Down the Line
In which Dodger helps pick up the pieces
The aftermath of a battle was never pretty. Whether the good guys won or not, folks still lost life and limb and so much more. When the scrappin’ was done, the average battlefield fell into a state of confusion, a myriad of doubtful questions and conflicting instincts. Dodger did his best to guide the dog soldiers and the circus folk through this labyrinth of uncertainty, once again taking on that role he so sorely despised. That of a reluctant leader.
It took no time at all to get the circus folk and the dog soldiers sorted out once the blood lust had passed. Dodger couldn’t have asked for a better troupe to command. Most of the men from the circus had seen combat in some form or another, and the women were just as war torn as the men. The dogs already considered Dodger their rightful leader, so they took direction without fault or question. Meanwhile, Boon and Duncan tended to the enormous hole in the ground, as well as the unearthed equipment, helping Torque get the dangerous things back on the line, where they belonged.
By late afternoon, the entire troupe had set up camp amidst the commandeered tents of the enemy, made makeshift stretchers to get the injured and fallen onto the line and settled in for an evening’s rest before hitting the road once more. The Sleipnir’s crew retired to the line for a debriefing, joined by Thad and Mr. Bigby. Boon joined the discussion via a fussy but compliant Mr. Torque, a process which neither the dog man nor the Frenchman questioned. They didn’t even raise an eyebrow. Dodger supposed if you spent enough time around the doc, the unusual just got more and more mundane
Overall the company got away with minimal damage. Out of the fifty or so folks fighting the good fight, only six were outright killed. A dozen more bore injures of various levels, all of which the doc and Lelanea patched up in a manner of hours. The rest walked away with little more than scrapes and bruises. These numbers made the battle an overwhelming success considering the enemy suffered one hundred percent casualties.
Well, one hundred percent of the enemies present died.
Rex was still at large.
After going over the grim details of the small but sad death toll, Dodger moved the line of discussion toward his burning curiosity. Namely, how did this ragtag bunch of unlikely soldiers manage to pull off a full scale attack against an army? Turned out to be, of all things, the doc’s idea. Once he got over his initial shock at Dodger leaving, he all but commanded the crew to go after the man. The rest of the crew agreed, including Duncan. When the Variable Height Cowboy tried to bid his farewells to the circus folk, they unanimously decided to join the battle.
“After that it was a matter of planning and patience,” Feng said.
“We knew they wouldn’t act until they had at least two thousand men,” Lelanea said. “So we had some time on our hands.”
“How did you know that?” Dodger said.
Lelanea looked to Duncan, who looked to the floor. “We might have had a talk with your lady friend.”
“Kitty?” Dodger narrowed his eyes. “What did you do to her?”
“Don’t worry, Dodger, we didn’t hurt her. She was surprisingly talkative.” Lelanea smiled wide at Duncan. “And apparently affectionate.”
Duncan shifted his gaze from the floor to the ceiling.
“How did you get involved?” Dodger said, looking to Thad.
“Lelanea and I went scouting a few days ago,” Boon said, “and found them near the bulldog’s campsite. We set them free and the joined up with us.”
“We were only too glad to help out,” Thad said.
“It’s certainly good to see you again,” Dodger said. “Mr. Bigby, we can’t thank you enough for what you and your people did for us today. We couldn’t have done this without your help.”
“Our help?” Bigby said. “You and your crew have been helping us non-stop since you arrived. Putting that chien in his place was the least we could do. Besides, he threatened our world too, not just yours.”
“Thank you. Your people put themselves in danger, and some of them will never recover from that. And those that lost their lives-”
“Monsieur Dodger,” Bigby said over him, “each member of my company knew exactly what they were doing when they agreed to fight. None of them went into battle unwillingly. They knew the risks and were willing to fight to protect not only their own way of life but the lives of their children. We shall morn our losses as the heroes they are.”
The doc reached out and grasped the ringleader’s shoulder. “As will we.”
Bigby patted the doc’s hand, but said no more on the matter.
Dodger shifted his attention to the doc. “How long before Boon’s body is ready for him?”
“Oh, yes,” the doc said. “Well, it might take a little while for me to sort out this freezing process he used. I think it is based on my ICE machine in some way. I’ve nearly got him thawed and have been running some tests and I am certain I shall be ready for a full transfer in, oh, a few days or so?”
“That long?” Boon said in a whine.
“Poor thing,” Ched said. “How will you shurvive?” His sallow eyes lolled about in their sockets.
“Not all of us enjoy being dead, Ched.”
“Then you aren’t doing it right, shon.”
