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"The sun's going to be down anytime now. When the hands get here, we're going to sit down to dinner." Mavis called down the stairs into the basement.
"Why don't you go and have dinner with the others? I have a few more things I'd like to get set up." Rafe said gently.
"Yeah. I'll bring you down a plate, as soon as I'm finished." Dodger said as he walked to Rafe's side.
"Don't worry, Dodger. Everything is going to be fine." Rafe said quietly.
"I sure hope so." Dodger said as he stared into Rafe's eyes. "I just have the feeling that we're a thousand miles away from anyone who would even want to help us, if things somehow go wrong."
"Sam's a good man. Just be honest with him, and he'll do everything in his power to make sure that things turn out for the best." Rafe said quietly.
"Best for who?" Dodger asked anxiously.
"All of us." Rafe said with a forced smile, then added more quietly, "I hope."
Dodger nodded, then moved in to give Rafe a tender kiss.
It wasn't exactly passionate, but it was definitely something more than casual. The kiss said 'I love you' more clearly than words.
"Enjoy your meal." Rafe said as he held Dodger tightly in his arms.
"I'll be back as soon as I can." Dodger said with a regretful smile as he slowly backed away.
* * * * *
Dodger walked upstairs and found only Sam sitting at the table.
"Come on over and sit down, son. The guys will be up from the bunkhouse any minute." Sam said casually.
Bruce walked into the room, looking a bit rumpled and it was obvious that he had been sleeping.
"You gonna be alright to work tonight, Bruce?" Sam asked curiously.
"Yeah, I think I am. But I was thinkin' that I could get the boys all lined up on what needed to be done, just in case I needed to hit the hay early." Bruce said frankly.
"Let me know if there's anything I need to follow behind 'em and check up on." Sam said seriously.
"Yeah. I'll let you know." Bruce said thoughtfully, then glanced at Dodger and broke into a smile.
"Looks like you're gettin' settled in pretty good." Bruce said with a teasing grin.
Dodger puzzled over the words for a moment, then remembered that the last time Bruce had seen him had been when he was wearing the tailored suit.
"Yeah. Well, these are my regular clothes. I just wore the other stuff to travel." Dodger said casually, then at Bruce's curious stare, he continued, "People treat you a lot better if you look like you got money."
Sam laughed aloud at the statement, then said, "I bet they do."
Dodger glanced at Bruce, to find him chuckling and nodding his agreement.
"Bruce, do you have anything lined up for Justus, tomorrow?" Sam asked seriously.
"Nothing important." Bruce said casually. "You got something for him to do?"
"I was thinking that the Doc and Dodger ain't gonna be able to stay with the boy 24/7. Justus could stay downstairs with him and give the guys some time to rest." Sam said frankly.
"Do you think the boy is in good enough shape to come upstairs? Because if he is, Justus could still do pretty much everything he needs to, while the boy is on the couch." Bruce asked thoughtfully.
"You'll need to ask the Doc to be sure, but I don't see any reason why not." Sam said with a nod of approval.
Sam turned his attention to Dodger and said, "I'm guessin' that you and the Doc keep a daytime schedule."
"Yes. that's right. Rafe has a job during the day, and I've been spending the days studying." Dodger responded quickly.
"Well, just so you know, we keep a night schedule around here. It just don't make sense for us to be up very much during the daylight. Me and Bruce and Mavis usually get up in the late afternoon so we can compare notes and make plans. Everyone else gets up at about sundown and a lot of times we keep on workin until around sunup." Sam said frankly.
"Yeah. And Justus stays up during the day to take care of phone calls and the like. And he keeps an eye on the place while the rest of us are sleeping." Bruce added.
"I don't know how Rafe will want to do things. I guess we'll figure it out in the next few days." Dodger said thoughtfully.
A noise drew Dodger's attention, and he saw a group of five men walking into the room.
One of the men looked to be about 35, three of them seemed to be in their early to mid twenties and the last one looked like he might be the same age as Dodger.
"Y'all sit down. As soon as Mavis and Justus git in here, I'll make introductions."
As if on cue, Mavis walked into the room, carrying a large pan of oven-fried rabbit.
"Can I help you carry anything in?" Dodger asked immediately.
"No thanks, hun. We've got it." Mavis said with a smile, as a man walked into the room from the kitchen. The man was tall, blond and appeared to be about 30 years old. At first, Dodger thought he might have been laughing at his offer, or possibly something that Mavis had said to him. But after a moment, Dodger began to realize that the man seemed to have a perpetual grin.
"I guess y'all noticed Dodger, here. He came with the Doc." Sam said frankly.
"I get why the Doc is here, but what good are you?" The man who looked like the oldest of them asked Dodger sourly.
"That's Laramie, you'll have to forgive him." Sam said with resignation, then added, "He's like that."
"And besides, Dodger's already been more help to me today than you've ever been." Mavis added with a forceful glare at Laramie.
"I was just sayin' that things are tough around here, everyone has to do their part." Laramie said in his defense.
"Is that what you've been doing? Your part?" Mavis asked incredulously. "I think you've been doing a little more than that."
You could have heard a pin drop as all attention in the room was focused on Mavis and Laramie.
"I've noticed that a few of this season's calves look a little too much like you." Mavis said as she looked Laramie in the eyes.
Dodger couldn't tell who had laughed first, but it was only a moment before everyone at the table, including Laramie and Mavis, were laughing themselves silly.
When the laughter quieted, Mavis said in a more gentle tone, "Seriously, from what I've already seen, there's no need to worry; Dodger's going to be a big help around here."
