A Wisp of Wood Smoke

By Kurt Heckman

Copyright March 15 2013

Jacob Malott was ten days out of Jericho Junction, and he was ready for a rest.  In those ten days, he climbed five thousand feet, travelling seventy miles, but that wasn’t what made him tired. The snows were heavier this past winter, and he and his two Belgians had cleared the mountain road of more trees than any year since he started his annual chore of being the first to Havilland Pass.  It was a job comprised of swinging an ax, drawing a large cross-cut saw and using the team to move the heavy logs to clear the way.  Still, he was happy.   At fifty, his muscles were sore, but no more than they would have been when he first made this climb twenty years ago.   The only member of this expedition without some new aches and pains was Mac.

  Mac’s official name was General McClellan.  Jacob unfairly named the dog as a pup after the general, because he served under “Little Mac” in the War Between the States and he earnestly believed his former commander was, like his new pet, a little yellow dog.  Nonetheless, this Mac proved to be the finest animal he ever owned and his constant companion.  His good opinion of the dog was so strong that he even began to forgive the general for whom it was named.

  “It won’t be long now boy, there’s the pass.” Mac was seated beside him on the large transport sleigh.  They had just come around the particular bend in the road that gave them their first clear view of the pass and he could see, even from this distance, that the snow had been heavy there too.  And yet, even there, the snow was now dotted with patches of green with the backdrop of the brilliant blue sky beyond.  Yes, the rest would be welcome, and even while he was pleasantly musing, his mind snapped back into present.

  Just then, he caught the smell of a wisp of smoke from a wood fire.  Since he was young, that smell always made him feel good.  It conjured thoughts of warmth, food and companionship, but here in a snowy forest with the sounds of water trickling in every direction, the smell could only mean one thing, people.  Someone was nearby and using the gift of fire to stave off the late winter chill and cling to life with the only warmth that could be afforded near a high mountain pass.

   In some surprise, “I wasn’t expecting to find anyone up here.  Mac, you stay boy.”  The dog obeyed as he stopped the team, and jumped to the ground, but not before retrieving his field glasses from his pack. 

  Instead of going forward around the bend in the road, he climbed the ridge to his right.  He knew the area well and had an idea where the smoke might be coming from.  Sure enough, peeking over the ridge, he could see the cabin with the smoke rising from the chimney.  “Must have been in trouble”, he said to himself.   He trained is field glasses on the place and saw a boy carrying more firewood than he thought possible for a boy that size.  He watched the lad struggle with the load, and then he saw something that made him start.  Out of the house came a little girl with a bucket heading to the springhouse, at first he didn’t think much of it until she turned around and he saw the child’s face.  “I know that face, or I’m Jonny Reb.”

  He put the glasses back in their case and backed away from the ridge.  This would have to be undertaken carefully. The children looked serious, but they were not rushing about like there was an emergency.

  He climbed back down to the sleight and decided what to do.  It took only a moment, and then he opened one of the boxes in the bed of the sleigh and pulled out both sets of sleigh bells and put one on each of the horses.  The powerful animals looked even more regal, so adorned, and as if he was Father Christmas himself, he climbed onto the sleigh and said giddy up, and started to sing a happy tune.  In truth, he sang a little more loudly than he would have if he had only been singing for his own pleasure.

   By the time he reached the cottage, he was pretty sure that his presence was known for quite some distance.  The horses were blowing, and steam was rising from their bodies from the last bit of climb. 

  He was between the barn and the cottage when he called the team to stop.  “Hello in the house”, he yelled.  “Anyone home?”  He knew there was.

  From inside the house, a voice replied.  It was clearly the boy trying to sound a fair piece older than he was.  “State your business mister.”  This was what the lad heard his father say in the past, but his father was dead now for over six months. 

  “Can I talk to your Ma or Pa?”, Jacob replied. 

  “What makes you think, I ain’t the Pa?”

   Jacob broke into a slight smile and raised his eyebrow a bit.  The boy peeping through the window could tell that his man was not easily fooled, and the sound and sight of the sleigh, and of the yellow dog wagging his tail and roaming the yard helped check his fear of the stranger.

  Jacob took his cap off.  His balding head and broadening smile added to the effect.  “Son, if-in your folks are ill or away, you need not be worried about me.  I’m ten days out of Jericho Junction and am looking for a warm place to rest my team.  I was hopin’ to hire the services of yonder barn for the night for both me and my animals, before we start our trip back.  I clear the way to the pass every year before others head this way, and I’m happy to pay for the lodging with any of the provisions I have left.”

