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[Angel Fire] [The Deadline] [The Obituary]
Twenty-four years after his beloved brother's death in Vietnam,
"Reminiscent of Charles Frazier's 'Cold Mountain' ... (Franscell's) themes involve a fresh approach to our rural roots as a font for the elusive American spirit."
"A beautiful novel of family love and loyalty set in Wyoming ... Reminiscent of Robert Olin Butler, Ron Franscell has a wonderful command of the English language and a writing style that cannot fail to capture the reader's imagination. Recommended."
"Tender prose ... a heart-wrenching story of love and loss and familial connections ...
Using richly descriptive, flowing prose and artful plotting, Franscell has woven together the quite impact of childhood in a small town and the complexities of adulthood. In the challenges of Daniel and Cassidy McLeod, we see our our problems and looming self-doubt. In their triumphs, we envision hopes all our own."
"Angel Fire documents [Franscell] as an author with an immense ability for language and for storytelling. Highly recommended."
"Dramatic, impressively crafted...an important novel of haunting and mythic proportions."
"Like Ray Bradbury's 'Dandelion Wine,' though in a much harder and less sentimental vein, 'Anbgel Fire' has a dreamy, intoxicating quality, full of wistful nostalgia and melancholy ... Franscell's Wyoming is as close to the real Wyoming as I've ever read. There's nothing like a native's-eye view to get an accurate picture of that enigmatic place."
"Angel Fire is a coming-of-age story without easy answers or pat solutions to life's explained — and more often unexplained — circumstances. ... It may be simply in its approach, but it is also complex — as all stories about the human condition should be. While Franscell easily and wonderfully paints the idyllic small-town picture, he also delves into the human psyche, a darker and more intimidating proposition."
"Ron Franscell's achievement is to provide us with deep insights and understanding of the human condition rarely seen in contemporary novels."
West Canaan, Wyoming, June 17, 1957
Mount Pisgah, the town cemetery, was only a few blocks from their father's newspaper office.
For Daniel and Cassidy McLeod, the route was every boy's idea of a proper path to the graveyard: a shortcut to the Dairy Freez corner window, past the balky back door of the Wigwam movie house, across the freshly sprinkled outfield grass, around the pond bank where flat rocks grew, racing at last through the wrought-iron gates of Heaven's own parking lot.
And on summer Wednesdays, the West Canaan Republican-Rustler was a hellish sweatbox. The overheated Linotype clacked and clamored like a caged beast in the basement, simmering lead fumes up through the floor. By suppertime, when the old letterpress was fired up and the sun braised the broad brick facade of the building, the heat was almost unbearable.
And the fires of press day were the genesis of their secret plan.
While his father worked, Cassidy hunted for the coolest spot in the place. He rolled a swivel chair to the front door, propped open with a pig, one of the printer's lead ingots, to air the place out.
He was only eight and his summer haircut had grown out into a soft, sun-bleached thatch. His thin arms were still red with the first sun of summer, peeling. Skinned knee-caps peeked through his ripped jeans, but his bony legs were barely long enough to keep him twirling in a lazy circle, like a leaf in the stream of air trickling through the newspaper shop and out the back door.
The hot breeze off the street tickled the nape of Cassidy's neck, like a big black dog breathing on him. He watched his father working at his steadfast Royal typewriter, an enormous black contraption that clattered like two, maybe three, sticks on a picket fence.
Archie McLeod's reading glasses had slipped down on his nose, exposing little creases at the corners of his eyes. Cassidy saw such things. He knew people sometimes died before they got old, like his mother. But he also knew that growing old was another way to die, and he didn't want his father, who was only thirty-seven, to grow old, ever.
Cassidy swiveled away from the thought, toward the open door that faced onto Main Street, the dog's breath in his face now. Across the way, in front of the Little Chief Diner, the ranchers' pickup trucks were parked in a rusty row, like the addled mail boxes at the end of a county road. Half of them had brooms stuck in their sideboard slots.
The asphalt cooked in the midday heat, and only a few people passed by. But just around the corner from the newspaper, among the crackerbox houses kept up by the widow-ladies and the retired shopkeepers too poor to move away, Cassidy knew the smell of sweet lilacs masked the oily pungency of the blacktop in early summer.
