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.

In this chapter reference is made to a "kaht". This is an invention of Tigermark's, roughly analogous to the real world's house cat, described fully in his story "Fire On High". See the Foreword to Chapter One of his story here. Kahts are copyright © Tigermark 2003, and are used here with his permission.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad exists in the real world. Check it out!


Precious Cargo is copyright © The Silver Coyote
2003 & 2004



Winds Of Change

The early dawn chill felt good against his fur. The sun would begin cresting the horizon to the east any minute now, and very soon after that the temperature would begin itís daily climb towards the triple digits. Even as it approached the wintertime this country could be hot and dry. There wasnít a cloud in the sky, but the Chiricahua Mountains to the east looked a bit fuzzy and indistinct against the pink and violet hues of the dawn skyline, hinting at some moisture in the air. There might be thunderstorms again this afternoon.

Rays of light and shadow arced across the morning sky in advance of the rising sun. The arid valley was quiet, yet here and there a sharp eye could see movement as a critter scurried amongst the scrub and brush, or a bird took flight. To the northeast in the distance the scattered lights of the village of Pearce still glowed in the early light. US highway 666 meandered through the valley, but no vehicles traveled the roadway at this dawning hour.

The coyote sipped his coffee from the old, blue-enameled tin cup he held in a paw and leaned back into the wooden straight-back chair he sat in. Swallowing, he took a deep breath of the morning air, enjoying the relaxing combination of the scents of his coffee, sage brush, scrub piŮon, and dusty earth. He momentarily studied the tips of his boots as they rested on the porch rail before him, and then returned his gaze to the horizon as a breath of a breeze brushed across the chaparral and ruffled the fur of his face.

Way down in the southeast corner of Arizona, nestled against the eastern slopes of the Dragoon Mountains, Hector SandovŠl was in his element. His clan had lived in this country for dozens of generations, scattered across what was now Sonora State of Mexico and the states of Arizona and New Mexico in the United States. His forebears had been here before Coronado and Cortez. Hector included the likes of Goyathlay and Cochise in his ancestry. Descended of "Mexicans" only by virtue of where other furs had drawn a line on a map, he considered himself to be a true son of the desert southwest.

The coyote closed his eyes briefly as he drew another deep breath, concentrating on the scents carried on the breeze. The smell of the ancient land pleased him, a smile touched his muzzle as he basked in the light and warmth of the sunrise just beginning to crest the eastern mountains. The horizon flared into fire as the sun crept above the mountains, the glare was mildly painful even behind closed eyelids.

His ranch, small by comparison to others in the area at only one hundred and forty acres, overlooked the Sulphur Springs Valley and, in the distance on the horizon, the Chiricahua Mountains. To the north, thirty some miles away, the little town of Willcox straddled the old Southern Pacific mainline as it worked west towards Tucson and Los Angeles. To the south, about an equal distance away, the towns of Bisbee and Douglas guarded the arid border with Mexico.

This was sanctuary, this was home. Here he could be at peace, free if for the moment from the likes of the current administration and the Interstate Police Force. Tugging the brim of his old Stetson a bit lower on his head with his free paw, Hector tilted his head forward to eclipse the rising sun in his vision as he opened his eyes. Indeed, this was the best part of the morning, as Godís light blessed him for yet another day. His smile broadened with his heartfelt, one word prayer.

"GrŠcias."

The coyote continued to watch the desert morning grow and come to life around him. After a few minutes of blissfully silent observation he tilted his head back and drained his coffee cup. By the time the sun had finished rising above the Chiricahuas he would be starting his day. The south windmill was broken again, the temporary linkage to the pump had apparently corroded and snapped. Heíd take his truck and tools down there after breakfast and see what could be patched up.

His nose twitched at the thought of breakfast. "No hay hora como tiempo actual," Hector muttered under his breath as he rose from his chair on the porch. He paused as he spied a hawk sitting on a fence rail near one of his outbuildings. Hector nodded at the hawk, smiling as she spread her wings to take flight. "Buena caza, prima." Hector opened the screen door leading into his kitchen.

# # #

She awoke with the sunlight streaming through her window, as it seemed she always had. She lay quietly, enjoying the freedom from thought each morning brought her. Maria Guadalupe SandovŠl had enjoyed her tradition of morning for years. It had not always been so.