  At the word of provisions, Jacob could hear the happy squeal of a girl, perhaps two.  The door of the cabin opened, and Mac ran in like he owned the place.  Out came the boy, somewhere around 10 years old, and two girls, perhaps seven and six.  Jacob smiled.

  “I’m sorry about Mac.  He’s mighty fond of children.”  He smiled as warmly as he could and had to fight an urge to approach the children.  “I have some country ham, a few pounds of dried bean, and some flour and sugar I can spare.”  Then, with a wry smile, “but I’m only willing to part with some of my coffee if you let me fix it and share it with you.”

“Are your folks about?” Jacob asked again.  He saw the boy’s face darken as he replied, “Pa bagged an elk and Ma’s gone to help butcher it, but I’m sure they’d be willing to let you stay in the barn.”  It was a brave lie, and Jacob knew it.  The girls’ heads dropped as their brother spoke and darted glances at each other.   Jacob swallowed hard, but kept his wits, and resumed his happy traveler role.

“Well, it’s very kind of you to let me stay in your barn tonight.  Sleeping in the hay will be right nice.  And I’ll be off first thing in the morning.”  He smiled as he saw the boy’s relief that he would be gone soon.  Jacob thought to himself, ”This youngin’ is clearly doin’ his best to care for his sisters.”  This made Jacob instantly like him more.

“Let’s get the provisions, and I’ll help you carry them in.”  Jacob was eager to see the inside of the cabin.  The boy thought about objecting, but he also had the sense to know that if this man was a villain, resistance at this point wouldn’t help, so he shrugged and approached the sleigh.

Jacob opened the boxes, and as indicated, there were bags of supplies.  If the boy was experienced, he would have known that the supplies were obviously meant to last for an entire season, and not the leftovers for the trip of a few weeks.  “Here, take this bag”, and Jacob handed him a side of bacon in a sack.  

Several trips later, the provisions were all in the cabin.  Jacob looked about and realized that the children had not been there long, perhaps a couple weeks.  “Why don’t you light your wood stove?  They are much warmer than just the hearth.”

The older girl answered, “It smokes too much.” 

“Ah, I see what you mean.  But I have one of these stoves and you can keep them from smoking if you open this.”  At that, Jacob reached high and opened the damper in the pipe.  “Here, let’s try it now.”  In a few minutes, the stove was warming.   “I see you have a wet sink too.  It’s probably warm enough now to let it flow.  I bet the valve is over in that springhouse.  I’ll go and see if I can get it started.  They often get clogged with leaves over the winter.” And without another word, Jacob walked out the door and headed across the yard.

When he returned, the cabin was already warmer, and water was pouring from the pipe into the sink basin.  “As long as you keep the place warm, you can turn the water off and on at the spigot in the sink.  But if it gets cold in here, you’ll have to let it flow to keep it from freezing.   If you wish, I can fry up some of that bacon and make us all some hotcakes.  I’m sorry I’m not much good in the kitchen past that.” 

At the word of hotcakes, the three children practically beamed.  Speaking to the boy, “come and watch what I do, and you can surprise your folks with a nice plate of hotcakes some morning.” 

Before long, the four were eating pancakes and bacon, and coffee was perking on the stove.  The girls were drinking tea with more than a little sugar, and the Jacob and the boy were drinking coffee.   Jacob couldn’t help but smile as the boy drank the black coffee trying to be the man.

“So what are your names?”

“I’m John, and she’s Jenny.”  Then interrupting, “and I’m Sally, so what’s your name mister?”  He almost casually replied the truth, and even started, “Jacob” catching himself, “Malcom Jacob, why don’t we clean up and I’ll say good night.”  Eager to see him gone, the boy took over the conversation and agreed to the plan.

Before he left the cabin, Jacob showed John how to fill and light the kerosene lanterns, and kindly instructed him in as many basic things as he could think of. John was smart, and was already doing a lot.

“Good night, and God bless.  Please tell your folks that I’m in their debt.”  And he headed to the barn.  That night, the children were genuinely warm and not hungry for the first time in a long time when they went to sleep.  John tried to stay awake and keep an eye on the door he locked to keep the stranger out, no matter how much John wanted to like him, but the warmth and full stomach swept him away too.  When he woke with a start in the morning, he went to the door to look for the man, but he was already gone.

Well before sunup, Jacob had the team hitched, put Mac up on the sleigh, and headed out as quietly as he could. By the time the children were awake, he was five miles down the road heading back to Jericho Junction as fast as he could push the team.  Only four days later, Jacob ended his return trip and quickly entered his home were his wife was just putting away the dinner dishes.  “Jacob, you’re back!”  The woman quickly crossed the room to kiss her husband.  “Are you hungry? Sit down.”