“Doc?” Dodger said. “Can you handle that while we’re moving?”
“I suppose so,” the doc said.
“Leaving so soon?” Duncan said. He crossed his arms over his chest and set his jaw in defiance.
“Yes,” Dodger said. “We are, and you’re coming with us.”
“Am I?” Duncan sat up in surprise.
“Of course. We’re going to need you.” Dodger nodded to Thad. “Your men are welcome to join us as well.”
Thaddeus cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “We’ll do what you want us to do, of course.”
“But?” Dodger said, sensing some reluctance.
Thad looked to Bigby.
“But,” Bigby said, “I offered them a home with us.”
“That’s very generous of you,” Lelanea said.
“Would you rather stay with them?” Dodger said.
Thad nodded. “They accept us for who we are. We couldn’t ask for more.”
Dodger was both pleased and a little hurt. On the one hand the dog men finally found a place they fit in. On the other, Dodger was losing command of a fine Pack of soldiers.
“Know that you are also welcome to remain with us,” Bigby said. “We unusual folk must stick together, oui?”
“Thanks but no thanks,” Dodger said. “We’ll be pulling out in the next hour.”
“Hour?” Ched said. “You should’ve told me that an hour ago. I gotta run shome maintenansh on the ole gal-”
“Then run it quickly. We will leave in an hour. We’re going after Rex.”
“Right now?” Boon said. “I mean, what about … you know. Other stuff?”
“The doc said he can handle that on the move,” Dodger said.
“Dodger’s right,” Lelanea said. “We need to get after that maniac while there is still time.”
“He certainly isn’t going to come to us,” the doc said.
Before anyone could rejoin that, a knock rose from the door. Dodger glanced to the sound, then motioned to Ched. The driver gave a protracted sigh as he got to his feet and shuffled across the cab. The knock came again, persistent and demanding. Ched pulled open the door and stared down the stairwell.
“What ish it?” the driver said.
“Is Mr. Bigby here, sir?” said a young, timid voice.
“Scott?” Bigby said. He stood and joined Ched at the door. “What is it?”
“A rider, Mr. Bigby,” the kid said. “Comin’ up from the west side.”
Dodger leapt to his feet and pushed past Ched and Bigby. A young lad of about thirteen stood at the bottom of the cab stairs. He backed away as Dodger emerged from the train.
“Show me,” Dodger said.
The kid motioned to the horizon, to the shadowy riding against the backdrop of the setting sun. Dodger glared at the approaching figure, a million scenarios running through his tired mind. He turned to the gathered crowd. His first instinct was to tell everyone to get back inside. To get under cover and hide. He knew such instructions would be ignored. The circus folk and dog soldiers alike were already armed and ready. The entire crew of the Sleipnir filed out of the line and joined Dodger, shoulder to shoulder. They intended on meeting the danger head on, beside Dodger, not behind him.
“You might find these useful,” the doc said. He handed Dodger a pair of SPECS.
Dodger thanked the man, then held the pair of goggles to his eyes. An unexpected sight met him. It was, quite literally, the last person he expected to see today. Or many a day to come for that matter. He lowered the pair of goggles and continued to stare at the distant rider, mouth agape in genuine surprise.
“Dodger?” Lelanea said. “What is it?”
“Agent Carr,” Dodger said.
“I thought he went with Rex?” Feng said.
“Me too,” Dodger said. He lifted the goggles to his eyes to confirm his next few words. “He’s got a boy with him. I think it’s Little Rodger.”
A murmur rippled through the crowd. Dodger continued to stare at the approaching rider.
“That’s good,” Boon said. “Right?”
“Of course it’s good,” the doc said. “They must’ve given Rex the ole slip. Right, Mr. Dodger?”
“Wait here,” Dodger said.
No one argued with him as he walked away from the crowd, leaving them to whisper at his back. He moved ahead a few steps and waited for Agent Carr to reach him. As the shadow grew larger, Dodger contemplated the possibilities of what was happening here. The chances that Carr could give that mutt and his human sidekick the slip. His hands wandered to the ladies at his hips, almost subconsciously.
“Dodger!” Carr called out when he was close enough.
“Agent Carr?” Dodger said.
Carr dismounted about a hundred feet or so from Dodger and stood there, in silence, looking as about as scared to death as a man could look. Splatters of blood dappled his face and trembling hands. He gripped the reigns tight enough for Dodger to hear the twist of leather from where he stood.
The boy lay sprawled across the back of the saddle, tied in place atop a lumpy layer of crimson canvas.
“What are you doing here?” Dodger said.
