Two worlds collide when Poppy, a street orphan who makes a living by stealing, and Justin, the son of a jeweler who wants to prove his worth, meet and become friends. Poppy plans to change her thieving ways, but when Justin loses money at his father’s jewelry store and Poppy is accused of stealing it, she flees back onto the streets. Justin insists on searching for her—just as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 breaks out.
Alternately narrated by Poppy and Justin, this is a gripping story of right and wrong, trust and forgiveness, and finding hope in the ashes of destruction.
FIRESTORM! CHICAGO, SATURDAY MORNING, SEPTEMBER 30, 1871
CHAPTER ONE - Poppy -
Poppy sat up on her bare mattress and coughed. The stone walls and dirt floor of the room were closing in on her and she couldn’t stop gasping for breath.
“Shut up!” Ma Brennan yelled from her bed across the room. “You’re keepin’ me and my girls awake.”
“I … can’t … help … it.” Poppy’s mouth was dry and her throat sore. It was hard to speak, and each word was interrupted by spasms of coughs.
Ma got out of bed and stomped toward Poppy. “I said shut up!” She grabbed Poppy by the shoulder with one hand and slapped her hard on the back with the other. “Not another sound out of you,” Ma warned in the threatening whisper that Poppy had learned to fear.
Ma clomped back to her bed. Poppy’s eyes watered as she buried her face into her unwashed pillow, trying to smother another fit of coughing.
Other sounds that echoed throughout the passageways of the old foundations didn’t seem to bother Ma—the noise of men’s rough laughter and cheers, a woman singing a rowdy song from the nightclub above them, snarling dogs fighting in the pits. Everything reverberated through the maze of hallways.
“You should be thankful to live here at the Willow,” Ma often said to the girls.
The full name, “Under the Willow,” sounded nice. A huge old willow tree spread its branches from the wet, muddy land near the Chicago River. The ground in Chicago was always damp, so the city officials had decided to raise the level of the streets. Old buildings and foundations, which couldn’t be lifted, were empty. It wasn’t long before a man named Roger Plant and his wife claimed ownership of the deserted foundations along Wells Street and rented out the vacant cellar rooms to all sorts of criminals and tramps. It was Plant who named one place Under the Willow and called it a “resort.” He loved the old willow tree and watered it each day with a bottle of beer.
Ma Brennan had rented a room in the foundation and opened her school for girls, which right then consisted of Poppy and Ma’s own daughters, Sheila and Noreen. What they learned at Ma’s school was how to find a good “mark”—someone who was busy and unwary. Then Poppy or one of the other girls would slip close and pick his pocket, bringing the loot back to Ma.
Why is she so mean to me? Poppy asked herself. I’m better at stealin’ than her own kids. I can pick a pocket so smooth … and didn’t I just bring her a leather full of dough yesterday?
Poppy had hoped for a coin—a nickel, maybe—that she could have spent in a real store. But Ma had just popped the money into her own pocket and given her a nod. Huh! If it had been Sheila or Noreen bringing home a wad that big, she’d have treated them to ice cream.
Poppy rolled over and took the pillow off her face. She’d stopped coughing but couldn’t get back to sleep. She heard a woman’s scream from one of the chambers, then laughter. Will I have to live here all the rest of my life? Poppy wondered.
Ma always said Poppy should be grateful to have a bed and room here at Under the Willow. After all, her own mother didn’t want her. She’d just dropped Poppy off in the alley when she was about four years old, and Poppy never saw her again. That was eight years ago, and that’s when Ma took her in and gave her a place to live and taught her how to steal. Since then, other girls had come and gone, but Poppy still stayed on with Ma and her daughters.
Poppy was twelve now and good at what she did. She and the sisters were the ones who demonstrated to other “students” how to steal without getting caught. But after the others learned their craft, they went out on their own. So it was just Poppy, Sheila, and Noreen right now who made money for Ma. But Ma took everything.
Why should Ma get all the money, when I’m doin’ the hard work? Well, not anymore! she decided. I’ll save some money from my marks and hide it somewhere. Then I’ll get away from Ma Brennan. I’ll live in a fine house in a nice neighborhood—and maybe even have a real family …
A real family? Who’d want a guttersnipe like Poppy? Still, even living in a boat out on the lake with fresh clean air and lots of fish to eat would be better than this place. Maybe someday she’d sneak on board that steamer—the Highland—and she’d end up somewhere far, far away from this smelly city with its stockyards.
She shuddered, remembering that visit to the stockyards when she’d been about five. That awful day Ma had taken her there to stand with the blood up to her ankles, making her watch the squealing hogs hanging on hooks—and then listening to the awful silence after the hogs were killed.
“This is what happens to bad girls,” Ma had said. “Those who don’t obey their mothers.”
If Ma knew Poppy was planning to run away, Ma would whip her—or even something worse. Poppy cringed, recalling the hogs in the stockyard.
She’d need to be really careful and keep small amounts of money from her marks. Where would she hide her secret money? Maybe in a hollow tree, or in the ground. Maybe … Poppy was getting sleepy. Her eyes closed, and slowly she fell asleep holding her pillow to her face again.
It seemed as if she’d been asleep only a few moments when Poppy felt Noreen Brennan batting at her head. “Get up! It’s Saturday, so we got to get out on the street early.” Noreen was the same age as Poppy but looked a lot older. Poppy was small and looked younger than she really was. People seemed to like Poppy, and sometimes they’d give her a penny or a nickel just because she looked cute.
“I’m comin’.” Half-asleep, Poppy placed her bare feet on the cold dirt floor. She knew if she lingered in bed, Ma would whop her.
“Somethin’ smells good,” Noreen’s sister, Sheila, said with a loud sniff. “Ma’s cookin’ sausage.” Sheila was fourteen, and Ma had put her in charge of the other two girls.
