Precious Cargo

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

Another Fine Mess

About three quarters of an hour after leaving Poncha Springs they pulled into a parking lot at the 11,313 foot summit of Monarch Pass. Outside the wind sang in the trees, a roar discernable above the sound of their own idling engine. A few snowflakes angled down out of the sky, carried on the wind. The sky to the west was dark gray and threatening. There was no other traffic on the highway, but a couple of unoccupied cars were close to the building standing at the side of the parking lot away from the roadway. The mountain slopes rose immediately behind the building.

"Give me that trash bag, will you please? I'll throw it away for you." Joe said. "I can use the stretch." He looked at her as she retrieved the trash left over from lunch from the floor in front of her. As she straightened up and turned to give it to him he asked "Are you OK? Do you want to get out?"

"No thanks, "Annie replied. "It looks cold out there." As if to reinforce her statement a gust of wind gently rocked their truck.

Joe accepted the bag she passed to him and quickly opened the door. Shutting it behind him just as quickly, he trotted stiffly across the almost empty parking lot towards the door of the store, where he saw trash cans outside the building. While replacing the lid on one of them after placing their trash in it, he noticed that the store was closed. It was dark inside the building and the large sign in the window informed the passersby that they would re-open with the first snow storm of the season. I could have used some hot coffee, Joe thought to himself. Maybe in Sargents. He trotted back towards their truck where he could see Annie waiting.

Annie sat quietly in their warm truck, watching Joe as he approached. The wind tugged at the exposed fur on his head, as well as his clothing. He had his paws jammed in his pockets, head tilted into the wind to keep his hat from blowing off.

"You're right," he said as he pulled the door shut behind him. "It's cold out there!" She reached across the center console with her left paw and gently touched the sleeve of his jacket, which was cold to the touch, and nodded. He looked at her manicured red claws against the denim. For some reason that had always given him a small charge, seeing her claws resting on his arm like that.

Within a few minutes they were rolling down the west side of Monarch Pass, US 50 all to themselves. The light snow was still falling on the pass, but it was already turning to rain here on the west side. The wipers, on delay, occasionally removed the gathering raindrops from the windshield. In third gear and about forty miles per hour, they felt safe and content. Durango slowly drew closer with each rotation of the Goodrich All-Terrains humming on the wet asphalt, and so far the weather wasn't affecting their trip speed too significantly. Warm air blew out of the floor vents, and life was, for the moment, sweet.

Joe watched the world outside, contemplating the loves of his life. Indeed he had the world by the tail. His lovely wife was with him, he had a trusty steed in the truck they rode in, and there was no better place to be than in the mountains of western Colorado. He couldn't imagine any way to improve his current lot in life. Sure his kids weren't nearby, but he knew where they were, and trusted in their intelligence and common sense. He was not worried about them. Besides, between the radios and GSM phones they all carried, talking to them instantly was almost always possible.

There was something special about this country, something that called to him and stirred feelings deep within him. It was as if, at some time in a previous life, this had been home for him. He had never called anywhere but California home, yet he would allow that he probably knew Colorado at least as well as the natives here, perhaps in some ways better. He was well versed in the history of the state, especially that part of it that involved the coming of the railroads to the Rocky Mountains in the 1870s and 1880s. He knew most of the four wheel drive trails in these mountains, and had been exploring them for more years than he wanted to admit. He'd taken home the dirt of the Rockies on five different trucks since "coming of age" in the late seventies when he first ventured forth out here on his own.

Annie had lived in Colorado for a short period of time earlier in her life. But she had never enjoyed an intimate experience with the mountain west until she met Joe. She had lived on the front range in the Boulder / Fort Collins area. Close enough to the mountains to enjoy the sight of them, but also far enough away to still be mystified and enchanted by their remoteness. She had seen so much of the intermountain west since meeting Joe. It was indeed a wonderful country, she enjoyed the time they shared in it.

Joe had learned to respect these mountains, to protect and cherish the environment he passed through so his pups and grandpups might enjoy them as much as he had. Along with the Sierras of California, these mountains spoke to Joe in ways indescribable, at least for him. He had tried to share and pass on this knowledge of and respect for these mountains to his wife and kids, and judging by the interaction they all shared with nature his efforts had been successful.

