Flash from the Past Part IV
In which Dodger remembers the winter of 1860
Dodger stood at the mouth of the cavern, watching Al strip a rabbit with his bare hands beside a roaring campfire. With a quick yank and peel, Al turned out the carcass, tossing the fur aside for possible later use. He then scooped away the guts, throwing the inedible bits into the open flames. Last, he shoved what remained—which was never much when it came to the lean game of jackrabbits—onto a branch and propped it by the others near the flames. The sizzle of fresh rabbit left Dodger’s mouth watering.
“You gonna stand there all day and watch?” Al asked without looking up. “Or are you gonna pull up a rock and join me?”
Al rinsed his hands in an already crimson bucket of water at his feet, while Dodger took in the breadth of the cavern before he took a load off.
“Amazin’,” Al said. “Ain’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” Dodger said, still looking about. “Stays pretty warm too. I thought it would be cold in here.”
“Cool in the summer, warm in the winter, with a campfire, of course.”
“Of course. Where on earth did it come from? Because I don’t remember a cave being here when I was training with you.”
“That’s because it wasn’t here. Man named Jack Coffin made this place.”
“Made it? Is that why it’s called Coffin Keep?”
“Yes, sir. The old miner moved here in ‘50 after striking it rich. Seems he got tired of defending his claim, so he milked what gold he could from the vein and moved as far from California as he could get. Thing about these territories, though, turned out to be far too flat for the man.”
Dodger smirked. “He was uncomfortable living above ground on such expanses of open range after being in the dirt for so long?”
“Yup. So, he excavated these here caves with intention of taking a bride and living happily ever after under the soil. He scooped away the earth, set the walls with brick, and as you can see, had himself a livable hole in the ground. He soon learned that while he was unhappy living above ground, there wasn’t a woman on earth who would agree to live beneath it, no matter how much gold he had stashed down there.”
“I can’t say I blame them.”
“You still hate tight places?”
“I could do without them.”
Al grunted at the idea. “Guess we all have a weakness. As for Coffin, he immediately sold the land and caves to the U.S. government, they parked a no trespassing sign on the whole affair, and that was that.”
“Seems kind of a shame that they don’t let folks come up here.”
“Seems to me exactly the kind of thing they would do. Keep something so beautiful just for their private viewing.”
At that, the pair of them fell into a quiet stupor, each staring at the flames rather than acknowledging the reason for the silence between them. The rabbits hissed and crackled. The fire sputtered. A light breeze whistled through the chilled cave.
Dodger decided to go first, seeing as how, unlike Al, he didn’t have all the time in the world to dance around the subject. “Why did you do it, Al?”
“I warned him to get off my property,” Al said. “I even counted to ten.”
“He’s a federal agent.”
“Tyler Crank is a jackass, and you know it.”
Dodger couldn’t argue with that. “Jackass or not, you can’t put a bullet in the foot of an agent and just get away with it.”
“Is that why they sent you? Because I can’t get away with it?”
Dodger looked to the rock and dirt between his feet, rather than answer such an obvious question. From the corner of his eye, Dodger watched Al set to pulling the rabbits from their stakes, tossing the hot meat into a wooden bowl between them. Half a dozen in all. Not much of a meal, but a good snack.
“Help yerself,” Al said. “More than I can eat.”
“You were expecting me,” Dodger said.
“I was expecting a guest.” Al flipped back the folds of his coat, making sure that Dodger saw the guns resting at the old man’s thin hips. “I just hoped it wouldn’t be you. But here you are, Rodger, doin’ your master’s bidding.”
Dodger glanced at the guns, wondering if Al really intended to use them. “Al, I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not here to-”
“Don’t lie to me, boy!” Al shouted, placing a hand on the butt of his gun.
His words bounced and ricocheted all along the length of the small cave, each one piercing Dodger’s heart over and over again with each rebound.
When the echo died down, Al said in a much lower tone, “Don’t lie. Not now. I knew what I was doing when I pulled my piece on Crank. I drew a line, and I said, ‘This is my side; cross if you dare.’ Well, you crossed it. So be daring, son. Don’t lie like a coward.” Al released his weapon, snapped up a rabbit and tore into it with the ferocity of a hungry animal eating its last meal.
