In which Dodger says what he needs to say
“This seat taken?” Dodger said as he eased up next to Sarah.
She didn’t answer. Not a nod. Not a word.
Dodger tested the strength of the wood a bit before he heaved his bulk onto the crate. It groaned and bitched about the extra weight, but held firm. Dodger made himself comfortable as he settled in next to Sarah. There, he waited. Minutes passed. Neither spoke. Dodger didn’t mind. He had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Lelanea wasn’t due back for a while, and he certainly didn’t want to return to the line until the doc was done with his surgery. Nope. Right here, right now seemed just a good a place as anywhere else to be. He whistled a little tune to help pass the time. At first he wasn’t sure what he was whistling, then it came to him. Camp Town Races, of all things. First song he could think of, and it had to be Camp Town Races. Imagine that.
After a few bars of doo dah, Sarah spoke.
“What is that?” she said.
“What is what?” Dodger said.
“What you’re whistling.”
“Camp Town Races.”
She went silent again, so Dodger went back to whistling. He whistled for a full minute before she spoke again, which was a long time if you were just whistling.
“You’re not a very good whistler,” Sarah said.
Dodger paused, mid doo dah. “I think I whistle just fine.”
“You don’t. Who taught you?”
“Who do you think? It was his favorite song.”
Sarah contemplated this for a moment, then sighed softly. “He didn’t teach me to whistle. Now …” she let the idea fade rather than give it voice.
“Don’t take it too hard,” Dodger said. “He wouldn’t have taught you anyways.”
She raised her head, just a bit. “Why not?”
“Because he said girls can’t whistle. Said you weren’t physically capable. Something about not having the right kind of windpipe.” He tapped his Adam’s apple.
“He did. Hand to god.” Dodger place his hand over his chest, then raised his other palm in the air, just like Al used to do when he swore something was true.
Sarah returned her gaze and attention to the dry dirt between her feet.
“Your shoes seem mighty interesting,” Dodger said.
“You see something down there I don’t?” Dodger said. He winced when he realized Al used to say the same damned thing, once upon a time.
A drop of water hit the dry dirt, shading it a darker brown. Another drop joined it, but it wasn’t until the girly sniffled that Dodger knew she was crying. He reached out and scooped her up, bringing her closer to him. To his relief, she didn’t struggle. She leaned into his side, burying her wet face into his chest.
“Aw, girly,” he whispered. “That’s it. Let it all out. You know what Al says, better out than in.”
That sent her into a deeper crying fit, her breath hitching in wheezing gasps as she wept and wept and wept. Dodger should’ve known better. Years ago, when he still allowed himself the illusion of romance, he courted a woman who could weep at the drop of a hat. For no reason at all, she would burst into tears. Sky too blue? Cry. Words too sweet? Cry. Lovin’ too satisfying? Water works aplenty. Dodger never knew what to do with himself when the tears started, much less what to do with her. Eventually, he learned she liked for Dodger to just hold her and stroke her hair, and to do and say nothing else. Dodger reckoned there wasn’t much difference between little girls and grown women when it came to the ways of weeping. So he stroked Sarah’s hair, held her tight and kept his mouth shut.
In time, the pauses between her hitching breaths drew longer and longer, and the torrent of tears ceased soaking Dodger’s shirt. He gave Sarah a few more minutes to calm and center herself before he gently nudged her away from him.
“You ready to talk?” he said.
This was it. Say the opposite. What was the opposite of disowning your own son? He hooked a finger under her chin and lifted, bringing her face up to his. Dodger locked eyes with the girl. “It’s going to be fine. Everything will be fine. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but I promise, it will.”
“Am I bad person now?” She searched his eyes, looking for the truth.
Dodger held her gaze and gave her the truth. “No. You’re not a bad person.”
“Then why do I feel so bad?” Sarah gulped a big breath, her eyes tearing up again. “I thought this would make everything better. I thought it’s what I wanted. Why does it hurt so much?”
“I can’t rightly say. I only know that feeling doesn’t go away. If you’re planning on gunning down everyone that does you wrong, you should know it doesn’t get any easier.”
She blinked, the tears streaking down her already wet face. “It doesn’t?” Her lower lip trembled.
