In which Dodger is useless
Considering the screeching and caterwauling the Sleipnir did while coming to a stop, the damage to the train was minimal. And despite the gushing head wound that left him unconscious for the better part of the afternoon, the damage to the doc was also minimal. In fact, after a thorough assessment of the situation, things could’ve been a heck of a lot worse. That was, if you overlooked the fact that the crew were forced into a makeshift camp a quarter-mile from the gas-filled Sleipnir, unable to board her again until the fog dissipated for good.
“Just a flesh wound,” the doc said as he tapped his bandage.
“Thank Athena for that,” Lelanea said. “Now finish your soup and leave your wrappings alone. You doctors always make the worst patients.”
“Yes, Nurse Lelanea.” The doc giggled a bit before turning his attention back to his cup of chicken broth. “Am I to understand that Dodger was quite the hero of the day?”
“Not at all,” Dodger said. He tried hard not to cough, but couldn’t help a few wet barks. “I just did what you hired me for.”
“I don’t remember hiring you to throw your life into mortal peril at the first sign of danger.” The doc narrowed his eyes at his niece. “Or did I?”
“You sort of did, sir,” Dodger said.
“Well then, job well done. Bravo.”
Dodger tried to smile, but the best he could manage was a meek smirk. The gas he’d breathed in copious amounts turned out to be an anesthetic of sorts. Which meant that while it wasn’t deadly, it did leave Dodger weak to the point of trembling. He couldn’t even stand without help. It was embarrassing, to say the least.
“Eat your soup,” Lelanea commanded.
“I’m really not hungry,” Dodger said.
“And I’m not in the mood to argue. Just drink it. You need the nutrients.”
“You make it sound more like medicine than supper.”
“Why can’t it be both? Every mother knows chicken soup is good for you. Besides, if you get better before Feng returns, I’ll let you strut your stuff with the frying pan. Otherwise, it’s one of uncle’s self-heating chicken-soup cups or nothing.”
Dodger managed another weak grin before he gulped the remainder of his broth. Chicken soup was never his favorite, but angering Lelanea wasn’t even on his menu. He didn’t think he had the stomach for her ire. Dodger held the empty cup out to his caretaker. She snapped it up without so much as a ‘job well done.’
“I really am quite sorry about all of this,” the doc said between loud slurps. “I didn’t mean to let loose such a noxious fume. That’ll teach me to mix bicarbonate with dihydrogen monoxide.” He held his empty cup out to his niece. “Can I have another, dear?”
“Three is the limit,” Lelanea said. “Otherwise it will go to your hips.”
“I’d rather it went to my belly, because I’m still hungry.”
Dodger thought about the doc’s earlier words a moment. Bicarbonate and dihydrogen monoxide? “Are you telling me that gas came from water and soda tabs?”
“Oh no, no, no,” the doc said. “The analgesic gas came from the ANAGE can I was working on.”
“What is an age can?”
“No, an ANAGE can. Automatic Noisemaking and Analgesic-Gas-Emitting canister.”
“A scare tactic. I was commissioned by a chicken farmer who wanted a way to keep foxes from his hen house. He wanted a deadly trap, but I try to stay away from things like that. Too much violence for me, I’m afraid. Never mind the guilt. After a bit of research, I learned that the most humane way to keep the buggers out was to simply scare them away.”
This empathy touched Dodger. Even something as simple as a fox was a blessed child of creation to the doc. If only everyone were as gentle a soul, how different the world would be.
The doc continued. “I came up with the idea of a noisemaker with an egg-shaped trigger that the farmer could place under one of the hens. The trigger measures the animal’s heart rate, you see? When the hen is upset to a sufficient degree, such as when a fox tries to sneak inside the henhouse, the trigger activates the noisemaker. The thing gives off a loud bang, to scare the fox away, and then expels a steady stream of soothing gas to calm the chickens, which, as I’ve been told, are dreadfully susceptible to loud noises.”
“That was an awful lot of gas for chickens,” Dodger said.
“Yes, I must admit I may have overdone it a bit on the dosage.” He glanced sheepishly over to the line still expelling gas from every porthole. “Rather a lot of overdoing it. But that is why we test these things. Yes?”
