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!
While the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad no longer exists in the real world (it is now part of the giant Union Pacific system), it's history is well documented at The Rio Grande Modeling and Historical Society. Likewise, the Denver, South Park, & Pacific existed in the real world long ago, but their mainline via the Alpine Tunnel to Gunnison country has long since fallen to ruin. Still, the interesting history of this little road is documented at The Narrow Gauge Circle, amongst other places.
The early history of the Denver & Rio Grande mainline over Marshall Pass, as part of the narrow gauge mainline built from Denver to Salt Lake City in the 1870s and 1880s, is marvelously documented in text and photographs in the Colorado Rail Annual of 1970.
Precious Cargo is copyright © The Silver Coyote
2003 - 2008
Across The Divide
Joe stared at the bottle, thinking.
It had been a long evening. Starting with Hector, Joe had “made the rounds” to find all the furs that he felt it was necessary to apologize to. Something in Joe's makeup, something in how he had been raised, would not let him forget his behavior that night in the storm, in the canyon. He had embarrassed himself with his own behavior under stress, and something would not let him leave Colorado without “owning up.” So he had started by finding the doctor and nurse that had taken care of his son. He had come bursting upon them like a firestorm that night in the canyon, blood in his eye, ready to kill every fur in the state who stood between he and finding his son. Understandably then, there had been some initial caution on the part of those he sought.
Doctor Hernandez had been quite understanding though, having himself had time to get some sleep, a clean change of clothes, and a hot meal since their first meeting in the dark of the Animas River Canyon. After shaking paws and absorbing Joe's heartfelt apology for his behavior he had painted an up-to-date and optimistic picture of the recovery of the crew of the 478 train: his son and his son's friend. He took the time to explain to Joe how long it would take for Chris to recover from his many injuries, how many weeks it would be before he could go back to work, what types of activity he should avoid while he convalesced.
“Your son,” the puma smiled, “he wants to get out of here now. And he could probably make it home OK, but he needs to stay off his feet for at least a few more days while his bones knit and he builds his strength.”
Joe smiled warmly. “I'm afraid he's his father's son. Sometimes he doesn't know when to listen to good advice.”
Doctor Hernandez nodded, smiling slightly as the two strode down a corridor towards the hospital cafeteria. “He'll need to be smart about his recuperation then. Impatience can cause damage and delay, and possibly limit the extent of his recovery.” As the doctor held the door open for Joe their eyes met. “Make no mistake, Mister Latrans, your son should have died that night. He's very lucky to be alive.”
“Thanks be to God,” Joe replied evenly, looking the puma in the eyes.
The coyote grinned, stepping through the doorway. “And stop calling me 'Mister Latrans.' Joe is just fine.”
“Fair enough, Joe. Buy you a cup?”
Over coffee back in his office the doctor summoned Joyce Abrhams, the RN who had performed the first blood transfusion right there in the coach, hooking Joe up so that his blood might sustain his son's life.
The lapine's eyes had gone wide and her ears had laid back upon entering the office to come face to face with Joe. She remembered that charcoal muzzle, the bulk of his body, the large black hat he even now held in his paws. But something was different about his eyes. They had life in them now. She turned her own eyes to the puma in the white doctor's coat.
Arturo Hernandez smiled, nodding to his nurse. “Joyce, please re-acquaint yourself with Agent Joe Latrans, Interstate Police Force.” Turning to the coyote hybrid the doctor continued, “Joe, I believe you remember nurse Abrhams from the train.”
Joe extended his right paw towards the rabbit. “I came here to apologize to the two of you for my behavior that night. I have no excuse to offer for my offensive nature.”
Joyce Abrhams studied the paw for a moment, and then the blue eyes behind it. Smiling cautiously, she shook the proffered paw. “I was a little brusque that night myself,” she said quietly as her ears stood.
“I think we were all operating well beyond what would normally be expected of us,” Doctor Hernandez commented in a friendly voice. “What's the latest on your patients?”
Here the lapine really smiled, and Joe realized that while she might have seen at least as many winters as he had, she was in fact quite pretty. “They're both pawfuls,” she said cheerfully, “but at least I've got some help with Mister Latrans' son.”
“Please,” the agent interrupted her, his own smile growing. “Call me Joe.”
“Help?” the doctor inquired. “We have no additional staff in that wing...”
Joyce nodded. “That's true. But Chris Latrans has a lady friend by the name of Shari Goss. Perhaps you've met her?”
Both males nodded.
