The Wayfaring Stranger The Big Fire
Full. Chapter 42
Joe Moore was making what he called his “firewood rounds”: he would go by Aunt Mollie’s, then the Sweats, and finally Miz Girlie’s. By the end of the day, he would have supplied every family with plenty of smaller sticks for the wood stove, as well as larger ones for the fireplace. In return, he would have a bag full of canned vegetables, meat, and supplies on his return home.
He was at Girlie’s house. A big red oak had blown down during the ice storm and it would supply enough wood for the remainder of the winter. Catching his breath, he stopped, leaning on his ax. It was a cold, windy day, perfect for chopping wood.
He watched Miz Girlie scampering about the yard and could easily tell she was troubled about something. A dead giveaway was when she puffed rapidly on her pipe. Watching her now, Joe thought she looked like one of those steamboats he’d seen on the river.
He dropped his ax and walked to the house. ”Miz Girlie, something’s bothering you. What is it?”
She refused to look at him but spoke, “I’m just troubled in my heart, Joe. I had a bad dream last night when the weather changed. This north wind has an evil feel to it that I can’t put my hand on. I’d swear I smell smoke in it.”
The cold front had moved through during the night. It didn’t have a great deal of rain in it, but the subsequent cold wind that it brought was unusually strong. By noon that day, the wind had only intensified and was blowing down pine straw and small limbs.
As Girlie stood staring off, Joe commented, “This is the strongest wind I’ve seen since arriving in America. It does remind me of how the wind often blew near the sea back home.”
Girlie continued, “This is an evil wind. If fire breaks out anywhere, with all of the limbs and trees down from that ice storm back in December and the grass being killed by those heavy frosts, it could mean trouble for everyone.”
“Is there something we should do?”
Girlie seemed to be smelling the wind, testing it as if it bore some message that only a woods woman like her could feel, sense, or touch. She stood there silently as the pine straw blew down like raindrops.
Finally, she turned to him. ”Yes, Joe—I want you to hook up the mule and plow us some fire lanes over there on the north side. Then I’ll get all of our buckets out and you draw up water and fill them all, then we’ll go break off some pine limbs and soak them in the water bucket.”
She stopped and seemed to be saying to herself even though she spoke loud enough for Joe to hear, “I know I’m over-reacting, but I just got this feeling in my bones.”
Joe took care of all of the chores she’d lined out. He figured she just had a good case of the nerves—the trouble with the land company had kept everyone on edge. This was probably much ado about nothing—but if it made her happy, he was glad to do it.
The wind only seemed to pick up stronger as the afternoon wore on. Because it was a strong north wind, it quickly dried out the ground from the night’s rain.
The thought of what a fire would do in these conditions did give Joe pause for thought. He’d once heard Uncle Arch talk about a winter woods fire that got in the tops of the pines and burned from tree to tree, whipped along by the wind. Looking up to where their first limbs began forty feet high, he couldn’t imagine a fire doing that.
Later that evening as he prepared to leave, Miz Girlie said, “Joe, I don’t mean to bother you, but I’d feel better if you’d stay. I’m worried about fire and I’d appreciate you sticking around to help if there’s trouble.”
“Of course, I’ll stay, if it’ll make you feel better.”
Normally a late winter cold front would blow through quickly and the winds would subside by the next day. However, that night the wind seemed to intensify. He could tell Girlie was still troubled by the cold wind. After they relit the lamp she said, “Joe, get out my Bible. I’d like for you to read out of Psalms. Baby, look over there in . . . I believe . . . Psalm 46.”
Joe put the book right up by the lantern and began with the first verse of that chapter: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble—therefore will not . . . we fear, though the earth be removed and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea . . .”
She said, “That’s it. Stop right there. Now, read it again.”
Joe read it again—this time slower.
Girlie had her eyes closed and was rocking slowly in her chair.
He heard her whisper, “God . . . our refuge . . . our strength . . . a very present he’p in trouble.”
When the wind blew in under the door and the lamp flickered, she gave a shudder. As the lamp went out for the third time, Miz Girlie said, “I’m going to bed.” Joe climbed up in the attic to a corner bed and settled down for the night. Joe kind of enjoyed bad weather and the moaning wind put him right to sleep. He felt as if he was back home again along the windy shores of the Atlantic.
He slept pretty well that night but was awakened several times by things banging around outside. Once, he sat up to look around and could clearly see Girlie’s silhouette sitting in a chair, watching out the window.
