Saalfeld Railroad Station, April 1635

“Where is the local?”

Karl looked at the station agent, who shrugged. “I don’t know, Herr Alpendorf. Reinhardt telegraphed when the train left Kamsdorf, but then closed down the station and went home. He didn’t say if they were having any trouble. But if the local’s delayed another thirty minutes, I’ll have to hold you for the southbound from Grantville. The traffic’s gotten so heavy, I can’t delay a train that’s running. They may only be talking about war coming, but if this is just talk, I’d hate to see what our traffic will be like when war breaks out! The steel mill is working overtime and shipments are way up. We’re using every engine we have. It’s your decision if you want to wait. If something broke down on the local, it might not arrive at all and your wait would be pointless.”

The decision was clearly Karl’s, along with the consequences. As the head conductor, Karl was responsible for seeing that his train arrived on time. Management was less and less accepting of conductors whose trains were late. He needed to get his train moving as soon as possible.

Karl jogged to the engine and swung up into the cab. Nobody there seemed to share his concern about the missing local. The fireman raked the fire to spread the coals. He tossed another shovelful of coal in and then closed the firebox door. He sat down on his seat, pulled his cap down over his eyes and started to snore. The engineer didn’t even turn when Karl entered the cab. He just rapped the water level to make sure it was true and then turned a valve to slowly add some water to the boiler. Karl reached over and tapped him on his shoulder to get his attention. “Gunther, I want you ready to roll just as soon as I give you the highball. The local’s over twenty minutes late and we have to make up time.” Gunther just nodded and went back to checking the gauges. Karl couldn’t remember Gunther ever saying more than five words at a time, but his trains were never late because of mechanical problems.

Karl realized waiting in the cab wouldn’t get the local in any faster, but it might make the crew upset. So he swung down, out of the cab, and paced back down the platform. He had to do something. He pulled out his watch and checked the time again. It was only four minutes later than the last time he checked. He stopped and took a deep, long breath to relax. The decision was his. He had been on this run for three months now and was third in seniority on the railroad. For someone twenty-two years old, that was exceptional. He snapped the watchcase closed. He was very proud of that watch. He’d been presented the watch by Mr. Lowe himself when he made head conductor. They were very expensive, but kept very accurate time. The railroad considered them a safety investment, and only had enough for their head conductors. He slid the watch back into his vest pocket. He’d give the local another ten minutes, then they were leaving. As soon as he had made up his mind, in the distance he heard a familiar “Aahooogah.” It was a Goose’s horn. The local had finally arrived.

By the time Karl reached the platform on the last car, the Goose had emerged from the trees across the river. It was struggling to pull two freight cars. The extra load explained the lateness. As the Goose pulled on to the side track, the station agent signaled for it to stop alongside the last passenger car of the train. As it rolled by, Karl checked for riders. The passenger compartment was full! With a squeal of brakes and sparks, the Goose came to a stop. The station agent quickly placed a step at the rear door to help the passengers down. Immediately, all the passengers tried to get off at once and jammed up at the door. The station agent called out, “One at a time! One at a time! The train won’t leave without you.”

When the first passenger reached the ground, Karl called out, “All aboard for northbound passengers. We depart in two minutes.” Passengers scrambled to retrieve their luggage from the Goose’s baggage compartment. Karl helped them board while the harried agent passed out their bags. Karl calmly announced, “Please show me you have a ticket. Anyone for Grantville or Rudolstadt, I’ll punch your tickets now. Everyone else, I’ll punch them later. Grantville and Rudolstadt passengers remain in the last coach, through passengers go to the first coach.” He did a double-take as he helped a pretty, red-haired young lady to board. He had seen her before, but hadn’t had the nerve to talk to her. He made a silent vow this trip would be different. He was determined to get to know her better. All he knew now was that she traveled from Kamsdorf and, from her clothes, she was probably an up-timer. He turned back to the line as the next passengers stepped up. Two workmen showed him their new employee passes and asked, “Ludwigstadt bahn?” From their dress, they were heading to the end of track to start working. Karl quickly replied, “Nein, dreissig minuten, Sie gehen nach Süden ,” and pointed south. They nodded and stepped back to wait for the southbound train. Karl helped a last family of four to board and then picked up his signal lantern from the platform. Swinging it side to side so Gunther could see, he called out, “All aboard. Let ‘er roll!”

Gunther gave a short pull on the whistle as a warning. Then a cloud of steam poured from the cylinders, as the wheels spun, briefly, for traction. As the train slowly started to roll, Karl grabbed a handrail and let the momentum pull him up. He waved to the station agent and then entered the coach. He made his way through the Grantville crowd and went to the first coach. He punched the tickets for the through passengers and hung them on the hooks above the seats to show they had paid and remind him when they needed to get off. By the time he was done, they were almost to the Ring Wall. He hurried to the car’s mail room and unlocked the door. He had only a short time to sort the Grantville and Rudolstadt mail that had just arrived. With a practiced ease, he tossed the letters into the waiting sacks. The remainder of the trip to Grantville passed quickly. A whistle sounded in the distance.

The southbound train was waiting at the switch for them to clear. As soon as their last car passed, the yardman threw the switch and the southbound train whistled for departure. As the northbound rolled into the Grantville depot, Karl leaned out the door and tossed the Grantville mailbag at the feet of the waiting mail clerk, who was also the station agent’s oldest son. Karl then hurried back to the last car. He opened the door and called out, “All out for Grantville!” The station agent and his youngest son already had the steps positioned to assist the passengers down by the time Karl reached the back platform.

The odor of fresh-cut lumber, mixed with the usual steam, coal smoke and oil scents, was heavy in the spring air. Karl looked up. The new passenger platform was almost completed. Soon the passengers wouldn’t have to worry about getting wet when going to or from the station. The railroad was trying to accommodate the rapid growth in the number of travelers. Along with the new structures, new rails were a priority and tracks were already being relaid to shorten grades and distances and replace strap rail. Right now, the platform work was stopped. The workers were taking a break, waiting for the train to depart before resuming work overhead. The straw boss seemed perturbed by the interruption, but the workers took the opportunity to admire the young ladies that detrained. Through the crowd, the agent hurried over to Karl. “You arrived twenty-five minutes late! The northbound freight will have to wait an hour for you at Jena.”

