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.

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!

Precious Cargo is copyright The Silver Coyote
2003 - 2005



Telephone

The Director, it seemed, never slept, at least not through the night like normal furs. True to his feline heritage, he would grab a few minutes catnap here and there through the day as his schedule permitted, but he was just as likely to be working at three in the morning as three in the afternoon. It was just his management style, his subordinates supposed. And so they would experience the range of emotions one might expect, from incredulity to throttled fury, when The Director would call in the wee hours of the morning to set up a telephone conference about whatever was on his mind. Of course no one would suggest a more conducive hour to The Director, say something during daylight hours. To tell the Chinchilla Persian how to run his operation was to invite certain early retirement.

Such were the fuzzy thoughts that materialized in Robert Wechsler's canid mind as, half asleep, he groped blindly for the ringing telephone in the darkness of his bedroom. The Doberman was the closest thing to a personal friend that The Director had, the only fur on The Director's staff whom he addressed by first name. He was the Interstate Police Force's money fur, the one who handled acquisitions, paid and accepted bribes on behalf of The Director, arranged and accepted payoffs, and kept the real and public account books carefully separated from each other. His liberal applications of cash, contraband, collusion, and conspiracy lubricated the mechanisms that allowed The Director to continue to consolidate his power and broaden his span of control throughout the federal government of the United States.

Robert was not a fur of faith. He was well educated, holding a degree in law from Harvard and a degree in economics from George Washington University. His family background was unimpressive, his father had been a mechanic and his mother a schoolteacher in a small North Dakota town, they were both deceased. He had three siblings, all of whom still lived in La Moure county and with which he maintained virtually no contact. Robert Wechsler was one of the most senior members of the IPF's top echelon, his background had been researched thoroughly by The Director early in it's formative stages. What had initially attracted The Director to Robert's service potential was his seemingly complete lack of ethics. Robert was one of those furs who could fund the destruction of a Montessori school with the same aplomb and emotion which he would employ buying an ice cream cone. Nothing bothered him, nothing kept him awake at night. The void in Robert's brain where his conscience should have been was more than adequately occupied by his well-compensated loyalty to the Interstate Police Force and it's Director.

So while a tiny corner of Robert's mind was mildly annoyed at being awakened at half past midnight, he was not angry or put out. He knew who was calling him.

"Wechsler."

"Robert," the voice of The Director greeted him mechanically. "Mister Ganz and I would like a few minutes of your time."

The Doberman was instantly wide awake. The inclusion of Vincent Ganz in the conversation could only mean one thing at this particular point in time: the air wing that The Director was wanting to build and deploy.

"One moment, Mister Director. Let me secure the room."

Robert rolled onto his back and used his left foot to kick the leg of the fur laying next to him in a rather un-gentle manner. The fur beside him mumbled incoherently.

"Get out, I've got business."

Another Doberman, at least half his age, slid out from under the covers and wordlessly left the room.

"Secure, Mister Director. Good evening Mister Ganz," Robert said with what he hoped would be a pleasant tone. He had little regard and no use for Vincent Ganz, The Director's personal pilot and chief of the IPF's air wing. Up until recently the air wing had consisted of little more than business class transportation of the commercial variety; a few business jets, a couple of Jet Ranger helicopters, and a DeHavilland Twin Otter cargo plane. That had all changed recently when the American Shorthair had been assigned the task of procuring military hardware to begin assembling the IPF's airborne interdiction and suppression forces.

"Good evening, Mister Wechsler," Vincent Ganz' voice replied smoothly. He sounded happy. This told Robert that he was about to start floating large sums of money.

The Director began to speak, and for the next ten minutes Mister Ganz and Mister Wechsler listened silently. Robert sighed once, quietly in the second minute, as the price tag rapidly escalated into the millions of dollars.

# # #

While Robert Wechsler was listening to the sound of money being spent, another phone was about to ring out in California, far away from Arlington.

Annie Latrans was wide awake, sitting up on her oversized bed. She was wearing nothing save one of Joe's dress shirts, which on her reached past her midsection to the very tops of her thighs like a teddy. Propped up against several pillows, Annie had a vacant look on her face as she contemplated the day's events. Across the room the TV was on, the audio so low as to be almost incomprehensible. A home improvement show was on, but it provided only a distraction for her eyes while her mind worked on events unrelated to the show.

