“If I don’t see your lazy hide in this office in fifteen minutes, you’re out of a job!” LaVerne Hinks slammed the receiver onto its cradle and swore under his breath. “Rotten kids.”
He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and pressed his fingers to his temples. The last forty five minutes had been a frustrating gauntlet of demands from management, crew no-shows, and equipment breakdowns. Jake and Aaron – the yard crew for the day – started the melee with back-to-back phone messages announcing illness. LaVerne was disappointed in Aaron – he showed a promising interest in the transportation business – but Jake was a lost cause. Then the regional VP requested the business car the Senator had used be prepped and routed to San Diego for a customer. Jake and Aaron would have handled that, if they weren’t hungover in the back of some pickup or wherever they’d passed out.
Two locomotives wouldn’t start.
A conductor twisted his ankle dismounting a cut of cars.
The dispatch computers were on the fritz.
The only coffee left was decaf.
But those were minor frustrations, stuff he dealt with every day. What put his stomach in knots today was Annie. Her rushed message said she wouldn’t be available for a couple of days, she didn’t know when she’d be back, and she’d call when she could. It was a major fly in the scheduling ointment, but more importantly an uncharacteristically flaky move from his most reliable engineer. He was angry, but mostly he was worried.
He leaned forward, rubbed his eyes, and swore again. Then LaVerne Hinks, Superintendent of the Four Corners Division of the FCFL rail network, rose from his chair and walked to a utility closet, retrieved a vacuum cleaner and dust rags, and made his way out to the luxury business car waiting in the yard.
* * *
The two-hour trail ride by horse from The Column to Herbst Junction was one of Mayer’s favorite things about field work in Many Lost Ways. He loved the change in temperature and vegetation during the descent into the canyon, and the sound of hooves clattering on the rocky trail thrilled him.
Today he would have rather been anywhere else.
Mayer rode second in line behind Lars, and behind them a third man whose name Mayer didn’t know. It didn’t matter – the man never spoke, just glared straight ahead. A jagged scar started on the middle of the man’s left cheek and carved a deep arc upwards until it disappeared behind mirrored sunglasses. They each rode a horse with a pack horse behind, six ponies altogether. They were dressed in casual outdoor gear, but Mayer knew that beneath the billowy Columbia shirts his companions wore, there was serious firepower.
This all looked good on paper, he thought.
“So we’re going to put two boxcars worth of stuff on three horses?” he asked. He knew the plan – they would make several trips – but he wanted the men to speak.
“So, two trips today?” He rubbed the reigns with his thumbs. “Maybe three?”
Lars looked over his shoulder, glaring.
They rode on in silence, neither man speaking even when they entered the narrow switchbacks just above Herbst Junction. The horses tiptoed along, sometimes brushing Mayer’s legs against the rock face. When the trail widened and the grade eased, they saw through the trees to the railway junction below. Lars pulled to a stop, signaling the others to do the same. For the first time in two hours, he spoke. When he spoke, he cursed.
There was the tiny hamlet of Herbst Junction: the Navajo jewelry stand, the sun-battered pickup with thick grass growing in the wheel wells, the tiny railway depot shared with the park service for a backcountry office. There was a dusty jeep, parked hastily in the employee spot.
There was the siding.
* * *
LaVerne took pride in his work, be it making the trains run on time or taking out the trash. He saw no shame in cleaning the business car, and worked at every detail with the gusto he gave to managing the railroad. It was part of his character, deep and firm, that made him a respected leader not only in the railway, but in the community. He was everyman, and he was bourgeois. Few people knew that he and Clark Willoughby were close, the Senator looking to the Superintendent for the mood of the electorate. He wasn’t alone.
From his little yard office or his stool at the breakfast counter at Janibelle’s, Vern Hinks quietly took meetings with everyone from the mayor of Salvation Point to the Governor of Arizona. When the park service wanted to know how a new wildlife management agenda would go over with ranchers, they’d ask Vern. When the railroad and the highway department clashed over grade crossings, it was Vern who mediated. When business leaders considered locating in Salvation Point, the Chamber of Commerce made sure they met with Vern. When Senator Willoughby sponsored a bill on locomotive emissions and fuel economy standards, it was hailed by rail industry leaders as common sense regulation and by environmentalists as effective climate protection. The Senator had Vern to thank for that.