"If Mavis is happy, then I'm happy." Sam said simply.
Laramie glanced at Dodger and gave him a nod, in what seemed to be his agreement to Sam's statement.
"Dodger, you know Mavis; on her other side is Justus. He's our day foreman, and a damned good butcher, to boot." Sam said firmly.
"Next to Justus are Scott and Eloy. You'll never see one without the other, so you might just as well think of them as one person." Sam said in a teasing tone.
"I have some friends back in Ohio who are like that, Ernie and Blake. They're twin brothers." Dodger said with a smile at the pair.
"We're not brothers." Scott said firmly as he looked Dodger in the eyes. "We're husbands."
"Oh, so are Ernie and Blake, they're married to a woman named Manna." Dodger said with a smile, then added, "And Rafe, the doctor downstairs, is my husband."
Scott and Eloy seemed to relax at Dodger's announcement.
"You've sort of met Laramie. He's our farrier." Sam said as he indicated the older looking man at the far end of the table.
"He's also the one who made the wrought iron gate out front." Bruce added from Dodger's side.
"I like the gate. That's some nice work." Dodger said immediately.
Laramie gave a quick smile and a slight nod at the compliment.
"Past Laramie is Chet. If you ever feel like going out and getting your hands dirty, you'll probably be working with him." Sam said frankly.
"I might do that." Dodger said, as he smiled at the young looking man.
Chet smiled a broad sunny smile in return.
"Beside you is Arturo. One of the best hands I've ever worked with." Sam said proudly.
"Hola." Arturo said with a friendly smile.
"Um, hi." Dodger said uncertainly.
"You don't have a problem with Mexicans, do you?" Arturo asked cautiously.
"I don't think so. Actually, I don't think I've ever met any before." Dodger said seriously
Arturo broke into a grin, then said, "You talk funny."
Dodger smiled and said, "So do you."
"Don't worry, amigo. I don't think we'll have any problems." Arturo said happily.
"Well, that just leaves Bruce, who you already met." Sam said seriously. "He's the night foreman and pretty much runs the day-to-day operations."
"Y'all dig in, before it gets cold." Mavis said quickly.
"It looks good. What's the occasion?" Sam asked as he put some mashed potatoes on his plate, then passed the bowl.
"We had company comin'. I thought I could do a little somethin extra." Mavis said simply.
"It looks great." Dodger said quickly.
"Yeah. It smells wonderful too." Sam said with a loving look at his wife.
* * * * *
"Dodger, you smell like day people." Arturo said frankly.
"Yeah, I know. I just changed yesterday." Dodger said shyly.
"You changed yesterday and you're travelling across the country today? I guess they're making city boys tougher than they used to." Justus said in an impressed tone.
"I've lived in the city for less than a year. I was raised on a farm up in the hills." Dodger said seriously.
"That explains it." Justus said with a nod, "A city boy would probably be whining and sniveling for a week."
"More like a month." Bruce said, from Dodger's side, then asked, "Blood?"
Dodger turned to look at Bruce curiously and found him holding a silver pitcher.
"Oh. Um... yeah, please." Dodger said nervously, then quietly admitted, "I haven't had blood before."
"Really?" Bruce asked with surprise as he filled Dodger's glass.
"Do you think you're going to have a problem with it?" Mavis asked curiously from across the table.
"I don't know." Dodger said honestly.
"Do you eat steak?" Chet asked from two places down from him.
"Yes." Dodger said as he leaned forward a little to see him.
"If you eat that part of the cow, what's the difference about eating this part?" Chet asked seriously.
Dodger thought for a moment, then said, "Thanks, Chet, that makes it easier."
Chet smiled, and Dodger got the feeling that Chet really appreciated it.
He could feel everyone in the room trying to look like they weren't watching him.
Dodger took the glass into his hand and realized that the blood was warm.
He knew himself well enough to know that if he put it off, he could talk himself out of it. So he brought the glass to his lips and took a long, slow drink.
Dodger considered the taste as he set the glass down, then realized that the blood had satisfied a thirst that had been growing in him.
"Hey, that's really good." Dodger said with a big smile.
"That's one of the good things about living out here. We get first crack at the good stuff." Laramie said seriously.
"First crack?" Dodger asked curiously.
"We're a ranch. To keep afloat, we've got to sell off our cattle the best way we can. We sell the meat to the day folk, and we sell fresh blood to the night folk." Sam said honestly.
"During the lean times, it's the only way to keep the ranch profitable." Justus added frankly.
"When is the doctor coming up to eat?" Mavis asked curiously.
"He's still setting things up. I told him that I'd take him a plate when I finished." Dodger said honestly.
"I'm sure one of us could go down and keep an eye on things so your doctor can have a decent meal." Mavis said in a tone of voice that was nothing short of a command. "It's only right that the doctor should be able to have a sit down meal at the table with the rest of us."
"I'm about done. I can go down and stay with the boy." Justus said with his perpetual good natured smile.
"Get with me when you're done." Sam said firmly.
Justus nodded, then quickly wolfed down the last few bites of food from his plate.
"So Bruce, what have you got lined up for tonight?" Sam asked casually.
"Well, I was thinking that while the guys go ahead with the normal chores, I could ride the South fence. I think the south pasture is ready for grazing again." Bruce said seriously.
"I'll get your horse ready." Chet said immediately.
Bruce smiled and nodded.
"If we're going to be driving cattle, I'll need to check the horses." Laramie said firmly.
"After the chores." Bruce said with a nod.
