Writer’s Block: Prairie Knights
When disaster strikes, these brave souls answer the call
When tragedy strikes, this band of brave souls can be counted on to come to the rescue.
The wind moaned in the eaves and, from the upstairs window, I watched the grainy snow sifting into the pockets of the fencelines. The silver moon hung high in an inkblack night sky— a most typical midwinter’s night on the Prairies.
Engineer Gabe Potter was already whistling for the Mccabe Road crossing to the east; he had the all mail-express train that normally roared by the station at 11:15 p.m.
Downstairs, Father was diligently listening to the telegraph, ready to report Potter as being on time. I should have been in bed, but it turns out that sometimes being disobedient can be helpful.
I watched as the train swiftly emerged from “the cut,” its headlight piercing the hallway window. Suddenly, without warning, I noticed the unmanned mail-express car behind the engine begin to wobble. I knew it must be a broken wheel, and that was not good.
I yelled to the whole house for everyone to get out. This time, they did not argue with me.
Mother, wrapped in her threadbare winter coat, took Meggie in her arms while I grabbed Sam and we hurried down the stairs. Father, shivering, waited at the open door as we came down.
The five of us turned and ran and ran, seconds before a loud crashing and splintering of wood signalled the express driving into the station where father had been sitting moments ago.
The cold air burned our lungs as we watched the cars began to pile up and scatter in a generally good smash-up.
Within minutes, the grand old station that was our home began to burn as the train hit the potbelly stoves upstairs and below.
Meggie began to wail, as her precious dollies would be no more. Sam just looked bewildered, unable to comprehend what was happening.
Townsfolk soon gathered, along with the volunteer fire department and their two nearly new Fargo fire trucks. Gardener’s drugstore was warm and toasty—we stood inside, quite unable to understand what exactly would happen to us.
As more train cars caught fire, it was obvious it would be a nasty night’s work out there.
Kelly Gardener gave me a pair of his snow boots and a warm parka so that I could follow Father back to the burning station.
We were met by Potter the engineer, who had a bloody gash on his head and was crying for his young fireman, Hec Robb, who was seriously burned, lying on the engine’s cab floor. Doctor Petr Fodoski had been summoned and was on his way.
The express engine was properly jackknifed around the steel bridge that crossed Willow Creek—it would take a lot of work to get things back to normal.
While Potter was being bandaged by Mr. Gardener, others were out on the bridge trying to help
young Hec Robb.
Father was helping the crew, so I crossed the bridge and headed for the telegraph box by the switch that led into the creamery siding, to telegraph Regina about the wreck and advise them to halt all trains.
Phil Veshski had his creamery truck backed over the eastbound tracks so they could put Robb and Potter on the truck bed and run them to the hospital some 20 miles east. Blankets had appeared out of nowhere to make a proper bed and covers. The left side of Robb’s face had been badly scalded when he was thrown forward, breaking one of the many steam feed pipes. Several wide planks were hastily hammered into a makeshift stretcher for Robb. Where did all these men appear from so suddenly?
I had never seen the local farmers all together in our town, all at the same time— except for the Thanksgiving Fall Fair dinner held at the ice rink over in Wadensk.
Men of Polish and Ukrainian descent spoke in guttural German while helping to lift Robb out of the engine cab or gingerly leading engineer Potter to Veshski’s truck. Once both engine crew members were taken care of and had been rushed to hospital, the men turned to help the firemen.
The many volunteer firefighters were having a difficult time trying to contain the growing blaze fanned by the bitter breeze in brutal sub- zero weather. I head sirens screaming as more volunteer firefighters were coming from Waverly in the east and Wydmark in the west.
Back at the Gardeners’ drugstore, Jean Melchuk brought over a couple of still-boxed dolls to help comfort Meggie. The creamery then opened its vacant employee house for us to use indefinitely, and clothes, blankets and essentials seemed to come from everywhere all of a sudden. How kind the entire community was to my family.
Mother wept openly when several Waverly firefighters brought her boxes loaded with her grandmother’s china, which had been stored in the corner of the freight shed along with a few other precious, irreplaceable heirlooms. Family photos were sooty but safe, and that brought a few tears to my otherwise stoic father. They also gave Mother a roll of bills, but I never knew the amount.
That night I saw for myself why these brave, selfless volunteer firefighters are truly the knights of the Prairies.
By morning, the fires were out and the damage was evident. The two-storey station was a total loss and the freight shed would have to be rebuilt. The railway brought in wrecking crews with two massive hooks (cranes) and huge jacks to try and get the engine off the bridge.
It took two days and a lot of cursing to get the locomotive out and traffic back to normal, but that morning after the fire, the kindness of the Prairies kept us warm as the sky shone a bright blue and the snow crystals dazzled—a promise of a better future. n