The pair of men were perfect contrasts; one tall and lean, the other short and round. The only thing they share in common was their Pack persuasion, each a just as hairy and doggish as the others Dodger had seen. And, no surprise, they were also armed.
The tall one on the right waved a rifle at Dodger and said, “Put your hands in the air.”
Dodger did as asked. “I’m unarmed. As you can see.”
“Shut up!” the short one on the left yelled. “You’ll do as he says if you know what’s good for you.”
“Stuart,” the tall one barked. “Make sure he’s not got a gun.”
“Yes, sir.” The short man holstered his pistol, warning, “Keep those hands up.”
“He got anything on him?” the tall one asked.
“Naw, sir,” Stuart said. “I think he’s clean.”
“Where’s Lelanea?” Dodger asked while the short man checked him for weapons.
“Who?” the tall man asked.
“He means the funny smelling lady,” Stuart said. “You don’t worry about your girlfriend. Butch is showing her a real good time. Ain’t he, Thad?”
“Does that train really make its own tracks?” Thad asked, his gaze wandering from his quarry to the wonderful train beyond.
“What do you think?” Dodger asked.
The tall man tightened his grip on the gun and his focus on Dodger. “I think you need to keep your hands up.”
After a quick pat down, the pair seemed satisfied Dodger was unarmed. They moved in behind him and commanded him to march.
“Get going,” Thad said, poking Dodger in the back with the rifle.
“Can I lower my hands?” Dodger asked.
“Do what you like. But any funny business and you’ll end up with a bullet in your brainpan.” He shoved the rifle against the base of Dodger’s skull to prove his point. “Got it?”
Dodger dropped his hands and said, “Consider it gotten.”
“Dan’s right about this one,” Stuart said. “He is a smart ass.”
“Smart ass or not,” Thad said, “he’s still got to face Butch.”
Stuart snorted. “I’d rather get shot in the head than face Butch.”
The march to the camp was accompanied by a series of jabs, both physically and verbal. The men took great delight in the fact that Dodger had to ‘face Butch’ for his dreadful deeds against the Pack. The rest of the time was spent poking him in the small of the back with the rifle, commanding him to walk faster.
When they entered the camp, Thad called out, “Troops! Front and center!”
At Thad’s command, every man dropped whatever he was up to and fell into a semicircle around the opening of the largest tent. Dodger counted forty soldiers, at least. Forty doggish faces, ranging from long St. Bernard snouts to stout Pug mugs, all twisted in rage at the non-Pack in their presence. Forty men all spitfire furious with him for killing their brothers. Forty armed and angry men, and Dodger with nothing but his fists. The march ended just outside the large tent, where the tall fellow left his short counterpart in charge of the prisoner and slipped inside.
Overhead a handful of birds traced lazy circles in the sky, casting shifting shadows across the campground. Buzzards on the trail of trouble, riding high on the promise of death drifting through the air.
“Last chance,” Stuart said, prodding Dodger in the shoulder blades with his pistol. “I can just shoot you now and save you what’s coming.”
“No thanks,” Dodger said. “I think I’ll take my chances with your boss.”
“It won’t be pretty.”
Dodger turned to grin down at the man. “From the looks of the rest of you, I don’t expect he will be.”
“Your smart mouth won’t save you here.” The man set the hammers on his pistol, as if ready to open fire.
“Put your piece away,” a deep voice commanded.
Standing in the open flap of the tent was the owner of the voice, and presumably the man in charge. Dodger had a clean foot on the man, but what the fellow lacked in height he more than made up for in bulk. Short but stout, the man was almost as wide as he was tall with equally thick arms, legs, and a neck to match. His flannel shirt and denim trousers threatened to burst under the strain of so much muscle. A layer of grimy, short fur covered every exposed inch of him, including his face, which of course bore the typical doggish features of his Pack. When he stepped forward, he moved in a swagger that just about reminded Dodger of an oversized bulldog.
