The title of this chapter is taken from current railroad lexicon. It refers to the signal indication (called an "aspect") a locomotive crew might observe as they approach a facing switch where one set of rails branches away from the track they are running on. Two signal lights will be arranged in some way to indicate to the crew that they are to proceed at authorized track speed on the track that branches away from the main track. The signal, then, indicates a change of direction...
All characters appearing in this story are mine of my own design.
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
Annie paced back and forth in her family room, worry etching into her face around her eyes and causing her muzzle to take on an unhealthy expression. Her ears laid back against her head, and her normally expressive and energetic tail hung straight towards the floor. It would be sunrise soon, and they had still not heard from Joe. He didn't answer his cell phone, and she had tried several times to contact him.
Debbie Latrans watched her mother pace back and forth across the room from her vantage point at the breakfast table as she waited for her boyfriend. She was as worried about her brother Chris as her mom was, but was outwardly calm. She preferred to wait until she knew whether or not she had something to worry about before allowing her fears to consume her. She sat quietly, aimlessly stirring a cup of Earl Gray tea in a mug, waiting for it to cool.
With a few minor exceptions Debbie was a virtual carbon copy of her mother physically, although there were differences in coloring. Where a red fox would normally have charcoal colored fur on her limbs, Debbie's fur faded from the auburn red of her body to more of a rangy dun color, like sand, on her limbs. Her tail was not nearly as bushy as her moms and the fur there was colored the same red as the rest of her torso, and her ears were taller and more pointed, thanks to her father's genes. Not quite as busty as her mom, she was trim and leggy with long blond hair that was this morning tied in a ponytail.
A dark-haired gray fox sat across from her at the table, also watching Annie pace back and forth. Mike Harland studied his mother's actions for a bit, looking at her face and the emotions he read there. His mom was obviously just holding on, barely controlling her overwrought emotions. He wanted to comfort her, but had only succeeded in eliciting tears when he had hugged his mother earlier that morning, telling her not to worry. Mike figured that his mom was best left to her her own devices at this moment, and after observing her make two complete circuits of the family room he turned to his sister and spoke quietly, under his breath.
"You come straight home after your meeting this morning, OK?"
Debbie had expected to do exactly that. Under normal circumstances she would have offered her older brother's instructions a bit of a huffy response with an agitated glare and arms akimbo. She normally didn't like being bossed around by her brothers, and her usual response to an instruction such as the one Mike had just uttered would have been along the lines of “OK! I will! Lighten up!” However, this morning Debbie only nodded quietly, having no desire to make things any more tense than they already were.
Russ normally showed up around six thirty to take her to a seven o'clock meeting at All Furs Christian Church before they headed to school. Today she would return home from church, skipping school at least until she found out about her brother.
Mike turned his attention back to his mother. He was very worried about Chris himself, but like his sister wasn't letting his fears get the best of him, at least not yet. Besides, it wasn't like he wasn't already dealing with a painful loss. As he watched his mother's figure move around the family room yet again, his mind wandered from thoughts of his brother to another majorly troubling dilemma.
He had spoken to Jazz only twice since that midnight meeting over coffee at Dennys. Both times at church, both times in the presence of others. She had been distantly friendly, but revealed no hint of her feelings, and had still not given him an answer nor even any inkling of what was going on in her head. In fact, she had spoken not a single word to him in private. Mike was beginning to think she just wasn't interested, and that he had put her in an awkward position when he tried to elevate their business and social relationship to a new and higher level.
Business... changing the lives of young furs, introducing them to and growing them in a personal relationship with their Saviour. He hated it when he thought of that as business. Yet now that was exactly how he needed to look at it.
What was tearing him apart, what was making his indecision and uncertainty about Jazz and her reaction to his confession of love for her so hard to bear, was the notion that he had irreparably damaged all facets of his relationship with her, professional as well as personal. By thrusting the apparently unshared emotion of love into their working relationship, he feared he had blown his budding career as a youth pastor out of the water before that ship had even sailed. He feared that his days at AFCC were numbered, that he had initiated the process by which he would be slowly, politely, gently, yet firmly driven out of the staff and perhaps even the church.
