Wagon Fire, 2008 First Place Adult Division

By Bruce Bash

The two riders pulled their horses to a stop in front of the tiny log cabin.  Josh watched his uncle dismount and tie the reins of his big bay to a fence post.

“Ella, we’re home,” his uncle called out as he headed toward the weathered cabin door.

Josh saw a dark-skinned woman in a long dress, her hair tied into a single braid, hurry out of the cabin.  Aunt Ella looked tiny as a child standing next to Uncle Jed’s massive frame.  She put her arms around his uncle’s chest and gave him a long hug.  Then together they turned and began to walk toward Josh and his horse.

“Hello, Josh.  How was your trip?”  Aunt Ella’s eyes smiled wide in spite of the bright sunlight.  Her eyes were the same color as his mother’s eyes: blue and warm like the morning sky on a mid-summer day.  His aunt looked older than his mother, although he knew she was the youngest of five children.  The harsh desert climate did that to a person.  It darkened the skin and wrinkled the eyes.  It made a person older.

Aunt Ella reached up and took Josh’s hand from the saddle horn.  The tips of her fingers touched the large red scar seared into the back of his hand.  “We’re so happy you’ve come to live with us, Josh.  I hope you will like it here in Idaho.”

Josh felt his eyes grow moist.  He blinked hard and stared across the weed-filled yard at the cabin door.  The cabin was nothing like the clean white clapboard house he had lived in back in Cheyenne.  Josh’s house had an upstairs and a downstairs—a total of ten rooms.  The cabin before him looked scarcely big enough for two people.  He wondered where he would sleep.  Perhaps he’d make a bed in the barn with the horses and mice.

His aunt seemed to read his thoughts because she turned toward the cabin and shaded her eyes.  “I know the cabin doesn’t look like much now.  But Jed’s going to add a room on the back for you.  I think a boy of twelve needs his own room.”  His aunt smiled again, her lips quivering.  “Josh, we’re so sorry about your mom and dad.  I miss my sister something…”  Aunt Ella’s words broke off.  She sucked in her bottom lip and squeezed his hand like his mother used to do.  “Come inside, Josh.  I’ve a kettle of soup simmering on the stove.  You must be starved after your long trip.”

Josh tried to smile his thanks, but no sound came out.  Ever since the fire it seemed his words melted into his throat before they could pass his lips.  He dismounted and stretched his legs and back.  It felt good to stretch after riding so many hours—so many days.

At the cabin steps Josh stopped and looked back across the wide sagebrush flat toward a dip in the landscape.  Strange haystack shapes lined a shallow drainage, one next to the other—sixteen in all.  Kilns, Josh thought, the charcoal kilns his uncle had talked about during their trip to Idaho.  Uncle Jed had a contract to haul charcoal made in the kilns to the huge smelter furnace on the other side of the valley.  The Viola smelter consumed mountains of charcoal each day to purify lead and silver ore.  It was hard work, his uncle had said, shoveling the charcoal into wagons and hauling it ten miles across the valley only to have to unload it again at the smelter.  But Josh wasn’t bothered by hard work.  He welcomed hard work—anything to help him forget about the fire.

The next morning Josh and Uncle Jed were up at dawn shoveling charcoal from one of the kilns into his uncle’s two heavy wagons hitched to a six-horse team.  The sand-colored kiln towered above Josh—at least four times his height.  To his left, several men filled the next kiln with four-foot lengths of seasoned timber cut from the nearby mountain slopes.  Sweat poured from Josh’s face.  His throat felt dry as the powdery dust beneath his feet.

When the wagons were full, Uncle Jed drove the team back to the cabin.  He handed the reins to Josh and swung down to the ground.  “I need to say good-bye to your aunt,” he said, tossing Josh a canteen.  “Then we’ll be on our way.”  His uncle set off toward the cabin.  But as he walked in front of the horses, he tripped on a sagebrush root and fell into the lead horse.  The big gray spooked at the sudden commotion.  He reared and pawed the air.  Before his uncle could scramble out of the way, the horse’s hoof came down on the top of Uncle Jed’s foot.  His uncle crumpled to the ground and rolled away from the horses, his face contorted with pain.

“Josh,” Uncle Jed called out holding his foot, “steady the horses.”

Josh jumped from the wagon and grabbed the lead horse’s harness.  When the horse had calmed, he ran to his uncle’s side.  With more strength than he realized he had, Josh pulled the big man to his feet and strained to help him into the cabin.  Once inside, his uncle sank down on the soft feather bed.  His injured foot had already begun to swell and bulge the top of his leather boot.

“I’m not going to be able to make that trip today, Josh.”  Droplets of sweat trickled down Uncle Jed’s face.  “Filling my contract will have to wait.  You’d best go unhitch the horses.  Maybe I can make the trip in the morning.”

Josh pushed back his hat and nodded.  He trudged out the door almost feeling his uncle’s pain.  He scratched the ears of the gray horse and used his pocketknife to give all six animals a slice from an apple he had stashed in his rear pocket.  Even though Josh had lived all his life in the city, he often spent summers at a cousin’s farm.  He had driven teams and hay wagons lots of times, but never a team with so many horses.  Josh studied the heavy wagons.   He walked around the horses and examined the harnesses.  Then it came to him gentle as a butterfly lighting on his shoulder.  He would deliver the charcoal to the Viola smelter.  He would help his uncle fulfill his contract with the mine.

