City of Fire Excerpt

CIty of Fire

Dear Readers,

Here is an excerpt from my latest: City of Fire. There are four main characters: Patrick, Michael, Molly, and Thomas. This is your introduction to Patrick, a fire laddie in the Five Points during the summer of 1864.

The fire bells rang in the distance as Patrick McMahon hurried down Bayard Street. He smelled faint traces of smoke in the air, but New York City in the summertime presented far more odors for the discriminating nose than mere smoke. Raw sewage, rotting food, decomposing animal corpses, and unwashed bodies all combined to assault the unaccustomed visitor with a gag inducing smell. Patrick turned north up Mott Street past Brigid McCarthy’s brothel. He tipped his hat to three of her employees as they lounged near the front door before ducking down an alley. As he emerged on Elizabeth Street, the doors to the station which housed Hibernia Steam Engine 14 were open.

“Bout time you joined us, lad,” Captain Tommy Flaherty said, “We’d sure hate to start without ya.”

“I doubt that,” Patrick said as he pulled off his coat and grabbed his leather helmet from a rack near the door. Engine 14 was housed in a simple two story wood frame building. The steam engine and house cart occupied the ground floor. Spartan living quarters upstairs provided the firemen with a place to stay. Volunteers still provided the fire protection for the citizens of New York, but many of them found themselves in want of a job as often as not, and the station gave them a warmer place to sleep than the streets. Several other men entered the station and took up their places.

Captain Flaherty hooked his thumbs in his suspenders and sighed.

“Well, boyos, looks like a small crew today. Let’s get to it then.”

Patrick took up his spot in front of the engine and took up the running line. Unlike other large cities who converted to horse drawn engines, the firemen in New York City still pulled their engines, hose carts, and ladder trucks through the streets by hand. It was both a source of amusement and consternation to the citizens.

“Look lively, now!” Flaherty called out as they slowly pulled the engine through the wooden doors and out onto the street. The hose cart followed behind them. They made their way down Elizabeth Street, past the Bowery Theater. Patrick saw a thin cloud of smoke in the distance. A large crowd clogged the intersection at Bayard Street and the men slowed.

“Move outta da way!” Captain Flaherty shouted through his brass speaking trumpet. “We’ve a fire to get to. Can’t ya see it? Ya think we’re just after a bit of exercise? Move or we’ll run ya down!”

The crowd parted, but with no real sense of urgency. Fires were a frequent occurrence in Lower Manhattan. The locals gave scant notice to the fire laddies as they rushed their engines back and forth.

“If the Red Sea parted this slow, those poor Hebrews would still be prisoners of the Pharaoh,” Patrick said to the fireman ahead of him on the running line. As soon as the crowd gave way, they turned onto Bayard Street and hurried towards Bowery Boulevard.

“Whose district is this?” Patrick asked to no one in particular.

“Don’t know,” one of his companions said, “They rang the bells for the 14th, 6th, and 4th Wards. Could be on the boundary.”

Lookouts posted in bell towers throughout the city had the job of watching for fire, day or night. They rang the bells to alert each district of a fire. Four rings for the 4th Ward. Fourteen rings for the 14th Ward. If the lookouts could not determine the exact location, they rang each possible district. In the past, this led to bitter fights between members of rival fire companies over who had the “right” to put out a fire. Those fights had become a thing of the past. The war depleted the manpower of the volunteer fire companies who all struggled to turn out a full crew in this fourth summer of the conflict.

Sweat trickled down his face and stung his eyes as Patrick studied the men around him. So many new faces now, he thought. The old boys all gone. Fredericksburg. Antietam. Gettysburg. How many have we lost? And me own brother. Dead at Bull Run. And the damn riots last year. Lost more there. At the hands of our own people, by God! The whole damn world is falling apart and all we do is pick up the pieces.

Two blocks up Bowery Boulevard, Patrick caught sight of the building. A shop occupied the first floor, with fire showing from an upstairs window. The second floor no doubt contained living quarters for the shopkeeper. In the dry heat of summer, embers from the fire might catch the roofs of adjacent building on fire.

“Hydrant!”

Patrick looked over and saw one of the young boys who served as a runner for the company waving frantically from the nearest fire hydrant.

“Close enough boyos,” Flaherty said as he appraised the fire scene with his hands on his hips. “We beat the 4th Ward to their own fire, by Jove!”

In less than a minute, the firemen connected the hose to the hydrant and ran it to the coupling of their steam engine, which sported a large green shamrock painted on the side. Patrick grabbed another hose off the cart and attached it to the other side of the engine.

“Pressure’s up!”

Patrick opened the brass nozzle and directed the stream of water at the upstairs window. The fire danced away from the water and retreated into the room, only to reemerge seconds later, a bit larger and angrier. With another man behind him on the house, Patrick shuffled a few steps forward, careful to keep the water aimed in the window. He felt a tug at his arm. He glanced down and saw a small, dark haired man with a soot stained face gesturing towards the building.

“I know it’s on fire,” Patrick said. “Now get away and let me work.”

“My vife!” the man yelled in a thick, German accent. “She’s inside.”

Patrick passed the nozzle to the man behind him and walked over to the engine. He grabbed an ax and yelled over to Captain Flaherty, “There’s someone inside. I’m goin’ in.”

“Wait! You can’t!” Flaherty answered, but Patrick was already making his way through the door. The thick, black smoke left a small gap of around two feet just above the floor. Patrick pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, dipped it in a puddle of water, and tied it around his mouth and nose. The heat drew ever bit of moisture out of his body and soaked his clothing with sweat, which then began to steam.