So it pained him that Sarah Willoughby was missing, under such odd circumstances, and he could do nothing about it. Pained him, but didn’t slow him. He learned long ago that worry was best extinguished by hard work, so in thirty minutes he had vacuumed the carpets and upholstery, dusted the woodwork and tabletops, washed the windows and polished the brass. He was reaching behind an overstuffed armchair to replace a wastebasket, his knee on the seat, when he noticed a scrap of paper peeking up from behind the cushion. He snatched it and was about to crumble it up, but the scrawled words made him pause.
It was on FCFL stationary, the courtesy tablets placed on the writing desks before every trip. The top line, scrawled hastily in the soft penmanship of a woman, said “statement for after.”
“I am profoundly saddened and angered that the disappearance of my daughter, and the bravery and sacrifice of so many searchers, would be overshadowed, and even used for cover by vandals.”
“Vandals?” LaVerne furrowed his brow and read on.
“The Column has long been a symbol of this great park, and of the beauty of the southwest. It’s destruction by so ferocious an attack is an assault on our very way of life.”
What in the world? Vern thought. There was more.
“Further, this act makes it plain that these wonderful resources, so remote and so vulnerable, are better cared for by commercial enterprise. Development of these lands, careful, thoughtful development, will ultimately be their best protection.”
Vern reached for his hip, withdrew his cellphone, and dialed the park office at Herbst Junction.
“Herbst Junction backcountry office, this is Chip.”
“Chip, Vern Hinks. How’s things down there today?”
“Umm, you lookin’ for Annie?”
“As a matter of fact,” Vern said. “Also wondering if anything exciting happened lately. Hows that column of yours?”
“I, um, guess it’s fine,” Chip said. “Haven’t been up there in a couple of days. Been busy with the search and all. Annie tore in here a few hours ago, she was in a real hurry. I made her buy a permit, then she practically sprinted up the trail. I couldn’t stop her in time to tell her to move her Jeep. Geez Vern, is everything OK?”
“I don’t know, Chip,” Vern pressed his fingers to his temples again. “Write down everything you see today, OK? And be careful.”
Vern sat in the big chair and read the scribbled words again. The Senator had arrived the night before last, when the early stages of the volunteer search effort were underway. It wasn’t too odd that he would reference that. But what was this bit about vandalism of The Column? Destruction even? Chip would have known about something like that. He turned the page over in his fingers, puzzling. The line about commercial enterprise and development was baffling, too. Willoughby was a Republican, friendly to business, but surely he undertsood that Many Lost Ways was the biggest money maker for the people of his district. Development around the park was always part of his agenda. But in the park? It was impractical and politically toxic. Then there was that line scratched hastily across the top, “statement for after.” After what?
Something was up. Vern didn’t want to be involved, but too many questions were gnawing at him. He decided to pay a visit to the man who could answer them.
* * *
TJ’s head pounded. He stooped by the river and cupped his hands, splashing cold water on his face and scrubbing at the lump on his forehead. His hands came away clean, which told him he wasn’t bleeding anymore. He was thirsty, but didn’t trust the river water for drinking. He soaked his T-shirt in the water, sat back on his heels, wrapped the cool cloth around his head and closed his eyes.
What day was it?
He remembered calling Annie. He’d known she was working and wouldn’t answer her phone, so he’d waited for the beep and talked as fast as he could, wanting to tell her everything about Sarah Willoughby, secret copper mines, his location, his raft being sunk. He’s not sure how much he actually got out. Everything went black, and when he came too – minutes later? hours? – his head was ringing and the Senator’s daughter was gone. Had she hit him with something? Someone else? It was all a fog.
He’d decided to abandon his pursuit of Sarah Willoughby. First off, he was no longer certain she was alone. Second, his head really hurt and he wanted to try to move closer to potential help. And, he had no idea which way she had gone. So he wandered downhill until he caught sight of the river, and followed it south. He’d been walking for at least an hour, he figured, but he wasn’t sure.
