Captain Meaghan’s Retirement

Captain Meaghan’s Retirement  (1903) 
by Harvey J. O'Higgins

from Scribner's Magazine, Mar 1903


By Harvey J. O Higgins
Illustrations by George Wright

WHEN the alarm of fire in Cook & Co.'s warehouse rang in the truck-house of Hook and Ladder Company No. 0, at ten o clock that night, Captain Meaghan and Battalion-Chief Tighe were closeted together in the captain's room. "No," Tighe had been repeating patiently, "there ain't any knockin' in it. There ain't any politics in it. There ain't anything in it but just what I'm tellin' you. The Chief says he wants young blood in the department. He's squeezed out all the old fellers out of the ranks, an now he's goin higher up. If you won't get out without raisin' a kick, you'll have to stand examinin' by the medical board. An' you know how that's worked."

"Why don't he retire Brodrick?" Meaghan asked, plaintively.

Tighe did not answer. "I'm sorry," he went on. "I'm sorry, but it's likely's not to be my call next. We're all of us gettin' stiff, I guess. They say you can't learn an old dog any new stunts——"

Captain Meaghan's anger had passed with his first indignant protests that he was being put out of the department for private or political ends. He relapsed now into a silent apathy and resignation; and he stood in the centre of his room to gaze at his swivel chair and his desk of papers—the empty throne and office of his power—with a mute pathos of fixed eye and wrinkled forehead.

Tighe continued: "We all got to come to it some time. An' it ain't as bad as lots of jobs I know, where a man's chucked out on the streets without a cent. You'll have your half pay to live easy on, any ways."

Captain Meaghan sat down by the window, as if his desk were already occupied by the right of his successor. "Live!" he said. "I know how I'm goin to live. But what'm I goin to do? Where's my work?"

"Well, if I was you," Tighe said, "I'd guess I'd worked long enough."

Meaghan did not reply. He sank forward to rest his forearms on his knees and let his heavy hands hang down limp between them.

Tighe watched him in silence. There was nothing more that he could say, and yet he did not know how to get out of the room without saying something. He was looking wistfully at the door, when he was saved from an awkward exit by the jangling of the "jigger" with the first strokes of the alarm of fire. He flung out of the room in a noisy haste that made an excuse of urgency out of an excess of bustle. And the house awoke at once to the sound of cries and footfalls and the dull pounding of horses hoofs on the planking.

Captain Meaghan rose like an automaton to the bell, and reached down his cap from a hook in the corner. He put it on; and he seemed to grope and feel around the room with his eyes, in a bewildered and wandering gaze, as he did so. Then he turned to go out in a blind stumble; and he closed the door behind him, either absent-mindedly or in the way a woman will gently shut herself out of a room of happy memories when she leaves it forever to the past.

The truck was waiting for him impatiently below stairs. He nodded to the driver, and swung himself up to his place on the "turn-table" as the horses sprang forward obliquely from the pole with straining haunches, and the great machine rolled out on noiseless axles into the darkness.

His lieutenant was the only one who noticed that he put on his helmet wrong side before; and the lieutenant noticed it because he was Gallegher—the soft-hearted, the slow-handed, the sure and steady Gallegher—who had heard the rumor of changes in the battalion, and knew that Meaghan was in danger. The men on the side-step were either sleepily putting on their rubber coats while they clung to the ladders, or were borrowing and lending the chewing tobacco with which they were accustomed to fortify themselves against the thirst and excitement of a fire. There was some chaffing among those on the other side of the truck, and the lieutenant glared at them through the rungs of the ladders, understanding from the manner of his captain that Tighe's interview with "the Old Man" had brought him his retirement; for Meaghan, instead of leaning out from the turn-table to watch the street ahead and call unnecessary directions to the driver, was holding on with both hands, his face to the ladders, and swaying dizzily with the lurching of the truck.

When they swung around a street corner into the black belch of "steamers," Gallegher had to say "Here we are, sir," before Meaghan raised his eyes. Even then he did not seem to waken. He did not get down until the truck had stopped; and he stood in the gutter fumbling with his helmet—as if he noticed for the first time that it sat uneasily awry on his head—until Gallegher, having righted it for him, said, "Chief's over there, sir," and pointed him out where he stood beside his carriage.

Meaghan shambled across the street to report the arrival of his company, with a dispirited "No. 0, Chief."

The head of the department, without turning to him, answered, impatiently: "Get in, then. Get in. They don't seem to be able to find the cursed fire."

