David sniffed the air, scrunching his nose up when the acrid aroma of smoke drifted into his nostrils on the tail end of Miss Walker’s perfume. “I do. Maybe you ought to stay here—I will go and see what it is.” Skirting around her, he grabbed the doorknob, but her hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“I want to go with you. Please don’t leave me alone here.”
He hesitated, the door ajar. The thick smell of smoke hung heavier in the air now. If McCullough comes to kill me and finds her here… “Very well. But stay behind me.” She was so quiet that his only assurance of her position as they moved toward the source of the smoke was when her hand brushed against his back. The kitchen…I’m not entirely surprised. Of all places there was likely to be a fire, the kitchen made the most sense. He lifted his ascot over his nose and mouth to filter the air. “Cover your face,” he advised Miss Walker over his shoulder. David pushed the kitchen door open. A plume of smoke, black as ink, billowed into the corridor. Coughing, he pressed on.
David’s eyes teared, stinging as the smoke hit his face. He couldn’t see two feet in front of him, but stopped when he stubbed his toe. Slowly crouching, he blinked quickly as the air cleared.
“What is it, David?” Miss Walker’s voice strained from behind him.
“I think…it’s McCullough!” There was no one else in the house who had a beard. “I’m going to pull him out of the room.” Even if he is a killer, he doesn’t deserve this. David hoisted McCullough’s shoulders off of the ground and began to drag him. The man was larger than he was, but as dead weight, the task felt nearly impossible. “Can you get his feet?” He couldn’t see Miss Walker but presumed that she was on her way to McCullough’s ankles. He didn’t realize she wasn’t helping until he heard her scream. McCullough’s head thudded to the floor and David vaulted over his chest. “What happened?” he hacked out.
“Mrs. Harrison! She’s…she’s…” Miss Walker was clinging to his shirt now, clawing at his chest and shoulders until he wrapped his arms around her.
“She’s dead,” Miss Walker sobbed.
“Are you sure?” David pulled back and tried to see through the smoke. That was when he noticed that it didn’t smell like normal smoke—Mrs. Harrison was burning. “She’s on fire, we’ve got to help her.” He turned, swapping places with Miss Walker.
“We can’t do anything for her now. Let us tend to McCullough.” Miss Walker stepped backward, her hands closing around one of David’s, small in his own. She led him from the room, his feet shuffling along the floor.
David crouched, taking hold of McCullough’s collar, continuing to drag him out of the room. Once free of the kitchen, he leaned back against the wall for a moment. “I think we need to get outside.”
“Can you carry him?” Miss Walker looked from McCullough’s face, eyes closed and cheeks stained with soot.
Shaking his head, David knelt beside the man. “I thought he was a murderer.”
“Maybe he is,” Miss Walker offered.
“So…” He furrowed his brow. “So what are you saying?”
Her gentle hand lighted upon his shoulder. “David…if you cannot carry him out, we should get out ourselves. Better that two of us live than all of us die.”
“What? We can’t…I won’t…” David shrugged her hand away and placed his hand on McCullough’s chest, right over his heart. He’d seen a man restart another’s heart once, and braced his arms before pumping. The smoke continued filling the air around them and soon he couldn’t even see the man before him. He kept at it, until he felt McCullough’s body jolt beneath his hands.
“It’s her! She’s the killer!” he coughed out, scrambling to stand but faltering.
“Take it easy. Who?”
McCullough snatched David’s collar and pulled him close. “Miss Walker. She tried to kill me.”
No, he thought. But the snap of Miss Walker cocking a gun behind his head. Wide eyed, David turned, falling to sit on the floor. “You can’t be a killer. I love you.”
He’d never heard anything so loud as a gun before, but when the crack rent through the air, he thought, that’s it, I’m dead. It wasn’t until he felt a warm, wet and sticky substance oozing around his hand that he realized McCullough was the one who was dead. He blinked, recoiling his hand and pulling it to his chest, cradling it as though his arm was broken.
“Come with me, David.” Miss Walker’s hand pierced velvety wall of smoke.
He stared at it. Fire roared as it burst through the door separating them from the kitchen. He reached up and grasped her hand, letting her pull him to his feet. David ran, keeping Miss Walker ahead of him, out of the house. The stark white world of the blizzard blinded him. He clamped his eyelids shut. “This can’t be…you killed them. Did Mr. Barrow ever really escape?”
“Yes,” Miss Walker answered with surprising honesty. “Though whether or not he made it through the storm…well, that’s God’s work, not mine.” David couldn’t believe she was talking about God, a woman who stole the lives of others.
“And you were happy to let us think McCullough or even Mr. Barrow…that either of them was responsible.” He frowned, stepping back from her, plowing a path through the snow. “Why did you do it?”
She held the six-shooter in one hand, relaxed at her side. “This isn’t one of your stories, tied up in a neat bow at the end. Does it really matter why I killed them? I did it, and my telling you why won’t change your opinion of the matter. There is the weakness of your stories, David. You don’t allow your reader to walk away thinking.” She paused to sigh. “Are you coming with me or not, David? We could be happy together.”
David shook his head. “I won’t turn you in,” he offered, “but I can’t come with you.” She raised the gun, but there wasn’t time to argue. He didn’t even hear the gunshot. He didn’t feel it, either. He fell, cushioned by the hip-deep snow. Smoke no longer burned his eyes. He felt neither the cold nor the heat.
Author’s note: Thank you for reading my first piece of serialized fiction! Of course it needs editing, but you can look forward to the edited copy…it will either be sold separately, in an anthology, or both. Stay tuned! Next week will start a new story!