Talk it Out
In which Dodger tries reason.
“Is that really you, Sergeant?” the black bandanna asked.
“What tha hell are you goin’ on about, Clemet?” the red bandanna said.
The young man, now identified as Clemet, raised a shaking hand at Dodger. “I know him.”
“Dan,” the green bandanna said in a low voice. “He’s got some mighty big guns.”
“I can see that!” the red bandanna, or rather Dan, said. “They don’t scare me.”
“They scare me.”
“Everything scares you, Tommy.”
“Sergeant Dodger?” Clemet asked. “What are you doing out here in that contraption by yourself?”
Dodger was glad to hear they thought he was alone. That was very good. The kid knowing his identity, however, was not so good. But Dodger would take the breaks he could get, and improvise the rest. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken. My name is Carpenter. Not Dodger.”
“Carpenter? Really?” Clemet leaned over his saddle for a closer look. “Are you sure? ‘Cause you could be Roger Dodger’s twin brother.”
“I’m afraid not. Sorry.”
“Huh. It’s uncanny. You look just like him. I mean, you’re a little older than him, but it’s been probably six years since I seen him. Maybe five. Do you know-”
“Enough of this bullshit!” Dan roared over the question. He set the hammer on his pistol and leveled the gun at Dodger’s chest. “Give us everything you have, starting with those pretty guns. Nice and slow.”
“Why don’t we just take the whole train?” the brown bandanna asked. “I bet Butch would be real glad if we brought him a whole train.”
“Yeah!” shouted the green bandanna, or rather Tommy. “Dink is right. I bet we’d get the respect of the whole pack if we brought this back with us.”
“And just who’s gonna drive it?” Dan asked. “Can any of you idjeets drive a train?”
“Naw,” said the brown bandanna, or rather Dink.
“Roy?” Dan asked.
“Nope,” said the blue bandanna, or rather Roy.
“I think Clemet can,” Tommy said.
Dan twisted in his saddle to eye the man in question. “Dat true, Clem? You a driver?”
“I was gonna be,” Clemet said, then hung his head before he added, “in my other life.”
Every man Jack of them went quiet at those words and hung their heads, as if honoring some secret tradition among them. In the echo of their conversation, Dodger took a long look at the one in the black bandanna, wondering who he was, how he knew so much about Dodger. What else did he know? After their shared moment of silence, the men picked up their threads of conversation and carried on like nothing had happened.
“Can you drive or not?” Dan asked.
“Sort of,” Clemet said. “I was training to drive before they transferred me to a combat unit on the front. I know a little, but enough to get by.”
Dan motioned to the engine with his pistol. “You think you can manage that thing?”
“I don’t see how.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Dan, she ain’t got no tracks.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot about that.”
The big man twisted again in his saddle, looking behind the cab and out across the open desert. His cohorts followed suit, searching for signs of tracks. Dodger seized the opportunity of their distraction, drawing his weapons with movements as slow and quiet as he could manage.
“You can see where there were tracks,” Roy said, pointing to the lined pattern in the dust just behind the cab. “But they ain’t there no more.”
“Where’d they go?” Dink asked.
Dan grunted. “Must not matter; they were runnin’ without ‘em. Must not need ‘em.”
“I don’t know,” Clemet said.
“Yeah,” Tommy said. “Trains need tracks. Can’t run without ‘em. It’s a law, like grabity”
“Grabity?” Dan asked, furrowing his furry brow.
“Yeah, you know. When you fall down, you best grab onto something or you’re gonna hit the ground? Grab-it-ee.”
Dan turned his eyes to the heavens with a heavy sigh. “Come on, Clem, we ain’t got all day. Can you drive it or not?”
“I just don’t know if-” Clemet started.
“Gentlemen,” Dodger said over the man. He had managed to work the pistols from their holsters without attracting the men’s attention, and now had the pair trained on the group. “This discussion is over, because you aren’t getting this train. In fact, you aren’t getting anything from this train either. You would do best to turn your horses and get on back to where you came from. Go on now, leave while you still can.”
Squaring his weapon on Dodger again, Dan snorted at this decree. “And if we don’t leave?”
“Then it will be my unfortunate duty to make you leave.” Dodger cocked his hammers, just to prove his point.
“Are you sure you’re not Rodger Dodger?” Clemet asked, his rifle hanging loose from his hands, the business end of the thing pointed to the ground. “Only … you sound an awful lot like him.”
“Shut up, Clemet!” Dan shouted. “Get your gun up, you moron. This ain’t a practice run.”
“But, Dan, I think I know that man.”
“And that makes a difference?”
Clemet shrugged. “Well, yeah. I just … I don’t think I can kill a man I know.”
“If he ain’t Pack, then he’s no good to us. He’s better dead.”
“I know that's what Butch says, but … I’ve been thinking about that a lot too. Don’t seem right. I mean, we used to not be Pack, you know, in our other lives.”
“He ain’t like us!” Dan roared.
The scene fell into an uncomfortable hush as all four of the big man's cohorts cowered in their saddles at the raised voice of their leader.
“Look at him,” Dan said with a sneer. “He ain’t one of us. We ain’t like him and never will be again. Don’t you ever forget that. Now get that peashooter up, right now.”
