Death and Dismissal
Dodger stood and stared down at the slop that used to be Private Clemet Jackson, biting back his sorrow, his humiliation, but most of all, his rage.
“Shorry about the delay,” Ched said as he joined them. “Losht presshure in the main tank from all that shifting. But she’sh right ash rain now. What are we doin’-”
Ched’s words choked short, and Dodger assumed the professor must have signaled the man to shut his mouth. Dodger didn’t know for sure, because he couldn’t take his eyes off the atrocity before him. A bitter and vicious anger stole over him, a cold black shadow rising from the depths of his very soul. Defending yourself against gunfire was one thing, but what lay at his feet was an abomination. Who could do that to a man? Why? How?
One question spoke the loudest.
Did Dodger really want to find out?
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the professor said. “He seemed … he seemed like a fine young man.” He reached out to touch Dodger’s shoulder again.
“We should get back,” Dodger said, shrugging off the professor’s hand. “Leave the horses. Sheriff Conner can collect them.”
The professor gathered his wallet. “Come then, Mr. …” he paused a moment, before he settled on, “Mr. Carpenter. I shall tend your wound on the return.”
“You should really let me look-”
“I said I was fine.” Dodger climbed back into the cab alone, pulling himself up with his good arm.
The pair outside the cab fell into a hushed arguing, after which they rejoined Dodger aboard. Ched had them underway again in moments. They were all silent on the ride back. There was nothing left to say. Once they returned to the Sleipnir, no one came out to greet them. Not Mr. Torque. Not the oft-mentioned Feng. No one. It was as if they were never gone.
Ched eased the cab to the head of the line before he came to a stop. “I shure could ush a hand tying her up.” He raised an eyebrow at Dodger.
Dodger ignored the driver’s request, instead leaping down from the cab and starting his long walk back to town.
“Mr. Carpenter!” the professor called after him.
Dodger ignored him too. The man was bound to have questions, and Dodger was not in the mood for questions right now. What he was in the mood for was a short bath and quick meal and a long nap and putting this whole event as far from his mind as possible.
“Please!” the professor yelled. “Don’t leave us just yet.”
Dodger kept his stride even and his pace quick. Should the little man follow him all the way back to town, he would fall well behind the long-legged Dodger before they reached the inn.
“I would still like to offer you a meal,” the professor said.
This stopped Dodger in his tracks. He stood clenching his fists as tight as his stomach clenched at the proposal of a meal, surprised to still be so hungry even after what he’d witnessed. But then again, human nature never ceased to surprise him. Over his shoulder, he lied. “I’m not hungry.”
The professor scurried up beside Dodger, then around to face him. The portly little man was winded, huffing between sentences as he tried to speak while simultaneously trying to catch his breath. “Then at least … oh my, but you do walk very fast … at least return so we can … oh dear, I’m not as young as I used to be … come back so we can … you have quite long legs … we can discuss the terms of your contract.”
“For the work … the posted job.” He swallowed hard, his breathing evening out at last. “I would like to hire you, Mr. Carpenter.”
Dodger stared in disbelief at the man.
“Yes,” the professor said, as if reading the question that lay on Dodger’s mind. “I think you have proven yourself more than capable of assuming the position aboard the Sleipnir. I would feel more than safe with you about.”
“Thank you for that,” Dodger said. “But I don’t know if I am interested in the position anymore.”
The professor’s face fell into disappointment. “Why on earth not?”
Dodger motioned to the distance, the place from which they’d just returned. “What happened back there? What were those men?”
“I thought you understood. They are, or rather were, genetically altered-”
“Yes, I understood. Yet you talk about it like it was nothing. Like it is an everyday occurrence.”
The professor shrugged away Dodger’s concern. “Well, I wouldn’t call it everyday.”
“I wouldn’t call it any day! I have never seen anything like that. Those men melted right in front of us. Melted. People don’t just melt.” Dodger ran his hands through his hair in frustration. “I don’t even know what to tell Sheriff Conner. But you … I bet you and your crew see things like that all of the time. That or worse.”
The professor quickly looked away and proceeded to whistle rather than answer.
“Probably it is often worse, isn’t it?” Dodger asked. “Much worse?”
The professor wrinkled his nose, then nodded. “Yes. I’m afraid so. We got off a bit light this time, thanks to you. That’s why I would love to have you aboard. You have quite a gift for gunplay, sir. We are in dire need of your protection. I don’t know how we’ve gotten on so long without a proper gunman.”
