In which Dodger meets up with a familiar face
“Who is in charge here?” the agent asked.
“I am,” Critchlow said. He hissed at his own words, then bit his lip as he motioned to the chief beside him. “I mean I am the representative agent. This is Chief Atchee, the man in charge of the tribe.”
The government man grinned and approached the chief with his hand extended in traditional white-man greeting. “Agent Tyler Crank, at your service.”
The sound of the man’s name gored Dodger to the soul. How many years had it been since they last crossed paths? Ten years? Longer? The last time Dodger spoke with Crank was just before the powers that be stripped Dodger of his rank and sent him to the front lines. In fact, it was less of a conversation and more of an argument. If Dodger had it to do all over again, it would’ve been less of an argument and more of a fight.
Or a murder.
Time had been good to Crank. What was he now, in his fifties? Maybe older? The man had put on a touch of weight, which was to be expected when it came to middle age, but other than that, he was as handsome as ever. Dodger had always been envious of Crank’s good looks and easy way with the ladies. Crank still dressed in all black, regardless of the heat.
“This is Benjamin Jones,” Critchlow said, motioning to the native beside him.
“Benjamin?” Crank asked. “That’s not a savage’s name.”
“It is not my tribal name,” Jones said. “I spent some time in the company of Reverend Young.”
“The Mormons,” Crank said with a sneer. He looked to Critchlow and laughed. “Great God, I feel sorry enough for him as it is being a native, but to be strapped with that blowhard?” Crank looked back to Jones and tipped his forefinger to his hat. “You have my condolences, boy.”
Jones’s nostrils flared in resentment, but he somehow managed to keep his mouth shut.
“Actually, sir,” Critchlow said. “We are fortunate to have him with us. He speaks English far better than I speak Ute.”
“Good then,” Crank said. “He can translate for me instead of you. I don’t have a whole lot of time to waste on a slow speaker.” Crank pushed Critchlow aside and all but yanked Jones into the man’s place. “Now, who do we have here?”
With remarkable restraint, Jones introduced the agent to the rest of the line.
Tyler Crank—the same man who had taken a young Rodger on his first mission—turned his handshake and greeting to the gathered entourage. Once he came to Dodger, he paused and stared for a moment longer than Dodger was comfortable with. “Do I know you?”
“No, sir,” Dodger said. “I wouldn’t reckon so.”
“That’s quite a bruise you have there. Been in a fight recently?”
“Not at all. Just clumsy.”
Crank held out his hand. “Tyler Crank, Federal representative.”
Dodger stuck his hand out. “Arnold Carpenter, head of security for the Sleipnir.”
Jones narrowed his eyes at Dodger, a trace of a smirk crossing his lips.
“The Sleepnear?” Crank asked, getting it wrong like everyone always did. “You mean that wonderful train?”
“Yes, sir,” Dodger said.
“I’ve heard of the thing but never had a chance to see it before.”
“That is because it isn’t on display,” the doc said.
Crank turned his attention to the professor. “And you are?”
“The owner of that wonderful train. Professor H.J. Dittmeyer, PhD, MD and DGE. Mr. Carpenter here is my bodyguard.”
Dodger almost breathed a sigh of relief at the support of his lie. He just wished there were some way to keep Jones from spilling the beans.
“Of course,” Crank said. “I have heard so much about you. I’m Tyler Crank, a representative from the Federal government. It’s nice to meet you, sir.” Crank proffered a hand, which the doc ignored. Rejected, Crank was left to nod at the doc before he moved on to the last few natives in line. Jones followed on his heels, translating the name and position of each man. After the greetings were done, Crank stepped back to the middle of the group, took a few paces backwards, then looped his thumbs in his belt, staring at the group of gathered folks like he was appraising a hundred head of cattle and not speaking with the honored leaders of a native tribe. When he finally spoke, he addressed Critchlow.
And only Critchlow.
“I suppose you know what I’m here for?” Crank asked.
“Yes, sir. To assess the ICE machine.”
“Assess and remove, Agent Critchlow. Assess and remove. These natives don’t need or want the burden of such a dangerous machine. Now do they?”
