Dead Man's Tunnel is the third installment in Sheldon Russell's 1940s series featuring yard dog Hook Runyon.
Near the end of WWII, Hook Runyon, railroad bull, and his dog, Mixer, are sent to the West Salvage Yard in the high desert of Arizona. Not far away is the Johnson Canyon Tunnel. Though remote and ordinary as tunnels go, it is the gateway to the steepest railroad grade in North America and a potential bottleneck for the delivery of war supplies. So vital is this tunnel to the war effort that a twenty-four hour military guard has been assigned for the duration. Hook's orders are to catch copper thieves and to stay out of sight and out of trouble. But things go awry when Hook receives a call that one of the guards has been killed mid-tunnel by an oncoming train. Lieutenant Allison Capron from the Army Transportation Department is called in to help with the investigation. At first, suicide by train is suspected, but the evidence soon suggests homicide resulting from a love triangle. Unable to fit his own findings into either of these theories, Hook suspects something more sinister.
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About the Author
DR. SHELDON RUSSELL is the author of five novels. He lives in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
DR. SHELDON RUSSELL, Professor Emeritus, University of Louisville, and University of Central Oklahoma, is the author The Yard Dog, The Insane Train, and four previously published historical novels. He lives in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
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Dead Man's Tunnel
By Sheldon Russell
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Sheldon Russell
All rights reserved.
The quarter fell out of Hook Runyon's britches and rolled the length of the caboose, clattering against the wall. The bastards hadn't bothered to park the caboose on level ground when they'd sided it at West's Salvage Yard in Ash Fork, Arizona.
He searched for his arm prosthesis, finding it under his bunk.
"Goddang it, Mixer," he said. "Leave my arm the hell alone."
Mixer, his dog, peeked up through his brows and clopped his tail against the floor. He'd been known to steal things, given the opportunity, and had recently taken a liking to Hook's prosthesis. Just last week Hook had found it buried in the right-of-way alongside a porkchop bone. Had he not seen the hook peeking out of the sand, it would have been gone forever.
A meager salary, a passion for rare books, and an occasional drink or two had not lent itself to buying a new prosthetic. He'd managed his own repairs on the thing over the years, though it suffered from the lack of proper maintenance.
Scrap West, the owner of the salvage yard, told him the prosthetic looked like a bent crankshaft, and why didn't he just throw it in the shredder along with the rest of the junk? When Hook suggested that he might just throw him in with it, Scrap grinned and walked away.
Hook strapped on the arm before lighting a cigarette. He put on coffee and sat down at the table to watch the sunrise over the mountain of squashed cars. Beams of sunlight skittered about in the broken windshields and off a thousand shattered mirrors. By midmorning, the yard would swelter under the sun. By noon, heat would quiver up from the piles of junk. And by day's end, gasoline fumes would hang over the yard in a blue pall.
Hook poured his coffee and sipped at the lip of his cup. He set it aside to cool. Opening his latest acquisition, a mint copy of Steinbeck's Cannery Row, he thumbed through the pages. He liked Steinbeck's stuff, the dialogue was like listening to secrets through an open window. Someday Steinbeck's writings would go for a fortune. But then what true collector sold his books? He'd rather sell his soul, or his children's souls. In any event, finding such a book in such condition had been lucky, given his exile in the desert.
Scrap West had complained to the railroad about thieves stealing copper off loaded cars. So Eddie Preston, the divisional supervisor, being an intemperate sort, and still hot over a little incident Hook had been involved in back in Amarillo, had taken the opportunity to even things up by putting him on the salvage detail.
The night of the Amarillo incident, Hook had found the door seal broken on a sided car. Concerned that she'd be emptied out by morning, he'd asked the switchman to side her closer in to the yard office. In the process, the switchman stuck his thumb in the coupler and pulled back a stub. He commenced screaming and cussing, his stump spewing blood the whole time.
Hook rushed in to help stop the bleeding. But when the sided car rumbled by, he realized he'd failed to set the brakes. The car rolled out onto the main line, gathering up speed as she went. She passed the yard office and then the depot, and by the time she hit the stockyard switch, she sped along at twenty miles an hour. Hook watched in disbelief as she teetered and then heaved over onto her side like a shot elephant.
