In which Dodger nearly oversleeps
If one managed to court her properly, sleep was a beauty to behold. Yet that courtship wasn’t always roses and moonlit strolls. Sometimes sleep came as a surprise after several nights of abandonment, returning to you with sweet apologies, and laying you down with a gentle sigh of satisfaction. Sometimes she played the devious mistress, hard to capture and even harder to tame, but once you subdued her, she was all yours all night long. And sometimes she showed up without invitation, dropping in like a long-forgotten lover and dragging you to bed whether you wanted her or not.
“Dodger,” Boon said. “Wake up.”
Dodger came to in an instant. He groaned, wondering what in the heck he’d gotten up to last night that left him sleeping on the floor, before the truth of it all came back in a rushing recollection. The recon mission, the capture and the subsequent wait for the morning hours. He smacked his dry lips and winced at the stabbing pains in his mouth and at the back of his head.
“Wha’ time izzit?” he asked in a slurred croak, then regretted it immediately. His mouth burned like a wildfire with every movement.
“Just after sunrise,” Boon said.
“Which meansh it’sh time to get a move on, Sharge,” Ched said.
Dodger couldn’t see Ched, but the smell of the man filled his nostrils all the same. Despite the pain, he asked, “What are you doing here?”
“Shettin’ you free.”
Someone started picking at the bindings that held Dodger fast.
“You were right,” Ched said. “He looksh pretty bad. I hope the doc has enough serum to set that fracture.”
“I don’t have a fracture,” Dodger said. Though, truthfully, it sure felt like he did.
“You ain’t sheein’ it from my shide.”
Dodger eyed Boon and noted the guilty expression on the spirit’s ethereal face. “I thought I told you to keep everyone else out of this?”
“I’m sorry, Dodger,” Boon said. “I tried waking you, many times, but you wouldn’t rouse. I worried you were beyond my assistance. Or any assistance.”
“I was asleep,” Dodger said.
“You were unconshcioush,” Ched said.
“I was not.”
“You were,” Critchlow said. “Probably from where Jones kicked you. You hit your head pretty hard. Once this place emptied a bit, I waited a little while for you to spring into action. It took me a few minutes to realize you had passed out.”
Darn. Dodger was hoping that part of the failed scouting mission was just a dream. But no, there the agent sat, all tied up with no place to go. “I fell asleep. That’s all.” Under his mind he added, I’ll deal with you later, Boon.
“Shure,” Ched said. “You were just ashleep, and I’m really alive, and everything ish right with the world.” The rope slipped from Dodger’s hands, leaving the rest of his bonds loose enough to slide out of.
Ched scurried along the length of the table to set the agent free.
“How did you know we were here?” Critchlow asked.
Ched glanced to Dodger. “Lucky guessh.”
“I told him where we would be,” Dodger said as he rubbed his galled wrists. “And that if we weren’t back by a particular time, to come and look for us.”
“That too,” Ched said.
“Oh,” Critchlow said. “I wish you had said that last night. That would’ve saved me a fair bit of worry.”
“I couldn’t risk anyone hearing the plan.”
Critchlow’s bonds fell to the floor, leaving him free to work them the rest of the way off. Dodger slowly got to his feet, paying heed to the pins and needles that ran the length of each leg. As he stooped over the table for support, stomping his legs awake, he took another look around the now-empty munitions hut. It wasn’t just devoid of men. Save for the forge and a few work tables, the place had been cleared of both men and equipment.
“Where is everyone?” Dodger asked. “Where are all the weapons, for that matter?”
“Both at the shame plash, I should think,” Ched said.
“That’s why I came to get you,” Boon said.
“Sheemsh there ish a bit of a problem.”
“What problem?” Chritchlow asked as he stood.
“Your government men are on their way. Torque shpotted them a few milesh out. They should be here in less than an hour.”
Dodger almost did a double take at the news. “What?”
“Already?” Chritchlow asked. “But they said they would arrive in the afternoon.”
“Sheemsh they fibbed.”
“Do the Utes know yet?” Dodger asked.
“Yesh. A native shcout musht’ve sheen ‘em too, ‘caushe he came ridin’ back like a bat outa hell with the newsh. The chief ish heading up a welcome party.”
Ched shook his head. “Not with gunsh.”
“No, he wouldn’t be. He assumes this is a friendly visit.”