Laramie looked a little put out by the answer, but reluctantly agreed.
Most of the others around the table were passing food, getting second helpings. Dodger felt a little bit funny about it, but he was enjoying the food so much that he finally decided to go ahead and get second helpings for himself, although they were smaller than the first.
* * * * *
"Did you need me for something?" Rafe asked cautiously as he walked into the kitchen.
"Mavis just thought that you might enjoy having dinner with the rest of us, being that it's your first night here, and all." Sam said frankly.
"Yes, that would be nice. Thank you." Rafe said politely and took a seat in the chair that had been vacated by Justus.
Although Dodger was well used to seeing Rafe in his three-piece tailored suit, somehow seeing him in it now felt completely wrong. Everyone else was wearing casual clothes and it made Rafe stand out.
"How's the boy?" Bruce asked into the silence that had fallen over the table.
Rafe accepted an empty plate from Mavis with a smile of thanks, then said, "So far, so good."
Bruce nodded at the vague answer.
"Would you like some blood?" Mavis asked as she held the silver pitcher.
"Yes, thank you." Rafe said with a smile.
Mavis leaned in and filled his glass.
"So Doc, Dodger's been telling us that y'all keep a day schedule back home. Most of us keep a night schedule here, so I was wondering how you'd want to do things." Sam said frankly.
Rafe put a scoop of mashed potatoes on his plate, then turned to Sam and said, "I suppose I'll probably switch to a night schedule. Given the choice, I always prefer to be awake at night so I'm free to go outside for fresh air if I need a break."
Sam nodded that he understood.
"I'm going to need to make a call in the morning to arrange for some equipment and supplies." Rafe said casually before taking a bite of food.
"I figured as much." Sam said casually. "We don't have phone service all the way out here. Just the short wave. If you'll get with Justus, he'll help you get everything set up. He knows the ins and outs of getting things done outside the ranch."
"I won't need much." Rafe said with a smile. "On the flight here, I was thinking about all the things I would need, to be able to do my work. I didn't expect for you to have very much on hand. You've got a really nice setup, down there."
"Yeah. Well, I do my best to see to the health of the horses and cattle." Sam said frankly.
Rafe took a drink of his blood, then smiled with satisfaction.
"Ya like that?" Bruce asked with a grin at Rafe's reaction.
"It's been quite a while." Rafe said happily. "Drinking fresh blood like this, reminds me of when I was a child."
"I've been thinking that you're not going to be able to spend 24 hours a day down in the basement. If you think that the boy can come upstairs, Justus could keep an eye on him during the day, while you're sleeping." Sam said seriously.
"Well, Jimmy isn't well enough to walk. But if someone could carry him upstairs, I don't see any problem with that." Rafe said thoughtfully.
"Good." Sam said with a nod.
Dodger noticed that everyone else around the table seemed to be watching Rafe, but they weren't willing to interact with him. The comfortable atmosphere and companionable conversation from earlier was notably absent in Rafe's presence.
* * * * *
"Before we go downstairs, I need to talk with you for a minute." Rafe said as they left the kitchen.
Dodger was concerned by the serious tone in Rafe's voice and followed along quietly.
As soon as they were inside their bedroom and the door was closed, Rafe pulled Dodger into a desperate hug.
The level of Dodger's concern increased. In the months that he had known Rafe, he'd never seen anything bother him before.
"I'm so glad you're here, Love," Rafe whispered, then moved in to give Dodger a full, deep kiss.
All of Dodger's concern melted away until he felt nothing but peace, love and joy.
When the kiss finally ended, Rafe backed away enough to look Dodger in the eyes.
It took a moment for Dodger to remember his concern, but he finally looked at Rafe with full worry as he asked, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing.... or everything. I'm not sure yet." Rafe said with a pained look in his eyes. "I guess it just finally hit me. I wasn't expecting to feel so... uprooted. I suppose I've been living a secure, well-insulated life for too many years. You being here with me is the only thing that's going to make this bearable."
"I'm glad to be able to help." Dodger said with a timid smile.
"We'd better get downstairs so Justus can get to work." Rafe said with regret.
"One more kiss?" Dodger asked hopefully.
Rafe smiled as he said, "Anything for you."
* * * * *
"How's he doing?" Rafe asked as soon as he was off the stairs.
"He hasn't moved." Justus said with a concerned look at the boy.
"Thank you for watching out for him." Rafe said sincerely.
"If you ever need my help for anything, all you have to do is ask. I'm usually around." Justus said in his perpetually cheerful way.
"Well, since you offered..." Rafe said in prelude.
Justus raised his eyebrows in expectation.
"Sam mentioned that you handle most things that need to be taken care of outside the ranch." Rafe said seriously.
"Yep, that I do." Justus said with a nod.
"I'm going to need to get some supplies in here. I have a contact back in Columbus who can get those things for me. I'll need to get in touch with him." Rafe said seriously.
"I suppose all he'll really need is my list and to know where to ship it." Rafe said thoughtfully.
"Ain't no such a thing." Justus said in a resigned tone. "Least ways, not all the way out here. As soon as you have your list ready, I'll see how much we're talking about and figure out how's best to do it."
"I should have the list done before morning." Rafe said seriously.
"Well, that works out fine, then. I sleep during the night, so I'll just come down and check in with you when I wake up." Justus said with a smile.
"Thank you. I'll see you then." Rafe said with a responding smile, then added. "Have a good sleep."
"I'll still be up for a while. Like I said before, if y'all need anything, I'll be around." Justus said as he glanced at Dodger to be sure that he knew that he was included in the offer.
