All characters appearing in this story are mine of my own design.
This story is a work of fiction based upon nothing in particular.
Precious Cargo is copyright © The Silver Coyote
2003 - 2006
28 March 2006
Post Frontal Activity
Once again she saw the glittering diamonds floating in the sunlight. She admired their beauty even though she knew what they meant. Destruction. Ridicule. Shame. The suffering of her husband.
Yet as Annie steeled herself for the divine lecture she knew was coming, she noticed a difference. Instead of watching Joe ascend towards the light as in previous iterations, he was this time down on the surface amid it's chaos. The building was the same; shattered concrete , deformed steel, and mangled machines crumpled in upon the source of the water plume that rocketed more than one hundred feet into the air. At the apex of the plume the water droplets glittered, momentarily suspended, catching and refracting the sunlight into it's rainbow colors.
In the past this dream had always ended the same way, with Joe apparently getting a dressing down from God that turned her strong coyote into a whimpering pup. She would always awake with tears in her own eyes, heart beating double-time, her breath coming in sobs as she cried for him.
But this time it was different. Same building, same destruction, but a different Joe.
She recognized him even from overhead. He was dressed in dark clothing, very much like he had been two nights ago when he had flown with that IPF fur to Colorado. But there was something different about him now.
In her dream Annie floated down from above to hover in the air directly before her husband. He was standing on a low hill, perhaps twenty five or thirty feet above and maybe thirty yards from what was left of the building that had been destroyed. He did not see her for she was invisible to him. In fact, Joe looked right through her auburn-furred body to the mess below him.
His feet, in black hiking boots, were far apart on the uneven ground. His right paw was in his jacket pocket, his left paw gripped a strap that passed down from his left shoulder and under his left arm. His black denim jacket was open, revealing the handle of a knife at his belt on the right hip and a glimpse of the butt of his pistol against the left side of his rib cage. That much was memory, she'd seen these things before. What was different, what grabbed her attention, was the heavy automatic rifle slung over his shoulder by that strap, muzzle pointing at the dirt behind him. She had never seen it before.
She studied his face. A small smile graced his muzzle, his blue eyes stared calmly at the jumbled remnants of the building behind her. As she watched him, his right paw came out of the pocket and reached beneath his jacket to a left side shirt pocket, reappearing momentarily to place a toothpick in his mouth. It was such a familiar thing that Annie grinned slightly.
A light breeze played with a bit of his silvering hair, and the big coyote sighed quietly, closing his eyes. Annie smiled. Her husband looked relaxed and happy, she much preferred this to the way this dream normally ended.
Eyes still closed, Joe moved his other paw from the strap of the rifle. Annie jumped a bit with the realization that this paw was bloody. More than that, it was covered in blood. It dripped from his fingertips to the dirt at his feet, raising tiny mushroom clouds in the dust there. In fact, she suddenly noticed, both his paws were soaked in the crimson liquid.
Joe silently held his paws out before him, pads facing the heavens, eyes still closed. Then came the light, that awful white light she remembered from the old dream, the all-encompassing light that obliterated everything in it's glare. The hill disappeared, the sky disappeared, and her husband faded from view. Fear gripped the soul of Annie Latrans.
She felt the breeze touch her as well, and was suddenly calmed. The light faded as quickly as it had come, and there was Joe, eyes still shut, the smile on his muzzle a tiny bit larger. And his paws were now spotlessly clean.
# # #
Mike Harland watched the mink move about his mother's kitchen. Gina Vison had spent the night with his family again after Pastor Jack and his wife had gone home shortly before noon yesterday. Wearing one of his mom's longer robes, she looked now to be assembling the fixings for some hot tea. A pot had just been set on the stove, and she was placing cups on a tray.
His mom's disposition had improved noticeably after the call from his father yesterday morning, but the lack of sleep, a result of the consuming fear that had kept her awake all night, and the sudden release of her pent-up emotions early that morning had taken their toll. His mom had been sort of numb all day, eschewing a nap in the hopes that more news would come from Colorado. It hadn't. She and Gina had disappeared shortly after dinner, the mink leading the exhausted red fox by the paw up the stairs to her bedroom. Gina had reappeared around nine, wearing that robe.
“Your mom is finally asleep,” she had said.
