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As Dodger walked off the plane, he saw a man holding up a handmade cardboard sign that said 'Killian'.
The man looked like he might have just walked out of a cigarette advertisement. You couldn't find a more classic looking cowboy figure outside of Hollywood.
"Dr. Killian?" the man asked curiously when Dodger approached.
Dodger puzzled over the man's assumption when he realized that he was wearing his tailored three-piece suit.
"No. My name is Dodger, but I'm travelling with him. Dr. Killian had to take care of a medical emergency on the plane. He's with the ambulance, right now." Dodger said seriously, trying to keep a pleasant tone in his voice. From the casual appearance of the man before him, Dodger became concerned that the man would think that he was pompous or 'uppity'.
"I'm Bruce. Sam sent me out here to pick up Dr. Killian." the man said slowly, and seemed to be suspicious.
"He told me to meet him in the baggage claim, so we can go there if you like." Dodger said simply.
"Yeah. Um, are you... one of us?" Bruce asked cautiously.
Dodger puzzled over the question for a moment, then said, "Yes. I just changed yesterday. Rafe said that it'll be a few days before I smell right."
Bruce hesitantly nodded, then motioned for Dodger to follow him.
* * * * *
"How's he doing?" Dodger asked quickly as Rafe approached.
"They got the lab results just as we landed and confirmed botulism, so Little Joe and his grandparents are all going to be fine." Rafe said happily.
"It's a good thing that there was a doctor on board to help him." Dodger said with a smile.
"It's an even better thing that there was a hoopie on board who recognized the symptoms of botulism." Rafe said seriously. "I specialize in infectious diseases, so my first impulse was to try and figure out what type of flu he was suffering from. I believe that you may have saved that boy's life... and his grandparents' lives too."
Dodger looked at Rafe with surprise at the statement.
"I'm Bruce. I'm going to be taking you to the ranch." Bruce said seriously.
"It's nice to meet you, Bruce. I'm Dr. Raphael Killian, but you're welcomed to call me Rafe." He said, as he extended his hand to shake.
"Let's get out of here. These lights are giving me a headache." Bruce said firmly.
Rafe slowly withdrew his hand, then glanced at Dodger and asked, "Do we have everything?"
Dodger gestured to the loaded cart of luggage and said, "Yeah. It's all here."
"Then we'd better go. Right this way." Bruce said and gestured toward the exit.
* * * * *
"What can you tell me about my patient?" Rafe asked, as Bruce pulled out of the airport.
"Not much, but I can fill you in on how we found him." Bruce said seriously.
Dodger tried to get comfortable sitting on the bench seat of the pickup truck between Rafe and Bruce.
"Anything you can tell me might be of help." Rafe said professionally.
"Let's see... about three or four days ago, we noticed that someone was feeding on some of our cattle." Bruce said distantly.
"It took a while, but we were finally able to pick up their trail. Out toward the edge of our land, we came across two cows that had been completely drained. From the look of the damage, we figured that six or eight of the critters got to 'em." Bruce said slowly. "We went back and got all the farm hands together, then we followed the trail to a farmhouse that was about... oh, eighteen or so miles from the ranch."
Rafe nodded as Dodger noticed the scenery outside. It was absolutely barren. Truly a wasteland.
"When we got to the house, it was filled with vampires. It looked like they stormed the place. All the men were killed, four of them... drained dry." Bruce said quietly, then added more darkly, "The women had been turned."
Rafe nodded that he understood.
"Well, we did what we had to do. We fought the critters and put 'em down as mercifully as we could. But when we got upstairs, we found the boy." Bruce said distantly.
"They'd fed on him... a lot." Bruce said quietly, then added in a grave tone. "And they raped him... a lot."
"They must have been trying to turn him." Rafe said speculatively.
"Yeah. That's what we figure."
"Why?" Dodger asked curiously, then added, "If they killed the men, why would they want to turn the boy?"
"For the same reason, they turned the women. They must have wanted the boy for a steady supply of sex." Rafe said as he looked Dodger in the eyes.
Dodger looked at Rafe with horror.