Daniel sat on the front counter and dangled his feet. He was almost eleven, lean and tall. Days at the creek had burnished him brown, which only made his perpetual smile more appealing. His tanned arms were just beginning to show signs of coming manhood, smooth suggestions of young muscle against his white T-shirt. Already he could hit a baseball out of the sandlot, clean over the Johnsons' clapboard house, something the town boys never imagined possible. After the first time, when the high arc of the ball carried it over the peaked roof, when Daniel came to the plate, the outfielders backpedaled through the snake grass, the infielders shuffled out of harm's way and the catcher just sat in the dirt. Daniel was a sandlot god.
But to Cassidy, Daniel was also a little-boy prophet, a maker of myths and a master rock skipper who would never grow old. His dark eyes saw great cities where there were only clouds and sunlight. And he knew secrets about people that maybe they didn't know themselves. He saw into them.
Then again, there wasn't much else to see in a little town like West Canaan, where a good imagination was as precious as a thousand acres of this grassy, high plain known as the Powder River Basin. Cupped in the smooth palms of the Black Hills to the east and the Big Horn Mountains to the west, Cassidy could stand on Mount Pisgah -- being the highest point in the municipality, site of the town's gravity-drawn water tank -- and see the thin, blue line of mountains on two horizons. The cemetery took its name from the Biblical mountain slope where Moses first saw the Promised Land. The town's pioneers, the "Old Ones," knew their Bible better than they knew the promise of this particular land.
Three roads led out of West Canaan, but one, amazing grace, just ends. So three signs marked the town limits without regard to where the roads began. All roads led to: West Canaan Pop. 3,312.
Still, the calm sea of the surrounding plains permitted the good townsfolk a roomy life, safely secluded from evils that are best kept distant: Temptations, distractions and dilutions. In some places, men shape geography; in others, geography shapes men.
That's what Cassidy heard his father say from time to time. Archie McLeod had grown up in West Canaan, too, the only son of Darius McLeod, a feed store operator who dreamed of inventing something fantastic but never did. The only thing Darius McLeod ever created that was worth a tinker's damn was the son he named after the man he believed to be history's greatest thinker, Archimedes.
Young Archie McLeod grew up during the Depression, a time of dreamers. While his own father dreamed up fantastic new gizmos that nobody would buy even if they could, Archie earned a dollar a week as a printer's devil. Mucking out ink buckets and cleaning wooden type blocks at the weekly West Canaan Rustler, he dreamed, too: He wanted only to become a newspaperman.
And so he did. Except for the time he spent at the University of Wyoming wooing and marrying Annie MacKenzie -- a luminous girl from the great basin on the other side of the mountains -- and a few years as a Marine officer in the Pacific during World War II, Archie's heart never strayed very far from this place, even if his mind occasionally wandered far away. That's how the landscape of Wyoming shaped Archie McLeod: It held him close forever, and it made him dream.
In his weekly columns, Archie was the conscience of his town, as well as its clarion and curmudgeon. He was plain-spoken but erudite, a country philosopher who could out-think and outcuss -- sometimes at the very same moment -- almost anybody in town.
Cassidy watched his father from his circle of moving air. He knew better than to interrupt his furious two-fingered typing, especially on a Wednesday, when Archie McLeod and the Republican-Rustler's deadlines grew short.
Cassidy wanted to control time. Every day would be a summer day. His two front teeth would come in quicker. He'd keep his father from growing old. Daniel's stories would never end. And he'd let his mother live forever.
Cassidy was only four when his mother died.
When Annie McLeod knew she wouldn't survive the cancer that was filling her body, she baked one pie every day. Apple, lemon meringue, pumpkin, blueberry, mincemeat, pecan, strawberry, plum, sweet potato, huckleberry, crabapple, rhubarb, sour cream and raisin, raspberry, peach ... every one in six neat slices, one for her husband and two young sons at lunch and dinner.
She was thirty-three when she died. They buried her on the south side of Mount Pisgah, where the sun would keep her warm. Sometimes, Cassidy visited her there.
Cassidy remembered what every boy is born knowing about his mother: Her touch, her kiss, the sound of her voice as she hugged him to her breast. And he came to know the smell of her pies.
