Monday, August 26, 2013

V8:Chapter Eleven-The ICE Machine


Volume Eight
Chapter Eleven
The ICE Machine
In which Dodger gets a gander at the cause of his worries

Once they made their way past the gathered crowd, Dodger caught sight of Jones heading north of the reservation. Away from the main tent. Away from the gathered crowd. Away from the train too. Where was he going in such a rush? Dodger had a pretty good idea, but he wanted to make sure first.

“Jones!” Critchlow called out.

Dodger could’ve cut the man’s throat. “For Pete’s sake, keep it down.”

“But I thought we wanted his attention?”

“Yes, but I want to see where he is headed in such a doggone rush first.”

“I get it.” Critchlow touched the side of his nose. “Espionage.”

“No, it’s just common sense. Now shut up and keep your voice down.”

Almost the entire tribe had turned out for the drama of the buffaloes, as well as the arrival of the doc, so there was no one to stop the two white men from wandering around the campgrounds. The pair tailed Jones as he moved between empty huts and abandoned tents. Dodger was fairly sure the man knew he was being followed, but Jones didn’t let on that he was aware. He kept his attention tightly focused to the north. Eventually, the tents thinned out, and they approached another open area. Jones stepped into the open space while Dodger held back, keeping his cover a bit longer, taking in the area before he revealed himself and his cohort.

In the middle of the grass, there sat another large tent, except unlike the main teepee, this one was well guarded. Three burly natives guarded the side facing Dodger, every single man sporting a blade or a bow. They also bore firearms the likes of which Dodger couldn’t identify from this distance. Aside from the main entryway, there was another flap on the side of the tent facing Dodger, only lower to the ground. Jones rounded the tent, headed toward the pair of sentries at the entrance, who let him pass into the main entryway without even acknowledging the man.

“I’m gonna guess the ICE machine is in there,” Dodger said.

“How did you know that?” Critchlow asked.

“What else would they protect so readily?”

Dodger left the safety of the campgrounds and crossed into the open field that surrounded the tent. Critchlow followed in his clumsy manner, leaving them no hope of sneaking up on the tent. The moment one of the sentries spotted the pair, all of the men pulled their firearms and took aim. The largest of the men shouted something in Ute.

“Dodger!” Critchlow yelled. “They want us to stop.”

“I don’t care what they want,” Dodger said, and kept on walking.

The native repeated the single word and followed it with a few more.

“He says he will kill you if you don’t stop,” Critchlow warned.

Dodger came to a rest about fifty feet from the tent, just close enough to get a look at those guns. They appeared to be Colt revolvers, but they lacked the signature touches that identified a genuine Colt. Instead they were plain in their makeup, with basic wooden handles and roughly cast metal components, all mimicking the look of the infamous revolver. If Dodger had to guess, he would say some renegade weapons manufacturer had armed these natives in exchange for a pretty hefty fee.

He only hoped the Utes got their money’s worth.

The native said a few things to Critchlow.

“He wants to know what you’re doing here,” Critchlow said.

“I’d like to see the machine,” Dodger said.

“No,” the native said without waiting for Critchlow’s translation.

“I only want to peek in on it.”

“No,” the native repeated.

“Fine, then tell them I would like a moment of prayer with Jones.”

Critchlow explained the situation.

The huge native chuckled as he tightened his grip on his weapon. He shook his head and said, “No.”

“I take it that’s the only word of English he knows?” Dodger asked.

“What can I say?” Critchlow asked. “They hear it so much, they were bound to learn it.”

“Tell him the Sisters asked me to have a look at the machine. That it is broken and I am the only one who can fix it.”

Critchlow did as asked, pausing here and there to search for the right words.

The native narrowed his eyes at Dodger and said something sharp and rude sounding.

“He wants to know who you think you are,” Critchlow said.

Dodger suspected that the preacher man had overlooked a foul word or two in that exchange. He also supposed that if these men had spent the better part of the day guarding the machine, they’d surely missed out on the excitement of the Rhino’s arrival, as well as the Sleipnir, and Dodger and the others. While the meeting teepee hosting the Sisters was practically atop the border, the ICE machine tent rested deeper inside the reservation. Dodger glanced back over his shoulder to see the faint outline of the train beyond the gathered throng—an easy thing to miss if you didn’t know what you were looking for.

He glanced to the native again as he said, “Tell him I’m the one called White Crow.”

Critchlow hesitated a moment, then translated the words.

The natives gasped and began to whisper among themselves, while the largest nodded at the announcement, then turned and entered the tent, leaving the other four to keep watch on the strangers.

“I hope that wasn’t a mistake,” Cricthlow said. “They seem a bit wary of you now.”

“That’s never a mistake,” Dodger said.

