|Tempest Comes Before Joy
The tempest was upon us. The fire’s searing heat beat down upon the parched earth while hot winds blew through the open range. Only embers remained of the life that once existed on the thousands of acres the blaze had destroyed. The acrid, smoke-filled air darkened the sky with ash, which fell like dirty flakes of tainted snow. We worked feverishly to relocate our livestock as the wild fires increased and grew stronger. It was a blessing to find another ranch outside the direct path of danger and willing to shelter most of our horses. Moving our cattle was a more difficult task; however, we continued to seek safe haven for them. Beside the acreage still burning, the fire consumed many of our buildings and lean-tos situated in the inland valley behind our estate.
Community fire departments struggled to maintain their equipment and personnel, due to the number of infernos raging throughout the State of California. There were conflagrations on all sides. One of the worst was in the San Bernardino Mountains, where years of drought had left the tall ponderosa pine trees dry and brittle, and susceptible to a deadly bark beetle infestation. A careless match tossed from a passing vehicle was all it took to ignite a firestorm of mammoth proportions. Once lit, the branches of these once magnificent trees dripped fire like rain from one to another, and caused the flames to spread. As the fire’s heat grew, so did its energy to move forward with even greater hunger to devour.
We spent our rest periods watching the news for information on the fires burning in the Klamath Mountains of northwestern California and southern Oregon, and on the situation still out of control in San Diego. We were relieved to hear a smaller fire near Lake Isabella had been controlled. Unfortunately, California and Oregon weren’t the only states dealing with wildfires: Arizona, Utah, and Nevada were all battling as well.
As daylight faded and evening began, the heated winds grew in intensity. Standing at the rear entrance of the main house of Noah’s Ark, our animal rescue station and cattle ranch, I watched the landscape burn and wondered what the night would bring. The fire crept over the hills like a stream of locusts devouring everything in sight, and again I prayed the lives of those fighting in the darkness would be protected and, if possible, our properties would be spared from destruction.
Suddenly, I heard a jeep on the road nearby. I turned to focus my gaze and was glad to see one of the ranch hands approaching.
“Evening, Mrs. Elliott!” he said. “Good news! All the brush surrounding the ranch and estate has been cleared. With any luck, the fire won’t go beyond the additional breaks we created.”
I heaved a momentary sigh of relief. Winds can carry burning embers as far as half a mile. Our estate was situated at the top of a hill and with gusts as intense as these, could be engulfed in a flash. Heat rises, after all, and moves uphill rapidly.
The thought of losing the ranch and my ancestral home made me shiver. I kept my feelings centered, however, on the tasks at hand. Years of happy memories flooded my consciousness, growing more and more vivid as I ages and became less involved in the day to day operation of our business.
Winthope’s, the estate my maternal grandfather built decades earlier, was a home and a refuge. I found solace and healing here first after my parents and only brother died and once again after my first marriage fell apart. Surrounded by people I loved, I continued my life here, and that decision brought me with the means to assist others in their rehabilitation.
I remember the excitement I felt when I decided to convert the old horse stables below the estate into a cozy tea cottage; and the old Victorian nearby, once the home of our stable manager and his family of boys, became a lovely bed and breakfast. These businesses offered me a new start to share with others looking for the very same thing.
My mind easily drifted to my early days on the estate with Christopher Elliott, my second husband. It was still hard to imagine the handsome Academy Award winning actor was my beloved spouse.
Life with Chris was an adventure and a dream. He continued to act for many years, and together, over time, we expanded our philanthropic endeavors. We acquired the neighboring ranch to increase our cattle and stable our horses. Adolescents in need of a second chance lived there and learned the art of cattle ranching all while continuing their education. This program was a great success but was now in danger of being destroyed along with our home. Everything we worked to achieve could be gone before the sun rose in the sky. The thought left me numb inside, and I pushed myself to remember the wise admonition of the Bible stressing we hold onto earthly things lightly.
“Rachel,” someone called and pilled me back to the present. I turned around and saw Chris dismounting his horse.
“Sorry,” I said, “my mind was elsewhere!”
“I can imagine! It’s all so overwhelming.” he replied surveying the scene.
“How does it look?”
“We’ve done all we can. The sun is going down. We’ll know more by morning. I need a cup of coffee and a sandwich before I go back out. Can you join me?”
“Yes!” I replied. “I just gave away our last sandwich, but I asked the crew working at the Cottage to bring more. They haven’t arrived yet, I’m afraid.”
“Let’s take the jeep down the hill, and I can eat a snack and talk to the firefighters stationed at the command center.” he said.
Chris handed the reins of his horse to a nearby ranch hand and, we jumped into the jeep parked at the front of the house. Sam and Prudence, our body guards, drove us down the private, winding road that connected the Ranch with the Cottage, a now bustling hub of activity.
Food and beverages were made available to all those fighting the fire. This way, exhausted firefighters and volunteers had an opportunity to rest and eat a meal before returning to their duties. Chris sought out the Commander and after a brief chat with him, joined me at a table. I spotted Martha working in the kitchen and got up to speak directly with her. She always set aside food for her favorite actor, and this time, she supplied him with a turkey and brie sandwich and red potato salad. Strong coffee was gratefully received with the piece of apple pie he ate for dessert.
Chris then busied himself with the other workers in the room, and I again sought out my friend. She was still busy making sandwiches and baking more pies.
