In which Dodger lets her go
Dodger backed off of the elephant a few steps, allowing the handler to move in closer. Thankfully, the moment Baby saw Brian, she wrapped her trunk around him just as tightly as she did Dodger. Brian laughed in surprise as she picked him up off his feet.
“Look like she’s not a one man elephant,” Lelanea said.
Dodger couldn’t help but sigh in relief. “Thank heaven.”
“Come on,” Brian wheezed. “Put me down, girl.”
Baby obeyed, slowly lowering the man to his feet. Brian patted her on the trunk, beaming with pride. Or was that mutual affection?
“At least her wounds aren’t too bad,” Brian said. He circled around her and ran a hand around a bloody gunshot wound just above her right knee. “Seems superficial. What kind of bastard would shoot at an elephant like that?”
“What’s making her so sweet?” Alice said.
“It’s the disruptor,” Dodger said. “The doc said it might make her a bit fond.”
The elephant reached out to Dodger again, but he ducked before she could snatch him off his feet.
“She sure seems in a loving mood,” Andy said.
Baby turned her head to the sound of his voice. Spying him, she stepped forward a few paces and reached out for him.
“Whoa, whoa!” he said, holding up his arms and backing away from her.
“Better let her get a snuggle in,” Alice said, then laughed. “There’s no telling what she might do if you spurn her, brother.”
Andy glared at his sister. In his distraction, the elephant scooped him up and cuddled him to her. The man flailed in her grip, hollering at her to put him down. Alice and Gerald laughed, while Brian lovingly tried to convince the elephant to release Andy.
“That’s the first lady I’ve seen willingly touch you in years!” Gerald shouted, then laughed aloud again, slapping his knee in his humor.
At his voice, Baby unfurled her trunk, dropping Andy to the ground as she trundled forward to grab up Gerald. It was Andy’s turn to laugh, and he joined his sister as they pointed and guffawed at the huge strong man caught up in the elephant’s sudden amore.
Dodger turned his back on the comical scene and scanned the southern horizon, noting the puffs of dirt kicked up by the retreating horses. It was a shame they got away, but at least he got his hands on Kitty. And the elephant, of course.
“Should we give chase?” Lelanea said from his left.
“Naw,” Dodger said, keeping his eyes glued to the fading images of the horses and men. “I reckon it will be more trouble than it’s worth. Though, I’d give my eye tooth to know why they need that elephant.”
“We could follow them. Find out.”
“As much as I would like that, we need to get back on the road.” Dodger gave a troubled sigh. “If we go after them it’ll waste too much time and slow us down, and for what? In all likelihood, this is just another setup to delay us. Besides, we have Kitty if we need information.”
“You know she won’t talk.”
“I know.” He thought about this. “Maybe we can send Duncan out after them for a recon-”
“Dodger,” Lelanea said over him.
Dodger turned to her, catching a deep concern on her pretty face. “Miss Lelanea? What is it?”
He cut his eyes at her. “You mean after them?”
“No. I can’t spare the Rhino.”
“I didn’t ask for the Rhino.”
“Then how in Sam hill do you expect to …” his words trailed off as he she tilted her head, eyeing him intently. It took Dodger a few seconds, but he finally understood. “Oh. No. No, ma’am. I can’t let you do that.”
Lelanea smiled, though Dodger got the impression it wasn’t one of joy. Maybe it was the toothy nature of the grin that set the morbid tone. Or maybe it was the hungry for blood look in her eye.
“I wasn’t asking permission,” she said.
A high pitched squeal rose from their left as Kitty got a snuggling turn from Baby.
“Put me down, you beast!” she shouted.
The others laughed doubly hard as Brian tried to coax the animal into calming down. It seemed the elephant was done picking on the men folk, and had moved on to loving on anyone that came near her. Duncan upped his size a bit and unwrapped the redhead from the elephant’s groping grip, only to end up entangled in her trunk himself.
“If you send Duncan out there he will just get himself killed,” Lelanea whispered. “His friends need him at the circus. We have to know what this was all about, and you can’t leave because they need you on the line. I can go. No one needs-” she stopped short with the idea, gathering her thoughts for a moment before she finished with, “They can’t be far from here if they were planning on walking that elephant the entire way. In my other form I am faster than even the Rhino. Depending on how far out they are, I could be back in a matter of hours. I am best fit to this task and am more than capable of taking care of myself.”
“I know you are, but still-”
The sound of his name on her lips brought him to a complete stop.
She locked eyes with him, silently begging his understanding.
“I need to get away so I can think,” she whispered. “Please, let me do this.”
Dodger stared at her for another silent moment, considering what she was really trying to say. He had a peek between her lines and he didn’t like what he read one bit. The insinuation that she should go because no one needed her anymore cut him to the quick. What a troublesome thing love was. What a burden. What a joke. After so many months morning her lost love only to lose him again for no damned good reason? It was enough to put Dodger off the notion of love for the rest of his miserable life.
“As if I could stop you,” he said, finally looking away from her. “Go and get yourself into trouble. But don’t blame me for the scolding your uncle’s gonna give you when you return.”
Lelanea chuckled. “I’ve had far worse.”
“Right. There and back in a few hours?”
“If I am not back by tomorrow morning, leave without me.”
“No, I draw the line at abandoning you. We won’t leave without-”
Lelanea touched a finger to his moving lips, silencing him. “Don’t be daft. I can track the train as easy as those men. I’ll catch up. I promise.” She traced his lips, then lifted her finger away.
The heat of her touch lingered on his mouth for a moment. He resisted the urge to lick his lips. Instead, Dodger nervously rubbed at the back of his neck as he glanced to the circus folk.
