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



Air Time

The helicopter was comfortably soothing to Joe, in spite of the unfamiliar surroundings and the terrible weather. Glimpses of snow swirled out of the darkness and by the windows in the side doors, and despite the blasting of the cabin heaters his feet and paws were cold. He hunkered down in his parka, his right paw involuntarily patting the pistol beneath the material under his left arm as his left paw fidgeted with the leather hat he held in it. His tail was curled around and held tightly against his right leg, absolutely still, as he stared into the inky darkness beyond the plexiglas.

The noisy, drafty, vibrating machine was a UH1, the ubiquitous Huey, the same kind of helicopter Joe had come of age in all those years ago, the same kind of helicopter Mojave had been rescued by just a few weeks ago. This particular one was owned by the Colorado Air National Guard and had been waiting for Hector's Gulfstream at the Durango - La Plata County airport when they had landed. There were three crew furs aboard, two flight crew and a crewfur who was a "loadmaster". His job was to either fire the twin fifty caliber machine gun stowed by the port doorway or operate the winch hoist in the starboard doorway. "Whichever seems appropriate," had been the curt comment from the pilot upon their introductions.

The turbine howled and the rotor blades chopped the air above their heads with heavy concussion, the sounds reassuring amongst the otherwise bleak conditions of their transit through the snow-filled night skies above southwestern Colorado. The air was rough, the weather foul, but the crew was competent.

Hector and Joe faced forward in the rear seats of the Huey. The coyote who was a Commander in the IPF was looking ahead through the windshield at the snow and mist swirling in the beams of the twin landing lights on the skids below them. Other than those light beams and the snow flashing through them it was completely dark outside. The pilot, on the starboard side of the flight deck, concentrated on his flight instruments while the copilot watched the display of a GPS receiver in his paws.

"Coming up, two point five, ten degrees right," the Rottweiler copilot muttered on the intercom. All furs aboard wore David Clark headset and boom mic combinations. The voices sounded tinny and mechanical in Joe's ears, but the headsets made conversation easily possible in the otherwise thundering cabin.

"Two point five, ten right," the tabby cat pilot replied, angling his stick right a fraction of an inch. "They know we're coming?"

"Yeah. Train's gone already. Were headed for CO46, the helipad for Mercy Medical."

"Copy. Call contact."

"K."

Joe glanced to his left, taking in the bulk of Hector Sandovál. The IPF fur was himself bundled in a dark green parka which he had donned before stepping off his Gulfstream a few minutes ago. A shoulder patch was on the sleeve facing Joe, a three by five inch American flag. He knew that the IPF logo adorned the left shoulder he could not see.

Hector's ear flicked slightly, and he turned his muzzle towards Joe. The two coyotes had not spoken since stepping off the business jet. They'd run out of things to talk about by the time they touched down in Durango. Their eyes locked, Hector's gaze impassive, Joe's balancing between anger and fear. Joe turned his gaze back towards the window, leaving Hector to stare at the back of his head.

Annie had not handled the news well, Joe recalled as he stared into the darkness. Her normally strong countenance had taken a major hit with the news that Chris was missing in a snowstorm in the Animas River Canyon. She had held it together, Joe reflected, but just barely. He had called Mike up for some support, which his number one son was only too happy to provide.

"Mike?"

"Dad!" the gray fox's voice had taken on an immediate note of concern. "It's after midnight. What's wrong?"

"I don't know for sure, Mike. But I need you to come and stay with your mom for a day or two while I'm out of town."

There had been a moment of silence in Joe's pawset while Mike considered this. Then - "Is this IPF business Dad?"

"Sort of," Joe sighed. "Your brother was on a work train in the Animas River Canyon yesterday, and the train is overdue. The D&S is sending a rescue train up to look for them, and I'm going up there on the IPF's dime to see if I can help out."

"Chris?" Joe had heard the same squeak in his son's voice that he'd heard in his own upon learning of Chris' MIA status. "I want to go with you!"

"Mike, you'll be more help to me here at home. Your mom isn't taking this too well, and I need someone I can trust to stay here and take care of she and Debbie while I'm gone. Will you do that?"

