Message in a Bottle
In which Dodger gets an invitation.
Boon whispered, Dodger, there, between the engine and second car.
“I see him too,” Dodger said as he picked up his pace again.
Between the cars there rested a man on his belly, creeping along the underpinning of the train. He had to be of a painfully small physique to be able to wedge himself into the tight fittings of the exposed SMART. But that he had done, and now had the advantage should he wish to spring up and pounce on the unsuspecting driver.
Dodger was forced to remind himself that Ched was just that—a driver and not a hired gun. Yet, if this was the kind of security the line had as of late, no wonder they also had so much trouble. Dodger reminded himself to extol the virtues of keeping a synchronized watch at a later date.
“It seems our friend is oblivious to the danger,” Dodger said.
Yes, well Ched was never very observant. I’m afraid his current condition hasn’t improved this attitude much. If nothing, it’s made him ever more apathetic.
“Where I come from, we just call that lazy.”
Boon chuckled. So do we.
“When we have time to talk again, I’d like to know more about this so called condition.”
Ah, I’m afraid that’s a tale for Ched to tell. Though I warn you, he might require a confession in exchange to loose his tongue.
“Then we should all swap stories sometime. You included.”
“Of course. I have a feeling you have an interesting history to share. And I’m sure you have plenty of questions to ask me.”
So be it. I shall consider it a challenge to top your assured tales of adventure.
Dodger doubted the ghost ever could.
The skeletal man, who finally spotted Dodger, crawled down from his perch on the platform and eased his way towards them. Just as he came within speaking distance, Ched tipped a long, thin finger to the brim of his cap and said, “Welcome back, Sharge.”
“Major,” Dodger snapped.
“If you’re gonna call rank, it’s Major.” He strode past the driver, without bothering to look the man in the face as he passed by.
From behind him rose the rebuttal of, “What ever you shay. Sharge.”
Dodger sucked in a deep breath to keep from firing off another retort. It could have been worse, he supposed. In his heyday, Dodger had gone by all sorts of appellations; some nicknames, some slanders, and most of which weren’t repeatable in polite company. Heck, most weren’t repeatable in any company. He put the insult behind him as well as the driver, and mounted the platform onto the engine car.
“Where’sh Lelanea?” Ched asked. “She shaid she wash gonna fetch ya.”
“She came back on her own a little while ago,” Dodger said.
“Oh. I musht’ve misshed her.”
Dodger groaned in frustration. Ye gods. How unobservant could one man be of his own surroundings?
“Doc’sh waiting for ya in the meetin' car,” Ched said, falling in line behind Dodger.
“I figured as much,” Dodger said as he resumed his climb onto the platform.
“Tish the third one down.”
“I remember.” Out of the corner of his eye, Dodger made note of the little man slipping back under the second car, into the cramped quarters of the underpinning.
“And thish ish the engine.”
“I’m well aware of that.” Dodger dropped his bags on the platform and leaned out over the edge to address the intruder. “Unless you want to lose both of your kneecaps and most of your legs, I suggest you throw out your weapon and come out with your hands up.”
“What are you talkin’ about?” Ched asked.
“He heard me.” Dodger pulled one of the oversized guns, and set the triple hammer. The action echoed with an impressively loud metallic click in the hollow of the cab connection. “Toss out your weapon and come out with your hands up.”
“Don’t shoot!” the man under the train yelled.
Ched stared at the underpinning, eyes wide with awe. “Damn, Sharge. I’ve sheen shome thingsh in my day, but you’ve got shkillsh to beat the band.”
“Thank the devil someone does,” Dodger grumbled. Louder he added, “Toss out your gun.”
“I’m not armed,” the man under the train said.
“Toss out your weapon.”
“I sed I weren’t armed!”
“Toss out your weapon, now!”
A pistol skidded across the dirt, away from the second car, toward the hills opposite the town of Blackpoint.
Dodger nudged the driver as he tipped his head at the gun.
Ched hopped down from the platform to retrieve the weapon.
“Come out with your hands up,” Dodger said. “Slowly.”
“I … I can’t,” the man said.
“I think … I think I’m stuck.”
“If I had a gold nugget for every time I heard that line-”
“It’s true! I can’t wiggle out. I’m tryin’. Honest.”
It is true, Dodger. He’s caught his pant leg in the workings of the SMART. In order to clear himself he will have to cut the fabric, but only if we arm him again, which I don’t recommend. The other option is obvious, if not foul, considering the nasty specimen he is.
Dodger chuckled before he requested that obvious option. “Take off your pants.”
“What!” the man shouted.
“You shure about that, sharge?” Ched asked.
Making his way down the platform, while keeping the weapon trained on the underpinning, Dodger said, “Take off your pants and crawl out here.”
“But, I’m not wearing anything under,” the man whimpered.
“And I don’t want to shee that,” Ched said.
“You,” Dodger said with another nod to Ched. “Go and get the boss man. Tell him we found an intruder.”
“We?” Ched asked.
“Yes. We. Now go.”
Shaking his head, Ched mounted the engine platform and disappeared into the second cab.
“And you,” Dodger said, returning his attention to said intruder. “You’ve caught your pants in the works. Take them off so you can slide out here.”
“Take them off!”
“No! I ain’t standing around in front of a bunch of strangers with my giblets hanging out.”
“You should have thought about that before you decided to sneak up on my train. Next time you plan a sneak attack, I suggest you wear long underwear.”
“Now, as I see it you have three options here. You take off your pants and come out here on your own accord, or I can blow your legs off and drag what’s left of you out here.”
The man considered these options for a moment, then said, “That’s only two. What’s the third?”
Dodger was surprised the man could count higher than one, though three was probably his upper limit. “Your third option is the easiest. I just leave you where you are.”
“Uh-huh. I see. And what’s the catch?”
Dodger shrugged. “No catch. I leave you, and when the train moves out again—which will be very soon I should add—then you come along for the ride. But I don’t think you will enjoy it very much.” Dodger stepped closer to the gap between the cars, lowering his mouth and voice as he leaned into that dark space. “In fact, I daresay the experience will leave you feeling a little … flat. Comprehende?”
The man’s reaction was both desired and immediate.
“I’m coming out!” he shouted.
Dodger did his best to hold his laughter as he stepped back and kept the gun ready but lowered.
It took a full minute of grunting and wiggling, and a fair amount of colorful language, but the man made his way out from under the train. The moment he was on his feet he cupped his bare groin—not that there was much down there to cup—and set to cowering before his captor. Aside from his half nudity, a peculiarity sprang into the spotlight; the man was very hairy. As in shaggy dog hairy. He bore a thick, tangled fur across his bare legs, arms, face and even his head. This combined with a familiar elongated snout and triangular nose suggested but one thing.
Biscuit to a bear claw, the man was another of Clemet’s so called Pack.
“If you don’t mind,” the man said, “I’ll be leaving my hands where they are.”
“I encourage it,” Dodger said. “Who are you?”
“Most folks call me Bottle, on account of my habits.” He grinned a mouthful of gnarled and half-rotted fangs.
Dodger lifted his weapon, determined to keep pace with the threatening smile. “What do you want with the train?”
“Don’t want the train.”
“Then what do you want?”
“You the man what fired on Big Dan?”
“What if I am?”
“I gots a message for ya. From Butch.”
Clemet’s warning echoed with the name. “What does he want?”
“Says he wants to meetcha. He says come before candlelight, tonight. He says come unarmed or don’t come at all.”
Now this was getting interesting, if not a touch amusing. “And what makes him think I would want to do that?”
“‘Cause if you don’t, he’ll kill the girl.”
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