By J.J. Fletcher
“CHICAGO FIRE BRINGS UTTER DEVASTATION AND HORRIFYING DEATH.” The headline of the New York Tribune screamed to Henry from the harvest table. After a lashing for, once again, neglecting his duty of emptying the ash box from the cast iron stove, he grabbed the paper and stole upstairs. He knew his father would be locking him in shortly. Henry’s voracious reading habits helped dull the pain of his whippings–and the pain of being alone.
He settled down onto the plank floor of his bedroom, newspaper spread in front of him. Henry pored over the front page, trying to select which article about the fire to read first. It was the October 17, 1871, edition, but since they were so far from New York, the news was a week old. Henry had learned long ago to take what he could get. His eyes honed onto the main article.
“It is conjectured that approximately 500 persons have lost their lives to the ferocity of the Great Fire. Many had taken refuge in the Historical Society building, which was intended to be fire-proof, but it too fell to the flames, and those seeking refuge burned to death. Dr. Smythe and his family are believed to have burned in his pharmacy. Another two dozen bodies were found burned to a crisp in his Roosevelt Street building…It has proven impossible to identify anyone positively.”
Henry stared out his attic-bedroom window and toward the family cemetery. He, of course, wouldn’t want his own body going up in billowing smoke and greedy flames, but, oh, how fire could take care of many problems, namely, his parents. Levi and Theodora Webster may have brought Henry, age ten, into the world, but he was working on a plan to take them out of it.
Gilmanton, New Hampshire was a town of roughly 1600 people while young Henry Webster lived there. His family’s roots went back to the town’s first settlers of the early 1700s. His father enjoyed a certain amount of prosperity and power from his new job as postmaster, and his mother was known for her mincemeat pie. Henry hated them both. To him, their only redeeming quality as parents was their insistence on subscribing to the New York Tribune. It meant they received the news late, but it was better coverage than what the more local papers had to offer. Henry often took the paper to his room, where he didn’t have to argue with his siblings, for whom he felt as much indifference as he felt hatred for his parents.
One person he didn’t hate was his best friend, Austin Gilman Bunker. Austin’s family also had roots in Gilmanton, as evidenced by his mother’s choice of her maiden name as his middle. Henry was the more precocious of the two; Austin wasn’t even close. What he was to Henry was a keeper of secrets. He could share his interests and thoughts with Austin, and Austin never called them odd or weird or “downright devilish,” as Henry’s older sister, Ellen, once said to their mother when they thought he wasn’t listening.
It was a typical New Hampshire fall day, the kind people call crisp, with its cold breeze cut only by the warmth of the sun. The boys were headed to their secret playground, an abandoned structure they had found months ago when playing by the Gilmanton cemetery. The logs were hand-hewn, the walls made from wood planks likely cut right there at Badger Mill, but the blackened timbers and the soot-covered staircase that not even New England winters had cleaned told the boys that a fire had put an end to the builder’s plans. For Henry and Austin, it was alternately a fort on the Western frontier and the Gilmanton Jail most days. Some days it became the Mudgett Mill or the Bunker Mill, depending upon which boy drew the stick for being boss. Henry had heard his older brother talking about a “hotel of ill repute” upon his return home from a trip to Boston, and the boys added that to their repertoire, though their limited understanding meant their version held only sinners of the gambling and drinking variety.
“It’s a shame, Austin,” Henry said, kicking leaves through what they had deemed the bar in the hotel of ill repute. “This would’ve made a grand house.”
Austin sat on a log they had rolled in to serve as the piano player’s seat, diagonally across the room from the bar.
“Yes, sir. I’d like to buy this land and finish it,” Austin tossed a rock up into the air. Henry shook his head.
“You can’t, Austin. All of this wood that is burned, you’d have to replace it. Might not be strong enough as is.”
“Then I’ll replace it.”