“He’s the only one,” Boon said.
“Let me guess, Jones has his men as well as the weapons hidden. Probably in sniper positions?”
“You got it, Sharge,” Ched said.
Dodger massaged his aching temples. “Great Ganesh, this won’t end well. I wish I had more time.” He ran his hands across his empty hips. “And the girls.”
Ched waggled a familiar weapons belt at Dodger. “Found theshe in the forge.”
“Oh hello, ladies! Thanks.” Dodger snatched the belt from the not-dead driver and slid it on. The moment the weight settled on him, his confidence doubled. Which to say, it was a bit higher, but not by much.
“Thank goodness the fire was out,” Boon said.
“You mean the machine was off. The forge is powered by the heat of the ICE machine.”
“That’sh clever,” Ched said.
“Clever yes, but another problem. There is no way Jones will give the ICE machine to us if it is powering his forge. And if we don’t get it back to the doc with a suitable excuse, then we’re going to have a blood bath on our hands.”
“We are probably going to have bloodshed either way,” Boon said. “I went to have a look, and those men headed this way are armed for bear.”
“You went out that far?” Dodger asked. “Alone?”
Boon looked away. “I know I shouldn’t have, but someone needed to take an assessment. Torque’s long vision can only give so many details.”
The spirit meant well, which was enough to keep Dodger from reaming the man. For now. “We can talk about all of that later. Right now, I need you and Ched to get the doc to safety. Take him back to the line and then join me … where are they approaching from?”
“The south,” Boon said.
Dodger pointed to Boon. “Get back to the line and tell Torque to move her northwest of here, about a half-mile. Wait for Ched to get back with the doc, and then the pair of you get back to the ICE machine and pack it down. I’ll try to keep everyone from killing each other.”
“Don’t forget the envelope,” Boon said.
“The envelope?” Dodger asked, then sucked a quick breath through his teeth. “Crap on a cracker, I almost forgot it again. All of this trouble keeps pushing it out of my mind.”
“Am I missing part of the conversation?” Critchlow asked. “Because I feel like I am distinctly missing part of the conversation.”
“I’m afraid our shecret ish out,” Ched said.
Dodger cut Ched an evil look. Surely he wasn’t going to complicate things by trying to explain who Boon was?
“Our sharge here talksh to himshelf,” Ched said, widening his usual rictus grin. “And anshwersh himshelf on occashion.”
“Is that part of his thought process?” Critchlow asked. “Like when he goes quiet for no reason?”
“Shure, shure,” Ched said. “It’sh all part of hish myshtique.”
“Mystique,” Critchlow echoed, then smiled at Dodger too.
It took everything in Dodger’s power to keep from wiping that smile’s clock. “You’ve got your orders, folks. Get to it. Everyone meet back up at the line. If you don’t hear from me in twenty minutes, get the Sleipnir the hell out of here.”
“Aye, Sharge,” Ched said, and he took off to collect the doc.
The spirit nodded and left without another word.
“What about me?” Critchlow said.
“What about you?” Dodger asked as he checked the ladies for ammo and function.
“You never gave me any orders.”
“That’s because you’re coming with me.”
Critchlow let out a small gasp of surprise, then gave a little salute. “Aye, Sarge.”
Dodger sighed as he ran a hand the length of his face. “All right, then. Let’s see if we can stop us a massacre.”
The natives stationed their welcome party at the far border of the reservation, near the Sleipnir, which hadn’t moved an inch. So much for following orders. Hopefully, Ched would have a little more success in his mission. Getting the doc the hell out of here before the lead started to fly was the single most important objective here. Everything else was secondary.
Dodger led Critchlow through the reservation in a slow crawl, ducking and dodging as much attention as possible. Again, it was surprisingly easy, thanks to the excitement generated by the recent events. This had a downside as well; almost all of Jones’s tribe had gathered to greet the newcomers, which meant they were all sitting ducks should things take a turn for the worse. Dodger and his shadow reached the Sisters’ tent with unexpected ease. He stopped and peered around it, taking a moment to assess the situation. Most of the crowd formed two pockets on either side of the official welcoming party, which consisted of the chief and his entourage, including Jones.
And the doc.
“What is he doing there?” Dodger asked.
“Who?” Critchlow asked.
“The doc. He is front and center like this is a Sunday picnic and not an all-out battle. He should be on that train. And where in the world is Ched?”
