Back to It
In which Dodger returns to reality
“You’re him, aren’t you?” Sarah said.
Dodger lifted his head and found the young one peering around the doorway at him. “I suppose I am. Come on in. I’m sure you have a lot of questions.”
Sarah kept her eyes to the floor as she stepped into his room.
“Sit down,” he said, patting the bed beside of him.
She obeyed, sitting down on Dodger’s bed.
“I’m Rodger-” he started.
“Dodger,” Sarah said. “I know. Ma and Uncle Al talked about you a lot.”
“Yes, sir. And Al has a fancy picture of you. Not a drawing but a proper picture. That’s how I know what you look like.”
“Really? I never knew that. I wonder where he got it from.” Dodger watched Sarah’s fidgeting hands for a quiet moment. “You know, we’ve met before. A long time ago.”
“I didn’t really get to introduce myself back then. We were all in kind of a rush.”
“I know. I remember. People don’t think you remember things ‘cause you’re just a kid, but I remember.”
“I don’t doubt that. I still remember a lot of things from when I was a kid, too.” Dodger stuck out his hand to her. “Rodger Dodger.”
Without looking up, the young girl took his hand with a strong grip; the direct product of Aloysius Jackson’s training. “Sarah Louise Baker.”
They released hands, and Dodger gave her a few moments to speak. When it became apparent she didn’t plan on it, he finally asked, “Been awake long?”
“Yes, sir,” she said. “A couple of hours. You slept all night.”
“Meet the rest of the crew?”
“How do you like ‘em?”
Sarah looked up to Dodger with a weak smile. “I really like Miss Lelanea as a person. She’s so pretty. Not that she wasn’t pretty as a puppy dog, but I like her better as a lady.”
“Me, too. And you might not want to let her hear you say puppy. She prefers wolf.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry.”
“What about Boon? Have you, well, have you seen him again?”
“Yes, sir. He’s still all ghostly, though.”
That was some relief. At least they didn’t have to worry about fitting the kid with a set of SPICS.
“He’s not gonna be solid again, is he?” Sarah asked. “They told me he wasn’t a ghost but he somehow was. How can both of those things be true?”
“I know it’s hard to believe,” Dodger said, “but both are true. And he’ll be solid again, just not for a while.” Dodger stretched his back, wincing at each cracking vertebrae. “They let you meet Ched yet?”
“Yes, sir. He was real nice but he don’t look so well.” She leaned in closer to whisper, “He also stinks a little bit.”
Dodger chuckled. He supposed they skipped the part about Ched not being alive but not being dead. “And the doc?”
Sarah’s smile grew warm and wide. “Oh, I really like him. He talks funny, but I can understand him pretty good. Well, unless he uses those big words. But I still like him.”
“Yeah, me too. And Feng?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t meet a Fang.”
“His name is Feng, and trust me, you’ll like him, too. They let you meet Mr. Torque?”
“Yes, sir. He’s kind of highfalutin for a servant.”
Dodger couldn’t help a bark of a laugh. “That’s one way of putting it.”
“Miss Lelanea says Rex has got my little brother.”
Dodger’s laugh evaporated at the quick and sorrowful change in subject. “I’m sorry. I wished it weren’t true.”
“Are you gonna get Little Roger back?”
“I’m gonna try.”
“Can I ask you one more question?”
Sarah looked to the floor, ignoring Dodger’s jest. “Is it true?”
“That’s kind of a loaded question.” Dodger scratched his chin in thought. “Can you be more specific?”
“Is it true what they said about Uncle?”
“What did they say about him?”
“That he was gone, forever.”
Dodger took a deep breath. Out of the whole dream adventure—the masquerade, the epic battles, the kidnapping and subsequent escape—this was the moment he dreaded most. Not pulling a girl back to her horrible reality, but the part where he had to explain those horrors in detail. “It’s true. A woman named Kitty gunned him down while he was trying to rescue you.”
Sarah sniffled a bit. “I miss him.”
