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 - 2007
17 April 2007
His world suddenly shrank at the sound of her voice, and his breath caught in his throat. The gray fox's brain stumbled as he pondered how to open a conversation with his boss and would-be girlfriend. His tail wagged just once in uncertainty, and was then still.
He had been longing for an opportunity to speak to her one-on-one since that warm night in the church parking lot, had replayed that last meeting alone with her in his mind over and over. He could still see her face in his mind's eye, still see and feel those hazel eyes boring into his soul. And always since then he had debated his decision to tell her he was falling in love with her, had wondered time and again What could I have said different? What should I have done?
It came as a breath exhaled in sudden nervousness, and his tone was not lost on her.
Her voice was calm, her manner concerned but at the same time... detached.
“I heard about your brother Chris yesterday, Mike. I wanted to make sure he's all right.”
Mike's nervousness ratcheted up a bit. So she wasn't going to talk to him yet. OK, he could go with her on that, for now. He would let her decide the time and place for that conversation to take place.
“He's been hurt, but he'll be OK,” Mike began. “My dad called yesterday after going up there to find him. Chris' train was turned over by a landslide. Most of the crew was killed, but he and the engineer survived with injuries.”
“Oh my God,” the lynx replied. “I'm so sorry, Mike. How badly was he hurt? How is your mother taking it?”
“Hard,” the fox replied. “But Gina Vison is here, and pastor Jack and Kimiko, they were here yesterday, so she's had help.” As an afterthought he added “Russ Cantrell was here, too.”
The voice of Jaclyn Manx changed just slightly, a barely perceptible edge coming to it. “How is Chris? Where is he now?”
“At the Mercy Medical Center in Durango. Dad is still with him. Chris has got some cracked and broken ribs, a broken leg, a dislocated shoulder, a collapsed lung, a bruised kidney, and some lesser injuries,” Mike reiterated from memory. “They're fixing him up just fine and taking excellent care of him, my dad says. The engineer's left paw was crushed in the roll-over and he got hit in the head pretty hard, he's got a bad concussion. The conductor, he got out without a scratch.”
“Oh my God,” Jazz repeated.
“Six crewfurs died in the wreck,” Mike added slowly.
The lynx was silent for a moment, but Mike could hear the sound of her respirations in his pawset.
“I saw Debbie yesterday morning,” Jaclyn said finally. “We spoke briefly, but didn't have a lot of time alone. She only mentioned that your brother had been hurt in Colorado. She and her small group were praying about it.”
That his sister had seen Jaclyn yesterday was news to Mike. “Oh?”
“I asked her not to tell you that we had talked.”
Mike was momentarily taken aback. “Why, Jazz?”
“I shared some things with the girls group yesterday, and I wanted you to hear about it from me, not any of them.”
Without knowing exactly why, Mike physically braced himself, as if he was about to be punched. “What's wrong, Jazz? Is it anything I can help you with?”
Her reply was quick. Too quick. “No,” she said, a tad sharply. Then, in a more calm tone, she repeated “No, thank you.” She paused, and when she continued the uncertainty was clear in her voice. Or maybe it was unwillingness. “I... Mike...”
The fox held his breath while the lynx gathered her thoughts.
“I'm leaving AFCC.”
“I'm leaving All Furs Christian Church,” she repeated.
The lynx sighed, and with that single sound Mike knew. She was leaving him, not the church. He didn't wait for her to make up some excuse.
“Jazz, I'm sorry. I know I kind of took you by surprise when I told you I loved you. But...”
Her voice was a pained whisper. “Stop, Mike... please.”
His felt his heart fracture. “Jazz...”
He heard her sniff before continuing. “I'm a conflicted fur, Mike,” she said very quietly. “Don't ask why, I just have to go, I have to straighten out some things between me and God.” She drew a breath and continued in a louder, more stable voice. “I've spoken to pastor Jack about this, and have recommended to him that he offer Gina Vison my position. I think he was favorable to that idea. I also think that you'll work well with her, and am encouraged by the fact that she and your mom are developing a friendship.”
Mike was dumbfounded. He was silent for a moment or two after Jaclyn's announcement. He simply didn't know what to say. Father, he implored in silent prayer, what do I do?