“She's one to watch out for,” Joyce continued with a note of approval in her voice. “She won't let us get near him most of the time. Whatever he needs, she takes care of, and when he's asleep she's there to make sure he's not disturbed. She hasn't left the hospital since they arrived that night.”
“Really.” Joe Latrans smiled. That made sense.
He had bid Art and Joyce, new friends, a fond farewell about an hour later. He had other furs to face.
From Mercy Medical Center he had gone down to the Durango and Silverton's rail yards and found Mark Incom. Joe recognized the marmot as he approached the depot, the other fur stepping onto the platform of the depot and lighting up a cigarette as the coyote approached. Their eyes met through exhaled smoke, the marmot nodding in recognition as Joe held up his right paw in greeting.
“You I like,” the marmot said bluntly while shaking Joe's paw. “Your boss I'm not so sure of.” Mark absorbed Joe's brief explanation for his visit with a non-committal expression, dragging occasionally on his cigarette all the while. When Joe concluded his brief discourse, Mark simply shrugged and said “Come with me.”
And several moments later Joe was in the depot, shaking another paw belonging to a powerful looking fur with a slight Spanish accent. “Rudy Gallegos,” the beaver said. “Pleased to meetcha.”
“Rudy's the Trainmaster here. It's kind of like 'overlord,' but without the respect,” Mark Incom said with a slight grin.
“I prefer to think of myself as the highest paid youth group leader in the valley,” Rudy chuckled as the trio left the depot by another door and, stepping across rails, headed into the yards. “What brings you here today, Joe?”
The coyote stuffed his paws in his jacket pockets. The wind, cold from the southwest, was picking up, and he could smell coal smoke wisping down from the ventilator stacks of the roundhouse they were approaching.
Coal smoke... it brought back good memories for the coyote, memories of his own childhood. He smiled.
“I came to find the crew I met in the coach that night. More particularly,” and here Joe's voice took on a note of contrition as he addressed the Trainmaster, “I came to find the gentlefur you held back from beating the tar out of me.”
The eyes of the railroad employees changed slightly, their expressions becoming guarded. They had misinterpreted Joe's intentions. He saw this in the two of them and shook his head, hoping to reassure them both.
“Nothing like that,” he smiled gently. “I want to apologize to him for how I behaved towards him, towards all of you.”
“Apologize?” Rudy asked.
The big coyote nodded. “Yeah. It's a habit I have when I fuck up on a major scale.” He looked from the marmot to the beaver and back again. “I guess I was a little strung out the other night and was not myself. I wanted to tell him so, and tell him I'm sorry I behaved like an ass.”
“I don't know about that,” Rudy replied, stopping near a tall set of double doors. “I've got four kits of my own. I know where your heart was that night.”
Mark Incom said “Five for me,” as he pawed the handle of a smaller door set next to the double doors of the roundhouse stall. “C'mon Joe, most everyone who's here today is in here.”
# # #
The Chinchilla looked exactly as he always did. Expensive suit, carefully brushed fur, the evil glint in his eye, the big IPF crest on the wall behind him.
Hector Sandovál studied the image on his laptop display silently as The Director spoke. He knew that The Director was likewise studying an image of him on a computer display facing him.
“So you feel that Mister Latrans requires little if any training or orientation before we turn him loose, eh?” The image of the feline picked up a small file and began gently ministering to the claws of one paw as he spoke, the activity apparently completely subconscious, as his eyes never left those of the agent. “You think it is as simple as putting the tools in his paws and telling him what his target is?”
You feel it's time we get that 'breed's paws wet for real, Hector? Completely untrained and without the normal indoctrination?”
The coyote controlled the urge to flinch at the slur. He willed a smile to his muzzle. “Mister Director, I have already trained Agent Latrans in the political structure of the Interstate Police Force as part of the training he took with SCWD. He understands how we work. And he requires no training, I'm sure, in the handling of the tools I have provided him. In fact, he seemed quite comfortable and at ease with them. Furthermore, I feel he requires no indoctrination. I base my opinion on his prior service MOS and after having looked at the reviews his superiors at “The Company” provided us. He was, and is, an intelligent, dedicated patriot. He will perform to our expectations.”
The Director's expression changed slightly into something that might have been a smile, or it might have been a sneer of contempt. “We shall see, Hector. I hope you do not suffer from an error in judgment brought about by your supposed kinship.”
Again the coyote willed a neutral expression to his eyes and muzzle. “He is no kin of mine sir, other than the fact that our ancestors happened to have come from the same part of the world. If Agent Latrans were not fit in every way to serve us, I would certainly say so.”
