In which Dodger follows, flips and flees.
The camp fell into a panic as vibrant colors exploded across the Gap’s sky. Sparkling flowers blossomed, over and over, lighting the camp in brief spurts of red and gold. Some of the men stopped in place to watch the impressive show, while others ran for cover. Or maybe weapons. Probably both. But Dodger had seen such things before, and he bet they were courtesy of one Celestial chef.
“What the heck is-” Bottle asked before Dodger strangled his question short with a hand over the man’s mouth.
“It’s our signal,” Dodger whispered.
“Signal?” Thad asked.
“From the line. I arranged it with the Doc before I left. It should give us enough cover to get across camp without being seen.”
Dodger peered around the tent to find that only one guard remained. The others were rushing to the mess pavilion, probably seeking new commands from their glorious leader. Even the remaining guard was no longer focused on his job of watching the tent behind him. Instead he stood with his face turned to the sky, slack jawed with awe at the scene unfolding before him. It was almost too easy.
“The way is clear,” Dodger whispered as he returned to his crouch. He motioned to the agreed-upon boulder in the distance. “Everyone needs to get behind that big rock. The line will pick us up over there.”
“You mean we get to ride the train?” one of the men asked.
“Yes,” Dodger said.
The four men twittered with excitement, and one even clapped softly at the idea of riding the Sleipnir.
“Did you arrange this ahead of time too?” Lelanea asked.
“Of course,” Dodger said, and gave her a sly wink.
In the glow of golden light, Lelanea raised an eyebrow and pursed her lips. Dodger knew slyness wouldn’t be enough. She would expect a full explanation when this was all done. What he was going to tell her, he had no idea. But there was no time to worry about that now.
“Thad, you go first,” Dodger said. “Then Bottle. Then Miss Lelanea. Then-”
“Haven’t you ever heard of ladies first?” she asked, and before he knew what had happened, she headed across the camp. One second she was mouthing off, and the next she stood waving at them from the other side. Quick as that. No fuss. No muss. No hesitation. And, Dodger sensed, no fear.
Which impressed him all the more.
“That’s some woman,” one of the men said.
“She sure is,” Bottle said.
“She’s certainly a hard act to follow,” Thad said.
“She sure is,” Bottle repeated.
Dodger tried hard not to laugh aloud. “Keep your heads down and move out.”
At his command, the men formed a line and, one by one, darted across the confused camp, every few steps of their way lit by different-colored bursts of light. Dodger split his attention between the dwindling number near him, Lelanea’s signals, the disorder of the camp and the single guard still very distracted by the fireworks. Every time a man joined Lelanea’s side, she waved for another, until just Dodger remained.
He tossed one more glance to the occupied guard before he too took off for the safety of the boulder. Around him, the camp began to show signs of bouncing back from the initial shock of the impromptu fireworks show. The bulldogs now emerged from the mess, barking orders left and right, commanding those in panic to calm down, while instructing the rest to gather their confiscated weapons from the mess tent. Dodger slowed his pace to stay with the others, doing his best to blend into the calming crowd. Just under the pop, zoom and boom of the pyrotechnics, Dodger sensed the distinct rumble of the Sleipnir approaching position.
Better hurry, Boon warned. Ched is almost upon you.
“Tell him not to stop,” Dodger whispered as he shifted his quick walk into a jog. “Just slow down enough for us to jump on.”
Are you certain that’s wise?
“No. But we’ll need the momentum to get out of here fast.” Dodger ducked behind the boulder, where the others greeted him with quiet congratulations. “Ched’s bringing the line around now. He’s going to slow down but not stop, which means we’ll have to pull a hot board.” The confusion on the men’s faces reminded Dodger that not everyone spoke the language of the rails. “I mean we have to board her while she’s moving. Do you think you can do that?”
“I’ve never done that sort of thing,” Bottle said.
“Me neither,” another man said.
“Miss?” Dodger asked. “You think maybe-”
“Don’t you worry about me,” she snapped. “There aren’t enough fingers and toes between us to count the number of times I’ve flipped aboard her while she was moving.”
“Actually, I was going to ask you to go first and show the rest of us how it’s done.”
Shocked into silence, she blinked once, then twice, before she said, “Oh. Well then, yes, of course.”
Just as the last of the fireworks faded, the rumbling grew louder and around the bend rolled a pair of large, bright lights: the headlamps of the Sleipnir. The inexperienced men readied themselves to board, while sneaking peeks at Lelanea for guidance. Or were they just outright leering at the svelte silhouette of her moonlit figure? It was hard to tell, considering Dodger had a hard time not doing just that. Either way, Lelanea ignored them all as she shifted her weight from foot to foot and made ready. As the train pulled up to their hiding spot, she took off in a sprint. The men followed suit, as did Dodger, and soon the whole group was running alongside the engine car.
The skeletal figure of Ched emerged from the back of the cab, ready to lend a hand and help them aboard. He stooped over the edge of the platform and extended a lanky arm to the first in line, Lelanea. Pretty as you please, she grabbed his hand and flipped herself onto the train. Dodger had seen many a man flip a train, but this was the first time he had seen a woman attempt it. And the first time he had seen it done with such grace, beauty and poise. He also had a pretty good idea now why the lady chose to wear pants. And he couldn’t fault her for it either, though he suffered a bit of regret that the long-legged beauty wasn’t sporting a free-flowing skirt.
Ched shuffled Lelanea off to one side before he reached down for another escapee. Thad was closest, but instead of flipping aboard, he just stared up at Ched. In fact, all of the men were staring at Ched with matching looks of horror. Dodger had all but forgotten the fact that Ched looked, well, unusual.
“Stop staring and grab on!” Lelanea screamed over the chuff of the train.
But the men would have none of that. They were losing their pace too, slowing to a trot while the train steadily pulled away from them.
“For God’s sake, just take his hand!” Dodger yelled.
One the men snapped out of his self-induced trance of disgust, pushed himself harder, overtook Thad, and reached up to grab Ched’s hand. Before they could connect, a series of gunshots resounded just over the train’s chugging engine. Dodger watched as a dark smear of black swelled forth between the poor lad’s shoulder blades. Struck down, the nameless man dropped and rolled away, almost tripping Thad in the process.
Dodger chanced a look over his shoulder to find the camp bordered by a dozen rifle-bearing Pack members, resetting their weapons and once more taking aim on the escaping group. He pushed his run into high gear, hoping the others would have the sense to do the same. Bottle—his disgust forgotten in favor of survival—doubled his speed and snatched Ched by the wrist to leap aboard the train. Thad followed, as did the other two in turn, tumbling and scrambling and awkwardly struggling aboard, all to the clang and clink of ricocheting bullets. Dodger boarded last with practiced ease, locking hands with Ched and pulling himself onto the train as smooth as a silk stocking slipping down a lady’s thigh.
“Welcome back, Sharge,” Ched said.
“Thanks for the rescue,” Dodger said between gasps.
“My pleashure.” He tipped his head to Lelanea. “Doc’sh at the helm if you wanna shee him.”
Lelanea gave Ched a quick hug—how she stood the driver’s touch in such an intimate manner, Dodger couldn’t fathom—before she darted into the cab to reunite with her uncle. The men, however, crowded to one side of the small platform and returned to staring at Ched with wide, curious eyes, as well as wrinkled noses. That was, all of the men save for Thad, who clutched the side railing and leaned out to stare at the dwindling outline of the camp, frantically searching the distance for something he’d lost.
Or rather, someone.
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