Copyright© 2010 by Wes Boyd
1806 1/9 - 0352 1/10: Decatur & Overland Snowplow Extra 3217
Ron Crane was sitting in the Coldwater Fire Station when the call came in about the train wreck.
It was very quiet around the station; the department had left for Spearfish Lake and Warsaw hours before, and the Rochester Department had agreed to send a tanker and a pumper to Coldwater to back them up, in case of emergency -- but it had turned out that Rochester's detachment wouldn't be able to get to Coldwater until after the plows were done with convoying the Coldwater department northward and they could be handed off to a Spearfish Lake County plow.
That left the town with no fire department for a few hours, but Crane wasn't as worried about that as he once would have been.
Once upon a time, Crane had been the Coldwater Assistant Fire Chief; a couple more years, maybe three or four, when Charlie Paschal retired, he would have been chief -- but that was before the muscular distrophy stranded him in his wheelchair. Nowadays, Crane mostly worked the fire station base radio when the department was out on a fire, and did some of the paperwork, and tried to keep himself occupied and useful. He still held an EMT card, and made occasional medical emergency runs if no one else was around and he had first-aiders available -- and he always had them, now.
About a year and a half before, Coldwater and every other department for fifty miles were out fighting a wild forest fire in tinder-dry woods, and Crane had been left at the station, as always, when he got a call to a garage fire on the north side of town.
Crane always claimed that he had never thought out in advance what he would do in a situation like that, but it only took him the distance from the telephone to the radio microphone -- not far -- to figure it out. The call went out to the monitors in every volunteer fireman's home: "Fire Belles, respond to the station for a structure fire."
The department owned an antique pumper -- old enough to be a Studebaker chassis with a Hardie pump -- that was usually only kept for show, and the occasional inter-department waterball meet. The Fire Belles were the Coldwater Fire Department's ladies auxiliary, usually holding bake sales or feather parties, raising money for good causes -- but the Fire Belles were also the regional waterball champions, and Crane, who could go a short distance on crutches, had gotten the old pumper running by the time the women responded.
Though the ladies weren't skilled enough to do any more than "surround and drown," and only had odds and ends of turnout gear left by the men and grabbed in the rush, the old pumper could still hook to a hydrant and pump water, with Crane yelling instructions through a bull horn. They hadn't been able to save the garage, but they had been able to keep the fire from spreading to the attached house and to the neighbors -- no small feat, as dry as everything was. The fire was out and the pumper was back at the station before a pumper arrived from Atlanta, the nearest available department.
It had been a turning point for the Coldwater Fire Belles -- three of the women who'd fought the fire that day now held Firefighter I certificates, and had left for Spearfish Lake with the rest of the department. Several others were working on firefighter certificates, and most now had advanced first aid cards or were EMTs.
The Fire Belles hadn't held a bake sale in over a year.
The old Studebaker truck sat in the station with Crane this snowy day, just in case, but now, it was not as big a thing as it once would have been to hear his words over the common fire frequency, "Fire Belles with snowmobiles, report to the station for a medical emergency."
A few minutes later, Bruce Page heard the snowmobiles coming up the road, and stopping at the crossing. He thanked the old woman that had given him shelter, and went out to meet them. "You the ambulance people?" he asked.
"Yeah," Crane replied from the back of his snowmobile. "You must be the guy from the railroad. You ready to go?"
With Page on the back of his snowmobile to show the way, Crane led the little convoy of rescuers up the tracks to where the Lordston Northern Alco lay stranded with the injured Diane Lee.
The going northbound for Crane and the Coldwater Fire Belles wasn't a bit easier than it had been for Bartenslager and Hottel, farther north a couple of hours earlier. The wind was against them, and it blew snow madly across the tracks. It was well after dark by now, and the headlights on the snowmobiles didn't show through the storm as well as might have been hoped. Only the traces of Page's footprints and the faint marks of where the track had been plowed out earlier were left to guide the party in many places.
At least they had enough people -- experienced snowmobilers, all -- to be able to change off on point every few minutes. Once the lead snowmobile had cut a path, the ones following only had to worry about following the tail light of the one ahead. They made no great speed, but crawled steadily northward.
It took the rescue party most of an hour to get to the stranded Alco. By now, snow had drifted up along the sides, and in another few hours it would be hard to find. One by one, the Fire Belles brought their snow machines to a stop in the lee of the engine.
Bruce hadn't thoroughly warmed up after his walk south, and the bitter wind of the northbound ride had taken a lot out of him. Nevertheless, he was the first one off of a snowmobile, and he stiffly ran the best he could up to the cab door of the Alco. He opened the door and spoke softly, "Diane?"
"You made it back!"
He smiled. "I said I'd come back for you."
"I was worried about you," she said, still staring at the roof of the cab. "I thought I heard snowmobiles a while ago, and I knew it was you then, but it wasn't. I guess I was hoping too much."
"We're here, now," he told her. "I'd better get out of the way and let these people work on you."
On crutches, and with a little help from the ladies, Crane made his way into the cramped cab of the Alco. There wasn't a lot of room for him and his helpers to work, but within a few minutes they had come to the same conclusions that Bruce had reached earlier, about the broken ribs and leg, and about the possible damage to her back.