The Director appeared to silently contemplate this for a few moments. Then he appeared to change the subject. “We are beginning to acquire the air resources we spoke of the other day. Ten of the Super-Broncos were delivered to us at Andrews this morning, and the first five Comanches are scheduled for delivery at El Toro in two weeks.”
Hector did not reply to this, he understood all too well what this implied.
“We must ensure that all issues with the acquisition of El Toro have been laid to rest within seven days, Hector. Do you understand?”
“Of course, sir.”
“When do you and Agent Latrans plan to take action?”
“Before weeks end. Before the target returns from the capital.”
“Clean and quiet, Hector. I don't care how it looks, but no ties, agreed? No matter how poorly the mission is executed there must be no connection between the IPF and your field agent. Do I make myself clear?”
This was perfectly clear to Hector Sandovál. The Director was telling him that if Joe Latrans failed in any manner in the execution of his mission he must be removed, eliminated himself, so as to eliminate any connection between the mission and the Interstate Police Force. A “forced retirement,” to use the euphemism that The Director was fond of employing.
“I understand, sir.”
“Good, Hector.” The Director was smiling now, there was no mistaking the display of the Chinchilla Persian's fangs. “I look forward to your report of a complete success.”
“You shall have it, sir,” the coyote said even as the connection between his jet and Arlington was broken.
# # #
The bear was bigger than Joe remembered him, an imposing character who still wore an unpleasant expression. He stood there with his paws in his pockets, standing slightly in front of a white tiger that Joe didn't recognize. Even in the roundhouse the bear seemed to be a bit cramped for space. Joe fixed a friendly but neutral visage to his muzzle. Something in his gut spoke a warning to him about the black bear.
“Joe Latrans,” Rudy Gallegos said, “this is Zachary Arctos and Mark Rega. I believe you've met Zack. Mark is his stoker. They were on the 480 that night in the Canyon. Guys,” here the Trainmaster addressed his crewfurs, “this is Chris Latrans' father, Joe.”
“I remember you,” the bear rumbled quietly, unmoving.
The tiger pressed past his friend, extending a paw. Blue eyes met blue eyes, and Joe momentarily studied the stripe pattern on the other's face. He instantly liked this fur without knowing anything about him.
“Nice to meet you, Joe,” a slightly accented voice said. The Virginias? Joe wasn't good with regional accents, but he liked the tone and the warmth the tiger's voice carried. Joe shook his paw, the grip was firm. “How is Chris doing?” the tiger inquired pleasantly.
“He's doing well, thank you. The doc says he'll go home in a few days. I gather,” and here Joe smiled, “that the hospital and his lady friend will have their paws full trying to prevent him from reporting to work the next day. He really wants to come back to you guys.”
“I hear the same from Russ Taylor,” Mark commented.
“I spoke briefly with him earlier today,” Joe replied. “I thanked him for being my son's friend and for helping him come up on the railroad.” Joe's expression soured a bit. “Russ wasn't much in the mood for talking. I gather his head took quite a hit and he's still got some after-effects of concussion. He was pretty drugged up when I saw him.”
All the railroaders except the black bear nodded. Zack continued to remain motionless, his eyes watching the coyote.
“The doc says he'll be back to work in a week or two,” Rudy explained, “as soon as they can get him off the pain meds. When the headaches stop. His vision is unimpaired, and he's apparently clear headed when he's not whacked up.”
“Those two,” Mark agreed, “are lucky to be alive.”
Another round of nods greeted this assessment, the black bear included in this one. A brief silence settled amongst the males in the roundhouse.
“So what brings you to the yards, Joe?” the white tiger asked after a few moments.
The coyote brightened, looking up into the black bears eyes. It was not something Joe Latrans was accustomed to doing, looking up like that. “I came here to apologize to Zack.”
“Really...” the bear rumbled.
Joe nodded sincerely. “I behaved like an ass the other night. I have no excuse to offer other than that I was in fear of my sons life. I over-reacted and put you and your friends in danger unnecessarily. That was wrong of me.”
The bear stared at him for a full twenty seconds before he shifted his stance slightly.
“Accepted,” the deep voice growled. And with that he turned on a heel and strode out the crew doorway of the roundhouse, leaving the rest of them staring after him.
“God dammit,” Rudy growled himself, making to head after the bear.
“Now now,” Mark Rega cautioned, addressing his fellow railroaders while placing a restraining paw on Rudy's shoulder, stopping him. “You know Zack. He's slow to cool off, but he'll be OK.” Turning to the coyote he continued. “Zack's a hothead sometimes, and can be slow to forgive. Give him some time to think about this and he'll come around. I hear your sincerity, Joe. You're a fur of your word.”
