Three nights later the Puckett family was sleeping soundly by ten o’clock. While they slept there were electrical disturbances in the upper atmosphere that were causing lightning over western Connecticut. There would be an occasional flash in the sky that would cause Raider, the family collie to bark.
His barking wasn’t unusual. The only thing Raider seemed to fear was lightning, so when he woke up young Tom Puckett whose bedroom faced the barn, Tom didn’t think anything of it. He rolled over and went back to sleep.
But outside men dressed in dark clothing were moving about. Raider’s own barking covered a shot from a small caliber pistol that killed him instantly. Now the killer signaled the driver of a pickup carrying three more men to move up the driveway with its lights off.
The men quickly encircled the barn spreading gasoline behind them.
Within minutes there was a flash as it ignited and the men ran back to the pickup. A screech of tires woke young Tom for a second time. He wasn’t sure what the sound was but the flickering light under his window shade frightened him.
He leaped out of bed and threw up the shade. The barn was ablaze and he heard the whinnying of the horses trapped inside along with fifty head of cattle. He threw on his clothes and ran across the hall to his parent’s bedroom.
“Dad, wake up!” he said shaking his father, “the barns on fire!”
Dale awoke from a sound sleep and threw on his clothes. He shook Mary who was rubbing her eyes. “Call the firehouse, Mary…quickly.”
Dale and Tom bounded down the stairs and through the kitchen door, running for the barn. It was like daylight now. They plainly saw Raider lying in a pool of blood near his dog house.
“We’ve got to get the animals out, at least the horses,” Dale yelled to his son. Tom knew the horse’s stalls were closest to the door. The cattle could never be saved. There were too many and they were too far back in the barn.
As they got closer, they felt the heat of the fire. Now the barn was totally ablaze except the side facing them. They ran through the gate separating the barn from the house and Dale yelled to Tom, “close the gate behind us, I’m going inside.”
The gate was heavy and Tom knew it would take time to close it. But he also saw flame coming out of the loft over the barn door.
“Dad! Don’t go in there. It’s too late,” he cried out.
But Dale ran for the door and opened it disappearing inside.
Tom struggled with the gate and got it closed. But when he looked up one side of the barn collapsed in a shower of sparks and consuming flame. He ran toward the flaming building and the open door which looked like a blast furnace.
He could hear the horses and their whinnying which turned to horrible sounds of torture. Tom barely got out of the way of one bursting through the door, its coat on fire. It ran along the fence where its movements further fanned the flames until it mercifully fell to the ground dead.
A second ball of flame came through the door and Tom thought it was another horse. But it wasn’t. It was his father. He was beating his hands against his clothing desperately trying to extinguish the flames consuming him. He fell to the ground and rolled over to smother the fire. Tom ran to him, but it was too late. He lay on the ground with his shirt still smoking from the heat. His face and hands were a bubbling charred black like the bottom of a simmering frying pan.
Tom leaned over him not knowing what to say or do. Tears were streaming down his face.
His father reached up to him with his hands as black as soot. His face was contorted in pain but he managed to speak. “We know who did this to us,” he said struggling to get the words out.
“The other farmers,” Tom said through his tears.
“Yes,” his father whispered, “but Norton is…Norton is behind it.”
His father grasped his hand with surprising strength. “So what do we Pucketts do, Tom?”
“We fight, dad,” Tom said sobbing. “We fight.” He felt his father’s grasp on his hand weaken. His head turned to the side and he was dead.
Tom looked up and realized the whole front of the barn was collapsing. A burst of flame and sparks flew into the air as the roof fell into a pile of blazing framework. Tom dragged his father back from the timbers falling to the ground.
When he got him far enough back, he turned and saw his mother running toward them. It was as if she were running in slow motion. Her long hair was flowing behind her, her arms outstretched as if greeting a lover. In the light Tom saw the pain etched on her face from what she knew was in front of her.
Tom got up quickly and tried to stop her. “No mother, don’t look,” he screamed at her.
But she pushed him aside and knelt over her husband’s charred body. Her hands flew up to her face trying to shut out the terrible sight. It was only a moment before she turned away and fell into Tom’s arms.
“Oh my God,” she said over and over. “How could they do this to him?”
Tom held her tightly stroking her hair. He said nothing but knew what his father had told him. He would never forget it.
They knelt over Dale’s body for what seemed like an eternity. Mary had called the volunteer fire department that was just three miles down the road. On quiet nights they could hear their siren summoning the men. For years they had prided themselves with response time measured in a few minutes, but at least ten had passed and they weren’t there yet.
Finally Tom heard the sirens getting closer and saw their lights coming over the hill. Two engines pulled into the driveway not in any great hurry,
While men ran out the hose from the pumper, Jamie Phelps, the department lieutenant saw Dale on the ground and hurried up to them.
“My God, is he dead?” he asked. His face had turned ashen at the sight and Tom thought for a moment that this was more than Phelps had volunteered for.
“Yes,” Tom said barely acknowledging him while he fought back his tears. “He died about ten minutes ago. Where were you?”
“Boys were sleeping you know… hard to get them out this late…” he struggled with the words. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” Tom said, “I know.”
His mother said nothing, still staring at her husband lying at her feet.