He rested another moment, then hefted himself to his feet and continued, unsteadily, along the river. He was dehydrated and weak. The sun beat down, high in the sky and bright white so he could barely open his eyes. He had picked up a walking stick somewhere – he didn’t remember doing it – but now he used it as a crutch, picking along the rocky riverbank.
As he walked, his mind wandered back to Annie. He hadn’t realized until this ordeal in the wilderness how frequently she invaded his thoughts. For weeks he’d sensed a growing fondness, maybe a crush. But limping along in the heat, his brain throbbing, his fate uncertain, so much to worry about and so much to do, he still dwelt on her. No, it was more than a crush. He was falling for her, he was certain of it.
Or was he delirious? Like those people who have near-death experiences, was his mind shutting down, and placating him with comforting sensations?
Or was that really her voice?
* * *
“Clark, how are you holding up?” Vern shook Clark Willoughby’s hand, put his other hand on the Senator’s shoulder, and looked him square in the eye. “You look tired. How’s Grace?”
“I am tired, Vern,” Senator Willoughby said. “Grace, poor Gracie. She’s gone to stay with her sister for a while. It’s too close for her here, she said she needed to not be so close to the search. Me, I can’t imagine being anywhere else but, she’s more fragile I guess.”
Vern nodded and clapped the Senator’s back. Willoughby moved behind his desk and sat, Vern took a chair in front.
“Real nice of you to stop by.” He leaned back in his chair and exhaled deeply. “Your support means a lot, always has.”
Vern nodded again and looked at the floor, taking the scrap of paper from his pocket. He unfolded it and held it between his knees, where the Senator couldn’t see it. He hoped it wouldn’t unravel decades of friendship.
“Clark,” he sighed. “I need your help with something.”
* * *
Chip didn’t have a good feeling about the three men dismounting from their horses outside his little office. The taller one stayed outside and seemed to be peering into the windows of Annie’s Jeep, while the other two strode in, businesslike, and approached the tiny counter where he sold backcountry permits. There was an edge to them that wasn’t tourist, and wasn’t search volunteer. He tried not to sound uneasy when he spoke.
“How’d the trails treat you fellas?”
The shorter one started to reply but the taller, meaner one spoke over him.
“Who do we see about rail freight?” His eyes were stone, his voice cold and hard.
“Geez I don’t know,” Chip said. “Closest office I think is in Salvation Point. I see crews in here once in a while dropping off paperwork but otherwise.” He trailed off, shrugged.
“Where do they drop the paperwork?” The man leaned on the counter, eyes locked on Chip.
Chip nodded toward the locked Dutch door across from the counter. There was a mail slot, and a plastic organizer hung from the wall with various forms tucked in the pockets.
“It’s all locked up,” he said. “I don’t have a …”
The man withdrew a large pistol from under his shirt.
“A key,” Chip finished weakly.
“Oh,” the man said, his eyes following the gleaming barrel to Chip’s forehead. “I reckon somebody does. Why don’t you give somebody a call. I’m sure they’d be happy to come help some, ah, fellow employees”
“Ya… yeah, sure,” Chip stammered. With shaking hands he lifted the receiver and dialed Vern’s cell phone.
“Chip?” Vern answered. “You alright?”
“Oh, sure thing Vern,” Chip said. “Got a, um, train crew here that say they need to get in to the office. Can you please bring a key? Please?”
“Good,” the man said. “Now, outside.”
* * *
Hiking down the switchbacks over Herbst Junction was tricky enough, but shouldering the weight of a stumbling, barely coherent TJ took all the stamina Annie could find. They were nearly there, though, so she gritted her teeth and pushed the pain and fatigue from her mind.
“Come on, you big lug.”
The grade evened out and the trail widened, and she paused in the same spot Lars and the others had to survey the junction below. Her heart sank.
The sight of Chip, kneeling on the ground with a very large pistol pointed at his head, made her sad.
The sight of her Jeep, sitting where she’d parked it – but with four slashed tires – made her angry.
* * *
Clark Willoughby had called out the cavalry. He rode with LaVerne Hinks in the second of two National Guard helicopters, and the two men in their late fifties were quite a sight as they tumbled from the craft as it touched down in Herbst Junction. Soldiers and state police led the charge to the parking area behind the backcountry office, but when they got there the fight they had prepped for didn’t materialize.
