Who are You?
Who are You?
In which Dodger demands answers
“Who in the hell are you?” Dodger growled.
Critchlow whimpered under Dodger’s grip. “I told you. I’m John Critchlow.”
“Who do you work for?”
“The Indian Agency. I am here to help the Utes make their way in the new world.”
“What do you know about the ICE machine?”
“Nothing! I swear!”
“Don’t feed me that crap!” Dodger lifted Critchlow and slammed him against the Rhino. “You mentioned it by name to the doc not fifteen minutes ago. Now tell me what you know.”
“I know about as much as anyone else.”
“How ‘bout you enlighten someone not from around here?”
“The Utes like for folks to think they freeze their vegetables by some kind of tribal magic, but everyone within fifty miles knows it’s done by some kind of machine. You can hear the fool thing running when they turn it on.”
“But you knew the name of it. Specifically. How?”
“I overheard some of the tribe talking about it when I first arrived. They thought I couldn’t understand them, but I took the time to learn a bit of the language when I was assigned this position. Apparently, none of the other agents could speak a lick of it. I asked Jones about the machine, and he was so pleased I took the time to learn his tongue that he told me everything. I swear that’s how I know so much.”
“Who else did you tell?”
Critchlow looked genuinely offended by the question. “What?”
Dodger growled, baring his teeth at the anxious man.
“All right,” Critchlow said. “I reported it to my superiors at the agency.”
Dodger pushed away from Critchlow in disgust. He took a few steps back, seething with rage. “Why would you do that?”
“Because it is my job.”
“I thought you were here to help them.”
“I am, Mr. Dodger. And I will.” Critchlow brushed down his shirt and stood a bit taller as he explained, “I have come to help them farm and build proper houses and educate their children. It’s my job to help their kind adapt to life on the reservation, as opposed to the mindless wandering they are used to. I’ll show them how to settle down and live a proper, clean life.”
“I like how you word it so carefully. Makes it sound like the first order of business wasn’t to take away their only means of support.”
“No, sir. My first order of business was to do my job. I reported a highly dangerous piece of equipment to my superiors.”
Dodger snorted at Critchlow’s excuse. “You can make anything sound acceptable, can’t you?”
“You have to understand, those natives aren’t prepared to deal with that machine. They need help with it. They think it is a blessing. That your professor was sent by one of their gods to help them in their hour of need. They think its runs on magic.”
“How do you know it doesn’t?” Dodger asked. “Because, from what I hear, it’s pretty damned close to magic.”
Critchlow lifted his chin to look down his nose at Dodger. “I don’t believe in such nonsense. There is no such thing as magic. Only the power of man, the power of nature and the power of God Himself.”
Dodger snorted again. “Catholic or Episcopalian?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“It’s a knack.” Dodger grinned a moment before he snatched his knife from his belt, leaped toward the man and pressed the tip of the blade to the tender spot just under Critchlow’s chin. “I don’t care if you’re second cousin to the Pope, you have five seconds to tell me who you work for and what you’re doing here, or so help me, I will cut the truth out of your throat.”
A look of terror came over the man, and Dodger couldn’t decide if he was playing at it or was genuinely frightened.
“Tell me who you work for,” Dodger said. “Now!”
Trembling, Critchlow remained silent. Dodger counted down his threatened five seconds to himself. Those seconds passed slowly, ticking away with an aching dread. In the silence, the sounds of playful laughter rose from somewhere in the background. It occurred to Dodger that the pair of lovers must’ve set up the portable forge on the opposite side of the train. The murmuring sounds of their enjoyment, punctuated by the occasional giggle from Lelanea, did nothing to help Dodger’s rotten mood. There he stood, in the late spring afternoon, one hand white to the knuckles as he twisted Critchlow’s collar in his shaking fist, the other armed and ready to lay open the man’s throat.
“Time’s up,” Dodger said. “You got any last words you’d like to get off of your chest?”
