“What this?” Dodger asked. “Not going to slip it in a cup of tea and offer me that instead?”
“Not quite,” Lelanea said. “I won’t apologize for drugging you while you were under my care. But since you are feeling better, it’s up to you to take it.”
“I’m all grown up, am I?”
“Do you want it or not?”
Dodger accepted the vial. “Yes. Thank you.” He eyed the three tents with a sigh. One was hers, the other held the snoring professor, and the last was the one in which Ched had been bunking. “Am I supposed to share with Ched?”
“Looks that way. I’m sorry.”
“I think I’ll sleep out here.”
She smiled. “I wouldn’t blame you.”
Why did her smile have to be so soft? And inviting? And mouthwatering? Dodger stood from his cot and shook off his rising desire. “I’m not too tired right now anyway. I should probably return to my watch. You mind if I hang on to this? I’ll take some a bit later if that’s fine.”
“Keep it as long as you want. Take what you need when you need it.”
“Two under the tongue, yes?”
“Don’t take more than four drops. It isn’t poisonous, per se. But one can get too relaxed.”
They stared at one another by the light of the fake campfire. Lelanea’s eyes twinkled brighter than the stars above them. Dodger wanted her then more than he had ever wanted a woman in the whole of his life. And not just in a sexual manner. He wanted to share things with her. Secrets. Confessions. His life. His very soul.
“Good night, then, Dodger,” she said, then slipped away inside her tent.
And just like that, she was gone. One moment, he was on the verge of pitching his woo, the next, his woo was abandoned. At least he had returned to just plain old Dodger. That was something. Wasn’t it?
“Great Ganesha,” he whispered as he rubbed his tired eyes. “What is wrong with me?”
Far too worked up to sleep, and far too embarrassed to do anything about it, Dodger opted to return to his watch. He moseyed around the campsite, stopping every few hundred feet to listen to the doc snore and peer into the darkness. It didn’t take too long to get bored with it all. Ched said there was no wolf, and when Dodger returned to the campsite that morning, he discovered that even the prints were gone. Perhaps he had imagined the whole thing. Or maybe his crew was keeping something from him. Either way, there was no point in dwelling on it.
Dodger cut away from the camp, heading for the weak glow of the Sleipnir’s engine cab. As he walked, he whispered, “Boon?”
No answer came.
“Washington Boon? Where are you?” Dodger followed the train, from caboose to engine cab, whispering the same question, but receiving no answer. “Where is that blasted ghost?”
“I told you he ain’t here,” Ched said from the shadows.
Dodger strained by the moonlight to find Ched crawling out from the tight quarters of the train’s underpinning. “What are you up to down there?”
“Checking the shealsh on the airbrakesh. A shtop like that can pop her shealsh.”
“Air-powered brakes. If ever the day comes that he should sell the idea to the rails, there will be many a brakeman sorry to see his job go, but many a brakeman’s wife happy to see her husband come home alive.”
“Tell me about it. I did brakesh for a while. I wash lucky to walk away with my mittsh intact. You ever work brakesh?”
“Can’t you tell?” Dodger held his hands out in the moonlight, proudly displaying his full complement of unmarred fingers.
In the tradition of the rails, the brakeman’s was the most dangerous job, consisting of mounting each cab to brake it individually. He was also in charge of linking the cars—a feat made possible by manually guiding the bogies together at the risk of losing a finger in the process. More often than not, a brakeman’s experience was counted on the remaining fingers the poor lad had left.
“I was on coal most of the time,” Dodger said. “I occasionally drove. I drew the line at braking.”
“Musht’ve been shome kind of high rank to be able to jusht draw the line.”
“You could say that.”
Ched mounted the stairs to the engine cab. “You comin’?”
“You shure? We can play cardsh or shomething.”
“I’ll pass.” It wasn’t that he didn’t want to spend time with the driver; he was just antsy as all get out. He needed to move around some more. That itching feeling was coming over him again. That unidentifiable sense that something was afoot. Just what, he had no idea, and that was what bothered him.
“Then whatcha come all thish way for if not my pleashant company?”
“Don’t know. I guess I just got bored and was wandering around.”
“Trying to keep from bein’ alone with her, huh?”
Dodger almost gasped in response. “N-n-not at all,” Dodger stammered. “I just needed to stretch my legs.”
The not-dead man shrugged Dodger’s excuse away. “You like her. Even a dead man can shee that much.”
Dodger had the feeling Ched wasn’t talking about himself. “What has Boon told you?”
“Nothin’ I didn’t already know. You’ve taken a shine to the little misshy. Won’t be the firsht. Won’t be the lasht.”
