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.

The Durango & Silverton really exists, and is well worth checking out.

Precious Cargo is copyright © The Silver Coyote

Down At The Yards

The sound a steam powered locomotive's electric generator makes is a sort of high pitched whistling whine, accompanied by the sound of a small amount of steam escaping under relatively low pressure. Steam powered air pumps make a sort of double- chunk sound, followed by a second or so of hiss, followed by another double- chunk. Chunk-chunk, sssssssss, chunk-chunk. Depending upon the consumption of compressed air, this process can go on continuously or be repeated at intervals of up to several minutes.

The roar of a fire in the firebox is noticeable at close range above the other sounds in the shop and yard. The old K-36 sat on the ready track next to the roundhouse, smoke wisping from the straight stack. The faint smell of coal smoke and the stronger smell of hot valve oil hung in the air. The generator whine and sporadic, random air pump chunks mixed with the rest of the sounds of the shops in the mid-day sun. Russ and Chris had spotted number 480 here about half an hour ago, with orders to keep the fire hot in case she was needed. Russ, the engineer, was now on board the 44 ton GE diesel switcher, spotting passenger cars at the car shops in the south end of the yard. Chris was in the locomotive shops working on 476, but would return to 480 every half hour or so to check on the water and fire in her boiler.

Joe stood there at the edge of the yards, taking it all in. Were it not for the fact that he was leaning against a twenty first century vehicle, he could have imagined himself in the early twentieth century, the panorama in front of his eyes held few visual clues as to the calendar date. As he watched, sipping coffee from a stainless steel mug he usually carried with him in his truck, the 44 ton locomotive ran up the yard with three passenger coaches. Slowing as it passed, it stopped about two hundred feet past him, and he heard air hissing in the brake lines. The engineer dropped from the cab, walked the length of his train, and set a switch behind the trailing car. At this distance Joe couldn't tell much about him, other than he appeared to be a large canid of some sort. Returning to the cab of his locomotive, the engineer released the brakes with another hiss of air, sounded three short bursts of air horn, and backed his train into the setout track near the depot. More air with another application of brakes, and Joe saw the engineer once again walk the train, this time setting paw operated manual brakes on each of the three cars.

Having "tied up" his train, the engineer uncoupled his locomotive from the string of cars, mounted the cab, sounded twice on the air horn, and ran up to and through the switch. Once again he descended the steps of the 44 tonner, set his switch for the main track, and climbed back to his cab. The locomotive drifted slowly back down yard towards the shop, eventually passing out of sight behind a string of old boxcars, but not before Joe and the engineer waved at each other in greeting.

Chris was at this moment in the roundhouse. His walkie-talkie radio hissed a bit of static and then Russ' voice came from the speaker. "Hey Chris, you busy?"

Chris had been cutting some steel with a torch for some cab repair work on 476. Fortunately he had not been cutting when Russ called, otherwise the noise of his torch would have masked the radio call. Putting down a tape measure and an awl, he reached for the old Motorola HT1000 radio. "No, not terribly. What's up?"

Russ was smiling as he braked his locomotive to a joint with a string of gondolas in front of the car shops. "Remember who Indiana Jones was? You know, those old movies?"

Chris could hear the amusement in his friend's voice and smiled himself, knowing already where this conversation was going. "Yeah, what about it?"

"He's standing over there in the employee lot on the east side."

Chris turned and looked through a sooty window in the wall of the roundhouse. In the distance he could see the employee lot, but couldn't discern any of the vehicles in it. "Really? Harrison Ford is in our parking lot?" he asked, teasing his friend.

Russ laughed before replying. "You want me to pick him up?"

"Sure, if you're going back up that way."

"It's done!" replied Russ. "I've got to take these gons up to the north yard, I'll pick him up on the way."

"Don't let him touch anything, otherwise he'll take your train away from you!" Chris smiled and put the radio down, reaching for his torch.

"Here we go!" Russ said. After a couple of minutes Chris heard the air horn on the 44 tonner sound twice, and knew Russ was on the move, heading north with his gondolas.

Joe had just finished his coffee and put the cup back in his truck. Locking up, he was wondering where to start looking for his son when the GE diesel drifted up yard with a string of gondolas. As he watched, the train slowed to a halt in front of him, and the engineer motioned for him to approach. Joe looked up and down tracks for other trains on the move and, seeing none, walked towards the locomotive, stepping over three pairs of narrow-gauge rails before reaching it. Stopping beneath the cab window, he smiled up at the engineer and said "Howdy!"

Russ smiled down at the coyote, nodding his head. "You Chris's father?"

"Yep," Joe smiled even more. "Who told you?"

"Oh, we've been expecting you for about two weeks now. You're being here is all Chris could talk about on our lunch breaks. C'mon up!" Russ motioned with his paw out the window, indicating the steps at the rear of the locomotive. "I'll drop you at the shop where he's working just as soon as we set out these gons."