Dodger waited for more. There didn’t seem to be any more.
Yet the soda water entered this disaster somewhere along the line.
When it was obvious that the doc wasn’t going to elaborate, Dodger asked, “How did the soda water and gas come together?”
“Terribly!” the doc declared. “You see, the soda water was for my indigestion. I don’t usually have trouble with it, but here as of late, I find myself practically boiling with the stuff. I can’t imagine why. Well, I must’ve put too many tabs in the water, because all at once, it began to fizz over the sides of the beaker. I’m afraid in my excitement to keep it from messing up my notes, my heart rate might have risen. Quite a bit.”
“And you were sitting on the egg?” Dodger asked, putting the pieces together in his mind’s eye.
“Someone had to test it. And … well … you see … the test was successful, though unintended. It seems my overexcited heart rate tripped the trigger.”
“And set off the canister.”
“Like I shaid,” Ched interjected. “Not the firsht time. Won’t be the lasht.”
“This has happened before?” Dodger asked. “Of course it has. I’ll bet it happens all the time.”
Everyone looked away, avoiding the obvious answer.
Dodger returned to eyeing Ched with distaste as the not-dead man pounded the last peg into another poorly pitched tent. Ched was trying his best, but his best consisted of three shabby shelters crowded far too close together. A light breeze would knock them down. A decent wind would carry them away. Should they attempt to build a fire in the middle, there was a fairly good chance all three tents would go up in flames at the same time.
“Are you sure you don’t want some help?” Dodger asked, trying to get to his feet on his own for the tenth time in the last hour.
“Yesh,” Ched said.
“I don’t mind lending a hand.”
“I’m perfectly capable of raishin’ a tent. Thank you very much.”
“Sit down, Dodger,” Lelanea said. “Get some rest. That’s an order.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Dodger said as he returned to his cot.
If Dodger had been forced to choose a night to camp under the stars, then tonight would’ve been first on his list. The sun hung low in the sky, the black-clad foot of night trying its best to stomp the thing into the flat line of the horizon. The weather was comfortable; a few clouds rolled by, taking with them the threat of any precipitation. The meadow sprawled on as far as the eye could see, with little hint of human contact.
“Where are we, anyway?” Dodger asked after a few hoarse barks.
“Somewhere just north of the new state of Texas, I should think,” the doc said.
“Ya need me to fetch shomethin’ elsh, shir?” Ched asked. Unaffected by the gas, the driver had been a boon to the crew. He’d spent most of the afternoon hauling goods from the gas-ridden line. Everything from bed linens to books, one had but to ask and Ched would fetch it forthwith. That was to say, he’d fetch it forth with a whole lot of grumbling, but forthwith all the same.
Which left Dodger feeling even more useless.
“No, but thank you, Ched,” the doc said.
“It would help to know if there’s a town nearby,” Dodger said.
“And that’s why Feng has gone scouting. He will let us know what he finds when he returns.”
“I should’ve gone with him.”
“I assure you he is quite adept at this sort of thing. Let’s just enjoy the quiet evening. Yes? It’s been quite some time since I’ve had an outing like this. Even longer since I slept under the stars. I don’t get off the train as much as I used to.”
While the others had enclosed accommodations, Dodger and the doc were under Lelanea’s orders to sleep out in the open until the effects of the gas wore off. Dodger didn’t mind sleeping under the stars. He had slept in much shoddier locations, and with far worse company.
“You can always travel into town with me, sir,” he said. “Whenever you like. Just say the word. I’ll keep you safe and ward off any unwanted attention.”
“Thank you, Mr. Dodger,” the doc said “but do believe I’ll pass. I gave up on making personal appearances years ago. I found myself at the business end of far too many firearms. One loses the taste for such visits when one ends up with a rifle in one’s face more than once.”
“I guess one does.”
The doc yawned wide. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to catch a quick nap. All this chatting has left me a bit woozy.”
“I told you to keep quiet,” Lelanea said. “That goes for you too, Dodger.”
Dodger fell silent and tried to do as asked.
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