“Martha?” I called. She spun toward me and walked to the doorway. Cottage policy was no one but kitchen staff could be in food preparation areas, and I maintained those rules.
“You look tired.” I observed. “Maybe you should take a break!”
“Oh, ya know I love the work.”
“You are supposed to be retired!” I said. “But we do sincerely appreciate your eagerness to help.”
Martha had been with me all through the births of my daughters, my divorce and relocation, and my years with Chris. I cherished her friendship and devotion.
“Don’t ya worry about me. Did the mister enjoy his pie? I made his favorite, ya know,” she smiled.
“I think he ate two pieces. You know he loves your pie,” I whispered, “and everything else you make!”
Martha laughed and grew quiet. “What do ya think, Mum? Will they be able to put out the fire?”
“I don’t know. The winds are pretty aggressive and whipping the fire up. I heard one of the firefighters say this is one of the fiercest tempests they have ever faced.
“I hate the thought of losing the house,” I continued. “It’s hard seeing people lose everything they own, especially their family treasures. I look at the Castle and remember all the wonderful people who were once here and have since passed on; those who brought such comfort to me when life was the most difficult. I guess it’s silly to want to hold on to things when I know the memories will remain.”
“Not silly, Mum. Not silly at all. You’ve been workin’ long hours and you’re tired, that’s all,” she said.
Martha was a warm and loving woman, and after joining me for a cup of coffee, she returned to the kitchen and the work she relished.
I sat in silence and relaxed while Chris continued to talk with the workers. When he returned to the table, he was just about to say something when he saw the governor appear on the television overhead.
“Turn up the sound, please,” he asked Noah standing nearby. The room fell silent as the governor approached the podium and began his update on the progress being made against the fires. He encouraged residents to remain calm, and praised the efforts of the firemen and police officers that were working tirelessly to contain the fires, protect the public, and save everyone’s property. After the governor finished, he turned the microphone over to his subordinates to provide additional information regarding emergency services.
While we were watching the newscast, the Commander came over to our table and told Chris and me one of our orchards was on fire.
“The firemen are trying to contain it, but it doesn’t look good,” he said. “We may have to evacuate quickly if the winds drive the fire closer, so please make sure you are ready to leave if you receive the call to do so.”
“Of course.” Chris answered.
I didn’t respond, but I could feel dread creep into my heart and tears well up in my eyes. The Commander left our table.
“Rachel, you and Martha must return to the house and prepare to leave,” Chris said.
“Where are you going?” I asked as he stood up to leave.
“I am going up the hill with the firefighters,” he replied and kissed me before walking.
“We’re already packed and ready to go!” I said to his retreating figure.
Prudence, always nearby, walked over. “Rachel,” she began, “perhaps I should speak to Martha?”
“Good idea. Then we will return home and wait.” I said. An intense inner sadness washed over me. Prudence went to speak with Martha, and we gathered ourselves. The three of us drove up the hill while Sam accompanied Chris and the rest of the kitchen staff prepared to leave. Noah and a few of the managers remained with the fire fighters at the command post.
Once at home, I told Martha I was going out to the chapel to pray. As I walked out the back door, I could see the blue and orange light from the flames flickering on the hillsides around us. The colors were beautiful against the dark sky. It was a mesmerizing sight but, the flames made the air heavier to breathe than ever.
I sat silently in one of the rear pews and felt a peace settle over me. The Bible speaks of the peace of God and how it transcends all human understanding; I felt that now. Trusting in a power greater than our circumstances can bring serenity, and the ability to quite the emotions raging within.
I prayed for an hour. Leaving the chapel, I crossed the yard where my grandchildren had played when they were younger. The stench of burning timber and grass filling the air was nauseating. I sensed Prudence moving behind me, quiet and unobtrusive. I could see lights on at the Tea Cottage but Winthrope’s Bed and Breakfast was dark.
I returned to the house and decided to walk through the kids’ treasure room to check if there was anything important I forgot. Stopping inside the doorway to look around, I could almost see the children playing and hear Joseph telling a story. I touched Riley’s old wooden rocking horse. Every grandchild had enjoyed it. The girls loved my old vanity table and used it whenever they played dress-up. There were countless puzzles and books, and my old record player, too.
I looked around the room, picked up the items that I couldn’t bear to leave behind, and placed them in a small child’s suitcase I kept in the closet. I carried it downstairs to the study, retrieved my purse, and returned to the kitchen where Martha was waiting for Prudence to bring the car around. She handed me another cup of coffee, and we sat at the long oak table together.
“It’s funny, Martha. This big house is so beautiful, but it seems we spend most of our waking hours here in the kitchen. We’ve enjoyed so many of your delicious meals and pastries here. It’s such a warm and comfortable space for everyone.”
“Aye that it is,” she replied pushing back a few tears.
“The Suburban is parked at the front door,” Prudence announced, “and all your belongings are in the back. We can leave now or simply wait for the call to evacuate.”
I nodded my head and tightened my lips, knowing tears lingered just behind my silence. Martha, who understood me better than most, turned to Prudence.
“Would ya like a cup of coffee, luv?” she asked before adding, “Mrs. Elliott isn’t quite ready to leave.”
We sat in silence for some time. It was nearing daylight when the knock on the door finally came. I wiped away the tears streaming down my cheeks, rose from my chair, and took ahold of the tiny suitcase filled with my most precious treasures. I smiled. God was in control, and I knew He could be trusted with the future.