Ghost Town

by Elleth of Mossflower

Berlyne had always been a realist. And realistically, she knew there was very little chance they were going to survive this.

The traders were just a speck in the distance, the last human contact they were ever likely to have on God’s green earth. Apen stood next to her, his gaze steely. Chara sat on the porch behind them, hyperventilating amid her tears.

Around them sprawled the ghostly remains of a small town surrounded by hills. They were standing on the porch of an old two-story mercantile, its paint peeling and porch hung with ivy.

Berlyne could have cried like her sister – how can this be happening, please no, please no, kept pounding through her brain – but resolutely, she did not. She had already screamed her lungs out at the retreating figures, and there was no more use for it.

“Well,” she said tautly, “what now?”

Apen shifted his stance next to her, teeth gritted. She’d never seen him so angry in her life. “They might as well have just killed us outright,” he managed. “Blood’s on their hands anyway, leaving us…” He crumpled into a crouch and put his head in his hands, balling them into fists as he let the sentence trail.

“Don’t say things like that!” she snapped, anger at their hopeless situation flaring. Mixed with that was a stab of fear at his pessimistic outlook. She had to get him out of it. “We’ll make it just fine without them. Lots of people survive smallpox, and-”

“But th-they d-don’t survive stranded w-without food and h-horses!” Chara suddenly squeaked between gasps for air, raising her tearstained face.

And Chara had always been the optimistic one. Looking at her sister, Berlyne forced back the panic hovering just beyond her bravado. “We have food. And guns. And someone will travel through here soon and rescue us – you’ll see. We’ll make it to Oregon.” She knelt next to her and started rubbing her back. “Calm down, calm down. You’ll faint.”

“You’re sh-sure?” Chara hiccuped, her breaths slowing by a fraction.

Apen suddenly took a deep breath, looked up, and gave Chara the ghost of a smile. “Of course we’re sure.”

Chara seemed satisfied, and she gradually grew quiet. Berlyne reflected once again on how odd it was that Chara, at seventeen, often acted more like a twelve-year-old, while Apen, sixteen, seemed to have the maturity of thirty years in some ways.

Apen leaned closer to Berlyne, his brown eyes serious. “I’m… really sorry about a minute ago. It was awful to say. I just feel so helpless.” He ran his hands through his short hair.

“You’re forgiven,” Berlyne said with the slightest wry upturn of her mouth. Then she sobered. “But really, you scared me. I don’t know, I just… don’t want to hear you talking like that…” Her gaze slid inadvertently to his wrist, crisscrossed with old scars, and then she met his eyes.

With a sharp tug, Apen yanked his sleeve down to cover his wrist. “Never again,” he assured her with a sad smile.

“Good,” Berlyne said. They were leaning so close to each other by now that Apen’s breath was tickling her cheek. Out of the corner of her eye, Berlyne noticed Chara watching them, and she bit her lip and stood up. “We’d better get the wagon cleared out. Come on.”

Apen got to his feet. “Oh, yeah, guess so.”

All three of them pitched in. Once they’d moved everything from their nearby wagon, Berlyne and Apen sat down on the porch and took stock of their provisions. Several jars of potatoes, several of beef, and half a jar of bean porridge. There was also a carefully-wrapped loaf of bread, only partly eaten and not completely stale. They’d definitely have to ration it all carefully. She had hoped they could restock at the next trading post, but that was miles away. At least it was summer and they could hunt and forage. And she was thankful that the cads who had abandoned them before daybreak and taken their horses had left them their wagon and belongings. Probably because they were so afraid of getting smallpox. One of the men, Jake, who said he had some experience with sickness, had diagnosed her very ill father the night before.

Laden with jars, she and Apen walked into the old store. Berlyne set her burden down on a table and went over to check on her father. He was lying on a makeshift bed in one corner, sweaty and covered in a rash. Curled up next to the bed was Melly, whimpering and occasionally licking Joe’s hand.

It hurt to see him like this, especially so far from help. At least he didn’t seem to be any worse than he had been an hour before. He’d been lucid then, but he was now asleep, which she supposed was a good thing. Having no medicine on hand, she could only make him comfortable and pray for recovery. Of course, if he indeed had the smallpox, they had undoubtedly already been exposed to it and were bound to catch it too, and it could easily prove fatal.

There was a shriek from outside and then Chara dashed in, eyes wild. “There’s some kind of dog thing out there. It doesn’t look normal.”

“Stay here,” Apen told her, stepping out onto the porch and reaching for his loaded rifle, which was leaning against a supporting post. Berlyne grabbed her dad’s revolver off the table and joined him, blowing a frizzy wisp of hair out of her tired eyes.