"If I need any help, I'll call. I promise." Rafe said seriously.
Justus nodded once, then headed for the stairs.
* * * * *
As Dodger sat by Jimmy's bed, he kept quiet watch on what Rafe was doing.
He couldn't help but be impressed. Even though he didn't have the slightest clue about what Rafe was actually doing, he knew that whatever it was, was to help Jimmy, and ultimately, the entire shadeside community.
"Mama?" Jimmy said weakly.
Dodger turned his attention to the boy on the bed.
"How are you feeling, Jimmy?" Dodger asked with concern.
"Hungry?" Jimmy said uncertainly.
Dodger smiled, then said, "That must mean that you're getting better."
Jimmy looked at him with confusion.
"I'm going to go ask Rafe what you can have to eat. I'll be right back." Dodger said gently.
Jimmy slowly nodded, then watched as Dodger hurried across the room.
* * * * *
"You're a lucky duck." Dodger said with a grin as he approached the bed again.
Jimmy looked anything but lucky, with his upper body mostly covered by bandages, but the statement captured Jimmy's attention.
"Rafe says that if you're well enough to be asking for food, that you certainly should be allowed to have it." Dodger said cheerfully.
Jimmy gave him a weak, uncertain smile in return.
"Now, just lay here and relax and I'm going to go get you some mashed potatoes and gravy. How does that sound?" Dodger asked with excitement.
Jimmy seemed to finally be drawn into Dodger's cheerful mood and said, "It sounds good."
"Okay, I'll be right back." Dodger said gently, then hurried toward the stairs.
* * * * *
"Dr. Rafe?" Jimmy called across the room.
"Yes. Can I get you something, Jimmy?" Rafe asked as he walked to Jimmy's bedside.
"Why is Dodger being so nice to me?" Jimmy asked cautiously.
"Because he's a nice person. The longer you're around him, the more you'll notice it. He treats everyone like that."
Jimmy nodded as he thought about the words.
"Is something bothering you?" Rafe asked at the unusual contemplative look on the boy's face.
"Did my grandpa pay you to steal me away from my daddy?" Jimmy asked cautiously.
"No." Rafe said with surprise. "I honestly don't know anything about anyone in your family."
Jimmy watched Rafe's expression carefully, but didn't seem to be convinced.
"Is your grandpa the kind of person who would try to steal you?" Rafe asked cautiously.
"He hates my daddy, real bad. He wanted me and my mama to go live with him..." Jimmy trailed off.
"...But your momma wanted to stay living with your daddy." Rafe said, completing the thought.
Jimmy nodded, then quietly said, "We've been staying with my Uncle Hector and Aunt Neva."
Rafe nodded that he had heard.
"Dodger said that he thinks they're dead." Jimmy said in almost a whisper.
Rafe hesitantly nodded, then said, "It's possible that someone either got away or wasn't home when it happened, but as far as we know, you're the only one who was there that was left alive."
"Why can't I remember what happened?" Jimmy asked curiously.
"Probably because, as tough as little boys are, sometimes something comes along that's just too big to deal with. Your brain knows that, and puts those memories away in a safe place until you're better and can handle it." Rafe said gently.
Jimmy stared at Rafe uncertainly for a moment, then said, "Dodger was right. You're nice."
"I think you're nice, too." Rafe said with a grin.
The sound of footsteps on the stairs drew their attention.
* * * * *
"I'm sorry that took so long, but I wanted to make sure that everything was hot." Dodger said as he reached the bottom of the stairs.
"That's okay. It gave Jimmy and me a chance to talk." Rafe said with a smile.
"Were you talking about me?" Dodger asked playfully.
"I'm not telling." Rafe said with a grin and a wink at Jimmy.
"Let's get you sitting up, Jimmy. I brought you a big plate of mashed potatoes and gravy." Dodger said with a smile.
"It smells good." Jimmy said as he fought to sit up.
"Let me help you." Rafe said as he hurried to Jimmy's side.
"Thanks." Jimmy said as Rafe put an arm behind him and helped him to sit upright.
Rafe took Jimmy's pillows and wedged them in behind him to give him a little bit of support.
"I hope you like this." Dodger said with a smile.
Jimmy's eyes got wide as he looked at the plate filled with food.
"I don't know if I can eat all of this." Jimmy said hesitantly.
"I brought you plenty, so you can eat as much as you want. But don't worry if you don't finish it. I'll put it in the refrigerator upstairs and I'm sure someone will eat it." Dodger said simply, "At least, that's how it always worked back home."
"It looks like you guys have this under control, so I'll get back to my work." Rafe said with a tender smile at the pair.
"What are you working on?" Jimmy asked curiously.
Rafe paused for a moment, then said, "That could take some time to explain. Why don't you eat your dinner now, and I'll sit down with you and tell you about it, later?"
Jimmy thought for a moment, then nodded his agreement.
Rafe smiled, then walked to the other side of the room to get back to work.
* * * * *
"He's asleep again." Dodger said as he walked to join Rafe in the small lab area.
"I'd expect that, at least for the next few days." Rafe said frankly.
"Is there anything I can do?" Dodger asked curiously.
"I can think of one thing." Rafe said honestly.
Dodger expected the next statement to be some sort of sexual innuendo... not that he minded that at all.
No one had ever paid much attention to him before, and to have someone 'in love' with him was almost intoxicating.
"You can go upstairs and get some rest." Rafe said seriously.
Dodger blinked, not knowing if he had missed something.
