Facing the Storm

"A Spearfish Lake Story"

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

Part VI: Road Trips

Chapter 22

With the coming of the month of May, the personnel situation around the C&SL eased a lot. In the last days of April, the summer brakemen had begun to show up, home from college. There were three of them, and Josh was glad to see them. It meant that Leo could go back to track work, where Roger had become increasingly anxious to have him there. Leo wasn’t that great of a brakeman, but there really wasn’t that much brakeman work to do on the rock trains, so it had worked out.

More importantly, it meant that Tiffany could quit braking entirely and spend full time at the store. Trying to handle the store while running a rock train five nights a week had been a terrible stress on both of them, and things had been getting a little tense up in the cab of the SDs before they were through.

Jennifer was right, after all, they had conceded as one long, dull night run followed another. They were trying to do too much, and it was taking too much out of them. They had to find some way to get a handle on it, and having Tiffany braking along with everything else was just too much, and Josh determined that he wouldn’t call on her again unless it was a real emergency. It wasn’t the solution to the problem, but having her braking had just made it a lot worse.

The continual night runs had worn them down, too. It was for practical intents and purposes all night, five nights a week. At least, those days were behind them. With three crews and three jobs, the engineers rotated through each job on a weekly basis. One week of nights out of three just made for a pleasant change, not drudgery.

Anson had showed up from Florida, a little grumpy at having to get back to work, and informed Bud that while he didn’t mind the occasional night run, there was no way he was going to be working five days or nights a week. Josh had never warmed to the former D&O engineer, but at least conceded he knew his stuff. He was retired, after all, and wanted to do something besides a fifty-plus-hour week. Fortunately, Josh’s dad had once again stepped into the gap, promising to spell Anson a run or two each week, and that seemed to satisfy him. Josh still wasn’t that happy about having his dad out all night on the rock trains – he was getting on up there, after all – but if it got to be too much, they could switch day and night jobs. It’d be a little tough on his sleep patterns, but he figured he could handle it when he had to.

So, it was nice to be rolling the way-freight out of the yard at Spearfish Lake early on this fine Thursday morning of the first week of May. The way-freight used the older GP-9s, and Josh hadn’t run them for a while, but he’d had plenty of time at their throttles over the years, and anything he may have forgotten had come back to him in the last three days. The cabs were a little smaller and grubbier than the SDs, and were less well insulated against the noise, so Josh understood why Chris preferred to take a single stud for switching in the winter months, rather than the pair of Geeps. But, the change was good.

"Well, we’re off to see the wizard," Josh said to Dave Ames, the brakeman, as he settled into the seat beside him after throwing the last switch coming out of the yard. "We’ve got a pretty good switch list today, I see."

"Yeah, even four cars into Hoselton," Dave agreed. "Gonna be humpin’ today."

With the exception of Herm Myers, who had braked with John Penny down on the Camden job for years, Dave was the best brakeman the Camden and Spearfish Lake Railroad had. He was a fairly sharp kid who’d graduated from Spearfish Lake High School a few years before, and who, unlike most kids, didn’t want to head off to the big city and bright lights. He was a hunter and a fisherman, rode ATVs and did other outdoor stuff that he wouldn’t be able to do working in some factory in some city, somewhere. He figured he was lucky to get a good, solid outdoor job year around in the Spearfish Lake area that didn’t involve cutting pulpwood, and Josh figured they were lucky to have him.

Unfortunately, Dave sort of got the short end of the stick on work. The college-kid summer brakemen were all right so long as the job didn’t entail much more than pulling a couple of uncouplers on one of the rock trains and shifting an EOT, the end-of-train indicating device that replaced the caboose, but real switching with them could get to be an adventure, since they didn’t know the moves and tricks. They had to be talked through every move, and then things had to be done slowly. Taking one of the college kids on the way-freight on a run like they were facing today would have meant going right up against the hours-of-service limit, and if that happened, it’d screw up the schedule for the whole week. But Dave knew the moves, and how to be an efficient brakeman. He’d worked with all the engineers, who had all taught him the tricks of the trade, and he’d even gone to post-grad school, working with John Penny for a while, filling in while Herm took a long vacation. John routinely used switching moves that were only rarely employed elsewhere on the railroad, and it had been a worthwhile learning experience.

But, that meant Dave got stuck with the way-freight, every trip, while at least the engineers could rotate the jobs. It did mean he worked days all the time, and he didn’t seem to mind.

"So, how’s the fishing been?" Josh asked over the cab noise of the GP-9.

