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



Homecoming Interrupted

There's still a lot of desert east of Barstow. The Los Angeles / Inland Empire metropolis had overflowed the San Bernardino Mountains in force early in the first decade of the twenty first century, spilling out through Cajon Pass like an invading army to fill in the open areas between Hesperia, Apple Valley, Phelan, and Victorville. All those once isolated communities now extended up to each other's corporate limits, making one large population center. North of Victorville, however, the homes and population centers tended to stay close to the Interstate freeway, and tended to dwindle away to nothing east and north of Barstow.

East of Barstow, the airport at Daggett was still surrounded by desert, as was the junction just west of this location between the main lines of the Union Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroads. An operating agreement over one hundred years old allowed the Union Pacific to operate trains over the AT&SF mainline between Daggett and San Bernardino through the Cajon Pass. The little town of Daggett hadn't changed much in fifty years, in Joe's estimation.

The sun was low in the western sky as they approached Daggett from the east. There were cumulus clouds over the San Bernardino Mountains to the south, The sky in their windshield had a feathery appearance courtesy of some high cirrus clouds, which were beginning to take on tinges of pink and orange as the sun sank in the western sky.

Annie had her back to her door, the Flagstaff newspaper of that morning spread out on her lap and overflowing onto the center console. She was deeply engrossed in checking property values in the central Arizona countryside.

Debbie was sharing the back of the cab with Mojave. Mojave was asleep, Debbie was daydreaming about Russell again while listening to her MP3 player and gazing out her window at the approaching sunset. She was also watching the traffic on the highway, mildly interested in the cars they were sharing the roadway with. She wanted a car, one of the new fuel cell powered ones like some of her friends at school had. They were expensive, but worked well and were extremely efficient. Most of them came equipped with the latest computer systems with wireless network interface and way-cool sound systems.

Joe was enjoying watching the end of the day through the windshield of their truck. The AC300AT rolled along easily, the diesel engine rumbling contentedly. The turbocharger boost indication was still twitching, the excursions getting larger and occurring more often, but he could not hear or feel any difference in power, and was forming the opinion that the sensor was defective, not the wastegate. The radios had been moderately quiet, an occasional burst of traffic on one of the railroad channels was all he had heard in the past hour.

A GSM phone rang. Annie looked up from her paper, and unspoken question on her face.

"It's not mine," Joe said, looking at her momentarily, "mine's on vibrate."

"It must be Debbie's. Mine's in my purse on the floor here, and I hear the sound coming from your direction." Another ring. Turning towards her daughter, Annie considered speaking in a loud tone of voice, then thought better of it and reached out with her left paw to grab and shake Debbie's foot, which was on the back edge of the center console. While doing this she held her right paw up to her head, her center three fingers curled into her palm, pinkie and thumb extended, pinkie by her mouth, thumb to her ear.

Debbie looked up as the ring sounded again, and after she had observed her mother's paw signal Annie lowered her right paw and then pointed to Debbie with it. Debbie nodded and reached for her purse on the floor behind the driver's seat while pulling the ear buds from her ears.

"Thanks, Mom," she said as the phone rang yet again. She removed the offending noise source from her purse, flipped it open, and spoke into it. "Hi, this is Debbie..."

Annie went back to her newspaper. Just as she was finding her place, one of the radios sounded off.

"Needles sub dispatcher, Union Pacific ninety four seventy, over."

Annie looked up once again to Joe, who glanced at her and shrugged. Their truck droned on as they waited to see what would be heard next.

"Needles sub dispatcher, Union Pacific 9470, over."

The airport at Daggett was sliding by outside the right side windows, over Annie's shoulders. The sun was just touching the horizon, the sky above and ahead was flaming with all hues of violet, orange, pink, and red. It was a gorgeous sunset, leading into an exceptional evening.

"Needles sub dispatcher to the UP 9470, over!"

"Uh... yeah dispatcher, UP 9470 at the westbound UP control signals at Daggett with red over red. How's the line up for us getting over the hill? Over!"

"Hang on a minute, let's see what we've got."

Annie had relocated her place in the paper and had tuned out. Debbie said an occasional word into her phone, and an irregular thump from behind Annie's seat told them all that Mojave was awake, wagging her tail lazily.

Unbeknownst to her parents, Debbie's phone call was from her brother Mike. He was in a high state of excitement, and was talking so fast that Debbie hardly had time to acknowledge one point before he moved on to the next. His dialog had begun with a description of his departure from Chris's home in Durango, heading west towards home. Right now he was describing his dash across the Arizona Strip, west of Lake Powell.

"Needles sub dispatcher to the UP 9470, over!"

"Union Pacific 9470, over!"

"You've got a bit of a lineup this evening. The first section of Amtrak number four is at Hodge, and in front of him I have Santa Fe 1015 east just leaving East Barstow. Westbound I have Santa Fe 744 west of Minneola. Give me a call when Santa Fe 1015 east gets by you and we'll see what we can come up with. I've got some other possibilities coming out of East Barstow. Over?"

