For Love Nor Money
“What is it now?” he asked.
“You’re wearing them wrong,” she said.
He peeked down at the holster, which seemed just fine to him. “You care to show me why?”
“You have them on the wrong sides.” Lelanea motioned to the guns. “That one is Florence, and that one is Hortense. Boon always said Florence was a bit of a flirt, while Hortense was an outright … well …” Lelanea cleared her throat, as if hesitant to finish the thought.
“Yes. I know it’s vulgar, but it makes sense when you know him. See the flourish on the right one? How it’s worn down at the grip?”
Dodger drew the weapon in question—the motion slow, thanks to his sprain—and he discovered that yes, it was more worn than the other.
“That’s how you know it’s Hortense. She was his left-handed gun.”
So the dead man was a southpaw. That was interesting. Not important, but interesting to note. On a whim, Dodger shifted the gun to his opposite hand, and he had to admit it did sit better in his left palm. Whether that was a result of his injury or the power of suggestion, time would tell. He switched the guns places in the holster and held his hands over his hips in presentation. “Am I good now?”
She raked her eyes over his form as if lost in the action of taking him in, and whispered, “Perfect.”
“I don’t know about that, but I do appreciate the compliment.” It was Dodger’s turn to grin.
Caught in the act of sneaking a peek at him, the young woman bloomed a light scarlet from head to neck and, Dodger assumed, right on down the rest of her. She fanned herself with her hand and paced a bit about the room. “My, but these tiny rooms do get warm. If you don’t mind, I think I will wait for you downstairs.”
“You can head on back to the line if you like. I won’t be far behind you.”
She paused in the doorway and turned, saying, “I’d rather wait for you.” The rosy tone in her cheeks deepened. “For the escort, of course, Mr. Carpenter.”
Lelanea left him to his packing, and Dodger set to figuring out just what he had gotten himself into. He supposed the decision to join the crew of the Sleipnir was made of many parts.
The majority came from the overwhelming need to escape Dodger’s oldest enemy, remorse. After the hundreds—maybe thousands—of lives Roger Dodger had shattered while in service to his country, he was convinced he didn’t deserve to be at ease. Dodger supposed sticking his neck out for a bunch of strangers might quiet those nagging specters of doubt. For a little while, at least.
Speaking of specters, a trace of his decision came about due to Boon’s request. The ghost was restless, that much was obvious. Something was keeping him tied to this plane of existence, and Dodger couldn’t help but feel obligated to assist the ghost in finding peace. Why? As Boon said, maybe it was a love for the guns, or a clear sense of duty. Perhaps they really did share a kindred spirit, all spectral jesting aside.
Kindred spirits and obligations spilled over into his next reason for taking the work. Dodger felt he owed it to Clemet. He needed answers as to what happened with the lad, and parlaying his experience aboard the cab into a full-blown investigation seemed the most likely way to get those answers. The professor’s brief explanations, while nice, weren’t good enough. Dodger craved the deeper truth.
The rest was part curiosity, part boredom, and yes, even part desire. After all, Lelanea Dittmeyer was quite the looker. Dodger certainly wouldn’t mind being cooped up with that beauty for days on end.
It took a total of ten minutes for Roger Dodger to pack up his entire life, which was kind of sad when he stopped to think about it. He didn’t have many possessions, and what he couldn’t carry, he didn’t mind leaving with Decker. After all, he owed the saloon owner—and the closest thing to a friend for the past few months—more than he could ever repay.
“That woman said you were leavin’ us,” Decker said from the doorway. “She said you were going somewhere with her.”
“She would be correct,” Dodger said. “Is she still waiting for me?”
“Naw. She got tired of standing around. Said to tell you she’d meet you at the Schelpinwhatchamacallitorsomethingorother.”
“The Sleipnir,” Dodger corrected him.
But Decker didn’t seem interested in grammar lessons. He leaned to and fro, checking out the things as they disappeared into Dodger’s bag. “You ain’t really going, are ya?”
“That I am. I think it’s high time for me to mosey along.”
“But what about your room?”
“I’ll send you my back rent as my pay rolls in.”
“Aw shucks, Arnie. It ain’t the money. You know that. I just mean … where am I gonna get a replacement before the weekend crowd gets here?”
“I think you can handle a dozen drunks without me.”
“You sure about this? I mean, that professor man has an awful bad reputation.” Decker looked troubled, like something more than just his hired help roster was weighing on his mind.
This worry gave Dodger pause. “What do you know about him?”
“You know. Bits and pieces. Folks come in here all the time, passing through, talking about that crazy train that moves with no tracks. And the trouble that follows it. I’m surprised you ain’t heard them talking when you’re pulling buckets.”
Listening to the ramble of half-drunken idiots was the furthest thing from Dodger’s mind when he worked the bar. He kept a novel or two under the counter, preferring to spend the time between pouring shots and pulling ale participating in his favorite pastime. It was no surprise he had missed all the gossip. It was hard to pay attention to a drunkard’s sorry story when you had Ulysses in your lap.
But this gossip was intriguing. He busied himself with packing and asked, as casually as he could manage, “Just what do they say about him?”
“Well,” Decker said, then swallowed hard. “They say that train of his came straight from hell and is crewed by the souls of the damned.”