“It’s not a lie, sir,” Dodger said. “I admit I was given your case to handle. And yes, I was instructed to use extreme prejudice, but I-”
“Extreme prejudice?” Al snorted between bites. “Is that what they call killin’ a man in cold blood now?”
“I suppose so, but you should know, sir, I refused.”
Al spit out a bit of fur or bone and wiped his chin as he eyed Dodger. “Refused? I didn’t think a proper agent had the ability to refuse his masters.”
“Yeah, I wonder where I learned it from.” Dodger tried to grin, but the humor was lost in the heat of the moment.
“Then you’re here to do what? Warn me another agent is a-comin’? Help me get my wrinkled tail to higher ground? ‘Cause you can forget all about me runnin’. I’m too old and too set in my ways to leave here, boy. Not to mention too set into that house of mine. I ain’t leavin’.”
“You don’t have to leave. I took the job but refused to handle it their way. I told them I would handle it my way, or there would be no job.”
“How did you manage that?”
“By taking responsibility for you.”
Al tossed the half-eaten rabbit into the flames with a scowl. “I see.”
“I promised them you wouldn’t cause any more trouble. That you just wanted to be left alone. So they agreed to leave you alone, as long as you behave.”
“Behave!” Al jumped to his feet and rushed Dodger, grabbing him up by the collar of his shirt and jacket. “Listen here, youngun, I ain’t some half-crazy uncle you need to vouch for. I was killin’ men and kickin’ tail long before you were even a glint in your papa’s eye.”
“I realize that, sir. I don’t mean any disrespect.”
“Then why ya comin’ into my territory, pissin’ all over my property like you plan on takin’ over?”
Dodger shoved Al away and stood to meet the old man face to angry face. “God damn it, Al! Haven’t you always wanted out of this kind of life? That’s what I’m offering you. A way out, for good. Why can’t you just take it and be grateful?”
Al held his trembling hands to his face, as if surprised that he’d laid them on Dodger in such a manner. “I’m sorry, son. I just … I can’t do this anymore. I’m in my seventies. I’m an old man, boy. I can’t just up and leave.”
“I told you I ain’t gonna make you leave.”
“Not you, son. Not you.” Al dropped onto his log again and hunched so far down that Dodger worried for a moment that the old man was going to fall over into the flames.
“Sir?” Dodger asked. “What is this really about?”
“They wanna take my home,” Al said.
Dodger returned to his seat, confused by this turn of events. “What are you talking about?”
“Why do you think Tyler Crank came to see me?”
“He said he had business with you. Business you refused to discuss.”
Al snorted again. “He had business, all right. Comin’ up in here, talkin’ about how the government owns my house and my land. Like hell they do. I paid for this land with my blood.” Al poked at the fire a bit before he added, “As well as the blood of many a man.”
“I guess Crank forgot to mention that part.” Dodger cleared his throat, dreading the next question because he was fairly sure what the answer was going to be. “Do they, sir? I mean, do they properly own the house and land?”
Al shrugged, which of course meant yes. “They set me up here. Back in the day, they said as far as the eye could see was mine, but I never signed nothin’, so I suppose it really is my fault. I just took in their whelps, gave ‘em a place to stay, taught ‘em to fight and thought that was enough payment. I always supposed I would die in my sleep in my own bed. But Crank says they own that too.”
Dodger closed his eyes and sighed. That sounded like something the powers that be would do—work a man into his old age, then come in and take everything he ever owned in the name of progress. Dodger had a pretty good idea why.
“It’s because there’s talk of the territory making statehood,” Dodger said, looking to Al again.
“I heard the rumors,” Al said. “Gonna be blood here soon. Fighting over the soil and whatnot. I suppose now is as good a time as any to be on my way.”
“You don’t have to go, sir.”
“I can’t stay, Rodger. I ain’t got no income. No work, since I stopped takin’ in the brats they were sending me. All I ever had was in that house.”
“I know. And that house is yours, or rather, it will be before I’m done.”