He had more or less been raised in a Christian environment since birth. Yet it wasn't until he stood on the top of those incredibly high passes and peaks in the thin cold air, sun warming his face, gazing across thousands of miles of his Master's creation, that he began to gain an appreciation for his Creator. No voices in his head, no flashes of light, no burning bushes to herald this enlightenment for him. He suddenly became aware of the simple fact that none of this was by chance. All of this beauty was here on purpose, and it spoke to his heart in a way words never could have. Ever since that first time, high up in the San Juans on Engineer Pass in the late seventies, he had never again questioned the existence or benevolence of his Lord. He came back often to recharge and regroup.

After many years he had tried to put himself back into mainstream religion, attending church near their home in southern California. And while he became a member of that particular family, he always felt like he was on the periphery, not quite getting the message, not fully connected. His God was outside the sanctuary, out there with His majesty personified in the peaks and crags and gorges of those magnificent mountains. No building could substitute for that. No song could exceed the raw emotion the cry of an eagle above the canyons could awaken in him. So he returned, again and again, wordlessly communicating with God.

Of course he rarely verbalized this, and if he found himself in a deep and meaningful conversation with others who attempted to describe similar feelings, he'd politely offer the opinion that maybe they needed a drink, or to lay down for a while. He had touched lightly on these feelings in conversations with Annie, and while she understood and shared those feelings with him, he understood that her faith was much less tied to terra firma than was his.

Annie leaned forward and pressed the orange button on the stereo system in the center of the dash. A click sounded from within the dash of the truck, and suddenly AC / DC was on stage in the cab with them. Leaning forward to press another button a couple of times, she grinned up at Joe with raised eyebrows. "I guess that might not be the best choice for right now, huh? Sorry..."

He grinned. "Highway To Hell" was a great choice for anything, as far as he was concerned.

"Nah, that's OK. I like it. Turn it up." They both knew this album well, AC / DC was amongst their favorite groups. Well, actually, he and Annie liked pretty much anything that was upbeat, loud, and had an edge to it. Within a couple of miles the sound level was approaching triple digit decibels and both he and his wife were happily rocking with the music.

Soon the rain stopped falling and Joe turned the wipers off. The ruling grade was decreasing, the curves becoming less tight and occurring less often. The highway surface became dry. While still gray and threatening overhead and behind them, the sky in the far west looked clear and bright.

Rounding a curve they saw flares in the roadway, stretching out from the shoulder on their side into the center stripe, forcing them onto the wrong side of the highway. Braking and downshifting, Joe also reached up with his left paw and turned on his headlights, looking to make sure the high beams were on. Left paw back on the wheel, his right paw moved to select the four way flashers on.

"What's this all about?" he wondered aloud, reaching next to turn the stereo down to a level somewhere between background and comfortable.

Cresting a rise as they approached, they both saw debris in the roadway and a smoking, mangled pile of aluminum and plastic in what had been their lane. A lone state patrol cruiser was beyond the mess on the right shoulder of the highway, lights flashing. An officer was standing near the edge of the road by the cruiser's trunk, talking into a walkie talkie radio while watching their approach. As they took this in, the officer looked over his shoulder towards the oncoming traffic lane. Turning back, he waved them on. Gearing down again, Joe began to prepare to stop. Rolling past the wreck, they slowly passed the patrol cruiser and pulled over to the shoulder.

Looking at Annie as he set the brakes he asked "Coming?"

"What are you going to do?" she asked with concern, looking in her mirror at the view behind them. Joe noticed that the fur on the back of her neck appeared ruffled, suddenly.

"See if that trooper needs any help. He seems to be all by himself out here." He opened his door while still looking at her.

A chill ran up her spine, she shivered slightly. "I'll get out. You go see what he needs, I'll stay with the truck."

"OK," and he was gone, shutting the door behind him. She opened her door and stepped down to the dirt of the shoulder. Walking back to the rear of their idling truck, she watched Joe as he briefly spoke with the trooper, saw him remove his gloves and shake paws with him, and then hook his thumbs in his jeans pockets. It was a stance very characteristic of him, one she saw him in often. Joe listened as the trooper described the scene to him, occasionally gesturing with the paw holding the radio. Annie noticed that the trooper's other paw was on his hip, casually hovering near the holstered pistol at his waist.