Karl took out his watch. “You’re right, twenty-five minutes. We’ve got fifteen minutes in the schedule to load and be off. If I keep standing here chatting, we won’t be able to make any of it up. If you can get the mail and packages loaded, while I board the passengers, that will save at least ten minutes.” He gave Joseph a pat on the back and turned to the group of waiting passengers. “All aboard for Magdeburg and points in between!” Four minutes later, the train pulled out.

A quick glance into the mail room revealed only a lone mailbag and some luggage had been loaded at Grantville. Sorting would go quickly. Hopefully, they wouldn’t have to stop at Rudolstadt. No one was ticketed for there.

As they approached Rudolstadt, Karl could see the signal arm was down. More passengers to load! They wouldn’t make up any time here. He repeated the routine from Grantville and managed to make up a whole minute. With no local passengers, the last coach was temporarily empty. He headed back to the first coach to see to the needs of his passengers. The next stretch was the longest on the route. Maybe he could finally get a few free minutes to meet the young lady and chat with her. He entered the mail compartment and quickly sorted the Grantville bag. The day promised to be sunny, so he extinguished the fire in the small stove and quickly rehearsed the introduction he planned to use with the young lady. Straightening his coat and hat, he opened the door and stepped out into the passenger compartment. The object of his attention was seated alone, three seats away. Just as he reached her, the elderly grandmother across the aisle tugged at his coat sleeve. “How long until Jena?”

“Three hours, Grandmother.” The reply was automatic. He turned back to the redhead but the interruption caused him to completely forget his prepared speech. Instead, all he could come up with was, “Do you travel this way often?” As soon as he said it, he wished he had just kept walking down the aisle. It sounded so trite. The smile on her face as soon as she realized he had spoken to her drove the embarrassment away immediately.

“No, this is only my second train trip. I’m on my way to Imperial Tech.” She glanced around the car. “It looks like we’re the only young folks on this trip. I was hoping we might have a chance to talk. I remember you from last time. You were so busy; you never said a word to me.” She tried to pout, but almost giggled.

Karl’s heart nearly skipped a beat. She remembered him! He stood there, lost in his thoughts for a second, before he remembered to answer. “I remember. That was my first week as head conductor for this train. I was so nervous about not making a mistake on the new job, I couldn’t think of a word to say.” And I’m still having trouble! Karl took a deep breath to relax and then continued. “It’s been three months since I started this run and now I think I know every bump and sway in the track.” Just then, the train passed a rough track section and the car gave a sharp thump. He held up a finger for emphasis. “And there should be another just . . . about . . . now!” Just like a musical conductor signaling a drummer, the car gave another thump as it reached the end of the rail section. They both laughed at the timing.

She gave him a thoughtful look and then asked, “Aren’t you a little young to be a head conductor? I always thought they were old men.”

Karl nodded. “Normally you would be right, but I started as a trainman before the railroad opened for business. My father was the foreman who helped build this section of the railroad and I worked on his crew. When they posted the job announcement for trainmen, I already knew the route and the engineers. Mr. Lowe decided to take a chance on a younger man and now here I am!”

“Is your father Fritz Alpendorf?” she asked with an amazed look on her face.

Karl was speechless for a moment. How did she know his father? “Why yes. How do you know his name?”

“I’ve met him a number of times when he came to my father’s steel plant to check on the new rail production. I must say, you do bear a strong resemblance to him.”

Karl started to get a tight spot in his chest. She was way above his station in life. The short hair and open attitude had left him with the impression she might be a shop clerk. The daughter of a steel mill owner? Never! Nevertheless, he had to ask, “Who exactly do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

“Oh! I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself. Father says my manners are atrocious at times. I’m Lynn Pierce. I’m on my way to Imperial Tech to study mechanical engineering.” She stuck out her hand. “And you are?”

Karl bowed, took her hand and kissed it, as he imagined a nobleman would. “I am Karl Alpendorf, head conductor on this train. Very pleased to meet you.” They both laughed at his performance. A chuckle from across the aisle caught their attention. The old grandmother there was smiling.

“Such a nice young man. And so polite,” they heard her whisper. “I wish I was still young.”

Turning back to Lynn, Karl asked, “Are you really planning to study engineering? Why would you want to study in such a boring field?” Lynn’s eyes went wide. Karl realized that had not been the right way to ask the question. Before he could recover, Lynn launched into an explanation that evidently had been used numerous times before.

“It’s not a boring field! I’ve worked the past few years for my parents as a draftsman and engineer on all sorts of projects at the mill. And done a good job too! If I’m going to be able to do the more complicated work that the mill will need in the future, Father says I have to have the training that will be needed. He agreed that after two years at Tech I could take on larger projects. I helped with the design of the machines that rolled the rail we’re riding on!”

The conversation was interrupted by a small boy walking up to Karl and tugging politely on his coat sleeve. Karl turned and asked, “Can I help you?” The boy, who seemed to be bouncing more than the car motion would explain, motioned for Karl to bend over so he could whisper in his ear. Karl nodded and then stood up. “We’ll be right back.” He escorted the child to the restroom at the end of the car. Opening the door, he said, “Here you go. Just pull the latch back when you get ready to come out.” He walked back to Lynn. “Just part of my job, running the train.”

Lynn looked puzzled. “I thought the engineer ran the train?”

“Oh no, he only drives the engine. The conductor runs the train. He’s responsible for arriving on time, making sure everything is run safely and that the passengers are taken care of properly. A very important job!” He straightened his coat and, unconsciously, struck a pose. The youngster chose that moment to leave the restroom and announce to his mother in a loud voice, “They even have running water!” as he raced back to his seat.

Lynn’s rejoinder, “But you’re still pretty young!” brought Karl back to earth.

