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written by James Rada, Jr.

A serial fiction story for your enjoyment

5: Miracle Cure

Tim Ross walked backed to the courtyard area of the Maryland Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Sabillasville. He hadn’t found the man he believed had been shot, but what he had found gave him pause. The laboratory seemed to hold more than just a laboratory where medicines could be formulated and blood and fluids tested. It appeared as if humans were sometimes restrained there. He had also discovered a still in the power house. Unlike the laboratory, which worried him, Tim thought he would enjoy knowing where he could go to get a drink, especially since the federal government had outlawed liquor.

He reached the yard area and walked to the dining room for breakfast. The room was filled with patients, most of them seemed to be eating oatmeal and fruit, but some had eggs on their plate.

Tim looked around for Max Wenschof. He wasn’t sure whether or not he expected to see the other patient. Max hadn’t been at dinner, and Tim suspected he might have been the man in white he believed had been shot last night. Frank Larkins, an intern at the hospital and one of the moonshiners operating a still in the power house, thought a rival moonshining gang could have shot the man accidentally.

Tim walked over to a table with two men at it and sat down. He introduced himself to the men, who seemed more interested in their own conversation than in Tim.

“I’m telling you, I feel great,” a middle-aged man with jet-black hair told his companion.

“It’s temporary. You’ll start feeling the TB effects again,” the other man said. He looked older, but it may have been the effects of the disease on him.

The first man shook his head. “It’s not. I’m really getting better. I’m on a special treatment.” He looked over at Tim nervously.

“What’s different about it?”

The first man shrugged. “I don’t know. I just know I was doing real bad. You know it. You saw me.” The second man nodded. “I’ve gained 10 pounds in the last two weeks. I can walk from the shack to here without running out of breath.”

“I have to say you look good, but when can the rest of us get some of what you’re getting?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the doctor wants to wait until I’m ready to leave here and go home.”

“You think you will… go home, I mean?”

“That’s what Dr. Vallingham says.”

“I’m happy for you, Paulie.”

“Thanks, but keep it under your hat. The doc doesn’t want word getting out until he has everything the way he wants it.”

“Sure, sure. Just put in a good word for me. I want to be next.”

Tim kept his head down and focused on his oatmeal. He listened with interest and didn’t want to stop the man from talking. He was hoping to hear clues of what the special treatment was. However, when he heard Dr. Vallingham’s name, he was immediately suspicious. He didn’t trust the assistant director, but he wondered how much of that feeling came because of the doctor’s attitude versus his ability.

He might have trusted the news of a new treatment if Dr. Cullen had been the doctor mentioned. He had a good reputation and was the reason Tim had chosen to come to this hospital when he had been diagnosed with TB.

He finished his breakfast and walked back to his shack. All the windows had been opened wide, although it was still cool out. He went inside and flopped down on his bed, pulling the covers over himself.

Frank came by a short time later, carrying a tray with medicine on it.

“What’s that?” Tim asked.

Frank’s eyebrows rose. “It’s medicine.”

“What type of medicine?”

Frank glanced around. “I’m not supposed to know, but I saw the nurse fill the cups once. It’s aspirin.”

His treatment was aspirin? “I don’t have a headache.”

“It’s not for a headache. It’s Dr. Vallingham’s standard treatment. He relies more on the fresh air to help clear the lungs than medicine.”

“I heard someone talking this morning about a special treatment that Dr. Vallingham has been giving him.”

Frank shrugged. “Not from me. The tablets I give all look the same.”

“Have you seen the patients who get his treatments?”

“I’m not sure who they are. He probably uses his goon squad.”

Tim sat up in his bed. “Goon squad?”

“The doc has three orderlies who work just for him. They don’t do anything unless Dr. Vallingham okays it. They’re big guys, but you usually don’t see them unless the doc has them running an errand.”

Tim took the aspirin and swallowed it. He felt thinking about everything that was going on at this hospital would wind up giving him a headache.

Later that afternoon, he walked over to the administration building and asked to see Dr. Vallingham. He had to wait a half an hour, but eventually, the nurse at the front desk showed him into the office.

The doctor was sitting behind his desk as he had been during the first interview.

“I don’t have much time, Mr. Ross. What can I do for you?” Dr. Vallingham said.

“Well, Doc…”

“Doctor,” Vallingham corrected.

“Doctor. I heard that you have a special treatment for some patients that seems to work. I was hoping I could get it, too. I want to get out of here and back to work, but I’ve got to get better.”

“And what makes you think I have a special treatment?”

“Someone was talking about it at breakfast. He was very excited about feeling better and gaining weight.”

“I’m not sure what your heard, but it couldn’t have been what you say. I have no special treatment for patients, and if I had one that worked, I assure you, I would have used it for everyone here. I want you to recover as fast as you can, Mr. Ross.”

Dr. Vallingham looked down at something on his desk, as if to dismiss Tim. Tim frowned, but he stood up and left the office. As he walked down the hall toward the stairs, he saw three orderlies come out of a room at the other end of the hall. They were each as large as Tim had been before he got sick.

Tim was forced to stand to the side of the hallway as they passed him without saying anything. They reminded Tim of boxers. He glanced at their hands and saw their knuckles were scarred. They were definitely men who fought, but they weren’t boxers, not with scarred knuckles. They also looked nothing like typical orderlies. Tim watched them knock on Dr. Vallingham’s door and then enter the office.

Back in his shack, he tried to read the newspaper. He had never been much of a reader, and honestly, the only news he wanted to hear was how he could get better. He didn’t want to wither up and die like a plum turning into a prune.

He went outside and tried to run around the road that ran around the yard for exercise, but he was out of breath before he had even completed a lap. As he stood bent over, trying to catch his breath, he saw Frank drive the truck up to one of the shacks.

Tim walked over. “What’s going on?”

Frank frowned and shook his head. “One of the patients died. I have to take him to undertaker in Thurmont, so they can get him ready to send home.”

“Who was it?”

“Paul Donofrio.”

Tim didn’t recognize the name, but then he didn’t know most people here.

“What happened to him?”

“The same thing that happens to most everyone here. The TB gets them.” Frank paused and looked at Tim. “Sorry.”

Tim shook his head. “I know what I’m up against. Believe me. It scares me more than any boxer I ever faced.”

Frank walked into the shack with another orderly. They came out a couple minutes later, carrying a body on a stretcher. Tim bowed his head. He hadn’t been lying when had said he was afraid that he wouldn’t recover from his TB. This might be his future.

As the two men slid the stretcher into the back of the truck, Tim looked up. He saw the dead man and was surprised that he recognized him.

It was the man who had been bragging about getting better at breakfast, and now he was dead just a few hours later. Even TB didn’t work that fast. Something else had happened to him.

A serial fiction story for your enjoyment

written by James Rada, Jr.

4: The Power House

Tim Ross wasn’t sure what to do. A man in white had run out of the woods around the Maryland Tuberculosis Sanatorium, calling his name. Then, just as quickly, he had disappeared back into the trees. It had been dark, but Tim thought he also saw another man pursuing the man in white, although that man had remained in the trees. Tim had just been getting ready to go after the man in white when he heard shots.

That gave him pause. He had seen some shootings in Baltimore, and he knew better than to walk blindly into a place where men were armed. That was a good way to get shot himself.

Still, someone had known his name. Only a few people on this mountain knew him.

This hospital was supposed to be a place where he could recover from TB, but it was beginning to resemble a prison with lots of rules, a stern warden, and now, armed men around it.

Tim had trouble sleeping that night. He kept waiting to hear the man call for him again or more shots. He heard neither. He fell asleep at some point, but he was awake with the sunrise.

He dressed and walked out across the field to the tree line where he had seen the man in white. He looked around, but he saw nothing that made him think someone had been here. Of course, he wasn’t a tracker. He walked to where he thought he had seen the man re-enter the trees. He looked into the forest and slowly entered. He saw a log and, just beyond it, marks in the dirt. One of them was a handprint. Someone had been along this path, although who knew how old the print was. Tim’s best guess was that the person had tripped over the tree in the dark and fallen.

He continued along the path, looking for more signs. He was about to turn back when he saw a large rock with a stain that Tim recognized. He had seen it on his clothing and boxing ring mats before. It was dried blood.

He kept walking, wondering if someone might need help, although the blood on the rock had dried. Not too far beyond the rock, he saw what looked to be more blood on the leaves of a bush. Tim set off in that direction.

He soon came to a clearing where there was a large stone building. He thought it was a home at first, but when he approached and looked in a window, he saw it had machinery inside. It must have been the power house Dr. Vallingham, the hospital’s assistant director, had told him not to go near.

Too late now.

The door was locked, but looking in the windows, he saw large boilers and a furnace. The piping to other buildings on the grounds must have been buried underground. Then, he saw something familiar. It was a moonshine still set up inside the power house. No one was around, but it looked to be in use.

He turned around and saw Frank Larkins, an orderly from the hospital. The man wasn’t wearing the friendly smile he’d seen at the train station when Frank picked him up.

“What are you doing out here, Mr. Ross?”

“I’m looking for someone.”

“In the power house where you aren’t supposed to be?”

Tim nodded. “Last night, I saw someone running in this direction, and I heard a shot. I went looking this morning and found blood.”

“Really?” Frank sighed. “You have created a problem for me and others.”

“You mean the still?” Frank nodded. “I’m from Baltimore where they are pretty much ignoring Prohibition. I don’t care about the still, although I wouldn’t be against sampling some of your product. Right now, though, I am just trying to find out what happened to that man. The blood has me worried.”

Tim was thinking about asking Dr. Cullen, the hospital director, about it, but he needed something more to tell him than a shadowy man running in the dark and some possible blood.

“Did you see anyone around here last night?” Tim asked.

Frank shook his head. “I wasn’t here. Are you serious about this man?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Well, people have been shot at near here.”

“Why?”

Frank nodded toward the power house. “Why do you think?”

“Has anyone been hurt?”

“Not here, but there are different groups on this mountain who are making a lot of money and want to protect themselves. The Clines and Russmans over in Smithsburg are in a shooting war. Each group wants to control all the moonshine in this area.”

Tim had heard about Smithsburg, but he didn’t realize it was close. The area had made national headlines as having an “old-time mountain feud” between John Cline and Henry Russman, involving night raiding, indiscriminate shooting, and fights. They were accused of wrecking a church, dynamiting a sawmill, killing one person, and wounding others.

So much for the quiet country life where he could recover from TB.

“So, if the bootleggers were doing the shooting, who were they shooting at?” Tim asked.

Frank rubbed his chin and shook his head. “We haven’t heard of any bodies being found or anyone being shot. However, if a patient was out last night, and the Smithsburg bootleggers were prowling around looking for our still, they might have thought he was one of my crew.”

“Well, someone was out there, running from someone, and it was someone who knew me. I want to find him. I couldn’t care less about your operation.”

Frank stared at him for a moment. “I believe you. You seem like a stand-up guy. My men work at the hospital and in town. I’ll have them ask around and listen for anyone who is talking about someone missing.”

“I appreciate it. Your still is what I saw in the power house?”

Frank nodded. “It’s isolated and no one but people who I work with come here. It’s also close to the train station, where we ship out a lot of our product. Being on the hospital ground gives us some protection from other moonshiners. Plus, the revenuers never think to look there.”

“Is that why Dr. Vallingham tells patients not to come out here?”

Frank chuckled. “No, Dr. Vallingham is a drinker, but he would never be caught dead drinking moonshine. He has his private pre-Prohibition stash. Besides, Vallingham is a jerk. He would turn us in if he knew what we were doing.” Tim smiled. “Dr. Cullen would, too, but at least he is polite to the staff. We would much rather deal with him than Vallingham.”

Tim shook Frank’s hand and started walking away. Then he paused and turned back. “If I come back sometime, can I buy a bottle?”

“I’ll give you the best we have.”

Tim followed a path up the hill and through the woods. When it came out in a clearing, he saw the laboratory building. It was a two-story stone building, much smaller than the power house. This was where medicines were prepared for the patients.

He walked over to the windows and looked inside. He could see tables with test tubes, bottles, Bunsen burners, and the other types of things one would expect to see. Nothing looked out of place. It didn’t look like it was used often.

He tried the door and found it open. He walked inside and up the staircase to the second floor. Here, he found a cabinet filled with vials. A small desk sat in one corner. What disturbed Tim was the three beds with straps that would be used to restrain who ever lay in the bed.

What was going on here?

Blair Garrett

A local artist is making waves, adding a dash of color to parks and museums across the east coast.

Alyssa Imes, a Catoctin High School graduate and Emmitsburg resident, has been perfecting her craft for years, featuring her vibrant sculptures in various festivals and parks.

Imes has spread her art from Washington D.C. and Virginia, to Hagerstown, Maryland, and hopes to soon have one of her sculptures right here in Emmitsburg. Her art ranges from small pieces that make a statement to big and bold structures that brighten the area around them, and everything in between.

Imes also brought her talents to the Maryland Iron Festival in May, where she put her skills to the test for all to witness. She brought her own furnace to melt iron on sight, and poured it into scratch blocks for attendees to craft custom iron works.

The 2020 and 2021 Maryland Iron Festivals were held virtually, so it was a nice change of pace to have Imes and other art and iron enthusiasts be able to show guests this centuries-old way of producing things.

Outside of festivals, Imes has a wide array of sculptures she produces and sells. There are exciting things ahead in the career of this young artist. 

Imes received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Shepherd University in 2018, and she recently completed her Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture at University of Maryland. So be on the lookout for big things from this talented local artist.

Her art is currently on display at the Frederick Arts Council Center in Frederick, and it will be available to see until mid-July. You can catch more of her works online at: www.alyssaimes.com.

Designed and created by Alyssa Imes, “Winged Forces” is a 4-foot cement sculpture of a Monarch butterfly and a honeybee that stands at the traditional president’s residence at Shepherd University, where Imes graduated in 2018.

A serial fiction story for your enjoyment

written by James Rada, Jr.

3: A Voice In the Night

Tim Ross closed the door to Dr. Vallingham’s office in the Maryland State Sanatorium Administration Building. He paused for a moment before releasing his grip on the doorknob, feeling like he had been hauled before the principal of his high school.

Tim turned and saw Dr. Vallingham sitting behind a large oak desk that was entirely empty, without even a blotter or desk lamp. The man who was second-in-charge at the hospital didn’t even bother standing up. He simply motioned to a wooden chair in front of the desk.

“Please have a seat, Mr. Ross.”

No hello or handshake. He was not a warm fellow by any stretch.

Tim sat in the chair and noticed it was low, making him have to raise his head to look over the desk at the doctor.

“I am Dr. Jeremy Vallingham. I will oversee your treatment while you are a patient here.”

“What about Dr. Cullen?” Victor Cullen was the doctor in charge of the hospital and also the reason it had an excellent reputation for treating patients with tuberculosis.

“I am his… associate. The demand for our services here is so great that it requires two doctors.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Tim wouldn’t wish his disease on anyone. He had lost weight and strength. He coughed up blood or just felt pain while breathing at times. He had a fever during the day and chills at night. He felt like he could feel himself slowly fading away, slowly dying.

Dr. Vallingham’s brow furrowed. “Hmmm… oh, yes, I see what you mean. Your tuberculosis was detected early and seems mild. That is good news. It means you won’t be placed in the reception hospital.” This was the building where the sicker patients were housed.

Tim nodded. “Yes, I am in shack five.” Shacks were what everyone called the pavilions that were barrack-like buildings with large floor-to-ceiling windows that could be opened to allow plenty of air to pass through the buildings.

“Shacks. That is the colloquial term. It does not do them justice. They are specially designed housing units to augment my treatments.”

“Which are?”

Dr. Vallingham’s nose lifted a bit. He did not like being questioned. “Treatments vary depending on the patient. It will require some testing to fine tune the best treatment for you. Tomorrow morning at 8 a.m., a nurse or orderly will come to your pavilion to take your temperature and pulse. You will also be given your first dose of medication. From there, we will see how things progress.”

Tim nodded. “What are my chances of recovery?”

“I don’t like to speculate, but I have an excellent track record. You are in good hands, Mr. Ross.”

“That’s why I came here.”

Dr. Vallingham nodded. “And now that you are here, there are some rules you need to follow. No fraternizing with the nurses. It is allowed between patients, of course, but no intimate relations. No alcohol is allowed. Feel free to walk the yard and even over to the reception hospital should the need arise, but avoid the pharmacy, powerhouse, and nurse’s quarters.”