“Yeah, that’s not right. You think it’s rabid?” Apen asked, bringing the gun to his shoulder, and that’s when she saw the mangy dog further down the street. It was hardly recognizable as a dog, its fur matted and blackened over its skinny frame. If she squinted, she thought she saw froth coating its jaws.

“Definitely. Better put it out of its misery before it attacks us or something.”

As Apen began lining up the shot, the dog started walking towards them. Then running.

“Apen…” Berlyne hissed.

Apen pulled the trigger. The bullet missed, kicking up a plume of dust at the animal’s heels. Undeterred, the dog kept on towards them.

Berlyne gritted her teeth and quickly sighted with the pistol in her hand. She fired at the same time Apen did. With a growl, the dog tumbled head over heels and and lay unmoving in the road.

Berlyne let out a breath she didn’t even know she’d been holding.

“Where d’you think it came from?” she asked, stepping off the porch and walking over to the dead animal.

“Who knows?” Apen came up beside her, surveyed the surrounding wilderness, then eyed the corpse. “Looks like some kind of coyote? Hard to tell.”

Berlyne gnawed her lip. “Let’s all move up to the second story tonight, okay?”

“I was just about to suggest that.”

As they walked back to the store, Berlyne suddenly grinned in spite of everything. “Hey, this isn’t all bad. If worst comes to worst and we run out of food, we can cook that thing.”

The joke wasn’t even funny, but they both laughed so hard they wheezed.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Night brought with it a cold wind from the distant mountains. Chara shivered fitfully in her sleep, waking Berlyne several times, until Berlyne snuggled right up next to her to help keep her warm.

She couldn’t fall asleep again, though. From her spot on the floor, Berlyne cracked open bleary eyes to see Apen sitting motionless by the window, his gun at the ready. He’d insisted on taking a watch for part of the night and trade off with her later, even though he also insisted there was likely nothing more to worry about. The moonlight through the window cast a glow around him like some ghostly halo. Must’ve just been her sleep-addled brain talking, but somehow he looked like one of the noble princes in the stories Chara was always reading-

Howls shattered the quiet. Apen shot to his feet, Chara gasped, sat up, and flopped over, and Berlyne kicked the blankets aside and dashed over to the window, the cold seeping through her bare stockings. Melly raised her head, but Joe didn’t stir.

In the street below, dozens of black shapes were skittering around.

“Don’t tell me there’s more of those dogs.”

“Looks like it.” Apen’s face was grim. He turned and made for the door leading to the next room in the upper story. “Gonna see what I can see from the other window.”

Picking up her dad’s pistol, she ran after him.

The next room contained nothing but a filthy old mattress and broken chair. Apen positioned his rifle at the window.

“Think we should shoot or not? The things probably don’t know we’re here yet-”

From downstairs, there was a sudden smashing, banging sound, and the howls reached a fever pitch. Peering through the dirty glass, Berlyne saw the pack congregating around their building. As a precaution, they’d blocked off the front door with a bunch of tables and chairs, and the ground-floor windows had been boarded up when they arrived. But would it really hold? Nothing seemed certain any more.

“Yeah, I think they know we’re here,” she heard herself say with perfect calmness. Everything suddenly felt surreal and dreamlike, like she wasn’t really there – merely observing.  Glass shattered in slow-motion as Apen kicked out the window and aimed downward. The subsequent gunshot rumbled through the small room, prolonged and unnaturally loud, nearly deafening her. She blinked stupidly and saw he was already reloading. Her head cleared. Glancing at the pistol in her own hand, she leaned forward, aimed and fired. Over and over and over.

Several minutes of shooting made a huge dent in the pack, but the banging downstairs continued. Breathing hard of the gunsmoke-filled air, they both sank against the wall. “What now? They’re going to break in down there.” She wondered if she sounded as panicked as she felt.

“I’m going down – see what I can do,” Apen said, scrambling to his feet and running out the door.

Chara burst suddenly into the room. “I can’t just sit back there doing nothing!” she shrieked, terror written all over her face. “What should I do?”

“Someone has to stay with Papa, and it’s gonna be you,” Berlyne told her shortly, shoving past her. “The other rifle is in there. Use it if you have to.”

“Alright then! Oh, I wish Enel were here… no, I don’t, it’s too dangerous,” Chara yelled back nonsensically. Berlyne stumbled downstairs in the dark, wondering vaguely what her sister had ever seen in that stupid redhead back East.

Any trivial thoughts were banished from her mind as she made it into the lower room. Apen had lit one of their kerosene lamps, which cast a flickering glow all over from its spot on an old sales counter. Thankfully the banging had died down – she guessed the dogs had just given up – but every few seconds there was a low growl outside, freezing her blood.

“There’s no way they’ll get in,” Apen assured her, but his voice was fraught with worry.