They had chatted the balance of the evening away in the family room, his sister Debbie between them as they sat on the large leather sectional sofa. At first they had talked about Chris' adventure for a bit, but after a while the topics had drifted. For a time they talked about Russ Cantrell, and about Debbie's classes at Los Pinos High. Mike was surprised to learn of the amount of work Debbie had been doing for Gina, and was pleased that her grades were not suffering as a result. As the evening wore on the subject turned to the church where they all worshiped and both he and the mink worked. By the time the eleven o'clock news had come on the TV (which none of them had been watching), Debbie was yawning and and getting sleepy-eyed. By quarter past eleven she had excused herself, heading for her own room.
Gina had been silent for a few moments after Debbie's departure. She and Mike had stared at the television with unseeing eyes, each deep in their own thoughts. Presently she had looked up to him again. “I hear you've had quite a few young furs express interest in the youth worship bands you're helping to put together.” she had said quietly.
Mike had shrugged, looking back at Gina. “A lot of the kids like Christian Rock. We've had a few come out for a jam session once or twice.”
The mink had nodded at that. “I heard you had almost two dozen show up. Drums, guitars, keyboards, brass, woodwinds... seems you've got all the bases covered.”
Mike had looked at her quizzically for a moment. He hadn't been boasting about the turnout to the staff, except... “Where'd you hear that?”
“Jaclyn mentioned it.”
They both worked with Jaclyn Manx, he now formally as paid full time staff and she as a volunteer. It should not have surprised him that the two females talked about him or his activities with the youth of the church, but for some reason that name had almost knocked him out of his chair.
“She... talks about me?” He had immediately given himself a mental kick in the tail. What an idiotic, adolescent thing to ask! He was behaving like a teen-ager!
The barest hint of a smile touched the lips of the mink sitting across from him. She nodded again, more slowly.
And then, before he had been able to think of anything to say, of any way to recover from a sudden and, he felt, obvious exposure of his emotions, she had turned towards the TV and made a comment about something on the news. The weather. How the first heavy storm of the winter was moving out from the Rocky Mountain states and into the central Great Plains.
Mike sighed in the Latrans kitchen, remembering as he watched Gina place two apple and cinnamon muffins on a small plate, and then place the plate on the tray with the cups. While he had been musing two small glasses and a half-liter carafe of orange juice had also been added to the tray.
His eyes met hers.
“Can I get you anything, Mike? Tea? OJ?”
The gray fox shook his head briefly. “Thank you, no.”
She smiled as he studied her for a moment.
“Thank you for being here for mom. She needed something Debbie and I could not provide, it seems. I'm glad you were here.”
Gina's smile revealed the tips of some very sharp fangs. “It is my pleasure, Mike.”
# # #
She had been alone in the small cafeteria. A local girl, the marmot had grown up in the hills just south of Mancos, about halfway down US160 towards Cortez. She still lived with her folks while she was studying for her LPN certification at the San Juan Basin Area Vocational Technical School near their home, and worked as a “candy-striper” at Mercy Medical Center as part of her vocational training. The money she was paid certainly helped her mother and father run their small ranch near Mancos.
Ariana was twenty four, petite, with coloring typical of the native brown marmot of Colorado's high country. She was also tired. Working at Mercy Medical the twenty five hours a week that wrapped around her school schedule, with the forty-odd mile commute each way, tended to suck up all her energies. So it was she found herself in the cafeteria on the second floor, sipping black coffee and thumbing through an old issue of Fur magazine on her fifteen minute morning break.
She heard the door open across the room and looked up. A middle-aged canine of some sort had just entered. He was dressed in black denim jeans and a forest green shirt, the rolled up sleeves revealing strong forearms with sand-colored fur. His ears and eyes were alert, yet something about his eyes said he was also tired from long hours, like her. His tail was passive, pointing at the floor and moving slightly in rhythm with his steps as he walked across the room.
Their eyes met, and he smiled at her, nodding hello. She smiled in return.
She watched him as he crossed the room to the food counter. He spoke quietly to the server there, a cougar she knew slightly named Gus. The visitor was big, six foot or maybe a bit more. He looked like a coyote, but was beefier, and had a dark muzzle with matching ears. And those blue eyes. She studied them in the mirror behind the food counter as he stood with his back to her.
