In which Dodger has to pacify an angry spirit
It took the better part of a day to reach the outskirts of Kansas, then another few hours to arrive at the old ranch where Dodger spent the later part of his troubled youth. There was a pause along the way to jerk some water, but again the train failed to stop in search of fuel. This was a pressing issue in Dodger’s mind, but one that could wait until later to discuss. There were far more important things to think about instead of the seemingly endless fuel source, though Dodger supposed that was yet another reason Rex wanted the train in the first place.
Dodger spent most of the ride in his quarters, catching up on much-needed sleep and cleaning the girls. He also spent an unhealthy amount of time contemplating the latest turn of events. Rex wasn’t quite as clever as he claimed if he thought for a fleeting moment that Dodger would let that animal get a hold of either the train or the crew. There was no way in heaven or hell, no possible reason in the world he could think of that would force him to bring the train straight to the dog’s damned door. Even with the Pack’s life in the balance, Dodger had no intention of just rolling over and showing his belly. There had to be another way to settle this. Dodger needed a fantastic plan, and the mutt had made the mistake of sending Dodger to the one man on earth who could devise just such an arrangement.
When the time arrived to seek out his mentor, Dodger gathered the crew in the meeting cab and doled out their assignments.
“Ched,” Dodger said as he loaded Florence. “You and Boon come with me. The rest of you stay here and guard the train. I half expect this is an attempt to get me off of the line long enough to snatch her.”
“Nah,” Ched said. “If he wanted to jusht take the train, he would’ve done that back at Shelina.”
Dodger holstered one girl and turned to her sister. “Either way, I want the doc to stay at the helm and keep the train ready to run. The rest of you take up arms and keep an eye out for trouble.”
“Understood,” the doc said. “There should be plenty of water to keep her on a low boil. We can tap the potable if need be. And there is always the quick primer.”
“Torque,” Dodger said. “I need you to stay at the helm and protect the doc.”
“I don’t think so,” Mr. Torque said. “I do not take up arms.”
“You will today.”
Mr. Torque crossed his metal arms and poked his copper nose into the air. “And why should I?”
“Because if that mutt gets a hold of you,” the doc said, “he is going to do what I am always threatening to do: melt you down into a copper piss pot. Think of what a delight it will be to house that little dog’s wee for the rest of your existence!”
“It will be a far sight better than being your slave!”
Dodger opened his mouth to try to stop the argument, but Torque shoved a copper finger his way, almost pressing the cold digit against Dodger’s lips.
“Don’t you dare say it,” the clockwork butler said. “I am tired of being everyone’s mechanical toy at the mere mention of the word swordfish.”
At the sound of the word, even from his own mouth, Mr. Torque went slack and silent.
“Oh dear,” the doc said. “I didn’t think it would work when he said it.” Professor Dittmeyer fiddled with the mechanical man’s various buttons and levers until Mr. Torque whirred to life again.
The servant remained suspiciously quiet as a distinct burnished hue crept along the contours of his copper face.
“Back to the point,” Dodger said. “Lelanea, you patrol the cars, and Feng, you take the roof, but keep a low profile. No need to make yourself a target.”
“Roger, Dodger,” Feng said, and gave a little salute.
Dodger cut his eyes at the mystic.
“Oops,” Feng said. “I meant I understood. Sorry.”
Dodger shook his head at the man, then gave Hortense’s full cylinders a quick spin each, making sure she was ready for the possible coming action. Not that he expected any from Al, but there was a chance that Rex had left behind some of his goons to deal with. “All righty, then. That should do it. I haven’t seen or spoken with Aloysius for a number of years, and the last things I had to say to the man weren’t exactly words of kindness.”
“I thought he was your mentor?” Feng asked.
“He was, but I never said he was my friend.”
“Point taken. Are you certain he will be here?”
“I reckon Rex would’ve left me more detailed instructions if Al wasn’t holing up in the same place he always did. I also get the impression that the mutt did quite a number on old Al, so there is an excellent chance he will be in a ‘shoot first, shoot later, and the questions can go to hell’ kind of mood.”
“You sound like you need far more protecting than we do,” Lelanea said.
“Not at all,” Dodger said. “Once Al figures out who I am, it should work out. We might have a bit of a tussle, but he will talk with me. Eventually.”