Half her contents, army surplus items, mostly cots, boots, and mess hall equipment, spilled across the tracks, shutting down the main line. About the time they'd loaded the switchman into an ambulance, a thunderstorm blew in from the southwest and soaked the spilled freight.
St. John's Orphanage offered to bring out their truck and load up the supplies if they could have them, so Hook had agreed, finding it prudent to not close the main line.
In the end, no one ever located the switchman's thumb, and Eddie Preston had been less than understanding about the whole situation. In short, that's why Hook now stood guard over a mile-long line of scrap cars in Arizona.
Having seniority over every other cinder dick on the force, Hook had threatened to file a complaint with the big boys. But Eddie suggested that an investigation might turn up more than Hook could explain and that if he was smart, which he doubted, he'd keep his mouth shut.
The result had been three of the longest months in Hook's life. In all that time he'd nabbed only a couple boys stealing spike kegs and a drunk sleeping under one of the cars.
Pusher engines, old steamers for the most part, idled day and night on the siding across from his caboose. Used for boosting hotshots up the grade, they sometimes doubled as switch engines for moving cars in and out of the salvage yard. The chug and thump of their engines never ceased, and Hook had not had a good night's sleep since his arrival.
Hook sought out the engineers for news, brief encounters with civilization, inasmuch as engineers could be considered civil. Beyond that, he passed his days alone or in the company of Scrap West, which came mostly to the same thing.
Even Mixer, who loved a good fight more than life itself, had succumbed to the isolation, resorting to extended naps, sometimes spiraling into deep unconsciousness. Several times Hook had checked his breathing to make certain he hadn't died.
Hook poured himself another cup of coffee and lit a cigarette. As soon as the sun was fully up, he'd make his rounds. He'd noticed footprints in the sand down by the switch and again where a load of copper had been sided.
As he sat back down at the table, the engine on Scrap's twenty-five-ton crane roared into life. The noise rode down the tracks and set up miniature tidal waves in Hook's coffee.
Scrap had purchased the crane from the army and took pride in what he considered to be the bargain of the century. He maintained that the crane had increased his output by 25 percent and could not have been purchased anywhere else at twice the price.
Scrap never passed up a chance to make a dime, even keeping chickens in the back of the salvage yard. He claimed eggs big as basketballs and that he'd made enough from selling them to pay his monthly water bill.
Mixer, who hated the crane even more than Hook did, rolled onto his back and groaned. Once started, the roar of the engine stopped only for lunch and then again at quitting time. Now and again, a car body would plummet from the crane and crash onto the growing heap of metal.
When the crane suddenly stopped, Mixer glanced up at Hook. Within moments, a knock rattled the caboose door. Hook tucked his shirt in and opened it to find Scrap West standing with his arms folded over his chest. Scrap had been named Reginald by his mother, but hardly anybody in the world knew it. Hook knew it only because Scrap had gotten drunk one night and spilled the secret.
"Eddie Preston's on my phone," Scrap said.
"What does he want?" Hook asked.
Scrap pinched up his face, which looked a good deal like one of his wrecked cars. His nose spread out on the end like a spade and was the exact color of a radish. A scar ran through his eyebrow where a leaf spring had hit him, and his thumbnails were permanently blue from having been squashed over the years. His eyes were hard as ball bearings. He had a missing front tooth, which he covered with his hand when he grinned. Scrap claimed he'd been born with a full set of teeth, except for that particular one, and it had refused to grow even after fifty years of trying.
Scrap looked for the world like the bums Hook had run in his whole career, except beneath that beat-up mug was a brain that chugged away like a perpetual motion machine. It concocted one scheme after another in an attempt to screw the world out of yet one more dollar. Most of his schemes failed, but some didn't. Either way, it didn't matter because Scrap had already moved on to the next one.
"I ain't no goddang messenger for Division," Scrap said. "For all I know there's a call coming in on copper prices this very minute. She goes up a penny, and I lose a day's wages. On top of that, my crane's down there drinking diesel like a drunk sailor, and I'm up here talking to you."
