The Trouble with Waxford
Chapter OneDown on the Farm
In which Dodger visits an old friend.
It had been six months since Dodger set foot on the property.
In the universal scheme of things, six months barely registered a bump along history’s timeline. Six months in the tumbling sands of the average man’s lifespan was but a few grains. Even the most hardened of criminals viewed six months as a light sentence, a stint he could just about do standing on his head.
But in the wake of one man’s sorrow, six months was a very long time indeed.
The farm was, thankfully, just as empty as Dodger remembered it. No squatters. No relatives come to claim what was rightfully theirs. Just weed riddled fields where nothing much grew anyways considering the climate and conditions. The animals were long gone, as was most of the furnishings, seized by debt collecting vultures before Mrs. Bolton’s corpse had even cooled. Still, the house seemed in good repair, with a few sticks of furniture left behind, and the land wasn’t desolate, just neglected. Over the entire farm rested a calm and relaxed atmosphere, just as it had for the last five years.
It was, and always had been, a peaceful place.
After helping Ched fill the water tanks, Dodger suggested they park the Sleipnir for the night. There was no need to run out the fuel in a rush to get away when they had a perfectly good place to put up their feet. Butch and his boys were sure to think them as far away as possible, and even if enemies came sniffing around there was more than enough hands—as well as a number of guns—to handle an old fashioned showdown. The professor agreed, mostly with the conserving fuel aspect, his mind on matters more practical than Dodger’s.
Meanwhile, Dodger’s mind was all over the place.
The back of his attention was occupied with what to do with the ex-soldiers. Five years removed from society was sure to leave them in a feral fix. If the Doc was able to reverse the effects of the P.O.W. device, could they integrate into society? Should they be expected too? It was a hard row to hoe—this task of sneaking back into the social order after being away for so long. As a fellow outcast and snubber of humanity by choice, Dodger knew what they were in for.
Then there was the matter of their abuser. Or rather, what to do about him. Part of Dodger wanted to use his old connections to seek out this Commander Rex, string him from the highest flag pole in the nation and take his balls for earrings. But he knew better. If he called on old friends (or were they now old enemies?) then he would not only trip the wires of traps surely laid in his honor, these very same authorities would just move in cart away all the evidence of the dog soldiers and that would be that. The last thing the still healing nation needed right now was a reminder of the war that almost tore them asunder. And the folks that Dodger used to work for had but one way to sweep unwanted evidence under a rug of eternal silence.
These poor men deserved presidential commendations.
They would end up in unmarked graves.
A portion of his idle thoughts were devoted to Lelanea, and that lingering sting of her strong backhand. She was a beauty, no doubt there, but a beauty with a fire burning in her very soul. A flame such as hers wasn’t meant to be toyed with. It was meant to be fueled, fed and fanned until it burned bright enough to catch the drapes ablaze. Dodger was fairly sure that, given enough time and intimate situations, he could tame that little flame. Take her and break her and make her his own. But, deep down, he reckoned he didn’t want to. He reckoned, just maybe, he liked her the way she was. All wild and wily and full of free will. Lelanea Dittmeyer wasn’t like any woman he had ever met.
Well, no woman he had met near his own age.
Which brought him to the forefront of his thoughts. And the grave he crouched before. And the headstone he stared at. Yes, six months was a long time when spent in bereavement, but it was even longer when spent avoiding the act of mourning altogether.
Dodger heaved a tired sigh as he stared at her headstone and fumbled with his hat. At her request, the stone bore just her name and nothing else. According to her last will and testament, she didn’t want dates on her marker, neither birth nor death. As she put it, she didn’t want passing looky-loos to think just any old woman was buried beneath her headstone.
Which stood to reason, because she wasn’t just any old woman.
He reckoned he should say something, aloud, just to honor her memory, but he didn’t know what to say. He never knew what to say around the Widow Bolton. She was one of the few people left him truly speechless. Like Lelanea, she had a fire all her own, one that in her day surely burned as bright as a noon sun on a desert plateau. By the time Dodger got to know her there wasn’t so much as a flame as there was a smolder—a smolder that could peel the paint off a hitching post at twenty paces when she stoked it just right.
