Kevin raised his Irish flatcap to mop the sweat from his forehead. He struggled to stem the rivulets that always found channels into his striking eyes. His folks disagreed on their color; dad said brown, but mom insisted they’re hazel. That they were punctuated with dark green spokes radiating the irises’ outer periphery was questioned by neither.
“Ah Mother, you’re truly a guardian angel.” Fiona approached with a large pitcher together with a brimming, dew-covered glass.
While reaching for the cider, his eyes widened in surprise. “Now how in heaven did you do that?” he said, running a finger down the cool glass, the squeegee effect tracing a channel down the wet surface and bleeding water droplets onto the ground.
“You helped set that new icebox up just day before yesterday. You don’t think we ordered that all the way from Philadelphia just for decoration?”
“You already got ice for it?” Kevin asked, still bemused as if enjoying a magic trick. And magic it was, he noticed as he chugged down the cold juice in short, freezing gulps.
“While you ’n’ your pa were working out there somewhere,” Fiona motioned with a wide sweep of her unencumbered arm, “Bart Duncan delivered a large block and helped me fit it in. He said it’s only the third or fourth cold closet he’s ever seen but he’s sure more are coming. Said he’s been delivering ice around the area since the railroad built that giant icehouse near the depot last fall. Folks are just putting it in homemade boxes or potato cellars, happy to keep food packed around it. Lasts a few days if they’re careful how they insulate it.”
“And the thing works so well it can freeze a glass?”
“Well, no. I had Bart help me chip out a space big enough for a glass, so your drink’s been chilling directly against the ice for an hour. That chipped ice from the cavity we carved didn’t go to waste either. It’s in the pitcher along with the cider,” she beamed.
“Another miracle, Ma. I fear I’ve lost track of how much I have to be thankin’ my lucky stars for, bein’ born in such a modern age.”
“Got that gate swinging right,” Patrick said as he approached.
Fiona topped off the glass and Kevin reached it out to his father. “Looks like you could use this, Pa. You’re not gonna believe what Ma’s done.”
Grasping the cold glass, Patrick was startled. “You readin’ up on witchcraft, Fiona, or is that new contraption taking up half the kitchen capable of making winter when it’s eighty-five degrees outside?” Powerful thirst and unused to any need to temper his portion, his throat got a blast of cold enough nearly to cramp. “Well, I guess I’m gonna have to learn to drink a little more gentlemanly.” Finishing with a satisfied smile, he wiped his mouth on his dusty sleeve and handed the empty glass back to Fiona.
“Either of you want more? There’s plenty.”
Both men shook their heads.
“How bout we call it a day?” Patrick was sweat soaked, his body sagging like an old shirt hanging to dry. His statement wasn’t really a question. “What’s left’ll wait overnight without loss or agitation.” It was a phrase Kevin had heard his pa use a thousand times during his life.
“You done already, then?” Kevin asked, wishing he could keep a straight face when he teased his pa. On the inside, he could give a rutting bull moose a good contest where surging blood is concerned, and hoped Patrick couldn’t sense it. A reckoning needed facing, and he’d put it off as long as his heart would allow.
Patrick smiled at the jest, and together the small family steered toward the house. “I’ll get that,” Patrick said, reaching to open the screen door. Kevin stood to one side, aware, almost worshipful, of what his folks shared. Fiona glided into the home, past her husband of twenty-four years, her bedeviling smile all the currency Kevin’s pa would accept, at least in front of the boy.
Kevin knew his father preferred to sit for a while at the end of the day, so he stood silent, waiting for Patrick to take a seat. On the shaded veranda were two rocking chairs flanking a well-worn leather-topped bench that rested against the house.
Patrick closed the screen door and walked to his favorite rocker. The familiar creaking of its joints adjusting to Patrick’s weight and the runners’ rhythmic song against the Douglas fir decking were soothing music to Kevin’s ears.
“Sit a spell, Son,” Patrick said, completing their casual tradition.
Kevin sat on the bench, close to his father.
The sounds of Fiona’s dinner preparations melodied the air, joined now and then by the evening song of a barn swallow or finch and the buzz of bees and hummingbirds making their final rounds for the day. For a while, they sat quiet, side by side, looking out at the vast acreage of neat rows. East of the vegetables stood ten acres of apple trees—half Jonathan and half Winesap. Finding varieties available in quantity presented quite a challenge for Patrick, and if it wasn’t for the railroad making deliveries from cities hundreds of miles away, it might have been impossible. These apples crosspollinated, stored for months, and each made fine cider. His hard work paid off most summers, producing bountiful crops, and this year, their green leaves were filling in early for the newborn summer.