“Please be cautious, Mr. Dodger,” the doc said. “I am running dangerously low on medicinal compounds. Normally, I would send Feng out with a shopping list, but now that the TAP is in disrepair, we are strapped for ingredients.”
“I shee how it ish,” Ched said. “Don’t bother worrying about me. Who caresh if old Ched takesh a bullet or two?”
“Who caresh indeed,” the doc said. “You, I can sew up and move on. Dodger needs a bit more care.”
“Speaking of supplies,” Dodger said. “I’m running low on clips too.” He tapped his gun belt.
“Again, not much can be done without the portal. I’m afraid we all have grown a bit too dependent upon it.”
“If someone can help me,” Boon said, “I can teach them to cast some ammo the old-fashioned way. They won’t be silver, and it will take time.”
“It will be time well spent,” Lelanea said.
The pair glanced to one another for a brief, soft, loving moment.
Dodger’s stomach turned at the sickeningly sweet sight. “We’ll cross that bridge later, you two. First we need to find Al and the other half of this map. Then you can have your much-deserved quality time.”
“Of course,” the lovebirds said in unison, then turned away from one another with matching pink cheeks.
“And doc?” Dodger said, ignoring the blushing couple. “I need to ask a favor of you when I return.”
“Anything,” the doc said.
“When we get back on the road, I need you to explain to me why, although we stop for water with the frequency of a salt-addicted mule, we have yet to stop for fuel in the few weeks I’ve been aboard.”
The doc gave an impish grin as that mischievous gleam flickered in his eyes. “With pleasure, Mr. Dodger. With great pleasure.”
Guns loaded and instructions dealt, Dodger bade the crew farewell and headed to the ranch in the distance with his posse in tow. Dodger had Torque park the line about a quarter-mile away. Normally, he would’ve had the train park much farther out, so as not to spook the locals, but in this case, he wanted it where he could see it.
“Thish plashe ish a dump,” Ched said.
Dodger glanced up to the rundown house, the fallow fields and the broken fence ahead of them. “It’s just a little shabby. That’s all. It was old when I lived here, and that was twenty years before this territory was even a state. This house has seen a lot of trouble.” Dodger smirked as memories flooded him. “As well as a lot of happiness.”
“Happinessh don’t mend the fensh. A dump ish a dump. I thought thish man worked for the Fedsh? That should be good money.”
“What made you think that? I never said he did.”
“Becaush you shaid your real job wash with the Fedsh. And you shaid thish man trained you. Hensh, he worksh for the Fedsh too.”
“Worked. As in past tense. He worked for them years ago, but left the job under bad terms.”
“Why are we walkin’?”
“Because it’s good for you.”
“The Rhino would get ush there in a quarter of the time.”
“Aside from the fact that I want the Sleipnir to be ready to roll at a moment’s notice, in the time it would take to disengage and prep the Rhino, we could walk to the ranch and back. Twice.”
“Shuit yourshelf. I wash only thinkin’ of you.”
“I’m sure you were.”
They walked along in quiet for a little bit, when Dodger began to wonder if the always gabby Boon was even there at all. The sunshine kept the spirit invisible. Normally in these circumstances, Boon announced his proximity through a mental presence, just so he didn’t sneak up on you. But Dodger didn’t feel a thing as they walked along.
“Boon?” Dodger asked. “You still with us?”
Yes, Boon said.
“Good. Just checking.”
Ched said, in as hushed a voice as he could manage, which was just his usual voice with the added hiss of someone pretending to whisper, “He’sh shulkin’.”
I am not, Boon said.
“Yesh you are.”
I am not!
“Shure, whatever you shay. Shulkey Mc’shulkshalot.”
I am not sulking. I just … I don’t feel like talking.
Now that was a mighty unusual thing for the normally talkative man to say. Dodger pondered the tone of the spirit, the way he spoke as if embarrassed about something.
Ah, that was it, then.
“I get it,” Dodger said. “I’m sorry I called you two out about flirting during a security debriefing.”
It wasn’t that, Boon said, almost as if he were apologizing.
“Then what is it?”
Boon went quiet again.
“Come on, Boon,” Dodger said. “I can’t have my right-hand man mad at me. At least tell me what it is so I can-”
“He’sh jealoush ‘caush you’re shmarter than he ish,” Ched said.
Dodger snapped his attention to the driver. “What?”
