In which Dodger helps create a legend
Dodger had to admit that his idea was spontaneous and questionable, but it was also an exciting notion. Duncan needed something to do, and the Sleipnir had something that needed doing. It was a win-win situation for everyone involved.
“What if you worked security for the doc, but not here on the train?” Dodger asked.
“How?” Duncan and the professor asked together.
“Well, the doc here attracts all manner of trouble. Some of which I suspect don’t just crop up by happenstance.”
“What are you saying, Mr. Dodger?” the professor asked.
“I’m saying that I think some of your worry was organized, very carefully, by someone else. I think some of the attacks you’ve suffered, especially here as of late, are far too organized for just random occurrences. I’m saying I think someone is out to get you.”
“Tell us something we don’t know,” Lelanea said, crossing her arms.
“You don’t know that Commander Rex may have been behind this latest stunt.”
That got her attention, as well as everyone else’s.
“You must be joking,” the professor said. “Tell me you’re joking.”
“It’s true,” Dodger said. “They found an invoice among the thief’s effects, signed off with the initials of one C.R. And the tram the kid used to move the money mimicked the Rhino’s pedal-powered generator. Even the reduction machine looked like something you would’ve cooked up, sir. Is that all just coincidence? I don’t think so.”
“How did he know we’d show up here?” Ched asked.
“Who knows? Maybe he found out about the scheduled delivery. Maybe we just happened to stumble upon his little plot.”
“It’s an awful elaborate stunt for such a small payoff,” Lelanea said.
“True,” Dodger said. “But you have to remember we’re dealing with a very sick mind.”
“Commander Rex,” the professor said with a sigh. “I was hoping we had heard the last of that name.”
“I think we might be a long way from that, sir.”
“Who is Commander Rex?” Duncan asked.
“It’sh a long shtory,” Ched said.
“And one I suppose we better explain to you,” the doc said. “That is, if you’re going to be part of our crew.”
Duncan started at this. “You mean I can work for you?”
“If you would like the job. I can’t pay you much, but I trust Mr. Dodger when he says we could use the help.”
“But what can I do?”
Everyone turned to face Dodger, curious as to the new crewmember’s potential function.
“You’ll be our eyes and ears away from the line,” Dodger explained. “While I keep things safe here at the home base, you’ll act as reconnaissance, moving around and collecting information on this Rex fellow. And any rumors about the Sleipnir or her crew.”
“I suppose I can do that,” Duncan said. With a grin, he pointed to Boon’s guns. “Since I’m on security now, will I get a pair of those too?”
“I don’t think that’s possible,” the professor admitted. “But I’m sure I can find you something nearly as good.”
“When do I start?”
“Right away,” Dodger said. “I have a feeling Rex is more than just one step ahead of us. It would do us good to get a couple of leaps ahead of him without him knowing. And fast.”
“Sounds good to me, ‘cause I am more than ready to start. I’ve been resting on my hindquarters for far too long. It’ll be good to get back in the saddle.”
“We can run you back into town first,” the professor said. “Let you pack and such.”
“No need, sir. I know this might sound harsh, but I reckon it might be best if the folks of Sunnyvale take me for dead.”
Lelanea gave a small gasp of surprise. “Do you think that’s wise?”
“Yes, ma’am. Tyler Duncan died back in that ditch. I think I’ll just leave him there. I’ll always have his memories, but I don’t need his matching baggage, if you get my meaning.”
Lelanea smirked. “I do, Mr. Duncan. I really do.”
Something in her smile suggested she understood Duncan’s meaning almost as well as Dodger did. Perhaps they had more in common than he thought.
“If we aren’t going back to Shunnyvale,” Ched said, “then where do you want me to take her?”
“Duncan?” Dodger asked. “Where do you want to start?”
“Let me off just any old place,” Duncan said. “One town is as good a starting place as another, I reckon.”
“If you so desire,” the doc said.
“Are you sure you’re up to the task of defending my train? From what I hear, it’s both hard and dangerous work.”
“I’ll do whatever you ask of me.”
“I appreciate that, Mr. Duncan, because when it is all said and done, I have a feeling I am going to owe you an even greater debt.”
Setting Duncan off on his new path of protection was a fairly simple affair. The man was already well versed in the ways of the law, both how to obey them and how to bend them to his advantage. The doc outfitted the lad with a pair of quick-loading pistols and one of the long-shot rifles, as well as plenty of ammo for both. Lelanea took to mothering Duncan with clothes and food (delivered by the ever-amazing Feng) and various bits and bobs needed for a comfortable journey. The doc also gave him a thick envelope loaded with a sizable stipend as starting pay, instructing him to buy a horse and treat it as well as he would if it were his own child.
After just a few short hours of listening to the torrid details of the last few weeks, and why Rex was such a danger to the crew, Duncan claimed he was ready to disembark. Dodger wanted to keep him on for a few days so he could measure Duncan’s combat training and maybe teach him a few moves. It could’ve been the man’s recent reduction in age or his newfound purpose in life—or both—but Duncan couldn’t wait to get to work. Dodger was just pleased to see the man happy after so many years of heartache.
Under the cover of darkness, the Sleipnir came to a stop just a mile or two away from some nondescript town just outside of the Wyoming territories. The crew gathered around the darkened door of the meeting cab, ready to bid Duncan a fond farewell.
