Smack Down in the Gap
Smack Down in the Gap
In which Dodger fights the good fight.
Fully dressed, Bulldog Butch made for a disturbing image with his impressive bulk straining every seam of his clothes. But the sight of him as he strode across the camp barefoot and shirtless and grinding one hammy fist into the opposite palm, well, it left Dodger a tad bit vexed. Under a thin layer of fur the man was a bundle of muscle. Triceps bulged against biceps. Pectorals flexed over rows of iron abdominal muscles. Veins stood out in thick ropes from his arms and neck, pulsating with a special kind of rage. Anger reserved for the little man waiting in the ring.
Dodger followed the man’s example by removing his own shirt, though he left his undershirt in place. It was bad enough when his own crew gawked at his scars, he didn’t need a whole regiment of dog men to make a big deal about it. He flexed his fists, though smaller than his foe’s, and cracked his knuckles, the sound of which was much less impressive than the tree trunk shattering noise of Butch’s cracks. Still, it put him in the mindset for a fight, and set the tone that he was just as ready for this as the big dog.
Trailing a few feet behind Butch was Thaddeus, a worried look haunting the tall man’s harrowed face. He creased his brow at Dodger, as if begging in silence for him to drop the challenge. Dodger shook his head, managing a smile and a wink as he did.
“What you grinning about?” Butch asked as he took to the ring.
“I always greet my opponents with a smile,” Dodger said. “It’s good manners.”
Butch sized him up with an air of caution. “You’re a strange man.”
“Thank you. I’ll take that as a compliment if you don’t mind.”
“You think you being strange bothers me? Makes me scared? Makes me jumpy? Well it don’t. It just makes me madder. And I was already pretty mad to begin with.”
The bulldog cracked his knuckles again, and Dodger winced. At that particular moment in time, for some reason he couldn’t quite put his finger on, the noise reminded him of the distinct snap of a broken bone. A nose, for instance. Or a couple of ribs. Or his own thick skull. Dodger shook off the idea as Thaddeus stepped into the ring, moved between the fighters and cleared his throat.
“The opponent, Rodger Dodger, has openly challenged Butch Hollister’s authority. In accordance with Pack law they have brought their disagreement to the ring. The first man down for a clean count of ten will lose the fight, and his opponent will be declared winner and new Pack Leader.”
The crowd rumbled with excitement. Dodger, on the other hand, reeled in shock.
“What do you mean, Pack Leader?” he asked. “I don’t want to be leader, I just wanted to-”
Thad shouldered Dodger to one side of the ring where he said in a low voice, “I thought you understood what you were doing when you challenged his authority.”
“I don’t want to be your leader.” Dodger knew he wasn’t fit to lead a flock of sheep, much less a troop of lost souls. “I just wanted to give you guys a chance to make up your own minds for once.”
“Make up our own minds?” Thad asked, as if the very notion were foreign to him.
“Yes. You’re free, Thad. You’re not in a war camp anymore. You’re free men. You should start acting like it.”
“Free men ...” Thad echoed.
“Enough talk!” Butch yelled behind them.
“I’m sorry,” Thad whispered, “but it’s far too late to argue now. Butch will have you killed if you refuse to follow through. It is your bravery alone that has let you live this long.”
“And what has kept you alive this long? Obedience?”
Thad’s look of worry shifted into a cold stare. “Will you fight or not?”
“I’ll fight,” Dodger said. “But if I win this thing I refuse to be your new boss. You’ll just have to start leading yourselves.”
“The point is moot, as well as sorrowful, because you will not win against him, Rodger Dodger. The first chance he gets, he will kill you.”
“What a choice. Kill me if I back out? Kill me if I fight? What does it matter where I die?”
“You can make light of this all you like, but you will die in this ring today. Wish as I might, I know the truth of this as I know you are a good man.”
“I’m not good. I’m just good at it.”
That got a smile out of the lad. “I hope your death is swift and painless.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Dodger said as he watched the tall underling scurry off the fighting stage.
Then there were two. Dodger sized up his opponent one last time, and swallowed that fleeting fear that comes before the fight. That nagging doubt that he couldn’t do this. That he was going to lose. That he was going to die.
Butch moved with slow, deliberate steps toward Dodger. “You ready to lose?”
“Nope,” Dodger said. “But I am ready to kick your ass.”
The men circled one another, much like the buzzards reeling in the heavens above. Step for step, shift for shift, Dodger matched the bulldog, waiting for just the right moment to pounce. That moment never came, because Butch pounced first.
With the thunder of a charging rhino—and not to mention an enthusiastic cry from the crowd of onlookers—the big man threw himself across the few feet of empty space, heading straight for Dodger’s gut. Dodger, smaller and more nimble of the two, easily sidestepped the man, leaving Butch to tumble into the ropes of the ring. It took seconds for the lug to recover before he was at it again, charging head down for Dodger’s midsection. Again Dodger had but to step to one side to avoid the oncoming rush. Butch repeated this tactic twice more, and with each succession Dodger grew more and more worried this was going to be too easy.
It was one thing to challenge a man’s authority, but to outright trounce him in his own fighting ring was almost distasteful.
On one last rush, however, the stout man stopped cold, mid-charge, and struck out. Dodger wasn’t quite prepared for this change in tactics, and before he could duck he took a full fisted blow to his nose. The loud crunch of some broken bone echoed amidst the howls and cries of the crowd. Blood gushed down Dodger’s face, across his lips and chin, painting a crimson streak all the way to his shirt. He pawed at his nose, momentarily dazed by the blow and unsure of just what had happened. In this instant of hesitation, Butch followed through with his rush, tackling Dodger to the ground.
Dodger regained his senses the moment he felt Butch’s weight on him. Collapsing of his own accord, he fell limp to the ground under the onrushing bulk. At this unexpected shift in weight, Butch lost his footing, and dropped onto Dodger rather than grappling him. Dodger braced his hands against the falling man’s shoulders, then pushed up with his feet to flip the bulldog clean over him in a tumbling roll. Butch came to a stop several feet away just as Dodger scrambled to stand.
The bulldog lifted his head, nostrils flared in anger as he eyed Dodger with supreme hatred. Growling, the man got back to his feet. “I hope you enjoyed that, because you won’t get a second chance.”
Between open mouthed gasps, no thanks to his bloody and broken nose, Dodger asked, “What are the rulesth again? I gotta hold you down for a count of ten?”
“There aren’t any rules.” The scowl boiled over into a full on sneer. “Only thing you gotta do is die!”
Butch rushed him again, but Dodger was just able to leap out of the charging man’s path. For several minutes they moved in almost synchronized steps, dancing back and forth across the ring in a boxer’s waltz, swinging and swooping and sliding in unison. One moment Dodger was in the lead, the next moment Butch had him at his mercy. Dodger landed a few well placed punches which his opponent shook off with ease. Butch lashed out again and again but failed to make contact save for that first strike. Despite their difference in size, they appeared matched in skills. Blow for blow, move for move, the whole thing showed all the signs of a coming to a draw.
The crowd oohed and ahhed, cheered and booed until Dodger decided enough was enough. It was time to resort to a few less savory tactics.
Dodger put his back to the mess hall, squared his stance and held out his hands, waving them at the bulldog. “Come on! Come take me down if you think you can! Or are you not dog enough? ‘Cause I know you aren’t man enough.”
This taunt pushed the appropriate buttons, encouraging Butch to rush Dodger once more. This time Dodger held his ground and welcomed the bulldog into wide embrace. Once the man was in position, Dodger pulled his arms back, twisted the right and dropped down onto his elbows, pile driving his full weight—as well as boney elbows—into his opponent’s tender lower back and kidneys. He usually avoided this kind of strike unless he intended to kill a man. A kidney punch was hard to recover from, both in the ring and in the long run.
Butch, however, ignored this blow, instead continuing to kick and flail with unbelievable strength until he tossed Dodger aside. Before a surprised Dodger could scramble away, the bulldog snatched him by the ankle, tripping him to the ground again. Yanking hard, Butch dragged his prize toward him, face down across the dirt. There he rolled atop Dodger, pinning him fast under three hundred pounds of pure muscle.
“You gonna … say more prayers … boy?” Butch asked between huffing gasps.
A dozen smart assed comments came to mind, but under the meaty bulk of the bulldog Dodger couldn’t manage to draw the breath to squeak out a single wisecrack. Instead, he focused what little air he had left on trying to shift the weight attempting to suffocate him. But it was no good. Butch was too large, and while Dodger wasn’t exactly a small man, he was tiny compared to the man atop him. Blobs of darkness swam into Dodger’s field of vision, a sure symptom of his oxygen deprived brain shutting down for good.
“Ain’t you got nothin’ to say!” Butch yelled before he fell into a loud, raucous laughter. “See? He’s just like all the others. All talk and no backbone! He thinks he can best me? I’m bigger than you, stronger than you, and just plain better than you!”
While the big man delivered his premature victory speech, Dodger managed to work a hand free from under the crushing weight. Hooking his first two fingers, he dug them deep into the bulldog’s bare shoulder, just above his clavicle. Years of experience taught Dodger to rely on brain rather than brawn, on skill rather than muscle, but it never hurt to know a few pressure points along the way.
Butch seized at the contact, his head snapping to the left as his eyes rolled to whites. Dodger pushed the man away before releasing his grip on the pressure point. His opponent convulsed all over for a moment, then collapsed into a quivering mass. Getting to his feet, Dodger stooped over Butch, hands on his knees and heart in his throat, gasping as he tried to catch a much needed breath. As he heaved and gulped, it dawned upon him that the crowd of onlookers had gone silent. He raised his head, and his fists, expecting someone to rush forward and protect their fallen comrade.
“Is he dead?” one man asked.
“I don’t think so,” another said. “Looks like he’s still breathing.”
“He is,” Dodger said between gasps. He took a few steps back, giving them ample room to see for themselves. “He should be fine. Might take a few minutes for him to come around, and his ego will be sore as hell, but otherwise he’ll be fine.”
Two men moved in to confirm Dodger’s claims. Grumbles and mumbles rippled along the crowd. From the snatches of comments, Dodger gathered that no one really expected him to win.
Thaddeus joined Dodger side, a smile ringing the man’s face as he half-asked, half-said “You bested him?”
“I reckon I did,” Dodger said, still gasping. “Though you were right, he would’ve killed me given the chance.”
“You know what this means, don’t you?”
Dodger shook his heavy head, refusing to wear the offered crown. “I told you already. I’m not going to be your leader.”
“But you bested him. You earned it. You deserve the position.”
“I don’t want to lead you. I just want to offer you a choice.” Dodger turned to the crowd, now gathered in a tight clutch at the far end of the ring, staring down at their defeated leader. “The professor I travel with has promised to do all he can to help you. He will try his best to change you back into what you once were. If he can’t change you back, then he might be able to help stabilize your condition.”
The ex-soldiers whispered amongst themselves, and Dodger could see they still didn’t trust him. Perhaps he had spoken over their heads. Or perhaps they didn’t realize how unstable their genetic code was. Some of the men seemed like they wanted to join him, but they held back, watching him with wary eyes. One of them stepped out of the crowd, and Dodger recognized him as the man who delivered Butch’s ominous invitation.
“If you ain’t gonna lead us, then who will?” Bottle asked.
“I’m still in charge here!” Butch roared.
The men surrounding Butch broke apart in a wave of panic as the bulldog leapt to his feet, ready for another ten rounds. But this time, instead of baring his knuckles and fangs, Butch bore a gun.
Boon’s presence rushed upon Dodger, filling his mind. Watch yourself, he’s armed.
“Yeah,” Dodger said as he raised his hands. “I can see that.”
He must’ve snatched it from one of his men.
“Butch, what are you doing?” Thad asked. “You lost. He beat you fair and square.”
“Weren’t nothing fair in what he done!” Butch hollered. “He tricked me. Used some kind of fancy handhold. A coward’s grip.”
“He still won. You were down far longer than a count of ten. This is over.”
“It isn’t over until he stops breathing,” Butch spat. He set the pistol to fire, aiming for Dodger’s head. “Are you ready to die now?”
Shall I instruct Ched to fire?
“No,” Dodger said, answering both questions.
“Too bad,” Butch said.
“But he bested you!” Thad shouted.
Butch turned the gun on Thad. “Shut up or I’ll shoot you first.”
Thad swallowed hard, but said nothing.
A different voice begged, “Don’t, Butch. You don’t have to kill him.”
Everyone’s attention swung to the sound of the new voice.
Into the ring hobbled the one legged ex-leader of the Pack. He limped along with the help of a wooden crutch, until he stood side by side with Thad.
“You don’t have to kill him,” Jack said. “You can loot his train and take whatever you want but you don’t have to kill him.”
Butch turned the gun on him. “Shut up! I know what I’m doing.”
“Do you?” Jack straightened to his full height, going from a hunched old man to a towering hulk. A one legged hulk, true, but an impressive hulk nonetheless. “Before you took over, we never used to kill folks. Rob a little here and there, sure. Take what we needed to survive. But to kill a man just because he not a monster like us? There’s no respect in that. There never was and there never will be.”
“He’s right,” Thad said. “We used to have some dignity. Now we are no better than a pack of wild dogs.”
The crowd hung their collective heads, unable to face one another at that claim. Thad struck a deep and tender nerve with his assertion. Dodger only hoped the poor guy hadn’t condemned himself in the process.
Butch kept the weapon tight on the pair. “You think this man can lead us better than me?” He spat the word ‘man’ with a thick disgust.
“He bested you without maiming you,” Jack said. “Or killing you. That’s a good start.”
“If he bested me, then why is he the one cowering? Why is he not on this side of the gun? I’m still in charge here. I’m still the Pack Leader.” Butch waved the weapon at a few of his bulldog brothers. “Take the man to my tent. Tie him to that bitch of his. I’ll deal with him later. But you two …” Butch stopped to give Jack and Thad an evil grin. “You two I’ll deal with now.”
“Don’t drag them into our fight,” Dodger said as he approached Butch. “We can still do this-”
Bright starbursts exploded all about Dodger as pain blossomed across the back of his head. Next he knew, someone snatched him up by the shoulders and feet, and hustled him away from the ring. Before the darkness claimed him completely, the distinct sound of a gunshot rang clear through the early evening air.
Followed by another.
Then all went black.