Gus handed the stranger a cup of coffee. The coyote handed Gus a dollar bill as he thanked him and then turned towards her.
She smiled again, her heart beating a little bit faster. He changed course when he saw her looking at him again, walking slowly towards her as he sipped his coffee.
The door across the room burst open, admitting a slightly smaller fur that was obviously a coyote himself. This fur wore a uniform with a sidearm, she noticed, and his eyes immediately found the larger fur approaching her.
The big canine stopped and looked towards the newest entrant, his expression changing, becoming somewhat tense.
“You need to come and see this,” the other said, motioning with a paw.
The big coyote smiled at her. “Excuse me,” he muttered.
And just like that Ariana was alone again.
# # #
Joe Latrans followed his friend towards the east exit of the hospital. Hector Sandovál had said very little, just kept repeating “You need to see this.” as they walked the corridors.
Stepping into bright, cold mid-morning sunshine, the two coyotes quickly crossed the east parking lot of Mercy Medical Center. The lot had been plowed clear, piles of snow were pushed up against the walls of the hospital. The eastern edge of the property butted up against the right of way of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad right of way, and Hector strode purposefully towards a group of furs collected at the fence separating the two properties. The Animas River flowed south just beyond the railroad track.
As they crossed the lot Joe looked around, spying other small clusters of furs along the fence line of the D&SNG right of way both north and south of the medical center's parking lot. Something was attracting the attention of all those furs...
Joe became aware of the chuffing sound characteristic of a steam locomotive approaching, and also heard the voices. As he and Hector approached the fence he casually scrutinized the furs in the small group directly in front of them. Hector moved to the edge of that nearest crowd, Joe right behind him.
Their group numbered about twenty, Joe guessed, a mixed bag of species, male and female. The youngest was a small male otter of perhaps eight or nine years, dressed in a bright red parka and matching snow pants. The oldest was a gray muzzled mountain lion in an old leather hat, who had to be at least eighty. There were a couple of nurses and a doctor from the hospital as well. Every one of them stared up the right of way, and Joe immediately saw why.
“It's the rescue train, dear,” Joe heard a female explain to the small otter pup.
One of the Durango and Silverton's locomotives shuffled slowly into view. The large plow on the pilot of the locomotive was still covered in ice and snow, obscuring it's number boards and smokebox front. Careful scrutiny allowed the observation that some fur had scraped away snow and ice from in front of the headlight.
The entire train was layered with slowly melting snow, the lower sides covered with mud, much like many of the automobiles in the parking lot. Chunks of the stuff would occasionally fall from some railway car or other with an audible splat as it hit the roadbed. Joe recognized the consist of the train as being the same cars and coaches that had been at the rescue site the night before last, that he had ridden in down to Rockwood.
As the cab of the locomotive, number 498, passed the parking lot Joe got a good look at the head end crew. There were several furs in the cab of the steam engine, he discerned a snow leopard, a large bear in the shadows, and a beaver in the starboard gangway, amongst others. The engineer glanced at the furs in passing. All of the crew did. They were stony-eyed, determined in their exhaustion, but with an undefinable look of victory. Joe knew that look. They had accomplished what they had set out to do. They had rescued furs. And they knew that those furs were here at Mercy Medical Center.
Several cars of varying type followed in the train, with a large steam-powered crane and an even larger rotary plow bringing up the rear. As this train slowly rumbled past, the headlight of the next was already coming into view through the smoke of the first train's passage.
The second train brought momentary silence to the assemblage of furs. In fact, the whole city seemed to grow quiet as the second big K-37 proceeded slowly towards them, towing the decimated remains of a smaller locomotive, barely recognizable as K-28 number 478. The whispers started.
“Can you believe it?”
“Oh my Lord...”
“It's a miracle anyone survived that.”
The old mountain lion near them removed his hat, squinting in the sunlight as he stared at the battered hulk that had been one of the slim-gauge princesses. A tear rolled across his gaunt cheek.
The crew of the 493 stared ahead, their muzzles as frozen as their ice- and snow-covered steed. Joe knew their expressions, too. Loss. Unexpressable, unsalvageable, unrecoverable loss.