Joe slept quietly next to her. Their lovemaking had been a little more physical than usual, she had sensed the energy of anger being redirected and put to good use in him. Yet at the end, as they lay quietly in each other's arms and spoke in low tones about what had happened earlier that day, she saw relief and renewed faith in his eyes, heard it in the words he said to her. All would be well with him, she knew.

Yet Joe's sudden dismissal from the Southern California Water District had bothered her. Not from the standpoint of her husband's unemployment, that was only a small speedbump on their road together, easily overcome. But the sudden and mysterious manner in which he had been let go puzzled her. That was abnormal. It was unsafe and impractical from a business standpoint, and that bothered the professional in her soul. Something smelled like a truckload of un-refrigerated fish in that whole scenario, but she couldn't quite put her claw on what it was that made her feel that way.

The phone at her bedside table rang, and she snatched the pawset up quickly to keep the noise from waking Joe. As she brought the pawset to her ear she noted the time on her alarm clock, 9:45 PM.

"Hello?"

"Hi Annie," a familiar voice said, causing the fox to wince slightly. "This is Gina."

"Oh my God… Gina!" she replied quietly. "I'm so sorry I haven't called you. It's been… a bit hectic around here the past couple of days."

The mink's voice took on an immediate tone of concern. "What's wrong, Annie? Are you alright?"

"Oh I'm fine," the fox replied quickly, and then hesitated. "Joe lost his job today."

"What?"

"Joe lost his job today," Annie repeated. "SCWD let him go around lunch time today."

"That's terrible!" the mink exclaimed. And then her voice softened a bit. "Do you want to talk about it? How is Joe taking it?"

"Oh, he's OK with it." Annie grinned in spite of herself, thinking he's more than OK. "He was a little put out by it, but he's got lots of connections. He'll be back at work somewhere within a very short period of time, I'm sure."

"I'm sure he will be," the mink replied reassuringly. "How are you doing? Is there any way I can help you?"

Annie paused, but only briefly. "Thank you Gina, but no. We're fine in the short term. This is a minor inconvenience at most, we'll get by it just fine. But thank you for your kind offer."

"Well, if you need anything, please call me Annie. You shouldn't have to deal with that by yourself."

A warm feeling infused Annie briefly. She had only met Gina a few days ago, and here she was going out of her way to offer to help. She was sure that this was borne out of Gina's existing spiritual relationship and developing mentor-student relationship with her daughter Debbie. Still, it impressed Annie that Gina would offer her friendship and support.

"Thank you, Gina. I appreciate your offer. You are a good friend."

A second or two of silence greeted this statement, and then Annie heard Gina exhale slowly. "I called," the mink finally said, "to talk a bit about Debbie's school schedule. And I also wanted to schedule a time with you so I could meet Joe, but I'll understand if you want to pass on that for the time being."

"It might be a bit tough getting Joe to sit still for the next few days," Annie said, "but I'm sure he will want to make some time in his schedule to meet you. Perhaps a dinner here one night, or we can meet you someplace for a couple of drinks?"

"Whatever you like, Annie. I'd be happy with either of those ideas. You just let me know when he's ready, and I will make myself available to you."

The red fox nodded. "What about Debbie's schedule?"

Gina's voice seemed to brighten. "Well, I've got a couple of shows coming up that she's expressed an interest in working in. These aren't the high-end fashion shows. One of them is for a movie company. Basik Produktions is developing an action movie about contemporary European spies, and they've contracted me for fashion design. I'm going to have a half dozen or so of my models put on a show for their producer, director, and marketing staff, just stuff I've thrown together for the movie. Nothing unusual or overly revealing, just a straight-up, two hour show for the movie company. That's coming the Friday before Thanksgiving weekend and is scheduled for three in the afternoon."

"I see," Annie replied. "And you're wondering if Debbie can get that time off from school to prepare?"

"Yes. And the other job is for the weekend before New Years Eve up in San Francisco. A business acquaintance of mine has asked me to assemble a small demonstration of business wear to some hotel executives. His designs, my models. It would require Debbie to be in the Bay area overnight on a Saturday, if that's agreeable."

"Business wear?"