Jacob had yet to say a word.  He spent the last two days thinking about how to tell his wife what he found, but when he saw her, his plans flew from his mind.  All he could say was the abrupt truth. “Jessica, we have to head to the cabin in the next hour.”  

“The next hour!”  Her alarm was already rising from the look on her husband’s face.

“Jess, I found three children at the cabin, alone.”

“Oh, the poor dears!  Of course, I’ll come right away, but why didn’t you bring them?”

“I was pretty sure they wouldn’t have come away with a stranger. If I tried to make them, I think they would have ran away.  As is, I think they’ll stay put until we return, but there’s more. Jess, the two little girls look just like you!  I think these are our Sarah’s children.” 

He paused and watched the truth sink in.  “They were all well, except for the fact that Sarah nor their Pa was anywhere to be found.  But they should be fine. I left all of the provisions.”

After thirty years of marriage, Jessica knew without hesitation that Jacob was sincere, and without a word, and with the urgency borne of a parent’s concern, she quickly stacked everything she thought she could need at the door.  In thirty minutes, two fresh horses were racing out of town pulling their buckboard into the night.

In years past, Jacob would return from clearing the road to the pass, and he and Jessica would spend a few days in town before they would both retrace Jacob’s path to their cabin below the pass.  From there they would trade with those crossing the pass, plant their garden, Jacob would hunt and fish, and continue his business as a wheelwright at his second shop in the mountain barn.   It was a trip they enjoyed and savored.  The beauty of the mountains and cool escape from the summer heat was a luxury Jacob had earned in his years of hard labor, and the time in the mountains was filled with warm memories of raising their children, all grown and off making their own way in the world.  But that was then.  Now, each mile ahead was to be endured and shortened when at all possible, and yet Jessica wanted time to talk, to hear everything over and over, and to discuss what it might mean, and what might have been the fate of their daughter Sarah and her husband.

Five weeks earlier, John heard his mother’s cry outside of the cave where they spent the night.  They had been desperately travelling on foot for over a month. All they had was lost, and they were heading back to Sarah’s people. They were two weeks west of Havilland Pass, deep in the Front Range.  The sound of her voice frightened him, and he ran to her.  The look of pain on her face, made him even more afraid.  With her last strength, John helped her crawl into the cave where the girls were waiting.  Her leg was badly broken.  After two days, the reality of the situation was clear to Sarah: every day that she kept the children with her, they were less likely to survive, and she was going nowhere.

With the iron determination of a mother’s love for her children, she called for John. Whispering, she told him what he had to do to save his sisters.  With tears in eyes he listened.  She explained in great detail where he had to go and how to find a cabin on the far side of the pass.  In the morning, she kissed her children and told them that she would follow them when she was better.  She told the girls that John would take them to a cabin and take care of them.  She and her son knew the truth.

Since the road was clear, and because of their haste, the four day trip from Jericho Junction was nearly over in less than 48 hours.  The horses were nearly exhausted, but Jacob knew them well and pushed them as humanely as he could.   Suddenly Jessica said, “I smell a wood fire.” 

Jacob was relieved.  More than ever, that smell meant the comfort of a hearth for his grandchildren and renewed hope. 

Fifteen minutes later, the buckboard entered the yard.  Mac was again at the door, and when it opened the littler girls gasped at the sight of a middle-aged woman on the threshold.

“You look just like our Mama!” the youngest cried. 

“That’s because, she’s your grandma, and I’m your grandpa, unless you’re not the children of our Sarah.” 

Without invitation, Jessica stepped in to her own cabin and wrapped herself around the girls who were now sobbing in her arms.  Every child knows when they are loved, even by a total stranger, but, more so now, because this stranger was the image of their mother.  This had to be true.  And John now understood the kindness of this strange man and for the first time in a month, he let himself be a child and cried as his grandpa drew him into the embrace of the girls and himself in one large tearful huddle.

Jessica was the first to speak.  “This is our home, and your home now, and we will take care of you.”

Jacob then asked the burning question, “Where is your mama?” Even though he was afraid of the answer, he had to know the truth. 

John then told him what the girls had already guessed, “Our Mama broke her leg on our way here.  Papa died at the beginning of the winter, and Mama said we had to leave after the Indians burned our cottage.” 

Continuing, “She made us leave her”, John said trying to be brave.  Then he completely broke down putting his head in his hands, “She made me leave her.”

“How long ago was that, son?” Jacob asked.  His voice as kind as sunlight, because he understood and shared the boy’s pain.