Phelps left and came back with a blanket that Tom wrapped around his mother. He wanted to get her back into the house but she wouldn’t move.
As the volunteers extinguished what was left of the fire, Tom recognized many of them as neighboring farmers who had sold out to Norton Utilities. He wondered if they were the ones who had actually set the fire earlier. He wouldn’t be surprised.
An hour later the final sparks were put out and Jamie Phelps gathered his men to return to the firehouse. He was still shaking from seeing Puckett’s charred body. He had grown to despise him for holding out selling his land, but never wanted to see the man dead. The plan had been to set fire to the barn and take their time getting there. It was all that James Dolan had suggested to them.
Nobody was supposed to die.
The following afternoon Mary Puckett was in Marbury town hall demanding a full investigation of her husband’s death from police chief Darrell Wallace. The actual crime had been committed in Brookdale, but all homicides were referred to Marbury.
Wallace, a short, portly man had gone to school with Dale, but they had never become friends. Wallace had been a high school athlete while Dale spent every hour away from school working on the farm. It didn’t bother him much though. Chasing a ball around a field was just a waste of time.
Mary learned quickly that the volunteer fire company had thought investigating the cause of the fire a waste of time also. Phelps and his men had made a cursory inspection that morning and found remains that included carcasses of fifty head of cattle, four oxen, and five horses. The inspection had taken all of a half hour. Phelps had told Mary he would be filing a report but hadn’t found any criminal wrongdoing. There had been flashes of lightning during the evening that probably ignited cans of gasoline Dale had in the barn. There was no evidence of foul play.
Mary had laughed in his face. The dog had been shot just before the fire. Why else would someone have shot him except to keep him quiet while they set it? “Well that was a matter for the police to investigate,” Phelps had told her. But he would tell them there was no evidence of the fire being intentionally set.
That ridiculous explanation had immediately prompted her to call Wallace. When he said he would see her, she packed Tom off in the car and drove to Marbury. She still had to complete arrangements with the mortician in town, but right now this took priority.
She and Tom hardly spoke on the way over. He had heard everything Phelps had said and she could see he was furious. But he had kept everything inside since last night. She had heard him crying in his room, but by this morning he had simply run out of tears.
Now he sat beside her listening to Wallace tell them there was little he could do.
“You have to understand Mrs. Puckett and yes…you too Tom, that’s it’s up to the fire department to investigate the fire. We don’t have the expertise to do that. They know all about flammable liquids, combustion and things we don’t,” Wallace said avoiding eye contact with both of them.
“For god’s sake the dog was shot so he wouldn’t make noise barking while they set the fire,” Mary said trying to keep control of herself. She had told Phelps the same thing, but no one would admit to the obvious.
“Okay Mrs. Wallace, we’ll take a look at that. But tell me, did you hear the dog bark at all?”
“No I didn’t,” Mary said looking toward her son, “but Tom did.”
“Well Tom, what time was that?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t think much of it because Raider always barks when there’s lighting.”
“Did you hear a shot?”
“So you just went back to sleep.”
“And what happened then?”
“I saw that the barn was on fire.”
“And how long was that after you heard the dog barking?”
“I don’t know.”
“Could have been minutes then. Even hours, right?”
“Yeah I suppose.”
Wallace nodded. He got up from behind his desk, came around it and put his hand on Mary’s shoulder.
“These could have been separate instances,” he said showing some concern. “Those farmers who hate your husband for holding out selling his land, could have just shot your dog and nothing else. The fire could have started later from something else, like Phelps says, lightning in the area.”
“So there’s nothing you can do,” Mary said incredulously.
“Well we can investigate the dog being shot but that’s about it. The rest is up to the fire department.”
Wallace went back behind his desk and settled back in his leather chair. “One other thing Mrs. Puckett,” he said hesitantly. “I hate to say this but seems no one out and out killed Dale. From what Phelps told me one of the horses was found dead outside the barn so Dale must have gone inside to try and save his animals. I’m afraid he made that choice. Someone killed your dog, but all that’s left beyond that is arson. And so far the fire department won’t support that.”
Tom sat silently and listened to Wallace mentally manhandle his mother. His father’s dying words still echoed inside him. “Norton is behind this Tom.” He knew the farmers had set the fire, but it was the utility that was responsible. And then he had asked him to fight back before he drew his last breath.
The fire department had deliberately taken their sweet time getting to the fire. They denied any wrongdoing blaming it on an act of God. Chief Wallace wasn’t going to waste his time investigating the shooting of a dog. Nobody was going to do anything.
The night his father came back from seeing Dolan, Tom had heard him telling mother about the meeting from his upstairs bedroom. It was one of the few times his father had raised his voice. At the meeting Dolan had denied knowing anything about the rock thrown through their window. Then he had made another offer that father again rejected. “You can be sure Dolan was behind the rock throwing,” he had told mother, “ and we can expect more threats.”
Well they had come and in the end his father had told him what he wanted from him. “We Pucketts fight back,” he had said. The gauntlet against Dolan and Norton Utilities had been thrown down. Now it was up to him to pick it up and satisfy his father’s dying request.
Other ebooks by Bob Neidhardt are
Kill The Author, Mr. Best Selling Author and Tarnished Bronze.
All are available on Amazon.com