Al cocked his head to one side. “What do you mean?”
“I have some money put away, and I-”
“No,” Al snapped. “I won’t let you waste your hard-earned money on my problems just because you want to feel better about yourself-”
“I don’t want to, sir. I need to. That is my house too, Al. After my pa died, I never thought I would be happy again. But I spent the best years of my new life here. I won’t let them take those years away from me. I might not have much left, but I still have my integrity.” He smiled, hoping Al would remember the words they’d last spoken to one another, ten years ago.
Al gave a sad little frown and shook his head. “Do you, son? ‘Cause from the tales I’ve been hearin’, I’m not so sure.”
Dodger’s face flushed with heat. It had been years since he’d gone red with embarrassment, but if there was someone who could bring it out in him, Al would be the man.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dodger lied.
“They say you will kill a man as soon as look at him,” Al said.
“I do what needs to be done.”
“They say you’re the best at handling the problem cases, because you ain’t got a heart.”
“A heart don’t get the work done.”
“Well they say you don’t care who you kill, as long as you get the job done.”
“I do what I have to. That’s what you taught me.”
“I didn’t teach you that. They say you’ll tear through a mother to get to her son.”
“They say a lot of things about you too!” Dodger shouted, and that ended Al’s accusations.
The pair fell quiet again. Dodger helped himself to the cooled flesh of a rabbit, gnawing away at the lean meat for lack of anything better to do, or say. Al prodded the flames a bit more. The breeze grew harder, threatening to become a full-blown wind.
“Answer me one question,” Al said. “Just for old times’ sake.”
“Sure,” Dodger said. “You know you only have to ask.”
“I arrive in total silence, but I can cause much fuss. Soft as a blanket, yet powdered like dust. I am lovely to view, but disappear at a touch. What am I?”
“Snow,” Dodger said without a second thought.
“Impressive. My word, son, you’ve went and got smart on me too.”
“Speaking of snow, I should be on my way before it starts.” Dodger tossed the meat into the fire and got to his feet.
“You ain’t gotta go, son.”
Dodger glanced down to Al at that echo of old words.
“You can stay a few days,” Al said. “We can catch up. Been years since you came to see me.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Dodger said. “I’ve just been busy.”
“Like I said, I heard all about how busy you’ve been.”
Dodger didn’t like where this was going. “What exactly did Crank tell you about me?”
“Enough to know the truth. Enough to worry about you, and your integrity.”
“You worry about yourself, old timer. Me and my integrity are just fine.” Dodger made to leave, turning his back on his mentor.
“I can’t,” Dodger said, stopping but not turning about. Over his shoulder, he added, “I need to get back and settle this mess about your place, or you’re gonna lose it.”
“No, Rodger,” Al said, his voice coming closer. The old man laid a wrinkled, cold hand on Dodger’s shoulder. “I mean stay away from them. You don’t gotta go back, son. You can just walk away.”
“Like you did?”
“No, you will do it better than I did, because you’re still young. And you won’t compromise, just quit. You still have your whole life ahead of you. Take a wife, start a family. Don’t go back to them. You have so much good left in you, boy, I can feel it. But they will ruin you. They ruin everyone. You’ll never be happy.”
“I am happy.”
“No you’re not, son. You just think you are.”
“I know this is hard for you to understand, but I like what I do. It gives me purpose.”
“Then it’s already too late.” Al released Dodger. “It’s my fault you’re like this. I took a pure young soul and made a monster out of him. I’m sorry I did this to you, boy.”
“Al, I stopped being a pure soul when I took my first life. And I did that on my own, before we ever met.”
“Then for what it’s worth, I’m sorry I ever met you. Maybe if I hadn’t come into your life, hadn’t trained you so well, then you wouldn’t be the man you are. Who knows who you would be instead, but anything is better than this.”
Dodger balled his fists at that. He knew what the old man meant, but it didn’t make it any easier to swallow. “I’m not sorry we met; I’m just sorry we can’t meet again. Goodbye, sir.”
Al said nothing more as Dodger walked away with no intention of ever coming back.