"Business suits, staff uniforms, server attire, that kind of stuff. Everything from the bar girls to the concierge and management. Apparently the press has been beating up on a couple of the old established hotels for, as they describe it, 'frumpy, frowsy appearances'." The mink giggled briefly. "Wait'll they see what Alexander has put together. It'll knock their socks off. I've seen it."

Annie chuckled softly. "That good, huh? I wouldn't mind seeing that myself, just to watch the reaction."

"Would you like to go?"

Annie noticed the excitement in Gina's voice. She was no doubt pleased about Debbie's prospects and wanted her mother along to see what she was doing and provide some family approval and support.

"Let me think about that for a bit and consult my own schedule. As for Debbie, I will make arrangements and talk to Joe. Her grades have, if anything, improved since we first discussed this project of ours, Gina. She's working very hard to hold up her end of the bargain."

The mink smiled into her pawset. "I know. We talk about her grades and schoolwork quite a bit. I keep after her about that. I want her to understand that her knowledge and intelligence are what's going to keep her in this business, not her looks."

Annie smiled as well. It seemed that Gina really did have Debbie's best interests at heart. As she contemplated this Joe rolled over onto his right side, facing her. She glanced down at him. His eyes were still shut, his breathing even now becoming deep and regular again. He was still asleep.

"Tell me more about the production company. Do you know the furs involved there?"

And Gina spent the next several minutes describing the show that she would be putting on for Basik, a small production company currently involved in a project with Universal Studios.

# # #

Meanwhile, in a cold telephone booth in Durango, Colorado, a tired fur held a pawset against his head and stomped his feet, trying to keep warm. He stood tall, and wore a hooded sweatshirt underneath a parka, the hood covering his head. Only the tip of the large fur's nose was visible, and in the dim glow of the telephone booth lamp it was difficult to say what color the fur was. Light snow fell, and several inches of the white stuff covered the ground around the phone booth. A chill wind seemed to knife right through the booth and the fur's parka, causing him to keep moving about in the confines of the booth.

"You're certain it's his son?" a tinny voice said in the pawset.

The fur nodded. "I've befriended him. There is no doubt."

"And you're certain of the other facts regarding his control and disposition?"

"As certain as I can be without revealing myself or my investigation to the target or his control, yes." The large fur yawned briefly. "The father will be joining the operation in a fairly short period of time. Perhaps we can even expedite the process, leveraging on this event."

The voice in the pawset expressed a note of concern. "You sound tired, Alpha Five. You should get some rest."

"Maybe later," the fur replied. "I have much to do and little time to get it done in."

"Well," the pawset voice paused in thought. "Proceed with your idea. Our end goes slowly. DOJ is reviewing our proposal now, and will decide on any course of action… eventually."

The fur in the phone booth grunted, perhaps in humor, perhaps not.

"Stay close to this one Alpha," the pawset voice advised with concern.

"Yeah," the fur in the phone booth grunted, terminating his call.

# # #

"So Robert, as you may see, we will require adequate funding to grease the rails of this latest acquisition."

The Doberman swallowed before replying. "Sir, do you have any idea how many billions of dollars you're talking about? Comanche Warriors and Super-Broncos?" He was exasperated, to say the least, yet chose his words carefully so as not to sound like he was challenging the will of The Director.

Robert heard a small chuckle. "Leave that to me, Robert. We have ways of ensuring reasonable cost of procurement. We will be shopping with the DEA and Border Patrol, mostly. Remember that they have recently come under my jurisdiction. What I desire of them, they are duty bound to provide." The Persian paused before adding "Like you." The Director drew a breath. "I also desire that you provide whatever funding Mister Ganz requires to persuade the Orange County Supervisors and the Governor of California to release the former El Toro Marine Base to the IPF. If they can't be bought, enlist the help of our enforcers."