The gray fox shuddered in his chair, in the warm kitchen of his parents home.
Debbie looked at him sadly. “It'll be OK, Mike. Dad will find him.”
What remained unspoken between them, unspoken in the home itself, was the final question that reverberated through Debbie's head even as the muffled rumble of her boyfriend's Chevy Tahoe became discernible.
Would he be dead or alive?
# # #
They were deep in the Animas River canyon, above the Wildreness Ranch and approaching Cascade, when the light became visible ahead. The garish, blue-white glare had quickly filled the horizon visible through the ice-fringed windshield of the speeder, illuminating the five tightly packed furs within. The speeder was not much more than an over-sized, gasoline-powered golf cart with flanged steel wheels set thirty six inches apart. Designed by the Durango & Silverton as an all-weather on-track maintenance machine, the speeder provided fast transport for one or two Maintenance of Way furs and their equipment. It contained a small bench seat in the enclosed metal cab, and behind that was a small, canvas-sided storage area for tools and equipment similar in construction to a pickup truck box, about four by six feet and four feet high. The machines were never intended to be passenger-carrying vehicles, but this did not deter this particular speeder's anxious occupants. Two coyotes and a marmot were wedged between the equipment in the enclosed area behind the small cab. An otter sat beside the young bobcat at the controls.
“We're here, I think,” the bobcat called above the roar of the motor beneath their feet. The furs behind him could hear him through the open window at the back of the cab, and five sets of eyes stared intently through the frosted, partially opaque windshield, their owners silenced by the scene before them.
The low shoulder of a tapering ridge stood out as a dark arm jutting from right to left against the blue-white, hazy glare beyond. Snow fell freely, and steam could be seen rising just beyond the ridge, from where the tracks continued on the uphill side of it. As they rounded this ridge on a curve to the right, the view began to unfold before them.
The right of way doubled back to the left as the river curved ahead, yielding for the small speeder crew a panorama of the wreck site. Closest to them, the maw of the rotary plow was menacingly huge in it's proximity, with it's two locomotives and short train stretching away behind it. Beyond that was the source of the eerie glare, several portable arc flood lamps on hastily erected towers were scattered at intervals on both sides of the right of way as the twin rails led directly into a brand new hill of debris.
Snow, mud, and rock buried the right of way. Mangled trees protruded at all angles from the fresh earth and raw, splintered timber littered the new hill everywhere like driftwood. At places the slide was ten feet above the rail head. The debris field had overflowed the railroad grade and partially blocked the Animas River, was in fact causing a small pool of water to form behind it as the Animas sought to carve through and around the new obstruction.
But what rivited the attention of all paws as the speeder approached was the sight of the Mikado, cold and dead, laying almost completely on her right side. Her pilot plow was submerged in the frigid waters of the Animas, her visible side rods bent and broken, the offending multi-ton boulder that caused that damage still near the locomotive. Her boiler jacket was dented and mangled, and her cab was bent awkwardly with respect to the backhead. The left hand wall of the cab was buckled inward below the window openings and the trailing truck that was supposed to be directly below the cab was completely gone. The cab had been almost completely ripped from the boiler and frame. Her proud numbers, 478, were almost completely obscured by mud and debris.
Her tender had rolled over completely and torn itself away from the locomotive, and was laying upside down in the waters of the Animas River, the steel wheels of it's trucks pointing at the cold, black, snow-filled sky above.
Behind the dead locomotive, what was left of the 478 train was almost completely submerged either in the debris field or in the river itself. Furthest away from the disheveled locomotive, the furs in the speeder could see ten feet of a gondola sticking up at a pronounced angle from the river, it's wheel truck hanging freely by chain from the bolster between the frame rails. Near that was the remains of a silver-colored boxcar that had once sported a couple of windows in the side. The windows of this tool car were now gone, the boxcar itself broken almost completely in half and sitting almost upright in the shallow waters at the edge of the river. Mud and rock were piled high against the uphill side of the boxcar, a light dusting of snow served to highlight the few sets of boot-prints left by the initial search and rescue furs. Tools and equipment were scattered in a wide swath from the ruptured wooden rail car.