Annie and Chip sat comfortably next to two squirming forms, dusty men with their hands and feet bound by the plastic seals used to secure railcars. Mayer sat nearby, his head in his hands. TJ was propped up in the shade of a tree, a bottle of water in his lap and a peaceful grin on his face. As the group approached, he called out.
“Man, you should have seen her!” He laughed like he was drunk. He felt like it. “The other guy helped, and Chip held his own, but wow. Don’t mess with a girl’s Jeep, hey?”
Annie rose and met the leading officer.
“There’s two bad guys who won’t say much,” she said. “And a geologist with a bad conscience who has a lot to get off his chest.”
The soldiers and officers fanned out, tending to TJ, getting Lars and his partner upright and properly handcuffed, securing the office and nearby bushes while unfurling yards of yellow tape.
When Mayer saw Senator Willoughby, he wept.
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I’m just so sorry. I never meant to hurt anyone! It was her own daughter, you know? They seemed like they were in on it together. I hope she’s OK. I just hope she’s OK!”
Willoughby looked at him pitifully.
“Arrest him just like the others.” He motioned to an officer.
The officer approached Mayer and reached for his wrist, but the geologist squirmed away and made a feeble attempt to flee. He landed face down in the dust a few yards away, and three officers made quick work of shackling him.
* * *
Twenty-four hours later, TJ sat comfortably in a hospital bed waiting for the doctor to sign his discharge orders. Vern and Annie waited with him, she for moral support, Vern to give them both a ride.
“So how much of this ridiculous scam was he actually in on?” Annie asked.
“He says not much,” Vern said. “I’m inclined to believe him. I’ve known Grace Willoughby for a lot of years, and she is every bit the politician he is. I have no doubt she could engineer something this massive. She’s as well connected, if not better, than he is. Or was – I think he’d be lucky to be elected dog catcher ever again.”
“I still don’t get how she thought she could mine copper in secret.” Annie thoughtfully unpacked a shirt and pants from the bag she had brought from TJ’s camper.
“There wasn’t ever going to be a copper mine.” Vern shook his head. “The idea was to damage the Column, ruin the land so the park service would deaccession it. Then it would be ripe for development. Grace Willoughby’s family has an interest in a big construction firm out here, and Clark had arranged for some nice contracts. Like most lawmakers, he didn’t read them enough to realize they were for proposed work in the park.”
TJ stood and began to slide into his pants while trying to hold his robes closed.
“Any sign of Sarah or Grace Willoughby?” he asked.
“None,” Vern said. “It’s still tearing Clark apart, but he’s relieved that you saw her alive and well.”
“So that’s Sarah and Grace Willoughby missing, but I think they’ll lay low for a while. What concerns me,” Vern looked sternly at Annie. “Is the two boxcars of unspecified material, likely dangerous in nature, that have also gone missing.”
Annie dodged his gaze and looked out the window. “Happens all the time, Vern.”
“Well, I also have two missing yard hands,” he said. “Not smart ones. And while they don’t know much, I think they know where those boxcars are.”
She looked at him, startled. “Oh, no.”
“Yeah, well,” Vern said. “It’s your problem now.”
“I know, I screwed up,” Annie said. “I’ll try to find them.”
“Don’t try, kid.” Vern put his hands on her shoulders. “You just have to get it done. That’s what the superintendent does. Congratulations.”
“What?” She was incredulous. “Was all this too much for you? Are you quitting?”
“I wish,” he chuckled. “I got a call from the Governor. Seems a Senator has resigned and she needs to appoint a replacement.”
Annie gave him a hug. “I’ll miss you. You think I can handle this? Really?”
“You know you can handle this,” he said. “And I won’t let you miss me. The FCFL employs half my district. I have a keen interest in seeing that it’s run right.”
The doctor arrived and handed TJ his paperwork. The three made their way down to Vern’s truck and drove to TJ’s camper.
Annie got out and walked TJ to the door. He opened it and they lingered a moment.
“You want a ride to your place, Annie?” Vern called from the cab.
She thought a moment, then put her arms around TJ’s neck and pulled him close.
“Nah,” she said, keeping her eyes on TJ’s. “I think I’ll stay here a while.”