“Dodger?” Feng asked.
“What?” Dodger asked, refusing to take his eyes off of his prey.
“Who’s your friend?”
Letting up on the blade, Dodger gave Critchlow a good hard shake. “Go on. Tell him.”
“C-C-C-Critchlow,” Critchlow stammered.
“John J. Critchlow? Feng asked.
Critchlow flinched at the sound of his own name. “You know me?”
“You know him?” Dodger asked, almost at the same time.
“I know of him,” Feng said. He stepped off the train and joined Dodger beside the Rhino. “You’re with the Indian Agency, aren’t you?”
Critchlow’s eyes went wide with the joy of a man snatched from the gallows at the last possible moment. “Yes! Yes, that’s me. Tell him who I am. Tell this crazy man to let me go! Please!”
“Let up on him, Dodger,” Feng said. “He’s one of the good guys.”
With a disgusted sigh, Dodger released his grip, allowing Critchlow to slide away.
Critchlow grabbed his throat as he backed away, glaring at Dodger. “He was going to kill me.”
“Dodger?” Feng asked. “Nah, he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Not unless it was a particularly annoying fly,” Dodger said. He thought a moment, sure he had heard that somewhere before, but he couldn’t remember where.
“How do you know me?” Critchlow asked.
Feng shrugged. “I read the Agency newsletter.”
“But we don’t have a newsletter.”
“Really? Then what have I been reading all this time?”
Dodger chuckled. He couldn’t help it.
“You’re insane,” Critchlow said. He looked up to the Sleipnir. “All of you.” The man wandered off a few feet before he fell to his knees and clasped his hands together. Eyes closed, he raised his face to the heavens in an attitude of silent prayer.
Dodger nodded to Feng. “You’re looking better.”
“Just needed a good nap,” Feng said. He stretched as if cracking his back. “That’s gonna take some getting used to.”
“Sleep. Been a while since I needed that.”
“I want to know, but I am not going to ask.”
“That is very wise of you.”
“Still out of it.” Feng stretched again, then winced as some joint popped loud enough for Dodger to hear.
“You should take it easy.”
Feng eyed Dodger. “I should say the same about you.”
“Because I just came out here to find you ready to slice open that poor man’s throat.”
“You don’t understand.” Dodger sheathed his blade and leaned against the Rhino. Through the open windows of the meeting cab, he could just make out the form of Lelanea on the other side of the car, where she stooped over the portable forge. The excessive heat of the thing left her image wavering in the afternoon sun, like some gorgeous mirage. “I thought he was someone else.”
“You mean you thought he worked for someone else.” Feng sighed as he parked his lanky frame on the edge of the Rhino next to Dodger. “Not everyone is a bad guy, Dodger.”
“Then who is he?” Dodger asked. “Really?”
“He’s just who he says he is. John J. Critchlow, member of the Indian Agency assigned to maintain the Uintah Tribal Reservation starting in the year of his Lord 1871.”
“How do you know about him?”
Feng grinned and scratched his neck, a gesture of embarrassment if Dodger ever saw one. In a near whisper, Feng said, “Because I may have cheated.”
“Cheated?” Dodger eyed Feng for a second before he whispered, “You read about all of this, didn’t you? In the … you know … tomorrow.”
“Bingo.” Feng chuckled as he shook his head. “I know it’s a lousy idea, but I couldn’t resist. The last time we were here, it was such a disaster, I thought picking up a bit of Ute language would help out should we ever pass this way again. In the process, I may have sort of kind of read a bit about the reservation’s history.”
“It isn’t pretty.”
“That’s no surprise. The U.S. government seems to take a special delight in breaking treaties with these folks. I’m shocked they gave the natives a space to live at all.”
“You have no idea. And don’t bother asking for more details, because these lips are sealed on the matter. It would just break your heart anyway.”
