“We have to go back,” Thad said. “Turn this thing around.”
“Back?” Ched asked, then snorted. “We ain’t goin’ back.”
“We left Bret behind,” Thad said. “We have to turn around and get him before they do.”
I’m afraid it will do no good, Boon whispered to Dodger. The lad has passed on.
“He’s gone,” Dodger said.
“But I promised him-” Thad started.
“He’s gone,” Dodger repeated, firmer this time.
Thad looked back to Dodger with damp eyes. “We don’t know that. He could be alive.”
Dodger shook his head.
“Then he died by my hand,” Thad said, almost too softly to be heard under the noise of the train.
“He knew what he signed on for,” Bottle said.
“Yeah,” said another of the men. “We all knew the risks.”
Thad shrugged, but looked unconvinced.
And Dodger didn’t envy him the burden of his comrade’s death.
“You think they’ll pershue?” Ched asked.
“Maybe,” Dodger said. “But I doubt it. They would’ve been after us by now. They might track us if they can.”
“They won’t. We have the blower goin’ on her caboosh. A little hot air should erash enough of our tracksh to confushe them.” Ched turned to the other fellows and rubbed the back of his neck, as if embarrassed to speak what was on his mind. “I hate to bring thish up now, but doesh any of you know where we can get shome water around here? Ash in, really shoon? Ash in, right now?”
The men shook their heads in unison.
“I do,” Dodger said. “There should be a pond about ten miles southwest of here. There’s a farm within sighting distance, but you shouldn’t have trouble with the locals.”
“Fat chansh of that. We alwaysh have trouble with the localsh.”
“This time you won’t, because there aren’t any. The place is abandoned.”
“How can you be shure?”
Dodger raked his gaze over the dog-men, then looked back to the driver before he said, “I just am.”
Ched shrugged, but didn’t ask more on the matter.
“What are your names?” Dodger asked the new fellows.
“Clyde,” one man said.
“Stanley,” said the other.
“And we met already,” Bottle said. “I hope you don’t hold our little exchange earlier today against me. I was just doin’ what I were told. I wouldn’t have really shot anyone. I’m not even a very good aim.”
“No harm done,” Dodger said. “Yet.”
“I’m glad to see you made it through in one piece, Mr. Dodger,” the professor said. “Though you could use another number eight, from the looks of things.”
Dodger found the man leaning against the cab’s doorframe, listening with interest, hands in the pockets of his lab coat. “I appreciate the offer, sir. But there are a couple of fellows ahead of me here.”
“Of course. Ched, follow his directions. The rest of you can follow me.” The driver did as asked while the professor pushed past the tight clutch of men, crossed the linking platform and entered the second car beyond. He turned in the doorway, lifting his hand to beckon the others. “Come, this way.”
None of them moved.
The professor let out a dramatic sigh. “For the love of Buddha, I haven’t got all night.”
The men looked to one another, then to Dodger as if for advice.
“I’d go with the doc, if I were you,” Dodger said. “Either that or you can stay here and keep Ched ‘n’ me company.”
At this threat of spending more time in the presence of the strange driver and his strange smell, the men hurried across the linking platform and into the second cab after the professor.
“You think he can really help us?” Thad asked.
“He’ll do what he can,” Dodger said. “Just ignore his theatrics. Give him a chance. If it helps, I trust him.” This wasn’t just a white lie of reassurance. Dodger did trust the doc. He couldn’t explain why, but he did.
“It does,” Thad said. “Because I trust you.”
Dodger didn’t bother to mention that this kind of trust was dangerous when placed on a man like himself. Instead, he clapped Thad on the shoulder and smiled away the worries. “Go on then. I’ll catch up in a few.”
Thad followed Dodger’s orders and trailed after the other three men into the dim light of the second cab. After the door closed, Dodger ducked into the engine car to help Ched find a source of water.
Lelanea had relinquished control of the train to the driver, and was leaning against the cabinet to the right of the helm. She smiled at him in a way that another might have mistaken as pleasant or even coy. But Dodger sensed the burning mix of ire and curiosity underneath the woman’s wicked grin.
“Your nose is healing already,” Lelanea said. “Uncle must have given you a hit of eight before you set out for your magnanimous rescue attempt.”
Dodger touched his nose, impressed to find that the swelling was already receding. “And how about you? Are you unharmed?”
“I’ll do.” Her smirk stayed as wide as ever. “What other thrilling adventures do you have scheduled for us this evening? Or have you had your fill of excitement for one night?”