Half a dozen hands, working the best they could in the crowded limits of the Alco's cab, rolled Diane slightly to the side so that a plywood backboard could be slid under her. It was easy to see that it was going to be a tough move to get her out of the cab, so they tied her firmly to the backboard, then picked it up and carried it head upright out onto the rear platform of the engine. There, it was fairly easy to put her and the backboard back into her sleeping bag. They threw even more blankets over her, then carefully picked her up and loaded her onto a well-padded sled, tying her down there.
"This is going to be a long, hard ride," Crane told her. "But it's the best we can do out here. We're going to take it real easy, and we'll stop fairly often to give you a rest."
"Let's get it over with," she replied weakly. "I'm so rested I could scream."
Crane turned to the Fire Belles and said, "She's got to have a soft ride. We'll tow her behind my machine. If about three of you go ahead and beat out a trail, that'll make it a lot easier. Then, I think we should have one following, in case of trouble. Page, why don't you ride with Mindy, there?"
Crane wasn't joking about going slow, Page found out. As he rode along behind one of the Fire Belles, he knew that he had been able to go faster when he walked out. It was Crane that had the hard job, trying to run the machine smoothly, and not allow the sled to have any hard bumps.
At least the going was easier southbound, for the wind was now more or less behind them, again. It still cut across ahead of them, making the visibility poor, but at least their faces were out of the wind, and the tracks from their earlier passage were still in place, giving them the chance to find their way without too much trouble.
Even so, they stopped every few minutes. After the first stop, when they found that Diane's face was starting to collect snow, they covered even that, and stopped even more often to make sure the snow stayed cleared away.
It seemed to Page that the trip must have taken most of the night. In fact, it took them not much more than an hour from when they set out from the Alco until the lights of a city snowplow and an ambulance crawled into view at a forest road crossing.
The backboard was untied from the sled. "How was the ride?" one of the Fire Belles asked as they worked at the frozen ropes.
"It was better than just laying around waiting for you," she replied. Still tied to the backboard, Diane was lifted up and placed in the ambulance. The now thoroughly chilled Bruce got in behind her, and the snowplow began to lead the slow trip to the Coldwater hospital.
Bruce leaned over and said to her, "How are you feeling?"
"I'll make out," she replied, staring at the roof of the ambulance, her head straining against the cervical collar that Crane had put on her neck back at the Alco. She wanted to face him. "I was so worried that you wouldn't make it back for me."
"I was beginning to wonder a little, myself."
"Bruce, when I met you, I thought you were kind of a jerk," she said weakly. "You're not. You saved me, and you saved the Alco, and that engine is more of my life than you might think. Maybe too much. I've got to thank you for saving both of us. Lean over here."
"Lean over here," she said, more firmly now. "I can't kiss you, all tied down like this, so you'll have to kiss me."
Ambulance attendants or not, Bruce Page did as he was told. Much to his amazement, it turned into a long, heartfelt, soulful deep kiss that lingered on and on, their tongues entwining, each tasting to the other like water after a long drought. Finally, he pulled back.
"Actually," she whispered, "I had something a little more personal in mind, but that can wait for later."
He was silent for a moment, thinking about it. "A long time later," he finally said. "I think, right now, we need to be friends more than we need to be lovers."
"You've got a deal," she said.
Back in the way car, the ceaseless poker game was going strong as the car rocked from side to side. Cziller could guess that it was going on, but he didn't know for sure, since he was next to Anson in the cab of the 3217.
SX-3217 was on the move again.
With the wind coming out of the northeast, there had been a considerable amount of drifting across the tracks from Rochester to Coldwater since the train had last passed this way many hours before. Now, the rotary made short work of the relatively small drifts. It picked the snow up off the tracks and threw it brutally off into the wind, but the wind carried much of the snow back to the train, which soon had its north side plastered in snow dust.
Still, SX-3217 made better time over the tracks to the east than it had made in the morning hours, since the track had been at least partially cleared. It still seemed a slow crawl to Cziller, though much better than just sitting at Rochester. He burned with the desire to get to Warsaw; and, if the plow would keep going, even with the slower rate of advance that could be expected in the unbroken snow past Whiteport, it seemed reasonable that they ought to make the town by morning.
The last word that Cziller had was that they were needed up there more than ever. He had talked to Marks about two in the afternoon, and had learned that Ellsberg was having a lot of engine trouble, and that he was giving up the support shuttle in order to be able to evacuate the town, since the fire was more dangerous than ever. The knowledge of Ellsberg's desperate need for SX-3217's power only deepened Steve Cziller's frustration at the lackluster progress made so far.
"That son of a bitch breaks down again," he told Anson, "I'm going to make the section gang shovel the rest of the way up there."
"That's a lot of digging," Anson smiled absently. "That's not what's got me worried, though."
"That plow moves snow all right when it's running," the engineer went on, "But I keep wondering, how will it do on brush?"
"Yeah, between the brush and the bum track up there, that is something to think about," the road foreman agreed thoughtfully. "How far from Whiteport do you think we are?"
