Of Dogs and Men
Once the horse was a blur in the dust, Robert said, “I reckon we better get over to his place and post a watch on him. Devil knows what trouble he’ll shake up now.”
“No,” Michael said. “Let him be. He needs to grieve.”
“You sure? I don’t mind putting Buster on watch.”
“No. He’s just blinded by anger. It will pass. Acceptance will temper his rage, and once the cloud lifts, he will understand what happened here.”
“What did happen here?” Dodger asked as he crouched over the remains of the sheep.
Robert exhaled an exasperated breath. “I don’t rightly know. If it wasn’t Rascal, and you folks didn’t see a wolf, then I can’t claim to know what tore that poor sheep to shreds like that.”
“You said you were having trouble with wild animals.”
“Yeah, here and there. A few chickens gone missing. Horses scared enough to jump their corrals at night. Widow Garret said she heard howling on the wind. Nothing like this, though. This is the first sign of bloodshed I’ve seen. I sure hope it’s the last too.”
Dodger pondered the claw marks along the sheep’s body. He held his own hand out, over the width of the paw. The span was almost twice that of Dodger’s spread hand. What could’ve done such damage? There was no telling. It certainly wasn’t a rabbit, and it sure as heck wasn’t Michael’s dog. As if eager to prove Dodger’s point, Rascal came in close, sniffed the corpse, whimpered and backed into the house.
Looking up to the native, Dodger asked, “You have any ideas what could have done this?”
Michael shook his head.
“That’s it for us, then,” Robert said. “It’s a mystery, but there’s nothing we can do about it until we have more evidence. Come on, boys, let’s get this packed up and get on back to Mabel’s before she runs outta biscuits. You need a ride back, Mr. Dodger?”
“That’s all right,” Dodger said. “I’ll walk back with Ched. We need to talk.”
Robert wrinkled his nose at the driver. “Suit yourself, then. You’re welcome to join us in town for breakfast if ya like. I’m sure Mabel’s red-eye gravy is a sight better than campfire grub.”
Dodger’s gut growled at the thought of homemade gravy and biscuits. Despite having to swallow the drool, he said, “No, thanks. I need to stay at the camp with my boss man.”
“And your boss lady, I’ll wager. All right, then. You know where to find us if you need something.” The elder Pitch held out his hand. “Thanks for your help.”
Dodger shook hands with him. “You’re welcome. Sorry I couldn’t help more.”
Robert pulled Dodger in close, adding under his breath, “If you’re interested, I got an old trapping manual my father used to swear by. I can lend it to you if you wanna brush up on your tracks.”
“Thanks, but I’ll be fine.”
With a chuckle, the older man gave Dodger’s shoulder a firm pat before releasing Dodger’s hand. He snapped at his boys again. “Come on, you two. Get this thing back in that sack and mount up.”
William and Buster wrestled the bloody sheep remains into the burlap bag, then strapped it to the back of one of the horses. After this, three generations of Pitch lawmen clambered astride their mounts and headed away without another word.
“Glad that’sh over,” Ched said.
“What in the hell was that all about?” Dodger asked.
“I saw the prints, Ched. There was no way that was a rabbit. Now why didn’t you want the sheriff to know about the wolf?”
“Becaush there weren’t no wolf, Sharge. Shimple ash that.” Ched rolled around the doorframe and disappeared into the house.
Dodger had no intention of letting it go. But he also had no intention of arguing about it in front of a stranger. “Ched! Come out of there! We need to get back to the doc.”
“Hang on.” The tinkle of glass tapping glass drifted from the open door. “Won’t be a shec.”
Dodger glanced to the native, who stood at the edge of the porch watching the lawmen ride off. “I’m sorry if Ched was troublesome.”
“No trouble at all,” Michael said without looking over his shoulder. “He was a perfect guest.”
“Ched? A perfect guest?”
The native turned slowly as he nodded. “Yes. He was honorable and honest. I don’t find that often from white men.”
“Honorable? Are we talking about the same man?”
“You find him dishonorable?”
“I wouldn’t put it like that. No.”
“Then how would you put it?”
As Dodger pondered this question, the clink of glass on glass sounded again.
Ched returned to the open door with the long shot slung across his back and a wooden crate in his arms. “Ready when you are, Sharge.”
“What is that?” Dodger asked.
Dodger lifted a jar of clear liquid from the crate and held it up. “I take it this is what you two had in common? Alcohol?”
“Ain’t jusht alcohol, sharge. It’sh corn liquor. Our friend here runsh hish own shtill. Makesh a helluva good shqueeze too.”
“But you have crates and crates of whiskey back on the line. Why do you need corn liquor?”
“Becaush there ain’t nothing like it in the world for what ailsh ya. You should try it.”
“No, thanks.” Dodger dropped the jar back in place. “No offense meant, Mr. Walking Bear. I’m just not much of a drinking man.”
