I couldn’t feel the heat through my uniform. I couldn’t smell the smoke that made me cough. I couldn’t even hear the roar of the wildfire.
The hell and brimstone I heard preached so often is happening to me.
And I pray. I place myself in front of God, in faith. It’s like the book of Revelations, I’m amongst the elders, all of us importuning him, surrounded by this fire.
I pray some more. But things just get worse. I cannot pray, its no use, he can’t hear me over the praise of the elders and the firestorm’s roar.
Perhaps it would be easier to join those already lost. A fate too hurtful to behold, let alone poorly describe. Men, women, children, even horses and livestock touched then aflame, then blackened to nothing.
But for me it would be a double damnation. It won’t avoid the certain punishment to be levied upon me for sending people to their death.
My charges and I were in windowed wooden coffins. In better times, you would call them train carriages. But with flames underneath and cyclonic gusts around, we were going to be crushed and cremated. All of us in this life and me in the next.
I remember looking at Edward Barry’s locomotive, the box cars filled with the last refugees and the caboose up front. And I thought, if salvation came to them, it would be more painful than to us. But it would be quicker.
And as for mine, I’m in a carriage where no-one can move. Women, children, some men and their belongings piled like sacks of wheat. I know they’re crying, praying, perhaps even screaming. But I can’t hear them over the roar.
And outside! It’s as dark as night from the firestorm’s clouds. Yet I see the dance and weave of Elijah’s fire as it leaps and jumps every which way. White, red, yellow, orange even blue lightning falls from the sky. Sheet, forked, even ball, lightning that is pure flame.
Next to the line, away from the rails, I see burning telegraph poles, no use wiring anyone now, its too late. And stumps, leaves, branches and sawdust too turned to ashes as if struck by lightning. Let alone the torches that are the trees. A fire that never ends. Even Elijah stopped calling down fire from heaven when so entreated.
And I entreat God again. For now I have fallen forward in front of him. I cannot stand in his presence. I ask that if I could stand that it would be in their stead. Lord, my life for their lives. This is all I ask Lord.
Then I could go down to the depths, sure and certain of that one truth. That I have been damned to all eternity for my irresponsibility. And my small comfort, a drop of water on my hell parched tongue, that I saved the lives of my charges.
He sends me from his presence. Perhaps he couldn’t hear me over the fire. Perhaps the elders were praising him and their voices drowned out mine. Perhaps the saviour’s last but one words were true and he really had forsaken me.
I knew how King David felt. He had to choose Absalom’s life or the plagues on his people. I have chosen a plague of fire.
I had always hoped that I’d lose my faith ere the few breaths before I expired. Hopelessly now I list the many ways we could die. For the cyclone could blow us off the track, telegraph poles could hit the train or fallen trees block the track, the locomotive could derail. Or the windows smash and flames fill the carriage. Or we get cremated. Or…
The train quickened up then. We had left Sandstone. Or what would be left of it. The wildfire too started to be left behind. Next is the trestle at Kettle Creek. I hoped that was the sanctuary where those poor unfortunate souls tried to flee. The ones that didn’t board the train at Sandstone and thought they could out run the fire to safety.
Yes I saw along the way that some of them didn’t make it. How they died, words cannot describe. One moment they were running, the next the fire like a rattlesnake took them in its coils.
If we get over that bridge, then there’s a quarter mile or so between us and this wildfire. And then I can start believing again.
But the train stopped. I push myself up, squat, stretch and stand now hoping no one has seen me fall.
My door opens and the dark moves. A charred black brakeman from the freight train. I don’t recognise him. Even though he’s short, squat, much like all of his ilk.
He speaks. I’m relieved. He is a man, alive. He’s no dark phantom sent to haunt me before my demise. I can’t hear him over the roar. Doesn’t he know that? His lips move like a wooden floor groove. He might as well be silent.
I don’t need to hear him. For I know what he will say. He’s about to tell me that we can’t go on. That the caboose, box cars or locomotive in front of us cannot move. The fire has won the race to the Kettle Creek trestle.
I haven’t answered him. In his rising panic, I can only see his gloves as he starts pushing and shoving me backwards and forwards. He’s being insubordinate and I mean to deal with him accordingly. There’s no time for his anger.
I got angry then. Real angry. I mean I should be angry at God but that did Job no good at all. Nope, I’m angry at me.
I grab his overalls and draw him close. He shouts in my ear, “Powers, the Kettle River trestle is alight.”
He’s asking me if we should go on. I’m the conductor and these are my charges. But it’s already too late. Because of me.
This steel and wood trestle is the only way back to Superior. But now the fire has won and it will take all of us.
This was the wildfire that had turned buildings to flames before my eyes. And then melted fireman’s hoses. And had stopped the train from being watered. And had fused the tracks as they left. And now had finally chased us down.
