I woke, briefly, pain racking my body. I struggled to breathe, with lungs that were on fire. My throat, mouth, eyes, feet, hands, legs and part of my belly burned - it hurt terribly. I was being lifted on a stretcher onto the back of a wagon, Mom by my side holding my hand. Then thankfully, I again slipped into merciful sleep.
A long time passed before I woke again. This time, though, the pain had gone, and I felt more ready to face the world. I was lying in a bed, dressed in PJs, a single sheet covering me. I opened my eyes to find that I was in a small hospital room. There was a single window, curtains closed against the light, and just one closed door. Beside my bed I could see a fearsome array of medical equipment mounted on a flexible arm that was suspended from the ceiling.
My throat was dry and I sat up to look for something to drink. The effort made me pant for breath, and I felt dizzy. I collapsed back on the bed, frightened by my weakness.
I looked up to see a nurse smiling at me from the doorway. "Yes, Maam," I said politely. "I'm thirsty."
She came into the room and picked up a tumbler from a low table by the head of the bed. I hadn't seen it there when I looked around; it was below my level. She poured a little water from a jug and, putting an arm under my shoulders, lifted me up so that I could sip from the glass as she held it to my lips. "There, young man, is that better?"
I nodded and she let me lie back on the pillow. "We'll just get you a little breakfast and then the doctor will want to check you over. Rest until I come back. Don't try to do anything, yet. You've been very ill and you will be very weak for a few days."
She went out and, I must confess, I dozed off until she shook me gently awake again. Then she lifted me into a sitting position, propping me up with pillows, so that I could eat the bowl of thin porridge that was to be my first meal in a long time.
As I slowly ate my meal, the nurse told me that I was in Heber Springs hospital. I had been taken there directly from my village, as soon as had been possible. That had been three weeks previously, and I had been kept unconscious throughout the worst part of my treatment. "You were seriously ill, Chuck. You had inhaled poisonous fumes and had chemical burns on other areas of your body."
I rested after the meal, sleeping until the doctor came to visit. He listened to my chest and examined my eyes, questioning me on how I felt. When I complained that I felt short of breath, he laughed and told me that it would be at least a couple of months before I could expect to be well. "You severely damaged your lungs, reducing their ability to do their job. Only twenty years ago, when I started in medicine, you would have died. Fortunately for you, medicine is the one area where we have progressed since the Plague." He lifted the sheet back and looked at my feet. "The new flesh seems to be healthy enough, but the Vet will be in later to check on that aspect of your treatment."
"Vet!" I said, not quite believing I had heard correctly. "I'm not an animal."
"No I know you're not, young man," he said grinning, "but he was the best person available when you were brought in. He is an expert in the necessary medical techniques, and was the only one who could treat the chemical burns, when you arrived. He's done a good job, and you shouldn't see any signs of injury by the time you're discharged from here."
As promised, just before lunch, the nurse brought in a tall man in a green lab coat, who she introduced to me as Dr. Strang the vet. "Now, Chuck," he said briskly, "let's look at your skin." He gently examined the skin on my lower belly and legs, asking me if I felt any discomfort.
"J...Just a little when you touch me, sir."
"How does it hurt? Is it a burning pain?"
"No, sir," I shook my head. "It's more like after a bruise."
"Good, good," he said. "You are well on the way to recovery. I won't need to see you again for at least another two weeks." He helped me back into my pajama pants, before saying goodbye.
After lunch I had my first visit from a Lawman. He came in with my Mom and stood silently as she came over and gave me a hug. "Chuck," she said, "This is Officer Spiro, and he is here to ask you a few questions. I want you to tell him exactly what happened on that Saturday. I will be here with you."
The officer came over to the bed then and waited until Mom took a seat on the other side of my bed. "You are Chuck Walker?" he asked, and when I had said yes he said in a steady voice, "I, Officer Spiro, do charge you, under the Laws of the state of Texas, with failing to report a Find immediately. Contrary to Statute Fourteen 2067. I caution you that you need not answer my questions, but, if you do, then your answers may be used against you in any subsequent criminal proceedings. Do you understand what I have just told you?" I again said yes, and then he quizzed me about our discovery of Zone Three. His questions brought home to me all the terror of Art's death and my struggle through the woods to raise the alarm.
"Thank you for being honest with me, boy," he said in the end. "You both did a very silly thing. One of the reasons for the strict laws on reporting Finds, is that many of the sites are dangerous places. You are not the first to have been hurt during careless exploration."
"Another reason for the legislation is to make sure that anything of value is salvaged for the good of the state, not just one individual. The place you found has some very valuable equipment stored inside. By discovering it, you have done us all a service. If only you had done the right thing and reported it immediately, then you would have been praised by the Magistrate instead of facing him as a lawbreaker."
"You have co-operated with my inquiries and I will note that fact in my report. I must warn you though now, that you will probably face further charges. I will return again in a few days time with other questions." He nodded to my Mom and thanked her for letting him interview me before he left us alone.
When he had gone, and I no longer had to face a stranger, I gave in to the anguish that was inside me. "Why did we have to do it?" I cried out, tears streaming down my face. "I'm sorry Mom."
"No, don't cry, Chuck." She said holding me tightly. "You did the wrong thing, but it's over now and you have been brave. The Lawman saw that you were sorry for breaking the law. He will report to the Magistrate, and he will understand. You didn't mean any harm."
"But Art died!" I wailed, "and I am nearly thirteen. That's old enough to be punished."
The nurse came in at that moment, and, seeing my distress, told the doctor. Minutes later I was given an injection and fell asleep within seconds.
Mom stayed with me for nearly a full week before she had to return home, and the Lawman came again on her last afternoon. By then I was a lot stronger, and the doctor had ordered me to spend as much time out of bed as I could, so this interview was in a quiet part of the hospital grounds.
