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A Sign of the Times
Silas Wright, dreaming.
He told his compatriots, "Hardest part'll be digging up the nerve to do it." They shook hands in the dark as if to seal an infernal bargain, then bent to their work, feeling instead of seeing, pushing tinder under the
little building. Silas heard the muffled click of kitchen matches in his overalls bib and the slosh of whiskey in his hip pocket. He was not
unsteady-he could hold his liquor-but a twinge of either remorse or nausea struck the instant he bent his head to poke under the edge of the building. Straightening his back, he looked at the sky.
In flatlands he would have seen a fingernail moon about to set, but Cataloochee was ringed with high mountains that always hid such a rind of light. Thin clouds obscured all but first-magnitude stars and Saturn hung high in the western sky. Brothers Hiram and John Carter, his neighbors, worked on the other side, boots scraping the ground. Silas was glad no dogs barked. It would be a bitch to explain if they were caught.
None of the men had burned a school before, but they figured if they used wooden matches and no coal oil, people would not be suspicious. This time of year the teacher banked the fire in the potbellied stove against the night chill, so there would be ample coals to start a blaze should some errant bear knock over the heater, which Silas meant to do before they lit the circumference.
Fire laid, they met at the front door. Silas, a head taller than Hiram and John, and an angular man, was rarely seen without his briar pipe. He plucked it from his bib pocket and looked at his friends. "You boys ready?"
They nodded as one, but suddenly Hiram's balding head turned, owl- like, as he whispered, "What was that?" Three intakes of breath preceded perfect silence. Hiram exhaled. "Thought I heard something."
"Don't spook a man like that," said Silas. "I ain't ready to see Jesus just yet." They listened for a half minute. "Okay, boys, let's get to it," he said, and opened the door to the smell of warm cast iron and generations of chalk dust. A dull red glow outlined the seams in the stove. Donning a pair of gloves fetched from his back pocket, he breathed deeply and muttered, "Well, son, here we go."
A good shove broke the stovepipe away from the heater. Downdraft made fire leap immediately from the nipple. He pitched the stove the rest of the way over, scattering burning coals on the puncheon floor. Outside, on their knees, John and Hiram fanned tinder.
Within a minute they had a decent fire. They were maybe twenty yards from the school's bell, which was elevated on a post on the other side of the recess field, and Silas meant to ring it when the fire was advanced enough to ensure no possibility of saving the building.
As Silas lit his pipe, a sudden wind swept the valley, rushing, like word from crazed mountaintop prophets or perhaps a gale from the mouth of God Almighty, who had seen their crime and made fair to blow them all to kingdom come. The fire devoured the schoolhouse like a living beast, leaping from yellow to orange, roaring in a noticeable rhythm, content to feed upon itself long past the existence of the puny structure it consumed.
Silas had not figured a small building to sound so sinister in its dying. Where did them damn Carters get off to? He had to think fast. Ride home and pretend he'd been asleep? Ring the bell like they had planned? Get the hell out for a few days?
He started running toward the bell, but the post seemed to get no closer. His chest felt like he had run uphill two miles. Gasping, he stopped and grabbed for his pipe. Gone. Fallen out somewhere, damn it all, perfect evidence he had burned a schoolhouse. Cursing and wheeling toward the fire, he began to run. He again made no progress, but . . .
A bony hand grabbed his shoulder. Carl, his niece Ethel's husband, yelled in his ear. "Get up, Silas. The damn chimbley's on fire!" Silas shook himself awake. Behind his bedroom mantel something malevolent rushed and retreated, each cycle in deeper breaths, and Silas looked out the window to see if the yard might have caught fire. He and Carl raced downstairs, Carl in flannel nightshirt and Silas in long johns, like two half-naked refugees from an asylum. Harrogate passed them carrying two blankets dripping with creek water.
Bud Harrogate had boarded with Silas for some time. His habit was to stay a year or two, then go on what he called a pilgrimage, and Silas called damned foolishness, for six months or more. Then he would return, happy as a vagabond hound. Despite his ways, he was good help, and in Silas's kindly moods he thought of Bud as the son he and his dead wife, Rhetta, had never had.
Harrogate's plaid coat sleeves were soaked, and he wore wet leather gloves to shield arms and hands from the fire while he stuffed the blankets into the chimney throat to make a damper. Within ten seconds the fire in the shaft starved, and the coals still in the fireplace smoldered.
