Dodger clasped his hands together and twiddled his trembling thumbs.
He checked his pocketwatch. Six in the evening. The sun would be down soon.
He drew in and exhaled with an enormous yawn. Twice.
He watched as Lelanea excused herself and slipped into her tent.
He drummed his fingers on the edge of his cot.
He tried not to imagine her slipping out of those mannish clothes and into her feminine dressing gown. Or the red undies she probably sported underneath.
He rolled over and eyed the silhouette of the train in the distance, a steady stream of gas pouring from her windows.
He rolled onto his back and checked his watch again. Two minutes after six.
He huffed and sat up on the edge of the cot. “How long will it be before-”
“Forty-eight hours,” Lelanea said from the open flap of her tent. “For the last time, it will take Torque two days to vent the gas properly. Until then, no one goes near the line. Now lie back down and quit your whining. I swear, you’re like an anxious little boy.” Her piece said, she ducked back into her shelter.
Dodger folded his arms over his chest. “I am not whining. I just don’t like being bedridden.”
“Then get some rest,” Lelanea said from the depths of her tent. “The longer you stay put, the quicker you’ll work the chemical out of your system, and the faster you’ll recover.”
Dodger could feel his lower lip begin to tremble. He didn’t want it to tremble, but he couldn’t make it not tremble. How he hated this! He supposed it was what he got for trying to save the day. Boon was right. He should’ve let Ched go after the med kit and Feng. But even as Dodger thought it, he knew he had done the right thing. It was his place to make sure the crew was safe, no matter the cost to him.
Even if that cost was being bored out of his skull.
Ched joined the circle of tents once more, dumping an armful of oddly uniform logs in the center. Where he got logs when there were no trees about, Dodger had no idea.
“What are you doing?” Dodger asked.
“Gonna get ush shome warmth goin’,” Ched said. “That shun will be down shoon, and I reckon it’sh gonna be a might bit chilly tonight.”
“Don’t you think the tents are a little too close to where you’re building that fire?”
Ched looked left, then right, then to his pile of logs again. “No.”
“I think you’ll find they are.”
“Show? Show if you light that fire here, it’s just gonna torch the tents. That’s show!”
“No it won’t.” And that was all the man had to say on the matter.
Dodger was of a mind to just let the man burn everything down. That would teach him!
Ched continued to build his fire, stacking log upon log until they formed a loosely built cabin.
“Teepee is better,” the doc said, without even opening his eyes.
“Cabin ish besht,” Ched said. “Teepee will jusht tumble. Cabin keepsh itsh shape.”
The doc kept his eyes closed throughout the entire conversation. “Be that as it be, I designed them for a teepee shape.”
“I don’t care. Cabin ish what I’m ushed to.”
“They will radiate heat more effectively as a teepee.”
“And you’ll be more effective if you shut up, shir.”
This said, Ched rapped the top of the cabin a couple of times until the logs began to glow. And yes, they radiated a warm, gentle heat. Not enough to catch anything aflame. Just enough to keep everyone comfortably warm. Another one of the professor’s marvelous inventions, no doubt. The thing even emitted a light campfire scent.
Ched turned to Dodger with his rictus grin spread wide. “Told ya show.”
“That wasn’t fair,” Dodger grumbled.
“Life ishn’t fair.”
Neither is death, Boon whispered.
“You can shay that again,” Ched added in a low voice before he slipped inside his tent.
Dodger rolled over to his side, away from Lelanea’s shelter, and asked in a hushed whisper, “Where have you been?”
I tried to follow Feng, like you asked.
“Where did he go?”
I said I tried. I couldn’t follow him. I wanted to. I would love to speak with him again, but when I began to follow him north, he said a few words in that language of his, and I was overwhelmed with the urge to go in the opposite direction.
“Probably another prayer of some sort. I wonder what his game is.”
I don’t know. Why do you think he’s avoiding me?
“Maybe the same reason he’s been avoiding me.” Dodger pondered this for a moment, then made a note to think about it later. He yawned again. “If you didn’t follow Feng, then where have you been?”
