In which Dodger meets up with an old new friend
Dodger commanded Torque to remain at the helm, just in case they needed to beat a quick retreat. He then raced back to his quarters and grabbed Florence and Hortense before joining the others in the meeting cab. By that time, the train had slowed to a crawl, pulling up alongside the campsite at a respectable distance. Dodger stood in the open doorway, and as they got closer he finally made out the purpose of the colorful tents and bustling crowd. The place wasn’t a rail chasing encampment at all.
“It’s a circus,” he said as he leaned back into the cab.
“A circus!” Sarah shouted. “How exciting.”
The circus seemed a bit worn and torn, with tattered banners, broken down tents and tired looking performers. Speaking of which, the crowd seemed just as fascinated with the train as the crew were with them, watching with rapt interest as the line came to a stop. Dodger had visited a number of such shows in his day, and could make out the usual suspects expected of such a cast of characters: a huge bearded woman, an oversized muscular man, several little folks, a number of others in clown getups, and even a raggle taggled gypsy or two. Over this motley assortment towered the impressive form of an enormous cowboy, standing at least a good ten feet tall, maybe more. Dodger hopped off the steps, craning his neck to look up at the huge but familiar face of Tyler Duncan, or rather James Williams. As the cowboy approached the line, he began to shrink in size, until with his last step he stood no taller than Dodger, a trick made possible by both the man’s size adjusting belt and his rather unfortunate run in with the professor’s shrink ray.
“James?” Dodger half said, half asked, trying out the man’s assumed name.
“Dodger,” Duncan said with a nod and lifted his hand in greeting.
Dodger shook the man’s hand with all the vigor due the unexpected moment. “What on earth are you doing here? With them?” He nodded to the circus performers behind the man.
“I’m traveling with them.” He thumbed over his shoulder to a banner proudly proclaiming the latest sideshow addition of the fantastic Variable Height Cowboy. “It’s hard to make a living when your only talent lies in being a spectacle. So, seemed best to hide in the open, as it were.” Duncan’s face lit with joy as he glanced over Dodger’s shoulder. “Miss Lelanea. You sure are looking as pretty as always.”
Lelanea all but pushed Dodger to one side as she stepped off of the cab and into Duncan’s arms. The man scooped her up and swung her about as she laughed aloud.
“All right, Mr. Williams,” Lelanea said. “That’s about enough of that.”
Duncan returned her to her feet with a wide grin. “Sorry. I was just so excited to see you, ma’am.”
“I hope you won’t give me the same treatment?” the doc said from the cab door.
“Professor,” Duncan said and held his hand to the man.
The doc took Duncan’s hand, but before they could shake, he pulled the younger man into a tight embrace. “It is so good to see you in one piece. I constantly worry about you.”
“No need to worry, sir. I’m fit as a fiddle.” He stepped back as the doc released him, smacking his own chest a few times to emphasize the point.
“Excellent. See that you remain that way.”
Duncan wrinkled his nose as he nodded to the driver climbing down the steps. “Mr. Ched.”
“Jamesh,” Ched said, nodding at Duncan but mercifully not offering his hand.
“Is that really a circus?” Sarah said from the top step.
“It sure is, young lady,” Duncan said.
Dodger motioned for her to come down and join him.
She hopped down from the train and scurried to his side, making a wide berth around the new arrival. Once beside Dodger, or rather nearly behind him, she took his hand into her own.
“And who is this?” Duncan said.
Dodger squeezed her hand, reassuringly. “This is Sarah.”
“How tall can you get?” Sarah said.
“Well, little lady,” Duncan said as he crouched to her level, “I reckon I can get just about as tall as I need.” He touched her nose and she giggled.
Sarah’s eyes widened. “Twenty?”
“Maybe not twenty.”
“How come you can get so big?”
“That’s a little complicated.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Does that mean you don’t know either?”
Duncan chuckled. “There’s no fooling you, is there?”
“As you can see,” Dodger said, “she’s full of questions, but smart as a whip.”
“I’d expect nothing less from a member of your crew,” Duncan said. He smiled at Sarah and then held his hands up to the crowd gathered beside of the train. “Would you like to meet my friends?”
Sarah glanced up to Dodger. “Can I?”
Before Dodger could answer, a well groomed man approached the line with a slow limp. Wearing a tux and tails, the top hatted fellow stood as tall as Ched and was nearly as thin. He sported a wiry, waxed mustache, as well as a bright red bowtie that all but screamed from his otherwise black suit. He leaned on a black cane with a silver tipped handle, taking the weight off of his left leg which was bound to the knee in makeshift bandages. Despite his obvious pain, the man kept a broad pleasant smile.
