Flash from the Past Part II
In which Dodger remembers the summer of 1848
“Are you certain you want to do this?” Al asked.
“I sure am!” Rodger said. “I know for a fact that you can’t keep me tied up for long. No matter what you do.”
Al tutted as he swung the end of the rope back and forth. “Are you sure? You’ve only had a week’s practice.”
“I only needed a week. I’m a fast learner. You’ve seen how well I’ve done. You said yourself that you’ve never seen the likes of it.”
“Oh come on, Al. You know I’m the best agent you’ve ever trained. I shoot the best, throw blades the best. Why, just last week, you said you’ve never seen a kid my age who could track the way I do. It’s only natural that I would be so good at escaping.”
“Sure.” Rodger patted the old man on the shoulder. “It’s okay to keep trying to teach me stuff, even though I am better then you at most things.”
Al nodded. “I reckon you’re right. You are pretty good at everything I done taught you.”
“Good? I’m the best.”
“Yes, son, you’re the best. But, still, this last rope work is really hard to overcome. I’ve never had much luck at it myself.”
“Then I should be able to get out real easy.”
“Makes sense that you could, but I just don’t know.”
Rodger huffed. “I’ll tell you what: You tie me up the best you can, and if I can’t break out of it, I will massage your bunions for a whole week without you having to ask and without griping about how much I hate touching your nasty, gnarled-up feet. Deal?”
Al looked up to him. “You mean that? You won’t gripe about it? A whole week? Every night?”
“And every morning if it means you will just tie me up already.”
“You got yourself a deal, boy.” Al whipped the end of the rope with a bright snap, readying it for the bet. “I’ll try to make this real hard on you. That way you might have to struggle before you just slip right out. Make it look hard so I don’t feel so bad about not being able to do it myself. Sound good?”
“Sure. Sounds great.”
Al did as asked, binding Rodger with the rope.
Two hours later, Rodger began to wonder what had gone wrong. He struggled with the binding and with breathing. Al had tied him up pretty tight this time. But, to be fair, it was what Rodger asked for.
“Having trouble breathin’?” Al asked for the umpteenth time.
Rodger didn’t answer.
His first lesson in being tied up was to puff up his chest with a deep breath and hold it while being bound. That way, he could use the slack of his normal breathing to escape. That he had done, but it didn’t help much. The second lesson was to conserve his breath for the task of escaping. Hence his silence on the matter. His third was to try to free his hands first so he could untie the other ropes later. The fourth lesson was to kick off his shoes so he could slip the ropes down his ankles. But Al didn’t just tie up his ankles this time. Or just his wrists.
This time, Al hogtied him.
Rodger lay face-down in the dirt, hands and feet bound together in an intricate pattern of twists and knots. Al went the extra mile by wrapping the rope a few times around his chest too, taking long enough to force Rodger to exhale and allow all of that precious slack to slip away. By some mercy of fate, or probably because Al knew Rodger would try to chew the rope, Al chose not to thread the rope through Rodger’s mouth. He wriggled and writhed, but it was no good. The ropes were too tight. The pattern was too constrictive. He glanced to the porch, from which Al watched him.
Al rocked his chair slowly, grinning like an ape at Rodger’s discomfort. “Give up, son?”
“No … sir …” Rodger said between gasps.
“Sounds like you’re having trouble catching your breath. Now you tell me if that gets too tight. No sense in killing yourself just to prove I was right. I don’t reckon our boss men would appreciate that much.”
Rodger snarled at the idea. Mostly because Al was right.
When Al started tying Rodger down earlier that week, the old man explained that the art of escape, like so many other things, would take some time to perfect. Yet Rodger seemed to take to the task right away. The first ten times, he escaped in five minutes or less. As the week progressed, he escaped time and time again, usually without much effort, and always within minutes of being bound. But now, face-down in the yard with his chest burning and his eyes stinging and his mouth full of dirt, Rodger was pretty sure Al had conned him, and that he and those awful bunions had a week-long intimate engagement.
“Come on,” Al said. “Just admit you were wrong and I was right.”
“You … tricked … me …” Rodger gasped.
“No. I just lulled you into a false sense of security.” Al got up from his rocking chair and hopped down off the porch to join Rodger on the ground. He leaned in close and grinned. “You feeling pretty embarrassed right about now?”
Rodger nodded as best he could.
“Good,” Al said. “Easiest thing I ever taught anyone. You’re right; you are a fast learner.”
