Luke Anderson drove Cedarwood's bright red fire truck away from the fire station and toward the residential section of town that had taken the brunt of the tornado's wraith. The truck's siren was screaming over his head, warning all to get out of the way of the racing vehicle.
Cedarwood wasn't very big. A central square, of neatly maintain lawns bordered by flower beds and dotted with tall cedar trees, was surrounded by the shops and offices of the business district. Disjointed neighborhoods radiated out from the square connected by a haphazard array of streets. Cedarwood was a young town but already growing faster than the town council could adopt rules for controlling the welcome expansion.
Luke turned the fire truck onto a street in the devastated residential neighborhood and immediately had to slow the truck's speed.
“Hard to believe this is the same street I drove down a few hours ago,” Peter Burton said looking out the open window on his side of the cab. Except for some porch steps and a partial wall here and there, nothing recognizable remained of the dozen houses that had lined the street less than an hour before. His eyes scanned the twisted piles of rubble marking the locations of the missing homes. “Sure isn't much left.”
Luke steered the truck around another tree branch impending their progress. “Let's hope folks managed to get into their cellars,” he said as the truck bounced over the end of the branch. He let the truck roll to a stop then turned off the engine and silenced the siren. “Not much use trying to go further,” he said as he set the brake. The street was littered with twisted pieces of metal, sections of roofs, and broken trees, its surface almost indistinguishable from the yards on either side of it. “Why don't you work that side of the street and I'll take this side. When you check the cellars, give a shout and beat on something to make noise then shut up and listen. It might be hard for them to call out so keep your ears sharp.”
“Gotcha, Chief,” Peter said as he slammed the truck's door shut. He had pushed open the door as soon as the truck stopped moving and was already stepping out when the town's fire chief gave him his orders. “If they yell, I won't miss it,” he assured his boss.
Luke laid his arms atop the steering wheel and peered through the windshield. “Damn,” he muttered. Then shaking himself free of his thoughts, he reached for the fire helmet resting on the bench seat beside him. “Come on. Let's get to work,” he said as he exited the truck.
Esther's eyes popped opened. She tried to remember where she was. And why it was so dark. “Mommy?” she called into the blackness. It was hard to move, something was pressing her down. Something big and heavy. “Mommy!” she called again, this time more forceful. She tried to squirm out from under the oppressive weight. “Mommy, I'm squishing,” she cried struggling to free herself. “Ow,” she screamed when a piercing pain exploded in her ankle. She froze, hoping the pain would stop. It didn't.
After several minutes, Esther managed to free her right arm just enough to probe a few inches into the darkness. Her fingers gingerly felt the surface beneath her. It felt cold yet familiar… almost like… dirt. But much harder than the dirt in her mother's garden that she liked to squeeze between her fingers. She reached a little further, her hand stopping when it came into contact with something hard. Even harder than the dirt floor. She rubbed her fingers on the object but couldn't identify what it was. She tried reaching in a different direction. Again her hand brushed against an unseen object that was unrecognizable to her.
As she lay in the darkness, Esther became aware of other pains and aches. But by far, the one that hurt the worst was her ankle. She tried to wiggle her hand down to it but finally gave up. Pulling her hand back, she tucked her fist under her chin as tears filled her eyes.
“Mommy?” she whispered into the darkness, sniffling when she received no response. “I hurt, Mommy,” she whimpered. “I'm scared. Where are you?”
After searching the debris buried cellars of the first three houses on his side of the street and finding them unoccupied, Luke approached what remained of the next house. The only parts left intact by the tornado were two porches. Not seeing much more than splinted pieces of wood and arm-sized branches around the front porch, he weaved his way through the wreckage to the side porch. Now familiar with the design of the houses in the neighborhood, he knew he should find the steps leading down into the storm cellar behind those that had led up into the kitchen. He frowned when he saw the amount of rubble filling the now exposed cellar.
Standing on top of the cellar wall, Luke was surprised to find the stairs remarkably free of debris. He was about to begin down them when he heard his name called.
“Brought you some help, Chief,” Cyrus Tipper said as he hurried across the yard from the street.
Luke saw a dozen men climbing out of the back of one of farmer's delivery trucks. “Pete's over on the other side,” he called to the men. “Check in with him so you know what to do.” One of the men waved at the chief then directed the men across the street. “Is that all you brought?”
“There's more on the way. Some coming here. Some going to Kalona.”
“How'd Kalona fare?”
“Twister skipped right over the town,” Cyrus said as he stepped onto the wall next to Luke. “But the wind did some major damage. Heard the rain was pretty heavy too. Damn thing waited to touch down ‘til it got here. Any survivors?”
“None yet,” Luke answered as he cautiously made his way down the concrete steps. “Is anyone down here?” he shouted after stopping when he reached the bottom. “Hello. This is Chief Anderson. Is anyone down here?” He stopped to listen for a response. Hearing none, he looked for some way to make some noise. Directly in front of him was the metal tub from an ice box, its side caved in after being slammed into something hard during the storm. He bent over to pick it up but abruptly jerked upright empty handed. “Did you hear that?”
Cyrus pointed to a corner of the cellar. “Sounded like it came from over there.”
“Yell out again,” Luke shouted then held his breath to listen. “You're right. It's over there. Go get a couple of your boys. We're going to need more hands to move this stuff out of the way.
Samuel Hampton left his office through the door that led straight into the alley beside the Kalona Café. Outside, he was confronted by a strong wind racing between the brick walls of the building and the one opposite it. “What the heck?” he muttered as he slapped a hand on top of his gray fedora to keep it from being snatched from his head.
“Looks like we're in for a storm,” Sonny Furston said looking up at the darkening sky. He had followed Hampton out of the building and was locking the door behind them.