“Monsieur Williams?” the man said in a warm, French accent. “Are you not going to introduce your friends we have heard so much about?”
“Of course, Mr. Bigby,” Duncan said. He held out his hand to each crew member as he called their names, one by one, ending with Dodger.
Bigby’s eyes widened a bit at Dodger’s name. “Ah, you are the incredible Monsieur Rodger Dodger?” He held his hand out.
Dodger nodded as he shook hands with the Frenchman. “I am Rodger Dodger, but I wouldn’t say I was incredible.”
“Modest too? That is refreshing. Our James weaves a very different story about you, Monsieur Dodger. He says that you and your crew are tres fantastiques.”
Dodger glanced to Duncan, who looked to the ground rather than face Dodger’s gaze.
“Noush nes shommesh tresh fantastiques,” Ched said. “Mediocres tout au plus.” (We aren’t very magnificent. We’re mediocre at best.)
In his travels, Dodger picked up a smattering of French, and was once again surprised that Ched knew any of the language at all. Though with the man’s slur it was difficult to pick out his meaning.
Bigby was just as surprised, and gasped at Ched’s words. “Parlez-vous Francais?” (You speak French?)
“Sheulement quand l’envie moi prend.” (Only when the mood takes me.)
“Alors, puisse l’envie toujours te prendre. D’autant que le français est le langage des amants.” (Then may the mood always take you. For French is the language of lovers.)
“Ched is far from anyone’s lover,” the doc said. “And before you ask the obvious, yes I speak French as well. I picked it up in your native country, trying to impress a young lady.”
“As I said, French is the language of love.”
“Yes, well, in the end, the girl was far harder to master than the language.”
“Isn’t that the way?” Bigby said, then clapped his hands as he chuckled. “So, this is the skillful crew that shall assist us in our plight?”
Dodger looked to Duncan again. “I don’t know. Are we?”
“I may have mentioned your knack for solving problems,” Duncan said with a smirk.
“Mr. Bigby, I don’t know what our friend here has told you but we are in a bit of a rush right now.”
“He has only told me that you are the saviors of the innocent,” Bigby said. “And the champions of all noble causes.”
Duncan smiled wider.
Dodger closed his eyes and grunted. What a boast! How could he let the Frenchman down after that kind of buildup? “Mr. Bigby, I hate to deny such a claim but-”
“Before you start getting all modest,” Duncan said over Dodger. “You all might want to hear us out first. It involves Commander Rex.”
This halted Dodger in his verbal tracks. “It does?”
“What happened?” Dodger said eyeing the Frenchman’s leg.
“He stole the circus’s elephant,” Duncan said. “And shot-”
“He didn’t just steal an elephant,” Bigby said over Duncan’s explanation. “His men kidnapped her at gunpoint. He took my Baby from me.”
“Baby?” Dodger said.
“She’s the world’s largest elephant in captivity,” Duncan clarified. “She stands at almost fourteen feet and weighs over six tons.”
“Six tonsh?” Ched said. “That’sh shome baby.”
“It’s also six tons of raw power he has on his side now,” Lelanea said.
“Son of a …” Dodger whispered.
“Why would he want a slow, stupid elephant?” Sarah said.
The ringmaster gasped.
“Elephants,” the doc said, “while a slowish lot, are anything but stupid, young lady.”
“You speak true,” Bigby said. “My Baby is not only the largest of her kind, she also is the smartest. I have never before witnessed an animal with her level of intelligence.”
“She must be worth a fortune,” Duncan said. “No wonder Commander Rex stole her.”
“If it were only that simple,” the doc said. “Unfortunately I think I know exactly what that monster wants with that poor animal.”
“I have an idea, too,” Dodger said. His mind raced with the possibilities of huge, lumbering giants armed to the teeth with fantastic weapons, tearing up everything in their path. From the dog soldiers to an elephant army? The little mutt knew no limits when it came to either cruelty or craziness.
“We can’t let that happen,” Lelanea said.
“Agreed,” the doc said. “I shudder to think what Rex will do if he gets his grimy little paws on her.”
“I don’t know what y’all are talking about,” Duncan said. “But it sounds terrible.”
“It is,” Dodger said. “What do you think, doc?”