These last two dry and crackling months had sullied the beautiful Minnesota landscape. Hills once peopled with pencil pines, olive and green meadows all competing with each other to catch the passer’s eye were now an ochre treeless desert.
Today, September 1st was so hot I felt I was living in a pan with the lid on. And on the journey to Hinckley, the smoke which looked like a mist at first became thicker and darker until it was as night. And I noticed something queer : sometimes the leaves, and sawdust and branches left by the sawyers were smouldering.
But that didn’t prepare me for what happened when we arrived late afternoon. We weren’t even a quarter of hour by my watch’s reckoning before fire fell from the sky onto Hinckley. Now so many times, on this very railroad line, I’ve seen fire creep through grass and sweep through trees but I never saw anything like that. Or hope to again.
Then the wildfire engulfed the town. People appeared from everywhere, a crushing crowd rushing the train. Men pushing women and children and their baggage just piling on the train in no order at all. Too soon the carriages were full. And there were more people pushing and shoving.
Somewhere in that tumult the freight train arrived. As it soon as it did we knew it wasn’t going anywhere. The heat had melted the turntable.
I don’t know who got it into their heads first, but William Best and Edward Barry and myself took it on ourselves to hook the caboose, three box cars and the loco to my train.
We helped the crowds onto the box cars. It was all women and children as far as I could tell. Any men that made it were infirm. I remember the children crying as if they were my own.
And then it was time to go. Edward Barry sounded the whistle. The train didn’t move. William Best had put on the emergency brake. I went to see. And he leant out and pointed.
For there was a new crowd of people, scared, wild eyed and pushing forward. Perhaps some of these were from the gravel pit or other parts of town I couldn’t tell in the dark and the noise.
I delayed the train some more. I went forward and helped pile them in the box car. I was lifting children up and over each other. One of the boys, a tall strapping fine fellow, started helping from inside. A couple of the little ones around him joined in. We managed to get all the women and children aboard.
But by then, paint was peeling off the box cars. I ran back to my carriage. I turned and saw grown men falling down as if dead. Only a hundred or so yards away.
“Can you wait?” A woman small, standing there. “My daughter…”
But a clap of thunder silences the roar of the fire. I turn. Buildings are exploding as if dynamited. I didn’t think. I just acted. I grabbed her arm and pulled her aboard. We got out of Hinckley fast enough before the ties and rails melted. It was too late for the rest of them by then.
Now I’m still angry. Not at God. Now there’s a waste of time arguing. For I know he will outlast me. I’m not even angry anymore for letting the train go late. For I’m not doing enough now. And that makes up my mind for me.
The brakeman asks again. He runs back to the locomotive. The train moves forward. I must have nodded. I was struck silent.
I turn back to my charges. I don’t know what to do. I bowed my head and pray hopelessly. It was the only way I knew how. In the midst of my desperate reverie, I felt a gaze alight on me, like a match struck in the dark. I almost laughed at that ironic thought.
I opened my eyes. The first thing I see is a moving heap of coats and dresses. I squint a little. The two eyes that are its inhabitant stare right through me. She looks the size of a six or seven year old. I’m not much figuring ages that’s my wife’s purview I’m afraid.
A ragamuffin girl, perhaps it’s all the clothes she has ever had. They’re falling off her, a street urchin, skinny, bony, looks like nobody’s orphan to me. She must have sneaked aboard when I was looking the other way.
She speaks. At first I hear nothing over the roar.
She doesn’t have to say it again. For my years of being a train conductor have given me one unsung skill.
“My soul clings to you, your right hand upholds me,” I lip read.
I hear another voice, one that fills the train, a voice that only I can hear now. The one I had been waiting for.
I start to go backward through the train. It seems almost cooler now. Perhaps providence has sent us a breath of air. I straighten my cap, sip the new air and check my watch chain.
I tip toe through the pile of bodies. I’m fearful of waking them up. But more fearful of them drowning or burning in their sleep.
I wake the men, infirm though they are, roughly with a push or shove. Or a squeeze of their shoulder. But I apply no such ministrations to the women or children, though, a touch of the hand is enough.
I look for God’s ragamuffin but she has disappeared. Perhaps she hid herself under a seat. There’s no time now to go a looking for her.
I don’t shout. That moment’s past. I might as well be Job arguing with God when he spoke from the storm.
Then the shudder that we knew would come runs through all of us. The carriages are starting to cross the bridge. I shiver and shudder myself and will the train across each beam of the bridge.
I only found out later that the trestle fell when we were two thousand yards ahead of it. But by then we had made it back. Over more burning trestles that wouldn’t fall.
I had given up on my fear by then.