They talked for almost twenty minutes about Karl’s work, Lynn’s plans for school, and her ideas on new products for the mill. Karl held his own in the technical discussions, describing the engineering problems his father had encountered with construction at various points on the line. Lynn described what the mill was doing for rolling the new steel rail. As they passed over a short trestle, Karl described the headaches they had encountered with the pilings. “The land in this area is very soft and marshy. It took them almost two weeks to get the pilings down far enough to hit solid ground. They had a lot of problems with supplies and equipment sinking into the ground. We’ve had to keep real close watch on the track to make sure it doesn’t buckle or slide. They were eventually able to find a solid ridge up ahead that rises above the soft ground. It’s close to a stream and follows its course for about a mile.” The train started to slow down as it reached the foot of the uphill grade.

Karl noticed the door on the stove had come open. “Excuse me. I need to attend to the stove.” He walked over and checked the coals. They were dull, with lots of ash. He shook the grate and cleared the ash. Not much was left of the fire so he reached for the water pail, which hung nearby, to douse the remnants. As he tossed the water in, he felt a vibration that was unfamiliar. Suddenly, he felt more than heard a loud series of crunches through the frame of the car. A loud screech of steel on steel came from the direction of the engine. Without thinking, Karl dropped the pail, slammed the door of the stove closed and locked it. At the same time, he yelled out, “Everyone grab something and hold on!” He looked up and saw Gunther and the fireman fly past the window, heading for the soft ground alongside the track. The car reared up in the air. Lynn was thrown from her seat and a small trunk flew off the luggage rack and struck a glancing blow to her head. A wrenching crash, then the car then stopped abruptly. Karl grabbed hold of the overhead rack to keep from being thrown onto the stove. When Lynn’s limp body was thrown, he grabbed her with his free arm and hung on. A sharp, grating pain in his arm meant something had broken, but his grip on the luggage rack held.

A loud, metallic snap sounded from the car behind them. Karl frantically looked toward the rear. The second car tilted almost ninety degrees in the opposite direction his car was leaning. The crash posts had held and they were safe from that direction. The cars gave one last groan, settled and stopped moving. Amazingly, he and Lynn were the only ones who had been thrown forward. Everyone else had heard his warning and held on. He called out, “Anyone else hurt? Check those around you.”

A voice from the far end of the car called out, “I think I broke an ankle.”

Still holding Lynn, Karl called out, “Can someone help him?”

Surprisingly, the grandmother from across the aisle got up and went back to help. She managed to walk on the sides of the seat legs with little difficulty. Karl checked Lynn’s pulse. It was strong, but a nasty gash on her head was bleeding freely and already starting to purple. She moaned a little, but didn’t waken. He set her down, then took out his handkerchief and pressed it firmly to the cut.

The stove was still secured to the floor by its stay bolts and the door was shut. Fire, the other major concern in train wrecks, wouldn’t happen here, but Karl could smell a faint smoke odor. It must be the stove on the other car. Fighting back nausea and pain from his broken arm, Karl gathered up three fire grenades that were fastened above the stove and made his way back to the second car. Luckily, the doors were unlatched, but he still had trouble stepping across, clutching the grenades to his chest. When he finally entered, the stove was still attached, but the door had come off its hinges and coals were spread on the floor. He quickly threw all three grenades. Their glass shells broke and spread the chemical on the coals. Holding his breath, Karl grabbed two more grenades from above the stove and added them to the effort. The flames sputtered out, Karl ducked out of the door, closed it and sucked in a lungful of clean air. While the grenades were very effective in killing the flames, he had also been warned that they were equally effective in killing anyone who breathed in too much of their fumes.

Karl gingerly descended to the ground and looked around. His arm was beginning to throb. He cradled it with his right hand. He thought he knew every foot of the line, but he didn’t remember a pond on this section. The passenger cars had come to rest leaning in opposite directions, but still on their wheels. They were headed downhill, with their wheels resting on opposite sides of a small ravine. The first car had struck a pile of coal, which accounted for the sudden stop. The coal had no business being piled there. Karl stepped around the pile and the reason for its existence became evident. The tender had struck a large stump and flipped over, dumping the coal in its flight. The tender was twisted around a large tree, upside down, about fifty feet further down the ravine. By some fluke, the engine had missed the stump and the large trees on both sides of the ravine and simply continued down the ravine, to settle in a large pond. It was wreathed in a cloud of steam. Karl started to head toward the engine to check on the crew but then remember seeing them bail out. They were lucky! Bailing out had kept them from being scalded to death. Karl started to turn, still wondering where they were, when a voice behind him caused him to jump. The arm reminded him forcefully that it needed attention soon.

“Do you know what happened?” Gunther yelled. “The rails gave way! When we started riding on the ties, Hans and I jumped.” Suddenly, the cloud of steam seemed to register with him. His eyes went wide and he started to stammer, ” O-otherwise we’d have been cooked alive!” Gunther pointed toward the engine. “My poor Annalise. What has happened to you?”

It took Karl a moment to understand who Gunther was talking about. Gunther had a name for his engine! Even more astonishing was that the shock of the accident had finally loosened his tongue and he had said more than five words at the same time! Karl grabbed Gunther with his good hand and pulled him back toward the ravine to help check further on the passengers. “Come on. They’ll get her out all right. She’s just in some water. Help me get this arm splinted and then we can see about getting a message out to get help.” Gunther kept looking back over his shoulder as they climbed onto the nearest platform.

Karl looked around again to try and get his bearings. “Do you recognize where we are? I don’t remember any pond on this section. I thought we were about ten miles from Jena.”

Gunther nodded. “We are ten miles out. This pond is new.”

Karl fumbled for the key to the mail room. He finally stuck out his hip for Gunther to reach into his left coat pocket for the key. “Help me get the telegraph rod and key rigged up so I can send a message for help.” Gunther found the key and opened the door. He got the emergency telegraph key and the long rod to tap into the wire. Once Gunther hooked the pole end over the telegraph wire and attached the key, Karl sent the message calling for help and gave their approximate position. Both Grantville and Jena acknowledged and said help was on the way.

“Oh . . . ” Karl was seeing spots before his eyes. Then nothing.

****

“Karl? Karl?” A soft patting on his cheek.

“Wh . . . ” Karl opened his eyes.

Gunther stopped patting his cheek. “You’re awake. Good.” Then he began to give Karl a report. “Besides your broken arm, there are two broken ankles and numerous cuts and bruises.”

