“How did you know it was red?” Lelanea asked.
“What was red?” Dodger asked.
“My favorite color is red. How did you know?”
The truth lay in her frilly underthings, but he couldn’t just come right out and say that, now could he?
Dodger contemplated lying to her, but that would go against everything he had just spent the last half-hour preaching. He settled for coy evasion. “I reckon I’m just observant.”
“Really? Now I’m forced to wonder what you’ve been observing.” She laughed softly beside him as they walked.
Was it his imagination, or was she getting slower and slower in her steps? Did he dream it, or was she drawing out the time they were taking to get back? Or was he just wishing it were so? This wish got him to wondering about the things Michael said.
All of the things.
“Do you mind if I ask one more personal question?” he asked.
“If you must,” she said.
“Michael said you were like him. Does that you mean you’re … you know … just like him?”
Lelanea eyed him in the moonlight, curiosity dancing in her twinkling eyes. “What do you … ah ha. I think I understand. The answer is yes. I am just like him.”
“Ah.” Dodger didn’t know what to say to that.
She leaned into him and said, in a low voice, “When it comes to the ritual of courtship, I also prefer men.” Lelanea giggled at her own jest.
Once she said it, Dodger felt silly for even asking. It was pretty obvious how she felt about Boon. Perhaps, if he were lucky and given time, she could feel the same way about him. Which was also going to make what he had to say next just that much harder.
He stopped again, turning to face her with the awful truth. “I have something else to tell you. Something you aren’t going to like or want to hear.”
“Dodger,” she said, “I appreciate your sudden compulsive honesty, but please don’t feel like you have to tell me everything.”
“You need to hear this.”
“Are you sure that I need to hear it, or do you just need to speak it?”
Dodger narrowed his gaze in confusion. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“I am sorry for the loss of your father, really I am. And I suppose had I been faced with the same scenario, things may have turned out quite similar. But you must keep in mind that, although I shall be glad to lend an ear to your soulful confessions, it is not my place to pass judgment upon you for sins of the past. Good or bad. Because when it comes down to it, in the grander scheme of things, it doesn’t make a difference how I view you. It matters how you see yourself. What you did as a young boy doesn’t define you as a man.”
“I think it’s only fair to warn you that I didn’t get any better as a man. If anything, I got worse.”
“Then let me put it a different way. The past should remain just that. The past. Trust me when I say we have all done things we’d rather not remember. But it doesn’t define who we are today. I believe every moment you are alive redefines who you are. How you react to each situation shapes the person you are, not just one circumstance. Which means people can change. They can grow. They can move beyond their stations in life and become something so much better.”
“How can you be certain?”
“I have to believe it. Because if I thought for one second that it wasn’t true, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”
“But after all of the things I’ve done … the people I’ve hurt …”
Lelanea placed her finger against his trembling lips, quieting him. “You aren’t the only one with regrets. Just remember that who you were then isn’t who you are now. Once upon a time, you may have been the stuff of nightmares, but now … now you’re a good person.” She spoke for them, both of them, as she traced the contour of his lips before lifting her finger away again. “And that’s all that matters.”
The little lady may not have been there to pass judgment upon him, but her forgiving words lifted a small portion of an old burden from his troubled soul.
“Thanks,” Dodger said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“My pleasure. Now, do you still feel like you have to tell me this thing?”
He nodded. “It’s about Boon.”
Her eyes lit with curiosity. “What about him?”
Just as Dodger opened his mouth to explain, there came a familiar clack in the distance. He turned toward the noise. “What is that?”
“The Rhino. Feng must be back.” She snatched up his hand and pulled him to the sound. “Come on! If we catch him, we won’t have to walk all the way back!”
So much for a romantic moonlit walk. Dodger ran behind her, trying to keep their steps lit with the freshly cranked Sunbox. They caught up with Feng in no time at all, as the man was, in fact, heading right for them. The cook brought the Rhino to a screeching halt mere feet from them.
“Dodger! Lelanea!” Feng shouted as he clambered down from the front seat of the horseless buggy.