Meaghan looked up dully at the five-storied warehouse that showed a dark bulk of brick in the feeble light of the street-lamps. He saw smoke leaking out around the iron shutters of its second and third stories, as if from the joints of a dampered box-stove. He saw firemen on ladder-tops working to force an entrance through these shutters with crow-bars and jimmies. A second-story window had been opened, and a flaccid hose hung down empty from it to show that the blaze had not been found. And two engine crews, having coupled butts to hydrants and stretched their lines of hose, were waiting like soldiers in a night attack for the order to advance.

For one blank moment, Meaghan stood at gaze. Then he pushed back his helmet from his forehead; his face set in a thoughtful scowl; he spat at his feet; he looked up again, frowning. And, suddenly, he pulled down the peak of his helmet to his eyes, with the manner of a mind resolved, and bounded forward in a run across the cobble-stones to his command.

"Ground floor!" he shouted. "Break in the doors!" Three of the company leaped at the truck and dragged out the battering-ram—a knobbed bar of iron, fitted with handles for two men. "That's no good," he bawled angrily at them. "Get your twenty-foot ladder!" Six of them dragged down the heavy ladder, caught it at both ends and the middle, and ran at full tilt with it against the warehouse doors. "Hit on the lock!" he yelled.

Lieutenant Gallegher suggested, mildly: "Smoke's all up above, sir."

Meaghan brushed him aside as the impact of the half-dozen men, behind the the doors a blow that burst them open with a crash of splintered planking and the sharp report of snapped metal.

"Get in, now," Meaghan cried. "Get in! Never mind your lights. You can't open your eyes in there. Get your axes." Gallegher dropped his lantern and ran to them. Smoke had begun to thicken in the doorway. They stopped to drag out their ladder. "Oh, Hell!" Meaghan yelled. "Get in, will you? Find the fire! Find the fire!"

Three of them, armed from the truck, disappeared after Gallegher into the smoke, Meaghan sent three others to support them, and hurried out into the road to see the front of the building; and now, as he looked up from the smoke of the doorway to the smoke of the windows and down again, he jerked his head backward and forward abruptly and spasmodically, with an old man's exaggerated alertness in the set of his chin. He ran back to the door, "Try the elevator shaft," he shouted in.

The cry that replied to him sounded from above him, as if the men were groping their way up the stairs; and this was not what he had intended that they should do. He rushed out into the street to look up again at the smoke in the windows. He found it thinned and lessened, and with an oath of exasperation he charged back into the doorway to shout, "Come down here an feel the floors! Feel the floors!" He got no answer. He waved to the rest of the company to follow him, and plunged headlong into the choking heat and darkness.

When the old fireman's "sixth sense" warned him of obstacles in his path, he dropped on hands and knees to scuttle forward on flat palms over the smooth hardwood. He stopped, in a moment, to take off his helmet and lay his cheek to the planks. He scrambled on again—knocking against a packing-case that scraped his bare temple with its tin "straps"—"eating smoke," with his nose down to get the low current of cold air. When he stopped a second time he put his ear to the floor. Then he jumped to his feet, ran forward blindly, struck against a tin-sheathed door and fell panting at the crack beneath it.

He could hear, unmistakably, the quiet grumble of stifled flames. And the flooring was hot under his hands.

With that he turned on all-fours, followed his path back with an unerring sense of direction, shouldered into the packing-case, picked up his helmet, rose to his feet and ran for the doorway, shouting to the men who were groping around him in the darkness.

Two of Gallagher's squad were coughing and gasping in the street. "Report No. 0 finds fire in the basement," he cried in a heart-lifting exultation; "comin' up th' elevator shaft! ... Smash in those dead-lights! Get your cellar pipe."

One of the men darted out into the confusion of the street to find the Chief. Before the other could reach the truck, Meaghan had picked out the steel maul and was attacking the dead-lights with it. And swung with the stiff, short blows of strong shoulders, he drove it through thick glass and cracking cast-iron with the accuracy of a stone-breaker.

His men joined him with their axes; and while they were still working there, Gallegher came out, choking and coughing, from the stairs. He saw Meaghan working with the maul like a common truckman, and he did not understand the sight. He went over to him. The captain tossed him the heavy hammer, ordered him to take the men into the cellar, and hurried back to the truck for an axe. He was met by an engine company dragging aline of hose. "Come along here," he greeted them. "Fire's in the back;" and led them into the ground floor on the double.

