Currently viewing the tag: "A Death in the Family"

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.