Nothing romantic ever passed between them. No, it wasn’t quite like that. She had been a handsome woman, especially for her age, but it was the heart of the woman that left him breathless with admiration on more than one occasion. A strong woman, in both body and mind, she could strike him low with a single word, or lift him up with the very same voice. Betty Bolton was so many things to him; the mother Dodger so sorely missed, the sister he never had, the May-December romance he didn’t dare approach for fear of fumbling his well practiced lines.
She was just what he needed at just the right time in his life.
All at once he was struck by the memory of her; near tall as him, thick with healthy living, silver hair that hung to the waist, jade eyes that could stop a man dead when filled with ire. As he remembered, those flashes of experience tumbling through his tired mind, some painful, some delightful, a particular moment stood out to him. A moment in time that was etched on his heart. One warm summer afternoon so long ago, during a break from working the fields, they sat together talking and joking under the shade of an apple tree. The same tree that now stood as a silent sentinel near her grave.
“If only you were thirty years older, Arnold,” she said.
“What would you do with me then that you couldn’t do now?” Dodger teased.
“For starters, I’d make an honest man out of you.” She laughed, then reconsidered her wish and amended it. “Hell, forget that! Daddy always said if you’re gonna go, go whole hog. Make me fifty years younger and who cares if either of us is honest!”
And that was Betty Bolton all over. Part mother. Part sister. Part potential lover.
But most importantly, all friend.
“You know,” Dodger said to the headstone. “I think you were onto something. I think you may have been one of the few people in the world who could’ve made an honest man out of me. Despite all I’ve done, all I’ve been, you saw past it. Didn’t you?”
When she was alive, Dodger never told her a thing. Not a solitary iota of his past as Rodger Dodger. She hired him as Arnold Carpenter, out of work farm hand, and accepted him as such. Worked him hard as such too. But underneath it all, he always suspected she knew. Knew he was lying. Knew he was hiding something. Knew he was taking shelter on her farm from a life gone oh so very wrong. Perhaps she knew, but she never breathed a word of rebuke.
“House looks pretty good,” he said, trying to change the subject away from such sorrow. Dodger reached out to pull the few weeds bursting from her dry plot. “You always said you liked a natural look. Well, you got it now. That juniper tree is gonna grow right into the back bedroom. It’ll need choppin’ down. I know you’re spinning in your grave at the thought, but it has to be done or it’ll uproot the house. I told you that you planted it too close.”
He paused and turned his ear to the night, straining to hear her respond. He would’ve given anything just to hear her reprimand him for talking to her so gruffly. Of course she didn’t. He wasn’t sure what to expect when he brought himself here tonight, but a heartfelt confession wasn’t at the top of the list. Yet it made its way to his lips all the same.
“I’m sorry it took me so long,” he said softly. “You of all folks should know I never made friends very easy. I almost hate you for making me care for ya so damned much.” He dipped his head, and said a small prayer to whatever deity care to listen. When he raised his eyes again they were damp, and well on their way to teary. “Before I left they told me what you’d done. Concernin’ me. I mean, concernin’ Arnold.” He furrowed his brow as he stared at her marker, ready to argue with a cold hunk of stone. “Why? Why would you do that? I … I mean … Damn it Betty! I didn’t ask for-”
The snap of a dry twig broke his concentration and encroached on his sorrowful mood. He stood and whipped about in place, searching the moonlit landscape for the intruder on his private moment. For a moment he hoped it was her, but no one seemed to be there. Only, twigs didn’t break themselves.
“Who’s there?” he asked, easing a hand to Hortense as he stared hard at the tree nearest him. “Come on out. Don’t make me come after you.”
“Calm down,” Lelanea said. She stepped out from behind the tree, her figure a dark silhouette in the soft moonlight. “I came to bid you goodnight, but when I realized you were … I was trying to leave as quietly as I could.”
“No need. I was done here anyways.”
Lelanea moved closer to him, her eyes alight with curiosity. “Are you sure? I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“I appreciate that, but really. I’m done.”
