In which Dodger suspects something isn’t right
At first, Dodger almost didn’t hear the doc. His attention was split across the teepee between talking to the professor, listening to the giggling gossip of the now-collar-free buffalo in the center of the tent, and catching the barest whispers between, of all people, Critchlow and Ched on the opposite side of the teepee.
“Mr. Dodger?” the doc asked, pulling him from his eavesdropping. “You were asking about the Sisters?”
“Yeah,” Dodger said, trying to focus on the doc. “Has there been any change?”
“Unfortunately not. Neither in their health, nor their minds. They continue to refuse my help, and thus grow older and older by the second.” The doc looked up from his makeshift desk—a plank of wood supported by a couple of flat rocks—with a pitiful frown. “I’ve never felt so helpless in all of my life. I respect their decision, but this is just awful to witness.”
Dodger sensed a deeper worry in all of this. The doc, though normally a soft touch, was almost overly sympathetic to the plight of these beasts. Was it the reminder of that inescapable mortality that had the man so upset, or the terrible act of watching his hard work once again put to such a devious use? As much as Dodger wanted to delve, he reckoned now was not the time, nor the place.
“What did the chief think about them?” Dodger asked.
“He wasn’t pleased in the beginning, as you can imagine,” the doc said. “The idea that the Sisters spoke English instead of the language of the People was the first shock of many for him and his men. You can’t imagine the work of explaining the buffaloes’ origins and accelerated growth.”
“I think I can picture it.”
“Still, all things considered, Atchee took it with a surprising amount of honor and humility. Ched’s Ute is a bit sketchy, but according to our translations, the chief felt that the buffalo offered sound spiritual advice, regardless of where they came from or what language they spoke. As he put it, the magic of communicating with such majestic animals took precedence over any animosity for such petty differences. I tried to explain to him that the Sisters and the SCWAK Box were the results of science, not magic, but Ched recommended that I leave it alone.”
“I think that was a wise move in this case. Heck, I’d like to leave it all alone, but we really need to talk to him about the ICE machine.”
“What of it?”
“I know this seems like the last thing that should happen, but the Ute are going to return it to you first thing in the morning.”
“Ah, excellent. That will make things a bit easier. We thought the morning was best as well.”
Dodger struggled to make sense of the man’s words. “We? You and who?”
“Me and the chief. I mean the chief and I. We. Us. Oh, now I’m getting confused again.”
“You know about the ICE machine already?”
“Certainly. The Sisters explained it all. That our arrival was no coincidence. That the return of the machine was essential to the survival of the tribe. Something about divine intervention or some such nonsense. Anywho, they left explicit instructions that the machine is to pass back into my possession as soon as possible.”
“And the chief was fine with it?”
“Not so much fine as respectfully resigned. The man might be a bit superstitious, but he is admirable in his convictions. We should all be so lucky to experience such faith in any one thing.”
Dodger smiled, because he kept faith in not just one thing but two—the ladies resting at his hips.
The doc leaned in close to say, “They failed to explain exactly why the Utes needed to return the machine. Do you know?”
“I wish I didn’t,” Dodger said. “There is a passel of government men coming to take it by force tomorrow afternoon.”
The professor tilted away again, shaking his head. “I understand the rush now. It’s a shame the bureaucrats can’t mind their own business. I suppose I should turn my mind to concocting a suitable excuse to feed those nosy officials, yes?”
“If you could, sir. I know you hate to lie.”
“I wouldn’t say I hate to lie, but I certainly try not to make a habit of it. Only because I am not very good at it. I can’t keep track of them once I begin. I suppose I get tangled in my own web, as it were.” The doc gave a soft laugh.
Dodger chuckled with the doc. “I suppose we should get you back to the line before evening falls completely.”
“Oh, really?” The doc looked down at his desk, drawing lazy circles on the plank with his fingertips. “Because I was thinking I might stay on here. Just for the evening.”
“I’d rather everyone spent the night on the line, sir. Together. Safety in numbers and all that. Safety first?”
“Oh, of course. Safety first, certainly. But I assure you, I’m not in danger here. I just want … um … the chance to talk to the buffalo as much as possible before the inevitable happens. You know, just a boring evening of intellectual discussion. Nothing special.”
“You’re right, sir.”
“You’re not a very good liar.”
The doc’s plump cheeks went cherry under his bristly beard.
“Do you think you can talk them into accepting your help?” Dodger asked.
“It’s worth a try,” the doc said. “If that is all right with you? You could stay as well if you like.” The doc glanced to the Sisters, who were already staring point blank at him. He grinned and waggled his fingers at them in a little hello of sorts.
The ladies giggled excitedly before they returned to their hushed gossip.
“I think I’ll pass on that,” Dodger said. “I’ll leave Ched with you instead.”
The doc’s humor evaporated at the mention of having a sleepover with the driver. “Are you trying to be amusing?”
“No, sir. I was serious. But I can stay if you insist.”
“I do. I wouldn’t spend the night in the same tent with that shuffling corpse if Odin promised me all the knowledge in the world and then some. I’d rather gouge out both of my eyes and remain dumb if it were the only way to avoid the task.”
Dodger laughed again. “All right, sir, all right. Don’t get in a twist about it. I’ll stay here with you, and we can pick up the machine in the morning before we pull out … for Rex’s …” Dodger rolled his eyes and almost smacked his forehead when he realized what was missing. “I am such a doggone fool. I got so wrapped up in the trouble with the ICE machine that I never got the envelope from the chief. He didn’t happen to leave it with you, did he?”
“No. He refused to turn it over to anyone but you.”
