Ghost of a Chance
There was Dodger’s inner voice again. The one that sounded like Washington Boon. But it couldn’t have been Boon. The man’s lips never moved.
I know it is hard to believe, but I cannot lie. Not anymore. You know what they say. Dead men tell no tales.
There it came again. Dodger could hear the words, could hear the man’s voice, yet the man’s mouth never moved. “How are you doing that?”
I’m not sure, but I think we share a connection of sorts. Boon tipped his head to one side, as if considering the options. Maybe ‘tis a love for the guns? Or a clear sense of duty? He raised his eyebrows to Dodger. Like the way you wouldn’t shoot that man in the back, despite his obvious threat to you and your safety.
“You … it was you. You were the one talking me through the motions back at the cab. Weren’t you?”
I hope I didn’t overstep my bounds by helping you, but you seemed in need of a boost of spirits. Boon laughed aloud at this.
Dodger fell back onto the bed, covering his face with his arms. “It’s official. I’m going mad.”
“I promise you’re not,” Boon said as he stood.
“What good is a promise from a dead man?” Dodger lifted his arms and stared at the tall man. “Because that’s what you’re telling me. That you’re a ghost?”
Boon tipped his head to one side with a short nod of agreement. As good a term as any, I suppose.
“Then why should I listen to you?” Dodger asked. “You aren’t even real.”
“I assure you, I’m every bit as real as those guns. In fact, I believe they’re the reason I am here. With you. Rather than back on the Sleipnir.”
“So the guns are possessed? Not me?”
“Yes, in a way it is the guns.”
“Then thank heaven for small favors.”
“Of course, I am not able to speak with the others as freely as I can converse with you.” Boon rubbed his beard in thought. “Save for Ched, of course. But that comes as no surprise. The veil between worlds is very thin for a man in his undesirable position.”
Dodger wanted to ask what that was supposed to mean, but it seemed silly to question a figment of his imagination. He snorted as he sat up. “All right. If you’re a ghost, then prove it. Do something ghostly.”
“Sure. Make something float, or walk through walls, or whatever it is you spirits are supposed to do.”
I don’t do parlor tricks, sir.
“No, no,” Dodger said as he waved away the whispering. “I’ve heard that already. Something more than that. Convince me.”
“Something more?” Boon took a single step forward, to close the gap between them, then motioned to himself with both hands. “Strike me.”
“You heard right the first time. Hit me.”
“I’m not going to hit you.”
“Hit me. Punch me. Lay me out flat. Go on. I dare you.”
“Is this your parlor trick? Taunting someone into a fight?”
“No. Anyone can do that. But few can do this.” Boon took a swing at Dodger, and of course, Dodger blocked.
After ignoring his training for so long, Dodger was surprised how it all came back to him. It was as natural as breathing. Duck. Roll off the bed. Leap to your feet. Ready yourself for another blow. Only, he didn’t receive the first blow. Not really. It took a moment for Dodger to grasp what had just happened, the fact that Boon hadn’t laid a finger on him. Instead, the man’s fist had gone through Dodger. Body and soul.
“How did you do that?” Dodger asked.
Boon shrugged. “Substantial, insubstantial, there’s very little difference when one has the freedom to really think about it. And of course, not having a corporeal form helps out a great deal.”
Dodger reached his hand out to Boon, but only succeeded in waving through the man. A light crackling emanated from all the places where he and the spirit touched, sending an almost pleasant buzz up Dodger’s arms. It was like running his fingers through electrified molasses. “This isn’t possible.”
“Sure it is. You’re a smart man. Put it together.”
“You’re really dead?”
“As in dead dead?”
Boon nodded again.
“As in not alive?”
Boon shook his head. “I haven’t seen your side of alive for quite a few moons.”
Dodger collapsed onto the bed again and watched the spirit relax into the chair across the room. “How can you sit down if you’re …?”
“In the dead way? I’m not sure. I can’t rightly explain it, but I think it’s the memory of getting off my feet that lets me treat a chair like a chair.” The ghost took on a wistful look. “I only wish other memories were as cooperative. Some things I did sure were sweeter than sitting on my rump.”
“I appreciate your lament for living deeds, but what does this have to do with me.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I want you.”
“Could you be more specific?”
“As I have already explained, the Sleipnir needs your protection. The doctor—God love him—he’s a good man but, well, he attracts all manner of trouble.”
