Facing Friendly Fire
In which Dodger meets his mentor
If Dodger hadn’t known about Rex’s visit to the ranch, he still would’ve guessed that an enemy of some sort had recently been there. Warning signs flashed all over the place. Too many tracks in the soil for the hermit who lived in the house. The heap of a burned-out wagon resting in the overgrown grass. Broken furniture scattered across the porch. A dead dog lying in the middle of the yard. Dodger picked up his pace at the sight of the fly-strewn mutt—missing its tail, of course—and all but ran for the front door.
“Al!” he cried as he ran for the house. He was answered by a bullet buzzing past his left ear.
Either a well-placed warning shot or a lucky miss.
“Get down!” he shouted to Ched, and the pair of them ducked behind the shell of the wagon.
Another couple of shots struck the wagon.
Your friend isn’t very friendly, Boon said.
“Take a look around this place,” Dodger said. “Al was never much of a housekeeper, but even this is a bit much for him. Rex came through here like a tornado. Probably messed Al up along the way too. I need to get him to recognize me.”
Three more shots buried themselves in the charred wood between them and the gunman.
“Good luck with that,” Ched said.
Dodger slowly got to his feet and peered over the edge of the blackened wooden frame. He spotted the shooter propped up in the living-room window. From a distance, the fellow looked like Aloysius Jackson.
Dodger cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Al! Hey, Al! It’s me! Dodger!”
The shots paused as a familiar voice called out, “Rodger Dodger?”
Dodger winked at Ched. “Yes, sir.”
He was just able to duck in time as Al emptied his rifle into the wagon shell.
Over the barrage of fire, Ched snickered.
Seems he doesn’t wish to see you, Boon said.
“Cut that shit out, Al!” Dodger cried. When the shots died down, he risked a peek over the edge and asked, “What gives?”
“If you really are Rodger,” Al said under the distinct sounds of reloading, “then show yourself. Let me have a look at you.” The gun clicked as he reset it
Dodger thought for a moment, wondering how to get the man to believe the truth. An idea came to him. “Only if you can answer me one question.”
There came a moment of quiet, followed by the squeak of a door hinge sorely in need of oiling. “Rodger? Is that really you?”
Dodger stood up and faced the man who’d taught him everything he knew about taking another human being’s life without pity or remorse. “Yes, sir. It’s me. Been a long time, I know.”
Al limped out of the shadows of the porch and into the sunlight. For a moment, Dodger wished the man hadn’t. That way he could have gone on imagining what his mentor must look like after all these years. As it was, the truth was painful and pitiful. Aside from the fact that Al looked as old as he was, Rex had made good on his insinuations. The old man’s wrinkled face was a map of black and blue, with one eye swollen almost shut. From the way Al held his left arm, Dodger guessed it must be broken, and the man’s right arm didn’t look much better. He swayed on his feet with a grimace. There was no telling what else was wrong with Al, what was bruised and broken underneath his layer of ragged clothes.
“Al?” Dodger asked. “What did that bastard do to you?”
Al either didn’t hear the question or didn’t care. “You need to get away from me. You need to get outta here. Now.” With a sneering wince, he raised the gun again, taking a one-handed aim at Dodger’s head.
Dodger raised his hands to show he wasn’t holding a weapon, but he didn’t back down. “Al, please. I promise it really is me.”
“You don’t think I know who you are? Trouble. That’s what you are. Now, git on out of here. I ain’t got time to deal with a fool like you.” He fired just to the left of Dodger’s waist, blowing chunks of charred wood into the air.
Dodger tried his best not to flinch, a mighty difficult act, considering how close that shot had landed. Yet he knew Al was just toying with him. If the man wanted, he could’ve killed Dodger ten times over by now. So what was with warning shots after a lifetime of claiming warning shots were bullshit?
“Shoundsh like he ain’t buyin’ what you’re shelling,” Ched said.
What do we do now? Boon asked.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Dodger said without taking his eyes off of his mentor. “We need to talk.”
“Please, boy,” Al pleaded, his bruised face softening for just a moment. “Just leave me be. Ain’t I suffered enough?”
“Al, I know who did this to you.”
“No you don’t. You can’t. And you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Hell, I don’t believe me.”
Dodger wanted to laugh aloud at the idea that anything could baffle him after everything he had seen in his time aboard the Sleipnir. “I am willing to bet your next bullet I know exactly what happened to you.”
“Is that so?” Al snarled as he aimed the gun square at Dodger’s chest. “Go ahead, then, smartass. Tell me.”
Dodger fell into the routine as easily as stepping in a fresh cow pat in a grazing field. “I’m small and brown and low to the ground. I can talk when I shouldn’t, but I only talk down. I keep a pretty young redhead and a clockwork servant around. What am I?”
Al’s anger slipped into confusion. His mouth dropped open, just a bit.
“Redhead?” Ched asked in a low voice. “What’sh thish about a redhead?”