The young fur was taken aback. His mom was normally as iron-clad as his father. If she was having trouble coping with this then it was probably worse than his dad was letting on.

"Yeah, dad. OK." The gray fox rolled out of his own bed. "Give me fifteen minutes. I'll be right there."

"Thanks Mike. See you in a few."

The red Jeep had been in his driveway fourteen minutes later. By that time Joe had assembled his gear and begun to pack a duffel. Five days worth of skivvies and socks, three days worth of outer wear, a parka, an extra pair of all terrain boots, his Berretta and one hundred and fifty rounds in ten clips, his knife, his cellphone, and five hundred dollars in cash. What he wasn't wearing went into the duffel. He had dressed in black denim jeans, a forest green long sleeve shirt, a black leather vest, his black hiking boots, and a black denim jacket. In spite of his age and general physical appearance, he looked somewhat menacing dressed as he was, especially without actually having the jacket on. As he moved about the house Debbie and Annie could plainly see the butt of his automatic pistol beneath the vest, and he had made no effort to hide the knife, the sheathed weapon hung in plain sight from his belt, against his left hip.

He had painted a bleak if brief and uninformative picture of what little he knew about Chris' status for Mike and Debbie while Annie listened in review, tears forming anew in the corners of her eyes. He had quietly explained that he knew little, only that Chris and the rest of his crew were overdue and no one had seen them since they and their derailed train had been left behind in a gathering snowstorm at dusk in the canyon. While his ears were erect in typical shepherd fashion, his facial expression bespoke fear, fear of the uncertainty of it all. His tail hung straight to the floor and his shoulders sagged slightly as though he were tired. By the time he was done speaking the ears of his daughter and son matched Annie's, almost flat against their heads in worry.

Joe had hugged his daughter, murmuring in her ear while doing so. "Mike is going to be here with you and mom 'til I get home, OK? Stay put, help him help your mom. Be my strong pup for me."

Debbie had nodded silently to him after releasing him from a tight hug. They held each other by the arms for long seconds, staring into each other's eyes. As Joe let go of his daughter she forced a smile and said, "You'll find him, dad. I'm sure of it. Take care of yourself. Be safe."

Joe nodded silently in return, turning to his wife of over twenty years. He stroked her cheek gently with a paw. "Annie, I'll call as soon as I know something. Keep it together. I'll bring Chris home."

She had clung to him in an embrace that threatened to crack a rib or two, which was problematic considering his shoulder was still stiff and sore from his gunshot wound of a few weeks ago. The tears fell freely against his vest, and she was unable to speak to him, trying to be strong. My poor Angel , Joe thought, stroking the fur of the back of her neck. She is so strong about herself, but her pups are her very core. Put them in harm's way and she crumbles…

Putting this thought aside he had turned to his oldest son. "Let's go."

Eighteen minutes later Mike's Jeep had pulled in to the parking lot at the foot of the control tower at Fullerton Airport. As Joe was unloading his duffel bag from the back and donning his jacket they heard the roar of turbines in reverse thrust. Joe looked at his watch. One forty three. Right on time.

Joe had hugged his son tightly. "I love you, son. Thanks for helping me out."

"Family, dad," Mike had replied as they separated. "This is where the rubber hits the road." The gray fox smiled a bit in spite of the worried expression he wore. "Find my brother and bring him home. I will pray for both of you."

"Pray for all of us," Joe had said as he shouldered his bag and turned towards the transit ramp in time to see the sleek form of a Grumman Gulfstream business jet taxiing rapidly towards them. "I'll call you when I know something," the big coyote had said as he tugged at the brim of his hat and walked towards the gate to the ramp.

 

# # #

 

In Arlington a white paw reached towards the small chain hanging from a desk lamp and gave it a quick tug, extinguishing the only light source in the room.

As he paused, waiting briefly for his eyes to adjust to the darkness of the room, the fur who sometimes called himself Nicolas Canon smiled and chuckled briefly. Those poor saps in California wouldn't know what hit them. By sundown tomorrow El Toro would belong to the IPF, and the construction of the IPF's air wing could begin in earnest.

