“Ignore them,” Lelanea said. “Go on. Tell us what this is all about. You will be hard pressed to share something we would find too outlandish to believe.”
Jones drew a deep breath and exhaled very slowly before he started again. “Fall of last year, about three months after you came and went, a man arrived claiming he was a representative of yours. A friend, he said.”
“Friend?” the doc asked.
“Rex?” Dodger guessed.
“Yes,” Jones said. “He arrived bearing apologies and offering to make reparations for your mistake.”
“What an odd thing to say,” the doc said.
“You should know,” Dodger said, “Rex is no friend of ours.”
“Certainly not. A fiend, at best.”
“We didn’t know that at the time,” Jones said. “We were just glad to see him. We had finally figured out how to make the ICE machine work for us, and needed all the technical help we could get.”
“He helped you set up your freezing production?” Lelanea asked.
“I’m afraid so. Without him, we wouldn’t have gotten done quite so quickly. We could have managed, but it would’ve taken much longer. He and his men had it done in days. We tried to find you before Rex arrived, but you are a hard man to pin down.”
“That was all?” Dodger asked. “He just wanted to help you set up your business?”
“That’s all,” Jones said. “Well, that and he wanted a pair of bison.”
“Oh dear,” the doc said. “I can almost imagine why.”
“We couldn’t have dreamed why,” Jones said. “Normally we wouldn’t consider them ours to give away, but he helped us when we really needed it, so we allowed him to take two bison with him.”
“How convenient he came along when he did,” the doc said.
Dodger didn’t miss the sarcasm in the doc’s voice. “Did you meet him face to face, or did he speak through his manservant.”
“Face to face,” Jones said. “I worked very closely with him. He spoke a little Ute, but he kept me nearby for translations.”
“What did he look like?”
“A little under six foot, on the heavy side, gray at the temples. He spoke with a slight Southern accent, and talked very highbrow. It was all I could do to keep up with him sometimes. He was also incredibly polite. It was almost impossible to say no to him. The first time, at least.”
Dodger rubbed his stubbly chin in thought. That seemed to pan out with what he knew of Canis Rex. If all of this happened over a half of a year ago, then Rex was still human. As were his minions. It was a few months after that when he began to have some success with his experiments on the Pack, and then another couple of weeks before they shoved the man into his own devilish machine. Dodger would bet a dollar to a biscuit that those bison played some part in Rex’s horrible experiments, both with the Pack and with Boon.
As Dodger contemplated the possibilities, the doc asked, “First time? You mean he returned?”
“Yes,” Jones said. “He revisited us just yesterday. This time, it was very different. You aren’t going to believe me, but he arrived by air, in some kind of flying contraption.”
“The Phoenix,” Dodger said.
Jones blinked in surprise. “That is what he called it, yes. You have seen it?”
“Ha!” the doc snapped. “Seen it? I drafted the original-”
“Yes, Jones, we’ve seen it,” Dodger said over the doc. No need for the natives to know where Rex got his ideas from. “I take it he refused to come down from his perch this time?”
“Correct. He sent his manservant to deliver three things in his stead. The first was his voice. I don’t claim to understand how, but his manservant projected Rex’s voice from some kind of contraption.”
“Another cylinder recording,” the doc said.
“What did he say?” Dodger asked.
“He thanked us for the use of the bison,” Jones said. “And he warned us against you, Mr. Dodger. He said you were from the government and would arrive soon to take the ICE machine away from us.”
“Son of a …” Dodger whispered. “Jones, you know I have no intention of-”
“I know. But you have to understand, Mr. Dodger, at the time, we didn’t know you were with the professor and his crew. We thought we could trust Rex. He even prepared us for your arrival. He said we should give you an envelope his manservant left with us. That the contents of the envelope would make you go away and leave us alone.”
“You don’t happen to have it with you?” Dodger asked.
“My chieftain is holding on to it. I don’t even know what is inside of it. He says he will only give it to the White Crow when the time is right.”
“White Crow,” Lelanea echoed.