"Sounds good to me, thanks!" Joe mounted the steps and walked to the cab. Entering, he observed a big, broad shouldered husky sitting in the engineer's chair. Light blue eyes twinkled from beneath a familiar looking ball cap as the fur stood, holding out a paw. Joe smiled at Russ and held out his own paw. "Joe Latrans. How ya' doin'?"

Taking Joe's paw in a firm grip, the engineer smiled and said "Russ Taylor. Doin' OK, keepin' busy." He turned, preparing to get his train on the move. "Have a seat," he indicated either of the other two seats in the cab of the locomotive as he sat down again. Turning to look out the windows at his train and then the track ahead, Russ continued. "We're going up to north yard to drop this string of gons off, and then run back to the shops where I can drop you off." Thinking suddenly as he released his train's brakes, Russ glanced at him. "You're not in a hurry, are you?"

"Nope. I've got all day. Feels good to be back aboard a locomotive again!" Joe relaxed back into the chair he occupied across from the friendly engineer. "Haven't been in a cab for a while," he observed.

Russ advanced the throttle of the diesel to run three, and they got underway. "Yeah, rumor has it you used to work for the Santa Fe. I guess this is a little primitive compared to what you're used to."

The motion and noise of the locomotive as it moved over the rail was pleasing to both of the furs. Rolling up yard at about ten miles per hour, they crossed several grade crossings, requiring Russ to be on the air horn quite a bit. Conversation was sporadic between blasts. Russ retarded the throttle to idle and they slowed as they approached the yard throat and grade crossing at Twelfth Street. Braking to a stop, Russ picked up a radio microphone and spoke into it.

"How we doin', John?" he called.

"'Bout two cars to the switch," came the reply from the switchman on the back of the train.

Russ sounded the air horn again for the crossing at Twelfth street and throttled up to move through the yard throat at five miles per hour.

"One car...", John's voice called.

They had rumbled about fifty feet past the grade crossing when John called again. "That'll do..." Russ braked to a stop. While waiting for John to set his switch, Joe described for Russ his former job duties at the AT&SF, and asked Russ some questions about basic operations on the D&S. Russ was pleased to be talking railroading on the D&S with someone who understood railroading concepts well. Chris's father was not your average railfan tourist.

"OK Russ, come ahead!" called John on the radio.

Russ reversed the locomotive and applied throttle, sounding three short blasts on his horn. Accelerating to five miles per hour, they shoved the length of gondolas into a spur track in the northern end of the small rail yard. While they moved Russ described the new dispatching method the D&S was using now that they ran half a dozen or more trains a day to various points on the main line between Durango and Silverton in season. After a few minutes they passed over the switch, at which point Russ called on the radio "How we doin', John?"

"Three cars to a joint, come ahead," came the reply. Russ stopped talking, and Joe was smart enough to let him concentrate on his work.

After about ten seconds John called "Two cars...", and Russ retarded throttle to coast. He rested his hand on the brake quadrant, waiting for John's next call. The speed drifted down to three miles per hour.

"One car..." Russ applied a touch of brake, and the short train slowed to a leisurely walking pace.

After a few more seconds John called "Half a car..."

Russ applied a bit more brake, and they slowed to a pace best described as "barely moving". After a few more seconds, both the furs in the cab felt a bump, and simultaneously heard John's call "That'll do!"

Russ picked up his radio and rose from his chair, talking as he headed out of the cab. "We'll pick you up on the way back, John. Sit tight." Descending the steps at the rear of the little GE switcher, he uncoupled the lead gondola from his locomotive. He set the manual brake on this gondola, and then climbed back aboard his switcher.

"You're about to meet one of the better switchfurs on our pike. We stole John from the Union Pacific right after they absorbed the SP. He had been working on the locals out of Helper, Utah. He'd been with the Grande since about 1980, I think. He knows everything." Russ smiled, seating himself at the control pedestal once again.

Sounding two blasts on the air horn, he advanced the throttle. A snapping hiss sounded as the air hose between the switch engine and the first gondola separated as they pulled away. They accelerated momentarily and then he retarded the throttle, and they coasted towards the switch. Passing over the switch, Russ braked to a stop and set his brakes. Descending from the cab once again, he aligned the switch for the main, and then climbed back aboard. Sounding three blasts on the air horn, Russ got them moving again.

As they moved back south into the main yard, Joe asked Russ how long he'd been with the D&S. "I've been here since '99. I came here from CSX, I was an engineer there for some years, and worked as a switchfur before that and a conductor for about a year before I came here. The pay certainly isn't as good here, but who can beat being a hogger on one of those?" He pointed out the windshield of his locomotive towards the south end of the yard where number 480 sat, steam up, on the ready track.

"I can't imagine what that must be like," Joe replied while admiring the old K-36.

"It's to live for!" said Russ. "There's nothing better than being at the latch of one of those K-36s as you pound through the cut at Rockwood, and I love waving to all the pups and kits as we pull into Silverton. I wouldn't trade this job for anything!" Russ was braking the locomotive to a walking pace as he finished talking, they both saw a rangy looking older fur standing off the main, watching their approach.