The talk about her cancer was beyond him, even now. Cassidy only knew that something had consumed her. Maybe it was him. Maybe, he thought, he'd needed her too much and it was his dependence that ate her away.
Not long after she died, Archie took her pie tins out to the tool shed, unable either to part with them or see them every day. Sometimes, the boys sneaked out there at night and Cassidy would sit there in the dark listening to his brother tell stories about her, among the tools and scrap lumber and dusty Mason jars.
Daniel felt her presence, but Cassidy bore the burden of her absence. So it was, always, between them: One searching for something that wasn't there, the other always a little empty.
Often Cassidy wished that home would smell like home again, like baking pies and his mother's dresses in the back closet. Cassidy never wanted to lose someone close to him again, nor to be so close that he might consume another loved one. He was not a sad little boy, but by his eighth summer, he'd grown quiet and sometimes distant.
That's when Daniel started telling stories.
And they were fantastic stories about faraway places and adventurers and magical times. From them, Daniel fashioned his own solace in a world that wasn't beyond his control, and Cassidy listened.
Their life was best when they were with their father, the master storyteller himself, playing checkers on a Saturday afternoon or fishing on Dead Horse Creek or sharing jokes around his cluttered desk at the newspaper. Sometimes they helped him till the clay soil in the garden, where they grew huge tomatoes despite Wyoming's ephemeral growing season.
That's when the circle was mended -- perhaps only with a single, frail stitch -- and they were almost whole again.
Miss Oneida Overstreet, their housekeeper after Annie died, cooked two meals every weekday and did their laundry for a paltry wage. Archie rarely missed one of Miss Oneida's country suppers with the boys.
Secretly, Cassidy studied his father's hands at the supper table almost every night. He saw tiny lines where black ink could never be scrubbed off, and they were growing deeper and longer.
Many nights his father would get up from the table and walk back down to the newspaper, where he could write.
When he was writing, he wasn't sad. He was dreaming.
The Royal's rapid thwacking stopped, and Cassidy's daydream was interrupted by the sudden quiet.
Archie tilted back in his chair and peered over his glasses at his two sons. His jowls were taut, his lips thin. He rolled a mossy cigar stump between his teeth, and a blue haze encircled him, curling gracefully toward the lazy blades of the ceiling fan.
Whatever he'd been writing had him mildly agitated, so Cassidy guessed it was about the Damned Mayor, as he was known in the McLeod house. Cassidy didn't even know his real name. Hizzoner was just a stuffy banker who seldom failed either to provoke his father or to provide plenty of copy for every week's new edition, one way or another.
"Boys, never wrestle with a pig," Archie said in his most fatherly tone. "You both get dirty and the pig likes it."
They all laughed. Cassidy settled back into the squeaky chair, relieved. But only for a moment.
"So what trouble are you stirring up today?" Archie asked as he shuffled toward the backshop with his fresh copy.
Cassidy bolted upright. The swivel chair rocked a little more vigorously. He fixed his eyes on the floor as he scooted forward on the leather seat.
His father knew everything that happened in West Canaan. Cassidy feared for a moment he knew about the secret plan, too. He glanced nervously at Daniel, who hopped from the counter and stood ramrod straight as his father passed in the close quarters of the Republican-Rustler's front shop.
"We're going to wrestle a pig," Daniel said.
Archie stopped in the doorway to the smelly backshop and turned toward them. His pants hung loosely on him, cinched up by a belt he'd taken in a couple notches since Annie died. The tails of his wrinkled shirt, now two sizes too big, bloused around him, threatening to float free from his waistband at any moment.
He pushed his glasses onto the top of his head and pretended to be annoyed at Daniel, then smiled.
Then Archie glanced at his watch and grumbled. Cassidy watched another deadline ripple across his father's troubled forehead. He fished one of his inky hands in his gabardine workpants and produced a shiny Franklin half-dollar. He flipped it to Daniel.
"Be home early," Archie told them. "We have a guest for dinner, a young writer from the East named Jack Lazarus, who's just passing through town. I expect you to be on your best behavior, understand?"
Before he finished, they were halfway out the door.