She had been a pawful for her parents. "May they rest in peace," she whispered as she thought of them, crossing herself. Perhaps her behavior had in some way justified the way they had raised her, she did not know. As a young fur she had run with the wrong crowd. By the time she was fifteen she was staying out all night, smoking and drinking and worse with the young males that paid her much attention as long as she was "agreeable". For her sixteenth birthday she presented her poor parents with a thirty day jail sentence, she had been caught shoplifting.

In spite of their punishment she continued her wild ways. In her seventeenth summer she was arrested for Grand Theft Auto. She had been partying with two canids who had decided they wanted to take a trip up to the Utah line, so they had hotwired the first unlocked car they found. Unfortunately for her, the canids werenít too bright, and failed to notice the state vehicle plates on the Plymouth Fury, likewise paying no mind to the two-way radio under the dash. It turned out that the car belonged to a supervisor of ADOT, the Arizona Department of Transportation, and said supervisor witnessed the theft. They never made it out of Pinal County.

Yet that turned out to be, for her, the best thing that had ever happened. For it was on the heels of this, her last arrest, that she met Hector SandovŠl. At the time employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Hector had come out from the San Carlos Reservation of the Apache to talk with her and handle her case. A Viet Nam vet, he had returned to his homeland to try and do something for his family and clan, and had wound up in the BIAís law enforcement branch.

Over the succeeding months and years Hector and Lupe had spent much time together, with and without the company of her parents. At all times he was the perfect gentleman, treating her with respect and dignity, something she was here to fore quite ignorant of. He obtained legal counsel for her, and through some chamber dealings managed to have her sentence reduced to probation.

Their love started ever so slowly. One of the first things Hector did for her after she was released was take her to the Saint Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Safford. Here, amongst other members of her own pride, she began with him a journey of redemption, re-evaluation, and reconstruction. Hector spent all his free time with her and her family, guiding, teaching, caring, helping. She couldnít really recall a specific event or point in time at which she admitted to herself that she loved this coyote, but love him she did. They were married by the time she turned twenty one.

Lupe sighed from beneath her sheets. She had trouble, sometimes, remembering who she was, what kind of fur she had been as a youngster. Her life with Hector was so diametrically opposed to her childhood. With him she had security, stability, dignity, and love. Her childhood had been a jumbled mass of poor decisions, humiliating and painful consequences, and a seemingly never-ending parade of "passers through". She much preferred her life now...

The feline stretched, her expressed claws gently raking the brass headboard of their bed. Yawning as she finished her stretch, she was startled by a soft knock at the bedroom door.

"Hola, novia. Como te va?"

She smiled at Hector as he entered the room. In one paw he held a breakfast tray with what smelled like eggs and bacon, in the other he carried his old tin cup and a porcelain mug by the handles. Lupeís nose twitched expectantly as she inhaled. Yes! Eggs and bacon and fresh coffee, too.

As she pushed herself up and back against the pillows into a sitting position, Hector placed the tray and cups carefully on their dresser. Crossing the room, the coyote opened the window to admit the morning breeze into their bedroom. He stayed by the window just a moment, gazing at the mountains, and then returned to her bedside, picking up the tray and cups as he did so. He placed the tray across his wifeís lap, placed the mug of coffee on a corner of the tray, and then bent to kiss her cheek, playfully nipping an ear as he did so.

"Bad dog!" she giggled, looking into his brown eyes as he sat at the foot of their bed. He stared back at her, momentarily lost in the beauty that was this regal looking mountain lion. Her golden eyes were set off perfectly against her grayish brown fur, her small ears, edged in black, stood erect. She had white fur at the very end of her muzzle, just below her black nose.

"How did you sleep?"

Holding her mug in two paws, she took a first sip of her coffee. Relishing the flavor of the Colombian mixture, she did not immediately reply. Instead she winked and nodded her head just before taking another sip.

Hector sipped from his old tin cup. After a few moments he placed the cup on his thigh and looked at her solemnly.

"I need to go out to the south tank this morning and work on the Ďmill. I think the pumpís connecting shaft snapped again."

She placed her own cup on her tray as well, and picked up a fork. "Will you be gone long?"

"A couple hours, maybe." Hector fidgeted with his cup. "Would you like to come with me?"

