An aged figure wearing an Irish cap peered through a wild hedge of bramble close to a fire-ravaged dwelling. Through the drifting smoke he saw a gnarled-faced man in a scraggly beard and a tattered shirt. His eyes widened at his recognition of the marauder. “Sully Pike,” he whispered.
The scraggly bearded man poked around the popping, red leavings with the muzzle of his big shotgun. He turned over an ashy board, then picked up what appeared to be a small, scorched music box. He opened the lid, and a simple melody tinkled from the little box and a tiny dancing lady turned in circles to the music. He sneered, then smashed the box with his boot heel and laughed spitefully. His horse, tethered to the limb of some underwood, whinnied uneasily.
“Them Mormons are to a barn raisin’ on the flats, Sugarfoot,” he assured his bay. “They won’t be back till late this evening, and it’s only really getting dark now.” His attention turned back to the smoldering ruins, and he smirked, “From the looks of things, it appears a Mormon’s homestead takes to a torch as easily as the next man’s.”
His dark humor was interrupted by the rattle of wood on the little bridge down by the creek beyond the big grove of cottonwoods. He growled a curse, hurried to his mount, and with a final scowl in the direction of the burnt dwelling, jabbed the bay’s flanks with his boots and bolted off into the black of the night.
The Donohue family’s flatbed wagon trundled into the smoky yard and stopped. For a long moment, all that was heard was the occasional popping of still smoldering timbers and the snorting of tired horses as shock at what the people seated in the wagon beheld took its grim toll.
Ethan Donohue slipped down from the wagon, numbly gazing at the black, glowing ruins. He had arrived in the valley with his family four years before and carved out of the raw elements a home and a hope that at long last they could live in peace and worship their God without fear. Tears stumbled out of the dark recesses below his brows.
Twelve-year-old Chase sat silent in the wagon and watched his father’s shoulders bunch in pain. Then he noticed their neighbor Clancey O’Hara standing nearby in the shadows.
Mr. O‘Hara slowly advanced to where Chase’s father was standing and rested a comforting hand on his arm. “It was Sully Pike, Ethan. Saw him with my own eyes, I did. He was drunk and looking as mean as a grizzly bear!”
Chase’s mother held Baby Thankful and sobbed quietly, her body shaking with emotion. His seven-year-old sister, MacKinzee, seated beside him in the back of the wagon, was clutching her rag doll and darting frightened looks about at the shadows. Chase placed a protective arm around her and listened to Mr. O’Hara and his father.
“What do you plan on doing about it?” the neighbor asked.
“About Sully Pike?”
“Nothing much I can do about him, or what he did here,” Ethan admitted, kicking at a hot coal. “The law’s not in favor of our people. Besides, Sully Pike is first cousin to the sheriff.”
Chase’s arm tightened about his sister’s shoulders, and his eyes clouded over with hate. This wasn’t the first time that he and his family had felt the raw sting of persecution, and the dark hurt of it settled over him once again like a vulture’s wing.
Early the next morning the Donohues began sifting through the rubble in an effort to salvage any belongings worth retrieving. Chase, deadened by a sleepless night and a deep, festering spite, sat on a charred chest in the yard and wondered why the small yellow bird in the brushwood was singing so joyfully when everything that belonged to his family had been maliciously destroyed.
He watched his mother pick up a small, badly burned diary. It crumbled in her hands and fell away like a thousand lost memories. She sat on an ashen hearth and began to cry, rocking back and forth. When Ethan stepped up beside Chase and regarded his wife a long, sad moment, the boy asked, “What are we gonna do, Papa?”
“Well, Son, first let’s see if we can. comfort your mama.”
“How can we make her feel better after what Mr. Pike did to us? We have nothing left, Papa.”
“You can’t say we have nothing, Son. We have each other, don’t we? And there’s the team and wagon to carry us on to Mosiah Twigg’s place. He’ll probably let us stay with him until we can get a new place started. And we have a Heavenly Father who’s no farther than a prayer away.”
“What can we ask of Him, Papa? To give us our house back? To put a curse on Sully Pike so lightning strikes him for what he did?”
Ethan gazed at his son a moment, “Maybe we could ask Heavenly Father to help us to not harden our hearts against Mr. Pike so that we can pray for him. Anyone who carries that much hate and spite around from sunup to sunset has to be awfully miserable, don’t you think?”
Chase didn’t answer. He was still too taken aback by the notion of praying for the likes of Sully Pike!
“Bitterness can be a poison worse than a rattler’s bite, Son. If you let it get the best of you, it can rob you of a lot more than Mr. Pike ever could.”
Chase squinted up at the gentle man who stood dark against the amber light, “What could it take that Mr. Pike already didn’t?”
“The chance you might have for any real happiness,” his father replied. “It would be a lot harder to get away from yourself than from the likes of Sully Pike. Once you tie bitterness to your wagon, it follows you everywhere you go. There would be no peace in your life—You’d be just like Mr. Pike.” Ethan patted his son on the shoulder. “I best go see if I can comfort your mother.”
“Papa?” Chase hesitated, wrestling with his thoughts. “Papa, could I take one of the horses and go for a ride?”
Papa’s eyes scanned the wild forest of brushwood beyond the yard as he considered his son’s request. A day earlier he would have said yes. Now, after everything that had happened, it might be too dangerous. A prompting, as still and as deep as the morning light that glowed through the shadows, interrupted his concerns. “Yes,” he answered softly, “but come back soon. We need to be on our way.”
“I will, Papa.” Chase crossed to where the horses were tethered, quickly untied one, slipped onto its back, and galloped off into the haze.
He soon alit, secured the horse to a lightning-split tree limb, crept to the side of a dilapidated outbuilding, and hunkered down behind a clump of tall yellow weeds. The whine of an old screen door opening, then banging closed made him duck lower and peer cautiously between the stems. He could see Sully Pike stagger to a chair on the warped-wood porch, sit heavily, and gaze numbly around the dirt yard.
Suddenly, to Chase, Mr. Pike looked like the very farmhouse he had put to the torch—empty, hollow, vanquished. The man leaned forward in his chair and placed his head in his hands. He remained in that position for as long as Chase watched. As the boy said a silent prayer for the figure on the porch, a peace distilled across his soul.
Chase climbed onto his horse and slipped away into the brush. He reined up to glance back at the shack in the tall yellow weeds. “Papa was right,” he said softly to the horse. “Papa was right!” A warm breeze wafted gently across his brow and seemed to touch his very soul with peace. After a moment, he reined his horse about and galloped home.