The springs of the front wagon creaked as Josh swung up into the driver’s seat.  With a slap of the reins the wagons jolted to life and began to jostle down the long dusty road.  Josh stared straight ahead not wanting to look back for fear his uncle might be standing in the cabin doorway waving for him to stop.  He scanned the distant mountain slopes to the east.  It was those mountains that held the lead mines and provided a backstop for the town of Nicholia and the Viola smelter.

Going downhill with such a heavy load was harder than Josh had expected.  He pulled the brake lever a little at a time to slow the wagons so they wouldn’t gain too much speed and overtake the horses.  The cottonwood brake blocks moaned as they ground against the wagon wheels.  The wheels bounced in and out of holes and over rocks jutting from the rutted road.  Once the harsh jolt from a deep rut nearly tossed Josh into the sagebrush.  The team’s progress seemed slow as a glacier.  The twenty-mile trip to the smelter and back would take most of the day.

The team was halfway across the wide valley floor when Josh smelled smoke.  He looked around wildly, his mind again seeing the raging fire engulfing his house back in Cheyenne; the fire that had trapped his mother and father and scarred his legs and hands; the fire that had changed his life forever.  Uneasy snorts from the back two wheeler horses broke into Josh’s thoughts.   He shook his head to clear the terror from his mind.  The smell of smoke grew stronger.  He looked hard into the wind expecting to see a wildfire ripping through the dry sagebrush to the north.  But he saw no wildfire.  And the smoke from the distant smelter was billowing straight up into the hazy sky.  Josh drew in a long breath.  Then he realized where the frightening smell was coming from and spun around on the hard wagon seat.

A thick haze of bluish smoke hovered above the charcoal piled in the rear wagon.  The jostling of wheels over the rough road had ignited the charcoal and the load smoldered like a campfire dampened by a brief rain shower.  Josh braced his feet on the front wagon boards and pulled hard on the reins.  It seemed forever before the wagons slowed and stopped with a final loud clunk.  Josh stared at the thickening smoke.  What could he do?  He had only a single canteen of water with him.  And he wouldn’t have time to shovel the charcoal from the wagon before the wagon burned.

Josh leaped to the ground and unhitched the lead team.  He maneuvered the two horses around to the side of the rear wagon and hooked the harness to the top rail.  With a slap to the horse’s rumps, the horses lunged forward toppling the wagon and dumping the burning charcoal onto the ground.  Josh felt his stomach cramp.  He had wanted so much to help his uncle fulfill his contract, to prove he could be useful in this strange new land of Idaho.  Now he had lost a full load of charcoal—five hundred bushels.  And he had nearly burned up his uncle’s wagon.

Josh used the horses to right the toppled wagon.  Then he hitched the lead team again and continued his trip to the smelter.  Above the distant mountains, angry dark storm clouds rolled in, billowing high above the peaks.  Rain would most likely fall before dark, before he got back to the cabin.  Josh slapped the reins and urged the horses forward.  But he didn’t think the rain could make him feel any more miserable than he felt already.

The sun was slipping behind the nearest mountain when Josh pulled the team to a halt in front of the cabin.  As he climbed down from the wagon, he heard the rusty creak of hinges and saw the cabin door swing open.  His uncle’s body filled the doorway.

“Uncle, I’m sorry,” Josh called out, holding up the money he’d received for the single load of charcoal.  “I’ll make it up to you somehow, I will.  The charcoal caught fire and I dumped a wagonload beside the roadway.  I’m sorry Uncle, I’m so sorry.”

Uncle Jed hobbled toward Josh on a crutch made from the fork of a tree branch.  When his uncle got within arm’s length, Josh closed his eyes expecting the worst.  But all he felt was a thick arm around his back that drew him close in a tender hug.  Uncle Jed held Josh for a long time.

“Don’t you know you did right, Josh?”  Uncle Jed relaxed his arm but kept it around Josh’s shoulders.  “A load of charcoal isn’t worth a plugged nickel compared to the cost of one of those reinforced wagons.  You did just right, son.  I’m proud of you.  Real proud.”

Josh couldn’t believe his ears.  Had he heard right?  His uncle was proud of him for dumping the charcoal.

A feeling like warm honey spread through Josh’s chest.  He looked toward the cabin and saw Aunt Ella standing on the porch, her hands covering her mouth.  “Josh, you spoke…” was all Aunt Ella could say between sobs.  Tears streamed down her cheeks.  For a moment Josh thought he was looking into the face of his own mother.

“Come inside, Josh.”  Uncle Jed shifted his weight back onto the crutch.  “Your throat must be parched after that long trip.  We’ve got some catching up to do, you and your aunt and me.”

Josh swiped an arm across his forehead.  “I’ll be in soon, Uncle, after I take care of the horses.  They’re the ones who worked hardest today.”

He climbed back up on the wagon seat and watched his uncle make his way toward the cabin.

“Giddap,” Josh called out to the waiting team.  The horses jerked forward with renewed vigor and headed toward the barn and a cool drink of water.  The day’s events played out in Josh’s mind.  He saw the rutted road, the load of burning charcoal, the bustle of activity surrounding the huge Viola smelter.  Then he caught a whiff of Aunt Ella’s elk stew riding on the evening breeze and his stomach rumbled like a late-afternoon thunderstorm.

Josh glanced over his shoulder at the log cabin.  Warm yellow light filled the window and doorway.  He saw a nighthawk dart overhead and for the first time since the fire he began to sing.  His song was one his mother had sung to him years ago when he was just a toddler.  His voice sounded strange to his ears, scratchy, occasionally cracking.  But it was a confident voice, a determined voice.  It vibrated his throat and sounded much deeper than he’d remembered.

A pencil-thin smile tugged at the corners of Josh’s lips.  He liked the sound of his new voice.

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