“Nope. If anything, it gets worse.”
“But, you make it look so easy.”
Dodger sighed and ran his hand down his tired face. “God damn it, no, I don’t. I’m just really good at hiding the hurt.” What he didn’t add was that was the secret of a good killer. They pushed the pain down, deep inside, where it ate away at their soul until there was nothing left.
“If it hurts so much, then why do you keep doing it?”
“Because I don’t know any better.”
“Yes you do. Uncle told you better.”
“He told you better too.”
Sarah looked away from Dodger, mulling that little gem over in silence. It was a low blow. The truth, but still low. Dodger gave her a bit to think on it as he whistled on and on.
“He’d be mad at me, wouldn’t he?” Sarah said.
“Probably,” Dodger said. “At least for a little while.”
“Are you mad at me?” She glanced back up to Dodger.
“No, girly. I’m mad at myself.”
“Making this seem like the right thing to do.”
“I reckon that’s why I’m mad at me too.”
Dodger grinned. What a burden it was to find yourself so wise beyond your years. Dodger knew that burden well, because there was a time when his own father accused Dodger of the same thing. After a lifetime of mistakes and regrets, Dodger was pretty sure he squandered his wisdom on his youth and was left with nothing but vague insight for the remainder of his adulthood. As for old age? He’d be lucky to quality as the village idiot at the rate he was going.
“I guess there is one question we have to ask ourselves,” Dodger said.
“Do we gotta?”
Dodger asked it anyways. “Will killing Kitty bring Al back to life?”
Sarah sighed and closed her eyes. “No, sir.”
“Is it still what you want?”
“No, sir. I don’t think so. I don’t like feeling like this.”
She chewed her lower lip in thought. Thankfully, at least the tears were gone. Once again, Dodger let her think about Al’s wise words and Dodger’s foolish encouragement. When she said she wanted to kill Kitty, Dodger supposed he stood behind the idea because he never really expected the day to come. Or, at the very least, that it would play out differently. That he would face the woman on a field of battle, in combat, when all bets were off. Yet no, the kid made a promise and she kept her word. First chance presented itself and Sarah took it. Dodger had to give her that much. At least the girl had follow through.
And impressive reflexes.
He patted her on a skinny knee. “You ready to head back?”
“Will she be there?” Sarah said.
“Do I gotta talk to her?”
“Not unless you want to.”
Sarah chewed her lip again.
Dodger cocked his head at the girly. “What is it?”
“Nothin’,” she said.
“No. It’s something. You’re … wait up now. Are you embarrassed?”
Sarah nodded without looking at him.
“I can’t says I blame ya,” Dodger said, surprised at how much he sounded like his old mentor. “Though, if it makes you feel better, I suspect Kitty might see you in a different light now.”
“You think so?”
“Sure. Young slip of a girl like you got the drop on her? I wouldn’t be surprised if she was afraid of you.”
“I didn’t get the drop. She was all tied up.”
Dodger snorted. “I never got shot by a twelve year old girl, and I’ve been tied up lots of times.”
Sarah giggled, and it was music to Dodger’s ears. He stood, then held his hand out to Sarah. She took hold of it and hopped down from the crate.
“Thank you,” she said giving his hand a squeeze.
“For what?” Dodger said.
“For saying it would be fine. I know it sounds stupid, but I didn’t think it was gonna to be. There for a while, I felt like nothin’ would never would be fine ever again.”
Dodger squeezed her hand in return, and reminded himself to thank Feng for the advice. The opposite was exactly the right thing to say. The opposite worked magic. They headed back toward the line, taking their time as neither really wanted to return. They knew they had to get back, sure, but that didn’t mean they had to be in a rush. The circus folks gave them a wide berth, and thankfully kept from staring. Maybe they knew the girly had been through enough. Or perhaps they finally got the explanation they sought, and decided to stay out of the kid’s way, lest they make her shit list as well.
“I like Feng,” Sarah said.
“Do you?” Dodger said. “Ah, that’s right. I forgot you haven’t really had a chance to talk with him.”
“He’s very nice. He reminds me of Uncle.”
“You know, he sort of does.” He had never really thought of it before, but she had a point. Feng did remind Dodger a bit of Al. Out of the mouths of babes, Dodger supposed.