He must have been silent longer than he knew, for after a few moments she said “Mike? Are you still there?”
“I'm here,” he replied woodenly. And after another brief pause, he added “I don't want you to go, Jazz.”
Another sniff, then nothing.
“The kids need you,” he observed, knowing anything he might offer was futile.
“They have you,” she replied quietly. “And Gina. And Billy and Theresa. I know the kids will be in good paws. I'm sure they'll be fine.”
“I need you,” he said. But his tone of voice was flat, resigned to an outcome he was already becoming certain of.
A muffled sound was her reaction to this, followed by some slight scuffling noises in his pawset. When she finally spoke her voice quavered just a bit. “Mike, I need to go...”
The fox swallowed, his ears flat against his head. “OK, Jaclyn. I understand.” He took a breath. “You're a good fur, Jazz. I have seen God's paw in what you do. I have enjoyed working with you. Good luck in whatever it is you are about to do, and God speed in your travels.”
“Oh...” more scuffling noises in the pawset. And finally, after several seconds, a strained whisper.
“Good bye, Mike.”
The circuit went dead in his ear, but he didn't really notice. The wind raged in the hole in his chest where his heart had been, and he was momentarily distracted by the novelty of the sound. As he slowly hung up the telephone a small corner of his mind idly wondered what to do, now that his ambition had been destroyed and he would have so much time on his paws.
# # #
Two half empty cups of coffee sat on the table between the two coyotes. The table was lacquered teak wood, highly polished and placed between two swiveling captain's chairs. The high back chairs were well padded and plushly upholstered. The floor beneath them was thickly carpeted, and small windows in the walls allowed the late morning sunlight to illuminate the room.
Filtered air washed over the two furs, pleasantly heated. They were alone in the smaller fur's “office”, on board a Grumman Gulfstream G-II business jet belonging to the Interstate Police Force, currently parked on the ramp of La Plata County Airport near Durango, Colorado.
The smaller coyote sat forward in his chair, his forearms resting on the table, his paws gently gripping his coffee cup. A bemused expression illuminated his features, his ears were erect in attention. His counterpart was leaning back in his chair, a small frown on his dark muzzle as he gazed at the ceiling. One paw stroked his chin in contemplation.
“This may sound weird,” Joe Latrans began as his gaze dropped to meet that of his companion. “On the way out to the wreck I made God a promise. I offered myself in exchange for Chris' life.”
Hector Sandovál smiled slightly, nodding for Joe to continue.
“I did,” Joe exclaimed as the paw left his chin and sought his own coffee cup. “I prayed to Him, and said that anything I had, anything I was would be His if He spared Chris' life.” Joe sipped his coffee, a surprisingly delicious brew. Nodding, he continued. “I may not be much, but I try to be a fur of my word, especially where deals with God are concerned.” He smiled slightly himself.
“So now you think that God wants you to join the Interstate Police Force?”
Joe shrugged. “I think my friend, for whatever obscure reasons he may have, wants me to join the Interstate Police Force. And because my son is laying in the hospital recovering from wounds that should have certainly killed him, and until God tells me different, I think it is now my duty to join the IPF. I sort of sense God's paw in this.”
Hector Sandovál smirked, his tail wagging briefly. “Don't spread that around, amigo. Many furs in the IPF aren't Christians, some have no faith at all. They may not see the amusement in your explanation.”
“I'm not joking, Hector.” Joe fixed his friend with a steady gaze. “Make no mistake about it. I'm not keen on joining the IPF. I was happy at SCWD. But as you yourself say, what your Director wants, he gets. And what my Director appears to want...” here he motioned towards the ceiling with a thumb, “He also gets.” Joe paused, looking his friend in the eyes. “And I just happen to be between jobs at this point in my life...” Joe took another sip, grinning. Placing his cup down, he added “I like you Hector. I have several furs I need to apologize to today, and you're on the top of the list.”
The smaller coyote's raised eyebrows asked the question without words.
