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.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad exist in the real world.
Check them out!

Precious Cargo is copyright The Silver Coyote
2003



She's Keeping Time

Then I found myself a woman
She's the one who keeps me on the line
When I go wrong she's always there beside me
She's keeping time...

(Bachman-Turner Overdrive)


"We're going to be late with the kids," he mumbled into her neck. Her hair covered his face. Her head lay in the crook of his right arm.

"This is worth the delay," she whispered, caressing the fur on his back gently. Rain drummed softly on the roof of the truck. They had made a nest of sorts behind the seats, and were laying there in each other's arms, under an old blanket, catching their breath. Had they still smoked, this would have been the time to light one up.

Turning his head slightly he spoke a little more clearly. "We should get going, don't you think?" Sitting up and reaching between the seats in front of them, he started rooting around looking for various items of clothing belonging to each of them. It was pitch dark inside and out.

"I guess," she replied lazily, stretching, "but I want more of this... you haven't heard the last from me." He could hear the smile on her face. She sat up beside him and kissed him on the mouth. Their arms went around each other, and another few minutes ticked away.

"C'mon, we've got to get going," she finally said, leaning back from him. "Our kids will worry. What time is it?"

"Yes dear," he said, and smiled as she swatted him very gently on his cheek. "I don't know what time it is, I don't know where my watch is, or our phones either. Here, this is yours, I think," he said, handing her a shirt. "It smells of you."

"So do you..."

A few minutes later the engine rumbled to life once again. The clock on the dash indicated it was a little after ten. Settling into his seat, Joe reached overhead to turn on the map lights in order to find his gloves. "We've got to call the kids!", Annie said, buttoning her shirt and reaching for her purse. "My phone should be in here somewhere."

"We may not get any coverage out here. Let's get going, if there's coverage here it can only get better as we move towards town." Running lights came on, followed by headlights. In their illumination they could see, across the level, forested terrain, a highway stretching straight away from them. They had stopped at the bottom of the first big switchback at Corkscrew Gulch, below Red Mountain Pass on the south side. This area had once been the community of Chattanooga, over one hundred years ago, but very little remained of it now. Their truck was back off the highway some two hundred feet, beneath some trees. No cars had gone by since they had pulled in here some time ago.

Splashing through the mud, they attained the highway. A steady rain fell, wipers on low kept the windshield clear. They were headed downgrade, speed built with little throttle. Knowing the road well, Joe geared the truck and kept the speed at forty five, remembering the curves ahead as the highway turned east for the final few miles down Mineral Creek to Silverton.

"No network." Annie was frustrated and her impatience was building. She didn't want her kids worrying about them.

"If we can't get phone coverage in Silverton we can try Chris on the radio and see what happens." Joe offered. "Worst case we can stop and use a pay phone."

"Let's get there," Annie offered. Then she smiled, looking at him. His hat was missing, and even in the low light of the panel instruments she could see that his fur was disheveled and his clothes had that "I've been slept in" appearance. "Where's your hat?" she asked.

"Back there somewhere," he replied, thumb over his shoulder, indicating where they had just been.

She reached up and turned a cab light on, and turning between the seats quickly located the hat. Placing it on his head as she turned forward and sat down, she said "Here. You need this." She turned the light off.

He smiled. "Thanks." The rain fell harder against the windshield.

###

And so they descended into Silverton, Colorado. Famed as a genuine old west gold camp, it was the northern terminus of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Joe remembered well the days when this little three foot gauge railroad had been the last remains of the Denver & Rio Grande's once mighty narrow gauge system. Back in the 1880s the D&RG had built south and west from Denver to the gold and silver fields of Colorado, eventually pushing a narrow gauge main line all the way to Salt Lake City. This little pike was almost all that was left of that system, it had been a part of a narrow gauge line that had run south from Salida to the Colorado - New Mexico border, and then west to Durango and Silverton. Of the hundreds of miles of narrow gauge railroad that had been built, this and the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic were all that remained.

Joe had been a railroad nut all his life. He was intrigued by the technology of the nineteenth century that helped transform his nation from a seeming refugee camp of other nation's castoffs into the mightiest, most industrialized nation of the world. The railroads made this country, literally, and even now in the twenty first century they were a vital part of the American infrastructure, moving huge amounts of freight of all descriptions and millions of paying passengers back and forth across the continent in incredibly short periods of time.

