Flash from the Past Part III
Flash from the Past Part III
In which Dodger remembers the fall of 1850
Rodger was almost packed and ready to go. Butterflies filled his stomach to bursting, and his throat was bone dry, yet his palms were wet. He had never been so excited about something in all of his life. The last three years of training with Al had led up to this: his first official job as an agent. He sat on the edge of his cot, waiting for the government man to come and take him away.
A knock sounded from the living room door, and it took every ounce of willpower Rodger could muster not to leap from his bed and race to answer the door. He sat, patiently and obediently, just like Al asked him to. Don’t seem too eager. That was what Al had said. The government men don’t like it when kids act too eager. So Rodger sat on his cot and waited.
The hiss of hushed voices carried down the quiet hall, teasing Rodger as he strained to hear what they were saying. Pleasantries, to be sure. Greetings, a handshake, a nod, then Al would escort the agent—make that the fellow agent—down the hall to meet the new blood. Sure enough, after a few seconds of whispers, the sound of heavy footsteps echoed down the hallway, toward Rodger’s room. Someone rapped on his door, lightly, as if he weren’t expecting it and they didn’t want to surprise him.
“Rodger?” Al asked in a muffled voice through the door. “Ya in there?”
“Yes, sir,” Roger said, trying his damndest not to seem as eager as he felt.
Al swung the door wide open and smiled at Rodger. “I got a fellow here I want you to meet. I believe he is the gentleman you’ve waited so patiently for.”
Rodger stood as the stranger entered his room.
The young man—and truth be told, he didn’t look much older than Rodger’s seventeen years—strode into Rodger’s small room with the kind of swagger Rodger expected from a proper agent. Not that Al wasn’t a proper agent, but one had to remember that the old man had retired from the game years ago. This new agent stood a little taller than Al and had hair so blond it was almost white, with a pearly smile to match. He wore a fancy-looking black suit, and carried a black bowler in one hand. He grinned at Rodger and stuck out his other hand in greeting.
“Rodger Dodger, I presume?” the man asked.
“Yes, sir,” Rodger said, and took the offered hand, squeezing it with all the firm confidence that Al had taught him. “I’m Dodger.”
“Dodger?” the man asked. “I like the sound of that. I’m Tyler Crank. I’ll be your partner for a few years. I’ll show you the ropes of being a field agent.”
“Oh, Mr. Jackson showed me that already. Sir.”
The man smiled wider. “I’m sure he did.” Mr. Crank turned to Al and nodded to the open door. “Can you give us a minute?”
“Sure,” Al said, but the worry in his eyes suggested he didn’t want to leave Rodger alone with the new man.
“I’ll be fine,” Rodger said.
Al nodded and smiled, just a bit. “I know you will. I’ll be just outside if you need me.”
“Oh, and Al?” Mr. Crank asked.
“I will need to talk to you before I go. In private. Just for a few minutes.”
Al lost the sliver of a grin. “All right, then. I’ll wait for you in the parlor.”
“You do that.” Mr. Crank closed the door on Al’s curious face. The man brought his hands together in a huge clap, then rubbed them as if trying to stay warm. “Well, well, well. What have we got here? I have heard an awful lot about you, Dodger.”
“You have?” Rodger asked.
“Yes, sir. An awful lot. All good, don’t get me wrong.”
Rodger’s face flushed with warmth. “Thank you, sir.”
Mr. Crank looked to the ceiling. “All this and modesty too? I love this kid.” He joined Rodger on the cot, plunking down without regard for the care of the furniture. “You excited?”
“I sure am, Mr. Crank, sir.”
“Cut out that sir and mister business. I am Crank to you. Agent Crank. And you are soon to be Agent Dodger. How does that feel?”
Rodger’s face flushed deeper. “Feels pretty good, si—I mean Crank.”
“There you go. Got the hang of it already. Listen, kid …” Crank paused to wrap a long arm around Rodger’s shoulder, pulling him closer. “I just wanted to let you know that the powers that be expect big things from you. Very big things. Huge things. Understand?”
