Precious Cargo



All characters appearing in this story are mine of my own design.
This story is a work of fiction based upon nothing in particular.

Precious Cargo is copyright The Silver Coyote
2003



Down, Down

About an hour later the truck wheeled off the highway into the turnout at Coal Bank Summit. Joe set the brakes and sat back, rubbing his neck with his left paw. He looked at his wife, who was sleeping in the reclined seat opposite him, feet on the dash, head in the crook between the cab wall and the seat back. She had a blanket pulled up around her neck, and a slight smile caused her face to seem to glow, somehow. Her quiet, even breathing told him she was in deep sleep.

Removing his gloves, he double checked the setting of the cab heater to ensure her comfort, and then opened his door and quickly stepped down to the wet asphalt of the parking lot, shutting the door behind him. The idling truck made reassuring noises behind him. He quickly buttoned up his denim jacket and jammed his paws into the pockets. He walked towards the guardrail at the edge of the parking lot. Up here at 10,600 feet it was cold, maybe low forties or even high thirties.

His back had been talking to him since Molas Divide. Not pain, really, just the need for a stretch and a walk. Coal Bank Summit had a wide, level turnout for semis to check their brakes at, and while the lot was fairly good sized, his truck was the only vehicle around. They had passed no one since leaving Silverton.

The sky overhead was dark, devoid of stars or moon. Clouds still covered the sky, he knew. While the rain had stopped falling a couple of miles back, he could smell it on the light wind that was blowing up out of the Animas River canyon to the east.

Reaching the guardrail at the edge of the parking lot, he looked southeast towards where he knew the San Juan National Forest should be laid out below, but saw nothing except some scudding cloud and darkness. Looking back over his shoulder he could feel more than see the mass of Engineer Mountain rising to the west, but the slopes rose into the low cloud cover and disappeared. The running lights of his truck glowed warmly, looking inviting.

Turning to his right, he headed south towards the Durango end of the lot. Walking briskly, he was there in moments. He paused, listening to the wind, and in the distance heard the sound of a truck working up a grade somewhere. With the wind pushing the sound around and the cloud acting as an echo chamber, it was hard to tell where it might be coming from, or how far away it might be, but he definitely heard it.

Turning again, he walked past his truck to the other end of the lot. The cold air drilled through his jacket and shirt, causing him to shiver. He jammed his paws deeper into his pockets. The smell of rain was strong, it would start falling soon. At this end of the lot the distant engine noise was barely discernable, thus he surmised that the truck he could hear was on the Durango side of the pass. They might pass each other on the way down the hill. He looked north down the highway, back towards where they had just been, as it curved out of view.

He heard the hiss of the approaching rain before it actually started to fall on him. Turning with the sound, he started walking rapidly back to his truck. By the time his left paw reached up to the door handle, it was raining hard. Climbing into the cab, he tried to minimize the noise of his return so as not to wake his sleeping wife. The heated air blowing out of the floor vents felt good. He stepped up the fan speed a bit, removed his wet hat, and turning it upside down, placed it on the center console between their seats. He unbuttoned his jacket and then, reaching up to the dash in front of him, he retrieved his gloves and put them on. He left his wet jacket on, figuring it would dry out by the time they reached Durango.

From here it was a downhill run all the way to Durango. They were making good time, given the weather, it was not quite one o'clock yet. Suddenly he thought of the GSM phones, and reaching to his inside jacket pocket he withdrew his, flipping it open. No network. Ah well, that's why he had radios. But while he glanced at them to make sure they were scanning, he didn't reach for a microphone. Instead, he turned to his right and gently brushed some errant strands of blond hair from his wife's closed eyes, murmuring "I love you."

Facing the windshield once again, he turned on the windshield wipers and his headlights, and released the brakes. Gearing up, he angled across the lot and turned into the southbound lane of highway 550.

###

Just below Mill Creek Lodge a few minutes later he detected headlight glare on the immediate horizon in front of him. He flicked his high beams off, anticipating the oncoming vehicle. The glare suddenly decreased, telling him the other driver had likewise dimmed his lights. Rounding a slight curve, he saw the oncoming headlights and running lights of a large tractor-trailer rig. Here's the engine I heard, he thought, taking quiet satisfaction that his ears still worked well. As the truck boomed by him he caught a glimpse of a Kenworth logo on some sort of a conventional tractor.

As he turned into the approach to Purgatory a few moments later his high band radio crackled to life. "Is that southbound on 550 listening to five two simplex?" a feminine voice wanted to know. Reaching for the microphone, Joe glanced at the display to confirm it read NATL SIMPLEX, and pressed the button to disable the scan function. After stating his call sign, he gave his position as "southbound 550 approaching Purgatory."

Purgatory, of course, was a well known and very popular ski area north of the city of Durango. In season it's population could easily run into the four digit figures. As there was no snow on the ground, the area was completely deserted when Joe and Annie's truck rumbled through on it's southbound trek.

The soft voice returned, identifying herself as Jennifer with a call sign of her own. "You're looking good through Durango to Cortez. The rain was lighter for us below Electra Lake. Highway's in good shape."

