Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Phantom Train, Chapter Two, Part Three

Begin with the beginning.

McGinnis was waiting for Traynor in the sleek hotel lobby. They got back into the Navigator and went to have a look at the mine before dark. The Holiday Inn fronted Main Street, which they drove up. When they reached the eastern outskirts, the last residences faded away, and the street turned into a highway. It passed between boulder-strewn hills and mountains, all covered with brush and a scraggly forest of sorts. The land between the mountain ranges was semidesert grassland. The Sonoran Desert — the real desert with the legendary saguaro cacti the state was famous for — was actually located farther west and south, explained McGinnis. There was little traffic on the highway except for First American trucks coming on.

Traynor thought it about time to ask some questions. "Did you actually ever see the phantom train yourself?"

"On that, I plead the Fifth. I saw something, but I'm not sure one way or the other what it was. See the chain of hills to the south? The phantom line runs behind them, roughly parallel to this road. When I was driving home late one night, I saw a kinda glare moving about there, between the hills, but I couldn't say what it was. I frequently heard train sounds too, though the line's abandoned. It used to connect towns and mines southeast of Jenkinsville to our town and to the Southern Pacific trunk line. It hits the Southern Pacific — or rather, after the takeover, Union Pacific — a couple of miles northwest of… um… Jinxville. However, those places farther east on the phantom line are in an even worse shape. The mines there are mostly played out, and being located in phantom train country didn't help matters much. All the mines are abandoned. The settlements all turned to ghost towns or at least nearly so."

"So there are absolutely no real trains running on the… um… phantom line?"

"Officially, the J.&E.A. — the Jenkinsville and Eastern Arizona. No, it had already been abandoned when I first came here. Still, the track never got taken up. The J.&E.A. bankruptcy court case was so involved that it never really became clear who held title to the track. Eventually, creditors figured they'd rather write off the steel than let those vultures, their lawyers, get even fatter on the remains of the railroad. Um, no offense, Kevin."

"No offense taken."

"Present company excepted, you know."

"Feel free to abuse my ambulance-chasing 'colleagues' any way you wish," grinned Traynor.

"Be that as it may — the upshot is, the rails are still out there, ready to use for any stray ghost or phantom — assuming a phantom train needs any rails at all."

"But the Zenith Mine is not connected to the J.&E.A.?"

"Fortunately not. Never was."

"Then how do you get the ore to the smelter?"

"Smelting is actually only a small part of copper refining. From the mine, the ore is trucked to the crushers." McGinnis pointed to a vast complex of buildings and dumps connected by conveyor belts, all protected by high steel fences. "Copper sulfide ore goes into crushers and mills before the copper is, well, washed out in floatation tanks, then smelted. When it enters the smelter, it is about thirty percent pure — when it comes out, more than ninety percent. Copper oxide ore is dumped on a heap leach pad, where the copper is dissolved in sulfuric acid. The product of either process is refined into pure copper in electrolytic cells.

"The copper sheets are trucked straight to the loading docks of the Southern Pacific trunk line in Willcox. See those trucks? They're all ours. Wouldn't make any sense to build a spur up the mountain or to build our own truck-to-rail loading facilities on the J.&E.A. Lemme tell you, I'm glad that neither the phantom line nor any spur of it comes near the mine. Otherwise, we'd already be out of business. Even the phantom line just crossing the highway or the mine road would be fatal. Can you imagine any of those cowards crossing the phantom track after dark for night shift? They won't even stay with the line separated from the road by that chain of — admittedly rather humble — hills."

"By the way, what do 'eye witnesses' claim the phantom train looks like?"

"Depends on whom you ask. Most people just saw strange lights and heard train sounds from the abandoned line. Some say they saw — from a distance — a train pulled down the phantom track by an ancient steam locomotive. God only knows what they really saw — if anything. But if you walk into the right watering hole in town and dig up one of the true believers, one of those too drunk to even find the way out of Jinxville… Well, they'll tell you the train is hell on wheels, driven by the devil himself, trailing fire and brimstone."

"Cute. Does the train actually ever enter the town?"

"Usually, it is seen east of Jinxville, except for two or three times when it allegedly ran through town. But the line passes just the southern fringe of Jinxville. There are only a few cabins and warehouses south of the track, and the old depot. This town never grew much in that direction, and practically not at all since the railroad went belly up. It's not a town the railroad built — mining did it. The few folks who lived around the old depot were of course the first to desert us when the phantom train came back, so you can't ask them about the apparition. You know, the neighborhood around the abandoned depot is our idea of a slum — unless you want to apply that term to all of Jinxville now. Most of those who lived there were uneducated or drunkards or junkies. But you should ask Connie Chandler. She's the best mining engineer I've got. She could afford the best apartment in town, but she moved there on purpose, to have an eye on the phantom train."

"You said 'when the phantom train came back' — when exactly was that?"

"That's impossible to say. As I told you, some fools would see the train time and again over the last century. There'd be a sighting every couple of years. Then more and more people began to hear and see the train on moonless nights. For some time now, it's allegedly been running most every night. It's hard to say when one stage of activity gave way to the next. All I know is that Greg vanished three weeks ago and Pete and Fred not a week later. That was the point when bad turned to worse and deserters from an annoyance into a stampede. From the day that Pete's mangled truck was found below Cold Creek Gorge trestle, we've been in a perpetual state of emergency and Jinxville's rapidly been approaching a ghost town."

"But how in the world can a phantom train and three missing persons depopulate a whole town?"

"It's kind of a snowball effect, or a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of the deserters would be ashamed and move out at night. Next morning, neighbors would spread rumors that the phantom train got them. Some believe the train rides into town every night and 'gets' people."

Read on…

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