“I treated you like shit coming out here. I figured you were instrumental in getting me bounced out of my job at SCWD, and was ready to hold that against you for the rest of my life. I was suspicious, faithless, and ingracious, completely unworthy of the trouble you put yourself to helping me find my son.” Joe held up a paw to silence his companion, who had opened his mouth to protest. “In fact, I kind of made an ass of myself in front of a lot of furs, and today I'm going to start to fix that.”
“José,” the smaller coyote said warily. “I must be honest with you. I was instrumental in your termination at SCWD.”
The two canids stared at each other, but neither seemed to be too concerned by this revelation.
“I figured that,” Joe replied quietly. “And I also figured that because your Director gets what he wants, you were properly persuaded to make that happen.”
Hector nodded. “It was so.”
“Well enough,” Joe replied. And after a moment, with a lighter tone, he added “So how do I start? Where will I go for training?”
The smaller coyote drained his cup. Placing the empty mug on the table, he rose without comment and moved aft in the cabin of the jet, towards the galley. He was there only long enough to snag a glass coffee pot from a machine there, and returned to his companion.
“¿Más café?” he asked.
Joe slid his own cup towards the edge of the table. “Muchísimas.”
Joe watched the vapors rise as Hector refilled his cup. “Su café es muy sabroso. ¿De dónde es?”
“Colombia,” Hector replied, beginning to refill his own mug. “A fringe benefit of working paw-in-paw with DEA furs on a regular basis.” Fetching a magazine from a holder on the cabin wall next to his chair, the smaller coyote placed the almost-empty pot on the table between them, using the magazine as a trivet. Seating himself, he picked up his cup before continuing.
“I believe you already have sufficient training, José.” Hector sipped from his cup as a brief look of astonishment passed over his larger friend's face. Nodding, he elaborated. “We are very aware of the contract work you did for our country at a very young age. Yes,” he added quickly, interrupting as the other opened his mouth, “that bit of your past was buried quite well, but not well enough. And we will keep that past buried, have no fear. All I'm saying is that between your past activities and the orientation training you received from me a couple of years ago, I consider you sufficiently trained already.”
Here Hector leaned back in his chair with his cup of coffee, shifting his position a bit to allow his tail to curl around to his left as he lifted his right boot to rest on a knee. The tip of his tail wound up hanging off the front of the seat cushion. He studied the face of Joe Latrans briefly. The astonished look was still there, but to the credit of the larger coyote, he was silent.
“To be sure you will need to learn where your resources are, José, and how to work within the chain of command. And I will help you with that.” The smaller coyote smiled. “¿Cómo lo dices en Inglés? On-the-job training?”
Joe's expression was blank as he nodded. “OK,” he replied. “I get that.” He generated a bit of time to think by taking several small sips of the aromatic coffee. Finally placing the cup on the table before him, he leaned back into his own chair, unconsciously mimicking his companion's positioning of his tail.
“I'll be honest with you,” Joe said carefully. “I'm not proud of what I did, and it still bothers me a lot if I let it.” A far away look came to the blue eyes that seemed to look right through Hector Sandovál. “The other night, on the mountain in the fire, I lost control.”
Hector sipped from the cup he held, but otherwise did not react.
Joe began stroking his chin with a paw again, very gently, as he spoke quietly. “I scared myself at the quickness with which I became a killer again. After all this time, it happened so quickly I wasn't fully aware of what I was doing.”
“Old habits die hard, amigo.”
The paw at Joe's chin returned to his lap as he nodded in silent agreement. “The trouble is, I don't like or trust what I became that night. I thought I had put that behind me. It's been a long time...” His voice trailed off, his expression distant again.
“You performed magnificently on Mount Stockton, José.”
The larger coyote snorted, a vaguely unpleasant sound.
“Es la verdad,” Hector insisted. “Do you know who you were facing that night?”
“No,” Joe said, shaking his head. “All I know is what the news services ran. Two convicted terrorists being transferred from a holding facility in southern Arizona to Los Angeles.”
Hector's expression turned serious. “Kalid Al-Barzadi,” he began, “the fur your kali took down, was a field commander for the foreign terrorism arm of Hamas. He was an expert in demolition, a marksfur of renown, and well-versed in stealth insurgency. He was on the border in Arizona operating a training camp in northern Mexico. They would recruit from those who had been repeatedly rebuffed in their attempts to come to America, play on the hate they could cultivate in those furs, and were trying to turn those furs into an army of invasion.”