"Dodger, they're vampires. All they care about is satisfying their own hungers and lusts. They have no compassion for others." Rafe said gently. "They're like animals, in that they'll kill to feed themselves, but they're like humans because they'll kill just for the sport or the thrill of it."
"Yeah." Bruce added darkly, then continued, "Since the boy was still alive, we tied him up and took him with us. We figured that he was probably going to change, and there was always a chance that he'd change the good way. So we had to wait and see which way he went."
Rafe nodded that he understood.
"But the little guy never changed." Bruce said quietly. "Sam, he owns the ranch, he knows some about doctoring and the like, so he patched the boy up, as best he could, then he called a few people trying to figure out what we should do."
"And someone he talked to got in touch with Morgan." Rafe added with a nod.
"I guess so. That's about all I know. The kid's still alive. Sam is keeping him in the basement of the farmhouse where he'll be safe." Bruce said frankly.
"Safe from what?" Dodger asked, curiously.
"The kid's not changed. Everyone on the ranch can smell it." Bruce said carefully. "I ain't sayin that someone would do that, but... It's just best for everyone if no one has an opportunity to give in to that particular temptation."
* * * * *
They traveled in silence for a while.
Dodger noticed the sun beginning to rise behind them, but before it could even become the least bit uncomfortable, Bruce pulled a pair of little curtains on the back window closed, to shade them.
The terrain seemed to get more hilly and rugged, but no more inviting. Dodger had the sensation that they were constantly driving uphill and farther away from anything that could possibly be deemed civilization.
Dodger felt his ears pop multiple times as they continued to go up and up the seemingly endless mountain roads. He couldn't help but compare the bleak landscape to the lush verdant green that surrounded his home with Rafe. He couldn't imagine how anything could live in such an inhospitable environment.
He found that the gray desolation of their surroundings was dragging his spirits down. He couldn't even imagine anyone feeling anything but despair in such a wretched place.
* * * * *
"Pull your shade." Bruce said firmly.
Rafe looked at him with confusion, then above the window beside him.
Just as Rafe was pulling the square of canvas down, Bruce turned right.
"This is the last town where we can get gas." Bruce said, as he pulled the truck to a stop.
Dodger looked around and noticed that the gas pumps were shielded from the sun by the gas station.
"If you two need to stretch your legs or anything, now would be the time. We're about to start the long part of the trip." Bruce said before getting out of the truck.
"How are you feeling?" Rafe asked Dodger with concern.
"I hate this place." Dodger said frankly.
Rafe slowly nodded, not even attempting to defend it.
"How could anyone choose to live in a place as desolate and just plain horrible as this?" Dodger asked quietly.
"A lot of them didn't have a choice, they were driven here. The rest... they're probably like the people at the ranch, just wanting to go someplace where they'll be left alone." Rafe said honestly.
"Things must have been pretty bad for them to come all the way out here." Dodger said frankly.
"Try thinking about how it was for you, at your parents' house." Rafe said quietly. "Would you have come to a place like this if you knew that you'd be free?"
Dodger thought for a moment, then said, "Yeah. I suppose I would have, given the chance."
"Just try to keep in mind that we won't be staying." Rafe said seriously.
Dodger chuckled and said, "Trust me, I'll be telling myself that every minute of every day that we're here."
Rafe smiled at the answer.
* * * * *
The journey continued in silence as they seemed to be going higher and higher into the mountains. Every time they turned off a road, it seemed that it was to get onto an even smaller, rougher road. Dodger had thought that when they pulled onto the gravel road that it had to be near the end of their journey, but the gravel road seemed to go on forever.
When he was finally used to the endless crunch of the gravel under their tires, Bruce did the unthinkable and turned off the gravel road.
The dirt road they had turned onto was partly overgrown with scraggly weeds and was, in fact, hardly better than driving across the open field would have been. Deep ruts had been carved into what had once been mud, causing the undercarriage of the truck to drag the ground when the ruts became too deep.
Bruce slowed the truck, then carefully drove down a steep embankment into what looked like a dry riverbed.
"If it rains, we can't get out until this goes down." Bruce commented absently.