Nearest the poor 478 was what Mark Incom recognized as the power car. A cold chill started at the tip of the marmot's tail and proceeded rapidly up his spine as he realized what he was looking at, causing his shoulders to shudder in fear. He knew his fellow employees, his friends, would most likely have been riding in that car. It was the only car of the train that had heaters.
The power car was propped at a forty five degree angle against the mud and rock, the lower half of the car completely submerged in the icy waters that swirled around and through the wreckage. A bit of smoke whisked quickly away from the uppermost exposed end of the car on the wind. A six foot wide hole was visible in the side of the car, just above the waterline.
Furs were everywhere, and while the snowfall continued, no snow had settled around the locomotive and power car. The boots of a seeming legion of furs had kept the ground near these vehicles free of the white, cold blanket of death, churning it into mud. Hector Sandovál estimated there were at least twenty or thirty furs visible, and judging by the lights and activity near the coach between the two steam locomotives of the rescue train, many more were congregated there.
The speeder slowed to a stop about twenty yards away from the eleven foot tall propeller assembly of the rotary plow. Before the bobcat operator could say a word his companions leapt from the small machine. Shutting off the motor and setting the brakes, he rushed to catch up with them as his fellow D&S employees trotted after the two coyotes, who were even now passing the rotary in a dead run.
# # #
“What's troubling you, my friend?”
Russ Cantrell looked up from his place in the pew with surprise in his eyes. He thought he had been all alone in the sanctuary of All Furs Christian Church. Debbie was with Gina Vison and the rest of the girls of Gina's ministry at their usual mid-week prayer breakfast. Having about forty five minutes to kill, Russ had made himself a cup of coffee and come to the sanctuary for a bit of quiet time.
The tall rabbit smiled warmly down to him in recognition. Jack Wilson was the senior pastor at AFCC, and had only met Russell once or twice, but knew him as a developing part of the Latrans family. Jack was in his mid-thirties, six feet tall and a hundred and sixty pounds with medium gray fur and black hair cut short. He had been senior pastor of AFCC for almost ten years now, and was used to occasionally finding furs alone in the sanctuary.
“Is there anything I can help you with, Russ?”
The husky smiled shyly. “I'm OK, pastor.” He looked the lapine in the eye earnestly. “It's Debbie's brother Chris.”
“What's wrong with him?” Pastor Jack inquired. He figured he was about to hear of another teen drama involving heart-rending broken promises and betrayal, the kind most young furs get over in a week or two. He was unprepared for what came next.
“You haven't heard? He may be dead.”
The startled look that came across the pastor's face motivated the husky to quickly elaborate.
“You know Chris works for that railroad in Colorado?”
Pastor Jack nodded.
“He was working on a train that was lost in a snowstorm yesterday following a landslide and a derailment. Nobody has heard from him or his crew since yesterday afternoon.”
“My God,” Jack Wilson said quietly as he sat down next to the young husky. “How are his parents taking it?”
“Mr. Latrans is in Colorado even now to look for him. Mrs. Latrans is not taking it well at all. I saw her about half an hour ago, she looked very upset.” Russ sipped his coffee. “Debbie's taking it pretty hard, too, but she's trying to keep it bottled up. I can tell. She wanted to come to their breakfast this morning to ask her friends to pray for Chris.”
Jack's expression became worried. “Is Mrs. Latrans alone?”
Russ shook his head. “Mike is home with her. And I'm taking Debbie straight home from here, too.”
Jack Wilson put a strong arm around the shoulders of the young husky.
“We're going to help.” He gazed briefly at the large silver cross that hung above the baptistry behind the stage at the front of the sanctuary, and then made eye contact with the young male. “First we involve our Lord. Then we're gonna roll up our sleeves and get involved personally, OK?”
Russ nodded, and then bowed his head as he saw the pastor do likewise.
