Precious Cargo

All characters appearing in this story are mine of my own design except for the character of "Mark". I think you'll figure out where he came from, but in case my writing is a bit too obtuse let's just say that he belongs to Tigermark and let it go at that.

This story is a work of fiction based upon nothing in particular.

While the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad no longer exists in the real world (it is now part of the giant Union Pacific system), it's history is well documented at The Rio Grande Modeling and Historical Society.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad does exist in the real world. While I have attempted to faithfully honor and represent the integrity and history of this famous railroad, and honor the men and women who operate it, this story in no way attempts to portray how the D&SNG operates in the real world. Don't take my word for it, check it out!

If you're curious as to what the K-36 is all about, take a look at the D&RGW K-36 Page.

Precious Cargo is copyright © The Silver Coyote
2003 & 2004

The Old Fashioned Way

Generations of furs have fought nature and her elements in the Animas River Canyon. The battles began in earnest almost one hundred and fifty years ago with the rock. Nature and the San Juan Mountains conspired in their best attempt to keep mechanized furkind out of the high mountains and deep canyons of southwestern Colorado.

Nature lost. Using not much more than picks, hand drills and sledges, nitro glycerin and dynamite, the grading crews of the Denver and Rio Grande chiseled a right of way from the solid rock hundreds of feet above the river on the high line from Durango. The first few miles north from Durango had been easy. At an elevation of 6500 feet the Animas River Valley was broad and flat in the south, and the crews had little to do but raise a roadbed, throw down the ties, and spike down the rail. "Railroading on a pool table," they called it.

As the railhead advanced towards Rockwood, however, things began to change. Eighteen miles up the valley, Rockwood was only 800 feet above Durango. Past there the canyon narrowed, the rock walls grew higher, and the work ceased to be scraping and became more like hard rock mining as the grade increased. In the 27 miles between Rockwood and Silverton the rails would climb an additional 1900 feet while twisting and turning and clinging to the rocky canyon walls. Blasting became commonplace, and in between the booming explosions the canyon rang with the sound of steel sledges on paw-held steel drills. Occasionally a shrill locomotive whistle would reverberate in the canyon. Elsewhere more sledges sang in rhythm as the rail crew drove spikes into the ties, and everywhere was the sound of furs and their teams, voices raising and animals responding. Horse-drawn wagons hauled away the debris and hauled in the tools and supplies from the ever-advancing railhead. Massive numbers of furs toiled from before dawn until past sunset, finally putting their tools down when it became too dark to see them. Their camps moved slowly north with the work, and in their wake the silver rails trailed back down canyon towards civilization.

Set on a thirty six inch gauge, the steel rails reached Silverton in 1882 to tap the riches of the gold and silver mines in the area. During the construction of the line more than a few furs fell victim to the blasting, the rockslides, or a misplaced step on the precipitous grade. Their unmarked graves are still there in the canyon, silent, forgotten tributes to the nameless and long forgotten furs who built the line. Many more of them were injured by the same means, and not a few collected a black eye, a stab wound, or a gunshot wound from the frequent disagreements that seemed to occur with regularity in the grading camps, usually over cards or whiskey. Yet the rock was just the beginning. The real battles had yet to begin.

Silverton is at an elevation of over nine thousand feet. From the beginning the Maintenance of Way furs based there spent much of their time clearing snow and debris from the right of way. The enemy came each fall, sometimes as early as September, and the after-effects of snowís invasion could be felt until May. The repeated freezing and thawing in the canyon walls caused the rock to fracture and decompose. Avalanches and slides were common, either burying the right of way under tons of material or causing the roadbed to slide right out from under the rails and ties, leaving them suspended in mid-air like some sort of strange looking hanging footbridge.

Crews would set out with picks and shovels on work trains equipped with spreaders, flangers and wedge plows, and spend an entire day hacking and bucking their way a mile or two into the canyon. In those days the only way to plow through a drift was to take a run at it with the wedge plow, literally driving the wedge over and over into the drift until it gave way and the train could proceed onward. Over and over the train would impact the ramparts of snow, stall, and retreat to take another run. After a few iterations the wedge and lead locomotive would be covered with snow and ice, and the crews would have to pause for a while to chip the ice away from the running gear and windows of the lead locomotive.