“Why’s that?”

The doctor stiffened at being challenged. “Because those are not areas patients need to be. Also, this area has problems with men making illegal liquor, and we wouldn’t want them to mistake you for a federal agent.”

Tim knew that was possible. He had heard about the moonshining war in nearby Smithsburg, even in Baltimore City. “For patients caught breaking the rules, there are consequences,” the doctor continued.

“Consequences? What sort of consequences? Do you send me to bed without my dinner?”

Tim smiled to show Dr. Vallingham he was making a joke, but the doctor did not have much of a sense of humor. He was the king of his kingdom. Tim had seen it with some fight promoters when he was still able to box. They were all friendly and smiles when things were going their way, but let one customer try to welch on a bet or a fighter not take a fall, and those smiles suddenly seemed like a way to show sharp teeth to those people right before they got hurt.

Dr. Vallingham said, “It varies based on what rule is violated, but rest assured, patients don’t like them and rarely make the same mistake twice.”

Was this man the reason people here seemed nervous? He and his rules and punishments?

Tim shrugged. “OK.”

The doctor nodded. “Fine. That is all, then.”

Tim knew when he was being dismissed, so he left. He walked back to the shack. He saw a few more of the residents of pavilion five. Eleven people were currently in the shack. Tim introduced himself to four other people who had returned to their beds. They were all men who weren’t severely sick. Tim introduced himself to them. Then he sat on a deck chair on the porch and stared out into the forest, trying to process what was happening here.

He felt like he was in a prison without walls. People walked on egg shells, afraid of violating one of Dr. Vallingham’s rules. This was not going to be an enjoyable stay, but was any hospital stay? Best he take his treatment and leave as quickly as possible.

Frank Ziolkowski, another resident, shook his shoulder. Tim looked up.

“We’re heading over for dinner. Want to come?” Frank asked.

Tim nodded and stood up. The small group of patients walked over to the dining room and got in line for the meal. He looked around for Max Wenschof. Tim wanted to talk to him about Dr. Vallingham, but Tim didn’t see him.

He saw the young nurse who had fetched him at lunchtime and stopped her.

“Have you seen Max Wenschof?” Tim asked.

“Who?”

“Max Wenschof, the man who was eating lunch with me when you came to get me.”

“Him? Oh, yes, Mr. Wenschof is no longer a patient here.”

“No longer a patient? Was he cured?”

The young nurse frowned. “Patient information is confidential.”

“It’s not like we don’t know what he has or had. Everyone is here because they have TB. And if he’s no longer a patient, then it’s no longer a breach of confidence.”

She looked around nervously. “Mr. Ross…”

Tim held up his hand. “Nevermind.”

He was drawing stares from some of the other patients. He didn’t feel like getting punished, especially when he wasn’t sure what it would be for.

He skipped dinner and walked back to the shack. The windows were all open, allowing a light breeze to flow through the building. It was quiet outside. Did he smell alcohol, or was he imagining it? The hidden stills couldn’t be that close, could they?

“Tim…”

Tim sat up and listened. Had he heard someone calling for him?

“Tim…”

He walked through one of the open windows to the railing of the porch. It was dark out, except for the starlight. There was no moon, but he could still make out shadows on the field in front of the forest.

Had he imagined the voice?

He saw a white figure emerge from the forest. It wasn’t a ghost, but someone dressed in white like an orderly. The figure was running and seemed to be looking over his shoulder, but Tim couldn’t be sure in the dark.

Tim looked at the forest. He couldn’t make out anyone else there, but something was scaring this man. Was he the one who had called for Tim? If so, who could it be? Only a few people around here knew his name.

The man in white veered off in another direction and ran back into the trees. A short time later, Tim heard a shot.

Then everything went quiet again.

written by James Rada, Jr.

A new serial fiction story for your enjoyment

2: Learning the Rules

Tim Ross straightened up from the railing of the barracks-like housing unit at the Maryland Tuberculosis Hospital. He looked at his hands. They were shaking.

He wasn’t afraid. He knew that. It would take a lot more than a whispered warning to cause him fear. The air this high up was a little chilly, but not enough to make him shake. Had he lost his tolerance to cold? Or was it the tuberculosis (TB)? He had lost his speed and stamina to the TB that racked his body. His strength was going.

Tim focused on his hands and stilled the trembling. Then he closed his hands into fists and hammered them down onto the railing and was rewarded with a deep “wham” that seemed to vibrate through the wood.

Tim smiled. He might not be strong enough to fight any longer, but he was far from weak… and far from giving in to the TB. He would fight this, and just like with his boxing matches, he would win.

He left the pavilion and walked to the dining hall. He enjoyed the walk and paused occasionally for quick sets of deep-knee bends or to throw shadow punches.

The dining hall was a stone building connected to the rear of the administration building and was roughly in the center of the surrounding pavilions. He entered the building and paused. The room was filled with rectangular tables covered with tablecloths and surrounded with wooden chairs. People moved through a cafeteria line with trays of food.

What caught Tim’s attention was the people. They didn’t look sick, or at least not very sick. Should he take that as a good sign? They were young adults in their 20s to the elderly. Some were dressed as if this was a night out. Others looked like they had walked in from a garden.

Tim got in line with a tray and got an open-faced turkey sandwich covered in gravy, green beans, and mashed potatoes. He found an empty table and sat down. He ate slowly, paying more attention to the people in the dining room. They seemed too quiet. People were talking, but they acted as if they were in a library, whispering to each other. Some cast suspicious glances around themselves. More than a few watched Tim as if he was a threat as a new person at the hospital.

He had finished half of his sandwich when a man about his age sat down across the table from him.

“Hi, there. My name is Max Wenschof,” the man said.

“Tim Ross.” He reached across the table and shook Max’s hand.

“You’re the new guy. You don’t look too sick. Well, I guess if you were, you wouldn’t be in here. Where are you staying?”

“I’m in Pavillion Five. What do you mean if I was sick, I wouldn’t be in here? Doesn’t everyone in here have TB?”

“Sure, sure, but we either have mild cases or we’re on the mend. Some might even be ready to go home. The real sick patients stay in the receiving hospital. Nurses and orderlies bring them their meals.”

“Oh, it’s good to know I’m not too sick.”

Max clapped him on the shoulder. “Of course not. You can walk around.” Max cut into his sandwich and took a bite.“By the way, I’m in the shack right next door to you. Four.”

“Shack?”

“That’s what everyone calls the pavilions. Too fancy schmancy. They’re shacks.” Max paused. “Are you from Baltimore? You sound like you might be.”

Tim nodded. “I lived out near Sparrows Point.”

“This place must be a bit of a shock for you, then.”

Tim snorted. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll get along fine once you learn the rules.”

“That’s what I hear, but no one has told me what they are.”

Max chuckled. “They are vague on purpose. They would rather you break a rule and catch you at it, so they can correct you. And if you don’t break enough rules, I think they make them up, so they can punish you.”

“Punish?”

Max nodded and concentrated on his feet.

Tim wondered what sort of punishment they could inflict, but Max seemed not to want to talk about it.

“So, what is there to do here?”

“Officially, you can go to the recreation hall. It has cards, games, and a radio, although you can’t pick up much up here on the mountain at night.”

“That doesn’t sound like much.”

“It’s not.”

“You said officially. Are there things to do that are unofficial?”

“Well…” Max looked around and then lowered his voice. “A good-looking guy like your yourself could probably find a cute nurse for a little romance. They’re not supposed to fraternize in that way, but it has happened. You could even find a woman among the patients. It depends on how much you want to kiss a gal with TB, but hey, I say, it can’t make you any sicker.” Tim didn’t point out that was exactly what Max was expecting the nurses to do.

“What if I just want a drink?”

Max drew back. “Officially, the word is that absolutely no alcohol is allowed on the property. Not only is it Dr. Cullen’s rule, but it’s the law.”

“And, unofficially?” Tim asked softly.

Max clapped him on the shoulder. “See? You are learning about this place already. We are near the Pen-Mar resort and far from police. There are stories of lots of stills and moonshiners in the woods on this mountain. They sell to the resort and places like Hagerstown and Frederick.” He slowed his speech. “Some of them are very close by.”

“Are you saying there’s a still on the property?”

“I would never say that. You can draw your own conclusions.”

Tim shook his head. “Why does everyone seem so nervous that they won’t talk directly?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He suddenly concentrated on his sandwich as an orderly walked past the table.            

“I just don’t get it,” Tim said.

Max sighed and looked around. “You seem like a nice guy, Tim, but you’ve got to be careful. You don’t want to be corrected too many times. Watch what you say and who you say it to. Don’t attract too much attention to yourself, but you also want people to notice if you are gone.”

“Gone?”

“That’s all I can say.”

Tim shook his head. He didn’t need another cryptic warning. He needed answers. He wondered if he tried to leave the hospital and go elsewhere, would he even be allowed?

A cute red-headed nurse who still looked like a teen walked into the dining hall. She looked around and then walked over to Tim’s table.

“Mr. Ross?” she asked.

“That’s me,” Tim said with a forced smile.

“Dr. Vallingham will see you now.”

“Dr. Vallingham? I thought Dr. Cullen was in charge?”

The nurse smiled. “Oh, he is, but he can’t see all the patients here and run the hospital, too. Dr. Vallingham is the assistant director.”

Tim wondered why he had not heard of this doctor before now. Dr. Victor Cullen was the man credited for the hospital’s success. Not only had he saved the lives of many of the patients here, he had also recovered from TB himself. He was the one Tim wanted treating him.

Tim stood up. Max laid a hand on Tim’s arm. He glanced at the nurse, then back at Tim.

“Remember what I said.”

Tim nodded. “I will, and I will see you around.”

He turned and followed the nurse out of the dining hall. They walked through the hallway back to the administration building.

“You look barely old enough to be out of high school,” Tim said to the nurse.

The girl laughed. “That’s about right. I graduated last year. I go to the nursing school here.”

“Are all the nurses here students?”

“Most of them. Most of the nurses here are also former patients.”

Tim paused and stared at her. “You had TB?”

The young woman shook her head. “No, but my father did. He was a patient here until he died. I wanted to do something to honor him.”

“How do you like it here?” Tim asked, wondering if he would be given another mysterious warning.

“I enjoy it. People are sick but not as bad as a lot of patients in regular hospitals. It’s given me time to get used to dealing with ill people.”

“I guess that would be important.”

“Some of the pictures I’ve seen in class make me queasy, so I definitely need time to make the adjustment.”

She led Tim to an office on the second floor and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” said a voice from inside.

The nurse opened the door. Tim stepped inside and met the man whose hands his life was in.

Administration Building, Maryland Sanatorium

written by James Rada, Jr.

A serial fiction story for your enjoyment

1: Arrival

Timothy Ross stepped off the passenger car at the train depot near the Maryland Tuberculosis Hospital. He was used to the large platforms in cities like Baltimore, Washington, and Philadelphia. This was a small 15×30-foot wooden building surrounded on all sides by a wide porch. It could fit inside of the washroom of Penn Station, where he had boarded the train.

He noticed he was the only person on the platform. He expected more activity here, but it was still a bit early in the season for vacationers to be heading to Pen Mar, the nearby resort area. Green was starting to appear on the trees, and the sky was a bright blue. He felt just a hint of chill in the air. It wouldn’t be long before vacationers sought to escape the heat and humidity in the cities and headed for higher ground.

“So this is where I’ll die,” he whispered to himself.

He wondered if he had made the right choice coming here. He was a city boy, born and raised. He had never been able to escape the city, even in the heat of the summer, to come to a place like this. Tim lived in the night, in the gyms and arenas where he made his living in the ring…or at least he had.

His chest heaved, and he started coughing. He grabbed for his handkerchief and covered his mouth. When the hacking stopped, he pulled the handkerchief away and saw phlegm and spots of blood. So much for the clean, fresh mountain air helping him.

Tim walked into the station. He saw no people, just empty benches. There wasn’t even a stationmaster. It was as if people were only dropped off here, and no one ever left on the train, so no one needed to buy a ticket. That thought sent a chill down his back.

A door opened, and a man walked out of the washroom, drying his hands. He was a large man, almost as large as Tim had been before he had gotten sick. He was dressed in white, so Tim guessed this was the man he was supposed to meet.

“Are you from the sanatorium?” Tim asked.

The man nodded. “I’m Frank Larkins, one of the orderlies there and a driver when they need one.”

“I’m Tim Ross.”

Frank smiled and clapped his hands together. “Great! Let’s load your bags in the car and get you to the administration building.”

“Is it far away?”

“Not at all. You’re actually on the sanatorium property now. This is our station.”

“I thought this was the station for the resort.”

Frank shook his head. “That’s Blue Ridge Summit. It’s a little further up the line, just across the Mason-Dixon in Pennsylvania.”

Frank grabbed the two suitcases Tim had brought with him and headed out the front door. He walked down the steps from the front porch to the waiting car. It was a gray four-door Ajax sedan. Tim had seen plenty of them in Baltimore, but this was a newer model that had come out in 1926. Frank went around to the far side and put the suitcases in the back while Tim climbed into the car.

Then, Frank climbed into the driver’s seat. He started the engine and drove along a dirt road that led uphill.

“I used to live in Baltimore until I got this job,” Frank said. “I saw you fight Rusty Barrett last year. I won five dollars when you knocked him out.”

Tim grinned. “Seems like a lifetime ago.”

He hadn’t fought in three months. His stamina and speed were gone. He was withering away. Even if he got rid of the tuberculosis, he wondered if there would be enough of him left to recover.

Frank seemed to read his mind. “Don’t you worry, Mr. Ross. You got diagnosed early enough that this place can help you. You aren’t even in the main hospital. You’re in a cottage. That’s where they put the people who are in good shape.”

Tim shook his head. “No, they put them on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. There’s as many trees here as there are people in Baltimore.”

“And that’s why you’ll get better. You aren’t in Baltimore. That’s what made you sick. They did a study last year that said there’s an area of the city that has the highest death rate in the country from TB. The best thing you could do was get out of that cesspool.”

He turned onto a drive that swung around in front of a three-story stone building that could have passed for one of the rich people’s homes in Mount Washington. Frank turned off the engine, and they walked onto the porch and through the front doors. They were in a hallway that led to a staircase to the second floor or the rear of the building. The rooms off the hallway all had closed doors. At a desk near the door, an attractive young nurse sat smiling up at them.

She looked at Tim and smiled, showing bright white teeth.

“Emily, this is Tim Ross, a new patient,” Frank said. He glanced at Tim. “Emily is one of the student nurses at the training school here, and if she wasn’t behind that desk, you’d see she has great gams.” Emily blushed and giggled. “I need to know what shack he’s in.”

Emily nodded and looked at her notes. “He’s in pavilion five. Also, I’ll need you to come back here after you finish putting your things away. I’ll have the paperwork you need to sign, your schedule, a map of the grounds, and a few other things.”

Frank and Tim walked back outside. Frank drove the car around the side of the administration building. Tim saw two rows of long, wooden buildings leading away from the back of the administration building. Frank stopped in front of one, and they walked to the entrance. Tim saw four people sitting on chairs on the porch that ran the length of the front of the building. The building was wood frame, but it sat on brick piers.

Inside, there were two wards, one off to either side of the entryway, which was a large sitting room. Frank looked at a chart on the wall, turned left, and walked to an empty bed near the end of the ward. Tim saw that all the windows on the ward were open, as well as doors that led onto the porch. More fresh air.

“So, this is your bed, but you’ll keep your things in the back,” Frank said.

He walked through a doorway behind the bed that led into a long rear room that nearly ran the length of the building.

“These compartments are where you can change and store your stuff. You have compartment three, which is also your bed number. The toilet room is in the middle.”

Tim nodded numbly.

Frank laid a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Mr. Ross. It’s confusing now, but everything will be all right.” Then, he looked around, leaned closer, and whispered, “Be careful. Don’t wander off alone and don’t trust anyone. No one is safe. Don’t say anything about this.”

Frank then straightened up and smiled, but Tim could tell it was a fake smile.

“I’m going to leave you to unpack, because I have some other things to do. Once you’re finished, head back and talk to Emily.”

Tim nodded. “Thank you.”

Frank left and Tim walked out onto the porch, although with the large sliding windows between the wall columns, it was almost as if the ward was part of the porch.

He had to admit, the view was nice if you liked to look at trees and lawn. He started coughing so hard, he nearly dropped to his knees. Instead, he leaned on the rail and watched Frank drive off.