“Father, everything is according to Your plan, we know this. Yet in our ignorance of Your plan we are often unequipped to discern the reasoning or appreciate the process, and are woefully short on patience and understanding. Help us, Lord, to be patient in our reaction and response to this fearful event. Help your servants as we minister to those who are injured, and those who hurt out of fear. Be with our sister Annie this morning, give her the strength to carry on in the face of whatever has befallen her son. Be with our brothers Mike and Russell, and our sister Debbie, as they seek to support and comfort their mother in the face of the unknown.”
Pastor Jack Wilson paused, his mind suddenly a chaotic jumble of noisy thoughts. He pondered these for a moment, and additional words came to him.
“Father, sometimes Your plans are revealed through unrelated mechanisms that defy our ability to appreciate or even comprehend. Be with our brother Joe, be his strength and his wisdom as he faces that which You have in store for him. Return Chris Latrans to his family, his friends, and this church. Comfort all the souls who hurt as a result of whatever has happened on the railroad in Colorado, and glorify Your name in the process.”
Jack squeezed Russ' shoulders. “In the name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
“Amen!” Russ repeated emphatically.
The two furs were quiet in the otherwise empty sanctuary as the first rays of sunshine illuminated the east-facing windows of the church. Jack looked into the mug sitting on the pew cushion between he and Russ.
“How about we get a refill for you?”
The husky smiled, although the concern for his girlfriend and her family was still evident on his face. His tail wagged once.
“Thank you, pastor.”
# # #
The doctor was angry. Pissed was more like it. They had traveled as fast as they could, but to no avail. Six of them had died before they arrived, some by drowning, some from blunt force trauma and blood loss, one from smoke inhalation. Three of the crew had survived, two seriously injured and one virtually unscathed.
The Animas River canyon had been taking the lives of furs for hundreds of years, it was nothing new. Yet this accident had happened on his watch, furs who deserved better had died while he and his medical team were still en route. Damn the luck, he grumbled silently. The foul weather prevented any type of air support, and there were no roads in the vicinity. Rail had been the only answer, and the crew of the rescue train had bravely run their race against time as quickly as safety allowed. They just... lost.
And now he had a new storm brewing right in front of him in the form of this grey-eyed coyote and his slightly smaller companion. The smaller one was obviously in law enforcement of some sort, he spoke and carried himself like a fur who was used to getting his way. It was the other one who looked and acted like a bomb about to go off. He hadn't said much, letting his partner ask the questions when they had first encountered each other outside. But the two of them had just now boldly bulldozed their way past the railroad officials and his own medical staff outside, following the doctor without permission into the coach that had been set up as a mobile hospital ward. It was supposed to be a sanitary environment, after all.
“I already told you,” the puma grumbled tiredly as he positioned himself more squarely between the invading canids and his patients, “I don't know these furs by name. I don't know who they are.” He squared his shoulders. At five foot eleven he could be a formidable obstacle, yet the larger coyote continued to bump into him, pressing him back as he tried to peer past him.
“Stop!” Doctor Hernandez ordered. “No farther! You are not scrubbed and this is a hospital environment.”
“Just let me look at them...” the coyote's voice rasped. It wasn't a question or proposition.
Hernandez backed up a small step and regarded the nearer coyote. He was determined, the doctor could see that in the canid's eyes as well as the set of his shoulders, the clench of his jaw. He was coiled like a clock spring: tense, on a hair trigger, barely restrained. Ready to blow.
There was a commotion outside, and then behind the smaller coyote the door of the coach burst open once again and two more furs entered, a huge black bear and a beaver the doctor recognized as the chief railroad official. As the doctor looked past the large coyote in his face, the black bear stepped rapidly forward into the coach and grabbed the smaller coyote from behind, gathering copious amounts of the canid's dark green parka in his massive paws. Lifting the coyote bodily by his outer wear, the bear began to try and drag him towards the doorway at the end of the coach behind them while roaring at the top of his voice.
“You all have worn out your welcome!"
In the blink of an eye the larger coyote had turned on his heel and produced a large pistol in his left paw, jamming the muzzle of the gun in the right ear of the bear, who while angry was smart enough to freeze in his tracks.