With daylight, a busy morning commenced with the wind still blowing with fury. The usual chores and taking care of the animals kept both of them busy. As they returned to the yard, Joe asked, “Are you still troubled about the weather?”
She knelt down and picked up a small handful of dust, smelled of it, and tossed it into the wind. It was instantly scattered and gone. “That evil wind hasn’t slowed down one bit. If anything, it’s worse. I wouldn’t be so worried if the ground weren’t so dry.” She swept her hand through the air as if by doing that she could calm the wind or dampen the air.
“Joe, there weren’t one bit of dew last night—too much wind. Yes, I am still worried and can’t quite tell you exactly why.”
Joe Moore would always remember her actions and mannerisms that morning. There was something unsettling, yet reassuring, about the old woman’s connection with the weather and the woods. It had amazed him when he first met her and he was no less amazed a year and a half later.
About two o’clock that afternoon was when they first smelled the smoke. They couldn’t see it yet, but the strong wind blew it in from the north. They stood on the porch and knew there was fire somewhere to the north and with this wind, it would be moving in their direction.
Girlie sprung into action. “Joe, saddle up Dallas and get ready to go warn our neighbors. I’ll turn all of the stock and chickens loose.”
The next few minutes were whirlwinds of activity. Joe didn’t feel anxiety about the situation Girlie did, but out of respect for her, he hurriedly saddled up and rode over to where she was uncooping chickens and letting the pigs out.
“You ride over to warn the Wilson and the Sweat families. You just tell them I sent you. Tell them I’m coming and we’ll meet at the crossing on Cherry Winche. The key will be to stay near a good body of water.”
“But what about the house here?”
“We’ll worry about that later. Right now taking care of folks is way more important than pine logs and cypress shingles.” She took a burlap sack out of the water barrel and tossed it up to him. “Keep that behind your saddle. You might need it.” The heavy wet bag sloshed water all over him as he caught it. She shouted, “Now git on and go.”
Joe rode quickly to the nearby homes. He was alarmed at how quickly the smoke was coming in the wind. When he stopped at the clearing near the Sweat home, he took a deep breath when he saw the thick billowing smoke far off behind the trees. What also scared him was the width of the fire. It seemed to stretch all the way across the horizon. This didn’t look like a normal woods fire to him. It had to have been—it must have been—set. There had been too much trouble with the land company not to doubt that they would do nearly anything. Could they have set this fire? He didn’t really have time to ponder that more closely. The fire was clearly coming their way and action–not thinking–was needed.
Joe also knew where he was going as soon as he finished warning these two families—nothing was going to stop him from getting to the Clark house.
Joe spurred Dallas and they headed toward Eliza’s house. Dallas galloped through the pines as the wind blew strongly. On a normal day this would have been an exhilarating ride, but nothing was normal about the unfolding events.
He soon reached Eliza’s home. She, her momma and Eli were out in the yard, staring at the billowing smoke you could now see clearly in the distance. Eliza ran up, “Joe, Poppa’s gone south and won’t be back today. We’re not sure what to do.”
As he dismounted, she grabbed his hand and held him— right in front of her mother–and said, “I’m glad you came, Joe.”
“Eliza, what we need to do fast is to let all of the animals out. Turn them loose so they can run ahead of the fire. There’s not much else we can do here except hope. Everyone else is meeting at the crossing on Cherry Winche.”
He turned to her brother, “Eli, saddle up both of the other horses. We’re riding out of here as fast as we can.” He walked over to Virginia Clark. “Mrs. Clark, is there anything you’d like me to do?”
She stared at him speechlessly before replying, “Joe, I thank you for coming. I think your idea to clear out is the right one. Thank you.”
Her voice and face had that same look of respect she’d shown him lately. He couldn’t describe how that made him feel, but there wasn’t time to hold feelings closely. It was time for action.
He began, with Eliza’s help, drawing water and pouring it on the rail fence and the north side of the house. He pushed down the woodpile that stood along the fence. “Scatter that firewood out so it won’t burn in a wad.” He was a whirlwind of action. Deep inside he wasn’t sure any of this would make a difference, but to do nothing was not an option.
The horses were saddled and the three of them mounted up and rode south. All of them looked back worriedly at their cabin and outbuildings. In the far distance, you could actually see tongues of fire above the trees. Virginia Clark exclaimed, “That’s got to be a tree-top fire if I’ve ever seen one.”
