Facing the Storm

"A Spearfish Lake Story"

a novel by
Wes Boyd
©2001, ©2009, ©2012

Chapter 7

Brandy had left Bolivia with not much more than a change of clothes and a few personal things in her carry-on. Somewhere above the Caribbean she had realized that she wasn’t even going to be able to make it from the terminal to a taxi in Anchorage the way she was dressed.

At her long layover in Miami earlier that evening, Brandy had made a few phone calls. One was to get some cash – she had only a few bucks on her, and part of that was in the Bolivian wallpaper, whatever they called it. Another phone call was to get a seat on an early morning flight from Seattle to Anchorage. She tried to get a flight on to Nome, but all the flights for the next few days were booked, probably because of the race. "Wait till you get up there," the agent had advised. "You might be able to get a standby."

One of her brighter moves had been to call Josh, who had the latest race standings up on his home computer. Phil was still ahead of Tiffany, but she’d closed the gap a little. In her hunger to get information about Phil, she somehow neglected to mention that she was calling from Miami, and not from Bolivia, but she had gotten one more important piece of information: Shelly Goodlock’s phone number.

Brandy hadn’t talked to Shelly since high school, but they’d been good pals then, and both had been on the softball team that had won the state championships over Camden St. Dismas back in another geological era. Brandy explained that she was in Miami, was going to be in Anchorage early the next morning, and since the warmest thing in her luggage was a second T-shirt, could Shelly maybe meet her at the airport with some decent Alaskan winter clothes?

It was something she’d once heard Tiffany’s dad Mike McMahon call the "Spearfish Lake Connection." He was the editor of the Spearfish Lake Record-Herald, and any number of times he’d needed some odd bit of information or assistance out of town, and had been able to get it from some former Spearfish Lake resident who still subscribed to the paper to keep up on what was going on back home. They might never have met Mike, but the old home town ties still gave them common ground. It wasn’t just restricted to Mike, either. The Spearfish Lake Connection was already working with Shelly – she had helped the Spearfish Lake mushers at the Anchorage end for five years, now, and Brandy was Phil’s girlfriend. Brandy figured it would work for her, too.

And, she was right. Mid-March is not the time of year you expect to see people walking through the terminal at Anchorage wearing cutoffs, a T-shirt and hiking boots, but Shelly met her with some flannel-lined jeans, a flannel shirt and a parka. It really wasn’t enough – Brandy had been used to 110 in the shade and no shade tree for a hundred miles – but it served for the terminal, anyway.

Unfortunately, the chances of a flight to Nome were still pretty slim, the ticket agent explained. The flights were pretty packed what with the race traffic, anyway, and then there had been a mechanical problem and a flight had been cancelled. They were a long way from catching up. There was no chance of a flight today, and maybe only a slight one, tomorrow. She got her name on the standby list anyway, but the last plane of the day that could take her to Nome came and went with the two of them still sitting in the terminal. She’d spent what was left of the day talking with Shelly, mostly talking out the frustrations of the last months. It helped to have someone to talk to; Brandy had needed that.

"Well, that’s that for today," Brandy said, trying to sound philosophical about it. "I guess I’d better see if I can find a room, somewhere."

"Oh, come on over to my place," Shelly told her. "We can get on the ’net and find out how Tiffany and Phil are doing, and we can stop and have a good dinner on the way. That way, we can maybe talk about old times, rather than recent times."

"Sounds good to me," Brandy agreed. They stopped along the way to get Brandy some even warmer clothes and insulated underwear; by now, although it was a nice late winter afternoon for Anchorage, it had become clear to both of them that she was going to have to dress even more warmly for Nome. They bought a duffel bag for Brandy to haul the heavy clothes in, and things like a toothbrush and toothpaste – Brandy hadn’t bothered with them when she’d left Bolivia.

They decided to go to Shelly’s house first, because it had been more than a day since Brandy had heard any kind of race results that got far enough down in the pack to discuss their mushers, and Josh had only given her a rather thumbnail description. But once they got Shelly’s computer going on the Iditarod site, the news was good – both Tiffany and Phil had apparently spent much of the night at Rohn Roadhouse, and were out of there heading for Nikolai. Tiffany had gotten out of Rohn a little more quickly than Phil, who was only a few minutes behind, in thirteenth! They must not have had too bad of a time going up the scary section to Rainy Pass, then down the Dalzell Gorge to Rohn to pick up maybe ten spots on the field from where they had been running the day before. The field was getting shaken out, now, and the two seemed to be going well.