“Sí. The camp across the border near Nogales had almost a hundred furs in training.”
Hector continued as Joe nodded. “The other fur, the one you killed, was Daoud Bin Perrez. He was another bucket of hate, an expert in behavior modification, small arms, and insurgency. He was a free-lance terrorist, always turning up where the money was most easily made. He was involved in the bombing in Ohio, and we believe he was in charge of the attacks at Los Angeles International.”
Joe recalled with unease the bombings at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LA's biggest commercial airport. There had been three blasts, occurring five minutes apart. Over two hundred furs had died in the explosions, several hundred more were injured, and damage to the facility had taken almost a year to repair. For a few hours following the explosions terror had gripped the city and all of southern California.
“Remember Natalie Shapir?”
Joe nodded in recognition of the name. His son had unwittingly crossed paths with her a few weeks ago.
“Bin Perrez was her director in the Ohio bombings.”
Joe grunted in acknowledgment. His eldest son was safe, so this bit of information was useless if mildly interesting.
“We were transporting Al-Barzadi and Bin Perrez from our holding facility in Phoenix to the federal high-security camp on San Nicholas Island. Our investigation of the crash revealed that the two terrorists overpowered their guards in flight, killing them with their own sidearms, and attempted to hijack the plane. Somehow control of the aircraft was lost and it crashed, killing the copilot and pinning the injured pilot in the wreckage. As you revealed in your own debriefing with Captain Damaska, the pilot was murdered after the crash.” Hector took a deep breath. “You know the rest.”
Joe remembered the ferret, Jack Damaska. He was a captain in the Riverside County Fire Department and also an agent for the Interstate Police Force. While ten years or so older than Joe, he had been a big, powerful fur, years of wildland firefighting had kept him fit.
“You and your kali were up against two hardened, experienced, and motivated killers, José, make no mistake. A lesser fur would have been easily dispatched by them, and those two would be loose in our country even as we speak. You did very well for yourself.”
Joe was unconvinced, and his quiet gaze told Hector as much. It did not matter at this point. Hector knew Joe had the skills. While not possessing the energy and stamina of his youth, Joe was still a fairly fit and strong fur, and the shortcomings he might have compared to a more youthful agent he could more than make up for with hard-won wisdom and skill. Besides, Hector knew that Joe also possessed something that was becoming more and more difficult to find these days, a deep-seated sense of honor coupled with a strong faith in God and Christ. For reasons of his own, Hector highly valued these two traits above all others.
The two coyotes regarded each other quietly. After a few moments Hector put his cup on the table and rose once again. Joe watched in silence as the smaller coyote disappeared past the galley in the aft end of the jet's cabin.
Presently Hector returned with the shipping case Joe had seen him carrying around since they had arrived in Durango. He had never asked after it's contents, and didn't now. He had just assumed it was some sort of equipment that Hector needed to keep near to paw. So when the agent laid the case on the table before him, he assumed that he was about to observe Hector making us of whatever it's contents were.
Such was not to be the case, if you'll pardon the play on words.
“This is for you, José.”
There were six stainless steel latches on the case, two on each side and one on each end. Each required a half twist and a flip before the molded carbon-fiber lid could be removed from the top of the case. Joe's eyes grew wide in recognition as he carefully stood the lid on end to lean against the cabin wall next to his chair. His gaze was riveted and he subconsciously held his breath as he stared at the contents. He lifted the tray out of the case and was astonished to see even more beneath it.
“Damn,” he mumbled quietly as he stared at the contents of the case. On the tray still in the box, in separate fitted and padded compartments, was a broken down US Army M21 sniper rifle with the camouflage fiberglass stock, complete with a three to nine power Redfield automatic ranging telescopic sight and half a dozen five-round clips. Joe picked up one of the clips silently and observed that it was loaded with 7.62mm (.308 Winchester) ammunition. A quick visual inspection of the other clips confirmed that they, too were fully loaded.
