Bruce Decker was grit clear through, but all at once there came into his mind the thought of his father and of the great fire in which he had lost his life. He had gone in among the smoke and the flame on that fateful day with a length of hose under his arm, and he had never come out. For one brief moment his son wondered if he too were doomed to perish in a like manner. Then, by a strong effort of will, he drove the thought from his mind, and the bright face of Laura Van Kuren came up before him and nerved him to do his best.
Taking a tight grip on the hose, which quivered like a thing of life as the swift stream of water rushed through it, the boy stumbled blindly on through the heavy smoke. He could see nothing, for, with his lack of experience, he did not know, as the older firemen did, how to protect his eyes. He had lost his cap, too, and a hot cinder falling on his head made him wish that he had on one of the heavy fireman’s caps which he used to think so 158cumbrous. He made no pretense of dragging the hose now. It was dragging him, and he had not gone far before he was thrown with sudden force against some obstruction, and fell at full length on a narrow flight of stairs. As he struggled to his feet he heard the hoarse word of command somewhere above him, and the hose came to a standstill. The men had made their way through the room and upstairs to the floor above. He could hear them plainly, tramping about and shouting in the darkness. He could hear the hissing of the flames, too, as the water fell upon them, and already there was a thick stream flowing in a series of miniature cascades down the narrow flight of steps.
There was nothing for him to do now but follow on, until he reached his old place twenty-five feet behind the man in front of him, and so he groped his way up the steps, and crawling on all fours with the hose under him, followed the long, black, quivering trail until he could see dimly the forms of the other men. Then he stopped, and, not knowing what else to do, lifted the line from the floor, and stood with it under his arm awaiting further orders.
By this time the well directed streams from without and within the building had had their effect 159on the flames, and a strong wind, entering through the windows which had been broken by the firemen, was driving out the black clouds of smoke, and leaving a purer and clearer atmosphere in their stead. This enabled him to see the group of men who stood about twenty feet in front of him, with the captain among them, and the water still rushing from the brass pipe which he held in his hand. Then there was another sharp order, the captain moved on and the men, gathering up the slack hose, followed in a long line as before, with Bruce at the rear. Through an open window they went, one after another, still carrying the hose, and dropping on a tin roof beneath them.
“Let the last man stand in the window and look out for the hose!” was the order given in stentorian tones that reached Bruce’s ear as the men climbed, one after another, into a window that opened out on a roof just opposite him.
“Aye, aye, sir,” he shouted in reply, as he took up his position just inside the open window, and, by the exercise of every particle of his strength, managed to keep the hose from being injured by nails or sudden jets of flames as it was dragged rapidly across the sill. He saw the other men appear at a window above the one they had entered, and lift the hose up 160to it by means of a piece of rope. Then they disappeared, the hose moving after them for a few minutes, when it stopped and remained suspended from one window to the other about six feet above the low tin roof over which the captain and his men had passed.
Then, for the first time since the Captain had thundered back his order, Bruce looked about him and was dismayed to find the smoke pouring up the staircase in much denser and blacker clouds than before, filling the room so as to completely shut out every thing from his sight, and pouring out of the upper part of the window by which he stood, in a dark stream, which was growing thicker and darker every moment. A little gust of wind swept some of the smoke into his face and made him turn, gasping and with smarting eyes, to the fresh air.
Leaning far out across the window ledge, he gazed at the opposite window to which the hose led, and called aloud to Captain Murphy. But no reply was wafted back to him from the smoke and the flames, and the horrible thought came across him that perhaps his mates had forgotten him. But with characteristic pluck and self-reliance, he fought back the idea before it had fairly taken lodgment in his brain, and turned his attention to making a careful survey 161of his surroundings. Behind him was a great room that was so filled with a dense, black smoke that it would be impossible, if the worst came to the worst, for him to cross it and make his way down the narrow staircase. And even if he did find the staircase and descended in safety, what would he find at the foot of it? He was likely to find the lower floors all ablaze and ready to collapse as he walked across them. Then he looked down at the tin roof beneath the window, and saw that in two or three places the metal had melted, and thin jets of flame were beginning to burst through.
That his life was in extreme peril he could no longer doubt, and that there was still a chance of saving it by deserting his post he well knew. He could leap down, make a dash for it across the roof and through the window and easily find the others by simply following the line of the hose, and for a moment he stood irresolutely with one leg thrown across the ledge and the other foot resting across the floor. But he did not hesitate long; he had been told to remain at the window, and what would Captain Murphy and Chief Trask think of a boy who had lost his head and disobeyed orders the very first time he was assigned to an important and dangerous duty? It might 162be, after all, that the danger was not as great as he imagined, and he comforted himself with that assurance, at the same time carefully nourishing his faith in Captain Murphy, who would not, he was positive, go off and leave his youngest subordinate to face death alone.
There was nothing dramatic or imaginative about the hero of this story; he was simply a plain, straightforward, courageous American boy, who could always be depended upon to act rather than to talk or pose. And in this moment of supreme danger it did not occur to him that his position between the black smoke that was rolling up behind him and the red flames that were bursting out before and under his very eyes, was an unusual or heroic one. It had been his ambition ever since his arrival in New York to take an active part in the work of the fire department, and now for the first time he had realized his ambition and had an opportunity, if not to distinguish himself, at least to show what sort of stuff he was made of.