“Shure. He’sh been hemmin’ and hawin’ about it for daysh. Dodger knowsh thish, and Dodger knowsh that. I’m getting’ pretty shick of hearin’ about it.”
Boon didn’t argue. Dodger still couldn’t feel him hanging about.
“Boon?” Dodger asked.
Dodger came to a stop. “Boon? God damn it, you better still be here, and you better answer me.”
Yes, sir, Boon said with a soft sigh.
“Great gravy, not that again. Look, I can’t help the way I am made anymore than you can. I ain’t smart; I’m just too curious for my own good.”
No, Dodger. You’re wrong. You think about things I never did. Like that stuff about the fuel. I never considered that we didn’t stop for coal. I mean, I knew how a steam engine was supposed to work, I just figured the doc had it stored somewhere. I thought Feng was just a wise old man. Hell, it took me a long time to realize Ched was not alive. I guess I took too much for granted. But you? You figured it all out in a few weeks. You’re so smart. As smart as the doc, I would guess.
“No I ain’t-”
Stop it. All right? Just drop the hayseed act.
Dodger started at the echo of similar words his arch-rival had spoken just a few days before.
You don’t have to act around us, Boon said. We all know you’re clever. I just wish I had been as clever as you when I had the job. I might not be in this predicament to begin with.
Dodger didn’t need to hear any more to realize what was this was all about. With the possible promise of Boon’s eventual recovery, the man was worried about his place aboard the train. He now saw Dodger as a threat to his position. Dodger was competition instead of a friend.
“Ched,” Dodger said. “Go on a bit. We will catch up in a minute.”
“No way, Joshay,” Ched said. “If you think I am misshing out on this little showdown …” The driver paused as he caught sight of Dodger’s sneer. “I’ll jusht moshey along. Shall I?”
Once the not-dead man was on his way, Dodger said, “Boon, I want you to listen to me very carefully, because I am only going to say the following words once. Do you understand me?”
No response came.
“I said do you understand?” Dodger asked again.
The spirit whispered, Yeah.
Dodger swallowed his pride and said his piece. “I’ll admit I have a knack for understanding things, but it is more out of necessity than anything else. I just recognize a lot of what the doc says and does because my dad spoke in the same manner. My father was an inventor, you see, just like the doc. Understand? Most of my smarts are just years of living with someone smarter than me. Maybe he rubbed off on me a bit; I don’t claim to know. You say you aren’t clever, but that just isn’t true. It is easy to appear like the biggest dullard on the planet when a man is half-blinded by love, and you just-”
I have not been blinded by-
“Let me finish.”
Boon went quiet again.
“Now,” Dodger continued, “if I had as beautiful a woman as that fawning over me my every waking moment, I might ignore a thing or two myself. Hell, I reckon I’d forget my own name. I don’t have a woman like her, but I do have a job. Yes, you had the same job, and yes you blew it because your attention was elsewhere.”
The spirit huffed, but he didn’t argue the point. How could he?
A few hundred feet away, Ched gave a soft laugh. So much for the not-dead man mosheying along.
“Boon, I am not better than you in any way. I’m just a lonely man who only ever had one mistress he ever cared about, but my work never loved me back. Miss Lelanea loves you, Boon. Anyone with eyes can see I am not the man she wants. You have to know that much. You also should know that when this is over, when it all works out, you are welcome to your old job.”
Boon gasped. Dodger, I can’t just take your-
“It’s not a choice. It’s an order. The job has always been yours. When you get back on your feet, you will outrank me by virtue of seniority.”
But what will you do?
“I’ll think of something to keep me busy.” Dodger grinned and started walking again.
The spirit laughed. Thanks, Dodger. I apologize for being ornery. I know I can be a bit of a moaner at times.
“Hey, you’re a spirit. You’re entitled to a bit of moaning.”
Seriously, thank you. You’re quite a man. And don’t fret about not having a true love. Lucky is the woman who snags you in her net.
“You keep saying that, and I will start believing it.”
“You two over your loversh shpat?” Ched asked as they joined up with him.
“Shure,” Dodger said. “He promised to start me on a proper courtship when we get back.”
It’s true, Boon said, playing along. I’m gonna do this thing right. Make an honest man out of him.
They were still laughing about it when they reached the rundown picket fence that bordered Al’s home.