Carefully placing the clip he held back in the tray still in the case, Joe turned his attention to the case's other tray, the one he had placed on the table. It had similar compartments in which he observed a broken-down Kalashnikov AKM (Avtomat Kalashnikova Modernizirovannyi) assault rifle. It was equipped with a black molded carbon composite stock and included the bayonet and mounts. As with the M21, the AK included fully loaded clips, in this case three copies of the arched, thirty-round variants, stuffed full of NATO 7.62mm x 39mm ammunition. Joe's paw caressed the AK's receiver briefly, ever so gently.
Both weapons appeared to be in perfect condition. His paws continued to explore the familiar components, each an old and trusted friend.
Presently Joe looked up, his wide eyes meeting the calm gaze of Hector Sandovál.
“Welcome to the Interstate Police Force, Agent Latrans.”
# # #
Equally wide eyes owned by Mark Incom, the Foreman of Locomotives for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, stared at the hulk of what remained of number 478. The disheveled wreck of the once-pretty and powerful 1923 vintage Alco K-28 steam locomotive now sat in a stall of the D&S roundhouse in Durango. Several other sets of equally wide eyes clustered around Mark; his crew of fitters, mechanics, welders, machinists, carpenters, and hostlers had spontaneously gathered to gaze silently at what was left of one of their own.
“Christ a-mighty,” Panky Archuleta groused. “Russ and Chris are lucky to be alive.” The beaver who was one of Mark's welders thrust his paws in his jacket pockets.
“You ain't shittin' Dixie,” Wheezer Gabaldon retorted. “Look at that cab! It's hangin' on by a pawful of bolts and too many coats of paint.”
Mark looked at the bobcat, his junior machinist. “It did it's job, Wheezer. It protected the crew.”
“Shit, the fact she didn't blow 'em all to Hell when she rolled over is a minor miracle in itself,” a second bobcat said. Oscar “Hothead” Miller was the senior fitter / boilermaker. “You ever see what happens when a crown sheet blows from lack of water?”
Most of the furs present muttered various forms of a negative response.
“Imagine that boiler being a big thousand-pound bomb. Let that crown go dry while she's under steam and,” here the bobcat briefly threw his paws above his head. “BLAMMO! They'll be picking up pieces of you half a mile away from the crater your locomotive made.”
“¡Hijo de la chingao!”
“Why didn't she blow?”
The bobcat shrugged, holding his paws apart. “Must've hit the river fast enough to flood the firebox and flues before she could pop, is all I can think.”
The assembled furs fell silent. A couple murmured quietly in prayer. All of them were thankful that at least some of the crew had survived, but most of them were also convinced that the 478 was a write-off. This caused them to be a heavy-hearted lot, as the boys of the roundhouse took an active and personal interest in the health and welfare of each of their fire-breathing machines. Over time each of the crewfurs came to love the slim-gauge princesses in their care, emotional attachments to the locomotives were commonplace.
Virtually all of them had been at least acquainted with some of the deceased members of the Maintenance of Way crew, and some counted the lost amongst their close friends. So hearts were doubly troubled by loss and the frailty of life.
“How's Gary and Eddie?” Sparky Schamp wondered aloud. The Rottweiler was one of three carpenters employed by the railroad.
“Gary will be released from the hospital tomorrow,” Mark replied, addressing them all while still gazing upon the 478. “He'll keep the paw, but it's been badly damaged and he may not regain full use of it. He'll be off work for at least three to six months, maybe more. Depends on how his physical therapy goes.”
Mark turned from the locomotive to address his crew. “The jury's still out on Eddie. He lost an enormous amount of blood, and has yet to regain consciousness. The doctors really aren't sure what his prognosis is. He's on a ventilator and has been taken off the critical list and out of Intensive Care, but nobody knows when or if he'll regain consciousness.”
“Is he going to get to keep his foot?” one of Mark's mechanics asked.
“So far,” Mark nodded slowly. “But they just don't know yet what the long term picture is.”
All furs again fell silent at this, thinking about the marmot front-end loader operator who had been the most seriously injured in the avalanche above Cascade, the event that had preceded the disastrous landslide at Grasshopper Canyon. Eddie had a wife who was expecting their first kit in the spring.