“Mr. Boon seems happier now. He wasn’t happy before, was he?”
“That’s very true. I hope he can stay happy this time. Of course, he might be a tad upset when he realizes Miss L isn’t back yet.”
“What do you mean? She’s right there.”
Without warning, Sarah let go of Dodger’s hand and took off for a run to the train. Dodger stood still and held his hand up against the copper plating of the line glaring in the setting sun. Sure enough, Lelanea stood beside the train, hands on her knees, gasping for breath. She was also wearing nothing but a thin chemise, which was in turn soaked with sweat. The gown stuck to her in all the vital spots, allowing Dodger—and not to mention everyone else—to see right through it to the well-toned flesh beneath. For a woman of well over one hundred summers, Dodger reckoned she held up pretty damned good. He could make out the ripple of muscle in her thighs and biceps, as well as the taut firmness of her belly and perky breasts. It was all he could do to look away. So he didn’t.
He wasn’t the only one.
Everyone, man and woman alike, lingered at the edge of the camp proper, just close enough to gawk at the nearly naked woman. Now it made sense why the circus folk were no longer interested in Sarah and her trigger happy reflexes. They were too caught up in the scandal playing out before them.
Duncan stood off to one side, smile wide, eyes in full leer. He kept looking up and down, taking all of it in, considering it would probably be the only chance he was going to get for such a viewing.
Boon all but danced around his woman, lumbering back and forth in the mechanical suit, pleading with her to put on something more respectable. “Please! At least put on a shawl!”
Lelanea held up a hand, trying to silence her beau.
“Miss L?” Sarah said on her approach. “Why are you so sweaty and tired and almost nekked?”
“Because,” Lelanea said between gasps. “I ran … all the … way … back.”
“You’re lucky I didn’t get a chance to go out there yet,” Ched said. “Or you would be nekked.”
Boon patted his metal face with his oversized hands. “Oh my. Oh dear! Don’t talk about her like that. I don’t think I can stand it.”
Ched chuckled in his rigid wheeze, highly amused by Boon’s discomfort.
Lelanea caught her breath, as well as the fact that everyone was staring at her. She flared her nostrils and huffed. “Mind your own business!”
Duncan started at her loud words and got a hold of himself as well as his sensibilities. He waved his arms at the gathered crowd. “All right, that’s enough of that. Nothing to see here.”
“He musht not be sheein’ what I’m sheein’,” Ched said, then chuckled again.
“Must you be so crass?” Lelanea said.
“In thish cashe? Yesh, yesh I musht.”
At Duncan’s command, most of the onlookers found somewhere else to look, and the lawman waved away the rest, until just the crew remained. Lelanea didn’t appear any happier about it. Dodger kept on starin’. He had already been caught, might as well enjoy the punishment.
“I am going to go and get dressed,” Lelanea said as she picked at the thin, wet gown, trying to pull it away from her sweaty flesh, and failing. “When I return, we will not dwell on the sight of me in my slip. Is that understood?”
The men kept their eyes to the dirt and nodded, then immediately returned to staring when she turned to climb up the stairs that led to the quarters cab. Dodger grinned at her back, not to mention the other nearly visible bits of her. He might not dwell on it now, but he sure as hell would dwell on it later, when he was alone, and could enjoy the memory of such sights without her hollering at him to forget them.
“Lelanea?” Boon said. He moved forward, as if wanting to follow her up the steps, then paused as he remembered his unusual size. He ended up waggling his arms in frustration at the door of the cab. “Someone get me out of this blasted thing!”
“Now that is the best idea I have heard in days,” Dodger said.
“Get you out?” Duncan said. “Aren’t you supposed to be in there?”
Dodger groaned. Of course, Duncan accepted that PAUL could walk and talk in the same manner that Mr. Torque did. What a surprise it would be to the man that the inhabitant of the large mechanical thing was in fact the spirit of the previous lawman for the line. It was bad enough explaining away Lelanea’s lycanthropy via Dodger’s old career. How were they going to explain the presence of a ghost? Dodger supposed maybe, for once, this situation required complete honesty.
Honesty he was hoping Duncan could swallow without too much fuss.
In which Dodger surprises and is surprised