Gallegher looked up at him as he passed, and remained staring after him when he was lost in the smoke. He knew that it was Meaghan's place to remain with his own company. He supposed—from what he had guessed of the condition of the captain's mind—that the old man, stung with the thought of his retirement, would commit some folly that would endanger his life. He turned to one of the crew. "Look after this," he said; and shutting his teeth with a snap on the stifle that puffed into his face, he began to track up the line of hose which Meaghan had led in.

He found the air at once almost unbreathable, the heat unendurable; but he made better progress, on the sure trail, than the men who had preceded him, and he quickly overtook the foreman of the engine company, who, with his two pipemen, was following on hands and knees after Meaghan, whom they had lost. Gallegher heard the captain's call ahead of them, and he dashed forward in the direction of the voice to find Meaghan snaking in through the smoke, dragging his axe, as if he were crawling in a burrow.

Gallegher threw himself beside him. "Start your water," Meaghan ordered. "We can't make the door."

"It's me—Gallegher," the lieutenant gasped.

"What? What's the matter?" Meaghan asked, thickly. "What'd you want? ... Eh?"

Gallagher stammered: "I thought you'd— I thought—" It was impossible to confess what he had thought.

"Someone want me?" Meaghan asked.

He got no answer.

"Who wants me?"

Gallegher did not answer.

He had, in fact, taken advantage of the darkness to retreat from his mistake. "He's over to the right there," he said hurriedly to the pipemen as he passed; and he came out on the street red and flustered with the consciousness of having made an indiscreet fool of himself.

He was standing over the men, at their work of lowering a ladder into the basement, when the captain came unexpectedly out to him. "What?" he said, looking around him for a superior officer. "Who wants me?"

Gallagher struggled with a clumsy lie, in an abashed silence. Meaghan glared at him. "Who wanted me?" he demanded.

The lieutenant did not answer; he looked up with a piteously appealing eye. The truth dawned on the captain. "What the—" He choked. "What'd you—" What the devil!"

Gallegher eased his helmet. "Well," he tried to explain, "I was afraid you'd—"

"Afraid I'd what? " Meaghan bellowed at him. "ain't I old enough to take care of my—" The words stopped him. "Well, by G—," he swore. "That's it, is it? You got the Chief's bat, have you?" He shook his fist in the lieutenant's eyes. "When I want a nurse, I'll tell you—you. You cubs, you'd been huntin' for this blaze yet if it hadn't been for me."

A muffled cry of "Start your water!" sounded from within. The lineman on the threshold took up the cry and sent it bounding from man to man, like a tossed ball, over the tumult of the street, into the echoing gorge of high buildings at the corner.

Meaghan took off his helmet and threw it in Gallagher's face. "Blast your eyes," he cried. "Why can't you mind your own business. You think you know it all, don't you? If I didn't know any more'n you do about a fire——"

The hose at their feet writhed, swelled, and stiffened to the size of a gigantic serpent. "You obey your orders, see?" Meaghan cried. "I'm captain of this company yet a while;" and with a last furious oath, turned and darted back into the doorway.

Gallegher put a hand across his bruised mouth. "Well, darn his old hide," he said. "I'll show him I got 's much right in there as him;" and kicking aside the captain's helmet, he followed him doggedly in.

When Captain Meaghan reached the nozzle again, he found the pipemen lying drenched with the water that beat back on them from the near wall in a refreshingly cool spray. He shouted to them to turn the stream to the left where he knew the door to be. They could not hear him. He crawled over one of them to push the nozzle aside, and the man promptly gave place to him. He lay down beside the pipe and directed it blindly; and in a moment the powerful stream struck the tin sheathing with a roaring weight that burst the door from its hinges into a hissing flame.

The heat leaped out on them before a live puff of flame, and Captain Meaghan felt the man beside him kick and struggle with the pain and stingings of blistered hands and cracking lips. Then the nozzle tried to lash free of his grip; the remaining pipeman clambered over his legs, and he was left alone.

He rolled over on the hose to pin it down, rested the nozzle on his arm, and hid his face beside it where he could get the little air that was freed from the stream. His anger against Gallegher and the Chief set his jaws in a determination to beat back the fire, even though he was helpless before them. And that Irish resolution held him until the first torture of the heat had slowly passed and left him numb and drowsy in that effect of physical ease which precedes death by fire as it precedes death by freezing.

He was aroused by the touch of a hand on his boot-heel. It closed tightly around his instep and tugged at his leg; and he kicked out impatiently to show that he was in no need of help. A man crawled up on him and loosened his hands from the nozzle—which immediately wriggled free of him and began to thresh about on the floor. He protested angrily, trying to catch the hose again. A pair of strong arms closed under his chest, turned him, lifted him, and threw him suddenly over a broad shoulder. He fought with the smooth tarpaulin of a "turn-out" coat until his knees were pinned together the crook of an arm, and his rescuer, straightening his back to the load, rose swaying with him and began to run through the smoke toward the doorway.

