Snowplow Extra
Chapter 7

Copyright© 2010 by Wes Boyd

2138 1/8 - 0156 1/9: Plow Extra One

For the third time in less than a day, Plow Extra One headed eastbound, again with John Penny in the plow's cupola and with Bud at the controls of the Rock. The storm hadn't let up any; in fact, with the wind shifting, Bud thought it might have been worse.

Behind the Rock was the Milwaukee, with its throttle wide open as soon as the state road crossing had been cleared. Bud could guess that Frank was already watching over it, and that Walt was curled up asleep in the corner of the NW2's cab. "Another rule shot to hell," he thought. "Probably won't be the last time before this is over, either."

The Burlington was still sitting in the engine shed in Spearfish Lake. It was showing signs of life, according to Sloat, but there was no way it was ready to make the trip. Maybe next time, he hoped. Bud would desperately have liked to have been taking the Burlington on this trip instead of the Milwaukee. That would have allowed Walt a chance to get several good hours of sleep, and then maybe Walt could have spelled him on the next trip, sick as he was.

There certainly would be a next trip. Blair hadn't shown up by the time they had left. Bud had been sorely tempted to wait for them; it would have allowed time for rest that the train crew sorely needed. But, there was no telling how long the wait might be, and besides, the Albany River department that sat on Plow Extra one's flatcars would be useful in Warsaw right away. Besides, Linder had seemed anxious about getting a "scram train" up there.

Even though they were on their way, Bud was still troubled by the decision. Wouldn't it have been better to wait? With the plow on front and both engines pulling, power to punch through the drifts wasn't a problem eastbound.

It was pointless to worry about it, Bud knew as he munched on the hamburger that had come from Rick's at the last minute. Plow Extra One headed out across the Spearfish River swamp, and the going was easy just now. Even though Bud was so tired he could barely hold his eyes open, he felt content with himself.

The relay of front loader drivers had finally managed to get the bin at Northern Fertilizer empty of the dangerous ammonium nitrate, which now lay in a huge white pile by the south door of the plant; Halsey could now begin the loading of the hopper cars. The elevator had been set up under the first hopper car long before, and the plant manager had the elevator running even as the crew was getting the bin boards back in place. The elevator made a racket that could be heard even over the roar of the storm, but it was obvious to everyone that nothing was falling into the now-empty bin.

Halsey went outside to the hopper cars. In the light of his flashlight he quickly noted that the gate at the bottom of the car was open, but that there was nothing coming out of it. He ducked under the car and felt around inside the gate, grabbing a handful of fertilizer. It didn't even take the light of his flashlight to confirm his suspicions, but he checked to be sure. "Goddamn DAP!" he swore to the wind.

Back at the south end of the building, he called to one of his drivers. "That goddamn car is loaded with 18-46-0. I didn't even think to check it!"

"Well, shit!" Roberts replied. "I'll go get a sledge and a wrecking bar."

The car had sat on the siding most of the winter loaded with di-ammonium phospate. DAP cakes up when exposed to moisture, and this car held three big cakes of solid fertilizer. Probably the other car did, too, Halsey guessed now that he'd thought about it. It could be gotten out, after a fashion, but it would be a long job of poking and prying at the stuff through the narrow gate at the bottom of the hopper car, interspersed at intervals with beating on the side of the car with a sledge hammer to break up the fertilizer cake in the hopper bin.

It would take hours longer than he had expected. Halsey knew that he'd have to tell Fred Linder about it.

Bruce Marshall was again prowling all over the paper plant. The lights were on in there, and there was a flurry of activity that hadn't died out since the morning before. His mind was in a turmoil of exhaustion and suspicion.

Marshall's discussion with Fred Linder over at the school hadn't helped a bit. If anything, he was even more suspicious, but he couldn't make himself believe his suspicions were true. "Those dumb sons of bitches may be heartless, but they aren't crooked," he thought.

But was there a chance that someone from the main office might have thought of torching the place?

Marshall knew that they wanted the plant closed, but he couldn't believe that anyone in the main office would want it closed that bad. Burning the place would surely close it, of course, but it would mean that someone was risking jail, not to mention lawsuits that could easily exceed the value of the plant.

After all, starting a fire in the warehouse instead of the main plant kind of missed the point. But then, a fire starting in the warehouse and getting away from the inadequate local fire department wouldn't seem very suspicious. If the fire had been intentionally set at the outset of a major storm, it wouldn't be surprising if it got away from the handful of firefighters in Warsaw. But then, Marshall couldn't concieve of a Warsaw local setting the fire; besides, the town had already been snowed in when the fire started, and a stranded outsider would have been noticed by now. But that didn't mean anything, either. Money could pry open a lot of doors, and besides, there were a lot of snowmobiles running around the country. Even in this weather, an arsonist on a snowmobile could be far away when a fire was discovered.

