Thursday, December 16, 2010

Phantom Train, Chapter Two, Part Four

Begin with the beginning.

McGinnis had steered the huge Lincoln through a heavily guarded gate, onto the mine road, which branched northward off the highway. Now a couple of Caterpillar off-highway mining trucks rumbled past. Two enormous wheels on the front axle and four on the rear axle supported a wedge-shaped cargo bed, holding hundreds of tons of copper ore. The radiator looked as large as a small state. A metal stairway much like the fire escape of a medium-sized apartment building ran diagonally across the radiator. The cab looked disproportionately small atop the huge box of the radiator, sheltered by the wide canopy attached to the cargo bed. The mine road climbed up a mountain, which looked like a volcano: The entire mountaintop had been replaced with a huge crater.

"That's our mountain," McGinnis announced proudly as the road grew steeper. "Mount Custer it's called on the maps. But there won't be no mountain left when we're done with it. If we ever get a chance to carry on. Anyway, when all the copper ore's removed, including the low-grade ore of the rim, there'll be nothing left here but a huge hole in the ground."

The powerful SUV reached the rim of the crater. Looking straight down, it appeared even larger to Traynor than he had previously imagined. At the bottom of the pit, more than a thousand feet below, the fleet of giant mining trucks and heavy hydraulic excavators loading them appeared as small as toys. However, from the mining trucks they had encountered on the mine road, he knew that just one of their wheels was twice as high as the Navigator. The dump trucks carried the ore up to the crater rim via a system of ramps and terraces. Another half-dozen of these gigantic Caterpillar trucks pulled up to them, then rumbled down the mine road on the other side.

A row of several score dust clouds appeared on the opposite rim before a series of muffled explosions resounded through the mountains. The entire far wall of the crater seemed to crumble to the bottom in a languidly billowing cloud of dust. When the dust had settled a bit, wheel loaders, excavators, and trucks pulled over to tackle their new supply of ore. For millions of years, this mountain of copper had been lying around useless and idle, waiting to be put to use by the mind and hands of man. For Traynor, there could not be any better evidence that this place, like the rest of the universe, belonged to man, and not to ghosts. Another look at the old miner's face told him that that man was not so sure anymore.

McGinnis stopped the SUV in front of an assemblage of mobile homes and containers on one of the terraces. A slender woman of medium height opened the door of a trailer. Her blond hair fell to her shoulders. While her clothes were clean and neat, it was obvious that she did not care what other people thought about her. She wore blue jeans and a red and white plaid shirt. Due to the heat, she held her denim jacket in her hand. To Traynor, she looked like someone who was at home on a construction site or in an engine room.

When they got out of the Navigator, the woman smiled at Traynor. "Hi, you've got to be Kevin Traynor. Mac called me from the plane, said he'd bring you along. I'm Connie Chandler."

As Traynor approached, he was able to clearly see her face. She wore no makeup. Though she must have been working under the Arizona sun, she was not tanned. Her face had a ruddy quality instead. It was not young. It was not old. It appeared timeless, eternal. She was of the type of woman who does not change — she might be twenty, or thirty, or older. Frankly, he did not care. The timelessness of her face must have made her appear precocious when she had been a girl. It would make her appear youthful for the rest of her life. Her eyes were green; her nose was quite small. He was not sure if others would have called her beautiful. Anyway, what others found beautiful changed as quickly as the latest fashion. To him, she was pretty. He was glad she was there.

"Well, I've gotta leave you two alone now. Still got loads of back work on my desk." McGinnis got into the Navigator and drove down to the mining offices near the mills at the foot of the mountain.

Traynor smiled back at Connie. "So you've got the phantom train right next door?"

"Sure. I've got an apartment downtown, but for the time being, I've set up shop in an abandoned apartment building near the depot. When I heard those rumors that the train had been passing through town, I thought I should see for myself. But no luck so far. Except for some strange sounds out of the direction of the railroad — sounds that might have been anything — on my way home from the mine, I never witnessed anything spooky around Jinxville. That is, if you don't wish to call a whole town freaking out over nothing spooky. I guess you're staying at a hotel?"

"Holiday Inn."

"Why don't you stay at my place? I've got more empty rooms than I care for. And who knows, maybe we'll get to see the phantom train tonight."

"Great idea."

They walked over to a black Lincoln Navigator, identical to McGinnis', which was Connie's corporate car.

As she looked at him across the hood of the SUV, he winked. "If you're a stranger alone in a hotel room in a strange town, there's no better prospect than country hospitality, home cooking, and delightful entertainment in front of the fireplace with an enchanting hostess."

"Glad to get you out of the dumps, but all I can offer you is roaches, frozen food, and delightful entertainment in front of the microwave oven."

"Could be worse. As long as there's an enchanting hostess…"

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