"You've been up all day, already. I know you've got to be tired." Rafe said frankly.
Dodger thought for a moment, then said, "Maybe I should be, but I'm not."
"I'm sure that as soon as you lie down for a few minutes, it'll all catch up with you." Rafe said seriously.
"You said that we're going to be on a night schedule, so now's as good a time as any for me to get used to staying up all night." Dodger said honestly.
Rafe thought about it for a moment, then nodded before saying, "Alright. But I still want you to go upstairs. If you won't get some sleep, then visit with Mavis or one of the guys."
"You don't want me down here?" Dodger asked bravely, as he felt a sinking feeling wash over him.
"Of course I want you here." Rafe said immediately, as he pulled Dodger into a hug. "But the truth is, I'm going to have to change Jimmy's dressings, and I don't want you to have to see what's underneath all that."
Dodger thought about it for a moment, then reluctantly nodded.
"Besides, I think it would be best if you got into the habit of taking breaks and spending some time doing other things besides taking care of Jimmy. Being a full-time nursemaid can wear down even the strongest of people." Rafe said frankly.
"But I want to help." Dodger said quietly.
"And I really do want your help." Rafe said assuringly, then added, "But I also want what's best for you. Trust me. Taking care of Jimmy every waking moment of your day will consume you. It's no way to live."
Dodger didn't really understand what Rafe was saying, but he trusted that Rafe knew what he was talking about, and reluctantly agreed.
"Good." Rafe said with a smile, then moved in to give Dodger a firm kiss.
Dodger felt the arms wrapped around him and the lips gliding against his, and realized that it didn't matter where they were. As long as they were together, they were home.
* * * * *
"Bruce!" Dodger said when he spotted him by the barn.
"Dodger? What can I do for you?" Bruce asked as he approached.
"Actually, that's what I was going to ask you." Dodger said frankly.
At Bruce's curious look, Dodger continued, "Rafe doesn't need me to be downstairs, right now, so I'd be willing to help out here if there's something I can do."
"That's mighty nice of you, Dodger." Bruce said in an impressed voice, then cautiously asked, "Do you ride?"
"Sure. I'm not an expert horseman or anything, but I know how to get up there and stay up there." Dodger said frankly.
Bruce chuckled, then said, "Well, I suppose those are the main things."
"Is there something I can do to help?" Dodger asked hopefully.
"I was needing to ride the fences in the South pasture. If you wanted, you could come along with me." Bruce said frankly.
"Well, I don't know how much help I'll be, but I'd be happy to go along." Dodger said honestly.
"Trust me, having someone else to talk to out in the middle of nowhere is a big help to me." Bruce said seriously.
"Count me in." Dodger said with a smile.
"Let's go down and see if Chet has a horse for you." Bruce said as he gestured back toward the barn, then stopped and seriously added, "Remember to go slow until they're used to you. Horses are naturally afraid of us, but ours have been trained to accept us."
"I'll be sure to be careful."
* * * * *
Dodger was in awe of his new senses as they rode through the night.
After just a few minutes away from the farm, Dodger realized that the large flashlight that Bruce was using was for the horses benefit.
He could see as clearly as if it were daytime. His ears caught each and every rustling leaf in the distance. He could smell the slightest nuances of different scents.
But one glance at the night sky and all else was forgotten. The stars looked close enough to touch. And they were... everywhere. The sight was literally breathtaking.
After riding in silence for a while, Dodger finally noticed Bruce's pensive expression and quietly asked, "Is something wrong?"
Caught somewhat off guard by the question, Bruce let slip, "Is this all there is?"
"How do you mean?" Dodger asked curiously.
Bruce realized what he had said, then shook his head dismissively.
"No, really. I'd like to know what you mean." Dodger said honestly.
Bruce slowed his horse, then turned to Dodger as he quietly asked, "Is this all that I'm ever going to be?"
Dodger thought about the question for a moment, then hesitantly broke into a smile.
Bruce raised his eyebrows in surprise at the reaction.
"I've asked myself questions like that quite a few times over the past few years." Dodger said honestly.
"And did you find any answers?" Bruce asked curiously.
"Yeah. But usually after I'd given up looking for them." Dodger said with a chuckle.
"Yeah. That sounds about right." Bruce said with a reluctant, lopsided smile.
"When I was living on the farm with my family, I felt like I didn't have a future. I figured I'd just grow up and be exactly like my pa. There just wasn't any other choice." Dodger said, then slowly looked up at the countless number of stars above them.
"I guess things didn't turn out the way you expected." Bruce said as he also looked up.
"I wish I could say that things changed because I had the courage to make them change. But honestly, things just got way too bad on the farm for me to stay there. If things had stayed the same... I don't know; I guess I'd still be there, dreaming about something better." Dodger said regretfully.
"I've been doing this my whole life." Bruce said distantly.
"So you've been with Sam since you changed?" Dodger asked quietly.
"Well, yeah. But what I meant was, that even before I was turned, I worked on a ranch. Ever since I was old enough to get in a saddle, I've been doing this." Bruce said distantly.
"And you're ready for something else?" Dodger asked curiously.
"There ain't nothin else for someone like me." Bruce said frankly. "Could you see me as a city person?"
Dodger chuckled and said, "I was born a hoopie and that's what I'll always be. Rafe may have dressed me up, all nice and fancy, but he never once tried to change me."
"Sam needs me here. There's no way I could leave." Bruce said regretfully.
"A few years ago, I would have said the same thing about my family." Dodger said frankly. "But things change, people change. You'll know when it's time."