“Good thing I don't pay you for your brains,” Hampton grumbled. He hurried across the alley to the Chrysler Imperial parked on the other side. Even though he was fighting against the wind to maintain his balance, he smiled at the sleek lines of the sedan he had purchased the week before. No one can doubt my importance now, he thought. Especially, those boys in Chicago . He pulled open the driver's door then paused when his employee shouted to him over the roar of the wind.
“You want me to wait until this blows over?”
Hampton glared at Sonny. “No, I want you to do what I told you to. And I want it done by the time I get back from Richland.” The wind was threatening to rip the door out of his hand so he slid onto the seat behind the steering wheel then slammed the door shut.
Sonny stood in the alley, he body braced against the gusting wind as he watched his boss drive to the end of the alley. The Chrysler disappeared around the corner of the building when Hampton turned onto Cedarwood's main street. “Damn,” he muttered spinning around. With his shoulder dropped into the face of the wind, he determinedly struggled toward an older model Buick parked further up the alley. It wasn't as sleek as his boss' new Chrysler sedan, with its curved fenders and smooth lines. The Buick was boxy with a flat grill and protruding running boards under its doors. But it was fast and built to withstand the pounding of the dirt and gravel roads he drove. And Hampton paid for it so Sonny wasn't going to complain. He yanked open the door as soon as he reached the Buick and jumped inside. The engine was roaring to life before he pulled the door shut.
Chief Anderson handed a broken chair to Cyrus who turned and passed it to Pete who passed it up to the waiting hands of the man standing along the cellar wall. It had taken the better part of an hour but the men had finally cleared enough of the debris to reach the area of the cellar where they heard muffled cries. A large piece of wood now blocked their progress. One end of the fractured cellar door was jammed under the heavy cook stove that had fallen into the cellar while the other end had been driven into the dirt wall several inches by the force of the tornado.
“Looks like someone had hold of it,” Cyrus said noting the splinted wood where the door handle should have been.
“You want an axe, Chief? Pete asked.
“If someone's under there, might do more damage,” Anderson responded. “Let's see if we can move that stove. Cyrus, let Pete up here.”
“I can help, Chief.”
“And stronger,” Pete added as he eased past the older farmer.
Realizing both men were right, Cyrus held back any objections and gave way.
“I think we can pitch it back and off the door,” Anderson said when Pete joined him. The men positioned themselves around the stove being careful not to add any weight to the top of the damaged door. “Ready?” Pete nodded. “Let's do it.” The stove protested but they were able to lift it off the door and toss it further back into the cellar. Then the men focused their combined effort on pulling the plank out of the wall.
“It's a kid,” someone exclaimed after the door was freed.
Samuel Hampton left the business district of Cedarwood behind. The wind had steadily increased and he was having difficulty keeping the Buick on the road but he had business to attend to— storm or no storm. He guided the sedan onto the highway that led to the bridge over the English River. Now the wind was at his back and the car was having an easier time of holding the road. He reached the bridge at the same time the tornado passed overhead.
The Buick was lifted skyward. It slammed into a girder, crushing its roof and twisting its frame; only the steel structure of the bridge prevented the car from being carried away by the tornado. Released from the storm's grip, it dropped back to the surface of the bridge, crashing down onto the railing. Momentarily, it hesitated, precariously balanced on the thin section of metal. Then it tilted and slid over the side.
Lying on her stomach and covered by debris, Esther couldn't see what was happening around her. But she could hear voices and scraping sounds as unseen objects were moved. The weight pressing her down shifted and that scared her. She tried to call to the men but her throat was dry from all the dust the men were causing. Suddenly, the darkness was replaced by brilliant sunlight. The change so startling that Esther squeezed her eyes shut to block out the harsh light.
Chief Anderson knelt down beside Esther. “Hey, there,” he said softly. “My name's Luke. What's yours?”
“Esther,” she finally croaked out after several efforts. “My throat hurts.”
“Get some water,” Anderson called up to the men above him then returned his attention to the girl. “Does anything else hurt, Esther?” She nodded. “What? Where?”
“Here you go, Chief,” Pete tapped a canteen against the fire chief's shoulder.
Unscrewing the cap, Anderson placed the canteen next to Esther's lips. The angle was awkward but she managed to swallow some of the cold liquid. “My leg hurts really bad,” she said after the canteen had been removed.
“Give us a couple of minutes to get the rest of this stuff off of you,” Anderson told Esther. “Then we'll get you fixed up.”
“Where's my mommy?”
Anderson glanced worriedly at Pete who was already pulling debris off the girl. “You hold real still,” he said without answering her question. “We'll have you out of there in a minute.”
Esther was sitting in the cab of the farm truck, her back propped against Cyrus and her legs stretched out on the tattered seat.
“Sure this thing will make it to Kalona?” Chief Anderson asked as Cyrus nursed the engine into life.
“Once she starts, she'll be fine,” the farmer assured the men standing around the truck.
“Take care of her leg,” Anderson reminded the farmer who nodded. He made a final check on the position of the jacket balled up under the girl's right leg. A jagged piece of wood had pierced the ankle and was sticking out several inches on either side of the joint. Blood seeped through the cloth wrapped around the wound. “The doctors will take care of you.”
“Are you going to find my mommy?” Esther asked Anderson who was leaning in the window of the passenger door.
“We're going to look for her just as soon as Cyrus gets you off to the hospital.”
Cyrus shifted the truck into gear. “Then we best be off,” he said as Anderson pulled back from the window and jumped off the running board. “I'll be back soon as I get her taken care of,” he shouted as he maneuvered the truck down the litter filled street.
“What about her mother?” Pete asked.
Chief Anderson shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “What about all the others?” he asked gesturing toward what, only that morning, had been a neighborhood filled with happy families and laughing children.
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