The Hundredth Meridian

Fire On the Earth

The old man had understood since the summer of ’88 that pigs are afraid of fire.  He’d been in the pig business only three years, following his retirement from the Union Pacific Railroad, when the uncured hay in the hayloft combusted spontaneously, the barn exploded like something on a movie set, and burned to the ground.  The pigs in their pens across the yard from the barn had gone berserk when the smoke cloud hit them, squealing in terror and rage and hurling themselves against the fence made solidly from ponderosa-pine boards cut from the woods beyond the clearing; a number escaped into the forest, and later one of the sows had killed and eaten two of her litter.

Though the old man had taken the episode for a sign, it encouraged him to know that the pigs could be counted on to give warning in case of a brush or forest fire.  Fires were a thing he had hated for years, from the time two missionaries visited him when he was living in a rooming house close by the railroad tracks in Flagstaff and read to him out of the Bible.  “I have come to light a fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already burning!”  The old man had not read the Bible before or since, but the passage stuck in his mind anyway.  It seemed to him presumptuous for a person to decide, on his own, to set the world on fire and intolerable that he should have the power to do it, whether he called himself “the...

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