Clyde Tovey, the stationmaster, watched Yu and hoped the Chinaman wouldn’t be sick in the train station. His lip curled in disgust as the worthless, drunken bum staggered along the sidewalk outside the open-air station. Tovey leaned back in his chair to secure the lock on his ticket booth as Yu staggered closer, occasionally falling off the curb then righting himself. Tovey hoped the drunk would find someplace else to sleep tonight. For the past two months, the bum had hung around the station, begging for money that appeared to be spent on drink. At least five times, Tovey had chased the stinking man off of station benches at night and twice that many times, he’d turned a blind eye to the man sleeping off his drunk on a bench at the far end of the station. Tovey watched until Yu was past the station then settled down with his newspaper, thankful for the peace and quiet of the dark night. He glanced at his clock. No trains and no early commuters due in for another three hours.
Tovey went back to his newspaper, skipping over another vile article about the government providing food and housing for the children of the nation’s itinerant farm workers. He figured separating children from their parents wasn’t the best solution, but the crops across the country must be harvested, and the children needed education. He glanced toward the old hotel and Miss. Onar, the children’s housemother. The paper had called her ugly and scrawny. Tovey scowled when he thought of the cruel things the paper said. Miss Onar was thin, but she had a kind heart and the children loved her. Tovey figured if the children clung to her, she must be a good woman, and she was educated, too. She had to go to university and get a certificate to be a housemother. He sighed and glanced back at his paper.
A blue truck full of noisy youths drove up the road. As it passed the station three loud booms followed by explosions disturbed the night.
Tovey stood up, startled.
Someone screamed “Fire.” and footsteps came running toward the station. Chun Yu flung himself halfway through the open ticket window and smashed his hand onto the station fire alarm button. “Firebombs at the boarding school. Get your d’no car,” Yu shouted at the stationmaster.
Tovey looked into the clear eyes of the Chinaman, fumbled his door open and started to run. He counted out the passing seconds, thirty-four, thirty-five, as he raced toward the station’s fire fighting machine. He glanced toward the bright light of flames reaching toward the roof from the third floor of the school. The firelight silhouetted Yu talking on a cell phone as he ran toward the building full of sleeping children.
Tovey theoretically knew how to operate the old fire-fighting machine. He’d memorized all the steps to starting it as all railroad workers had. He’d run through the procedure once a month during safety drills.
Once, twenty years earlier, the d’no had been the only equipment for fighting a fire in the city. It sat on a piece of track between the rail lines on one side of the station and the old trolley tracks on the town side of the station. Tovey continued to count seconds as he flipped open the case to the switch that would change the track allowing him onto the trolley track with his machine. “One hundred twenty, one hundred twenty-one.”
The counting kept Tovey focused as he leapt onto the town end of the big d’no tanker car. He flipped another switch, pulled a choke and pushed a button. The old gas engine roared and whined as pressure built in the water tank. Tovey released the brake, and the d’no tank car rolled forward.
“One hundred forty-five, one hundred forty-six.” Tovey counted, “Just a little over two minutes to get the car rolling.”
The car was fitted at each end with a huge brass water nozzle mounted on a turret adapted from a small military tank.
The station fire alarm still rent the night as Tovey counted, checked gauges, and flipped up the sights for the water cannon. He turned knobs adjusting the height of the cannon and manually swiveled it to point toward the orphanage. When he saw the flames from the fire under the crosshatch hairs of the sights, he pulled a lever, letting loose a stream of water that arched the half-block across the street and broke a hole through the flaming school roof sending up a cloud of smoke and steam.
Tovey closed what he called the firing lever as he discovered one of the design flaws of the powerful machine. The heavy tank car rocked on the tracks until Tovey feared it would topple over, as it continued rolling forward, closer to the fire. Tovey still counted, “two-hundred, two-hundred-one.” The car rocked but didn’t roll over off of the tracks, so Tovey lined the reflection of the flames up in the cross hairs of his sights and let loose another volley of water that ripped into the half-rotted burning roof across the street. More steam and smoke rose into the night air.
While the d’no car rocked on the tracks, Tovey watched the screaming children run from the building. He searched for Miss Onar’s slight frame as he counted seconds, “Two hundred seventy-five, two hundred seventy six,” less than five minutes since Yu had hit the alarm.
A hand grabbed Tovey from behind. He turned. A half dressed man from railroad security shouted into his face. “I got the stabilizers down. Fire.”
Tovey felt the car bucking and rocking on the tracks as a stream of water shot toward the fire from the back end of the car, but the car no longer felt as if it would topple over. “Three hundred-four, three hundred five. Someone must be on the back cannon.”
The cannon on the other end of the car was ripping up the roof and quenching any flames that dared to show themselves in the attic, but the fire was thickest on the third floor. Tovey lined up his target and let loose another volley of water towards the third floor. Using a steady stream of water, Tovey broke windows and drowned out flames until the fire-lit night turned into darkness once again.
Tovey was looking for more targets when someone grabbed him again. He looked down into Yu’s smoke stained face. “Get a train car. We have to get the children out of sight. Someone may try to attack them on the street. They need to get warm and dry. We’ll take them to the next station.”
Tovey nodded, “Three hundred twenty-eight, three hundred twenty-nine.”
The station always had extra train cars on sidetracks, but the only engine was a huge old diesel-electric. Tovey sprinted through the station, stopping to yank levers and push buttons that would switch more tracks to bring the engine to the cars. He’d used the diesel-electric a couple times before and knew how to start the thing.
