Summary: Based on the Great Virginia City Fire. The Cartwright brothers help battle the fire and search for Hop Sing.
Word Count: 4700
The banging of a loose shutter awoke Kate Shea. She silently cursed her late husband for dying and leaving her stuck in a dirty, noisy mining town. The only good thing about Virginia City was the lack of housing for the daily arriving newcomers. She never lacked for boarders in her large, but shabby and unpainted, house on A Street. By next summer, she should have enough money tucked away to get her to San Francisco.
She peeked out the grimy, ground-floor window next to her bed. To add to the misery of the zephyr howling down from the mountains, clouds of dust swirled in the gale. There had been no rain for months. Usually the winds struck in the afternoons and she had hoped to have the washing done by then. Not that the miners who boarded there cared about clean sheets, but a couple of them were married and their wives tended to be picky about cleanliness. Especially Mrs. Myers — she was always spouting off about cleanliness being next to godliness. Oh well, if they didn’t like it, let them try to find somewhere else to stay. She would have their rooms let an hour after they left.
She sighed and climbed out of bed. Without looking in the mirror she washed her face, threw on a plain brown dress, tucked her grey-streaked chestnut hair into a bun, and trudged to the kitchen to prepare breakfast and the packed lunches she provided for a fee for the workingmen.
“Mrs. Myers, I know I advertise clean linens, but I can’t hang out a wash with all the dust flying around, not to mention the wind. It would rip the sheets right off the line and they would be scattered all over kingdom come.” Kate struggled to smile at the women as she scurried around the kitchen loading a tray with a pot of tea and cups. “Why don’t you take this upstairs for you and Mrs. Jones while you do your fancywork and sewing. It’s on the house, today. I’m going to make some cookies for desert this evening. These dratted zephyrs can put folks out of sorts and I thought some sweets might be a nice treat.
Kate’s two female boarders went upstairs to do the work they took in to supplement their husbands’ incomes. Kate started a fire in the stove, then took a bowl and a kerosene lamp to the cellar for nuts. While filling the bowl, she was startled by a crashing noise from the kitchen above her head. Leaving the lamp behind, she rushed out of the cellar.
She ran into the kitchen to find her cat, standing in the middle of the shattered remains of a plate of left over bacon, contentedly chewing. “What a mess! Out! Shoo! Scat, you darned cat!” Kate waved her broom and the frightened animal scurried out the open door. Distracted with cleaning up the mess, she forgot about the burning lamp and the open cellar door.
The cat sought refuge from the broom and the wind in the cellar.
The cat lazily eyed the movement in the corner of the cellar. A mouse scurried out of the shadows towards a crate of apples stored in the opposite corner. The cat pounced, upsetting the lamp, as the mouse darted past her nose. With a “crash” and a “whoosh”, the lamp broke and the burning kerosene splashed the screeching cat. The panicked animal tore around the cellar blindly trying to get away from the pain. Within seconds, the cellar was aflame.
The kitchen floor above was engulfed immediately. Kate, having just stepped outside to go back to the cellar, watched in horror as the flames climbed the back stairs. Yelling her boarders’ names, she ran to the front door and into the entry.
The front of the house was filled with smoky murk, but only the upstairs was burning. Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Myers, coughing and clutching the banister, were feeling their way down the stairs. The fire in the hallway jumped into the rush of wind from the open front door. Mrs. Myers, halfway down, was caught up in the onrush of flames. Mrs. Jones, slipping and tumbling down the stairs, was grabbed by Kate and thrust out the doorway.
Sobbing and shaking, the two women beat at each other’s smoldering skirts as fleeing people milled around them. Without knowing how they got there, they soon found themselves in the throng pushing toward Taylor Street and down the hill towards the center of town.
No safety was to be found there. The buildings downhill from the fire were already aflame. The winds were pushing a firestorm before them. Dry wooden buildings were exploding, sending burning debris flying. Virginia City’s volunteer fireman, augmented by law enforcement personnel and desperate civilians, were valiantly fighting to save the center of town, where the brick buildings were already crumbling. The crush of terrified people was making fighting the fire almost impossible. Sheriff Roy Coffee and his deputy, Clem Foster started to herd the refugees away from the center of town and back up Sun Mountain, upwind of the fire.