More often than not the snow would still be falling on them as they worked, and they would have to clear their own way back out again. Back at the depot the tired, weary, and half-frozen crew furs would stagger off their trains while others serviced the locomotives. Fresh crews would board the train, and another shift would go down, clearing another pawful of miles over their eight hour trick. This would go on for months on end while they struggled to keep the line open.

The advent of the rotary snow plow changed all that, and it became somewhat easier to maintain the line in a state of readiness. Rotary plows looked like nothing more than a huge, ducted, multi-bladed propeller attached to the front of a boxy rail car, and in fact thatís basically what it is. The steam engine aboard the rotary turned the propeller as the vehicle advanced through the snow. The propeller would eat into the snow, and the ducting would exhaust the snow in a high arc away from the roadbed, perpendicular to the rotaryís direction of travel. The snow would fall back to the ground fifty to one hundred feet away from the grade. A rotary could eat itís way through a mile of eight foot deep drift in less than an hour, whereas it might take a crew with the wedge plow train all day to accomplish the same feat.

The rotary was indeed a formidable weapon in the war against the icy grip of winter. The crews would assemble a train with the steam powered rotary at the fore, followed by a flanger, a tool car, a crew car, and two or three locomotives for traction and propulsion. This ensemble would head up canyon from Durango every time the snow level on the rails exceeded two feet or more in depth, or any time the pilot plows of the locomotives could no longer push the piles of the white stuff out of the way. They usually completed their run within eight hours and would turn their train on the wye just below the depot at Silverton, to stage for the return trip when the snow piled up again.

Spring bought itís own woes as the snow melted in the high country. Up at fourteen thousand feet the snow pack could be over forty feet deep. The melting snow would trickle down slope from under the banks of snow, collecting into small brooks that trickled across the tundra and into the forests where the brooks collected into streams, those combining to become rivers. The runoff would roar down into the various gulches and canyons from above, choking the Animas River Canyon with rock, mud, timber, and any machinations of furkind that happened to get in the way. Bridges washed away. Roadbed eroded. Wayside structures and, sometimes, whole villages disappeared under the water and mud. Pieces of them would be found late in the spring, miles from where they had originally been located. Maintainers and MofW furs worked back to back shifts to keep the line open, only to watch in amazement when a locomotive would roll over as the rails slid out from under it on the water- logged grade.

Yet they fought on, furs of iron determination with muscles of steel. They never backed down, they never gave up, and the wheels rolled. Fortunes were made in the San Juans that support generations of families to this day. The entire district owes itís very existence to the precious metals that followed those locomotives and their crews down to Durango. Were it not for those determined furs and their fire - breathing machines of iron, the San Juans would very likely be devoid of habitation to this day.

Heavy loads demanded the best motive power. The D&RG made sure the best that the locomotive builders had to offer were on hand to lift furs up the two and a half percent grades into the heart of the San Juan Mountains, and to haul out the uncountable millions of dollars worth of mineral wealth. Ore processing mills with names like Gladstone, Sunnyside, Pride of the West, Mayflower, and Gold Prince generated bullion by the ton from mines known as Yankee Girl, Ruby, Old Howard, Storm King, Big Giant, and Buffalo Boy. The bullion and the furs of means had only one way to get to Denver, via the rails of the Denver & Rio Grande. Silverton became the heart of the San Juans. Her life blood was the ores of the mountains. Her existence and good fortune was made possible by the steam that pumped through the cylinders of the magnificent locomotives that toiled in the canyon every day of the year, and by the blood and sweat of the furs that guided those machines safely to their destinations.

While gold and silver are no longer the bread and butter of the Durango & Silverton, the descendant of the Denver & Rio Grande, there is now another source of wealth to be tapped... tourism. Yet somehow, with the upturn in tourist dollars came a resurgence of freight shipments. It started with a few packages making the trip up or down canyon in a conductorís grip. Then it grew to enough volume that the packages began to stack up in the head end car. Eventually the D&S began to cut in a box car or two on the daily trains up canyon. Finally, when oil prices began to head for the stratosphere, coal-fired shipment began to look economically viable again, and the D&S put on a daily mixed train in the schedule, consisting of up to half a dozen mixed freight cars with the standard passenger car consist. To everyoneís surprise the daily mixed was profitable almost from the first day of service.

