In which Dodger is set to a task
Dodger ducked out of the tent and crossed the wide space, making a beeline for the supposed agent.
“Critchlow,” he said as he approached the waiting group.
“What happened?” Jones asked, surely translating the matching phrases from every native’s lips. “Will they be all right? Are they safe?”
“I can’t explain it all right now,” Dodger said. “You would do best to keep your distance from that tent.”
“It is as we feared?” Jones asked.
“Yes. They are armed with explosives. The doc thinks he can get the collars off safely, but it will take some time.”
Jones translated the instructions. A murmur of relief went up from the crowd as word got around.
Dodger pointed to Critchlow. “I need to talk to you in private.”
“Me?” Critchlow asked.
The chief barked something after Jones translated, and took a menacing step between Dodger and Critchlow.
“He says you will talk with him,” Jones explained, “and him alone. This outsider has nothing to do with this.”
Dodger scowled. It didn’t matter if he encountered priests or peasants, kings or chieftains, a universal truth always played out. The man in charge inevitably pulled rank at some point during the proceedings. Now, how did you refuse a high-ranking officer who wanted his way? Easy enough, you miraculously outranked him.
And in this case, the miracles were on Dodger’s side.
“The Sisters have entrusted us a sacred duty,” Dodger said.
“They have?” Jones and Critchlow asked together.
“But they are animals,” Critchlow said, on his own this time. “How did they manage that?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Dodger said. He returned his attention to the irate chief, taking his time with his words so Jones could translate them as he went. “So unless you want to take it up with the blessed ladies in there, and question their authority, I suggest you step back and let us do what we were asked to do. Or you can say goodbye to your white buffalo.”
The chief was none too pleased with Dodger’s bluff. Well, semi-bluff at best. The older man stared Dodger down for a silent moment, the pair locking gazes, flaring nostrils, flexing fists. Despite the scowl, the chieftain finally stepped aside with a few brief words, not all of them polite, from what Dodger understood.
“He said do as you must,” Jones said. “He will not interfere.”
“No he didn’t,” Dodger said. “I may not know many words of your language, but I know when I’ve been called a right bastard in any tongue.”
The chief smirked as Jones translated that bit.
Dodger returned the grin. “Sow-e-ett will be back in a minute with the doc’s bag.”
“But of course,” Jones said. “We will allow him admittance.”
“Thanks. If you gentlemen will excuse us.” Dodger grabbed Critchlow by the collar and dragged him to the Rhino.
Critchlow complained, of course, but Dodger wouldn’t release his grip on the man. It was taking everything he had not to lay into the outsider right then and there, but their discussion was not for prying ears, even if those ears couldn’t understand the language. What was left of the crowd—for it had thinned some since the doc’s arrival—parted, leaving Dodger and his companion a clear path. Dodger continued to drag the protesting Critchlow to the Rhino, where he was met with a peculiar sight.
Ched the not-dead man was playing with a group of children.
Dodger almost rubbed his eyes in disbelief at the sight of the dour driver chasing the little ones about in his stiff-legged way, landing a gentle touch on the closest child, who in turn would tag the not-dead man immediately and take off in high spirits. The driver seemed to be enjoying the game as well, for his normally eerie smile bordered on face splitting, baring every yellow tooth in the man’s emaciated face. He also laughed, in his own fashion, with that bone-rattling chuckle that Dodger thought would’ve frightened the wits out of the average kid. But not these little ones. They laughed along with Ched, racing and running, tagging and fleeing all around, over and inside the parked carriage.
“Are we interrupting something?” Dodger asked.
Ched halted mid-lurch, much to the disappointment of his young crew. “Ya shure are.”
“I hate to bring the fun to a stop, but the doc needs you.”
“What elshe ish new?”
The not-dead driver turned to his miniature gang and said a few words in their native tongue. The kids whined in refusal, but Ched repeated his words in stronger tone, pointing toward the reservation. The children dispersed with pouts and whimpers. A young Indian girl lingered for a moment, holding her hands behind her back as she stared up at Ched.