Yes, Boon said. You never mentioned a pretty redhead.
Dodger kicked out to silence the driver still hiding behind the wagon. “Am I right? If I’m wrong, then shoot me.” He raised his hands higher.
“How do you know that?” Al asked.
“Because that yippy son of a bitch made the mistake of getting us back together.”
Al gave in with a sigh, lowering his rifle and hanging his head in defeat. “You would do best to get as far away from here as you can, as fast as you can.” He raised his face to Dodger, finally showing signs of a grin. “But you never did know how to listen. Or keep the meter of your rhyme. Come on in, then; let’s get this over with. You ain’t got much time, son.”
Dodger waved for Ched to join him, and they followed Al into the dimly lit house.
The inside of the place wasn’t in much better shape than the outside. The furniture was broken apart, curtains shredded, floor scuffed and gouged. There were some signs of an attempt at cleanup, a pile of debris swept into the corner and some of the broken bits piled in another. The whole scene tore Dodger’s heart apart. Al was never what one would call neatly minded, but he was by no means a slob. No, this wasn’t hard living that made for an untidy house. This was deliberate destruction, pure and simple.
“I would say put your guns on the table,” Al said, “but the table isn’t up to it right now.”
“Geesh,” Ched said. “You I undershtand, but did they have to busht up the plashe too?”
“They started with my house,” Al said. “When I wouldn’t tell him what he wanted, that thing had his men move on to me.” He eased himself into what was left of his favorite chair and nodded to Ched. “Well, Rodger, you still as rude as ever, or are you gonna introduce me to the walking stiff that smells like a brewery?”
Dodger couldn’t help a short laugh that time. “This is Ched. He drives the train parked outside. Ched, this is Al.”
“Nish to meetcha,” Ched said as he tipped his cap at the injured man.
“Well met,” Al said. “I would offer you my hand, but they are both in a fair bit of pain.”
Boon, now made manifest by the lack of direct sunlight, also tipped his hat in greeting. Perhaps out of habit, but more likely out of the manners he never seemed to forget, despite the fact that Al couldn’t see the spirit.
“Ched,” Dodger said. “Would you run back to the train and escort the doc back here with his bag?”
“I can go,” Boon said.
I need you here, Dodger said in his newly acquired underspeak.
As you wish, Boon whispered into Dodger’s mind. And may I commend you on picking up the underspeak so quickly? I once again find myself jealous of your many talents.
“You two just go on and chat away,” Ched said, probably sensing the quiet conversation. “Don’t mind the resht of ush.”
“Just how drunk are you, son?” Al asked.
Dodger thought the question was directed at him, until he realized Al was staring at Ched.
“I’m exactly ash drunk ash I need to be,” Ched said. “Thank you very much.”
“That’s as straightforward an answer as anyone could expect,” Al said, smiling as best he could. “Thanks for the honesty.”
“My pleashure. Honeshty hash alwaysh been my polishy.”
“As if,” Boon said.
Ched ignored the spirit’s jab, nodded again to Al, then left through the open door to fetch the doc.
“Well now,” Al said. “Pull up a broken chair, and tell us what brings the high and mighty Rodger Dodger to my doorstep after all these years. Because I know you didn’t come just to see me.”
Dodger turned over a footstool and sat. “I was being serious, Al. Rex sent me to you. He told me what he did. I’m so sorry I got you into this.”
“No, son. I’m the one who’s sorry. This is my fault. It only made sense that you’d get mixed up with such a beast. I made you the monster you are.”
“Monster?” Boon asked.
Don’t ask, Roger said.
Boon pressed on. “But you’re not a monster, Dodger. You’re one of the kindest men I have ever met.”
Dodger did his best to ignore the ghost. “Al, you never did this to me. You taught me how to fight and defend myself, but you never taught me to be a son of a bitch. I did that to myself.”
“Tyler Crank did that to you,” Al snapped. “Don’t take blame for his wrongdoing. He changed you when he took you from me. Warped you. Made you love the gun for all the wrong reasons. Undid everything I taught you all those years.”
Dodger looked to the floor, unable to hold Al’s gaze with such truths bouncing between them. “Yes, sir.”
“And I know what my floor looks like. I don’t need you to count the knots for me. You look me in the eye when you speak to me.”
“Yes, sir,” Dodger said, raising his eyes again.
Al held out his hand and waggled his fingers at Dodger. “Let me see what you’re carting around in that oversized belt of yours.”
Dodger pulled Hortense and passed her over.
Al accepted her with a low whistle. “Ain’t she a beaut? A bit big for my tastes, but you always did like the full-figured lady.”
“They don’t belong to me,” Dodger explained. “I got them from the train’s last security man.”
“Took it from a dead man, did ya?” Al clicked the gun closed and handed it back to Dodger. “Figured as much.”
Dodger returned the gal to her holster with care. “I see you haven’t changed at all.”