The feline growled slightly, his expression souring as he contemplated the air wing's capabilities. The Vice President had unexpectedly turned on him at the meeting with the Joint Chiefs earlier today, disagreeing with him about the IPF's need for supersonic interdiction. He had tried to play the usual trumps, pointing out that by virtue of the Interstate Police Force's charter they were overseeing all aspects of defense of the homeland, regardless of where that took place on or above the surface, and regardless of speed.

The VP had shown an enormous amount of favoritism towards the United States Air Force. He wondered aloud why the IPF needed supersonic aircraft when the USAF could scramble such machines from many existing bases across the country to almost any point above the continental United States within minutes. Why duplicate that capability? What was the point?

Of course Nicolas Canon couldn't have explained that the USAF was still beyond the span of the IPF's authority and control, and probably would remain so for the foreseeable future. USAF aircraft and crews would continue to take direction from USAF command structure, which left the IPF totally uninvolved and, at this particular point in time, helpless to influence. While that would change, those changes would be slow in coming. In the end the IPF was denied any supersonic aircraft of any type, and the feline had taken his lumps and quietly accepted the situation.

It was not, however, a loss by any stretch of the imagination. Between what he would be able to appropriate from the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Border Patrol, and adding what the IPF had been given the VP's permission to purchase for itself, Nicolas figured that they had done all right. There would be close to eighty Super Broncos, roughly fifty Comanche Warrior attack helicopters, two C-17 cargo transports, and a combination of surplus equipment that would round out their transport capability. Of the lot he was particularly interested in the Comanches. Stealthy and fast and heavily armed, in the hands of a skilled crew they could take out light armor and never present themselves as a target. They were the perfect airborne assault weapon for the IPF. Hard to find, hard to follow, and quite deadly.

The Super Broncos were a different story. They packed a wallop second to none, carrying weapons capable of blowing a two hundred ton railroad locomotive sideways off it's rail, in the process punching a hole through it big enough for a fur to walk through. Explosive warheads on these weapons could reduce the locomotive to a cloud of superheated shrapnel in microseconds.

Engine and airframe modifications could help the Super Bronco keep up with commercial jet transports. Nicolas smiled in the darkness, looking forward to the day he would be able to watch that happen. He would be sure to have gun cameras installed in all offensive weapons systems at the IPF's disposal.

He thought again about El Toro and his smile widened into an evil grin, exposing his fangs. Fuck those pretenders. The Orange County Council members had been playing political games with the Marine Corps, the government of the State of California, and various committees in Congress, trying to maximize their short term personal gains by manipulating and artificially inflating the value of the land occupied by the long-abandoned air base. Amateurs! Now they were up against the Interstate Police Force. Those fools had no idea what real power was all about, had no idea what they were about to face. Real Power, held firmly in one's paws, transcended wealth. With Real Power money became irrelevant. Terror and intimidation would keep things running, keep furs in line. They would be motivated to do what was desired not by pay, but out of fear for their very lives and those of their families. The little games being played out in Orange County were about to end abruptly, and the IPF would be only too happy to show the Council members the error of their ways.

Some of them might survive to tell of their education.

The Director stood and stretched, his tail curling above his back and over his shoulders to almost touch the back of his head as he raised his arms in a vee towards the ceiling. Claws expressed, he arched his back and held that stance for several seconds, and then slowly relaxed.

Nicolas Canon smiled casually, all traces of the evil grin of a few moments ago gone. There were rare occasions now and again, like this one, where he could stop being The Director for a few moments and enjoy being somefur else. He had been many furs in his long career, starting in covert ops with the CIA and ending here at the top position of the Interstate Police Force. It had been a long, arduous climb towards the top. He was almost there…

He yawned, his tongue curling between his teeth, his head shaking rapidly with the exertion. At the conclusion of the yawn he stepped around his desk and strolled across the darkened room towards his office door.

