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.
“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.