written by James Rada, Jr.
A new serial fiction story for your enjoyment
4: The Fire Will Judge
Abednego Hunt stood facing the wooden cross he had carved. He knew you were supposed to wear your Sunday best for funerals, but he only had two sets of clothes, and they were both work clothes. He had carefully washed one set, though, so he could properly say goodbye to his brother Meshach.
He held a box filled with Meshach’s ashes. It wasn’t a big box, and he wasn’t even sure whether it held all of Shack’s ashes. This had been all he could find after his brother fell into the burning charcoal stack the day before.
Since Rev. Hoyle at the church in town had refused to bury the ashes, Abednego buried them here on Catoctin Mountain, near the charcoal stacks where he and Meshach had lived and worked.
He dug a hole in the ground about two feet deep and placed the box of ashes in it. Then he recited a few Bible verses he remembered from childhood. They didn’t pertain to death or burials, but they were only things Abednego knew.
He buried the box and stood crying over the grave. He already missed his brother.
That evening, as he lay in his cot in the ramshackle cabin he and Meshach called home, Abednego imagined his brother lying on his cot talking to him.
“It wasn’t your fault, Ben,” Shack said.
“I know, but I miss you all the same,” Abednego told him.
“It was the iron company. They don’t care about us. They wouldn’t pay you my death benefit.”
“They said you weren’t on the payroll.”
“I was, though. You know that. You know I drew pay.”
Abednego nodded, “I know, but they won’t listen.”
“Then the fire will judge them.”
That startled Abednego, and he sat up, wide awake. He walked outside. Some of the charcoal stacks still smoldered, but he had done nothing to tend to them since Shack had died. Let them burn down to nothing for all he cared.
He walked over to a stack that had collapsed.
He could see the glowing embers of what remained of the fire and logs mixed in with the dirt that had covered the stacks.
Abednego should have been shoveling the charcoal into the wagon.
Instead, he kicked at the dirt, exposing the charcoal and remaining embers. He picked up one orange glowing piece of wood, not even feeling pain. He threw it at the shack. It hit the wall and fell to the ground.
He picked up another ember and threw it. This one landed on the roof of the shack and began smoking. He threw another and another. He felt no pain, although his hands were red. What he felt was relief.
Little wisps of flame appeared on the roof where the embers had taken hold. He stood and watched as the flames grew. He didn’t worry. He owned little and wouldn’t miss any of it.
He walked back into the shack and felt the heat from the surrounding flames. He looked up at the yellow flames spreading along the roof.
He closed his eyes and held his arms out to his side. The fire will judge them.
Abednego heard timbers hit the ground as the fire ate through them and weakened the structure. He kept his eyes closed and waited. The heat grew intense and the flames loud. He couldn’t hear anything except for the cracking of wood and the whoosh of flames growing. They whispered to him, but he couldn’t understand what they said. They must be passing their judgement upon him.
He waited, wincing finally at the heat.
Occasionally, a flame licked at his body, but he kept his eyes closed and waited.
Then, there were a final great whoosh and crash. He felt a gust of wind. Then he felt cool air, at least cooler air.
He finally opened his eyes.
The shack had collapsed around him, but it had fallen in such a way that no burning pieces of wood had hit him. They lay around him, some of them still burning.
The fire had judged him, but had it rejected him or found him worthy?
Did it matter? It was time for it to judge the others who had turned their backs on the Hunt brothers, especially Meshach.
Abednego rode the horse down the mountain in the dark. It was surefooted, and he let it find its way with little guidance.
The streets were deserted. The workers started early in the morning. They needed their sleep.
He rode into Catoctin Furnace and tied the horse to a tree. Then, he walked into town and past the furnace. He stood looking at the ironmaster’s house. All the lamps had been extinguished for the night, and the windows were dark.
He walked closer, being careful not to raise any noise. He circled the house and found the woodshed. He spent the next hour hauling the logs from the shed and spreading them around the base of the house. Although the house was primarily stone, it had plenty of wooden siding and beams. He added kindling and stood back to admire his work.
It would burn, but not quickly.
He hurried back out to the furnace and filled a bucket with lamp oil. He carried it back to the house and splashed it on the walls and wood he had piled around the base. He made two more trips, repeating the process.
When he finished his preparations, Abednego used his flints to start a fire on each side of the house. Then, he moved into the woods. He watched the flames grow and spread. When it grew brighter, he moved back deeper into the shadows.
The flames had taken hold well before he heard the first cry raised. The yells quickly rose in number, and he began seeing shadows as people rushed to find the water barrels. He had tipped over the ones closest to the house. The fire crew brought the pump wagon over to the house, and a bucket brigade formed to fill the wagon’s tank.
Abednego sat down and watched the fire burn. The flames reached high into the sky. He watched as some people attempted to carry out valuables from the house. They knew it was a lost cause.
A woman wailed loudly, probably the ironmaster’s wife.
Abednego sighed with satisfaction. Then he walked to where he tied the horse and rode it back up the mountain, where he made himself a bed under a pine tree and slept.