Slung head down, and choked with the rush of blood to his throat, Meaghan caught speechlessly at the man's legs in a vain attempt to trip him. He might as well have tried to hold back a runaway horse by leaning down out of the saddle to catch its hoofs; the fireman went ahead with him unheedingly. The crew of an engine company, hurrying in to the fire, bumped against them. He got a breath of cooler air, and he beat on the rubber coat, shouting a maddened indignation, Then, as he was borne out of the doorway, he caught a glimpse of the street, turned topsy-turvy, and the fear of making his situation still more laughable before his command, held him ragingly still and silent.

His rescuer bent forward to heave him upright on his feet, and stood back from him warily. And he saw that it was Gallegher.

If he had had an axe in his hand, he would have killed the lieutenant on the spot. Having no weapon, he leaped at him, without a word, not striking him but clutching for his throat, in the primitive instinct of the savage to use his fingers as claws. Gallegher wrapped him in a tender embrace, threw him carefully on the flag-stones, and sat on his chest. He raved and fought in a panting struggle to wriggle himself free, growling like an animal, his face blackened with smoke and fire, his eyes red-rimmed as the haws of a mastiff, his teeth gleaming through a singed mustache.

Someone said over Gallagher's shoulder: "What's wrong here?"

The lieutenant forced down a straining arm and gasped: "Man gone fire crazy!"

"You're a liar!" Meaghan yelled, "You're a liar! You're a li—" Galegher shifted his weight to the captain's diaphragm, and he ended in a grunting groan.

The voice above them said: "Get off him." And Gallegher looked up to recognize the Chief.

He rose with a stubborn reluctance. Meaghan sprang unsteadily to his fee. He was weak almost to the point of tears. "He's been—chasin me aroun' all night," he panted. "Haulin' me out of everywhere I got——"

"You've been tryin' to get yourself burned alive," Gallegher cut in. "An' when I carried him out of a blazin' fire, he tried to t'rottle me. Look at him!" He pointed to the burned and blackened face of his captain.

"Ain't I able to take care of myself?" Meaghan cried.

"No, you ain't," Gallagher'said. "You been runnin' wild aroun' here all night. You ain't right. You know you ain't right."

"What's wrong about him?" the Chief interposed.

"I don't know," Gallagher'said, sulkily.

"There ain't nuthin wrong about me," Meaghan complained. "I wanted to have a whirl out of the fire—seein' it was goin to be my last. ... An' I did have a whirl out of it, too," he boasted. "I found it. An I'd 've held it in the shaft there, if that —— hadn't yanked me out."

The Chief stroked his mustache. "What do you say it was your last for?"

Meaghan frowned at him. "Tighe said you said——"

The Chief shook his head slowly. "I told Tighe either Brodrick or you ought to give place to a younger man."

Meaghan looked down at his rubber boots. "I don't want to squeeze out Brodrick, neither," he said. "If I got to go, I'll go."

The Chief stood aside for the entrance of another engine company. "Well," he ruled, "you can do as you like about it. Brodrick fell off a ladder over there, and broke his hip. He's out anyway. You can go too, if you want to. Nobody's going to prevent you, but nobody's going to force you to." He followed into the building after the linemen.

Meaghan looked up at Gallegher. Gallegher looked away. He saw the captain's much-abused helmet lying on the curb-stone, and he went to pick it up.

Meaghan took it from him and clapped it on his head. "It's lucky for you I didn t have anything to hit you with," he growled.

"Yes, sir," Gallegher answered, meekly.

Meaghan glared at him. "Well, what'd you do it for?"

"I thought there was something wrong with you," Gallegher apologized. "I didn't want you to to—get hurt."

The captain snorted his contempt. "Who told you to think? You obey orders—that's your business."

Gallegher raised an humble eye to him. "Yes, sir," he said.

Meaghan scowled and swallowed. Gallegher waited in a pose of humility that it would have been inhuman to abuse. "Where's the boys?" the captain demanded.

"In the cellar," Gallegher replied.

"Well," he said with a heavy sarcasm, "don't you think it's about time you yanked them out?"

And when the lieutenant was descending the ladder, Meaghan looked up at the smoking windows and down on the crown of Gallagher's helmet with his old mouth twisted in what seemed to be the grim suppression of a smile.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1929, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.