What had the man been talking about? More importantly, what had Tim gotten himself into?

written by James Rada, Jr.

A new serial fiction story for your enjoyment

7: Ready for the Fireflies

Paul Cresap had barely escaped being burned alive, but his office in the Mechanicstown Jail wasn’t as lucky. The roof collapsed shortly after he made it out. He suspected he knew who had set the fire, and the charcoal he found around the building seemed to confirm it. It was most likely the work of a collier, and he had seen Abednego Hunt leaving the scene.

Paul would have followed him, but too many people wanted to know if he was all right and what had happened. It was dawn by the time he finally got his horse saddled and headed up to Abednego’s camp on Catoctin Mountain.

Not unexpectedly, Paul found no one at the camp, but it was the only place he knew of where he might find Abednego. He had to check it first. As Paul rode around the camp looking for the collier, he spotted the handmade grave marker for Meshach Hunt, the brother Abednego had said fell into one of the charcoal stacks and died.

Paul saw no other sign Abednego might come back. Had he abandoned the camp entirely?

He rode his horse down to Catoctin Furnace to find the superintendent for the Catoctin Iron Works. The paymaster for the company directed Paul to a house outside of the village. The superintendent and his family would be staying there since an arsonist had burned the superintendent’s house down yesterday.

“He should still be out there,” the paymaster said. “He hasn’t been in today. He’s probably trying to get things sorted out and order new furniture and clothing since he lost just about everything in the fire.”

Paul thanked the paymaster and headed out to the house. It was about half the size of the ironmaster’s mansion, but it was still much larger than the jail where Paul had been living for the past six months.

He knocked on the front door, but no one answered. He smelled smoke and saw a plume rising from the woods. The superintendent was probably there doing something. Paul walked into the woods and was surprised to see the gagged superintendent tied to a pole with a fire that had already been started under his feet.

Paul rushed forward and kicked at the logs, trying to disperse the fire and get it away from the man. He pulled off his vest and beat at the flames to keep them from spreading to the nearby brush.

Once the flames were out, he freed the superintendent and pulled the gag from his mouth. The man was singed a bit, but the flames hadn’t caught his clothing on fire.

“What’s going on?” Paul asked.

“It’s Ben Hunt. He attacked me and did this.”

“Where is he?”

“He was watching, but he ran deeper into the woods when he heard you coming.”

“Why is he doing this?”

“I don’t know. He’s always been a loner and quiet, but he was a good worker,” the superintendent said.

“What about his brother? Did his brother’s death have anything to do with this?”

The superintendent’s eyes narrowed. “Brother? Ben doesn’t have a brother. He came in the other day wanting death benefits for his brother, but we don’t have a record of a brother being employed by us.”

“But his brother fell into the stack and burned to death. I saw the grave.”

“I checked the records myself because Ben was so upset. We have no brother or any other relative of his working for the company.”

“Then what’s he talking about?”

The superintendent shrugged. “I don’t know. Ben works alone. It’s the best situation. Colliers usually work in teams, in case someone falls through a stack. Ben wanted to work alone, and he does the same work per man as any of the teams, so we let him continue. He doesn’t want to work with a team.”

Paul walked the superintendent back to his house. Then he mounted up to ride back to the collier camp. If Abednego Hunt didn’t have a brother, who was buried in the grave?

Ben rode back to the collier camp. He wasn’t sure why, perhaps it was because he had nowhere else to go. All Ben had wanted was his brother’s death benefit from the superintendent, but the man wouldn’t even admit Shack worked for him.

“Where have you been, Abednego?”

He turned and saw his brother. Ben froze. “Shack? I saw you die.”

Shack brushed non-existent dust off of himself. “I didn’t. I got out of the stack, although I’ve got some burns. That’s why I haven’t been back. I collapsed in the woods and have been nursing myself back to health.”

Abednego ran over and hugged his brother. “Why didn’t you let me help you?”

“You couldn’t. You weren’t ready.”

“Ready? Of course, I was ready to help you. I tore the stack down looking for you.”

Shack shook his head. “That’s not what I mean. You weren’t ready for the fireflies.”

Shack threw his hand in the air and dozens of fireflies scattered in front of him, glowing like stars in the sky…or embers.

Paul rode into the collier camp and saw Abednego talking to himself next to a smoldering pile of charcoal, log fragments, and dirt.

“Ben,” he said.

The collier didn’t seem to hear him. He was talking to someone Paul couldn’t see. Abednego walked to the stack he was near, still talking to no one Paul could see. Abednego didn’t even notice that his shoes were smoldering.

“Ben, get out of the fire!” he called.

Abednego didn’t acknowledge him. He bent down and picked up a handful of charcoal embers. They were still smoking, but he acted as if nothing was wrong.

He threw the embers into the air and they spread in a cloud around him.

Some of them fell on him, but he didn’t react as if they were burning him. Some of them started catching his clothing on fire.

Paul ran over to him and pushed Abednego out of the fire. Then he got down next to him and rolled him over and over until the flames went out.

Once the flames were extinguished, he rolled Abednego onto his stomach and tied his hands behind his back.

“I’m arresting you for arson,” Paul said.

Abednego still didn’t seem to even know Paul was there.

Paul put the dazed man on the saddle and rode him back to town. He carried him to Dr. Westgate to have his burns looked at.

“What’s wrong with him?” Paul asked.

“You mean the burns?”

“No, he still doesn’t seem to know we’re here.”

The doctor waved a hand in front of Abednego’s face and snapped his fingers. Abednego didn’t flinch or blink. “I noticed that. I think his mind might be broken. He should be in a lot of pain, but he doesn’t seem to feel it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. It’s beyond me. It could be the heat. It could be the solitude up on the mountain. Or, it might run in the family.”

Paul rode back up to the collier camp. He walked over to the grave and started digging. If he could find a body, it would show whether Ben had a brother.

About a foot below the ground, he found a cigar box. He opened it up and only found pieces of charcoal inside.

written by James Rada, Jr.

A new serial fiction story for your enjoyment

6: Hot On The Trail

Rubbing his eyes and yawning, Mechanicstown Sheriff Paul Cresap rode his horse into the collier’s camp on Catoctin Mountain. This was the fourth camp he had visited today. The colliers moved their camps from time to time to stay close to lumber being cut for the Catoctin Furnace. The furnace needed 800 bushels of charcoal each day to run, and each pound of charcoal came from an acre of hardwood trees.

A couple of people in the village of Catoctin Furnace had told Paul they had heard something about one collier burning to death. Paul thought it might be the fourth arson fire, particularly if the arsonist who had burned homes in Catoctin Furnace, along Frederick Road, and on West Main Street in Mechanicstown had been setting fires as he moved west. It would make sense that there was a fire on the mountain. Paul was probably lucky the man didn’t start a forest fire.

He had had little luck finding out who had burned to death, and he was beginning to think it was just a story. As the colliers at each camp would tell him no one in their group had died, they would direct him to another camp.

Paul knew something was off about this camp as soon as he rode in. The other camps had been a collection of smoking mounds of earth or circles of charcoal that needed to be raked from the dirt. The colliers tended to sing, swear, or just cough from the wood smoke.

This camp had mounds, but only a couple were smoking. A couple of others had collapsed but hadn’t been raked out. Paul also saw what looked like had been a cabin that had been burned to the ground.

And the place was quiet. If not for the wood smoke, he would have said it was abandoned.

“Hello,” Paul called.

A man walked out from behind one stack. He was covered in soot.

“Who are you?”

“Sheriff Cresap from Mechanicstown.”

“This isn’t Mechanicstown.”

“No, but I heard that someone had been burned to death up here. Do you know anything about it?”

The man nodded. “It was my brother.”

“And who are you?”

“Abednego Hunt.”

“Can you tell me what happened? It may tie into some other things that have happened,” Paul asked.

“Meshach — that’s my brother, — was on top of a stack and it opened up under him. He fell through and burned. I couldn’t get to him in time.” Abednego shook his head. “It was horrible. The screams…”

Paul stared at the stacks. They looked like mounds of earth to him. He had seen them as the colliers built them in other camps, though. He knew there was a stack of logs beneath the earth. The dirt was used to control the amount of air that got into the stacks.

“It was an accident then?” Paul asked.

“Of course it was. Shack didn’t jump into the center of a burning stack on purpose!”

Paul held up a hand. “Sorry. That’s not what I meant. I mean, no one could have done anything to the stack to make it give way under your brother.”

Abednego thought for a moment and shook his head. “No. It’s not the first time something like that has happened. It all depends on how the logs burn.” He paused. “Why would you think someone did it to Shack on purpose?”

“I don’t, but someone set fires last night at the furnace and in my town. They are all connected. I thought the fire that killed your brother might be, too.”

“What makes you think those fires were connected?”

“They happened on the same night, and they didn’t start naturally. Whoever tried to burn the houses down, set them all up the same way.”

“Nothing like that happened here. This was an accident I wished never happened.”

Paul nodded. “Sorry for your loss.”

He looked at the ground and picked up a piece of wood that had been turned into charcoal. Then he looked over at the charred beams of what had been a cabin. They both were burned wood, but the charcoal was darker and denser. It had to be burned in a special way to become charcoal. It didn’t come from a regular fire.

“This is charcoal, isn’t it?” Paul asked, holding up the chunk he had picked up.

“That’s what we… I make here.”

“What’s the difference between this and burned wood?”

“That is burned wood. We just burn it in a certain way, so it will continue to burn and burn hotter than wood. It can’t have too much oxygen when it burns, or it won’t be of any use as charcoal, but if it has too little air, it won’t burn fully.”

Paul nodded and walked back to his horse. Abednego followed him.

“What are you going to do now?” the collier asked.

“I’ve got some thinking to do and an arsonist to catch.”

Paul headed back to his office. When he got there, he took his bottle from his desk drawer and poured himself a drink. He could concentrate better when the whiskey took the edge off the day.

He pulled the piece of charcoal out and set it on the desk in front of him. He had found charcoal around each of the houses that had been burned. It couldn’t have been left over from the fire, according to Abednego. Also, while it wouldn’t have been unusual to find it at the ironmaster’s house, it would have been odd to find it at the other two houses. People around here used firewood in their stoves. It was abundant and cheaper than charcoal.

It would have required a lot of charcoal to build a fire around three houses if it was used for that. Whoever had started the fires had access to a lot of charcoal and knew how to use it.

Then there was how the logs that were used in the fire were laid upright against the houses rather than being piled in one spot or lengthwise along the houses. Colliers stacked wood that way and also had access to charcoal.

Things were pointing to a collier as the arsonist, but there were a couple dozen of them on the mountain.

Which one would have wanted to start the fires and why? Paul fell asleep trying to figure this out. He woke up coughing. He sat up and quickly doubled over as his coughing continued. He opened his eyes, but they watered. When he finally opened his eyes, he saw the room was filled with smoke.

He ran to the door. He reached out to open it, but when he put his hand on the doorknob, it felt hot. He jerked his hand away.

He hurried to the window and looked out. He saw flames.

He coughed and fell to his knees. The air near the floor was clearer. He took a few deep gulps of air and stood up. He ran to a side window and saw more flames.

The arsonist had set his office on fire.

How was he going to get out of here?

He ran to the side door and wasn’t surprised to feel the doorknob was also hot. He looked around, trying to find a way out. He wondered if he could get onto the roof and go over the flames, but there was no way onto the roof.

He ran back to the cell and grabbed the straw mattress off the metal frame. Back at the side door, he laid on the floor to catch his breath again. Then he stood up, pulled his shirt sleeve down over his hand, and opened the door.

He had to push hard because logs were leaning against it, which he expected. Flames rushed in, singeing him. He threw the mattress down, which momentarily created a clear path for him. He ran outside and a few yards from the building.

A crowd had already started forming a bucket brigade, but Paul could see it was too late. The fire had caught the roof on fire. The building would collapse soon.

He looked around and saw a familiar face in the crowd, someone who shouldn’t be there. It was Abednego Hunt. Paul started toward him, but the collier disappeared into the crowd.

…to be continued next month

written by James Rada, Jr.

A new serial fiction story for your enjoyment

5: Home Fire Burning

Paul Cresap woke with his head throbbing and someone pounding on the door. He tried to open his eyes, but they were crusted over.

He rubbed his eyelashes to break up the crust. Even then, he would have preferred to keep his eyes closed.

Someone knocked on the door to the office again. “Sheriff! Sheriff!”

Paul sat up. “Wait a minute! I need to dress.”

He stood up slowly and pulled his suspenders over his shoulders. He walked out of the single cell that Mechanicstown had. Since it also served as Paul’s bedroom more often than not, it meant he had little incentive to arrest anyone. He didn’t want to lose his bedroom.

He walked out of the cell and across the office. He opened the door and saw Tom Weller. He owned a dry goods store on Church Street. Paul often bought his coffee beans there.

“Sheriff, there’s been another fire,” Tom said. He was out of breath, and Paul guessed he had run from his home above his store.

“Another fire?”

“Didn’t you hear the fire bell ringing earlier?”

Paul shook his head. He wasn’t about to tell Tom that he had been passed out drunk and wouldn’t have heard a black powder explosion if it had gone off under his bed.

Paul said, “Apparently not. Besides, fires aren’t my jurisdiction.” Two of them hadn’t even been in Mechanicstown. The ironmaster’s home in Catoctin Furnace had burned earlier this evening. Then Rev. John Clark Hoyle’s home had burned down sometime. That house had been on Frederick Road, not far from the church he presided over in Catoctin Furnace.

Someone had told Paul about both of them, but he hadn’t done anything because they were outside of the town limits.

“But three fires!” Tom said. “That can’t be coincidence. Something needs to be done.”

Even in his drunken state, Paul realized Tom was probably right. Mechanicstown might have a fire a month, usually from sparks escaping a fireplace, but three in one night? It probably wasn’t accidental.

“Where is this fire?” Paul asked.

“It’s the Worthy place on Water Street.”

That home was in Mechanicstown. The people in town would expect Paul to check it out. “Is the fire out?” Paul asked.

Tom nodded. “Just about.”

First, the ironmaster’s mansion, then the reverend’s home on Frederick Street, and now a house on Water Street.

“Who owns the Worthy Place?” Paul asked.

“Jonah Worthy. He owns the general store in Catoctin Furnace,” Tom told him.

It was like someone was making his way from the furnace and up the mountain. Paul also realized that for three fires to burn in one night, they had to be started fairly quickly. Each fire would divert people to it. There probably hadn’t been too many people left to form the bucket brigade at Jonah Worthy’s house. People might still be at the fire on Frederick Road.

“I’ll go out to the Worthy place shortly,” Paul said.

He went back into his office and picked up the bucket. He walked out back to fill it with water from the pump and relieve himself in the outhouse. He walked back inside to wash himself off and dress. He combed his hair to make himself look presentable.

Then, he saddled his horse and rode out to the West Main Street. Then he turned south on Water Street. The Worthy place was just a shell of blackened timbers by the time Paul reached it. It was still smoking. He saw the Worthys rummaging through the remains, seeing if there was anything they could salvage. He wished them luck and hoped they would find something to help them rebuild their lives.

Paul hadn’t been so lucky. He had lost his family and his farm. Of course, it hadn’t been a fire that took them away. He’d been too drunk most of the time to run his farm, and he had fallen behind on the taxes. The county took the farm, and then his wife and daughter left him to go live with her parents.

It surprised him that the townspeople elected him sheriff. Paul had run because he needed the work. He was lucky no one else wanted the job, or he would still be looking for work.

Paul walked over to Jonah Worthy, who stopped what he was doing.

“Did everyone get out all right, Jonah?”

Jonah Worthy looked like he had been in a fight. His clothing was torn. His face was covered in dirt, and he looked despondent. “Mary was just getting up to start the morning fires in the stove when she saw the flames.”

“Where did it start?”

“That’s just it, Sheriff. She said the flames were all around the house. They worked their way in. We gathered the children and used blankets to get through the fires at the back door.”

Paul patted the older man on the shoulder. Then he walked around the edge of the house. He could see pieces of logs all around the perimeter. These weren’t boards, but logs the size of firewood.

He scratched at his beard and considered what he was seeing. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all.

He mounted his horse and rode his horse further south to Rev. Hoyle’s house on Frederick Road. It looked much the same as the Worthy house, although the fire hadn’t destroyed it entirely because the house had been constructed of stone. The walls were standing, but the roof had collapsed.