Karl looked around. Someone had removed a pair of seat bottoms and Lynn was resting on them, with a makeshift bandage around the cut on her head. The grandmother was sitting beside her. Karl struggled to his feet, then walked over. “Do you need anything?”

Lynn looked up, but the grandmother remarked, “Young man, I do believe your estimate on our arrival time may be a little off!” Laughing at her attempt at humor she then pointed toward Lynn. “She should be fine.”

Lynn’s eyes opened and immediately fixed on him. A good sign, according to what doctors said. She looked over his injury and then asked, “Is it true you broke your arm saving me from landing on the hot stove?”

The question was totally unexpected. Karl was still a little woozy and had to pause and reconstruct what had happened. It had all happened so fast. He hadn’t been thinking, just reacting. When he realized what might have happened if he hadn’t caught Lynn, he almost fainted again. He managed to mumble, “I suppose so. I was just doing my duty.” He quickly realized how unfeeling that sounded. “I mean, I’m glad you’re safe. Everything happened so fast, I couldn’t let someone as nice as you get hurt if there was any way I could help it.” He started to blush and quickly left before Lynn could see it. He missed the smile that lit up her face.

With a sense of duty pushing him, Karl walked around the wreck assessing the damage in detail. His arm was throbbing with every step but he pushed on. Both cars appeared to be in remarkably good condition. The coupler was missing on the first car, but there was no damage to either car’s frame. With a little work, they should be running again soon. The same could not be said for the rest of the train. The tender was smashed and twisted and only the wheels looked like they could be salvaged. The engine, what could still be seen, appeared to be undamaged. The problem was that it was slowly sinking into the pond. With the soft ground in the area, that was going to be a nightmare trying to raise. The large, old growth trees might cause a problem with access to the site.

Gunther and Hans approached with worried looks on their faces. “Come with us, we need to show you something.”

They started back down the track, past the wreck. When they reached the start of the damage, Gunther pointed to the ties. “Do you see it?”

Karl stared but didn’t understand what Gunther was pointing at. “I don’t see a thing!”

“Exactly!” Gunther pointed to a long stretch of ties with wheel marks gouged in them. “There are only a few spikes on the outside edge where the rail was. They weren’t pulled out by the rail; they’re just gone! Someone’s taken the spikes! The track crew wouldn’t notice because they don’t see the outside of the rail as easily on the curve when they’re riding the hand car.”

Hans held up a spike bar that he had found nearby. “It looks like someone used our own tools for the job!”

Karl realized that he was in over his head and needed help. Just then, a familiar ‘Aaahooogah’ sounded from the direction of Grantville. Help had arrived.

****

Hugh Lowe sat in his office, rereading for the fifth time a copy of the terse telegram that had notified the railroad of the wreck. No doubt by now, word was spreading like wildfire, since the telegraph message had been sent in both directions in the clear. A commotion in the outer office broke in on his thoughts. His secretary discreetly knocked on the door and then entered. “Mr. Lowe, a messenger just arrived from the radio station. He says that a government official from Magdeburg is trying to reach you and they say it’s extremely urgent he speaks with you.”

“Tell him I’ll be right over.” He looked once more at the message, still trying to decide whether it was a harbinger of more sinister problems. With a sigh, he folded it and shoved it in his pocket, and then headed for the radio station.

Brendan Murphy, from the Secretary of Transportation’s office, was still holding for him when Hugh arrived. The operator showed him how to work the equipment and then stepped out to give him some privacy. Sterling immediately asked, “Was it a raid, Hugh? As soon as word of the wreck reached us, our first thoughts were another raiding party, what with all the war rumors flying about.”

Hugh stuck his hand in his pocket, but left the message there. “All we know, there was a wreck. The conductor said nothing about a raid in his message. It may have been sabotage and it might not. I would greatly appreciate any help you could lend in that area. By the way, who’s going to be responsible for the investigation? I sure hope it’s not your office. No disrespect intended, but you guys never struck me as the CSI types.”

“I was afraid you might ask that, Hugh. Right now, no one is. I’ve recommended that TacRail handle this and I’m waiting for the army to give its approval. They could also help with the clean up and repair. I’ve spoken to Colonel Pitre and she says they should be able to get there within a few hours. I’ll get back to you within the hour. Magdeburg out.”

Hugh took off the headset, muttering, “It sure sounds like someone’s lit a fire under him! I hope he can follow through on that promise. I’ve got too many shipments that are going to be delayed if the mainline is tied up waiting for someone in Magdeburg to make a decision about investigating.” He summoned the operator back.

Less than ten minutes later, a follow up contact came in. “Please tell Mr. Lowe that TacRail will be arriving in the morning to investigate the wreck and assist in repairing the track. Magdeburg out.”

****

“Of all the damn places to have a wreck! Miserable terrain and soft ground, a winning combination!” Colonel Pitre’s sarcasm was drowned out by the bellowing of the oxen hitched to a passenger car as they pulled it back onto a temporary shoo-fly track. One car was already back on the rails and workers from Vulcan Werks were checking the brakes so it could be hauled back to their shops for repairs. During a pause in the salvage work, Beth pulled Sergeant Cooper aside. “I want you to conduct an investigation. It’s obvious someone removed the spikes on the track, causing the accident, since the spikes are gone.” She pointed toward an obvious break in the undergrowth. “There’s a trail that leads off into the woods from the tracks. It appears to be quite recent and shows signs that someone has traveled back and forth with a heavy load.” Jim Cooper gathered a squad to follow the trail and see where it led. He’d been gone almost two hours and Beth was beginning to get worried.

A bellow from the oxen brought her attention back to the salvage work. The car had reached the rail and the straining oxen had managed to pull the first set of wheels onto the track. The drover had pulled them up short because some of the timbers had moved. A short pause was needed while the timbers that were guiding the rear wheels were repositioned for the final pull. For the umpteenth time in the past hour, the lack of an adequate-sized crane to work on rough ground came back to the top of Beth’s Christmas wish list. As she finished checking the timber placement, she heard a commotion from the group trying to decide how to proceed with the locomotive. She stood up and walked back around the car. Coming out of the woods was the squad, with Sergeant Cooper leading the way. Two civilians were being escorted, with their hands tied behind their backs.

