In which Dodger doesn’t have time to grieve
Dodger stood at the meeting-cab window, staring at the scrolling scenery, waiting to hear word of the girl. Behind him, Boon and Ched anxiously awaited as well. Dodger didn’t doubt that the child’s prognosis would be anything but good. However, he knew the other two weren’t waiting on news of Sarah. They were wondering when and if Dodger planned on speaking again. Since his return to the line, he hadn’t said a thing. He just passed over the map to the doc, washed his hands of his mentor’s blood, then parked himself in front of the window to watch the world go by. Somewhere to his right, a door opened, and the presence of others filled the cab.
“The girl’s still out,” the doc said. “I’m not certain what that Rex gave her, but she isn’t any worse for wear. I am also not sure how long it will be before she wakes.”
“She does seem healthy enough,” Lelanea said.
“Thank goodness for that,” Boon said.
Dodger dipped his head, but said nothing.
“Boon explained that the boy was never really there,” the doc said. “You think that animal is holding him hostage?”
Dodger gave another slight nod. He kept his gaze on the landscape beyond the meeting-cab window.
“Do you think it is wise to keep the girl with us?” Boon asked.
“Probably not,” the doc said. “But we certainly can’t leave her in Rex’s path again. This is the safest place for her for now.”
“I know a place where no one would find her,” Lelanea said.
Dodger turned to face her.
“Even if they could,” Lelanea continued, “there is no way they could reach her. And she would be well taken care of.” She crossed her arms, looking none too happy as she glared at Dodger.
Which told everyone exactly where she meant.
“The Roshe?” Ched asked.
“That’s actually a good idea,” Boon said.
“No,” Dodger finally said. “She stays with us.”
“Actually, Lelanea is right,” the doc said. “If we could get Miss Rebecca to help, I’m certain they could keep the young lady safe.”
“Really?” Dodger asked. “You think the best place for a young girl who just lost her family is a bordello full of vampire prostitutes?”
The crewmembers looked to one another while Dodger considered the options.
“Don’t matter no waysh,” Ched said. “We can’t make the Roshe and be at that thingsh doghoush in the time we have left.”
“We still have over a week and a half,” Dodger said.
“Yeah, Sharge, but all that shand around the Roshe cutsh our travlin’ time in half.”
“‘Tis true,” the doc said. “I equipped the Sleipnir with interlocked slats to maneuver over sand, but it is a tricky bit of choreography.”
“Missh Lelanea could take her,” Ched said. “She’s pretty fasht. Could be there and back in a blink.”
“I don’t give rides,” Lelanea said, a growl lacing her words.
“I wash thinking you could take the Rhino, ma’am, but that’sh not a bad idea either. She could hang on to your fur. Shounds right comfy, too.”
Lelanea snarled again.
“No,” Dodger said again, cutting the discussion short. “We can keep her safer on the train.”
“As you wish, Mr. Dodger,” the doc said.
“Good,” Feng said as he joined them. “Because our driver is right. We are hard pressed to make our deadline as it is.” He rushed to the doc’s desk, pushing the various books and pens aside to make room for the map, which he then spread across the cleared surface.
Dodger glanced down at it and at the glaring problem of which Feng spoke. “You have to be kidding me.”
“I wish I were.”
Although Feng had done his best to reattach the torn parchments, it still wasn’t a complete map. It reached another three-fourths of the way across the states, but stopped just short of their goal, California. A solid black line ran across the map, as well as a series of concentric rings drawn around the upper part of the Utah Territories.
“That’sh it?” Ched said.
“That is all Dodger brought back,” Feng said. “I think this is Rex’s idea of helping.” Feng ran his finger along a black line that ran across Nebraska and the Wyoming Territories and into Salt Lake City. “This is part of the Union Pacific. The paths have been laid, the way has been cleared, and if we follow beside the tracks, it’s our quickest best bet to get into California.”
“That’sh a good idea,” Ched said. “But where are we headed?”
“Here.” Feng tapped his finger on the red rings, painted much like a target.
“The Uintah Reservation,” Dodger said. “But why would he send us there?”
No one spoke. They did, however, do a lot of shuffling and glancing around and clearing of throats.