Lupe chewed some scrambled eggs as she considered this. Swallowing, she replied "No, thank you sweetheart. I think Iíll stay here and clean up a little bit. That wind yesterday certainly blew a lot of dust around."

They made small talk as she ate breakfast, discussing the weather, her plans for the sewing room she wanted him to build, his plans for the few head of stock they ran on the ranch, and an upcoming social event in Willcox she wished to attend. As she munched happily on her last strip of bacon Hector stood and smiled down to his wife, holding out a paw.

She placed her paw in his, and he gently helped her out of bed.

"Will you need help today, Lupe?"

She shook her head happily. "No. There is no pain today. God smiles on me." She glanced down to the floor where her left foot should be. Since that awful night of her last arrest all those years ago, she had been without her left foot. Along with the lives of both her canid acquaintances, it had been lost in the accident that had totaled the Fury and abruptly ended her childhood.

Lupe sighed quietly. "Where is my boot?" she asked, referring to her artificial foot that looked like a small femmeís boot. She had footware to match for her lone, surviving foot.

"Iíll get it, if youíre OK,"" Hector replied, still holding her paw gently. "Itís at the foot of the bed."

Lupe supported herself with a paw on the nightstand. She smiled as she spoke to him. "Iím fine."

Hector retrieved the artificial foot and, kneeling, helped his wife attach it to the blunt end of her left leg. With the boot she could walk normally, without it she was forced to hobble about on a crutch.

Adjusting the final restraint, Hector looked up into Lupeís golden eyes with a concerned smile. Even after almost twenty years of marriage he was still as concerned for her welfare and comfort as he had been on their first meeting in the emergency room in Casa Grande. Rising, he patted her bottom gently as she stretched yet again, paws high above her head. Her tail flicked in amusement.

"It is a good day, my love."

"Yes it is," Hector agreed.

# # #

It was already nearing eighty degrees by the time Hector strode off his porch towards the bunkhouse across the dusty open area that passed for the front yard of his home. Large cottonwood trees, better than one hundred years old, offered shade as well as delineation on the property, but little grass or shrubbery was evident. Water was scarce in this part of Arizona, and tended to be held in reserve as a precious commodity, like oil.

His boots scuffed up a bit of dust as he made his way through the growing heat towards the "bunkhouse". It was actually another home, smaller than the main house, but fully equipped none the less. Before he was able to step up onto the shaded porch, however, the door opened, revealing the only other occupant of the ranch.

"Oye, Mano. Como te va?" Hector grunted.

"Buenas dias, Jefe," Victor drawled. "Iím doiní good. You?"

Lupeís kid brother Victor Chavez stepped out onto the porch of the bunkhouse, paw extended for a shake. The younger mountain lion was very similar to his sister in coloration, but a might taller. He was thin to the point of looking malnourished, yet broad of shoulder, and despite his thin frame had a powerful look about him. The only major visible difference in facial appearance between the siblings was a jagged scar that ran across the bridge of Victor's nose and down below his right eye. His fur covered most of it, but it disrupted the lay of the fur and was still noticeable.

Victor had come to live with Hector and Lupe when his father had died fifteen years ago, and had been with them ever since. He was treated as an equal partner in the ranchís operation. The SandovŠls both called Victor "Mano", a contraction of "hermano", the Spanish word for "brother". It was a play on words, as "mano" in Spanish meant "paw", and both Hector and Lupe considered Victor to be their "right paw" in the operation of the ranch as well.

Victor occasionally teased his sisterís husband, calling him "Jefe", or "boss".

Hector nodded his head as he shook paws with his brother-in-law. "Iím fine, thanks." He pointed a thumb back over his shoulder. "I made some breakfast up at the house if you want some. Bacon and eggs."

Mano appeared to consider this briefly as his paw returned to his side. "I think," he finally replied, "that Iíll get a cup of coffee. Iím not really hungry."

They turned to head back towards the main house, walking side by side. "Whatís on the agenda for today?" Mano asked.

"Ah, that damn Ďmill down south." Hector grinned. "That patch job I did while you were over in Tucson a few months ago didnít last. I used rebar, not galvanized like I should have, and it rusted and broke."

"Why rebar?"

"I had some here. It saved me a trip into Douglas to get what I should have used."

Mano nodded, a neutral look on his face.