“To be fair, your boss man is probably as unaware as the others of what is really going on here.”
Dodger eyed the line of elders with a grunt. Jones had once again changed clothes, returning mainly to the white-man style of dress, save for a thigh-length buckskin vest. Dodger wondered why the unusual combination, until Jones lifted the vest to scratch the small of his back. That was when Dodger spotted the handles of two revolvers poking out of the back of Jones’s trousers.
“You’re right,” Dodger said. “Maybe I should’ve let Boon spread the word.”
“Who?” Critchlow asked.
“Never mind that, looks like our guests are here.”
A cloud of dust in the distance produced a line of riders, growing ever closer to the excited natives. This was it. The government men had arrived. Dodger could only hope the doc knew what he was doing.
“What do you think is Jones’s plan?” Critchlow said.
“I wish I knew,” Dodger said. “I’m sure he has his men stationed all over the place. If he is clever, and I think he is, then he will wait until one of the agents becomes aggressive, perhaps even let them draw first. We can’t allow Jones to signal his men to fire. Or even reveal their weapons. Once those agents see that the natives are armed …” Dodger let the idea trail off, unable to put the horror into words.
“Ah, yes. I see. They will take defensive measures.”
“That’s a funny way of saying slaughter everyone.”
“I’m a bureaucrat, remember? Making the worst sound acceptable is what I do best.”
Dodger plucked that idea from the very air and clung to it. “You’re absolutely right.”
Critchlow furrowed his brow at Dodger’s grin. “Why are you smiling at me like that?”
“Because I think it’s time you earned your keep around here. Come on.” Dodger pushed the agent into the open and fell in behind the man.
Thankfully, everyone’s attention—including Jones’s—was so tightly focused on the riders that no one seemed to notice Critchlow and Dodger approaching from behind.
“What are you doing?” Critchlow asked as they moved toward the gathered crowd.
“You need to intervene here.”
“You’re the agent for these folks. Do some agenting already.”
“Right. I’m the agent.” As they walked along, Critchlow mumbled to himself for a moment, then asked, “What am I supposed to say?”
“Just keep in mind that you are the representative in these parts. Sort of like the sheriff. That makes you the law. Be the law.”
“But those men are above me.”
“No one is above the law.”
As Dodger and Critchlow grew closer to the tribal representatives, so did the oncoming visitors. The government men, ten in all, pulled their horses to an abrupt stop not more than twenty feet from the crowd, dismounted and immediately headed toward the man in charge. A few threw pensive glances to the Sleipnir, but most were focused on the surrounding crowd, scanning for any hint of trouble. They made no motion to hide the guns hanging from their hips.
Dodger pushed Critchlow the last few feet, into the line beside the chief, then took up a place next to the doc on the other side.
“Mr. Dodger,” the doc said.
At the doc’s words, Jones whipped about and narrowed his eyes at Dodger.
Dodger tipped his fingers to his forehead in greeting.
“What are you doing here?” Jones asked.
“Like I said before,” Dodger said, “where the doc goes, I go.”
“And it is certainly good to see you,” the doc continued. “I was beginning to believe you weren’t going to join—oh my! What happened to your face?”
“I had a bit of a run-in with the door to my quarters,” Dodger said as he touched his tender cheek and jaw.
The chief said something, then chuckled.
The surrounding natives laughed as well, save for Jones, who continued to scowl at Dodger and didn’t bother to translate.
“He said you look like you lost the fight,” Critchlow said.
Dodger forced a short laugh and nodded to the approaching men. “Those our guests?”
The doc snorted. “If you can call them that. Rude lot, the whole bunch. Showing up far too early like this without so much as a warning. If Torque hadn’t spotted them, I would still be asleep in the teepee.”
Critchlow hastily translated to the natives, to which the chief said a few things.
“He suspects that is what these men wanted in the first place. It is good that both of your … um … I think he means subordinates … it is good they both scouted the riders.”
The doc nodded to the chief. “Yes. It is.” He then leaned in close to Dodger and whispered, “Please don’t let Torque know the chief called him a subordinate. I will never hear the end of it.”
Dodger couldn’t help a genuine but painful grin at that. A grin he lost the instant he spotted the leader at the head of the approaching men, and a face he knew far, far too well, despite the number of years it had been since he last laid eyes on the man.