The Fireline by Court Merrigan.

Pa squatted on the chicken house roof, looking at the fireline that rumbled across fields so dry a singing cricket could get a spark. The three boys tramped across the gravel yard. Al had an axe handle. Jep had a sharp-edged shovel. Silas had an old lead pipe. The boys were shirtless and lean in the blood-orange light. When they got to the chicken house Pa ignored them.

“We got to plow under them crops, Pa,” Silas said.

“The house is going to burn if we don’t get them crops plowed under,” Jep said.

“Whole place will go up,” Silas said.

“Go up,” Al said.

Pa looked down at them but didn’t say anything. Then he looked back to the patina of smoke consuming the horizon.

“And Charlene,” Jep said.

“Charlene!” Al howled.

“She’s barely breathing,” Silas said. “Still bleeding heavy between the legs. Ain’t opened her eyes yet today.”

“Got to try to run the fireline,” Jep said. “Get her to town to a doctor.”

“Fireline,” Al said. “Doctor.”

“Shut it, Al,” Jep said.

“You shut it,” Silas said. “Pa! Charlene only drank that hooch because someone told her it would get rid of the baby. We got to try to get her to a doctor or she ain’t going to make it.”

“Charlene!” Al howled.

Pa licked a finger and held it up to test the wind.

“We’re going to do it,” Silas said. “With or without your say-so.”

Pa scrabbled down the roof and leaped off the eave, coming up spry as a jackrabbit. He strode within a pace of them. The boys stepped back.

“Is it true, Lord?” Pa said. “Did I raise up a pack of back-talking hellions?”

Silas steadied up and his brothers stayed at his side.

“We got to get to plowing,” Silas said.

“And Charlene,” Jep said.

“Charlene!” Al howled.

“This will be the last time I say it,” Pa said. “No fields are going to get plowed. The Almighty unleashed this fire and the Almighty will decide where to end it. And Charlene ain’t leaving this house. She’s got to bear up under the brunt of what she done. That’s between her and the Lord.”

The air tasted of smoke and the barn windows jumped red with the oncoming flames. Al swatted the side of his head. Jep looked to Silas but Silas was looking at Pa, fingers around the lead pipe white and bloodless.

“If you boys ain’t got nothing else to say, there’s choring to do,” Pa said.

Silas swung the pipe. Pa blocked the swing and his forearm flapped limp. Jep got Pa in the ribcage with the shovel and Al connected clean upside Pa’s head with the ax handle. Pa went down. He grunted once then went silent.

The boys kept swinging till Pa was limp as a gunny sack of mud. Blackish rivulets of blood soaked into the earth and gray dust clung to the splatters on their arms, chests, faces.

Silas went to the barn and swung open a horse stall door. Jep and Al lugged Pa over and threw him into the dung and straw. Ochre streaks of slobber ran down Al’s chin. Jep kicked some straw over Pa and reached into a pocket for a smoke, leaving heavy red prints on his jeans. The match shook in his fingertips.

“You get on that plowing,” Silas said. “Jep? You hear me?”

“I hear you,” Jep said, taking a deep drag off the smoke.

“I’m going to get a shirt on and load up Charlene,” Silas said.

“Charlene!” Al howled.

Silas went out the door. Jep stayed in the horse stall smoking, looking at Pa.

“Hop to it,” Silas said. “Thing’s ain’t going to save themselves.”

Court Merrigan has been published widely, including PANK, Night Train, Shotgun Honey, and Evergreen Review. You can find links at He lives in Wyoming's banana belt with his family.


Chris Rhatigan said...

Beautifully done. Vivid and awful.

Unknown said...

Great story, Court.

Anonymous said...

Moved as fast as the fire -- the inside and outside flames -- leaving nothing but ash in its wake and a small promise of new life. Those guys breathed on me, Court. I felt them all. Cool.

Mike MIner said...

A powerful moment captured very nicely, Court.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

That was a great read. The dialogue was fantastic. The Al character and his short phases with the ! were the perfect touch thoughout. Read this 3 times already

Anonymous said...

Thanks, guys - if you guys dig it, I must be doing something right!

Paul D Brazill said...


David Barber said...

A very well written story, Court. As I read it I could feel the heat and the tension. Well done!

Glenn Gray said...

Agreed. Very well done. Think I held my breath the whole read.

Bill Baber said...

wow... i wanted more!! great stuff.

John Kenyon said...

Nice stuff, Court. You set the scene well and give us a lot of character with action and dialogue.

Lily Childs said...

It's really hard to get accent into dialogue without overdoing it and you achieved that perfectly. I could hear all the characters' individual voices in this smoky, riveting story. Loved it!

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for all the kind words. I really tried to get the dust of my Wyobraska homeland into this smoky piece, and it looks like I may have succeeded. I appreciate the reads and comments!

Thomas Pluck said...

Great story, Court.