“Miss Lelanea?” Dodger asked, sitting beside her at a respectable distance of a few cushions. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“No,” she whispered into the collar of her gown. “You’re right. I do love him.”
“And he loved you.” Not a question. Dodger knew the truth of it as he knew his own name. Why else would the spirit avoid her whenever possible?
She lifted her red-rimmed eyes to his, seemingly asking him how he could possibly know that.
“How could he not?” Dodger asked with a smile. “You’re quite a woman. He’d be foolish not to fall in love with you. I reckon it might be a hard thing for a fellow to avoid.”
“Thank you,” Lelanea said.
“I only speak the truth.”
“You know, you remind me of him from time to time. Don’t get me wrong. You two are nothing alike, but there is something about you that makes me think of him. Whenever I see you, when you’re near, it’s like I can almost feel Wash in the room. Like I could just reach out and touch him.” She laughed softly as she lowered her legs to the floor. “You probably think that’s silly.”
“Not at all. I’m honored to know I remind you of him. I hear he was quite a wonderful man. In fact, I hear it all the time. Over and over and over.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Dodger. I didn’t mean-”
“Dodger,” he said over her. “I’m just plain old Dodger to my friends. I’d like to think we are friends.”
Lelanea smiled, just a bit. “We most certainly are, Dodger. And I promise to talk to Ched and Uncle about this endless comparison between you and Wash. It isn’t fair to make you feel like some sort of substitute.”
“I don’t mind. Really. He was part of your family, and you folks all still have a fair bit of grieving to do. I just want you to know I’m not here to replace him. I wouldn’t even dream of trying.”
“We know that. At least, I do.” She lowered her eyes, looking to the hem of her gown as it fluttered over her delicate ankles. “It’s just hard on us, because we never got to say goodbye. He was there one moment and gone the next. Just gone.”
“I know what you mean.”
“There was no closure for us. None. We held a service, but it was hard without a corpse to mourn over. Nothing to bury. No plot to visit or urn to keep. And then-”
“What do you mean without a corpse?”
She looked back up, meeting his eyes with hers. “Didn’t you know? Washington Boon’s body vanished.”
“Vanished?” Dodger asked. “You mean it was never found?”
“No, it was found. Then it was lost.”
“I’m surprised Ched hasn’t told you all of this.”
“Not a word. ‘Course, I guess I never asked.” Dodger sensed they were moving into uncomfortable territory for the young lady. “If you’d rather not talk about it-”
“No, I don’t mind. I can tell it just as well as he can. Probably better.” She drew a deep breath to steady herself, then began. “The whole thing happened in a little town named Celina, just inside the Texas state borders. Boon went in alone and unarmed to buy some supplies. Normally, he would take Ched, but he said he needed some time alone. Well, that alone time cost him his life. He was ambushed by thugs, and they beat him to death right there in the streets of Celina.”
“Right out in the open?”
“And no one saw it?”
“Are you kidding? Half the bloody town witnessed it, but no one put up a fight for him. No one helped him. They were scared of Boon, but even more so of anyone who would dare take the man on in a fight.”
“I guess I can understand that.”
“What I don’t understand is what he could’ve been thinking. He shouldn’t have been there alone or unarmed. It’s like he was asking for something like this to happen.”
“How does this end with the disappearance of his corpse?”
“Their pitiful excuse for a lawman came to the line to tell us what happened. I rode into town with Ched to identify the remains. When we arrived, the undertaker claimed someone broke into his studio and stole Washington’s dead body.”
Dodger snarled in revulsion. “Who would do such a thing?”
“I don’t know. Uncle has many enemies, and as a result, so did Boon. I don’t like to think about it too much.” She shuddered at the thought. “There is no telling what happened to his corpse. It’s best not to dwell on it.”
Dodger would rather not dwell on it, not just because he hated to think about the death of the man, but also because the enemies of his friend were also his enemies. In other words, the same men who jumped Boon were liable to do the same to Dodger. God help ‘em if they did! Yet, something about her descriptions of the events just didn’t add up in his mind. Something seemed a little bit off.
Dodger cleared his throat and said, “I hate to seem disrespectful, ma’am. But if none of you saw his remains, then, well, how are you all so sure he’s passed on? The word of a town full of cowards is a fine thing, I suppose, but …” He let his words trail off, allowing Lelanea to fill in the blanks of his implications.
“Because I know he’s dead,” she said. “I can feel it, here.” She laid her hand over her left breast, just above her aching heart.
It was best to never question female intuition. He nodded instead, agreeing with her assessment of Boon’s mortal demise. It wasn’t as if she was wrong. No. It was just … something he couldn’t put his finger on.
