In which Dodger runs into another agent
The second trip to the reservation took a bit longer than the first, thanks to the doc’s distaste for his own invention. As he put it, the Rhino may have been designed to reach impressive speeds, but that didn’t mean it had to do anything of the sort.
“Can’t we go a touch fashter, shir?” Ched asked from behind the wheel.
“No, thank you,” the doc said. “This is quite fast enough for me.”
“But I can walk fashter than thish.”
“If you wish to get out and walk, then feel free. Dodger and I will remain aboard.”
Ched glanced up at the mirror, begging with his sallow eyes for Dodger to intervene.
Dodger shrugged. What could he say? The doc was the boss, bottom line. What the man said went. Even if it only went about ten miles an hour.
“It’ll be nightfall before we get there at thish rate,” Ched said.
“Will you stop complaining?” the doc asked. “If I wanted constant complaints, I would’ve invited that idiot Torque. Now stop going on about it, or I’ll cut your rations to a single bottle a week.”
“Is Feng going to be all right?” Dodger asked, rushing to change the subject.
“He will be well soon enough,” the doc said. “All he needs is some proper rest.”
“Are you certain? He seems out of sorts.”
“He’sh shufferin’,” Ched said. “Any shucker can shee that.”
“Chester!” the doc shouted.
“Suffering from what?” Dodger asked.
Ched glanced into the rearview mirror, but said nothing more on the matter.
“Doc?” Dodger asked. “What is wrong with him?”
The doc chewed his lower lip.
“Sir,” Dodger said. “Please don’t keep me in the dark on this.”
“I realize you hate secrets,” the doc said, “but this really is Feng’s personal business.”
Dodger nodded. The doc had a point. No need prying into another’s business. If Feng wanted everyone to know, he would tell them.
“Since that is the case,” the doc continued, “you must promise me you won’t tell him I said anything.”
“Of course,” Dodger said.
The doc turned in his seat to face Dodger. “You’re right. He’s not well.”
“Has it got something to do with the TAP?”
“He said it changed folks who used it.”
“He’s correct. I’m afraid it has wrecked his metabolism. His physical makeup is dependant upon the thing.”
The doc looked away. “He’s running out of time.”
“Is his age catching up with him or something like that?”
“In a way.” The doc raised his eyes to Dodger again. “To put it simply, he’s … well … I’m afraid he is dying.”
Dodger exploded in a flurry of questions. “Dying? How? Why? Can’t we do anything for him?”
True to form, the doc answered every question in order. “Yes. He is fading from time itself. He can’t maintain a single continuous timeline on his own. And no, not without the TAP.”
“Then we can rescue him if we fix the TAP?”
“Yes. And I would love nothing better than to do just that, yet I can’t help the sinking feeling that this will not turn out very well.”
“Don’t worry, Doc,” Ched said. “Thingsh might not be ash bad ash all that. Feng alwaysh shaysh, ‘Look on the shunny shide.’”
“I wish there were a sunny side,” the doc said. “But I predict a number of dark days ahead before we see the sun again.”
As they fell into a reserved silence, each man no doubt wondering what he could do to help the situation, Ched began to whistle a tune that agreed with Feng’s outlook on the matter.
They arrived at the reservation border just after noon. Jones had predicted that there might be a handful of excited folks waiting to greet the doc. Instead, there awaited an easy fifty or more natives, all eager to meet the man who sold them the magic ICE machine.
“Lasht time, it wash all arrowsh and shouting,” Ched said as he parked the Rhino. “Now you’re shuddenly mishter popular.”
“Oh dear,” the doc said. “I was hoping I could slip in unnoticed.”
“I think you lost that chance when we brought the Rhino,” Dodger said.
“I suppose so. Ah, well. Better get this over with.”
“Are you ready, sir?
“As they say, I was born ready.” The doc grinned. Smugness didn’t suit him, but he sure seemed to enjoy trying it on every now and again.
“Ish that show?” Ched asked. “Caush I wash born jusht a weak little baby. I couldn’t imagine being born ready for anything more than mother’sh milk.”
The doc gave a long sigh. “It’s a figure of speech, you mush-mouthed moron.”
The three of them climbed out of the Rhino and faced the welcoming throng of natives. The crowd plied him with foreign greetings, and again, Dodger had some difficulty with full translation, but he was able to make out good wishes and words of praise. Among the crowd, Dodger spotted Jones, who pushed through the crowd to meet the new arrivals.
“Sorry about the attention!” Jones shouted over the noise. “I’m afraid word got around that you were back. Everyone was excited to meet you.”
