Frank Jackson took a swallow of beer and settled back into his chair. "Ah," he said. "Nothing better than beer on a summer day. Now, about the transportation problem we were discussing, Dan, we're going to have to support a larger army in the field. We've done pretty well with the vehicles around here so far, but they aren't going to be enough."
Dan Frost took a sip of his own beer and nodded. "I know it's a problem, Frank. Do you have any ideas on how to fix it?"
"Well, the obvious choice is to start building wagons," Frank said. "But if we do that we're going to need a lot of them. And that doesn't include all of the horses we'd need. Not to mention the equipment we'd need to outfit them, and the feed the horses will need when deployed."
"What about trains?" Dan asked.
Frank shook his head. "We're nowhere near ready with the rail lines we have right now. And with all the infighting going on with Quentin Underwood and company, I don't know when we'll ever finish the line to Halle. Torstensson is in town and one thing we discussed was the slow progress of the railroad."
Dan thought for a moment, letting his gaze travel around the room. His eyes lit on a Military Police lieutenant and an idea began to grow. "You know, Frank, there might be a way. Hang on a second, let me get someone." Dan waved and shouted, "Lieutenant Pitre, come here for a sec, will you?
"I think you need to talk to this Lieutenant Pitre," Dan said as the young woman made her way to the table. "She showed us some pictures the other day that may be a start on a solution to your transportation problem.
"Elizabeth, have you ever met Frank Jackson?" Dan asked.
"I think we talked a couple of minutes at Rita's wedding, sir. I know your wife, though," Elizabeth said, nodding at Frank.
"Frank, this is Elizabeth Pitre, New Orleans' gift to the Ring of Fire, MP lieutenant, and paratrooper," said Dan in introduction. "Elizabeth, General Jackson was talking about the problems we're going to have with keeping the armies supplied in the field. We don't have anywhere enough trucks to go around and we probably won't have enough for years. Would you tell him about the railroad your grandfather works on in England?"
"Well, sir, Granddad Spencer volunteers at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, north of London. He works on a narrow-gauge railway that was standard in the British forces from WWI up into the 1960s. Besides a couple of paperbacks my granddad gave me, I've a bunch of pictures on my computer."
"Why don't you come over to headquarters tomorrow morning around ten? You've got me thinking and I want to bring a couple of other people to see your pictures," Frank said.
"Sir, I'll be there. I just need a few seconds to set up and plug in my laptop. I'll bring the books my grandfather gave me, too," Elizabeth said.
Elizabeth showed up at headquarters in a neatly pressed set of BDUs. She wore the black bar of a first lieutenant on her right collar, and the crossed pistols of the Military Police on her left. Instead of standard army boots, she was wearing black rubber riding boots.
General Jackson and two men were waiting in his office. One of the men was an older up-timer and the other was a down-time officer. She didn't know who either of them was.
"Elizabeth, this is General Lennart Torstensson and Charlie Schwartz. Charlie worked on the railroad link to the coal mine and helped to build the steam locomotive. He also worked on the B and O for more years than he likes to admit. General Torstensson is the captain general's chief of artillery," Frank said. "Gentlemen, this is Elizabeth Pitre, who, I'm told, might just have the makings of a solution to our transport problem. Why don't you set your computer up on this table and you can talk us through your pictures."
Setting up the laptop and getting to the right place took a few moments. Elizabeth began her presentation, "Sir, this picture is of a Simplex twenty-five horsepower gasoline powered locomotive pulling four cars at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. It is on a six-hundred-millimeter gauge railway, which is very close to two feet. This was the standard size light railway used by all sides during the First World War."
Elizabeth continued showing pictures, "The beauty of this system is that you use prefabricated track you can lay virtually anywhere and very quickly. You can also move a great deal of material over one of these systems. Most of the freight cars were rated to carry a ten-ton load."
She showed pictures in a WWI diorama setting. "Another good thing about this gauge is that it is small enough to run through a trench close to the front lines."
Torstensson asked, "You said they could carry a lot of weight, can you carry big things like cannon on one of these little trains?"
"Yes, sir," Elizabeth said. She pulled out a small paperback book titled Narrow Gauge at War and showed them a picture of a railcar carrying a large fieldpiece and then another picture of a standard gauge railway gun being hauled over several cars.
"How hard would it be to build some of these trains?" asked Torstensson.
"Charlie, what do you think?" Frank asked.
"You know, I bet you could use a garden tractor for a locomotive on something like this," Charlie Schwartz answered. "I think we might just be able to come up with something that would work, but track is going to be the problem."
"Would you try to build something like this for us?" Frank asked.