Dragging his captives with him, Sergeant Cooper pulled up in front of Beth and saluted. “Mission accomplished, Colonel.”

Thuringen Gardens, Grantville Late April 1635

A quick glance at his watch showed Vince that he was ten minutes early. Even so, he increased his pace. Dark clouds were threatening rain any minute and he detested wet clothes. As he approached the entrance to the Gardens, the doorman held the door open for him and motioned for his attention. “Herr Masaniello, your party is expecting you. Herr Lowe has the private room in back reserved for you.”

Vince was surprised. This was so unlike Hugh. He never went out for lunch, and the added cost of a private room had probably unleashed a swarm of moths from his wallet when he paid for it. This had to be something important, and most likely involved last week’s train wreck. If he was going to make another plea for faster delivery on the locomotives they were assembling, it was a waste of time and money. The current schedule was already overambitious and the delay in the wheel castings was out of his control. He chuckled to himself. He’d wait until after the meal to tell him that. A free lunch from Hugh was too good to pass up!

As Vince entered the private room, Hugh Lowe rose and shook his hand. A quick glance at the table showed it was set for three. “Somebody else coming, Hugh?” He motioned toward the settings.

“A little later. I wanted to have a chance to eat with you in peace before getting down to business. This is my first chance to relax since that business last week.” Outside, a rumble of thunder and patter on the roof announced that the rain had arrived.

****

A discreet knock on the door announced the arrival of the third member of the meeting. Colonel Elizabeth Pitre opened the door. “Am I on time?”

Hugh waved her over to the extra place setting. “Beth, we’re just starting dessert. Tell the waiter to send in an extra serving if you’re hungry.”

“If that’s today’s special, you don’t have to twist my arm. I’ll definitely join you.” Beth took her seat facing Hugh. “Good to see you again, Vince. Any new toys for us to play with at TacRail?”

“Maybe. If you’re really interested, I’ll send someone over to your office later this week to brief you. We’ve finally solved the bottleneck on the boiler tubes shortage. Would you believe, we’re recruiting gun makers? The steel barrels they use for muskets only need some minor changes to be used as boiler tube stock. We should start seeing a steady supply of boilers for larger industrial uses.”

Hugh visibly perked up at the news. “Does that mean I’ll see my new locomotives sooner?”

Vince winced. This was what he had expected! “I’m sorry, Hugh, but the casting delays on the drivers and cylinders are what are delaying the construction. We already had the locomotive tubes built. It’s still going to be July before the next order of engines could even remotely be ready.” And more likely October, was the unspoken thought.

“Well, that’s why I invited the two of you here.” Beth and Vince looked at each other, hoping the other would explain. “Colonel Pitre, has your investigation come up with any answers?”

“I do have answers to both of your questions. First, we have discovered the reason for the accident.”

“Excellent.” Hugh clapped in appreciation. “I knew bringing TacRail in was the right approach. I told Brendan he wasn’t equipped to handle this type of investigation. So who sabotaged us?”

“I’m sorry if you think I was implying sabotage,” Beth said. “It was nothing as dramatic as that. It seems one of the local landowners was building a dam to power a new mill and needed something to hold the structure together. Somehow, the spikes were ‘liberated’ and used to beef up the cross braces on the dam. We’re holding the landowner and his foreman in custody until we can sort out who was responsible for giving the orders and removing the spikes. I suspect both were equally involved and I suspect the railroad may be the proud owner of a new mill when this is all settled.”

Hugh was stunned. He shook his head, “What were they thinking? Just pull up the spikes and no one would notice?”

Beth nodded. “They didn’t think the outside spikes were that important and figured the track crews wouldn’t notice them missing since they were on the outside of a curve. We found a trail leading straight from the accident site to the dam. When my sergeant questioned them, they each implicated the other.”

“That was fast work. I’ll have my lawyer get with you to start the court proceedings. Now, you said you had an answer to both questions. What were you able to do about getting us back in operation?”

“There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that between your track crew and my unit, the track is repaired and back in operation as of late yesterday morning. The two cars were hauled back to Grantville and are already over at Vulcan Werks for repairs. Martin said they should be finished in a week. The tender, as we suspected, is a write off. I was able to retrieve the wheels and they went back with the coaches to Vulcan.”

Vince nodded agreement.

Beth continued, “The bad news is the locomotive. The ground there is now part of the pond that the dam was built to deepen. The surrounding ground is either too steep or too soft to try and set up any equipment to lift the engine out. Even if the pond is drained, the ground would still be too soft. The loco has sunk so far in that it’s impossible to drag it out either. Believe me, we tried! We could squeeze six oxen, yoked to a cable, into the ravine. All we managed to do was drive the engine in deeper. As far as I can see, the only hope is that it doesn’t sink too far by the time it starts to freeze. We might be able to dig it out next winter.”

Vince sat there, taking in the report and wondering why Hugh had asked him here. When Beth emphasized digging, a light began to flicker. Hugh interrupted his thoughts with a question for Beth.

“So what you’re saying is that I’m short an additional locomotive until the winter freeze?”

“Basically, yes. Unless Vince can come up with some way to lift the engine out without losing his equipment to the bog, you’ll have to wait.”

“I suspected as much from the description Karl, the conductor, gave me of the accident site. But as short as we are for engines, I had to hope. Vince, if there ever was a time you could pull a rabbit out of a hat, this is it.” Hugh looked like a drowning man searching for a rope.

“I don’t know about rabbits, and without seeing the site, I can’t say for certain, but we do have some new toys that may be of use.” The prototype boiler he’d had Arlen working on was ready and had the power needed. Adapting it would be the problem. “Colonel, could you stop by the Werks with me when we finish and describe to my chief engineer what you’re facing. I think with a little brainstorming we might come up with some possibilities.”

Vince’s optimism brought a smile to Hugh’s face. “I’d like to send Karl with you, Colonel, as my liaison. He’s laid up right now with a broken arm, but has had some exposure to railroad engineering. He knows everyone on the line and should be of some help.”