But then, but then, but then...

No, there was no way of telling at this time. Linder had been right in that. If Marshall could know that the fire had been set, he'd have the groundings for his suspicions. If he could know that the fire was accidental, he'd feel relieved, and a bit embarrased at himself. Without any way of knowing, all he could do was worry -- and continue roaming the old building, trying to do his best to make the mythical (?) arsonist's efforts a waste.

"Bud, we've got a problem here."

It was Walt's voice on the VHF. Walt must not have been asleep after all. Bud picked up the mike and replied, "Say again, Walt."

"We've got a problem. This thing isn't putting out like it's supposed to."

Bud looked at his own gauges. Sure enough, the speed was dropping and the load meter was increasing, even though the Rock was performing normally. True, the snow might be getting worse, but Penny hadn't commented on it recently. They were up on the plains past the swamp, past the trestle over the Spearfish River. It wasn't that far to Warsaw, now.

"You got any idea what it is?"

"It's got to be something electrical. The diesel's doing fine. I was asleep when it happened, but Frank said the load meter dropped just like that. Just from the way it's running and from what I can get off the panel, I can't help but think that maybe two traction motors are completely dead. Both motors off the line. And, I've kind of got a hunch that they're both on the front truck."

This mystified Bud, as it was obviously mistifying the far more experienced Walt. The symptoms seemed to rule out shorting of the traction motors from the wetness. Bud would have thought that would have been gradual, and besides, why would both traction motors on the same truck crap out at once? At this point, that could argue against a traction motor problem.

"Well, give me all you've got," Bud told the other engineer. "It's not that far to Warsaw. Maybe we can get into the Milwaukee there and figure it out.

Bud tried to think while he drove the Rock through the drifting snow. The third run to Warsaw in this storm, and two engines out of the three that he had available were sick, now. This was bound to change things, but he didn't know how. He felt glad he'd called for help, but what would he do next?

One possibility was to return to Spearfish Lake after they got to Warsaw, with the NW2 dead in train, and most of the load left behind. They'd talked about doing something like that to give one of the engineers a rest, and now they'd have to do it, anyway. Maybe by the time they got back to Spearfish Lake the Burlinton might be running again, and then Sloat could see what he could do with the Milwaukee.

Bud's grappling with the problem was interrupted by Betty's voice on the VHF; up on the flats, now, they could still reach Spearfish Lake. "What's up, Betty?" he asked.

"Ralph called a few minutes ago, but you were out of range," she said. "He'd like you to call him back as soon as you can. Do you think you can find a phone in Warsaw?"

"Did he say what he wanted?"

"Sorry, Bud, he didn't. He just said it was important and he had to get back to work."

"All right, I'll try to find a phone," he replied. "Is Blair there yet?"

"Not yet, but Sheriff Upton just called and..." her voice faded into a garbled something, and then the air went dead. The radio skips were even freakier than normal in this storm, Bud guessed, then fell to wondering what McPhee wanted. Either bad news, or a decision from him. Probably more bad news, Bud guessed. It was nice to have hoped for help from the outside, but he knew that he couldn't depend on it. Now, if the Rock could avoid giving him any bad news...

Fred Linder was as tired as anyone. More tired, maybe. Everyone in Warsaw was tired, but even considering the gravity of this fire to the town, there wasn't anyone else that had quite the weight on him that the fire chief had.

Possibly another six hours to get that multiply-dammed ammonium nitrate out of Northern Fertlizer! They ought to be done loading those hopper cars by now, and they hadn't even started!

True, Linder hadn't helped progress there by taking away the critical front-loader for most of the afternoon, but whatever time it took, the stuff had to be gotten out of town or he could have a real mess on his hands.

Linder offered Halsey some spare hands to fight with the caked-up DAP in the hopper cars, but the plant manager said that there would be little for the extra hands to do. The available equipment could only handle the material so fast, and it was going just as hard as it could go. More people would just get in the way. They wouldn't speed things up, and they might well slow things down.

Linder agreed, realizing that he was getting a bit leery of the fertilizer plant. How many more unpleasant surprises could it produce? He'd have to keep a closer eye on it.