Paul walked to the edge of the house and saw pieces of logs all along the sides where there shouldn’t be wood.

He suspected he was dealing with an arsonist, but why would someone even try to burn a stone building down. Certainly he had damaged it, but the reverend could gut the interior and rebuilt the roof. It wasn’t a total loss like the Worthy house, which is what Paul would have thought an arsonist would have wanted.

So, if complete destruction wasn’t the goal, what was? Did the arsonist know the people who lived in the houses? This house belonged to the reverend at Harriet Church. Jonah Worthy owned the store in Catoctin Furnace, and the iron company owned the ironmaster’s mansion.

Paul nodded slowly. So, all three owners had connections to the iron company, but was that enough of a connection? He could understand someone being angry with the iron company, and maybe even the owner of the store, but a reverend? Paul had met Rev. Hoyle. He was as nice as they came.

Honestly, it surprised Paul there weren’t more fires at the furnace. They kept the furnace fires hot enough to turn iron into liquid. Imagine what damage it could do if some of that molten iron was thrown on a house? This all looked like was it was the work of a well-set wood fire, though.

Paul suspected this was the work of an arsonist because the two houses he had seen had been burned from all around the outside inward, and he suspected he would find the same thing at the ironmaster’s mansion. Paul was in over his head. He was just a farmer, and a drunk one at that.

written by James Rada, Jr.

A new serial fiction story for your enjoyment

4: The Fire Will Judge

Abednego Hunt stood facing the wooden cross he had carved. He knew you were supposed to wear your Sunday best for funerals, but he only had two sets of clothes, and they were both work clothes. He had carefully washed one set, though, so he could properly say goodbye to his brother Meshach.

He held a box filled with Meshach’s ashes. It wasn’t a big box, and he wasn’t even sure whether it held all of Shack’s ashes. This had been all he could find after his brother fell into the burning charcoal stack the day before.

Since Rev. Hoyle at the church in town had refused to bury the ashes, Abednego buried them here on Catoctin Mountain, near the charcoal stacks where he and Meshach had lived and worked.

He dug a hole in the ground about two feet deep and placed the box of ashes in it. Then he recited a few Bible verses he remembered from childhood. They didn’t pertain to death or burials, but they were only things Abednego knew.

He buried the box and stood crying over the grave. He already missed his brother.

That evening, as he lay in his cot in the ramshackle cabin he and Meshach called home, Abednego imagined his brother lying on his cot talking to him.

“It wasn’t your fault, Ben,” Shack said.

“I know, but I miss you all the same,” Abednego told him.

“It was the iron company. They don’t care about us. They wouldn’t pay you my death benefit.”

“They said you weren’t on the payroll.”

“I was, though. You know that. You know I drew pay.”

Abednego nodded, “I know, but they won’t listen.”

“Then the fire will judge them.”

That startled Abednego, and he sat up, wide awake. He walked outside. Some of the charcoal stacks still smoldered, but he had done nothing to tend to them since Shack had died. Let them burn down to nothing for all he cared.

He walked over to a stack that had collapsed.

He could see the glowing embers of what remained of the fire and logs mixed in with the dirt that had covered the stacks.

Abednego should have been shoveling the charcoal into the wagon.

Instead, he kicked at the dirt, exposing the charcoal and remaining embers. He picked up one orange glowing piece of wood, not even feeling pain. He threw it at the shack. It hit the wall and fell to the ground.

He picked up another ember and threw it. This one landed on the roof of the shack and began smoking. He threw another and another. He felt no pain, although his hands were red. What he felt was relief.

Little wisps of flame appeared on the roof where the embers had taken hold. He stood and watched as the flames grew. He didn’t worry. He owned little and wouldn’t miss any of it.

He walked back into the shack and felt the heat from the surrounding flames. He looked up at the yellow flames spreading along the roof.

He closed his eyes and held his arms out to his side. The fire will judge them.

Abednego heard timbers hit the ground as the fire ate through them and weakened the structure. He kept his eyes closed and waited. The heat grew intense and the flames loud. He couldn’t hear anything except for the cracking of wood and the whoosh of flames growing. They whispered to him, but he couldn’t understand what they said. They must be passing their judgement upon him.

He waited, wincing finally at the heat.

Occasionally, a flame licked at his body, but he kept his eyes closed and waited.

Then, there were a final great whoosh and crash. He felt a gust of wind. Then he felt cool air, at least cooler air.

He finally opened his eyes.

The shack had collapsed around him, but it had fallen in such a way that no burning pieces of wood had hit him. They lay around him, some of them still burning.

The fire had judged him, but had it rejected him or found him worthy?

Did it matter? It was time for it to judge the others who had turned their backs on the Hunt brothers, especially Meshach.

Abednego rode the horse down the mountain in the dark. It was surefooted, and he let it find its way with little guidance.

The streets were deserted. The workers started early in the morning. They needed their sleep.

He rode into Catoctin Furnace and tied the horse to a tree. Then, he walked into town and past the furnace. He stood looking at the ironmaster’s house. All the lamps had been extinguished for the night, and the windows were dark.

He walked closer, being careful not to raise any noise. He circled the house and found the woodshed. He spent the next hour hauling the logs from the shed and spreading them around the base of the house. Although the house was primarily stone, it had plenty of wooden siding and beams. He added kindling and stood back to admire his work.

It would burn, but not quickly.

He hurried back out to the furnace and filled a bucket with lamp oil. He carried it back to the house and splashed it on the walls and wood he had piled around the base. He made two more trips, repeating the process.

When he finished his preparations, Abednego used his flints to start a fire on each side of the house. Then, he moved into the woods. He watched the flames grow and spread. When it grew brighter, he moved back deeper into the shadows.

The flames had taken hold well before he heard the first cry raised. The yells quickly rose in number, and he began seeing shadows as people rushed to find the water barrels. He had tipped over the ones closest to the house. The fire crew brought the pump wagon over to the house, and a bucket brigade formed to fill the wagon’s tank.

Abednego sat down and watched the fire burn. The flames reached high into the sky. He watched as some people attempted to carry out valuables from the house. They knew it was a lost cause.

A woman wailed loudly, probably the ironmaster’s wife.

Abednego sighed with satisfaction. Then he walked to where he tied the horse and rode it back up the mountain, where he made himself a bed under a pine tree and slept.

written by James Rada, Jr.

A new serial fiction story for your enjoyment

3: All That Remains

Abednego Hunt rolled onto his backside and slid off the smoldering log stack. His younger brother, Meshach, had stepped on a weak spot and fallen into the center of the stack where the fires were slowly turning the logs into charcoal for the Catoctin Iron furnace.

He rolled off the edge of the stack and hit the ground hard. He quickly scrambled to his feet and looked for a shovel. He grabbed it and scraped at the layer of earth that covered the log stack and held in the heat.

Abednego exposed a log and clawed at it with his fingers, but he couldn’t get a grip. He pried at a log with the shovel, trying to work it loose. The log wiggled, and he drove it deeper into the gap until he could get a grip on it. He pulled until he could roll the log to the side.

Once the log was out of the way and there was a gap in the stack, it was easier to get at the other logs.

Abednego peered into the interior of the stack. “Shack! Shack, answer me!”

His brother said nothing.

Abednego scrambled to pull another log free. Then he reached into the stack. “Grab my hand! Grab my hand!”

Nothing happened.

He crawled into the stack, ignoring the heat and pain from the burning embers. Flames began flaring up as more air reached the embers.

He pulled another log free. He needed more light inside the stack so that he could see where his brother was. The third log he pulled free fell into the stack, sending a cloud of embers into the air. They stung where they touched Abednego’s flesh and smoldered on his clothing.

Abednego still couldn’t see Meshach. He kept pulling at logs, hoping that the next one would somehow reveal his brother. He pulled so many free that the stack finally collapsed. One log hit Abednego on the shoulder and sent him sprawling into the center of the stack.

He no longer felt any pain or even noticed that his shirt was smoking. He stood up and looked around, but he didn’t see his brother. All he saw was ashes.

It couldn’t be. His brother had fallen into the stack only a few minutes ago. There should be a body or bones, at the very least.

Tears streamed down his cheeks. “Shack!”

No one answered.

Abednego walked into the cabin he shared with his brother and found a box filled with canned goods. He took the cans out and walked back out to the flattened charcoal stack.

He stared at the ashes. Some of them had to be his brother, but he couldn’t tell the difference between any of them. They were all gray.

Abednego filled the box with the ashes he thought might be Meshach. They were the ones near the center, where Shack had fallen into the stack. He tried to feel a connection to the ashes. He felt like he should be able to feel a connection if the ashes were Shack’s, but he felt nothing. He put his fingers in the ashes and slowly stirred them.

Why couldn’t he sense his brother?

Abednego drove the wagon off the mountain and into Catoctin Furnace. It felt unusual coming down the mountain in a wagon not weighed down by charcoal, especially since he had been here yesterday. The box filled with Meshach’s ashes sat on the bench seat next to him.

He drove to the small stone church that John O’Brien, an owner of the furnace, had built last year in honor of his wife.

Abednego walked inside, cradling the box in his arms. The church was empty. He was about to leave when Rev. John Clark Hoyle walked in from the other end.

“May I help you?” the reverend asked.

“Reverend, I need you to hold a service for my brother,” Abednego said.

The reverend motioned for Abednego to sit in a pew.

“Tell me what happened,” Rev. Hoyle asked.

Abednego teared up. “He burned in a fire yesterday. I couldn’t get to him in time.”

Rev. Hoyle put a hand on Abednego’s shoulder. “That’s terrible, son. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Abednego wiped at his eyes. “I’d like to bury him in the cemetery, Reverend, and have you say some words over him.”

“Certainly. Is the body with the undertaker?”

Abednego patted the box in his lap. “No, this is all that’s left of him.”

Rev. Hoyle’s eyes widened. “But that box isn’t big enough…”

“It’s all that was left.”

“No, there would be bones. Maybe you were mistaken.”

“I saw him fall into the stack. I heard him scream.”

“But the charcoal stacks don’t burn hot enough to leave nothing but ash.” Rev. Hoyle lifted the lid on the box and stared at what was inside. “This is nothing but ash. You can even see the charcoal bits in it.”

Abednego slapped the lid closed. “That’s all that remains of my brother. I was there. I should know.”

Rev. Hoyle pressed his lips together and was silent as he stared at Abednego. Finally, he said, “I believe you are sincere, young man. I don’t know what happened with your brother, but that is not a body. I have seen burned bodies before. That is not one.”

“I’m telling you it is.”

Rev. Hoyle shook his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to add to your grief.”

Abednego picked up the box and walked out of the church. He didn’t know what to say, but he felt anything he said to the reverend would be unkind. Abednego would just have to bury the body himself.

He climbed into the wagon and put the box on the seat next to him. He drove the wagon to the superintendent’s office. Superintendent Pitzer was sitting at his desk when Abednego knocked on the door. The superintendent waved him inside.

“Can I help you?” the burly superintendent asked.

“I’m Abednego Hunt. I’m one of the colliers. I work with my brother, Meshach.” Abednego sat down in the chair in front of Superintendent Pitzer’s desk. “Well, the thing is, there was an accident yesterday, and my brother fell into the stack and burned to death.”

The superintendent’s eyes narrowed, and he lifted his chin. “I hadn’t heard anything.”

“No, sir, that’s why I’m here. I came to arrange for my brother’s burial and to collect his death benefit.”

“I see.”

The superintendent stood and walked over to a bookshelf. He carried a book back to the desk. He opened the book and started leafing through the pages. Then, he ran his finger down a list of names.

“I see your name, Abednego, but I don’t see your brother’s,” Pitzer said.

“What does that mean?”

“It means he is not employed by the furnace, and you are not owed a death benefit.”

“But he’s been working here as long as I have.”

“Our records say otherwise.”

“You’re trying to cheat me!”

“I would not cheat anyone of a death benefit. I don’t want to add to a family’s grief, but your brother was not employed here. I see your name, but I can find no record of a Meshach Hunt working here or ever being paid wages. I’m sorry.”

Abednego stood up. “This just isn’t right.”

“Unless you can show me something that proves he worked for us and was paid, I can’t do anything.”

Abednego shook his head. “No, it just isn’t right.”

He turned and walked out of the office. He kept his clenched fists at his side. Why were people treating him and Meshach like this? Didn’t they have any compassion? Did they hate him so much? What had he done to offend them?

He climbed into the wagon and headed back toward Mechanicstown. He had a funeral to plan.

A new serial fiction story for your enjoyment

written by James Rada, Jr.

2: A Death in the Family

After dropping off a load of charcoal at the coal house in Catoctin Furnace, Abednego Hunt walked down Frederick Road to the nearby store for supplies. He and his brother, Meshach, had a small garden at their collier’s camp on Catoctin Mountain. It provided fresh vegetables, but the brothers still needed staples like coffee, flour, and sugar from time to time.

Abednego looked over the offerings on the shelves, but he was really watching Nellie Latimer behind the counter. She was 22 years old and already a widow. Her husband had been a woodcutter. He had died last year when a tree fell the wrong way and crushed him. Now, Nellie worked for her father who owned the store.

Abednego liked to watch her move and listen to her laugh. She was smart, too, which didn’t say much, since Abednego never finished school. He had had to go to work after his parents died from a fever.

“Can I help you find something, Ben?” Nellie asked.

“I’m just looking everything over,” Abednego said.

“It doesn’t change that much between your visits, and it’s not that interesting.”

“That may be, but I’m used to seeing trees and flames, so anything different is worth taking time to look over.” Abednego walked over to stand closer. “How have you been?”

“All right, I suppose. My father works me harder than his other clerk,” Nellie said.

“You could always get another job.”

“I could get other work, but it wouldn’t pay as much. It pays to be the boss’s daughter sometimes.”

She smiled at him. Her teeth were white. Abednego pressed his lips together. He doubted his teeth were that white. He rarely brushed them. Just didn’t seem to be much reason to with being so isolated on the mountain.

“So what can I get you?” she asked.

“Do you have any newspapers?” Abednego liked to read when he had time. He tried to keep on top of what was happening.

Nellie looked under the counter. “I’ve got four from Frederick, one from Gettysburg, and one from Hagerstown.”

“I’ll take the most recent one.”

She laid a copy of the Frederick Herald on the counter. It was three days old.

“Anything else?”

Abednego bought coffee and sugar, and he took a risk that a dozen eggs could make it back up to his hut on the mountain without cracking. He eyed his purchases, comparing the cost against how much money he had with him.               

“Add a nickel’s worth of candy to the order, Nellie,” Abednego said. “I’ll bring Shack a treat since he never comes off the mountain.”

“Who’s that?”

“Shack. Meshach, my brother.”

“Oh.” She raised an eyebrow but said nothing more.

Nellie tallied up the order and placed the items in a bag. Abednego paid the bill and headed back out to the wagon which he had left near the furnace.

He walked past the furnace to the ironmaster’s house. It was a large three-story home built of stone and wood. It had 18 rooms inside. It could probably contain all the stacks that Abednego and Meshach managed with room left over. How large was the ironmaster’s family for him to need such a large home? Abednego and Meshach lived in a single room with no windows. If they had lived in a place like the ironmaster’s house, they might go for days without seeing each other.

He did have to admit it was a beautiful home with its wide porches and boxwoods surrounding it. It probably had large beds with thick feather mattresses. How wonderful it must be to sleep on a cloud at night.

Abednego walked back and climbed into his wagon. He looked up at Catoctin Mountain. It looked like a dog with mange. There were still plenty of trees, but he could also see bare patches where the woodcutters had cleared everything away. Other areas showed newer growth where trees had been replanted. They weren’t old enough to harvest yet, but the woodcutters would eventually come back to them. The furnace was a ravenous beast that demanded to be fed. Colliers, like the Hunt brothers, brought in wagon loads of charcoal each day to keep the fires burning. The charcoal was the first layer put down in the furnace. Then came limestone and finally the iron ore. Then the layers repeated until the furnace was filled to the top. It all started with the charcoal.

He drove the horse north toward Mechanicstown and turned west to head up the mountain. The dirt road wound back and forth, making its way ever higher. The ride got rougher when he left the main road to head to where their camp was. It was fortunate he didn’t have to pull big loads uphill. He would have needed another horse.

He drove through stands of trees that were probably 10 to 15 years old. In another five years, the woodcutters might be felling them again. Who knows where their camp would be then? They moved it twice a year to stay close to woodcutters since they had to use mule-drawn sleds to bring the logs to the colliers. The closer the collier camps were to the trees, the less time was wasted hauling logs.

