The Last Train out of Hinckley

4 11 2009

Sometimes the church is like a burning train, running full speed in reverse.

The last train to arrive in Hinckley found it already veiled in smoke.  The previous train was boarded by the most nervous of the town’s residents.  That train, the second to last, escaped by tooth and nail, racing in and out of forest fires all the way to Duluth.  In that stretch, it had to cross six burning bridges.  The engineers examined the first five of them to make sure they could still hold the train.  When they reached the sixth, they knew that it was too far gone to hold them, but there was no turning back by this point.  Instead of stopping, they increased the speed and raced across it at full speed, arriving at the other side just in time to see it crumble.

That was the second to last train.  The last train was at least twenty minutes after that one.  The engineer of that train had heard by telegraph that the fire lines had been broken.  The firefighters were in full retreat.  As it chugged to a stop, masses of people swarmed it to board.  Over three hundred people got on, and more were coming, but the engineer could not wait for the entire town.  The fire was bearing down fast.  He pulled the bell rope to signal the train’s departure, and on the third pull, the rope came free in his hand, severed by fire.  He ran down the line and pulled another bell, and the train began to move.  The very last passengers to board were a mother and a couple of kids.

The train could not advance forward because of the fire, so it rumbled back the way it came.  People from the town began running after it for their lives.  The full force of the inferno hit as the train left the town.  Fireballs blasted through buildings, knocking down walls, exposing their interiors like doll houses.  Over the line, a final telegraph was received by the train, sent by the poor telegraph operator who remained at the station.  “I have stayed too long,” it said, and he stumbled out to the tracks toward the departing train and fell flat on his face, dead.

The engineer watched as people ran after him.  Two men managed to jump onto the cow catch.  A couple of boys ran until they passed out.  He watched the two men eagerly, hoping for their survival, but one of them was overcome and died, falling onto the tracks.  He left the engine to walk through the passenger car.  On both sides, the hellish blaze roared by.  Even inside the car the heat was unbearable.  When he saw flames licking in through the windows he realized that the train, itself, had caught on fire.  The terror among the passengers rose to a fevered pitch.  A woman’s dress caught on fire, and he quickly grabbed it and smothered it out.  This continued to happen throughout the train, with clothing igniting from the intense ambient heat.  One man, in a complete state of panic, ran to the door and threw it open, shouting that he could not take it anymore.  The engineer yelled at him to stop, but the man jumped out, bursting into flames before he hit the ground.

As the tracks heated, they expanded and buckled.  The train began to zigzag, a little at first, but worse with time.  Back at the engine, he found that his hands had swelled badly from handling the hot controls, puffing up like roasted marshmallows.  With help from his assistant, they took turns dunking themselves in the water tank and handling the controls.  But, the damage to the rails had gone too far.  The train had to be slowed to a crawl, and even then it was moving too fast to be safe.  Rails were splayed out in all directions, and the train could go no further.  Just as it stopped, two lakes came into view on either side of the tracks.  One was large and shallow, barely more than a giant mud puddle.  The other was smaller but deeper.  They had come to their place of safety at the last possible moment.

The engineer grabbed a bucket of water from the tank and put out the flames on the running board, enabling the passengers to exit the train.  Then he directed them to the small lake, and all but a couple of people followed him.  The few who didn’t tried to find their own way up a nearby creek, where they perished in the fire.  In the lake, the people lay flat on their backs, and even then the water was not deep enough to cover them completely.  They made up the difference by splashing themselves with the water constantly.  All around them, the fire blazed like the very pit of Hell.  Every breath was pure torture.

After what seemed like forever, the worst of the fire eventually passed, and they stood to view the ruination around them.  Everyone who took refuge in the lake was saved.  That meant that everyone on board the train, who actually stayed on the train, and who followed the engineer to the lake, was saved.  Before them stood the smoking remains of the train, burned down to the chassis.  The engine, even, had just begun to melt, sagging like softened butter on the tracks, glistening in its partial liquefaction.

They were saved.  Their clothing was singed and smoking, but they were saved, nonetheless.


I write this from memory, having read it a rather long time ago.  I apologize for any inaccuracy.




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