As the front deck passed him, the fur swung aboard with an easy, practiced motion. Kicking his boots against the bottom step to knock off any mud and ballast they might have collected, he climbed the remaining steps to the walkway. As Russ fed more throttle and they accelerated into the center of the yard, John entered the cab.

"Hey John, this guy is Chris's father. Joe Latrans, say hello to John Briscol."

"Hi John, nice to meet ya'," Joe stuck out his paw. John was a large feline of some sort, mountain lion and something else by the look of him. Golden brown fur accentuated by black markings around the eyes, ears, and the tip of his tail. Standing about six foot, John couldn't have weighed more than 130, but he had a powerful look about him despite his thin frame.

"Same here," John replied as he moved across the cab toward Joe. "You're Chris's father? No kidding!" John shook Joe's paw warmly. "That kid's a real go getter, I'll tell ya'. He's got this business in his blood!" John took a seat on the last empty chair on the deck of the switcher. "He's only been here seasonally, but I've heard good things about him from the Trainmaster. He's gonna be around here as long as he wants to be."

This warmed Joe's heart no small amount. He looked down at the deck momentarily, and then back up to John, who was grinning at him. He and John were close to the same age, although John was much thinner. Joe grinned back. "Thanks. Maybe some of my tour on the Santa Fe rubbed off on him."

"You were on the Santa Fe?" John asked. And so the stories repeated again, and they were still telling each other about their experiences on the "high iron" as they rolled to a stop in front of the roundhouse at the south end of the yard. Russ set his air, and he and John and Joe sat there in the idling GE 44 ton switcher for the better part of ten minutes talking shop.

"Russ! Where are you guys?" All three of them recognized the voice coming from the radio speakers, but for different reasons. Chris was wondering what had happened to them.

Grabbing his portable radio from the pedestal of his engine while rising from his chair, Russ answered Chris. "We're out here on the north lead to the balloon track. Look out the window."

Chris hung his radio in his belt holster and headed for the east door of the roundhouse shop. Emerging into the sunlight a few moments later he waited, shading his eyes with a free paw while they adapted to the bright light. Soon he noticed three furs standing on one of the end platforms of the diesel switch engine on the balloon lead. As he walked towards them they all nodded towards him, smiling. As he drew closer he heard them chuckling among themselves.

"What are you guys telling my dad, more management war stories?" Chris climbed the steps of the switcher to join them. "Hi dad. Russ, John..."

"Well..." John started. His wide grin exposed a bit of some sharp looking fangs.

"They were just telling me some of the finer points of operations on the D& S," Joe offered. "Nothing outrageous."

Chris frowned slightly, looking from John to Russ and back again. "Yeah," he finally said. "I'll bet." Looking at 480 out on the ready track he asked "Hey, have you guys had any lunch?"

"Nope, not yet," offered John, looking at his watch. Joe shook his head. Russ stared at the track beneath his locomotive, shaking his head no.

"Hey Russ, what do you say we go check the fire on 480, and we'll all meet up at the lunch counter in a few minutes?"

"That sounds good," Russ replied. "Let's see what the 'majordomo' has to say." Russ removed his paw held radio from it's holster and, keying the transmitter, called "Yard crew to Trainmaster."

After a few seconds Russ' receiver crackled and a voice with a noticeable local accent responded "Qué quieres, Russ?"

"Rudy, we're over here at the loco shops with Chris, are we OK for beans?"

"480, she's OK on the ready track?"

"Yes sir, we'll check on her before we head for the counter."

"Your power is tied up?"

"Yes sir, over here on the east lead to the balloon track."

"Bueno. I'll meet you guys at the counter in about fifteen minutes. You're good for beans."

Looking at Chris, Russ motioned towards the K-36 on the ready track while speaking into his radio one last time. "Here we go!"

As the engine crew wandered off towards their fire-breathing iron machine, John glanced sideways at Joe with a slight smile. "Looks like we're on our own for a few minutes." Pointing up yard with the wave of an open paw he asked "Walk?"

"Sounds good," Joe replied, falling into step beside him. They headed off towards the main depot up the tracks.

"Latrans... that's an interesting name. What part of the world is that from?" John asked.

"My father's family is from Mexico," Joe replied. "The name came from Spain in the early 1600s with the conquistadors."

"Really! That's old world," John observed. "Briscol is old English. Supposedly some ancestor of mine was in the House of Lords. For whatever that's worth..."

They both looked over their shoulders as they stepped over the rails of the yard. As the last pair of rails was put behind them they looked ahead once more to the now closer depot grounds. "So... what's the retirement program like here?" Joe asked, a slight smile creasing his muzzle.

John laughed out loud. That seemed to be answer enough for the both of them.

To Chapter Fifteen: An Unanticipated Change Of Direction.

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