Beth just nodded, her attention fastened on the kitchen doorway. The waiter had just arrived with the additional strudel. It was smothered in fresh whipped cream and perched on a huge scoop of ice cream. Beth checked her belt, to make sure proper attention could be given to the dessert.

****

Two sets of legs stuck out from under a damaged passenger car. Recognizing both, Mimi Goss walked over and gave the longer pair of them a kick. “Arlen Goss, are you going to let Martin have a lunch break, or are you both planning on starving me to death? The aroma of cheese and oregano brought both men out from under the car. Mimi stood there with a fresh pizza and two bottles of beer. “Junior is kicking, telling me it’s way past time to eat! Now go clean up and get back here before I finish this whole pizza. The doctor says I need to watch my weight and you’re definitely not helping.”

After a quick, apologetic kiss to his wife, Arlen grabbed Martin and headed to the nearby wash sink. As they cleaned up, Arlen surveyed the crowded shop. A crew was unloading car part castings from some flat cars. “You know, Martin, we may need to expand again. Those ore cars are taking up a lot of space, especially broken down like they are for shipping. The work keeps coming in faster than we can finish it.”

Martin gave Arlen a poke in the ribs and pointed to Mimi with a bar of soap. “Work here’s not the only thing expanding. When is she due?”

Arlen smiled at the jest. “Not for a couple of months yet. The doctor isn’t sure, but it may be twins. She goes back to see him next week. We should know then.” The object of the discussion picked up her second piece of pizza and scooped the cheese string into her mouth. “We better hurry or there won’t be anything left!” Arlen tossed a hand rag back on the sink and headed toward his wife. When he got to the table he was rewarded with a cheese-flavored kiss.

Just about the time the last of the pizza disappeared, Vince Masaniello came through the open shop doors with Colonel Pitre and two others. Mimi turned to Arlen, “Looks like my cue to leave. Your boss is here with visitors.”

Arlen motioned for her to remain seated. “Stick around. He mentioned he might be stopping by with visitors and needed to discuss a large project. I’ll want your thoughts if it involves travel. With a baby coming, I don’t want to get stuck too far from home. Your being here may remind him of that fact. Vince can be a little too focused at times.”

Vince pointed out the cars that were in for repairs to the visitors and then brought them over to the table. “Arlen, these are the visitors I mentioned. I believe you know Colonel Pitre.”

Arlen nodded a greeting. He had worked with the TacRail commander on a number of projects. Her presence at least reduced the likelihood of a long trip. “Good to see you again, Colonel. Were those parts I sent last week what you needed?”

“Yes. We didn’t even need to do any extra machining.”

Arlen turned to the other two visitors. The female was familiar, but he couldn’t place her name. The man with the arm in a sling was a total stranger. Vince continued, “This is Karl Alpendorf, a conductor on the railroad and his companion is Lynn Pierce, a mechanical engineering student. They’ll be involved on this project.”

Arlen snapped his fingers and pointed at Lynn. “Now I remember! You work at your father’s steel works. I thought I remembered seeing you somewhere. You were there when I was meeting with him on that large parts order for the ore cars.” He pointed to the arriving castings. “You made the design suggestion that reduced the weight on the wheels.”

Lynn smiled. “I’m flattered you remembered.”

A swift kick under the table reminded Arlen of his manners. He turned to his table companions, “Let me introduce the head of our car construction, Martin Erlanger, and my wife, Mimi.” Both nodded acknowledgement.

Vince pulled up some nearby chairs. When Martin and Mimi started to rise, he told them to stay. “This is just a preliminary brainstorming session. Outside ideas would be welcomed.”

Arlen asked, just a little puzzled, “And just what, exactly, are we brainstorming? If it’s about the wreck, the cars are here and should be relatively simple to repair.”

Vince shook his head. “The problem is the locomotive. The railroad needs engines, badly, and the wreck has left one mired in a bog. The colonel has spent the past few days trying to lift, pull, or push it out. All that’s happened is that it’s stuck even deeper now in the muck. You know as well as I do that USE Steel is making parts as fast as they can, but we can only build locomotives if the parts are here. If we can get this engine raised, it should be a simple repair job. You were at the site to get the cars here for repair and know what the situation looks like. Is there any way we could use the new prototype steam engine to get that locomotive out?”

Arlen said, “That site is was heavily wooded along the ravine and around the pond the loco is submerged in. There’s no way to pull the engine out until the ground freezes. I assume we can’t wait for winter?”

Vince sighed. “Nope. Hugh needs it now!”

“Just asking.” Arlen looked over at the prototype. It was supposed to generate over two hundred horsepower. It could be mounted vertically on a sledge for transport to the site and outriggers added for stability. The problem was finding a way to lift the weight of the loco without toppling the equipment. Somehow, the lift point had to be right over the loco. He started to get an idea. He doodled on a napkin, laying out the site as he remembered it. When he finished he pushed it across the table to Beth. “Is this about how you remember the site’s layout?”

Beth studied the drawing for a minute. “That’s very close. You’ve got extremely good powers of observation. Now, what’s your idea?”

“I remember a story about a railroad that faced a similar problem. They solved it by rigging cable between a number of large trees and running some type of pulley mechanism out for the lift. I was stuck for a minute on what the mechanism looked like, but remembered an old model train crane I had on my layout. There would be a set of pulleys connected to the steam donkey for lifting and lowering and other sets on the end of mechanism and trees that went back to the donkey engine to run it out and back.” He paused, gathering his thoughts. Abruptly he asked, “Colonel, how much pull do you have with the navy?”

“I know Admiral Simpson from meetings we’ve both attended, but all we’ve ever discussed professionally was how much more rail he needed for his ironclads. What do you need?” Beth asked.

Arlen started to sketch in lines on the site map, connecting back to a point on solid ground. “We’ll need some anchor cable to handle the main lines. Two-inch might work, but three-inch would be better. Probably around ten sections of hundred-foot lengths. We’ll return it when we’re done, but it will be stretched.” He turned to Lynn. “I’ll also need some custom casting work to make the pulleys and blocks to handle cable that size. Can USE Steel handle something like that with their current workload?”