After that there would be no going out to dinner. While Shelly threw something together, they kept her phone line tied up all evening, hitting the Iditarod site every few minutes for updates, wondering what was happening out on the trail. Finally, an update showed Tiffany and Phil in Nikolai. They’d lost a couple spots from their out-times from Rohn, but they’d been passed by Doug Swingley and Martin Buser, who had only left a few minutes after them. But, the next update showed that they had blown right through Nikolai, apparently planning a longer stop in McGrath. That was a place Brandy could have flown into, if there’d been room on the flight.

Well, there was going to be no catching them there. Brandy knew she’d have to do better tomorrow.

*   *   *

With breakfast over, Josh hopped into the Jeep and followed Bud back out to the railroad office, trying to get his mind to switch gears.

For over ten years, now, Josh had basically operated in two modes: winter, when dogsledding was primary, and he really didn’t spend a lot of time with the Camden and Spearfish Lake. In the summer, though, dogsledding was distinctly secondary, and his main efforts were directed toward his railroading job. That had started to fuzz a little the last few years, with the touring business and the store. Those really were supposed to be mostly Tiffany’s job, but Josh spent more time on them than he had expected. To fuzz things even more thoroughly, Tiffany had worked two seasons as a brakeman and still filled in when the schedules got tight.

If the pit runs were going to start early this year, then it meant a week less that Josh would have to transition into summer mode. Perhaps it was just as well that he’d come back early.

Bud had first hired Josh on as a brakeman while he was still in high school. He had been technically too young, but Bud had bent the rules a little; he’d needed help badly, and he knew Josh had a better grounding in railroading than most kids these days, what with his dad being the C&SL’s chief engineer. It had worked out so well that Bud had offered Josh the opportunity of going to diesel maintainer’s school after he graduated, with maybe a little engine service from time to time, and Josh had taken him up on it. But a shortage of train crews had put Josh into the engineer’s seat when he was only a year out of high school, and somewhere over the next few years, it had become clear that he was needed more badly there than with a wrench in his hand.

Bud’s basic idea had been sound, though, to get a kid right out of high school and train him up to the job. The year after Josh had started engine service, Bud had a cup of coffee with the auto shop teacher at the high school, following which he’d offered Marty Novato pretty much the same deal – except that Bud had wised up and not mentioned engine service to the kid. Working with the C&SL’s then semi-retired chief mechanic, Ed Sloat, Marty had turned into a much more talented diesel maintainer than Josh had ever expected to be – which suited Josh just fine, although when a big job came up, Josh still occasionally picked up a wrench and pitched in. In spite of everything, though, Josh still felt he was primarily a railroad engineer, even with the other demands on his time.

It was no surprise to Josh that Bud wanted to talk business at the office; after all, the coffee table at the Spearfish Lake Café was hardly the place for it.

"I know you’d really rather be back in Alaska," Bud said, sitting down behind his desk in the old railroad depot, while Josh grabbed a chair across the room. "But, things are getting going early, and they think they’ll be able to open the docks a week earlier than they planned. Both Big Pit and Kremmling are ready to go whenever the docks open. So, I guess it’s just as well you got back early."

"It’ll be good to be back to railroading," Josh said. "Diesel fuel is simpler than dog food."

"Yeah, but operationally, we’re going to be tight. There’s several problems. Nothing we can’t deal with, but if we’re getting started early, then we’ve got to get you up to speed."

"What’s that?"

"Well, the big thing is that Marty ran into more trouble than he expected with the 603. Nothing he can’t handle, but we’ve had trouble getting parts, and it’s just taking time. It’s probably going to be a month before we have it ready to go."

"Anything I can do?"

"Not really, at least right now. One thing led to another, and we’re going to do a full motor changeout on the front truck, and the replacements are still sitting in a yard down in Texas, tied up by a strike. There’s going to be a time after we get them in that he’s going to need help. If we’d known it was going to be that bad, I think I’d have farmed out the job, but we’ve got it too torn down, now. Shouldn’t be anything we can’t handle, but it will tie him up quite a bit."

"So, that means we’ll have to start the pit runs without an SD-40. We’ve done that before."

After years of fiddling around, the C&SL had evolved an operational pattern that was pretty stable. Each of the pits, Big Pit east of Walsenberg and Kremmling Pit south of it, ran a load of limestone a day. There was just time enough each weekday for one crew to leave Spearfish Lake, go to one of the pits, drop off empties and pick up a full load, take it to the docks at Camden, and bring the empties back to Spearfish Lake. Then, a second crew would take the same engines and do the same thing at the other pit at night. Usually the same SD-40s were used for both runs, but two at a time, changing one engine each day so the one left behind could have routine maintenance during daylight.