The truck crossed the riverbed easily enough, but seemed to be having to work to get them up the steep incline on the other side.
"The ranch is just up ahead." Bruce said, as he drove down a dirt path that was nothing more than two tire tracks carved through the straw-like weeds.
As he crested the next hill, the main gate of the ranch came into view.
Standing out there in what seemed to literally be the middle of nowhere, was a large, ornate wrought iron gate.
"Welcome to Rancho de la Noche." Bruce said with a bit of pride in his voice.
"Ranch of the night?" Rafe asked with a grin.
"Yeah. Sounds spooky, huh?" Bruce asked with a chuckle.
"I like it." Dodger said honestly.
"It's been home to me for many a year." Bruce said wistfully as he drove the truck through the opened gate and down a path to the large farmhouse.
"Hang on. You're going to get a few seconds of sun, before I park." Bruce warned.
"Put your head down." Rafe whispered, then pulled Dodger's face against his shoulder and covered the back of Dodger's head with his hand.
As Bruce pulled the truck around, the sun shone in through the front window and directly on them.
Dodger felt the exposed skin of his ear and neck ignite with a fire that felt like he had been doused with hot grease, but clenched his jaw tight and refused to cry out.
"It's safe, now." Bruce said as he brought the truck to a stop under a crude lean-to that served as a carport.
As Rafe slowly released Dodger, he quietly asked, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I think so." Dodger said, forcing himself not to acknowledge the searing pain on his ear and neck.
Then Dodger noticed Rafe's bright pink hand and asked, "How about you?"
"I'll be fine." Rafe said with a loving smile.
Rafe fought the urge to snatch his hand away when Dodger carefully took it. He watched with caution as Dodger lifted the bright pink hand to his lips and gave only the slightest whisper of a kiss to each knuckle.
"Do y'all need some help with your bags?" Bruce asked as he got out of the truck.
Rafe smiled lovingly at Dodger for a moment, then responded, "If you wanted to grab some, I wouldn't try to stop you."
"Right." Bruce said, and almost betrayed a smile.
* * * * *
"Mavis, this is Dr. Killian, and Dodger." Bruce said, as he led the way into the kitchen and sat some luggage just inside the door.
"Please call me Rafe. It's a pleasure to meet you, Mavis." Rafe said formally.
"Yeah. Well, Rafe, just so you know, no one told me there was gonna be two of you. There's only the one guest room." Mavis said seriously, as she worked, cutting peeled potatoes into chunks and dropping them into a large pot of water on the stove. "But I'm sure the boys can make room for one more down in the bunkhouse if need be."
"One room will be perfectly fine for us." Rafe said with a smile.
Mavis looked from Rafe to Dodger, then said, "Well, good, I guess Sam ain't gonna have to worry about you trying to steal me away from him."
"No, I don't think that will be a problem." Rafe said gently.
"But I may need to keep an eye on you around my Sammy." Mavis said playfully.
"You don't have to worry about me. Dodger will see that I behave." Rafe said with a chuckle.
"I bet that's a full-time job." Mavis said with a wink at Dodger, then as she finished chunking up the last peeled potato, she said, "Come on. Your room's up this way."
* * * * *
"I know it probably ain't what you're used to, but it should do the trick." Mavis said as she led them into the bedroom.
Dodger looked around the room and was impressed. No, it wasn't anywhere near as nice as either his or Rafe's room, back in Ohio. But it was a decent size, clean, and had a sort of warm and homey quality to it.
"This will be just fine." Rafe said assuringly.
"Yeah. If you saw the place where I grew up, you'd think this was a palace." Dodger said with a grin.
"I just need to fill you in on a few things that you'll need to know before I leave you on your own." Mavis said seriously. "We run short on water around here, so keep that in mind every time you shower and every time you flush. Each drop you use now may be one that you'll wish you had later."
"We'll be careful." Rafe said quietly.
"Also, the only water fit for drinking is the well water in the kitchen. Don't try to drink from the hydrant in the bathroom, or you'll probably be doubled up with cramps before you know what hit you." Mavis said as she looked Rafe in the eyes.