“I try to be.”
The white tiger moved his paw from the beaver's shoulder to that of the coyote. And even though they had just met, Joe felt something in his gut again, this time telling him he'd found a friend for life. The tiger's blue eyes bored into his for a brief moment, just long enough for him to lean forward and quietly say “Keep the faith, amigo.”
A small jolt of current went through Joe's body. Faith. That was the connection. Joe didn't know how he knew, but suddenly he knew. He was facing a brother. In a way similar to how he felt with Hector, but different. With Hector it was sort of ethereal, speculative. With this fur... it was a rock. He knew. His eyes widened as Mark nodded to him knowingly.
“We will meet again,” the white tiger said with a small smile as he stepped back and turned towards the exit.
It was quiet in the roundhouse for a few moments, the three remaining furs eying each other as the door closed behind the white tiger.
“Um,” Mark Incom started. “You'll excuse me for seeming rude, Joe, but if you've got nothing else for me, I've got some work to do.” The foreman looked at the Trainmaster. “We've got a locomotive to resurrect, you know?”
Joe stared at him, not understanding.
“Your son's locomotive, the 478.” Rudy agreed. “You didn't hear? We're going to rebuild her from the railhead up.”
“It was your son's idea, and Russ Taylor's,” the foreman agreed.
“Hell, it was the whole town's idea,” Rudy said.
“The 478 is here?” Joe asked hopefully. He was surprised it hadn't already been cut up for scrap.
Mark Incom grinned. He loved nothing better than giving tours to interested parties, bragging about his crewfurs and their mission in life, maintaining the almost hundred year old motive power of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
His voice swelled with pride. “C'mon,” he motioned with a paw as he stepped deeper into the cavernous confines of the roundhouse. “Let me show you something you'll not see anywhere else in the country. Let me show you what railroading the old fashioned way looks like.”
Joe nodded happily, following him.
As the marmot and the coyote disappeared beyond a tender, Mark Incom interrupted the beginning of his own dissertation to call a farewell back to his boss. “See you back at the depot, Rudy.”
The beaver nodded briefly, thinking about the city of Durango.
# # #
Annie couldn't remember when she had ever been so pampered and looked after. Gina had been with her consistently through the entire day, attending to her every need large and small. She had even drawn Annie a mid-day bath, a luscious affair with scents of lavender and ending with a glass of red wine and a single chocolate. And once out of the fur dryer and in her terry robe, an hour and a half of pleasant conversation about anything Annie cared to discuss while Gina did the red fox's hair, insisting that Annie do nothing but verbalize whatever was on her mind. And this Annie was all to happy to do.
Making her appearance downstairs in late afternoon, Annie's mind was at peace as she entered her family room from above. For about six seconds, as it turned out.
She could tell by the tone those two words were delivered in that something was wrong. Looking at the downcast expression on her eldest son's muzzle only confirmed what her ears had already told her. Something was very wrong. Her mind immediately turned to Chris.
“What's happened?” she asked guardedly.
Mike simply stared at his mother. And as Annie looked into those hazel eyes she saw something she had never seen in them before. Loss. The empty pain of an empty heart. Terror briefly visited the red fox as she sat down next to her son on the leather sofa.
“Mike,” she implored quietly as Gina sat opposite them. “What has happened to Chris?”
Her son's ears wilted a bit to match the empty expression in his eyes. “As far as I know, he's fine mom. I've heard no more about him since we spoke with dad earlier today.”
This did little to reassure the red fox. “You look devastated, honey. What's happened?”
The young gray fox stared back at his mother for long moments, his mouth working slightly as the silence stretched between them. Annie glanced at Gina and caught a worried expression on the mink's muzzle as their eyes met. She turned back to her son as her uncertainty grew.
“Michael!” Annie demanded adamantly. “What has happened?”
Her son sighed quietly, a resigned sound. “Jazz is leaving the church.”
Annie was nonplussed. His expression, his demeanor didn't match this revelation. She glanced quickly at Gina again, and something she saw in her friends eyes made her stop and think for a moment. It dawned on her that there was more behind Jaclyn's departure than a change of jobs.
“She's leaving the church?” Annie asked slowly, emphasizing the last word gently.
It was like slowly opening a flood gate. “No,” her son began quietly, staring at his paws. “She's leaving me.” He looked up into his mother's eyes. “I drove her out.” At her startled look he continued, his words coming more quickly. “The other night, when she came to my place to tell me that I had been promoted to full time staff, we celebrated. I sang songs of praise, and we talked about some material I was working on.”