"Hell, Scrap, you're getting free security, aren't you, not to mention all that track you pilfered off the right-of-way. I figure you owe the railroad a minute of your time."
Scrap worked the slug out of his pipe without looking up. He blew through the stem and then fished through his pockets for his tobacco.
"I did the railroad a favor moving that rail," he said, torching up his pipe. "I went in the hole on that one, I tell you. Anyway, it would have cost the railroad plenty to bring in equipment all the way from Flagstaff just to haul away that old track."
Blue smoke enveloped Scrap's head. "And you can just tell Eddie Preston these bastards are still walking off with my copper and in broad daylight, too. Maybe he should send a yard dog out here that does something other than read books and take naps."
"Maybe you could hire some extra hands, Scrap. I never knew a man any tighter in my life."
Scrap poked his finger into the bowl of his pipe before firing it up again.
"Just 'cause I wasn't raised up rotten like some I know, and just 'cause I eked out a living on what others threw away, doesn't make me tight. Makes me economical."
"Makes you tight," Hook said. "You probably got money stashed all over this junkyard."
"Maybe you ought try saving a dime yourself once in a while," he said, "instead of squandering it on old books and raw whiskey."
"One day the government's coming after their taxes, Scrap. What you going to do then?"
"What's the government got to find but my good word?"
"Not paying taxes is illegal. And what about those switch brackets down by the south entrance? Where did those come from, I wonder?"
"You just quit nosing around my stuff and spend a little more time guarding my cars."
Hook slipped on his shoes and lit a cigarette. "Come on, Mixer," he said. "We better lock up, or the silver will be missing when we get back."
* * *
Hook pushed the office door shut just as Scrap's crane fired up again. He took a deep breath and picked up the phone.
"How's it hanging, Eddie?" he said.
"Runyon, I been sitting on this phone for half an hour. You think all I have to do is to wait on you?"
"Sorry, Eddie, but my secretary couldn't make it in today."
"Cut the wisecracks, Runyon. There's been a death out at the Johnson Canyon Tunnel."
A chill ran through Hook. He hated that damn tunnel.
"You know, when someone stops breathing, forever."
"Yeah, I know what death is, Eddie. It's working security in a junkyard."
"I want you to go check it out."
Hook lit a cigarette and watched the crane lift a wrecked Cadillac into the sky.
"And leave Scrap's copper unprotected? Jesus, Eddie, do you think that's a good idea?"
"Believe me, Runyon, I'd send someone else if I could, but that line has to be kept open. If that tunnel shuts down, the whole system goes with it."
"What do they think happened?"
"Accident, one of the military guards that's been stationed out there."
"Accident?" Hook flipped his ashes into the wastebasket and looked out the window, which was gray with smoke and dust. "How do they know?"
"A man don't stand in the middle of the tunnel in the middle of the night with a hotshot charging downgrade on purpose."
"Jesus," Hook said.
"The engineer called it in. Took him half a mile to get shut down," Eddie said. "He near fainted when he saw the guard's boot stuck on the catwalk."
"Alright, Eddie. I'll take the popcar out."
The popcar, sometimes called the popper, was a small gasoline-powered trolley used mostly for track inspections. It could be an uncomfortable ride in the desert but was Hook's only transportation at the moment.
"I released the engineer on to the next stop. He'll catch a hotshot back. You can talk to him then."
"Damn it, Eddie, I should take a look at things before the engine's released."
"There's still another army guard assigned to duty out there. He might have some idea what's going on."
"I'll check it out, Eddie."
"This thing has to be wrapped up fast, Runyon. That line can't be tied up. It ain't the first tunnel accident out there, you know. They killed off half of Arizona building that damn thing."
"What's the rush, Eddie? The war's over, hadn't you heard? Japan has been bombed into oblivion."
"I want this thing resolved, see. On top of everything else, that line is being upgraded, and there's equipment and people. We can't shut the railroad down while you play detective."
"I am a detective, Eddie."
"And there's that other little problem, too," Eddie said.
Hook's pulse ticked up. Eddie had been looking to nail him for years.
"They give me a promotion over your head, Eddie?"