Several voices spoke at once as the tight confines of the coach became suddenly still. The doctor heard the larger coyote mutter an epithet as the smaller one slowly said “Calmate, José...”, even as the beaver loudly demanded to know what in the Hell his crewfur was doing. The black bear growled an epithet of his own.
“Alright,” the large coyote growled menacingly. “I've traveled far, and have little patience left. I'm very close to adding to your casualty list. You,” he prodded the black bear in the ear with the muzzle of his pistol. “Let go of my friend. Now.”
“Jesus, Zach, calm down,” the beaver said tightly. “Let go of the nice fur and settle down, OK?”
The black bear dropped his paws from the collar of Hector Sandovál's parka but otherwise did not move, looking at the dark gray muzzle of the owner of the pistol out of the corner of his eye.
“You're pretty bold with that pistol, my friend,” the bear said in an almost friendly manner which did nothing to disguise the venom in his voice. “I wonder how you'd do fur-to-fur with your own paws?”
“Zach,” Rudy Gallegos raised his voice. “Shut the fuck up!”
“What do you want?” the doctor interrupted sarcastically. “You can see we're busy trying to save lives here.”
The pistol-waving coyote's response caused the beaver's eyes to widen in understanding.
“Chris Latrans,” the dark-muzzled coyote growled quietly. “Show me Chris Latrans.”
“Christ, you're his dad!” Rudy Gallegos exclaimed in surprise. “Joe Latrans! That's you, right?”
The larger coyote nodded once.
The beaver shoved a paw roughly into the chest of the black bear as he stepped forward, a tight, worried smile on his muzzle. “Doc, help this fur out.” Rudy shoved harder, pushing the black bear out of his way as he stepped between the Zach and the smaller coyote. Joe lowered and then holstered his pistol as the beaver made his way forward. Facing the bear momentarily the beaver grunted "You settle down. Right now! This is family." Turning to the puma he elaborated. “This is the father of one of your patients.”
“He's alive?” A note of hope had crept into Joe's voice, taking the edge off the growl.
“Hell yes, he's alive!” Rudy said emphatically, moving to stand next to the coyote and placing a thick arm across his shoulders. “The locomotive crew and the conductor survived.”
Doctor Hernandez held up his paws and placed them gently against the shoulders of the large coyote who had turned to face him once again.
“Please wait here. I have a coyote hybrid in his early twenties. He was found in the cab of the locomotive. This is your son?”
The coyote nodded, his eyes beginning to glisten.
“Nurse Abrahms!” the doctor suddenly bellowed without taking his eyes from those of Joe Latrans.
At the far end of the coach, behind a hanging sheet, a thin, tired voice replied “Yes?”
“I have a fur to clean up! Get me a scrub kit! And make ready for a transfusion, stat!”
# # #
Mike had to take the phone from his mom, who was sobbing uncontrollably.
The weariness of his father's voice couldn't be disguised or filtered by fifteen hundred miles of distance. It was almost ten AM. His dad probably hadn't slept at all.
“Yeah dad. Did you find Chris?”
“Yeah. He's alive. He's badly hurt, but he'll survive.”
“Thanks be to God,” Mike sighed loudly, looking at the small knot of furs in his family room. Russ Cantrell, Pastor Jack Wilson and his wife Kimiko, his sister Debbie, and Gina Vison all sat on the large sectional sofa. His mother had just seated herself next to Gina and was sobbing quietly, her head buried in the mink's shoulder. All other eyes in the room were trained on him.
“What happened to him?”
Joe swallowed. He was dog tired, but wouldn't let himself stop until he spoke to Annie again.
“He was thrown around in the cab of his locomotive in a landslide. The cab was practically torn from the rest of his engine as it derailed and rolled into the river. The rescue team found him unconscious and bleeding.” Joe took a ragged breath. “He's got multiple broken ribs, the doc says he might have ruptured a kidney. He's lost a lot of blood. I've already given blood once for a transfusion, they're going to hook me up again as soon as they think it's safe.”
“Have you spoken to him?”