Mark's gloomy crew was still staring in silence at the 478 when booted footfalls sounded from the front of the roundhouse. Within a few moments Rudy Gallegos, the Trainmaster for the railroad, approached. The furs parted to allow the beaver to become part of the group.
Rudy joined them in silent contemplation for a few moments, trying to be circumspect as he glanced at each of the furs who worked for the railroad, for him. He was taking a visual assessment of his shop crew. His furs were down, this was a major setback for the railroad, for it's employees, for the town. But out of terrible situations, he knew, came good things.
“We're gonna rebuild her,” he said quietly, as if addressing the locomotive itself.
For a few heartbeats no one said anything. Mark was the first to react. “What?”
“We have to,” Rudy replied in that same quiet voice as the other furs drew closer to him to hear. “I just left Chris and Russ up at Mercy Medical Center. They're giving the staff ten kinds of Hell up there, demanding to be released and wanting in the worst way to get back to work. They haven't seen each other since the wreck, but each of them told me separately that they can't wait to get back here and back to work. In their off hours they want to be here helping you guys get the 478 back on track. They are convinced that she's not only recoverable, but that it is our collective duty to put her over the line once again.”
“Bullshit,” Oscar Miller said with a slight grin. “Anyone can see she's done. She's a candidate for the scrapper's torch. The most she'll ever be is a parts source for the other K-28s.” But the bobcat's tail belied his seeming irritable response. He was daring to hope, and his tail flicked in anticipation as he stared at the beaver in front of him.
“Watch your mouth, Hothead,” Rudy chided gently, with affection. “While you guys have been in here acting all morose and stuff, things have been happening out there.” He motioned with a paw towards the open roundhouse doors. “In the city.”
The beaver nodded as eyes stared at him. “Yessir. Since start of business today we've received over six thousand dollars of cash donations, pledges for another twenty, and offers of material support from various businesses.” Rudy paused as exclamations of shock greeted this news. After a few moments he added fuel to the fire growing in the guts and souls clustered around him. “The crew from Knotts Berry Farm is already on their way out here to help us assess the 478, gratis.” Most of the crew knew that the most experienced locomotive boilermaker in the western US worked on the tiny Class C-16 locomotive, former D&RG road power, that still operated at the amusement park fully one hundred and twenty five years after her birth.
Rudy raised his voice a bit to be heard above the groundswell of murmurs growing around him. “Kensington Forge has already committed to all the iron and steel needs to put 478 back on the rails. The Denver offices of Georgia-Pacific have pledged to cover any lumber requirements for the job. Families from around the town are already planning how to prepare and serve hot meals for the crews who will be working on the project.”
Some of the muzzles of the assorted furs were dropping open in shock, others were lighting up in joy. This infusion of good news was more than any of them had expected or even dared dream of. They were surprised that anyone cared at all about their little self-propelled teakettles and the railroad that operated them, it was gratifying to hear how many folks cared enough to become actively involved in the resurrection, how many were rallying around the small company of furs that were the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
“And here you guys are,” Rudy said gently, a warm smile exposing his large teeth, “pissing and moaning about how bad she looks.” The beaver put an arm across the shoulders of his Foreman of Locomotives as he looked into Mark Incom's eyes. “I say, lets show these folks what this railroad is all about. Remind 'em that our forefathers stood up to worse and survived, and show 'em that we won't dishonor their memory by letting this event get the best of us.” Here he looked around to them all, fitters, machinists, and every other tradesfur. He closed his free fist and held it before them, the back of his paw facing the concrete floor. “We'll show them what the D&S is made of. We won't let our fellow crewfurs down. We will put 478 back on the line, and she'll be the prettiest, best running locomotive we've got. And Russ will be at the latch on her first run, and Chris will be firing her, and Carl will skipper the run. And I'm gonna take every damn last one of us up the line to the Bent Elbow in Silverton, and buy the railroad a drink and dinner when we get her done.”
