Despite being able to warm himself, William remained pale and weak as the others worked about him. James stayed by his side, resting on the arm of the chair and nestling against his father’s side. Lewis unleashed the ox from their stable and used it to bring the O’Malley’s covered cart out before the home. The women loaded it with spare blankets and some food, both for them and the work animal.
“You should have enough firewood for the week before having to head out in the snow,” Lewis told them before the final arrangements to depart. “I imagine it won’t be longer than that, maybe a few days more, so the food you have in the stores will last. I’ll bring some back from the city, even if William has to stay there for longer.”
“Some sweets?” James asked hopefully, looking between Lewis and his father.
William smiled gently from the chair one last time. “Sure, I can direct Lewis here to the sweets shop while I’m getting fixed up.”
“Don’t worry yourself trying to get all about the city, Lewis,” Jane said, arms crossed. “It’s a big, confusing place. Just focus on what matters.”
When the time came, Jane and Lewis hefted William up between them and helped him outside. He managed to shuffle into the back of the covered cart to lay down before being wrapped up by the blankets inside. The ox snuffled about in the snow, just up to its bony knees, jangling the metal and leather harness binding it to the cart.
“Stay safe now,” Bryna said as Lewis finally mounted the cart. The sky was still hazy, but the day would be around for just long enough to get a start on the journey toward Manchester. The snow parted ways for the ox’s cloven hoofs and the tall metal-rimmed wheels of the cart, leaving the cabin behind.
The days after the men’s departure were quiet. Young James was the first to break from the long, quiet days. He was deep in the book that he and his father had been reading the past few weeks, and despite the lessons learning to read and write the letters on the pages and sound out the words, the story was far too advanced for someone his age.
“What’s this say?” Came the call many times from the frustrated boy.”
“Though-” Jane would read off.
“Though he wo- wa- would.” James stuttered before exclaiming, “It ain’t no use!”
“We can read it together,” The mother offered.
James already knew the answer. “I only want papa to read it.”
“Well, let’s hope it won’t be too much longer for them to be back.”
After those words were spoken, James picked up the habit of going back and forth from the rug by the fireplace to the window, standing on his tip-toes, to look out in hopes of seeing the cart returning to them. Even young Marie, getting used to toddling around and babbling her first words, seemed to copy her brother’s mannerisms, and soon was seen following him around in the act. The little one couldn’t hope to even reach the sill of the window, but her cognizance of her father not being present was clear.
More days passed. The sights out the window began to disappear as a storm descended upon them, depositing more snow. The wind blew, causing loud whistling at the exterior of the building at all hours of the day, and forcing flurries of cold air down the chimney to tickle the fire in the hearth. That sole fire was their source of heat for those coldest of days, as well as the flames to cook their food.
James picked yet another distraction, one of prodding at the fire with the nearby iron stake to make the embers relight and the cinders to shower down upon the hearth. His mother admonished him at first, but after many attempts, she found she couldn’t keep up with his energy as well as the boy’s father could. She simply hoped that one of the following days she would see the cart returning both Lewis and her husband back to them.
The wind continued to blow with its whistling that night. The two women and two children had moved the long bench and mattress of straw as close as they could to the hearth for warmth, and the furs were strewn about the floor to dampen the cold reflecting off the ground. Jane was exhausted from the days of worry that night, and fell into a deep sleep, holding Marie close to her chest. The last she checked on James was him sleeping in a pile of blankets on the ground below facing the fire.
She was shaken awake, groggily, by a pair of small hands at her back, the little James attempting to latch onto her from behind. “Mama, too hot,” he mumbled.
“Spread out the blankets some, or jump up here by your sissy,” Jane said, her eyes still glued shut. In pulling the little girl closer, she felt a familiar convulsing from the girl. She posed the girl on her back where her coughing began to sound about the room. The thick odor came to Jane next, the hints of smoke, and not just of the smoldering fireplace. Jane forced herself over where she caught sight of the licking flames.
A charred log had rolled out onto the layers of fur blankets just beyond the hearth. The fur and tanned hide had caught flames and were beginning to lick at the sides of the fireplace. Jane shot up, making sure to place herself in front of James and Marie on the bed. “Bryna!”
The old woman groaned and attempted to gain a sense of the situation. “What is it?”
Jane forced James onto the bed behind her and fumbled around in the dim light, rushing to the water basin in the kitchen, only to find it frozen over. “Bryna, get the children back! We need to put out the flames!”
The fire began to lick at the nearby walls of the house, curling the dry outer layer of bark on the old logs. The linens hung beside the hearth began to catch fire, and the furs nearby continued to spread the flames along the ground.