Jones poked his head out from the tent, looking just about as pissed off as Dodger felt. He shouted a few words that convinced his fellow natives to lower their weapons and let the outsiders enter. Dodger and Critchlow ducked into the tent, following Jones inside.

The ICE machine was typical of the doc’s inventions—shiny and huge with lots of buttons, knobs and levers. The bulk of the main body was copper and brass, which sat upon an iron tripod. A nozzle as big as Dodger’s head rested at one end of the machine, aimed to the ground, toward an icy cart of frosty peas. Several more carts filled with various vegetables waited their turn in a line that extended from the low flap on one side of the tent to another matching flap on the opposite side. The back half of the machine ended in a large cable, which led into the ground. A patch of dead grass lay in a foot-wide space along the back of the tent, where the heat-shunting cable was buried in the ground.

Aside from Jones, the place was empty. Either the excitement of the day had interrupted production, or everyone was on break at the same time. It was also unseasonably warm in the teepee. Dodger assumed it was excess heat emanating from the machine.

“A moment of prayer?” Jones asked as he pushed the frozen cart to one side. “I didn’t think you were the praying type, Mr. Dodger.”

“I must admit,” Dodger said, “that may have been a bit of a stretch. I’m sorry for the fib, but I couldn’t think of any other reason you would let us in to talk to you.”

“Imagine that. Like most other white men, the White Crow lies.” Jones grinned, but there was no humor in it. “I wonder what else you have lied about. I’ve also wondered why those buffalo say they are here for you.”

“And what conclusions have you arrived at?”

“That it is mighty convenient for you and your professor. You might fool Chief Atchee, but you won’t trick me so easily.”

“I know this is hard for you to believe, but I don’t have anything to do with those buffalo. Or Rex. We didn’t even know they were here until you told us about them.”

“You’re right; I do find that hard to believe. Your arrival just happened to coincide with Rex’s visit? How am I not supposed to be suspicious?”

“This is fantastic,” Critchlow said in awe.

Dodger glanced up in time to see him making a slow and tight circle around the ICE machine, oohing and ahhing at every little piece of it.

“Mr. Critchlow,” Jones snapped. “Please step away from there.”

“John,” Dodger said, just as Critchlow reached out to fondle some small part of the inner mechanisms.

“Sorry,” Critchlow said. He came to Dodger’s side, head hung low, duly contrite for sneaking a closer peek at the machine.

“Gentlemen,” Jones said. “I don’t really have all day for idle chat. If you have something to tell me, get on with it. Unlike you, I have important work to get back to. Real work.”

Dodger took a moment to consider his approach. The native would know a lie as soon as he heard it; that was for sure. Yet the man would surely balk at the truth as well. Lie or lay it all out? Dodger gave a soft sigh as he readied himself to tell the whole truth.

“Jones,” Dodger said. “I know this is going to sound crazy, but hear me out.”

Jones crossed his arms and cocked his head at Dodger, setting his jaw in defiance.

Dodger drew a deep breath to steady himself, before he said, “There is a fairly good chance that representatives from the U.S. government will arrive tomorrow at your reservation and demand access to that thing.” Dodger pointed to the machine.

“What kind of representatives?” Jones asked.

“The kind that won’t just want access. They will want to take the machine from you.”

Jones sneered at Dodger. “I would like to see them try. There is no way they will get past my men.”

“If you don’t give it to them, they will call in a regiment and take it by force. There will be blood spilled over this, and not just mine or yours. Innocent blood. I’m sorry, but they are serious about this. They want that machine, and they won’t leave here until they get it.”

“How can you be certain of all of this?” Jones asked.

Dodger glanced to Critchlow.

Critchlow looked away rather than answer.

“You?” Jones asked. “You said you were here to help us. But I see what kind of help you offer. I should never have told you about the machine. I should’ve known you were no different from the other agents. Concerned with the success of your precious country and little else.” Jones followed this with a few words of his tongue, obviously an insult, from the way the preacher man gasped and backed away.

“Now don’t take this out on him,” Dodger said. “He was just doing his job. And he didn’t have to tell us about the surprise visit tomorrow either. He just wants what’s best for your people.”

“I do,” Critchlow said. “I thought I was helping. I apologize for ruining your business. I thought they would help you with it. I didn’t realize they would want to take it away from you.”

“Then you don’t know your own countrymen the way I do,” Jones said.

“You’re right. I was na├»ve. I didn’t think you knew what you were doing in here, but I can see you have it all in hand. I regret turning you over to my superiors. I wish I had left well enough alone. I pray to God I am wrong and they won’t show at all.”

At the mention of their mutual Lord, Jones lost his sneer and let out a deep sigh. “You might have betrayed us accidentally, but you have been good to us in many other ways. It is not my place to judge. I forgive you, Mr. Critchlow. You are doing God’s work as best you can. I can’t say my brothers will forgive you, but I will try to talk to them about it.”

