“The doc?” Dodger asked as he too fell still.
“You really have no idea what’s going on here. Do you?”
Rather than admit his ignorance, he said, “How about you explain it to me?”
Lelanea’s voice dropped to a husky whisper. “That big man isn’t in charge here. He may act like it, but it’s all for show. Someone else is pulling his strings.”
“I’m not surprised. Butch doesn’t have enough brain cells to rub together to start a fire, much less spark a cognizant thought.”
“Yes, well his little coup wasn’t even his idea. He was instructed to rise up and challenge the last Pack leader. To bring these men out to this place. To capture me and lure you here. All so they could get their hands on Hieronymus. Butch and his fellow bulldogs were ordered to capture my uncle and destroy the train and everyone aboard.”
Dodger thought there was something funny about the way their particular breed set themselves apart when compared to the unity of the other dog-men. “Ordered? By whom?”
“I’m not sure. Whoever he is, their fear of the man is absolute. They won’t even speak his name. They act as if he might be summoned by their words alone.”
“And you gathered all of this through eavesdropping.”
“These men, these soldiers just stood around outside the tent, gossiping about sensitive information? In front of a prisoner?”
“Well … maybe not right outside the tent … look, the important thing is that I heard them. Okay?”
“I don’t doubt you did. I’m just not sure how.”
“The point is something much broader than a train robbery is going on here. We have to get back to the Sleipnir before they get to my uncle. I’m afraid they will kill him if given the chance.”
“They will kill him,” Thaddeus Walker said.
Dodger was surprised to see the familiar figure crawling under the back edge of the tent. “You’re alive? I heard gunshots. I thought Butch shot you.”
“Not me,” Thad said as he raised himself to a crouch. “The shots you heard were meant for Jack. One to kill him, and once more for good measure.” He scooted across the tent and began the task of untying the well-worked knots. “I was sentenced to a slow death in the hole. But you saved me.”
Dodger wasn’t sure what nonsense the man was spouting. “Saved you? I lost against Butch and got Jack killed and-”
“And you started a revolution among the men. Their trust for Butch is slipping. A few of them freed me from the hole, and now we are here to free you and your mate.”
Lelanea huffed. “I am not his-”
“I’m sorry to have put you in this position,” Dodger said over her anger.
“I’m not,” Thad said. “This explosion has been a long time coming. You just provided the spark that lit the fuse.”
The ropes slithered away from Dodger, dropping to the floor and allowing him movement again. He scrambled to his feet and rubbed at his tender wrists while a very unnerved Thad attempted to untie Lelanea.
“Get your pea-picking paws off me,” she snapped.
“Best let me,” Dodger said.
Thad backed away, relief washing over him as he allowed Dodger the task.
As he picked at the knots, Dodger asked, “Do you have any weapons?”
“No,” Thad confessed. “Butch suspected the men were roused by your speech, so he confiscated the weapons right away. Only his select guard carries guns now, though a few of us have small blades.”
“How many men are with you?”
“Not many, I’m afraid. But there are enough to make a difference. Or at least enough to form a new Pack once we are free of this place.”
“You won’t need a new Pack. After the doc is done with you, you should be able to return to a normal life. You’ll be full men again.”
“Yes,” Lelanea agreed, much to Dodger’s surprise. “My uncle posses the most brilliant mind in the world. If anyone can determine what has caused this curious change of yours, Hieronymus can.”
“Thank you,” Thad said. “We haven’t forgotten your offer, but now is not the time to talk about it. It is more important to us to get you and your friends safely away from here.” Once Lelanea was free, the tall man waved at the end of the tent he arrived from. “This way, and please keep silent. Butch and his guard are restless for your blood.”
One by one, they slithered under the tent flap in complete silence, with Dodger keeping watch on the others before exiting last. On the opposite side of the canvas, he greeted a handful of eager faces, more than one of which he recognized.
“Bottle?” he asked in a whisper.
Grinning, the old timer pressed a thin finger to his lips.
You must keep silent, Dodger, Boon whispered. Without the tent to muffle your voices, they will know you’ve escaped.
Now that he heard Boon, Dodger felt the presence of the spirit lingering nearby. In all of the excitement, he had missed the sensation before now. It left him wondering just how long Boon was waiting to speak. And how much he had already heard.
Thad tapped Dodger on the shoulder for his attention. The lad motioned to the front of the tent, held out four fingers, then pointed to his own eyes.
The lad is correct. There are four men watching the tent entrance. May I suggest a course of action?
Rather than answer aloud, Dodger nodded.
I recommend you sneak to the back of that large boulder across the way, to your right. It is the closest and the largest. If you can get your company beyond it, I will instruct Ched to pick you up along that side.
Dodger eyed the boulder and groaned. If it had been positioned behind the tent, then the task would’ve been as simple as counting crows. But, as Dodger well knew, nothing worth doing was ever simple. The rock lay across from the front of the tent, several hundred feet away, and precisely in the guard’s line of sight. Between the rock and their current hiding spot rested a no man’s land of dirt and dust and little else. It was going to be a difficult feat to get half a dozen folks to the backside of the rock without tipping off the bulldogs just around the corner.
‘Distraction?’ Dodger mouthed.
The other men exchanged confused glances. But Dodger wasn’t talking to them.
If I can arrange one, can you get her out of here safely?
There was no telling what the spirit considered a distraction. Would he have Ched fire into the camp? Or just plow the train straight through? Without recourse or time to argue about it, Dodger could only nod again.
Excellent. Get ready then. I will have Ched quick-prime the train. You will know when it is safe to flee.
Dodger rolled that terrible word around in his mind. In his entire career, there was but one time he fled rather than fought. That single time began with turning his back on his career and ended with the birth of Arnold Carpenter.
Thad touched Dodger’s shoulder again. The lad wore a questioning look, which was no surprise, considering Dodger had spent the last few moments holding a one-sided conversation. Thad sought direction. All of the men did. They were willing to follow his lead, but he had to give them a lead to follow first. Dodger raised a hand and mouthed out a single word.
Thad and his men looked to one another, unsure what Dodger was going on about.
‘Wait,’ Dodger mouthed again.
This only served to further confuse them. Even Lelanea stared at him as though he’d lost his mind. But Dodger kept his hand up and still, warning the others to hang on. To be patient. To wait. Meanwhile, he tuned all of his senses to the surrounding environment, seeking some uncertain signal that all was ready. The night was alive with the cheeping and chirping of a variety of insects. The camp bustled with the sounds of crackling fires and the men making ready to end another day. Closer, at Dodger’s back, came the heavy breathing of his fellow escapees. He could all but hear their hearts thumping with anticipation, waiting for his next instruction.
And there they waited.
“What are we waiting for?” Thad finally asked in a whisper.
No sooner had he posed the question than the answer came with a resounding boom.