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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!”

Nothing happened.

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.”

“I see.”

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.

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.

written by James Rada, Jr.

A new serial fiction story for your enjoyment

1: Master of the Flames

Meshach Hunt stood on the mound of earth until his boots began smoking. Then, he danced around yelling, “Ouch, ouch, ouch!”

Fifteen feet below him, his brother Abednego grinned, but he said, “Stop fooling around, Shack. We’ve got more logs to stack on the number three pile.”

Meshach was only a year younger than Abednego, but he might as well have been 20 years younger. He acted like jumping the stacks was a game of hot foot. They both knew stepping too hard in the wrong spot might lead to a hole that swallowed the collier up and dropped him into the fires smoldering beneath. Meshach saw it as a challenge. Abednego saw it as a danger.

Meshach stopped his jumping. He shifted the dirt on the mound with his shovel, covering the smoke hole. It was important to keep the air out and the heat in the mound. It controlled the burning going on beneath the mound. In another week, this mound would be a load of charcoal for Catoctin Furnace at the base of the mountain.

The furnace had been operating for decades, creating pig iron for stoves, utensils, and other things. The stone and brick stack was ever hungry, consuming 800 bushels of charcoal each day. Abednego wasn’t so good with his numbers, but a foreman at the furnace told him that to get that much charcoal, the woodcutters felled an acre of hardwood trees each day. They brought the trees to colliers like the Hunt brothers, who turned the wood into charcoal.

Meshach finished his inspection of the mound, while Abednego walked over to the pile of logs the woodcutters had finished delivering a few minutes ago. The number three stack would be ready to start burning tomorrow. This was the last load of logs needed.

Meshach and Abednego had spent two days preparing this mound. In the very center was a fagan, a pole around which the logs were stacked, and once removed, would create the chimney in the stack. Although the stack was already started, Abednego needed Meshach’s help setting the logs onto the stack.

Meshach finally climbed off the stack and came down the ladder. He walked over to his brother, and the pair carried the oak logs to the stack and then tilted them onto the other logs that formed the circular, cone-like structure. Then, they stepped back to look at the result of three days’ work.

The brothers had stacked 40 cords of 12-foot-long logs in expanding circles around a chimney flue. The chimney had already been stuffed with sticks and other kindling. Now, the colliers’ job would be to fill in the gaps between the logs with sticks. Then, they would cover it all with a layer of dirt.

Once that was done, they would remove the fagan, and the brothers would drop embers into the chimney to get a fire started in the center of the stack of logs. They would then let the logs slowly burn for two weeks. The dirt covering kept the air out so that they could control the burn rate.

After two weeks, they would open what remained of the stacks and spread out to cool like the number four stack was doing.

Seen from a distance, someone might have thought the collection of a dozen structures with smoke rolling from their tops was a small village. However, this village only had two residents. It was enough for Abednego. It had always been him and his brother since they were children. They didn’t need anyone else.

Abednego wiped off his sweat with the back of his arm. “Just in time for lunch,” he said.

Neither brother was married, although they were in their thirties. Abednego didn’t blame the women. He rarely saw them. Who would want to live in a shack on Catoctin Mountain? The only people the Hunt brothers saw regularly were colliers, woodcutters, and furnace workers.

They walked into their hut, which was a windowless room that resembled the stacks, except it had a doorway on the side.

They rinsed their hands in a bucket of water and ate bread, cheese, and apples for lunch. It wasn’t fancy, but it filled them up. They ate little hot food. Neither of them wanted to cook over a fire after tending stacks all day. They lived with a perpetual sheen of sweat, even in the winter.

Besides, they didn’t want to eat too much. No one wanted to feel heavy walking on a charcoal stack.

After lunch, the brothers raked the soil off number two stack to get at the cooled charcoal underneath. They shoveled the charcoal into the wagon bed, filling it up. Then, they tied a tarp over it. The trip down the mountain could be bouncy, and Abednego didn’t want to lose half his load before he reached the furnace.

When everything was loaded, Abednego climbed up into the seat.

“Want to come along, Shack?” he asked.

Meshach shook his head. “No, I’ll take care of things here, Ben.”

Abednego nodded, not surprised. His brother never made the journey to Catoctin Furnace. He was content to stay on the mountain and watch over the stacks. Abednego lived for the trips off the mountain to drop off coal at the furnace. It gave him an excuse to go into town and talk to people, especially women.

Of course, he understood Meshach’s position. Those fires burned for two to three weeks at a time, and someone needed to watch them to make sure they didn’t get too hot or go out. It just didn’t need to be Meshach who always did it. He seemed to sense how much Abednego looked forward to the trips off the mountain.

When Abednego reached the Frederick Road between Mechanicstown and Catoctin Furnace, he turned south. He smiled at a woman he saw hanging laundry on a line. He might have stopped to talk, but it was obvious from the laundry that she probably had a husband. Besides, Abednego knew he didn’t present well. He was covered in soot, as always, and smelled like wood smoke.

The furnace that gave the village of Catoctin Furnace its name was 32-feet tall, an impressive site amid all the nearby one-story buildings. A water wheel, mill pond, and races, a coal house to store charcoal, the bridge and bridge house to charge the stack, and a cast house were all nearby structures supporting the furnace operation.

Further away were the homes for the workmen, stores, barns, stables, and a church. Catoctin Furnace had hundreds of workers. Miners dug the iron from the ground. Lumberers felled the trees, and colliers prepared the charcoal from them. Fillers charged the furnace. Founders smelted the iron and cast it. And all of these people lived near the furnace, except for the colliers.

They stayed on the mountain with the stacks that had to be watched around the clock, even on Sundays. However, some colliers did work in shifts, so they could live at least part of the time in town. It was just easier for the Hunts to live near their stacks. They were used to living by themselves. It seemed like they always had.

Abednego unloaded the charcoal into the coal house, and then walked over to watch the men working the furnace. He could feel the heat from the fires burning the furnace 100 feet away.

He watched a pair of shirtless, sweaty men shovel charcoal into the fire to keep the flames burning hot enough to melt the iron ore, which was also in the furnace. This was the opposite of Abednego’s job, which was to control the fire and create a smoldering heat.

He stared into the tall, dancing flames, entranced by their undulations. He rarely saw the flames he worked with, and if he did, it was usually a bad thing. These flames devoured the charcoal, while Abednego’s flames savored the wood.

He reached a hand toward the flames and imagined holding it in his hand. He had held a burning coal in his hand for a short time once. It had seemed like a living thing as the light from the ember pulsed. It reminded him of a firefly. Then, it had grown too hot, and he had tossed it away.

He controlled the fire. He commanded it to do his bidding, and it did. He was the master of the flames.