After meeting the damned soul, or rather Ched, Dodger could understand just how that kind of rumor would surface. “What else?”
“I heard the professor man is no better than the Devil himself. That he makes all kind of bad stuff. He does science. You know … weird science.”
“You don’t say.”
“Yeah. And he trucks with spirits and serves dark masters. I heard that he’s trapped a whole man in a metal contraption, and the poor soul has to serve everyone on the train.”
It took a powerful gumption not to laugh out loud at that. “Really?”
“I hear he has a beast aboard too. A great big maneater of a thing. And that professor man feeds his beast little kids he steals from small towns like right here in Blackpoint. They say the professor man can talk to the rocks and animals and birds and stuff, but what he tells them ain’t good. No sir. It’s all bad. He tries to get them to do his evil biddings and the likes. And, and ... and I hear his train don’t run on coal. They say it runs on the blood of his enemies.”
Dodger stopped to fire an exasperated look Decker’s way. As far as rumors went, this was pretty lowbrow stuff. “They say this, do they?”
“Who are they?”
“You know, they.” This question made Decker more uncomfortable than the subject of their conversation. He rubbed his neck and squirmed in place. “Them. The ones who say stuff.”
“And tell me, do you believe any of what they say?”
“I don’t rightly know. I mean, its sounds pretty far fetched. But … well …”
“That man who hung up that poster here, he was … he was …” Decker’s eyes went wide with anxiety. “I swear you shoulda seen him Arnie. He weren’t right. Not at all. I was gonna take his poster down when he pegged it on the post outside, but you came along and snapped it up before I could get to it. I sorta wish you hadn’t found it now.”
Dodger would bet a pretty penny that Decker’s reaction was typical of saloon and inn owners everywhere: take down the ad, get rid of it and try real hard to forget both it and its owner ever existed. He was also willing to lay down a week’s wages that he was the only one to have answered the ad because he was the only one to have seen it. Boon had called it destiny. Dodger didn’t know what to call it.
Bad luck? Perhaps. But perhaps not. It was too early to tell.
“There’s all kinds of other stories too,” Decker said, letting off the rest of the steam from his line of gossip. “Tales of that professor and why he fled his own home. Forced out, from what I hear. And that woman who came to see you, the things they say about her ain’t nice. Not nice at all.”
“I can understand that,” Dodger said with a smirk.
“Arnie, you can’t work for that man. He’ll get you killed.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“But he went and got his last man killed.” Decker sucked a quick breath at the thought of it. “I hear it was terrible too. Such an awful way to die.”
Dodger opened his mouth to ask Why? How? What? But he decided against it. It was better to ask the professor for the truth of the matter, rather than arm himself with gossip and hearsay. “I’ll be fine, Dex. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.” He pulled the ties on his gunnysack and hoisted it over his shoulder. It was time to leave.
“I know you think you know, but I don’t know if you really know.” Decker followed him out of the room and down the staircase, bemoaning the decision the whole while. “I mean, I know you’re good with a gun and all, but this isn’t like pouring shots or pulling weeds or planting seed. This is different. This is a matter of life or death.”
“I know. Really I do.”
“You still gonna go?”
“Yeah. I left you some novels in the wardrobe. I wish you’d give them a try.”
“You know I can’t read worth a darn.”
“I know. But maybe it’s time you learn, huh?” Dodger grabbed a second sack from behind the bar, filled with the few books he wanted to bring along, and headed for the door.
“Well, you be careful if you’re heading north. I hear another gang’s taken to Hermit’s Gap.”
Dodger chuckled under his breath. “Is it just me or does it always seems some grass green gang is holing up at the Gap these days?”
“Yeah, but these men are supposed to be real trouble though. Been hitting the stagecoaches and such lately.”
“That so? Maybe Blackpoint has a real gang on their hands for once.” Dodger doubted it, but stranger things had happened.
“Arnie? Will you ever come back?”
“I’ll try.” A bag on each shoulder, his whole life stuffed in two small packs, Dodger laid his palm against the saloon door, maybe for the last time, and gave it a push. Over his shoulder he said, “I’ll see you around, Dex.”
“No you won’t.”
Stopping in the doorway, Dodger turned to face his temporary friend.
Decker shook his head, his face long with worry, regret, sorrow. “I won’t see you again. I just know it. I’m sorry to see you go, but he’s gonna get you killed. You won’t last a year in his service. You’ll be lucky to survive a week. He’s a dangerous man, and you are a fool to follow him. You’re going to die, Arnold. You are going to die if you get on that train.”
The man’s voice was flat and emotionless, but still managed to convey the weight of all the dread in the world. It echoed off of the bar and rattled the liquor bottles and shook the doors in their frames with a tremble and resonance that would’ve made the Oracle at Delphi weep to hear. It was an ominous warning. A portentous plea.
And to make matters worse, Dodger knew the truth when he heard it.
“Goodbye,” Dodger whispered. He then pushed through the door, leaving the life of Arnold Carpenter behind to await the afternoon crowd of ranch hands and field workers.
Roger Dodger had an engagement with a train to keep.
And a date with destiny, perhaps, somewhere along the way.
End Volume One
Dogs of War
In which Dodger undertakes his first duties.