On the other side of that door, at the other end of the hallway, was a large set of hand hewn oak double doors that opened onto his spacious apartment. This apartment, like the rest of the IPF headquarters building, was electronically guarded around the clock, the detection and alarm systems monitored by a handful of loyal and trustworthy furs, Chinchillas all. Nicolas grinned as he stepped into the hallway. Some things needed to be kept in the family. The small squad of felines that guarded the facility were all paw-picked, armed and equipped by him with the latest technology and weaponry. No one could get in, or out, without their knowledge and his consent.

Moments later, as he reached for the latch on the right-side oak door, he paused, wondering idly what type of female awaited him this evening. No matter. They all moved on after a few evenings of fun, some well compensated, some not. One had even left in a box.

 

# # #

 

"Why the Hell are we going so slow?"

Rick Stark maintained his throttle's position with his left paw and stared into the darkness ahead, ignoring his trainmaster's irritable question. Snow swirled in the beam of the 493's headlight. Rudy Gallegos could see as well as any that forward visibility was down to less than a hundred yards. If they were going to abide by the "stop in half the distance" rule then they were going to have to run below ten miles per hour. Anything faster and they might be into a slide or their lost train before they could stop.

Above the noise of the hard-working locomotive a rhythmic sound started to Rick's left again, one Rick had been hearing almost constantly since they had departed Durango. They had highballed, throttle wide open, all the way to Rockwood. Once in the canyon the grade and the weather closed in upon them, and the speed had gradually been reduced. While still burning a lot of coal to keep the steam pressure up on the steep grade, the demand had dropped slightly such that every now and then the stoker could take a break. The noise Rick heard was the sound of a number ten scoop sliding under a bank of coal in the tender, followed quickly by that same scoop-full of coal sliding out of the scoop into the firebox. As quickly as the stoker could turn back and forth between the tender deck and the firebox door, the coal was making it's way into the locomotive's beating, burning heart.

The other furs aboard had begun rotating the stoker's duty amongst themselves out of habit. The fur who had just finished his turn sat on the stoker's tool box, resting while watching the grade with the engineer. The next one in the rotation shoveled, and two others stood awaiting their turns.

Rick glanced to his left quickly, just long enough to take a mental snapshot of who was where, and then returned his gaze to the grade ahead. At the moment Mark was shoveling coal into the K-37's large firebox, the tiger's tail waving erratically with the effort. Meanwhile Zach, Mark's ursine engineer, sat on the left side of the cab staring through the glass to the grade ahead, the sweat even now drying on the fur of his face and muzzle. Rick had seen his own stoker, a large otter named Harvey Montez, standing in the left side gangway, storm curtain pushed aside, staring ahead into the snow and darkness. Rudy was standing immediately behind Rick in the gangway, unseen but located by virtue of his grumbling in Rick's ear.

A small wooden marker hove into view in the glare of the headlight beam. Rick continued to ignore his trainmaster as he studied that trackside marker as it drew closer. It was painted white with a large letter W in black upon it at the top. Underneath was attached a small placard with the numbers "26.3" inscribed in black paint.

"We're coming up to the ranch," Rick advised loudly without turning his head. At twenty six and a half miles from the depot in Durango, the Ah! Wilderness Ranch was one of the D&S on line customers, a good source of not only passenger revenue, but also a fair amount of freight revenue as well. No roads of any type accessed the guest ranch. Located just above Tacoma and not too far below Cascade, it was deep in the Animas River Canyon and could be supplied or accessed only by rail or horseback. Rick's right paw reached above his head for the whistle cord.

 

# # #

 

What was that? Russ Taylor slowly rolled to his right and tried to open his eyes. One wouldn't respond.

His head and body ached. What happened? The last thing he remembered was pulling away downgrade from Cascade. That must have been a hell of a party, he mused, thinking he was hung over.

As his conscious began the painful struggle towards full awareness Russ suddenly realized that he felt half frozen, and that he was laying on what felt like steel, hard and cold. He shivered, the motion causing his body to ache more. What's wrong with my eyes? he wondered. It was completely dark. One eye wouldn't open, and the other couldn't see anything even though he could tell it was open. Fear began to assault his awakening conscious.