As a pup and young fur he had studied the technology of the diesel electric locomotives, and while more efficient by factors than their predecessor the steam locomotive, they just didn't "feel" the same. A steam locomotive had been cared for by her crew as a member of the family. Furs thought of them in terms of a living entity. A crew might have included an engineer and stoker, several brakers, and a conductor. The conductor had his caboose, his own office that moved with him from train to train, of which he was as proud as the engineer was of his locomotive. Furs of iron spent their whole lives caring for these fire breathing, steam powered machines as though they were wives or lovers.

But what the diesels lacked in romanticism they more than made up for in raw power and efficiency. By the early twenty first century a consist of four modern locomotives could develop over twenty thousand horsepower. They could develop enough tractive effort to lift a mile and a half long double stacked container train over the two percent grades of Cajon Pass from Los Angeles on its way east. A one hundred plus unit train of coal could be moved with similar head end power up from Denver to the Moffat Tunnel and on to Grand Junction. A two-unit consist of a similar type of locomotive could handle a passenger train at an average speed of 95 miles per hour between Los Angeles and Chicago in forty five hours. A fifty three foot sea going container leaving Los Angeles could be in Chicago fifty hours later. A two-shift crew of four could handle each of these trains and their behemoth power without anything but the assistance of the on board computers and some radio equipment.

At one point in his life, Joe had found himself working for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway at their Hobart Yard in Los Angeles. He worked in the radio shop, and his primary function was to keep the voice radio systems in the locomotives, on track equipment, and maintenance of way vehicles operational. This job occasionally found him on the decks of various diesel electrics, monsters of their day. He was proud of his work aboard the equipment of a company that obviously took great pride in their motive power fleet. These locomotives comprised the "Super Fleet", new equipment painted in an historically significant paint scheme called the "war bonnet". Blazing red paint covered the nose and cab, rounding back and down to line the frame all the way back to the rear deck at the end of the long hood. The whole of the long hood was a bright silver, with huge letters in red saying either "ATSF" or "Santa Fe". The red and silver painted sections were separated by bands of black and yellow, and a stylized yellow cross with the traditional "Santa Fe" name in black was emblazoned on the nose. They were angular and handsome if massive machines, capable of 4400 horsepower each and 75 miles per hour top speed.

As a requirement of his work Joe had become well acquainted with the dispatch operations of the AT&SF. After a few months all the jargon on the radio started to make sense. "Track and Time" became something he worked with regularly as he installed and maintained the radio packages and electronic interfaces trackside that allowed the company to substitute a few radios for miles and miles of code wire. Occasionally he would have an opportunity to go with crews out on the line, working while they were under way. Or he might find himself on top of a locomotive, replacing an antenna while it sat idling on a spur track in a yard somewhere. Some days he would spend his entire shift at the diesel service facility, moving as the equipment moved to fix whatever was broken. Other times, when work was light, he might be up in the yard with the goat crews, making up or breaking up trains in the COFC/TOFC facility, just riding along with them. In this way, without actually being in the Operations Department, he became well acquainted with the right and proper way to run a railroad and operate the locomotives and equipment.

While he had moved on from the job with the AT&SF, he kept alive the flame in his heart for the art and lore of railroading, and would almost always stop whatever he was doing to watch a train go by. For this reason he was at first dumbfounded, and then absolutely tickled by the news that his then eighteen year old son had managed to nail a job as a stoker on one of the ancient, narrow gauge K-36 steam locomotives that ran over the Durango and Silverton. Whenever they got together it was all they seemed to want to talk about. Joe was looking forward to a cab ride on one of those K-36s some day soon.

The steam powered trains here in Colorado were all tourist related passenger trains now. No freight traffic of significance occurred. Four or five trains ran daily in season between Durango and Silverton and back, as they had been doing since the late 1950s. Shortly after his graduation from high school their son Chris had arrived and gone through stoker training, and was now an employee of the company. While the tourist season was drawing to a close, Chris was hoping to stay on as a "shop rat" in the locomotive service facilities for the winter, learning more about the locomotives he would be firing again early next spring. That hadn't been settled yet, hence the gathering in Durango to see who was going to go where.

Mike had taken a break from college to come up from California with Debbie, who was a junior in high school. Mike had been staying at home with Debbie in their parent's absence, and then had brought her for a visit when he came east. They were already at Chris' small apartment in Durango, as Annie had confirmed earlier that evening.

The wye at the west end of Silverton loomed in the headlights. It was just past eleven now, and there were few lights and no cars on the road. There was a gas station on their side of the road on the wye leading towards Durango. They pulled into the lot, although the station was closed, dark. While Annie looked to see if they were in a service area for her GSM phone, Joe selected another channel on one of the radios.