Mixed freight, which involved the paper plant job at Warsaw, was the third job. Because the Warsaw job had to exchange trains at Lordston, south of Kremmling, and switch the paper plant and a few other odd customers along the way, they couldn’t make the trip as fast as the pit runs, so they didn’t go all the way to Camden. The usual pattern was to leave Spearfish Lake, switch the paper plant, head down to the exchange with the full cars from the paper plant and anything else outgoing, exchange full toilet paper cars for empties and anything else coming onto the system. They’d drop the empties at the paper plant, and head south to Meeker, where they’d leave the rest of the stuff for Camden and pick up upbounds, tying up for the night at Spearfish Lake like the others.

That was when things went well. They often didn’t. Having one of the big SD-40s – which the train crews often referred to as "Studs" – down for service cut a lot of power out of one of the pit runs, which had to be made up with one of the much older GP-9s that usually ran the mixed freight. It wasn’t nearly as powerful as one of the 40s, but they could usually get away with it by walking the loaded rock train up out of the pit in two cuts and then crossing their fingers on some grades elsewhere. That left the mixed freight dependent on the other GP-9 and the railroad’s oldest active engine – 301, an even older GP-7, which had "The Rock" lettered on the side. The Rock was a much revered piece of machinery – the Warsaw Village Council had dibs on it if it was ever retired. The village planned for it to be placed in the village park, honoring its role in saving the town when a huge fire had burned out the old paper plant and much of the town back in the early days of the C&SL, twenty years before. Although The Rock was their oldest working engine, now mostly used for switching the yard at Spearfish Lake and a couple jobs around town, it was the C&SL’s only spare. It wasn’t as reliable as it had been in the days of the Warsaw fire, although no one was ready to send it to the village park yet.

In any case, the length of the runs made the scheduling a hassle, since a lot had to get done at night. There were three summer full-time engineers: Josh, Harry Anson, and Chris Lincoln. Anson had taken an early retirement from the D&O and only worked summers, taking the winter in Florida, and Josh preferred to have the winters off for the sake of dogsledding. That meant that Lincoln, the junior engineer, got to handle the mixed freight in the winter, with occasional help from Josh, Walt or Bud. In the summer, with three runs going, things were different. The problem there was that the runs were about ten hours long, which made for a long week with a fair amount of overtime paid out, so often, Bud, Walt, or Bruce or Diane Page would take a run every now and then to take up the slack.

"Sure, but what if one of the Geeps goes down?" Bud asked. "Then, it gets complicated in a hurry."

Josh shrugged. "We’ll make it work."

"The question is, can you make it work if I were to decide to duck out of here for a few weeks?" For practical purposes, the last couple years Josh had been the railroad’s chief engineer. There were still several people around who had more time running engines than Josh – his dad, for one, although his dad was retired, and only worked when he felt like it. Actually, John Penny down in Camden should have been the chief engineer, but the Camden job was pretty much a separate affair, mostly switching and doing pickups and deliveries around the north side of the city. Penny just wasn’t clued into the system in Spearfish Lake – he liked living down in Camden; he was more of a big-city guy than the rest of the C&SL’s people.

"We can fiddle the operational side around somehow. If you want to get away, then I say, do it. We’ll make do somehow, like I said. We did last year. Got any plans?"

Last summer had been tough around the C&SL. Not the railroading – that pretty much went OK, with only routine problems, but Bud hadn’t been around to deal with them, for he’d had problems of his own. Bud’s wife, Kate, hadn’t been fully well for years. The last few years she was always sickly, always in and out of the hospital. It turned out that Kate had cancer. Various drugs, including chemo, had managed to keep it in check for years, but last spring, just about this time, she’d taken a turn for the worse, and Bud just hadn’t had time for railroading. Gina Lawrence, the office manager, took over a lot of the office functions that Bud had been handling, and Josh, with some help from his dad, stepped up to handle the operational side. It had been a stopgap, but they’d made do with minimal assistance from Bud, who’d spent the months at his wife’s side.

"Yeah," Bud said. "I’d just as soon it didn’t get breezed around the coffee shops. It’ll probably get around anyway, but Jane and I are going to take her motor home and head for Florida for a few weeks."

Josh smiled inwardly. This wasn’t exactly unexpected.

No one at the C&SL had been fully aware that Kate had cancer until the final few months; Bud and Kate had kept it pretty quiet. About the only people who did know were their longtime friends, Harry and Jane Masterfield. The relationship went back to when they had been in elementary school, and they’d stayed close since, spending a lot of time together, taking vacations together, and the like. Kate and Jane had been even closer than the men had been, for Bud had never quite gotten into the firefighting that Harry had done since high school. But, they were both at Bud’s side through the long hospital ordeal, and it became common knowledge that Kate had asked Harry and Jane to take care of Bud when she was gone – which she was, in early June.

Bud was just getting himself put back together and starting to show up around work again when Harry Masterfield was diagnosed with cancer, as well. Unlike Kate, it went through him quickly. In three months, he was gone, too – but not until he’d extracted a promise from Bud to look after Jane.

