Sixty-seven people stood bewildered on the west bank of the Benjamin-Henry river, some looking skyward at the spreading smoke, others staring at the ground. The youngest children scrambled about the rocks as their parents attempted to corral them, eager to reboard the rafts and get back to civilization. Four rafts stood side-by-side in the river, their noses beached and lines secured to nearby trees.
Four river guides huddled around a radio, trying to hear the park service and wondering what to do.
“We reported what we saw,” said Phil, the veteran of the group. “There’s not much more we can do. We have to get these people back before they go crazy on us.”
“I don’t know, man,” Jordan shook his head. “TJ saw somebody jump. They could have survived. They might need help. We’re the closest, the rangers will take hours getting up there.”
They stood at the foot of Goosebill Canyon, one of hundreds of side canyons that terminated at the river. TJ guessed the plane went down three or four miles west of the river. Accounting for the 2,500-foot climb, he figured it would take a strong hiker ninety minutes to get to the wreck. But he wasn’t sure there was any point in going up there.
“I didn’t see anyone jump.” He spoke slowly and clearly and tried to keep the edge out of his voice. “I said I saw something fall. It could have been a person, it could have been part of an engine, it could have been a refrigerator. I don’t know. I didn’t see a parachute … I don’t think.”
They all sighed, hands on hips, and stared at the ground. TJ glanced at Jordan when the radio squawked and a park headquarters dispatcher confirmed that the nearest available helicopter was in Flagstaff, but a pilot wouldn’t be able to get there for another half hour. Rangers were making their way up the river, but wouldn’t reach Gooseneck Canyon for at least an hour. Another ranger was on mounted patrol in the backcountry, but his location was uncertain and he had yet to respond via either his radio or satellite phone.
All of the guides loved this place for its remoteness. At this moment, they cursed it.
“Can we fit all these people on three rafts, and one of us hike up there?” suggested Claire, one of the rookie guides from the East Coast somewhere.
They all did some quick math and shook their heads. Eighteen adults made one of these rafts hard to maneuver. Overloading them with 20 or more was dangerous.
“We could ask for volunteers to stay here,” she offered half-heartedly.
The granola couple, TJ noticed, had been circling near the guides, close enough to hear and clearly anxious to chime in. They took that opportunity to speak up.
“We’ll go up there,” the man announced. “My wife is a nurse. We’re strong hikers. If someone is hurt up there, we can help.”
TJ assessed the pair. They were well clothed, had newish-looking boots and sun hats, and appeared to be in good shape. But there wasn’t much for supplies. The rafts were outfitted for leisure trips, a water cooler bolted to the deck and not much else – not great support for a rescue mission.
“I can’t let you put yourselves in that danger,” TJ said, summoning his most authoritative tone. It wasn’t convincing.
“You won’t be letting us do anything,” the man said. “If we want to go, it’s our right.”
TJ looked to Phil, who looked back expressionless. They were river guides. Not cops, not lawyers. They both knew that to hike up Gooseneck and into the backcountry required a permit, but that was for the park service to enforce. The man was right – if he and his wife wanted to go, there wasn’t much a river guide was going to do to stop them.
The little circle of guides nodded assent.
A quick inventory of the couple’s personal gear revealed a pair of binoculars, two smart phones, a 16-ounce water bottle and –TJ groaned to himself – a bag of granola. The rest of the passengers offered a backpack, some additional drinks and food, and a bottle of sunscreen. First-aid kits from the rafts and Phil’s topographical map of the park topped off the pack.
TJ had hiked Gooseneck before. He walked with the couple a few paces up the trail, offering whatever he could remember about the trail conditions and landmarks. He wished them luck and turned toward the rafts.
“Oh – just in case … ahh … you know,” he put a hand on the back of his neck. “Maybe you should tell me your names.”
The couple looked at each other for a moment, then chuckled.
“Yeah,” the man said, keeping his eyes on the woman. “Paul and Lillian … Paul and Lillian Howe. We’re from Seattle.”
Of course you are, TJ thought. “Alright. Good luck, and thanks.”
He ambled back down to the riverbank, where the guides were already boarding the passengers and cranking over the Mercury outboards. On the way home – experienced or not – they all pushed the throttles wide open.
* * *
Annie was beat. She’d pulled out of Durango in the predawn for a seven-hour run to Salvation Point, 78 cars of mixed freight behind a weary pair of SD40s, and almost immediately met delays. She was put in the hole repeatedly for hotshot double stacks and a UP coal drag on trackage rights. A glad-hand came loose and she lost the air not far from the Highway 160 underpass. When she finally started making time, she was given the siding again for a priority extra – the FCFL business car. She could handle delays for revenue trains, but sitting still for a suit on a joyride boiled her blood. By the time she tied down at the Salvation Point yard, she was nearly five hours late, and minutes from exhausting her 12 hours of allowable time on the clock.
“You’re the man, Bruce,” she thanked her conductor as he finished his paperwork, grabbed his gear and ducked out of the cab..
“Scared the heck out of me as always,” Bruce shot a friendly grin over his shoulder.
She took a deep breath and gathered her own belongings before descending the stairs and turning toward the yard office. She ran an affectionate finger along the battery boxes beneath the cab, whispering a “thank you” to the forty-year-old locomotive. The engine’s compressors banged to life, as if the machine were a loyal dog responding to her touch. She smiled. Keep your high-efficiency, computerized engines with the comfy isolated cabs – she’d drive an SD40 as long as the railroad would let her.
Raised on a Wyoming cattle ranch by parents who tried to steer her to law school, Annie never got comfortable behind a desk. She wrenched with her dad in the barn and at fourteen restored a Farmall Cub as a 4-H project. She still had a passion for elderly machinery, but had truly found herself on the railroad. Moving things, feeding people, supplying industry, the puzzle of getting it all done efficiently – it fascinated her, and she was good at it. As much as she loved being an engineer, she really wanted to drive the whole show.
“I know what you’re going to say so don’t say it,” LaVerne Hinks barked as she approached the yard office door. He swung the last of his coffee to the ground, crumbled the paper cup in his large hand, then opened the door and followed Annie inside. “How could I put you in the hole for the umpteenth time just for an executive extra.”
“You had your reasons.” She walked to the computer terminal and logged herself off duty. “You’re the division superintendent, it’s not like you have any authority.”
“Not over a sitting U.S. Senator,” LaVerne answered. “Seems Mr. Willoughby’s daughter has come to some grief.”
His face was grim, his tone flat. Sarah Willoughby was well known around Salvation Point. She’d spent the last few summers here – supposedly doing an internship or taking a summer course – but mostly being a Senator’s daughter and stirring up minor trouble. Clark Willoughby stood up for the national park, sponsored local Federal projects, and was generally regarded as an honorable representative for the region. He also won favorable legislation for the railroad. All of which meant that this daughter’s “learning experiences” were swept under the rug. It also meant that if the railroad was giving him a ride, Annie’s train could wait.
“Skip out on her bill at Janibelle’s again?” Annie rolled her eyes.
“No,” LaVerne slurped from a fresh cup. “Missing and presumed dead in a plane crash.”