"Been a little slow," Dave said. "I took the bass boat around the back side of the point last night after we got in and caught a couple nice ones, but I thought my arm was going to fall off from all the casting."

"You know, I ought to go out with you, some time," Josh said, reflecting that he hardly ever heard a fisherman describe any fishing as anything but slow. It was just their nature to complain, he guessed. "I’m always so damn busy with the dogs, I never seem to have much time to do any fishing."

"Yeah, I know about busy," Dave said. "Sure would like to get away for a while, but I guess not this summer. Gonna be too busy here."

"Yeah, that’s how it is," Josh said. "I guess we could juggle around a day or two if you really needed to get away. Maybe after Bud gets back, he could run the engine and I could get on the ground."

"It’d be nice to get away for a couple weeks," the brakeman replied. "I heard about this lake up in Canada where the pike fishing is out of this world."

"I don’t know," Josh said. "I could bounce it off Bud when he gets back, but that’ll be a month, anyway."

"He sure didn’t waste any time getting out of here once Anson showed up, did he?"

"I think Jane and him were on the road in that motor home within the hour," Josh smiled. "He’d really been itching to get away. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do it again, some day."

"If he wants to, that’s fine with me," Dave conceded. "He deserves the break."

"Well, you do, too," Josh said. "I’ll see if I can’t figure something."

What they really needed was another brakeman, a real one, not a college kid, Josh thought. Josh could fill in as a brakeman in a pinch, but he hadn’t done serious switching on the ground in a while, and probably never had been as good at it as Dave was. What made it worse was that Dave probably was going to be the next guy raised to engine service, at least for the summers, especially if Anson got too grumpy, and who knew when that might happen. They’d need a halfway decent brakeman if that happened. It was something he’d thought about more than once, but had never gotten around to raising the issue with Bud. Worse, they were going to be losing two college kids next year to graduation, and that’d put a bind on them, as well. They probably ought to be doing something about that this summer, rather than waiting until next spring.

"Does Chris let you drive much?" Josh asked.

"A fair amount," Dave conceded. "He says he figures I need to know how."

"Tell you what," Josh said. "Why don’t you run this thing today? I’ll get on the ground. I need the practice and could use the exercise. I’m getting a sore butt from sitting too much, anyway. If we get too far behind, we can switch back."

"Works for me," Dave agreed, handing him the switch list.

*   *   *

Although Brandy and every other Front Range Technical Services field employee usually referred to the home office as "Denver," the office was actually in a low business building on the side of a hill in Golden, west of the city. The board room and executive offices had a tremendous view of the distant mountains for which the company was named, but the data processing rooms were windowless. That was fine, as far as Phil was concerned; he and Brandy hadn’t come to "Denver" for the view.

"You have to understand that this software runs slower on this laptop than it does on the desktop I developed it on," he said while the progress bar crept across the screen as the little computer on the desk in front of Brandy chewed through the Rhodesian site data. "But this will give you the general picture."

"This is just a demo, right?" Moorehead asked. "How much of the site data are you using?"

"It’s a demonstration, yes," Phil said, quite businesslike. He was dressed up, for him; he hadn’t worn a tie since he left Hadley-Monroe, and wouldn’t do it now. "But, it’s the whole data package. One hundred percent."

The laptop wasn’t the hotrod that sat in the office at home, but it was a pretty good computer. Phil had bought the fastest one Mark had in the Marlin.com computer store, and had spent some time flushing Windows out of it, loading Linux and getting it running, just for this presentation. And, it was doing pretty good. Phil glanced at his watch and at the progress bar, and realized it was still going to chew through the data dump in a little over two minutes, which was nothing to sneeze at.

Bill Herron was the president of Front Range Technical Services, but like Brandy was a partner, too. "Brandy, how long would it take you to run this data on the old software?" he asked.

"I didn’t keep an exact record," she said. "But on the desktop, which is a lot better computer than the ones in the data trailers, it took something over sixty hours."

"Impressive," Herron said with a smile. Several people stood in the circle with him, looking over Brandy’s shoulder at the screen of the little laptop. Some were data technicians, some were other partners, but there wasn’t much being said, for everyone knew what a big job the magres analysis was, and the little computer was clearly ripping through it in a flash.

Brandy had gotten over some of the awe of how fast the program worked, but it was still impressive to her. In the past few days while they had waited for Moorehead to get back from a tour of the operating sites, Phil had cleaned up the screen presentation and done a couple of other things to improve the filters on the display functions. As soon as the progress bar clicked off and the computer gave an unimpressive beep, Brandy brought up the 3-D display function. "It looks a lot better on a bigger screen," she said, rotating the field to zero in on the ore deposit southeast of the prime point, then zoomed in to show more detail, "But you get the picture. This is clearly a good deposit, and it extends past the detection range."

