Kheri held the basket out to his aunt. “Here’s your eggs.”
“Put ‘em on the counter,” she replied without turning around from the sink. “You and your friend go wash up and fill the water barrel. Bucket’s by the pump. Get a move on or breakfast’ll be cold ‘afore you’re done.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Kheri set the basket on the counter, and then headed back outside, running solidly into Dale who had just stepped through the door. He hit the floor, landing on his backside on the tiles.
His aunt glanced over her shoulder, shook her head, and went back to peeling potatoes. “Clumsy. How many times I got to tell you t’ open your eyes and look where you’re going?”
Dale winced from the impact. Reaching down, he grasped Kheri’s arm then hauled him to his feet and stepped back outside.
Kheri followed, rubbing the back of his neck.
“You know,” Dale said as they walked to the pump. “Walking through solid objects is a skill I don’t think you’ve had much practice with.”
Kheri glared at him, then grabbed the pump’s handle and pushed it down sharply. “Yeah well…,” he picked up the bucket and set it under the pump to catch the water. “If you weren’t so slow coming into the house, you wouldn’t have been in the doorway.” He worked the handle viciously until water gushed out, missing the bucket completely. He snarled at the bucket, adjusted its position, and shoved the handle down again.
“No,” Dale steadied the bucket under the stream of water Kheri was forcing from the pump. “But if you were more observant, it wouldn’t have mattered where I was.”
Kheri glowered at the pump and shoved the handle down again. “Lay off already, okay? I’ve never been very good at this farm stuff.”
“Which is why you’re trying to make a living in town stealing from drunks?”
A loud crash sounded from inside the house.
Kheri jerked his head up, a furious retort ready, and froze, staring at the house. Black smoke billowed out of the kitchen window, accompanied by the crackling of flames.
Dale whirled around and ran for the back door. He jerked the door open then threw an arm over his mouth as smoke flowed out. Slapping a control on his belt, he sighed with relief as his force field shimmered into place. “Small favors gratefully accepted,” he said to no one in particular before plunging into the kitchen.
Flames shot out of the top of the iron cook stove, the curtains over the sink were blazing, and part of the counter top was burning. Kheri’s aunt lay crumpled on the floor next to one of the round, metal stove lids, a nasty bruise purpling the side of her face.
Dale knelt swiftly, lifted her in his arms, and carried her outside. “Kheri,” He commanded sharply as he lay the unconscious woman on the ground. “Water! Now!”
Kheri jumped, startled out of the catharsis that had held him immobile, hefted the pail and lugged it over as rapidly as possible, spilling half of it in the process. He set the bucket down, and then stood there looking lost and confused.
Dale stood up, grasped Kheri by both shoulders, and caught his eyes. “Get your aunt away from the house. How close is the nearest neighbor?”
Kheri blinked as Dale’s question sunk in. “The Tuckers. About half-mile.”
“Get her out of the way,” Dale repeated, gesturing at Kheri’s aunt, “and go get help.” He picked up the bucket and headed back into the kitchen.
Hurling what little water remained in the bucket at the flaming curtains, Dale whirled and dashed back out to the pump. Kheri’s aunt was still lying on the ground where he had left her with Kheri nowhere in sight. He dropped the bucket and picked her up, then ran to the barn. Laying her down gently, he paused long enough to make sure she was still breathing before dashing back. He snatched the bucket from the ground, shoved it under the pump, and pushed the handle down as Kheri had done.
The pump creaked in protest, but nothing happened.
Dale frowned, grasped the pump handle firmly, and tried again.
The pump resisted his efforts for several seconds, but at last, water began to flow. These people need to discover electricity, he thought, working the handle vigorously. As soon as the bucket was full, he hurried back inside, trying not to spill water on the way.
The fire still shot out of the stovetop and the curtains were fully ablaze, the wall behind them smoldering with rivulets of flame crackling across the paint. He dumped the bucket of water through the open stovetop, drowning the wood inside, and then raced back to the pump. What I wouldn’t give for a hose right now, he thought, fighting with the water once more. Come on! Work! He put other concerns aside, focusing only on the job of filling bucket after bucket of water, and carrying them into the house as rapidly as possible.
The fire danced around the kitchen, dodging his efforts as if it were a living creature, scorching the walls and ceiling in the process.
Dale fought back, slinging the water in wide arcs. He was so absorbed in the task that he dumped two extra buckets into the kitchen before realizing the fire was out.
Gasping for breath, he stood in the middle of the drenched kitchen and looked around. The floor was swimming under black water a quarter of an inch deep. The walls and ceiling were dripping, the counter top charred. His arms ached, his legs felt like rubber, and as adrenaline stopped flowing, he started to shake. He stumbled out of the kitchen, flopped down on the top step, and dropped the bucket on the ground. Reaching for his belt, he barely managed the strength necessary to deactivate the force field, then closed his eyes and fought the waves of dizziness crashing over him.