For hours now, Fred had been everywhere. His snowmobile showed up at the school to check on things there, then over to the railroad track. Then, he'd go to the warehouse fire, where he wondered just how long the steel building could hold out, then around the burning hopper cars to the pulp yard fire. Amazingly, Spearfish Lake and the tag ends of Warsaw people and Hoselton people had been able to hold on, and were still keeping the fire out of Yard 4, in spite of all the wind. Linder couldn't see how they'd be able to hold out much longer, in spite of the fact that Yard 4 was mostly an icy swamp from all the water that had been dumped there to fireproof the yard; if a fire got to going there, the place would dry out quickly.

The snowmobile might snow up at the Warsaw Oil Company, where the manager mostly worried about thousands of gallons of gasoline, propane, diesel oil and fuel oil. There wasn't much that could be done there but hope that the fire wouldn't get that far. No embers were going to light those tanks off; it would take a solid blaze and a hot one at that. But, if things went wrong, it could be as bad as anything the ammonium nitrate at the fertilizer plant could produce.

Perhaps Linder's snowmobile might show up next at the fire hall, where a couple of Warsaw garage mechanics worked at continually filling the face mask tanks. Fortunately, the fire hall had managed to stay just out of the toxic smoke all afternoon, and now that the wind had shifted the firemen in Warsaw could be assured of clean air to breathe if the tanks could be filled fast enough. With all the air that was being used, the compressors were falling behind, and the departments were getting to the bottoms of their reserves.

From there, Linder would head on to the next trouble spot, and therre was trouble all over. Occasionally, he would have to stop for gas for the snowmobile; at one of these stops, he noticed the time.

The four hours that Ellsberg had given him were almost up! The train was due back any minute now, and he hadn't even thought about the scram train he'd asked for earlier. Once he got the gas tank filled, he sat down without starting the snowmobile's engine. He needed to think this one out.

They were going to be screwing around with that ammonium nitrate outside. If an ember should happen to land in it while they were working with it, there'd be a hell of a mess. Among other things, the main plant would be surrounded, and there'd be a damn good chance that the oil company could go, too. But, an ember could come from anywhere, and go anywhere. The wind could shift again, this time back to the east, and set the town itself on fire. In this wind, with the people that he had available, it was possible that a fire could rip clear through town.

There was no point in thinking further along that depressing line. Given a little time, he could think of a dozen ways that things could go wrong where the only option open would be to run like hell. There were enough pieces of fire equipment in town for the firemen to run in, and Linder had made sure that the roads were kept plowed to the south, east, and north, so there would at least be an "away" to run to if they had to run away. But, there were a lot of civilians in town that might be running on foot if they had to run.

Linder wanted to have the scram train, but Ellsbrg had said that it was a choice between what he could haul in and what he could haul out. Was there that much to haul in? The last time that Linder had talked on the phone to Joe Upton, he'd been told that Albany River was coming on this trip, but even Blair hadn't made it. Even if the railroad managed to accumulate three or four fire departments to haul in, would everything they had be necessary? Obviously not. Walsenberg and Spearfish Lake had brought everything but the kitchen sink, and Linder wasn't so sure that Spearfish Lake hadn't thrown that in, too. Granted, the ambulances and rescue vehicles and tool trucks were nice to have around, but were they necessary? Not really. If there were a lot of units to haul in on a single trip, the railroad could just bring the major units -- pumpers, maybe tankers, too -- and leave all the secondary stuff in Spearfish Lake for later. Reserve men might be more important than reserve units, anyway. Sure as hell, though, Linder knew that if he'd decide to leave, say, ambulances behind he'd need every one of them he could get his hands on shortly afterward.

"Better get a move on," he said to himself. As he rode through the storm to check on the progress of the DAP at the fertilzer plant, Linder realized that the scram train represented the lesser of the two evils. Limiting the inward loads might not hurt that much.

Besides, there were other advantages to having the scram train. It could solve the problem of the rest center. If the wind shifted to blow them out of the school or the VFW hall, it couldn't blow them out of the train. The train could move out of trouble, no matter which way the wind shifted.

When he pulled up to the fertilizer plant, the clincher came to him. As soon as they had even one car of ammonium nitrate loaded, the scram train's engine could get it out of danger. Maybe down to Hoselteon, or even just upwind of the fire.

So be it. He had his decision. Now, where was the train?

"You stupid son of a bitch! You want everybody in town to think we're chickening out?" Sprague muttered a few more obscenities in response to Linder's idea.

"That stupid son of a bitch, himself," Linder thought. "He really wants to cut his own throat, and all he wants to do is show his balls."