“He's unconscious, Mike. Out cold. Nobody has spoken to him. The engineer is conscious, the railroad furs are getting the story from him and the conductor. Most of the maintenance of way crew is dead. The conductor survived unhurt.”
Mike paused to take a breath of his own.
“How are you, dad?”
There was a long silence at the other end of the phone.
“Tired. Scared. But relieved.”
“He'll be alright then?”
“The doc says that he can't be certain until they get him back to Durango and get X-rays. The engineer, Russ Taylor, you remember him?”
“I've heard Chris talk about him...”
“His left paw was crushed in the roll-over, and he's got a nasty head wound and concussion. Other than that he's OK. Most of the story is coming from the conductor. He was apparently in the doorway of the car right behind the locomotive when the slide happened, and he managed to jump clear of most of the damage.”
“Where is Chris now?”
“On the rescue train. They've converted a coach to a mobile hospital of sorts, and he's in it. He's still unconscious, but the doctor has sutured shut the gash in his side and set his broken leg and shoulder.” Joe sighed. “Most of the blood loss was from the wound in his right side, at least that's what they think now. It was pretty deep, and his right lung collapsed. Apparently some large rock hit the cab of the locomotive and ripped and sheared some of the plate steel. Chris and Russ got bounced around inside pretty badly, and the rescue furs say they both got cut up by the jagged, shorn steel. They're both beat up pretty bad.”
“Are you under way?”
“No. The rescue train moved down to Rockwood to get out of the canyon, out of the danger area and to avoid being snowed in. We're waiting here for a group of ambulances and escorts to take Chris and Russ back to Durango. They should be here any minute.” Joe paused briefly. “Chris is getting the best care we can give him, and is safe and resting comfortably. He's warm and dry and clean, and until we get him to a real hospital that's the best we can do for him.”
Mike paused, listening to his father breathe. He also realized that the room around him had become quiet, except for an occasional sniff from his mother. He glanced at her, and found she was staring at him. He arched his eyebrows in question, and she nodded.
“Dad, mom wants to talk to you.”
“Put her on.”
# # #
Hector was standing in the snow near the Durango & Silverton's maintenance of way yards at Rockwood, leaning against a fence post a few dozen yards from the rescue train. It was cold, his breath condensed into thick vapor before him as he exhaled through his nose. The snow had stopped falling, and the sky was brightening. It was just a bit past eleven AM local time. Although there were nearly a hundred furs in the vicinity, either on board the train or in the offices and outbuildings of the railroad trying to stay warm, no one approached the IPF fur. He smiled sadly. Just as well, he thought.
As his gaze wandered from the train and drifted across the yards a large figure in black emerged from the maintenance of way office. Donning a large black hat, Joe Latrans stepped from the platform between the office and the railroad grade into the snow and strode a few paces away from the building, towards the train. He stopped and reached into his jacket's liner for something. Moments later he produced a toothpick and set it between his teeth. He then thrust his paws into his pockets and tilted his head back, staring at the mountains, at the sky.
Hector walked slowly towards his friend. As he approached Joe he could see the lack of sleep etched in his face, but he also saw something he hadn't seen in Joe Latrans in quite a while.
Peace. A small smile even caressed the muzzle of the weary coyote.
Hector stopped a few feet away. “Oye, primo. Como te va?"
The smile did not diminish. This pleased Hector.
“I know what's on your mind, Hector. A deal's a deal, right?”
“No, José,” Hector answered honestly. “I wasn't thinking about that at all. That can be taken care of later.” Hector looked at the mountains Joe continued to stare at.
They were silent for a time, taking in the nature around them. The clouds parted overhead and dappled sunlight played across the rocky hillside across the canyon.
“They're beautiful, aren't they?” Joe whispered. “Deadly, but so beautiful.”
Hector grinned a bit. “Like some ladies, no?”
Joe snorted in reply.
The silence stretched between them again as they stood together, staring at the mountains and the sky, each lost in their own thoughts. Presently Hector edged a bit closer and put a paw on Joe's shoulder.
“I'm glad your son survived and is safe, José.”
Joe turned to look his friend in the eyes.
“I owe you, Hector. Big time. Annie and I both. We are in your debt. Thank you.”