Everywhere there was panic. Men, women, and children yelled, screamed, and sobbed. Horses ran loose, their hooves pounding. Dogs scurried to and fro barking. Firefighters yelled instructions. Fire bells, the school bell, and church bells clanged. Explosive concussions joined the mix as firefighters dynamited buildings to create a firebreak. The roar of the flames and the howl of the wind dominated the chaos.
A pall of oily smoke hung over the town.
In the sitting room of a frame house on I Street, two men sat sipping jasmine tea. Both men were Chinese, but the resemblance ended there. The elder was a distinguished-looking but frail gentleman with white hair dressed in a long queue. His goatee was accompanied by a full drooping mustache. His faded blue brocade gown had once fit him perfectly but now hung loosely on his tall thin frame. The younger man was dressed in the gray, pajama-like garb of a peasant. His black hair was also dressed in a queue.
Hop Sing carefully set his empty porcelain cup on the damask-covered table and stood. His round, pleasant face was adorned with a smile that extended to the sparkle in his eyes.
The elderly man also stood, towering over Hop Sing. His angular face and tired eyes were bathed in a smile as well. He bowed. “Thank you for ministering to the needs of a sick old man, honorable cousin. I am grateful.”
“It was my pleasure to be of service, most honorable cousin.” The younger man returned the bow. “Ming Wu’s wisdom and generosity have been most helpful since we came to this new land. I am honored to have you among my relatives. And I am happy that your health is much improved.”
Hop Sing picked up his carpet bag. “I must be on my way. I am to meet Cartwright sons at hardware store.”
“I am sure they will be glad to have their cook back. Especially number-two son”, Ming Wu chuckled.
The men walked slowly to the front door, still chatting. They were interrupted by a pounding that reverberated through the small house and voices yelling. “Ming Wu! Ming Wu! Are you there? Ming Wu!”
Ming Wu opened the door to chaos. The street was clogged with the residents of Chinatown and the neighboring Negro neighborhood. They were carrying bundles, pushing and pulling loaded carts, the fortunate few leading loaded-down horses or mules. All were rushing toward the high ground of Sun Mountain. To add to the confusion, dust and small debris was being blown about by the fierce wind. Above all this, one frightening word could be heard shouted. “Fire!” The cousins saw smoke billowing several blocks away and felt its acid tang in their nostrils.
“Don’t forget about the keg of nails,” Hoss Cartwright reminded his brothers for the third or fourth time that morning. “Pa’ll expect those loose singles on the barn roof nailed down tight when he gets home. Winter’ll be here before we know it.”
“The nails are at the top of my list,” Adam assured him, patting his shirt pocket. He climbed onto the wagon seat beside his fretting brother. “It isn’t often the zephyrs start so early in the day.” He looked worriedly at the tossing pines.
“Yeah, it’s a strange morning.” Hoss pulled his hat down tight. “My head’s been itchin’. That’s usually a sure sign of trouble.”
“It’s a sign you need to wash your hair.” Joe quipped.
Adam eyed his youngest brother. “Speaking of hair, you should get a haircut while we’re in town, today. Pa might just march you to the barber shop when he gets off the stage next week. Why don’t you come with me while Hoss picks up Hop Sing at his cousin’s and gets the nails?
“I don’t need my big brother to take me to the barber shop!” Joe glared at his oldest brother.
“I didn’t say you did,” Adam retorted. “I just wasn’t sure you knew where one was.”
“Got you, there, little brother,” Hoss chimed in as he clucked the team into motion.
Hoss and Adam winked at each other and chuckled as Joe, on Cochise, rounded the corner of the barn and out of sight toward the Virginia City Road.
Hoss pulled the team to a stop. He looked curiously around, sniffing the air. “I smell smoke. Adam, you smell anything?”