“I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” Carr said. He hooked a thumb to the kid sleeping on the back of the horse. “And I thought you’d want him back. I can just leave him here. Or whatever you want me to do. Just don’t shoot me.” He raised his hands a bit at this.
Dodger glanced to the gun in his hand. A gun he hadn’t realized he had drawn, much less held on the poor man, with the hammer set to action. Dodger released the hammer and returned Hortense to her proper place.
Carr visibly relaxed.
“Sorry,” Dodger said. “I’m a bit jumpy after all that action.”
“I’d bet so,” Carr said.
“How’s the boy?”
“He is sleeping. He’s been sleeping since we left the airship. As far as I can tell he isn’t injured in any way.”
“You injured then?”
Dodger motioned to Carr’s neck and hands. “You’re bleeding.”
Carr glanced down to his hands. “Ah, it’s not my blood.”
“Whose is it?”
The agent didn’t answer. He stared at Dodger for a quiet moment, then walked around to the back of his horse. There he began to untie Little Rodger, gently shifting him toward the front of the horse. Once the child was moved, Carr worked the ropes free from the rest of the saddle. Dodger eyed the canvas, and the streams of crimson dripping down the flanks of Carr’s mechanical mare.
“It’s his blood,” Carr said, and yanked the thick covering away.
The pulverized mess spread across the back of Carr’s saddle was almost unrecognizable as a once living thing. Blood and bone and fur held together by stringy bits of ruined muscle and rent flesh. Yet, even as an eviscerated corpse Dodger recognized the beast for what it was. Or rather who it once was.
“Rex,” Dodger said in a slow breath. “What happened to him?”
“Oh my word,” the doc said before Carr could answer.
The rest of the crew had once again ignored Dodger’s instructions. The gathered around the horse, staring at the remains of the once high and mighty Commander Rex.
“Is that really him?” Duncan said.
“Yes,” Carr said. “I was going to leave him behind, but … I thought you might want proof.”
Dodger looked to Carr, noting the worry in the kid’s eyes. He grabbed the canvas and covered up the sticky mess. “You were right. I don’t think I would’ve believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself. Thank you.”
“I’ll be damned,” Feng said.
“What happened?” Lelanea said.
“Crank happened,” Carr said.
“Crank did this?” Dodger said, pointing to the bloody canvas.
“He went crazy. We were lucky to get away from him alive.”
“Rodger!” Sarah shouted from the doorway of the quarters’ cab. She must’ve seen her brother from the window of her room. The young girl leapt from the stairwell, hit the ground running and didn’t stop until she was at her brother’s side. Heedless of the bloody mess beside of her, she grabbed up her brother’s hand and held on tight. “Is he all right? Tell me he’s all right. Is he asleep? Why is he asleep? Is he asleep like I was asleep? Do we have to go inside and get him back? Can I go?”
“Tell you what,” the doc said as he pulled Sarah back a bit from the mechanical horse. “Let’s get the boy aboard. Mr. Carr can tell us all about his journey while I examine your brother. Sound good?”
“Will he be all right?”
“I promise he will be just fine.”
Sarah nodded, but Dodger could see the worry on her face as clear as the tears standing in her eyes. Carr took up his reigns and led his horse back to the line, where Duncan helped the doc move the boy into the meeting car. Dodger hung back a bit, the scene unfolding before him as if he were viewing it from somewhere else, very far away. This didn’t feel real. It couldn’t be real.
“Lelanea?” Dodger said.
“I know,” Lelanea said. “I feel it too.”
“Am I still dreaming?”
“Not unless we both are. Which we aren’t.”
“I’m certain of it. In my dreams Boon’s never a ghost.”
That came as some comfort to Dodger. That and the fact that he was certain Rex didn’t know about Lelanea’s other self or the spirit driven PAUL. There was no way that battle was a dream. But this? Dodger wasn’t sure if he thought it was a fantasy or a nightmare.
Lelanea took a few steps toward the line and put her hands on her hips as she watched the crew shift the bloody corpse of their sworn enemy onto the train. “This feels, I don’t know… too easy.”
“Anticlimactic,” Dodger said.
“Oh, there’s a good word. That’s exactly how it feels. All that build up and no big showdown.” She glanced over her shoulder at Dodger. “Are you disappointed?”
Dodger shrugged. “I’m not sure how I feel.”
“Not the first time I’ll bet. Come on then.” Lelanea held her elbow out to him. “Let’s hear what your friend has to say for himself.”
Dodger slipped his arm into hers. They walked back to the line together, to face the end, to join the others was they witnessed the completion of a short but dark chapter in all of their lives.
Dodger had never felt so numb about something so wonderful.