Harrogate joined Carl and Silas in the yard to watch the chimney fire's death in a succession of yellow, orange, and ruby sparks that finally turned into ashes descending over the roof peak and floating down onto the cedar shakes.
"Guess the house ain't going to burn," said Silas. His father, Jonathan, had built a cabin beside the creek in 1861, which Silas had framed nineteen years later, and then he'd added a two-story central- chimney wing. The building's footprint was a T whose top faced east. The men stood underneath a tall cedar, pointing to the roof and shaking their heads in the graying dawn. "A man needs a chimney fire ever now and then, but only when he sets it hisself," said Silas. "Let's make some coffee."
Carl nodded and went inside to poke up the kitchen fire. Harrogate and Silas walked the perimeter of the house to make sure no stray embers lurked among skittering dry leaves. They watched Carl-his light brown hair nearly gone on top-fuss with the kitchen stove. Harrogate shucked his gloves and jacket. "Silas, that was close."
"Yep, have to admit, my legs are still shaking. That'll scare any man. Specially one dreaming about a fire to begin with." He pronounced "fire" to rhyme with "car."
"What fire was that?"
He grinned and looked at the ground. "It was an awful long time ago." He scratched his head. "First tend to that front room fire, then maybe we can have breakfast. Then I reckon I can tell it."
Harrogate's flat face and high cheekbones led some to speculate he had Melungeon blood, others Cherokee. He was the only unmarried male in Cataloochee who wore a ring, and he absently turned it on his left pinky as he went inside to remove the blankets and throw them into the yard. He opened windows and poked the fireplace coals with hope of slow revival. Carl breezed through the front room on his way upstairs for clothes. "I'll have breakfast on in a minute," he said. Silas followed him upstairs for his own overalls and shirt.
Ethel was visiting her sister in South Carolina, so once breakfast was on the table, the three men dispensed with manners, slurping and sopping and grunting their way through coffee, bacon and eggs, biscuits and gravy, and applesauce, followed by molasses and butter. "Nothing like damn near dying to get a man's appetite going," Harrogate said. They left the wreckage in the kitchen and padded slowly to the front room, as if not to wake the giant in the chimney.
Harrogate shut the windows. "Going to be a nice day," he said. "Bids fair despite this frost." He sat in Rhetta's old chair, a privilege Silas allowed no one but him.
"Well, Bud," said Silas as they sat before the fire, "you wanted to know what I was dreaming about when I got woke up." He lit his pipe, a small smile at the other corner of his mouth. "Neither of you remembers the old schoolhouse."
"Where was it?" asked Harrogate.
"Across the creek from the one we got now, just off the valley road, where Indian Creek comes into Cataloochee Creek. I remember when we called it the new school, because the first one was down past Lucky Bottom on the left. It was built way before the Civil War. That first one was took apart for firewood, best I remember, when the second school, the old schoolhouse in my dream, got built. That was about 1875, after the war anyhow.
"This schoolhouse-where your wife went to school, Carl, wasn't but one room-was fine for twenty-five or thirty young'uns, but by the turn of the century they had fifty or more in there, setting on top of each other. It's a wonder any teacher worked there more'n a week, or a pupil ever learned a fool thing.
"You all remember Hiram Carter. A fine man, even though he did sometimes think he was a little better'n the rest of us. See, he'd been off, with his hauling business. Traveled real regular into South Carolina. Didn't have any better education than the rest of us, but he read books besides the Bible and magazines besides seed catalogs, and I admit he could hold his own talking with anybody, even Preacher Smith or Doc Bennett.
"Anyhow, Hiram took this schoolhouse problem on hisself. He wrote to the commissioners to ask for a new building. They didn't answer. So he kept at it, and finally they wrote and said they wasn't any money. You know, boys, it still smells right smoky in here. You reckon we could stand it on the porch?"
They opened all the windows, picked up their jackets, and went outside. Harrogate and Carl sat on the porch rail like kids at a ball game, while Silas settled in the rocker and relit his pipe. "Well, sir, that word from Waynesville just fried Hiram's eggs. I reckon he fumed for a month, saying how every time we turned around they stuck their hands out for taxes, and still said they didn't have no money."
