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!”
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.”
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.