Before they parted, the last words were spoken not
by Eliza, but by her mother. “Joe, we’ll see you at the creek crossing.” Holding up a metal box, she added, “I know you’ll be there.”
Eliza looked at her mother and Joe quizzically before they all spurred their horses and took off.
The three Clarks rode quickly to the crossing. A good number of folks were gathered there. There were all kinds of discussions going on concerning what to do. Some wanted
to return to their homes to try to save them, but wiser heads prevailed on that being a bad idea. Joe heard someone in the crowd say, “Let’s stay near the creek. It’s the safest place to be.” A murmur of agreement swept the crowd.
Thirty minutes after their arrival is when Joe rode up and quickly dismounted. He walked among the crowd trying to take an inventory of the faces he wanted to see. He was relieved when he saw Girlie standing to the side. Unk waved at him across the crowd. One of the two families he’d warned— the Sweat clan—was already there but he didn’t see the other. That worried him.
One family riding up had fearful news that caused great emotion. The wife hollered out, “We saw men setting those fires. Up north toward West Crossing, there were fellows riding along, setting the fires!”
An angry ripple flooded through the crowd. Everyone there instantly assumed it was the Timber people behind it.
At this moment, Unk came up. He went to Joe and whispered in his ear. Eliza saw Joe stiffen. It was obviously news that alarmed him. He and Unk had a short discussion replete with much gesturing and pointing to the northeast.
Then, Joe ran to his horse. As he got on Dallas, he yelled, “Does anyone know about Aunt Mollie Weeks? Did anyone see her?” A look of fear spread across the crowd just like the billowing smoke.
The Weeks homestead, where Aunt Mollie still lived alone, was isolated from the other settlers. It was down the creek from most of the other homes, and no one had thought to go check on her—until this moment.
Everyone looked in the direction of towering smoke and could easily see the fire was headed straight for Aunt Mollie’s home. Everyone also knew it was too late to beat the fire to her. The fire was now between where they stood and her place.
However, one person wasn’t thinking—he was only reacting. Joe Moore was up in his saddle and spurring Dallas to wheel away from the crowd before anyone could react.
Eliza only had time to holler, “Joe, wait—!” before he was gone.
What amazed the crowd watching Joe spur the horse was where he went. He didn’t ride toward the Weeks home—not at first. He rode Dallas right off into Cherry Winche Creek, past the shallow crossing into a deep hole in the creek. He reined the horse right into the deepest water where Dallas had to swim. They both were soaked when they exited up on the other side clambered up the bank and headed straight into the teeth of the fire.
An observer blurted out, “What in Sam Hill is that fool a-doing?” Eliza wanted to hit him, but before she could speak or react, her own mother said, “It looks to me as if he’s going to rescue Aunt Mollie.” Eliza and the others looked in amazement at her mother. Until recently, she would have been very happy to get rid of Joe Moore, even if it meant him burning up in a fire.
Another observer said, “Who was that idiot?” This time Joe Moore’s honor was defended by another member of the Clark family. Eli Clark blurted out, “That ain’t no idiot. That’s the Irishman Joe Moore. He’s going to get Aunt Mollie Weeks!”
The knot of people at the crossing watched as Joe and Dallas disappeared into the distance. There was nothing to do but wait and see now.
Riding hard, Joe reached behind him for the wet burlap sack. It was just what he needed for what he had planned next. He could see the fire now. It was raging on both the ground as well as running wickedly high up in the trees. He’d never imagined anything like this! It was a blazing inferno that seemed to be creating its own wind and energy as it consumed everything in sight.
Dallas sensed the danger and tried to wheel parallel to the fire but Joe’s grip on the reins turned her back straight. He leaned in and tried to soothe her, “Just trust me here. We’ll get through this together.” As they neared the smoke, which obscured the remaining distance to the fire, Joe said, “Well, it’s now or never, Dallas.”
He drew up the horse and came to a stop. They were both still wet from their swim in the creek and that would be in their favor. He looked vainly for another source of water— even a stump hole or hog wallow—but none were to be found.
He got off the horse and began walking her toward the smoke. Carefully he placed the sack over her head. She winced and hesitated but he spoke reassuredly into her ear. ”Come on now. You can trust me. If I’m going with you, we’ll be all right. We’ll do this together.”
The smoke covered them and obliterated all sense of direction. He bent low to try to stay below the thickest smoke. Dallas was shaking her head and snorting. Joe was coughing and his eyes burned from the smoke as crackling embers flew past them.