"But what would I do?" Bruce asked distantly. "I've been doing this for so long, I wouldn't know how to do anything else."
"If the day comes that you're ready for a change, you can come to Columbus. Rafe and I will find something for you. We have tons of friends who would be happy to help."
"Are you sure that your doctor friend won't have a problem with that?" Bruce asked cautiously.
"When Rafe found me, I was just a skinny kid with only a sixth grade education. I can't imagine a more useless person than I was. But he didn't even think twice about helping me." Dodger said seriously. "Look at you. You're a responsible and hardworking man. I haven't been here very long, but I can see that Sam trusts you with quite a bit around here. So I think that finding a place for you to fit in will probably be the easiest thing in the world."
"Thanks. If things do change around here and I need to go, I'll get in touch." Bruce said with a lopsided smile at Dodger.
"Are we ready to get back to the fences?" Dodger asked as he looked around.
"Yeah. Let's finish up, so we can get back to the house." Bruce said casually as he turned his horse.
* * * * *
After returning from riding the fences, Dodger found Rafe hard at work and Jimmy fast asleep. He interrupted Rafe's work just long enough to give him a quick kiss, then went upstairs to find something else to do.
He met Mavis in the kitchen, and it seemed that she was just about to start on cooking something.
"Can I help with anything?" Dodger asked hopefully.
"I tell you what, Dodger, just having someone around who wants to help is enough to turn my whole day around." Mavis said cheerfully.
"Does that mean that there isn't anything for me to do?" Dodger asked curiously.
"You can stay in here and keep me company while I make us a big batch of biscuits to go with dinner." Mavis said frankly.
"I make biscuits all the time, back home. I could do that if you like." Dodger offered.
"You ain't never made biscuits up here. The altitude changes how everything works." Mavis said frankly as she lined up ingredients. "But once I've got the dough made, you can help."
"Oh. I didn't know that." Dodger said honestly, then added, "Yeah. Thanks."
"Tell me about you and the doc. Since you said that you just changed, yesterday, I'm guessin that there's quite a story there." Mavis said casually.
Dodger chuckled, then began to tell the tale of how he met Rafe.
* * * * *
When the biscuits were finally in the oven and the story of Rafe and Dodger's meeting was told, Mavis and Dodger sat and relaxed at the table.
"So, what about you and Sam? From the way you look at each other when you think no one else is looking, it seems like you're newlyweds. But the easy way you get along with each other makes it seem like you've been together for a good long time." Dodger said curiously.
"I grew up here. I mean, right here in this house." Mavis said as she gestured around. "About 40 years ago, there was a big ole ruckus in town, you know, about 85 miles from here."
"That close?" Dodger asked with a grin.
"Hell, that's right next door around these parts." Mavis said frankly.
Dodger chuckled and nodded.
"Anyway, my pa heard something about it when he was buying or selling something in town, but he never really told us much, except that they were a bunch of superstitious old ladies, believing in 'Skinwalkers'."
"Skinwalkers?" Dodger asked with surprise.
"People like us, Dodger." Mavis said frankly. "The natives had their own legends about us and must have spotted some night folk about."
"So what happened?" Dodger asked cautiously, not entirely sure that he wanted to know.
"That night there was a knock on the door." Mavis said, as her gaze became distant, as if she was seeing the whole thing unfolding right before her eyes.
Dodger slowly nodded, encouraging her to continue.
"We knew that someone had to be in real trouble if they were all the way out at our place after dark. So Pa opened the door. I don't know what all happened after that. Even now, forty years later, I can only remember flashes of it." Mavis finished absently.
A long moment of silence fell between them.
Eventually, Mavis whispered, "I got... turned."
Dodger fought to reign in his emotions. He was pretty sure from what had happened to Jimmy's family that he knew what had happened to her.
"Just when I thought I couldn't..." Mavis trailed off, then shook her head and began again, "Sammy showed up."
Dodger looked at her with surprise, having forgotten the initial purpose of the story.
"Him and Justus and Chet were tracking the critters, hoping to get to them before they got any more innocents." Mavis said as she finally met Dodger's eyes again.
Dodger nodded, then suddenly a question nagged at him and he had to ask, "Chet? The one out there now?"
Mavis nodded, "Don't let his pretty, young looks fool you, Dodger. Chet's older than all of us. Hell, for all I know, he may be older than all of us put together."
"But he looks my age." Dodger said with surprise.
"Looks don't mean much, with us." Mavis said frankly, "But even though Chet may be the oldest, he's a helluva hard worker and follows Sammy's lead. Just sometimes, if you look in his eyes... you can see the years."
Dodger slowly nodded, thinking that he sort of understood.
"Anyway, so Sammy and them show up. He finds me and tells Justus and Chet to go on and keep tracking them." Mavis said as her eyes seemed to be looking into the past. "He stayed with me through the day and held me. I don't think he ever stopped talking to me the whole time, though I couldn't tell you a word of it, today. I just know that it was all about hope and love and how wonderful the future could be."
"I could see Sam doing that." Dodger said gently. True, he hadn't spent much time with Sam at all. But his first impression told him that Sam had the capacity to be a very caring and tender person. His actions toward Jimmy had certainly proved that, if nothing else.
"When the night finally came again, Justus and Chet showed up here." Mavis said quietly. "They was both shocked as shit that I hadn't turned the bad way."
"I bet." Dodger said gently.
"It turns out that Justus and Chet caught up to them that... did it, and put 'em down." Mavis said darkly.
Dodger nodded that he understood.