Poppy shivered as she washed her face in a pan of icy water. She pulled a dingy blouse over her head, then stepped into a skirt and tugged it up over her long drawers. After brushing her brown hair with the family brush, she ran with the other girls to the basement kitchen that several boarders shared. Only a few other people were in the room—most of them men who looked grimy and were probably heading out to rob someone. The whole complex of foundation rooms at Under the Willow was filled with thieves, gamblers, and drifters.
“About time,” Ma yelled as the girls found a place at a table. She tossed a few slices of sausage along with a piece of bread onto tin plates and then slapped the dishes down in front of them.
“I’m expectin’ a big bag o’ sugar today, girls,” Ma said. “Sugar” in Ma’s language meant stolen money. “So the three of ya make up your mind who’ll be the hook and who’ll be the stalls, just like I taught ya. And choose nice, with no arguin’ between ya.”
Usually the three girls worked together picking pockets. Saturdays were good to find marks, since stores, banks, and the farmers’ market were usually crowded on Saturday mornings.
The best place to find a prospect was near a bank, where a man or woman would have just cashed a weekly paycheck. Then Sheila, Noreen, and Poppy would begin the trick Ma had taught them: one or two would stall the victim by diverting his or her attention, while the hook picked the mark’s pocket.
“I choose bein’ the hook today,” Poppy said before anyone else could speak. She wanted to start her plan to save money right away. By being the hook, she might be able to slip some of the money into her stocking or shoe before they gave it all to Ma.
“Well, I hope you can run faster than you did yesterday,” Noreen said. “You almost got caught.”
“I can run faster than you,” Poppy snapped. “Besides, I never get a chance to be the hook. I’m always skippin’ rope or cryin’ or somethin’ to draw attention to me.”
“That’s ’cause you’re littler than Noreen,” Sheila argued. “Everyone thinks Poppy’s so cute, with her big brown eyes and long curls.” Her voice rang with sarcasm.
“Stop the arguin’ and be nice, like I said before,” Ma yelled, “or I’ll do the choosin’.”
“Yeah, shut up,” one of the other boarders grunted. “I got a headache listenin’ to ya.”
“All right,” Sheila whispered. “Since Poppy chose bein’ the hook first, then Noreen and I will be the stalls.”
“And I’ll be the skipper this time,” Noreen agreed, rolling her eyes. “O’ course, I’m not half as cute as Poppy.”
Ma pointed to the door. “Off you go and bring me a surprise like good girls.”
The wooden sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians carrying bags of vegetables from the farmers’ market. The harvest was bleak this year because of the drought. Fields of tomatoes and corn wilted in the sandy dust. Crops were small and wasted. Still, it was time to prepare for winter, so the market was bursting with activity.
Other people busied themselves with weekend errands to banks and shops along the way.
Sheila walked innocently along the road through the stalls where the farmers had set up their produce. She moved to the stores and banks that lined the sidewalks, searching for the right mark.
Noreen skipped rope back and forth on the walkway and dirt road, stopping and starting, bumping into folks occasionally. Some people looked at her icily.
Then Sheila signaled to Poppy with a quick flash of her thumb. A well-dressed woman had just left the General Bank. Sheila began following the lady, a little ways behind, until the other girls caught up.
Noreen, who was on the street skipping rope, hopped up onto the walkway, still skipping. She made her way ahead of the stylish lady. Sheila tapped her own left hip, which told Poppy that the money was in the woman’s left pocket. Then Sheila casually sauntered inconspicuously nearer and nearer to the woman.
Poppy took a deep breath and headed closer.
In a flash Sheila pushed by the woman just as Noreen skipped into both of them.
The lady stumbled and Sheila held her by her right arm. “Sorry, ma’am,” she said. “That girl skippin’ rope got right in my way!”
Noreen, still keeping the woman’s attention away from Poppy, stuck out her tongue, then skipped off in another direction.
During this scuffle, without being observed, Poppy slipped two fingers into the woman’s pocket and deftly pulled out a small package. Then, as swift and silent as a shadow, she tucked it under her blouse. Casually but quickly, she made her way down the sidewalk, hoping no one had seen her.
“You little urchin!” the woman called out after Noreen, unaware that she had just been robbed.
Poppy continued down the sidewalk through the crowd. She was already a good distance away from the skirmish. Crowds brushed one another, their shoes click-clacking on the timber sidewalk, oblivious to the robbery that had just taken place.
Has the woman realized her money is gone yet? Poppy wondered. Curiosity got the best of her. She peeked over her shoulder. Farther up the sidewalk, the lady she had frisked started screaming. “I’ve been robbed!” her voice carried throughout the crowd. People gathered around her as she pointed in Sheila’s direction. Noreen had disappeared.
Then the lady looked straight at Poppy. Would she recognize her as the pickpocket?
Poppy, still looking over her shoulder, began to run when SLAM! She crashed into a boy who was sweeping the sidewalk outside a watch and jewelry store.
“Look what you did,” he yelled, giving her a shove. “You knocked over my dustpan, and now everything is dirty again!”
“Sorry,” she snapped. She slipped into the entryway between the two show windows of the shop, to conceal herself from the angry crowd up the street.
“What do you want here?” the boy growled. “This is an expensive jewelry store, and it’s no place for the likes of you.”
“Is that how you treat your customers?” Poppy drew herself up importantly. “I’m looking for a gift for … my mother.”
Joan Hiatt Harlow is the author of several popular historical novels including Secret of the Night Ponies, Shadows on the Sea, Midnight Rider, Star in the Storm, Joshua’s Song, Thunder from the Sea, and Breaker Boy. Ms. Harlow lives in Venice, Florida. For more information, visit her at JoanHiattHarlow.com.
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