She cast a quick glance to the headstone behind Dodger. “Who was she?”
“An old friend.”
He shrugged off her suspicion. “As close as you can get when you work for someone.”
“Ah. That close?” Lelanea nodded and gave him an understanding smile.
And he knew just what that grin meant. “No, no. It wasn’t like that. She was just a friend. A really good friend.”
But the smile never shifted. “Uncle says he has your room ready. I can put him off for a while longer if you want to be alone.”
“I don’t want to be alone.” The words tumbled from his lips so quickly, so fluidly, he wasn’t sure he had said them aloud at all. But when Lelanea’s moonlit smile grew wider, he realized he had indeed spoke. “I mean, I don’t need more time. I’m done here.”
Lelanea took a few steps toward the headstone, then stooped over the grave. She ran her hand over the swollen plot, as if stroking the back of some sleeping animal. Dodger almost objected when she pushed her fingers into the dry soil, but he kept his tongue in check. Lifting a handful of dirt to her nose, she inhaled deeply, closing her eyes as she took in the scent of the earth.
“This was turned recently,” she said, looking up to him. “A few months or so?”
Dodger was impressed. “Yes, about six months.”
She released her handful of soil, then wiped her palm on the knee of her breeches as she stood. “I’m sorry for your loss. And I know this sounds cliché, but I understand.”
“Thank you.” He thought carefully for a moment about his next words before he said, “Listen, earlier … I didn’t mean anything by-”
“It’s fine. I know you didn’t mean any harm. In fact, I wanted to apologize for striking you. I was out of turn.”
“No apology needed. I promise I’ll watch my criticisms in the future. Boon must’ve been something special to warrant your defense of his honor.”
“Like I said before, he was a good man.”
Dodger stared down at the headstone again. “Betty Bolton.”
“Who she was? Mrs. Betty Bolton. Though she preferred to be called Widow Bolton. Wore the death of her husband like a badge, she did.”
“I see. This was the woman you worked for?”
“She sounds like a good soul.”
“She was something else.”
“I would love to know more about her.”
Dodger thought about this offer of audience for a moment, then shook his head. “Maybe another time.” He doffed his hat, turned and took off for the train parked on the other side of the house, with Lelanea tight on his heels. “How are our new friends fairing?”
“They finally got over their shock at the sight of Mr. Torque when they realized he was just a metal blow hard. Last I saw they were playing cards and drinking with Ched. Serves them right too.”
Amused by her annoyance, Dodger asked, “You don’t like them, do you?”
“These are the same men who kidnapped me, you know. But really I’m just worried for Uncle. He can be so trusting of total strangers.”
“And you’re not.”
“Not when I can help it. Dodger? There’s something we need to talk about.”
He felt her hand his shoulder, and stopped in his brisk walk to face her.
“What are we going to do with them?” she asked.
“Your uncle has agreed to help those men,” he reminded her.
“I mean they can’t stay with us. Hieronymus is almost certain he can cure them, but once that is done they can’t remain aboard.”
She huffed as she crossed her arms. “Beyond the obvious reason of there not being enough room-”
“Not enough room?” An indignant Dodger waved at the enormous train. “Are you kidding me? You could house a whole town aboard that thing!”
Lelanea gasped as she raised a fluttering hand to her chest. “Dodger. That thing is our home.” She creased her brow, worry rising to her eyes. “And as much as I appreciate their situation, they can’t stay with us. These men need a home of their own.”
Dodger stared at her, shocked into silence. What amazed Dodger about her statement wasn’t the compassionate tone of her voice, wasn’t the fact that she seemed genuinely worried for the very same men who kidnapped her, wasn’t even the sweet look of pity she bore for these veritable strangers. What got Dodger, what stripped him bare of all of his defenses, what struck him dumb to the very core of his soul was that single word.
She said ‘our home’ instead of ‘my home.’
Lelanea was right too, once cured these men couldn’t stay aboard the Sleipnir. After so much tragedy, they needed … no they deserved a home of their own. Luckily, Dodger knew just the right place.