Dogs of War
In which Dodger bids the town farewell.
Dodger wasn’t so much as glad to see the town of Blackpoint behind him as he was just ready to move along. It never suited him to put down roots, nor allow weeds to set in, both of which had been a threat as of late. Regardless of this enthusiasm to hightail it out of town, he took the return trip slower than he usually traveled, his once brisk walk now bordering on an almost saunter. A stroll, if you will. Along the way he made a point to savor what was left of the crisp afternoon, nodding at the various folks as he made his way to the outskirts of the small town.
Jeff Jenkins paused in his sweeping the small porch of the Mart ‘N Mule and threw his hand up in greeting. This turned into a wave of farewell with just a touch of disbelief rising to the shop keep’s tired eyes.
Miss Langly, the prim and proper (as well as homely) school marm, ducked her head with a polite smile as he passed, at which Dodger lifted his hat and bade her a final goodbye.
He didn’t need to look back to gauge her reaction; he could feel the woman’s eyes upon him as she stopped and turned, in full, to watch him walk away. Every familiar face he passed gave the same response. Dodger never thought of himself as a popular figure in town, seeing as how he mostly kept to himself. But those who knew him, or at the very least knew of him, seemed upset at the sight of him heading out of town with his bags across his back. Yet no one rushed to stop him. No one begged him to stay.
Which was just as well, because it would’ve taken one heck of a pity party to make him change his mind.
As Dodger walked down the wide dirt road that split the town in half, he had the sudden sensation of someone walking alongside of him. Boon’s whispering voice entered his mind as the ghost said, Folks appear disturbed that you are taking leave of this place.
“Not really,” Dodger said under his breath. “They’re just being all kinds of polite.”
Tis the sign of a good man, such melancholy in the community upon your departure.
Dodger smiled at the widow Martin, who frowned in return as if he had greatly displeased her by leaving without so much as an explanation. This was the same woman who would’ve expected Nero to explain the need for all of the incessant fiddling while they both burned alive in the process, so nothing new there.
Are you as sorry to leave as they are to see you go?
Through gritted teeth of his grin, Dodger asked. “Will you do me a favor?”
If I am able, certainly.
“Don’t talk to me in public.”
Dodger could just about hear Boon’s ephemeral eyebrows furrow.
Why not? It isn’t as though others can hear me.
“That as it may be, I don’t want to look like a loon by talking to myself.” Dodger whispered this, trying his best to hide his words under nods and farewells.
Ah, I didn’t think of that. I’m very sorry. My enthusiasm for fresh banter blinded me to the obvious. You must forgive me, it has been months since I have been able to hold a decent conversation with someone. I suppose I have a lot to say, but don’t feel as though you must answer.
“And have you think me rude?”
A light chuckle touched Dodger’s mind. Polite and deadly. That’s quite a combination you make of yourself.
“I aim to please.”
You aim for far more than that, I’ll wager. Still, it wasn’t my intention to cause you discomfort.
“Yet you persist.”
Point taken. I shall keep my comments to myself then until we are alone again. I apologize. The presence of the spirit remained but Boon, true to his word, went silent.
Now Dodger felt like he was being spied upon, but he supposed it was better than listening to a running commentary only he could hear.
The town doctor, Doc Willow—who wasn’t really a doctor by schooling but rather by experience, as in the experience of sewing up the nicks and cuts caused by a lifetime of poor barber skills—nodded in Dodger’s direction. Dodger tipped his forefingers to his hat in farewell, but it was obvious the elderly man wanted more than a gesture. He waved Dodger over to himself, and Dodger figured it was best to comply.
“Hurt yaself?” the sawbones asked as Dodger approached.
Dodger flexed his injured hand, trying his best not to wince. “Just a sprain. I’ll be right as rain in no time.”
Doc Willow grunted, unconvinced. “Could look at it for ya.”
“Thanks, but no time.”
“Yeah. Heard ya wuz leavin’ us.”
It came as no surprise the town’s medicine man already knew Dodger was set to leave. Gossip traveled through small towns faster than a brush fire could consume a patch of tumbleweed in the highest of dry season. That was, to say, very fast indeed, and Blackpoint was no exception. The residents crowded the narrow boardwalk that bordered the town’s single street, proving that the news had burned clear across town before Dodger set a foot outside of Decker’s place. It seemed as though every able bodied soul within rumor’s distance had gathered to watch him leave.
But again, no one stepped up to stop him.
“Why ya in such a rush?” Doc Willow asked. “Ya in trouble?”
“No, sir. Job’s come open,” Dodger said with a shrug. “Can’t pass it up. I’ll miss this place though.”
“Naw ya won’t.” The barber-cum-physician grinned, at Dodger. “But I kent says I blames ya. Travel while ya can, son. ‘Cause when ya git too old, it gits too late.” In a movement that seemed part ominous and part spiritual, Doc Willow raised a hand to Dodger’s shoulder, grasping gently as he looked Dodger square in the eye and said, “Good luck. God bless an’ keep ya for His own.”