“Yeah.” Adam also looked around, puzzled. “Over there!” Adam pointed to where oily black clouds billowed above the treetops.
Pounding hooves drew their attention back to the road ahead of them. Their brother was approaching at a gallop, waving his hat and yelling. He reined his horse to a halt in front of the wagon. “Fire!” Virginia City! The whole town’s on fire, and Hop Sing’s there!”
“Come, honorable cousin, we do not have much time! We must flee!” Hop Sing urged Ming Wu. He dumped the contents of his carpet bag onto the floor. “We only have time to fill this bag.
The elderly man nodded his understanding. His eyes darted around the room and rested on the statue of Buddha in its place of honor. He grabbed it to him. “I am ready, cousin, let us go.”
“But cousin, you have objects of much more value!” Hop Sing couldn’t believe his cousin was leaving his precious jade collection behind in favor of a plaster statue.
“My jade pieces can be replaced. This statue of Buddha is the last memory of China that I possess. It belonged to my honorable father, and to his. My mother presented it to me the day I left her home.” Ming Wu gently thrust the statue into his cousin’s bag. “Now we go.” With Hop Sing following behind, he strode out his door and did not look back.
Men and women and animals – some loaded down, some running free – jostled and pushed the two Chinese men as they joined the fleeing throng. Hop Sing, burdened with the heavy statue, managed to keep hold of his cousin’s arm, afraid the elderly man would stumble and fall. If that happened, he would surely be trampled.
The smoke had caught up with them before they got very far uphill. Gasping and coughing, Ming Wu fell to his knees, nearly dragging Hop Sing down with him. Hop Sing dropped the carpet bag and grasped his cousin’s elbows, pulling him to his feet. Ming Wu struggled out of Hop Sing’s grasp. “No! I cannot go on. Save yourself, cousin. But, please, take the statue of Buddha with you. It is now yours.”
“I will not leave you behind!” Hop Sing flared. “I have always respected and obeyed my elders, as I have been taught, but I am respectfully disobeying you.” He went on more calmly. “I will beg your pardon later.” He bowed to his cousin. Ming Wu, with tears running down his wrinkled cheeks, allowed the younger man to lead him away. Behind them, his last link to the country of his birth lay in the dust and soot.
Exhausted, Hop Sing continued his struggle to safety, half dragging, half carrying his elderly cousin through the panicked mob. His eyes smarted and his lungs burned. He tripped and stumbled, Ming Wu slipping from his grasp.
Hop pushed himself to his feet, but gasped as a sharp pain seared through his ankle. He dropped back to the ground and lay there panting as the world spun around him and became black.
“We can’t take the horses in there,” Hoss pointed out.
Adam nodded. “Harrigan’s should be safe from the fire”
Turning into Harrigan’s Smithy, the brothers found Eva Harrigan looking towards town and wringing her hands in her apron.
“Morning, Mrs. Harrigan. Lemuel here?” Adam looked toward the forge.
She pointed down the road. “He just left. He’s a volunteer fireman. Oh, those poor people.”
“That’s where we’re headed, but we don’t want to leave the horses and wagon unattended. Too much of a temptation for desperate people.” Adam pulled some silver dollars from his pocket. We were hoping we could leave the horses and wagon here. We’ll pay you, of course.”
Eva Harrigan shook her head and made a stopping gesture. “Of course you can leave them here. But I don’t want any money from you. You boys just be careful.”
Leaving Cochise and the wagon, the Cartwright brothers struggled against the flow of people streaming out of Virginia City. The wind drove dust and soot under the neckerchiefs tied over their mouths and noses, making them cough and their eyes water. Joe swore as his hat went flying and landed on a burning pile of wood. Hoss pulled his beloved ten gallon hat tighter onto his head. Too late, Adam reached for his, but the black hat followed Joe’s.
“It’s no use,” Adam shouted over the roar of the flames and wind. “I Street’s too far in the direction the fire’s coming from! Hop Sing and his cousin will have already made a run for it, and they could have gone anywhere! We should see what we can do to help with fighting the fire!”