The half dollar, as always, was for Robbie, the sweet-faced, big-bosomed high school girl who wore red lipstick and dipped soft-serve in melted chocolate at the Dairy Freez. She was among the teen-agers who pursued clumsy romances on Friday nights on the far side of Pisgah, in the back seats of cars parked in the midnight shadow of the silvery water tower. Cassidy and Daniel had sneaked up there a few times to listen to the girls giggle and to throw pebbles through open backseat windows.
Now they waited impatiently in the hot sun while Robbie tittered about boys with two friends at the walk-up counter. Her pretty face glistened in the afternoon heat roiling off the sidewalk through her tiny screened opening.
Daniel sidled up so close Robbie either had to wait on him or include him in the conversation. She finally turned to him.
"Two dips, please," he told her.
Robbie spared a smile for the boys, who got a whiff of lavender as she leaned through the sliding screen window with a few napkins. Daniel handed her the fifty-cent piece.
"You boys stayin' out of trouble?" she asked.
"Yeah, we're going up to ..." Cassidy blurted, before Danny stepped on his talkative little brother's left foot.
"Goin' to the pond to look for salamanders," Daniel said, grinding his heel into Cassidy's left "Chuck" -- an age-darkened, hand-me-down, high-top sneaker ironically named not for a great basketball star, but a legendary shoe salesman named Chuck Taylor. Chucks were the only thing they wore in summer, their canvas nearly impervious to the everyday ordeals of little boys.
Cassidy flinched, but kept his mouth shut.
"Thanks for the dips," Daniel said as they walked around the Dairy Freez's eye-aching white stucco wall toward Mount Pisgah.
"I wasn't gonna say nothin'," Cassidy defended himself. His voice was heavy.
"Yeah, like the time you accidentally snitched about the chickens in the suitcase?"
"That was different."
Daniel always told stories, but he seldom lied unless there was a good reason. Since climbing the water tower was an offense against both the town's and their father's laws, Daniel believed he had two good reasons.
They walked down the shady alley, past backyard gardens and coal-ash bins, to the ball field, looking for a little courage in melting vanilla ice cream.
They could see the water tower looming above the thick, old cottonwoods whose roots surely entangled what was left of the Old Ones. In the shade of Godbolt's Market billboard on the left field fence, they sat quietly and wiped their fingers in the cool grass.
"What do you think we'll see? Could we see our house from up there? Maybe we'll see Shadow, you think?" Cassidy chattered. He was fortifying himself for the delirious climb, painting a thin coat of eagerness over his dread.
"Maybe," Daniel reassured him, as he always did. He stood to size up the tower, shading his eyes against the afternoon sun glazing its shiny skin. "Hey, maybe we'll see Pledger Moon comin' in, who knows? C'mon, let's go."
He was another daydream shared by two brothers. Daniel conjured Pledger Moon from a zephyr on the banks of the Crazy Woman and gave him life: A railroad gandy-dancer who enlisted to fight the Civil War, and has wandered from adventure to adventure on his endless road home. Someday, when other stories needed telling, Daniel would bring him home, but Cassidy hoped the story would never end. Moon was very real and precious to him, a gift.
Running through the cemetery, past the Old Ones' mottled headstones under the cottonwoods, they clambered over a fence around the base of the tower. They caught their breath and their courage on the rusty first step of the ladder, bolted precariously to one of the tower's four steel legs.
"You first. Hold tight and go slow," Daniel warned. "I'll be right behind you."
Cassidy looked straight up the dizzying steel stairway into the big afternoon sky. Beyond the narrow catwalk that girdled the tower's rotund belly, the clouds looked as if someone had stirred them with a spoon.
"Danny ..." he whined.
"I mean it, I'll be here for you," Daniel said. "Just don't look down."
Cassidy took a deep breath and started up. The rusty handrails stained his trembling palms, still sticky with ice cream and sweat. He could hear Daniel behind him. Nothing bad could happen while he was with his brother.
They rose through the trees, above the roof lines of their squat little town. Creaky bolts and sagging steps only grudgingly forgave their trespass. They shimmied through a trap door and crawled onto the catwalk. They dangled their feet bravely through the railing, clinging white-knuckled to its dirty balusters.
The quiet, freshly mowed cemetery lay far below them. The gravedigger's sprinklers spurted in lazy pinwheels of light. They could see the newspaper's flat gray roof past the electric poles on Third Street. Their two-story, white house on Ithaca Street was just two blocks farther, and Cassidy could see his own bedroom window on the second floor.