Lynn studied the rough sketch and then got a faraway look. After a minute she replied, “I’ll have to check with Dad, but I think they could do it if Mr. Lowe asked and explained why.” She looked over at Karl. “No offense, but your boss has been pushing real hard for loco parts and rail. He’ll have to decide how important this work is.”

****

Arlen walked around the flatcar, double checking the rigging holding down the donkey engine for shipping to the accident site. Six weeks of very intensive labor was sitting on the car and he didn’t want anything to happen to it. The engine’s “accessories” had taken up all of his time. The gearing system for the two cable drums was simple in theory, but Vince’s extra requirements had complicated the final design. The trade off had been that the company could use the design on a wide range of other steam powered equipment. Vince was already in contact with the navy on one of his pet projects concerning the new boilers.

The aerial lifting dolly sat next to the engine, strapped to the deck. At just over six feet long and eight hundred pounds, it would need special handling to simply get it into the proper position once they arrived at the site. It had been ready a week ahead of schedule, thanks to Lynn’s efforts at USE Steel in overseeing the finishing machining. Word had arrived two weeks ago that the cable had been delivered by train, along with four navy riggers to help the TacRail detachment install it. It would be ready when he arrived. Hopefully, it should only take a day or two to finish the project once he got the engine set up. The prospect of camping in the woods, even with an army tent and cot, wasn’t too inviting. Besides, the doctor said Mimi was inside a month for her delivery. He planned on being there for the birth of their twins.

Arlen finished his inspection. Only one strap had needed some tightening. The shop crew had done a good job loading the equipment. He signaled for the waiting Goose to back up and couple on. Since there was only one car and they couldn’t leave the car blocking the main line once they unloaded, the railroad was sending a Goose to pull the car out and return with the empty. As the Goose bumped into the flatcar, Arlen connected the air lines and signaled it was coupled. He grabbed his duffel bag and swung up on the Goose’s rear steps as it pulled out. He looked around for Mimi, but she was nowhere to be seen. Arlen shrugged. She probably went inside for one of those increasingly frequent pit stops the pregnancy is causing. He settled down on the bench seat for the short trip to the accident site.

An hour later, when the freight special arrived at the accident site, Arlen was amazed at the work that had already been accomplished. The forest canopy had been limbed out and cables ran like a spider’s web between the trees. A dirt ramp with a wooden deck was waiting to assist in unloading the engine. The pond where the engine had landed had been drained and a caisson of timbers erected to help in removing enough mud so that cables could be slung underneath the engine’s frame.

Beth Pitre met him as he climbed down from the Goose. “We’re ready as soon as you can get your engine set up.” Beth guided him around the site and kept up a running commentary. “I’ve had my detachment build rollers to ease the hauling. The site is leveled and the lifting cables are already rigged around the bottom of the locomotive.”

They were interrupted as a crew of local workers swarmed over the donkey engine, loosening the tie downs and attaching ropes to manhandle the load off the flatcar. Beth continued, “They should have it off and in position before dinner. They’re being paid a bonus if we have the work done in the next three days. The army needs all the logistics transport it can round up to support the forces in the east.” With a wave of her arm she added, “Can you see where we might have missed something?”

Arlen was amazed by the coordinated mayhem around him. TacRail was taking this assignment seriously. He looked around and then asked, “Did you get the softeners made? I don’t think Admiral Simpson would appreciate us cutting his cables, much less Mr. Lowe having his locomotive dropped back in this mud hole.”

Beth smiled. “Two old truck tires cut up and positioned as recommended! I have to confess. One of my squad worked for a crane company right after high school.” Pointing to the tent area, Beth went on, “Why don’t I get you settled in your tent? You can unpack and then have lunch while we get the donkey engine in position and rig up the aerial gear. We might even have time to finish the rigging before dark.”

“Sounds fine,” Arlen said. “The sooner we get done, the sooner I can get back to town. The doctor says Mimi could give birth any time now.”

****

After lunch, Arlen watched as the ship riggers moved the aerial lift dolly into position. The riggers took their time. While the process looked easy to the uninitiated, one wrong move could sever a hand or finger in the blink of an eye. When the dolly reached its destination, four cables were waiting and were strung through the pulleys on each end. The entire dolly was slowly hauled by teams with ropes, into position over the locomotive. Arlen was surprised to see Karl in a group gathered around the engine, helping to transfer water to the boiler and overseeing the laying of the coal in the firebox. “Aren’t you a conductor?” he asked.

“I am, but when my father started with the railroad, I was his assistant and got to learn a lot of jobs. Mr. Lowe says I’m a fast learner and he’s kept me here to get an education in what he calls the ‘hands-on part of project management.’ He said he may even send me back to school if I do well.”

Arlen reached over to give him a congratulatory pat on the back, but managed to stop at the last second when he recalled Karl’s recent injury. They both laughed at the near miss. Arlen noticed that the sun was starting to cast shadows, making for less than ideal visibility. Colonel Pitre stood nearby surveying the work too. When the TacRail squad finished securing the cables to the drums on the donkey engine, Sergeant Cooper looked to Beth, who considered the scene one more time and then nodded. A shrill blast from the sergeant’s whistle brought the work to a halt. “Pack it in for the night, everyone! We’ll get the donkey engine steamed up overnight and start the lift in the morning!” All around the site, men started to tie down their lines and insure the gear was safe.

Arlen approached Colonel Pitre. “I’m not sure why you need me here, Colonel. It looks like your people have everything under control!”

“It’s not the prep work we need you for. Your time comes tomorrow when your engine shows us what you can make it do. There are a lot of people following this effort. Vince has a number of other projects riding on how well your baby performs.” She nodded a good night and headed off for her tent. Arlen checked Karl’s efforts on the boiler, left some instructions to be called if something unexpected should happen and then headed for his tent, too. His dreams that night were a confusion of small babies flying through the air.