They were all still distracted by the amorous elephant.
“How are we going to do this?” he said.
“Let me worry about that,” she said. Lelanea grabbed his hand and led him away from the others a few yards, obviously trying to gain some privacy. She said, softly, “Just do me one favor.”
“Don’t kill her.”
Not expecting such a subject to come up, Dodger fell quiet. He didn’t know what to say.
“Dodger,” Lelanea said. “We need her alive. If you kill her now, we will lose everything she knows.”
He didn’t answer. He couldn’t trust himself not to tell her a lie.
Lelanea touched his cheek, turning Dodger to her, forcing him to face her. “Promise me you won’t. At least not until I get back. Can you promise that much?”
“Not until you get back,” Dodger said. It was the best he could do.
“Good boy.” She patted his cheek. “Oh and I think I lied. I need one more favor.”
“I don’t know how much more generosity I have in me, woman.”
“This isn’t for you anyways. Ask Ched to come back out here later to retrieve my clothes before you go.”
Dodger raised an eyebrow. “Your what?”
“I’m serious, Dodger. I really like this bustier and I don’t want to lose it.”
His gaze involuntarily flicked down to the article of clothing in question, raking over the swell of her full bosom before he forced his eyes to meet hers again. “I suppose I can manage that.”
“I’m sure you can.” Lelanea gave his hand a firm squeeze, then let it slip away from hers. She turned on her heel and took off in a sprint, heading toward the southern horizon after the horses and men. To be fair to Lelanea, she had a reached and impressive gait even without being on all fours. The woman was almost a half mile away before the others noticed her departure.
“Hey,” Alice said. “Where is she going?”
“To find out where these men went,” Dodger said.
“What!” Duncan shouted. “Are you crazy? You can’t let her go after those maniacs.”
“Let her? What makes you think I can let her do anything?”
Duncan took a few running steps toward her distant form before he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Miss Lelanea! Get back here!”
“She’ll be fine,” Dodger said. He couldn’t be certain, but he thought he saw her drop to her knees, though she never broke her stride. Something fluttered away, trailing off behind her in a billow of dark fabric. Dodger averted his eyes before his imagination filled in what gritty details he couldn’t see. “Lelanea is a far better tracker than any of us.”
“At least give the poor girl a horse,” Alice said.
“She prefers to work without a horse. Trust me, she knows what she’s doing.”
Kitty snorted. “I can guarantee she has no idea what she’s doing. Or what she’s in for.”
Ignoring the obvious bait, Dodger motioned to the Rhino. “Gerald, get her in the Rhino. Brian, can you ride back on Baby?”
“Sure,” he said. “She lets me ride her all the time. I’ll need help getting up there, though.”
“Good. James, help Brian onto Baby’s back. He can lead her back to-”
“Dodger,” Duncan said over him. “Surely you aren’t serious. You can’t just leave Miss Lelanea out here alone like that.”
“I said she’ll be fine.”
Duncan took an intimidating step forward.
Dodger met Duncan’s stance, standing toe to toe with the man. Thankfully, Duncan had his belt set to a reasonable height, which let Dodger stare him in the eyes rather than face him nose to chest.
“You asked for our help,” Dodger said. “We helped. You got your elephant back. Lelanea knows what she is doing. Now get Kitty in the cart so we can get the hell out of here.”
Duncan stared at Dodger for a tense moment, then nodded. “Understood.” He stalked away, grumbling under his breath. With a flick of the wrist, the man grew a few feet taller. He turned his back on Dodger and offered Brian a boost onto the elephant.
“Alice, Andy,” Dodger said. “You two take the horses and travel back with Baby and Brian. Keep ‘em safe and get ‘em back as soon as you can. Let us know if the doc needs to take a look at her wounds. The rest of us will go ahead in the Rhino.”
“Yes, sir,” the twins said together.
“I can ride back in the machine?” Gerald said, his eyes lighting up.
“Sure,” Dodger said. “Just keep an eye on our prisoner while I drive.”
“I’m not getting in that thing,” Kitty said.
Without a word, the strong man lifted Kitty from her feet and set her down in the backseat of the vehicle. He then climbed into the Rhino beside her. Kitty scooted to the far side, giving the big man plenty of room.
“James,” Dodger said, “I want you up front with me.”
“Yes, sir,” Duncan said.
Dodger closed his eyes for a brief moment. Great. Now Duncan was sore at him. This was going to be a long ride back to the circus.
“This thing is pitiful,” Kitty said from her seat. “My Rex has a carriage twice this size and armored on all sides.”
“Is that so?” Dodger said. He climbed into Rhino and settled behind the wheel.
“Yes. It’s much better than this pathetic toy.”
Dodger glanced up to the mirror. “Do tell me all about it.”
Kitty must’ve realized he was now baiting her, for she shut her mouth and refused to say another word on the matter.
The ride back was stone silent between Dodger and Duncan, as expected. Gerald hooted and hollered in the backseat, enjoying the heck out of himself. Their prisoner remained unimpressed. She gave an occasional yawn and rolled her eyes, but did little else. The Rhino made it back to the circus in a little over a half hour, with an exhausted but anxious Dodger at the wheel. He could’ve taken his time, all things considered, but he wanted to get back and let the doc know about his niece.
Everyone from the crew of both the circus and the train had gathered at the southern end of the camp, waiting for the rescue party to return. Ched had brought the line in closer, parking it almost atop the collection of tents and carts. Dodger pedaled the Rhino in low and slow, easing her up to the center of the waiting folks. Once they began to slow, Duncan practically catapulted himself from the front seat of the still moving Rhino. He stormed away from the vehicle without a word, leaving the curious onlookers behind.