Joe looked in his starboard side view mirror and saw three headlights a mile or so behind them on the AT&SF mainline, which was paralleling to the north their track on Interstate 40.

"Union Pacific 9470, we'll call you when Santa Fe 1015 east gets by us. Thanks. Out"

"Needles sub dispatcher out."

The radio fell silent. With this relative quiet it occurred to Joe that Mojave's tail wasn't thumping anymore.

She had been casually tuned in to Debbie's conversation. She couldn't understand the words, but she could easily sense the mood of her friend. For most of the conversation her friend had spoken happily and with enthusiasm. Then, as the mechanical voice from the box in the front seat stopped talking, her friend's voice had changed suddenly, as well. It became hushed, and she spoke in quick short sentences with lots of time in between them. She sensed that her friend needed comfort of some sort. On that supposition, she stood up and stretched, first her front legs, then her back, and stepped forward to kiss her friend.

"Hey!" Debbie sputtered, holding the phone up and away from Mojave's muzzle.

"What's wrong? Oh..." Annie had turned to look at her daughter again, and began to laugh as she saw Mojave licking Debbie's face. Turning to her husband she said "Guess who's awake and feeling frisky?" She winked at her husband, tilting her head towards the back seat.

"Hi Mojave. Welcome home!" Joe reached back between the seats with a gloved paw to scratch her behind the ears. As he did this, Debbie scooted away from Mojave slightly, returning the GSM phone to her ear.

She wagged her tail and licked the gloved paw that belonged to the one called Joe. While she had only been with this pack a short time, she already recognized him as the alpha male. In fact, he was the only male, an interesting thing in itself. He must be a fighter to keep these two females to himself.

She looked at the older female, the one called Angel. The woman smiled back at her, and her eyes spoke of love and acceptance. Angel also demonstrated strong traits of protection and concern where the younger female was concerned. Could they be mother and daughter? She sniffed a bit in Angel's direction, and then sniffed greatly of her friend, the one called Debbie.

A definite possibility. There were scent clues to support the mother-daughter idea. So, that would explain the pack dynamic. She wagged her tail and licked her friend's face once again.

Her friend held up her open paw and gently pushed her muzzle away. Then, before she could become worried or offended, her friend reached up and began to scratch her behind the ears and pet her head. She understood that her friend was not wanting to be kissed this minute. She sat down and watched, ears up, her gaze steady on her friend's face. Her friend's tone of voice had become worried, she spoke quickly and quietly into the device she held to her head.

"You're in jail?" Debbie whispered into her phone.

###

It was almost dark now. The sky overhead was dark purple fading to black, stars were becoming visible. Ahead on the western horizon the oranges and reds and violets were being chased down the sky by the encroaching night. The lights of Barstow illuminated the horizon as they approached the Interstate 15 interchange.

"UP ninety four seventy to the Needles sub dispatcher, over!"

Annie reached up to adjust the map light she was continuing to read her paper by. Occasionally she would quote a price and description of some property to her husband, and in fact had been reading about one she wanted to tell him about when the radio sounded off again. She heard Mojave whine ever so quietly.

"Needles sub dispatcher to the UP 9470, over?"

"Yeah, dispatcher, the Santa Fe 1015 east has just got by us at Daggett. How's the lineup for us to get over the hill before we go dead on the law?"

Joe lifted his foot off the throttle to slow for some traffic ahead. Annie leaned back and turned slightly in her seat to look out the windshield.

"Is this Barstow?" she asked.

"Yeah," Joe answered, looking at her as a smile began to grow on his face. "Want to stop?"

Annie turned towards her daughter as the radio spoke up again. Debbie's head was down, she was engrossed in her conversation with whomever she had on the phone. In the gathering darkness Annie couldn't make out her face.

"Union Pacific 9470 west, first section Amtrak number four is in the station at Barstow right now. If we can get you over to the south track before they're ready to come out, then we'll get you going. Otherwise I've got Santa Fe 128 east behind him at Hodge right now, and Santa Fe 550 east behind him. What's your length?"

"UP 9470, we're only 3370 feet, and we're a fast train."

"OK, let me get you lined up..."

Annie tapped Debbie's foot with her paw to get her attention.

"Needles sub dispatcher to UP 9470 west, you're lined up. I'll try and have you lined up through East Barstow, but watch for restricted speed coming west, over."

"UP 9470, watching for restricted speed through East Barstow, here we go! Out."

"Needles sub dispatcher, out."

Debbie looked at her mom, mouth slightly open.

"Do you want to stop, sweetie?" her mother asked.

Debbie shifted gears mentally. "Uh... yeah, mom. That sounds good. I need a stretch, and I'm sure Mojave would like to go for a walk."

Before Annie could reply, her daughter recommenced her whispered phone conversation. Annie shrugged. She could remember what being a teen was like. She turned in her seat, folding up the newspaper and facing forward.