"Holy shit," Moorehead breathed. "Would you look at that." There were murmurs from the crowd clustered around the computer.

Brandy brought up another display, which showed a broad splotch of green. "This looks south from prime," she explained. "And, you see they’ve got something there."

"I can see," Moorehead nodded. "This will run on a Unix mainframe, right?"

"I haven’t actually tried it, but that’s what it’s designed to do," Phil said. "It might not be the best bet, because it runs fast enough on this machine that I think it wouldn't be worth even feeding into a mainframe. Just do it on the Linux desktop."

"We should go back over old data, just to see what we’ve missed," Herron said. "This is really something. Brandy, this is going to save us millions."

"At least," Phil said. "Plus, you’ll be able to do a lot more, hit more sites." He smiled; he hadn’t told Brandy what was coming next – it was going to be as much a surprise to her, as it was to anyone. "However, before you can use it, there are some licensing issues to discuss."

"Licensing issues?" Herron frowned. "But Brandy is a partner."

"But, I’m not," Phil said. "And, this is my software, not hers. Do you want to discuss this here, or should we step into the board room, or something?"

"Don’t think you can hold us up for millions," Herron said. "You’ve proved that we need a software upgrade, but there are plenty of people around that can write software."

"That’s true," Phil smiled. "But anyone you bring in is going to have to spend a heck of a long time just figuring out what the magres does and how it works, and then how to interpret it. And, to make it run that fast, they’re going to have to find and then adapt some pretty esoteric algorithms that usually are used for other purposes. That could take months by itself, not to mention the price you’d have to pay for a development team. All the while, you’d know that there’s this piece of software sitting there that’s already able to do the job. How much is that going to cost you? Gentlemen, I’m offering you a bargain. You can come to an agreement, and I can plug a line into a data port and you can be running in ten minutes. Or, you can wait a year, or maybe two, and maybe not come up with something that’ll work like this. Which way do you want it?"

"Troy, Dave, Bruce, we’ve got to talk," Herron said. "Brandy, since you’re a partner, technically, you should be in on this, but maybe it’d be best if you gave this one a pass."

"I don’t mind," Brandy said, a little upset at the surprise hammerlock Phil had just applied on the Front Range management. She watched the four men go over into a corner of the room; there was some low talk. "Phil, what are you doing?" she whispered in his ear.

"Just a little business," he said, voice so low that only she could hear. "Hell, I’d give them the software. Think of this as punitive damages for being so damn dumb not to think about upgrades themselves."

Herron walked back over. "Would you accept two million over five years, with an exclusive clause?"

Phil closed his eyes, and let out a deep breath. It was pure acting, just to leave Herron on edge for a moment. "I don’t know," he said finally. "How about four?"

"Three," Herron frowned.

"Oh, hell, what’s a million among friends?" Phil said. "You got a deal. I suppose we ought to get a lawyer and sign some papers before I make the data transfer."

*   *   *

Josh lounged back in the brakeman’s seat while Dave ran the train down from Warsaw. They were pushing four empty log flats they’d run around behind up at Warsaw, since they’d have to push them into the facing-point Hoselton siding. If they’d been running a little behind, Josh might have been willing to run the engines and have Dave get on the ground for a flying switch, but Josh wasn’t sure he wanted to try one himself at this point. It’d been too long since he’d done one on the ground, and there wasn’t a need to make the risky move. Dave had apparently agreed, without asking; he’d just set up the runaround at Warsaw without discussion.

He’d done a good job of running the switching today. Everything had worked well, and they were running about where they ought to be. That left little doubt in Josh’s mind – Dave was ready for engine service, any time he was needed. Maybe when Bud got back, he’d brake, and have Bud ride in the cab with Dave in charge, more to prove to Bud that he was ready than anything else. Josh had suspected he was ready, but putting him in the engineers seat gave him a chance to see it, which is what he’d intended.

The seniority issue was a little tricky, Josh knew, and would have some effects. He was the senior regular engineer on the Spearfish Lake roster – his dad, being retired but filling in, didn’t count, and Bud considered himself a fill-in and had for years. Technically, if Josh decided that he wanted to run winters, he could bump Chris down to braking in the winter, and that would leave Dave on unemployment. But, he’d decided years ago that he wouldn’t run winters, except if a special occasion arose; that gave him time to run dogs. He figured that even if he gave up dogs, he might still take winters off. But, if Bud wanted him to put more time in the office, then that might change things a bit.