Robert nodded. "Yes Sir." He suspected that The Director would "transfer" the military items of hardware he required to the IPF's use after having the Drug Enforcement Agency and Customs / Border Patrol actually purchase them. In this way the bulk of procurement costs would be borne by the DEA and Border Patrol, and the IPF could bypass the legal issue of buying military grade aviation hardware, something they were not yet authorized to do. The Border Patrol was now authorized to directly procure military helicopters and aircraft for use in the defense of US frontiers, primarily the border with Mexico. The DEA had long been authorized to operate unarmed military aircraft such as the V-22 Osprey, the OV-10 Bronco, E-3 Hawkeyes, and other defensive airborne systems in their operations

"Mister Ganz," The Director continued, "I expect you to be receiving the first Super-Broncos at El Toro by Christmas, and Warrior deliveries by 1 March. All units will pass through that location pending deployment at regional air bases. You will make the aircraft ready for our purposes and supply the crews and support staff necessary to field them. I want us to go active with the air wing by the first of the year, first deployments are to be around the District of Columbia, then El Toro, then Malmstrom, Allen, and so forth. I expect full deployment and operational status by 1 August."

"Yes Sir," Vincent Ganz replied with a happy voice. "It'll be my pleasure."

"Robert, please be in my office at oh nine hundred to discuss details."

"Yes Sir," the Doberman replied.

Dial tone filled Robert's ear, and he slowly hung up the phone. As he looked up the younger Doberman stood in the doorway of his bedroom.

"Are you done?"

"Yes. Come back to bed."

Reginald Hopper, a waiter by profession, bodybuilder by passion, walked slowly back into the room, smiling coyly. "Work has you 'up' at all hours, doesn't it?" He grinned at the older canid reclined before him.

"Shut up," Robert Wechsler said irritably.

# # #

The ringing jolted the coyote awake. He felt the feline beside him stir, heard her mumble sleepily as he was reaching for the telephone.

"Telefono, amante…"

"Si, novia," he muttered in reply as he brought the pawset to his ear.

"Sandovál."

An unknown voice. Hector's mental acuity ramped up quickly as he listened.

"Good evening, Mister Sandovál. You do not know me, but I bear news that will interest you. You have a friend whose son works for the Durango and Silverton Railroad."

"Yes," Hector replied guardedly, quietly. "Go on."

"The son is overdue at the terminal in Durango. He was part of a work train that was attempting to clear a slide when an avalanche occurred. Members of the crew sustained injuries, but he was not injured. Part of the crew has returned on one train, but the son's train is long overdue and no one knows what has become of them."

Hector's mind raced. Who is this? How did he know how to find me? How does he know José and his son? Why is he telling me this? But even as these questions reverberated in his head, and even as Lupe placed a paw on his hip from behind him in mild concern, the law enforcement training kicked in. Reaching and stretching, he clicked on the lamp on his night stand and then opened a drawer even as he asked:

"When was the last time he was seen?"

Hector retrieved a note pad and pencil from the drawer as the voice in his pawset replied.

"His train and it's crew was last seen in the Animas River Canyon near Cascade at about seven thirty this evening. Snow was falling, and has been most of the day."

Hector scribbled 1930 on his note pad. "Who was with him?"

"His engineer, the train conductor, a brakefur, and most of the maintenance of way crew."

"They are likewise unaccounted for?"

"Yes. The railroad is assembling another work train to go up the line to look for them. As it's getting close to midnight now they don't expect to head up there much before one AM or so."

Hector scribbled 0100 on his notepad. "Who is in charge of the SAR?"

"The trainmaster is a gentlefur named Rudy Gallegos." Hector wrote the name on his pad. "He is seeing to the makeup and execution of the search and rescue operation personally. His crews are gathering equipment and assembling their train as we speak. The weather precludes the use of air support, and the location and weather will make access by vehicle dubious. Rail seems the best method at this point in time."

Hector paused, absently patting the back of his wife's paw, which still rested on his hip. She was awake, he could tell by her breathing, and patiently waiting for him to conclude his business.

"Who are you? How are you involved?"

"Let's just say I'm a concerned citizen and let it go at that." The line went dead in Hector's ear and dialtone was the only further response he got.

Lupe stared at her husband as he sat up and swung his feet to the floor. He smiled briefly at her and then turned to dial a long distance number.

"The Durango and Silverton Railroad, trainmaster's office, please."

Hector scribbled a telephone number on his notepad. "Thank you," he said, and then hung up by placing a claw on the disconnect button. Lifting it, he dialed the number. It rang several times before an excited voice answered.

"Trainmaster's office, Mark Incom speaking."

"Mister Incom, good evening," Hector said. "My name is Hector Sandovál, I am with the Interstate Police Force. I understand you are missing a train."

