The town burned through the night and when the glow of dawn finally overpowered the glow of the embers, the townspeople who were still alive collapsed to the Earth from weariness. Exhaustion granted a temporary reprieve from the crush of defeat.
Half of the town had burned. The north side was spared only by the direction of the wind and the unusual width of the main street. The Morning Star mine works, the Morning Star Saloon, The First Baptist Church, the Miller General store and countless odd shanties, tents and hovels had been incinerated. In the grim dawn, no one picked through the ashes to find the bodies.
Somehow, Saloon #3 had survived. And, grateful for it, Laura Miller slumped against its east wall, clutching Mac and Penelope to her. The children slept, but Laura’s worries would not let her sleep. She leaned against the wall, feeling the air warm as the sun rose, and tried not to move. Let the children sleep, she thought. That they were still alive was victory enough… for now.
Mac shifted in his sleep and the rifle he clutched to his chest pressed into Laura’s cheek. She pushed it away and shifted. But that upset the delicate equilibrium. Pen’s weight shifted off Laura’s leg and it tingled back to painful life. She groaned and moved out from underneath the children. Pen muttered something, wrapped her arms around her brother, and fell back to sleep. Mack lolled his head to the side and began to snore.
As they slept they looked so innocent, but Laura feared that innocence had been lost. What they had seen last night — things as horrible as what she had seen during the war and on the run — the things that she and Virgil had tried to protect them — these things could never be unseen.
Mack had grown so big, yet in some ways, he was still just a foolish, beautiful boy. When the mine exploded, they had all come out into the street to see what happened. Then they realized the church was also ablaze. As they watched the flames jumped to the saloon and then the mine. The next time they looked they saw the store, their home, was on fire.
Then Mac was away, running into the burning building. Laura screamed, the one time in that whole night that she did. But she could not reach Mack to stop him. He plunged into the building and she clutched Penelope to her and waited in terror. In those long seconds, the roof caved in and flames rushed forth from the second-story windows. She said her jaw and willed – willed – that foolish boy to emerge from the flames.
There was a clatter of hooves and the rattle of an empty wagon coming down the hill. A woman bellowing like a man for everyone to get out of the way. Laura turned to see Jane Siskin, the woman who hauled much of their freight, standing in the bed of a cargo wagon, reins in one hand, whip in the other, driving a team of oxen hard towards the river.
When the wagon had passed, she saw Mac, his hair badly singed, running towards her clutching the ancient buffalo rifle that had decorated the wall above the weapons rack.
She shrieked at him, then slapped him, then clasped him, gun and all, in a powerful hug.
“Pa’s coming back, and he's going to need it!"
Laura nodded, not giving a damn about the gun, tears welling up in her eyes. And then the tears burst forth as she realized, with the town ablaze around them, the Virgil was never coming back.
"He's gonna need it to put things right. Don't you worry Ma, you'll see.”
When the fire had started John Dance had forgotten all about the Burdock’s. They had scattered into the smoke and chaos. Dance organized a bucket brigade even though it seemed hopeless. But then that crazy Siskin woman had come driving up the hill with a wagon full of water.
"Drove it right into the damn river," she proclaimed proudly. Buckets and hats and spittoons and any other damn thing they could find to hold water went in and were used to try and douse the flames. The Church was a total loss, so they had focused their efforts on the Morning Star saloon. But it was no use. It went up like a match. Rats, drunks, gamblers, and whores poured forth coughing from the smoke.
Dance diverted the brigade to the next building. "Wet it down! Keep the fire from spreading!” But soon the wagon was dry and Jane rode off to the river again. Everyone stood around looking at each other, looking hopeless. From out of the darkness a figure wearing a suit, and flourishing a cane like a dandy, emerged into the light of the burning town. It was Jean Dumont, followed by a large contingent of miners. But he was not stooped or coughing. He stood ramrod straight and his voice was clear and commanding when he said, “how dare you abandon my building to the flames! I demand that you…"
Dance said, “What! What exactly do you want me to do? We ain't got no water at the moment!"
DuMont had no response.
“That Saloon is a lost cause. What we need are men and buckets to stop the spread. Lend us your men, DuMont.”
“That is your affair!”
“My AFFAIR! For Christ’s sake DuMont, the town is burning!”
From the dark, on the other side of John Dance, Burdock rode his horse into the light of the flames. The shadowed forms of his cowboys were visible behind him.
“Burdock, get buckets in them men’s hands!” said Dance.
“No,” said Burdock, “I don’t think I will.”
Dance, silhouetted against the flames, looked back and forth between the two of them. "Good God! Can’t either of you see?"
"I see a town problem,” said Burdock.
Dance pleaded, “But we’re all we have left! You’ve been out there. You’ve seen! The world, everything we knew… it’s gone!”
Burdock sneered, “Civilization is gone, with its weakness and its decadence. If you can't live out here in the frontier, you shouldn’tve come. Hell of a way to larn it.”
From somewhere in the burning chaos a man screamed in pain. It was a sharp noise followed by a grunt and a bellow ending in a higher pitch scream. Then, entering like a chorus, the sobbing of a woman, the timeless song of grief.
From down the road, John Dance heard Jane Siskin cursing at her oxen as she drove them back from the river. He looked and saw the axle break and all the water slosh from the wagon.
Dance turned to DuMont and said, “Give me your Miners at least! Please!”
"This town has been nothing but an obstacle to my operations. My silver remains safe underground, and my men are employed in protecting what remains of Company property.”
Burdock snarled, “You always was a greedy, shortsighted, Son-of-a-Bitch,” as what was left of the saloon collapsed behind him, “Ain’t even willing to defend the town you blighted this fine landscape with!”
The haggard people waiting for the wagon to return with water stood with their buckets dangling from their hands, staring at this conflict in disbelief.
Dance held his arms outstretched, imploring them both. “Maybe more of us survive when we work together. That’s all I’m saying.”
“You should have thought of that before you framed my poor boy Charlie for murder,” said Burdock.
“You should have thought of that before harassing my miners and taxing our operations,” said DuMont
Nearly in tears, Dance cried, “For the Love of God, do you men have no souls!”
Up the street, Laura Miller had stopped to watch the confrontation, clutching her children to her. As Dance held his hands high, and pleaded with the stubborn Rancher and the greedy Miner, she saw Charlie Burdock emerge from an alley on the North side of the street. He raised his pistol. As Laura cried “No!” he fired several times, hitting Sheriff Dance in the back.
Dance grunted and fell forward to his knees. Charlie fired again.
Dance coughed once, looked at all of them, and said, “You stupid sons-of-bitches. You know not what you do.” Then he felt forward into the street.
Another shot rang out — Laura could not see who fired it — and Charlie was knocked off his feet. Then both the Miners and the Cowboys opened fire.
Laura fled with her children, as gunfire rang out and the town burned.