Well, he'd try to be diplomatic. "We're not chickening out, he told the Walsenberg chief, who showed no sign of listening. "We're trying to build a bridge that won't burn before we cross it. I don't plan to run. This is my town."

Sprague stomped off into the storm, muttering, "Stupid son of a bitch wants to show the world he's chickening out."

"I'm glad Spearfish Lake is here," Linder thought. "But why did we even call Walsenberg?"

Once again, the Rock's air horn reminded the people in Warsaw that they weren't entirely cut off from the rest of the world. Bridges might be out, and roads might be totally impassable in the snow, but as the clock reached midnight, the railroad had made it through again, bringing contact -- and assistance -- from elsewhere.

Frank Matson had barely climbed down from the cab of the Milwaukee to make the first cut when the fire chief's green snowmobile raced up to the Rock. Up in the cab, Linder greeted Bud: "It's always good to see this rig of yours. You got everybody down to Spearfish Lake all right?"

"More than that," Bud smiled. "We even got there with more people than we left with."

"So she had it on the way, huh? Boy or girl?" Linder was almost as proud as if he were the father himself; everyone in the Warsaw Volunteer Fire Department was almost like family to him.

"I heard it was a boy. I wasn't really paying a lot of attention." The radio squawked with Penny's voice, saying that the switch was thrown for the move ahead; it was followed by Matson's word that the first cut had been made. Bud increased the throttle a notch, hit the whistle, and asked Linder, "How are things going up here?"

"About the same. No better and no worse. If the goddamn wind would quit, I'm beginning to think we could lick this thing where it sits. With the wind blowing like hell, it could get away from us at any time."

"You got those hoppers ready to go?"

"Hell, no. The way they're screwing around over there, they're barely started at them. I want to talk to you about that, anyway. We'll keep the standby train here, like we talked about the last time. When they get a car loaded, we can get it the hell out of there, even if it's just over to Hoselton or even onto the tracks upwind of the fire."

Bud wondered how to give the bad news to the harried fire chief. Might as well give it to him straight, he thought. "I hate to tell you this, Fred, but we're not going to be able to leave an engine here. The switcher there" -- Bud pointed to the Milwaukee -- "got sick on the way up here. It's only running on half power. We're going to have to take it back to Spearfish Lake with us to work on it. We'll leave the bus flats here for you. In fact, we have to leave them. If we're going to take a dead engine back with us, we're going to want to keep the return trip light."

Now that Linder had made up his mind about the scram train, he wasn't about to give it up easily. "How about leaving this one here and going back with the sick one?"

"So what happens if it craps out on the way?" Bud asked. "We don't know what's wrong with it. Something that's half blown might blow the rest of the way. Or, we might not be able to fix it in Spearfish Lake, either. Then we really would be in shit."

"Sorry, Bud," Linder replied. "It was a dumb idea."

"I'm just sorry that we can't help you out on this, Fred." Bud cut the power when Penny called that the tail of the bus flats was clear of the switch, then reversed when Penny reported the switch was thrown. He went on talking all this time: "Maybe next trip. My guy down there said the other Geep might be running by the time we get back. If it is, then we ought to be able to leave an engine for the scram train the next trip."

This news disappointed Linder. "That really leaves us hanging, Bud. The thing of it is, the longer we leave that ammonium nitrate around, the bigger chance for trouble from it that we have. I'd like to be rid of it just as soon as I can. How long do you figure it would be before you can get back up here?"

Bud could answer that one. "We've got to figure on four hours. We might be able to do it in a little less, but we've got to plan on it taking at least that long."

Linder shook his head. "I don't want to wait that long if I can help it."

Bud had a chance to think as he backed up the main line. He stopped just past the east switch and waited for Matson to throw it, thinking all the while that there wasn't any reason he couldn't leave the Milwaukee here while he made a round trip. After all, there was no certainty that the Burlington would be ready to go when he got back to Spearfish Lake. If it wasn't, it would be even longer before Linder had help. Against that, he Milwaukee was at least running to some degree. Half power was still 500 horsepower, more than enough to move a couple of hopper cars. The NW2 could probably pull some of the bus flats, if it came to that.

Besides, Walt was dead tired; not that Bud wasn't pretty well all in himself, but Walt was in far worse shape. He could sleep in Warsaw just as well as he could sleep in Spearfish Lake.

If the Burlington was ready to go when Bud got back to the office, so much the better. He could mate the two GP-7s up again to get one of them up to Warsaw and relieve the Milwaukee on the watch over the scram train, then either he or Walt could tow the sick switch engine back to Spearfish Lake dead in train behind the other Geep. It made sense.

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