It would have surprised exactly nobody for Bud and Jane to get together, but this was just a little sooner than Josh was expecting, which was probably why Bud didn’t want it noised about. "When are you planning on leaving?" he asked.

"It’s kind of loose," Bud replied. "But we definitely want to be back by the first of June. The campgrounds start getting a little full then, when the kids get out of school. And, it gets hot down in Florida even before then. I’d just as soon see us on the summer schedule before I leave, and I’d sort of hoped to have the 603 back together by then, but if we wait for that, things could get a little tight."

"Does Marty expect any more surprises, or can he handle what’s left on it?"

"Dunno," Bud shrugged. "If he expected anything, then it wouldn’t be a surprise. He can probably handle it, though. If he can’t, well, you’d just have to work something out or wait for me to get back. But remember, having him out braking means he’s not working on the engine."

Scheduling brakemen in the spring and fall was another problem. From May through August, they had a rotation of three college kids who handled the majority of the brakeman duties, along with Dave Ames, the regular brakeman who ran with Chris in the winter. Before they got out of college, and after they went back, finding a brakeman was sort of catch as catch can. Tiffany, who had been a summer brakeman for two years, often helped out in the spring and fall. There were a handful of other people who could be called on, including Frank Matson, the bank manager, who owned a chunk of railroad stock and liked to go out and play with the trains now and then. Marty could also be dragged away from the shop occasionally, if absolutely necessary.

"Tiffany can help out in the spring," Josh commented. "What with everything, she probably won’t be able to work forty hours, though. We need to get another brakeman, at least part time. I’m wondering if maybe we could grab one of the track crew."

"That’s a possibility," Bud conceded. "Leo would probably be my first choice. But I’ll have to talk to Roger about it. We want to get that rough section down by Blair fixed up this spring, and he’s not going to want to give up one of his guys. And, he wants at least an eight-hour block each day where he can have things torn up and not be expecting a train."

Josh frowned. "That’s going to take some juggling," he said, after sorting with the problem for a moment. "Even with shifting the schedule, we may not be able to do it if we have one of the Studs down."

"That’s what I figure," Bud agreed. "Anyway, I’ve had some ideas on it, but I want you to go play with it some and see if you can figure anything I haven’t thought of. We may not be able to do it, but I want to give it our best shot before we give up, and before I take off."

"Well, just off the top of my head, we’re pretty well locked in with the schedule on the pit runs. We can fiddle with the start times some, but there’s an eight-hour block there each day where neither of them have to use the track, if we do a little fiddling, and everything goes well," Josh said. "We’ll just have to fiddle with the schedule on the mixed load so it’s up at this end when that eight-hour block comes down."

"That was my first idea," Bud said. "There are some problems with that, like having to do some switching at night. The big problem is that you can just barely open up an eight-hour hole. If somebody runs late, well, there goes the hole, and Roger will just have to work around it. But, I’m wondering if there might be another approach, like maybe running an engine set between Blair and Camden, and working the rest up here."

"I dunno," Josh said. "I’ll have to look at it. The big problem there is that it’d mean the south set would have to run three round trips between Blair and Camden in sixteen hours. That means two crews."

"Not if we were to tack the traffic for the Camden onto the end of one of the rock trains, say, from here."

Josh thought for a minute. "Might work, but you can’t do any switching with a rock train, say at Albany River or Blair."

"There’s not that much traffic there," Bud said. "Maybe make up a short local run down there with the Rock, or just run the mixed down there once in a while."

"Well, let me play with it some," Josh said. "The thing of it is, we’ve got a good system that we know works, and it’s flexible enough to tweak it a little for something like this. If we start getting cute, we may not understand how to get back on schedule if something starts to go wrong. This sort of strikes me as an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’"

"We’ve got a few days," Bud said. "Like I said, I don’t want to leave here until we’ve had the summer schedule up and running for a bit. When I get back, I may just let you keep doing most of the operational scheduling. You’ve got a feel for it, and as time goes on, I want to work you a little more into the management time, even if it cuts down on your road time."

"Why’s that, Bud?"

"Well, for one thing, I ain’t getting any younger," Bud said. "I’ve begun to realize that we need someone who can step in if something happens to me. Gina can handle a lot of the routine business, but someone needs to be able to handle operations. Not just crew scheduling, but the other stuff, like overseeing maintenance and track repair. For a couple reasons, you’re the obvious person."

"If you need me to, I will," Josh said. "But aren’t you being a little pessimistic?"

Bud shook his head. "Not after what happened to Kate and Harry, I’m not," he said, then smiled, "Besides, if this trip works out, Jane and I may just decide to take off with the motor home again."

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