He brought his left paw up to his closed eye to rub it gently. As soon as he applied pressure to the eye his paw sent screaming messages of pain into his brain, causing him to groan as he pulled the paw away quickly. Even as the sound died in his throat, and before he could wonder why his paw hurt so much, a familiar sound echoed in his head. A whistle! He pondered the sound for a moment as his head cleared, having a new concept to focus on. One of the K-37s! The sound echoed again, a bit louder.

Russ rolled over a bit more and brought his right paw up to his eyes, rubbing gently. This paw didn't hurt. As he massaged his stuck eye it suddenly popped open. Little did he know that his pads had rubbed away the dried blood that had caked his eyelashes and held his eye closed.

He lay on his back, staring into the frigid blackness. He could hear water running. The river. He concentrated on the sound. It echoed and reverberated, causing the river to sound like many. Suddenly the whistle crashed into his ears again, louder still than the other times. It's echoes and reverberations chased the sound of the river away from his ears for a bit. Echoes and reverberations... We're in the canyon!

Suddenly the husky's memory and full consciousness returned like a shot. He remembered the way the 478 had lurched and rolled to her right as the snow and mud and rock had taken them off the rail, remembered turning slowly to look over his shoulder in astonishment as the same slide took his entire train away from him.

Holy Christ!

He'd said it aloud then, and repeated it to himself now. Using his uninjured paw, he groped around in the darkness until he felt something above him nearby. It was soft and pliable. A seat cushion! He grabbed it and pulled himself into a sitting position, groaning softly as his body protested with a new wave of pain.

He shook his head gently, and then flexed his paws, arms, legs, feet, and tail. With the exception of his left paw and a general all around soreness, he seemed uninjured. Everything seemed to work OK. He sat there as a minor wave of dizziness and nausea swept over him, staring into the inky blackness. Wait. It wasn't a uniform black. There were lighter shades. He stared at them, realizing that they were out of focus.

As Russ Taylor slowly regained command of his eyes and brought his surroundings into focus he could discern an opening above him. A window. As he concentrated and his eyes further adjusted to the darkness, he could make out other general shapes in the darkness around him. He recognized the backhead of the locomotive's boiler, and the stoker's seat box above him. After pondering this unusual location for a few moments the husky came to the conclusion that the locomotive must be tilted quite a bit towards the engineer's side.

His nose spoke up. Russ could smell blood in the cab, and it wasn't his.

At that moment another sound came to Russ' ears. It was a soft whimper and came from somewhere below and to the right of the stoker's seatbox. Russ struggled to stand up, but another wave of nausea took his balance away from him and he plopped back down into a sitting position again, landing awkwardly on his own tail.

The blood smell was coming from that direction, he realized, and he sampled the scent carefully. His fear grew as he licked his lips with a dry tongue. His voice was thick in his own ears, muddy sounding and slurred. "Chris?" He took a deep breath and tried again. "Chris!" He almost missed another, softer whimper in reply, catching a fraction of a seconds worth of it before that damn whistle screeched yet again, louder than ever before.

 

# # #

 

"Surface contact!" the Rottweiler barked into the intercom. "Looks like…"

Joe glanced out his side window and down. Through breaks in the cloud below he caught glimpses of street lights and buildings, perhaps five hundred feet down.

"… we're over the north rail yards, around tenth just east of five fifty. If you drop about fifty feet we should be in the clear." The Rottweiler fiddled with his GPS unit briefly as the tabby nudged his collective forward a bit with his left paw. "Come right fifteen degrees, Mercy is point five at zero three five."

Joe felt the helicopter bank to the right as he heard the tabby reply "Zero three five."

"We're in the clear," the Rottweiler called. "Transition."

Joe saw the tabby's helmet tilt up. He had changed from flying by reference to his flight instruments to taking in the view outside for orientation, now that they were below the clouds.

"I've got it," the tabby growled softly. "I see Mercy. Call 'em."

The Rottweiler reached for a microphone. "Mercy Medical, KANG oh forty two is half a mile southwest at three fifty AGL, inbound, pad in sight."

