On the Prowl
In which Dodger worries about unwanted company
Dodger woke with a start. He sat up in the cot and glanced nervously about. His foggy mind searched through half-formed memories, leaving him unsure as to who or where he was. Outdoors. Campfire. Tents. Good heavens. Was he back on the front?
“Hello?” he asked of anyone who would listen.
A growling rose in the darkness. Steady and rhythmic. No, not growling. Someone snoring. A soft sound rose to his left: the whisking of movement through tall grass. Something big. Something coming his way.
“Dodger?” a woman whispered.
“Lelanea?” he called in return. The reaction was automatic, as if the very name had been etched into his soul.
“I’m here,” she whispered.
Thank God she was real. Let the rest of his world be a lie as long as she was real.
A soft hand touched his. He drew it to him and clutched it for dear life.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“I …” Don’t know where I am, he almost said. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t sound fine. Let me have a look at you.”
The hand released his, leaving him alone once more. There came a grinding noise over the snoring in the darkness, followed by a sudden bright light. Dodger winced and covered his face.
“Sorry,” she said. The light faded to a soft glow. “Is that better?”
“Yes,” he said. And it was better too. The bright light cleared the fog, exposing his memories, which came flooding back in a torrent of good deeds, bad deeds and dreadful deeds. The gas. The camp. The doc snoring. It all came back. “Much better. I was confused when I first awoke, but it’s passing.”
“It’s probably the gas mixed with the sleep aid. Let me see your eyes.”
Dodger held still while Lelanea checked his pupils.
“Even and reactive,” she announced. “Are you sure you’re well?”
“Yes,” Dodger said. “I’m sorry to have worried you.”
“I wasn’t worried. I was just … you startled me. That’s all.”
“Then I’m sorry to have startled you.” Dodger stretched full length along the cot. “In fact, I’m feeling a whole lot better. That rest was just the thing I needed.”
“I told you so.”
He pushed his sheet aside and sat up, propping himself on the edge of the cot. The night was clear, with the stars shining down in bright twinkles of jeweled wonder. “It’s a beautiful night.”
“Yes. It is.” Lelanea looked to the sky with a sigh. “You missed the moon. She was gorgeous.”
“Full, was she?”
“No. She’s in her waning phase. Won’t be full again for a few more weeks. Still, she was beautiful nonetheless.”
“She always is.” Dodger stared up at Lelanea, admiring her curvy silhouette in the thin moonlight. “If you hadn’t drugged me, I would’ve loved to have watched her rise with you.”
She looked back down to him and gave a tight smile. “If I hadn’t drugged you, you wouldn’t have gotten any rest. Speaking of which, lie back down. Sunrise won’t be for another hour or more. You have loads of time to get more rest.”
“Actually, I think I might need to walk around a bit. If you don’t mind.”
Lelanea tried to press him back onto the cot. “I certainly do mind. You’re still my patient, young man.”
Young man? Dodger almost laughed at her tone. He was well into his late thirties, and she was what … twentyish? “As much as I appreciate your care, young lady, I really do need to go for a walk.” Dodger got to his unsteady feet. He wavered a moment, but soon got the familiarity of his weight under him.
“Get back in the bed.”
“Nope. Gonna move about a bit.”
With a huff, Lelanea crossed her arms. “I want you in the bed.”
“And one day, you may just have me in the bed. But for now, I’m going to find a place to relieve my bladder. Is that good for you? Or do you want to help me with that too?”
Lelanea turned a shade of red not unlike that of her fancy undies. Was the blushing the result of Dodger’s saucy reply—what a rascal he was around her!—or was it just from the knowledge that he needed to relieve himself?
“Oh,” she said. “Well then. Why didn’t you just say so?” She pushed the Sunbox into his hands. “Fine. Wander off and do what you must. But if you aren’t back in five minutes, I’ll come after you.”
Dodger found his tongue at the mercy of his teeth once again to keep from adding a rather raunchy retort. Holding the Sunbox before him, he shuffled a few yards away from the campsite until he found an appropriate spot: a bare patch just soft enough to soak it all up, and just far enough away for inquisitive young ladies to remain in the dark. To the distant rise and fall of the doc’s gentle snore, Dodger clutched the handle of the Sunbox in his teeth and set about doing what came naturally at times like this.
As he stood there, attending to his body’s needs, he glanced down at an odd sight on the ground beside him. A foot or so to the right of his steady stream of glorious relief, Dodger thought he caught an impression in the dirt. An impression he would rather not have seen, but that ,once seen, he found needed further seeing to. Dodger finished his business, buttoned up and wiped his hands across the knees of his britches as he lowered to a squat above the soft earth. Sure enough, there in the dirt was just what he thought he’d seen.