“But, he’s in danger! And he’s family!” Joe shouted desperately.
Hoss laid a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder and shook his head. “Joe, you know Adam’s right. It’s impossible; that part of town’s probably ashes by now. We feel the same way you do, but the only thing we can do right now is to stop frettin’ and do our part to help fight the fire. As soon as we can, we’ll go lookin’ for him. And Hop Sing’s lived on the Barbary Coast and made it through that big earthquake in China that he told us about. He can take care of himself and his cousin. We’ll probably find him in a bucket brigade somewhere.”
“Adam! You and your brothers come with me!” John Mackay, owner of the Consolidated Virginia Mine, beckoned urgently. “We need help to keep the fire from going down the mine shafts. If we lose the mines, we’ll never be able to rebuild the town. The fire’s already started down the Ophir works, but hasn’t reached the Consolidated yet! We’re trying to fill as much of the shaft as possible!”
As they approached the corner of E Street and Taylor, they saw the blazing roof and steeple of St. Mary’s of the Mountain Church. Demolition crews were making a firebreak, streaming past them toward the hoist works and mill of the Consolidated Virginia mine in Six-Mile Canyon. The four were almost bowled over men running by. One of the running men shouted as he passed, “The pumpers at the mine works lost pressure! We need men for bucket brigades!”
Heaving for breath in the smoky air, sticky with sweat and grime, dodging flames, debris, and people, they joined the men sprinting to Six-Mile Canyon. Joe and Adam stepped into the bucket brigade and Hoss grabbed a shovel. Mckay seemed to be everywhere at once — issuing orders, gesturing, yelling, swearing, urging the men on.
The men battled valiantly but without the pumpers were no match for the wind-driven flames. All they could hope for was to contain the fire until the mineshaft could be sealed.
“Look out!” someone yelled as burning pieces of the hoistworks crashed to the ground. The bucket brigade scattered, but one man went down screaming, his trousers on fire. Adam rushed to the man and rolled him in the dirt, beating out the flames with his hands.
Joe hurried to his brother. “Adam! Are you all right?” He grabbed Adam’s wrists and looked worriedly at the blisters. “You need doctorin’. I’ll find out where Doctor Martin’s set up and get you and this poor fellow there.” Joe gestured to the burned man who withered on the ground moaning, “my legs, my legs”.
“No, I can get us there myself. I’m all right. Get a shovel and go help fill the shaft. They need all the able-bodied men they can get. If the fire gets down the mine shafts, it’ll burn for years, and Virginia City won’t recover. Besides being on the board of directors of the Consolidated, Virginia City turning into a ghost town will affect the Ponderosa.”
Joe looked skeptically at Adam, but did as he was told.
John Mckay helped Adam hoist the injured man to his feet. “I’ve heard that Paul Martin set up a medical tent on Cedar Hill. Your brother’s right, though. You need help with Watkins.”
“I can do it. Just get his arm around my neck. Like I told Joe, the able-bodied men are needed here.”
Mckay shook his head as he watched Adam trudge off through the smoke, half-dragging Pete Watkins. “Those Cartwrights are surely a stubborn bunch.”
Hoss stopped digging. Something was different, but what? He couldn’t put his finger on it. He swiped his arm across his forehead, adding more grime to his already filthy shirt and looked around. He heard the clang of shovels and the crackle of flames approaching the Consolidated Virginia Mine. That’s it!”
“Hey!” Hoss yelled. “The wind’s died!
Mckay threw down his shovel and picked up a bucket. He pointed at a half-dozen men, “Hoss! Turner, McGee, you, you, and you. Stay here and keep dumping in the dirt. The rest of you come with this fellow and form a bucket brigade!” He grabbed the shovel from Joe and thrust the bucket into his hands. “Without that blasted wind, we have a chance of saving something.”
“Thank you, men. We did it. We saved the Consolidated Virginia. The buildings are gone, but the fire didn’t get down the shafts. The mine can still be worked.” John Mckay addressed his exhausted crew.