In the depot in Durango the marmot who was the D&S roundhouse foreman stared at his pawset for a moment in disbelief. IPF? Why do they care? How'd they find out?

"Suppose we are, Mister Sandovál," Mark said with a trace of impatience. "How does this interest you?"

Hector grinned a bit without humor. "Let's just say I'm a concerned citizen and let it go at that. What I need from you is confirmation on a crewmember by the name of Christopher Latrans. Was he a member of the train in question?"

Mark Incom chewed his lip briefly as many thoughts crashed through his head. Impatience escalated to annoyance. "I'm sorry Mr. Sandovál. I'm not at liberty to say anything about our trains or the crews operating them."

Hector sighed quietly. "Mister Incom, I understand your position and sympathize. But unless you and Mister Gallegos want to spend the next few months as our guests, I suggest you reconsider your position before you find out what obstruction of justice is all about."

Again Mark stared at his pawset. Hell, he thought, I've got things to do. "You didn't hear this from me, Mister Sandovál, but yes. Chris is on that train."

Hector smiled. "The Interstate Police Force appreciates your cooperation, Mister Incom. Thank you, and good day." Once again Hector's claw depressed the disconnect button of his phone.

The coyote turned to regard the mountain lion sharing his bed for a moment, and then leaned forward to kiss her muzzle gently. "Ayudame, novia. Pack me a bag. Five days, standard deployment."

"What's wrong, Hector?" Lupe asked, fear growing in her eyes.

Hector gazed at her momentarily before replying. "A friend is about to be hurt. I need to help."

Lupe Sandovál sat up, and her husband stood. Fetching her small artificial limb in transit, the coyote rounded their bed and knelt at her foot, attaching her false foot to her lower leg. He stood before her and held out a paw to help her up. He smiled reassuringly at her once she was standing.

"I'm sorry, novia. I need to make more phone calls, and I will be leaving as soon as possible."

"I understand, Hector." She touched the side of his muzzle tenderly with a soft paw. "Please be careful in whatever it is you are about to do."

Hector nodded as he headed for his night stand and the phone.

# # #

It was cold, bitterly cold, with frost forming on his fur. Yet strangely, he didn't feel much.

The first one to rouse him had been Shari. He had heard her sweet, melodic voice calling him, and had opened his eyes briefly to see her petite figure and smiling face, standing there in the tilted, skewed, damaged cab of his locomotive. In spite of the snow and frozen mud and coal scattered about the deck, her pristine fur appeared to glow almost as if a halo surrounded her. Her green eyes stared at him sadly as she held a paw out to him, and she repeated his name over and over.

His vision blurred, and her voice faded as darkness overcame him.

Next up had been a stranger. An older Irish wolfhound, his soot-stained overalls covered a faded blue canvas work shirt, a felt crusher adorned his head. He smiled around an unlit cigar, his eyes twinkling in a permanent squint from too many years staring into the sun.

"Wake up, laddie. Yer ticket ain't been punched yet."

Chris tried to make his mouth work, to ask him what on earth he was talking about, but his body was as if in molasses. All he could manage was a slurred "Whaaa?"

"It's not time yet, youngster," a voice behind the Wolfhound said.

"Jonn…?"

The golden brown mountain lion grinned crookedly, nodding. His brown eyes seemed to glisten as he spoke.

"Wake up, laddie," the wolfhound repeated, pointing at him.

Chris stared at him. He was obviously an old engineer, a boomer from the halcyon days of the high iron, with a kerchief flecked by holes from cinder burns around his neck and a relaxed, casual air about him as he slouched against the engineer's toolbox. Chris suddenly became aware of the waters of the Animas River swirling by behind him, below the window, in the darkness. As the old wolfhound grinned at him the other voice spoke up.

"My race is run, Chris. But yours is hardly begun. You have so much waiting for you, so much to do. You must stay here and complete the tasks that have been set before you."

Chris struggled to pick himself up from the deck of the 478. His vision blurred momentarily, and then suddenly snapped back into focus as John spoke again.

"Chris! Stay with it, son. Hang on."

Chris looked at his friend, and saw other furs clustered around him. He recognized the maintenance of way crew standing there, as though viewed through a mist behind the mountain lion. In a corner of his mind he wondered how so many of them could squeeze into the cab of the old K-28.