"I'll be glad to help and advise, Frank. But you really need to have a unit to experiment with this and figure out what will and won't work," Charlie said.
"Would you command the unit, if I authorized the formation of it?"
"Frank, I said I'd be glad to help and advise, but I'm too old to command something like this. You need a bright young officer to take charge of this. I'll teach him everything I know," Charlie answered.
"Excuse me, sir," Elizabeth said, "Why don't you appoint Mr. Schwartz as a chief warrant officer? It would give him the rank and authority he needs to train everyone in this unit."
"Chief warrant officer? What is that?" Torstensson asked.
"Chief warrant officer is a rank used in the U.S. Army for technical experts. A lot of army pilots had that rank, back up-time. It's like what you do with master gunners in your artillery," Frank answered. "Elizabeth, that's a perfect solution. That is, if Chief Schwartz has no objection?"
"Hmm, Chief warrant officer, I think I could live with that," Charlie said as he looked at Elizabeth with a twinkle in his eyes. "But I need a really bright young officer to teach and to lead this unit. I originally said I'd teach him but it could very easily be a 'her.'"
Jackson and Torstensson looked at the young woman standing in front of them. They could see the obvious intelligence in her eyes and that she knew what was coming next. Torstensson had a question first, "Lieutenant, what is that device you have on your uniform above the words U.S. Army?"
"Sir, those are jump wings. That means I jumped five times out of a perfectly good airplane with a parachute and lived to tell about it," she said.
Glancing over at Frank, Torstensson said, "She's definitely tough enough to do this. And from this presentation, she has more knowledge about these little trains than anyone in this room."
"Lieutenant, you just got a new job," Frank said. "You're now commander of the First Railway Company (Provisional). Right now the company is you and Chief Schwartz. You two get together tomorrow and come up with a list of what you'll need to get started."
"Lieutenant, after you get things started, I'll send down a liaison officer to work with you to figure out how best to use these little trains of yours," Torstensson said.
"Sir, I was supposed to go on a duty swing with the Military Police starting ne—" Elizabeth began.
"You don't worry about any of that," Frank interrupted. "I'll deal with Dan Frost."
"Yes, sir." Elizabeth sighed. "If I'm going to be transferred, can I take a couple of people from the MPs with me? I'm going to need all the help I can get to make this work." Mentally she was kicking herself for not keeping her mouth shut.
"Let me know who you want from the MPs and report here tomorrow morning. I'll have a place for you and Charlie to start work," Frank said. "Go on now; you really did a good job with this and we need to pick your brains as much as Charlie's."
"Yes, sir." Elizabeth said. As she walked away she felt like she had just gone from the frying pan into the fire.
Before leaving headquarters Elizabeth and Chief Schwartz met up and had a cup of coffee together. The chief started out with some ideas he had. "I know someone we should get on board pretty quickly," he said. "Anse Hatfield. He ran a switch locomotive up in Detroit for a few years. Besides that, he has a couple of lawn tractors and other stuff that we might need."
"Hatfield. I think I've heard of him," Elizabeth said. "Isn't he also a bit of a gun nut, too?"
"Yep," Chief Schwartz answered. "and he can probably provide some weapons out of his stash. I bet we aren't going to have a very high priority for weapons."
"Works for me," Elizabeth said. "If he has any sort of railroad experience, that's a good thing. The tractors and weapons are gravy."
Chief Schwartz was walking by the power plant when he saw Anse Hatfield and three other men. They were sitting outside the little tavern up the road from the power plant. Two of Anse's companions were obviously German mercenaries. The other Charlie wasn't sure about. The fellow was wearing khaki work pants and a Blue Barn dog food baseball cap but also had a German farmer's shirt. His boots never came from a store, either. Charlie didn't know him and he knew most of the West Virginians.
"Hey, Hatfield. Got a minute? I need to talk to you," Charlie called.
"Sure, Charlie. We're just sitting here resting up from the afternoon shift," Anse replied. "By the way do you know the guys?"
"Can't say I've had the privilege, I'm Charlie Schwartz," he said, extending his hand.
"This is Wilfried Schultz, Bernhard Toeffel and Jochen Rau." Anse pointed to the tavern and added, "Benno and Jochen run this place and Wili works with me at the power plant, pushing coal."
"Glad to meet you fellows," Charlie said, looking over the trio. Toeffel and Rau, both in their twenties, were obviously former mercenaries, but Schultz was harder to place. Schultz didn't look like a mercenary, but the gun on his hip didn't make him look like a farmer either.
"Okay, what do you need? Do you want a beer before we start talking?" Anse asked. "Benno makes a pretty good brew."
