Punishment and Penance
In which Dodger finds hope.
The farm was alive with activity and crawling with dog men. Dodger had left four behind but returned to almost two dozen. Row of tents had sprouted up across the field, promising a fine crop of canvas at the end of the season should Dodger choose to harvest. As it was, he wasn’t really sure what to make of the whole thing. He instructed Ched to park near the pond again—so they could jerk what water they needed without difficulty—and asked Boon to keep an eye on the train while he made his way to greet the men on foot.
When he was within shouting distance of the group, someone did just that.
“Commander Dodger!” Bottle shouted, and ran to meet up with him.
“Bottle,” Dodger said, tipping his fingers to his hat and ignoring the title. He then motioned to the commotion going on around them. Specifically, the men filing out of their respective tents and lining up across the field as they stood to attention. “What’s all this then?”
“Your men, sir.” Bottle grinned, and Dodger really wished he hadn’t. It wasn’t that he was apposed to other folks smiling. But in his opinion, folks like Bottle should have the common decency to keep their rotten mouths shut.
“What do you mean my men?” Dodger asked, though he knew full well what Bottle of the Broken Tooth meant.
Bottle’s smile faltered. “They came out here because they want help. They want a chance to be normal again, and they want to work for you. On your farm.”
Dodger groaned low and throaty. What started out as a chance to help his fellow veteran was turning into a nightmare. Not for the men. No. For the men it was salvation, a chance at a new life, a singular shot at redemption provided by a seemingly gracious host. But for Dodger it was a whopping meal of worry.
For starters, the farm didn’t really belong to him. By all technical definition, it belonged to a man that didn’t exist. When he invited Thad’s men to stay as long as they needed, he sure as hell didn’t mean for them to start a commune for two dozen dog-men! Worse than that was the main course, or rather the problem of the men working for him. He didn’t want anyone working for him, much less on a farm he didn’t own. And for desert, Dodger wasn’t totally convinced the Doc’s could find a cure at all. What if it didn’t? What would the men do then? Revolt? Turn rabid? Worse?
“Is something wrong, sir?” Bottle asked, his smile mercifully gone.
“Yes,” Dodger said. “Where’s Thad?”
“He’s in HQ, sir.” He gave a nod toward the house.
“Stop callin’ me sir!”
Bottle flinched. “Yes, sir. I mean, not sir.”
“Just … geesh … just call me Dodger.” Dodger raised his voice to include all of the men in his instruction, stalking the length of them and back again in a way that came almost too natural to him, as he said, “You don’t have to salute or call me sir or anything like that. I’m not your alpha male and I’m no better than you are. You aren’t a pack of dogs, you’re a group of men. Proud soldiers, true, but the war is over and you are civilians now. Act like it.”
“Yes, sir!” the men shouted as one.
Dodger ran his hand across the length of his face and groaned again. What could he do? He did what came natural. “As you were.”
Given their order, the men broke apart and returned to their menial duties.
“Rather like ants,” the professor said.
“More like bees,” Lelanea said. “Which would make him their queen.”
Dodger found the doc and his niece watching the proceedings with obvious amusement. “I’m glad you find this so funny.” He turned away and headed for the house, fuming so much as he walked that he was surprised he didn’t start a fire with each step.
“It’s not funny,” Lelanea said, following him. “It’s entertaining.”
“In that case, I’m pleased to provide you entertainment.”
“You don’t have to be such a hard head about it.”
“These men look up to you,” the professor said. “I think it’s charming. And admirable.”
“As do I,” Lelanea said.
Dodger stopped and whipped about to face the pair again. “They don’t look up to me, they respect me. There is a mighty big difference between the two. It’s not about personal feelings, it’s about rank. Rank I don’t have nor do I deserve. If they thought you were the man in charge, they would treat you the same way.”
The parlor was just as busy as the fields, filled with men bustling and hustling about. Some scoured maps while others were busy cleaning a variety of weapons. If Dodger didn’t know better, he would think he was in the midst of a war room.
“Thaddeus!” Dodger shouted.
All of the men stopped what they were doing and stared up at him in shock. One of the fellows yelled, “Commander present!” With his shout every man fell into formation complete with salutes and grim expressions. Would this madness never end?
