Friday, November 18, 2011

First major scene from Hell Fire in Paradise

Jimmy Baker complained. “But Ma, it’s hardly dark. I’m five now. I don’t need to go to bed so early.”

“I know, son. But tomorrow will come before you know it, and I want you in bed right now. Jason’s in the loft and asleep already, and you should be, too.”

“Ah, Ma. How come I have to go to bed so early all the time?”

Laurel Baker chuckled at her sturdy son’s resistance. “Unless you get enough sleep, you won’t grow big and strong like Pa. And if you don’t grow big and strong, how are you going to help on the ranch?”

“Okay. I’m going. But I’ll stay up when I get bigger, I surely will.” Grumbling, the youngster climbed the ladder into the boys’ private bedroom in the loft under the eaves.

Laurel put the youngsters to bed right after supper for good reason. Jack Baker took the wagon into Ponderosa for supplies that morning, and he’d not returned. A knot settled into the pit of Laurel’s stomach. Jack didn’t run late. He didn’t go to Bogtown to drink and he wasn’t one to waste time jawing. He might need assistance, but the road from Ponderosa to Paradise was little travelled. If Jack needed help, Laurel had to provide it. She waited until the boys were asleep, changed into a cutdown pair of Jack’s old jeans, and stomped her feet into her riding boots. Laurel saddled her steeldust gelding Angel, and rode toward Ponderosa with a Yellow Boy Winchester in her hands.

Paradise Creek tumbled through a malapai gorge at least a hundred feet deep and the mail road to Alpine travelled the gorge’s edge for a good five miles after crossing the plateau from Ponderosa. The wagon track to Paradise branched off the mail road just beyond Sheepshead promontory. Laurel cantered Angel up the wagon track and onto the mail road. She guided the gelding along the road at a trot as deep wagon-wheel ruts made the footing precarious for a running horse. Clouds backed up against Mt. Baldy and Mt. Ord, covering the sky for miles north of Paradise. The dark night made tracking impossible so Laurel could only hope that if Jack needed help, he was out in the open where she could find him. In the dark night, she felt uneasy, and jacked a shell into the chamber of the Yellow Boy.

Laurel rode more than halfway to Ponderosa but found no trace of Jack. Despondent, she turned Angel around and trotted him back along the mail road toward the Rafter P ranch in Paradise. Jack could take care of himself. He never wore a gun in Ponderosa and didn’t drink, so the chance of a random gunfight was next to none. Yet she worried. Jack wouldn’t stay away from the ranch all night without good reason. A crippled horse. A broken wagon tongue. A rim separated from a wheel. Something. She turned off to follow the wagon track back to the ranch. Tears burned at the corners of her eyes. No. She could depend on Jack. In their six years together, he’d never let her down. Jack would be home. Laurel raised her head and took a deep breath. He would be home. He would.

Jack and Laurel built their house above Paradise Creek on a small rise that looked out across the valley, which also bore the name of Paradise. From their knoll, the Bakers could see three miles or more downstream when the weather was clear. Laurel peered toward the house, not that she could see it on such a dark night. An orange-red flicker caught her attention. Had she left a lamp on? Fire? A new fear blossomed in her heart. Fire! Jimmy and Jason were in the loft. No one to wake them. No one to carry them from danger. Laurel shoved the Winchester into its scabbard and raked her spurs across Angel’s ribs. The startled horse hit a dead run in three strides. Laurel leaned over his neck, urging him on, her eyes on the orange-red glare that gradually got brighter as the gelding plunged on.

By the time they reached the burning house, Angel was streaked with lather and Laurel’s cheeks were streaked with tears.

“Jimmy! Jason!” She screamed her children’s names, but only the roar of the fire replied. Smoke poured from the chimney and seeped out between the cedar shingles. Through the windows, Laurel saw only rolling flames. She dashed to the tack room for a horsehair-filled cover and threw it over her head and shoulders for protection. She wrenched open the front door. Flames billowed from the house, fed by the rush of fresh air. The roar increased.