His voice was thick and slurred in his ears. "Wha' hap'en, John?"

"She can be saved, Chris. You and Russ will pilot the 478 again, don't worry. It's only a minor setback in your days." The lion smiled sadly. "I'm sorry I won't be here to help you, brother. The rest of your runs will be without the ol' Bris hangin' on the irons."

"Where are you going?"

John Briscol smiled at his friend one last time. "I'm going home, Chris."

Chris struggled to stand as he yelled at his friend. "No! John, no!"

But he was only yelling at the crumpled form of the husky that was his engineer, his friend Russ.

Chris lay back against the cold cab wall as the wails of his body began to overtake him. He prayed silently through his pain.

"Jesus, what has happened? Lord, be with us now, in the hour of our need. Your will be done…"

The young coyote passed out as the snow swirled around the battered, broken, cold steam locomotive.

# # #

Organized mayhem appeared to be the order of the day as Mark entered the trainmaster's office in Durango. Outside furs from all shifts toiled to prepare the search and rescue train. There was power aplenty with two of the K-37s under steam, one on the uphill end of the short train and the other in the middle, pointing down grade. Between the steam locomotives a tool car, a power car, a coach, and a flanger were coupled up. The downgrade locomotive, number 498, faced Durango. Coupled to it's pilot was the rotary plow and it's tender, also under steam. First on the drawbar behind the 498 was a flanger. The uphill locomotive, the one facing Silverton, was number 493, sporting a six foot tall pilot plow. The entire consist reeked of business. The train looked like it would be able to fight it's way to the north pole, and the determined looks on the faces of the furs who prepared the train said they would go past that point and through the gates of Hell if it was necessary.

Dozens of furs swarmed over the train loading equipment, tools, first aid and survival gear, and whatever else they could think of. Others prepared and serviced the locomotives, oiling valve gear, filling sand domes, stocking fusees, stretching canvas covers over the mountains of coal in the tenders and hanging heavy canvas cab curtains against the weather. Elsewhere still more furs triple-checked couplings and air connections between all cars and the locomotives in the train. There must have been at least fifty furs at work in the rail yard.

In the depot there must have been at least fifty more scurrying about with tasks or waiting to help. From the youngest to the oldest, from the apprentices to the retired hostlers, every railroader within a hundred miles of the Animas River Valley had suddenly swooped down upon the trainmaster's office in Durango in the middle of the night. As soon as they had heard the news they had come through the snow storm, offering to help in any way they could. Two doctors and half a dozen nurses from the Mercy Medical Center had arrived with a truck full of medical supplies and almost demanded passage to wherever the crew of the 478 might be, to deal with whatever had befallen them.

Tempers were running hot, but not for the reasons one might expect.

"You get the Hell out of my way, Rudy, or I'll put you down right here," a large black bear growled at the trainmaster, balling his fists.

"Woah, woah there, Zack." Mark said calmly as he approached the bear and the beaver. The two were nose to nose, and the beaver seemed not in the least intimidated by the fact that Zack towered over him.

"You back the Hell up, Zack," the beaver snarled in turn. "You're dead on the law and you know it! You and Mark both. You may get in the first punch, but one way or the other I'll bust your ass down."

"Hey," Mark said, raising his voice a bit. "Settle down, you guys. We're all on the same team here." Mark put a large paw on the shoulder of his engineer. "What's the problem, buddy?"

"This son of a bitch won't let us pilot the rescue train," the bear said, gesturing angrily towards the trainmaster.

"Sheesh…" the white Siberian tiger grinned. "You know as well as I do that we exceeded the 'Hours of Service Rule' two hours before we got back here, Zack. We can't take that train up to Cascade. If anything happened the FRA would fry us for sure!" The tiger squeezed his friend's shoulder while turning to his trainmaster. "Still, there's no reason we can't tag along with the crew you assign, right Rudy?"

Rudy looked a bit taken aback. "What? You want to just go for a ride?"

Mark shook his head. "C'mon Rudy, think about what's going on around us. Our brothers are up there somewhere in the snow in the Canyon. All of us here," and here Mark gestured with an arm to take in all the furs, inside the building and out, preparing the train to rescue their friends, "all of us have a real and personal concern for the welfare of those furs out there. None of us here are going to rest, are going to sleep, are going to live until we bring them home."

