Volume 3
An Online Literary Magazine
November 18, 2009

 

Excerpt from The Big Burn

Nonfiction

Timothy Egan

 


Prologue: A Fire at the End of the World.

 

H
ere now came the fire down from the Bitterroot Mountains and showered embers and forest shrapnel onto the town that was supposed to be protected by all those men with faraway accents and empty stomachs. For days, people had watched it from their gabled houses, from front porches and ash-covered streets, and there was some safety in the distance, some fascination even--see there, way up on the ridgeline, just candles flickering in the trees. But now it was on them, an element transformed from Out There to Here, and just as suddenly in their hair, on front lawns, snuffing out the life of a drunk on a hotel mattress, torching a veranda. The sky had been dark for some time on this Saturday in August of 1910, the town covered in a warm fog so opaque that the lights were turned on at three o'clock in the afternoon. People took stock of what to take, what to leave behind. A woman buried her sewing machine out back in a shallow grave. A pressman dug a hole for his trunk of family possessions, but before he could finish the fire caught him on the face, the arms, the neck.

 

How much time did they have until Wallace burned to the ground? An hour or two? Perhaps not even that? When the town had been consumed by flame twenty years earlier, it fell in a deep exhale--painted clapboards, plank sidewalks, varnished storefronts. Whoooommmppffffff! Then they did what all Western boomers did after a combustible punch: got up from the floor and rebuilt, with brick, stone and steel, shaking a fist again at nature. And since there was so much treasure being stripped from the veins of these mountains on the high divide between Montana and Idaho, they rebuilt in a style befitting their status as the source of many a bauble in the late Gilded Age. Italian marble sinks went into barber shops. Cornices were crafted of cast-iron. Terra cotta trim decorated bank windows. The saloons, the bordellos, the rooming houses, the men's club hotels--fireproof, it said on their stationery. Most impressive of all was the new train depot of the Northern Pacific Railroad. It was Chateau-style, with buff-colored bricks forming a Roman arch over the main window. Three stories, counting the magnificent turret, and shingled in green. The depot was an apt hub for a region that promised to produce more silver, lead and white pine than any other on the planetů

 

Please click on the video below to see Timothy Egan reading from the Prologue of The Big Burn:

 

 

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