righted himself. There were people running around in front of the flames, shouting to each other though Helen couldn't hear the words over the roar of the burning house, and Jett slowed of his own accord, prancing uneasily, not happily that she had been guiding him closer to the fire instead of farther away from it. It wasn't until she'd eased off of him and tied him to the fence downwind of the house that she realized two other black figures were lying on the ground, not moving. But there was no time to stop and check on them- if they were dead it would be a waste of precious time that could not be spared, and if they were living they would just have to hold on a few moments longer.
A hose snaked from a spigot on the side of the house and buckets, watering cans, and trash bins had been brought forward. Helen joined the chain at its weakest point, passing full containers big and small. The roar of the fire was too much to try and speak over, though several times she locked eyes with either the person in front of or behind her. She didn't know them and they didn't know her, but there was a mutual exchange of acknowledgement and fear that didn't require words. She didn't have to be told that these were farming people, nor did she have to tell them that she was as well. Everyone who worked a farm somewhere in the miles of grass knew the danger of fire, shared the same fear, the same constant anxiety every time so much as a spark went amiss. It was the greatest threat to their homes, families, friends, and livelihoods, and even now that hadn't changed.
The water seemed to do some good, though not a lot. The fire looked to have started at the front of the two-story house and that had already been given up for lost- right now those throwing the water on the flames were concentrating on the back, especially the wall that the hose spigot was hooked up to. Helen was sweating, her back and arms complaining from the constant twisting and lifting motions, but she kept going and didn't see anyone else stop. More and more people had come to help, probably from miles around, anywhere the fire could be seen, and as the joined the chain they offered some relief to those who had been there the longest.
She couldn't say how long she'd been there- minutes, hours- before she realized the tide was beginning to turn. The firefighters were no longer throwing water on the back of the house but were making progress toward the front. Slowly, inch by inch, the flames lost ground. Now the line split and some of the water was spread on the lawn nearest the house, drenching it so that it would be less likely to catch. Helen found herself in that line and kept moving, mindlessly, mechanically, praying. If that fire got out of control not only would it have devastating consequences on all the people around her but it would also affect their caravan. It it went in front of them, they would have nowhere to go; behind, and they would be once and for all unable to turn back. And if, God forbid, it went directly for them there was no way they could outrun it. The trailers, the livestock, everything they had would have to be left, and there were still not even enough horses for everyone to make it away safely.
So she kept moving and she prayed silently, desperately, glancing at the sky pleadingly every now and again as though she would see something to give her hope. Beyond the smoke there was nothing, not even stars- the fire was bright enough to blot them out.
The sun came up. Helen's back, shoulders, arms, thighs, everything was painfully sore but she kept going. The water containers weren't asfull now- even the person at the spigot was flagging. But one by one the windows spat smoke and ash instead of fire. When the only evidence that the fire still burned was rising from deep within the house, beyond where the volunteers could safely reach it, a halt was called. People sprawled on the grass, moaning, breathing deeply, turning their faces toward the sun as if hoping the clean, fresh light of day would wash them clean as well. Those closest to the house dumped the last water over their heads, trying to get rid of some of the soot and sweat.
Helen only took a minute to recover before staggering upright, finding Cassandra in the crowd. She'd been nearer the house and soot was matted into her hair and skin like a film of oil on water. Helen sat next to her and they both breathed for a minute, admiring the sunrise. It was a while before they noticed the people around were stirring, turning to stare in one direction, and Helen followed their gazes to a spot behind them, back towards the road. A small group stood around the two bodies they'd passed on the way in, several of them crying but others shouting angrily. Helen was too far away to hear what was being said but one man brandished a gun at the other, the silhouette thin and threatening against the pale morning sky.
She got to her feet, stumbling forward, toward the angry men. Others were doing the same but the closer she got the more people were backing away. The man's words were still incoherent but as he pointed at the bodies Helen got her first good look at the one nearest her and felt her heart stop. It was a woman, lying on her side with a vertical slash of blood bisecting the back of her shirt. There was a hole in the fabric where the blood started but the material had shifted just enough that Helen couldn't see the wound itself. It didn't matter- there could be no doubt that the woman had been shot.
