Stories Worth Rereading: A True Incident of The San Francisco Earthquake

He was by no means handsome; he had a turned-up nose, and a little squint in one eye; and Jennie Mills said you could not stick a pin anywhere on his face where there was not a freckle. And his hair, she said, was carrot color, which pleased the children so much that they called him “Carroty” for short. O, nobody ever thought of calling Tommy Carter handsome! For that matter, no one thought him a hero; yet even then he had some of the qualities which help to make heroes.

For instance, he was brave enough to go to school day after day with patched knees and elbows, the patches of quite a different color from the trousers and shirt-waist, and to say not a word at home of the boys who shouted, “Hello, Patchey!” or of Jennie Mills’s asking whether she should not bring him a piece of her yellow cashmere for patches, to match his hair and freckles.

He had shed a few tears in private that day. The boys yelled and shouted so over what Jennie said that he could not help it. The scholars were used to laughing at Jennie Mills’s sayings, and she was spoiling her character by always trying to think of something to say that would make people laugh. But on his way home Tommy stopped at the fountain on the square, and gave his eyes a good wash, so his mother would not suspect tears. Tommy knew that he had his mother to think about; she had been left in his care.

Tommy was only seven when his father, Tom Carter, was crushed between two engines. Nobody seemed to know just how it happened, only the man who had charge of the other engine had been drinking; anyway, it happened. They took Tom Carter home on a stretcher. Just before he died, he said; “Good-by, Tommy. Father trusts you to take care of mother and Sissy.” After that would Tommy say anything to his mother about patches or teasing, or let her see tears?

There was another thing that Tommy had courage to do; that was to take constant care of Sissy. All day Saturday and all day Sunday, and just as much time as he could spare on school-days, Tommy gave to Sissy. It was he who fed her, and washed her face a great many times a day, and coaxed her to sleep, and took her to ride in her little cart, or walked very slowly when she chose to toddle along by his side, and changed her dress when she tumbled into the coal-box or sat down in a mud puddle. And he had been known to wash out a dress and a nightgown for Sissy when his mother was ill. There was really nothing too hard or too “girlish” for Tommy to do for his little sister. Once, somebody who saw him trying to mend a hole in the baby’s petticoat called him “Sissy,” and the name clung; for a time the school yard rang with shouts of “Sissy Carter.” But not one word of this did Mother Carter hear.

“Did you have a good time today?” his mother would ask, and Tommy, with Sissy in his arms, crowing with delight that she had got him again, would answer, cheerfully: “A first-rate time. I got a big A for spelling, and teacher said I had improved in my writing.” And not a word would be hinted about the nicknames or the jeers.

But better school-days came to Tommy before the last thing happened by which the people found out that he was a hero.

A new little girl came into the fourth grade. She was a pretty girl, and wore pretty dresses, and had a fluff of brown curls about her face. She was “smart,” too, the boys said; they said she could say “lots funnier things than Jennie Mills.” Then her name pleased them very much; it was Angela.

Whether or not she was smarter than Jennie Mills, it is true that Angela said some things that Jennie had never thought of.

“Tommy Carter is real good-natured,” she said one day. “And he is not one bit selfish. Don’t you know how he gave the best seat to little Eddie Cooper this morning, and stood off in a corner where he could not see much? I like Tommy.”

The scholars stared. Somehow it had never occurred to them to “like Tommy;” but, when once it had been mentioned, they seemed to wonder that they had not thought of it. Tommy was good-natured and very obliging. Not a day passed in which he did not in some small way prove this. As for his patches, Angela did not seem to notice them at all; and, if she did not, why should anybody? So in a few days a queer thing happened. The boys stopped teasing Tommy, and began in little ways to be kind to him. Some of the older ones, when they happened to have an extra apple or pear, fell into the habit of saying, “Here, want this?” and would toss it to Tommy. And when they discovered that he saved a piece of everything for Sissy, they did not laugh at all, for Angela said, “How nice for him to do that!”

Soon they began to save up bright little things themselves for Sissy—bits of paper, half-worn toys, once a new red ball. None of them realized it, but this really the influence of the new little girl with brown curls.

In that way it came to pass that Tommy lost many of his chances for being a hero; but a new chance was coming.

Tommy lived in a large tenement-house on one of the back streets of San Francisco. Seven other families lived in the same house. One Tuesday evening, Mrs. Carter told the woman who lived across the hall that she had done the hardest day’s work of her life, and was so dead tired that she felt as if she would like to go to bed and never get up.

At five o’clock the next morning, she, Sissy, close beside her, and Tommy, in a little cot at the farther end of the room, were all sound asleep. Suddenly the walls of the big tenement-house began to sway from side to side in the strangest manner, and there was at the same second a terrible crashing noise. The kitchen table in the corner tipped over, and the dishes in the corner cupboard slid to the floor and went to pieces. The big wardrobe, which was a bureau and a clothes-closet all in one, moved out into the middle of the room, and the stove fell down. All these things happened so fast, and the earth was full of such strange, wild noises, that for a second nobody knew what was the matter.