"I figured that now that Iíve got the right material weíd go over there and do it right together." They stepped up onto the porch of the big house and Hector opened the screen door for Mano. Following the cat, Hector heard Lupe greet her brother warmly as he entered the kitchen.

"Mano!"

"Hi sis. How are you this morning?"

Hector entered the kitchen in time to see the siblings embrace warmly.

"Iím feeling wonderful this morning!" Lupe exclaimed, winking at Hector. She turned to her brother and reached up, running a playful paw through the long, dark hair that covered his head. "You want some breakfast?"

Mano shook his head slowly, and Lupe stepped back with a small smile.

"Let me rephrase that," she said slowly. "Sit down."

Mano looked over to Hector, who was seating himself at the opposite side of the table. With a rueful hint of a smile he asked "We got time?"

"Yeah," Hector replied calmly. "Time is one thing we got lots of today."

Mano seated himself as Lupe passed a mug his way. The aroma of the coffee caught his nose, and he blinked as his nose twitched. Taking his first sip he closed his eyes, savoring the scent and flavor of the hot liquid. Unbeknownst to him, the tip of Mano's gray tail flicked randomly, adding another dimension to the indications of his pleasure. Mano loved coffee, you see, even more than his sister and brother-in-law.

As Manoís meal progressed and he and his sister chattered away Hector looked on silently, ruminating about life. For hundreds of years his family had married within the broader clan of Sonoran Coyotes. His family took great pride in tracing their ancestry back through generations of soldiers, rancheros, prospectors, vaqueros, and warriors.

His family. They had been mortified at the notion that he would marry a mountain lion... a feline. It made no difference to them what was in her heart, nor how her mind worked. All they saw was the exterior, and that was enough. His own parents had disowned the veteran, the peace officer, the day he announced his engagement to Lupe.

Yet his heart was sold out to her, and it mattered not to him what any of his family thought. That was their problem to deal with, he thought, and he acted accordingly. A la chingada con todos. Without the support, encouragement, or love of either family he and Lupe had made a home near the small village of Peridot, just north of San Carlos Lake.

It was there that the other hammer fell. After several seasons without kits they had gone to the clinic to see a doctor. Why could they not have babies? Was there a genetic issue at paw? The long and short of it turned out to be something much simpler yet more devastating in itís finality. It was internal damage to Lupeís ovaries caused by the accident. The doctors had been preoccupied with her foot amputation and had missed some internal injuries that left scars inside, preventing pregnancy. Additionally the doctors at the clinic had discovered scar tissue on her spleen and one kidney. Lupe was crushed.

It had taken her longer to recover from that than it had taken her to get used to dealing with her missing left foot. They had left Peridot and the San Carlos Reservation, her home, soon thereafter and bought the ranch in the Dragoons. Here the right combination of solitude, faith, and love brought Lupe back, and here they remained, fiercely devoted to each other.

Manoís arrival had helped immensely. Together the three of them developed the ranch, building it into the small, tidy operation it had become. They had made a few dollars here and there running stock on their land back then, but by and large their ranch was simply a home these days. Money was no longer an issue.

An opportunity had come to Hector in those days, a new job at a new federal agency. They had promised him all the right things: good pay, a regular schedule, working in the local area. Perhaps they had been sincere, but Hector doubted it. Once he had met The Director, he had been convinced. This new outfit was like others of itís ilk: the FBI, the CIA, the NSA. The Interstate Police Force was another shadowy operation.

Yet their cause was just in his eyes, and he had persevered. Within a year of his hiring on he was being sent all over the western United States on various operations engaged in anti-terrorism. While feeling uneasy about leaving Lupe for days at a stretch, he had enjoyed the field action and the feeling of contribution that developed within him. He was helping his country again. Rising through the ranks as the IPF grew in size, scope, and power; Hector now counted himself part of the middle management strata of the organization. He was still a field agent, to be sure. Virtually everyone except The Director himself was expected to regularly engage in field operations, and Hector actually preferred that. The soldier / peace officer in him drew comfort from the removal and disposition of the vermin furs in society, those that would destroy his homeland and all it stood for.

