In the spring of 1906, a titanic earthquake tore through California and shattered San Francisco. Buildings cracked, toppled, and sank into the earth, taking countless lives with them. When the shaking stopped, the survivors faced a new horror: a ferocious fire spawned by the temblor's destruction. The inferno raged for more than three days, incinerating most of the city, killing even more and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes. Amid the chaos, Fireman Leo Brown and Nurse Marianne Durand fought the flames and cared for the victims. Despite the dangers and their personal losses, they strove to lessen the damage to their beloved city. A chance meeting brought these strangers together, and a precious secret bound them forever close.
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Silver Lake Publishing
April is a sweet time of year along the California coast. The chilly rains of winter have abated and the searing summer heat of the great inland valleys has yet to form fog over the sea and draw it through the Golden Gate like an overheated giant sucking cool air into his massive lungs. Mild ocean air blesses San Francisco with a glorious climate; snowmelt from the castled Sierra Nevada along with the swirling tides of the Pacific Ocean fill and feed the great bay. The sun shines on many spring days of absolute clarity. Even the occasional clouds cooperate with the sky, decorating it with magnificent cottony clusters and shedding sprinkles to cheer new flowers. April is a good month to be alive in many places on Earth and an especially good time to be in San Francisco, a time when people find the charming city most clement. So it is today. So it was in the first decade of the twentieth century.
In the western section of the bustling coastal city, Leo Brown was rushing around his flat, excited about spending Easter Sunday with his family. He had sent his housekeeper, Ah Sung, home to her husband for the weekend, so he needed to replenish the food and water for his menagerie of rescued animals. While doing so, he recalled the relieved look on his housekeeper's face upon hearing she would escape this chore that day.
Leo had something to say to each of his charges: four birds--three finches and a parrot, as well as two cats--one old, one young. He knew from looking at them that Ah Sung would have no difficulty finding good people to adopt them, even the old cat. She had a knack for it. Although she objected every time he brought an orphaned animal home from a burned-out building, he believed she cared for the creatures as much as he did. He assumed this from the way she treated them, her diligence in finding them good homes, and her reluctance when giving each one away to some stranger.
Through a window of his back porch Leo scanned the neighborhood. Yellow, blue, and red flowers were blooming in gardens, on trellises, and fences, as if celebrating the season. Yes, the weather had been quite warm, even hot in the afternoon, unusually hot for San Francisco. Already sweating under his high-buttoned collar and tie, he was eager to sit down in his mother's house and loosen his clothing.
"You be sowy, Reo," a raucous voice called to him from one of the cages.
Leo laughed when he heard Gabby talking like his housekeeper. That parrots could talk had always amazed him, but never had he heard of one that could speak with two accents. He found it even more interesting that when the bright green bird spoke to Ah Sung he sounded like Leo himself but when he spoke to Leo he sounded like Ah Sung. Gabby had not yet quite mastered the human female and male pitches, but Leo would not be surprised someday to hear the voice of his housekeeper and wonder which was speaking.
"Sowy, Reo," Gabby said.
"I forgive you, Gabby. Now be good while I'm gone." Leo handed the parrot a peanut, pushed his thick arms into his suit coat, donned his bowler hat, and hurried through the small flat to the front porch.
It was a picturesque day for celebrating the renewal of life on Earth. As if to complement the blooming flowers, trees all over town were leafing into harbingers of summer. The warm air was clear and clean. The city itself appeared to appreciate the time of year.
When Leo walked down the steps, a neighbor waved to him from his front stoop and hollered: "Beautiful day!"
"Gorgeous!" Leo shouted back. "Family coming over, Fred?"
"Sure thing. Can't keep 'em away. Spending the day with your mother, Leo?"
"On my way there right now." Leo headed down the street.
"Give her my best wishes for the day."
Leo waved. Looking around the neighborhood he saw people coming and going among the houses. All dressed for the vernal festival: men strutting in their new spring suits; boys a little awkward in theirs, trying to look like the men; women strolling around in new dresses of pink and yellow and white like clusters of wedding bells. Their voices chirruped in the air, echoing the birds gathered in the resurrecting shrubs and trees.
A new motorcar growled down the street, disturbing the idyllic scene. And people looked awestruck at the noisy machine as, filled with pastel passengers, it rumbled past. The riders waved with a superior attitude at pedestrians along the street. Although many people resented and feared the advent of this newfangled mode of transportation and hoped it would not last, many others coveted the rattle-bang-smoky things as if they were the most prized possessions one could acquire in life.
Leo, however, did not show any particular notice of the vehicle, since he and his fellow firemen were used to riding both horse-drawn and gasoline-driven engines all over town. He was glad to be able to walk leisurely for a change without feeling the need to rush to a burning building. Although he was proud to be a public servant, he relished his leisure, time with his family, time to stroll along the ocean, time to lounge in his favorite chair and read a book. A simple but good life.
As he walked in long strides down Lombard toward Bay Street to catch a cable car up the hill to his family's house, the preoccupying subject again invaded his mind. In his third decade and still a bachelor. Leo was not the sort of man to entertain self-pity, yet a recurrent anxiety stirred in his stomach. He could not forget what his old spinster aunt, Emily, often said about how she regretted never having married and brought children into the world. He did not know if there was a word other than bachelor for a male counterpart to spinster, but he knew he did not want to be one. He also did not want to face his family with the subject. Whenever that particular aunt saw an opening, she would pounce on him, relentlessly urging him to find a nice young woman and settle down.
Settle down. Leo laughed at the thought as he headed up Bay Street. He had been settled for years. Ever since his days in the army during the Spanish War he had wanted to be stable and being a fireman was all the outlet for his adventurous spirit he needed. His home was sacred to him and he wanted nothing more than to raise a family in it. He gazed over the bay to Angel Island and the mountainous Marin coastline. Shredded clouds were dragging their shadows across the bay, dappling the dark bluegreen water that embraced the peninsula. Leo's bluegreen eyes reflected the color of the sea. As he imagined the island becoming an angel rising from the bay and ascending into heaven, he grinned at the whimsy he could conjure.
Probably something from the Spanish, he said to himself about Angel Island. They had named the city and most of the surrounding area. He made a mental note to look up the history of that little isle in the middle of the bay and take a boat trip there again soon. He fondly remembered last summer hiking to the top of the island peak and wondering at the panorama of...
The musical clanging of the cable car turning around at the bottom of Powell Street interrupted his daydream. He ran to catch it amid a host of eager passengers and jumped on at the last minute. Standing on the running board, he watched the island and the bay recede and fall away as he rode the rickety car up toward Russian Hill. The passing breeze cooled his ruddy face. He pulled at his collar to let the refreshing air at his neck; he never felt comfortable dressed up, but his mother enjoyed seeing him look like a proper gentleman.
As the car jerked to a stop at Union Street, he jumped off and headed east up the hill to his mother's place on the north slope. By the time he arrived at the white frame house, modest among others on Russian Hill, he was flushed and sweaty. He noticed the white flowers bursting around her front fence. Tugging at his collar, he bounded up the steps to the front porch, the slats under him squeaking familiarly. Before knocking, he gazed again around the great San Francisco Bay. He inhaled the air of a moist breeze that swept off the water and blew gently over the hill.