Jones translated this to the natives. There came a few murmurs, and one or two gasps, but on the whole, the tribe kept their wits about them.
Dodger nodded to Critchlow. Go on then, he wanted to say. Do your job.
Critchlow closed his eyes. After a quick huff, he opened them and said, “Actually, sir, I rather think the natives do want the machine.”
Raising an eyebrow at the man’s words, Crank asked, “Really? Is that what you think?”
Jones set to translating the interaction for the benefit of all present.
Crank took a few steps toward Critchlow, then lowered his voice to a whisper as he leaned in to say, “I think we both know that what you think doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Because what I say goes. Understood, Agent Critchlow?”
Trembling from head to toe, Critchlow swallowed audibly before he said, “No, sir.”
Crank leaned away from the insolent man. “What was that?”
“I said, no, sir. I don’t think what you say goes. At least not here. Sir.” Critchlow pointed to the border of the reservation, a few yards away. “Perhaps over there, what you say goes. But here,” Critchlow paused as he shifted his finger to point to the soil directly under his feet. “Here, what Chief Atchee says goes. Sir.”
“Is that so?” Crank let out a soft laugh as he took a few steps away from Critchlow. “And what makes you think that?”
Something inside of Critchlow broke at the question, for without warning, a torrent of unguarded opinions poured forth from him. “I don’t think, sir. I believe. And what makes me believe is the treaty that grants these fine folks rights to this land. The same land no one else wanted. The same treaty that our president himself signed. I believe this is Chief Atchee’s land, not ours. I believe we are visitors, at best. And as visitors, I believe we should show a bit more respect. Don’t you agree? Sir?”
Jones was fast on the back end of Critchlow’s words, explaining them as best he could to the natives. Once he was done, a whoop went up across the crowd. Crank’s men glanced around nervously at the noise, but thankfully, none of them went for a weapon. The cry lasted a few seconds before the chief raised his hands, at which the whoop died down.
The chief said a few things in a slow and calculated manner.
The man’s speech had a peculiar effect on Jones. Each word brought out an obvious disappointment in him. Every syllable changed his whole demeanor. Every enunciation shifted his entire attitude. Every word the chief spoke pierced Benjamin Jones to the heart.
“No,” Jones whispered.
Critchlow looked just as shocked as Jones, but translated the message all the same. “The chief says none of that matters, because the machine has malfunctioned. He has returned the bulk of the disobedient machine to the father. That would be Professor Dittmeyer, sir.”
The doc fairly beamed with pride as he crossed his arms and smirked at the agents. It was the most defiant body language Dodger had ever seen the old man employ. Dodger officially had no idea what was going on, and he didn’t like it one bit.
The government men glanced to one another, as if to say, “What do we do now?”
“Agent Critchlow,” Crank said from behind clenched teeth. “Can you step over here, please? I would like to have a few words with you.”
Putting on a brave face, Critchlow did as asked.
Dodger almost felt sorry for the man, for as soon as Critchlow stepped near the white men, Crank snatched him up by the collar and laid into him with heated whispers.
While this was going on, Jones said a few clipped words in Ute. His chief didn’t answer the man. Jones repeated his words. The chief ignored him again. Jones shouted a short but obviously angry tirade in his native tongue, and once he was finished, the chief finally looked to him. The look was not a pretty one. Dodger was kind of glad he wasn’t on the receiving end of that look.
Chief Atchee said two words in Ute.
Dodger recognized the statement as the equivalent of, “I’m disappointed in you.”
Jones reached behind him for a moment with both hands, then must’ve thought better of it, as he returned his hands to his sides. He dropped his scowl and his head as he answered his chief in a consolatory tone.
The chief waved the apology away and turned to address the native at his right.
Jones took a step or two back from his chief, then stormed off to the end of the line, taking up a space just beside Dodger.
“You should see this as a blessing, Jones,” Dodger said in a low voice, just under the mounting argument between the agents. “This gives you an honorable way out of this madness. Now you won’t lose face in front of your men.”
“Shut up,” Jones hissed. “This changes nothing, Mr. Carpenter.”