“Jimmy! Jimmy! Jason! Can you hear me? Are you in there?

Only the roar of the infernal flame.

“Oh God! Save my children. Save my boys. Dear God. My God!” Even wrapped in the horse cover, Laurel could not fight her way into the burning house. She choked on the smoke. Flames licked at her hands. The roar of the fire got louder. Sparks flew as the rafters collapsed into the maelstrom. Laurel howled at the fire. She screamed at God. She sank slowly to her knees, not trying to escape the sparks that burned pinholes in the horse cover and singed her hair and face. Tears welled in her eyes and coursed down her cheeks. Their home was on the Paradise; now it was Laurel’s Hell.

She curled into a foetal ball and screamed and screamed until her throat was cracked and bleeding. Jimmy, poor Jimmy. Five and so grownup. Helpful. Thoughtful. Poor Jimmy. Gone to God. Laurel could only pray that he’d died before the hideous flames made a cinder of his small body. Jason. First born at Paradise. At three, his baby warblings were finally turning into coherent speech. He loved big brother Jimmy. Followed him everywhere. Wanted to do all that Jimmy could do. Gone. Burned in a blaze of pine-fed fire.

By morning, only the log walls and the stone chimney stood. Small flickers of flame played along the smoking logs. Laurel couldn’t move. She dared not try to look among the ashes inside the gutted house. She sat with the horse cover around her shoulders. Sat and rocked back and forth and keened her pain to the heavens.

The first wagon arrived at midmorning. Seth Owens, the Bakers’ nearest neighbor, drove the wagon with his wife Priscilla clinging grimly to the seat. She scrambled down almost before the wagon stopped and ran to Laurel.

“Laurel, oh Laurel. What on earth happened. Oh, your lovely home.”

“God damn the house,” Laurel screamed. “God damn it. My boys. My Jimmy. My Jason. . . .” She could say no more, merely point at the ruins in speechless pain.

Priscilla gathered Laurel into her ample arms. “Poor lass. Poor lass,” she crooned. Above Laurel’s head she looked meaningfully at her husband and motioned with her head that he should look into the smoking ruins. “Poor lass,” she crooned.

Laurel made no sound, but tears flooded from her eyes and cascaded down her singed face. She laid her head on Priscilla’s shoulder and sobbed and sobbed.

Seth came back from the house. “They’re both in what’s left of their beds, Laurel,” he said. “I’m sure the smoke smothered them before the fire ever reached the loft. Thank God for that. Still, you’ll not be wanting to look at them, lass. Best to remember them as they were when you last saw them. I’ll make some boxes for their burial.”

Laurel sat with her head on Priscilla’s shoulder for a long time. “It’s all my fault,” she said in a tiny voice.

“That’s crazy. Of course it’s not your fault.”

“It is. I put them to bed and left them alone while I went out to meet Jack on the road back from Ponderosa. I banked the Franklin, but must have left the lamp burning on the table. I don’t know what knocked it off, but that’s what must have happened. I left them alone. If I’d stayed where I belonged, my boys would be alive.”

“Now, now, don’t blame yourself. God works in mysterious ways. Now he’s called your boys home. They feel no pain. And now they’re singing with the angels.” Priscilla did her best to comfort Laurel, but couldn’t reach her.

Laurel felt herself sinking into a deep dark place where she could neither think nor feel. She lost contact. Her awareness weakened. She felt the fires of Hell coming nearer and nearer. In her heart, she screamed and screamed, but made no sound. Only the tears and the pain seemed real. Still, she struggled from Priscilla’s embrace, stood up, and looked at the smoking remains of her Paradise. Inside, she felt numb. Outside, she shivered.

“Let go,” she said to Priscilla. “Let me go.” She shed the horse cover, wincing as her burned hands grasped the rough canvas. She stood on uncertain legs, almost unfeeling from remaining in the same position for so long. She took a step toward the house.

“Honey, don’t,” Priscilla pleaded, reaching out to grasp Laurel’s arm.