“What do you want?” Ched asked, looking down at her.
She smiled and held up a handful of wildflowers, saying something in her tongue. Ched took them and thanked her with a nod. The young girl gave his leg a brief hug, then ran off, giggling, to join the others. The driver poked the impromptu bouquet into the top pocket of his overalls.
“Looks like you have an admirer,” Dodger said.
“Naw,” Ched said. “She thinksh it will help with the shmell.”
Dodger snorted a laugh. “Italian, French, now you speak Ute?”
Tilting his bony hand in the air, this way and that, Ched said, “A shmattering. Not completely, but I’m picking up on it.”
“I didn’t realize you had a thing for languages.”
“Not sho much a thing ash a shide effect. Once you learn Hebrew, everything elsh ish a breesh.”
“I had to learn it for my Bahmitzfa. Mother inshishted. Sho did Rabbi Shamush.”
“Ah, I remember now.” Rabbi Shamus sounded like the perfect name for an Irish Jew, the same background as the driver himself.
“Ute ain’t that hard onsh you get down to it. But I washn’t here long enough lasht time to get it jusht right.”
“You won’t be here long enough this time either.” Dodger then made the connection as to what Ched meant. “You were the one who messed up the translations the first time around.”
“Yeah, the professhor shaid it had shomething to do with my peculiar shpeech. Whatever that meansh.”
“Is your friend ill?” Critchlow asked, reeling from the not-dead driver.
In the humor of the moment, Dodger had almost forgotten about the agent. “Yes, but thankfully, it isn’t contagious.”
“Thank the Lord for that.”
“I doubt He has anything to do with it.” Dodger pushed the man toward the Rhino. “Get in.”
Critchlow stared into the contraption. “I am not setting foot in that death trap-”
The man recoiled at the stern command, then crawled into the back seat of the Rhino.
“Up front,” Dodger said, patting the seat beside him as he climbed behind the wheel. “We are going to take a little ride. Ched, you take the doc his bag. He is in the big tent. You can’t miss it. And for Kali’s sake, don’t let him out of your sight.”
“I won’t,” Ched said. He snatched the doc’s black bag from the floorboard and set off for the meeting tent with slow steps.
“Are you sure he is all right?” Critchlow asked.
“I never said he was,” Dodger said.
“Where are we going?”
“We need to talk. But not here.”
“Talk? What about? About some imaginary task the buffalo supposedly laid upon our shoulders? You might fool those naïve savages, but you can’t fool me.”
Dodger didn’t answer. Instead, he bit his tongue and set to pedaling the Rhino. As he drove along, he went over the various traits of the outsider in his mind, just to settle his own infuriated nerves.
Critchlow was a family man, a fact made obvious by his almost too polite manners. The various hand-stitched places here and there—a mended cuff, a hemmed collar—suggested that either a wife or a lover took care of him, though Dodger doubted the man was the type to shack up without vows. Wife it was. His age spoke of the possibility of many children—five, maybe more. Unless the wife was barren. No way to tell.
The man was religious, perhaps a professionally schooled preacher or even lay preacher of his chosen faith. The rough outline of a crucifix under his shirt leaned toward Catholic, but the lack of motioning during the brief prayer said Episcopalian. Not Mormon, though. The government had enough trouble with the Mormons without putting them in official charge of the Utes.
Critchlow might have been a bureaucrat, but he knew how to work hard, as evidenced by his broken nails and rough hands. He was a low-level official, serving a token position that came with a ton of daily chores but no office. Chores such as running a whole reservation full of folks who would rather be somewhere else. He seemed genuinely happy to be on the reservation, as if he were pleased to have the job, or at the very least, not stuck with it. Time would tell.
The agent let out a soft whistle as soon as the Sleipnir came into view, a sound almost lost in the whipping breeze of the Rhino’s speed. Dodger pulled the carriage close to the line, bringing it to abrupt stop with a bone-shaking jolt. He climbed out of the Rhino, then proceeded to all but yank Critchlow from his side of the vehicle. Dodger shoved the man against the side of the Rhino and pinned him there.