“Come on,” Dodger said. “Fess up.”
“I might have,” the doc said, “maybe, sort of, inadvertently angered the members of the Ute tribes?”
“They call him Toedgishum,” Lelanea said.
“The Big Lie?” Dodger asked. He glanced to the doc. “What did you do?”
“I might have sold them a defunct product,” the doc said.
“To be fair,” Lelanea said, “he did what he thought they asked. But I’m afraid our translations got a bit mixed up.”
“What was it?” Dodger asked.
“They asked for a machine to feed their crops,” the doc explained. “Apparently they wanted a rain maker, or at the very least, an irrigation system. The land they occupy is very dry and almost barren, you see. And the government is very bossy over the poor natives. They are practically forcing those poor folks to farm that dust-”
“I know,” Dodger said. “What did you make them instead?”
The doc shrank a little into himself as he said, “A machine that would freeze their crops.”
Dodger groaned as he ran his hand over his face.
“I thought it was an odd request,” the doc said. “But far be it from me to judge the wants and needs of others.”
“Ched,” Dodger said, “go and let Torque know where we are headed next.”
“Aye, Sharge,” Ched said.
“I’ll go with you,” Boon said.
The men slipped off to the engine cab as if they couldn’t get away fast enough.
“I’m going to go and keep an eye on that child,” the doc said. “I don’t want her to be alone when she wakes.”
“I’ll get supper on,” Feng said. “It’s getting late, and I’m sure everyone is getting peckish. Yes?”
The two men exited the far end of the cab together, leaving Dodger alone with Lelanea. Dodger turned to the window again, half wanting her to leave him be, and half wanting her to stay with him. Her gentle hand touched his shoulder.
“I’m very sorry about your loss,” she whispered.
“I lost him a long time ago,” Dodger said. “I’m just lucky I got to say goodbye on good terms this time.”
“He seemed like a fine man.”
Dodger looked to her. “He was unbearable. Cynical. Moody. Controlling. And he was wonderful, Lelanea. He was my pa when I didn’t have one. My uncle. My grandpa. He was everything.”
“You loved him.”
“I did. I’m not ashamed of it. I was once, a long time ago. You couldn’t have paid me a year’s salary to admit it aloud.” Dodger stroked the window sash of the Sleipnir. “But Feng is right; this train brings it all out in you. I loved him, and I’m not ashamed to say it.”
“Good. There aren’t enough admissions of love in this world. It’s good to hear it said.” She smiled, soft and caring.
“I should get to the engine cab and help Ched plot our course.”
Lelanea shook her head. “No. You should go to your quarters and have a moment alone. You need to grieve, Dodger. You have to deal with this.”
“I don’t have time for all that-”
“Make time. You need to mourn him, Dodger. You claim you aren’t ashamed to admit your affection for the man, but you have yet to shed a tear for him.”
“I don’t need to grieve. I’m fine. Besides, I’m not much for crying.”
Lelanea ran a finger across his damp cheek and rubbed the salty tear between her fingers. “Is that so?”
Dodger didn’t know how to respond to that.
“Boon overheard your last moments with him,” Lelanea said softly. “He doesn’t want you to know that he shared them with us. But I want you to know that I think they were beautiful.”
While not ashamed to admit his love for his mentor, Dodger found himself embarrassed at the crew knowing of his last words with Al. He tried to speak, to make up excuses for why he said what he did, but Lelanea touched Dodger’s lips with a slender finger, hushing him before he could speak.
“We are happy with you too, Dodger,” she said. “We just want you to know that. You may have found your place with us, but I think we’ve found more of a place with you. You belong here. You always did and always will.”
He nodded, unable to speak for fear of what his tongue might say.
She cupped his cheek and held his gaze for a moment, then turned and headed for the engine cab, leaving him alone at last.
Through burning eyes, Dodger made his way back to his quarters, where he collapsed onto his cot and finally let it all go. He wept not only for the passing of his mentor, but for all the woes and troubles he’d faced in his youth, for the lives he’d taken without care in his career, and for the terrible end Rex promised the world if the crew of the Sleipnir couldn’t stop him. But most of all, he wept because it was high time he did.
He wept because he couldn’t do anything else.
End Volume Seven