In which Dodger discovers a mystery
A few miles deep into the brand-new state of Kansas, there rested a small community of a few hundred folks. The town proper was built in the traditional style; a single main street divided the town and was bordered by a variety of small shops, a house of worship, a schoolhouse, a jailhouse, and a good-sized bank. A few houses lay scattered in the background, resting all across the flat plains that were so common to the area. The townspeople were varied: a healthy mix of Caucasians and Celestials, Negroes and Natives, all striving for nothing more than to make a life for themselves in these hard times. Yes, Sunnyvale seemed a pleasant enough town, save for a single glaring fact. Or rather, non-glaring, in this case.
Sunny was a misnomer.
There was nothing sunny about the town. If anything, it should have been named Cloudyvale. A bleak grayness hung over the community, as if an ark-worthy torrent of precipitation were about to drop from the sky at any given moment. And from what Dodger gathered, it had always been so. Drab, dreary, dull. What crops managed to eke their way to the surface were met with a season of shadows and haziness. According to Ched, the struggling town came to the professor on bended knee, begging for his help to bring a little sunshine their way, but not for the reason Dodger would’ve suspected.
“Come again?” he asked as they disembarked from the Rhino. In truth, the pair could have walked into town. The train was parked but a few hundred feet away, but the pedal car made the delivery all the easier.
“You heard me right the firsht time, Sharge,” Ched said. (Thankfully he had dropped the irritable shirs. For now, at least.)
“They want artificial sunlight to make their livestock happier?”
“That’sh right. Sheemsh they’ve had a boon of new blood ash of late. And mosht of the new folksh moved here from shunnier shtatesh, bringing a whole passhel of animalsh with ‘em. Animalsh that were ushed to shunnier pashturesh, ash it were.”
Dodger got that part, but he still didn’t understand the problem. “The town’s livestock miss the sun. So?”
“Sho, from what I undershtand, it ain’t just a cashe of craving shunlight. Theshe animalsh ain’t acting right. The cowsh stopped givin’ milk. The chickensh ain’t layin’ eggsh. Even the mulesh jusht shtand around shighing all day long.”
“The animals are melancholy. That’s the problem?”
“That and the new folksh are talkin’ about pullin’ shtakesh, takin’ their animalsh, and more importantly their money, elshewhere.”
“Ah, that’s the problem.”
Dodger patted the four large boxes loaded on the cargo skiff behind the Rhino. “And Doc sent these machines to fix it?”
“What are they?”
“Shun Lampsh. Work on the shame princhipals ash the Shun Boxesh, only on a larger shcale. Crank ‘em up and ta-da, inshtant shunshine shtraight from Dittmeyer’sh creashion to your cow.” Ched eyed Dodger. “Didn’t he tell you all thish?”
Dodger rubbed the back of his neck in classic embarrassment. “He did, but … I suppose my mind was elsewhere.”
“That whole lack of shleep thing again?”
“Let’s say yes and leave it at that. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” Ched worked the tailgate on the skiff, lowering it with care so as not to bump the precious cargo inside.
Dodger helped the driver lower a metal ramp from the back of the skiff so they could unload the lamps one by one. As they worked, a small crowd gathered a few yards away, just outside of the bank.
“You’d think they’d offer to help,” Ched said. “Theshe thingsh are for them, after all.”
“I don’t think they’re interested in us,” Dodger said.
“They should be. Were probably the mosht intereshting thing that’sh happened to theshe folksh shince they shet up shop.”
“I don’t know.” Dodger stopped to watch the crowd, straining to listen to the mumbles and whispers passing among the group. “They seem interested in the bank. I wonder what’s going on.”
“Getting theshe thingsh off the shkiff ish what’sh going on. Now shtop gawking at the localsh, and give me a hand.”
Dodger did as asked, returning to his share of the loads. “Is Boon still mad with me?”
“Yesh, but I reckon he’ll get over it shoon enough. I’m kind of shurprished he didn’t join ush already.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Look, Sharge, I don’t wanna pry—and I honeshtly mean that, becaushe ash you well know, I hate to get involved with folksh an’ their petty problemsh—but if there ish shomething you feel like you need to talk about, you know I’m here for ya? Right?”
It was this kind of backhanded sympathy Dodger had come to both expect and respect about the driver. Naked honesty and little else. No one else in the world could make you feel both appreciated and loathed all in one rancid breath.