Laurel shrugged out of Priscilla’s grasp. She could think only of seeing her sons, of bidding them farewell. She took another step toward the ruins, and another.

“Seth,” Priscilla called. “Seth. She’s going in.”

Laurel was dimly aware of running footsteps, but they seemed far away. She was already through the doorframe, and her thick boot soles crunched on ashes and embers. Her grieving self was a tiny hard ball in the pit of her stomach. Her empty eyes registered only what they saw and the sight failed to reach her heart. The loft had fallen with the rafters, but the fire had not consumed it. The little bodies still lay in their bunks, scraps of burnt bedclothes covering them. The heat had pealed off the skin but mercifully had not burned away their eyelids. In the aftermath of the blaze, they seemed to be still asleep; horribly burned, but sleeping.

“Come away, Laurel. Let them rest in peace. Let me take care of them for you.” Seth Owens touched her arm.

The emptiness deepened. From the depths of her despair, she could hardly hear Seth’s voice. She let him lead her from the death chamber, once again to be enfolded in Priscilla’s arms.

A spark lit the darkness. Jack would soon be home. Jack would know what to do. Jack. Laurel leaned into Priscilla’s embrace and waited for her husband to come home.

Seth Owens built two small boxes with pine boards and tools he found in the barn. He wrapped the two boys in saddle blankets, placed them in the boxes, and sealed the lids with horseshoe nails. He put the little coffins in an open stable until Laurel and Jack decided where their burial ground should be.

“Shall we clean up around, Laurel?” Seth asked.

Laurel heard the question from the bottom of the dark pit in her mind. She shook her head. “Wait,” she said. “Wait for Jack.”

Seth nodded.

Laurel took a deep breath. She couldn’t just sit here. Things waited to be done. She staggered toward the granary with Priscilla a step behind.

“Laurel, honey, what are you doing?”

“Chickens need fed.” Laurel scooped a measure of oats from the bin with the usual bucket.

“Chick chick chick chick,” she called and broadcast the oats for the chickens to eat. No use milking the cows. The milk bucket probably burned with the house. She turned the calves in with the milk cows. They’d get an extra portion today. She sighed. When would Jack get home?

The second wagon came shortly after noon, and it came at a run. Frank Wills shouted at the team and slapped at their rumps with the ends of the reins, trying to urge them into yet greater speed. They came to a stop in a cloud of dust that drifted over the remains of the Paradise ranch house.

“Jeez,” he said to Seth. “What happened here?

“Dunno yet. Laurel thinks it may have been a wayward lantern.”

Frank tested the air with a high thin nose. “Does smell a bit like coal oil.”

Seth looked up, then tested the air himself. “Does at that.”

“That’s not why I’m here. We found Jack Baker’s wagon at the bottom of Paradise Gorge. Where’s Missus Baker?”

Seth motioned toward the granary. Laurel hurried across the yard. “Frank Wills,” she called. “Have you seen Jack?”

“I know this is hard, Missus Baker, your house burned down and all, but Jack’s wagon is at the bottom of Paradise Gorge. Looks like something spooked the team and they went right off the edge, wagon and all. Nothing moving. Both horses dead. Some fellers climbing down there right now to see about Jack.”

The thunder of hooves came before Laurel could speak. Two men Laurel knew only by sight reined their lathered mounts in beside Wills’s wagon. “We found Jack Baker,” one said. “Neck broke. They’re hauling him out of the gorge now.”

Laurel sank to her knees. The black pit threatened to consume her. First Jimmy and Jason. Now Jack. Cut, her mind said. Bleed. Get out of this place where you can’t think or even feel. She fumbled in her trouser pocket for the clasp knife she always carried when riding. Opening the blade, she slashed first her left arm, then her right. Pain. Blood. Then she cut her face from the hairline by her ear down to the point of her jaw. I’m alive, she thought. Maybe the pain will take away the emptiness. Bleeding profusely, she hacked away her long brown hair, sawing off each handful with the knife.

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