"In your dreams, Runyon. You might just recall dumping a boxcar back in Amarillo."
Hook lit another cigarette and watched Mixer dig through Scrap's trash.
"That switchman cut off his thumb, Eddie. What the hell was I supposed to do, let him bleed to death?"
"And deprive the railroad of paying his medical pension for the next thirty years?" Eddie said. "I should hope not."
"I'm missing an arm, Eddie. No one pays me a pension."
"That's not your biggest problem, Runyon. For example, there's that little donation of Santa Fe property you made to the St. John's Orphanage."
"They had a truck and volunteered to clean up the wreckage if they could have the goods. I had to get that line open, didn't I?"
"Oh, St. John's was real glad to get the army cots," he said. "And the other things, too."
Mixer found Scrap's old lunch sack in the trash and proceeded to tear it open.
"What other things?" Hook asked.
"That box of army condoms the kids opened back at the orphanage. They thought they were goddang balloons. The priest said it looked like New Year's Eve.
"So the diocese calls Chicago, and Chicago calls me. Turns out everyone is unhappy."
"Jesus," Hook said.
"You've bagged your limit of Brownies for the year, Runyon. I don't know if I can head this thing off. Maybe you ought to learn the salvage business just in case you have a career change."
"I'd like to visit, Eddie, but there's a corpse waiting."
"Open and shut like they say," Eddie said.
"Yeah," Hook said. "Like they say."CHAPTER 2
Before leaving scrap's office, Hook called the operator at Ash Fork to check the board. The line was clear until two, which would give him ample time to get out to Johnson Canyon Tunnel. Maybe it wouldn't take that long to wrap things up.
Mixer, who had a gob of meringue stuck to his nose, waited for him at the door.
"Alright, alright," Hook said, ruffling his head. "But you'll have to stay with the popcar."
Mixer fell in at his heels as they made their way through the yard. West's Salvage sat on the outskirts of town right next to the main line. The only way a salvage business could exist without the muscle of the railroad was if it had access to river barges, and Ash Fork was a hell of a long ways from the nearest barge.
A fence encircled the yard proper but with little effect. A side gate leading to the tracks was left open a good deal of the time. The office sat within a few yards of the main gate. In a way, it reminded Hook of the prisoner of war camps that had been built in America's interior for retaining German soldiers.
A mile-long siding ran parallel to the yard and was used for making up smelter runs. A series of shorter sidings switched off at various points for maneuvering empties and accommodating pusher engines.
The yard itself covered as much as fifteen to twenty acres of desert scrubland. Piles of salvage in stages of disassembly covered nearly all of it. Hook's caboose had been parked in such a fashion as to expose him to the comings and goings of both the yard and the main line. The noise never ceased, and the smell of torches, gasoline, and oil permeated everything, including his clothes.
Hook stopped at the crane and signaled for Scrap to idle her down. Scrap leaned out of the cab and put his hand to his ear.
"Got an emergency," Hook hollered over the engine. "Be back before dark."
"Accident. Guard out at the tunnel."
Scrap knocked out his pipe. "Been figuring it would happen sooner or later," he said.
"Keep an eye on my caboose," Hook said.
"Oh, sure, sure," he said, waving Hook off.
Hook cranked up the popcar before rolling her out onto the main line. She snuffed and coughed like an old man. The popcar was worn-out and slow, and his ears would ring like church bells by the time he got back. He'd requested a company truck, but Eddie had not been able to locate one. Scrap kept an old army jeep in the yard, but he'd sold the transmission out of it last time Hook had checked.
A one-lane road paralleled the tracks for about three miles out before curving off to skirt the roughest terrain. Even though it took a little longer by road, at least there weren't trains to worry about. No matter how many times he checked the board, uncertainty lingered. He'd worked the railroad long enough to know that people made mistakes, and meeting an oncoming train on a popcar qualified as one hell of a mistake. Mixer jumped onto the seat. Hook throttled up and rolled off down the tracks. He dried the palm of his hand on his knee against the prospects of
Excerpted from Dead Man's Tunnel by Sheldon Russell. Copyright © 2012 Sheldon Russell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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