Berlyne bit her lip, gripping the gun in her hand so hard it hurt. “How long until dawn?”

“Maybe a couple hours?”

Less than she’d thought, which was a wonderful relief. Maybe they had a chance. At that thought, the tense knot in her middle eased somewhat. It also helped that the growls were growing further and further apart.

Then she realized something. “Wait… you stayed on watch all night?”

“Yeah, I didn’t want to wake you-”

“You should have woken me up. That’s what we agreed on.”

“I couldn’t have slept anyway; I was too nervous.”

“You’re impossible sometimes, you know that?” She rolled her eyes, but kept her tone light.

“Seriously, I was fine.”

She squinted at him. “I’m surprised you aren’t crossing yourself right now, it’s so obvious you’re fibbing.”

Clearly surprised himself, he barked a laugh and scratched the back of his head. “I didn’t realize anyone even noticed I do that.”

“I’ve noticed you a lot more than you think,” Berlyne answered, then stopped abruptly. Okay, that had to be the dumbest thing she’d ever said in her life. What on earth was wrong with her? Maybe all the stress was taking its toll. “We’ve all noticed more about you than you think. You’ve been with us nearly two years, y’know.” She turned away from the lamp so he couldn’t read her face. “So…”

Wind whipped around the building, clawing with searching fingers through every crack in the walls. Berlyne shivered in the chill, her dress and stockings not nearly enough, and not for the first time, she wished for the home she’d left behind back East.

“You think they’re gone?” she finally asked.

Leaning around all the furniture, Apen pressed his ear to the door. After a moment, he pulled away. “Yeah, think so.”

She sagged in relief. “Thank God.”

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

“Someone’s coming!” Chara shrieked.

Berlyne opened her eyes to see late morning light filtering through the window. Suddenly processing what Chara had said, she shot out of her nest of blankets and crashed into the wall. “What?!” She took one look out the window and then bolted downstairs, followed by Chara, a spiky-haired Apen, and a barking Melly.

Could there be someone passing through already? It seemed too good to be true!

Precious seconds ticked away as they threw aside the pile of furniture at the front door, but they finally got out. The ground was littered with dead coyotes, some half-eaten. Further up the street were five or six men on horses, and they were riding away. Berlyne felt something squeeze painfully in her chest as she weighed what to do. For all she knew, they could be outlaws, but that was a chance they had to take, wasn’t it?

Chara, however, was seemingly undeterred by such considerations. “HELP!” she screamed, racing into the middle of the road. “Help us! We’re stranded and Papa’s sick and we have to get to Oregon!”

Within a moment, the men had turned around and reached them. Melly dashed wildly around their horses, barking for all she was worth.

“What’s going on?” one of the men asked. He was tall and blond, with a cigar dangling from his lower lip.

“We’re stranded here!” Chara repeated frantically, “and my dad is really sick and a bunch of wild dogs attacked us last night and we hardly have any food-”

“Are any of you a doctor?” Apen and Berlyne both yelled over her.

“I am.” The man dismounted, grabbing a bag from his horse’s side. “Name’s Noah St. Claire. Where’s the patient?”

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Berlyne sat in the front seat of their wagon and took a deep breath of the cool dawn air. Birds were chirping, the sky was clear, and her heart felt lighter than it had ever felt before.

Papa didn’t have smallpox. Noah, who was not only a doctor but a sheriff, wasn’t sure what he’d had, but it definitely wasn’t smallpox. The news had almost made her cry with happiness. A few of the pills Noah carried had sped his recovery, and now he was almost back to his old self. He was sitting behind her now in the wagon bed, wearing his trademark hat and whistling. Next to him were Chara and two lawmen who’d given up their horses to pull the wagon. There were dark circles under her dad’s eyes, but he was so much better already, it was incredible.

Only a few of the wild dogs had returned the night before, and they had soon turned tail and run after the lawmen shot at them. Perhaps the stupid things had finally realized attacking them was a good way to get killed. Whatever the reason, they’d had a relatively quiet night.

Now, they were leaving the ghost town. At Berlyne’s feet a pair of horses were stamping and snorting, just as eager as she was to put this place behind them. Never in a million years would she have imagined anything like this happening to her family, and she shuddered to think of how much worse things could have gone. They were so fortunate that the lawmen had come along and were going their way. All she wanted now was to reach Oregon.

Noah and the rest of the lawmen mounted their horses as Apen strode over to the wagon with Melly at his side. He put the little dog in and then climbed up to sit next to Berlyne, scooting rather close. Was it her imagination, or was he blushing? She scooted just a little closer.

“You all ready?” Noah shouted.

“Yep!” Berlyne yelled back, grabbing the reins.

“Alright, let’s move!”

Berlyne smiled at Apen and flicked the reins.