Trembling, Clemet shook his head and whimpered.
“Raise your gun!” Dan commanded. “Or I’ll turn you to soup.”
“N-n-no,” Clemet stammered.
Dan straightened up, sitting high in his saddle as he shifted his weapon to take aim at Clemet. A low growl rolled up from his throat. “What did you just say?”
“I said no. I ain’t gonna kill him.” Clemet lifted the shaking rifle, pointing the business end at Dan. “And you ain’t either.”
“Clem?” Tommy asked. “What are you doin’?”
“Yeah, Clem,” Roy said. “You can’t shoot Dan. He’s Pack.”
“I don’t care about the damned Pack,” Clemet said. He snuffled as he fought a rising tide of tears.
“Whatcha mean you don’t care?” Dink asked.
Clemet, in full-blown weep now, screamed at the top of his lungs, “I’m a man! Not an animal!”
Upon reflection of the event, Dodger supposed he would have to blame his lack of training for what happened next. While five years of tilling fields and gathering eggs hadn’t sucked all of the assassin instincts out of him, it had left him a bit rusty when it came to combat readiness. Had he been in command of his usual habits, he might have been able to squeeze off a shot before the big man did. But as it was, Dodger was not only out of habit, he was out of sorts.
It wasn’t very often a gang leader killed one of his own, right in front of you.
No sooner had Clemet issued his declaration of his assured humanity than his boss man laid the poor lad low. A single shot to the chest knocked Clemet out of his saddle and onto the earth beneath, where he writhed in the dust. For a few heartbeats, all Dodger could do was gawk at the barbaric display: the kid rolling in the bloody dirt, his horse kicking and whining at the sound of gunfire, the other four looking on as if it were the most natural thing on earth to shoot one of your own men.
The distinct click of a pistol cocking brought his attention back to the moment, and things tumbled into a quick succession of events after that.
Dodger, thankfully not at a loss for all of his instincts, dropped to the platform’s metal floor as he hollered at the top of his lungs, “Giddyup!”
The men opened fire on the cab. Buckshot and bullets showered the metal panel that separated Dodger from them before Ched could get the cab underway. Dodger didn’t know how the thin metal sheet was holding up to the barrage of fire. He decided to blame it on the professor’s inventiveness.
Within moments, the cab was in motion, but so were the bandits, the men slapping and yelling at their steeds as the cab did its best to pull away. Dodger took this chance to pull open the doorway and roll inside, then pushed the door closed behind him. When he stood again, he almost tumbled over the professor crouched on the floor, arms over his head. The man looked very much like a turtle hiding in its shell.
“If you’re going to cower,” Dodger snapped as he holstered the guns, “then get in the corner and out of my way.”
The professor lifted his head from his folded arms. “I see your discussion didn’t have much effect.”
Ched didn’t appear as worried as the professor did about the gunfire. He seemed more concerned about hightailing it out of there, bearing down on the throttle and working the wheel like a wild man. “We can’t run her far before she’s shed of fuel or water or both. We’re gonna have to go back to the resht of the line or she’ll end up dry.”
“We don’t have to run far,” Dodger said. “How tight can you lay down those figure eights?”
“Comfortably? Maybe quarter-mile.”
The driver shrugged. “Couple hundred feet.”
“Shure, but I warn you, when I shay uncomfortable, I meansh it.”
“But you can do it that tight?”
“I don’t shee why not. Without the whole line, she turnsh on a half-dollar.”
“Good then. On my cue, turn her hard and run her back to the horses. Once past them give me ten seconds of straight away, then start your eights.”
Ched nodded his understanding. “Short of like a one-man wagon shircle?”
“I don’t see what good that will do,” the professor said.
“He’sh hoping to confush the hell out of ‘em.”
“Something like that, yeah,” Dodger said. “But give me a warning on your turns. I don’t want to waste ammunition by being jolted out of my shot.”
“Shure thing, Sharge.” With his grimace for a grin, the driver readied his cab.
Dodger ignored the title as he slid the door open again.
“What are you planning on doing?” the professor asked.
“Time for talk is over.”
“I hate to be the one to say I told you so, but-”
“No time for that either.”
“Then grab hold of something and stay down.”
“Right,” the professor said, and did just as asked.
Dodger stopped to stare out of the back window at the men following them.
Six rounds before he had to stop and reload.
Life on the farm required very little gunplay, and what times did call for firing off the odd shotgun were handled by none other than the matron of the farm herself, Mrs. Bolton. The closest Dodger had gotten to a weapon in the last few years was handing the old woman her piece when it came time to slaughter a cow or pig. He offered to shoot them for her, but she always insisted on doing the deed herself, and Dodger was more than pleased to leave her the responsibility. He supposed, somehow, she knew he had long since grown tired of such things.
Yet here he was again, hands itching to grip cold steel and mind reeling from the scent of blood in the warm air. He didn’t want to kill these men—he didn’t want to kill anyone—but he couldn’t see any other way. If their leader was willing to drop one of his own men over a petty argument, then he would be more than willing to kill Dodger and those in his charge.
“You ready?” Dodger yelled back over his shoulder.
“Yesh, shir!” Ched hollered.
Dodger slipped his goggles over his eyes then grabbed the edge of the platform to brace himself. “Now!”