A paw print. And a good-sized one at that.
Dodger held a palm over the print. Whatever it was, its paws were almost as large as his spread hand. He lifted the Sunbox and followed a line of the prints into the grass. From what he could see, the prints doubled, then tripled. More of the things? No. The same paws, over and over, as whatever made them circled the tents a few times, until at last they turned toward the campsite.
“Lelanea!” he hollered as he jogged back to the camp.
“Keep it down,” she called out in a hoarse whisper. “You’ll wake Uncle.”
Dodger sprinted the last few feet, until he was amidst the tight circle of tents once more. “Where is Ched?”
Lelanea rushed up to place a warm finger over his chilled lips. “I said keep it down.”
The doc snored and snored, oblivious to their arguing.
“You should to go on ahead and wake him. We got trouble.”
“He said he was bored and went for a walk. Why?”
“Did he take a weapon?”
“I think so. Dodger, what’s wrong?”
“There are wolves about.”
Lelanea looked into the darkness. “How do you know that?”
“I saw prints around the camp. Lots of them, but I think it may have just been one wolf. A big one, from the looks of it.” He ducked down beside his cot, patting the empty grass. “Where are my guns?”
“In my tent.”
Dodger snapped upright in a panic. “Why?”
“I was …” Lelanea chewed her bottom lip a second before she finished softly with, “cleaning them.”
She was lying, of course. But he wasn’t in the mood to argue the finer points of her tell. (The lip chewing, the pause, the almost-whisper.) Why she took the guns into her keeping for a little while was her business, but his need for them now was pressing. Their location, however, was unfortunate.
“Bring them here,” he demanded. “Now.”
“Dodger, everything is fine,” she said. “You don’t need to panic-”
“Yes I do. There’s one hell of a big, bad, ugly wolf out there, prowling around the camp. And you think that’s fine?”
“Ugly?” Lelanea gasped. “What makes you think it’s ugly?”
“Because anything with that wide of a stride ain’t bound to be pretty.”
“I see. Well you’ll be pleased to know that it isn’t anything at all, because there isn’t any wolf. Ugly or otherwise.”
“Stop your yammering and just get my guns, woman!”
With an audible crack of her neck, Lelanea tilted her head, set her jaw and parked her hands on her hips. A sure sign she was hopping mad. “For starters, they aren’t your guns. They belong to Uncle. Second, there isn’t any wolf. And if you dare refer to me as ‘woman’ again, I shall, why, I shall break your nose!”
“Why do you keep saying there isn’t any wolf? I saw tracks! Stop arguing and get the God damned guns!”
Dodger waited for her to obey.
The doc snored on.
He threw up his hands in exasperation. “Fine! I’ll get them.”
“We saw a wolf earlier,” she said to his back just as he reached the entrance to her tent.
Dodger stopped in mid-step and turned on his heel to face her. “What?”
“We saw a wolf earlier, and Ched ran it off.”
“I thought you said he was on a walk.”
“He is. He wanted to make sure the thing was gone, so he took a walk around the area to check. He hasn’t been gone long.”
“Why didn’t you just tell me that to begin with?”
“I tried to, but you wouldn’t listen to me. You were so hot to be the hero. Again.”
“I wasn’t hot to be anything-”
Lelanea cut him short with a snort as she stomped toward him. “I also wanted to see if you would really violate my privacy. Which apparently, you will. Thanks for showing me that.” She pushed past him into her tent. “Now I know to watch my things more closely lest your prying eyes wander upon them.”
“I didn’t mean to-”
“Here,” she said over him, shoving the gun belt through the part in the tent. “Here are your precious guns. Now leave me alone.”
Dodger took the belt from her, deliberately allowing his fingers to linger upon hers for just a breath of a moment. She jerked back with a jolt at his contact, almost dropping the guns in the process. What had he done to anger her so much? What had he said? That was it. It was something he said. He searched their conversation, sifting through the gasps and groans and grimaces until he heard the echo of her threat against his nose. Just for calling her ‘woman.’ Really? Was that all? He didn’t think she could get so upset over a little informality. But maybe it wasn’t just informality to her. Maybe she saw it as a lack of respect.
“Miss Lelanea?” he asked. “I didn’t mean to address you so casually. I do apologize.”
“Go away.” There was a hitch in her voice. She was either weeping or trying or keep from doing so. “I’m trying to sleep.”
He could do nothing but comply. “Yes, ma’am.”
Dodger strapped the guns about his waist and wandered to the far edge of camp, where he stood watching the shadows in silence. Soon there would be light and he could search the camp properly for the tracks. Until then, he would sit, and he would wait, and he would ponder what in the hell he’d done to make the woman so all-fired mad.
That and listen to the boss man snore.
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