The problem was that if they brought a new brakeman on for the summers, and put Dave on engines, Dave’s seniority would mean that he’d have to go back to braking in the winters, and the new guy would be on unemployment. While there technically was nothing wrong with that, it did mean that the new guy might not come back in the spring, and any time or expense spent on training him would be shot in the butt. Worse, Chris was young, younger even than Josh, and unless someone quit, the new guy would be seasonal for years, until someone else retired.

Josh picked at the problem for a bit. Clearly, something was going to have to get done, soon; the Anson issue could blow at any time. He heard Dave back off the throttle and looked up; Hoselton was coming up. It was time to quit woolgathering and do some work.

With the empty log flats in front of the engines, there really wasn’t a big deal to the switching move; it was one of the simpler ones today. Dave brought the train to a stop, and Josh jumped down to the roadbed and ran forward four car lengths and threw the switch to the siding. While he had a radio, he didn’t bother to use it; he just waved Dave ahead. As the last car came by, Josh hopped up on the step of the engine and held onto a grabiron while Dave pushed the cars down to the end of the siding, then dropped a little engine brake to stop from the creeping pace. Josh yanked the uncoupling lever, then rode the step back up to the switch as Dave backed the train out. Josh hopped off, threw the switch, and climbed back up on the engine as Dave brought the train back by. It was an easy move, but Dave had done it carefully; it was all too easy to get carried away and bang the cars up against the stops – not that it would matter with empty log flats, but if it was a car loaded with something delicate, it could well matter.

"Well, that’s the worst of it for today," Josh commented, looking at the switch list. "Nothing for Spearfish Lake, as far as I can see. Just make the exchange at Meeker, and then pick up a couple at Albany River on the way back."

"That’s what I figured," Dave agreed. He’d been monitoring the switch list, too, just like he should have been if he’d actually been in charge of the train. No doubt, he was ready. "Sure am gonna hate havin’ to do this at night."

"Yeah, me too," Josh agreed. "We’ve got another week, yet. But maybe it isn’t going to be that bad. Roger thinks maybe he can be done with the tearup in a month if he keeps working around the edges."

"Beats the livin’ hell out of all summer, like he was talking back last winter," Dave snorted.

Josh checked the time. They were doing OK. They’d left before Beepit, but the rock train had gotten up to the quarry and gotten its load while they were heading down to Lordston, and was now in front of them.

"Not running fast enough to stop for lunch," Josh commented. They had to make the exchange in Meeker while Beepit went on down to Camden and be running well ahead of the rock train on the way back to allow time for the switching at Albany River. Sometimes, they could stop at the Spearfish Lake Café for a sit-down lunch, but with the Albany River switching, there wasn’t quite enough time to be comfortable today.

But that was the normal case, and they had the normal plan. There was a radio in the cab of the GP-9, and if they called the office once they got across the Spearfish River bridge, the office would call the café and the daytime waitress would have a takeout order ready for them. Most days, she or someone would be waiting right by the tracks to hand it up to them. "Yep, guess it’s hamburgers again," Dave agreed as he got the way freight up to schedule speed. "Darn, hot roast beef’s on special today, but that’s too messy to eat in the cab."

"Yeah," Josh agreed. "They do make it pretty good, too."

They rolled on down through the Spearfish River swamps, across the trestle, and up the long grade onto the pine barrens where Josh had his deer stand. Josh was just reaching for the microphone when they heard Gina calling from the office; "Peddler, this is Spearfish Lake. Do you read?"

"This is Peddler. Go ahead," Josh said into the microphone. "What’s up?"

"Just thought you ought to know," Gina said. "I just got a call that the Rakestraw kid piled up his car last night, and he’s not going to be able to work for a few days. I already called in the Mobley kid to run Keyhole."

"Roger that," Josh replied. "What happened? Is he going to be OK?"

"It’s going to be a few days," she replied. "He smashed a deer, and it came through the windshield."

"Well, tell the Mobley kid he’s going to have to run Keyhole tomorrow night, too, and then Beepit all next week," Josh said with a sigh. "Call Beepit and tell the Davis kid that he’s going to have to be five days till further notice."

"Already did," Gina said. "You guys want lunch?"

"Jumbo burger basket for both of us, with cokes," Josh replied. "If it’s not the usual $4.19, call us back."

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