So the fireboxes of the ancient K-28s and K-36s continued to roar, and their drivers continued to turn, and new crews continued to hire out with the D&S to fire, operate, and maintain them, their trains, and the right of way they rolled on. Chris Latrans was a member of the latest generation, one of the latest to inherit the legacy of mountain railroading the old fashioned way. He had been born at least fifty years too late for main line steam operation, long after the class one rail carriers had given up on steam propulsion in favor of the huge diesel-electrics that now plied their silver rails. He had always been a train nut though, heíd caught the bug early in life, riding on his daddyís knee when Joe had worked for the Santa Fe. Yet the current offerings from General Electric and Electro-Motive Division didnít much interest him. From the moment he had first seen one back in the late twentieth century, Chris had known in his heart that he would some day work as an engineer or stoker on one of those fabulous pieces of steam-powered history. Everything he had learned, everything he had done, had led to the day he had introduced himself to Rudy Gallegos in the Durango roundhouse two years ago.

He had worked for six months that first summer as a brakefur, getting to know the line and the furs he was working with. He spent his off hours in his Jeep CJ-7 either exploring the high country of the San Juans or poking along the right of way, getting to know the D&S like his own front yard. That first winter Rudy had approached him with the idea of working as a stoker on the yard switcher and as a mechanic during the winter months. Chris had jumped at the chance. That following spring he was assigned to the third daily, the mixed local, as a stoker. He had worked various trains in that capacity ever since. This was his first winter on the line as a stoker, and he was relishing the crisp, frigid air and the wonder of the San Juans in winter time. He also immensely enjoyed the companionship of his crewfurs.

The ancient K-28 chuffed slowly downgrade below Cascade, the engineer keeping a little throttle on to push his train through the snow and ice collecting on the rails. Engine number 478 was nearing her ninetieth birthday. The 2-8-2, an American Locomotive Company product builder's number 64981, was built in 1923. She was in fine mechanical shape and the crew was skilled in her operation. Ahead of them, their short train nosed into the snowstorm. As they backed slowly down the line the crew car came first, followed by the now empty flat car. The flatís load, the front end loader, was now in the Animas River at the site of the latest slide, just below Cascade. Following the flat came the side dump gondola with a few tons of large boulders, then the power car with itís generators. Finally, between the power car and the locomotiveís tender, was the tool car.

A large feline brakefur stood on the downgrade platform of the crew car, keeping a sharp eye out for obstructions as his train inched slowly into the gloom of the gathering snow storm. An electric lantern, battery powered, sat on the platform next to his feet.

"478, come ahead slow, Russ," John Briscol called to his engineer on his paw-held radio.

They were backing down to the wye below Cascade. Zach and Mark and the 480 had gone before them to clear the way, but even though only four or five minutes separated them, snow was gathering on the rail head as the 478 pushed south.

Russ Taylor peered apprehensively past his locomotive's tender into the gray-white nothingness ahead. The husky could barely see the other end of his own train.

Chris was hunched on his box seat on the left hand side of the cab, leaning far out of his window, looking past the tender downgrade as well. They were using the steam in their boiler for little more than maintaining air pressure in the brake line and driving the electric generator, gravity did most of the work in propelling them. Occasionally Russ would give a small application of throttle to overcome a small drift or break some ice, otherwise they were basically coasting. Accordingly, Chrisí job was fairly light. He had stoked the firebox well just before departure, and at this rate would not have to add more coal for at least another five or ten minutes. Nonetheless, like the good stoker he was, he stole an occasional glance at his steam pressure gauge and the water glass, and also checked the air pressure gauges, just to be sure.

Russ worked the cold, dead cigar butt nervously in his mouth. He didnít like the storm and the reduced visibility. Sure, heíd operated in snowfall before, but not like this. This felt... different.

The 478 hissed contentedly as she rolled them along at three miles per hour, her air compressors chunking briefly in counterpoint to the whine of the steam-powered electric generator. The fire roared comfortingly in her firebox.

Russ had just turned his head towards his stoker across the cab to comment on the seeming deathly silence and calm of the nature around them when a panicked voice hollered from their radio speakers.

"Big hole! Big Hole! Work train is on the ground! Big Hole!" Big Hole is railroad lexicon for emergency stop. It refers to the action of going to zero pressure on the train brakes air pipe, thus applying maximum braking effort.