Finally, he knew it was the time. He jumped back into the saddle and spurred Dallas. Instinctively she tried to turn away from the flames. They were close enough that they could both feel the intense heat.
The only way he kept his bearing was to move toward the terrible roar and crackling of the fire line. He held the reins tightly, kept her head straight, and spurred her with all of his might. The only way to do this was full force with no chance of retreat.
The horse responded with a great surge fueled by fear, adrenaline, and power. Fortunately, they were in a small draw that although not filled with water, retained enough moisture to dampen the fire at the very spot they tore into it.
Joe felt the hair on his arm and face singe. He laid his body across the horse’s neck. Dallas snorted in pain but plowed straight ahead.
Then all at once—amazingly—they were through it. There were still small fires burning on the far side of the wall of flame, but he could breathe again. He couldn’t believe they had made it. With a short prayer, he thanked God, got his bearings, and stormed away toward Aunt Mollie’s place.
* * *
Aunt Mollie Weeks had seen enough of life to know trouble when she saw it. Only, on this day she smelled it before she saw it. When she smelled the smoke, she immediately knew that a serious situation was developing. A north wind like this—combined with the conditions on the ground from the ice storm, dryness, and humidity—and now smoke could only mean one thing: a woods fire was moving her way.
And she couldn’t do one thing about it! She couldn’t run. She knew she couldn’t out-walk it. She’d rather die in her house than be caught outside in the fire. Unless someone came to help her, she was stuck. Looking at the direction of the billowing smoke, she knew all chance of rescue lay on the vain hope of someone coming from the other side of the flames. So she realistically faced up to the seriousness of her situation.
As she had done countless times in the days and weeks since Arch’s death, she talked to him. “Well, Honey, it looks like I’m coming to see you. Evidently, our separation’s not going to be long at all. I just can think of a lot of ways I’d rather leave this old earth other than being burnt up like a stick of stove wood.”
She got down her Bible and went into the front room. The smoke was filling the room as it seeped in under the door and wall cracks on the north side of the house. Maybe the smoke would choke her before the fire got here. That would be merciful if it happened.
All of her life she had turned to the Lord in the tough times of her life. Today would be no different. She set the Bible in her lap. She could barely read but knew by heart the verses she now needed. From memory, she quoted,
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me—
It was just then that she heard the feet on her porch. She also thought she heard the snorting of a horse. She looked up as the door swung open and there through the smoke stood Joe Moore, the Irishman.
“Aunt Mollie, are you ready to go?”
“Well, I guess I am, Son. I was just getting ready to go be with Arch in Heaven, but it looks like you done gone and messed that up. So I guess I am ready to go—yes, I’ll go with you. You mind if I bring my Bible and this here picture of me and Arch?”
“Yes, Ma’am, you bring them, but let’s get out now!”
Joe Moore carried her out as she clutched the Bible and an old picture to her breast. He watched her face as he trotted toward his waiting horse. She was looking back—never taking her eyes off the house where she’d lived for all of her life. Tears rolled down her cheeks as he lifted her up on the horse, got on, and they rode away.
Neither one looked back as the flames engulfed the old home place on Cherry Winche Creek.
Folks who were gathered that day gathered at the creek crossing still talk about when Joe Moore and Aunt Mollie burst through the smoking woods.
They were both singed and Dallas was covered in black soot as they swung right through the crowd. Aunt Mollie was holding on for dear life and whooping loudly.
The story was repeated, added to, and became legendary among the Ten Milers.
Joe’s rescue of Aunt Mollie stopped any visible opposition to the Irishman’s immigration into the Ten Mile community. He was now a hero, and heroes are always welcome, even if they are an outsider, even in a place called Ten Mile.
As he wheeled Dallas to a stop and the crowd descended on them, he found himself looking into the eyes of Eliza and her mother. Both of them had a big smile.
For some strange reason, Joe’s mind drifted back to that fateful day nearly two years ago when he had lain along the stone wall. He remembered his pessimistic thought: I’ve always known it was going to end this way—
Happily, he’d been wrong. For that day in Ireland had changed his life and brought him to this new land—and the end result was a new life in a new land.
He remembered his Mother’s words: “Every step of your life—ordered—and directed—by God.” He now believed she was right.
At that moment, he finally realized something else: he was no longer a wayfaring stranger. First of all, he wasn’t wandering anymore—his wayfaring days were over. Secondly, he no longer felt like a stranger. When you’ve found your home, you can never be a stranger again.
You can read all of The Wayfaring Stranger here.