He had been told the same about the Ophir Mine and the other Virginia City mines. The buildings burned, but the shafts had not been breached. Virginia City would be able to rebuild and live on.
A bucket of water and a dipper were passed around. As he took his turn, Hoss grinned at Joe. “I can’t believe how good a dipper of water can taste.” He handed it on to his brother, who grinned back at him.
“Sure does, big brother, sure does. Now, let’s go find Adam and Hop Sing. Adam’s probably waiting for us at Cedar Hill. Maybe Hop Sing’s there too.”
Hoss frowned. “Yeah, I hope so.”
With Hoss’ hand affectionately on the back of Joe’s neck, the pair set off in search of Adam and Hop Sing. Silently, the brothers trudged through the wasteland that had been Virginia City. A stream of people headed the same direction — toward the medical tent at Cedar Hill. Most had been fighting the fire, and were, like the Cartwright brothers, looking for missing kin and friends. Others were injured, being taken or making their own way to medical help. The smell of smoke still stung their eyes and throats. The last smoldering embers were being snuffed.
Stepping out of the way of two men carrying a litter, Hoss tripped over something heavy and almost fell. He picked up the filthy, scorched, torn carpet bag that he had stumbled over. “What the heck? It can’t be.”
“You all right?”
Hoss looked away from the carpet bag to Joe, who was staring at him worriedly.
“This is Hop Sing’s!” Hoss excitedly showed his brother the bag. “See the handles? They’re leather straps. I put those on when the wooden handle broke. Dang, this is heavy! What’s he got in here, gold?” Hoss set the bag down and opened it. The brothers looked at each other, incredulous at the contents.
“An old statue? What’s he lugging’ that around for at a time like this?” Joe puzzled.
Hoss reclosed the bag. “I don’t know, little brother.” Hoss shook his head. “But knowing Hop Sing, he had a good reason. We’ll take it with us. Come on, it’s going to be dark soon and the wind’s pickin’ up again.”
Night was settling over Cedar Hill as Adam Cartwright wearily sank down onto the chilly ground, his back against a boulder, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He shivered. The wind had returned with a vengeance, and it was growing cold. Below, he could see spots of orange and red where embers still glowed in the burned out town.
He was helping care for the injured, as best he could with his bandaged hands. Going among them with canteens of water, he had spied a familiar figure. Hop Sing, wearing a splint on his lower leg, was sitting dejectedly on the ground beside the body of his cousin, Ming Wu. Adam dropped down beside him, and with an arm around the Chinaman’s shoulders, listened to the tale of the pair’s harrowing flight. After reassuring Hop Sing that he would be close, Adam left him to his vigil. Knowing that Hoss and Joe would come to Cedar Hill in search of him, he stationed himself overlooking the road.
“Adam! Hey Adam! Wake up!”
Adam forced his eyes open and groggily looked into the grinning faces of his younger brothers.
The sight of his brothers, safe and sound, drove some of the weariness from Adam’s face. “You two are a sight for sore eyes.” He returned the grin.
“You, too, older brother.” Joe happily flung his arm around Adam’s neck and laughed. “We’re all a soot-covered sight with red eyes from the smoke”.
Hoss draped his arm around Adam’s other shoulder. “How’s your hands?” he looked pointedly at his brother’s bandaged hands.
Adam shrugged. “They’ll be all right. Just light burns. What do you have there?” he asked, gesturing to the carpet bag Hoss was carrying.
“We found it on the way here”, Hoss answered. “Looks like Hop Sing’s, but there’s one of those Buddha statues in there.”
“Hop Sing’s here. We’ll take it to him and find out why he was carrying it.”
“Here! He’s safe, then!” Hoss and Joe looked expectantly at Adam.
“He’s safe, but I don’t know what kind of shape he’s in.” Adam frowned. “He has a broken leg, that I know. But his cousin Ming Wu is dead. He’s sitting beside the body, won’t leave his cousin. I thought the best thing would be to leave him alone for awhile.”