“Can anyone hear me?” he yelled as he crawled deeper into the shop. The crackling roar of burning wood was the only reply. His ears burned as he crawled along on his stomach, sweeping his ax back and forth in front of him. The dense smoke layer moved closer to the floor. The ax hit something solid. Patrick felt it with his hands. A counter. With his right shoulder tucked against the wood, Patrick moved until it ended and then turned to go down the other side. About midway down, he ran into something human.

By feel, Patrick determined the victim to be female and still alive. He pulled the handkerchief from around his face and tied it around the woman’s. With his right hand, Patrick felt around for his pocket where he kept a rescue rope. He threaded it across the woman’s chest and under her armpits so he could drag her out. Then he heaved with all his might. For fuck’s sake! Why is it only the heavy one’s who get stuck?

The smoke darkened. Patrick lay on his back and pulled with as much strength as he could muster. He felt the body slide a short distance. He moved a few feet and pulled again. Up ahead, a small sliver of light shone through the blackness. Patrick wasn’t sure if it was the door or not, but as it was the only landmark, he made for it. Overhead, the floor creaked with a sound that told him it would buckle soon. If it ain’t the door, we’re both dead, Patrick thought as he dragged the woman. Four feet. Three feet. Two feet.

“There he is!”

Patrick felt hands grab him and pull him out onto the street and away from the building. Men half dragged, half carried him across the street and deposited him on the porch of a small saloon. A loud crash resounded from the building as the second floor collapsed onto the first in a shower of smoke, sparks, and flames. Fresh air filled his lungs and he sucked it in with great gasps. A wave of nausea overcame him and he bent over and vomited most of what he’d eaten the past few days onto the sidewalk. Captain Flaherty wisely stood out of splatter range, and then approached with a flask in his hand.

“Here you go, boyo,” he said. “Drink this. It’ll take the sting outta da smoke.”

Patrick took a long swig and felt the burn all the way into his stomach. As soon as the whiskey hit his stomach, it came back up along with some bile.

“How is she?’ he asked, his voice a mere croak.

“The one you pulled out?” Flaherty asked. “She was dead when you got her outside.”

“But…” Patrick protested. “But…..she was alive inside. That’s why I brung her out.”

“Well,” Flaherty said, “she’s among the departed now, lad. It was a gallant effort, but a damn fool thing to do.”

“So you always say,” Patrick replied. Before the war, Patrick and his older brother Seamus both belonged to the company. They had plenty of scrapes and close calls over the years. There ain’t a fire that can touch us, lad. That’s what Seamus always said. And right he was. It wasn’t a fire that got him, but a load of Confederate canister at Bull Run what done him in.

“Take some water.”

A voice brought Patrick’s mind back from the battlefields of Virginia. His eyes focused on a young woman who stood in front of him. She held a tin cup in her hands and extended it towards him.

“Thank you,” Patrick gapsed. “Maybe I can keep this down.”

He drained it in one gulp and handed it back. He studied the young woman for a moment. Red hair. Green eyes. She had a familiar air about her, like maybe he’d seen her around before, but his mind failed to recall where.

“Is there something you’d like to ask me? Or do you always stare at people like that?”

Patrick blinked, “I’m sorry. It’s only that you look familiar. Have I seen you before?”

She laughed.

“Did I say something amusing, then?” Patrick asked as red crept up his neck.

“Oh sure,” she said, “You’ve probably seen me before. But you won’t admit where.”

“Surely it was at Mass,” Patrick offered.

She laughed again, turned, and began to walk away.

“Wait!” Patrick called out. “Could I ask your name at least?”

“Molly,” she said over her shoulder as she disappeared around the corner.

Flaherty sat down next to Patrick and wrapped a meaty arm around Patrick’s shoulders.

“I know where she lives, lad,” Flaherty said. “If ya care to pay her a visit.”

“And where might that be,” Patrick asked.

“At the corner of Bayard and Mott. She’s one o’ Miss McCarthy’s gals. If’n ya pay her a visit, mebbe she’ll give you a fireman’s discount.”

Flaherty erupted in laughter as he pounded Patrick on the back in time with his loud guffaws.

“I’m sure you’ve provided Miss McCarthy with plenty of financial support over the years, Captain,” Patrick said.

“That I have, lad,” Flaherty said. “That I have. Just don’t let the missus find out.”

Flaherty got up and walked away to give directions to the firemen. Patrick remained on the porch and watched as two men sprayed a house back and forth across the top of the debris pile which remained of the shop while another engine, Americus Number 6 wet down the exposures of the wooden building next door. The white tiger on the side of their steam engine was well known to everyone in Manhattan. They were Tweed’s boys, and a good company. A spasm seized his chest as his lungs revolted against his forced ingestion of smoke. Patrick coughed and spit up a great glob of black phlegm onto the wooden sidewalk. I’m useless for this fire now, he thought. May as well go back to the fire house. The men would have to remain on the scene for at least an hour to make sure the fire did not rekindle and that the embers caused no other fires. No one wanted the notoriety associated with companies who had to return to the same fire a second or third time.

Flaherty nodded when Patrick asked to be excused from the scene. The crowd gave way in front of him. A few of the civilians gave him a strong clap on the back as he threaded his way towards Bayard Street. He hoped to get back to the station and have a lie down to ease the smoke headache which pounded at his temples like a mallet. But when he reached Elizabeth Street, Patrick kept walking. He did not stop until he found himself outside the ornate wooden building on the corner of Mott and Bayard. He studied the sign above the door which read McCarthy’s.

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