“I … I …” Dodger was going to deny it, but he supposed there wasn’t any use. Even a dead man could see he was in love with the woman. A dead man and a not-dead man. “I’ve never met anyone like her.”
“You can shay that again.”
“I want you to know I have no intention of pursuing her.”
The question hung in the night air, lingering for a few moments before Dodger comprehended what the driver was asking. Why couldn’t Dodger pursue Lelanea? They were both unattached, capable adults. Never mind the fact that one was working for the family of the other. And that one was more suited to marrying a prince than a run-of-the-mill security man. And that one was keeping the ex-lover’s spirit of the other from contacting her. Sure. When you took all of that into account, pursuing her would be a piece of cake.
A piece of poisonous cake with live bees for frosting, served on the backs of man-eating sharks swimming in a pool of toxic chemicals.
Dodger reckoned he could do without cake like that.
“It’s complicated,” Dodger admitted.
“If you shay show,” Ched said. “Not my plashe to play matchmaker, I shupposhe. I tried this onsh already. Didn’t do no good then neither.” The driver disappeared into the cab, taking his suspicion and doubletalk with him.
With a huff, Dodger headed on back to the camp even more frustrated than before. He supposed going to sleep was his only option left. Toying with the vial in his pants pocket, his mind wandering between the sexy Lelanea and Ched’s words, Dodger made his way through the waist-high grass as quietly as he could manage. Once back, he sat on his cot, staring at her tent, mulling over his choices. As long as Boon lingered, she could never love again. Which was fine, because, all things considered, Dodger couldn’t chase her. Yet even if he couldn’t pursue her, Dodger couldn’t spend the rest of life avoiding her. Then there was the matter of the spirit. It wasn’t fair to the young lady to keep her in limbo. She needed to move on. If not into Dodger’s arms, then on to someone more deserving of her affections.
She had to stop pining for Boon.
And Dodger had to help her.
“Lelanea?” Dodger whispered as he got to his feet. “Are you awake?”
All Dodger heard was the gentle snore from the doc’s tent.
“Lelanea,” he whispered at her tent flap. “I hate to wake you, but we need to talk. I’m coming in.” Dodger pushed aside the opening and ducked into the tent. “I know it’s a late hour, but I need to talk to you about …”
Dodger went quiet when he realized he was talking to himself.
Lelanea wasn’t there.
“Lelanea?” he whispered as he flipped open the flap of each tent, careful not to wake the doc, searching for her. After this, he walked the breadth of the camp, twice, then made an even wider sweep, and still nothing. She wasn’t at the camp. Which left one place for her to be.
“Lelanea!” he shouted as he ran toward the train.
No answer came from the quiet line.
Dodger pushed himself hard, running to the front of the train, where he found Ched lying on his back, propped up on his elbows, staring at the stars. “Have you seen Lelanea?”
“Nope,” Ched said.
“She’s not at camp.”
“Maybe she went for a walk.”
Dodger glared at the moonlit silhouette of the driver. “A walk? In the dead of night?”
“Why not? It’sh a nish night. I might take one myshelf.”
“What is it with you people wanting to walk around in the dark?”
Ched shrugged. “Maybe she went to shee that feller.”
Which was just what Dodger was afraid the driver would say.
“He sheemed keen on talkin’ to her,” Ched said. “He shaid she could vishit any time, but that he would prefer she came to him at thish time of night. Maybe she took him up on it.”
“You’re kidding. Tell me you’re kidding. You have to be kidding.”
Dodger moaned in frustration and rubbed his tired eyes again. “I swear … it’s like trying to herd cats.” He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard the driver meow. He definitely heard the not-dead man chuckle.
This snapped what little remaining patience he had like a dry twig.
“Get back to the camp,” Dodger growled.
“Nope,” Ched said. “I think I’ll shtay here.”
“Get back to the camp!” Dodger yelled.
In the echo of this cry, Ched sat up slowly, turning his sallow eyes on Dodger without a word. He didn’t have to say anything. The sound of the driver cracking his knuckles and popping his neck was enough to send Dodger all kinds of warning signals.
“I was hired to protect y’all,” Dodger said, in a much softer voice. “Not just the doc and not just the train. As long as we are away from the line, my workload is doubled. But I can’t protect what I can’t see. From now on, I want all of you where I can watch you. Is that understood?”
Ched got to his feet, and Dodger readied himself for a fight, taking a wide stance and raising his fists. But instead of putting up his dukes, Ched nodded.
“Good man,” Dodger said. “Please go back and keep an eye on the doc. I’ll go and find Lelanea.”
“Yesh, shir,” Ched said, and strode away toward the camp. The driver didn’t sound happy about it, but then again, he never sounded happy about anything.
Dodger kept reminding himself of this as he made the long walk back to Michael’s farm.