Joe took the other coyote's paw in a firm shake.
“Whatever our future holds, I will always consider you my friend, amigo.” Here Joe looked at the dirt in front of his boots. “I'm sorry,” he said as he looked up again, “about my behavior on the way out here, and what happened in the train.”
Hector smiled, a genuine warm smile of shared duty and friendship. “It is not a problem, José. You were under a lot of stress coming out here, especially after what happened to you a while ago in the fires. I understand.”
Hector's smile grew in proportion, becoming a humorous grin. “As for your black bear friend, well...”
Joe giggled in spite of himself.
“Let us just say that he has seen the error of his ways and holds no grudge.” Hector winked. “Many an unruly soul has been set on the straight and narrow by the Interstate Police Force, no?”
# # #
"You can't do this!" the Pomeranian cried. "You have no right!"
The Doberman stood erect before the curved, elevated dais at which were seated the five members of the Orange County Council, smiling gently. "Do not," he growled quietly but with authority, "presume to tell me what my rights are."
"You don't understand," a ferret spoke up. "We have spent years and millions of dollars preparing El Toro for development as a commercial site. We have plans for thousands of new homes, billions of dollars of new tax base in residential and light industrial infrastructure. It's taken us almost eight years to get to the point where we're almost ready to begin!"
Robert Wechsler turned his head slightly to look at the senior council-member. A slight smile creased his otherwise emotionless visage. "Aren't we fortunate," he said with a trace of sarcasm, "that you haven't actually yet put these plans into effect. In fact, El Toro is exactly as the United States Marine Corps left it almost ten years ago."
"But we have spent millions of our own dollars in preparing for this endeavor!" an old bulldog roared at him. "I don't care if you are with the federal government. I won't stand for this. You are not taking El Toro away from us, and you most certainly are not reinstating it as an air base. There will be no jets at El Toro!"
The smile grew on Robert's muzzle. He took a small step towards the old bulldog at the elevated dais. As he did so, the IPF agent at the doorway stepped from the shadows into the room, an automatic rifle suddenly and menacingly appearing in his paws, pointed at the ceiling but held in such a way as to easily sweep the room with little effort.
Alarm registered in the eyes of each of the five council-members as Robert stepped to within a foot of the bulldog's muzzle.
"Excuse me," he said softly, his fangs baring ever so slightly in a sneer. "Perhaps I did not make myself clear. I am not with the 'federal government'." And then his voice rose in strength and timbre. "My name is Robert Wechsler. I am with the Interstate Police Force, saviors of the homeland, guardians of the faith." The Doberman leaned closer to the bulldog, even closer, until their noses almost touched. "We don't abide by the law, mister council-member, we are the law."
Roberts voice now filled the room as he turned from the sputtering bulldog to take in the entire council. "Your choice is simple, my friends." He swept a paw towards the lot of them. "You may accept our offer to you, one million dollars each, in cash, now, in exchange for your signatures, and you may give us El Toro and leave here free furs to pursue your sordid lives as you desire."
Robert turned to the agent now standing in the center of the room. "Or we will take the airbase anyway, and the five of you will join the rest of our guests at Guantánamo Bay, escorted by Mister Smith here."
The agent, a six and a half foot tall, black-suited Bengal tiger with shoulders almost four feet wide, bowed deeply while training his AR-15 on the senior council-member. "It will be my pleasure," his deep voice growled, "to accompany you to Cuba, all expenses paid, one way." The tiger smiled as he straightened and nodded to Robert.
There was a period of silence, perhaps seconds, perhaps minutes, in which the bulldog glared at the Doberman, effectively ignoring the tiger. He was an old military fur himself, and wasn't used to being pushed around. Unfortunately his compatriots were not nearly so ramrod honorable.
A poodle at the end of the dais cleared her throat. "I move," she said timidly, "that we accept the generous offer of Mister Wechsler and the IPF."
The bulldog looked at her, and then at the other three members of the Council. His four compatriots were cowed, terrified. He shook his head irritably, his jowls wiggling. What was the use? After several seconds of silence he likewise cleared his throat. "I second that."