Rudy looked at Zack, then at Mark, then at the floor. Presently he looked up.

"I'm sorry, Zack. I'm as worried about the boys as you are. Sure, you guys can ride in the cab of the 493, if it's OK with Arch and Harvey and Rick. I can't give you the train, but I won't stop you from going along."

"That's all I ask," Zack said with a small grin. "Sorry Rudy. I guess I'm getting a little carried away with myself."

"It's all right. We all want what's best for the boys out there."

Impulsively, the beaver and the black bear shook paws. "OK then," Zack said. "Lets go, Mark."

The tiger grinned and shrugged slightly as he and the black bear moved off towards the door to the rail yard. As they passed out of his field of view Rudy's pawheld radio crackled.

"493 to trainmaster Gallegos. We're all set, Rudy."

The beaver grabbed a heavy parka from a peg on the wall and headed towards the door Mark and Zack had just exited through as he pulled the portable radio from a holster at his belt. Once outside the depot he spoke a single, short sentence loudly and clearly, such that every fur on the D&S that night heard him.

"Four Ninety Three, Highball!"

As he stepped off the depot platform a steam whistle sounded two short blasts. Rudy Gallegos slipped his parka on and holstered his radio, running through the snow to grab the pawrails and haul himself up into the cab of the 493 as she got underway. Steam exhaust barked and echoed off the buildings of downtown Durango as the 493 and 498 bit into the rail, beginning to roll.

Four determined faces turned towards him, acknowledging his arrival as the drivers churned and the train accelerated quickly. Rick Stark, the engineer, immediately turned his attention back to the grade ahead, the others continued to stare at the beaver.

"What? You think I'm gonna sit there in my office and keep my feet toasty while my friends are out there?" He snagged the coal scoop from the paws of the astonished stoker and began shoveling coal into the firebox of the K-37.

"Open her up, Rick! We've got work to do."

It was exactly one AM as the 493 train blasted it's way north out of the Durango yard, busting every yard limit speed restriction in the rule book. Far from reprimanding his crewfurs about that, the trainmaster shoveled all the faster while the engineer laid on the whistle and opened the throttle wide, warning the city that the rescue had begun.

# # #

Annie awoke with a start to the ringing of the telephone. It was half past midnight in Orange County. The red fox reached for her bedside phone in the dark.

"Hello?"

"Missus Latrans," a vaguely familiar voice greeted her. "My apologies for calling you at this terrible hour. My name is Hector Sandovál. May I please speak to your husband? It is a matter of urgent importance."

"Um… sure. One moment, please."

Annie held her paw over the mouthpiece of the phone and gently elbowed her husband in the ribs. "Joe, wake up."

The coyote was instantly awake. "What's wrong, Angel?"

She held up the phone to him, paw still over the mouthpiece. "Hector Sandovál. He says it's important."

A sour look crossed the muzzle of Joe Latrans. "What's that son of a bitch want?" he grumbled as he accepted the pawset from his shrugging wife.

"Hello?"

"José, this is…"

The sarcasm was thick in Joe's voice. "Yeah, Hector. How you doin' buddy? Had any conversations with the SCWD lately?"

There was a moment's silence on the other end of the line. Joe heard the other coyote sigh.

"José, you and I have much to talk about, but now is not the time. Can you meet me at Fullerton airport in ninety minutes?"

"What? What are you talking about?"

" José, your son Chris is missing in the Animas River Canyon with the rest of his train crew. In a little less than an hour and a half my Gulfstream will pick you up at Fullerton airport. We will have about two hours to discuss whatever you wish en route to Durango La Plata County."

Joe gulped, the fear suddenly quenching his anger and constricting his throat. "Chris?" he squeaked.

Hector Sandovál nodded sadly to his pawset. "I have no information other than that, my friend. Tell your wife whatever you want, but I think you need to be in Colorado as soon as possible."

Joe nodded slowly as his mind raced. "OK, Hector. Two AM?"

"Make it one fifty. Come prepared, José. For the weather, and everything else."

"One fifty, then." Joe paused. "Thanks, Hector."

" De nada, Jose. Guarde la fe, primo."

"See you soon."



To Chapter Forty: Air Time


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