"I'll keep that in mind." Rafe said, matching her gaze.
"Sam's already said that he's keepin the generator runnin while you're here, so you don't have to worry about the electric." Mavis said informatively.
"Please thank him for me. I'm sure that will make my work a lot easier." Rafe said quietly.
"That's it, then. Welcome to the ranch." Mavis said cheerfully, then turned to leave.
"Thank you." Rafe said quickly.
Mavis waved it off absently as she walked down the hallway.
* * * * *
"I know you have to go check on your patient. I'll unpack for us." Dodger said quietly. "I also want to get changed into some regular clothes, I feel really out of place."
"Come here." Rafe said as he opened his arms.
"I love you." Dodger whispered as he fell into the embrace. "I hate this place, but I love you."
"Thank you for coming with me, Dodger. This would have been as miserable as 14th century Persia, if you weren't here with me." Rafe said quietly.
Dodger chuckled, then pulled Rafe into a firm kiss.
Just as the kiss was getting intense, Dodger forced himself to pull away.
"You have a patient who needs you. That was just a taste of what's waiting for you tonight." Dodger said quietly.
"I won't be gone any longer than I have to be." Rafe said in the tone of a vow.
"And I'll be waiting for as long as it takes." Dodger said sincerely, then pulled completely out of the hug.
* * * * *
"Could you use some help?" Dodger asked, smiling, as he walked into the kitchen.
"Well look at you! I guess there was a real person hiding out in that monkey suit, after all." Mavis said with a chuckle.
Dodger grinned at the statement.
"You know how to sort beans?" Mavis asked casually.
"Yep. I've been doing it since I was about four years old." Dodger said frankly.
"Beans are over in the canvas bag by the door. It'll take about a gallon to feed this bunch." Mavis said seriously as she handed him a large bowl and a cooking pot.
"How many are you feeding?" Dodger asked as he scooped into the bag of dried beans.
"With you and the doctor, that'll make us thirteen." Mavis said thoughtfully.
"It's gonna be just like home, then." Dodger said with a chuckle as he carried the bowl back to the table.
"How's that?" Mavis asked as she dredged pieces of rabbit through an egg wash, then rolled them in flour.
"There were thirteen of us in my family. I'm used to having to cook for that many." Dodger said frankly, then set the cooking pot in his lap and scattered a few handfuls of beans on the table.
"I thought the women folk were usually given the cooking duties." Mavis said frankly.
"In our house, it was always the youngest who got stuck working with Ma. Everyone else was out doing the heavy labor on the farm." Dodger said distantly as he looked for twigs and stones mixed in with the dried pinto beans
"Like this ain't heavy labor?" Mavis said with a chuckle. "Plus, I'd like to see any of them in here trying to figure out how to feed this bunch with the fixins we got."
Dodger smiled, then said, "Yeah. That's how it was at home, too."
"Is that why you ain't there anymore?" Mavis asked curiously.
"No. It wasn't the cooking or cleaning or even working every waking hour of the day that got to me." Dodger said distantly. "It was that the whole time I was doing my best and giving everything I had to give, they all acted like I was a useless burden. I wasn't even wanting a 'thank you', I just wanted them to act like what I was doing mattered, some."
"You're better off then. That's one thing I'll say for Sam and the boys, they do appreciate havin' someone takin care of 'em." Mavis said firmly. "Of course, they know that the minute they don't appreciate me, I'm gonna do some ranch work and let one of them try to take care of this bunch for a while."
"That'll teach 'em." Dodger said with a chuckle.
* * * * *
"Dodger?" Rafe said, as he entered the kitchen.
"Hey Rafe. How's your patient?" Dodger asked curiously.
"Would you have a little time to come downstairs?" Rafe asked quietly.
"Yeah. I'm just about done here." Dodger said, as he moved the pot of beans off his lap.
"You go on and help the doctor. I'll put this away." Mavis said seriously.
"Are you sure?" Dodger asked uncertainly.
"Yeah. Thanks to you doin' that, I've got plenty of free time. Now go on." Mavis said and made a shooing motion.
Before Dodger could reach the doorway, Mavis said, "And thanks for your help. I appreciate it."