Chuckles and mutters of agreement came from the assembled furs. Some of them thought Rudy was blowing smoke to cheer them up. Some of them thought it was a management pep talk. But Mark Incom looked carefully into the eyes of his boss, and a grin spread slowly across the marmot's muzzle as his eyes lit up. He believed. He understood. History would not be denied. The 478 would return in glory, if he and his furs had anything to say about it.
Chatter about this turn of events died down after a couple of minutes, and the crewfurs turned their attention to Mark and Rudy as the Trainmaster finished telling one of the shop furs about how many families were volunteering.
Mark patted his boss on the back briefly. He cleared his throat. “Hey Rudy, haven't you got something to do?”
“Yeah. Office stuff. You know...” The marmot winked at the crew furs gathered around them.
The collected furs chuckled a bit more.
“I don't follow.”
“Lemme put it this way,” Mark said, trying not to chuckle at his boss' expense. “We've got work to do. Real work. Fire and dust and sweat and hard physical labor. So...”
Rudy laughed. “Are you trying to get rid of me, Mark?”
Mark trusted the friendship and mutual respect he shared with his boss. Grinning, he exclaimed loudly “Well, you are in the way...”
The group of laughing furs broke up as they moved in twos and threes towards the 478. And even though Russ Taylor's dried blood still clung to the outer sidewall of the cab under the engineer's window, obscuring her proud numbers, and even though her tender was still on a flatcar up in Rockwood, the 478 seemed to stand a little taller, a little straighter, in the eyes of the furs who even now began to carefully, lovingly disassemble what remained of her.
They now knew, as surely as Chris Latrans knew, that the 478 was already on her way back. Like a Phoenix she would rise again to bark her happy song against the canyon walls of the Animas River.
# # #
“Hey Chris, how are you feeling?”
The coyote was sitting up in his hospital bed. Carl also couldn't help but notice the slim, pretty female coyote sitting in a chair near the head of the bed, on the side opposite the door he had just entered. The lynx smiled a bit shyly, nodding hello to her.
Chris Latrans coughed slightly. “Carl Wallace, this is Shari Goss. Shari, this is my conductor, Carl Wallace.”
The coyote stood and extended her gray paw to shake with the lynx as he rounded the foot of the bed.
“Pleased to meet you,” she said brightly.
Carl wasn't sure what to make of her presence. As he shook her paw he mumbled “My pleasure, Miss Goss. Nice to meet you.”
Shari was no dummy. She could see the look on the visitor's face, the pain in his eyes. She studied the lynx for a moment, and then turned her gaze to the coyote in the bed. Chris' expression was concerned, but not fearful or hesitant. She put two and two together.
“Chrissy, I'm going to call my mom from the lobby phone. I'll be back in a little bit, OK?”
“Sure, Shar.” Chris grinned a bit. “I'll be here...”
The young coyote bent quickly to kiss the stoker on the forehead as her paw stroked the hair between his ears gently. Turning to Carl as she stepped away from the bed she smiled brightly. “Don't try to sneak him out, OK?”
The lynx grinned shyly once again. “I promise.”
With a swish of the hips and a flick of her tail Shari was gone. Both males stared briefly at the empty doorway she had passed through, until Chris turned his head to look at his crewmate.
“What's on your mind, Carl?”
“Oh, nothing much,” the lynx replied, avoiding his eyes. “I just came by to see how you were doing, and maybe to chat a bit.”
“Please, pull up a chair.”
Carl sat in the chair recently vacated by the female coyote. He noticed it was still warm.
“So what's up?” Chris asked.
The lynx studied the fur on the bed. He hadn't cared much for the young stoker and his mildly irritating way of introducing his faith at every seeming opportunity. But after his meeting with the Federal Railroad Administration investigator a couple of hours ago, if anything Carl Wallace had grown even more despondent about the wreck and how it came to pass that he was the sole unscathed survivor.
Russ hadn't been much help. He'd been dealing with a monstrous headache, thanks to his major concussion and head injury, and between that and the meds he was on for pain, he hadn't been much of a conversationalist at the time Carl had stopped by his room, about fifteen minutes ago. He had laid a paw on the engineer's shoulder briefly, squeezing it as he solemnly promised to return tomorrow.