Behind him followed a collection of matching bulldog men. As far as Dodger could tell the majority of the camp was made from a varied assortment of different breeds. From Labrador to Schnauzer, it didn’t seem to matter what kind of dog a man was crossed with, they worked and played as a single unit. But this group—this leader and his men—formed a tight knit bunch of identical constitutions. Like a pack within a pack.
Just behind them strode Thad, a tall and lean mutt amongst a sea of brawny bulldogs.
The leader came to rest a few feet away from Dodger, staring down his broad nose at the full blooded human. “You the one that killed my men?”
“I take it you’re Butch?” Dodger asked.
“Did you kill my men?”
“Where’s the girl?”
“Did you kill my men?”
“Where is she?”
“Did you kill my men?”
“Like a dog with a bone,” Dodger muttered.
The bulldog’s ears twitched at the words. “What did you just-”
“That’s him!” a familiar voice shouted over the leader. Big Dan, his red bandanna long gone, pushed past the line of men, staggering into the center of the semicircle to accuse Dodger face to face. “That’s the one that killed my crew.”
A collective growl rose from the company. Bulldog Butch lifted a thick hand and the growling dropped a few notches, but didn’t cease. A wave of rage rolled over Dodger from all directions, but he held his ground, matching Dan glare for a glare, snarl for a snarl.
At length Butch said, “You owe us for what you took. Dan’s crew was our best riders. We lost four men. You worth four men?”
“Three,” Dodger corrected him. “I shot three men in defense. Three men who opened fire on my train. Three men, not four.” Dodger tipped his head at Dan. “Your friend here killed Private Clemet Jackson in cold blood.”
Butch eyed Dan, who trembled like an excited rattler’s tail under the big man’s gaze.
“I … he … he’s lying!” Dan yelled.
“Then how does he know Clem’s rank and surname?” Butch asked.
“I don’t know.” Dan laughed nervously. “Lucky guess?”
Dodger could feel every eye turn to him. “I served with Clemet on the front.”
All eyes shifted back to Dan as the men awaited his response.
“He’s lying,” Dan said. “He must have heard us talking about it.”
Hushed whispers and surprised gasps circulated along the line of ex-soldiers. Dan winced, gritting his teeth with a hiss; the reaction of a man who realized he just made a terrible mistake.
“That so?” Butch asked. “Thaddeus? What’s Pack law say about that?”
The tall captor stepped forward and announced, “Under no circumstances shall a Pack member discuss their past life. No way. No how. Not even under threat of death. Or worse.”
A general grunt of agreement rose from the ranks.
Butch motioned to two of his clone like subordinates. “Take him to the hole. Three days should help him forget about his past life.”
The two bulldogs stepped forward to escort a very contrite Dan away from the scene and in the confusion Dodger snatched what might be his only opportunity to speak up.
“Why do you want to forget?” he asked.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Butch asked.
“Why do you want to forget your past lives? Why is it a crime talk about the men you were? The men you still are?”
Butch squared his shoulders and set his jaw. “Because we aren’t men no more. We are better than men. We are better than you. We’re Pack. And Pack is all that matters.”
Turning to his line of men, Butch hollered, “You heard the man. He wants to know. Who says so?”
“You say, sir!” the crowd shouted in unison.
Butch soaked up the obedience a moment before he added, “I say. And what I say, goes.”
Which was just what Dodger expected. Whether dogs or men, they were still soldiers at heart. Butch filled their need for leadership in both cases by assuming the Alpha male role. An occurrence of typical animalistic follow the leader had never surfaced more naturally. Dodger only hoped there was some human spirit of independence left under all that teeth and claw and fur.
“But what if you could be men again?” Dodger asked. “What if someone could reverse what’s happened to you? What if he could fix you?”
“We don’t need fixin’,” Butch said. “We’re fine like we are. Aren’t we men?”
The men appeared to agree, but under their enthusiastic nods came soft whispers. Whispers asking each other if it was possible, could this stranger be the answers to all of their prayers? Did this non-Pack speak the truth?