"After that, Sam stayed with me, to make sure that I was going to be alright." Mavis said distantly. "Day after day, week after week, he just stayed with me and did everything he could to help me through it."
Dodger smiled at the words.
"I didn't realize it at the time, but while Sammy was taking care of me, Justus and Chet were taking care of the ranch. They saw to the animals and just kept the place going. I don't know why they did it... maybe just for something to do while Sammy was busy with me."
"Maybe they saw something worth preserving. The ranch seems like a special place." Dodger said honestly.
"Yeah." Mavis said gently. "And when I finally came back to myself, I realized what was going on and... I asked Sammy and the guys if they wanted for this to be their home."
"I'm guessing they said yes."
"Sammy did. And that's all that Justus needed. Him and Sammy have been travelling together for... let's just say 'a very long time'." Mavis finished with a secretive smile.
"What about Chet?" Dodger asked curiously.
"He seemed to feel like he was only being included out of some sense of obligation. I'm pretty sure he was about to go off on his own, when Sammy sat him down and told him that, to run a place this big, we needed his help."
"It's a good feeling to be needed." Dodger said gently.
"You got that right." Mavis said warmly. "So that's how me and Sammy got together. He helped me through the change... hell, he held me and talked me through it. If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have wanted to survive."
Dodger nodded slowly.
"Shit! The biscuits!" Mavis said as she dashed to the oven.
Dodger was immediately by her side.
After opening the oven door, Mavis let out a gust of breath in relief.
"They look great." Dodger said gently.
"Yeah. They do."
* * * * *
"Coyotes on the north forty!" Bruce called into the doorway.
"Hot damn!" Mavis said with delight as she checked to see that the stove was turned off.
"What's going on?" Dodger asked curiously.
"Come on, Dodger. We're going on a hunt." Mavis said before dashing out the door.
Dodger was only a step behind.
* * * * *
The feeling was like nothing Dodger had ever experienced before.
The group of them, travelling like a pack, ran into the night allowing their enhanced senses to guide them directly to their prey.
The only word that Dodger could assign to the sensation of running full-out was 'freedom'.
Finally he heard a commotion ahead of him and could tell that at least one of the coyotes had been taken down.
Dodger slowed his pace as he saw Bruce sitting on the ground with a dead coyote in his hands and a self-satisfied grin on his face.
"That was supposed to be mine." Arturo growled at Bruce, then started rattling off at him in Spanish.
Dodger didn't know the language at all, but from the inflections that Arturo was using, he imagined it wasn't the type of thing you'd say to your mother in church.
Finally Dodger's curiosity got the better of him and he asked Bruce, "What is he saying?"
"I don't know, something about his mother and a three legged donkey, I think." Bruce said with a grin up at Arturo.
Arturo glared at Bruce for a moment, then broke into a smile as he said, "I say TU madre... 'YOUR' mother."
In a flash of movement too fast for Dodger to see, Bruce launched himself from the ground and hooked Arturo around the neck with one arm as he pulled him down.
Dodger felt a spark of fear at the sudden, violent movement, but then relaxed when he saw that Bruce had Arturo pinned to the ground and was giving him noogies.
He couldn't help but smile at the sight, then he looked around to see how the others were doing with their hunt.
* * * * *
When Dodger arrived back at the house, he went downstairs to find Jimmy awake and alert.
"How are you feeling?" Dodger asked pleasantly.
"Fine." Jimmy said in a flat tone.
"Is something wrong?" Dodger asked curiously.
"Where's my grandpa? Are you going to take me to him, or is he coming to get me?" Jimmy asked darkly.
"Neither, as far as I know." Dodger said honestly.
"I don't believe you." Jimmy said simply, then continued, "The only white person who ever told me the truth was my mama."
"Oh!" Dodger said with sudden comprehension.
Jimmy looked up at him suspiciously.
"I'll be right back, there's someone that I think you should talk to." Dodger said seriously, then headed back toward the stairs.
* * * * *
"Arturo, this is Jimmy." Dodger said simply.
"Hola." Arturo said gently to the boy.
Dodger listened as Jimmy and Arturo began to talk in Spanish.
He was fascinated by the sound of it and by the fact that it seemed that their words flowed impossibly fast.
Their talk lasted for quite a while, but Jimmy's expression didn't seem to hold any hostility.
"I still have work to do, but I'll come and visit you again later, when my work is done." Arturo said as much to Dodger as to Jimmy.
Dodger nodded with a smile, then watched Arturo go.
After a moment, Jimmy quietly said, "Dodger?"
"Do you need something?" Dodger asked as he hurried to Jimmy's side.
"I'm sorry I said that, before." Jimmy said timidly.
Dodger couldn't resist the urge and leaned in to give Jimmy a reassuring hug.
"I understand how it is, Jimmy. I was raised not to trust 'town people' because they'll try to trick you with their big city ways and then steal from you." Dodger said frankly.
"But... town people are just the same as ranch people." Jimmy said with confusion.
"Yep, That's right." Dodger said gently. "And brown people are the same as white people. The people who tell you anything different are just trying to stir up hate so they can control you."
"How?" Jimmy asked curiously.
"If they can get you to hate and distrust, then they know what drives you and how you'll react. They know exactly what to do to make you do what they want. Fear and hate are their tools." Dodger said simply.
"How do you know that?" Jimmy asked curiously.
"I read it somewhere." Dodger said with a shrug. "I like to read a lot."
"I have trouble reading." Jimmy said quietly.
