1898 - Campfire Meal in the Lighthouse Cave

Submitted into Contest #228 in response to: Include in your story a scene about a family's last meal before a significant change.... view prompt


Fiction Historical Fiction Teens & Young Adult

Elsie's grey eyes took a last look at the snow falling on the lighthouse as the bright beacon rotated, lighting the shores and ocean. She tucked the dark, shaggy puppy back inside her heavy brown coat, pulled her hat down tighter over her dark hair, and ducked back down into the cave from the opening in its ceiling.

Tomorrow everything would change.

Aromas of spicy fish, beans and herbs simmering in a stew over an open campfire floated through the cave, along with the distant voices of her family. Elsie felt the emptiness in her stomach. She turned to go back.

In the morning, when the tide went down, Elsie and her family would ride their horses and lead the packhorses over the beach. They would go around the rocky point to arrive below the lighthouse. Now their path was covered with the swirling ocean currents of high tide, plus the December King Tides making the water rise even higher over the shores.

They were fortunate to find shelter from the coastal storm in the cavernous caves of volcanic rock.

Elsie heard echoes of sea lions barking drifting through the branches of the caves. Somewhere in one of the caverns they must be sheltering from the storm too.

"Bear, that's our new home," she whispered to the puppy nestled inside her coat. Feeling older than her twelve years, she stepped down the rocky slope to the floor of the cave.

She gave the top of Bear's head a kiss. What a day. Her heart was full of wonder and loving life. A puppy and a lighthouse. And a snowfall of flakes the size of cotton balls.

"Tonight," she thought, "it's like a celebration. Such a long trip. Railway. Windjammer ship. Horses. We're almost there. Our last night now. The hot food will taste so good. I can't wait for tomorrow. We'll be living at a lighthouse. Waking to the sea sounds each morning. Watching the lighthouse beacon move across the waters under the clouds or stars."

She cuddled the chunky puppy in her arms, looked into the puppy's warm, brown eyes, scanned the little face, and felt a surge of affection.

Her heart beat faster with excitement. Tomorrow. Their new life. She had almost forgotten the ranch life outside Austin, Texas.

The family was within sight of their new home as lighthouse keepers, but the storm and high tide conditions made the beach passage to get there impossible.

Camping in the beach cave sheltered them from the storm while they waited for a low tide. Then the narrow strip of sandy beach would be revealed and they could cross there to reach the lighthouse tomorrow.

She knew her mother would discover the hidden puppy soon. When the woman at the stable shoved the puppy into her coat, saying, “Please give him a home,” Elsie was too surprised and delighted to resist.

The trail along the Oregon coast to the lighthouse in 1898 was muddy in the winter rain. Their travel on horseback had been slower than expected. When they missed the low tide, they were unable to round the rocky volcanic outcrop. The incoming high tide covered the beach passage.

Elsie walked back through the cave toward the family’s camp at the mouth of the cave. The campfires were burning well. Her heavy boots sounded loud in the cave.

Flames of the open fire threw shadows on the silhouettes of her parents, brothers and their trail guide. The cast iron skillet sat on a separate set of smoldering driftwood found inside the cave. More embers glowed on top of the skillet’s lid. It was a Dutch oven.

The smells of simmering dried salmon, yesterday's beans, rice, chili and spices mingled with the fragrance of the salty ocean air and the Douglas Fir boughs. The air also held the smells of flatbread made with cornmeal and water in a skillet.

The riding horses and pack horses were tethered in a row, munching on feed.

Elsie could see the bulky silhouettes of her family sitting on large rocks near the fires, warming themselves. 

Outside the mouth of the cave, she could see night falling over the beach. The storm continued to wail and the sea roared as waves crashed on the shore.

Tomorrow when they rode across the beach passage, with a family of five and a guide, plus the strings of pack horses, they needed to navigate carefully. 

The “graveyard of the Pacific” was the description used by sailors to describe the Oregon coast. Rugged, with powerful currents and sneaker waves, the ocean would drag anyone caught in the water into it’s deadly grasp.

Elsie felt the puppy moving inside her coat. She wondered how long she could keep him a secret.

“There you are,” said Joseph, Elsie’s father. His tall frame bent over the fire. Gray eyes like Elsie's gave her a glance. “We wondered where you were.”

“Sit over here and get warm,” said Jeanie, Elsie’s mother, smiling kindly. “Supper will be ready in a while.”  

“Boys, come over here,” said Joseph. “I have something to say to everyone.”

From far away down one of the cave branches they heard the echoes of sea lions barking.

The two teenage boys dropped armfuls of dry, cave driftwood onto the ground for the campfires. Andy, the trail guide, also sat nearby.

Joseph said, "When the weather is stormy the sea lions come into a big cavern. Andy told me about it. He said he will take us there someday so we can see it."

"Thank you, Father, " said Edward, the younger brother, politely.