Mike sat up straighter as the words came faster. “She wanted to know what my motivation was for some of the stuff I was working on, and that led to me telling her about Jessica and the mess in Utah, and about how you and dad came to get me. I was trying to get her to understand how your rescuing me influenced me to write some lyrics I had been working on, and was focusing on that, but she focused instead on Jessica and got all mad because I offered her a ride.”
In spite of herself Annie couldn't help a small smile at this. For all his youthful maturity Mike could still be clueless about a female's thought processes. Her smile was lost on her son, however.
“And she got up and left, still all mad. She just got up and walked out. I tried to stop her, but she left.”
“Just like that?”
“Well...,” Mike seemed to search for words. “No. Not just like that. I went looking for her. I wanted to find out why she was angry. I guess she was mad 'cause she thought I was picking up on some femme. I just offered her a ride! I would have done the same if she had been male! She was in a small town in the middle of nowhere, had no money and no way to get home to her family, so I offered to help. That's all! Her gender didn't matter. I was just trying to help a fellow fur in need, like Christ taught us to do.”
Annie nodded in understanding, her smile fading.
“So I found her, mom. At AFCC. And we talked. She was real cool. Distant, you know? Like I was one of her kids in the youth group and she was being a counselor. And I still didn't understand why she was acting weird, why she wouldn't talk to me. So I told her.”
“That I loved her.”
Annie blinked. In all his twenty four years her son had never, to her knowledge, said that to any female except her daughter and herself. This was new, possibly dangerous ground. She laid a paw gently on one of his own, looking onto his eyes that overflowed with pain. He was dry-eyed, but something in him had died, she could sense it.
“How did she take that?”
“She didn't. We went and had coffee, and she spoke at length about our work with the youth group, about the kids and how good they all are, about AFCC and the future of our church...” Mike shrugged. “She never really acknowledged that I even said that to her. I thought maybe she just needed some time to process, you know? Some time to think it over before she committed herself. I figured that after a night to sleep on it she'd tell me she had similar feelings for me.” Mike paused, thinking. “Or maybe not. Maybe she would tell me that she enjoyed working with me, and that we had fun together growing in God and growing others in God, and that we would be good friends but nothing more. Maybe she would be a bit uncomfortable in having someone working for her that had those feelings for her, but I could have worked around that, and I think she could have to.”
“So what happened, Mike? You said she's leaving the church. Did she tell you why?”
“She didn't need to,” the gray fox replied, his ears wilting again as his expression and tone turned to disgust. “I know why. I drove her out. Not only from my life, but from the church. Me and my selfish ambitions robbed AFCC of a good, faithful fur. I deserve the loss, but the church doesn't.” Mike Harland looked up to his mother and her friend, who both stared at him. “I fucked up,” he said simply.
“Oh honey...” Annie began. She took both her son's paws in her own.
“What other explanation can there be?” he asked heatedly, snarling. “She called here a while ago and told me she was leaving. Made up some excuse about needing to sort some things out between her and God. It was all crap, mom. She doesn't know how to work with someone who's in love with her. It made her uncomfortable, turned our church into a place she needed to escape from.” Mike took a deep, shaky breath, the fire dying in his eyes and soul. “She's gone, it's my fault, and that's all there is.”
“Wait a minute,” Gina said quietly after a few moments silence. “She told you she had to sort some things out? Between God and herself?”
Mike turned slightly on the sofa to address his mother's friend. He tempered his voice a bit with the recollection that Gina was also his friend, someone he worked with, someone who shared the development of the youth at their church. Someone who was, in fact, a mentor to his sister. He took another breath before answering.
“She said that she needed to go away to sort some things out in her life. To get some things straight between she and God, she said.”
“Why can't you accept that at face value, Mike?”
“She's been a terrific leader at our church, a faithful fur in all ways...”
“That you saw,” Gina interrupted. She put a paw of her own on the young fox's shoulder. “Look. I'm a born again fur, just like you. There are sins in my life, some past, some present, that have made me less of the fur that I want to be. I deal with that sin as I am able. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes not. Some times, things happen that we need to just sit down and process before we can move on. Some times things catch up with us, issues we thought we had dealt with and put behind us suddenly re-surface to interfere in our lives anew. Isn't it possible that Jaclyn is doing exactly what she says she is doing, withdrawing to get some things straightened out before she moves on?”
