Shoulder the Burden
In which Dodger shares a secret
The pair continued to stare at one another, not saying a thing.
“I’ll tell you what,” Dodger said. “Hand me the extra equipment while you two are thinking about it. We can send it first.”
“Good thinking,” Boon said, and set to fetching the various sacks and bags tied to the knight’s horse.
Dodger sent only the essentials across, reserving as much rope as he could for the remaining folks. Sir Rodger and Sarah unloaded each parcel in turn, and before too long it was time for the others to take a slide.
“Either of you ready now?” Dodger asked.
“I suppose I am,” she said and hopped onto the platform.
“I can go if you want me to,” Boon said.
“I will go,” Lelanea said. “Ladies first, after all.”
“Right. Ladies first.”
Dodger leaned into Lelanea and whispered, “I think I can work a rig for you, so you don’t have to hang by your jaw.”
“Can you?” She lowered her head to Dodger and said softly, “I must admit, I don’t really think I can make it across by the skin of my teeth.”
Dodger smirked. “I’ll see if we can’t make a quick harness for you.”
“What are y’all whispering about?” Boon asked.
“Nothing,” Dodger said. “You go strip Henrietta of her saddle and brush her down. We can’t leave the poor thing tied up ready to ride if no one’s gonna ride her any time soon.”
“But she’s just a dream horse. Does it matter?”
“Just do it.”
“All right.” Boon slumped away to tend to the mare.
While Boon was distracted by his duties with the horse, Dodger cut away a bit of canvas from one of the abandoned bed rolls, quickly bore a few holes into the thing, then wrapped it around Lelanea’s waist. He threaded the rope through the holes, taking care not to let his hands linger in one place too long.
“Comfortable?” he asked.
“As I am going to get,” she said. Lelanea wheezed between Dodger tightening the laces. “Oof, it’s rather like a corset, isn’t it?”
“That’s what I had in mind.”
“I’m surprised you know how to tie one on. I would’ve thought you have more experience ripping them off.”
“What can I say? I am a man of many talents.” Dodger yanked on the rope, causing the wolf to wheeze once more.
“I’ll say. Why is it whenever the two of us get together there is always some form of bondage involved?”
“I can’t answer that on account.”
“On account you’re a lady, and the reasons in my mind are far too rude.” Dodger tossed the rest of the rope over the line, giving her plenty of headroom as he tied her onto the ropeslide.
Lelanea laughed softly, until her laughter stopped short. “Hang on now. Did you just use the last of the rope?”
“Then how will you and Boon get across?”
“We will manage. Don’t you worry. Ready?”
“No. I refuse to go across until you tell me how you and Boon plan on crossing.” She wiggled in her harness, trying her best to get out of the blasted thing.
“Stop that. You’re gonna pop my laces.”
“Then tell me what I want to know!”
“What is all the fuss about?” Boon asked. He did a double take at the state of his lady friend. “Whoa, that is a nice harness. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because Dodger has more experience with ladies under things,” Lelanea said.
“It doesn’t matter. What is important now is that Dodger just used the last of the rope on this accursed thing.”
“And how are you supposed to get across now?”
“Don’t bust a seam,” Dodger said. “Both Boon and I have perfectly good belts. In my experience, a leather belt is just about the best thing to slide down a line.”
Lelanea drooped in the harness, her legs and head comically dangling free. “Of course. I feel rather silly now for getting so excited about it.”
“Keep feeling silly,” Dodger said. “Relaxing like that is just what you need right now.” Without giving her a chance to ask just what he meant, Dodger pushed Lelanea off the platform.
She slid gently across the chasm, twirling about in midair, like a graceful dancer, all the way to Sir Rodger’s side. The knight caught her before she reached the ruined bridge, bringing her to a soft stop. He helped her out of the makeshift corset, then gave a signal that he was ready for the next person.
“You ready?” Dodger asked.
“I reckon so,” Boon said. “You say I can use my belt?”
“Sure.” Dodger emptied his holsters, tucking his weapons into his pack before he removed his gun belt. “It’s the way I’ve always done it.”
Boon followed Dodger’s example, poking Hortense and Florence into his backpack, as well as the excess ammo. He wrapped one end of the belt around his fist, the wide leather band dwarfed by his huge hand. The big guy didn’t even need to use the platform to elevate himself; the ropeslide was well within his towering reach. “I just throw it over then?”
