Dodger raced toward the tumbling deputy and dove to the ground, begging all that was right and holy in the world to guide his outstretched hands. With luck, and perhaps a little bit of answered prayer, he caught the deputy just before the man met with hard earth. Dodger got to his feet while cradling the deputy in his palms. All the while, William laughed and laughed and laughed.
“Duncan?” Dodger asked.
Duncan didn’t answer. Dodger gave him a jostle, carefully, but it did little good. He prodded the man with as gentle a touch as he could muster. No response. The deputy was cold under Dodger’s huge finger. A metallic click at his back brought his attention to the thief, who stood before the men, bearing a rifle in his still-bleeding hands.
“God help you if this man is dead,” Dodger said.
“What are you going to do about it?” William asked. He waved the rifle at them. “I have the gun, idiot. Now, tell me how you changed sizes on command like that without the machine.”
“How odd. I thought I just said I had the gun. And that little man looks like he’d make good target practice. So tell me. Now.”
Dodger shook his head. It wasn’t that he was particularly interested in protecting the professor’s secrets. After all, the man had no compunction about talking up his work to anyone who asked. No. Dodger was after something much more valuable.
William eyed him, up and down, before his gaze settled on Dodger’s belt. “That. Take that off, and hand it over.”
“No,” Dodger said.
“Come on. I’m just going to shoot you and take it anyway. This way I don’t have to get blood all over it.”
“I said no.”
“Really? Are you looking to die today?”
“No.” Dodger couldn’t hide his smirk. “I’m stalling.”
“Stalling?” William shot a glance back to the tunnel. “Why? Who else is here?”
“No one.” Though secretly he hoped the S.N.I.F.E.R. would bring in the cavalry at any moment. “Just me and the deputy.”
“I assure you I’m no liar, sir.”
“Then why are you stalling?”
“Because in about ten seconds, those bullets lodged in your knuckles are gonna revert back to their normal size, taking your hands with ‘em.”
William furrowed his brow. “What do you mean-”
The man finished the question with an ear-splitting scream of pain. The rifle slipped from William’s swelling fingers just as he brought his hands to his face. The fingers Duncan managed to shoot all but exploded under the force of the bullets’ expansion. Five metal slugs—three in his right hand and two in his left—blossomed, swelled, then tumbled to the ground, taking with them the meaty portions of five fingers. Blood erupted across the scene, coating the dirt, the rifle, the thief and Dodger in a blanket of red madness.
Dodger took the opportunity the distraction afforded to clasp Duncan to himself and roll away from the bleeding maniac and toward his own weapons. He scooped up Hortense (or was that Florence?) in his right hand as he got to his feet again, paying extra care not to crush the doll-sized deputy in his left hand. Dodger trained the weapon on William, but the threat was unneeded. The thief had dropped to his knees, his bloodless lips trembling as he stared at his gushing wounds.
“I’m gonna put away my gun,” Dodger said in a stern voice. “I’m gonna put it away and help you bind your wounds. And you’re not going to try and run or fight me. You got that? If you do, I’ll just let you bleed to death.”
William said nothing.
Dodger holstered his weapon and gently set the deputy atop the sack of bills before turning his attention to the wounded man. The thief offered little resistance to Dodger’s doctoring. That wild spark that had lit the man’s eyes only moments before had vanished, replaced by a chilled specter of shock that was sure to haunt him for the remainder of his life. Once he had the thief well bound and as patched up as he was going to get, Dodger pulled a gun, set it to three and fired a few shots into the air. The crack of the triple shots reverberated through the hollow of the basin, echoing loud and proud.
“That should get someone’s attention,” he said.
A squeaky groan met his ears, pulling his attention to Duncan’s small form. Dodger was pleased to see the man moving about.
“Duncan?” he asked. “Can you hear me?”
Duncan didn’t answer, at least not coherently. He moaned and groaned and whimpered, a series of sounds that came off as cute little squeals, thanks to his difference in size. The deputy was in a bad way, but Dodger couldn’t tell just what injuries the man suffered while he was so very small. Either Duncan needed to get big again, or Dodger had to shrink. And since the deputy didn’t look like he was in any shape to work his own belt, Dodger knew what was coming. He scooped up the deputy and placed him gently on the ground beside the sack. Bracing for the change, Dodger held his breath and clicked the dial to the left, shrinking click by click until he was the same size as Duncan once more.
“Duncan?” Dodger asked as he rushed to the deputy’s side.
The groaning lawman faced Dodger just as a bead of red rolled away from his bloody lips. Dodger wiped away the blood with his sleeve, then set to the gruesome task of checking the man’s wounds. While there were no open lacerations, bruises abounded. The span of the man’s chest and abdomen, from ribs to waist, was a swell of black and blue.