Dodger headed for the exit.
“You’re too late,” the doc said. “Last I heard, he had retired for the evening.”
Dodger furrowed his brow. “Are you certain? The sun has barely set.”
“Mr. Dodger, the man is in his eighties. I think he deserves the right to set his own bedtime, don’t you?”
“Eighties? Heck, he don’t look a day over sixty. I hope I live to see eighty, much less look half as good as he does.”
“I agree. I must ask him what his secret is.”
“I assume it has something to do with clean outdoor living.”
The doc waved away the simple explanation. “Whatever it is, I am sure I can bottle it.”
“I’m sure you can, sir.”
“Sharge?” Ched said, motioning to Dodger. “You got a minute?”
Dodger nodded as he turned to the doc for an excusal, but the doc had already abandoned their conversation and wandered back to the buffalo across the teepee. Joining Ched and Critchlow, Dodger said, “The doc sure seems enamored of those animals.”
“You know how he ish,” Ched said. “Everything fashinatsh him. And if it can shpeak, doubly sho.”
A soft laugh rose from the four across the teepee.
“I don’t know,” Dodger said. “It seems like something more. They seem sweet on him too. Never mind that, what are you two over here whispering about?”
Ched and Critchlow traded worried looks.
“I hate to say this,” Critchlow said, “but we might have a spot of trouble brewing.”
“We already have trouble brewing,” Dodger reminded the man. “What could possibly be worse?”
Critchlow paused, as if readying himself for his own explanation. “Do you remember earlier, when we were leaving the ICE machine teepee? When Jones came out behind us and said something to his fellow tribesman?”
“You said Jones told them to double production.”
“He did, but there was a word in there, something I wasn’t sure of. I don’t think he was telling them to double production on the ICE machine.”
Ched took up the slack. “If the word he heard wash correct, then it was Ute for weapon. He wash tellin’ hish men to shtep up weaponsh productionsh, Sharge.”
“Are you certain?” Dodger asked.
“It was barely a whisper,” Critchlow said, “but I believe that’s what I heard.”
“Why would he say …” Dodger’s thoughts trailed off as he turned his mind back to the tent a good mile and a half from the one in which he currently stood. To the machine inside. To the patch of dead grass that headed off from the teepee like a trail, leading away from the tent, but to somewhere else. Somewhere that put all that heat to good use. Another image arose in his mind beside the first: the odd guns carried by the natives. Guns that seemed half finished, or better still, home brewed. A third and final image fell into place beside the others: Lelanea stooped over the portable forge. A forge that produced enough heat to leave her image a wavering flicker.
At the back of his thoughts, Dodger heard Critchlow whisper, “What is he doing?”
“Can’t you tell?” Ched asked. “He’sh figurin’ it out.”
“Does he do this sort of thing often?”
“Only when hish brain can overpower hish mouth.”
Dodger snapped out of his self-induced trance at the backhanded compliment. “Ched, I need to run back to the line and gather some equipment. You stay here and watch the doc while I’m gone.”
“Aye, Sharge,” Ched said.
Dodger glanced to the doc, weighing the trouble of trying to explain things to the man without starting a full-fledged, detailed discussion of the oncoming events. “If he asks, tell him I’ll be back before sunrise.”
“What should I do?” Critchlow asked.
Critchlow bristled at the direct command. “I will do no such thing. I have a vested interest in what is going on here. If you think you have some clue as to what is happening to these people, then I need to be aware of it.”
“I work alone,” Dodger lied. How was he supposed to explain to the agent that one of the things Dodger planned on picking up at the line was a ghost?
“I could translate if you run into trouble.”
“I don’t run into trouble.”
“You need a partner.”
“I don’t need anyone. Especially a bureaucrat with delusions of grandeur.”
“I don’t give a hoot what you don’t need,” Critchlow snapped. “If you think I am going to stand around and let you command me like I am just one of your underlings, then you have another think-”
Dodger shifted Hortense into the palm of his hand, not exactly drawing her, but not just idly holding her either.
This was enough to threaten the man into a wide-eyed silence.
“You can come along if you like,” Dodger said. “Or you can keep yourself out of trouble and head on home. Whatever floats your boat.” He checked the gun’s action with a sharp click, never quite aiming it at Critchlow. “I wouldn’t want to see you get hurt.” Dodger disarmed and holstered the gun as he nodded at Critchlow. “I am asking you nicely to head on home. Don’t make me beg.” He rested the heels of his hands on his gals before he added, “You won’t like it if I have to beg.”
The threat wasn’t lost on the agent. “Do you always speak with your guns?”
“No. Sometimes I shout with my fists. Now you gonna go on home or not? Or do I gotta start yelling too?”
Critchlow stared at Dodger for a defiant moment. “I will go, but only on one condition.”
Dodger groaned. Why was nothing ever easy? “What is that?”
“Tell me what you’re up to, and I will leave you to do what needs to be done.”
Dodger thought on this a moment. If he told the agent, there wouldn’t be enough time or proof for him to warn his kinsmen. If he didn’t, the man might become more than just a nuisance in his hunger for the truth. “I suspect they are making their own guns and probably ammunition as well.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I can’t. But I aim to find out.”
“By doing a little reconnaissance.” And that was all Dodger had to say about that.
Which seemed enough, thank goodness. Critchlow grinned at those last words. “I understand. Well, then, good evening, gentlemen.” The agent turned on his heel and swept out of the teepee in an almost too dramatic flourish of an exit.
“What a strange, strange man,” the doc said.
The buffalo nodded in agreement.
As did Dodger.