“I know,” Dodger said. “And if I get the gumption to talk about it, you’ll be the first person I come to.”
“No I won’t, but I appreshiate you shaying it. Now grab that end and pull. The quicker we unload thish shtuff, the quicker we can get out of here.”
“You don’t like it here? I think it’s kind of pleasant. I mean, save for the gloominess and all.”
“Not really. It’sh too damp here for the likesh of me. Makesh me feel like I’m about to shet to rot.”
Dodger tried to keep this idea out of his tired mind as he helped Ched unload the four boxes containing the Sun Lamps. They were just about to unload the last one when they were joined by a brawny young man bearing a badge of office. Even without the metal star, Dodger would’ve pinned him as a lawman. The blond-headed lad couldn’t have been much more than twenty, yet he held himself with a certain authority, confidence and austerity that all but announced his chosen vocation.
“Howdy, Mr. Ched.” the young lawman said, holding out his hand in greeting. (A move Dodger had to respect, for he had no intention of touching the driver ever again unless he was required to do so.)
Ched took the offered hand, giving it a curt shake before releasing it. “Sheriff Shtanley.”
Sheriff? Dodger was impressed. Surely this kid wasn’t the sheriff of the town.
“Nice to see you in our little town again,” the sheriff said.
“I’d like to shay nishe to be here, but …” Ched’s greeting faded as unspoken images of the driver rotting in the damp climate filled Dodger’s mind.
The sheriff chuckled. “I understand completely. It’s a little damp here, even for me on occasion.” He turned his attention to Dodger, asking, “Who’s your friend? I recognize the weapons but not the man.”
“This is …” Ched paused, looking to Dodger.
It took a second for Dodger to realize that Ched was wondering what to call him. He also realized that this was the first time they had met with a member of normal society since Dodger ceased being Arnold Carpenter. So this was it then. It was finally time for Dodger to make the decision. Was Rodger Dodger ready to officially come out of retirement?
Yes, yes he was.
“Rodger Dodger,” Dodger said, sticking out his hand.
The sheriff tipped his fingers to his hat before taking Dodger’s hand for a firm shake. “Sheriff Jack Stanley.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Sheriff.”
“Well met, sir, but I have to say I’m a bit surprised. I never thought Washington would let those babies out of his sight.”
“I’m sure he didn’t,” Dodger said as he laid his palms on the guns at his hips.
Ched cleared his throat, a sound made all the more nauseating by the filter of his clenched teeth. Dodger caught the warning tone in the phlegm-filled noise, and at once regretted his choice of words. Here was yet another town that hadn’t heard about Boon’s demise. Did anyone know?
“I’m afraid I have shome bad newsh about Wash,” Ched said.
“Oh?” the sheriff asked. “What’s that?”
“He met with an untimely passhing.”
The sheriff blinked a few times, as if trying to process the information. His jaw fell open, just a little, in surprise. “Washington Boon is gone?”
The sheriff looked to Dodger, as if for confirmation.
Dodger nodded as well.
“I’ll be damned,” Sheriff Stanley whispered. “I guess I just thought he’d be one of those men who’d live forever.” The sheriff turned sorrowful eyes to Dodger, looking him up and down. “I take it you’re his replacement?”
“I have that honor, yes, sir,” Dodger said.
“And what an honor it is. You have some mighty big shoes to fill.”
“I do my best.”
“We sure could’ve used him today, too.” The sheriff’s dark mood lifted a little as he tried to smile. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to imply you’re nothing more than his substitute. It’s just … well … Boon was special. To all of us here in Sunnyvale.”
“I understand he was a good man.”
“That he was. That he was indeed.”
“I hate to rain on your funeral,” Ched said, in his ever-blunt manner, “but we need to get thish cargo off the shkiff and head on back. The doc hash more deliveriesh to make than I can shake a shtick at. Sho get the lead out.”
Rather than lend a hand, the sheriff shook his head, throwing a glance back to the crowd behind him. “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you too. But especially for Professor Dittmeyer. Did he join you?”
“The doc shtayed at the line,” Ched said. “You know he hatesh to put in fashe time unlessh he hash too.”
“I see. Well, as much as I would love to help you unload the lamps, there’s no need. I’m afraid the town won’t be able-”
“Sheriff!” a man shouted at them.
(Click forward to continue.)