Original Opening Scene

 

“Rebecca! Get some more mash.” Pa kicked her bedroll under his cot.

Seventeen-year-old Rebecca squelched a moan and peeped her head out from her tight quarters. She focused her sleep-puffy eyes on Pa, who moved to sit on his wood stool.

Pa bent over, chest resting on his thighs while he laid sticks and dried pine-cones in a pile to start the fire. The flat, rock fireplace was nestled under one of two large copper pots. When he struck the match on the side of the stonework, his movement danced a crimson reflection on the side of the bulbous containers.

She rolled out, like every other morning for as long as she could remember, squeezed past Pa in the tight space, and stuffed her bare feet into boots, rubbing the sore spot on her thigh from her wake-up kick. She ducked under the coiled copper tubing that led from the pot with a blooming fire to the other. Three steps more and she was out the front door, knowing better than to force her Pa to ask for mash twice.

She bounded down the two steps and into a clumping jog, moving fast to be back in the shack before the chill stole all the sleep-heat from her clothes. By the time she returned the fire under the whiskey still would already taken the chill out of their small home.

Rebecca breathed deep, crossed the yard, and enjoyed the fresh damp air. The brisk morning cleaned the bitter, tangy smell of Pa’s from her nose. She ducked under the edge of the canvas that covered his outside work area. On her right, a wall of stacked corn husks rose to meet the hanging canvas. The pile blocked the wind and rain, but left a sour smell that stank even worse than Pa. She scanned the burlaps sacks of corn seeds stacked on the long shelf on the back wall. She’d never forgotten the crawling weight of the pack-rat when it lept from the shelf onto her shoulder and scrambled down her leg.

She watched for movement as she crossed to the bucket of mash her Pa wanted.

When she was sure the shelf was empty of all but the corn, she bent to heft the heavy mash as she had done a hundred times before. The bottom of the bucket dug into her upper thigh and waist as she waddled out the door. Her sleep tumbled braid swished back and forth in the opposite rhythm.

Pa banged the door of the shanty open. It clattered against the wall as he bellowed, “Come on, girl! I gotta add that before what’s here gets too hot.” He kicked the door shut. It bounced off its frame and swung right back to him. He cursed and then turned back to her. “What’s taking you so long?”

She continued to waddle, her shoulders swaying to the left and the right as she moved under the heavy weight across the yard. “Comin’,” she grunted, only twenty feet from the porch.

Pa watched her struggled toward him. Unconcerned, he dug in his pocket and found his last Cheery root. “Gonna, hafta head into town soon, dag-blast it!”  He shoved his smoke between his lips, pulled a match from his breast pocket and struck it on the porch rail. Once it flamed, Pa touched it to the end of his cigarette. He leaned against the rail and savored a long drag.

In the next instant, a white-hot flash flamed a silhouette around him as the front of the cabin blew apart and blasted him off his front step. Rebecca was tossed onto her back like she was nothing but a rag-doll. The mash barrel fell with her, spilling its contents on her chest.

Rebecca’s ears rang with a high, whining noise and the ground trembled beneath her when a second blast echoed off the canyon walls. Shards and splinters of burning wood rained down all around her. She rolled over, and clumps of mash fell from the front of her as she came to a stand. She gingerly turned around and faced the shanty wondering where her boots had gone.

The entire front wall of the shanty, was missing.

The walls that remained were engulfed in flames. “Pa? Pa!” The scream sounded muted next to the ringing in her ears. She stepped toward the building and tripped over the copper coil that always arced across their home. She picked it up to fling it out of her way. Hot metal penetrated her skin. She let go of it with a yelp.

She scanned the burning building and the wreckage in a daze until she found Pa face down in the dirt. She rushed to his side, stomped the flames that ate the pieces of wood all around him, and used her mash-soaked skirts to extinguish the wispy pieces of cloth—what was left of the clothes on his back. Skin showed through his charred clothing. She patted the small wisps of smoking hair on the back of his head.

The smell of burnt hair and flesh clogged her throat. Her stomach roiled and, she was on the verge of emptying it when Pa moaned. She swallowed bile. Near faint with relief, she crawled around his head, careful not to bump him. When she could see the side of his face, below his smoke-stained mustache, the Cherry Root still hung from between his lips.

Pa moaned again.

Rebecca gently touched his cheek. “Stay still, Pa. I’ll go get help. I’ll be fast.”

He fluttered his hand in her direction.

When she rested her hand in his, he settled. She looked at the distance between him and the burning shanty to be sure it couldn’t fall on him. Content with the distance, she gave his hand a squeeze and released him. She jumped up, spun on her heels, and took off down the old trail toward town—no time to find her boots.

“I’ll get help, Pa!” she hollered over her shoulder as she raced away.

She scooped the front of her skirt up to her waist and ran down the trail, jumping logs and bushes. The morning dew softened the dirt, but not enough to protect the bottom of her feet. She aimed her steps to land on as many fresh patches of grass she could find, never slowing her pace.

As she ran, ears ringing, she could hear every breath she took as she scrambled down a hillside, sliding that last few feet to the bottom. She pressed on around a bend and alongside the rushing Beaver Creek and came around a corner face-to-face with a doe and her yearling. She saw the whites of the mama’s eyes before she whirled and took a mighty leap off the trail. Her fawn mimicked her.

Rebecca kept running.

She tried not to think of the red patches of flesh on the back of Pa’s legs. I can’t do anything to fix that. She adjusted her skirt into one hand so she could swat the thick brush out of her way—ignoring the feeling of thorns pricking through her sleeves and into her arm. She tore through the brush until she broke out into the opening. Her goal was in sight. The growing town held several buildings. Their gently curling smoke plumes slipped up to the sky and sent her the signal that people were awake and starting their days.

She wanted to yell for help, but no one would hear her. She was still too far away. With each step, she drew closer. She tried to decide which building she would go to for help. Over the years, Pa filled her with a healthy fear of the sheriff.

What would happen if I did go to the sheriff’s office? Her shoulders shivered like they had when the rat climbed down her. “No. Not the sheriff.”

She tugged and tried to make it pop so she could hear.

The mercantile? I could go there.

 It had been over a year since she’d been inside. She still remembered how many people crowded into the store. She remembered the sharp-nosed owner who always tipped his head back, lifted his eyebrows, and watched her every move. When she was coming up to the end of the town, the first set of buildings a stone’s throw away, she heard the muted sound of the answer to her dilemma.

“Ping-dong, ping-dong, ping-dong!”

A bell echoed off the storefront.

“The church!” She clutched her skirt tighter and leaned into a sprint as she ate up the distance between her and the eggshell white building straight ahead. The wide-staircase led her right up to the double doors covered with intricate scrollwork.

She took the steps two at a time and released her skirts as she reached, grabbed, and pulled both the handles. She was in before the doors could swing shut and came to a halt at the back of a long aisle that led between pairs of wooden benches filled with people. The tall man at the front stopped talking mid-sentence and came out from behind a wooden pulpit that came up to his waist.

She didn’t wait for him to speak before she blurted. “Pa! My Pa! He’s burnt and my home is on fire!”

 

 

The end.

Fun fact: This scene was based on a true story of a guy who blew himself out the second story window of his flat and was found walking the street in his underwear. (He might have been making whiskey in his whitey-tighties or he blew himself right out of his pants—not sure.)