In which Dodger is entertained
Lunch was a quick gulp of chicken soup. Dodger kept his eyes on the horizon, for Feng in one direction and any more folks from town in the other. He considered toddling the five miles into town, just to break up the monotony of the day, but Lelanea forbade it. And after his earlier stunt, he didn’t want to anger her further. Instead, he had Ched search the line for Boon under the guise of fetching a few things. When the driver returned with no news, Dodger set to worrying about the ghost, seeing as how he had nothing else to do.
Suppertime came with the accompaniment of more chicken soup. Dodger offered to cook a full meal, but the doc was adamant about not entering Feng’s kitchen without the man present. That seemed a bit strange, considering it was the doc’s train and not the Celestial’s, but Dodger wasn’t the man in charge, so he shrugged and ate his soup and groused about being bored. All the while, he stoked a small flame of worry for the missing ghost. Where had Boon gotten off to?
Dusk’s ascent on the meadow was accompanied by a surprising soundtrack: Lelanea gently strumming a worn-out guitar. She brought the thing out just at sunset, while Dodger was on his hourly perimeter walk. When the first soft strains met his ears, he wasn’t sure what he was hearing. The music had a haunting quality to it. It was beautiful, to be sure, yet at the same time, just as sorrowful as the young lady who produced it.
Then she began to sing.
The first time he heard her speak, Dodger supposed her voice was already just about the most beautiful sound he would ever hear in all of his waking life. Well, he was wrong. Lelanea’s song rang out in the clear night, lifted by the rhythms of her own playing, until the two melted in an angelic harmony. Dodger abandoned his watch and returned to the campsite, captivated into silence by the tune.
Captivated and enchanted.
It was at that point, to the tune of her beautiful song, that he finally allowed himself to admit—if only to himself—that he was indeed in love with her. Everything about her was wonderful. Beauty, charm, grace and now this? She sang like an angel, but the devil in her could cut you down with a single glance. Dodger had truly met his match, and come hell or high water, he would win her heart!
Speaking of hearts, it seemed only natural that her song would be one of a broken heart. It was the sad tale of a wealthy young girl who fell for a gypsy and forsook her own family to win his attentions, only to be rebuked by the very same man once her fortune ran thin. Eventually, she reached the last refrain, and the guitar fell as silent as Dodger.
A light applause filled the air as the doc clapped. “Beautiful as always, dear.”
“Thank you, Uncle,” Lelanea said.
“I had no idea you could play,” Dodger said.
“Did you like it?”
“I loved it. I’ve never heard it sung or played so beautifully.”
“You recognized it?”
“It’s a variation on the Gypsy Laddie ballad, isn’t it?”
Looking a bit startled, Lelanea nodded but said nothing.
“The what?” the doc asked.
“The Gypsy Laddie ballad. It originated in Scotland, I believe, as a border ballad from somewhere in the early 1700s. There are many variations on the theme, though the one Lelanea played tends to be the more … popular … among them.” Dodger wound his enthusiastic conversation down when he realized what he was saying.
And that everyone was staring at him, wide eyed and mouths agape.
“At least that’s what I hear,” Dodger said in a poor attempt to cover up his exposed intellect.
“How do you know all of that?” Lelanea asked.
“I told you,” the doc said. “Our Mr. Dodger possesses surprising depths. Very surprising.”
“Balladsh and bulletsh,” Ched said. “What a combinashon.”
“Yes, he is a regular renaissance man.”
“My mother was very musical,” Dodger confessed. “She was fascinated with the origins of the older ballads and folk tunes. I sorta picked some of it up from her.” And it wasn’t an outright lie. He did pick up the urge to know more about music from her. Which he went on to apply to his own private studies.
“Would you play something for us?” Lelanea asked, holding out the instrument.
“No. I don’t play. Though I have a fondness for music, I have no talent for it.” And that wasn’t a lie. A renaissance man he might have been, but a musician he was not.
“My turn,” Ched said, and snapped up the guitar.
