Four for the Road
In which Dodger catches a ride
“We got company,” Dodger said.
“Who could that be?” the doc asked.
“I aim to find out.” Dodger pulled on his jacket and wrapped the length around his waist to keep the guns out of sight. For now, at least. “Did we grab any other weapons off the line?”
“A long shot,” Lelanea said. “But I think Ched took it with him.”
“Great.” Dodger drew Florence (or was that Hortense?) and tossed the gun to Lelanea. “You stay here and keep an eye on him. Anyone approaches without a signal from me, you open fire. Understand?”
Lelanea lifted the gun to her shoulder and nodded.
Assured that she could hold down the fort, as it were, Dodger pulled his coat closed once more and stalked through the tall grass to meet the approaching party. The remaining gun lay heavy on his thigh, the weight of it teasing him with an extra slap at each step, as if itching for an oncoming fight. Again, he found himself missing his ghostly partner. Things would be a fair sight simpler if Boon were here to let him know what was up ahead.
“Boon?” he whispered through clenched teeth.
Nothing. Where was the wandering spirit?
Each of the four horses served as beast of burden to an able-bodied man. The far left was a heavyset older male, graying at the temples and broad shouldered. (Air of authority, maybe the man in charge, or thought he was.) Next to him rode a younger man, similar in build and looks. (Probably an offspring.) Beside the young man was another older male, gray headed, smaller in build with pinched features and a friendly smile. (The only one smiling.) The last man on Dodger’s right was thin as a post and pale as a ghost, with a burst of curly red hair and deep-set red-rimmed eyes. (Another drunk?) But more important than this personal assessment was the fact that each man carried a single pistol.
As they drew close, they slowed their mounts down to a trot, intending to go around Dodger on more important business.
Dodger raised his hand and yelled out, “Morning, gents!”
The horses came to a whinnying stop just a few yards from Dodger. The men looked down at him, as if unsure what to make of him, then in a comical move, lifted their heads as one to look beyond him, to the camp and the train.
“Can I help you fellers out?” Dodger asked.
The biggest man spat a slimy wad of chew at Dodger’s feet. A dribble of brown ran down his stubbly chin. “You can help me out by getting the hell out of my town.”
“Buster,” the gray-headed man scolded. “That’s no way to treat a visitor.”
“He ain’t no visitor. He’s trespassin ’.”
“Yeah,” the younger man between them said. “Trespassin’.”
The redhead said nothing. He stared beyond Dodger, to some place in the distance. Dodger’s early judgment was wrong. Those eyes weren’t red from the drink. They were swollen from recently spent tears.
The oldest man shook his shaggy head at the others. “You’ll have to excuse them, Mr. …?”
“Dodger,” Dodger said, stepping up to the horse and extending his hand to the rider.
“I’m Robert Pitch.” The elder gave it a firm shake, then motioned to the men on his right. “This is my boy, Buster, and my grandson William.” Pitch nodded to the thin Irishman on his left. “This here is Douglas McBride.”
“Well met.” Dodger stepped back and touched his brow before he forgot his hat was back on the line.
The redhead nodded ever so slightly, but the two burly men barely grunted in response.
“Well met indeed,” Robert said. “Do you mind if I ask what you’re all camped out here for? There’s a perfectly good inn not five miles from here.”
“We didn’t want to trouble anyone,” Dodger said.
“No trouble at all. And I think you’ll find Melba’s beds are a sight more comfortable than the hard ground.”
“I appreciate the information, but it’s complicated. Our vehicle had a bit of an accident, and one of our crew took a bump on the noggin, and-”
“What kind of thing is that?” Buster asked, pointing to the Sleipnir in the distance.
“It’s a train,” Dodger said.
“Can’t be a train. Nearest tracks are over two hundred miles from here.”
“Yeah,” William echoed. “Two hundred miles.”
Dodger gave a tired sigh. This was going to take some explaining. Before he could draw breath to begin the long, complicated tale of the Sleipnir’s abilities, the last young man broke his silence.
“We’re wasting time,” he said. There was the slightest trace of an Irish accent.
“Doug’s right,” William said. “We gotta get going before that injun gets away.”
Dodger’s neck bristled at the racial slur. Although it was common among his white brethren to call the native folks by the term, he never took to it, nor did he appreciate when others said it. He found the word unsettling.
“Come on now, Willy,” Robert said. “We don’t know if it was his mutt or not.”
“I know,” Doug said.
“Seems like you folks are in the middle of something,” Dodger said. “I don’t want to keep you gentlemen.”
“You can’t stay here,” Buster said. “Neither can that thing. Get it and you out of my town.”
“It ain’t your town!” Robert snapped. “And it ain’t gonna be if you don’t stop actin’ like a jackass.”
“Pa,” the bigger man whined. “I don’t like ‘em stayin’ here.”
“We can pay a squatter’s fee,” Dodger suggested. “If that would help matters?”
Robert sucked his teeth a moment, considering the offer. “If you’re willing to pay for a place to stay, then I don’t see why you don’t want to spend the night at the inn. No offense meant.”
“One of my crew is injured. He can’t travel five feet, much less five miles.”
“He ain’t dying, is he?” Buster asked. “I can’t abide someone dying near my town.”
“We hope not,” Dodger said. “That’s what we are aimin’ to see.” It was as good a lie as any. No need to tell them about the gas; it would only complicate things. “We should clear out by sunrise tomorrow.”