They sat on the edge of the bed for a while in total silence. Dodger expected the doc to appear at any moment, frantically begging him for help. But no, Dodger and the kid just sat on the edge of his bed, whiling the time away as they each pondered their mutual loss.
At length, Sarah said, “Mr. Dodger?”
“You can call me Rodger if you like,” he said. “Or just Dodger.”
“Is it all right to say I want to kill that Kitty?”
“Do you mean it?”
She looked up to him again. “Am I a bad person if I do?”
Dodger shook his head at her. “No. You’re not a bad person for feeling that way. But never say something like that if you don’t mean it.”
“I reckon I’m gonna kill Kitty.”
“I know. And I’m going to do what I can to help you.”
At his offer of help, Sarah set to weeping. Dodger wrapped an arm around her heaving shoulders, drawing her closer to him. He didn’t coo at her, or stroke her hair or any of those soothing things he had seen other men do when their young daughters were upset. He just held her close to him, concentrating on the jackrabbit thump of her heart against his side. This child was alive because he helped her once before. She was alive again for the same reason. That kind of debt sort of bound you to a person. Not that she owed him anything, no. He now owed her something. He owed her a life worth living.
Dodger supposed he could get around to that once he made sure Rex didn’t destroy everything first.
“Come on,” Dodger said as he patted the girl on the back. “Lets you and me go see what the doc woke me up for. I was having a pretty good dream, and he owes me an explanation.” Dodger leaned over the edge of the bed and pulled on his boots, left, then right.
Sarah watched him for a second, then asked, “Who is Rebecca?”
“Rebecca? You said that name just before you woke up.”
Dodger ran his hand through his hair, wondering if he could explain such a thing to a young girl. “She’s really hard to explain.”
“Is she your woman?”
“What?” Dodger physically recoiled at the question. “No. No, no, no. Miss Rebecca is many things, but she is most definitely not my woman.”
“Do you not have a woman?”
“No. I don’t.”
“Good.” The girl grinned extra wide, hopped down from his bunk and sauntered out of his door, into the hallway.
Well, at least the waterworks had stopped. With a groan, Dodger grabbed his gun belt and went after her.
The two of them made their way up the length of the train in silence. Sarah seemed content with the knowledge that Dodger was single, and Dodger was just glad the young’un wasn’t crying anymore. He never knew what to do with tears. Not even his own.
They found the doc in the meeting cab poring over a map at his desk. Lelanea sat on the couch across the room, making a detailed study of her fingernails, while Ched sat in the chair near the door. Mr. Torque stood patiently beside his master, sporting his usual annoyed look. Boon either wasn’t in the cab or the sunshine kept him invisible.
The moment Dodger and Sarah entered the room, the professor raised his hand and waved them over.
“Come here, Mr. Dodger,” the doc said. “I apologize for waking you so soon, but I had something rather important that I need to discuss with you.”
Dodger directed Sarah to the couch. “Sit beside Miss Lelanea and stay there.”
Still smiling widely, Sarah sat down beside the woman.
Lelanea didn’t look up to the girl or Dodger. She kept on inspecting her nails while Dodger joined the professor at his desk.
“What is wrong, sir?” he asked. Lowering his voice a bit, he added, “Did Sarah not have what we needed?”
“Quite the contrary,” the professor said. He motioned to his map of the western US. “The young lady drew quite the detailed map of both the location of Rex’s compound as well as the layout.”
“The layout? How could she know that?”
“It seems during Rex’s manipulation of her mind he unintentionally exposed her to the design of his estate.”
“Well fancy that.” Dodger peeked at the doc’s papers, searching for the drawing. “What’s it like?”
“You tell us,” Mr. Torque said. “You’re the one that’s been inside.”
“I’ve never been near it,” Dodger said.
“Apparently you have,” the doc said. “The young woman dreamt of it.
“You mean the fort at Poison Peak?” Dodger said.
“I do,” the doc said. “She must’ve seen the layout and managed to incorporate it into her dreams.” The professor leaned closer to Dodger and added, “She’s very clever.”
“That she is.”