In a purely reflex action Russí right paw darted for the twin brake valves, one for the locomotive and the other for the train, while his left paw closed the throttle. While he was doing this Chris hopped to the deck and reached above Russí head for the whistle cord, commencing a series of short, repetitive blasts on the steam whistle. It was the classic, ageless railroad distress signal.

478ís drivers slipped and slid on the wet rail, and their speed did not seem to decrease.

"Russ!" John Briscolís voice betrayed genuine fear. "Weíre on the ground, Russ! The flat is rolling over! Big Hole ! Big Hole!!"

There was a loud whoosh of escaping air as Russ dumped the train brake air in emergency, applying as much brake as possible. The train continued to slide.

"Whatís happening?" Zachís panicked voice called on the radio from the cab of the 480 ahead, sounding as if from a great distance.

Chris grabbed his radio. "John, were sliding!"

Russ left paw grabbed the sander valve next and yanked it full open, admitting sand to the rail head before each set of drivers. He felt the drivers gain traction, and the 478 suddenly slowed.

"Zach! Mark! Work train is derail!" Chris called again.

On the deck of the K-36 the tiger and the bear exchanged worried looks as Zach closed the 480ís throttle and applied gentle braking effort. Having only the momentum of a caboose behind them and a heavier locomotive to help with traction, the 480 decelerated smartly.

Behind them the 478 ground to a stop. Russ hopped off his seat.

"Where are you going?" Chris asked the husky as he jumped off his own seat.

Russ gave him an Are you kidding? look and spat his cold cigar butt to the deck in preparation of verbalizing that thought..

Chris smiled patiently and put a paw on his friendís shoulder. "Look," he started. "Weíve got plenty of steam and fire. Why donít I go up and see whatís happening, and you stay here just in case she decides to slip out from under us?" It was almost a question.

Russ nodded slowly. He didnít like not being at the scene of trouble, especially when it involved his own train, but what Chris said was smart. One of them should stay on deck to make sure the 478 stayed put. It wouldnít do to have the train start sliding down grade with neither of the crew on the deck of the locomotive.

"OK," Russ sighed, staring for a moment into his younger friend's eyes. "Keep your radio handy and tell me whatís going on."

Chris holstered his paw-held radio as he nodded, turning. Grabbing a pawrail as he stepped into the gangway, he jumped to the roadbed below. As Russ watched from the stokerís gangway, the coyote-fox hybrid trotted down the right of way towards the front of their train, into the gloom of the storm.

Russ heard two short whistle blasts in the distance, and knew that Zach was reversing the 480 to come up and help. He smiled in spite of himself. He loved this job, even when the shit hit the fan.

# # #

Annie was worried. Joe had paced back and forth in front of her for almost fifteen minutes, saying not a word. Then he had suddenly turned and, still without a word to her, headed for the stairs, disappearing down them to the main level of their home. Presently he had returned with two shot glasses and proceeded to open the Jack Daniels, pouring each of the glasses full of bourbon. Handing one of the glasses to the fox he silently sat down next to her, minding both their tails in the process.

As she stared at him he turned to her. They studied each otherís eyes for a moment.

"Joe, are you alright?"

The big coyote's ears wilted slightly as he sighed yet again, nodding slowly as the sour look on his muzzle slowly dissipated. He held his shot glass up to her.

"Those sons of bitches," he growled, barely loud enough for her to hear. "They havenít seen the last of Joe Latrans." He tossed off the drink quickly, his eyes squinting as the bourbon headed towards his stomach.

Annie sipped at her drink very slowly as she watched Joe refill his glass. His face would have been a mask of cold detachment to anyone else, but she well knew the coyote she was looking at. Joeís pride had been deeply wounded. SCWD had taken away his ability to provide for his family, however temporarily that might be, and that was about the worst thing any fur or any institution could do to Joe. She knew his heart, knew that she and their children and their welfare were the most important things in the world to him.

Again he held his glass out between them, staring her in the eye. His blue eyes were suddenly alive with emotion, the grayness of a few moments ago had disappeared. He smiled slightly for her.

"Annie, Iím sorry Iím not handling this well. Tomorrow I will start looking for another job." Again the bourbon disappeared quickly, followed by a bit of a grunt and the squinting eyes. "Right now I just need to re-group a bit."

She laid a paw on his shoulder, and then after a moment gently slid it across his shoulder to the base of his neck and began to knead the muscles there slowly. He placed the shot glass carefully on an end table and then leaned back into her paw, his eyes closing.

