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By Susan Wiggs
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved. ISBN: 1551667568
Chapter One Chicago 8 October 1871
It was the hottest October anyone could remember. Less than an inch of rain had fallen in three months. Livestock died of thirst, their bloated carcasses splayed beside sun-baked mudholes. The unseasonable warmth made women regard baking day with special loathing and small children cranky with prickly heat. Laboring men paused in their work, looked up at the sky and remarked to each other that they'd surely welcome a breath of winter.
Drought and dry windstorms kept the fire companies frantically busy; engineers and pipemen were called on to put out as many as six fires a day, battling the flames that fed on unpainted frame cottages, rickety shanties with roofs of tar and shake, and the endless supply of woodchips from Chicago's lumber mills.
Into the restless stream of hot prairie wind floated a single spark.
Later, some would say the spark came from a stove chimney. Many believed the gossip that the unfortunate placement of a lantern near a cow in Mrs. O'Leary's barn had caused the mayhem. Others would swear, in the terrible aftermath, that the hand of God himself started it all, while still others accused the Devil. Some even blamed a hail of comets that rained from the night sky. In the great charred ruin of the city, fingers would point and recriminations would echo across courtrooms, in the city hall and at hearings before the Board of Fire.
But the fact was, a single spark, dipping and swirling like a drunken ballerina, rode an updraft of wind that night. It sailed high over a neighborhood of wood frame houses, barns packed with timothy hay, sheds full of coal and wood shavings for tinder, sidewalks constructed of knotty spruce and pine-block roadways.
The West Division neighborhood was a rabbit warren of narrow, miserable alleys and makeshift shanties, a place no respectable person would ever visit. But it was home to day laborers and women with too many babies, to shopkeepers and immigrants, to drunks and dreamers, loose women and strict Catholics. And in the tacked-together neighborhood they bore their children, worshiped, ate, drank, fought, loved and buried their dead.
The dry, blowing heat prompted some folks to find their beds early, while others tried to drown their discomfort in drink and song. The thin, lively whine of fiddle music and the thump of hobnail boots on plank floors emanated from some of the cottages. Noise flooded through open windows and caused flimsy walls to reverberate with the hectic celebration.
And high in the wild night sky, the spark looped and changed direction, pushed along by the wind blowing in from the broad and empty Illinois prairie.
The spark entered a barn where five milk cows and a horse stood tethered with their heads lowered, and a calf lay curled on a bed of straw.
The tiny ember dropped onto a store of musty hay, and when the wind breathed on it, a small circle of orange appeared.
No one saw the pool of flame spread like spilled water, dripping down and over the stacked hay, igniting the crisp, dry wood shavings from Bateham's Planing Mill. No one saw the river of fire flowing along the worn plank floor. No one noticed the horse's nostrils dilate in fear or heard the animal emit a high-pitched whistle of alarm.
Finally, a drayman with a wooden leg, who happened to be loitering across the street, noticed the deep-toned, unnatural light and headed clumsily for the barn. The cows, tied by their halters, stood unmoving even when Pegleg Sullivan came crashing into the barn and untied them. The calf, with its hide on fire and its tether hanging in the wood shavings, plowed into Pegleg and half dragged him out into the yard.
Tall, graceful fronds of flame bloomed at the side of the barn. Stark orange light licked across the beaten earth of the yard between house and shed.
Finally, a man's voice broke the night. "Kate, the barn's afire!"
In Box Number 342, at the corner of Canalport Avenue and Halsted Street, the first alarm sounded.
And over the sleeping faces of the children in the West Division of Chicago, a strange and rusty glow of light flickered.
"What's the matter with Deborah?" asked Phoebe Palmer, standing in the middle of a cluttered suite of rooms at Miss Emma Wade Boylan's School for Young Ladies. Lacy petticoats and beribboned unmentionables littered the divans and ottomans of the fringed, beaded and brocaded salon.
"She won't even let her maid in to attend her," Phoebe added.
"I'll see what's keeping her." Lucy Hathaway pushed open the door to an adjoining chamber. Deborah's dress, which she had worn to Aiken's Opera House the previous night, lay slumped in a heap of tulle and silk on the floor. A mound of sheets lay scattered over the bed, while the smell of expensive perfume and despair hung in the air.
"Deborah, are you all right?" Lucy asked softly. She went to the window, parting the curtain to let in a bit of the waning evening light. In the distance, some of the taller buildings and steeples of distant Chicago stabbed the horizon. The sky was tinged dirty amber by the smoke and soot of industry. But closer to Amberley Grove, the genteel suburb where the school was located, the windswept evening promised to be a lovely one.
Excerpted from The Hostage by Susan Wiggs Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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