"No beer, Hatfield. I'm on duty," Charlie said, pointing to the bar on his collar. "I'm in the army now. You'll notice I'm a chief warrant officer. Since you're a friend you don't have to call me sir. You can call me Chief."
"Well, since I'm not in the army, how about I keep on calling you Charlie? The offer of a beer still stands. I'll even buy, just to show you I still like you even though you're an officer," Anse replied.
"Anse, that's what I want to talk to you about. Were you serious when you said you drove a switch engine?" Chief Schwartz asked, wondering if he could convince Anse to join his unit. "We could use a man with that kind of experience."
"Sure, I was serious. I ran a switcher for five years. And, what do you mean 'we'? You mean the army needs me? I don't mind the militia, but if you're talking full-time army . . . I need to think about it. Besides, what does the army need with someone who can run a switch engine? I don't see too many switchers around. That coal for the power plant would be a lot easier to move if we had one," Anse said.
"Anse, we're putting together a crew to build a narrow gauge railroad. It won't be like the one they're building to the oil field, though. It will be a tactical rail to follow and supply Gustav's army. Something quick and dirty, throw down the track, run a supply line faster than horses, pull it up and move on. You'd be perfect to train engineers, since you know how an engine is supposed to work," Chief Schwartz said.
"Well, it sounds like a good idea, but I repeat, what are you going to use for an engine? I still don't see any around," Anse replied.
"Don't you start laughing," Chief Schwartz said, shifting uncomfortably. "We're going to use a lawn tractor. I think eighteen to twenty horse power will be plenty for what we want. It will be small enough that we can load it on a barge or wagon to move it around. I don't notice anyone mowing their grass since the Ring of Fire, and those little motors are going to waste."
"What gauge are you going to use? And where are you going to get track? There's a lot more to a railroad than just an engine," Anse said, shaking his head.
"That's what this unit is for. We're going to solve all those problems and any others that crop up. For example you left out brakes and wheels. This is an experiment to find out if it can be done. It is important. You know how they supply armies in the here and now, don't you? We're trying to give them a better system. Gustav is going to be fighting a defensive war and you can't rob your own people and expect them to like it," replied the chief. That got the attention of all four men.
"Sounds like you at least have the questions figured out, Chief. But where are we going to get a lawn tractor?"
Schwartz noticed the change from 'you' to 'we' and began to think that he had just gotten an engineer. "Well, I was going to leave that to the engineer to figure out. If I remember correctly you had a nice Gravely ride-on tractor at one time. Whatever happened to it? The government would pay for it, you know."
"Yeah, I still have it. Me and Hank are changing it over to run on ethanol right now. Don't know why, our lawn care business is pretty well dead. It's a twenty-seven horse power Professional Model, to be exact. Think it would work?"
"That's just what we need, nice heavy tractor with good power. Now all I need is someone to drive it since you're not interested," Charlie said.
"Wait a minute," Anse said. "I never said I wouldn't do it. If you're going to use my tractor I might as well go with it. I went through 'Nam as an enlisted man and what was good enough then is good enough now. With that condition, sign me up, Chief."
"Well, I just happen to have an opening for a sergeant in charge of a train crew," Charlie said. "Sew three stripes on your sleeve and meet me and Lieutenant Pitre at Frank Jackson's office at nine o'clock tomorrow morning. You better remember that he's General Jackson, and be on time."
"Lieutenant Pitre? You mean you're not in charge?" Anse asked noticing the looks on the faces of his three friends.
"No, Sergeant Hatfield, I'm not. We're working for a real U.S. Army officer who knows all about narrow gauge railroads. I'll see you tomorrow morning," Charlie said.
After the chief left, the three down-timers began to speak at once. "Lieutenant Pitre from the MPs? She threatened to arrest us after the business with Wili's cow came out," Rau finally said over the general noise level.
"Ja," Toeffel agreed, "und the police don't like our tavern."
"Guys, I get tired of sitting around just spinning my wheels. This is my chance to do something. Pushing coal at the power plant is not my idea of a long-term career," Anse stated.
"Und we will be helping protect farmers." Wili stated. "I will join."
"Are you sure, Wili? This isn't like being in a local militia."
"Ja, Ich go with my brother." Wili responded as he laid his hand on Anse's shoulder.
Toeffel looked at Rau. "Jochen, business is bad. We should sell the tavern und go with them." Then with a grin at Hatfield he added, "We are the real soldier here. Und we will protect the old men."
Later that evening, Elizabeth and her old college roommate, Caroline Platzer, were having dinner at the Thuringen Gardens. Elizabeth was not in the best of moods with this new assignment.
"What kind of miracle does this bunch of hillbillies expect me to pull out of my ass?" Elizabeth ranted. "At least with the MPs I'm doing something useful."