****

A whistle roused Arlen from his sleep. From where he was lying on his cot, it could be argued that there might be a hint of light just breaking out in the east. Sergeant Cooper was turning out his squad to a chorus of groans and complaints. Arlen’s joints agreed and refused to budge. The cot wasn’t the worst place he’d ever slept, only the worst in recent memory. He finally rolled out and stretched to get the worst kinks out. A nearby washtub provided cold water to clean up. The smell of ham and eggs cooking erased most of his ill thoughts about the army. An hour later, after a delicious breakfast and two of Dr. Gribbleflotz’s blue pills, he went to check on the donkey engine. Karl was already there, adding a small shovelful of coal to the bed of coals in the firebox. The heat from the fire was a welcome relief to the damp morning air. A quick check showed that the steam pressure was up.

The sun was casting visible shadows when Colonel Pitre approached. “Is everything ready? It looks like we might have a hot day today, so we might as well start now.”

Arlen did one last safety check, to make sure everything was tightened properly. “It’s ready! Warn everyone we’re starting!” Arlen winced when Sergeant Cooper blew his whistle from directly behind him.

“Stand by to start the lift! Everyone man your assigned ropes!”

Arlen slowly advanced the throttle to start the engine. The gears engaged and the slack on the lifting cable slowly came in. Overhead, the lifting dolly started to descend as the cables to the locomotive took up the strain. After a moment, Arlen backed off on the steam and disengaged the gears, letting the slack run back out. He turned to Beth. “Just like backing a car out of a ditch, I’ll have to rock it to break the mud’s suction!” She just nodded in agreement. On the third try, the engine straightened and started to lift. Arlen slowed it down, calling out to the ground crews, “Keep your lines tight! We do not want it to twist!”

As the locomotive rose above the pond, the entire clearing reverberated with cheers. Arlen stood, sweating from the heat of the boiler and the tension. He muttered under his breath, “Don’t cheer until it’s on the flatcar. A lot could still go wrong.” He locked the gear for the lift and shifted to the moving drums. Just then, a gust of wind hit the locomotive and started to twist it. One man was pulled off his feet and deposited into the nearby mud, but the locomotive was stopped before it could jump the upper carrying cable. In their anxiety to stop the twist, the ground crews over-corrected and started the loco in the other direction. Luckily, the wind now helped and they were able to get it straightened out. When everyone was back in place, Arlen called out, “Starting the move!”

Slowly, the cables paid out to the far side and wound in on the near side, pulling the engine over to the waiting flatcar. Another hour and the locomotive was safely lowered to the flatcar and tied down.

Colonel Pitre came over to congratulate Arlen. She had a message in her hand. “Well done! I’ll make sure the proper people are informed how well your equipment worked. By the way, this message came in shortly after you started the lift. I didn’t want to break your concentration, so I exercised command prerogative and waited.” She was smiling from ear to ear.

The message read: “Congratulations! You are the proud father of a six pound four ounce baby girl and a seven pound two ounce baby boy as of 5:15 this morning. Mother and babies doing fine. Mimi says she’ll give you and Vince a one hour head start when she gets out of the hospital! Deidre

Arlen stood there stunned. Finally he managed to blurt out, “I’m a father!” The nearby soldiers heard the comment and started a another round of cheers. Karl came over and spoke in his ear, “I’ve got a hand car standing by that will get you to Grantville inside the hour. Just grab your bag and go. We’ll finish up here.” He pointed to the nearby handcar and crew. Still in a daze, Arlen trotted over to his tent, stuffed everything into his duffel bag and raced over to his transportation.

An hour later, he was shown into Mimi’s room. Deidre Hardy, Mimi’s best friend, was there, along with both sets of grandparents. The twins were wrapped up, one on each side of mom. Mimi fixed Arlen with a stare, “Took your time didn’t you?” Arlen stood rooted to the floor, unsure what to do or say. Finally, Mimi and Deidre couldn’t hold back any longer and broke into peals of laughter. “Just don’t make this a habit!” Mimi quipped. “We heard how the lift went. My labor started just as you were leaving with the engine, but the doctor thought the delivery would take longer. I told them to wait and let you finish the job. Too many people were counting on you to try and rush you back without an emergency. I’m still not sure, though, if I’ll give Vince the same benefit of the doubt!”

As if on cue, a knock on the door announced Arlen’s boss, Vince Masaniello. “How’s the new mother doing?” he asked cheerily.

Mimi scrunched up a pillow and let fly. “Just you wait, Vince Masaniello! When I get out of here, you have a one hour head start and then I’m going to get you.”

Vince feigned a hurt look. “How would that look? Killed by the wife of my new vice president?” He turned to Arlen and shook his hand. “Congratulations, Arlen. Colonel Pitre reported that everything went as planned. I’m starting a new division for marine and heavy equipment and I want you to head it up. We’ll expand at the current site so you won’t need to move.” He looked toward Mimi. “And, in the future, you can send someone else out on the projects.”

Mimi looked torn between throwing another pillow and hugging Vince. She finally relented and gave Vince a hug. Then, she fixed Arlen with another stare. “You’re still forgetting something!”

Arlen quickly realized he still hadn’t kissed her and quickly remedied that oversight. When they both finally came up for air she asked, “And?”

Arlen was totally clueless, until Deidre poked him in the ribs and whispered, “Their names!”

“Oh, right. Their names?”

“Since you weren’t here, I decided on Ariel Marie and Donald Kevin. That’s how they are entered in the hospital’s records.” Mimi and Deidre picked up the twins and handed both to Arlen. “This is your daddy, kids.”

Arlen was flustered. “How do I hold two at once?”

Mimi smiled wickedly, “You’ll learn quickly!”

****

A week later, two letters went out from Vulcan Locomotive Werks, addressed to the Hudson’s Bay Company in Copenhagen and to Admiral Simpson in Magdeburg. The first read:

Dear Sirs,

I am writing to inform you that your order for ore cars left by rail this day and should arrive in time for your scheduled sailing date. The pumping and mining equipment you had requested we develop have been designed, the power supply has been tested and they should be ready for the requested spring delivery.

Vincent Masaniello

The second letter was much more informal:

John, the engine works! It’s producing well over two hundred horsepower under load. Colonel Pitre said she’s sending you her evaluation by separate letter. I’ve got the walking beam assembly in production and should be able to ship the first power plant before winter sets in.

Vince

****