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.”
“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.