“Sheemsh you have gone and earned yourshelf a tribal name, Sharge,” Ched said. “Congratulashonsh.”
Dodger waved away the jest. “When is the right time?”
Jones swallowed hard and said, “After you help us with the third thing Rex left behind.”
“Buffalo. He took two bison, but returned with three. He said they were the offspring of the pair he mated.”
“Poppycock!” the doc shouted. “The bison gestation period is almost three hundred days. They couldn’t have produced one calf in that time, let alone three calves.”
“Not three calves, sir. Three adults. Females, to be exact.”
“And I say poppycock again! It isn’t just unrealistic, it is unpossible!”
“I know that well enough,” Jones said. “Yet I am telling you, he dropped off three bison not a mile from our reservation. By the time they made their way to us, Rex was long gone. It wasn’t until then that we realized how dangerous he was.”
“How do you know the three aren’t part of your herd already?”
Jones’s eyes filled with something akin to awe as he said, “Because they are white. All three of them. White as the fresh fallen show with eyes as blue as a sparkling river. They are the most beautiful animals I have ever seen.”
Dodger was more than familiar with the native’s reverence for the white buffalo. The birth of such an animal was a rare and celebrated occasion. Usually, such a calf was born with white fur and pink eyes as the result of albinism, and lived a sadly short life. Occasionally, a beast was born with white fur and blue eyes, an even rarer condition than albinism. Rare enough that three born in unison seemed not just highly unlikely, but downright absurd.
“What is wrong with them?” Dodger asked.
“Yes,” the doc said. “What did that rogue do to those poor things?”
“He fitted them with some kind of explosives,” Jones said.
“How awful,” Boon said.
“What kind of explosives?” the doc asked.
“I don’t know,” Jones said. “I’ve never seen the likes of them. They rest like collars around the creatures’ necks. Big bulky things, all encased in leather and metal.”
“I hate to seem impertinent, Mr. Jones, but if you have never seen the likes of them, then how do you know they are explosives?”
“Because each collar has a message etched upon it. The first explains that the mechanisms are explosive. The second claims that the collars will explode within three sunsets. That means that by tomorrow evening, they will die.”
“The monster,” Lelanea said.
“If we had known that man was going to endanger such sacred animals, we would never have let him take the bison in the first place.”
“If you hadn’t let the man take the bison,” the doc said in a low voice, “there wouldn’t be three white buffalo at all.”
“Have you tried to remove the collars?” Dodger asked.
“We don’t dare. But you could, professor. We trust you enough after all you have done for us. It is fortuitous that you arrived when you did.”
“Nothing fortuitous about it,” Dodger said.
“Either way, we were hoping the professor could come and have a look at the collars. The white buffalo are very precious to us. Our chieftain takes their arrival as a good omen, as he does yours. It would kill him, and the spirit of our tribe, should the poor animals … you know.”
“Of course,” the doc said. “I will do what I can, but I make no promises.”
“Thank you so much, sir.” Jones stood to shake the doc’s hand.
“Hang on jusht a shecond,” Ched said. “What about the third one?”
Jones worried his hands against one another.
“What are you going on about?” the doc asked.
“The third collar,” Ched said. “He jusht shaid there wash a messhage etched on each collar. Exploshivesh on the firsht. Shunshetsh on the shecond. What wash on the third one?”
“As much as I am loath to admit it, my driver does have a point. What about the third one?”
“The last collar bore a single word,” Jones confessed. “It’s nonsense to us. We have no idea what to make of it.”
Dodger could’ve spent the better half of the day, the month, heck the rest of the year, taking guesses as to what that single word was. Adjectives and nouns and verbs all leaped to mind, wrestling for that coveted position of right guess. He figured the word ‘revenge’ would fit the bill better than most, but again, there was no way to tell when it came to the crazy mutt’s rotten mind.
“What word?” Dodger finally asked.
Jones swallowed hard and spoke, as pretty as you please, the last word Dodger ever expected the man to say.
HEART OF THE MATTER
In which Dodger learns a few things he had been meaning to ask