Annie gathered her jacket around herself and crossed her arms over her chest as she waited. While it was cool and a bit breezy here, the chill she felt was brought about by the scene several yards away, not the weather. As she watched, she noticed Joe's facial expression change slightly. From this distance he almost appeared angry.

After about five minutes of listening, Joe nodded and tipped his hat by way of saying good day to the trooper. He walked briskly, almost aggressively back to their truck, tugging his gloves on as he approached. By the time he was opening his door, Annie was already inside with hers shut.

"What happened?" she inquired as Joe shut his own door. He said nothing as he turned off the four-way flashers and headlights, released the brakes, and put the truck in gear. While Annie shut off the stereo he reached in his shirt pocket for a toothpick and, finding one, placed it between his lips. Shifting gears as the truck accelerated briskly into the downgrade, he waited until attaining cruise speed before replying.

"As near as I can tell from what the trooper said, there were no survivors. Remember where the flares started?" She nodded. "He said the skid marks started fifty yards before that. The vehicle went end for end at least twice before rolling over several times. If it weren't for the guardrails it would have been way off the roadway somewhere."

"Oh my God", she breathed, shuddering slightly and gathering her jacket around herself again.

"It gets worse. The car was stolen in Leadville this morning. They know who was in it. Apparently some domestic dispute, a boyfriend - girlfriend relationship gone bad, the boyfriend took off with the girlfriend's car and their baby daughter." The toothpick was gripped between his clenched teeth as he stopped talking.

"Was the.... Did the little girl..." Annie's eyes misted a bit, anticipating the worst. Her pretty ears drooped.

"He couldn't tell. He wouldn't have been able to ID the car at all except that he found a license plate way up by the start of his flare pattern. He said he couldn't even tell whether the car was right side up or not. There's just not enough of it left. He said that, judging from the skid marks, you know, the length and placement, that the guy was doing well over a hundred miles an hour when he lost it."

His jaw set once again. She could see he was agitated, trying not to loose control of himself. Suddenly a thought jarred her. "That car that went by us, before we stopped at the pass!" She shuddered again in recollection.

"Yep, that's what I thought, too." Joe paused, his mouth working the toothpick. "The trooper found a car seat in the grass off the side of the highway, but no sign of the baby." Joe paused again, and suddenly his right paw balled into a fist and struck the steering wheel once. "Fuckin' bastard! There's a special place in Hell for anybody that would do that to their own kid." He didn't take his eyes off the road, his gloved paws gripped the wheel as though his life depended on it.

She looked steadily at him. He rarely swore any more. She hadn't heard him talk like that, use that particular word, in ages. In their younger days the expletives had flowed like wine, but as they grew older together they found less and less of a need for them. It was one of those ways they had grown together, without really thinking about it or discussing it. Therefor she knew he was more shook up than he was letting on. She was a little out of sorts herself, thinking about the small, helpless infant that had just met a very untimely death.

Drawing a ragged breath and holding it for a second, Annie slowly exhaled. Some might have known this as a "cleansing breath", but that concept was unknown to Annie. "What's the next town?" she asked quietly.

"Sargents. Maybe five miles, maybe less."

"Let's stop there." She could tell that Joe was wound tight and needed to take a break. So did she, for that matter.

Seven minutes later their truck rolled through the dust to a stop at the roadside café in Sargents. "You need some coffee, and I want a Coke." Annie said, opening her door and sliding out. "Come on."

Joe opened the door of the café for his wife. As he followed her into the café they spied several stools at a bar, as well as half a dozen tables scattered about the room. A pool table occupied the far edge of the room to their left. The place was empty.

Joe walked straight towards the bar. Sitting at a stool, he motioned to Annie to join him on an adjacent stool. Seating herself, Annie reached for a menu from a stack in a holder at the edge of the bar in front of them. Joe removed his hat and placed it upside down on the bar to his left, then removed his gloves and sunglasses, tossing them in the hat. As he did this, a young female badger, maybe twenty, approached them from the kitchen in back with a smile and an order pad.

"Can I help you?" she smiled at them.

"Two Buds, please." Joe replied, holding up two fingers of his right paw while looking for assent from Annie. She nodded her head as she placed her own sunglasses in her purse.

To Chapter Six: Recovery.

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