“Where is Thad?” Dodger asked the first soldier in line.
The soldier—a motley mix of poodle and man—appeared too nervous to speak at first, until the fellow beside him poked him in the side. “He’s at the back, sir. In bed.”
“It’s well after ten o’clock. What’s he doing in the bed at this time of day?”
“Recuperating? From what?”
“From the battle, sir.”
“Battle? We’ve only been gone a day. When did you have time for a battle?”
“Perhaps I can help, sir,” another soldier said.
Dodger recognized the lad as one of the original four he left here just the afternoon before. Couldn’t place his name, but knew him. “As you were, men.” He pointed to the familiar soldier. “You, show me where he is. I think we need to have a little chat with Thad.”
“Yes, sir,” the man said, and fell in line behind Dodger.
Thaddeus might have been resting, but the appearance of Dodger had him struggling to get to his feet.
“Please,” Dodger begged. “Don’t get up on my account.”
The man returned to his sickbed, and Dodger had never seen someone more deserving of such. Thad was a mass of bruises, lacerations and from his slings a fair amount of broken bones. In short, he looked like he had gone ten rounds with a couple of pissed off mules. Which gave Dodger a bit of an idea as to just who the men had been battling with.
“Butch was here?” Dodger asked as they reached Thad’s bedside.
“Yes,” Thad said. “He came with his men just after you left. He must have been laying in wait.”
“Damn it!” Dodger punched the bed post. “I shouldn’t have let them leave you here. I knew this would happen.”
“Don’t blame yourself. We were bound to square off with him sooner or later. Best sooner and be done with it. And we held our own. Not as well as you did single handedly, but we came away the victor. I’m not as bad as I look, and I’ll wager I’m a far sight better than Butch.”
Dodger sensed a sinister undercurrent to his words. “How much better?”
“Six feet of dirt separates us from his pooling corpse, or else I’d let you have a look yourself.”
That was it then. Bulldog Butch was dead. Dodger didn’t know whether to be relieved or grateful or angry or all three. He waved the extra solder away, pulled up a rickety chair, tossed his hat on the bed and propped up his feet as he sat. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
And Thad did.
Butch and his guard showed up about an hour after the Sleipnir pulled off demanding that Thad and the others return to the pack at once. Of course, Thad and his men told Butch just where he could stick that proposal. Words flew. Then fists. Then bullets. The fight was short but brutal, resulting in the death of all the members of Butch’s bulldog guard as well as the leader himself. Thaddeus lost one of his men, the one called Clyde. A sad turn indeed but things could have gone much worse.
“All of these men came with Butch?” Dodger asked.
“Not at first. They packed up camp and followed him, as they are wont to do.” Thad paused to smile, with some level of difficulty and pain on his part. One of his front teeth was missing, tearing at Dodger’s guilt. Through his painful grin, Thad said, “But they follow you now.”
“No,” Dodger said quickly. “They follow you.”
Thad furrowed his furry brow. “Me?”
“Yes. You.” Dodger knew it would be too hard to break the men from their habits. The least he could do was guide them. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “You lead the fight against the leader. You’re the new alpha male now.”
“But … you’re the-”
“No. I’m not even pack. Remember? I’m just an outsider who had an argument with Butch. Which I settled, fair and square.”
Thad nodded at this idea, though Dodger could still see confusion lingering in his eyes. “Yes. I think I understand.”
“Good man.” Dodger leaned back again and looked this new leader over. What a mess he was, but give him time and he would be just fine. “Tell me then, Alpha male, what are those men up to? All that hustling about and such? They look like they are getting ready for a war.”
Thad sat a little taller as he said, “That’s because they are.”
“I thought you said Butch was dead.”
“He is. Which leaves but one man for us to settle a debt with.”
“Rex?” Dodger didn’t so much ask the name as spit it out.
“Yes, sir. We have it on good authority that he survived after being subjected to his own treatment. And we intend to go after him. He took our lives from us. It’s high time we took them back.”
Which made all sorts of sense. Crazy sense, true, but sense nonetheless. Rex had robbed these men of their very lives by changing them into monsters. They could never return to the real world. They would always be outlaws. Always be rejects. But as a man who had been on many a war path, both professional and personal, Dodger knew all too well that the destination was never as satisfying as the journey. Hate got inside you like a wasp nesting, laying its eggs over and over until all you did was buzz with loathing. Eventually you lived for just the sake of hate and hate alone.