“Sure. Al has told us all about your skills and talents. He has a lot of faith in you. I daresay you might be the best field agent he has ever trained.”
“He mentioned that, but I think he says that to all the kids.”
“Nonsense. Even if he does, we at the home office feel you have the potential to be the best field agent to ever work for us. Even better than Al was in his heyday. With Al’s training, and my help, you will become a legend.”
“A legend?” Rodger reckoned he could’ve set a small fire with the heat coming off of his face. “I don’t know about that, sir. I just do my best.”
“And that is the point. From what I hear, your best is amazing. It’s ten times my best. Probably ten times Al’s best too. I wouldn’t even blame him if he got jealous of you. Might be already.”
“Mr. Jackson, jealous of me? You think?” It had been some time since Rodger felt that old pride crawling up his spine. He bit back the notion with a shake of his head. “Even so, I’m just doing my best. Nothing to be proud of.”
Crank raised his eyebrows. “I see Aloysius has been feeding you full of his garbage.” The man patted Rodger on the shoulder. “No worries. I’ll break you of that nonsense. And all of his other pithy sayings too. When I am done with you, you will understand what the job is really all about.”
“Yes, sir,” Rodger said, because he didn’t really know what else to say.
“All right, then,” Crank said as he stood again. “You get your stuff together and meet me at the wagon outside. We have a long trip to the capital. There we will get you signed in and started. Sound good?”
“Sounds great! Thanks!”
Amused by Rodger’s enthusiasm, Crank set to chuckling as he left Rodger alone again.
“Better than Al?” Rodger asked himself. He shook his head, not convinced it was possible. He finished his packing as fast as he could, anxious to get back to Crank and hear more about how amazing he was going to be. Through the door there came the muffled sounds of a rising argument. Rodger knew Al despised eavesdropping, but something about the situation—or maybe all the praise Crank just laid on him—made him crack the door and listen anyway.
“I said no,” Al said. “And I meant it. I am out of all of that now.”
“It’s just one more job,” Crank said. “One hit, and you can get out for good.”
“It’s never one hit with you people! It’s never one man, one life. It’s always about collateral damage. Someone innocent always gets hurt.”
Rodger slipped out of his room, suitcase in hand, and snuck up the hallway, waiting for the argument to end so he could make his goodbyes with Al.
“That’s why we need you in on this,” Crank said. “So no one else gets hurt.”
“Oh, no,” Al said, stomping around. “You ain’t layin’ a guilt trip on me. I said I was done with all that, and I meant it. Now, I don’t mind showin’ your kids how to fire and fight and take care of themselves, but I’ll be damned if I get back into the killin’ game.”
“Just one quick trip to China. You sneak in, do the deed, and you’re done. There and back again. Easy as pie”
“No. I said no, and I meant it. I’ve given thirty years to you idjeets, and I ain’t givin’ no more.”
“Al, we appreciate all you have done for us, but it isn’t enough. You signed on to this job for life. There is no retirement from this sort of thing-”
“That’s because folks usually die young doing that sort of thing.”
Crank chuckled again. Now that Rodger thought about it, Crank seemed to smile and laugh far too much for a grown man. “True. Very true. But you still don’t get to just leave. You can’t quit.”
“I still work for you. I still train ‘em. They said that was enough!”
“They changed their minds.”
“Well how God damned convenient of them!”
Rodger gasped at the curse word, covering his mouth as he did. But it was too late. Al turned to the darkened hallway where Rodger hid.
“Rodger?” Al asked.
“Come on, Dodger,” Crank said as he doffed his hat. “It’s time for you to go.”
“Yes, sir,” Rodger said.
As he walked into the room, Al got that worried look again.
“Give us a minute to say goodbye,” Al said. “Wont you?”
Crank pursed his lips as he considered the request. “Well, all right. But don’t linger forever. We have a long ride and a schedule to keep.” The government man headed out the door, leaving them alone to say farewell.