She looked as if she'd been in a huge meat grinder. Appurtenances were bent every which way on the 478. The crosshead was bent upward, the cylinders pointing at an odd angle towards the pilot. Side rods and connecting rods had been taken down, just so she could roll on the rail. The sand dome was missing, the stack lay over on the top of the boiler, and the cab was smashed and skewed at an odd angle to the rest of the locomotive. The boiler jacket was everywhere dented, in one spot holed through, exposing lagging. As the assemblage passed, Joe noted the dark stains that splotched the facing exterior wall of the cab. He recognized dried blood crusted with dirt, dusted with fresh snow.
“Jesus,” the old mountain lion muttered, wiping his eye. “God protect the crew of that.”
Joe looked at the old fur. “He did,” he said gently.
The mountain lion stared at him, the question bright in his old eyes.
“My son,” Joe said in a voice so low that the old fur leaned forward to hear him. “He was the stoker on that locomotive. He's here at the hospital. He and the engineer, and the conductor, survived. The rest...”
“Thank you,” the old mountain lion whispered. “Your son is a brave fur to take on the canyon in the winter.”
Joe smiled slightly, nodding his thanks to the old fur. Turning to Hector, Joe raised his voice and said “I've seen enough. I'm going to check on Chris.”
“Is he with the railroad?” Joe heard the old fur ask Hector as he strode towards the hospital.
# # #
Robert Wechsler returned his pawset to it's base, hanging the phone up. His contact in Sacramento had told an interesting story. It appeared that the Orange County Councilfurs, or one of them at least, had decided to take their loss of the El Toro Marine Base to their local government, informing a couple members of the California State Legislature of their plight. The unspoken possibility of the governor's involvement was very likely, and that could easily bring the issue to Washington and Arlington.
And that would put it on The Director's plate.
And that would be bad.
The Doberman now regretted his personal involvement in buying off the Orange County Council. He should have left that to a lesser fur, someone disposable. If things went bad, every one of those damn council furs would know his name.
Feet padded heavily into the room, and Robert looked up.
“Want some tea, lover?”
Robert squinted at the Doberman facing him, a muscular male in his mid twenties. They had only been together a few weeks, and his familiar tone annoyed the IPF fur for some reason.
“Yes, thank you.” His eyes held those of the younger canine. “Leave it on my desk please, I have more business to attend to.”
The young male placed a large mug of steaming liquid on the desktop in front of the older fur. The aroma of Constant Comment tea filled Robert's nose. The IPF Chief smiled slightly, nodding his approval to the younger fur. It was his favorite kind of tea.
“Thank you, Hoppy.”
“Are we going to the mall today?”
Robert picked up his mug and sipped carefully. The tea was quite hot. Placing the mug back on his desktop, he nodded again, more slowly. “Yes, as soon as I'm finished here. It shouldn't be too long.”
The younger Doberman smiled. “I'll get dressed then.” Turning slowly, he strolled from the room, adding energy to the swishing of his tail for the other, whom he was sure was watching. He turned at the door, and was rewarded with the observation that Robert Wechsler was, in fact, staring at him. But he had a blank, sort of disconnected look on his face.
Reggie Hopper shut the door to his lover's office. They could play later.
At his desk, Robert sat and contemplated his next move. He was reluctant to consider his immediate reaction, it could draw even more attention to the situation than they were already having to deal with. Still, it would almost certainly send a message, and achieve the desired result for his Director. He reached for the phone. Bringing the pawset to his ear, he began dialing a number.
In a small office in the headquarters building in Arlington a computer logged his outgoing call, making a notation of the time and number called.
As he waited for the connection to be made Robert recalled the gruff old bulldog from the County Council meeting. His dossier told of a long military career, recently retiring to a good life with his wife, sitting on the Council while she operated one of the largest real estate development companies in southern California. Legal, to be sure, but rigged none the less. It didn't surprise anyone when his wife's company was selected as one of the primary contractor's on the Council's grand development scheme for the El Toro Air Base. A ring sounded in Robert's pawset, and he waited.
“Wechsler. I need to arrange a retirement party.”
# # #
Joe was surprised by two things upon quietly opening the door to the room his son occupied at Mercy Medical Center. The first thing Joe noticed was that Chris was awake. The second thing he noticed was that his attentions were completely captured by a young, trim, female coyote sitting at his bedside facing him, her green eyes shining.