“Listen here,” Dodger said. “I might not be as all fired mad at him as you folks are, but do you think it’s wise to just wander back into his den like that? I mean, you men just got free from him. Why seek him out again?”
“But that’s just it. We aren’t free of him, Dodger. We never were. We only thought we were.” Thad huffed in frustration. “I don’t know how, but he was controlling Butch. He has been this whole time. It was his idea for Butch to challenge Jack. It was his idea for us to come out here and set up camp. It was his idea for us to kidnap Lelanea in order to get to your boss. Rex has been manipulating us this whole time.”
“I take it Butch confessed all of this.”
“The beast sang like a bird when he realized we had the best of him. It was sad really, but I’ve seen it before with his kind. All muscle when things are going his way but no backbone when the chips are down.”
Dodger barely heard Thad’s admonishment of the bulldog. His mind was reeling with the news of Rex, and the possibilities it presented. “Then Rex is still out there.”
“Thad, do you know what this means?”
“That we will finally have our justice?”
“If he isn’t dead, then perhaps the machine wasn’t destroyed. It might still be out there too.”
Thad took on a grim look. “Then there is all the more reason we should move in on him as soon as possible. To stop him making more monsters like us.”
“Yes, but think about it. If the machine is still whole and in working order, then the professor can use it to change you back. He can cure you.”
“I thought our case was hopeless.”
“It was hopeless when we thought the machine was destroyed. But if there’s a chance-”
“Then we should take it,” the professor said from the doorway. “If there is even the remotest chance that terrible machine is still intact, then we should seek it out and destroy it.” The professor glanced to Thad and added, “After we change you men back first, of course.”
Dodger was pleased the doc saw it his way without argument. Things worked a whole lot smoother when the boss man was on board of his own free will, instead of coerced, manipulated or even strong-armed. “If you think it’s a good idea, sir, then we should go after it.”
“I certainly think we should. After I administer the serum to the men we should leave at once.”
Dodger got to his feet. “I’ll round the men up and-”
“I don’t think so,” Thaddeus said over the furtive planning.
The professor and Dodger fell quiet, turning as one to face the man in the bed.
“Rex is our quarry,” Thad said. “He no longer controls us, but he no longer worries about us either. From what I understand he knew all about our instability. He was content—nay pleased—to know we would eventually melt away and no longer cause him trouble. Yet with the professor’s serum we can and will survive. And we will take him by surprise.”
“I can help you,” Dodger said. He motioned to the professor. “We can help you.”
“And we will gladly take any help you are willing to provide, save for joining us on our task.” Dodger was set to argue, but Thad wouldn’t have any of it. He nodded to the professor and explained, “You’re a target for him, sir. You draw his attention. Attention we don’t want on us.”
“Me?” the professor asked with a look of horror. “Why on earth would he want me? He has the damned machine!”
“Perhaps he doesn’t?” Dodger asked. “Perhaps it really was destroyed and he wants you to build him another one?”
“Fat chance of that happening. I was lucky to cobble together the first one.”
“It’s more than just the machine,” Thad said. “Butch was quite clear about Rex’s desire to capture you alive. That man will not rest until he has you in his clutches. Butch alluded that the train was of great interest to Rex as well. It would serve you and the Sleipnir best to stay as far away from him as possible. Dodger, take the professor and your crew away from here. Seek trouble somewhere else, and leave us to go after Rex. If we find the machine intact, we shall send for you.”
As much as he wanted to, Dodger couldn’t argue with Thad’s logic. “How will you know where to find us?”
Thad chuckled, despite the pain the act obviously brought him. “Are you jesting? We can smell that driver of yours almost ten miles off!”
The professor laughed loud along side the wounded man. Dodger, however, just grinned. He wanted to laugh but there was so much troubling his soul. Despite Thad’s eagerness to go after Rex, Dodger couldn’t help but feel like he was sending these ex-soldiers to their death. These men were the very same reason he found the frontlines such easy work. Farmers and clerks turned soldiers were no match for a military trained warrior. Granted, Thad and his men had a few years of soldiering under their furry belts, but most of that was spent in captivity. Not on the battlefield.