“Feng!” Lelanea yelled, picking up her pace to meet him. The young lady threw her arms around the cook, squeezing him with a squeal of delight. “I missed you.”
Feng seemed annoyed by the attention. “Same here, sweetheart. And as much as I’d love to stand here in the dark and hold your young body to this old one all day, we don’t have time for this. We need to get back to the line. Right now.”
Dodger stared at the pair. “Hang on.”
The pair paused to look at him.
Dodger aimed a thumb toward Feng. “You know he speaks perfect English?”
Lelanea chewed her bottom lip as she looked away, answering without speaking.
“She knows,” Feng said. He returned to the carriage and motioned for the others to join him. “We can talk about this later. Come on.”
Lelanea took the man’s hand, climbing into the front seat with him.
“No, we talk about this now,” Dodger said. He pointed at Feng while addressing Lelanea. “You see? This is what I mean. Y’all had me convinced that he was one thing when … well … now I don’t know what he is.”
“In the words of a man who is much wiser than we, I am what I am. You are what you are. And she is …” Feng paused to consider this a moment before he asked Lelanea, “Does he know what you are?”
“He just found out,” she said.
“Excellent. Now that we have that settled, get in the vehicle. We have to haul out of here, pronto.”
“I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” Dodger grumbled.
Feng shut Dodger down with three simple words. “Boon’s not dead.”
“What?” Dodger and Lelanea shouted at the same time.
“Washington Boon is not dead.”
Lelanea fell into a stupefied silence.
Dodger couldn’t blame her. Feng said the words with such calm assurance that Dodger didn’t doubt the man. It was just the way he said it. Like it was a well-known fact instead of one hell of a surprise.
He might as well have said, “The sky is blue.”
Or, “The ocean is wet.”
Or, “The sun rises in the east.”
“I don’t think I heard you right,” Dodger said.
“You heard me correctly,” Feng said. “Washington Boon is not dead. He is, in fact, very much alive, though I am not sure how long that will last.”
“How do you know all this?” Dodger asked.
“Because I’ve been busy,” Feng said. “While you’ve been mooning over each other out here in the middle of nowhere, I took a ride up north and had a private powwow with our mutual spirit friend.”
Lelanea furrowed her brow at Dodger. So much for breaking the news gently.
“But more importantly,” Feng continued, “I’ve been putting out feelers. And my feelers felt something. A slimy little something that they wish they hadn’t felt.”
“What does any of that mean?” Dodger asked.
“It means not only is Washington Boon’s body alive, but I think I know where it is. Or at the very least, who has it. So if you want to get him back, I suggest you get in the Rhino and we go and get him.”
He didn’t need to tell Dodger twice. Dodger scrambled into the seat behind Lelanea and Feng. The cook started peddling the carriage, setting them into a swift motion toward the camp. Dodger didn’t know what to think or say. Any question about Boon was bound to get Lelanea started, and he wasn’t quite ready to deal with her. Not until he knew more about what was happening here. While he mulled over the news, Feng shouted over the clacking noise of the Rhino’s gears.
“I know this is a lot to take in,” he said. “For both of you. But you must believe me when I say we don’t have time to stand around and talk about it. When we get back, we have to haul out. Now. No time for discussions. Just get the line in motion, and I’ll explain everything once we’re on the move. If there is time. And I hope to all that is holy there will be time to explain.”
“What’s coming?” Dodger asked, sensing a deeper meaning to the man’s words.
“Clever! You’re a clever man, Dodger. You’re right. Something is coming. There’s a storm gathering. And believe me kids, the weather is going to get rough.”
Just before Dodger could point out that every star shone bright in the clearest night sky he had seen in months, a low rumble sounded from the distance. Sure enough, the stars farthest to the east began to blink out, fading from view as dark clouds rolled across them.
“Won’t be long now,” Feng said. “And it won’t be pretty.”
Dodger had the feeling the Celestial wasn’t just talking about the weather.
Something was riding forth in that storm.
Or, rather, someone.
END VOLUME FIVE