Carl felt guilt, And fear. And a horrible sense of futility about the fragility of life and the uselessness of it's pursuit. He missed his deceased friends and crewmates, and the emotional turmoil of the wreck and it's aftermath was slowly eating him up from the inside. And he wasn't really sure why he was here, except this damnable coyote laying in the bed next to him looked more peaceful and content than he felt, and Chris was the one that had been beaten, battered, sliced up, and holed through.
“I saw the FRA hack a few hours ago,” Carl began hesitantly.
Something in the coyote's expression reassured Carl a bit. He knew by looking at him that he had Chris' undivided attention. The coyote looked him in the eye, and even though one of his was a bit drooped, Chris' ears were erect, and his right paw rose in a beckoning manner.
“How'd that go? Have you got time to tell me about it? I want to hear the story.”
Carl felt himself relaxing into the chair he sat in spite of himself. His smile broadened a bit. He felt something warm infuse him. He couldn't say for sure, but he suddenly felt a lot more comfortable around this young fur. He adjusted his tail as he crossed his legs.
“That FRA guy, he seemed to have the opinion that we were somehow at fault.”
A strong timbre resonated in the coyote's voice. “What?” Chris exclaimed. “What a stupid point of view! I hope you set that moron straight!”
And for the next two hours the coyote and the lynx talked. They were so engrossed that neither noticed the slim female who looked in on them from the doorway not once, but several times. Once she was accompanied by a much older, larger coyote with a dark muzzle.
# # #
Hector Sandovál studied the computer display before him and made a few notes on a pad of paper to the right of his keyboard. Putting his pencil down, he sighed as he reached for a cup of coffee. He grimaced as he sipped. It was barely lukewarm.
He had been collecting the data he needed for his latest assignment. He wasn't sure whether or not he wanted to involve his friend with this, whether or not this was the right job to initiate Agent Joe Latrans with. They were, after all, talking about an execution, cold blooded murder.
Yet that was exactly what Joe had been trained to do in his late teens. By the time he was old enough to buy himself a drink in a bar he had made 42 hits, all of them on political or military leaders that were interfering with his country's peace-keeping efforts. Nothing in his evaluations revealed any problems with Joe's ability to execute his orders to the letter effectively, efficiently, and with a minimum amount of fuss and no publicity.
Still, as Hector stared at the face of the old bulldog on his computer display he wondered. The bulldog and his wife, who just happened to own one of the three development companies that had been drooling and salivating over the opportunities presented by the demise of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro around the turn of the century, led a somewhat pristine life in Coto de Caza. At least, that was how it looked to the casual observer.
A little digging had revealed the usual underpawed tactics that had allowed and propelled their successes. A little bribery here, a little larceny there, a few well-aimed and heavily funded kickbacks elsewhere, some hefty campaign contributions, a few extravagant parties, and they just sort of rose to the top of the socioeconomic heap. The old bulldog and his wife of forty years were rich, politically powerful, and well respected in the community.
He had cheated on her only twice, the second time producing twin pups that he had paid well to keep out of the limelight and off his wife's radar. The pups were now in their late teens, and so far he had been completely successful in keeping them from the public eye.
He had been a colonel in the US Army. That might be an issue for Joe, or it might not. Joe had never officially been in the military, and didn't appear to hold any particular allegiance to any branch of the services. He had been employed as an “independent contractor” by “The Company”, the Central Intelligence Agency. As such he had been trained by first the Army, and then the CIA itself, in what it was they had wanted of him. And what they had wanted was a machine, an autonomous fur working alone who was completely deniable, and who would ruthlessly and completely fulfill each extermination mission he was assigned, no matter if it was in the jungles of Nicaragua or on the streets of Washington DC. And this Joe had done, until that fateful night in the fall of 1980, when most of his control had simply... disappeared.
Hector had never discussed this with Joe, never intimated that he even knew of the event. It did not matter to him. What mattered was that Joe's aim was still true, his ability to plant himself in the proper position still sound. And his faith. That mattered. The future would forge and temper and test that soon enough, he was sure.
“I'm sorry, my friend,” Hector muttered, looking again at the image of the bulldog.