“Must be a month now.”

No more was said that night.  Joy was mixed with grief, and the wise grandparents did their best to thank God for sparing lives of the grandchildren they had never met until now. 

As Jessica sang them to sleep, the children heard echoes of their mother’s voice as they drifted off.

In bed, Jacob embraced his wife and as they prayed together, they thanked God and asked for wisdom.  Then they talked.  “I need to go and find her, and bring her here to rest”, Jacob said when all was quiet.  Jessica nodded her head.   Jacob was as good a mountaineer as they came and he would be fine.  For her part, she could more than take care of the children by herself and even rush them to Jericho Junction if needed.  With her agreement, he decided to leave in the morning.

The children woke to the smell of bacon, fresh coffee, and bread baking in the oven.   It was a paradise of aromas.

Out in the yard, fetching more firewood, Jacob spoke with John.  “I’m going to go and get your Mama.  I want to bring her back to lay to rest here.”  He paused as he looked at the boy, measuring him in his mind.  “I’ll go alone if you can give me good directions, but you’d be welcome to come with me if you’re willing.  It will be a hard trip.”  The boy looked at Jacob, and was quiet for a moment. Then he shook his head and said, “I want to come.  When are we leaving?”

“We can leave later today.”

Jacob saddled the two horses, and filled the saddlebags.  He kissed Jessica and smiled at the girls.  Without hesitation, the girls hastened to him and gave him hugs, and Sally said, “Thank you for finding us, Grandpa.  Come back quick.”  Jacob gulped and kissed their heads.  “We’ll be fine, and should be back in just a few weeks.” 

On the trail, Jacob talked to John a lot.  He thought it would help keep John’s mind off of his mother and give him a chance to see how much the boy knew, which in fact, was quite a lot.  First, it was obvious, he knew how to handle a horse, and more than a little about living in the wild, hunting and fishing.  Jacob was happy.  He and John would have many trips finding food for the table, a man’s most enjoyable chore.  As far as he could tell, the boy would only need book learning and a good skill.  While the boy will have plenty of time to choose, Jacob would certainly teach him his trade as carpenter and wheelwright. 

The goal for the first day was to reach a cave that Jacob knew near-summit.  If it was unoccupied, it would be a good place to spend the first night.  John didn’t see the cave when he crossed the pass heading east, but Jacob knew exactly where it was.  “It’s easy to miss.  And without a good gun, it’s better you didn’t find it.  Sometimes it’s occupied”, and Jacob raised his hands like great claws, “with a grizzly!”

Up and up they went, and well before dark, Jacob pointed to a cluster of rocks hiding the cave.  And there among the stones were large tracks in the snow, and the horses were skittish.  Jacob leaned over to John and whispered, “We better move on, I think the privy is occupied.”  The boy chuckled and the two headed on up.  Now they would have to get over the pass and find a camp on the west side.  Jacob knew a few places, and they camped for the night without problems.

On the second night, Johnny was quiet as they ate around the campfire.  Jacob was thinking that the boy was thinking about his mother.  After a bit of silence, Jacob asked what was on his mind.  “Don’t worry about what we’ll find.  I’ll take care of things.  Is that what’s bothering you?”

“Yes, but there’s something I should tell you. “  Jacob looked at him intently.  “You’re not really my Grandpa.”

“How’s that?  Wasn’t my Sarah your Mama?” 

“She didn’t have me as a baby like the girls.  My first Ma died when I was born.”

“I see.”  Jacob chose his next words carefully.  “John, You’ve been my grandson since the moment Sarah married your Pa, and will be forever. Boy,  if I know my Sarah, she loved you the minute she laid eyes on you, and so do your Grandma and I.”  Then he smiled, “So, you’re not going to get out of your chores so easy.”  The relief on John’s face was obvious, and the conversation turned again to hunting and fishing trips to come, until again they slipped off to sleep.

It was the fifth day since they crossed Havilland Pass and the signs of spring were all around, and the air was noticeably warmer.  They were following a stream and climbing again.  John believed they may be in the valley where he left his Mama. 

Both were quiet in their thoughts, when Jacob sat up straight and stopped.  “Boy, do you smell anything?”

“Yeah, I smell a wood fire.”

Jacob’s face went pale, and he spurred his horse up wind.  John was right behind him pointing to an opening in the rock where smoke was drifting up. 

“Hello in the cave! Anyone there?”

They kept moving forward, now climbing up the bank on hands and knees when a voice stopped their hearts.  It came from the cave.  It was the voice of a woman.   It was weak, but clear.

Kurt Heckman,
Nov 30, 2013, 3:34 PM