Dodger winced at the name, but kept his focus where it needed to be. “Come on, Jones. I know you’re smarter than that. Don’t pull down on them first. You might win this battle, but at what cost? On top of innocent deaths, you’ll start a war you can’t keep fighting without the ICE machine to power your forge, and you ain’t gettin’ that back. Ever.”
Jones considered Dodger’s words. “Then they will draw first, and we will defend ourselves. We will go down as martyrs, and every tribe within a thousand miles will race to join the war you started.”
Which was sort of what Dodger had hoped to hear. “You know they won’t slap leather unless they feel threatened. And if you threaten them, history will set this down to wild savages acting out. Best to let this one slide, Jones. Now ain’t the time to make a stand. Not when there are so many innocent folks to get in the way.”
Jones said nothing. Instead, he kept his eyes forward, looking off into the distance rather than grace Dodger with even a glance.
“I don’t care what you want,” Critchlow said loudly. “This is how it’s going to happen.”
“You expect us to bow to these insufferable savages?” Crank asked. “On whose authority?”
The bureaucrat pulled out of Crank’s grip. “Mine. And if you don’t like it, you can take it up with the Indian Agency. Good day, sir.” He then did the one thing that Dodger had never seen a man do to Agent Tyler Crank and get away with.
Pure and simple courage in motion, Critchlow spun on his heel and stomped away, leaving Crank with his mouth hanging open in surprise. Critchlow returned to the chief, but instead of rejoining the line, he stood in front of the chief, keeping his back to Crank and sending a signal as clear as a midsummer bonfire.
Dodger held his breath. If there were ever a moment when Crank would pull his piece, this would be it. He glanced to Jones, who grinned in return, as if he had the exact same thought.
A heartbeat passed.
After a few moments of silence, Crank snapped his mouth shut with a growl. “I guarantee I’ll take it up with your bureau, Agent Critchlow. I Goddamned guarantee it.” He scanned the crowd, looked back and forth one last time, as if trying to remember every little detail of the moment. “If you are done wasting my time, we will be on our way. Unless you have something else useless to report to your superior?”
Critchlow glanced up at the large tent holding the dying buffalo, then looked to Dodger with a grin. Keeping his back to Crank, he said over his shoulder, “No sir. Nothing else to report. You know everything you need to know.”
Crank gave another audible growl as he motioned to his men. “Let’s get back to civilization and leave these animals to it. This trip was a waste of time.”
The white men began the short walk back to their steeds, ready to leave without another word, but before they could reach their horses, Jones called out to Agent Crank.
“Sir?” Jones asked. “Can I have a word before you go?”
Crank stopped dead in his tracks. “This better be important, boy.”
Dodger brought his hands to the buckle of his belt, ready to spread ‘em out to his hips should this be the dreaded moment of conflict. But no, instead of Jones drawing his own guns, he crossed the small space between the men and leaned in to speak with Crank in a low voice. Dodger wished he hadn’t commanded Boon to stay on the line, because he would’ve given anything to know what all the whispering was about.
Though, from the way Crank lost his scowl as Jones spoke, Dodger had a fairly good idea. The agent looked to Dodger with saucer-wide eyes, a grin spreading over his face as thick as honey down a bear’s chin.
Once Jones was done with his quick word, Crank stepped back from the native and actually tipped his hat to the man. Quite a change from the ‘insufferable savage’ attitude of only moments before. “Thanks so much for the information.” Crank glanced to Dodger one more time before he looked back to Jones and added, “Seems this trip wasn’t a total waste after all.”
Agent Tyler Crank motioned again to his men, and just like that, they mounted their steeds and rode off.
“That went better than expected,” the doc said.
“I suppose so,” Dodger said. “I’m afraid we haven’t seen the last of Tyler Crank. Unfortunately, he and I go way, way back.”
The doc raised a single eyebrow in question. “Oh yes. About that, Mr. Carpenter.”
Dodger looked to Critchlow—who was deep in conversation with the chief about what had just transpired—then drew in close to the doc and shook his head. “Not here. I’ll tell you as soon as we-”
“Yes, Mr. Carpenter,” Jones said over him. “Tell us all about it.”
“Oh dear,” the doc said, looking beyond Dodger as he lifted his open palms to the air.
Dodger didn’t have to turn about to know that Jones had a bead on him.