Still wide eyed with wonder, Dodger whispered, “I think I’ve seen what kind of trouble he attracts.”
“Oh, I think you will find it goes far beyond just ghosts and mongrels, my friend. Things you can’t begin to dream of are drawn to that man like a moth to a flame. The Doc breaks his fast in the morning with a heaping helping of weird and sups in the evening on a buffet of the bizarre. No one knows why. Not even the Doc. Some say he is cursed, but of course he doesn’t believe in such things. And I tried, I tried my best to keep them from harm’s way, but in the end, I failed. I failed them all.” Boon shifted his gaze to the floor as he added, in a very soft voice, “I still can’t believe I failed her.”
There came upon the man a look of utter despair, a mask of absolute and complete regret. Dodger recognized himself in that look, his own reservations and sleepless nights. Whatever had come to pass for the man, be he living or dead, continued to ply his restless soul with pain and anguish.
“I understand your position,” Dodger said. “Really I do. The Sleipnir is a fine line, and I’m sure you did your best to care for her. But what do you expect from me?”
Boon turned that pained look upon Dodger. “Take the job. Defend them all from whatever curse plagues the doctor. Protect her where I failed.”
“I can’t protect a line like that.” Dodger turned away, unable to bear the man’s glare. “I’m just an out-of-work farmhand.”
“No. I know better. I’ve seen you wield a weapon. That gleam in your eye when you weighed my guns in your palms. That grin when you set her hammers. I felt that wash of regret when your first shot failed, then remorse when your second one struck home. What you did today, how you handled yourself out there, that wasn’t the work of a farmhand. It was the skill of a warrior.”
Dodger shrugged away Boon’s truth. “I got lucky.”
“That wasn’t luck, it was expertise. We both know it to be true.”
The room filled with an uncomfortable silence as the pair of men fell quiet. Boon was right, but his praise didn’t make Dodger feel superior. It only served to point out the single fact from which Dodger had been running this whole time: you can leave the work, but the work never leaves you. And the work, in this case, was shedding the blood of his fellow man.
At length, Dodger asked, “Are you done extolling my virtues?”
“Will you take the job?” Boon asked.
“If I say yes, will you go away?”
“Probably not. But if it helps, I won’t go away if you say no either.”
“So I’m stuck with you then?”
“I suppose so.” Boon nodded to the guns on the floor. “At least, until you get rid of those. And I know you don’t want to do that.”
“Who would?” Dodger retrieved the pair from the floor.
Boon gave a soft sigh of admiration as Dodger pulled one of the guns free from the holster. “They are stunning, aren’t they?”
“They certainly are. Did he really make them? I mean, the professor?”
“He designed them, yes. But he didn’t make them.” Boon smiled wide. “I did.”
Dodger eyed the man with suspicion. “You?”
“It’s true. I was the weaponsmith who forged ‘em. The professor observed my shooting style, and drafted a pair of guns to make up for my performance issues. Those beauties were the results. Three times the chance of hitting my target. How could I go wrong? Of course, in your hands, they’re far more deadly.”
“Thanks. I think.” Dodger looked at the bulky weapon in his hand, then back at the artist who’d cast such perfection in steel. “May I ask a personal question?”
“Be my guest. Like I said, I can’t lie. The most I can do is just not answer. And, if you will indulge me, since speaking is one of the few things I’m able to do, I tend to spout off at the mouth when invited.”
Dodger tried to word his question as politely as possible, but there didn’t seem to be a nice way to ask what was on his mind. “If you were such a bad … if you couldn’t hit the broad … no … if you …”
Boon came to his rescue. “You want to know why such a lousy shot thought he could play the role of bodyguard.”
“The short answer is: Why not?”
“And the long answer?” Dodger asked.
“The long answer is a might bit embarrassing.” Boon cocked back in the chair and propped his feet onto the bed again as he tossed his hat onto the mattress beside Dodger. Before it could land, it disappeared in a puff of gray vapors. “Why did I end up in this line of work? Probably the same reason you are drawn to it. I like to help folks. Always have.”
A sense of chivalry wasn’t what drew Dodger into the world of gunplay, but he didn’t correct the man.
