The wind from the desert was hot. A blazing breeze sifting over the sands. It whistled between the buildings, and jostled the signs still hanging. Rubbish blew away with it.
And not a sound could be heard.
Arnett grasped the lever action rifle harder, slowly taking steps further into the ghost town. He looked in awe at the buildings.
An old saloon with a sign advertising a barber. A small jailhouse with a painting of a Bobbie's helmet on the wall had "No Sheriff" painted in fading letters. A general store had its windows boarded up, a giant sign reading "CLOSED- Gone East" in big lettering.
Gwen pointed at someone's small house, the windows broken and the remnants of some paper sign blowing in the slight breeze.
"What is this place?" asked Gwen.
"A small place I used to stop at on the way to Green Nook," said Arnett, "Sometimes there'd be work. Sometimes we could get some water."
"Here?" asked Gwen, "Is there a well around?"
"There's nothing around," said Arnett, "Not anymore."
Gwen slowly walked off, walking up to windows and peering inside.
Arnett approached a small building that was labeled "Town Offices". They had been boarded up, as well. However, as he walked past, the courtyard beyond began to come into view. It was a small rock garden. There was a lovely arrangement of rocks around what appeared to be a large boulder. There were an assortment of cacti arranged around in such a way Arnett figured they had been planted on purpose. He could also see some form of bush, with buds threatening to bloom into flowers at any moment.
However, he had very little time to take it in. As the whole area was eclipsed by a length of rope attached to the town house and the neighboring church. It hung above the courtyard, spanning the wide distance.
Hanging from the line of rope, spread out, were a series of bodies. Figures with hoods over their faces. Their hands were tied behind their backs. They hung lifeless, slightly swaying in the wind.
Arnett felt his stomach lurch, but he kept walking, allowing the full horror to come into view. He could see they had been gotten to by some animals. Hanging by a few of their ankles, were signs hastily painted reading "Pirates". Now, Arnett took notice of a few vultures circling not far off. His eyes led to beyond the hanging bodies, off into the distance. Looked beyond the courtyard to the loan shed not far behind, and further back he could see a pen where he assumed they once housed chanka. But further beyond that, he could see the wreckage of an airship.
It was already beginning to be covered in sand. The hull was ripped apart. It had tossed up enough sand that soil was seen, however it was already beginning to fade into new sand as the winds blew. The balloon, or what little was left of it, was in tatters.
Gwen's gasp brought Arnett back to the streets. He turned, and could see her taking in the courtyard.
"Joel," she said, "What happened here?"
"I don't know," said Arnett, "But whatever it was..."
He allowed his words to drift off. His eyes had spotted a series massive imprints in the road. They were spaced out, and Arnett recognized the scene. They looked like Landship tracks, but a lot of them. They followed the road up and down, barely beginning to be filled by sand in some places.
"They're gone," said Arnett, "I wonder if it was before or after the pir-"
A crash from a nearby shop caused both Arnett and Gwen to spin around, rifles raised. Arnett could see a young boy, who had been standing in the window, jumping down and running further into the tailor shop. A mannequin had slammed through the window, possibly knocked over.
"Trouble?" asked Gwen.
"I doubt it," said Arnett, who began approaching the tailor shop, "Hey! Hello there! Anybody here? Anybody hiding?"
"Don't sound scary!" said Gwen, slinging her rifle over her shoulder, "You can come out! We're not pirates! We're not here to hurt anyone!"
"Don't make promises we can't keep," said Arnett.
Arnett turned to the tailor shop, "Please, we are just travelers. I am Lieutenant Joel Arnett of the Landship Scorpios II. What happened here?"
As Arnett approached the door, he could see movement in the darkness beyond. He heard whispers being angrily hushed at each other.
"Please, don't shoot," said Arnett, "I am opening the door. Do not-"
"Does anyone need help?" shouted Gwen.
"Help?" came the voice of someone beyond the darkness.
A second voice shouted at them "Water!"
"We have water!" said Gwen, ripping open the door and stomping inside the tailor shop.
Arnett tried to speak, but only managed a groan. He followed her inside, his eyes instantly going dark with the new gloom. He squinted in blinked, trying to will his eyes into adjusting quicker.
He could see an old shop. A small public space. A few figures stood eerily in the gloom. At the far wall some racks could be seen holding hats. Cubbies behind an old counter held various fabrics. Arnett spotted movement in the corner, but relaxed when a mirror came into view.
His rifle combed around the room at the figures, but Gwen carefully walked past them, touching them lightly. Maniquins. Arnett sighed, and relaxed.
"Hello?" said Gwen, "We have water. Is somebody in need?"
"P-Please," came a soft voice.
Arnett could see a figure hiding behind the counter. It was a little girl. She poked her head out, and pointed to deeper inside the shop, to a door left wide open.
"In there?" asked Gwen.
"Momma," said the Girl, pointing again.
"Is she hurt?" asked Arnett, his eyes finally adjusting to the gloom.
Arnett walked passed the eerie maniquins wearing dresses and corsettes and hats. He approached the back room, his rifle raised slightly just inside.
"Hello? Is anybody hurt?"
Arnett entered the back room. He could see it was a mess. What used to be an old stock room had most of the crates and shelves pushed against the far wall. A smashed crate had been used to board up all the windows. There was a small cooking stoke with a rough fire pit made of rocks. Clothes littered the floor, put into piles of makeshift beds.
And there, on the only actual bed, was a woman. She was not moving, and she looked pale and boney thin. Her hair was matted and stringy. She lay tucked into bed. She looked dry.
"Oh," mumbled Arnett, a sigh of desolation in the empty room, "I'm so sorry, children."
He lowered his rifle and approached the woman lying still.
"We can help," came the voice of Gwen, "Don't be afraid, we're here to help."
She entered the room behind Arnett. Her eyes followed Arnett's path.
"I think we're too late," murmured Arnett, almost as if to himself, "I don't think she's alright."
"Oh no!" said Gwen.
"What happened here?"
The children entered, the little girl from the counter and a dirty looking little boy, "Water. Water."
"I think she needs more than water," said Gwen, "But we can-"
"Children," said Arnett, speaking normally but his voice filling the empty room, "What happened here?"
A hand grasped Arnett's arm, "Him."
He let out a scream, jumping off the ground and away from the bed. Gwen also screamed, leading to the children crying out as well.
The woman's eyes had opened, and she reached out. her voice was raspy, and dry.
"He did this."
"Water!" yelled Arnett, pulling out his canteen, "Save your breath, ma'am. It's gonna be ok."
"She's alive?" Asked Gwen.
Arnett sat next to her on the bed. He carefully placed the canteen to her lips.
"Don't drown her," said Gwen.
"Don't talk," said Arnett, "Just drink. Quickly, now."
She closed her eyes, again, but she began to drink from the water he dribbled into her mouth. After a few gulps, her hands rose, and she began to take larger gulps of water.
Arnett looked up to Gwen his eyes telling her they had bit off more than they could chew.