Dodger braced himself for the worst. He got something completely unexpected.
Ched could play.
And whatever it was he played, he played it really, really, really well. The not-dead man picked out some strange mix between folk music and carnival melodies. It skipped up and down the frets, crossing back and forth in quick successions of melodic trills. He tapped his foot the whole while, and occasionally paused to slap his hand against the body of the guitar, adding a strong rhythm to the music. Thankfully, the man didn’t sing, and Dodger wasn’t sure what kind of words one would sing to something like that anyway. He had never heard anything like it in all of his life. It was gloomy but joyful, satisfied but hungry, bitter but sweet, all at the same time. After a ten-minute run of this, Ched struck his last chord, letting it fade under a soft rhythm of slapping and foot tapping, until he was done.
“Feng’s been teaching you again, I see,” the doc said.
“Yup,” Ched agreed. “Shaid it was shomthing called the bluesh.”
“Blues? Huh, what an odd name. Didn’t sound blue. Sounded more mauve, if you ask me.”
“I thought it sounded wonderful,” Lelanea said.
“It was terrible,” Mr. Torque said.
“Torque!” the doc exclaimed. The bed-ridden man leaped from his cot in excitement, much to the dismay of his niece.
“Get back in the bed,” Lelanea demanded.
The doc ignored her and hobbled over to the mechanical butler, throwing his arms around the clockwork man. “Ah, Mr. Torque! It’s so good to see you.”
Mr. Torque looked confused by the display of affection. “I … I … I wish I could say the same, sir.” There was a tone to his voice as if he wanted to say something different, but couldn’t bring himself to. He lifted a metal hand and gently patted the doc’s back.
Dodger wondered if, underneath the stern exterior of snide remarks, the clockwork man was a touch sentimental after all.
The doc parted from the machine, taking a few steps away. “What news do you have about my train?”
“She is vented and clean,” Torque said.
A shared sigh of relief went around the crew at the news.
“Excellent!” the doc shouted. “We shall have to remain until the morning, of course. Our Feng should be back by then. If not, we can leave him a message and let him catch up with us. I also suppose that means we can return to the line tonight. If anyone wants to do so.”
The crew looked to one another, waiting for a response.
“Anyone want to go back tonight?” the doc asked.
The answer was obvious.
“I agree,” the doc said. “I am having a great deal of fun with this outdoor nonsense. Besides, we’re already set up for the evening. Might as well finish the deed. Yes?”
No one argued.
The doc rubbed his hands together. “Right, then. You should get back to the line, Torque. I don’t want your reserves to run low.”
“My reserves are none of your business,” Torque snapped. “I want to stay here.”
“I don’t care what you want. Do as I say.”
“Torque! Saying ‘sir’ doesn’t excuse a rude attitude. Now, get back to the line or I’ll drag you back myself.”
“As if you could.”
Ched began to strum the guitar just under their arguing while a chuckling Lelanea cleared up the empty chicken-soup cans. Dodger could do nothing but watch and laugh under his breath. The pair argued for a bit, with the doc winning in the end. (This was after the professor pointed out that the mechanical man’s ‘low voltage’ warning light was indeed lit.) As the mechanical butler scurried back to the line, in fear for his precious reserve power, the doc retired to his tent, exhausted by the exchange. He was asleep in moments, his guttural snore drowning out Ched’s playing.
“Show much for pickin’,” Ched said, setting the guitar aside. “Getting late anyway. I think I might take a poke around the line a bit. Make sure we didn’t throw a gear or pop a gasket. Night all.”
The driver loped off into the darkness, leaving Dodger and Lelanea alone. Dodger did his best to ignore this fact. After the intimate discussion they had held two nights ago, he wasn’t sure he was ready to try small talk again with her. Especially now that he had confessed his feelings for her to himself. Lelanea, on the other hand, seemed unperturbed by being left alone in his company. She came to Dodger’s side, offering him a familiar glass vial.
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