“Thank you, Mr. Jones,” Critchlow said.

“You need to talk to them about something else while you’re at it,” Dodger said.

“What is that?” Jones asked.

“I think that it might be best if you let the doc dismantle the ICE machine and take it back with him.”

Jones stared at Dodger for a few seconds. “Do you think that is the best course of action?”

“I do. I hate that it has to be this way. I know this must be hard for you and your tribe. You had so much hope pinned on the success of that machine, but it can’t remain here. Those men coming won’t let you have it. They will kill you and your children to get to it.”

“But your professor can keep that from happening?”

“I think so. If we concoct a story about the ICE machine malfunctioning in some convoluted way, the doc can explain to the government men that the whole experiment was a failure.”

“And you will return it to us later?”

Dodger shook his head. “No, Jones. You can’t have it back. You can’t start up your business without them finding out about it.”

“I understand. It seems you are also doing God’s work, even if you don’t realize it.” Jones stuck out his hand to Dodger. “I hope you will forgive me for my previous anger. It was misdirected.”

Dodger shook hands with the man. “I don’t fault you at all for it. You have every right to be angry. But I assure you, my boss man and my crew have nothing to do with the buffalo or the interference of the government in your affairs. We really are just passing through.”

“Ah yes, the miraculous Sisters. I was hoping the arrival of not just one but three white buffalo hailed good fortune for our tribe. But it appears as if they herald tragedy.”

“You must remember that they aren’t natural either. They are the product of tragedy themselves.”

“True.”

“Is it hot in here?” Critchlow asked from the other side of the tent. “Or is it just me?”

Dodger and Jones had gotten so caught up in forgiving one another that neither noticed the agent slipping away to the machine for another look. The preacher man was now on the opposite side of the ICE machine, standing right over the patch of dead grass. His tongue protruded from between his lips as he panted like a dog in the heat of late summer and his brow beaded with sweat. 

“Please get away from there,” Jones said. “It’s very dangerous.”

“I swear it just rose twenty degrees in here,” Critchlow said.

“It’s the machine,” Dodger said. “The cable buried into the ground is where it shunts its heat. Right, Jones?”

Jones started at Dodger’s words. “You know about that?”

“Sure. The doc explained a bit of it to us.”

“Oh, it is cooler over here,” Critchlow said as he crossed the tent. “But not by much.”

“The machine puts off a lot of heat. It has to go somewhere. So you still shunt it into the ground, just like the original design?”

“Yes,” Jones said. “We left it just as the professor gave it to us. This reservation is very rocky; this particular field is full of so many boulders that we had trouble farming it. We found this kind of foundation is perfect for absorbing the heat from the machine.”

“Good. The doc was curious about that. I’ll let him know, if you don’t mind?”

“Not at all. I will have to ask that you excuse me for a little while. I need to think about the best way to approach all of this. And, of course, get the rest of this work finished.”

“Smash it,” Critchlow said

“Pardon?” Jones asked.

“Smash the machine to pieces. That will solve everything.”

Dodger shrugged. “He has a point. If it really was broken, the government men might not want it at all.”

“I’ll think about it,” Jones said. “Thank you for being honest with me, Mr. Dodger.”

“I would say it was my pleasure, but there wasn’t anything pleasurable about being the bearer of such bad news.”

“I can imagine.”

“I’ll come back in about an hour to pick up the machine. Sound good?”

“Actually, I know this is asking a lot of you and your crew, but would you mind if we kept it one more night? A few more hours would allow us to process this last order. I wouldn’t ask, but we can’t refund the client. The money has already been spent on supplies for the tribe.”

“Of course. First thing in the morning, then. Just after sunrise?”

“Yes, please. And thank you. We should be more than ready by then.”

After Jones escorted the men outside, he stopped and whispered a few words to one of his tribesmen. Dodger strained to listen in, but the exchange was finished before he could catch hold of a single word of it. The tribesman nodded and took off around the side of the tent. Jones bade another farewell to Dodger and Critchlow before leaving them to get on with their own affairs.

“That was odd,” Critchlow said.

“Yeah,” Dodger agreed. “That was much easier than I thought it would be.”

“That too.” Critchlow watched the native walking away.

Dodger sensed something amiss. “What troubles you?”

“Jones just told that young man to, um, double production before the morning.”

“Makes sense to me. They are only going to have the machine for a few more hours. They probably want to squeeze all of the use they can out of it before giving it back to the doc.”

“I guess so.”

As the pair made their way back to the main teepee, Dodger shot one last glance over his shoulder to the lone native walking in the opposite direction, and the foot-wide trail of dead grass he followed into the distance.

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