Robert nodded. “Well, now, that shouldn’t be a problem. I don’t think we need to worry about a fee or anything like that. Do we, Douglas?”
“I don’t care,” Douglas said. “Can we go now?”
“Hold your horse, son,” Robert said. “I know you’re all fired up for a good reason, but this man might be able to help us out.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Dodger said, unsure as to what he was promising.
“You didn’t happen to see any wolves on the prowl last night?”
“Wolves?” Dodger’s neck bristled again.
“I know, I know. It’s been a coon’s age since I’ve seen a pack brave enough to come near a town. Even one as small as our Ellenboro. But we’ve had some trouble with wild animals lately, and-”
“It ain’t no wild wolf, and we know it,” Buster said.
“We all know what took my Lilly’s life,” Douglas said through clenched teeth. “I saw the animal with my own eyes.”
“Yeah,” William said. “He saw Rascal. We all know it.”
“I don’t know nothing of the sort!” Robert shouted.
The other men winced at the elder’s raised voice. In the brief silence, Dodger stitched together the threads of the conversation, and he didn’t like the conclusions he came to. Someone (a woman named Lilly?) had suffered at the hands of a wild animal. Maybe the dog of a local tribe. Maybe a lone wild wolf.
“For the last cotton-pickin’ time,” Robert said, “I won’t charge a man until I have enough evidence. And unless you’ve got something better than what you thought you saw in the dark without a lantern, then you don’t have anything. Do you three understand me?”
“Yes, sir,” the Pitch boys said as one.
The elder Pitch looked down to Dodger again. “I may have failed to mention that I’m also the law around the parts. Sorry. I tend to forget to wear my badge, since everyone in town knows who I am.”
“I can understand that,” Dodger said.
“I’m deputy,” Buster said and grinned.
“If it helps, Deputy, I didn’t see any wolves, but part of my crew did.”
All four men sat ramrod straight in their saddles, their attention snagged and yanked upright at Dodger’s words.
“Really?” Robert asked. “Now we might be getting somewhere. How many of the things did they see?”
“Told ya so!” Buster declared.
“Hush!” Robert shouted. “Tell us what ya saw, Mr. Dodger.”
Dodger explained the single path of enormous prints, how Ched and Lelanea spotted and scared off a solitary wolf earlier in the evening, and how Ched followed the beast but had yet to return.
“Sounds like Rascal to me,” Buster said.
“We don’t know that,” Robert said.
“Makes sense, Pa,” William said. “That there camp is slap dab between Michael’s and Doug’s.”
“Will you two knock it off?” Robert asked with a huff.
“I’m tired of this,” Douglas said, guiding his horse around Dodger. “I’m going to square up with that animal. Even if I have to go alone.” He clucked his tongue, encouraging his mount to take on an even trot.
“Thanks for your help,” Robert said. “Sorry to have troubled ya. Hope your friend heals quickly.” He nudged his horse onward.
Dodger got the impression that the ‘animal’ the redhead spoke of wasn’t the wolf, but instead the ‘injun’ the others had mentioned. He also had the sinking feeling that this was gonna get ugly. Ugly, but not Dodger’s problem. His responsibility lay with the crew. Then again …
“Wait!” he shouted to the retreating horses. “I’ll come with you.”
“This isn’t your quarrel,” Robert said.
Dodger had to jog to keep up with the horse’s stride. “It is if my friend is in danger. He went after that wolf and hasn’t returned. I need to know that he’s safe.”
The elder Pitch stopped, allowing the others to trot on ahead. He glared down at Dodger and asked, “Got yourself a mount?”
Damn it! What a time for the Rhino to be gone. Dodger glanced to the the Sleipnir for a nervous moment before he looked back up to the man and shook his head.
Robert’s face softened as he held out his hand. “Then I guess you ride with me.”
“Thanks.” Dodger grabbed the man’s hand and pulled himself onto the back of the whinnying mare. “I’ll try not to get in your way.”
“Not a problem. I reckon you can’t be much more of a burden than my boys. I sure love ‘em, but God knows they’re denser than a pair of hitchin’ posts.”
Dodger gave a short bark of a laugh before he could stifle it.
“Laugh all you like,” Robert said. “But the truth is they ain’t got a brain cell to share between ‘em.”
Robert prodded the mount, which fell in line with the other horses in a wide arc around the tents.
“Can you bring her in closer to the camp before we head off?” Dodger asked. “I need to check in with my boss man right quick.”
“You ain’t the boss man?” Robert asked.
“No, sir. I just run security for the train.”
“That so? You seem like someone more important than a watch dog.”
Dodger shrugged, even though the man couldn’t see it, because he didn’t really know what to say. The elder Pitch slowed his horse down to a walk just as they reached the edge of camp. Lelanea awaited him with the gun trained on the passing horses.
“I’m going with them to look for Ched!” Dodger shouted. “I’ll be back in a few hours!”
Lelanea rolled her eyes and lowered the gun. “You can’t leave us here, jackass!”
“I thought you could manage? Keep an eye on the doc! I’ll be right back!”
“Get your rump back here, right now, Rodger Dodger!”
Dodger patted the older man’s shoulder, at which the elder Pitch prompted his mare into a gallop, trying to catch up with the others. Lelanea’s frustrated cursing drifted away under the thundering heels of the horse.
“That your boss, then?” Robert asked in a loud voice.
“No!” Dodger shouted back.
“Are you sure?”
Embarrassed into silence, Dodger clung to Robert’s waist as the older man shook with laughter.