Late April 1856
by Sally Wheaton
He vaguely heard the voice and felt something touching his arm.
“Nathanial! Wake up!”
The something touching his arm became an urgent shake and the voice became louder.
He opened his eyes to see Elizabeth’s face right up close to him. She looked worried. Quickly he sat up.
“What is it?”
“Over there!” she pointed out of the window. “There’s a fire!”
At the word “fire” he jumped out of bed. He peered out of the window and could see an orange glow. He wouldn’t describe it as being in the distance, close enough certainly that it was on their land, or possibly the Heyes land where it joined theirs. He didn’t think it was far enough away to be their house, but in the dark it was hard to be certain.
Quickly he pulled on his boots. “Get Nate and Zach. Keep the others safe,” he told Elizabeth as he grabbed a coat and headed for the door.
“Is it their house?” she asked urgently, though as ever she remained calm.
“I don’t think so.” He hesitated. “Lizzie, I hope not,” he added more quietly. She nodded in understanding, then went to get the children.
As Nathanial got to the door, a wagon pulled up. He hurried over to help Sarah down as Hannibal jumped down himself.
“It’s the crops,” Sarah told him quickly. “No-one’s hurt. Alex is there and Mr Myers is there helping too. Where your land meets ours.”
“Thank goodness you’re all safe,” Elizabeth said, coming out of the door, with Nate and Zach following right behind.
“It’s not too big yet, Alex thinks we might be able to control it, but if not, we’ll have to set counter fires,” Sarah told them.
“Looks like we might have spotted it early then,” replied Nathanial. “We’ll need water, as much as we can get out there as quickly as we can, and blankets too. If we can stop it spreading then it’ll hopefully burn itself out.”
“We can help with the water Pa,” Zach told him and Nate nodded his agreement.
Even as they were talking, Nathanial had been gathering what he needed.
“That’s a good idea, son,” he said to Zach. “I’ll leave you all to organise the water.”
Elizabeth gave him a nod of encouragement as he set off across the field towards the flames.
“Someone get the buckets, find everything you can that will hold water,” Elizabeth commanded as a flurry of activity began around her.
Nate and Zach quickly filled buckets of water and set off across the field. Sarah had also found buckets and was just about to set off with two of them full to the brim, when Elizabeth grabbed her arm.
Looking pointedly at her friend’s belly, she said “Sarah, I don’t think that’s the best idea.”
“I’m not going to stand around and watch.”
“I didn’t suggest you were,” replied Elizabeth. “There’s plenty else you can do other than trudge across the field with heavy buckets. Someone has to keep an eye on the little ones and get the buckets filled. Let me help the boys carry them.”
Sarah didn’t answer immediately and Elizabeth was afraid she was going to be stubborn. She tried once more. “Sarah, it’s the crops, no-one’s life is at risk – unless you …” Her voice drifted off, not wanting to say anything out loud. Sarah stared across the fields towards the orange glow and then looked back at Elizabeth.
“You’re right,” she nodded quietly.
Elizabeth smiled warmly at her, then looked towards the house where the younger children were rummaging in the kitchen to find anything that would hold water. “Keep our little ones safe,” she said. “They’re more precious than the crops.”
Sarah smiled back, and handed the buckets to Elizabeth, who took them from her and started across the field.
Beth and Esther came running out of the kitchen, carrying Elizabeth’s large cooking pot. Sarah helped them to fill it with water and they set it on the ground ready for when the boys returned with the empty buckets.
Hannibal staggered out of the barn, laden down with all manner of things which might hold water, including the wash tubs, a wooden barrel and even the butter churn. As he set them by the well, Jed appeared from the house carrying a cup which he set down next to Hannibal’s wash tubs in the line of containers waiting to be filled.
Sarah couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you Jed, you’re being a big help,” she told him as she ruffled his hair. Happily, he trotted back to the kitchen. Sarah shook her head slightly, no doubt another cup would be on its way shortly.
After half an hour of fighting the flames with the wet blankets, Nathanial stood upright. The wind was getting stronger and if they didn’t get the fire under control, it would be blown towards their house. He glanced up at the sky. The moon was bright tonight, but silhouetted against the night sky dotted with stars, he could see dark clouds moving quickly in the wind. It didn’t look good.
“Alex!” he shouted to his friend, struggling to be heard above the cracking sounds of the fire. Alex stood up, coughing and spluttering with the smoke, and came over to Nathanial.
