Margaret stays strong and thinks quickly in a dangerous situation.

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“Fire’s somewhere close!” cried Margaret as she hurried up the hill to the house, lugging a pail of milk.

There had been no rain for months. The summer sun had parched the land. In her nine years, Margaret had never seen such a dry spell. With things so dry, forest fires were on everyone’s mind.

“Mama, I smell smoke,” she shouted as she burst into the house, milk sloshing from the pail.

“Margaret, be careful,” said Mama, frowning.

Margaret knew that the frown was more from worry than from spilled milk. “When will Papa be home?” she asked.

Margaret had to get her brothers to safety.

“He should be here already,” said Mama. “I’m beginning to get anxious.” Margaret followed her out to the porch.

The air was thick with smoke. Confused birds circled above the barn, and ashes floated down from the sky. Three frightened deer bolted from the woods bordering the farm, heading toward the river.

To the south, the sky was red. No flames could be seen, but the heat was becoming unbearable.

“What shall we do, Mama?” asked Margaret. Her eyes stung from the smoke in the air. Her heart pounded in her chest like deer hooves hitting the ground.

“Wake your two brothers and stay with them,” said Mama. “I’ll be right back. I must run to the barn and let the animals loose.”

Margaret watched Mama race across the field toward the barn. The barn was quite a distance downriver from the house, nearer the woods. Smoke was now swirling in the trees, and flames were shooting up.

Terrified, Margaret ran to the room where her little brothers lay sleeping. Their wet hair stuck to their foreheads.

“Paul . . . Anthony . . . wake up,” said Margaret as she shook them. “It isn’t safe to sleep. There’s a fire, somewhere close.”

The boys sat up slowly, rubbing their eyes. Three-year-old Paul whimpered, “I’m too tired,” and lay back on his feather mattress.

“Please get up. We must be ready when Mama gets back,” said Margaret. She picked up Paul. “Anthony, that’s a good boy. Follow me. Hold on to my skirt.”

Margaret led them outside. Daylight was fading. The winds had picked up, swirling dust about them. By now she could see flames leaping above the treetops, exploding in the air.

“Mama? Where are you?” shouted Margaret. Suddenly a huge explosion lit up the night sky. Her heart lurched up into her throat, and tears welled in her eyes. Paul and Anthony wailed in panic.

The roar of the fire sounded like cannons as it advanced, igniting the tops of the trees. Sparks scattered in every direction.

“Run to the river!” screamed Margaret, snatching the dish towels that hung drying on the railing. She grabbed her brothers’ hands, and they raced through the fields toward the river, away from the advancing flames.

Paul stumbled and fell. Margaret swept him up while Anthony hung on her other arm, clinging until it hurt.

As she ran, she stole a look backward. Dry grass was burning everywhere. Pine needles ignited with the tiniest spark. Then she saw flames engulf the barn. “Mama!” she screamed. But she couldn’t stop.

“Run faster! Run to the river!” she shouted.

Finally they reached the water, splashing into it with relief. Margaret quickly bent and soaked the dish towels. She draped one over each of her brothers’ heads to protect them from the flying sparks and debris. The winds were violent now, blowing over them like a hurricane.

Tree limbs flew through the sky like fiery spears, and came crashing down into the river. Waves of heat rolled over the water, blistering their skin.

Margaret waded deeper into the river, dragging her brothers behind her. Everything was dark except for the scarlet flames. Heat and smoke were everywhere. She groped until she was neck-deep in the water, holding a brother in each arm, their faces bobbing on the water. She made them splash water over their heads to protect themselves from the intense heat.

Hours passed as they watched the flames consume their land—first the barn, then the house, and finally the woods and fields. Mama’s only chance would have been to run downriver behind the barn, away from them.

“Mama!” Margaret shouted desperately. “Mama!”

Her brothers clung to her, dragging her under. It was all she could do to keep her head and theirs above water.

Suddenly she heard a shout from downriver. “Margaret! Paul! Anthony! Are you there?”

“Mama?” yelled Margaret. “Yes, Mama! We’re here!”

Mama was splashing toward them through the water, screaming their names.

“My babies!” she cried as she swooped them into her arms. “Thank the Lord you are all safe!” She hugged them and kissed them over and over, wiping off soot with the soggy dish towels, kissing them some more.

Margaret clung to her mother’s waist, relief flooding through her.

“Oh, Mama. We were so scared. I saw the barn burning and I thought . . . and I thought that maybe . . .”

“Hush, now, child,” said Mama, holding her close. “We are safe, thanks to your quick thinking. I am so proud of you, Margaret. You will make Papa proud, too.”

As if in answer to her words a sound came from the shore, rising above the smoke and charred remains, as welcome as rain. Papa was shouting their names.

As she followed Mama out of the muddy, dark river, Margaret’s spirits soared. Her family was safe, and they were together.

The Peshtigo Fire

Although this story is fiction, it is based on a real fire.

On the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, October 8, 1871, a fire in northeastern Wisconsin became one of the most disastrous in American history. Because our modern firefighting technology did not exist, the fire took the lives of more than twelve hundred people, and more than a million acres were burned. The entire town of Peshtigo was leveled in a matter of minutes.

Those who managed to get into the Peshtigo River, which flowed through the town, lived to tell of this deadly tragedy.