They sat in silence for several minutes as her paw worked itís magic on him. As she wrought the tension out of his neck muscles she quietly put her glass down on an opposite end table. Using the now free paw she placed one on each shoulder and continued to work his taught muscles. The tension left him after a while, and his mind began to relax and reconsider the dayís events.

Presently he felt her warm breath in his ear as she whispered "I love you."

He opened his eyes and looked into hers once again. Her muzzle was very close to his.

"Iím not worried, Joe," she said in that quiet, throaty growl of hers that was an almost- purr. "Youíre a smart fur, a good fur, a value to any organization. Youíll find work, and soon, too." Her left paw moved slowly, languidly up the back of his neck, her fingers spreading as her claws moved into his hair. She gently turned his muzzle fully towards her.

Her eyes drilled into his soul. Joe felt the intensity of her gaze upon him as her claws massaged the back of his head gently.

"Your value," she told him quietly, "is not dependent on who employs you, or why." Her muzzle drifted closer to his as she lowered her voice to a whisper. "Youíre worth much more than any job..." A tiny smile crossed her muzzle as Annieís lips met his.

Their kiss was one of love, not passion, yet it lasted for a while. As it progressed the fox wrapped her arms around her husband as she scooted into his lap, and the coyote responded in kind by enfolding her in his arms. Tails expressed muted joy. In that brief period of time much of Joeís remaining anger dissipated, and when Annie finally broke their embrace and wiggled a bit to snuggle into his shoulder and chest he felt much better.

They sat together, just holding each other quietly, for several minutes. No words were spoken, none were needed. Yet after a while the foxís curiosity got the better of her. She tilted her head back a bit and murmured into Joeís ear.

"Who was that on the phone?"

Joe inhaled and paused, then exhaled slowly. It was a classic cleansing breath, although heíd never heard the expression. "You mean earlier?"

The fox nodded, her tail flicking a bit.

"Don." He looked carefully at Annie, a hint of a malicious grin on his muzzle. "He wanted to explain himself."

"What?" Annie asked incredulously.

Joe nodded. "When Don called me in from the field today," he began, "there was a goon from HR there with him. Don wouldnít say anything about why I was being terminated. When I pressed for an explanation he deferred to the HR goon, who basically said ĎWe donít have to tell youí."

Annieís eyebrows arched in defiance. "They canít do that!" she exclaimed righteously. "The law says..."

"Hold on," Joe interrupted her, placing a finger gently on the end of her open muzzle. "Remember who weíre dealing with here." Annie stopped in mid-sentence.

Joe leaned back a bit to get more comfortable, and he draped his arm over the back of the sofa. Annie leaned into the crook of his arm, using it as a backrest as he began his explanation. "Hereís how it works. Most of this you already know. I was employed by the Interstate Police Force. They in turn contracted me back to SCWD to allow me to maintain the appearance of being an SCWD employee. I was paid by SCWD, but they paid me with dollars paid them by the IPF. In this way I was kept in a sort of deep cover. I was cool with it when it started because IPF hardly ever called me, and when they did it was for some little tag-along type operation that never amounted to anything more than babysitting someone." Joe stopped, and Annie nodded for him to continue.

"SCWD liked it because I was still on paw doing my job, but I was no longer an expense. They were well paid by the IPF to allow me to maintain my status, and they continued to get good work from me. They had the best of both worlds: a good worker who, far from being a source of overhead, was actually earning dollars for the company while he worked!" Joe tapped his chest with a finger. "I liked it because I was able to keep working my normal job. I was still holding on to the hope that I would actually be a part-time security hack for SCWD while doing my regular job."

Annie didnít get it. "Then... what happened?" she asked. "If it was so lucrative for them, whyíd you get fired?"

Joe flinched involuntarily at the question. "Over time the IPF became more demanding of my time. I was spending more and more time away from SCWD on calls for them. The deal stopped being lucrative because SCWD was having to bring in other furs to cover for me in my absence. The expenses began to rack up."

"Thatís not your fault!" Annie protested.

Joeís ears wilted a bit. "I know, honey. Hereís what you donít know, what I didnít know until today. The bottom line is that the bean counters downtown finally got to that breakover point where they figured that I had once again become an expense, and now they werenít getting much for their investment. Don called to shed light on this, and to tell me that SCWDís legal beagles had been involved. Apparently they found and exploited a loophole in the contract with IPF that allowed them to dump me."