But he had made few friends with this job. Unlike other law enforcement or military operations he had been part of, there was no sense of community within the IPF. Everything was ruthlessly controlled and directed from the headquarters building in Arlington, Virginia, there was no need for lower level operations staff to gather for discussions. Everyone got their orders from above and was expected to carry them out to the letter. It was a stupid arrangement, in Hectorís opinion. Allowing the various operatives more autonomy would probably go a long way towards streamlining operations and perhaps better success against major targets. Speed and stealth were key to successful operations these days, the terrorists had almost as much technology and resources available to them as the IPF had.

Hector started slightly, realizing the table conversation had stopped. Lupe and Mano both were looking at him, bemused smiles on their muzzles, waiting.

"Iím sorry?"

Lupe giggled as Mano repeated himself. "You ready to go?"

Hector looked at the half cup of lukewarm coffee he held in his paws, and then glanced up to Mano with a small smile of his own. "Yeah," he said as he pushed his chair back from the table. He patted his pockets briefly, and then added "Let me get my keys and weíll go."

Hector could hear dishes being rinsed and more sibling conversation as he headed towards the small office off their great room. Once entering the office he paused at the desk there, gazing at a folder on the desktop as he opened a drawer and retrieved his truck keys. The tab on the folder displayed a name: Josť O. Latrans.

A small grimace touched Hectorís face. Iíve got to deal with that this evening , he thought. But then he put the thought out of his mind. He would give his time to the Interstate Police Force when he needed to, and right now he didnít need to.

Hector stopped in the kitchen again long enough to kiss his darling wife and refill his old tin cup for the trip out to the south tank.

"Manoís outside putting some equipment on the work truck," Lupe said quietly.

Hector nodded. "If you need anything, call us on the radio. Weíll leave ours on."

They kissed again, and then Hector was gone outside, into the dust and the heat, starting his day.

# # #

In spite of the heat of the morning in the Sulphur Springs Valley, it was not warm everywhere in the southwest. Several hundred miles to the northeast, in fact, it was beginning to snow.

Chris Latrans shivered, driving his paws deeper into the pockets of his denim jacket as he crossed the parking lot. The flakes falling from the sky were random, drifting down one by one from the gray overcast skies, but he guessed them to be a precursor, the leading edge of a storm. It was cold! A chill wind pushed him from behind as he approached a gate in a chain link fence.

Reaching the gate, he fumbled briefly with a key and unlocked a padlock. Closing the gate behind him after passing through, he carefully locked the padlock in place, securing the gate. Returning to his original direction, Chris stepped over rails laid three feet apart, enroute to the roundhouse across the rail yard. Wisps of smoke whirled away from the roof stacks on the wind. There were locomotives in there under steam, Chris reckoned, and that meant it would be warm. He quickened his pace across the yard, glancing left and right for trains that he knew wouldnít be on the move.

"Hey! Look what the kaht drug in!" John Briscolís voice echoed in the cavernous room that was the interior of the roundhouse as Chris shut the entry door behind him. Mixed with John's voice in the large, dimly lit room was a chorus of soft sounds that were music to Chrisí ears. At least two fireboxes had a fire roaring within, steam powered electric generators whined quietly, and an occasional air pump would make a moderately loud chunk-chunk sound between long stretches of quietly seeping steam. Somewhere in the roundhouse an electric blower was running, probably drawing air through a third firebox that was in the process of lighting off.

It had to be at least thirty degrees warmer inside. Chris immediately removed his denim jacket and, after hanging it on a peg, began unbuttoning his plaid shirt jacket as well. "Hey John," he called into the gloom. He couldnít see his friend, but had clearly heard his voice. "Whereís the coffee?"

"Markís office, help yourself," Johnís voice called from above. Taking his cap off, Chris looked up. There was his feline friend, perched up on the boiler of number 476, working with the safety valve on the steam dome. Chris waved a paw briefly at him. Beyond the 476 Chris could see that number 480, one of the K-36s, was steamed up, ready to go. Beyond that the smaller number 478, a K-28, was also at the ready. Several other locomotives were in various stages of readiness or repair within the smokey confines of the roundhouse.

Chris wandered back towards the back wall of the roundhouse, towards the shop foremanís office next to the machine shop. Entering through the open door, he spied the pot of coffee on the coffee machine, and snagged his cup from the shelf of mugs above the maker. Sometimes crewfurs brought coffee in a thermos from home, other times they would use the machine here in the foremanís office to make the brew. Today somefur, probably John, had brought in a large can of ground coffee and brewed a pot on premesis.