Dodger smiled and said, "Any time."
* * * * *
"Dodger, if you wouldn't mind too much, I could really use your help." Rafe said quietly as he stopped in the hallway.
"Of course I'll help, but what can I do?" Dodger asked curiously.
"You heard some of what that boy has been through." Rafe said quietly.
"His injuries are even worse than I expected. Sam did a good job of patching him up, but he's kept the boy sedated since the attack. That isn't healthy for an extended period. Sam needs to get back to the business of running the ranch, and I need to try to figure out why the boy is immune." Rafe said carefully.
Dodger could tell that Rafe was working up to what was going to be asked of him.
"Since you did such a good job with Little Joe on the plane, I thought that, if you're willing, you could stay with the boy and help him to deal with everything that's happened to him." Rafe finished hopefully.
Dodger thought for a moment, then quietly said, "Of course, I'll do anything I can, but Rafe, think about what he's been through. How can anyone deal with that?"
"That part is going to be up to him. I think that all you can do is be there to answer his questions and to hold him when he cries." Rafe said frankly.
"But what do I tell him?" Dodger asked quietly.
"The truth. The truth is always best," Rafe said simply. "It may hurt, but... if he knows that you're being honest with him, it may give him someone that he can trust when everything else around him seems to have fallen apart or been taken away."
"I'll do my best." Dodger said quietly.
"And I'll be right there to help you if you need me for anything." Rafe said gently.
Dodger took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "Okay. I'm ready."
* * * * *
As Dodger walked downstairs, he noticed a surprisingly young looking man standing at the bedside of a young boy.
The man appeared to be about twenty years old and looked as if he'd be right at home wearing a leather jacket and riding a motorcycle. Something about the icy twinkle in his gray eyes spoke of a certain lawlessness inherent in his nature.
The boy lying on the table had black hair and was obviously of Hispanic origin. He looked to be too thin, and was somewhat pale.
"Dodger, this is Sam. He and Mavis own this place." Rafe said seriously as he indicated the would-be motorcycle punk. "Sam, this is Dodger."
"Hey, Dodger. I hope you're up to this." Sam said with a look of concern at the boy on the bed.
"I hope so, too." Dodger said quietly, then asked, "But what's my other choice?"
Sam smiled, then said with a weary chuckle, "I suppose we're all over that same barrel since this little guy came into our lives."
Dodger walked to the bed, and his heart broke at the pale, frail looking boy with most of his upper body covered in gauze pads and bandages.
"He was flinching and thrashing a little bit while you were upstairs, so he'll probably be coming out of it, soon." Sam said quietly to Rafe.
"We'll take care of him." Rafe said assuringly.
"Give a yell if you need anything." Sam said with resignation.
"We'll do that." Rafe said seriously.
Sam gave one last concerned look at the boy, then started walking toward the stairs.
* * * * *
Dodger sat down in the chair beside the boy's bed and, on instinct, took one of the small hands into his.
"Call if you need me for anything." Rafe said gently.
Dodger looked up at Rafe, then nodded slowly.
After a moment, Dodger felt the small hand tighten on his.
"¿Que pasa?" the boy muttered as his eyes fluttered open.
Dodger puzzled over the words for a moment, then hesitantly said, "I don't know what you're saying. Do you speak English?"
"Yes." The boy said as he squinted to see Dodger, "My mama... she's like you."
"Like me?" Dodger asked hesitantly.
"White." the boy said shyly.
Dodger smiled, then said, "Well, that's good. This way we'll be able to talk."
"What happened?" The boy asked groggily.
"A lot of things. But you're in a safe place and I'm here to take care of you." Dodger whispered gently.
The boy looked around curiously.
"What's your name?" Dodger asked carefully.
"Jimmy... erm, James. But everyone calls me Jimmy." the boy said slowly.
"It's nice to meet you, Jimmy." Dodger said with a sincere smile. "My name is really Desmond, but everyone calls me Dodger."
Jimmy looked at Dodger for a moment, then smiled and slightly nodded.
"Do you need anything right now?" Dodger asked gently.