“For a little girl,” Mr. Torque said.
“She’s far cleverer than you,” the doc said.
“For a little girl,” Torque repeated.
“All right then,” Dodger said. “If we know where we are going, then why aren’t we going there?”
“We were,” Ched said. “But it sheemsh the doc hash come down with a bright idea.”
“Treat it kindly,” Mr. Torque said. “It’s in a strange place.”
“Watch your tongue, Torque,” Lelanea said.
“What? I’ll bet his idea is about as bright as the inside of his colon. And just as stupid.”
“Yes, well,” the doc said, but dithered, obviously too at ill ease with his own notion to argue with the mechanical servant.
“Sir?” Dodger said. “What is this about?”
“I’ve been worried about you fighting this maniac on your own. Alone.”
Lelanea huffed loudly. “He isn’t fighting alone.”
“You know what I mean,” her uncle said.
“To be fair to the lady,” Dodger said, “she’s right. I haven’t been alone. Everyone has pitched in at some point.”
“Almosht everyone,” Ched said, eyeing Mr. Torque.
“Everyone,” Dodger said firmly. “And when I finally find Rex again and get my hands around his scrawny little neck, I will do so with the knowledge that those same folks have my back.”
“I appreciate the sentiment,” the doc said, “but the reality is very different. While you were fighting dragons and rescuing a princess, Feng took to his bed, so you will lack his further help.”
This was news to Dodger. “What’s happened to him?”
“I suspect he finally succumbed to the temporal stress. He’s fallen into a stupor and no matter what compound I administer, I cannot rouse him. I’m afraid he hasn’t got much longer.”
“All the more reason to finish this as quickly as possible,” Lelanea said.
“Which brings me to my second point,” the doc said. “Mr. Dodger, you might get your hands around Rex’s neck, but I do not want my niece anywhere near him when you do.”
“It isn’t up to you,” she snapped.
“I worry about her safety and-”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Not to mention the fact,” the doc continued saying, “that I need her here with me, defending the Sleipnir. We need to keep the line out of that maniac’s hands. Or rather paws. You agree, yes?”
Dodger nodded, though he could feel Lelanea’s eyes burning holes in the side of his head for doing so. “Yes, sir. I reckon you need someone here and she is just as capable as anyone else of taking care of business.”
“Unfortunately,” the doc said, “all that leaves you to work with is Ched. And you know how he feels about doing anything that doesn’t involve keeping himself pickled.”
The not-dead man shrugged rather than defend himself.
“You see?” the doc said. “His state of being leaves him incapable of appreciating the danger we face.”
“Hey,” Ched said. “I appreshiate it. I jusht don’t care. I’m already not-dead. I can’t shee thingsh gettin’ much worsh for me.”
“Forgive my confusion,” Dodger said, “but I don’t see where you’re going with this.”
“Well, I, that is to say …” the doc paused as he nervously patted his hands together. “I’ve had an idea on how to swell our ranks. By quite a large margin, if all goes well.”
At the doc’s nervous tic, Dodger realized they woke him for a specific reason, and not just his opinion on the matter. “I would love more help on this, but what exactly is it you need me to do?”
“I know this is a lot to take in, considering you just woke and all, but … well … in order to increase our ranks, I’m going to have to ask you to marry my niece.”
“What!” Dodger shouted.
Crossing her arms, Lelanea appeared about as happy as Dodger did about the notion of marriage; her jaw set in defiance, her lips pressed together tightly, her eyes wide. In other words, she was none too pleased.
“Well then,” Mr. Torque said with a velvety purr backing his voice. “I take back what I said about the plan being stupid. This just got a whole lot more interesting.”
“Him marry her?” Sarah said, then let out a soft tittering giggle, as if it were the funniest thing she had ever heard in all her short days.
Dodger had no idea what this was all about, but one thing was for sure. There was no way on any god’s green earth he planned on exchanging matrimonial vows with Lelanea Dittmeyer. Much less parlaying that marriage into swelling anyone’s ranks.
By a large margin or otherwise.
End Volume Nine
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