There was a tense moment as all furs on board waited for the medical center to answer.

"KANG oh forty two, Mercy. Pad is clear, no reported traffic. Measured wind fifteen from the northwest, gusting to twenty five. Your passengers have transportation waiting."

"Forty two copies," the Rottweiler said. Turning to the tabby he said "Everything's set." He then held up an open paw as the tabby concentrated on his approach and said "Roy, rig for landing."

The loadmaster on the flight, a muscular squirrel of sizeable proportions, motioned to his two coyote passengers. "Gentlefurs, tighten your belts please. We'll be on the ground in a minute or two." The two canids adjusted their four-point harnesses by way of complying with their instructions, making them tight against their clothes

The ground approached rapidly. Within what seemed like moments they were hovering over a large, well lit building, moving slowly over it towards an open area just across a parking lot. As they slowly descended in a hover above the pad the chopper bucked mildly in the gusting wind. Suddenly the skids were planted firmly on the concrete, and Joe heard the pitch of the turbine change as the tabby throttled down. They were on the ground.

The loadmaster motioned with a large paw to their left. "Gentlefurs, your ride awaits."

Through the window in the port side door Joe could see a dark colored, military-issue HumVee about fifty yards away. It's lights were on. It was apparently idling, waiting for them. As he looked towards this the loadmaster was loosening straps that secured their gear behind some mesh in the aft cabin of the Huey. As the mesh fell the squirrel reached for two duffels, one a plain black, the other jungle camouflage with a small embroidered name tag reading "Latrans" sewn on it near the handles. He set these on the floor of the cabin in front of his passengers, along with a long, rectangular shipping case.

The large port side door slid aside, and suddenly the temperature in the cabin dropped thirty degrees or so. The two coyotes grabbed their respective bags and Hector grabbed the shipping container. Just before Joe removed his headset he thanked the aircrew and wished them a safe return trip. He pulled the headset from his head without waiting to see what, if anything, his companion from the IPF might have to say. Donning his hat, Joe moved to the door.

Joe jumped to the concrete in a hunch, ducking below the rotor blades even though he knew he could stand erect beneath them. Never trust anything if you don't have to, his instructor had taught him long ago. So he ducked as he walked towards the Hummer, one paw holding the duffel, the other holding his hat upon his head. Thoughts of Annie and Chris filled Joe's mind, his only intent was to get to the Canyon of the Animas as fast as possible and find his son. Passing from beneath the rotor blades of the helicopter, Joe stood tall and continued towards the waiting truck.

Hector Sandovál was along side him momentarily, falling in step. "José," he began, "I do not need a decision this minute, but…"

"And you're not going to get one, Hector," Joe interrupted his companion as he slung his duffel by it's strap over his shoulder. "I've got more important things to worry about than the IPF right now," he snarled as he continued walking towards the Hummer. "You just stay out of my way until I find my son, and then we'll talk about your ideas."

After they had covered most of the distance from the chopper to the Hummer a paw stopped him in mid-stride. Joe turned to face the other coyote. Hector's duffel was also over his shoulder, the other paw holding the shipping case.

The voice that spoke to Joe with it's faint Sonoran accent was soft and patient, but carried an edge to it as well. "José," the smaller coyote started as they stopped in the parking lot, "I consider you my friend. Remember that first and foremost. Whatever you may think about my motives or those of my employer, hopefully our employer, keep one thing in mind. I called you because I care about your family, about you. I could have just as easily turned a deaf ear to the information that came my way, but I chose to involve myself at not an inconsiderable financial expense and investment of my own family time. We are here to find your son, yes."

Hector stared into Joe's gray eyes. "José, déjeme ser honesto. Your future is being engineered as we speak. You can let me help you with it, or not, as you choose. But let me give you a friendly warning, mi amigo. The Director desires that you join our team, and he is not easily dissuaded from his desires. Your experience with the IPF can be fulfilling and beneficial, or not. It is your choice."

The paw tightened on Joe's shoulder. "Compadre, le ruego me dejé ayudarle."