I decided to follow my urge and go exploring.
“And? What did you find?”
Not much. There is a small town about five miles south of here. Little else, I’m afraid.
“Tell me about the town.”
A hundred folks, maybe less. A small saloon with but a few rooms to let. A church, a general store and a fairly large blacksmith shop.
“That’s good to know.” Dodger couldn’t explain it, but knowing just that little bit more about his surroundings made him much more comfortable. Or was it the fact that he knew and the others didn’t? Maybe a bit of both. He yawned again.
How are you faring?
You’re shaking like a leaf.
“It’ll pass. Soon, I hope.”
You were incredibly brave today.
“I just did what needed doin’.”
No, you went beyond your call, Dodger. When you thought the doc was dying, you jumped right back into that gas without a thought for your own safety. Then you lingered long enough to hunt for Feng. Had I been alive, I can’t say I would have done the same. You’re twice the man I ever was.
“Thanks, Boon. But from the way folks talk, there’s more to you than you give yourself credit for.”
“What’s with all the whispering?” Lelanea asked.
Dodger jerked at the intrusion of her voice. He rolled over and found her wearing a gown similar to the white one of the previous evening. This one was pink, with small lacy flowers all along the trim.
“Nothing,” he said. “I was just talking to myself.”
Dodger wasn’t sure, but he thought he could hear a faint chuckle, just at the back of his mind.
“I see,” she said. “And do I need to wake Uncle to make sure that’s not some strange side effect of the gas?”
“No,” Dodger assured her. “It’s just a side effect of being bored.”
“I am sorry, but you should be past the worst of it soon enough. I’m surprised the gas didn’t put you out completely. You breathed quite a fair amount.”
“I have a pretty strong constitution.”
“You do now. All things considered.”
Dodger wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but he didn’t ask, for fear of sounding as defenseless as he felt. He gave another yawn. Why was he so tired? He’d lounged around all afternoon. How could that make you so sleepy?
He blinked his sleep-heavy eyes as he watched Lelanea shuffle back and forth between the doc’s cot and the fake fire and the tents. What she was up to, he had no idea. It wasn’t her actions he was watching, anyway. She stood high on tiptoe to hang a sunbox from the peg at the top of her tent flap. Her pink-clad, curvy form stretched into a long dart of feminine beauty.
She looked so much more like a woman than she usually did.
A very pretty woman.
Lelanea glanced over her shoulder at him. “Excuse me?”
“He shaid you look like a very pretty woman,” Ched said from the depths of his tent.
Dodger hadn’t realized he’d spoken the words aloud.
“I don’t know whether to thank you or strike you,” she said.
“I just meant that pink suits you,” Dodger said. “I’m used to seeing you in men’s clothes. I didn’t realize you had anything so … feminine.”
“Is that the gas talking, or are you just weary enough to start blathering on uncontrollably again? Because I don’t think my weaker constitution can stand another evening of intimate confessions.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that.”
“So I don’t look like a pretty woman?”
“I … well … I didn’t mean …”
Lelanea let out a soft laugh. “It’s all right, Dodger. You’re under the influence of some pretty strong chemicals. And despite your stronger constitution, you should be very tired very soon.”
“You sound awful sure of that.”
“I am, because you were right about the soup. It was more remedy than repast.”
Dodger blinked again, his eyes drooping with sleep. “You drugged the soup?”
She nodded. “‘Fraid so.”
“Because you need the rest, Dodger. And I knew you wouldn’t get it any other way.”
Sleep overcame him with heavy hands, pressing against his waking consciousness like a man trying to drown a fish. Or was that the other way around? He couldn’t remember. He had never been so tired in his whole life. “I can’ proteck ya eff I’m druggededed …” His voice slurred into a murmur that not even he could understand.
“Ched and I can watch the camp. You can sleep.”
“Yes’m,” was all Dodger could manage.
And for the second night in a row, he collapsed into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Dreamless, that was, if you didn’t count the busty brunette or the pink frilly gown. But Dodger reckoned it was okay not to count the gown.
His dream gal didn’t keep it on for very long anyway.