As Abednego approached the camp, he saw Meschach jumping the stack on number one. He shouldn’t be on that stack. It was too close to finishing. It was already starting to shrink as the logs burned down to charcoal.

“Hi, Ben!” Meshach called, waving.

“I bought you some candy!” Abednego said.

Meschach grinned. A gust of wind blew through the clearing. The wind swirled and blew leaves onto the stack. They floated upward on the small tendril of smoke from the chimney.

Then Meshach disappeared.

Abednego blinked and stared at the top of the stack. Then he saw the larger hole near the chimney and he heard his brother scream.

Abednego dropped the reins and scrambled up the ladder onto the stack.

“Shack!”

Released from the confines of the stack, more smoke rolled out and the flames in the hearth ignited.

Meshach screamed again.

As Abednego stepped up to the hole, the edge collapsed. He fell backward rather into the hole as his brother had done. He rolled off the stack and landed hard on the ground. His breath left him in a gasp.

Meshach screamed, “Ben, help me!”

Abednego rolled to his feet and climbed back onto the stack. This time, he lay on his stomach and looked into the hole. He couldn’t see anything. The hole was dark and smoke poured out making it hard to keep his eyes open.

Meschach continued screaming. Abednego reached into the hole.

“Shack, grab my hand! Grab it! I’ll pull you out!”

That was going to be the only way to get his brother out quickly. He felt something slap his hand, but it moved away quickly.

“That was my hand, Shack! Grab it!”

Meschach stopped screaming.

“Shack! Shack! Shack!”

Meshach never answered.

written by James Rada, Jr.

A new serial fiction story for your enjoyment

1: Master of the Flames

Meshach Hunt stood on the mound of earth until his boots began smoking. Then, he danced around yelling, “Ouch, ouch, ouch!”

Fifteen feet below him, his brother Abednego grinned, but he said, “Stop fooling around, Shack. We’ve got more logs to stack on the number three pile.”

Meshach was only a year younger than Abednego, but he might as well have been 20 years younger. He acted like jumping the stacks was a game of hot foot. They both knew stepping too hard in the wrong spot might lead to a hole that swallowed the collier up and dropped him into the fires smoldering beneath. Meshach saw it as a challenge. Abednego saw it as a danger.

Meshach stopped his jumping. He shifted the dirt on the mound with his shovel, covering the smoke hole. It was important to keep the air out and the heat in the mound. It controlled the burning going on beneath the mound. In another week, this mound would be a load of charcoal for Catoctin Furnace at the base of the mountain.

The furnace had been operating for decades, creating pig iron for stoves, utensils, and other things. The stone and brick stack was ever hungry, consuming 800 bushels of charcoal each day. Abednego wasn’t so good with his numbers, but a foreman at the furnace told him that to get that much charcoal, the woodcutters felled an acre of hardwood trees each day. They brought the trees to colliers like the Hunt brothers, who turned the wood into charcoal.

Meshach finished his inspection of the mound, while Abednego walked over to the pile of logs the woodcutters had finished delivering a few minutes ago. The number three stack would be ready to start burning tomorrow. This was the last load of logs needed.

Meshach and Abednego had spent two days preparing this mound. In the very center was a fagan, a pole around which the logs were stacked, and once removed, would create the chimney in the stack. Although the stack was already started, Abednego needed Meshach’s help setting the logs onto the stack.

Meshach finally climbed off the stack and came down the ladder. He walked over to his brother, and the pair carried the oak logs to the stack and then tilted them onto the other logs that formed the circular, cone-like structure. Then, they stepped back to look at the result of three days’ work.

The brothers had stacked 40 cords of 12-foot-long logs in expanding circles around a chimney flue. The chimney had already been stuffed with sticks and other kindling. Now, the colliers’ job would be to fill in the gaps between the logs with sticks. Then, they would cover it all with a layer of dirt.

Once that was done, they would remove the fagan, and the brothers would drop embers into the chimney to get a fire started in the center of the stack of logs. They would then let the logs slowly burn for two weeks. The dirt covering kept the air out so that they could control the burn rate.

After two weeks, they would open what remained of the stacks and spread out to cool like the number four stack was doing.

Seen from a distance, someone might have thought the collection of a dozen structures with smoke rolling from their tops was a small village. However, this village only had two residents. It was enough for Abednego. It had always been him and his brother since they were children. They didn’t need anyone else.

Abednego wiped off his sweat with the back of his arm. “Just in time for lunch,” he said.

Neither brother was married, although they were in their thirties. Abednego didn’t blame the women. He rarely saw them. Who would want to live in a shack on Catoctin Mountain? The only people the Hunt brothers saw regularly were colliers, woodcutters, and furnace workers.

They walked into their hut, which was a windowless room that resembled the stacks, except it had a doorway on the side.

They rinsed their hands in a bucket of water and ate bread, cheese, and apples for lunch. It wasn’t fancy, but it filled them up. They ate little hot food. Neither of them wanted to cook over a fire after tending stacks all day. They lived with a perpetual sheen of sweat, even in the winter.

Besides, they didn’t want to eat too much. No one wanted to feel heavy walking on a charcoal stack.

After lunch, the brothers raked the soil off number two stack to get at the cooled charcoal underneath. They shoveled the charcoal into the wagon bed, filling it up. Then, they tied a tarp over it. The trip down the mountain could be bouncy, and Abednego didn’t want to lose half his load before he reached the furnace.

When everything was loaded, Abednego climbed up into the seat.

“Want to come along, Shack?” he asked.

Meshach shook his head. “No, I’ll take care of things here, Ben.”

Abednego nodded, not surprised. His brother never made the journey to Catoctin Furnace. He was content to stay on the mountain and watch over the stacks. Abednego lived for the trips off the mountain to drop off coal at the furnace. It gave him an excuse to go into town and talk to people, especially women.

Of course, he understood Meshach’s position. Those fires burned for two to three weeks at a time, and someone needed to watch them to make sure they didn’t get too hot or go out. It just didn’t need to be Meshach who always did it. He seemed to sense how much Abednego looked forward to the trips off the mountain.

When Abednego reached the Frederick Road between Mechanicstown and Catoctin Furnace, he turned south. He smiled at a woman he saw hanging laundry on a line. He might have stopped to talk, but it was obvious from the laundry that she probably had a husband. Besides, Abednego knew he didn’t present well. He was covered in soot, as always, and smelled like wood smoke.

The furnace that gave the village of Catoctin Furnace its name was 32-feet tall, an impressive site amid all the nearby one-story buildings. A water wheel, mill pond, and races, a coal house to store charcoal, the bridge and bridge house to charge the stack, and a cast house were all nearby structures supporting the furnace operation.

Further away were the homes for the workmen, stores, barns, stables, and a church. Catoctin Furnace had hundreds of workers. Miners dug the iron from the ground. Lumberers felled the trees, and colliers prepared the charcoal from them. Fillers charged the furnace. Founders smelted the iron and cast it. And all of these people lived near the furnace, except for the colliers.

They stayed on the mountain with the stacks that had to be watched around the clock, even on Sundays. However, some colliers did work in shifts, so they could live at least part of the time in town. It was just easier for the Hunts to live near their stacks. They were used to living by themselves. It seemed like they always had.

Abednego unloaded the charcoal into the coal house, and then walked over to watch the men working the furnace. He could feel the heat from the fires burning the furnace 100 feet away.

He watched a pair of shirtless, sweaty men shovel charcoal into the fire to keep the flames burning hot enough to melt the iron ore, which was also in the furnace. This was the opposite of Abednego’s job, which was to control the fire and create a smoldering heat.

He stared into the tall, dancing flames, entranced by their undulations. He rarely saw the flames he worked with, and if he did, it was usually a bad thing. These flames devoured the charcoal, while Abednego’s flames savored the wood.

He reached a hand toward the flames and imagined holding it in his hand. He had held a burning coal in his hand for a short time once. It had seemed like a living thing as the light from the ember pulsed. It reminded him of a firefly. Then, it had grown too hot, and he had tossed it away.

He controlled the fire. He commanded it to do his bidding, and it did. He was the master of the flames.

written by James Rada, Jr.

7: The best is yet to come

Caleb Sachs walked out of St. Joseph’s Church and stopped at the Gettysburg Road. He leaned against a stone pillar and took a deep breath.

He had been so sure he had gotten through to Margaret Rosensteel. He had laid all his cards on the table for her. He had thought she would take a chance to let their relationship develop and see how things went. Now, unfilled expectations would weigh on his mind, particularly if he saw her around town.

He walked back to his family’s store on Main Street in Emmitsburg. His father stood behind the counter, while his mother was in the kitchen making dinner.

“Hello, son,” his father said.

Caleb said nothing as he walked behind the counter to get to the staircase that led to the rooms where they lived on the second floor of the building.

“Caleb?”

Caleb stopped and looked at his father.

“Is something the matter?” Daniel Sachs asked.

Caleb shrugged. “I guess it depends on who you ask.”

That was true. Things were a disaster for him, but everyone else—Margaret’s brothers, his mother, and who knows how many others—would be happy.

He walked upstairs to his room and paced from one side to the other. He stopped and looked out the window. A few people walked along Main Street and the evening stage went past.

Caleb sat down at his desk and wrote out a letter. It was short. He had little to say, at least little that his parents would understand.

Samuel Rosensteel fumed while he waited for Margaret to return. His daughter had run off after he and her mother told Margaret that they would be sending her to join the Daughters of Charity sooner than she had expected.

Why was she upset about that? She had known for years that she would become a sister. She had had time to get used to the idea. It was a noble calling. She would do well in the world, teaching, healing, bringing God to the people.

It was that boy. Caleb Sachs. He had confused Margaret. He was the reason she needed to go away sooner, before the two of them did something they shouldn’t.

He saddled his horse and rode into town. His son, Jack, saw him and joined him.

“Where are you going, Father?”

“I mean to get your sister and bring her home,” Samuel said.

“She went to see that boy, didn’t she?”

“I think so.”

Jack shook his head. “Some people just don’t learn the lessons they’re taught.”

They rode into town and tied their horses up in front of the Sachs Mercantile. Samuel stormed inside, and the man behind the counter jumped up.

“Where’s my daughter?” Samuel demanded.

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Daniel Sachs said.

“She’s here. She came to see your son.”

“My son just came home a short time ago, and he came alone.”

“I want to see him.”

Daniel hesitated, but then walked to the back doorway and called up the stairs, “Caleb, can you come down here, please?”

No one answered.

“Caleb!”

Still no answer.

Daniel turned to the Rosensteels. “Wait here. I’ll get him.”

Daniel walked upstairs, but he found Caleb’s room empty. He saw an envelope sitting on the pillow on his son’s bed addressed to him.

He opened the letter.

Father,

I have left for Gettysburg. I can’t stay in Emmitsburg any longer. Too many people have shown me how they really feel about me. All Margaret and I want is to be happy and get to know each other. No one would let us, including Mother. So I am going someplace where I can try to be happy.

I will write when I have settled in.

Your son, Caleb.

Daniel walked downstairs, holding the letter.

“Where’s your son?” Samuel asked.

“He’s gone.”

“With Margaret?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. He’s left for Gettysburg.”

The outside door opened and Margaret walked in.

“Margaret, where have you been?” Samuel asked.

“I was at the church.”

Samuel Rosensteel sighed. “Thank Heavens for that. Now you need to get home.”

Margaret shook her head. “No, I came to see Caleb. We need to talk.”

“I was just telling your father he’s not here,” Daniel said.

“Do you know where he is?”

“He left a letter that said he’s left for Gettysburg.”

Margaret’s eyes widened. She looked from Daniel to her father. “Father, I need to take your horse.”

“Fine, take it and go home.” He waved her off.

Margaret ran back outside. She mounted her father’s horse and galloped off to the north.

How much of a lead did Caleb have? Was he on foot, horse, or wagon? She should have asked. Would he take the Gettysburg Road or go through Fairfield, where he could find a place to stay for the night?

She made a quick estimate of how long he might have been riding and headed for the Gettysburg Road.

She didn’t see him at first because she was looking for someone on horseback. She saw him walking toward the Flat Run Bridge, carrying a suitcase.

She was about to call out to him, but she got an idea when she saw the Flat Run Bridge.

She took a side street and galloped around Caleb. She splashed across Flat Run and then urged the horse up the hill.

When she reached the top of the hill, she dismounted and took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. Then she began humming to herself and dancing around. She spun in gentle circles and bounced up and down.

“What are you doing?”

She stopped moving and looked toward the road. Caleb had set his suitcase on the ground and was staring at her.

“I agree,” she said.

“What?”

“I agree. Let’s make a lot of memories. That’s what you said in the church.”

“Your family won’t like it.”

“I know, but it’s not their decision to make. God didn’t spare my life just to have my parents lay out what I should do with that life. It’s my decision to make.”         

She held out her hands toward him. He picked up his suitcase and walked up the hill.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” he asked.

“No, not at all, but I want to have good memories if I become a sister. I don’t want to have regrets. And if I don’t become a sister, then I need to have a good reason why I’m not.”

She took his hands and started dancing again, pulling him into the moves. He laughed and joined in the dance freely.

Then he pulled her close and kissed her. She grabbed his head and held him close.

“We’re going to make some good memories,” he said.

She leaned her forehead against his. “One way or another, I think the next year will be the best one of my life.”

A documentary film entitled Bluebirds of Antietam aired on Maryland Public Television (MPT) on July 18, 2021, at 5:30 p.m.

This film was produced by Stefanie Boss of Hagerstown and directed by Conrad Weaver of Emmitsburg. It tells the story of one couple’s efforts to save the bluebird from extinction.

After spotting a bluebird outside their Sharpsburg cabin, Mark and Jean Raabe began a 35-year effort to provide nest boxes for bluebirds whose lose of habitat and other factors had decimated their numbers.

The film shares the story of their success in fledging over 10,000 bluebirds and the work that continues today on one of the oldest continually monitored bluebird trails in the United States: Antietam National Battlefield. And, it is the only trail within national park boundaries.

This film has been accepted into several film festivals, including the Maryland International Film Festival, which will be held in Hagerstown on August 20-22, 2021. It has garnered a Silver Telly Award in the Nature category and a Bronze Award for Cinematography.

For further information, please follow the film’s Facebook page: “Bluebirds of Antietam” or contact the Producer, Stefanie Boss.

written by James Rada, Jr.

A new serial fiction romance story for your enjoyment

6: A Life to Live

Margaret Rosensteel walked home to the family farm west of Emmitsburg. She walked in a daze, stunned at what Mrs. Sachs had said to her about not being able to see Caleb Sachs. How could Caleb’s mother say Margaret wasn’t good enough for her son? Margaret was a good person. She and Caleb were just friends. Well, maybe there was more there, but they hadn’t explored the possibility. They hadn’t the chance. Everyone was against them. Did they see something between her and Caleb that they didn’t see?

Margaret hadn’t taken an interest in a boy in quite a while. She avoided those feelings. Her interest in Caleb had just snuck up on her, but it seemed like she wasn’t the only one with a destiny, at least according to Mrs. Sachs.

Dinner was quiet. No one said much except for the younger children. Margaret’s parents kept looking at each other. After dinner was finished and the dishes washed, Margaret’s parents called her into the parlor.

“We need to talk to you about a decision we’ve made,” Samuel Rosensteel said. Margaret’s mother laid a hand on her husband’s shoulder. “But first, we want you to know that we think nothing inappropriate happened.”

Inappropriate? So were her parents now going to come out against her and Caleb?

Her father said, “That’s right. We know you’re a good girl, but nothing can come of this relationship between you and Caleb Sachs.”

“What relationship?” Margaret asked. “I admit I like him, but we only met for the first time at the dance.”

“Well, that’s fine. Then this shouldn’t be a problem for you. Your life has been committed to God, so we have decided to send you to the sisters early.”

Margaret jumped up. “What?”

“You are getting to the age where boys can turn your head. Your brothers and sisters certainly seem to think you’ve taken an interest in Caleb. Sending you away now will avoid that problem.”

Margaret nodded. “I understand… but I’m not sure I want to go.”

“That’s why we’re sending you away. You’re letting your emotions get the better of you.”

Margaret shook her head. She stood up and left the house for a second time today without a word. Outside, she ran off into the fields. She didn’t know where she was going. She didn’t care. She just wanted to get away.