“But I could help her,” Mike whined quietly.
“Not if you're what's focusing the light on her shortcomings, Mike.”
Both foxes stared at the mink. In her turn Gina was uncomfortable in putting herself in the middle of this family issue, but something stirred in her heart and her head, and she continued speaking.
“You offered her a healthy, honest, Godly love. You bared your soul to her. That took guts, any way you cut it. You are an honorable fur, and that was easy for you to do. Maybe she has some things in her past, or present, that prevent her from reflecting and returning that healthy, Godly love to you. For now. Isn't that possible?”
The paw on his shoulder tightened briefly, matching the squeezing of his paws by his mother's own paws. He looked from his mother to the mink and back, then looked at his own paws and those of his mother in his lap. “I suppose so,” he said cautiously.
Then the look of disgust returned to his muzzle. “But I don't buy it.” He looked directly at Gina. “And won't, until I hear it from her.”
“Do you know where she went?” Annie asked.
“She wouldn't tell me.”
“Honey, you could be waiting a long time for that information to come to you.”
The gray fox snorted in derision, something Annie had not seen him do since he was a small fur. “What else have I got to do?” He rose from the sofa and looked down at the two females. “The deal is, she's gone, and she's gone because of my actions.” He walked away from them, towards the kitchen. Apparently this conversation was over. “That's the bottom line,” he said as he disappeared from view.
All of Annie's fear returned full strength. Now she had two sons in trouble. One in Colorado she couldn't be with, and another right here under her own roof that she couldn't reach. She turned her nervous, troubled eyes to Gina Vison.
“It'll work out, Annie. I know it will,” the mink said in a low voice.
Annie was not reassured. “I can't watch him eat himself up over this, Gina. I've got to do something.”
And as the shadows grew long in the waning winter afternoon in the foothills of Orange County, the fox and the mink spoke of fear, and anguish, and loss, and pain. And of hope, and redemption, and love. As the sun touched and then disappeared behind the horizon the conversation moved to the empty kitchen as the two females began to prepare a meal for themselves and Annie's two children. And Annie never once wondered about Gina's continued presence in her life, she simply accepted the love and friendship that flowed from the pretty mink into her home and heart.
# # #
It was a grand spring day way up high in the Colorado Rockies, like many he had seen before. The air was crisp and cool, smelling of aspen and pine, sweet grasses and cold, clear water. And wood smoke. And hot valve oil.
He recognized where he was, sort of. That he was on Marshall Pass he was certain. The view out his cab window to the west was plain enough, Marshall Creek stretching away from him towards the Gunnison River valley in the hazy distance, hiding the Black Cañon. But it was somehow different. The terrain was denuded of forestation in many areas, and fresh scars cut across the mountainsides below his vantage point, exposing shiny twin rails set three feet apart. It looked... new. Raw.
He had seen this area before, and the deep forestation of that time had hidden the ground from view. His father had brought him here as a pup many years ago and explained how at one time, over a hundred years before that, a brand new, upstart railroad had conquered the ten thousand eight hundred foot crest of Marshall Pass, passing over the shoulder of Mount Ouray as it's narrow gauge mainline worked west from Denver to Salt Lake City. It had been in the early 1880s, he recalled his father explaining.
Later he had come back in his own Jeep to explore what little was left of the grade and the site of the pass, once a home to a section house, a turntable, a telegraph office, a three story boarding house, and a small station, plus the outbuildings that were home to the section furs and the station staff. All of that had been buried in snow sheds, huge wooden constructions that covered and protected the railroad and it's operations from the blizzard conditions that buried the pass in the winter.
As he remembered, all that remained of it all was a big pit and some crumbling stone and mortar foundations. Yet now...
Chris Latrans leaned out the cab window of his locomotive, looking back over his left shoulder. His train looked to be about twenty five cars long, an even mix of small box cars hiding their contents and equally small flat cars with railroad ties, sections of rail, and barrels of spikes lashed to them. The cars looked new, brightly painted and lettered Denver & Rio Grande RR. Back up the grade, just above them, was a raw cut in the rock ridge that the rails passed through. Just where they turned east into the ridge, a brand new section house was still under construction, the raw wood fairly gleamed in the early afternoon sun.
The coyote's gaze drifted to the tender of his own locomotive and he marveled that, instead of coal, it was piled high with wood. Wood. That meant that the coal deposits of Crested Butte, north of Gunnison, hadn't been tapped yet. So it had to be...
