The horse was well rested by the time Harry and I arrived. Once I was on the horse, I looked down at Harry.
"Thank you, my friend," I said, leaning down to shake his hand. "Sorry to leave you stranded like this, but you would just slow me down."
"Don't worry about me," he replied. "I'll find my way back. Now, you best be on your way, Mr. Cotton."
Without another word spoken, I rode off as quickly as the horse would go. I worried about the horse, hoping he was in good enough condition to make this trip twice in one day. However, I did not stop to let him rest or drink some water. I had my family to worry about, after all.
Though my thoughts drifted to the worst case scenario more than once, I did not allow my emotions to get the better of me. I kept telling myself that there was still hope.
I lost track of the passage of time, the trees blurring into one another. I reached the outskirts of my farmstead, barely registering the amount of time that must have gone by.
I dismounted so quickly that I fell to the ground, landing on my ankle. There was a sharp pain. I rubbed at it. Good, I thought, only a bruise.
I stood up and hobbled toward what was left of the house. One wall was still standing, black from the fire and smoke. I turned my attention to the barn in the distance. Much of the structure was still in tact. One wall appeared to be heavily damaged as if it would fall any moment. My steps became unsteady when I got to where the front door had been, and I dropped to my knees.
"There's no way," I whispered to myself, finishing the thought in my head. They couldn't have gotten out of here. No way! I imagined how hot the fire would have gotten. I touched my cheek as a tear ran down the opposite side.
I dropped my face to the ground, not caring about how much debris I was sucking into my lungs because of my gasping sobs. Eventually, though, my lungs could not take it any more. I raised myself up and coughed, spitting out small clumps of dirt and ash. I wiped a layer of the stuff from my lips, which seemed to cause another flurry of coughs.
I covered my face with my hands, dropping back down to the ground. The debris cut at the outside of my hands, my tears soaking my palms. Unable to support myself any longer on my knees, I collapsed onto one side.
I next thing I knew I was being tapped on the shoulder. I looked up into blinding sunlight but couldn't see anything. I rubbed at my eyes, which didn't help much. I blinked several times, trying to get the dirt out of my eyes.
"Are you okay, Mr. Cotton?" It was the voice of Harry. I reached out with one arm, and he helped me stand.
"Oh, Harry!" I cried, unable to prevent further sobs. "They are gone!"
"You must not lose hope," he replied. "They could have survived. I will help you look for them."