When she tired of running, she started walking until she reached Gettysburg Road. She turned south and headed into town. She saw St. Joseph’s Church and went inside.

It was dim, except near the front of the church where candles burned. She walked up to the first pew, genuflected, and slid into the seat. Then she bowed her head and prayed. She needed help. She didn’t understand what was going on, not with Caleb, not with everyone else. What should she do?

Rosa Sachs walked upstairs to Caleb’s bedroom. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, staring out his window. He wasn’t looking at anything in the street, just staring off into the distance.

“Caleb, how are you feeling?” Rosa asked.

Caleb looked over his shoulder. “I’m sore, but I’ll be fine.”

“We should call the sheriff.”

“Why? I don’t know who did this to me.”

“I think you do.” She paused. “Even so, I know who they were. We can’t go around letting men beat up children.”

“How do you know?”

“That girl you’re mooning over came to see how you were.”

Caleb stood up. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because she’s not the girl for you. I told her the same thing I told you. She’s not Jewish, so she won’t be marrying you.”

Caleb shook his head. “You’re putting the cart before the horse.”

“I am not.”

“I don’t know what life has in store for me. It’s not like I’m on a train going along a fixed path where the destination is the most important thing. I want to enjoy the journey and explore my life.”

His mother scoffed. “And you want to explore it with that girl? She’ll lead you in the wrong direction.”

“How do you know that? How do you know what my life is going to be? It’s my life, and I don’t know. You’re no better than her brothers. They tried to scare me off. You tried to scare her off. What is everyone so afraid of? That we’ll be happy?”

“Happy? You will be miserable. Both of you. That’s what we want to help you avoid,” Rosa said.

“I like her. I like her a lot. I want to spend time with her. I don’t know if I love her, but I suspect I might. If not now, certainly in the future.”

“And what has that brought you? A beating. Arguments with your mother who loves you.”

“Neither of which I caused.”

He sat back down and stared back out the window. Rosa stared at him for a few moments more and then turned and left.

Caleb walked into a church for the first time. Only a few people filled the pews, and he quickly found Margaret near the front. He walked up the aisle and sat down next to her. He said nothing because it looked like she was praying.

She finished and looked up.

“Caleb, what are you doing here?”

“I figured you might be here after what my mother said to you.”

Margaret frowned. “Not just her. My parents want to send me to sisters early.”

“Because of me?”

She nodded. “Are we wrong?”

“Does it feel wrong?”

She shook her head. “No.”

He took her hand in his. “Then I don’t think it’s wrong. It’s not easy, but no one has had it easy since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden.”

“But everything is so confusing now. It seems like everyone is against us.”

She leaned her head on his shoulder.

“I saw you praying,” Caleb said. “Did it help?”

“Not yet.”

“I want you to know that I won’t hold you back from your promise, but while you’re still free, I want to be with you and get to know you better. I want to have lots of wonderful memories to look back on and comfort me after you leave.”

“But it would break my heart,” Margaret said.

“And mine, too. I think that will tell me it’s worth it. If you were to leave, and I felt nothing, it would be like I had nothing invested in our relationship. I’m willing to hurt for a long time if it means I can be truly happy for a short time with you.”

She stared at him, her eyes glistening with tears. She nodded. “Yes.”

He smiled. Then he leaned down and kissed her. He pulled back, smiling.

“I said what I needed to say. I’ll leave you to your praying now,” Caleb told her.

He got up and left the church.

Father Harmon stood up from the pew where he had been sitting and doing his own praying. He walked over to where Margaret sat. She looked up, a bit startled.

“Forgive me, Margaret. I didn’t want to intrude.”

“You heard me talking with Caleb?”

He nodded. “Yes. Well, the young man has stated his intentions. Now the decision is yours.”

“What should I do?”

He motioned to the pew. “May I sit?”

“Please.”

The priest sat down and leaned against the back of the pew. “You have two admirable choices: Become a Daughter of Charity and be married to God or become a wife and raise a family in faith.”

“We haven’t talked about marriage. We barely know each other.”

“That may be true, but if it is, why does the decision trouble you? Your choice would be between an honorable life of service and a relationship you don’t think will last.”

“I don’t know how my life will be if I stay for him, but I do know what it will be like with the sisters.”

Father Harmon nodded. “Do you believe in Jesus?”

“Yes, Father, of course.”

“Well, he was a Jew. So loving a Jew must not be a sin, and I know your particular Jew. He is a good boy from a good family. If you were not committed to the sisters, your family might not worry.”

“But his family…”

Father Martin nodded. “Yes, that could be a problem, but those types of problems often resolve themselves, particularly when grandchildren come along.”

Margaret gasped. “Father, you have me married with children, and I don’t even know if I love him.”

“Then you need to decide that.”

“But would it be fair to get involved with him and then leave him?”

“Would it be fair to commit yourself to the Daughters with unresolved feelings? You must make that decision. That is why we are given life on earth, to make decisions and hopefully make the correct ones.”

Hot Weather Safety Tips for Our Furry Friends

Give them plenty of fresh, clean water. Pets can get dehydrated quickly. Make sure they have some shade. Your pet needs to have a shady place to get out of the sun and take a break from the heat. Don’t over-exercise them. When it’s hot out, shorten your walk or make sure you give your best buddy breaks in the shade during exercise. Keep them indoors when it’s extremely hot. Maybe take your walk in the evening when it cools down a bit. Your furry friend will thank you. It’s important to know the symptoms of overheating in pets: excessive panting or difficulty breathing, increased heart and respiratory rate, drooling, mild weakness, stupor, or even collapse. Symptoms can also include seizures, bloody diarrhea, and vomit, along with an elevated body temperature of over 104 degrees.

And, of course, never leave your animals alone in a parked vehicle in the summer heat.

Our pets love being with us all the time, even when it’s hot and uncomfortable for them outside. They will never complain! So, let’s make sure we keep them safe and happy outdoors during the summer.

written by James Rada, Jr.

A new serial fiction romance story for your enjoyment

5: Warnings

Caleb Sachs could see Emmitsburg in the distance as he drove his wagon along the dirt road. He’d spent the day making deliveries for this father to some farmers outside of town. His father offered the service, but it fell on Caleb to make the deliveries when the orders came in.

Caleb didn’t mind it so much on a day like today, warm and sunny. It was the wintry days or rainy ones that made him miserable, although he doubted much could have made him miserable today.

He was head over heels… what? In love? He wasn’t sure about that, but he definitely liked Margaret Rosensteel more than any other girl he had ever met. She understood what he was feeling, and she had had a great sense of humor. It didn’t hurt that she was also pretty.

He was so lost in his thoughts, he let the horses drive themselves back to town.

Two men on horses rode up on either side of the wagon and stopped the horses.

“What’s going on?” Caleb said. Then he recognized the two men as Margaret’s older brothers, Jack and Paul Rosensteel.

“We need to talk,” Jack said.

“Then ride along beside me. I need to get home,” Caleb replied.

The older men didn’t let go of Caleb’s horse, nor did they start walking alongside the wagon.

“People saw you and Margaret on the hill north of town yesterday,” Jack said.

Caleb shrugged. “So? We did nothing wrong. We were right out in the open where anyone could see us.”

“You need to stay away from her,” Paul said. “She has bigger plans for this life than being with a cheating shopkeeper’s son.”

Caleb wasn’t sure what angered him more: that these men had called his father a cheater or that they thought Caleb wasn’t good enough for their sister.

“I’d say that’s for Margaret and me to decide. It’s none of your business.” He picked up the reins and clucked at the horses, but the Rosensteel brothers held onto them.

“She’s our sister, so that makes it our business,” Paul told him.

“I’m not talking about this with you,” Caleb said. “Now let go of my horses.”

Jack poked Caleb in the shoulder. “We aren’t going to talk with you about it. We’re warning you. Stay away from Margaret.” He poked Caleb again, and Caleb knocked the hand aside.

“Get out of my way,” he said.

Caleb reached out to slap Paul’s horse on the rump so that Caleb could get the wagon moving. Paul grabbed his arm and yanked, pulling Caleb off the wagon. Caleb fell onto the road as Paul laughed. Caleb jumped up and pulled the bigger man off his horse.

“Not so funny now, is it?” Caleb said.

Jack rode his horse around the wagon and kicked Caleb, sending him sprawling. Then he jumped from the horse. Jack grabbed Caleb by the shirt and punched him in the stomach and the face.

“Some people just have to learn the hard way,” Jack said.

Paul jumped up and landed a few punches of his own. Caleb tried to defend himself, but these men were taller and heavier than he was. He hit back, but his punches didn’t seem to hurt them. They pounded him to the ground, and Caleb rolled under the wagon to shield himself.

The brothers mounted their horses, and Jack said, “You’ll get more of that if you don’t leave her alone.”

Then they rode off.

Caleb hoped he could sneak in the back of the store and up to his room before anyone saw him. His mother happened to be retrieving something in the back room when he came in.

“Caleb! What happened?” She rushed over to him. “Are you all right? Do you need a doctor?”

Caleb shook his head. “I’m fine, Mother. I just came out on the wrong end of a fight.”

“A fight! Why were you fighting? With whom?”

She grabbed a towel off the shelf. She pumped water into the sink, then soaked the cloth, wrung it out, and wiped at Caleb’s face.

He tried to shake off her ministrations. “It doesn’t matter. I just want to lie down for a little while.”

He could name Jack and Paul as his attackers. What good would it accomplish? They might get in trouble, but how would that make Margaret feel? Word would get out about him and Margaret, and it might damage her reputation or get her in trouble with her father.

“Who were you fighting?” his mother asked.

“It doesn’t matter. Some of the boys were roughhousing, and things just got out of hand. I landed my own punches.”

He hadn’t, but it made him sound like he was just as much to blame. His mother couldn’t get his attackers in trouble without getting him in trouble.

He walked upstairs, holding the towel to his face.

Margaret was kneading dough in the kitchen when her brothers came in. They were in a good mood, laughing and kissing their wives on the cheeks. They washed their hands in the sink and sat down at the table.

“You will not have to worry about that Jew boy distracting you from your calling anymore,” Paul said.

Jack elbowed his brother and glared at him.

Margaret paused. This did not sound good. “What are you talking about?”

Jack and Paul looked at each other.

“You might as well tell her. You let the cat out of the bag,” Jack said.

Paul grinned. “We gave Caleb Sachs a message to leave you alone. I think he understood.”

Margaret hefted the dough and considered throwing it at her brothers. “What did you do?”

Jack shrugged. “Nothing permanent.”

Margaret remembered how her brothers had handled the situation with Caleb’s friends at the dance. They were too eager to fight. She slapped the dough onto the table. Then she washed her hands and pulled off her apron.

“You’re not done yet,” her mother said.

“I need to go into town,” Margaret told her.

Paul said, “Don’t let her go, Mother.”

Margaret spun around. “If you did what I think you did, you had better hope the sheriff doesn’t come for you.”

“What are you talking about?” her mother asked.

“I think they beat Caleb up like they did to his friends at dance.”

“Oh, Margaret, they’re grown, married men. They know better than that.”

Margaret rolled her eyes. “Didn’t you hear what I said, Mother? They beat up Caleb’s friends at the dance. They like to fight.”

She hurried out of the house and nearly ran to town. Margaret found the store on West Main Street and walked through the door. She saw a middle-aged woman behind the counter. She must have been Caleb’s mother.

“Hello, I’m looking for Caleb,” Margaret said.

“He can’t see anyone right now.”

“I wanted to see if he was all right.”

“All right? What do you know about what happened to him?” Mrs. Sachs asked.

“Nothing for sure, but I think my brothers may have attacked him.”

“Who are you?”

“Margaret Rosensteel.”

Mrs. Sachs nodded. “Let me guess. You’re the girl who Caleb has been so interested in?”

“We met at the dance Friday.”

“I definitely do not agree with what your brothers did, but they were right in one respect: You and my Caleb can’t be together.”

Margaret felt her cheeks redden. “We’re not together.”

“Yet. Your brothers must see it in you. I can see it in Caleb. There’s more than a healthy interest. Look at what happened to him because of you. I’m sure you are a very nice girl, but you aren’t Jewish.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing except that your children would not be Jewish. When Caleb marries, it will be to an appropriate woman. Now I think you had better go.”

Margaret’s shoulders sagged. She had thought it was only her family that wanted to keep her and Caleb apart. Was what she and Caleb wanted so wrong?

…to be continued next month

written by James Rada, Jr.

4: Feuding

Margaret Rosensteel had been enjoying a magical evening at the town dance in Emmitsburg before everything fell apart. The decorations hung from buildings and strung over the street had been lovely. The weather was warm and pleasant. All the practicing the band had done paid off because they sounded wonderful.

She had danced, which she loved doing, but rarely got to do because her parents thought a future Daughter of Charity should be more serious. And she had met a boy. Not just any boy, either. This one liked her, not because he thought she was cute. He had loved her personality before he ever met her. He had seen her dancing and thought it suited her.

They had danced together, and after that initial uneasiness, they had felt comfortable with each other. She hadn’t restrained her enthusiasm for dancing, which had only made Caleb Sachs smile.

Then, her brothers and Caleb’s friends had gotten into an argument and spoiled the whole evening for her. Caleb had gone to see what was happening with his friends and had gotten swept up in a fight.

Wasn’t that just like boys?

Margaret and her sister Rebecca had left, and Margaret had felt like crying.

Margaret felt no better when she woke up the next morning. She poured water into her basin and washed off, making sure to remove the remains of the makeup she had worn last night. Otherwise, her parents were sure to comment on it. She dressed and went downstairs for breakfast.

Her brothers, Jack and Paul, were sitting at the table talking to her father. What were they doing here? They had their own homes and wives. They all went quiet when she came down. That wasn’t a good sign.

“So did you fight any other children last night?” Margaret said.

“They weren’t children,” Jack said.

“They were my age, and you two are both over twenty. You two looked ridiculous last night.”

“They were spiking the punch,” Paul said.

“Then you should have got their parents and made sure only the adults drank the punch. The last I saw last night was you rolling in cherry pie and yellow cake.”

Jack blushed. Paul colored, too, but he was getting angry.

“I didn’t mean for that to happen, but we didn’t start the fight,” Jack said.

“I was having a wonderful time until you two ruined it.”

“And why were you having such a wonderful time? Was it that boy you were dancing with? It was his friends that caused the problem.”

“From what I saw, Caleb tried to calm things down and you all caught him in the middle. He was acting more like an adult than either of you.”

“Well, your beau is the son of the shopkeeper that is always overcharging us,” Paul said.

Caleb was a shopkeeper’s son. Well, that was a little more she now knew about him.

“If his father overcharges you, then why do you buy from him?” she asked.

“Well, he’s the only one in town who carries some of the things we like.”

“Then how do you know he’s overcharging?”

“Because clothes shouldn’t cost what he charges.”

“I thought you said he sold things other merchants didn’t,” Margaret said. “Everyone sells clothes.”

Paul shook his head. “Sarah likes the fabrics Mrs. Sachs sells. We tried getting them other places, but no one carries them. We’d have to go to Baltimore or Frederick.” Sarah was Paul’s wife.

Samuel Rosensteel stood. “Enough of this arguing. You all are acting like you did when you were in grade school.

“Sorry, Papa,” they all murmured.

“I’ve already spoken to your brothers about their behavior last night, and I’m sure I’ll be hearing plenty more at church tomorrow. What concerns me now is this boy you were dancing with.”

“I danced with three boys, including Caleb,” Margaret said, sounding more defensive than she meant to.

“Apparently only one of them caught your attention enough that both your brothers and Rebecca remarked on it.”

Had her happiness last night been so obvious? What had she been doing that gave away her feelings?

“Let me remind you, Margaret, boys are not for you. Next year, you will become a Daughter of Charity.”

“I know, Papa, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have fun now.”

“It’s what that fun can lead to that I’m concerned about. You need to be preparing yourself for your future.”

“Why must I be reminded about my future all the time? It keeps me from enjoying my life now. I just want to be a girl for a little while longer.”

“You will be when you’re a sister.”

Margaret shook her head. “No, I’ll be a sister, and everyone will treat me differently and expect me to behave in a certain way.”

“You should be proud to be a Daughter of Charity. It’s a sacred calling.”

“But I didn’t get the calling. You did.”

She turned and ran out the back door, ignoring her father calling behind her. She ran until she reached the road, and then she walked toward Emmitsburg.