“Bastard must’ve broken something inside,” Dodger grumbled.
As if in response, Duncan began to rattle and wheeze, struggling between ragged breaths. His body jerked with tremors far worse than just the shakes of a dried-out drunk.
“Stay with me,” Dodger commanded.
The deputy coughed and sputtered, blood oozing in a bubbling froth from his crimson lips.
“You stay with me, you bastard!” Dodger yelled.
Just under his cry, Dodger heard a familiar sound: the distant rumble of an oncoming train.
“Help’s on the way,” Dodger said. “If anyone can patch you up, it’s the doc. Just hang on.”
It was then that Dodger realized the doc wouldn’t be able to do much with the deputy so small. He could almost hear the professor wondering aloud how much of a number eight you gave when the subject was only six inches tall. No, this wouldn’t do.
“Duncan,” Dodger said. “I’m going to turn our belts at the same time, so we both go back to normal. It’s going to make you sick. Sicker than you are now. Then again, it might not affect you, since you’re already out. Anyway, here we go.”
Dodger grabbed both dials and turned them to the right.
That was when the unthinkable happened.
Duncan’s belt sparked and sputtered, then fell apart in Dodger’s hands. This was followed by a flash of light that consumed the deputy, and with it, he vanished into thin air. Dodger’s enlargement and Duncan’s disappearance happened all at once, as if in some kind of cosmic balancing act, one for the other, this for that.
“No!” Dodger cried as he swelled away from the deputy and the now-busted belt.
Duncan flickered a moment, much in the manner of Boon’s spirit, then faded away. Going, going, going until he was just gone.
Not even the belt was left behind.
Unable to trust his eyes, Dodger lunged for the spot where the deputy had been just seconds ago. He groped the side of the bag, but no deputy awaited him there. Not a trace of his existence. Not a bloodstain. Not even the impression of his corpse. Dodger sank to his knees as the cold compression of grief squeezed the very breath from his lungs. Gone? How could the man just be gone? Never mind how, the simple fact remained that he was indeed gone. And whose fault was it?
Sure, the trussed-up criminal bleeding to death might have broken the belt, but it was Dodger who unilaterally decided to activate it. He could’ve waited on the doc. Should’ve waited on the doc, but he felt so helpless. And bringing Duncan back to his normal size to get him ready for the doc’s medicine seemed like a helpful thing to do. It only ended up killing the man he was trying to save. The infamous bloodthirsty Rodger Dodger strikes again.
He remained on his knees as behind him came the sounds of his posse’s arrival.
Too little, too late.
“I’m telling you they are here,” Mr. Torque’s tinny voice whistled from somewhere above the ditch. “Just all at once, they showed up on my scan.”
“But why now?” the professor asked. “Why all of a sudden?”
“I don’t know. I thought you were the man with all of the answers. Sir.”
Over their arguing, Ched asked, “Maybe they went too deep under the earth for the shcan to pick up on?”
“There’s an idea,” the professor said. “My, my, my, Ched. I see spending time in Mr. Dodger’s company has left you wiser.”
“Speaking of Dodger,” the sheriff said.
The company fell quiet, and Dodger assumed they must’ve spotted him. He felt the presence of someone as they jumped into the ditch beside him. Dodger wanted to look up to see who was there, but he couldn’t face anyone just yet. He needed a few seconds more with his private grief before it became his public pain.
“That’s Willy, all right,” the sheriff said from behind Dodger. “Sure is a bloody mess, though.”
“I can help with that,” the doc said. “Ched, you bring the lad up here. Torque, go and fetch my valise.”
This idea—that the criminal would receive the same medicine that could’ve saved Duncan’s life—cut Dodger to the core, and he exhaled a slow breath of sorrow.
Ched grunted as he leapt into the ditch. At the same time, a strong hand landed on Dodger’s shoulder.
“Good work, Dodger,” the sheriff said. “You and Duncan did a number on him, but I’m sure he deserved it.”
Dodger shrugged away the sheriff’s hand.
“Got a bit rough with you two, did he?” Ched asked.
“Where’s Duncan?” the sheriff asked.
Dodger finally lifted his face to the other men, the look in his eyes enough to answer the terrible question.
“I see,” the sheriff said.
“It was my fault,” Dodger said.
Everyone ceased what they were doing to stare at Dodger.
“How so?” the professor asked.
Dodger gave a quick and dirty outline of his misdeed, making sure that everyone knew Duncan was the real hero in this bust. That Dodger did nothing but run his mouth.
Run his mouth and get a man killed.
EXPLANATIONS AND INSPIRATIONS
In which Dodger reflects.