Kevin’s thoughts swirled in his head. Get this off your chest or hell’s gonna take up most of your future.
“Pa, you earned this land fair ’n’ square. But its blessings are yours, you ’n’ Ma’s. I was four when we got here back in ’69. It’s all I’ve ever known.” Kevin turned to apprise the repaired gate, finally hanging true on the new corral. “Nice work, Pa,” he said, then regained their briefly lost eye contact. “But it’s not the life for me. I tried to make it mine, but it’s not.”
Patrick’s face reddened and its rutted lines appeared to deepen. “Are you telling me you wanna quit the farm? Just when we’re starting with livestock? After building all those pens ’n’ stringing all that new fence, you wanna quit and leave all this work for me ’n’ your mother?”
He leaned over, bringing his face within inches of Kevin’s. “Son, I can’t do all this without you.”
I didn’t wanna hear that “can’t” word, but there it is. Is he pleading or demanding? I better hit this head-on or things are likely to go south in a hurry. Easy does it. Keep your voice low ’n’ slow.
“Pa, this might be the first time in my life I ever heard you say ‘can’t.’ I didn’t know you even knew the word. You can do it and here’s how. Hire a hand. The Mormons are sprouting ’em like voles ’n’ rabbits. Pay in produce. These king-sized families are everywhere, ’n’ they’re hungry. You could have ’em lined up at the door begging for work.”
Fiona walked outside, and from her face, Kevin knew she’d come to accord between them if necessary.
Patrick looked from Kevin to Fiona, then up at the sky. He took off his hat and slapped it hard against his blue jeans, raising a dust cloud, and fixed it back on his head. “Dang it!” he yelled and walked off looking agitated, like a trapped racoon separated from her litter. Down the veranda’s three steps he descended to the chocolate-brown earth and walked at a lively pace into his fields.
“If ‘dang it’ is all that flushed up, I guess he’s not too mad,” Fiona observed, a slight smile on her lips. Reaching for Kevin’s hand, she coaxed him inside. “Your pa probably feels betrayed. This news calls for clear thinking and that’s hard to come by when you’re feeling injured. I guess I’m not as surprised as him. I’ve sensed this coming for some time.”
Kevin looked into her eyes, a warm gesture he knew she loved as she’d declared a hundred times how his eyes were identical to Patrick’s. They pulled into a tight embrace lasting several seconds.
Fiona patted him on the back and eased away. “Go ahead ’n’ get cleaned up for supper. Your pa’ll be back shortly.” She looked past him, toward the door. “He needs some alone time. We’ll hash out whatever needs hashing when he gets back.”
Patrick returned in half an hour, his air of darkness washed away. “Let’s try this again, Son. Join me on the porch? I always think better out here.”
Reclaiming the same positions as before, Patrick began, “I have no right to hold you hostage here, Kevin.” He reached over and patted his boy’s knee. “I’m not as dull as you might think. I knew this was comin’. I’ve seen it sneaking up for years.” He laced his fingers behind his head and pulled it forward, stretching his neck muscles. Regaining his posture and taking a deep breath, he continued, “I just couldn’t face it, so I buried my head as deep as the crops.”
“Pa—” Kevin started, but Patrick set a hand on his thigh.
“Hold on a minute, Son. I owe you this explanation and oughta get it out while it’s still in one piece.” He looked toward the crops again, then back at Kevin. “Having you as a son’s the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. Me and your ma agree on that and thank God for it more than you know. We don’t know why we were never allowed more children, but it’s never seemed a curse. What we got was enough. Our dreams were answered. I wasn’t ready to let you go, Son, and it’s my own fault for never tryin’ to get ready.” Tears welled in Patrick’s eyes. “But I know I’m not really losing you. You’re just doing what folks do in this world. I’d lose you sure if I was to strangle you here, with this life, ’n’ I can’t do that. I won’t do that. I want you to have the same freedoms and blessings your mother ’n’ me had. That’s what I want for you and it’s damned sure what I’m gonna give you. We’ll manage. You know that, and so do I.”