“I came from a long line of gunslingers,” Boon explained, “My grandpappy and his grandpappy worked in law enforcement, all the way back to jolly old England. Our family line was known all over the world for one particular talent.” Boon pointed his forefingers at Dodger, and looked down his imaginary barrel as if drawing a bead.
“Let me guess,” Dodger said. “They were all deadeye shots?”
“Bull’s eye.” Boon pulled the thumb trigger on his handgun before he crossed his arms across his expansive chest. “The Federal Marshals were staffed by most of my family, and two of my own brothers helped start up the Pinkertons. My sisters even did some international work for the president himself."
"You were a Marshal?" Dodger was impressed. It seemed they shared a bit of history.
"No sir. Not little Wash. I wanted to be in the Marshals, but they laughed me out. Little bitty Washington. Two big fists but lousy with a gun.”
“Little? If you’re little then I would hate to see your siblings.”
Boon either didn’t hear Dodger or didn’t care, the man was so lost in his own memories. He stared at his boots, rather than face Dodger with his story. “I was the family shame. The youngest son of the deadliest shot for miles around, and I couldn’t hit a target even if I threw the damned gun at it. I trained under my uncle as a weaponsmith, hoping that I could craft a gun clever enough to make up for my lack of skill. But I never could hit on that golden design. When I got old enough to leave home, I left it all. All of it. My family. My name. Everything.”
Dodger recognized this part of the story. “But you can’t run from yourself.” He had been running for so long now, he figured he was just about to catch up with himself.
Boon’s saintly smile returned. “You can’t escape destiny. I thought I could run from my roots, but the need to help folks was in my blood. I never offered myself as a gun for hire, but as you can imagine, my size led me into a number of protective positions.”
“I can imagine. Then along came the Doc?”
“When I applied for his work, I told him I wasn’t much with a gun, but he said it didn’t matter. He said he was desperate and would take what he could get. I don’t mind telling you that did little to boost my ego. But later I learned that was just his way. He didn’t mean any harm; he just doesn’t know how to temper his words.”
“You mean he has a hard time lying.”
“Nicely spotted. Yes. He assured me that he would turn his mind to the task of equipping me with the appropriate weapons. I laughed at first. It doesn’t take long around the Doc to know that when he puts his mind to something, he is like dog with a soup bone. He keeps working at it, gnawing and nibbling, until he gets what he wants. You now hold his hard work, as well as mine.”
“He drafted the design, and you made them.”
“Those and the cartridges. And a plethora of other weaponry.”
“There’s more?” Whereas he was just displaying a polite interest before, now Dodger was genuinely intrigued.
“There was. I don’t know how much of it the Doc still has on hand. He took it rather hard when I passed on. He went and melted down a good deal of our work. Said he couldn’t stand to look at it. But Ched hid my guns.”
“He said you asked him to.”
“That I did. I had no way of knowing the Doc would go loco after I bought the farm, but I knew the next person along for the ride would need those things as much as I did.”
“And you think that person is me?”
Boon finally turned to face Dodger. “No, Mr. Dodger. I know it’s you.”
“Why me? I mean out of all of the people to apply, what makes you think I’m so damned fit for the job?”
“Because you’re the only person to answer the ad.”
“It’s true. The Sleipnir has been looking for a new gunslinger for almost a year, and you’re the only person to have shown up to answer the ad. I believe that has a ring of fate about it. Don’t you?”
Dodger was struck by the notion. A chuckle rumbled up from his chest and burst from his mouth before he even knew he was laughing. “I’ll be damned. I was the only man crazy enough to apply. Aside from you. Don’t that just beat all?”
Boon laughed with him. “You see what I mean now? This is fate. This is destiny. A man of your talents is drawn to this kind of work, sir. You can’t walk away from the line. They need you. The Sleipnir needs you.” He furrowed his brow, that look of pain returning as he added, “She needs you.”
Dodger got the distinct feeling that ‘she’ wasn’t just an affectionate term for the line. ‘She’ was someone. Probably someone close. “If I take this job, will you be a part of the crew? I mean, if I take on your guns, do you come with them?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even know why I’m hanging around.” Without warning, Boon sat bolt upright, trained his attention to the door and whispered, “She’s here.” He then snapped his face to Dodger and begged with his eyes as his voice fell on Dodger's mind. Whatever happens, you mustn’t let her know I was here. Don’t let her know you’ve seen me. Or spoken with me. Promise me this.