Annie shook her head. Presently she smiled for him and said "What the Hell, itís their loss."

Joe grinned. "Thatís sort of how I figured it."

There was a brief silence as the two canids regarded each other. Finally Annie looked down a bit and murmured "One more question?"


She looked up. "What does Ďriffedí mean?"

Joeís expression lost a bit of itís humor. Itís from ĎR-I-Fí, which stands for Ďreduction in forceí. Itís a politically correct expression meaning Ďfiredí these days."

Annie nodded, quiet for a few more moments.

"What are you going to do?"

Joe considered for a bit while scratching behind an ear briefly. Returning his paw to her lap he said "Well, for starters I figured Iíd call Bill over at the Santa Fe in the morning and see whatís shaking over there. Iíll call Paul too, see whatís going on at the Union Pacific as well."

Annie looked vaguely apprehensive. "What about the IPF?"

Joeís grin took on evil overtones as he reached with his free paw for the empty shot glass on the end table.

"Do you really want to know what I think about the IPF?"

Annie smiled coyly as she shook her head, and then grinned.

"Want to know what I think?" she asked, glancing casually at the shot glass in her husband's paw.

Joe sat back, looking at her. "What?"

The fox's smile turned fully upon the coyote. "I think itís early afternoon. I think that Debbie wonít be home for at least a couple of hours. I think that Mojaveís downstairs, probably sleeping."

Joeís expression was vacant. "So?"

The fox giggled as she placed her open paw gently on the side of his muzzle. What started out to be a gentle, playful slap ended as a caress.

The coyote was briefly confused until Annie jumped up off his lap and stood up, turning to smile slyly at him. As her expression changed, passing through seductive and feral to outright predation, the light bulb in Joeís head began to glow and his tail began to wag slowly. He grinned back. Annieís bushy tail responded in kind as the fingertips of her right paw toyed with a button on her blouse.

The empty shot glass went back on the end table.

# # #

To a railroader, a frog is not an amphibious creature. A frog is a large "V"-shaped steel device used by railroaders to re-rail errant wheels or entire wheel sets (called "trucks") of railroad cars. If the car is upright and the wheels are near the rails, and a locomotive can push or pull the derailed car, then the frog, assisted perhaps by plenty of furry muscle power and some verbalizing, can guide the wheels up to and back onto the rail.

Three such devices, some ten foot steel pry bars, and about ninety minutes of effort and vocalizing got the work trainís crew car back on the rails. All paws able to do so had fallen out to assist in the endeavor, and it had taken their combined efforts and the able power of the 480 to get the job done. Zach turned out to have a masterís touch at the throttle of his steed, applying just the right amount of power at exactly the right time as called for. Mark had effectively radioed instructions to his engineer while the rest of the furs muscled pry bars and positioned the frogs. It took four attempts, and tempers frayed as each attempt failed, yet as the afternoon wore on the crew car and itís injured furs were finally coupled to the caboose behind the 480. The air hoses were connected, a quick air check was done, and the train was readied to for departure.

All paws gathered in the crew car for a meeting.

"Now what?" Zach asked, rubbing his paws together close to the oil stove in the corner of the coach.

No one spoke up. Chris looked around at the tired faces staring at him, stopping at John Briscol. The big feline shrugged slightly.

"Well," Chris said hesitantly. "We really need to get Eddie and Gary and Jim to the hospital in Durango as soon as possible." Jimís paw had been mangled in the slide somehow, even he wasnít sure how. Gary and Eddie were both now unconscious, Gary from concussion and Eddie from loss of blood. The furs had done what they could to patch them up with what they had, but the marmot who had been on the front end loader would almost certainly die within 24 hours if he didn't get to a hospital.

Chris was uncomfortable with the way many of them were looking to him for guidance. He was the youngest fur of the lot, and had the least seniority on the line. His gaze shifted from his friend to meet that of his conductor. Carl nodded to him in a not altogether friendly manner, and then the lynx redirected his attentions to the crew of the 480. "We ought to send them down the line with your train. Those that can, maybe they can stay behind and help John and Russ and Chris and I try and re- rail this flat car so we can get out of here."