The man with the gun abruptly turned and walked away, headed towards the road with another man trailing him. The rest of the group huddled together, sober and silent. Helen reached them and stopped just to one side, feeling awkward and intrusive. One of the men glanced at her, taking in her hunched posture and dirty clothes.
"You come to help with the fire?" he asked, his voice hoarse. She nodded.
"Well thank you," he said soberly, shaking her hand. "Much appreciate it."
"What happened?" she asked.
"Couple of robbers. My daughters chased 'em all the way to the road before… well," he gestured awkwardly at the bodies.
He nodded, looking her over again. "You come from up the road? Red farmhouse?"
"Heard about you. The people on the run. Word is you're headed somewhere out of the way, holing up 'til the storm blows over."
"That's the plan."
He nodded, his eyes sad and exhausted, rimmed with red where the smoke and maybe something else had irritated them. "I thought you were crazy when I heard. Thought we'd be out of the way enough we could maybe avoid the worst of it. Doesn't look that way anymore."
"There's more," Helen said, looking toward the farmhouse where the rest of the caravan was still sleeping. From here she could see their small group of trailers and horses pulled up to the side of the house, using the edge of the porch like the curb in a parking lot. "More than just robbers. We saw tanks on the way here. Haven't heard of them doing much yet but it's been a while since we've been near anyone who would know."
"They're doing something. You don't take tanks anywhere unless you plan on using them." He turned and looked up at the house, still smoking hard, missing most of the second story, and sighed. "Guess we don't have much of a decision left to make. Do you think you'd take on a few more wherever you're headed?"
He nodded. "We got a trailer and some horses. Most of the food'll be gone but we got hay, we can bring some of that. Em's mother gave her some china on our wedding day that we put in the barn last winter. Other than that we don't have much."
Helen didn't know what to say about that. It seemed unfeeling to mention that she and all the others travelling with her had very little to call their own. At least when they'd left their homes were still standing, furniture still in the rooms, forks and knives still stacked neatly in the kitchen drawers. There was a sense they had something to go back to, something that was still their own. It didn't matter how unlikely it was that they'd be back as long as they had the sense that it was there.
She glanced at the bodies again, still struggling to absorb the reality of what had happened. One was much smaller than the other, just a little girl, but there were no police to call, no one to notify. Unless someone stumbled across the men and recognized them there would be no justice. The size of the caravan might protect them from a couple of robbers but they had to be able to protect themselves. Just in case.
"I'll let them know you're joining up," she said to the man with a little wave, as if to say she'd be right back. He blinked a couple times, still staring at the ruined house, and she took that to mean he'd heard her and walked away.
Jett wasn't the only caravan horse tied to the fence- there were six others, all of them nickering at her hungrily when they saw her coming. She ignored them, untying Jett and pulling herself onto his back. It wasn't an easy thing to do after the night she'd had- her muscles seemed to not want to pull in the directions she needed them to. Lifting her leg to get it over the saddle was almost too much and she had to suck in a breath and hold it until the job was done. At least she'd taken the time to put on the saddle instead of riding off bareback last night. She'd walk back before trying to mount without stirrups.
Jett tried to trot back, impatient to get to Mayfly and his feed, but Helen reined him in, gasping every time the jouncing motion rubbed the wrong way, which was often. The caravan was at least up and moving and by the time she turned in towards the house she could clearly see people walking back and forth amongst the trailers, gathering food for breakfast and taking care of the horses. Most of the adults were carrying a gun, some more awkwardly than others, and when they turned to see her riding in their expressions were tense with fear and worry.
"What's up?" she asked Susanna Colbie as she reached her trailer and tried to dismount. She wasn't very successful, going down on one knee when her calf suddenly cramped, but Susanna didn't seem to notice. Her eyes were on the road and she gave the shotgun she held in the crook of one arm an absentminded pat, as if it were a kitten.
"Jenae told us to get the guns," she explained and Helen winced as Susanna swung towards her, the gun barrel just barely missing Helen's chest. "Just in case. Mine's not even loaded."
"What are you supposed to do with an unloaded gun, swing it at people?" Helen asked.
"That's what I said but she said hers isn't loaded, either."
Helen stared for a minute before shaking her head silently and turning away. Jett had earned his feed and she needed to take care of him, Mayfly, and maybe a cup of coffee before she could think straight.