"Thank you, I'm so excited, we would like that," said Samuel, trying his best to show both respect and enthusiasm.

Samuel thought about the wonders he had experienced since they left the ranch in Texas. Looking out the train windows at the plains, mountains, deserts, and variety of this country. Standing at the bow of the windjammer as they sailed from San Francisco to Coos Bay, rising with the swells and plunging down, waves crashing, then rising again.

"We need everyone to follow my directions tomorrow," said Andy, the trail guide. "I don't want to let the ocean take anyone into its currents."

Andy pictured the narrow beach that would be revealed when the tide went down. He felt his nerves contract and his face tighten with worry.

"Edward," Joseph said, "I need you to lead one of the pack horse strings. Samuel, you take another. l'll take the third one."

“This is our last meal together as a family before we join the other two families as lighthouse keepers. I want you to listen closely to what I have to say. This is important.”

"Listen everyone," continued Joseph. "This lighthouse became active in 1896, only two years ago. Several times the revolving mechanism failed and lighthouse workers had to manually push the big fresnel around so the beacon would keep rotating. This part of the coast is so irregular and rugged it is critical that the sailors can see the beacon. Boys, if I say I need you, then hop to it. Lives depend on us."

Joseph thought about their recent trip from San Francisco to Coos Bay. The final 65 miles to the lighthouse were done by wagon and horseback. At the big rivers they had to row across in boats and maneuver rafts with their belongings. There were no bridges.

He remembered sailing from San Francisco on the William R. Blume, a 180 ft. long clipper ship with four masts, built by a lumber company. His family had been some of the few passengers. His senses awoke as he felt once again the excitement of the wind-filled sails overhead and the ocean spray flying through the air. His life on the ranch in Texas seemed far away now.

The trip on the windjammer took them seven days. He loved that seafaring life. But with a family of three children and a wife, he needed to focus on hearth and home.

When they traveled by wagon and horseback from Coos Bay, Joseph marveled at the lakes, rivers, estuaries, and ocean beaches. They traveled under tall fir trees spreading canopies of emerald green. Surely this was an enchanted land of beauty.

Joseph said, "In San Francisco, we had stores and workers, doctors, and skilled people of many kinds. On the windjammer ship from San Francisco to Coos Bay we still had other people who could help if we needed it. Now we need to depend on ourselves."

"Tomorrow we begin living at the isolated Mystic Beach lighthouse. We can only leave at low tide when the beach is revealed for a short time. There is a deep mountain ravine that we cannot cross and if we go inland we would face dense, steep, mountain wilderness, extremely difficult to get through. It is a long ride to get to the village 15 miles away from the lighthouse and we need to consider the tides. If we need help, we have to help ourselves.”

The family’s faces reflected the somber tone of Joseph’s message.

Jeanie thought a little longingly of the ranch back in Texas. It was isolated out in the countryside, but neighbors were within an easier ride if they needed help or wanted companionship. She remembered riding on the train from Austin to San Francisco. Meeting so many interesting people.

She would miss that. There was no direct train route from Austin to San Francisco. With all the train connections they took to reach San Francisco, she had seen a lot of the western U.S. But upon reaching the central Oregon coast, with its dense, tall fir tree forests, she felt a sense of awe. So green. Such big trees, their tops in the clouds. She felt a shiver, and knew she was already in love with her new home.

Remembering leaving the school house in Texas, where she was first a student and then a teacher, gave Jeanie a few pangs. She missed it. But, she knew she would feel comforted a little when the next wagonload of supplies brought her beloved books to the lighthouse. Then she could teach the children to love reading as much as she did.

So many great authors in this century! Now she would share them with her children, and the children of the two other families at the lighthouse. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Little Women by Jane Gerver, Moby Dick by Hermann Melville, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin, "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," and the new 1895 book by H.G. Wells titled The Time Machine.

Joseph's grey eyes scanned them as he continued speaking to them. “I need each one of you to pitch in, do your work, watch out for each other. There are lakes nearby where we can get freshwater fish. That will be one of your jobs, kids. To go fishing."

"The ocean currents and riptides are treacherous here. Sneaker waves could surprise you and take you out to sea. Every year some people drown on this coast because of this. Keep away from the ocean's edge. You can dig for clams if you promise to be careful."

"Several times a year a whole wagon load of supplies will arrive from the village. We need to prepare a list of what we need and send it back with Andy. Of course, like us, the supply wagon will only be able to cross the beach at low tide.”

"One other thing," said Joseph. "You all will be continuing your studies and there will be other students too. Your mother is also going to be the new teacher. There's a place set aside for your classes. You need to focus and do well. No horseplay, boys. Get serious."

There were nods from the two teenage boys. Their eyes echoed the serious tone of Joseph's voice.

The cave was silent except for the echoes from the storm outside. They all looked into the campfire flames, and pictured their new lives.