Dodger reckoned it would. He’d never had a personal problem with the native population, but he did take offense at the way his fellow westerners treated the red man like an inferior race. Still, there was a season for everything, and Dodger didn’t have time to take up the natives’ cause right now.
Maybe he would find time later.
If there was a later.
“All right, then, what is so special about him?” Dodger asked as he thumbed at the agent, still on his knees, praying up a storm.
“I know this seems hard to believe,” Feng whispered, “but he’s the only one who ever cared about them, Dodger. The average agent comes and goes from this place year by year. Some stay as little as a few weeks before giving up on the natives. But that man,” Feng paused to nod at Critchlow, “that man will stay here for twelve years, Dodger. Twelve long and hard years. It won’t be easy, and I am sorry to say it won’t be a success. But he will keep trying and keep trying, and even though he and the Utes will keep failing, that man won’t give up on them. In the end, he’ll be forced out due to politics and greed. After that …” Feng shrugged away the rest of the explanation.
Dodger took a long, silent look at the preacher man. Could it be true? Could Critchlow care for the natives as much as he claimed? “I would never have guessed as much.”
“Even the most unassuming man can do great things, Dodger. And speaking of assuming, you can’t assume everyone we run into works for that mutt.”
“I don’t think he works for Rex.”
“You think he’s working for your old bosses?”
“Not directly.” Dodger nodded to the praying man. “But if he told anyone in Washington about the ICE machine, then I guarantee they know.”
“You think they’ll come for it.”
“I’m surprised they aren’t here already.” He shouted to the preacher man, “Hey, you! When are they coming?”
Critchlow looked to Dodger, but remained on his knees. “Who?”
“Your bosses. When are they coming?”
Critchlow’s jaw slackened, his mouth falling open in surprise. He scrambled to his feet and took a few steps toward Dodger. “How did you know about that?”
“Like I said, it’s a knack. When?”
“Tomorrow, late in the afternoon.”
“That soon?” Dodger hissed. “What about the buffalo?”
“I haven’t had time to report the appearance of the buffalo.”
“Good,” Dodger said. “Maybe we can hide them before your bosses arrive. And keep our mouths shut about them.”
“Is that a good idea?”
“Yes,” Dodger growled. “It’s a fantastic idea.”
“Of course,” Critchlow said. “Whatever you say.”
“Can we stop them from taking the ICE machine?” Feng asked.
“Take it?” Critchlow asked. He gave a soft titter. “No, you’re mistaken. They aren’t coming to take it. They’re sending some men to help the Utes learn how to properly operate it.”
“I like it better the way he says it,” Feng said.
“It’s his job to make things sound acceptable,” Dodger said.
“It’s the truth,” Critchlow said. “They aren’t going to take the machine.”
“And you believe that?” Dodger asked.
“Why wouldn’t I? That’s what they told me in the telegram.”
“What does the tribe think about all of this?” Feng asked.
Critchlow looked away. “It’s been difficult to communicate certain things-”
“You mean you haven’t told them,” Dodger said.
“No. I haven’t had the time to-”
Dodger shouted over the pitiful excuse, “The U.S. government is coming to collect the ICE machine by force, tomorrow, and you couldn’t find the time to tell the people you are supposed to be protecting?”
“Dodger,” Feng warned. “I know how it looks, but I swear, this man really is on their side.”
Critchlow nodded furiously. “I assure you that I only want what is best for the reservation. Even if the government is coming to take it, which I doubt they are, in the long run, it might be for the best. The natives will be much better off without the burden of the machine.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Dodger said. “That gives us less than a day to get this done.”
“Get what done?”
Dodger closed the gap between himself and the man, reaching out to pull Critchlow to him, close enough to smell the man’s sweat and fear. “You’re going to help me explain to Jones why he has to convince his people to dismantle the ICE machine before your bosses get their grubby little hands on it.”
Critchlow nodded, though Dodger could sense an overwhelming tension in the man’s muscles.
The tension of a man set to run, first chance he got.