“Yeah, just throw it over and grab the other end. Twist it just like you got that side.”
Boon inhaled and exhaled a few times. He looked back over his shoulder to Dodger. “Any other words of advice?”
“Hang on tight and don’t let go.”
“Thanks. Hey, can I tell you a secret, in case I don’t make it across?”
“No, because you’re gonna be fine. Just go.”
“I want you to know why I was in Celina alone, without my guns.”
Dodger hesitated in his second denial. Now this was just about the most unfair thing anyone had ever done to him. Right before the big guy pushes off, he decides to unload his burning conscience onto Dodger? Really? “Are you sure you want to tell me?”
“Yes. I want someone else to know. I think Ched has an idea, but I want another person to know for sure, just in case something happens to me.”
“What’s the hold up?” Lelanea shouted across the chasm.
“Nothin’!” Dodger cried. “We’re just getting the last of the stuff!” He turned to Boon and motioned to the others. “You better get on. Your lady is waiting for you.”
“Wife,” Boon said with a beatific grin. “She was gonna be my wife.”
Dodger understood. “You were going to ask her to marry you?”
Boon nodded. “I was in Celina looking for a ring. I didn’t want anyone else to know, so I went alone. I left my weapons because I didn’t want to buy her ring armed to the teeth like that. You know?”
“Yeah, I know.” Dodger smiled at the man, though truthfully he wasn’t sure he understood the whole unarmed thing at all. He felt like there may have been a time when leaving his weapons behind was a good thing. But now? Right now, at this moment in time, he wouldn’t go unarmed for love nor money. His weapons were his life. Simple as that. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I don’t really know. I just felt like I should get it off my chest.”
“Feel better now?”
“Yeah, I reckon I do. Thanks. Sorry to burden you with it, but thanks for listening.”
“No problem. Remember, hang on, don’t let go.”
“Right.” Boon wrapped the leather belt around the line and twisted the free end in his fist. “See you over there.”
Dodger tipped his fingers to his forehead, then gave Boon a massive shove. The big guy barely fit through the gap in the ruined bridge, slid down the rope with a longwinded holler and came to a rough landing on the other side. He was up and laughing in no time at all, waving across the chasm for Dodger to join them.
After one last check to make sure they had everything they needed, and to make sure the mare was comfortable, Dodger approached the line. It had been so long since he had even seen a ropeslide, much less employed one. The last time he slid down one was during his last trip to Bangladesh; he and Crank used one to escape from a prison tower. The guards fired at them from the open window, and even though an arrow grazed young Rodger’s right thigh, the pair managed to get away without much more trouble. But that was a lifetime ago and did little to help him out here.
Dodger slipped his pack over his back and grabbed up his belt with a sigh. He twisted one end in his right hand, looked out across the chasm, then slapped the leather across the line. Drawing a deep breath, he wrapped his left hand with the rest of the belt, allowing the cool metal of the buckle to rest inside of his palm.
Thanks to his anxiety about the slide, time seemed to pass by at an exaggeratedly sluggish pace. Dodger kicked off of the platform and scooted across the expanse of the chasm in a slow creep. He inched down the line, leaving behind the ruined bridge and mare and abandoned equipment, drawing slowly but ever closer to his traveling companions. They stood in a line, shoulder to shoulder at the edge of the gulf, watching him cross with such concentration that Dodger began to feel like he should put on a show. If he had thought about it, he would’ve tried something more daring, or even out right dangerous, anything to give that passel of spectators their money’s worth. The thought of this amused him, and he set to laughing as he slid further down the line.
It was about that time something whizzed over the heads of the onlookers, catching the glint of the sun as it passed by. Dodger watched with mounting curiosity as this something flew through the air, past the ropeslide, and bounced against the twisted bridge with a resounding clink of metal against metal. As it clattered to the ground, Dodger recognized it as an arrow. He also realized that it didn’t pass by the rope, but through it. Several things happened at the same time after that.
A cry went up from the path behind the spectators, announcing the beginning of an all out attack.
Sir Rodger drew his blade and spun about to meet the enemy.
Boon tossed down his pack, obviously going for his stored guns.
Sarah snapped up her bow, and nocked an arrow.
Lelanea kept her eyes glued to Dodger, a pain filled howl rising from her throat.
The rope that bore Dodger’s entire weight went slack and slithered away.
And Dodger, with nothing else to do, plummeted into the chasm below.