Flicking his high beams back on, Joe replied "You're looking good to Montrose, at least. We came through there much earlier this afternoon, and we've been putting along five fifty ever since. We stopped in Ouray and then again below Red Mountain, and in Silverton. Everything is quiet and clear. Look for some heavy rain between Coal Bank and Molas, though."

"You sound like a local..." she ventured, a hint of interest in her voice.

"Sorry, nope. Out of Los Angeles. My son is up here in Durango, we'll be dropping in on him shortly."

A pause, then "OK, well, have a good trip. We run this route a couple of times a month or more, we'll look for you down the road somewhere." Jennifer gave her call once again and said "73".

"So long, Jennifer. Safe trip."

Joe had just sat back from hanging up the microphone and placing the high band radio back in scan when another soft, feminine voice slid through his ear and into his brain. "I can't leave you alone at all." Annie spoke with a tone of offense, but he could hear the smile on her face, and that belied her true feelings. "I'm asleep a few minutes and you're hitting on ladies on the radio!" she teased.

Looking at his wife he smiled in return, and turning back to the road said "Hey, just another faceless voice in the void. She may be cute, maybe not, but I don't care. My eyes have all they can handle."

Trading moods, she asked "How are you doing? Are you feeling OK?" He could hear the concern in her voice, he didn't need to look at her.

"Yeah. I stopped at Coal Bank Summit and took a walk until it started to rain."

She reached out to touch his sleeve. "Your jacket's damp." Her fingers squeezed his arm gently.

He took her paw in his and brought it to his lips, kissing the back of it. "I was soaked. I've been drying out for ten minutes or more. It started while I was out walking around. I got a stretch and worked some kinks out of my back, though." He looked at her. He could make out her blue eyes in the glow from the instrument lights in the dash. She wore an expression of mild concern. "I'm OK, really. We're only about twenty minutes out."

"Do we have any coffee left?" she asked as she turned to rummage behind the seats. She was looking for the steel thermos that had been filled for them way back in Sargents, hours ago.

"Yeah, there should be some left. It probably won't be much more than luke warm by now, though." The road ahead leveled and became straight, he selected another gear and throttled up to sixty.

Various noises consistent with small items being moved around came from behind him, and a strawberry blond tail was bouncing about in Joe's peripheral vision. Suddenly Annie sat back in her seat with a steel thermos in her hands. "Got it!" she exclaimed, as she began to unscrew the cup cover. Placing the cup in a cup holder, she unscrewed the plastic stopper beneath it. As she removed this, they both could see steam rising from the thermos. "Looks hot to me," Annie said.

"I'll take some of that," said Joe, holding out his gloved right paw.

She filled the cup for him and passed it to him. Winking at her in the dark, he took it and sipped it. Finding it not too hot, he took a big gulp of it. "Aaahhhh. Thanks, Angel!" he said, passing the empty cup back to her for a refill. She poured some more from the thermos and passed it back to him.

The truck shuddered and bounced slightly as he took the cup from her again. "Railroad tracks," he told her. "Won't be long now, we're almost there."

Before she could venture a reply the high band radio crackled once again with a familiar voice. Chris identified himself and called for them.

"Want to talk to him? Joe asked his wife, placing the empty cup in the cup holder and reaching for the microphone once again.

"No thanks. Just tell him we're almost there." Annie picked up the cup, wiped it with a paper towel from the map pocket in her door, and placed the stopper and cup back on the thermos. The thermos went back behind his seat. That done she then opened the center console between the seats and began to rummage through the CD cases within.

Joe keyed the microphone and identified himself, continuing "We're just north of Hermosa Tank. We ought to be there in a few minutes."

"The GSM network is down, dad. I just got off another channel with my friend at Mountain Bell. Apparently their center in Farmington took a lightning strike, and GSM wireless is down across the Four Corners area right now."

"OK then, that would explain why I had no network connectivity at Coal Bank, huh?"

"Yep. So you guys are close?"

Joe thought a moment, watching Annie select and remove a CD from the center console, and replied "Maybe fifteen minutes. The rain has let up, it's just a mist now. Where should we park?"

Chris described a location in the parking lot of his apartment complex big enough for their truck to get into without too much fuss, and concluded with "Mike's asleep, but Debbie and I are waiting up."

"You didn't need to do that, son, but thanks."

"Who could make her do anything?" They heard the humor in Chris's tired voice. "She's as stubborn as mom is. And I know she's listening! Hi mom!" Annie's arched eyebrows relaxed a bit, and she inserted the CD into the stereo system. "Do you want any coffee when you get in dad?"

"Nah, I just now was drinking some, thanks anyway. Your mom takes good care of me."

"This is a true statement. OK, your bed's ready, all you need to do is fall in it." Chris gave his call sign and advised that he'd be standing by.

"Thanks son. See you in a few." Joe gave his call and hung up the microphone. Turning to his wife he said "We have good kids."

In response she pressed the orange button on the stereo system. Dire Straits' Heavy Fuel began to play through the speakers. They both reached simultaneously for the volume button to turn it up. Laughing, Joe stopped to let her adjust it. Annie smiled up at him, saying "This is the perfect song for our arrival." The remaining few miles passed quickly.






To Chapter Eleven: The Inquisition.

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