"No network." Annie stared at the phone. "It won't roam either." She looked up at him with a mixture of fondness and exasperation. "I love you, and I'm glad we stopped. But what do we do now?"

Referring to anything like a motel or hotel, Joe replied "Well, there's probably no place here that's still open. We can go up Main Street and see what's what, but I'd be real surprised if there's anything available around here. We can sleep in the truck tonight, or keep on movin' on..." He smiled. "I vote for the truck. You mentioned an unfinished conversation..." His paw found hers on the center console, their fingers interlaced.

"Try the radio, would you please? I want to let the kids know what we're doing." Reacting to the comedic startled look on his face, she elaborated "I mean letting them know where we are and that we'll be arriving in the morning, horn-dog." He continued to look into her eyes, unmoving, until she bent down and picked up one of the microphones and held it out to him.

"OK, OK," he said, smiling and squeezing her paw. He took the microphone from her, stole a quick kiss from her cheek, and turned to see which radio he had the microphone for. Seeing that it was, in fact, the one he needed (She knows this stuff! he thought happily), he disabled the scan function and assured that the radio was tuned to the right frequency. Keying the mic, he stated his call and then asked for his son Chris's. Hearing a confirmation of system access, he was assured that his call would reach Durango, but wondered if Chris was awake. Of his three children, only Chris had any interest in radio communications. GSM phones were easier and cheaper, the other two reasoned.

Joe tried several more times over the next ten minutes, and there was no answer to any of his calls. Both he and Annie were mildly concerned about this, but more from a courtesy standpoint than that of worrying about their children's welfare. They didn't want their kids worrying unnecessarily about them. "Well, Angel, what do you think? Onward and upward?" Joe looked around out the windows. "It sure looks dead here."

"Yes. Let's go on. They may be trying to call us on the phones. By the way, where's yours?"

Joe reached to a pocket inside his jacket and removed his GSM phone. Flipping it open, he held it out to her, showing her the illuminated display. It showed that no calls had been received and that there was no network available. Folding it up with a single flick of his paw, he returned it to his pocket, saying not a word.

Annie sat looking at him for a moment. "What are you thinking about?" she asked, sure she already knew.

"You. Us. Where we are. What I'd rather we were doing. Balancing that against what we ought to be doing." He looked at her, eyes sparkling in the instrument lights of the dash. "You are the most important thing in the world to me. I will do whatever you ask, just say the word."

She smiled at that, part of her thinking he was full of baloney, but another part, deep within her, knowing he meant every word. And she wanted to spend some more time with him, but she was also concerned that their kids would be up even now, worrying about them. As she pondered her decision one of the radios crackled to life, making it for her. She recognized her son Chris' voice in the speaker. Relief flooded her mind. Her husband raised the microphone he had still been holding up to his face, stated his call, and replied to their son's call.

"Hi son. We're OK, we're at the wye in Silverton. We were delayed on Red Mountain Pass." Joe unkeyed the mic as Annie, feeling playful now that her parental concerns were being alleviated, leaned towards him to tickle him slightly. She whispered "You were boinking, you bad dog!" in his ear and giggled softly.

"There's rain all the way down 550 to here, according to the TV weather, dad." They could both hear the concern in Chris's voice. "But no snow." Telemetry indicated Chris had ceased transmitting.

"That's good, thanks, son." Once again Joe unkeyed momentarily and asked his wife "Move on?" As she nodded, smiling, he keyed up once again, "We're going to keep on, we ought to be there before two."

"OK dad, be careful."

"Right Chris, see you in a while. We'll leave the radios and the phones on." Joe signed off with his call sign and hung up the microphone after his son had done the same.

"We'll finish that... conversation," Annie smiled laciviously, "...some other time?" She giggled, looking at him from beneath lowered eyelashes.

"You bet," her husband replied happily. She noted the trace of tiredness in his voice. It had been a long day for them, especially with all their distractions. She smiled, knowing she was her husband's biggest distraction. She didn't regret anything, but now was a little concerned about his time behind the wheel. "Do you want to stretch before we go on?" she asked.

"Nah, let's get going." Gearing up, Joe fed a little throttle and they rumbled up off the gas station's asphalt back onto the highway. A turn to the right and the grade commenced, a left hand switchback to the south and they were on their way, climbing up the shoulder of Sultan Mountain on their way toward Molas Divide.





To Chapter Ten: Down, Down.

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