Henry nodded. He cocked his head slightly while nudging some wooden crates. “Say, have you read any of the news articles on the Chicago Fire? It sounds as if the whole city has burned to the ground.”
“Only the one last week in the Patriot. Said even their walkways were on fire because they’re made of wood, too,” Austin said.
“I wonder if something like that could happen in Gilmanton.”
“I suppose so, couldn’t it? Everything here’s made of wood.” Austin chased after his rock as it skittered across to the bar.
“I’m not sure. It sounds as if the buildings in Chicago were all very close together, and that’s why it was so bad,” Henry replied.
Austin shrugged. “What shall we play today? Fort? Mill? Jail? Hotel?”
“Jail,” Henry said definitively, then: “I wonder what it’s like to burn in a fire.”
“Awful, I bet. You want to be jailer or prisoner?”
“I’ll be jailer.” Henry took on a certain swagger as he approached Austin face to face. “What are your crimes, Austin Gilman Bunker?”
“I’m guilty of running a hotel of ill repute.” Austin tossed his rock toward Henry, but Henry wasn’t watching. It nicked him right between his left eye and his nose. His face turned red in an instant, and then the blood began to flow.
“I’m sorry, Henry! I thought you were–”
“And now you’ll be charged with assaulting an officer of the law,” Henry said dryly. His face returned quickly to its regular pale pallor.
Austin smiled. Henry wiped a droplet of blood from his upper lip.
“You get a choice. Hanging or stoning.”
“You know me, Henry. I’ll always choose hanging. Quickest way to go.”
“How about death by fire?” Henry said. Austin saw Henry’s face turn. Turn the way Austin had seen it when Henry talked about the awful skeletons in Doc White’s office, or when Henry talked about seeing his Aunt Clara’s body two days dead, and how he tried to move her arm but it was terribly stiff.
“Hanging,” Austin squeaked.
Austin went up the staircase, avoiding the charred steps as best he could, as they had dozens of times in this charade. The “hanging” took place by one of them leaping from the second floor onto the three wooden furniture crates they’d stacked below for a safe jump. Henry followed.
“Austin Gilman Bunker, I find you guilty of running a house of ill repute–and of assaulting an officer of the law.” Henry squinted. “I hereby sentence you to hanging.”
Austin walked to the edge and prepared to jump, then shouted, “Henry!”
“Someone’s moved our crates!” He stood pointing downward.
“Don’t be a crybaby. Jump.”
“Come look! They’ve been moved!”
Henry walked toward the edge with Austin.
“No one ever comes here but–” He turned and looked at Henry. “But us, Henry.”
Henry lifted his arms in the air in a who-knows gesture, then brought one arm swiftly down behind Austin’s back and pushed him over the edge.
Henry walked down the steps. He approached the body mechanically. He did not cry. He watched the chest to see if it was rising and falling, but intuition told him that the angle of the neck meant the boy was dead. Henry moved the arm and wrist–still flexible, not like Aunt Clara’s. He gazed upon the body for a few minutes.
Then Henry made his way through the cemetery. The smartest thing to do would be to run for help, and help was closest at Badger Mill, as he had to pass it to get to Doc White’s or anyone’s house. He walked slowly, contemplating how easy it had been. It made sense. He trusted Austin, and Austin trusted him. But trusting meant you fell into traps, like Austin just had. An important piece of knowledge in Henry’s ultimate plan.
He was on the edge of the cemetery now. He grabbed some dirt from the ground and rubbed it into his eyes, inducing tears. Then he ran, screaming, toward the mill.
J.J. Fletcher is an English teacher, writer, and dog rescuer. “Downright Devilish” is part of a short story collection that re-imagines the childhood of Dr. H.H. Holmes–Chicago’s (allegedly) first serial killer. Fletcher is currently at work on a crime novel, The Devil Inside Me, in which a descendant of Holmes resurrects his duplicitous and murderous legacy in the Windy City. Learn more at www.jjfletcherbooks.wordpress.com.
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