Lelanea lowered her gaze again before she added, “And I saw him.”
“His body?” Dodger asked.
“About a month after he passed away. When we came back empty handed, I took it really hard, but Uncle was so strong. He arranged a small memorial service. He got us back on our delivery routes. It was even his idea to keep Boon’s death a secret, so we wouldn’t open ourselves to attack. But one night a few weeks later, he snapped and just went mad. He commanded Ched to pull over, and he proceeded to throw everything he ever worked on with Boon off the train. Then he set fire to the whole mess right there under the stars.”
“It was. Everything they had worked so hard on destroyed in one act of angry remorse. Uncle loved Boon like a son. He really did. We all loved him, in our own ways.”
“I can tell. He was a lucky man.”
“But to watch the remains of his life just go up in smoke like that? It broke my heart. I begged him to stop, but Uncle was inconsolable. He said it all had to go. Everything that reminded him of Boon had to be destroyed. I think he was just mad at himself for letting Boon die.”
All at once, the image of Lelanea cradling the doc filled Dodger’s mind, the pair brought to their knees by their shared grief before a blazing bonfire of burning memories.
“Surely he knew it wasn’t his fault?” Dodger asked in a whisper.
Lelanea ignored him as she pressed on with her story. “Uncle went after Boon’s quarters, so he could burn the rest of it. I volunteered to empty it instead, so I could at least rescue a few small things.” She motioned to Boon’s guns slung about Dodger’s hips. “I thought I’d find those, but it turned out Ched hid them from both of us when the burning started.”
“But you found something else.”
“I found him.” She turned her eyes to the distance, the memories taking her attention as she described what she saw that fateful night. “He was sitting on his bed—your bed now—staring out the window, watching us set fire to his whole life. He was weeping. I could hear him crying. I could see his tears in the firelight.” Lelanea glanced at Dodger. “You don’t understand how powerful that was, because I had never seen the man shed a tear in all the time I knew him. He was tenderhearted as a person could be, but he never wept openly. Never.”
“Did he speak to you?”
“No. He didn’t. I was so shocked to see him there that I gasped his name aloud. He must’ve heard me, because he turned to face me. His eyes went wide, like he was just as surprised to see me, and, well, he disappeared. Not a word. Not a smile. Just that look of sudden surprise, and I haven’t seen him since.”
“But you feel him.”
“All the time,” Dodger said.
“Most of the time.”
“But especially around me?”
“I’m sorry. I know how it sounds.”
“No need to apologize for the way you feel.” No, there was no need for the lady to apologize. Boon, on the other hand, had an awful lot to explain.
“I can’t help but think there is something we can do for him. Like he is trying to pass over, but we keep him tied here.” She lowered her voice to add in a whisper, “I feel like I keep him tied here.”
“Would you?” Dodger asked. “Keep him tied here if he didn’t want to be?”
“Of course not. I love him. I want him to be at peace. I won’t be until he is. And … and I don’t think I can ever love anyone else, knowing he is restless.”
Which was another thing Dodger expected to hear. Dodger wanted to pry further, but between the effects of the medicine and the overwhelming information he’d already gathered, he decided he’d had enough for one night. He got to his feet, bidding Lelanea a good night. “I hate to leave you on such a dour note, but it has gotten very late, and I’m about to collapse.”
“Of course,” she said. “That dosage should’ve had you on your back by now.”
It took all the gumption Dodger had to bite his tongue hard enough to keep from commenting on that one. Literally. As he stood there smiling, biting his tongue and not saying what was on his dirty mind, the copper tang of blood slid down his throat.
“And after such a full day,” she continued, “you must be exhausted listening to me prattle on like that.”
“Not at all. It was a pleasure, as always, to speak with you.” What Dodger said next was the combined result of too much bravado, too much melatonin, and not enough sleep. “In fact, I’d like a chance to talk to you more. Over dinner sometime, perhaps?” Damn it! But in all honesty, he would’ve had to bite his tongue in half to keep that one from slipping out.
Lelanea blinked in surprise. “I don’t know. Perhaps. I’ll have to see when I’m free.”
Which was just as good as a ‘no’ in Dodger’s book. “Anytime. Just let me know. I’d be glad to make you something special, if Feng will let me near his kitchen.”
“Sure. I clean too, but only when someone else does the cookin’.”
He left her behind, laughing softly to herself, as he moved on down the line toward his quarters. He could’ve stayed all night, listening to her tales of woe, shouldering the burden of her grief and trying his best to ease her ache. But right now, he was too fired up for such things. Right now, he was itching for a fight. Right now, he wanted to settle this thing that was niggling him. Right now, he wanted to talk to a ghost about a haunting.
Right after he had a short nap.