"I want to clear up a couple of small points, Chuck." Officer Spiro said. "Which of you first suggested that you should keep the find secret?"
I thought for a moment, remembering back to the day of our discovery. "Art, I think, sir."
"Yet you said that he later wanted to confess, but you talked him into waiting. Is that right?"
"Now, can you remember putting the table up at the window to keep out the weather. Whose idea was that?"
"Mine, sir. I knew we had to protect the stuff inside."
"Now, I want you to think about Art. When the barrels fell on him, did he speak, or make any other sound?
I didn't want to remember those terrible minutes, and looked towards Mom for support. She smiled and held out her arms to me, I threw myself into them crying. "Tell him Chuck, you must try."
The Lawman waited patiently, and I eventually marshaled my courage to answer. "No, sir, he just screamed the once as the first lot knocked him down. After that I think he was already dead."
"Did you check to see?"
"Yes, sir," I cried, my voice almost reaching a scream. "I tried to move the drums, and get him out, but I couldn't do it. They were too heavy. There was so much blood, and he wasn't breathing, sir." I really started to cry then. I was shaking and gasping for breath.
Mom held me and talked to me, until I became calmer. My chest was hurting again from fighting to get enough oxygen.
Officer Spiro waited until I was able to understand him, then read out new charges against me. They accused me of theft of the chairs, destruction of the window, and, worst of all, of being responsible for Art's death. "You will be informed of the date, time and place where you will face a Magistrate to answer the charges against you. Do you understand?"
I nodded, and answered yes in a voice barely above a whisper. I was scared, and shocked. Especially at the accusation that I was responsible for what had happened to Art. "I don't understand, sir," I said as the Lawman prepared to leave. "Why am I being blamed for Art?"
"Because, in law, if you are engaged in a criminal act that results in the death of someone, you are held to be responsible for that death. It is considered that the two are combined. The death would not have happened if the crime hadn't been committed."
It was another three weeks before I saw him again. I remained in the hospital, getting stronger each day, until the doctor decided that I was fit enough to survive without constant treatment and supervision. On the day before my discharge, Officer Spiro came to see me again.
"Hello, Chuck," he said, walking into my room. "I hear that you are being kicked out of here tomorrow."
"Yes, sir." I gulped in fear. I had worried for days after his last visit, frightened of what I knew I would have to face and expecting him to come for me every day. As the time passed, though, I thought about it less, until I pushed the memory to the very back of my head.
"The doctor has given permission for you to face the charges, and tomorrow I will collect you at ten in the morning. Your father will be here a little earlier and he will be with you. The law requires that he be present. Before that another gentleman will visit you. He will help you tomorrow, and will advise you. Listen to what he has to say." He paused and smiled. "Don't worry, son, nothing will happen to you tomorrow. We just have to do things in a certain way. That's the way the law works."
He left then, and I sat down on my bed, stunned by the sudden realization that I was going to have to face a Magistrate in the morning.
I didn't know a lot about the way the laws worked, but I knew there had been big changes since the Pre-Plague days. Now they were a lot stricter and the Magistrates gave out harder punishments. Before, it had taken longer to be convicted, and there were more chances to appeal against the sentence. This had changed, and the Magistrates had only a panel of judges in the capital to oversee their decisions.
That afternoon, after a lunch that I couldn't eat, my stomach feeling funny from nerves, I met the man who was to be my Defender in the hearing in the morning. I don't remember his name. He gave it to me, but my mind was not able to retain the information. Whoever he was, he seemed to be kind, and ready to help me.
He went through the charges against me, and asked me how I felt about each one. I replied that I could accept them all except the one about Art.
"Don't worry about it, Chuck. That charge is only there to make up the number of counts against you. We can expect to see that one thrown out." He said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I have studied all of the evidence, but I need to hear what happened in your own words."
He listened quietly as I went through my story, waiting until I finished before asking me questions. His manner put me at ease and made it possible for me to reach the end with only a few tears.
He had made notes during my tale, and consulted these as he asked me questions. "Tell me about Art. Was he a good friend?"
"Yes, sir. He was in my class at school, and was good at lessons. He helped me with Maths. He was good at that. I am smaller than the others of my age, and he had a fight with one of the others who was hurting me. We did everything together. He was my friend."
"Would you say that he was your leader?"
"Yes, sir. Most of the time I did what he asked."
"Mmmm. Now tell me about the chairs you took from the office. Did you intend to keep them?"
"Keep them?" I was puzzled. I hadn't thought about what we were going to do about them after we had declared our find. I thought back, trying to remember. "I don't know, sir. I don't think we talked about that. I think we would have given them up when we told about the place."
He asked a few more questions, mostly about my thoughts when we first found the Pre-Plague site, before closing up his note book and settling back in his chair. He looked up at me on the bed and steepled his hands in front of his lips, thinking for a moment. Then he dropped them back to his lap and spoke to me. "What I am about to say, you may not agree with, Chuck, but I feel that we have no chance of getting you off of the main charge. My advice is for you to plead guilty to failing to report the find. If you do, then the other charges will probably be dropped." He held up his hand, as I went to speak. "Let me finish, please. I can use your relationship with Art to get you the sympathy of the Magistrate. If you show that you are ready to co-operate with me I think I can get you off lightly."
"What will they do to me?"
"I think you should get away with a short period of detention. You are still a child, and that should help. So, what do you want to do?"
"I can only do what you advise, sir. I know nothing about the law."
"Good," he said. He gathered his papers together and stood up. "You are a likable boy, and have impressed everyone with your politeness and co-operation. Do that tomorrow and the Magistrate will be sympathetic." He said goodbye and left me alone.