She opened the door quickly and her dearest friend rushed in, bringing part of the blizzard through the entryway, and leaving slush on the floor.

“Good Heavens! Why in the world are you out in this mess?!”

While removing her coat, her friend looked left, and then right, and whispered, “I simply HAD to tell you this in person! I couldn’t risk nosey old Mildred listening in on the phone!”

(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)

The farmer trudged through slush, bucket in one hand, other hand deep in a pocket. The branches, the telephone poles, both were black against the orange dawn. He could see his breath against the lightening January sky as he finished the morning’s chores.

A wisp of smoke rose behind the farmhouse. His steps quickened. Coming into view, a small brush fire, his wife attempting to beat it out with a shirt off the clothesline.

“Peg, back up!” he shouted. “Go hop on the line!”

Peg ran swiftly. The farmer gathered his bearings as he hastily pumped water into the bucket. A fallen lantern—he saw its shards in the ground. He could have hooked up the tractor, dragged out the fire with dirt, but the flame danced dangerously close to the barn.

Livestock ran in all directions. Chickens and ducks squawked; the dog whined. His children scattered in the yard, watching, waiting.

“Don’t just stand there,” he barked, “get buckets, bowls, anything!”

Peg burst through the door, skirts catching in the wind. “They won’t get off!” she yelled. She ran down the step, tea kettle in hand, dumping water towards the flame to no avail. “It’s that Mildred Cooper and her town friends. They just laughed!”

Millie Cooper was one of five on the party line, and she was known as the party line hog, as well as the party line gossip. At times Peg pushed through blizzards to deliver news in person, just to avoid old Mildred Cooper. Everyone worked around it; after all, Mildred was alone. But this—

The farmer rushed into the house and picked up the phone.

“We need the line, it’s an emergency,” he said forcefully, “We need the fire department.”

“Is that you, Ed Townsend?” Millie Cooper’s shrill voice cackled sharply over the line.

Farmer Townsend gritted his teeth. “Yes, I need the line now.”

The other voice, Millie’s friend, chucked. “You hear the darnedest things on a party line.”

“Let me be clear, this is an emergency! My barn will be on fire in minutes!”

Millie Cooper laughed. “Let the darn thing burn, Ed, we’re talking. Now get off the line. Your wife was on it this morning and now it’s my turn.”

Townsend slammed the receiver down, turning to Peg, who was in tears. “I’m going to run to town,” he said. “You and the kids and keep watering ‘round the house. It gets too much, go to the Belangers.”

It was two miles and the farmer sprinted the entire distance to the fire department. By the time they returned, the fire had devoured the barn and all inside. The firefighters eventually doused the flames. In the afternoon sun the beams of what had once been a gleaming red barn smoldered. His tractor, charred metal and molten tires. The crops stored up—gone.

A week of condolences and gifts from town friends passed quickly.

One evening after supper Townsend opened bills left unpaid, insurance headaches, unfolded the newspaper. Headlines read: Party Line Tied Up As 3 Boys Drown, Party Line Pleas Fail, Sons Drown While Mum Tries to Get Use of Party Line—all versions of one tragic story. Another article about Bell Telephone installing translators to create individual phone lines. The columnist called it “a menace to the party line”.

That morning, he walked past the skeleton of his barn to the pond, and considered the stories. What might have happened, were the fire a different sort of emergency. That evening his children chattered on at dinner, sharing the rumors from school. Across the table, Peg met his eyes, a small smile, a happy shrug.

The farmer stood. “I just remembered something,” he said gruffly. “Please excuse me and don’t wait up.”

He departed from the warm light of the home. He gathered supplies from the shed, and slipped into the darkness down the road.

Mildred Cooper’s farm was a few miles over. But the walk passed quickly, and the farmer almost missed the gate, so lost in thought he was.

Under cover of night, he located the set of wires that connected Millie Cooper to her town friends. He clipped them, one quick frustrated cut.

The farmer stood, a deep sigh, considered the sufficiency of this action. He thought of the mother in Colorado, whose sons were gone.

He approached the house stealthily.. He heard Millie Cooper screech through a cracked window—“Eleanor? Eleanor, can you hear me?” A dull thud as the receiver slammed.

The farmer took a can of gasoline and noiselessly poured it out.

He struck a match and considered its soft orange glow. In one moment, the spark changed everything about a match. Its color, its shape, its stature. Peg always told the girls when they eavesdropped on the party line, gossip is like fire. Once you let it loose, there’s no return.

Farmer Townsend dropped the match in the garden patch, walking away and striking another. This he dropped beneath the porch, and another after it.

Then, hands deep in pockets, he disappeared into the woods, for he knew a shortcut home. Snow fell, and he could tell by the lighting ahead that the fire behind him grew, but the farmer did not look back.