Death and Dismissal
In which things get just too weird for Dodger.
The mare slowed to a nervous trot, whinnying and snorting in complaint.
“I know, girl,” Dodger said, patting her neck. “I sense it too.”
“Sense what?” the professor asked.
Clemet wasn’t a pile of goop, which was a good start. He had, however, lost a fantastic amount of blood, which wasn’t so good. Lying on his back with his eyes closed, hands clutched across his wounded chest, he looked more at a peaceful rest and less on the threshold of death. Then again, Dodger supposed it was the same thing. A wide, uneven layer of darkness encircled him where his life fluid seeped into the dry dirt.
Dodger dropped off the saddle and onto his knees beside Clemet. The professor fell to the ground with a huff and clambered up beside Dodger.
“Is he still alive?” the professor asked.
“Hey there, Clem? You still with us?”
The man didn’t answer. He didn’t move.
The professor poked a finger under the mask to rest against Clemet’s throat. “He still has a pulse, but it’s very weak.” From the recesses of his coat, the professor produced a black leather wallet. He untied the thing, then flipped it open, unrolling it onto the dirt beside the downed man. All manner of shiny gadgets—ranging from surgical instruments to thieves’ tools—rested in the various folds of the wallet.
Dodger snorted in surprise. “You prepare for everything, don’t you?”
“One never knows when one will need to pick a lock or sew a man’s chest closed. Now leave me be so I can get this blasted mask out of the way.” The professor clipped away the bloody cloth, and Dodger gasped aloud at the sight underneath. “Hello there,” the professor whispered. “Looks like we found the root of our alterations.”
When the professor said that the men had been genetically enhanced, Dodger supposed that they must’ve taken steroids of some kind, such as those meant to build the muscle mass of cattle or pigs. That would certainly explain the bulk of Dan, but not the slender build of the others.
What lay under the mask, however, was not what he expected.
Clemet’s cheeks were low and puffy, gathered in folds about his neck, while his chin and mouth protruded into a muzzle shape. His nose turned up in a button and bore a familiar triangular look about it. Upon closer inspection, Dodger discovered a matching patch of whiskers sprouting from either side of the man’s nose. Not beard hair, no. More along the lines of animal whiskers. In fact, the lad’s entire face was coated with a fine layer of white fuzz, or rather fur. Dodger touched a trembling finger to the bruise that looped the man’s left eye. The shiner wasn’t a shiner at all, but instead an oval patch of black hair amidst the sea of soft white.
Like a spot about the eye of a dog.
“Help me get his vest and shirt open,” the professor pleaded. “We need to visualize the wound if we are going to do any good.”
“But his face,” Dodger whispered.
“Never mind that.”
“He looks like … he’s … is he a man or a dog?”
“Yes,” the professor huffed, irritated by Dodger’s distraction. “He’s probably part canine in some fashion. Now do you want to rescue the poor pup or just sit about and ogle him all day?”
“Sorry.” Dodger’s cheeks burned with both the shame of being caught gawking and the ever-casual acceptance of the extraordinary by the professor. It was as if nothing could surprise the man. As if he had seen just about everything there was to see. And maybe he had. “Hey, Clemet. We’re going to take your shirt off. Okay?”
Clemet didn’t seem to care either way.
Dodger slipped the man’s vest off while the professor clipped away the flannel shirt beneath.
“I worry we might be too late,” the professor said as he pushed the shirt open. “He’s lost an awful lot of blood. Would you just look at that mess. Poor fellow.” Despite the bad prognosis, the professor proceeded to snip and tuck and sew anyway, doing what he could to grasp hold of Clemet’s slipping life. After a few minutes of impromptu surgery, the professor wiped a bloody hand across his wet brow and sighed. “I’ve staunched the bleeding, but that’s all I can do here. We need to get him back to my office aboard the line. I have better equipment there.”
“He shouldn’t have been alive in the first place,” Dodger said.
“Why do you say that?”
“He was supposed to be dead a long time ago.”
The professor narrowed his eyes at Dodger “Then it’s true? You know this man?”
It was true.
Dodger remembered the man from their regimental days together, though there weren’t many to remember. The kid—fifteen, maybe sixteen at the time—was training to be a steam driver before he was transferred to Dodger’s unit in ‘65. (The same year Dodger was thrust onto the frontlines for what his bosses referred to as ‘insubordination.’) The driving was the sole reason Dodger remembered him at all, for that single thing they had in common. Other than that, he didn’t know much about the lad. He never got a chance. Clemet Jackson was an early casualty of war, so long ago. And here he was, dying all over again.
Ignoring the professor, Dodger turned his full attention to this old colleague. “Private Jackson?” He shook Clemet by the shoulders. “Private Clemet Jackson! This is your commanding officer! I order you to wake the hell up and answer me, soldier.”