“None taken. Goodbye, Mr. Dodger.”
“Nice to meet you.” Dodger touched his fingers to his brow and moved on down the path, pausing to wait for Ched by the gate.
Ched lowered the crate to the porch and shook the native’s hand. “Thanks again, Mike. I appreshiate the jarsh. You shure you won’t take a few dollarsh for it?”
“Your company was payment enough. You spin a good tale, friend.”
“You don’t do sho bad yourshelf, friend.”
The native drew closer to Ched, lowering his voice to a whisper Dodger had to struggle to hear. “And you will extend my invitation to her?”
Ched tilted his head away as he sucked a breath through is teeth. “I’ll do what I can. But she won’t take you up on it. Nothing pershonal, you know. She don’t shee no one.”
“I understand. Take care of yourself and your crew. And her.”
“Will do.” Ched hefted the crate again and made his way toward Dodger. “Ready to get going?”
Dodger motioned for one side of the crate. “Let me help you with that.”
“I don’t mind carting it.”
“Just let me help you out. I feel plenty useless today as it is.”
Ched relented, letting Dodger split the load with him by carting one side of the crate. It was heavier than Dodger expected, but that was just fine. He enjoyed straining against the weight. At least he felt like he was doing something.
When they were well away from the house, Dodger asked, “So what really happened last night?”
“You didn’t just go rabbit hunting. Tell me the truth or you will carry this back all the way by yourself.”
“Our friend there wash rambling lasht night and met up with ush.”
“At three o’clock in the morning?”
“Shure. I don’t think he expected anyone to be awake. I think he jusht wanted to shneak in, give ush a onsh over, and shneak away again.”
“You and Lelanea must have given him a surprise.”
“That we did. She almosht blew hish fool head off with the long shot. Sheemsh he heard the breaksh shqueelin’ when we shtopped earlier, and it took him a bit to gather the pluck to come greet ush. You can shorta shee why.”
“Yeah. The folks around here seem to have it in for him. Why ain’t he with his tribe?”
“Hish folksh casht him out for shome reason or other. Took up reshidensh on the farm a few yearsh back. Had a rough time from the localsh ever shinsh. Poor kid.”
Dodger took the distraction of Ched’s sympathy to get back to the real concern. “And what was all that underhandedness about back there?”
“What wash what?” Ched asked.
“The whole wolf to rabbit thing?”
Ched answered with a question of his own. “Do I ashk much from you?”
“Do I ashk much? Do I ever bother you for favorsh or money or troublesh?”
“No. No you don’t. But you know you could if you wanted to. I’m here for you.”
“I know that, and I appreshiate it, Sharge. That’sh gonna make thish a whole lot shimpler.”
“Make what simpler?”
Ched lowered his half of the crate, forcing Dodger to lower his as well. They stood there in the empty field about two miles or so from the line, staring at one another over the crate of home-brewed booze. Ched visibly struggled with his next words, a genuine worried look taking his pallid features. No usual attempt at a grin. No humor rising to his not-dead eyes. Perhaps he was trying his best to get the words just right, or maybe he was trying to scrounge up the courage to say them at all.
“Forget about the wolf,” Ched finally said.
Dodger didn’t answer. He just furrowed his brow.
“There wash no wild wolf,” Ched said. “No rabbit. Nothing. Jusht forget what you shaw, and let it go. The more queshtionsh you ashk, the more trouble you’ll shtir.”
Which of course fired Dodger’s curiosity all the more. “Will I ever find out?”
“I don’t doubt it. Jusht not right now.”
“Fine. I’ll let that go, but I want to know what Michael wanted with Lelanea.”
Ched’s humor returned at that. “He’sh a healthy young man living on hish own in the middle of nowhere. What do you think he wantsh with her?”
Dodger almost growled, but he caught himself. It did no good to get protective of a woman who showed no interest in him. Well, maybe a little interest. And maybe a bit more interest in him than she showed that native, which had to be worth something. Didn’t it? Dodger settled for a chuckle instead of a growl, because, truth be told, his question was kind of silly when one considered how obvious the answer really was.
“Thatsh more like it,” Ched said as he bent to lift his half of the crate again.
Dodger lifted his side as well. “Just one more thing. Have you seen Boon?”
“Neither have I.”
“He not at the line?”
“I didn’t think to check there.”
“I bet he’sh lurking on the empty train, trying to avoid Missh Lelanea.”
“That makes sense.” Dodger swallowed the urge to say just why. Ched thought he had secrets? The whole train was rife with them. Dodger gave a soft sigh. “One day I’ll know everything. There will be no secrets, and on that day, this job will be a whole lot easier, I can tell you.”
“Are you kidding? Onsh you learn everything about everyone, the job will only get harder. Trusht me on that, Sharge.”
Dodger not only trusted the driver, he was forced to agree.