Her father was sure to scold her when she returned home. She needed to make sure she calmed down before she did, or she might get into an argument with him. She looked around and found herself where she had been dancing yesterday morning…where Caleb had first seen her.

He had watched her dance, and she hadn’t even realized it. She didn’t feel like dancing today. Such a difference in just a day. Even half a day because she had started out last night so happy.

As she crested the hill, she saw Caleb sitting on the ground and staring back into town.

“Caleb,” she said.

He turned his head. He saw her and waved. “I was hoping you might come,” he said.

She walked over and sat down next to him.

“Are you all right?”

He chuckled. “Yes. I just got knocked down. No one hit me. They were aiming at each other.”

“Two of them were my brothers.”

“Two of them were my friends.” He paused. “So, are your brothers angry?”

“Yes.”

He sighed. “My father caught me coming in last night. He wasn’t too happy I went out.”

“Why?”

“I’m Jewish. Friday night starts the Sabbath for us. It would be like you going to a dance on Sunday.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

Caleb smiled at her. “It was worth it. I got to meet you.”

Margaret sighed. “Why can’t things be simple?”

“Because we’d never learn if they were, and we would never appreciate the times things were simple.”

“That makes little sense.”

“Sure it does.” He lay on his back. “Here, lay back.”

Margaret copied him. He pointed to the sky.

“What do you see?

“Clouds.”

“I see a horse.” He pointed to one cloud. “And over there, I see a funny face.”

“Oh, you are trying to see shapes in the clouds.”

Caleb nodded. “You dance. I stare at clouds. We both have our ways of relaxing.”

“So, if I cloud-watch with you, will you dance on the hill with me without any music?”

“In a minuet.”

Margaret laughed at the pun and felt some of the tension drain out of her. She pointed at the sky.

“I see the sun.”

“That is the sun.”

Now, it was Caleb’s turn to laugh at her joke. When she lowered her hand, she found Caleb’s and held it lightly.

A serial fiction romance story for your enjoyment

written by James Rada, Jr.

3: the dance

Caleb Sachs opened the rear door to the store and stepped onto the porch. He had been careful not to make any noise coming down the stairs from the second floor where he and his family lived above the family store in Emmitsburg. He was equally careful not to make a sound shutting the door.

He hurried around the brick building to Main Street and headed for the town square. Lanterns hung from ropes strung between buildings to light up the square. Tables filled with punch, cakes, cookies, and pies lined the edge of the square. A five-piece band was set up in one corner playing “The Rare Old Mountain Dew.” Some couples danced in the streets while the rest of the townspeople milled around off to the sides. More than 800 people lived in Emmitsburg, and Caleb guessed that at least 200 of them were at the dance.

He saw Peter Wilhide and Thomas Baker sitting at one of the tables eating pie. Caleb dodged between the dancers and made his way across the square. He cut himself a slice of pie and sat down next to his friends.

“I didn’t think your parents would let you come,” Thomas said.

Caleb grinned. “I told them I was going to bed, and then I snuck past them.”

“And they won’t check on you?”

“I stuffed a pillow under my blanket. It should work if they don’t look too close,” Caleb told them. His friends laughed. “So anything interesting happen yet?”

“Not yet, but people are still showing up,” Peter said. “I brought something to make things fun, though.” He opened his jacket and Caleb saw the top of a bottle of liquor sticking over the top of the inside pocket.

“Is that for us?” Caleb asked.

“Some of it, but most of it is going to end up in one of the punch bowls.”

Caleb ate pie and looked out over the crowd. The band sounded good. He guessed the crowd was split about half and half between teenagers and adults.

“Are you going to dance tonight?” Caleb asked his friends.

“It depends on who shows up,” Peter said.

“I really want to dance with Becky Everett, but she is only interested in Luke,” Thomas said. Luke Wilhide was Peter’s older brother.

“Well, if we get too bored, we can always grab a cake and sneak away with Peter’s bottle.”

Caleb looked across the square and saw two girls come in from the west. One was blonde and slim. The other had darker hair and a fuller figure than the blonde. Caleb didn’t know them, but they were around his age, and they were attractive.

He watched them walk over to a couple they obviously knew. The man was a couple of years older than Caleb, as was the woman he was with.

Caleb stared at the blonde. She looked familiar, but he knew he didn’t know her. He would have remembered her if he had seen her at school, unless she went to the Catholic school. She might also be visiting from out of town. That still didn’t explain why he felt he knew her.

As if feeling his stare on her, the girl looked up and Caleb saw her pale blue eyes even though she was across the square. She smiled at him, which caused him to grin like a fool. Then Peter elbowed him, causing him to look away. When he looked at her again, she was talking to the older man again.

“You guys may want to sit around eating, but I came to meet girls,” Caleb said. “I’m going to dance.”

He stood up and headed across Main Street to ask the girl with the pale-blue eyes to dance. He wasn’t even halfway there before another guy came up, spoke to her briefly, and then led her into the street to dance.

Caleb stopped, his shoulders sagged, and he walked back to sit with his friends again.

“So, this is what you call dancing?” Peter asked. “I call it sitting.”

“I was going to dance, but that guy beat me to it,” Caleb said, pointing to the couple.

Peter shrugged. “There are other girls standing around. Dance with one of them.”

“You dance with them. I wanted to dance with that girl. Who is she, anyway?”

“I don’t know.”

Thomas said, “That’s Margaret. She’s nice enough, but her sister is better looking and available.”

“What? Is she courting that guy?” Caleb asked.

“No, but I heard she’s going to be a sister.”

“Oh, she’s Catholic.” No wonder Thomas knew her. His family was Catholic. He probably saw Margaret in church.

Margaret. Caleb liked the sound of the name.

He watched her dance. She spun around and laughed. He knew where he had seen her!. She was his angel!

By the time Caleb realized the song had ended, someone else had already asked Margaret to dance. He watched her move, remembering how she had looked this morning. He stood up and moved to the edge of the dancing area. He would not miss another opportunity to dance with his angel.

As he watched her, he realized she was also watching him. Even as she turned around with her dance partner, she kept bringing her eyes back to stare at him.

The song ended, and Caleb barely waited for Margaret’s partner to leave before he approached her.

He stopped in front of her and felt his mouth go dry. She stared at him with those penetrating eyes.

“Would you like to dance?” he managed.

“Yes.”

He reached out and took her hands as they moved into a quadrille. Caleb was glad he knew the dance well because he found himself having trouble concentrating.

“My name is Caleb,” he said.

“I’m Margaret.”

“I haven’t seen you around town.”

“I don’t come in all that often other than for church and school.”

“That’s a shame.”

“A shame I don’t come in or that I go to church?” She must have noticed the flustered look on his face because she added. “I’m just teasing you.”

Caleb smiled.

“Do you know you’re an angel?” he said.

Her eyes widened. “I don’t know if I’d say that.”

“I would. I saw you this morning dancing.”

Caleb felt her miss a beat. Then he saw color rise in her cheeks.

“Really?” she said. “I was just enjoying the beautiful morning. I didn’t know anyone saw me.”

Caleb nodded. “I know. That’s what made it so wonderful. You were expressing yourself. It was so free, open, natural. I saw you dancing and thought of all the wonderful things in life. It made me smile all the way to Gettysburg.”

Margaret stared directly into his eyes. “That’s very kind of you to say.”

Caleb was about to ask Margaret to sit with him at a table when he heard shouts. He looked over his shoulder and saw Peter and Thomas arguing with the older man Margaret had been speaking to earlier.

The man held Peter’s liquor bottle while Peter shouted at him and grabbed at the bottle. Caleb stopped dancing and sighed.

“You’ll have to excuse me. My friends are causing trouble.”

He hurried toward the three men.

“Give me my bottle,” Peter said.

“Guys, calm down. You’re ruining the dance,” Caleb said.

“This guy stole my bottle, Caleb,” Peter said.

“You were spiking the punch,” the man said.

“So?”

“You could get someone drunk who didn’t know it.”

Caleb stood between them with his hands on Peter’s shoulders. “It’s all right, Peter. We wanted it for ourselves, anyway.”

“Well, no one’s getting this,” the man said.

He turned the bottle over and dumped the contents on the street.

“No!” Peter lunged at the man, grabbing at the bottle. The man stepped back and pushed Peter away.

Then suddenly Thomas was swinging at the man, and Caleb was caught in the middle.

“Wait! Stop!” he shouted.

Caleb turned to hold Thomas back and the man’s fist hit him from behind. Caleb stumbled and turned. He saw Thomas’s arm shoot past him as he punched the man. Then other men were grabbing the man, Peter, Thomas, and Caleb, pulling them apart.

Caleb shook the hand off him. “I’m fine.”

“You boys need to leave,” Jack Harrison said.

Caleb was fine with that. He would much rather spend time with Margaret. He looked around to see if he could find her in the crowd. He glimpsed her leaving the dance with her sister.

He realized he hadn’t gotten her last name.

written by James Rada, Jr.

A new serial fiction romance story for your enjoyment

2: Anticipation

Margaret Rosensteel washed the dishes from her family’s dinner while she stared out the kitchen window at nothing. The next farm was over half a mile away to the west, and Emmitsburg was a mile or so to the southeast. She couldn’t see lights from either.

She scrubbed the remains of chicken and gravy from the plates and set them aside.

She remembered the young man she had watched drive past St. Joseph’s Church in town. He was her age, but she had never seen him before. Nothing surprising about that. Margaret doubted she knew everyone in town, but it probably meant the teenage boy wasn’t a Catholic. Between Mass and church socials, Margaret did know all the Catholic boys by sight. She even knew a lot of the other boys in town from her school classes. So, why hadn’t she ever noticed that boy before?

What did it matter? Why was she even thinking of him? Nothing could come of it.

Rebecca came downstairs in a blue calico dress Margaret had never seen her wear. She spun around, making the skirt flare.

“How do I look?” Rebecca asked.

“You look wonderful,” Margaret told her.

“I’ve been working on this all day. I saved for the fabric for two months, but could only buy it yesterday. I wanted to show it off tonight.”

“Tonight?”

Rebecca put her hands on her hips. “Yes. Tonight. The spring dance in town. How could you forget?”

Margaret hadn’t so much forgotten as put it out of her mind. She was going to be a Daughter of Charity, and Daughters of Charity didn’t go dancing, at least none she knew.

“Why was it so important to finish it for the dance?” Margaret asked.

“I want the boys to see me in it. Do you think they’ll like me in it?”

Margaret smiled. “Of course, they will. You look beautiful.” Her younger sister was a cute blonde with an outgoing personality. She was already catching the attention of the boys in town.

“You need to get ready now, so we can go,” Rebecca said.

Margaret shook her head. “I’m not going.”

“You have to, Margaret. You skipped the last two dances. I need someone to talk to. It’s no fun without you.”

“You’ll be too busy dancing and talking with the boys. Besides, other girls will be there.”

“Please, come. I won’t have any fun without you.”

That was a lie, but Margaret and Rebecca did have fun together. They were the middle children in the Rosensteel family, only a year apart in age. Jack and Paul were the eldest, and they were married and starting families of their own. David, Sarah, and Michael were all under 12 years old.

The problem was that Margaret would become a sister in another year. She needed to prepare herself for that. No use dancing with boys when there was no possibility of anything more. Her parents had planned her future already, more than they had any of their other children.

Rebecca took her sister by the hand and pulled her upstairs to their bedroom. She opened the armoire that both of them shared and took out Margaret’s Sunday dress and looked at it.

“Too churchy,” the younger girl said, as she tossed it on the bed.

“It’s my best dress.”

“But not one for a dance.”

Rebecca pulled out the second work dress Margaret owned and tossed it on the bed.

“Not that one either,” Rebecca said.

She pulled out the final dress. It was a light blue dress Margaret had made for Elizabeth’s wedding last year. She hadn’t found an occasion to wear it since. Her mother considered it “too casual” for church.

Rebecca shoved the dress into her sister’s arms. “There, now get dressed. You’re going to go with me, and you’re going to have a good time.”

                      ***

Caleb Sachs sat in his room above his father’s store on East Main Street. His parents had the room at the back of the building because it was quieter, but Caleb’s room looked onto the street. He didn’t mind. He could look outside and see what was happening, and tonight, a lot was happening.

People on the sidewalks headed toward the town square, where the spring dance was being held. Everyone would be there celebrating and having fun. Everyone except the Sachs family. It was Friday night, and the Sachs, being Jewish, began celebrating the Sabbath at sundown.

Weekends were never any fun for Caleb. His was the only Jewish family in Emmitsburg, so while his family observed the Sabbath on Friday night and Saturday, he was stuck at home unless his parents went to bed early, and he could sneak off to enjoy time with his friends. Then, on Sunday, when Caleb was free to do something, his friends’ parents were making his friends observe their Sabbath. With nothing to do during the weekend, it felt as long as the week to Caleb.

He walked out of his room to the parlor where his parents sat. His mother played a song he didn’t recognize, but she often composed her own music. His father sat in his armchair reading a book.

“I can hear the band warming up at the square,” Caleb said.

“Mmm-hmmm,” his father said, as he puffed on his pipe.

“I was thinking that since it’s a special occasion, I could go to the dance for a little while.”

His father removed his pipe. “Just make sure to come home at sundown.”

“But Papa, it won’t even be getting going by then. My friends might not even be there. I won’t stay out late. I promise.”

His friends were more likely to arrive early and sneak out early as well, but Caleb wouldn’t tell his father that.

“It’s Friday, Caleb. You know that.”

His mother stopped her playing and turned around on the bench. “We can take the train to Baltimore next week, Caleb. We’ll visit your grandparents.”

“That’s not the same thing, Mama. I wanted to dance.”

She frowned, wrinkling her smooth, pale skin. “With a guy? Why would you want to do that?”

“I like to dance, Mama, and since we’re the only Jewish family in town, if I’m to do that, it would have to be with a Christian girl.”

“If you want to meet a girl, I will have your grandparents find a Jewish girl for you,” his mother said.

Caleb sighed. “Mama, I don’t want to get married. I just want to go to the dance tonight.”

His mother shook her head. “No, better you stay here and not get yourself attached to someone you can’t have.”

Caleb hung his head. His mother just didn’t understand the idea of having fun. For her, it was about finding him a wife since he would soon be 17.

As Caleb walked back to his room, he thought of the one advantage of being the only Jewish family in town, he wasn’t married yet. If there had been an eligible Jewish girl in Emmitsburg or even nearby, his mother would have already paired them up and been planning the wedding.

He looked out his window and saw Peter Wilhide walking down the street. Caleb slid open his window.

“Peter!”

Peter stopped and turned around. He saw Caleb in the window and waved. “Are you coming to the dance, Caleb?”

“My parents won’t let me.”

“Won’t let you? Oh, that’s right, it’s Friday. Then maybe… later?”

Caleb grinned. “Yes, I think so.”

Peter laughed. “I’ll let the others know.”

Caleb shut the window. He glanced at the clock on his wall. The dance would be starting in half an hour. Everyone would be there by 6:30 p.m. He had that long to plan on how he would get past his parents without them knowing.

written by James Rada, Jr.

A new serial fiction romance story for your enjoyment

1: Angels

When he recalled this day, Caleb Sachs was sure he would tell people Heaven had whispered to him, and in doing so, created the blustery wind that seemed to tell him, “Look! An angel.”

No one would mistake Caleb for a visionary man. Because the Sachs were the only Jewish family in Emmitsburg, they were too far away to travel to a synagogue on Shabbat. Since his father was a shopkeeper and Saturday was the busiest day of the week, he had made allowances. His father kept the shop open on Saturday, closing mid-afternoon, and then recognizing Shabbat from mid-Saturday through Sunday.

Caleb followed his father’s rules. He didn’t work after the store closed, and he read the Torah in the evening. However, he also liked to wrestle, play cards, and race horses with his friends. Although they were still a bit young, when Matthew Hayes could sneak a bottle out of his father’s tavern, Caleb and his friends would sneak off into the woods and drink.

This day, though, Caleb was sober and serious. His father had trusted him to drive the wagon to Gettysburg and pick up an order coming in on the Harrisburg and Gettysburg Railroad. It could have shipped to Emmitsburg on the Emmitsburg Railroad, but that would have involved sending the freight to Baltimore, transferring it to the Western Maryland Railroad, and then transferring it to the Emmitsburg Railroad at Emmitsburg Junction. Not only would that have taken another two days, but it would also have cost additional freight charges. With Gettysburg only 12 miles away, it was easier to send a wagon to pick up the goods at the depot in Gettysburg.