Her left ear rotated slightly as he entered the room, revealing that she was aware of his presence, but she did not look up to him. She was paying attention to something Chris was saying. As Joe entered the room he could hear Chris mumbling, but couldn't make out what he was saying.
Joe stopped when he was still a step or two away from his son's bed. Chris stopped mumbling, and slowly turned his head to see his father. A smile came to his muzzle.
“Hi dad,” he said weakly.
“Hi son. How are you feeling?”
“Like a train hit me,” Chris replied slowly, grinning slightly.
Joe grinned as well. “At least you won the battle.”
Chris nodded slowly. Joe noticed that his left paw held the female's right.
Chris blinked as the realization came to him. “Dad, this is Shari,” he said, drawing out the words. It was obvious that he was growing tired. While his injuries had been stabilized and were healing, his body was devoting most of it's energies to that task, and he was weak as a result.
“Joe Latrans,” the older coyote said as he held out his paw to her across the bed. To his surprise she did not release his son's paw, rather taking Joe's right paw in her left as she stood.
“Shari Goss. Nice to meet you, Mr. Latrans.” Her voice was clear and melodic.
Joe smiled. “My father was Mister Latrans,” he said as he released her paw. “Please call me Joe.”
She giggled briefly. “OK, Joe.” She paused, looking at his son on the bed momentarily, and then back to him. “I think I need a soda,” she said. She looked back to Chris again. “Can I get you anything, Chrissy?”
Christopher Latrans shook his head in the negative.
She began to move around the bed, directing her next question towards the father as she moved towards the door. “Can I get you anything, Joe?”
“No thank you, Shari. I just had a cup of coffee before I came in here.”
She smiled as she reached the open doorway. “I'll be back in a few.” She was looking at Chris as she spoke, and he watched her disappear through the doorway.
Joe smiled as he moved to sit in the chair Shari had been seated in.
“She's a pretty lady,” he said to his son.
Chris took a deep breath, nodding slowly. “Met her last summer,” he exhaled with effort. “We've been out a few times. Her family is from back home.”
Another brief nod. “Arcadia.”
Joe grunted. Arcadia was very near where he had grown up. “I wonder if I knew her parents?”
“Moved here six years ago,” Chris wheezed quietly. He took another deep breath. “Parents own a book store on Second near Eighth.”
“Maybe I'll wander by some time and say hello,” Joe said. “Your mom sends her love. She's very worried about you, but I told her you were safe and being well looked after.”
Chris nodded, closing his eyes briefly. “How is she doing?” he whispered, eyes still closed.
“She's OK,” Joe said carefully. “Mike came home, and Pastor Jack and Kimiko spent the night, and so did Gina Vison. Mom had plenty of support.” Joe paused, not wanting to hit this too hard so Chris wouldn't worry. “She was pretty scared for a bit, but she's settled down.”
Chris opened his eyes and looked at his father. “She should come here,” he said quietly.
“She'll wait until you come home, Chris. There's no reason for her to come out here.”
“Not going home,” Chris grunted. “Stay here. Get well. Get back to work.”
A part of Joe worried at this, but a much larger part of him was proud of his son and his determination.
“Have you talked to your boss?”
Chris shook his head in the negative. “Russ,” he said. “Called Rudy, said we'd be back to fix 478 and get her over the line again.”
Joe smiled warmly, his pride building. He might be down for the moment, but Chris wouldn't allow this to set him back one step. He'd be fighting with the staff before too many days had gone by, wanting to get out of here and get back to his job, to his life.
Soft footfalls caused him to look up. Shari was standing in the doorway, a can of Diet Coke in her right paw. She smiled at him.
To his lady, Joe thought.
# # #
Carl Wallace stared out the window at the bright blue sky. He had told this story to many furs already, but this upcoming meeting to relate the events of the 478 train made him nervous. The lynx would be recalling the official story for the Federal Railroad Administration hack. Rudy had just called him to advise him that he was here.
There wasn't much to tell. The first slide had derailed their train, lifting the 478 up off the tracks but leaving the locomotive upright. Some of the cars had gone into the river, but the power and tool cars had remained with the locomotive. Carl had told his furs to stay in the power car where it was warm, and had climbed to the roof to do a quick check of what was left of his train.