“Ched says we need water. There’s a farm-”
“Ten milesh shouthwesht,” the driver said as he negotiated the train in that direction. “I got it the firsht time.
“Make sure you take a wide berth around the Gap,” Dodger said. “We don’t want to let Butch’s men know where we’re headed.”
“Already ‘counted for.”
“Do you have enough water left to run that far?”
“I shuposh we can make that before dryin’ out completely. If not, we’ll find out shoon enough.”
Ched spun the wheel, and with his action, the cab shifted in a slow arc, away from the Gap and toward Mrs. Bolton’s old farm. Unlike the tight figure eights of earlier that day, this turn was slow and practiced. Dodger barely felt the train move at all.
“I guess these belong to you now,” Lelanea said, holding out Boon’s guns.
“Thanks,” Dodger said and took the pair of pistols. “But I think we’ve established they aren’t mine. I’m just borrowing them.”
“You shure thish farm ish shafe?” Ched asked.
“It should be vacant,” Dodger said as he buckled the pistols into place. A calm reassurance came over him as they settled on his hips. “But I guess there might be a few squatters. It’s been a few months since I’ve called on the place.”
“Is this the farm you used to work on?” Lelanea asked.
Closing his eyes, Dodger sighed. He knew this was coming, but he’d hoped he wouldn’t have to deal with it right now.
“That’s what you told my uncle,” she continued. “That you used to be a farmhand. Or was that just another lie, Mr. Carpenter?”
Dodger looked up at her at the slippage of names.
Lelanea covered her smile with her small hand. “Oops, I meant Mr. Dodger.”
“I appreciate that you’re sore about my deceit,” Dodger said. “But I promise you I have very sound reasons for what I tell you and what I don’t. And when.”
“A falsehood is a falsehood, Mr. Dodger. No matter the excuse behind it.”
“Is that so? Because I’ve found some falsehoods are more along the lines of untruths rather than outright lies.”
“And what’s the difference?”
“It’s the same difference between your average farmhand and an experienced gunman. Now, considering the jam I just got you out of, which lie would you rather I’d been today?”
“I don’t aim to be cute, ma’am. I aim to do what your uncle hired me to do. I aim to do my job.” Dodger paused to hook his thumbs into the gun belt slung low on his waist. “And, if you’ll pardon me for saying so, from what I understand, my aim is a sight better than what you folks are used to.”
Lelanea considered his words a moment as she ran her tongue across her lips, a quick moistening of her pale mouth that sent a small shiver of want up Dodger’s spine. But any hint of flirting fled when she took a quick, deliberate step toward him and landed an open-palmed slap across his cheek.
Poking a finger in his chest, she said, “You listen to me, Mr. Dodger, and you listen well. I didn’t need your help then, and I certainly don’t need it now. I will never, ever, ever need your help. I don’t care how well you plant seeds or fire a pistol, you will never be half the man Washington Boon was. Never.” That said, the woman stormed out of the cab, leaving a chastised Dodger in the wake of her anger.
“A word to the wysh?” Ched asked. “Don’t badmouth Boon around Missh Lelanea.”
“I didn’t mean any ill against him,” Dodger said.
“I know, but she’sh shenshitive about him. They were … awful closh.”
“How close is close?”
“Oh, I’d shay ‘bout the length of the differensh between an untruth and an outright lie.” Ched chuckled.
Before he could respond, Dodger felt the spirit of Boon drift into the cab.
Dodger, the spirit said. You must come with me. The doc is having trouble relating his plan of action to your men.
“They aren’t my men,” Dodger said.
You have to gain control of them before things get out of hand. It seems they are unhappy with the professor’s proposed medical exams.
“I can only imagine.” Dodger smirked at the idea of Bottle agreeing to take on a dose of the professor’s giant needle.
This isn’t funny. The men are agitated. Dodger, they are growling at him.
“Then I best get down there before they decide to start backing up that bark with a bite or two. Where am I headed?”
Sixth car down. I’ll guide you.
“Ched? Are you good here?”
“I’m alwaysh good here,” the driver said, patting the wheel.
“I mean are you good for directions?”
“Shoutheasht. Ten milesh. Wide berth around the Gap. Abandoned farmhoush.”
“Let me know when we arrive. I want to check it out before anyone disembarks.” As Dodger made his way across the cab, the tin flower by the door blossomed into life.
“Dodger!” the professor shouted from the bloom. “Get down here before I’m forced to put a leash on these men of yours!”
“I’m on my way,” Dodger said. Under his breath he added, “And they aren’t my men.”
Though he supposed, with all that had happened, they might very well be his men.
Whether he wanted them or not.