While Al laughed aloud, Rodger got it. He understood the real lesson Al had been teaching all week long. Letting Rodger get all confident about something he knew nothing about, then turning the tables on him when Rodger clamped down and swallowed the bait of his own wretched assuredness. The whole thing sort of hurt his feelings. He thought Al liked him. Why trick him like this?
“Why?” Rodger asked.
“Because,” Al said, losing the grin in favor of a serious look, “you were right about that other stuff too. You are the sharpest shot I have seen in a long time. You can throw a blade better than the best man I can remember teachin’. You track like a hunter with twice your experience. And yes, you did get out of a few of my best rope tricks this week. But you’ve also been strutting and crowing about yourself a bit too much here lately. Rodger, you got to learn some humility, son. Just because you are good at something, it don’t mean you need to show off. In fact, it’s best if folks don’t know just how good you are. Makes the job easier when a man underestimates you. A humble man draws no attention, so when the dust settles, no one remembers him. Understood?”
“Yes … sir.”
“Admittedly, it might be part my fault for praising you so much here lately, but I praise you because you’ve worked so hard, and because you deserve to know just what your limits are, even if they are pretty darned unlimited. Still, you need to keep in mind that it’s better to be a nobody who knows exactly what he can do, than somebody who can’t do anything at all.”
“Yes … sir.
“Do you want me to let you go?”
“Not … yet,” Rodger gasped, lest he spend a week rubbing those awful bunions.
“That pride is gonna get you dead one day, son. I’ll tell you what. I’ll start working these knots loose, and if you can answer me one question before I am done, we will call off the bet, like it never happened. If you can’t, well, you owe my aching feet some attention. Deal?”
Rodger groaned. Was this really the best time for such nonsense? His pride wanted him to get free on his own, but his body was screaming at him to take the riddle, or even rub those damned feet for a week. Anything to breathe normally again!
“Ask,” Rodger whispered.
Al rubbed his hands together and squatted beside Rodger. “It changes its size when it spreads, not grows. Harbors white stallions lined up in their rows. It can hide the truth, no matter what shows. The answer is sitting right under your nose.”
While Al set to untying the knots—at an exaggeratedly slow rate, for which Rodger was grateful—Rodger turned his mind to the riddle. Spreads, not grows. That meant something that got wide, not tall. White stallions in a row? No, rows. More than one. What could that mean?
“Fourth of the way done,” Al said.
Rodger closed his eyes and thought hard about the stallions. White and in rows. Like racehorses chomping at their bits? Darn it! What was it?
“Halfway,” Al said. “Time’s a-wastin’.”
“I’ll … get … it,” Rodger gasped.
“I’m sure you will. Eventually.” Al chuckled again.
Rodger ignored the laughter and squeezed his eyed so tight that they sparked with lights behind his lids. It hid the truth, no matter what showed. So it looked like one thing but could mean another. That didn’t help. The answer was under his nose. What was under his nose now? Dirt. Dirt. And more dirt.
“Not much longer now,” Al said.
Rodger was fairly sure the answer wasn’t dirt. He had so much of the stuff in his teeth and mouth now that …
Teeth and mouth.
White horses chomping at the bit.
Hiding the truth.
Something that spread out, not grew up.
Rodger knew the answer.
“A smile,” Rodger said.
“What was that?” Al asked, still working the knots free.
“Smile! Smile! Smile!”
Al slipped the last bit of rope free, allowing Rodger to relax and roll away from him.
Rodger coughed and sputtered as he rubbed at his wrists. “Did I get it?”
“You sure did,” Al said. “Good work, son. I knew you could.”
Sitting up, Rodger felt his face go hot with embarrassment again as he gathered the courage to say what needed to be said. “Al? I’m real sorry I’ve been so cocky.”
“Don’t sweat it. We all get proud. The real trick is not to wear it like a fancy multicolored coat, or else someone will kill you for it.”
“Come on, then,” Al said. “Let’s get you some water, and then you can take the rest of the day off. I think you’ve learned enough for one mornin’. Don’t you?”
Al helped Rodger to his feet, brushing the dirt off as he did.
“Thanks,” Rodger said.
“You should thank yourself,” Al said. “You did good on that riddle. Thinking under fire is a hard task. You did me proud.”
Rodger nodded, but he didn’t grin or smile or beam. The praise he’d thought he deserved just a few hours before now left him humbled. He wasn’t sure he would be ever able to accept praise again.