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Bill Brown's Test

from Good Stories For Great Holidays - COLUMBUS DAY





BY CLEVELAND MOFFETT

All firemen have courage, but it cannot be known until the test how many
have this particular kind,--Bill Brown's kind.

What happened was this: Engine 29, pumping and pounding her prettiest,
stood at the northwest corner of Greenwich and Warren streets, so close
to the blazing drug-house that Driver Marks thought it wasn't safe there
for the three horses, and led them away. That was fortunate, but it left
Brown alone, right against the cheek of the fire, watching his boiler,
stoking in coal, keeping his steam-gauge at 75. As the fire gained,
chunks of red-hot sandstone began to smash down on the engine. Brown ran
his pressure up to 80, and watched the door anxiously where the boys had
gone in.

Then the explosion came, and a blue flame, wide as a house, curled its
tongues halfway across the street, enwrapping engine and man, setting
fire to the elevated railway station overhead, or such wreck of it as
the shock had left.

Bill Brown stood by his engine, with a wall of fire before him and a
sheet of fire above him. He heard quick footsteps on the pavements, and
voices, that grew fainter and fainter, crying, "Run for your lives!"
He heard the hose-wagon horses somewhere back in the smoke go plunging
away, mad with fright and their burns. He was alone with the fire, and
the skin was hanging in shreds on his hands, face, and neck. Only a
fireman knows how one blast of flame can shrivel up a man, and the pain
over the bared surfaces was,--well, there is no pain worse than that of
fire scorching in upon the quick flesh seared by fire.

Here, I think, was a crisis to make a very brave man quail. Bill Brown
knew perfectly well why every one was running; there was going to be
another explosion in a couple of minutes, maybe sooner, out of this hell
in front of him. And the order had come for every man to save himself,
and every man had done it except the lads inside. And the question was,
Should he run or should he stay and die? It was tolerably certain that
he would die if he stayed. On the other hand, the boys of old 29 were
in there. Devanny and McArthur, and Gillon and Merron, his friends, his
chums. He'd seen them drag the hose in through that door,--there it was
now, a long, throbbing snake of it,--and they hadn't come out. Perhaps
they were dead. Yes, but perhaps they weren't. If they were alive, they
needed water now more than they ever needed anything before. And they
couldn't get water if he quit his engine.

Bill Brown pondered this a long time, perhaps four seconds; then he fell
to stoking in coal, and he screwed her up another notch, and he eased
her running parts with the oiler. Explosion or not, pain or not, alone
or not, he was going to stay and make that engine hum. He had done the
greatest thing a man can do,--had offered his life for his friends.

It is pleasant to know that this sacrifice was averted. A quarter of a
minute or so before the second and terrible explosion, Devanny and his
men came staggering from the building. Then it was that Merron fell, and
McArthur checked his fight to save him. Then it was, but not until
then, that Bill Brown left Engine 29 to her fate (she was crushed by the
falling walls), and ran for his life with his comrades. He had waited
for them, he had stood the great test.





Next: Columbus And The Egg

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