The station sirens still blared into the darkness as Tovey unlocked the gate to the fenced yard that kept local delinquents from defacing the old, slightly rusty engine. He climbed aboard the diesel-electric and automatically went through the routine of checking gears and brakes before he fired it up. Once the big engine roared to life, Tovey left it to warm-up while he found the stations’ gerry and moved two passenger cars onto the track beside the station.
After Tovey assured himself the two passenger cars were positioned so the big engine could couple with them, he moved the gerry out of the way and jumped down. The ground trembled beneath his feet, and Tovey looked wildly up and down the track for an incoming train. A bright white light pierced the night from the heavens above as three military helicopters emerged from behind a stand of trees.
“Six hundred eighty-eight, six hundred eighty-nine, Where had the military come from? Yu must be undercover military, six hundred-ninety. Where is Miss Onar? Six-hundred-ninety-one.”
Children now packed the station. Railroad security bustled everywhere, moving the d’no car, carrying children and watching the street for help, or another attack. Tovey turned and bounded across tracks then crawled up the ladder to the cab of the big diesel-electric. He sounded the whistle to warn anybody near the tracks that he’d be backing up and the huge engine rolled slowly backward.
A helicopter set down by the grain elevator on the far side of the tracks from town with the people inside throwing bundles out, then following the bundles themselves almost before the machine settled. Soldiers swarmed across the tracks toward the children. Tovey mentally planned how to transfer injured people from the station to the helicopter. He sounded the whistle again to warn the military paramedics on the tracks that he was moving. The engine seemed to crawl, barely moving. Finally, Tovey heard the click then clank as the passenger cars joined with the engine. He secured his brakes and climbed down.
Two more helicopters set down next to the grain elevators. Someone finally shut down the station’s fire siren. The whup whup of the helicopter blades and deep rumble of the diesel-electric felt almost comforting in the relative silence of the station. Tovey gestured to one of security. “E’KsN, get the gerry to move the injured to the helicopters. I left it on the cross track. Manning, work the switches.”
Tovey knelt beside a paramedic, “How many injured?”
“Just this man and two children.”
Tovey stood and waved his arm to catch the attention of another of the station security. “Get the children and their house parents on the train cars and give them the blankets stored in the overhead bins at each end of the car.”
Tovey grinned and the fear that had clutched his heart for the last ten minutes eased. Miss Onar, holding a preschooler in one arm and an infant the other, stood among the children, giving commands like a general. “Okay kids, hold hands with your partner. We’re getting on the train.”
Tovey called, “Security, help with the children.” He turned to Miss Onar. “Where are the other house parents?”
Miss Onar pointed with her sharp chin toward the largest wrapped bundle attached to an IV. The other housemother knelt beside the figure weeping and praying.
Tovey’s voice broke when he asked his next question, “Did you do a head count? Is everybody safe?”
“Eighty-seven children and three adults. All here. Except...Although…” She looked toward the huddle of paramedics.
A child suddenly screamed and sat down, and Tovey rushed to him, waving and calling for a medic. He dropped to his knees beside the child. “Where are you hurt?” He scanned the boy’s arms and head for burns.
“Mr. Wrinkles. I want Mr. Wrinkles.” The child cried.
Had they missed a child, another house parent? Was there still someone in the building?
Horrified, Mr. Tovey picked up the child in a hug. “Who is Mr. Wrinkles?”
“Where is he?’
“In my room.”
“Where’s your room?”
An older child answered, “Number two-oh-seven. Benny shut up. You can’t have our cat.” The older child’s chin wobbled.
Benny screamed louder.
Tovey set the boy down, “Don’t worry, son.” Mr. Tovey turned to face the station and bellowed. “Men, we have to search the building. Craft, give us some light from the big engine.” Tovey took off at a lope, grabbing a flashlight from the ticket booth. He ran across the road. Yu sprinted past him into the smoky building just as Craft turned on the train’s big searchlight casting the building into broad daylight.
Seven minutes later, Mr. Tovey entered the train car with a cat that was clawing the side of his neck to shreds where it was tucked under his vest and secured by his arms. He turned to Miss Onar, “We checked the first and second floors. Yu checked the third.” Tovey managed to get a good hold on the squirming cat’s ruff and held it at arms length from his bleeding body. “Are there any other animals in there?”
Miss Onar’s eyes shone as she looked up into Mr. Tovey’s face and shook her head. She tore her eyes away from the stationmaster and said, “Every child in your seat, now. Thank Mr. Stationmaster for saving Mr. Wrinkles.” She sounded like the sweetest drill sergeant Tovey had ever heard.
One of the older boys took the cat out of Tovey’s hand. “Thank you, sir.”
Miss Onar’s eyes still glowed as she leaned toward Mr. Tovey, “You are such a hero. How can we ever thank you?” She looked up into his eyes as her thin body almost brushed against his.
Tovey’s hand reached of its own accord toward miss Onar’s hand stopping just short of actually touching her. All the tender and witty things Tovey had for months imagined saying to Miss Onar fled his brain. He answered instead, “One thousand two-hundred seventy-seven. One thousand two-hundred seventy-eight seconds.”
A red flush crept up Tovey’s neck as he turned and his way forward to the engine. As the train rolled out of the station Tovey wished the ground would open up and swallow him for his stupidity.
Afterword: Fortunately for Clyde Tovey, Miss Onar knew a good man when she saw one and wasn’t about to let him get away just because he was shy. They were married six months later.