Rodger Dodger was the most capable man here for this kind of work. With the instincts of a well trained fighter, and the detachment of a professional assassin, he knew he could track down this Rex and deal with him in just a matter of days. But Thaddeus was correct in his assessments. It wasn’t Dodger’s place to deal with Rex. At least not now. Right now, Dodger’s place was on the Sleipnir. His place was protecting the professor, and his marvelous train.
“Thaddeus has a point,” Dodger said. “We should get you and the line away from here as soon as possible.”
“I suppose you know best,” the professor said. “And I do have other work that needs tending to. Deliveries to make. Promises to keep. That sort of thing.”
“Rest assured we will find him,” Thaddeus said. “And we will make him pay for the things he has done. To our bodies, as well as to your honor, sir.”
“I appreciate that. Yes. I most certainly do. Mr. Dodger, please make sure these men are given ample supplies and as much as you think they will need from the petty cash box.”
“Yes sir,” Dodger said.
“We can’t accept your money,” Thad started.
“You can and you will,” the professor snapped. “After all, you can’t run an army without a budget. Now stop harping on about it. I need to go and get the serum ready.”
The professor left grumbling something about congenial ingratitude, and Dodger made to follow the man when Thad called out, “Dodger?”
Dodger turned about to face him.
“He knows we can never repay him,” Thad said. “For his help or his money.”
“I don’t think he expects you to,” Dodger said. “I think he sees it all as part of his penance.”
“There is no need for penance. At least not on our part. This was not his responsibility. We understand that now.”
“That as it may be, I reckon he sort of blames himself.”
“I can’t help him there. Will you at least assure him that we do not fault him?”
Dodger doffed his hat again and nodded. “I’ll try my best, but guilt can be a hard thing to drive from a man.”
“And Dodger, please know we don’t fault you either.”
“Fault me? I never said you did.”
“No. You never said we did.” Thad stared at him in silence for a few heartbeats, letting the weight of his words sink deep. “I don’t know what wrong you feel you have done us, but your penance, as you put it, is no more required than his.”
Dodger had nothing to say to that, so he said as much.
With another nod and a quick gesture he bade Thad a silent farewell, then made his way back to the line. There was much to be done, and as usual, so little time to get it done. He reckoned the dog men could remain on the farm long enough to gather their forces then shove off, which settled this incessant need to work the farm that no one owned. Dodger was very pleased that Thad was so willing to step up and take command, for this settled his second issue. The third item would just have to remain on the menu for now, at least until the machine resurfaced. Which left Dodger to turn his mind toward his own work; protecting the Sleipnir and her strange crew.
As he made ready his plans for getting the professor as far away from here as possible, Dodger mulled over the Thad’s last words. Was Dodger’s remorse for his past life so transparent? The answer was yes, of course. He wore his need for atonement like a god damned badge. Throwing himself into his work on the farm for hardly any pay. Taking care of the drunks and bums at Decker’s bar for nothing but room and board. Doing anything and everything to give back to the world without raising his fists or firing a gun or even using his tainted name. While it was true he felt subject to a lifelong penance, it wasn’t just to Thad’s men.
Dodger’s penance was to the entire human race.
But all that would change now that he had a real function again. Protecting the lives of those aboard the Sleipnir with the very same talents he used to cut so many other lives short seemed not only poetic in its nature, but also a little on the ironic side of things. Literary tools aside, Dodger hoped he would find what was stripped from his soul so very long ago. He hoped to find purpose, to find worth, or at the very least to find contentment for a job well done. Maybe, just maybe, he would dig a little deeper and find that thirteen year old boy that took his first human life without pity or remorse.
Find him and forgive him at last.
END VOLUME THREE
A BRIEF INTERMISSION
In which a few guests of honor tell us a few tall tales.
Thus ends the first collection of Railroad! tales.
While your humble staff prepares the print edition of the
first three volumes and readies the next volume for posting,
a hand full of amazing authors have agreed to keep you
entertained by regaling us with some delightful tales.
Join us next week when our first guest, Eric Brown,
spins us a weird western yarn of frightening proportions:
"Better Start Running"