Dodger turned from the professor to look at the glorious line behind them, to the driver still working hard to couple the cars, to the distance where the action happened, and back around again to the professor. He had to admit he did enjoy protecting folks for a change. He spent so long taking lives for nothing more than a paycheck that he had almost forgotten what it was like to feel proud at the end of work.
But still … this was well beyond his abilities.
Not to perform. Performance wasn’t the issue here, as the facts bore out.
This job went beyond his ability to cope.
“You folks don’t need a hired gun,” Dodger said. “If this is the weird kind of thing you see on a daily basis, you need to get yourself an army. Of priests.”
“Mr. Carpenter,” the professor said, his voice terse. “I will not mince words with you. I want to offer you the job. But I will not beg. I will not plead. I have my honor. Just as I am sure you have yours.”
“I didn’t mean any disrespect, sir. I just … I don’t know if I am cut out for this sort of thing. That’s all. There might have been a time when a man melting before my eyes would have made me feel as curious as you, but that was a long, long time ago. I’m sorry. I admire your convictions and the way you handle yourself, but it’s not for me.”
At the compliment, the professor ran his hands down his jacket, like a preening bird. “No harm meant, then no offense taken. But I would still like to keep the offer open. Would you at least consider it?”
“I don’t know.” Dodger sighed, long and heavy. His instincts were screaming no, but something inside of him wanted to do this. Needed to. If not for the work, then at least to find out what happened to Clemet. Or rather, find out who happened to the poor lad. “I’ll need time to think about it.”
“I understand. But as you can imagine, we don’t like to sit around for very long if we don’t have to. Trouble tends to find me too easily if I remain a sitting target.” The professor snatched his watch from his vest pocket, flipping it open as he checked the time. “It is a little after noon. The Sleipnir will pull out at precisely three o’clock. Whether you are on it or not. I would prefer the first, but if the latter is the case, then so be it.” The professor clicked his watch closed, dropped it into his vest and stuck out his stubby hand. “Good day, Mr. Carpenter. It has been an honor to meet you.”
“Good day to you, Professor Dittmeyer, PhD, MD.” Dodger shook the man’s hand before he added, “And you were right.”
“You are a damned good egg.” Dodger turned and strode back to town, leaving the professor far behind him, giggling his schoolgirl giggle.
The walk back was quick, a twenty-minute hard push of trying to empty his mind while his feet did all the work. There was much to think about. And much to forget. This job was a rare opportunity, not just because of the train or the odd crew, but because it wasn’t ranch handing or digging in the dirt or serving drinks to ungrateful slobs. Again, the job almost seemed created specifically for Dodger. Which made him want to avoid it all the more.
Dodger pushed into the saloon and paused to breathe the familiar scent of sweat, beer and whiskey. The town drunk, Wallace, was already perched on his favorite stool at the bar, half pickled on warm ale. A half a dozen men sat scattered around the tables, some avoiding their wives, others wishing they had one to avoid. Dodger eyed them with pity, as well as a touch of jealousy. This was home for them, or as near as damn it. But he never really had a home. Not since his family’s house burned to the ground when he was just twelve. Not since his father died two years before that. Not since, well, not for a long time.
Decker, owner and proprietor of the place, shot a hand up at Dodger. “Heya, Arnold. Maggie washed your linens like you asked. But she didn’t get around to dressing your cot. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not a problem, Decker,” Dodger said. “Give ‘em to me and I’ll do it now. I want to take a nap before rush hour.”
“I can send her up later if you like.”
“No, I’ll do it.” Dodger held out his left hand. “I want to nap. Now.”
Decker shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He motioned to the stairs across the room from the bar. “They are probably on your cot, just not on your cot, if you get my meaning.”
“Got it. I should be down before the evening crowd.” Dodger tipped his head to the man and mounted the staircase that led to his small room over the bar. “And Dex?”
“If anyone comes asking around about me, tell ‘em I left. Will ya?”
“Yeah, left town.” Dodger added a synonym for each step he mounted. “Gone. Vamoosed. Went AWOL. Jumped ship. Adios, amigos.”
“If you want, sure.” The barkeep returned to cleaning the counter, but before Dodger could reach his door, the man asked, “Arnie? You in trouble?”
Dodger stopped with the handle in his good hand, staring down at the barkeep. “No trouble. Just tired is all.”
“Then why are you toting those things?” Decker waved his filthy dishcloth at Dodger.
“What things?” Dodger asked before he looked down to see the answer parked on his own hips. Their weight had been so familiar, so welcome, that he hadn’t stopped to take them off. He hadn’t even noticed. And strangely enough, the professor said nothing to stop him from taking the things.
Dodger was still wearing Boon’s guns.