“I haven’t had time. Been pretty busy, what with those kids you sent my way.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“That pregnant woman and her daughter? Don’t tell me you forgot them too. Though I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”
“No, I haven’t forgotten them.” Dodger didn’t bother to add that he thought about them almost every single day. “Why did Patricia and her kids stay with you? I sent them your way so you could find them a safe house, not take them in.”
“Rodger,” Al said as he leaned forward. “This is a safe house. It always was.” He paused to look around at the devastation before he relaxed into the chair again. “That is to say, it used to be, before that maniac mutt and his wrecking crew got here. I kept her and those kids safe for years.”
“Al, geesh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to strap you with a family like that.”
“Strap me?” Al grinned and gave a soft laugh. “Don’t ever think that. Those kids are little angels, far better behaved than you ever were. And that woman of yours made the best pecan pies this side of the Mississippi before she left four winters ago-”
“I told you in my letter that she isn’t my woman.”
“So you said. All I know is you sent her to me, with child, and asked me to keep her safe. That sounds like you had a bit of an investment in her. A baby boy investment to be exact.”
“Al, I swear that child isn’t mine. I told you she was a senator’s mistress. That’s how she got herself in trouble.”
“Then why was it so all-fired important that I take care of her? Huh? You never did explain.”
“No, I didn’t.” Dodger grinned. “But you did what I asked anyway.”
Al huffed. “Of course I did, boy. What else could I do?”
“I would say you’re welcome, but look what it took to send you asking after them.”
Dodger pulled the half-map from his jacket and unfolded it. “Actually, I came about this.” He held it up to Aloysius, who winced at the sight of it.
“Put that thing away, son. Ain’t you got no decency?”
“Sorry, Al, but Rex said you would know where the other half is.”
“He did, did he?”
“And you believe everything a talkin’ dog tells ya?” Al asked.
“He has you there,” Boon said.
“No,” Dodger said. “But I have very little else to go on. And I figured that, since I had a map that you signed in your own blood, you might-”
“What do you mean, ‘nope’?”
“Tain’t my blood, son.”
Dodger looked down at the torn map. “Then whose is it?”
“Rodger, really?” A hurt rose to Al’s aged eyes, something deeper than his terrible physical pain he was already in.
Who in the hell was the old man talking about? How could the blood be someone else’s? As far as Dodger knew, Al lived alone. Always had. Save for the time with Pat and her kids … Dodger stood and glanced around the room. The place was so broken up, yet hints of visitors showed through. Little visitors, to be exact. He looked down at the footstool on which he’d just spent five minutes parking his rump, and realized it wasn’t a footstool at all.
He was sitting on a child’s chair.
“Patricia?” Dodger asked. “But that can’t be! You just said she left four winters ago. You just said she and the kids were gone.”
“No,” Al said. “I said she was gone. And if you hadn’t interrupted me like the big, rude mule you always was, then you’d have let me finish my sentence with ‘God rest her soul.’”
Dodger’s mouth fell open. “She passed away?”
“Died of the consumption a few years after she birthed that boy.” Al sucked a breath through his crooked teeth. “Tragic. Such a pretty young life cut so short.”
“Then who has been taking care of her kids … all this …” Dodger’s words trailed off as the obvious smacked him in the face. Boy, oh boy! He had been slow on the draw today, hadn’t he? Then again, there was something about being around the old man that did it to him. Made him feel inadequate. Made him question his abilities and smarts. “Al? Tell me those kids aren’t still living with you. Tell me they weren’t here when Rex did all of this.”
“I wish I could,” Al said.
Dodger slumped into the chair again, running his shaking hands through his hair. Leaning forward, he propped his elbows on his knees and hung his head. “Be honest with me, Al. I want to know the truth. Did Rex hurt them?”
“No,” Al said. “Me he beat all to hell, but he was surprisingly gentle with the children. ‘Course, he had that mechanical man of his nick Sarah’s thumb to get enough blood so I could leave you that awful message. But nothing more than that. So far.”
Dodger looked to the bedrooms at the end of the hallway, then raised his eyes to his old master and asked, “Can I see them?”
Al shook his head. “Sorry, son. I’m afraid not.”
“They aren’t here,” Boon said, joining them in the living room again.
Dodger hadn’t even realized the spirit had slipped away. “What?”
“I had a look around,” Boon said. “The place is empty. He is the only one here.”
Getting to his feet, Dodger stared down at Al. “Where did he take them?”
The old man sighed, heavy and sorrowful. “If you can answer one question, you will know.”
“Al, now isn’t the time for your questions-”
“Ain’t my question needs answering.” Al reached down beside his chair and lifted something, bringing it up to greet Dodger. “Your friend left you a little present. I didn’t think you’d be foolish enough to show up for it. Thought I raised you better than to walk right into a trap.” He tossed a metal cylinder to Dodger, who snatched it in midair.
“Another message?” Boon asked.
Dodger nodded as he popped the lid on the tube and slid the tin cylinder free from its packaging.