Joe swallowed as he stared back into the brown eyes of the fur that wanted to become his boss. He knew Hector was a Catholic, and did not take prayer lightly. Guilt briefly visited Joe's conscience, but there was work to be done! He took a deep breath.

"Hector, I have a lot of faults, but ingratitude isn't one of them." Here Joe placed a paw of his own on the other coyote's shoulder.

"I promise. Once Chris is safe, once my family knows he's alright, you and I will talk." A slight grin crossed Joe's muzzle in spite of the determined set of his jaw. "No…," he corrected himself. "You will talk. I will listen. ¿Está bastante?"

Hector smiled broadly at his friend. "Enough…," he repeated in English. "It is more than I deserve."

As Joe let his paw fall Hector's paw moved to pat Joe lightly between his shoulder blades. "Let us find your son. Everything else will wait."

"Thank you, Hector," Joe said with meaning.

As they approached the HumVee both front doors opened. It was difficult to tell what species the driver was, he was clothed in an olive drab Army field jacket and leggings, a woolen cap pulled low on his head hiding his ears. He stood next to the open door of the vehicle while the passenger rounded his door, heading towards them. This fur was a chunky, broad-shouldered marmot dressed in civilian clothing, and his stride said he had a purpose in mind. As the two coyotes approached he looked at each of them in turn.

"Mark Incom," he greeted them, paws in his pockets. "Which of you is Hector Sandovál?"

"I am he," Hector said guardedly as the three stood facing each other. "I spoke to you on the phone earlier today, yes?"

"Yup," the marmot grumbled. "That was me. Mark Incom," he said by way of introduction. "Your driver over there made it plain to me that I was to meet you here."

"My apologies for my brusqueness of earlier today, Mister Incom," Hector said honestly as he held his paw out towards the marmot, "and for any lack of professionalism that may have occurred on the part of my subordinates." Here Hector's eyes flicked briefly towards the driver of the HumVee, who was waiting patiently at his open door. When the marmot didn't take his paw in a shake he continued. "We are in a hurry, you see." Turning to his taller counterpart Hector motioned with the extended paw towards Joe and said "Mark Incom, my friend and coworker, Field Agent Joe Latrans, Interstate Police Force. José, Mark Incom, locomotive foreman, Durango and Silverton Railroad."

At the introduction the expression on the face of the marmot changed abruptly from one of restrained animosity to one of guarded recognition. Mark Incom's paws appeared, and he held his right one out towards the introduced fur.

The larger of the two coyotes momentarily cast an odd look to his smaller companion before he turned his full attention on the marmot and shook paws with him. "Good to meet you, Mark. Thanks for helping us get here and get to the canyon."

"Nice to meet you, Joe. I've always wanted to meet Chris' pop. I missed you a few weeks back when you visited. Sorry we have to meet under these conditions."

Joe nodded, trying to mask his impatience, as Hector glanced between the two, a question evident in his expression.

"So," the foreman said, turning his attention back to Hector. "Now I understand a little bit better, Mister Sandovál." He thrust his paws back into his pockets. "Next time, be a little more free with your information and you might find that we are inclined to be much more cooperative." Nodding his head sideways towards the HumVee Mark said "Shall we?"

As they walked quickly towards the waiting truck the foreman quickly explained the situation to his charges. "We're driving you as far as Rockwood, and then a speeder will take you up the line to wherever the trains are."

"Let us be going, then," Hector replied.

Within a minute the Hummer was speeding through the falling snow northbound on US 550. Rockwood was only fifteen miles away. It was now a bit past 0500 local time. The sun would be rising above the storm clouds in about an hour and a half.

As the truck sped along Joe hung his head momentarily, his left paw touching the spots on his vest where Annie's tears had stained it slightly. He couldn't see the small marks in the darkness, but could feel the salt of her tears on the leather. As his fingertips explored the stains the words came unbidden to his mind and were some of the most sincere and heartfelt he had ever summoned, second only to his vows with Annie all those years ago. Lord, hear me, know my heart. Anything I have or am in exchange for the life of my son, I give you freely. Save him, Lord. Let him live!

 



To Chapter 41: Proceed Diverging

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