As he poured himself a cup Chris wondered idly if the Durango & Silverton had any special trains running today. He didn't recall mention of anything like that at any of the crew meetings or in any of the bulletins.

Sipping from his cup, Chris wandered back into the roundhouse proper just in time to almost collide with the trainmaster, who seemed intent on finding the coffeepot himself.

"Hi Rudy."

"Buenas frias, Chris." Rudy Gallegos grinned at his play on words. A Colorado native, the beaver was originally born up on the old Rio Grande Southern right of way, up near Mancos. He spoke with an accent common to many old timers in the area, a mixture of southern drawl and Spanish. He was bilingual, and occasionally spoke in combinations of both English and Spanish that were sometimes hilarious to follow.

"How come weíve got so much power up this morning?" Chris asked, motioning with his cup towards the K-28 and K-36 that were ready to go.

"Work trains," Rudy replied shortly, moving towards the foremanís office. Chris followed as the trainmaster continued. "480 has the plow, Iím sending her up the line first to clear the way. Carl was on the speeder earlier this morning coming down from Silverton, and he called from Needleton. Seems thereís been a bit of a snowslide just above the Cascade Trestle."

"This early?" Chris was surprised.

"Itís been snowing in Silverton since late last night, Chris. Thereís already six inches on the level at the depot up there, and apparently itís been drifting with the wind blowing in and above the canyons."

Chris nodded. The Animas River Canyon was well known for snowdrifts and slides in the wintertime. This was nothing new, apparently, although in his short experience with the D&S the slides usually didn't happeen until sometime after New Year's.

"Youíll be with Russ on the 478, taking the maintenance of way crew up there. Itíll be safer to have them up by rail than to try and get them in by truck over those back roads. Ice could be a problem."

Chris felt a presence at his shoulder and turned to see John standing next to him. The mountain lion smiled to him. "Donít worry kid, Iíll be there to protect you youngsters."

Chris grinned. "Thanks for that, buddy," he said, nodding rapidly. Turning his attention back to the trainmaster Chris became serious once again as he continued. "When do we start making up the train?"

"As soon as Russ shows up."

"Where is Russ, anyway?" John inquired.

As if on cue the outside door opened, and they heard boots stomping the floor. A large husky with a cigar in his mouth entered the roundhouse, brushing snow from his jacket.

"Damn!" Russ growled happily. "Itís really coming down out there now." The husky looked at the group of furs staring at him and grinned. "Let me guess who yíall are waiting for..."

# # #

A tool car, a power car, an empty side-dump gondola, a flat car with a front-end loader, and a small coach made up their train. As they passed the Hermosa tank northbound and started really biting into the grade, their speed slowed only slightly. They were lightly loaded. The maintenance of way crew numbered ten furs, the train crew added four to the list. They were making decent time.

Chris shoveled coal into the gaping maw of the K-28ís firebox in a steady rhythm while Russ sat at the throttle, carefully balancing his power between maximum traction and wheel slip on the wet, snow-covered rails. About an inch had accumulated since the 480 had gone up the line an hour ago. Outside the cab the snow whirled around the train on the wind, but the fire in the firebox kept Chris and Russ warm. Russ had his jacket on, but Chris was in shirt sleeves, sweating with the exertion of shoveling coal.

In the coach at the back of the train John Briscol rode brake and Carl Wallace acted as conductor. Every one of the four-fur train crew carried portable radios, as did most of the maintenance of way crew. The twelve furs in the coach huddled around the coal stove at the front, near the door that opened onto the platform facing the flat car.

In the cab of 478 Russ was smiling around his cigar in spite of the weather. He looked down at Chris, who was steadily shoveling coal from the tender deck into the firebox, one scoop at a time, time after time. Russ waited, knowing that sooner or later Chris would stop for a minute to look at his water level and steam pressure. The pressure hovered around 180 pounds, plenty considering the throttle was close to wide open.

Russ glanced ahead and saw an expected marker trackside, a simple white board with a black W painted on it. He reached for the whistle cord, anticipating a grade crossing.