Clemet came awake at this command, heaving a deep, wheezing breath before coughing and barking a bucket of bloody mucus into the dirt. Once this passed, he opened his eyes slowly to stare up at Dodger. “Sarge? Sergeant Dodger? That … really you?”
Dodger could feel the professor’s gaze boring twin holes into his very being, but he didn’t care. He would have a lot to explain later on, and would probably lose his chance at the work in the process. But he didn’t care about that either. “Yes it is, Private.”
Clemet smiled, showing a line of healthy but dangerous fangs. “I knew it were you.”
“What are you doing here? We thought you were dead.”
“S-s-so did I. But they … the other side … patched me up … and kept me in a camp … ‘til the end of the war.”
A prisoner of war.
Dodger had counted him as a casualty after the battle of Kings Mountain, when in reality, the man was recuperating behind enemy lines, awaiting rescue. Even so, just being a prisoner of war wouldn’t cause this kind of change in a man. “I hate to say this, son. But they did more than just patch you up. You’re, well, you’re different.”
Clemet laughed, and with his humor came another coughing fit. As well as a great deal of barking. “That’s a mighty … funny way … of putting it … sir.”
“What did those bastards do to you?”
“Don’t blame the camp … most of the soldiers … they were real nice … regular men … like you ‘n’ me, Sarge. But … that man in charge of us …” Clemet’s lips drew into a nasty snarl as the memories rushed up to meet his anger. “He did this to me. He did this … to all of us.”
“Whoever was in charge apparently experimented on them,” the professor said, as if trying to explain.
“Yeah,” Clemet agreed. “He changed us … made us like this.”
“Who?” Dodger asked.
“Rex … that was his name. Commander of C-C-camp … Camp Sumter.”
Dodger went numb from head to soul at the sound of that name. For years, he had heard about the atrocities of the Confederate Prisoner of War Camp at Andersonville, often called Camp Sumter by those on the inside. Even after the war was over and done, folks still whispered about the black deeds and torturous acts inflicted upon her detainees. But this? This was something far worse than anything he had ever heard. “I don’t understand. Why would a man do this to you? To anyone?”
“Said he wanted … us obedient … trainable … loyal …”
“I think I understand,” the professor said. “He tried to induce the loyalty of the domesticated canine into them by weaving it into their very genetic code.” His hands curled into fists. “That monster.”
“We got him … the end. He w-w-wanted dogs? He learned … our bite … worse than our bark!” Clemet started to laugh and cough and bark once more, bringing a frothy sluice of pink foam to his trembling lips.
Just as Dodger was wondering what was taking Ched so long, the ground rumbled, signaling the approach of the cab. “That’s enough talking for now, Private. Save your strength. We’ll load you up and take you to town. Doc Willow is a decent surgeon. I’m sure he can-”
“N-n-no …I can feel it … it’s too late.” Clemet clutched Dodger’s hand, squeezing hard at first, then released it in a slow, limp drop.
“You hang on. That’s an order, son.”
“Too … late f-f-for orders … sir. Only one … man left … can order me now.” With a wide, beatific smile, Clemet weakly lifted a finger to the heavens above.
“No! I won’t let you die on me again, soldier!”
“Please, Sarge. Let me go. I can’t l-l-live … like this … anymore.”
“I can ease his pain if you wish,” the professor said.
Through misty eyes, Dodger found a long look of sorrow on the professor. Not pity. Just a shared grief, and he respected the man for that.
Dodger nodded at the professor, thankful for his offer. “I’m sorry, Clem.” He hung his head, in shame, in despair. “I’m so sorry. I thought you were dead. I would never have left you behind if I knew you were alive.”
“It’s not your f-f-fault … S-s-sarge,” Clemet said in a soft, gurgling voice. “Not your fault.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“W-w-what … what is it … you … always say? About war?”
Dodger raised his damp eyes and recited along with Clemet. “War is hell.”
“This is worse … Sarge. Bein’ like this … worse than war. W-w-worse than hell.”
“God speed to your rest, soldier.”
The professor injected the dying soldier full of some mystery solution. “This should help you get some sleep. Try to rest, son.”
“Thanks, doc,” Clemet said. “Sarge … you g-g-gotta … gotta watch out for Butch … he’ll kill you … ‘cause you ain’t P-p-pack.”
Dodger couldn’t trust his tongue enough to agree. He settled for a nod instead.
“Stay away from B-b-butch … kill you s-s-soon as look at ya… k-k-kill you all.” Clemet sighed with his last breath, just the barest trace of a smile crossing his doggish face as his young life fled his broken body. Then, same as the others, he proceeded to liquefy.
The smell of fresh-baked bread drifted across the warm morning air.
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