"I guess we ought to stop, at least for the pooch," she said to her husband.

"We'll bail off at west Main Street. Lots of truck parking on that end of town, and traffic isn't so bad." Joe signaled a lane change to the right, anticipating his exit just over the crest of the small hill they were climbing. As they reached the top of the grade he downshifted, decelerating as the exit ramp approached.

###

Joe reached up and opened the rear door on the passenger side of their truck. He held up his paw, pads facing their pooch. "Wait...," he said to Mojave, who looked at him from her standing position on the floor, tail wagging. He clipped the leash to her collar. "OK, kid, come on!" Mojave jumped down to the asphalt. Joe glanced briefly at his daughter, still with the phone to her head, and then walked off towards the sidewalk with Mojave in the lead.

Annie stepped down from the truck as well. Standing on the concrete with her feet slightly apart, she raised her arms over her head and interlaced her fingers, pads facing the night sky. Slowly, she bent at the waist and brought her paws down to the concrete, paused momentarily in that position, and then slowly raised herself again to her original position with her paws towards the sky. She repeated this twice more, pausing while standing for a breath in between each stretch. When she finished her third, she dropped her arms to her sides, wiggling them slightly, and started to walk back and forth next to the truck.

Debbie knew her mom was waiting for her. She finally managed to interrupt her brother.

Annie's attention was drawn as she overheard her daughter ask the person on the other end of her phone "Do you want to talk to mom?" She watched as Debbie listened to the reply, which she was now convinced was from one of her two sons.

Annie heard her ask "Have you talked to Chris?" It's Michael! she thought.

And then Debbie was holding the phone out to her wordlessly.

Joe and Mojave were exploring some vegetation in the lot adjacent to where they had parked. It was a vacant lot, but not horribly trashed up. There were a few scrub junipers and some sagebrush here and there, and Mojave was busily engaged in checking them all out, marking as many as possible. Joe followed along, looking at the sky. The stars were brilliant. A mild Santa Ana condition had pushed all the LA smog, and the pollution greater Victorville now generated, over the pass into the Inland Empire. The desert sky was crystal clear. The warm desert air, the smell of sage, the last vestiges of a gorgeous desert sunset, all combined to stir his coyote soul and put a smile of contentment on his muzzle.

Even though they were over fifty yards away from the truck, and even though there was some vehicular and railroad traffic noise to contend with, Joe clearly heard his wife's startled exclamation of "You're WHAT?" His ears flicked forward.

Mojave's head jerked up, her ears flicked forward as well. She whined once, and then began pulling on the leash in the direction of the truck. Joe followed her at a fast walk.

In the short period of time it took the kali and the fur to return to their truck, Annie had heard all she needed to hear from her eldest son, and had terminated the call.

As they approached she turned to her husband, a worried look on her face. Without preamble she asked him "How fast can we be in Utah?"

He considered briefly. "About five or six hours to Saint George, what part of Utah do we need to be in?"

"Hurricane? Is that how you say it?"

"That's it. Six and a half to seven. What's the problem?"

Her ears visibly drooped in frustration as she shook her head. "You'd better let me explain it to you while we drive." She turned to her daughter. "Are you hungry sweetie?"

Now it was Debbie's turn to shake her head. "I'm fine, mom." She was surprised at how well her mom had taken the news of her brother's imprisonment.

Annie opened her door and began to climb into the cab. "Let's go!"

Joe turned to his daughter with a question on his face. She looked at him and shook her head once again, saying "You'd better get it from mom."

Joe opened the rear passenger door and, looking at Mojave, patted the floor, saying "Up... up... " Mojave jumped into the rear of the cab in a single leap. Joe disconnected Mojave's leash from her collar and passed the leash to Debbie, who took it and climbed wordlessly into the cab through the same door Mojave had just used. Joe closed the door behind her.

Climbing back into the driver's seat, Joe looked meaningfully at his wife. She was upset, that much was plainly visible. She remained silent, gazing at him while her tail twitched nervously. He figured she'd fill him in sooner or later, so he just smiled at her and patted her thigh silently as he released the brakes and put the truck in gear.

###

They'd been northbound on Interstate 15 for several minutes before Annie started talking. The lights of Yermo were fading in the distance in his mirrors. As she wrought her paws she managed to condense dozens of minutes of combined dialog into a few key sentences. She briefly described Mike's route home from Chris's place in Durango, via the Four Corners, Page, the Arizona Strip, and southern Utah. She paused, looking at him.

"He picked up a hitch-hiker, a female," she continued. "Somewhere east of Hurricane he was pulled over by a state trooper for reasons unknown. Turns out the female he picked up was a known felon of some sort, and now he's under arrest for aiding and abetting. He's in jail in Hurricane right now."

"He's WHAT?"

"That's what mom said," Debbie said from the back of the cab with a humorless smile.





To Chapter Twenty Three: Hurricane Jessica.

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