At 16 years old, this was Caleb’s first solo trip to Gettysburg, and he meant to show his father he could be trusted to do a man’s job.

He drove north out of town along Emmitsburg Road, which would take him right into the center of Gettysburg. He crossed the wooden bridge over Flat Run. It was a little trickle of a stream that rarely needed a bridge to span it unless it had rained recently.

That was when the wind picked up as Heaven whispered to him. He started the wagon up the hill when he saw her. She stood on the crest of the hill on the west side of the road. The sun behind her silhouetted her figure as she danced around to the sound of music that only she heard. The white shawl she wore billowed out, appearing to be an angel’s wings, and locks of her blond hair flew in all directions around her head forming a halo.

She looked so beautiful, Caleb had to stop the wagon to watch her.

She was so engrossed in her silent song, she never saw him, although he was only 20 yards away. Then, either she finished what she was doing, or perhaps she heard him. She stopped and ran off in another direction.

Caleb knew he would remember her. Even though he’d not seen her face, something about the love of life she showed in those moments or the carefree spirit of her dance told him she was beautiful no matter what she looked like.

The thought of her kept a smile on his face during the 12-mile ride to Gettysburg. He grinned at the stationmaster, who must have thought Caleb was crazy. He kept smiling as he loaded the goods his father had ordered for the store into the wagon bed.

On his way back to Emmitsburg, Caleb wondered if he shouldn’t have introduced himself to the woman. It just hadn’t seemed right. He had an image of what she looked like in his mind. Perhaps he imagined her nothing like she actually looked. It didn’t matter. The face he saw in his mind belonged to the angel he had seen dancing. Whether it was reality, it was still truth.

Margaret Rosensteel entered St. Joseph’s Church through the front doors. She paused a moment to let her eyes adjust to the dimmer light as she looked into the chapel. It had been warm in the light of the bright sun, but winter still clung to the inside of the church. The stoves couldn’t generate enough heat in the large room, and too few people sat in the pews to generate enough body heat to warm the room.

The young girl genuflected and slid into a pew near the rear of the chapel. Father Harmon was already well into the Mass, and he didn’t even glance at her.

Sister Mary Agatha did, though. The Daughter of Charity sat across the aisle and three rows forward of Margaret. The sister glanced back, saw Margaret, and she smiled. Then she mouthed, “You’re late.”

Margaret raised her eyebrows and shrugged. It wasn’t the first time, and it undoubtedly wouldn’t be the last time she was late to Mass. Her mother compared her to one of the foolish virgins in the Bible who arrived too late to greet the bridegroom, and so was locked out of the home.

“But I’ll never be a bride, Mama, so what does it matter?” Margaret had answered once.

“You’ll be married to God, but I guess you’ll be late for him, too.”

“Well, he must know what he is getting into. He made me this way.”

Margaret had known she was destined to be a Daughter of Charity since she was six years old. That was the year she nearly died from scarlet fever. As she had burned up from the fever, her parents had tried to lower her temperature and prayed at her bedside.

The doctor had told her parents to prepare for the worst, but Margaret had recovered. The Rosensteels declared their daughter’s recovery to be a miracle. That is when they told Margaret she would become a Daughter of Charity when she was old enough because they had promised God they would do so if he spared her life.

Margaret had trouble concentrating on Mass this morning. It was the first sunny and warm day of the year, and she wanted to be out and about, dancing and singing in the sunlight. Instead, she was sitting inside, trying to remember her Latin, so she could understand Father Harmon.

She walked outside after Mass ended and lifted her chin toward the sun, so her face could drink in its warmth. She heard the jangle of wagon traces and looked up Emmitsburg Road. She saw a pair of horses pulling a wagon crest the hill. Different size boxes were piled on the rear, but it wasn’t the boxes Margaret noticed. It was the driver.

He was a young man about her age. He sat proudly in the seat with his shoulders thrown back and his face concentrating on his work. She had never seen him before, although she spent most of her time on the family farm rather than in town.

As he passed, he glanced at her and did a double-take. Then he smiled and lifted his hat to her. Moments later, he was past her. Margaret turned to watch him as he turned the wagon onto West Main Street.

She couldn’t get past the fact that he looked familiar. She couldn’t place his face. Some might say it was the face of an angel.

A serial fiction story for your enjoyment about the odd effects of grief.

written by James Rada, Jr.

Betty Douglas’s plan to kill Old Kiln Road was working. The tree she cut down to block the road kept cars from killing animals that the road tempted onto it. The road turned gray, and things seemed peaceful. Then a Frederick County road crew removed the tree. No accusations were made against Betty, but she was sure they thought she was responsible for blocking the road.

She had to do it because no one believed Old Kiln Road had killed her son, and Betty refused to have her revenge taken from her.

She replaced the “Slow” signs with “Detour” signs to steer people around the bad stretch of Old Kiln Road. Detour signs wouldn’t annoy drivers like the tree had, and the county road crew wouldn’t respond as quickly as it had for the tree. Still the cars came, but no animals were killed since Betty kept scaring them away from the road. She couldn’t keep her constant patrols up forever, though. She had to stop the cars.

Betty smashed dozens of her empty mason jars at either end of the road. The first few cars that ignored the detour signs were rewarded with flat tires. Traffic stopped and followed the detour.

The next morning, the road was once again a pale gray, starving for food. Betty set more food out in the fields to feed the animals. She checked on her glass traps, but they were gone, as if they had never been. Had the road swallowed them, hoping to lure traffic back onto it?

Betty went into the house and took Jack’s hunting rifle down from above the mantle. She knew how to use it because Jack had taken her deer hunting with him a few times during hunting season when he couldn’t find any friends to go with him. Betty loaded the Remington and went out to the road for her patrols.

About twenty-five yards from the road, she saw a pickup truck ignore the detour sign and head up Old Kiln Road. She raised the rifle to her shoulder, took aim, and fired just the way Jack had taught her. She shot the truck tires out, then ran off before the driver got out of the car. She walked to the other end of the road and waited. Soon enough, someone else ignored the detour sign. Betty put two holes in his radiator, stopping him from going any further.

The road went hungry another day.

The next day another pickup truck tried to ignore the detour sign and lost two tires. Old Kiln Road went hungry for a fourth day.

On the morning of the fifth day, Betty went out to the porch and wasn’t surprised to see the asphalt had dried out. It looked rough, like a patch of dried skin. Cracks ran through, making it look like a sun-baked river bed.

She patrolled the road with the rifle and was satisfied to see all the cars obeying the detour sign. However, police had barricaded the road, and officers patrolled the roads and surrounding woods. One officer questioned her, and Betty played innocent about what was going on.

How long would it be before the police opened the road? Would it be long enough for the road to be destroyed?

As the sun set that night, Betty watched the asphalt finally crumble into dust, exposing the gravel road bed. But there was something else among the gravel. Bones. Lots of them. Probably the bones of every animal that had ever been killed on that stretch of road. The small skeletons gleamed brightly in the fading light. Betty had starved the road to death and won.

How many animals had died to feed the road? How many people like her Peter had been killed?

She walked to the edge of the road and kicked at the gravel to loosen it like a hunter kicks at his fallen prey to make sure it’s dead.

“I don’t know what made you so bloodthirsty, but I hope whatever it was rots with you in hell,” Betty said.

She moved to kick it again, but as she did, Old Kiln Road decayed just a bit more. The edge of the roadway collapsed under her foot. Betty yelled as she lost her balance and fell onto the gravel. She put out her hands to break her fall, but the rifle got caught in between her and the road. It went off, and Betty shot herself in the stomach.

She fell onto the road, not dead but dying. She screamed for help, but no one was nearby to come to her aid. All the drivers were too afraid to travel this stretch of Old Kiln Road, and Jack was in Los Angeles. She was alone.

Her blood pumped through the hole in her stomach, down her side, and onto the road. As it touched the roadway, it immediately turned black restoring the asphalt. The changes spread like a ripple on water, restoring the road even as Betty lay on top of it dying.

Would the police find her body and think she was a victim of the sniper they were searching for?

Betty wasn’t going to let the road take her body. She would not be like the collie that she had seen commit suicide.

Holding one hand against the bloody hole in her stomach, Betty tried to rise up on her knees so she could crawl away. She moved one leg forward, but it was a struggle. Her leg had sunk into the asphalt, and it only pulled free with a loud sucking sound.

She grabbed with her free hand for the fence she had built alongside the road to keep the animals away. Her hand closed around one of the wooden posts, but the wooden post snapped off in her hand. She fell forward on her face and the road sucked her back a few inches.

Betty rolled onto her back and fired the rifle into the road. Again and again she fired until the rifle clicked empty. The bullets didn’t even leave a mark on the road. They simply disappeared into the soft asphalt. She beat on the road with the rifle until she was too weak to pull the rifle free from the road.

The road pulled her a few inches closer. She was now sitting in the roadway.

How do you kill something that is not alive?

Betty realized she couldn’t win, but it made her feel good to resist the evil of the road. With her remaining strength, she lunged out of the roadway so that her upper body fell onto the grass.

Let her blood nourish the ground, not the road. She wouldn’t help the road live.

Once Old Kiln Road restored itself to its original condition, Betty knew she had lost. After all her efforts, the road had finally found its meal. She felt herself pulled onto the road and sinking into the surface as if she wasn’t laying on hard asphalt but thick, black tar. She sunk a few inches into the asphalt, thinking she would stop when she touched the hard ground. But she kept sinking deeper and deeper. As the soft asphalt filled her ears, Betty tried to raise her head to keep it above the surface. She had to stop soon. This is what happened to the road kills that laid on the road for days at a time. Almost like the La Brea Tar Pits.

The road covered Betty’s face.

Jack turned onto Old Kiln Road. It had been a quiet ride home. Not unusual, but the newspaper he picked up at the airport had said there had been a sniper shooting at cars along the road. From the description given, it sounded like it had been close to his house.

As he came over the last rise before his driveway, a chipmunk ran out into the road so fast that Jack couldn’t swerve to avoid it. He hit it with his right front tire and killed it.

Stupid animal. Didn’t they know better to stay away from the road?

The End

A new serial fiction story for your enjoyment about the odd effects of grief.

written by James Rada, Jr.

2: the killing road

“Peter, you make sure you stay away from the road,” Betty Douglas told her son as they ate breakfast in their kitchen.

He spooned his Corn Pops into his mouth and talked with his mouth full. “I always stay away from the road. You told me this before when I was little,” six-year-old Peter said, slightly indignant that his mother still considered him a child.

Betty knew she had told Peter to stay away from the road many times before. It was popular Mom talk. But after seeing what she had seen the day before, Betty felt a need to repeat herself once again. She didn’t trust Old Kiln Road. Not the drivers, not the road. Something about it was wrong. She didn’t even like the name. Old Kiln. She always made sure to pronounce the N in Kiln, but too many people let it fade, so it sounded like “kill.”

Old Kill Road. It lived up to its name.

Betty spent the morning working outside. She painted large yellow signs with black lettering that read: “Slow.” When they dried, she nailed the signs on trees at each end of the dangerous stretch of road. She also put up chicken wire along the road to act as a fence to discourage animals from going onto the road. If the animals went around the fence, they would be far enough away from the dangerous portion of the road to make it to the other side.

For two days, Betty sat on the porch and watched how her precautions affected the road. She saw no road kills, and the cars drove slower as they came around the curve. The road seemed to pale from lack of food. At least Betty hoped the road paled. She imagined it becoming a light gray during the second day of its fast.

Betty sensed victory close at hand. No longer would the road lure animals to their deaths.

Then, she saw Peter’s soccer ball bounce over the backyard fence. It rolled to a stop about three feet from the road. As Betty watched, the ball started bouncing again, this time on its own. It bounced up the slight rise to the edge of the road and then across the road. Peter came running from behind the garage, following the ball. He didn’t even hesitate as he ran across the road to get the ball.

“Peter!” Betty yelled as she jumped out of the rocking chair.

Her son stopped in the middle of the road at the sound of his mother’s voice. As he turned to look at her, a sports car charged around the curve. Betty could tell by the engine noise that it was coming too fast, ignoring her signs.

Peter didn’t even have time to scream. The car hit him, and he rolled over the hood, smashing into the windshield headfirst. The car skidded to a stop. Peter’s body slid forward off the car and fell onto the road, limp as month-old celery.

Betty ran down to the road. Peter lay on the asphalt, a portion of his brain showing through his broken skull. Blood flowed from his body onto the road. The road absorbed the blood like a dry sponge absorbing water…or a thirsty beast greedily drinking greedily. Betty grabbed her son by the shoulders to lift him up, and his head rolled lifelessly backward. She knew he was dead, but just couldn’t believe it.

“Peter! Peter!”

The teenager who had driven the car was standing next to his car with his head buried in his hands as he cried. He slid down the side of the car and sobbed violently, not looking at Betty. Betty held her son in her arms, rocking back and forth, until a Thurmont ambulance finally came half an hour later when a passerby saw the accident and phoned it in.

The road turned a darker gray.

Betty sat on the front porch, rocking in her chair and watching the road. In the week since Peter had been killed, the road had fallen back into its rhythm of killing and eating.

Old Kiln Road was a deep ebony now. It was the road that had killed Peter, not the teenage driver of the car. The road had lured Peter onto it, so he could be killed. Old Kiln Road was trying to get even with Betty for depriving it of food for two days.

She heard the screen door open on her left, but she didn’t look up. She knew who it would be since only two people lived in the house anymore.

Jack set his suitcases down on the porch. “I can send someone else out to Los Angeles. It doesn’t have to be me, Bet.”

Jack worked as an auditor for a manufacturing company in Frederick. He usually had a half-hour drive to work, but occasionally, he went on long trips to the firm’s corporate offices in Los Angeles.

“I’ll be fine. Go,” she told him.

“You’re not acting fine. I’m worried about you. All you do is sit out here and look at the road where he was killed.”

Jack just didn’t understand. It wasn’t just the spot where Peter had been killed. It was where Peter had been eaten. It was the spot where many animals were eaten day after day. And no one ever noticed. No one but her.

“Please, go, Jack. I’ll be fine.”

He kissed her on the cheek. “I left all the phone numbers and places where I’ll be staying on the bulletin board. If you need me, give me a call, and I’ll come right home.”

He left, and Betty sat on the porch, only seeing him go when he crossed over her field of vision as he drove down Old Kiln Road.

Sometime later, the phone rang. The caller wouldn’t be anyone important, so she let it ring until the answering machine picked it up. What was happening out here was more important than anything anyone could say to her.

A small, gray rabbit hopped out into the middle of the road. It sniffed at the asphalt as if he were following a scent across the road. When it reached a certain point in the road, it stopped and lay on its side. A few minutes later, a car came creeping slowly over the hill. Slow enough that the rabbit could have moved in time to get out of the way, but it didn’t. It let itself be run over. It committed suicide.

That’s what she should do, Betty thought. Life wasn’t worth living anymore. Jack still had his work to keep him busy, but her work had been raising Peter, and the road had taken that from her. There was nothing left for her now. Except to destroy the road. To watch it wither away slowly and agonizingly. To let the road know the pain she felt at the loss of her son. That’s what she wanted to do.

Once she made up her mind, Betty knew exactly how she would kill the road. She took Jack’s chainsaw out of the garage and walked over the hill. Finding a medium-sized tree near the road, she sawed into it, so it toppled across the road, blocking any cars from coming over the hill. Then she walked down the hill and did the same thing to another tree, blockading the road. The next thing she did was to take one of the dessert pies from the oven and set it in the field to draw the animals away from the road.

Old Kiln Road didn’t eat that night, and in the morning, it was grayer.

COME!

Poem by Francis Smith

COME to me in the days of a summer sky,

Come to me in the scent of an autumn fire,

Come to me in the sough of the winter wind,

And in springtime, come!

        Come when blossoms deck the boughs,

        Come when sunbright warms the vales,

        Come when fledglings try their wings,

            And with children, come!

Come to me in the shining of the sun,

Come to me in the drumming of the rain,

Come to me in the sifting of the snow,

    And in fog, come!

        Come, come to me;

        Stay!

Jaden Myers’ COVID-19 Poem

The streets were empty.

Supplies became rare.

It was now among us;

There is no time to prepare.

Lives were taken

As it wanted to make us aware

Of the creature that’s lurking.

We have not a spec of time to spare.

As the creature rampages

Through the place we call home

It likes to play a game

Of who’s dying or coming home.