It only took them a few moments to decide and quickly, they began to set counter fires. It was something they’d done before. The brush here could get extremely dry and brittle in the summer months and crop fires were not uncommon. The setting of counter fires was often used to control them. Last year, it had worked well over at the Myers place.
Hurriedly firebrands were made. Then, armed with brooms of hazel brush to control the fires of their own setting, they began burning strips of crops ahead of the fire. The inner edge of the flames was beaten out and the outer edge was allowed to burn towards the main fire. In this way fire was left to fight fire. As the wall of flame moved quickly forward, lighting and heating everything around it, the counter fire slowly crept forward to meet it.
Sarah and the children had filled everything they could with water and were now standing huddled together, watching the scene in front of them. The orange light flashed and flickered across their faces and black ash from the fires floated across to them on the wind. The flames seemed to soar high into the sky. The smoke was still visible against the blackness of the sky, though the sky itself was becoming darker as clouds rolled in on the wind, almost covering the moon now. The stars were no longer visible, hidden behind the clouds and the smoke. Sarah pulled her shawl around her as the wind whipped up. The cracking and snapping sounds of the flames could be heard on the wind and the children huddled up closer, wide-eyed at the spectacle.
“Mrs Heyes?” Beth asked worriedly, “Will it stop before it gets to us?”
“Yes, I think so Beth,” Sarah replied, trying to reassure the children with a certainty she wasn’t quite sure she felt herself. She pointed a few feet away. “That’s why we leave the circle of bare earth around the house and barn. The fire shouldn’t be able to cross that and we, and the house, should be safe here.”
“We have the circles of bare earth around our house too don’t we mother?” asked Hannibal. He was sure they did, he knew they did, he’d seen them, but still, standing here watching the monster in front of him, he wanted his mother’s reassurance on that point.
“Yes Hannibal, we do. And the wind is blowing the fire this way, not towards our house.”
“Pa will stop the fire,” Esther said with certainty. “Won’t he Mrs Heyes? He knows what to do.”
“He does indeed Esther and he’ll be working hard to control it.”
“And father too,” Hannibal put in forcefully, determined that his father not be left out.
“Yes, of course. They both know what to do. If you look carefully, you can see the smaller counter fire they’ve set. When the two meet, the main fire should burn out.”
Four small sets of eyes peered closely into the darkness, trying to see the smaller flames. They watched the silhouetted forms moving backwards and forwards across the scene.
“Pa,” Jed said, pointing towards the fire.
Far off, on the other side of the fire, another set of eyes watched with fascination. The lone figure took a silver flask from his pocket and took a long swig, before turning to mount his horse, a smug, satisfied smile on his face.
The men now had the counter fire under control and were walking up and down it, keeping an eye on it, beating out any flames where a stray cinder had lighted the surrounding crops.
It was now approaching the main fire itself and the men could feel the intense heat on their faces as they came closer to it. The flames were swirling and dancing high up into the air, the crackling sounds of the fire together with the roar of the wind assaulted their ears and the smoke in the air made it very difficult to breathe. The light from the flames was so bright that they covered their eyes with their arms when facing it.
Nathanial brushed his hand across his face to remove the ash which was falling on them constantly. It wouldn’t be long now before the two fires met, this was the critical point.
Suddenly the two flames whirled around each other and twisted into one crimson column which roared upwards as the two fires met. Seconds later, the roar faded as the flames began to dwindle and within a short time, the fire had almost burnt itself out, leaving just a few glowing embers close to the ground.
Alex leaned forward to beat out a stray flame to his left. As he did, he felt something fall on the back of his neck. He brushed away what he assumed to be ash, surprised that it was cold not hot. As he did so, he felt more land on his neck, then more and even more. Brushing at it again, he realised his hand was wet. He stood up and looked upwards towards the sky. As he did, a large drop of water landed on his nose. He held his hands out, facing upwards to the sky and heard Nathanial laughing loudly beside him.
“To be sure, it’s raining!”
Very quickly, the few drops became a downpour and Alex and Nathanial stood in the pouring rain, laughing together as water ran down their faces and necks and soaked through their clothes to their skin.
“It sure is!” replied Alex, beaming.
“Luck of the Irish,” Nathanial told him, smiling.
“Ah, and I was just about to say Luck of the Righteous!” Alex smiled back.
They stood together, watching the last of the flames die away as the rain soaked the ground, giving them the best protection possible against fire. Over the last couple of years, Mother Nature had dealt them severe blows, but they’d survived and now, for once, it seemed she was on their side.