"I'm thirsty." Jimmy said quietly.
"I'll go get you something. Just stay still and I'll be right back." Dodger said with a smile.
"Who's that?" Jimmy asked, looking across the room.
"That's Rafe, he's a doctor. If you need something when I'm not around, you can ask him." Dodger said gently.
"Is he nice?" Jimmy asked cautiously.
"He's probably the nicest person that I ever met." Dodger said warmly.
Jimmy looked from Dodger to Rafe, but didn't say anything.
"I'll be right back." Dodger said as he gave Jimmy's hand a final squeeze.
Jimmy slightly nodded, then watched as Dodger left.
* * * * *
"Rafe, Jimmy is thirsty. Is it okay for him to drink something?" Dodger asked as he hurried to Rafe's side.
"Yes. Just try not to give him too much at once, it could cause him to vomit and he doesn't need that strain on his injuries." Rafe said without looking up from his microscope.
"I'll watch out." Dodger said before hurrying away.
* * * * *
"I got you some ice water." Dodger said as he rushed back to Jimmy's side. "Let me help you sit up and you can have a drink."
"What happened to me? Did I get hurt?" Jimmy asked in confusion.
"Yes." Dodger said quietly. "I don't know too much about it, but you were bitten quite a few times."
Jimmy blinked in confusion as he seemed to be trying to remember.
"I'm going to try to help you sit up, but you'll need to tell me if it's hurting you." Dodger said as he gently put his arm behind Jimmy's shoulders.
"Okay." Jimmy said hesitantly.
"Up, just a little." Dodger urged.
Jimmy made a little sound of effort as he sat up with Dodger's help, but he didn't sound like he was in pain.
"Here you go." Dodger said, as he handed the glass of water to Jimmy. "Drink it slow, or it'll make your head hurt."
After a few long drinks of water, Jimmy stopped and breathed deeply.
"Are you hurting?" Dodger asked with concern.
"I feel like I'm still partly asleep." Jimmy said slowly.
"From what I've heard, you were given some medicine to make you sleep. It's still wearing off, so you may feel sleepy for a while." Dodger said gently, then added, "And since you've been hurt, you're probably going to want to sleep a lot, so you can heal. That takes a lot of energy."
"Where's my mama?" Jimmy asked as he looked into Dodger's eyes.
"I just arrived here a few hours ago, so I don't know very much." Dodger said carefully, "But as far as I� know, you're the only one from the farmhouse that is still alive."
Jimmy's eyes went wide as his hand started to shake.
Dodger quickly took the glass of water out of his hand before he could drop it, and eased the boy back down onto the bed.
"I'm sorry, Jimmy. I didn't want to hurt you." Dodger whispered, "But I wanted you to know the truth. Lies might be easier to hear, but you still end up having to hear the truth eventually."
Jimmy was trembling and didn't seem to hear Dodger's words.
"It's okay to cry." Dodger whispered as he moved closer to gently hug the boy.
"Daddy says that boys ain't s'posed to cry." Jimmy fought to say.
"I think he probably meant about little things, like a stubbed toe or a skinned knee." Dodger said quietly, "But about big things like this, it's okay."
That seemed to be all that Jimmy needed to hear.
Dodger accepted the younger boy into his arms and held him firmly as Jimmy began to cry in earnest.
"It's okay, Jimmy. You're safe." Dodger whispered as tears filled his own eyes.
* * * * *
"How's he doing?" Rafe asked, as he walked to Dodger's side.
"He cried himself to sleep." Dodger said quietly.
"He needs the rest." Rafe said with a sympathetic look at the boy lying, sleeping before him.
"Oh, Rafe. What's going to happen to him?" Dodger asked anxiously.
"Something good." Rafe said quietly.
Dodger looked at Rafe with surprise at the answer.
"We'll see to it." Rafe said seriously.
Dodger thought about it for a moment, then nodded his agreement.
Editor's Notes: I hope that Rafe and Dodger can help Jimmy, and give him what he needs. I have confidence in both of them, but things have a way of getting in the way, sometimes.
I am certainly ready for more, so we can find out what is going to happen.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher