I ran off with the tablecloth still wrapped around me, and as I got closer to town I pulled it over my arms and head for protection from the heat and smoke. I saw a man throw a horseshoe through the large front window of Pearsall’s Meat Market as I ran past. I saw Mr. Pearsall, still behind the counter, shake his fist as the man lifted a slab of beef from its hook and disappeared with it back into the crowd.
Someone called out to me, “Going in the wrong direction! Turn around!” But I kept pushing, even as the air grew hotter on my skin.
And still I kept running. The tablecloth kept the smoke from my eyes, but hundreds of bright sparks and embers fell all around me. Horses whinnied in fear as one after another glass storefront shattered and timbers crashed.
Finally I saw it, Cameron & McCourt, my father’s shop. Its front window was intact but the signs there—“Prepared to Supply All Your Tailoring Wants” and “Dealing Fairly and Honorably”—were scorched around the edges and burst into flames even as I watched.
A large shadow fell across the sky, and I looked up to see a great piece of burning weatherboarding fly through the air above me.
“Papa!” I cried. I wanted him to run out and scoop me in his arms, run with me to Mama and the others at the pier, but I couldn’t see him in the smoke.
A cry escaped my mouth as the weatherboarding landed a few yards from me, crashing into a peddler’s cart.
The storefront panes of glass shattered, exposing a mannequin dressed in a frock coat and trousers. Its face was melting, the blue paint of its eyes dripping down like exaggerated tears. Its beaver skin top hat burst into flames. Only the new mechanical sewing machine stayed intact, though its wooden casing had collapsed in ash around it.
I pulled the tablecloth off so it wouldn’t catch fire and forced myself to enter the shop. Someone yelled, “Commerce and Trade’s going!”
I turned to see the wooden building across the street collapse. Then I ran past the tailoring table toward the back of the store where the flames hadn’t yet reached.
Papa stood next to his partner, Jack Cameron, in front of the safe. The look on Papa’s face was one of pure despair. Cameron already had three cash boxes in his arms and was loading up a fourth.
“Papa, we’ve got to go home!” I cried out, but my father didn’t budge. I ran to Cameron and kicked him hard in the shin.
“That money’s not all yours!” I cried out. I didn’t understand why Papa wasn’t stopping him. Cameron dropped one of the boxes, which burst open, spilling out Gold Eagles and silver dollars. I picked up what I could and stuffed them in my pockets. Still clutching the other boxes, Cameron turned away and ran past me into the street.
“Stop him, Papa!” I yelled. “He’s got the money!”
Just then, a bolt of fabric to my right caught fire and fell to the floor. I kicked the burning piece away and grabbed Papa’s hand.
“We need to go,” I begged. “I want to get out of here.”
“I can’t,” Papa said. “It’s all I have.”
“No, it’s not,” I said and tugged until I pulled him a step forward.
“No,” he said again, and I thought he was going to surrender then, just let the flames engulf us both.
But I wouldn’t have it. The fire was spreading quickly, and the heat was unbearable. I grabbed the sides of his vest with my hands and screamed at his face, “No, Papa, no! This isn’t all you have!” I was so angry at him, at his not knowing what was important. Then I said, “Mama’s waiting for us.”
And that’s what got him to move. He blinked twice, then pushed me ahead of him out to the street. There were screams and flames jumping all around us, but somehow our path stayed clear. We ran side by side down the middle of the road, the safest place, away from the buildings and the flammable goods inside them. Harding’s Opera House, one of the few structures in town made of brick, was still standing, but its windows were all broken, and I saw a blazing inferno behind them.
Coughing and struggling to breathe, I ran as fast as I could. The coins I’d picked up weighed down my pockets and hit my thighs as I ran.
We did finally meet up with Mama at the pier. Belle Fritsch was there, and Father Bonduel, and the mayor and all his family, along with everyone who’d survived the fire. When I finally fell asleep with my head on Mama’s lap, knowing that everything I’d once counted on—my family’s home, my father’s livelihood, any sense of safety—was gone, I was glad my sleep was dreamless