"Ought to be getting there any time, now," Anson said. "It's kind of hard to tell in this stuff."
The blowing snow from the storm and the rotary made visibility almost nil. If it hadn't been for the fact that the 3217 could follow the rails without help from the engineer, they would never have gotten outside of Rochester. About all that Anson could do was to vary speed in response to Pickering's orders.
There weren't many orders from the plow, since Pickering had stabilized the speed of the train at about ten miles per hour, and had varied the speed of the plow to match snow conditions. Cziller chafed at the slow progress, but with the poor visibility there wasn't much that he could do about it.
SX-3217 hardly slowed as it passed through Whiteport, and a few minutes later the train was around onto northbound tracks. The snow plume that the rotary threw was now going off to the west, being carried away from the train. Anson spoke up, "You know, Steve, we really ought to stop for a minute and find out how the 3259 is running. It must have really gotten plastered back there."
Cziller nodded and radioed back to the way car for Bartenslager and Hottel to check out the engine, while they made a brief stop. A minute or two later, Hottel called over the 3259's radio, "Can we stretch this out for a bit longer? The air filters really got packed."
"Guess we'd better," the road foreman replied. "We don't want this thing dropping out on us." He took the opportunity to go back to the way car and warm up the coffee in his thermos.
Sure enough, the poker game was still going on. DeTar was winning again, after losing money for hours. "Better get even quickly," Cziller told him. "If the plow keeps running, we're going to be up on that Kremmling branch before long, and then we're going to have to put these section gang guys you're robbing to work."
"I'm trying," the conductor replied. "God knows, I'm trying."
Cziller walked on past several old box cars that had been added at Rochester. Adding them had been Bigelow's idea, to spread out the weight on the bad track ahead. At the end of the train, Hottel and Bartenslager were still working on the 3259. "I really don't know how this son of a bitch kept running," the mechanic told him.
"Is it going to keep running?"
"It should now," Hottel said. "I wouldn't have wanted to be on it if we hadn't stopped."
Once the train was once again on the move, it didn't take long to get to where the plow had broken down the morning before. The snow here was deep and hardpacked, and Pickering called for a speed reduction almost immediately. Within a minute, he called for another one, so that the plow could keep up with the snow. SX-3217 slowed to a near crawl, as the rotary chewed at the snow and blasted it off downwind.
The progress now was very slow, which chafed Cziller even more. Still, the train was moving, and at a speed that was faster than a brisk walk. It took them nearly two hours to get to the little hamlet of Hugo, on the western shore of the lake, and there were still several miles to go to get to Kremmling, where the real work would begin.
There wasn't much that Steve Cziller could do as the train crawled north, except to sit in the cab of the leading Geep, drink coffee, worry about the plow and whether it would keep runing, and be unneccessarily curt to Anson. Presently, SX-3217 crawled out onto a long grade through the swamps northeast of the lake, and here Pickering was able to call for a speed increase. "Now that's better, : Cziller told the long-suffering engineer.
"Yeah," Anson replied. "We might be able to keep this up for a while, but we get off this grade before we get to Kremmling, and we'll have to slow down again."
Cziller was wishing profoundly that the trouble was over. With the history the rotary had, it was rather a distant hope that it could keep running all the way to Warsaw. As the minutes crept on like hours, the plow kept roaring away with never a hint of problems, shattering the blackness of the storm-ridden night with a glare that the 3217's headlight reflected off of the plow's snow plume.
The plow was still running at Kremmling. "Now, all we've got to do is to find the goddamn switch," Anson told the road foreman.
"I thought you knew where it was."
"I know where it is," Anson replied. "I just ain't too sure where I am." Usually D&O trains ran right past the switch up to the aggregate quarry at Big Pit; no Decatur and Overland train had even tried to find the switch for the long-disused branch in years.
In the end, they had to dig for the switch, much as Ralph McPhee had done a few hours earlier, and many miles to the west. Here, Cziller was able to roust the section gang out and send them with shovels to find the switch mechanism. Naturally, the switch stand proved to be hidden under several feet of snow, and this weathered and hardpacked snow was tough shoveling.
While the section gang worked away at the buried switch, Cziller started to get the rest of his people set up for the risky push down the branch. "Jim," he told Bartenslager, "I want you to be riding the 3259, just in case. We're going to take it real slow, and I want you ready to make a quick pull backwards if the track begins to settle on us. Maybe we can get out on a quick one, where waiting a while might allow the head end to settle too much."
"I'm not looking forward to this," Bartenslager said.
"Me either," Cziller went on. "Don't back down unless we tell you to. We may have to stop almost any time to cut trees or something. I really don't know what to expect."
"I've heard that the track is in pretty bad shape."
"That's what I heard, too. I don't know how bad a shape." Cziller yawned; he'd been going a long time. "Guess I'll see how the section gang is doing on the switch. Oh, Tom," he said to the conductor, "Keep a brakeman right near the uncoupling lever behind the way car. If the 3217 tries to go over the side, he might be able to get the train busted in time to keep the 3259 from going over the side, too. He'll have to be the judge."