Dodger, who never considered himself a spiritual man, closed his eyes and took a moment to soak up this undeserved blessing of his elder. He had a suspicion he would need all the blessings he could get in time to come. When he looked up again, the man’s grin had bloomed into a beatific smile. Gap toothed, but saintly.
Nodding once more, Dodger said, “Same to you, sir.” With that, he went on his way.
That seemed nice.
“It was nice,” Dodger said. And it was. Just a nice way to remember Blackpoint.
A nice way to depart from somewhere, in peace, for once in his life.
Outside of town proper Dodger shifted his step into high gear, all but running for the train lest he miss his appointed departure.
I assume we can we speak freely now.
“Sure,” Dodger said. “But I’m afraid I don’t make much of a traveling companion.”
How about a working partner?
I have given this some thought, and seeing as how I don’t have much else to do, and no where else to go, I would consider it an honor to offer you my services. What little there are to offer, of course.
Dodger smiled to himself. His experience outweighed the dead man by several decades. There was little Boon could teach or offer that Dodger wasn’t already well capable of. “Thanks but, I think I can handle this one on my own.”
I understand you are far more experienced in the ways of the work than I, but I have a few years of personal knowledge about the Sleipnir and her crew that you could use. That and I can act as a pair of extra eyes. Invisible eyes.
Now there was an idea. Boon as a ‘partner’ didn’t sit well with Dodger, but Boon as a spy was a unique idea. An information source that no one else could see, or hear. One that could keep invisible tabs on folks and report their activities back to Dodger, and only Dodger. It was tempting, to say the least. It also brought up an interesting point. Although the spirit was chatty as ever, he failed to make an appearance.
“Why can’t I see you?” Dodger asked.
“Which means …?”
I am unable to manifest myself in direct sunlight. Which is also why I must touch your mind rather that speak aloud with you, which I know you prefer. I don’t know why this is. I just know it is.
“Makes sense to me. At least it explains a thing or two.”
“Sure. You ever hear tale of a ghost story taking place in broad daylight?”
Boon’s laughter echoed with Dodger’s thoughts. No. I must admit I haven’t. I’m sorry if it’s bothersome. I wished there was something I could do about it.
“No bother at all. I don’t mind good conversation now and again. As long as I’m alone, that is.” Dodger walked in silence for a bit, watching his boots stir up the dry dirt, thinking about what Boon had said and the implications that followed. “Now when you say you touch my mind, does that mean you can ... well ... can you ...?”
Read your thoughts?
The spirit gave a protracted sigh rather than an answer.
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
Yes and no.
Dodger gripped the gun belt slung low on his waist. “You best explain yourself before I toss your guns to the dirt right now.”
Please, don’t panic. I only mean to say that if I wanted I could pick up the foremost thoughts of your mind. But only those you are directly thinking about and it takes a maximum effort on my part. The task leaves me almost too drained to act upon the information once I have it.
“So, it’s all touch and no look?”
A strange way to put it, but yes.
“Well, then. Thanks for being honest about it.”
Again, I couldn’t lie if I wanted to. And, further truth be told, I find it tedious as well as useless to know what others are thinking most of the time. It’s a bit like reading a diary; most of it is just embarrassing prattle and unsubstantiated worries. Besides, most folk’s body language gives their motives away quicker than a scanning of their thoughts ever could.
“That it does, my phantom friend. That it does.”
Dodger slowed his steps as he approached the train, taking a moment to scan the perimeter of his new appointment and the body language spoken at that very moment. In the shade of the back engine platform, Ched laid stretched in repose, much in the manner of a reclining feline, loafing and lazy, and looking quite contented to remain that way. But it wasn’t just his relaxed position that irked Dodger. No. The man displayed three classic signs of an easy target.
The first showed in Ched’s naked hips. If he did have a pocket advantage—keeping a readied weapon stashed in the billowing folds of his overalls—then with his hands clasped behind his head, it would take much longer for him to reach his weapon that it would for even the slowest of draws to put at least one bullet in that eerie skull. Unable to outdraw your enemy was just as bad as being unarmed.
The second lay in Ched’s easy manner, in the way he reclined. The man rolled his eyes hither and thither, that was when he just didn’t shut them outright. Truth be told, he displayed all the symptoms of a man on the verge of falling asleep. Keeping lookout was one thing, but combining it with an afternoon nap, well, that was danger of its own making.
The third factor was the product of Ched’s lazy watch. The driver should have been on sentry, but instead of alert and oriented, he leaned against the platform in a languid sprawl. On occasion, he lolled his head about from side to side, as if bored with his simple work. This positioning would take time to recover from if there was a sudden onset of gunfire. Or worse.
Anyone in the world could sneak up on the train.
Which of course made it all the easier for the man trying to do just that very thing.