As Silas rocked, he rubbed the back of his neck. "Shoot, he should have lived long enough to see the tax collector in Haywood. You know, Carl, that Sutton with a steel hook in place of a right hand. It's a sign of the times, let me tell you. Them tax collectors in the Bible got nothing on him.
"Anyhow, Hiram stewed and got agitated, finally come over. I just had put up the mule-we'd been snaking deadfall firewood. Hiram come up on that bay mare, just huffing and puffing. Started saying how we'll all go to Waynesville, hats in hand, make them commissioners understand how bad we need a school building.
"Well, I lit my pipe and listened. He finally asked what I thought. 'Hiram, you know something?' I said. 'What?' he said. Looked at me with that turn of head, you remember, that reminded you of them parakeets that used to be everywhere. I said, 'Ain't it a law that a school's got to have a building?' He nodded. 'Well,' I said, just as slow, 'if we didn't have one all of a sudden, then they'd be obliged to build us one, wouldn't they?'
"The damnedest look crept up on his face, like he was staring at the Wild Man of Borneo. 'What are you suggesting?' he said. I just shook my head and kind of smiled. 'If it just cotched fire . . .,' I said, just as innocent as a lamb.
"You'd've thought I'd said let's kill President Coolidge. It got him on his high horse, sure enough. I'd not heard such a speech in a long time. 'You mean,' he said, 'to tell me you'd set fire to a school? Why, a school is next thing to a church, Silas. It's no different than lighting a match to the Statue of Liberty, by God. I'll not hear of such a thing in Cataloochee. This's the finest place I know of. You couldn't slip such a serpent into this Eden. You can't be serious.' That kind of thing. I just let him go on.
"After he wound down, he looked at me real serious like. Said, 'I don't know anybody low down enough to burn a school, except old Rafe's boy, Willie McPeters-or do I?' Looked at me like I was a coiled-up rattlesnake.
"I said, 'No, Hiram, you don't. But for the sake of argument, let's say you and me was to light a match to that little old building. Provided, of course, that they wasn't nobody in it, and provided too that we didn't get caught. The county'd have to build a new one, wouldn't they?' See, that was back before income tax. We still thought government might accidentally help a fellow every now and then.
"Well, sir, he fussed about destroying public property, or some foolishness, then looked at me again. 'Besides,' he said, 'and, Silas Wright, this is, like you said, for the sake of argument, where would the young'uns go to school? The county can't build one overnight. You can't teach school in a cornfield.'
"I kind of smiled. 'Brother, you just finished building that fine frame house.' And he had, too. It was pretty as a bag of nickels. Nine rooms and two stories for him and Aunt Mary and them two bachelor sons. He meant to fill the rest with boarders. I said, 'That cabin you moved out of would do fine.' It was like one of them lightbulbs coming on over Skeezix's head in the funny papers. He paced around, cogitating, studying it every which way.
"?'Say we was to do it,' he finally said. 'We'd need one of them pacts. Couldn't nobody tell about it, unless he was the last of us left.'
"Well, we planned it that afternoon. Said his brother John ought to be in on this. I didn't know why, but I said okay. We'd leave early of a morning like we was going to Waynesville, but instead stop at the gap and "loafer" the day away. Start back at dusky dark and hide desks and chalkboard and such truck in a laurel slick. Then we'd light it and ring the bell, like we'd just come from Waynesville and found it burning. Nobody'd be the wiser.
"I still wasn't convinced he was serious, so I told him to sleep on it, talk to John, and we'd palaver the next day. He and John come back and we shook on it. I asked if we ought to cut our fingers like we made blood brothers as young'uns, but they figured folks our age shouldn't mess with that.
"The next time the commissioners was to meet, we woke about three that morning and headed out of the valley. Spent the day laying up under a big poplar past the gap, counting squirrels, listening to the Lord God birds drum, drinking a little liquor. Come back at dark and did it."
"Silas, how did folks take it?" asked Carl.
"Well, I'll never forget the look on that twerpy teacher's face. See, he didn't know the desks were safe-he had a box, too, with knives and slingshots he'd confiscated and papers that looked a mite personal-and he seemed like he'd bust out crying if you said 'boo.' I took him aside and told him to show up for school at Hiram's place in the morning.