Chris turned himself completely around on the small box seat to look across the cab at his engineer. Instead of finding Russ Taylor sitting there grinning at him around a cigar butt, it was the old Irish Wolfhound smiling at him. But now he was thinner, and his fur was darker, and the gleam in his eyes was much sharper. But that twinkle was still there.
“Welcome t' da pass, young 'un,” the wolfhound said.
Chris smiled. “Thanks.”
He knew it was a dream, but he also knew he was here for a reason.
“Sir,” Chris asked respectfully. “May I ask your name?”
“Y' can call me Jess,” the wolfhound replied casually, a cigar moving gently with his speech.
“My name is Chris,” he replied in earnest.
“Christopher Latrans, yessir,” the wolfhound replied, puffing a bit of smoke. He turned his head and gestured with a paw out his cab window. “'Member me tellin' you about dat young bobcat dat was hurt here in a derailment? Dat was right here at dis siding.”
Chris nodded, continuing to look around. He was on the deck of a locomotive that was much smaller than the K-28 he was used to. He studied the backhead briefly, and then looked out the cab windows at the boiler and smokestack, a pretty diamond-shaped affair. It was a much simpler locomotive, devoid of air brakes and many of the refined accessories that twentieth century locomotives possessed. It was also shiny new.
“The Cumbres,” the wolfhound answered his unasked question. “Number four oh six, a consolidation. Biggest road power we got right now. Barely a year old. We use 'em all over da division t' get de construction trains up an' down de Pass.”
A whistle sounded in the distance, and Chris became aware of the chuffing sound of a steam locomotive hard at work.
“Dat'll be George wit' da empties, coming up from Sargents. We're buildin' a mainline youngster, we're buildin' a nation. We'll be in Gunnison before da fall. Gonna show da Dee Ess Pee an' Pee a thing or two, I'll tell ya!” The wolfhound cackled in amusement.
The Denver, South Park, and Pacific, Chris thought. That narrow gauge line had competed against the Denver and Rio Grande for the intermountain traffic in the area. Chris scratched an ear in concentration, thinking. They had met in Gunnison in...
“Yep,” the wolfhound interrupted his thoughts. “It's 1881. May fifth, t' be exact.”
The whistle sounded again, closer.
“Today yer gonna meet some good furs, young 'un. 'Slack-Jack' Sullivan, 'Highball' Sheehey, 'Tall Boy' Malloy, 'Easy Ride' Rhodes, and 'GeeBee' Shanley, furs I work with. A finer bunch o' heads yer never gonna meet.” The wolfhound puffed casually on his cigar.
“Know why yer here?”
Chris Latrans smiled, shaking his head in the negative. “And I don't much care, either,” the coyote said affably. “I'm here to do some railroadin'...”
“Yer a good pup, tallow pot.” The wolfhound stretched on his seat box. “Soon as GeeBee gets by wit' dat empty train, we're takin' dis train down ta Sargents. We're full o' stuff for da gandy dancers. Dey say we'll be in Gunnison by September.”
1881, Chris marveled to himself. I'm a part of history.
“Yer a part of the legacy of railroading, Chris,” the wolfhound said, as though reading his thoughts. “Yer here ta get a taste of what dis was like when it wuz all new.” The wolfhound's voice lost all it's vernacular and twang. “What you call 'railroading the old fashioned way' is state of the art right now, Chris. You're sitting in the most technologically advanced machinery of the day. You command power unthought of just a decade ago. You are a veritable god in the eyes of the furs around you. Train crews are the backbone and building blocks of this young nation. Whatever happens will happen because of you and furs like you. Whatever is built will be made with materials you provide and deliver. Whatever is accomplished will be assisted and enhanced by the rail industry and the furs who operate it. No other machination of furkind will provide the incentive and impetus for growth and development that our steel rails will provide and encourage. This nation will be built on the rails of our industry.”
The wolfhound stared at him. “Every fur, from the lowest maintenance of way fur to the president of each railroad company, has a paw in what this country becomes. And just because you live in an era of space travel and computers doesn't mean that railroads have lost their viability. Sure, you work on what is commonly known as a 'tourist pike,' but make no mistake young Mister Latrans, railroads are as important now as they ever have been. Nobody has taken a close look at it yet, but your coal-powered locomotives can haul more up the line into Silverton for less dollars per mile than those big semi trucks that run up and down US-550. You and yours are economically viable if you keep your right of way true and your grades solid.”
The wolfhound grinned. “Hundred and twenty five pound rail wouldn't hurt, either.” The Durango and Silverton was predominantly laid with relatively light duty ninety-pounds-to-the-yard rail. Jess was suggesting that an upgrade of rail durability and strength would be helpful, something Chris and every other fur who operated over the Silverton Branch already knew all too well.
