After collecting stones for several days, we were assigned to chop down trees for lumber. Though the work was still difficult, we had a slightly easier time because we didn't have to transport the material as far.
"I wish we had wheelbarrows that could be used to move trees." I grunted, taking another small step.
"At least they don't want the whole tree," Edgar replied.
"That is true," I conceded. "Half a tree trunk is half as light."
We walked the rest of the short distance in silence. The next sound I made was a heavy sigh of relief when we dropped the log onto the pile of lumber we had been creating. I leaned over, resting my hand on the pile.
After a few deep breaths, I said, "I will enjoy farm work all that much more after this."
"Unless they draft us as soldiers," Edgar replied, the corner of his mouth turned up in a half smile.
"Don't start that again." My warning came with a raised finger. "I will worry about that when the time comes. I have to think positive in the mean time." I smiled despite my serious tone.
"Mr. Cotton!" My name was yelled from across the field. I turned to see Harry Matthews running in my direction. "Mr. Cotton!" he yelled again.
"What is it?" I asked when he was closer. "What's happened?"
Harry stopped in front of me, panting. "It's all gone," he said between breaths.
"What is?" I grabbed both of his shoulders. "What's all gone?"
My hands dropped to my side, and I looked down at the ground in front of Harry. Without looking up, I whispered, "And, Helena and the children?"
"No sign of them, Mr. Cotton."
Edgar was a little too practical for my taste. "You ran all this way?"
"No," Harry answered. "I ran my horse as fast as he would go for as long as he would go. I've been running for about twenty minutes."
"Forget about that," I said, waving my hands to and fro. "Tell me what happened."
"When I checked on your farm this morning, everything had burned down to the ground."
I placed one hand over my forehead, rubbing gently at my temples. Had living on the border between Ibera and Handrin finally cost me more than I was willing to pay? My father had told me about the time that our family had been run off the farm by Handrin soldiers. Had something similar happened? Could my wife and children have seen them coming? Had they been given time to run away?
I moved my hand from my forehead to Edgar's shoulder and squeezed it a little. "I need you to tell the lieutenant why I left."
"Surely there is nothing you can do about it now," Edgar said, his pessimistic attitude abundantly clear.
"I don't know that. There's always hope." Turning to Harry, I continued, "Where's that horse of yours? By the time we get back to it, I should be able to ride it again."