The flat car was perpendicular to the right of way, between the 478ís work train and the line down to Durango. Fortunately the trucks were still attached to their bolsters. If the crew could keep them there as they rolled the car upright, re-railing the car shouldn't be too difficult.

"Weíll do that," an ocelot with a Texas twang said. Jackson was the conductor of the 480 train. He motioned with a spotted paw towards his crew. "Weíll take care of the boys." Zach and Mark nodded along with the two brake furs from their train, mumbling agreement.

Bill, the foreman of the Maintenance of Way crew from the 478 train, spoke up. "Any of you furs want to head back to Durango with the injured, thatís cool. No foul. But weíve got a Hell of a lot of work in front of us before we can get the 478 down the line. Iíd appreciate whatever help we can get."

Nobody moved. It was silent in the crew car save for the quiet sound of the oil stove burners. As the seconds ticked by a notion took Chris, as it had earlier.

"Lord," he said aloud, "Help us deliver these furs safely to their families." He paused, and suddenly he thought of his father. The coyote-fox hybrid grinned. "And get the rest of us the Hell out of this canyon," he finished. "Amen."

"Amen," Mark said, looking out of the corner of his eyes at the canine. "I guess thatís it. Címon, Zach, weíve got a train to get moving." The tiger and the black bear buttoned up their coats and pulled on gloves, heading for the platform of the crew car. A blast of cold wind and a few flakes of snow announced their departure. Their brake furs and conductor stood waiting.

"What about it boys? Whoís with the 478?" Bill asked.

Every fur standing that wasnít part of the 480ís crew moved to bundle up for the weather and started to head for the door at the other end of the coach, the door facing upgrade, towards the derailed flat car. Chris nodded to Russ, smiling.

Ten minutes later the 480 whistled off and began her descent downgrade towards Durango with the injured MofW furs. Before the crew car was out of sight in the snowfall the rest of the MofW team and the 478ís crew were attacking the flat car with chains, frogs, prybars, and an enormous amount of vocabulary. By the time the 480 was out of range of the paw-held radios, the 478 crew was ready for their first attempt at realigning the flat car with the rails. Heavy chain connected the boulder-laden gondola, the closest car of the work train still on the rails, with the upgrade end of the flat car. Carl motioned for the MofW team to back away while bringing his radio to his muzzle.

"Conductor to the 478, take in your slack and tension the chain."

Air exhausted from the lines in the train as the brakes were released, and the furs on the ground could hear steam hissing from the locomotive on the uphill end of the train. Russ carefully took out the slack in his short train while Carl watched. When the chains went taught Carl radioed "Youíve got tension, Russ."

The furs on the ground heard the chuffing noise from the locomotive deepen a bit as Russ opened the throttle. Each of them backed away a bit more. Most of them were aware of what a dangerous weapon a chain under tension could become when it broke. The flat car groaned and inched sideways.

Chris was leaning out his window, looking downgrade for signals from the crew on the ground, while Russ watched the grade ahead and worked the throttle of the 478. Suddenly the deck below them jumped, and the chuffing exhaust speed increased dramatically. The drivers were slipping!

"Damn it!" Russ grumbled as he retarded the throttle, only to begin to open it again. After a few moments the deck below them jumped again as the drivers spun on the wet rail.

Russ sighed as he glanced at Chris. "I sure as Hell wish I had a damned cigar..." he grumbled as he snapped the throttle closed and made a train brake air reduction.

Chris grinned at him, a note of worry discoloring his expression. "Russ, my friend, Iíll buy you a box of your favorite cigars as soon as we get back to Durango."

Russ Taylorís expression brightened considerably as he reached for the sander valve and slowly opened the throttle again. The 478ís exhaust deepened again, and Russ released the train brakes slowly. The 478 rumbled as she slowly crept upgrade.

"Youíve got it, Russ!" Carlís excited voice came over the radio from downgrade. "Sheís starting to pull around. Come ahead slow!"

The MofW team jumped in with prybars and frogs at the fore. So began the odyssey that would carry them through sunset in the canyon as the furs on the ground struggled with and swore at the recalcitrant flat car while the locomotive crew carefully inched the car back towards alignment with the rails. The temperature dropped and the wind picked up as the light began to fade, the snowfall threatened to become a blizzard. Arc lamps and cables were broken out from the tool car, and as the sunlight disappeared from the canyon the generators on the power car were fired off. Cables snaked from the power car up to the lamps placed strategically around the flat car, and the area was batherd in a stark, bluish-white light. It lent an un-earthly appearance to things as the flat car was re-aligned with the right of way.