“Yes, it’s true,” Dodger said, addressing those around him. “I travel with a man who might be able to help you all. He is familiar with what afflicts you and might be able to cure you of it.”
Many smiled at the idea, including Thaddeus.
He stared at Dodger in marvel, hope brimming in his eyes. “Can he? Can he really make us whole again?”
“If not completely,” Dodger said, “then he will do what he can to ease your symptoms. You have my word.”
“Your word?” Butch asked with a snort. “What’s Pack law number one?”
“You can only trust Pack,” the crowd recited.
But Dodger kept on pleading with Thaddeus. “You’ve seen the train that runs with no tracks. I’m sure you’ve heard stories about the man that owns it. The professor makes the impossible not just possible, he makes it real. I’ve seen him do it.” Dodger paused to glance down at his healed hand before he locked eyes with the hopeful man again. “I’ve seen it in action. He can help you. I know he-”
“Enough!” Butch shouted.
Thad lowered his eyes, and with it the line of hope was severed.
“They don’t want yours or any other man’s help,” Butch said.
“Why?” Dodger asked.
“Because I said so.” Butch snarled, showing off his mouthful of fangs. “And what I say goes. Understand?” The big dog left Dodger to chew on the phrase as he made his way back to his tent.
But Dodger had heard that phrase one too many times in his life. The very sound of those familiar words set his blood on fire. The dominant Alpha male sounded pretty much the same everywhere one went; whether in the Gap or out on the battle field or even in the dark shadows of a foreign dignitary’s hotel room. When the order came to jump, you didn’t ask how high. You just jumped.
And when the order came to kill, you killed. No questions asked.
In Dodger’s experience, there was only one way to handle an Alpha male. “Then maybe someone else needs to say what goes.”
Butch halted in his egress, turning in a slow semicircle to stare at Dodger. “What did you say?”
“You heard me right the first time. Or are you as deaf as you are stupid?”
“Boy, your mouth’s writing promissory notes your ass can’t cash.”
“I said maybe someone else should call the shots here. Someone who will give these men a chance to decide for themselves.”
A great splintering noise came from the big man, as if he had set to snapping whole trees over his knee. It took a moment for Dodger to realize it was the sound of Butch cracking the knuckles of his big fists.
“You challengin’ me?” Butch asked.
Dodger threw out his chest, ready to beat it like an ape if needed. “Yes. Yes I am.”
At first Dodger thought the bulldog would just attack him right then and there. But no, Butch stared at Dodger for a few heartbeats, then proceeded to laugh as though it were the most amusing thing he had heard in a good while. And considering he was a dog-man hybrid living in the inhospitable area of Hermit’s Gap, having to rob stagecoaches for food and other resources just to stay alive, perhaps it was the funniest thing he had heard in a good while.
“You can’t challenge me,” Butch said between guffaws.
“Why not?” Dodger asked.
“Because you ain’t Pack.”
“No law about that,” Thad said.
This pronouncement sucked the bulldog’s laugh right from his lungs. In the echo of his humor, he turned an angry eye on Thad. “What you mean?”
“There’s no law about it. One doesn’t have to be Pack to challenge Pack leader.” After thinking a second about this, Thad added a quick, “Sir.”
Through clenched teeth, Butch argued, “I won’t fight him.”
“Why?” Dodger asked. “You scared I’ll whip ya?”
A cool moan—part admiration and part fear—rose from the surrounding men and once again Dodger thought the bulldog would leap for his throat. But instead Butch surprised him, and probably everyone present, by grinning. His dark lips spread wide, framing his bloodthirsty canines.
“Fine,” Butch said. “You wanna challenge me? Then we’ll fight.”
“Good,” Dodger said. “Let’s do it.”
“We will. Yes, we will.” Butch rumbled with a husky laugh as he cracked his huge knuckles again. “And I can’t wait to tear you apart piece by piece by piece by piece.”
Which left Dodger wondering just how many pieces a man could be torn into before he couldn’t be torn no more.