“We are turning the pages of our lives to a new chapter,” said Joseph. “I will still be doing my writing when I can. So that you can help me, I am going to train all of you how to maintain the lighthouse beacon with oil, trim the wick, and how to polish the Fresnel lens prism. We will be on shifts with the other two families.”

Joseph continued, "The lighthouse is about 70 feet tall. It sits on a bluff 200 feet above the sea. We need to hike up a trail from the lighthouse keepers' houses to service the lighthouse, even at night. There are bears and other wild animals, cougars too. We'll be carrying our oil lamps. If you see a black bear stand tall, don't run, raise your hands over your head and make loud noises."

"Elsie, Edward and Samuel. They do have horses and ponies there. We need to share shifts and take care of them too. If we have an emergency someone can take the horses and ride 15 miles on the trails we used today to get to town."

Elsie and boys nodded. "Ok, Father. We understand."

"But the village has limited resources," Joseph said. " At the lighthhouse we will have a barn and corrals. They have other animals there too, including chickens and goats for milk."

Elsie and the boys looked at each other, thinking.

“I need you boys to grow up now. To become men. The ships carrying people, lumber, coal, foods and supplies pass by this treacherous part of the ocean and shore. They depend on us to provide the beacon that shines 20 miles out to sea. Lives depend on us.”

Edward and Samuel exchanged glances. “Yes, father. We will.” They said.

Joseph got up and went over to the skillet. He removed the glowing embers on top of the lid and used thick rags to carry the skilled over to a rock. When he lifted the lid a burst of heat and aromatic smells filled the cave. He brought a smaller pot over to them, and removed cornmeal flatbreads that were warm from the fire.

"At the lighthouse keeper's house we'll have a wood fired oven, a root cellar to keep things cool, and a kitchen garden year round. We can plant winter vegetables, greens and herbs here. There will be storage for foods that we preserve by canning or bottling. I think we will do fine." Everyone smiled. The food would be good.

"Come and get it", said Jeanie. "We've got salmon and yesterday's beans, rice, herbs, and fresh cornmeal flatbread."

The family smelled the aromas of the chili spice and felt eager to warm themselves with the hot food. Gathering around the campfire they felt a sense of sharing and closeness. Without putting it into words, they knew that together, they would get through whatever the future might bring.

Elsie used a wooden spoon to fill bowls with the steaming meal. Tipping the water jug, she poured each person a large serving in a tin cup.

The air around the campfire was warming up. They loosened their clothing and relaxed.

“Before we eat, let’s say our prayers and blessing,” Jeanie said.

The group lowered their eyes. Elsie felt the puppy moving around inside her coat.

“Dear Lord, We are filled with gratitude for the new life we are starting.”

Before Jeanie could go on, they heard a tiny sound like the wind.

It happened again. They saw it came from Elsie’s coat. At first, it was a small peep and everyone looked at Elsie. Then they saw her coat bulge and move.

Then came a larger peep, almost a little wail, and the edges of the coat fell apart. A small head with two big eyes looked out. 

Jeanie’s mouth dropped open as the puppy's face appeared. Joseph’s eyebrows shot upward. The boys looked surprised and then burst into big smiles.

Elsie thought fast. She said, “Thank you, Lord, for my new puppy, “Bear.” He is so grateful and I am too. You are so good to us, Lord."

She saw her mother raise her eyes upward toward heaven, sigh, smile, shake her head a little, and start to laugh. 

The puppy crawled out from inside Elsie's coat and curled up on her lap. She held him up to her face and gave his nose a kiss.

Then each member of the family smiled, and they pictured themselves in their new lives.

Jeanie saw herself curled up in front of the cozy fireplace with a good book. Joseph saw himself polishing the gorgeous prisms that shined like crystals in the fresnel inside the lighthouse.

Edward envisioned himself catching fish at the lake they passed on the way. Samuel could feel the salty air on is face as he ran up and down the big sandy beach below the lighthouse.

Andy, their guide, looked at them. He knew their thoughts were dreaming of their hopes come true. A fresh start. Opportunities. A life close to the ocean and the wilderness. Their new world.

Elsie saw the smiles and she knew then everything was going to be ok. She and Bear would start their new life tomorrow. Together. 

They would roam the beaches and trails at the lighthouse.

Feeling as free as the wind. As wild as the sea. As new as the dawn.

There were many tomorrows, calling to her now.

It was going to be so wonderful.

December 15, 2023 00:57

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


09:45 Dec 17, 2023

I loved this story. It was very inspiring, and you used such clever, effective descriptions. It is complete with a perfect ending. I especially liked the part at the end where you said, "Feeling as free as the wind. As wild as the sea. As new as the dawn. There were many tomorrows, calling to her now."


Kristi Gott
10:19 Dec 17, 2023

Thank you very much for your feedback Cynthia. I am so glad you enjoyed the story!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.