Joe took the statue from the carpet bag and examined it. “I remember seeing this when I went to Ming Wu’s house with Hop Sing. He told me that this is all his cousin brought from China with him, except for a few clothes. That probably was why they tried to save it. Maybe we should take it to him now. It might help him to have it.”
Despite his grief, Hop Sing was overjoyed to have his cousin’s Buddha returned to him. He had pulled himself together and was speaking quietly with several other Chinese men. He introduced them to the Cartwrights as friends of his cousin, Ming Wu.
Hoss patted Hop Sing’s shoulder. “We left the wagon at Harrigan’s Smithy. It’ll take us awhile to fetch it, but we’ll be back with it and get you home. Do you want to take your cousin to the ranch?”
Hop Sing inclined his head towards the group of Chinese gathered around him. The eldest bowed. “Ming Wu was a valued friend. We will be honored to guard him and see to it that he is buried properly in the Chinese cemetery.”
Assuring their cook that they would be back as soon as possible, the brothers started back through the devastated town.
“Brrrr!” Joe wrapped his arms around himself and shivered. “I’ll be glad to have my jacket back. It’s getting cold. I hope Mrs. Harrigan can lend us a blanket for Hop Sing.”
Joe had no sooner mentioned the cold when the first snowflakes began to fall.
“This is a mixed blessing”, Adam said as he also tried to stop shivering. “The snow will help but out the last traces of fire, but the folks who were burned out are going to suffer even more.”
“Hey! Look there!” Hoss pointed ahead of them. A loaded-down wagon was approaching driven by the blacksmith, Lemuel Harrigan. Behind him was his wife driving the Cartwright’s wagon. It too was loaded-down; Cochise was tied behind.
Lemuel hailed them. “Hope you don’t mind us borrowing your wagon? Oh, and you boys might need these.” He handed the brothers the jackets they had left behind.
A group of men close by, searching the ruins, stopped what they were doing and burst into cheers. The Cartwrights and Harrigans looked around to see what anyone could possibly be cheering about, then joined the cheering. A long procession of wagons was rolling into Virginia City from the direction of Gold Hill
“We’re gonna have to tie Hop Sing down till his leg heals to keep him from tryin’ to cook”, Hoss complained the next morning.
Adam wrinkled his nose and pushed his runny eggs and charred bacon around his plate with a rock-hard biscuit. “I just might prop him up at the stove myself.”
Hoss smeared butter and honey on a biscuit and valiantly tried to bite into it. “Dadburn it, little brother! You tryin’ to poison us or just break all our teeth? Maybe I’ll just have some of that oatmeal I made for Hop Sing”, he sighed.
“It’s lumpy. You can’t cook any better than I can.” Joe grumbled.
“Cheer up. Hoss and I will be bringing Hop Sing’s Number Twelve Cousin back with us from Virginia City when we take those supplies in.” Adam pushed his chair back and stood” “Come on, Hoss, let’s get going. Oh, and, Joe, have that mess in the kitchen cleaned up before we get back. We don’t want to scare Number Twelve Cousin away”
Adam rounded the corner of the dining room just in time to avoid the biscuit that was aimed at his head. Chuckling, he grabbed he grabbed his coat, hat and gunbelt as he and Hoss bolted out the door ahead of a barrage of biscuits.
The author took liberties with the date of the Great Fire in order to fit it into the Bonanza time-line. The actual date of the fire was October 26, 1875.
My source for information about the fire, “The Roar and the Silence” by Ronald M. James, places the beginning of the fire as the basement of Kate Shea’s boarding house on North A Street. However, the cat being the culprit comes strictly from the author’s imagination as a cat owner.
Despite losing over one-million dollars in buildings and equipment between the Consolidated Virginia and the Ophir mines and a fire inside a shaft at the Best and Belcher Mine, the mines were saved and the town was rebuilt. Amazingly, there were few recorded fatalities.
The fire, combined with the winds and the snow that fell that night, had been predicted months before by Ellie Bowers, bonanza queen turned pauper turned fortune teller.