Jane pounded at the layer of ice in the basin, her hands cold and knuckles sore. She managed to pry the wooden bowl out and transport some of the icy water across the room. The splash managed to extinguish only a small corner of the blaze.
James had escaped Bryna’s arms and began to panic, his whining loud and shrill. Marie began to cry, struggling as well and cough working itself louder. The little boy yanked open the door, attempting to free the room of the growing amount of smoke. The wall of snow beyond the door was too tall for he himself to escape on his own. The wind blew in, pulling out the smoke, but causing the flames to climb higher and hiss more fiercely.
Bryna grabbed up the shoes and blankets. Jane attempted to land another bowl of water upon the flames, but their rapid growth from the outside air created a stifling aura of heat. The old woman called out to her finally, managing to herd the two children. “We must get outside, let it burn itself out!”
Jane could barely push through the snow in her stockings behind the old woman. Her feet went numb in the short amount of time it took to make it to the stable. The hay-covered ground was slightly sheltered from the wind and snow. In the early morning light, they could see the chimney billowing dark smoke.
“I only added one log,” James sniffled.
“You did what, boy?” Jane asked pointedly.
“The fire needed more heat, and I tossed a big ol’ one up on it.”
“How many times have I-“
Bryna held to Jane’s wrist to hold her back from striking out against her child. “You can’t blame him for simply trying to help.”
Jane collapsed into the hay, feeling at her freezing feet, covered in the damp stockings. “I am not made for this type of life,” she sobbed, “I know nothing of trying to make a living out in a place like this. I can no longer take on these burdens that the Lord is pushing on me. A house fallen, and another one burning?”
Bryna pushed Marie off her shoulder and into Jane’s arms. “The Lord has also given you two beautiful children, one that you must remain strong to take care of.”
Jane held to Marie, slumping down against the rough log wall of the stable. The straw poked her skin through her thin stockings. The little girl shivered, but only for a moment before her mother’s warmth collected once again within her. James crumpled down beside his mother, finding a place beside her leg and wrapping his arms around hers.
Bryna pulled up her shawl and stepped half out of the stable entrance to look upon the house, still billowing smoke from the unsealed cracks. In the deathly silence of the snow-choked land, the only sound able to be heard was the crackling and hissing from inside the building The air smelt of rancid smoke and the odor of the animals that lived there in the stable.
“We can wait for the fire to burn down, and then attempt to move back inside,” the old woman said, returning. “Not all of it can burn, surely.”
With the four huddled together under the rescued blankets and the amassed hay, they sat in a half-asleep state, simply trying to take in the warmth and hope for the quick arrival of the day.
The Mills’ horse, the sole animal still with them, huffed suddenly with its round, moist nostrils and kicked at the cold ground. Bryna recognized the sign of its unease and pulled on Jane’s arm to alert her.
“Huh?” The mother lifted her head stiffly.
Without warning, a loud crack radiated from the house, followed by the scraping of stones and soft thump of something falling against the ground. The late morning sun was attempting to breach the gray clouds, offering them enough light to depart the stable and examine what remained after the fire.
Jane’s feet became instantly cold again as her stockings touched the snow, but her determination allowed her to continue, the children still clinging to her. Bryna saw the ruin first; the chimney and hearth having collapsed away from the burned section of roof. The remainder of the western-facing wall of the home had turned to cinders, leaving the living area to fill with wispy piles of snow.
“How do we fix this?” Jane said hopelessly, “We can’t light a fire, or even keep the elements from ourselves. And… and Lewis… when he returns…”
Bryna pushed through the front door, still luckily intact, and examined what remained. Embers near the base of the wall and fallen chimney still glowed and let off smoke. She looked at Jane through the open wall. “It isn’t time to worry about my husband or yours. We have to make due.”
“How, Bryna?” Jane huffed, pushing in after her into the house.
“You’re right that we can’t stay here. Perhaps, to the village, the one to the east? William has been there, you remember? We can find someone to take us in.”
“Through the snow?”
“We’ll take the horse, trade places on his back. Find some paper to leave a note for the men.”
Bryna gathered what little dry food and blankets she could manage to find intact. After loading them into bundles on the back of the horse, she dressed the children in their warmest clothes and wrapped their feet and hands in bundles of rags to keep them warm. The only place to write that Jane could find was Jame’s reading book. Inside the front cover, she crafted the note, knowing that William would likely spot it when he was to return.
I am sorry. We are all safe. Headed east. I love you, William.