Kevin knew he’d lose his composure if he tried to talk right then, and the moment was one he couldn’t bear to mar. A man could expect only so much forbearance in a single lifetime, so he’d prize this boon and tuck it away in his heart. Maybe he’d take it out and dust it off from time to time but wanted to put it away pristine. They stood as one and embraced, tears breaching Kevin’s dams. “I love you, Pa,” was all he could muster, and it’s all that was needed.
Early the next morning, Kevin embraced his folks on that familiar old porch attached to the home in which he’d grown up. His horse, three-year-old Sassy, grazed, blinked, and swiveled her ears, apparently seeking signs of what was next. She was used to a speedier departure once fully saddled and rigged with a heavy load. But Kevin’s emotions delayed him as he feared he might be seeing his folks for the last time, and he wanted to enjoy their parting a few extra minutes.
“I’m gonna miss you two,” Kevin said as he eased up into the saddle.
“Don’t go off so far you can’t come back for a visit sometimes,” Fiona begged. His father had an arm wrapped around his wife holding her close. “You’re a fine young man,” he managed in a steady voice. “If you can’t come visit, at least drop us a post so we know you’re okay. It’d be nice to know where you’re settled too.”
“That’s a promise, Pa. I love you, Mom. You too, Father. Take care of yourselves.” Sassy turned with light reining and sauntered toward the front gate. Kevin fixed his eyes south and didn’t look back.
“Yeah, I know, Sas, I’m itchin’ to get somewhere too. I don’t know where, but somewhere. What’s that you’re sayin’? Farther south? You’re done with Ogden and all these little farming communities with their soul-stirring sunsets? No, ma’am, that’s not what I said. I always thought you did have a soul. You denying it?”
Kevin had more conversations with Sassy than he did anyone now that they were roaming. It’d been more than two months now. The vast stretches between the majestic Wasatch mountains, steady to their east, and the fertile plains, salt flats, and the Great Salt Lake, wandering near and far to their west, seemed like they might go forever.
“No, Sas, I’m not arguing. This time I think you’re right. How bout we pick up the pace a little ’n’ see what we find in Salt Lake City. Good Girl. I surely do appreciate when we agree.”
Salt Lake City was too hot, too flat, too treeless, and aside from farming and a beehive of activity centered on building a big Mormon temple, it looked like mostly indoor work. Somebody he spoke to on that temple job said he had to be a Mormon to hire on anyway, which he wasn’t. The man told Kevin some folks were enjoying success in silver and gold mining up the canyons east of the city.
“Now Sas, don’t go getting discouraged. You like this better than farmin’ for Pa, don’t ya? Let’s aim for those foothills ’n’ keep heading south. It looks cooler up there and I’m seeing plenty of trees to give us shade. Maybe we’ll take up mining. No, I never tried it before, you? I didn’t think so. Let’s go see what there is to see. Giddyup, Sassafras.”
Kevin lost track of exact days on the calendar but figured it must be somewhere near mid-August when he and Sassy drifted into a community called Granite, nestled at the bottom of a steep canyon called Little Cottonwood. On its south flank ran a gently pitched, winding trail guarded by towering aspen and evergreen trees leading up to a gorge called Bell Canyon. Just short of a mile upslope, it plateaued into a large verdant meadow.
“You like it up here, Sas? Yeah, me too. I’m thinking so long as we take no more than what we need, the elk and black bear hereabouts won’t mind sharing. Did you see all the fish in that little brook? Yes, ma’am, downright abundant were my thoughts exactly.”
Kevin found these one-way conversations amusing being he got to make up both sides, and the sound of his own voice soothed his budding nomadic temper a lot better than no voice.
He pitched his tent next to the meandering creek that gave him hearty meals any time he felt like dipping a line. A lifetime in the mountains taught him he might make a hearty meal for a bear if he wasn’t meticulous about disposing the entrails and leftovers of the fish he ate.
He and Sassy ranged down to Granite occasionally to trade for groceries. A mule deer would net him as much shortening, eggs, flour, and honey as he could lash onto Sassy’s saddle and into the hoppers he’d fashioned to carry extra cargo. Riding back, he often detoured through town, curious to meet his neighbors. He seemed always to find friendly folks and began to feel neighborly toward them.
He and Sassy agreed on two or three weeks of vacation here. Their pilgrimaging had strung out with more drudgery than Kevin expected. Both man and mount needed some time settled in one place, and this garden of Eden more than accommodated.