The professor stroked his beard. “While I realize we are on a tight schedule, I certainly don’t wish to let that majestic animal suffer under such a maniac’s hands.”
“Unlessh thish ish jusht another trap,” Ched said.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Dodger said.
“It can’t be,” Lelanea said. “Unless he is keeping a direct eye on us, Rex has no idea where we are. He even admitted in one of his recordings that he has only guessed at how far along we are.”
“He’s been pretty accurate so far.”
“True, but that was before we headed north to visit Jubilee. And minus the time we spent fitting PAUL into the cab. Things he surely has no idea we’ve done. For all Rex knows, we are hundreds of miles west of here.”
“All right little missh shmarty pantsh,” Ched said, “If Rexsh doeshn’t know how far along we are, then how did Jamesh know we would be here? At thish exact shpot, at thish exact moment.”
All eyes turned to the man in question.
“Actually,” Duncan said, “I had no idea. I only flagged you down because I thought you might be willing to help us out. But it sounds like you have a problem of your own.”
“We shure do,” Ched said.
Duncan looked to Dodger for an explanation.
Dodger glanced at the circus owner, then back to Duncan.
“I’ll vouch for him,” Duncan said. “Mr. Bigby is a good man. He and his crew have helped me a great deal since I parted ways with you folks. I’ve told him everything there is to know, including how I got the belt. I figured he had a right to know, considering I am on his payroll as well.”
“I guess it won’t hurt for him to know anyways,” Dodger said. “Do you remember what I told you about those soldiers?”
Duncan nodded. “The poor fellers, yeah.”
“Rex has demanded we turn over the Sleipnir to his compound in California in less than a week’s time, or he will kill Thad and his men.”
“Mon Dieu,” Bigby said.
“On top of this,” Dodger said, “he also kidnapped Sarah’s younger brother.”
“Does he know no limits?” Bigby said.
“And you’re following his orders?” Duncan said. “You’re actually bringing him the train?”
“We don’t have much of a choice,” Dodger said. He nodded to Bigby’s injured leg. “I take it his men did that?”
“Then you understand. He holds all the cards in this game and he will stop at nothing to win.”
“Meanwhile,” Lelanea said, “he’s been trying to trip us up the whole while. Every few miles seems to bring us to another full stop for one reason or another. All of his invention.”
“No wonder you’re suspicious,” Duncan said.
“Not so much suspicious as cautious,” Dodger said. “We need to make sure this isn’t another attempt to stall us.”
“How can we tell he isn’t using us?” Duncan folded his arms. “It isn’t like we would know. I mean, he’s already used me once.”
“You are saying the kidnapping of my Baby is a distraction?” Bigby said.
“That’s exactly what we are saying,” Dodger said.
“I don’t think so,” Lelanea said. “Not this time. I think the elephant is a substitute for something else.”
“Interesting,” the doc said. “What for?”
“Dodger, remember when Mayor White said that some men came into town asking after PAUL but left empty handed? What if the elephant is a backup plan? They couldn’t get their hands on the machine so they are settling for the next best thing?”
“Could be,” Dodger said. “But what on earth is he doing that requires such raw power?”
“There is no way to tell,” the doc said. “And quite frankly, I hope we never find out. I do, however, suggest we don’t allow it to come to pass.”
“You want us to go after that elephant?” Dodger said.
“I think we must.”
“Then you will help us?” Duncan said.
“As the doc put it,” Dodger said, “I think we have to.”
“Excellent,” Bigby said. He turned to face his waiting employees, raised his free arm and shouted, “They have agreed to help!”
A whoop went up over the assembled crowd, as each unusual member of the circus clapped and cheered at the crew’s decision.
“You won’t regret this,” Duncan said to Dodger in a low voice. “Having these folks on your side might be just what you’ve needed all along.”
“I sure hope so,” Dodger said.
“Please,” Bigby said as he threw an arm over the professor’s shoulder, “come and meet the rest of our family. We will explain exactly what happened and help you in any way we can.”
Duncan offered his arm to Lelanea and a hand to Sarah, who willingly obliged him, linking up on either side of the man.
Dodger hung back a moment with Ched as they watched the five stroll toward the circus. Well, four strolled and one limped.
“Looks like the doc is gonna get his break after all,” Dodger grumbled. He gave Ched a sideways glance. “What do you think about all of this?”
“I think the universh looksh out for that man,” Ched said. “You know what they shay, ashk and he shall resheive.”
Dodger nodded. “I was just thinking the same thing.”