It was an opportunity in which he gloried, with a sense of exaltation such as he had seldom known in the whole course of his life, and he resolved then and there that neither smoke nor flames should drive him from his post unless 163he first received orders from his superior officers.
And it happened that just as he uttered this resolution to himself Captain Murphy, working with his men in the other building to which the hose was stretched, exclaimed: “What’s become of that boy Decker? Has anything happened to him?”
Then he remembered that he himself had ordered Bruce to remain at the window, and knowing the lad’s firmness of character and tenacity, the thought occurred to him that possibly he was still there, waiting further orders, although when he gave his command he had only intended to have him remain there so long as the line was moving. Handing the brass pipe to one of his men the captain dashed across the floor, looked through the window and saw Bruce with his jacket tied around his head, lying with his body stretched half way across the sill.
“Come over here quick!” he yelled, and Bruce, only too glad to obey, leaped down to the roof and started across. But to his horror he felt the hot metal sagging beneath his feet like thin ice after a February thaw. The flames were bursting out in a dozen places, and by this time the captain realized the danger 164and called to him to make haste. Above his head swung the hose, and ten feet further, provided the roof held up, would bring him to a point where it sagged so low as to be within his reach. He was just in time, for as he caught it a great sheet of flame burst up in exactly the place across which he had passed, and then a portion of the roof went down in front of him and a cloud of smoke and cinders, interspersed with darting tongues of flame, rose up and shut out Captain Murphy from his sight.
With the agility of a cat the boy swung himself up on the line, wound his jacket still more closely about his head, and, encouraged by the shouts of the officer whom he could no longer see, started to crawl along his frail bridge through the thick curtain of smoke and fire. The heat was awful, his clothing was afire in half a dozen places, and he knew that the hose could not hold out much longer against the flames. At one time it seemed as if he could go no further, but must let go and drop into the fiery chasm beneath him. Then by a final effort he called to his aid all his reserve force of courage, obstinacy and determination, crawled blindly along the line, found himself in a clearer and cooler air, heard the captain’s voice close to him, and then a strong hand 165clutched him by the shoulder and dragged him through the window.
And just at that moment the hose yielded to the intense heat and burst, discharging a stream of water into the flames beneath. The end to which Bruce still clung as the captain dragged him through the window hung down like a lifeless thing, but the other end was thrashing about like a wounded serpent, and hurling thick streams of water in every direction.
Once inside the window the boy collapsed altogether and fell upon the floor, but Captain Murphy lifted him up as if he had been a baby and bore him rapidly to a window on the other side of the building from which he took him, by means of a thirty-five foot ladder, to the street below, placed him tenderly on the sidewalk, and then returned to his post as a familiar voice exclaimed: “I’ll look after the lad.”
It was Peter Dewsnap who bent down over the blackened and apparently lifeless form of the boy as he lay on the pavement, and, as the old gentleman raised his head after listening a moment at the lads left side, he said:
“Thank God, he is alive, but there’s no telling how badly he’s hurt. Have you rung for an ambulance?”
166Yes, that had been done already, and in a few minutes the vehicle, with its uniformed driver and surgeon and its sharp clanging bell, was making its way through the crowd, which by this time had reached enormous proportions. It drew up near the curbstone, the surgeon leaped to the ground and knelt down beside the unconscious boy. Mr. Dewsnap was sitting in the gutter beside him, regardless of his fine clothes, and briskly rubbing his hands in the hope of restoring the circulation. Chief Trask, who had lingered a moment to assure himself that the lad was still alive, had returned to his duties, but the reporters had gathered about and, in a quick, business-like way, were questioning Mr. Dewsnap and the surgeon.
“Does anybody know the boy’s name or how he happened to get hurt?” asked a pleasant faced young chap, who had a note-book and pencil in his hand.
“Bruce Decker is his name,” replied the old gentleman, “and he’s not regularly in the department but helps the chief down at headquarters. Why, his father was killed in that Broadway apartment house fire some time ago.”
“I remember all about it,” rejoined the young man, and then turning to his companions, 167he said: “Don’t you remember that Frank Decker, the fireman who was lost when that apartment house burned down? I covered that fire and I remember all about it.”
“Just give me a hand, will you, I think I’ll take this young man right up to the hospital,” said the surgeon, who had been making a superficial examination of Bruce’s injuries. “I took a young kid up there from this very fire half an hour ago.”
Then, with Mr. Dewsnap’s assistance, he deposited Bruce on the spring mattress inside the ambulance, resumed his seat behind him and told the driver to go on.
Mr. Dewsnap stood watching the departing vehicle with an anxious, troubled face and then, turning to the reporter with whom he had spoken before, he said: “That young lad whom they have just carried off is the worthy son of a good father, and if it hadn’t been for him, that other boy that the surgeon spoke of wouldn’t have been saved. He found him lying on the floor up there, and I myself saw him carry him down the ladder and then go right back to his work again. That’s a pretty good record for a boy to make at his first fire, isn’t it.”
The reporters listened attentively to what Mr. Dewsnap said, and made frequent entries 168in their note-books. Most of them knew the old gentleman as a fire-crank, frequently encountered at fires, and one who was always ready to furnish them with any information they required. It was he to whom they usually went if any one was hurt, for he knew the names and histories of all the important men in the department as well as those of the subordinate firemen employed in Chief Trask’s battalion, in which he claimed a sort of honorary membership.