“Not at all!” the doc yelled as he shook hands and agreed to the occasional hug. “I’m delighted to meet all of them. Family of yours?”
Jones laughed. “Some, but not all. We are just one of many tribes across the reservation. Once word gets around about the buffalo, I am afraid this crowd will grow much, much larger.”
“Oh my. I don’t know if I can handle all of that attention.”
“Then let’s get you on your way. Come, the chief is waiting. As are the Sisters.”
“Ched,” Dodger said, motioning the tall driver down to his level. “Stay with the Rhino. If you see the doc wandering around without me, go after him. Then you two get back to the train and get the hell out of here. Understood?”
“Aye, Sharge,” Ched said, and turned to weave his lazy way back to the carriage already crawling with excited children and surrounded by awestruck adults.
Dodger guided the doc in between himself and Jones. As they moved along, he kept an eye out for anything that looked like trouble, which was hard, considering the sheer number of folks that had turned out for the event. Once they were deep into the crowd, Dodger began to wonder if this wasn’t a mistake. Too many variables were at play here. Too many folks. Too much distraction. Too much noise. He was just about to suggest a retreat, when the doc looked back over his shoulder and smiled at Dodger.
“Isn’t this marvelous?” that smile asked.
The man’s honest joy killed Dodger’s worry.
It was hard for Dodger to shake the role of a hired gun. He naturally thought of everyone as the enemy. Assumed that every hand hid a weapon and that every tongue shared a lie. But the doc’s genuine delight relaxed the deep-seated assassin in Dodger. Not to the point of indifference, mind you, but just enough to enjoy the moment. Or rather, enjoy the doc enjoying the moment. These folks weren’t out to hurt the doc. Quite the opposite.
At least for now.
The crowd thinned without warning, and Dodger stepped out of the throng to find himself standing in an open ring a good couple of hundred yards across, surrounded by the attending natives. In the center of the open space, there sat a large teepee, most likely a point of gatherings for the tribe. At the edge of the crowd waited a handful of natives, probably various officials, one of whom was surely the chief. Just which one, Dodger would have to wait and find out. Ute tribes weren’t known for extravagant headdresses like those of the Sioux, and sometimes it was hard to tell who was in charge.
Much to Dodger’s surprise, there also waited another white man. He stood about Dodger’s height, with dark hair and an average build. Dodger also made note that the man was unarmed.
“Professor Dittmeyer,” Jones said, “this is Chief Atchee.” Jones motioned to the middlemost native, a man easily as old as the doc himself, if not older.
The chief grinned wide and nodded to the doc.
The professor put his hand out in traditional English greeting. “We’ve met before. I remember you from last time. I hope you won’t hold all of that nonsense against me.”
Taking the doc’s hand, the native said a few words in his tongue, which Jones translated. “It is my honor to see you again.”
“The honor is all mine,” the doc said, giving the man’s hand a few quick pumps.
Jones ran through the other natives present, giving names and positions that Dodger mentally logged. Through Jones’s translations, each gave a short speech of appreciation, to which the doc nodded and beamed but said nothing, as if overwhelmed to the point of speechlessness—a state Dodger didn’t think possible for the professor. When Jones came to the last of the line, he hesitated, as if unsure what to say. Which was just fine, because Dodger was unsure what to think about the white amongst the natives.
“Critchlow,” the man said with a warm smile as he stuck out his hand in greeting. “John J. Critchlow, at your service. I am the current agent.”
All manner of warning signals went off in Dodger's mind. “Did you say agent?”
“I did. I’m here on behalf of the Utah Indian Agency.”
“Ah. Of course. An agent.”
“Yes. And you are?”
“That’s an unusual name.”
“Really? Sounds normal enough to me.”
“Now that you mention it, I’m sure that I’ve heard it before.” Critchlow raised his eyebrows as an idea came to him. “I say, speaking of agents, you couldn’t be the same Dodger that worked for the-”
“No,” Dodger said over the man. How long would it take to outlive his hard-earned legacy? “I’m the professor’s bodyguard. Where he goes, I go.”
“Bodyguard? Why would a man so beloved need a bodyguard?”
“Because with great affection comes great resentment,” the doc said. He presented his hand to the agent. “Professor H.J. Dittmeyer, at your service.”
Critchlow shook hands with the doc. “Actually, I believe I am at your service, sir. Especially if you’re the creator of that fabulous ICE machine.”
“I do what I can. May I have a look at it later if possible?”
“It’s not up to me, but I am sure Jones can make arrangements. After you see to those little miracles first.”
“Ah! Yes. And where might these fantastic creatures be?”
“Right this way,” Jones said, and directed the doc to the large meeting tent.