The ‘Fourth Man’

Short fiction by Wil C. Fry

May 21, 1990, assignment for English IV,

at Smithson Valley High School, Texas

Falling, falling. Who was falling? He tried to remember, but his consciousness kept slipping back to the hot dogs roasting over the fire. The fire! Someone was falling into the fire! It couldn't be him, because he was old, or at least felt old, and it was a child falling into the metal tub containing the fire. A child was falling into the fire? Whose child?
    He tried to remember. He was at his farm in Oklahoma, where he had lived for decades now. Most of his ten children were here visiting, with their spouses and children. The whole family was cooking hot dogs over an open fire in the metal tub, with the grandchildren nearby. Children!
    He opened his eyes and gasped. One of his youngest grandchildren, a boy of two named Chan, was pulling a wagon backward, toward the fire. His aged lips moved slowly, and a scratchy voice escaped — "Watch out, you!" He leaned forward, pulling a muscle in his back. "Get back!"
    He wondered where the other adults were; his children. His wife was inside the old farmhouse, answering the phone; that's right. And someone had left to buy more hot dog buns. No, three of his daughters had left to get more buns. One of his sons hadn't come this time, and the other son had gone to chop more wood for the fire.
    Chan was within feet of the fire now, walking backward, wearing a brightly colored windbreaker and tiny blue jeans. Struggling with the wagon that weighed almost as much as himself, he lurched toward the fire.
    "Hey, Chan!" the old man cried. "Stop! You'll get hurt!" He leaned farther foward, feeling the heat of the fire on his wrinkled, leathery face.
    Two of his daughters wer inside the farmhouse, preparing a homemade pickle relish, and preparing the other condiments necessary for hot dogs. Another daughter and several of his sons-in-law were also inside, eyes glued to the TV, watching the Oklahoma Sooners versus the Texas Longhorns. He tried feebly to calculate how many children he had covered so far, but lost count.
    Chan's little legs bumped into the hot metal rim of the tub, and he jerked with pain, losing his balance. In slow motion, the grandfather watched as his posterity tipped backward, leaning over the licking flames.
    Bones creaking, Theodore Isaac Crews pushed his weight forward, off the lawn chair he had been in, sending the lightweight chair falling backward. He watched, blurrily, as his glasses fell off, the child teetering on the scalding edge of the tub. On the sheer force of his will, he moved his cracking, arthritic body forward toward the child on the other side of the fire.
    His cane had fallen over along with the chair, so he had no support. He gathered his befuddled senses about him, and felt adrenaline flow like he hadn't felt in years.
    "Ahhh!" came the child's screeching cry as he lost his precarious balance and tumbled into the greedy blaze. A rickety screen door opened on the farmhouse, as someone investigated the sound, but the man's attention was riveted solely on the child.
    Theodore Isaac saw or heard nothing, save the two-year-old dying in front of him. "Please God!" he grunted savagely, as he fought to cover the short distance between himself and his daughter's son.


Visions flashed before him of a much larger child, in a much larger fire, decades before. He remembered vividly how the oil spill had caught fire at the oil well where he had worked so many years ago, creating an inferno he would never forget. He remembered getting lost as he tried to escape the raging fire, then giving up just as the strong arms of his fellow workers pulled him from the jaws of certain death.
    Those same men that had saved him still wondered why Theodore had healed so quickly after the accident. It was because of something that had happened at an even earlier fire, much farther in the past. His active imagination had often recreated the scene over the years.
    Polished steel spearheads thrust into the backs of three young men who had defied the law of the land. The calmness that enveloped the trio had captured the curiosity of the king, seeing that they were about to meet inescapable death, yet he would not stop the execution process. He had had his men bring the furnace to the highest heat level possible, planning to incinerate the rebels. Guards died that day, to get the three close enough to the entrance of the furnace. It should have been worth it, to execute the men, but as it turned out, it wasn't. How foolish the kind had felt when the three godly men had walked out, unscathed by the phenomenal heat of the conflagration. How much more so when he had seen the fourth man in the blaze, having fellowship with the others.
    It was this same "fourth man" that inspired Theodore as he stretched forth his weakening, shaking hands toward Chan. An instant after the boy hit the coals, loving arms snatched him away, and began ripping burning clothes off in shreds.
    Suddenly the two were surrounded by shouting, questioning people, all wanting to help. There was nothing for them to do; it was over. The boy's life was saved, although his skin had suffered some damage. Just two hours later, Chan and his parents were back from the hospital, with bandages covering the boy. The hot dog roast continued in high spirits, with prayers of thanks in the hearts of all present.

Teacher Comments:

"Stream of consciousness handled very well, Wil.
Beautifully done — love your levels & the abstraction."

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