One day, just before Kevin planned to pack and get back to work, a couple of men in Granite persuaded him to try his hand at quarrying. Huge granite blocks were being harvested from the mountainside, broken up, and conveyed to Salt Lake for construction of the Mormon Temple. He decided to give it a try. The irony wasn’t lost on him—here he was, after all, working on the temple. Sassy didn’t seem to care that it was dangerous work since her main job, besides taking Kevin on various errands, was eating grass and hanging out with a bunch of other horses. Mormon horses if they could claim the religion of their governors. The whole lot seemed as welcoming as ministers to a Sunday congregation.
In the fall, Kevin began attending a Mormon ward in Granite. He found it curious they referred to themselves as Latter Day Saints and wanted to know how that came about. Besides some Bible reading, he hadn’t had much religion in his life, and what he’d learned of his family’s traditional faith sat a little crosswise in his stomach. Too many rules he couldn’t make sense of. Continually encouraged by members in his new community to explore their church, he decided a peek couldn’t hurt. He didn’t really cotton to it, and it seemed about even, rules-wise, to the Roman Catholics, but he liked the people and signed into Joseph Smith’s franchise. And there was a bonus.
With her long, flowing brown hair and a pretty blue dress, Melissa Barnes caught his eye at church one day, and the ensuing courtship grew faster than cane bamboo. Kevin and Melissa were married in October that year.
In the predawn hours of July 28, 1888, Melissa gave birth to Francis Patrick O’Neall, their first child, a third-generation American citizen.
On September 2, 1890, they had their second child, another boy. They agreed that Christopher, a good Irish name, was a perfect fit.
In 1893, construction of the Temple was completed but there was still plenty of granite needed for more buildings in the growing Mormon bastion. Secure in his new life, Kevin and his budding family were stalwart members in Granite’s churchy folds. Looking too hard at Melissa seemed to cause pregnancy, and on August 21st that year, the O’Nealls added a third baby to their empire, Margaret Catherine, named for Kevin and Melissa’s grandmothers. Life seemed predictable—nearly perfect in fact, like nothing could go wrong
-End of Chapter 1-
Copyright © 2023 Andy Walker Alta Alpine Publishing All Rights Reserved.
I was eager to read this book because I thoroughly enjoyed this author’s first book, “A Pilot’s Tale,” and “Fire on the Mountain” did not disappoint! This is a gripping piece of historical fiction, set in my own backyard, the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. I loved reading the history of this place, and Walker brought color and depth to the period of mining through the development of ski resorts with their mine tailings, that characterize the Wasatch Mountains and Salt Lake Valley. But the history was only a backdrop to a riveting story that followed several families through generations. There were ups and downs that had me on the edge of my seat. The writing drew me in, and I became attached to the characters, so that when they faced trouble, my heart raced, and when they found relief, I cried as though they were my own flesh and blood. “Fire on the Mountain” is a terrific read, and this book is on my list of Christmas gifts to give people who would enjoy a great story with a Utah history vibe!
I flew through this book! The historical setting drew me right in, but the love of the characters throughout the book kept me up way too late at night. Walker does a great job of weaving heartache, hope, riveting historical facts, and ultimately revenge all into a breathtaking ending. And just when you think you’ve got it figured out - keep reading and you won’t stop. Fire on the Mountain is an apt title as the underlying secrets smolder throughout the novel, eventually reaching a combustion point!
Can't wait for Walker's next book!
good storytelling entertainment
Andy Walker's "Fire on the Mountain" captures your heart as you follow the O'Neall family through a century of changes in the Wild West. The story takes place in Utah with meticulous historical accuracy. Even the ski legend, Alf Engen finds his way into the story. Walker takes us from the rugged days of silver mining in Alta to its present-day ski paradise. The book offers far more than a good story filled with barroom brawls and life-saving heroism. Walker also weaves a subtext of Mormonism's early influences and the impact of both World Wars on a family and the culture. What sets the book apart from other tales of the west is its profound spiritual message that authentic human kindness is transformative. When a Mormon Bishop and a Roman Catholic Priest step outside their prescribed roles to freely offer kindness, the lesson of our connectedness to one another becomes clearly obvious. George Watson, the first Mayor of Alta, transforms lives by his genuine friendly nature in an environment of greed, revenge, and rugged individualism. And of course the fire itself, reveals the human instinct to band together in times of crises. The book is uplifting, honest, and intimate. I would be surprised if "Fire on the Mountain" isn't made into a film.