Fire in the Snow

12 Blogs of Christmas With Keith R. Baker

In addition to thanking Martin Crosbie for inviting me to contribute to this year's Xmas series, I'd also like to thank him for providing the inspiration (in the form of his own 2014 Christmas blog) from one of my favorite authors, Charles Dickens.

Fire in the Snow by Keith R. Baker

The big man's boot carefully kicked aside a remaining hunk of what appeared to be a roof rafter.  Burnt nearly to ash, it had almost no weight to it.  Still, it was best to be careful.  Any of the smoldering pile of debris that had been their family home could yet be white-hot.  He didn't need a burnt foot; he had enough trouble already.

Rob Finn's young family had few enough possessions before the fire.  Now, it seemed, they had none.  Farming their tiny acreage had barely provided enough food in the good times.  Along with everything else they'd lost, even their supply of necessary food stuffs were gone.  What would they do?

His slim wife, Bridget, came alongside him taking his hand in hers and giving it a strong squeeze.  Even in the darkness he could see tracks in the soot on her cheeks, tracks left by her earlier tears.  Rob was also sad, but he was no quitter.  He had no idea what they would do next, not even where they would spend that night - Christmas Eve, 1861.

Their eldest daughter, Catherine joined her shivering parents at the edge of the stinking, smokey mound of rubble.  Were if not for the rain and snow mix which had fallen heavily during the fire, their entire section of the small town - maybe even the entire town - might have looked the same.  Saved by a quirk of weather, Darien, Wisconsin could have been obliterated in just a couple of hours.  It had been spared.  Some would claim it to be an "act of God", Bridget would likely be among the first to do so.   Rob would again wonder about that.

Thomas Duffy, owner of the town's only milling operation and also the general store, walked straight up to Rob and commanded, "Follow me.  Looks like y'll be staying with the Duffys fer a while."  The storm clouds which had dumped the saving moisture on the town had already moved off to the east, leaving a crystal-clear winter night sky full of stars in its wake.  So clear and bright in the heavens above, Bridget thought they must truly resemble diamonds, as the nursery rhyme claimed.  And the thought brought a new stab of realization: even their few books were gone!

The starlight was bright enough for the young family to follow the elder Duffy as he led them to the stable and coach house behind his home and store buildings. Rob carried one of the twins on each arm, Catherine held Michael's hand.  John and Mary were old enough to walk by themselves and stayed close to their mother, who walked slowly and deliberately.  Bridget had never recovered her former vitality after the birth of the twin boys in 1859.

It was a somber, slow-moving group that shuffled behind Duffy into the modest barn, upstairs into the loft.  "It isn't so much, but we'll bring out plenty o' blankets fer everyone.  Y'll be warm an' dry fer tonight.  Tomorrow we'll do some fixin'-up.  Wish it were better, Rob.  Sorry fer yer loss."

"Thank ya, Tom.  Yer too kind.  We're fine, so long's we've got each other."  Rob pondered the opening sentence from his favorite author, Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities: 

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

Rob did not have the abiding faith that Dickens described in some of his writing.  He had not yet had the opportunity to read The Christmas Carol, but knew roughly what its story told.  His heart told him that his family's current plight put them into similar circumstances to the impoverished family of The Christmas Carol.  He had also been lately thinking how his new nation, the United States, closely resembled the opening description in Tale of Two Cities.

He followed his host back outside, waiting on the back porch of the house for Tom to return with blankets for the now homeless family.  When Rob looked to the North, there was no missing that super-bright glowing beacon of a star known to travelers everywhere as Polaris.  He could have sworn he saw a broad beam from that distant sun open, shedding its light on him.

And he wondered the wonder that had enchanted men's souls for over eighteen hundred years ...

He thought again, repeating the words to himself, "so long as we've got each other", and he bowed his head, closed his eyes, and gave thanks to the unseen force that had protected his family from perishing this night.

Rob Finn, had no way of knowing that before the following year, 1862 was over, three of those family members would not be with him to see the next Christmas, nor any other.  Read about Rob Finn and his family in the Longshot series, beginning with Longshot In Missouri, price reduced through Christmas, here.

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