"Hey, I know! I brought some books with me. How would you like it if I read something to you?"
"Really?" Jimmy asked hopefully.
"Sure. I love to read." Dodger said gently.
"My mama used to read to me at night when I was little." Jimmy said distantly.
"It'll just take me a few minutes to find a book." Dodger said as he stood.
"Thank you, Dodger." Jimmy said with a smile.
"You're welcome; I'm glad to help."
* * * * *
"Dr. Rafe?" Jimmy called out.
"Yes, Jimmy?" Rafe answered, then after a moment to set aside what he was doing, walked across the room.
"I need the toilet." Jimmy admitted, shyly.
"You're not well enough to get out of bed, so I'm afraid you're going to have to use a bedpan." Rafe said hesitantly.
Jimmy thought for a moment, then timidly said, "Just do it before Dodger gets back. I don't want him to see."
"It'll just take a second."
* * * * *
Both Jimmy and Rafe looked up at the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs.
"Dodger, would you please go to the kitchen and get Jimmy a glass of water?" Rafe called out quickly.
"Sure." Dodger called down the stairs, then turned and went back up.
"Are you almost done?" Rafe asked gently.
"It hurts." Jimmy said in a small voice.
"I know, but I promise that it will get better."
"Why does my butt hurt? I didn't get bit there, did I?" Jimmy asked curiously.
"Not exactly. But how about I get you cleaned up back there before Dodger gets back. And we can talk about it later, if you like." Rafe asked quietly.
Jimmy glanced at the stairs, then nodded his agreement.
* * * * *
It took less than two pages of his book before Jimmy was sound asleep.
"I think you've made a friend." Rafe said as he roamed over from the lab area.
"I had my doubts for a minute, but thanks to Arturo, I think we're okay." Dodger said as he casually wrapped an arm around Rafe.
"Just remember that he has a lot to deal with. The loss of his family, being in a strange place and just the plain old-fashioned frustration of being bed ridden." Rafe said frankly.
"I know that in my head, but my heart still feels it when he lashes out." Dodger said honestly.
"That's one of the reasons that you need to spend some time doing other things." Rafe said gently.
Dodger thought for a moment then nodded as he said, "I can see that now."
"I think Jimmy's probably going to be asleep for a while. Why don't you go on up?" Rafe asked quietly.
"Yeah. And maybe I'll see if Mavis has something for Jimmy to eat in case he gets hungry in-between meals."
"Just make sure that it's soft food. He's going to be tender for a while."
"I'll remember." Dodger said softly, then moved in to give Rafe a kiss.
Rafe responded to the kiss and turned Dodger slightly so he could take him into his arms.
At some unconscious cue, they both pulled out of the kiss at the same time.
"Love you." Dodger whispered.
"Love you back." Rafe said with a grin.
Dodger smiled, then reluctantly pulled away.
Rafe stood there and smiled as he watched Dodger go up the stairs.
* * * * *
"You two about ready to call it a day?" Justus asked as he walked down the stairs.
Dodger sat up suddenly at the sound, and realized that he had been lightly dozing in the chair by Jimmy's bed.
"Yes. I think I have a list of everything that I'm going to need. What are you going to need to know?" Rafe asked seriously.
"Mainly, how heavy and how big your shipment is going to be, that way I can arrange for the best way to get it here." Justus said with his perpetual grin in place.
"It shouldn't be too bad. All the bulky equipment that I might need is already here." Rafe said as he handed Justus a steno pad notebook.
After a moment, Justus said, "This shouldn't be a problem at all. I think I should be able to arrange for it to be delivered to this place about 250 miles from here, then we can just run on down and pick it up."
"That's right around the corner." Dodger said with a grin, as he approached.
"As good as." Justus said with a wide smile.
"I'll need to contact Morgan and see how quickly he can arrange things on his end." Rafe said thoughtfully.
"That shouldn't be a problem." Justus said casually. "Can I take this little guy upstairs? That way I'll be able to keep an eye on him and do my work at the same time."
"As long as you're careful with him, there shouldn't be a problem. He can't walk and he's going to need to use a bedpan when he has to go to the bathroom." Rafe said frankly. "You can come and get me for that if you need to."
"I was in Europe during 'the black death', I think that I'll be able to manage this." Justus said with an amused grin.
Rafe smiled and nodded his agreement.
Justus walked over to Jimmy and very gently picked him up.
Rafe and Dodger followed him up the stairs.
* * * * *
"Alone at last." Dodger said as he held Rafe tight against his chest.
"I hope you're not planning anything very athletic tonight, because, I've got to tell you, I'm totally exhausted." Rafe said regretfully.
"I am too." Dodger said, then moved in to give Rafe a deep kiss.
"Mmmm... that's nice." Rafe said against Dodger's lips.
"It only gets better." Dodger said, as he started to undo the buttons of Rafe's shirt.
Well, It is very nice to see Dodger and Rafe again, and to get to know some more about the folks at the ranch.
As in most cases, people are much more complicated than they first appear. Sam is quite a wonderful person, and Justus seems to really care, as well.
Poor Jimmy, I really feel sorry for him. He is not going to have it easy for quite some time yet, what with his entire family being killed and him being nearly torn to pieces.
I wonder how or even if they are going to tell him what has happened to him and, for that matter, to his family, and let him know about the people who have rescued him.
It will be interesting to see what will happen next. Maybe we will find out more information in the next chapter. Let's keep our fingers crossed.
Thanks, MM for bringing us another insightful chapter of this wonderful story. I hope the next chapter won't be so long in coming. grin.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher