Calm Before the Storm
Calm Before the Storm
In which Dodger makes ready to take on the leader of the pack.
When he resigned himself to the idea of challenging Butch for Pack dominance, Dodger wasn’t sure what to expect. No, that was a lie. He knew exactly what he asked for when he all but called Butch a coward in front of his own men. Despite this Dodger hoped against hope—in that small way a doomed man often does—that the pair of them would see pistols at ten paces. A decent duel against the big man was a feat that Dodger might’ve been able to pull off.
But Dodger knew in his heart of hearts—again in that very same way doomed men often do—that there wasn’t going to be anything decent in what was about to transpire. A back to the wall bare knuckle brawl was the order of the day. Dodger had signed up for a beat down, plain and simple, and the only thing he could do now was follow through.
Once Butch made his murderous intentions clear, a pair of the leader’s personal guard grabbed Dodger by an arm each, and led him away.
“Where’s Lenlanea?” Dodger asked of his guard.
Of course there came no reply.
“Where’s the girl?” he asked.
“Butch is gonna kill you,” one of the men said.
“And we don’t talk to dead men,” the other said.
The pair laughed.
“What will you do if I win?” Dodger asked.
“You won’t,” one man said.
“Yeah, so give it up now,” the other said. “You should drop the challenge before he makes you regret it.”
“Where’s the girl?” Dodger asked again.
“Shut up, dead man.”
Dodger went limp between the pair, forcing the bulldogs to either stop with him or carry him. The pair of thugs never hesitated; they just dragged him along, his boots pulling narrow furrows in the dirt behind them. And they carted him like this all the way to a roped off area in the center of camp. Either the Pack was expecting a stranger to come along and challenge the Alpha male, or this sort of thing happened often enough that they kept a little place set aside to settle their differences.
The brawny men shoved him over the rope and into the ring, where Dodger staggered a few steps before he got his footing again. The guards sneered at him with twin snarls for a moment, a growl rising from each meaty throat, before they lumbered off again to seek their next command. Dodger wasn’t surprised that they didn’t stick around to make sure he didn’t cut and run, because there was nowhere for him to cut and run. The ring was just about dead center of camp, bordering the overhang of a crude mess tent, and surrounded by the entire troop of dog soldiers. The majority of them kept their distance, huddled in tight groups around the edges of the ring, whispering in hoarse voices about the event to come.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Thaddeus asked as he approached from the mess tent.
Dodger shrugged. “I don’t see how I can back out now.”
“You’re either very brave or very stupid.” Thad glanced over Dodger’s shoulder, to the direction of the parked train, before he looked back to Dodger again. “I’m here to give you one last chance to withdraw your challenge. Pack law states that any dispute can and should be resolved without resorting-”
“I don’t care what your Pack law claims. I meant what I said back there. You men deserve more than this. You are more than this. And if I have to drag his highness into the ring and beat his ass to prove it … well, then I guess that’s just what I have to do.”
“He will break you. You know that.”
“I suppose as much. But what else can I do?”
Thad considered Dodger with a cool stare. “Behind me there is an older man, silver furred. He has but one leg. A very large man. Do you see him? He’s seated just outside the mess tent to my left.”
Dodger took a quick peek in that direction, and yes, there was a very large fellow, wolf like in appearance, all hunched up beside the mess tent, sitting alone. And not just by himself, no, he was apart from the others, as if he had some kind of illness, or more likely he was some kind of a social pariah. And yes the man’s left leg was missing.
“Yeah,” Dodger said. “What about him?”
“Jack was our previous Pack leader. He was a good man. Kept our bellies full. Kept us safe. Until Butch challenged him six months ago, before he forced us out here to this God forsaken rock.”
Dodger glanced over Thad’s shoulder again. This Jack was much bigger than Butch, in size and brawn, though his dejected pose made him seem smaller.
“Is that so?” Dodger asked. “Is the fact that Butch bested such a big man supposed to what? Scare me? I hate to be ugly, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this but I happen to have both of my legs.”
Thad’s cool stare never wavered. “When Butch challenged him, Jack also happened to have both of his legs.”
“I see.” And Dodger did see. But it was still far too late to do anything about it.
“What’s your name?”
“Why do you care?”
“I need to know what to put on your headstone.” Thad gave a small grin.
Dodger couldn’t help but admire a man who could find humor in the worst of times. “Rodger Dodger. But my friends just call me Dodger.” He held his hand aloft, which Thad grasped and shook heartily.
“Thaddeus Walker. Well met, Dodger. I’m only sorry it won’t be for long.”
“We shall see. Speaking of seeing, there is a reason I came here to begin with. Where’s the girl?”
“Butch holds her in his tent,” Thad said.
Dodger gripped Thad’s hand tighter. “If he’s done anything to her I swear I’ll-”
“Hold your anger for your task ahead,” Thad warned. “No one has touched her. They wouldn’t dare.”
“Yeah, sure.” Dodger released Thad’s hand. “Real bunch of gentlemen you are.”
“No, you don’t understand. The men are put off by her presence. Some are even frightened of her. It may have been a long time since we have had a woman in our presence, but she seems very different from other females. She’s …” the man paused, as if embarrassed by his admission. “She isn’t normal.”
Dodger couldn’t help a small chuckle. “Brother, I couldn’t agree more.”
Thad’s gaze wandered to the Sleipnir in the distance again. “Is it true? What you said about your doctor friend? Can he make us whole men again?”
“I won’t lie to you. He might not be able to change you back completely, but he will try his best. And when he sets his mind to solving something, it’s only a matter of time before that something is solved.”
The tall man looked back to Dodger, a mix of worry and pity crossing his face before he asked, “Do you still put forth the challenge, Rodger Dodger?”
Formalities done, Thad gave Dodger a quick nod and withdrew from the ring. A flutter of discussion arose from the men surrounding him, the Pack recognizing the implications of Thad’s last visit to the challenger. Dodger couldn’t help but wonder how much this odd proceeding was created by the dog part of their brain, and how much was human. As he mused on this, a familiar sensation came upon him and a whisper rose in his mind.
“Boon,” Dodger whispered under his breath. “Now’s not the best time.”
On your knees, son.
Get on your knees, as if you are praying. Then you can speak to me freely without these men suspecting something is amiss.
Dodger had to admire the ghost’s ingenuity. He dropped to his knees, clasped his hands and mumbled under his breath, “What are you doing here? I thought you couldn’t get this far away from the guns?”
Apparently I can go further than I thought. Maybe my presence on this earthly plane has more to do with you than at first we thought.
Dodger’s natural suspicion guessed it was something simpler. “Is Ched with you? Did he bring your guns here?”
No, he has remained stationed at the train as you commanded.
For lack of a better option, Dodger had to take him at his word. “Then get your ethereal behind back there with him, and stay there until I say so.”
In a moment. First I wanted to assure you the tall stranger spoke true. Lelanea is held prisoner in the large tent. She appears unharmed. Angry, but well. Which is to say she is fairly normal.
“Good. Now go. Let me take care of this” Dodger could feel the ghost’s hesitation.
Tell me first, what is it you think you’re doing here? That man is twice your size. He will be difficult to defeat. Are you sure you can-
“Yes. I know what I’m doing. Now get out of here. You’re very distracting.”
Please, I beg you heed me. This is a mistake. Call off this challenge of yours before that man kills you.
“He won’t kill me. He might rough me up a bit, but he won’t kill me.”
Your young friend thought different on the matter. What did he say just before he died? Butch will kill you soon as look at you.
Dodger grimaced at the echo of Clemet’s dying words.
And he will. He will kill you because you aren’t part of his Pack. Stop this now, before you do something you’ll regret for the rest of your existence.
“I can handle myself. You just get back and help Ched keep an eye on the train. He’s probably fallen asleep up there on his own.”
No, he will not. He is just as worried for you as I am. By the SPECS he is watching us. Signal him if you doubt me.
Dodger lifted his eyes to the outline of the train. He gave a little wave. In response, a glint sparkled from the train’s roof. Quick, but deliberate.
Dodger returned to his attitude of prayer. “Is that Ched?”
Yes. He is wide awake and keeping a tight bead on this ring. The moment there is any foul play he will fire upon anyone who-
“No!” Dodger glanced up to see a few of the soldiers were staring now, curious as to how long the stranger planned on praying, and surely wondering if it would do him any good. “You get back and tell him I said he is to hold his fire. Hear me?”
“He is to hold his fire. Whatever happens, no matter how bad things seem, Ched will not, I repeat he will not fire into this camp. Do you understand me?”
There was a pause, followed by a weak, Yes, I understand.
“Even if Butch beats me dead, even if he pulls me apart piece by piece, Ched is not to fire into this camp. Because the minute he does they will just kill Lelanea, then they will come after the rest of you.”
You are right of course. I admit, my anxiety has blinded me.
“Then get back to the train.”
Again there was a sensation of hesitation.
“If you understand then get on back,” Dodger demanded.
I understand well enough. I understand that you can’t protect the line if you’re dead. You can’t protect her if you’re six feet under. These things I understand more than you appreciate. I made a similar mistake once, Dodger, and look where it got me.
“No offense meant against ya Boon, but I’m not you. And you’re not me.”
There was a pause, followed by a protracted sigh from the spirit. After this Dodger felt the ghost take leave of him, the cloying aura of the spirit draining from his very senses in a slow retreat of dissatisfaction, perhaps even resentment. He hated to part with the spirit on such terms, but whatever fate had befallen Boon did not apply here. These were very different circumstances, and Rodger Dodger was a very different man from the gentle giant that Washington Boon used to be.
“Thank the Lord for that,” Dodger whispered.
He touched his forefinger to his brow, his chest, then crosswise shoulder to shoulder before getting to his feet, just in time to greet his massive foe.