With the sound of the locomotiveís whistle Chris ceased his labors and looked up. Checking his water and pressure, he sat down on his toolbox on the stokerís side of the cab, looking at Russ. Chris removed his glasses and cleaned them with a soft rag from his pocket, removing sweat and coal dust. As he replaced his glasses on his nose they crossed the small access road north of Hermosa, and Russ ceased his whistling and turned to look at Chris briefly.

"So," the husky yelled above the noise of the locomotive, grinning as he exhaled a bit of cigar smoke. "Who was that sweet thing I saw you with at AJs last night?"

Chris blushed a bit beneath his fur. "That was Shari," he answered loudly.

"Shari," Russ mumbled slowly, savoring the name. He had seen Chris and his lady friend last night at a small diner on the north end of town, but had not bothered to stop and introduce himself. They had seemed quite lost in each other, leaning across the small table, noses almost touching, the better to stare into each otherís eyes.

"Sheís cute!" Russ yelled. "She know what you do for a living?"

Chris grinned, thinking of the coyote heíd been on a date with last evening. Heíd heard a hundred stories about railroad brides. He nodded to his engineer.

Suddenly the 478 lurched and stumbled beneath their feet, and they felt their train begin to decelerate. Russ quickly pulled back on the throttle to stop the slipping of her drivers, which had lost traction and were spinning on the railhead. His right paw reached towards the lever that would admit dry sand from the sand dome to the rail just before each set of drivers. Applying a small amount of sand, Russ advanced the throttle slowly as the drivers caught and bit into the rail, pulling them up the grade once again.

"Damn rails are wet," Russ grumbled as he looked at the track ahead, his smile gone. The slip had only cost them a couple miles an hour in speed, but on this grade in this weather it might take them fifteen minutes to regain that speed loss.

Chris glanced ahead momentarily, into the face of the storm, before he went back to shoveling coal. It was going to be a long climb to Cascade.

# # #

Meanwhile, up at Cascade, the crew of the 480 sat in their siding, waiting for the work train. The falling snow was so thick the crew couldnít see the north switch from the cab of the locomotive, even though they were only about a hundred yards below it. They had plowed up to the slide about a mile north of the siding and returned here to clear the main for the work train. Although they had been in the siding less than half an hour the rails they had plowed over were already covered with a thin blanket of snow. The wind howled fitfully around the locomotive and attached caboose.

The 480's crew consisted of five furs: the engineer, the stoker, two brakefurs, and a conductor. Four of them were huddled around a coal stove in the caboose, drinking coffee from the old steel pot on the stove and chatting above the noise of the wind. The temperature outside had dipped well below thirty degrees.

The door facing the tender of the 480 opened and quickly shut again. The stoker, an older fur, appeared and removed his jacket, hanging it on a peg.

"Iíve never seen it snow this hard this early in the season," he commented as he accepted a refilled cup of coffee from one of the brakefurs.

The conductor spoke up as he glanced yet again out the window, something he'd been doing every other minute since their arrival at the siding. "That damn work train had better hurry up," he growled in annoyance, "or we're gonna have a Hell of a time gettin' ourselves back down the line."

With varying degrees of apprehension expressed on their faces, the heads of his fellow crewfurs nodded in agreement.

# # #

Back in Durango Rudy Gallegos sat at the trainmaster's desk in the depot, glumly staring out his window at the continuing snowfall as he considered the tactical situation. After a few moments of contemplation he picked up a radio.

"Mark?"

Several seconds elapsed before the roundhouse foremanís voice came from the portable radioís speaker.

"Yeah?"

"This weather concerns me. Do we have anything with a plow on it under steam?"

In his office the marmot foreman grinned to himself. He'd been expecting this, and had taken the appropriate steps as soon as the work train had departed. "Yes," he replied to his radio. "The 493 is ready to go, and Iíve got a couple of furs getting the 498 ready as well." The K-37s were the largest, most powerful locomotives the Durango & Silverton owned. The 493 had a plow blade on itís pilot beam, and the shop crew was working even now to place a blade on the pilot of 498. "I can have the 498 ready in about an hour."

"Good," Rudy replied, even though something was still jangling his nerves a bit. "I want them both kept in readiness until that work train and the plow train return."

"You got it, boss."

Rudy placed the radio on his desk. Shaking his head, he returned his gaze to the window and the snowfall settling beyond it on the city of Durango. He had a bad feeling about this day.






To Chapter Thirty Seven: Riffed.

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