They heard birds in the cemetery trees and the softly pulsing sprinklers below, but the little town made no other sound. They saw children riding bikes toward the park, and a few cars rolling through the downtown, slowly and silently.
Beyond the trees, beyond Sheeran's junkyard at the edge of town, beyond the Crazy Woman Creek, a velvety brown bolt of prairie cloth unfurled west to the Big Horns, where storms lingered before they burst onto the flats. Billowing clouds grazed across an endless blue sky like a herd of white buffalo. The emptiness of the place fled away from the lonely little town in every direction.
Cassidy was thrilled by it. He imagined the breeze swirling to life in the distant mountains, sweeping over the snow that still capped the highest peaks, and drifting down to soothe his sweaty face.
"Whoa, you can see forever!" Cassidy marveled, resting his chin on the rusted rail, surveying the sweep of land he'd never seen quite this way. Maybe it was the Promised Land the Old Ones saw.
He saw far-off ranch houses, a web of washes and gulleys, dust chasing a truck on a dirt road, and off to the west, a lumpish outcropping where he and Daniel often hunted for arrowheads and horny toads.
"Look, that's the Pumpkin Butte, Danny!" Cassidy said excitedly, scrambling to his knees. "It doesn't look so big from here. Why do they call it that ... Danny? Stand up and you can see the ..."
The railing shrieked as it ripped free.
Cassidy had leaned too heavily upon the old baluster as he angled for a better view. The decrepit metal whined, a bolt popped, and Cassidy plunged forward into the empty sky.
It happened too fast to scream.
Daniel grabbed for him. Almost by luck, his left hand clasped a fold of Cassidy's T-shirt.
It tore away like wet paper.
His right hand -- or three fingers of it -- barely hooked the top of Cassidy's jeans. The dead weight of his little brother's body falling over the edge slammed Daniel's face into the grate walkway ... but he held on.
"Don't move!" he screamed.
Sixty feet up, Cassidy flailed grotesquely, desperately. He hung face down, powerless to grasp the walkway above.
He was connected to this world, to life itself, only by Daniel's one-handed clutch. Below him, the dead of the earth.
"Goddammit, don't move!" Daniel half-grunted, half-yelled again.
Daniel flattened himself across the narrow catwalk, jamming his foot into a tight space against the tank itself, like an anchor. He tried again and again to grab Cassidy's arm with his free hand. He couldn't reach it.
"Reach back!" Daniel barked at Cassidy.
His little brother, beginning to panic, tried to feel Daniel's unseen hand in midair behind him. He couldn't.
Daniel was losing his grip.
Cassidy flung his left arm back. Daniel intercepted it, heaving him upward and back.
Cassidy felt his arm squirt-pop from its socket, like a drumstick yanked from an overcooked duck. The blue sky flashed in his face. His skinny little rib cage slammed into the railing, knocking the wind out of him.
Daniel grappled his frightened little brother onto the catwalk, to safety. Daniel had saved him, and at the moment, Cassidy thought of nothing else.
They hunkered on the catwalk, tight against the tank, for a long time. Both were afraid to move, afraid their perch might collapse under the weight of a sparrow now. Sparks of pain coruscated like St. Elmo's fire through Cassidy's dislocated shoulder. He was too shaken to move. He couldn't talk. He closed his eyes and trembled. Then he began to cry when he thought about the trouble they faced at home.
Daniel nursed a seeping, raw scrape on his arm and dawbed at his bleeding nose, where his face had smashed into the meshed steel of the catwalk. He didn't talk either, and his face was empty.
His eyes fixed on a distant place he could not have seen, even from the highest point on Mount Pisgah. He stared down through the old cottonwoods upon their mother's grave.
Then he said something that frightened his little brother, almost as much as the plunge off the tower. For the rest of his life, it would be as chilling to Cassidy as the sound of hurtling into the silent and immeasurable space between life and death.
"How far do you think it is to heaven?"
Even then, so close, Cassidy didn't know.
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[Delivered From Evil] [Outlaw Texas] [Sourtoe]
[The Darkest Night] [Outlaw Rockies] [The Deadline] [The Obituary]
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