Itís hard as Hell to see what your ground crew is doing when you're staring into that garish light, looking through heavy snowfall for paw signals. Somehow, with careful coordination and plenty of lantern signals and radio chatter, the MofW furs and the crew of the 478 train managed to get the errant flat car back on the rails by the time the sky above the canyon was completely black. The snowfall let up a bit as darkness fell, but the wind speed had picked up, sucking the body heat out of all the furs on the ground in spite of their bulky clothing and jackets.

Chris and Russ yipped in joy when the call finally came from Carl.

"Thatíll do, Russ, thatíll do. Weíre back on the rail."

Down at the flat car Carl hopped up on a ladder rung on the flat car and began spinning the hand brake wheel. When it was ratcheted down he climbed up on the deck of the car itself to address his crew. Motioning with his lantern he yelled "Letís get these chains disconnected and stowed in the tool car! Itís time to go home!" As half a dozen furs leapt forward to begin the cleanup Carl added, "Let's get these lamps and cables stowed! Nothing gets left behind!" As he finished this directive he hopped down to the road grade himself and strode to the nearest lamp to help.

As the MofW crew worked to stow all their gear, Carl called again on the radio to his locomotive crew while simultaneously sending lantern signals. "Russ! Come ahead slow, one car length to a joint!"

Carl heard two short blasts on the 478ís whistle by way of confirmation, and the coupler on the gondola began drifting slowly towards the coupler on the flat car.

"Thirty feet," Carl called on the radio.

John Briscol placed an arc lamp and a hundred foot coil of power cable on the deck of the tool car. One of the MofW furs, working inside the tool car, nodded his thanks as he snapped it up to store the equipment in it's proper location within the car. John grinned quietly at the fur before turning to go off in search of his conductor.

"Twenty feet..."

Russ closed his throttle and kept a paw on the train brake valve as the 478 glided at a walking pace down grade.

As John approached the lynx from behind he heard Carl call "Ten feet..."

Russ made a very slight reduction on the train brakes, and a few seconds passed. As Russ and Chris felt a mild bump they heard Carlís voice. "Thatíll do, Russ. Stand by for air test." The flat car was now coupled to the rest of their train.

John tapped Carl briefly on the shoulder as he moved past him to step between the cars and connect the air brake hoses together. There was a rushing sound as the air from the train's brake line filled the brake pipe on the flat car. While the pressure was building in the train brake line John climbed up to the brake wheel on the flat car and spun it to the fully disengaged position.

Receiving a thumbs up from John, Carl called "Air test!" over his radio to Russ. "Twenty pounds!"

Russ modulated the train brake valve, watching his air pressure. When it had decreased to seventy pounds he closed his valve.

"Twenty pounds," Chris called.

"Thatíll do," Carl replied. "Iíll call you when everyoneís aboard."

Carl and John strode rapidly but silently up the line to the power car. It would be the warmest place for them all to ride in on the way down. The tool car had no heaters, but the power car had some to keep the generators warm. As he approached the tool car the MofW crew clustered around him, and Carl began to share his plan with them. They were all cold, wet, hungry, and worn out as they clambered aboard the modified box car and shut the sliding door.

In the cab of the 478 Russ looked down at Chris with a smile. As he watched his friend shovel coal the huskyís tail was wagging with glee, now that the crisis was over.

"How much money you got on you?"

Chris blinked as he looked up to his engineer. "Why?"

Russ laughed gently. "My cigars cost about sixty dollars a box."

Chris grinned, but his reply was cut short by another radio call from Carl.

"All crew accounted for in the power car, Russ. Letís get the Hell out of this canyon."

With a wild grin on his face Russ reached up and grabbed the whistle cord, blowing two short blasts to signal their reverse movement downgrade. The wye was only a few hundred yards below them, once they got turned it should be smooth sailing home.

And in fact they had just cleared the wye and were headed locomotive first downgrade when the next avalanche roared out of a steep ravine just north of Grasshopper Canyon and derailed the entire train. The rock and snow threw the two leading cars into the Animas River and rolled the tool and power cars over on their sides. The 478 remained upright, but was lifted up and away from the rails.

To Chapter Thirty Nine: Telephone

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