"So noted. All in favor?" And without waiting or even glancing around the ferret who was the senior councilmember continued, "Motion is carried. Enjoy your air base, Mister Wechsler."
"Jacob, please render our friends here their due."
The Bengal tiger shouldered his automatic rifle and turned to fetch a briefcase from the doorway. He carried it lightly across the room and dropped it noisily on the dais in front of the ferret.
"Five million in cash, mister councilfur. It's been a pleasure doing business with you."
A sour look crossed the bulldog's muzzle as the ferret timidly accepted the briefcase, saying "Likewise, Mister Wechsler."
# # #
That old boomer was back again, smiling at him. The Irish Wolfhound looked even older without his felt crusher on, but his dark brown eyes still had that friendly twinkle in them.
Chris Latrans grinned back at him as he lay in his bed.
“I wuz up on Marshall Pass in da winter of eighty seven,” the grizzled engineer began. “We had us a couple o' dem new four hunnert series class seventy hogs on the point, an' two more on da rear of a freight drag headin' fer Gunnison. We had jus' cleared de cut at da pass an' was headin' down-grade on da west side. We'd stopped at da pass ta turn up da binders an' set da boys out on da car tops. We'd jus got under way when we hit da lan'slide. Derailed both lead enjins, it did, an'made a Hell uv a mess.”
The old engineer shifted his position in the straight back wooden chair he sat astride. “My stoker wuz banged up pretty good when dat jack jumped de rails. He couldn't walk right an' wuz bleedin' all over da Creation. Just a kit, he wuz, full o' fire an' vinegar an' chompin' at da bit. I had ta give him a good talkin' ta get him ta stay put while I walked a mile an' a half back up grade to da section house at da pass, through da snow, ta telegraph fer help. Brought me a couple o' gandy dancers an' da lightnin' slinger back ta lend a paw. Feared we'd fin' us a dead stoker, we did. Guess what we foun' instead?”
Chris found it difficult to speak, so simply shrugged, the question in his eyes.
“Dat dam bobcat stoker o' mine... he tired o' waitin' an' had drug himself back t' da hogs on da hind end. He wuz hollerin' at da rear end crew, slingin' coal an' raising holy Hell with 'em, tryin' to get dem ta back dat dam train up t' da pass ta pick me up!” The Wolfhound laughed, a deep jolly sound in his belly that made his ears and tail dance in delight. Chris couldn't help a small giggle himself, even though it caused his side to hurt more.
As the old boomer's laughter died he leaned forward, a warm smile on his muzzle.
“Know whut happened t' my young stoker?”
Chris shook his head.
The Wolfhound reached towards the coyote to gently brush a paw across his forehead, pushing strands of his hair from his eyes. “Dat dam bobcat, he grew up t' be Roadmaster of Locomotives on da entire Utah Division. He wuz more'n fifty years in service with The Grande.”
The paw rested on Chris' uninjured shoulder.
“My young friend, you have many years of da High Iron left on yer list you carry. You will leave a legacy on dis line dat others will remember fer gen'rations ta come. Don't ever fergit dat.”
Chris stared at the old boomer. Something was wrong with his eyes, because the old boomer's face appeared to be changing as Chris stared at him.
“Live well, my son," the boomer said in a low voice. "I love you...”
Chris blinked several times to clear his eyes, confused. The boomer had become someone else, someone familiar looking. He didn't understand, and wanted very much to ask the old Wolfhound what had happened. As he blinked and tried unsuccessfully to raise his paws to his eyes to rub them, Chris Latrans suddenly realized exactly who he'd been staring at. While his speech was slurred and thick in his own mouth, it was clear enough to allow Chris to change everything.
Joe Latrans sobbed once as he gently squeezed his son's shoulder, nodding.
“I'm here, son.”
Chris relaxed and closed his eyes, a tiny smile on his muzzle. Just before he drifted back into sleep he mumbled “Good.”
Joe wiped the back of a paw across his eyes and tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling of the hospital room for long moments.
“A deal's a deal,” he said in a whisper. “I'm yours.”