The second slide clobbered them less than a minute later. That one had been larger, and had thrown the 478 to her side, pilot beam down in the river, almost ripping the cab from the boiler. The tool car had broken in half, spewing it's contents as the pieces rolled into the river. Carl had watched in amazement from the top of the power car, and then had turned to look down grade as the sound of rending metal drew his attention.
As he had turned towards the 478 a huge boulder had crashed into the side of the power car, holing the wall of the car and knocking it into the river as well. Carl was thrown about twenty feet away from where the car came to rest in the Animas, landing in the river where the water was deep enough to cushion his fall. He had swum around to the front of the locomotive, by the time he reached it the slide was over.
He had stumbled around trying to help his crew, but hadn't been able to climb into the shattered cab of the 478. He had gone up to the power car only to find it half submerged and on fire. He had called as he climbed into the car, but no one answered. He had found only three of his crew, all obviously dead.
He'd gone back and tried to climb aboard the 478 again, but there was too much jagged metal and he couldn't get around it. He had called and called, but no reply came to his ears.
He'd wandered around, dazed, until he had found a canvas cover in the mud and snow. He had wrapped himself in this against hypothermia, and had hiked a few hundred feet down grade to a large tree at trackside that afforded him some protection from the snow and wind. It was where the rescue train found him.
A tear rolled across Carl's cheek in memory of his friends that had died that night. The wreck hadn't bothered him nearly as much as the fact that he was the sole survivor of all the furs that had been collected in the power car, unscathed. Except for an oncoming head cold from being soaking wet that night, he was fine.
He thought of Chris Latrans. The young coyote had been spewing a lot of stuff that sounded like prayer up in the canyon that night. Fat lot of good it had done them all. What God would let this happen to his crew, his friends?
Carl sighed and rubbed his eyes carefully.
But how do you explain that I am here now? Why is that?
# # #
Annie awoke with a start, her husband's name on her lips and the image of his clean paws still in her unsettled mind. A sharp breath caught in her throat.
A paw caressed the top of her head gently, running lightly across her hair to her shoulder.
“It's OK, Annie. I'm here.”
It wasn't Joe's voice, she thought as she struggled with the sheets. She sat up and quickly half-turned, looking to see who was behind her on the bed.
The mink smiled warmly and held a small glass of orange juice out to the red fox. She was seated on the edge of the bed Annie's back had been to in her sleep. “I bought you some breakfast, dear. I figured you might be hungry. You didn't eat much last night.”
Annie smiled appreciatively as she took the glass from Gina's paw. “Thank you,” she said quietly, trying to relax and slow her beating heart. She took a deep breath and held it for a moment, slowly exhaling before she sipped the juice.
Gina's paws folded in her lap, she continued to smile as Annie sipped and oriented herself.
“Has Joe called?”
A side to side shake of the head.
“Where are my pups?”
“Downstairs, Annie. They're safe. Debbie is still sleeping, Mike's in the kitchen.”
Annie stared at the mink. She couldn't simply ask, that would be rude, so she tried to word her question as a statement.
“Thank you for being here, Gina.”
“You are my friend, Annie. This is how friends are, helping each other in times of need.”
The red fox nodded, eyeing the tray on the nightstand behind the mink.
“I smell apples and cinnamon.” She suddenly realized she was quite hungry.
“I have muffins for you, and some English Breakfast tea as well.”
Annie Latrans actually rubbed her paws together in anticipation. While part of her mind was still preoccupied with her son Chris and her husband Joe, she was content to let her happiness win her over for now, enjoying her friend's company and thoughtfulness as well as the goodies.
“Yum!” she exclaimed as Gina reached for the tray.
# # #
Hector Sandovál hung up his cell phone and grimaced. He was alone in the hospital room he and Joe had bunked in last night, and therefore allowed his emotions a little free reign.
A “retirement party”. That could only mean one thing. How was he to avoid carrying out this assignment in the manner expected? Sure, the target was perhaps not the most ethical fur in the world, but his only crime seemed to be interfering with the IPF's plans for an air base. That was certainly not something worth dying for.
Hector growled low in his throat, his chest rumbling. This lunacy had to stop.
# # #
And in California poor Mike Harland's eyes almost bugged out of his head as he stood with the pawset to his ear.
“Mike, it's Jaclyn,” the familiar voice said. “I need to talk to you.”