Tommy Carter got to his mother’s side before the noise was over, but he found that she could not stir; her bed was covered with bricks, and there was a great hole in the wall. Tommy did not know it then, but he understood afterward that the chimney had fallen on his mother’s bed.

“Tommy,” she gasped, “it is an earthquake! Take Sissy and run.”

“But, mother,” he cried, “O mother, I cannot leave you!”

“Never mind me, Tommy; take her quick! She is not hurt. Maybe there will be another. Tommy? you take care of Sissy! Run!”

And Tommy ran, with just the little shirt on in which he had been sleeping, and with an old quilt that his mother’s hands had wrapped around the sleeping baby.

What an awful street was that into which he ran! What an awful road he had to go to get to it! Part of the side wall of the house was gone, and the stairs swayed from side to side as he stepped on them; but he reached the street, and it looked as if everything on it had tumbled down, and all the people in the world were running about, wringing their hands, and crying. Then suddenly an awful cry arose, “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

“Mother! O mother!” Tommy screamed, and he hurried to scramble back over the fallen walls by which he had come. He must take care of his mother. But a strong hand held him.

“Keep away, youngster. Don’t you see that the wall is falling! Run!”

But where should he run? The whole city seemed to be burning, and everywhere was horror and terror. In trying to cross a street, Tommy was knocked down, and was for a second under the feet of a plunging horse. But he got out, and reached the sidewalk, with Sissy still safe, and he did not know that his arm was broken.

“Wasn’t it lucky that Sissy was on the other arm?” he said, speaking to no one.

That awful day! Nobody who lived through it will ever forget it. Tommy Carter spent it struggling, pushing, panting, tugging, trying to get somewhere with Sissy. And Sissy cried for food and then for water, and there was none of either to give her; and then she lay back still, and he thought she was dying. The crowds swarmed and surged about him, crying, groaning, praying, cursing, yelling orders; and above all that fearful din arose the terrifying roar of the fire. The city was burning up! O, where was mother? And where was a safe place for Sissy? And why did his arm hurt so? What was the matter with him? His head was whirling round and round. Was he going to die and leave Sissy?—He never would!

Suddenly he roused with fresh energy. Somebody was trying to take Sissy.

“Don’t you touch her!” he cried, fiercely. “Don’t you dare! Let her alone, I say!” and he fought like a wild animal.

“But, my poor boy,” said the doctor, who was bending over him. But Tommy was insane with pain and fear.

“Let her be, I say!” he screamed. “Mother said I was not to let anybody take her, and I won’t! I will kill you if you touch her! I’ll, I’ll—” and then Tommy fell back in a dead faint.

When he wakened, he was in a large, quiet room, in a clean bed. “Where is Sissy?” he called out in terror. A woman in white bent over him and spoke low: “Hush, dear; do not try to move. Sissy is safe and well and happy.”

“Where is she, ma’am?” said Tommy. “I must have her right here by me. I can take care of her as well as not; I always do; and—I promised mother, you see; and she’s awfully afraid of strangers.”

“She is not afraid of us; she is very happy here. I have sent for her to come and see you. Ah, here she comes this minute!”

And there was Sissy, smiling, in the arms of a woman in a white gown and cap, and herself in the prettiest of white dresses. She laughed for joy at sight of Tommy, but was quite willing to stay in the young woman’s arms.

“Little darling!” said the nurse. “She was not hurt a bit; and she is so sweet!”

“And where is mother, ma’am?” asked Tommy. “Was she hurt so that she cannot take care of Sissy? I am afraid that she was. When can I go to her? I have to take care of mother. Does she know that I kept Sissy safe?”

The two nurses looked at each other, and seemed not to know just how to answer so many questions; but the doctor, who had come up a moment before, stepped forward and spoke cheerily.

Tommy smiled gratefully.

“And when can I go and take care of her, sir? Was mother hurt? I remember all about it now. Is mother safe?”

“You have been very ill, and did not know what was happening. You did not even know Sissy when we brought her to see you.”

“O!” said Tommy, with a faint smile. “How queer! Did not know Sissy! It is so nice that she takes to the pretty lady, and that mother is safe. I am very sleepy, sir. Would it be right to go to sleep if the pretty lady can take care of Sissy for a little while?”

“Quite right, my boy. We will take the best possible care of Sissy.”

The doctor’s voice was husky, and he turned away soon, with his own eyes dim, as Tommy’s heavy eyes had closed.

“O doctor!” said both nurses.

“He is going, the brave little hero!” he said. “And we, you and I, will take care of Sissy for him.”

“Yes, indeed!” said the pretty nurse, with a sob; she kissed Sissy.

Mrs. G.R. Alden, in Junior Endeavor World, by permission of Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co.