“Are you sure you won’t stay aboard a bit longer?” Dodger asked. “I have a lot more to tell you, if you’re interested.” Dodger leaned in close to waggle his eyebrows at the man as he whispered, “Some of it’s about a few very pretty ladies.”
“No thanks,” Duncan said. “I always like to work with the minimum of preconceptions. That way I can get a clearer picture in my head as to what is really going on. And that’s what you want from me, right? A clearer picture?”
“Yeah, that’s about right.” Dodger clasped the man’s arm. “Thanks for agreeing to do this for us.”
“Are you kidding? Thanks for giving me the opportunity.” Duncan moved down the line to shake the professor’s hand. “I’ll do you proud, sir.”
“I know you will,” the doc said. “And if you meet anyone along the way who needs help, then as your employer, I implore you to help them. Go forth and right the wrongs. Feed the poor. House the homeless.”
“I reckon I can do that too.”
“You may consider that belt you wear to be a burden, Mr. Duncan, but I think you should look at it as a gift.”
“I look at life as a gift now, sir.”
“As you should. Farewell, Mr. Duncan.”
Duncan tipped his hat to Ched, rather than shake his hand. “Nice to see you again, Mr. Ched.”
“Likewishe,” Ched said. And that was about all the farewell the man was going to get from the driver.
Duncan nodded to Feng. “I appreciate the chow, sir. I’ve never had sukee sake before. It sure was good.”
Feng said a few words in his native tongue. Duncan nodded again, but it was pretty clear he had no idea what the man had just said.
“He said, ‘May you have a long life and much peace,’” Dodger said.
“Thank you,” Duncan said. “Same to you, sir.”
Lelanea beamed with a bright smile as Duncan moved down the car to bid her farewell. He held out his hand to her. “It was a pleasure meeting you, ma’am.”
She ignored his hand, moving in for a full-bodied hug instead. “I’m so glad to see you getting back to your life.”
A surprised Duncan stood stock still at first, but then relaxed and hugged her in return, closing his eyes as he enjoyed the experience of holding her so close. Or at least, Dodger assumed that’s why the man closed his eyes, because he would’ve closed his eyes for the same reason. And one day, he hoped to get the chance. Eventually, the pair separated, Lelanea wiping at her now-damp eyes and Duncan trying his best not to begin weeping once more.
“Good luck, Mr. Duncan,” she said.
“Thanks,” Duncan said. “And if you don’t mind, I’m gonna have to ask you folks to stop using that name. If Tyler Duncan is to remain dead, I think I should take a new name.”
“Not another one,” Ched snorted.
“You be quiet,” the doc said. “Now, Mr. Duncan, what name should we use for you? I need to know. For my records, of course.”
“I’m not sure,” Duncan said.
“How about Arnold Carpenter?” Ched asked.
Dodger gritted his teeth while the other crewmembers repressed various levels of smirking.
“Better still,” the professor said, “how about a code name? Such as The Variable-Height Cowboy, or something like that? It’s both fun and functional.”
Duncan shook his head. “That’s far too fancy a name for the likes of me, sir. Maybe I can use it when I want to go undercover, but for regular times, I think I’d like to go by John Williams. Williams was my wife’s maiden name. And I suppose John is just as good as any other name.”
“Well then, John Williams it is.” The doc made note of the name. “I guess that’s all settled, then. Good luck on your task, Mr. Duncan. I mean Mr. Williams. My, but that does get confusing.”
“Thanks so much,” Duncan said. “To all of you. This wont be the last you see of me. I promise that. I don’t know how I will find you again, but I will. And when I do, I’ll have the information you need.”
“Just look for the tracks in the sand,” the doc said. “The Sleipnir won’t be far from them.”
“Or jusht keep your eyesh to the horizon,” Ched said. “The placesh we’ve passhed through won’t be hard to recognize. The doc hash a way of leavin’ a shpecial mark on the livesh he’sh touched.”
The professor turned to his driver, a look of awe overtaking him. “Chester, that was … that was quite beautiful. Do you really think so?”
“Shure. It should be eashy for him to shpot the firesh and exploshionsh.”
“And the earthquakesh, and the shwarmsh of inshectsh.”
“Don’t forget the marmalade,” Lelanea added.
“Not you too,” the doc whined.
“Yesh,” Ched said. “How could anyone forget the marmalade? I’m shtill diggin’ it out of my earsh.”
“One time,” the doc said. “One lousy time! You flood a town with marmalade one time, and that’s all you’re remembered for. Does anyone remember my automatic bread toaster and time-manipulation machine? No! How about my ocean-worthy ship shoes for walk-on-water travel? Of course not! How can they, when all they see is marmalade, marmalade, marmalade?”
As Lelanea and Ched recollected the many misadventures of Professor Hieronymus J. Dittmeyer, Duncan slipped off in silence. As Dodger watched the man melt into the shadows beyond the light of the train, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just put the newly named John Williams right in harm’s way. After all, Rex surely wasn’t the kind of man who liked folks asking questions about him. Then again, John Williams wasn’t just any man anymore. Now was he?
And Dodger had to admit, the moniker of Variable-Height Cowboy did have a certain ring to it.
End Volume Four
BEAUTY OF A BEAST
In which Dodger camps out, and wises up.