“What I'm saying is that the rail industry will continue to help our country grow and prosper under the capable paws of furs who know how to get things done. As long as railroads are operated by furs who are most interested in moving furs and materials at high speeds as efficiently and as safely as possible, rails will always have a place in the growth and development of the USA. You work for a tourist pike, it's true, but don't let that appellation dissuade you from your core duty. You and the furs you work with, focus on running the finest, most efficient railroad you can using the machinery you have at your disposal. This is your future, Chris.”
Chris nodded slowly. It was a tall order, but he understood what the wolfhound was saying. And he believed. Looking out across the vast expanse of the west slope of the continental divide, realizing that he was seeing the virgin country as his forefathers had seen it, and knowing that he was indeed part of the legacy of steel wheels on steel rails, the coyote smiled slowly.
He became aware of the sound of another steam locomotive charging up grade towards them, and as he turned his head to look forward a whistle screeched it's warning. Within moments the locomotive, a duplicate of the one he was aboard but wearing the number 401 and carrying the name “Grand River” rumbled by upgrade, trailing a string of empty flat cars. He and the wolfhound waved briefly at the crew of the other train as the locomotive went by. Chris caught fleeting glimpses of waves being returned.
“Whaddya say...” the wolfhound asked, his twang returning in force, “dat we set da boys out and get us goin' down da hill?”
Instinctively Chris looked at his steam pressure gauge
“I think I need to toss a little fuel in the firebox as we're getting under way.”
“Yer a good tallow pot, Chrissy. You'll continue ta do da D&S proud.” Jess reached up for the whistle cord and tugged, sending three short blasts and one long, signaling the brakefurs to climb up on the tops of the freight cars and stand by at the brake wheels for the trip down the two percent grade to Sargents.
As he did this Chris opened the firebox door and then stepped onto the deck between the tender and the cab. Grabbing a chunk of wood, he tossed it into the firebox, to be followed by another, and then another. It wasn't quite like slinging the black diamonds with a number ten scoop, but it wasn't that much different, either. By the time he had tossed half a dozen chunks of wood into the firebox Jess was tugging on the whistle cord again, this time sending two short blasts to signify the release of brakes and the commencement of their run.
“Ain't dis a gran' time?” Jess opined, releasing the engine brakes and coming out on the throttle of number 406.
Chris Latrans smiled in his sleep.
Shari Goss gently brushed some long hair from the forehead of her sleeping boyfriend and smiled herself. He was safe, wherever he was.
# # #
The bottle was square. Joe rubbed a thumb along the large number 7 on it's label and then poured two more fingers of it's contents into a shot glass.
“I'm on virgin ground here, Lord,” he mumbled aloud. “Please make your plan clear to me, 'cause I'm fuckin' lost.”
He tossed off the drink before continuing in a more clear tone of voice. “Thank you for sparing the life of my son, and that of his friend. Thank you for allowing me the time to set straight my errors of the past few days. Please be with my son and his friends on the railroad, and be with Shari as she and her family help bring Chris back to health.”
Two more fingers fell into the shot glass. “I felt the message today about Mark Rega, Lord. I don't know what it means, so be patient with me while I work it out. Help me understand what that was about.”
The coyote sighed, picking up the shot glass. “And thanks for Annie, Lord. I don't know how I could do this without her, and without my pups Mike and Debbie. Please watch over them and keep them safe as you send me out into my new world.” The coyote paused, staring at the shot glass. “Amen,” he added after a few moments. He tossed off the drink in silence.
“You ready, then?” a friendly voice asked behind him.
Joe started slightly, and then turned in time to see Hector Sandovál entering the jet's cabin and then closing and latching the cabin door behind him.
“Yup, as ready as I'll ever be.”
The coyotes studied each other as Hector picked up a telephone pawset from the cabin wall next to the door and brought it to his ear. After a moment he said “We're ready,” and hung up the phone. Almost immediately Joe felt one of the jet's engines begin to spool up, initiating it's start-up sequence.
“You'll be home with your family in three hours, Joe. You'll have two days with them, and then your first assignment will be conducted. Is there anything you'll need from me?”
Joe Latrans studied the other coyote before him for a few seconds. “I might need an ear to bend now and then, or a shoulder to lean on...”
“Ciertamente. Ése sería mi placer.”
There was a slight thump from the rear of the aircraft, and they felt the business jet begin to roll forward.
“Lets go home, José.”