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?”
“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