“Who are you talking about?”
Promise me! The internal cry of Boon’s whispered shout rattled in aftershock about Dodger’s unprotected psyche in the wailing lament of an unappeased spirit. Promise me, Dodger! Promise me!
“I promise!” Dodger dropped the pistol onto the mattress and grabbed the sides of his head, trying to silence the din that threatened to tear his mind apart. “I’ll promise whatever you want! Just make it stop!”
And it did. The cry eased off, and Boon’s mellow whisper returned. Thank you. Thanks so much, for everything. You won’t regret this. I can promise you that. As Boon’s last, and much calmer, words reached Dodger’s tired mind, the man evaporated into another puff of gray vapors. One moment he was there, the next he was a hazy wisp, the next he was gone. And with him the very presence of the spirit left the room.
“Thanks?” Dodger asked no one in particular. “Thanks for what?” He thought about this for a moment, then came to the only conclusion available. Dodger shook his head at the space where Boon just was. “Oh no, no, no. No way! I didn’t promise I’d take your damned job. You get back here right now.”
Boon gave no answer. Whether he had returned to the guns as if a genie to his lamp, Dodger didn’t know, but he didn’t feel the ghost’s presence anymore. Picking up a pistol, Dodger stared at it, hard, as if he could will Boon to reappear.
“Come back, Boon!” Dodger demanded. “We aren’t done talking about this.”
But Boon showed no sign of response or return. Instead, a ruckus rose from just outside of Dodger’s door. A muffled cry from Decker came through the thin wood.
“I’m telling you, there ain’t no one here by that name.”
“I know he is in there!” someone shouted in a high-pitched shriek. The door handle jostled a moment, but remained steadfast in its lock.
“And I’m telling you that you got the wrong place,” Decker said.
A heavy knock rose from the door, before the stranger demanded, “Come out! I know you’re in there!”
Dodger tucked the holster and one of the pistols under his pillow, then slipped the partially loaded weapon down the back of his trouser band, pulling his undershirt low to conceal it. Hiding the bulky thing was like resting a boulder in the small of his back. Armed and wary, he went to the door and undid the lock, easing the thing open just a bit. Whoever was on the opposite side wasn’t willing to wait. The man pushed the door wide open and rushed in, almost atop him. It wasn’t until Dodger was able to step away and take a look at his insistent guest that he decided he liked what he saw.
While the intruder dressed in the manner of a male, he was in fact a she. (Granted, Dodger had never seen a man quite fill out a shirt and pants the way she did.) His eyes followed their natural inclination, taking her in from head to toe, though he did his best to keep from locking onto her full breasts, her slender waist, her flared hips. With effort, he shifted his gaze above her supple neck, which was just as delightful as the rest of her. Brunette, brown eyes, healthy tan. Overall, she was a beautiful woman.
“Mr. Carpenter?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, pleased to hear his name on her lips. “I’m Arnold Carpenter.”
“Well, Mr. Carpenter?” she asked. Her voice had a slight trill to it, a smooth accent he couldn’t quite put his finger on. “Are you going to stand there and stare at me all day?”
“I’m sorry, Arnold,” Decker said. “She just ran up the stairs before I knew what was happening.”
“Its okay, Dex,” Dodger said.
Decker lingered in the doorway.
“Really," Dodger said. "It’s all right. You can leave us be.”
“Miss?” Decker asked, brow furrowed in worry.
“Yes,” she snapped. “It’s fine. I need to talk to him in private.”
Decker shrugged and returned to his bar mumbling, “Keep ‘em out. Let ‘em in. Make up your mind.”
“Now what can I do for you? Ms. …?” Dodger fished for a name, but she wasn’t taking the bait.
“Mr. Carpenter,” the woman said, “I hesitate to disturb your privacy, but I’m afraid you have something that belongs to me.”
“Are you sure? I don’t believe we’ve met, because I think I would remember such a pretty face.”
The woman pursed her lips. “Where are they?”
“Where are what?”
“Stop playing coy with me, Mr. Carpenter.” She pushed him aside and stomped about the room, peering under the bed and around the wardrobe. “Where are they? What did you do with them?”
“I still don’t know what you’re after.”
The brunette clenched her fists at her sides in a poise of anger and shouted, “You thick, thick man! I want Washington Boon’s guns, and I want them now!”