Al stared at Rodger in silence for a few moments.
Rodger didn’t know what to say. He’d thought this would be easy. He’d thought he would be eager to go and get his life started now that Al had taught him everything he needed to know.
“Crank says that I might be the best-” Rodger started.
“You ain’t gotta go, boy,” Al said over him.
“What?” Rodger asked, furrowing his brow.
“You don’t gotta. If you wanna stay here, I’d be glad to keep you on as an assistant. No one would blame ya. I might even turn the whole training thing over to ya one day. How would you like that? You can teach other agents what ya know.”
Rodger shook his head. What was this about? Maybe Crank was right? Maybe Al was already jealous of Rodger, and that was why he didn’t want the kid to become a full-fledged agent. Al wanted Rodger to waste his whole life at the ranch, showing other hopeful candidates how to shoot and throw and track. How boring. Not when there was a whole world at his feet out there!
“I don’t wanna stay,” Rodger said. Only, it wasn’t what he meant to say, or rather, not how he meant for it to sound.
Yet the words were there, pricking both of their ears, and stinging both of their hearts.
“I understand,” Al said.
Rodger hissed at his carelessness. “I mean I wish I could stay, but … I gotta go. Ya know?”
“I know.” Al’s eyes grew damp. In all of the time they were together, four long and hard years, Rodger had never seen Aloysius Jackson shed a single tear. But now the old man stood in the middle of his parlor, staring in silence at Rodger Dodger, tears filling his sad eyes.
“I’m sorry, Al,” Rodger said. “I just gotta go. I gotta.” Before he knew what was happening, his face was hot with tears of his own.
“I know exactly what you mean, son,” Al said. “I can’t say as I blame you. But will you answer me one question?”
Rodger knew he wasn’t going to get away without one more riddle. He grinned. “Sure. Ask.”
Al stepped in close and took Rodger by the shoulders. “What’s a man left with when he has lost everything else? When everyone abandons him and life turns its back on him. What’s he got left that no one can take, but that he can still lose?”
This wasn’t just another riddle. Rodger sensed a deeper meaning to the question. It sounded like something it would take a whole lifetime to figure out. “I don’t know, sir. I just don’t know.”
Al smiled softly and answered, “Your integrity. Don’t compromise your beliefs, son. Don’t forget what I taught you.”
Now that confused Rodger. What was the point in spending so long under Al’s apprenticeship if Rodger just planned on forgetting all he was taught? “I ain’t gonna forget. Sir. I’ll always remember what you showed me.”
“I don’t just mean the way of the gun, or those other things. I mean the real stuff I taught you. Don’t forget. Please. Because they are gonna try and change you. They are gonna take every inch of moral fiber and-”
“Dodger!” Crank shouted from the doorway. “It is time.”
Al jumped at the sound of Crank’s shout, and stepped back from Rodger, letting him go.
“I’ll be right there,” Rodger said. He looked back to Al and smiled. “Don’t worry, sir. I’m gonna make you proud. You’ll see.”
“I’m already proud of ya,” Al said. “Just be true to yourself, son, and you will always make me proud.”
“I will. Goodbye, sir.” Rodger stuck out his hand.
Al grabbed it firmly and gave it one good shake. “Goodbye, Rodger.”
Unable to stay a moment longer without bursting into the weeping wails, Rodger ducked under Crank’s outstretched hand, through the door to wait on the porch.
“Good day, Al,” Crank said. “You shall get your new recruit in a fortnight. Good luck.” As Crank led Rodger to the wagon, he asked, “You ever been to China, Dodger?”
Rodger sniffled. “No, sir.”
Crank grinned again and asked, “You want to go?”
Rodger’s mood brightened a bit. “Sure. I would love to.”
“Excellent. Because I have your first assignment.”
Rodger climbed into the wagon without looking back, because he knew that, if he did, he would start to cry. And he didn’t want Crank to think he was just a big crybaby, weeping over the loss of his father all over again.