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‘Hallo!’ the man said. His tone was cheerful, but his blue eyes were sad. Sometimes you can just tell that about a person.

‘Hello.’

‘You write that?’ the man asked me.

 ‘I… Yes,’ I replied.

‘Well, hurry up. I haven’t got all day.’

At my insistence, Miss McCrimmon gave up pleading with the quarrelsome Walter P. Sneed and, as the train departed in a cloud of smoke and steam, we flocked around her like chicks around a mother hen. Soon enough, she turned her attention to the man standing beside the tall, blue telegraph box. She shook his hand vigorously.
 
 

‘Thank God you made it! We understood that our train was a full day behind and that we were going to be delayed, which is just intolerable after such an emotional journey. As you can imagine, these children are exhausted and hungry and eager to be placed out with their new families and I’ve studied the time table numerous times, but this, this pitiful excuse for a town is not on the schedule, nor do we have any agents within 100 miles!” She barely paused for breath before adding. ‘Where are my manners? I’m Carolynn McCrimmon from St. Luke’s.’

‘St. Luke’s?’

‘Upstate,’ she said, as if that explained everything. Maybe it did, because the man didn’t ask for any further explanation. Which was probably just as well, because Miss McCrimmon was on again and there was just no stopping her.

The man glanced left and right as she was talking and I had a feeling that he wasn’t who she thought he was, but he was too polite to tell her so. That or her barrage of words was taking him by surprise, or a little of both. After a moment he seemed to get the gist of what she was telling him, though, and he pursed his lips, his brow drawing together.

‘You say this Mr. Sneed was just going to leave you here and expect you to make your way to Michigan on your own? I’d have a word with him – ‘

‘Oh, I’d be much obliged if you would Mister…? I’m sorry should I already…?’

‘No, I don’t imagine you should. And it isn’t Mister, it’s just, Doctor.’

‘I’d be much obliged, Doctor,’ Miss McCrimmon said, sounding so greatly relieved it made a heart glad.

‘Right... but I haven’t the time.’ He looked over the group of us and pointed at me. ‘You’re all welcome to come, but I’m only here for that one.’

‘That?’ Miss McCrimmon turned to look at me, standing just outside the group, Daivi gripping one hand, Mathieu riding on my hip.

‘Yup,’ the Doctor said. ‘That’s the one.’

‘You’ve put in an application?’ Miss McCrimmon asked him.

‘For what?’ the Doctor asked.

Half of the boys began to snigger. The other half pointed at the water-logged advertisement plastered to the station wall alongside a host of long-outdated schedules and a faded billboard for the carnival that had come into whatever once passed for a town some years before. It seemed to me we were a carnival all by ourselves. All we needed were some fine white horses, a dancing bear, and some clowns. On second thought, forget the clowns. The Doctor turned to look at the array of peeling signs, then turned back, obviously puzzled. The girl on the circus poster – the one with the beard, riding what looked like a two-headed camel – looked an awful lot like me, aside from the whiskers. I did my best to blend into the background, wishing the rain would start again and I could disappear into the stream presently creasing the dirt and snow between the station platform and the rails.

‘What?’ he asked.

‘Not too bright, is he?’ Colin asked the other lads.

‘Blind in one eye...’

‘Can’t see out the other...’

‘What? I don’t see any... Ooh,’ the Doctor said after a moment. He read out loud: ‘Homes wanted for a company of homeless children, having been thrown friendless into the world... Well. I know how that is,’ he said, then read further. ‘Persons wanting these children must make application and be approved by the local committee.’

‘I assume the papers you and your Misses turned in are all in order?’

‘Oh, there’s no Misses,’ the Doctor sputtered. ‘Not anymore. There was someone, for a while. I thought... Anyway, you don’t need to listen to my tongue wag. No Misses, just me.’

He mustered a grin right there at the end, but we all saw the truth in his eyes. We all knew what it was like to lose our families, even if we couldn’t remember them. Miss McCrimmon blinked back tears. For all she jabbered like a parrot, she was a sentimental soul. All the boys sort of sighed at the news, too. She could have done her Second Chances speech just then and no one would have minded.

‘Forgive me, Doctor. I’m terribly sorry.’

The shrill blast of a far-off train whistle sliced the afternoon in twain.

The Doctor consulted his wrist watch. ‘That, if I’m not mistaken, is the train to Michigan. It won’t be the most comfortable trip if you come with me, but it’s bound to be more exciting than standing here in the rain.’

Paul tugged at the Doctor’s sleeve. ‘Are there homes for all of us in Michigan?’

‘Don’t know, maybe.’

‘Will it be dangerous?’ asked Mac, wagging a finger at our new escort.

‘Probably.’

‘Oh, dear!’ groaned Patrick as he dragged a hand over his face.

‘At last!’ clapped Jean. ‘I could do with an adventure.’

‘That’s the spirit! Well, then, I hope you have your luggage.’

‘Lost,’ Piotr explained, ‘somewhere in Utah, or Iowa, or Indiana.’ The others murmured in agreement.

‘You don’t have anything?’ asked the Doctor.

‘Just what we got in our pockets,’ Thomas said, pulling out a fistful of marbles, a handkerchief, three smooth knucklebones, and a large apple with a bite taken out of it. ‘Don’t need more than that.’

‘Is that so?’ smiled the Doctor. ‘Good for you. I like to travel light, too.’

‘Careful now, you’ll scratch the paint!’

I honestly couldn’t imagine it looking any more battered, but for the better part of 20 minutes we watched from the shelter of the station’s rickety porch as four men wrestled the big telegraph box onto the train in a downpour. The porters had been complaining almost the entire time because nothing of that size was listed in the cargo manifest for this trip, but the Doctor seemed to have his paperwork and credentials in order and, by gum, that box was going where we were.

As soon as the telegraph box was stowed, the boys made a break for it, piling into the freight car the Doctor had commandeered for us like a swarm of ants to a drop of honey. Not for the first time, the smartly dressed conductor breezed by, wringing his hands, insisting that he had no authorization to take on more than a handful of chance passengers, let alone a dozen orphaned children. The Doctor pulled his small leather purse from his pocket, waved it in front of the man’s nose, and that was that. How all of his documents fit into that little wallet, I didn’t know.

A pair of burly men in dirty blue overalls lifted Miss McCrimmon into the carriage, handed the baby up to her, then tossed her carpet bag in. It snapped open on impact and a puff of lacy whiteness popped out for a split second before she put it all in order and took a hesitant seat on a bale of hay. That left me and the Doctor standing motionless on the platform, as if each was waiting for the other one to make the first move. I was still mulling over what he had said. Me. He was here for me. I wasn’t sure what that meant. He was here to escort me? He was here to take me with him? Why was he here and why me and…?

 
         

artwork by ANDY LAMBERT
used with permission
 
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