Dreadnought Page 14

The elderly man, absent Gordon Rand’s hand over his mouth, exclaimed, “I thought we were supposed to be quiet!”

But there was no being quiet anymore; it wouldn’t do any good at this point, and the horses and cart were barreling—kicking back to the main road where travel was faster, if more exposed. Another tree nearby was blown to bits with a sound like the whole world falling down. As the echo of it faded, Mercy’s ears were ringing, and there was a tickle in her nose, of sawdust or vibration, then a knock against her head as a rock in the road launched the cart higher, then dropped it to the ground again with a clap that fractured the back axle.

“Oh, Jesus!” Mercy gasped, not that she thought He might be listening. Beneath her body, she could feel the sway and give and tug of the weakened wheels, and an added quiver to the cart’s retreat.

“Mickey!” Clinton cried.

Mercy looked up just in time to see him wobble back and forth to the rhythm of the fleeing horses, and begin to fall. Clinton grabbed him and jerked him back onto the seat, but couldn’t hold him steady; so the nurse leaped from her crouch and snagged the driver, pulling him back into the cart and right on top of herself, since there was no chance to maneuver him and no steady spot to put him down.

Clinton seized the reins.

With the help of Gordon Rand and the students, Mercy rolled Mickey over and patted him down in the darkness. She could see almost nothing, but she could feel a copious, warm dampness. “Captain!” she said. “Bring that lantern over here!”

“We’re supposed to keep it turned off!”

“Turn it up, just a spark. I need to see. And I don’t think it matters now, nohow.” She took the lantern from his hand and twisted the knob just enough to bring it up to a pale glow, barely enough illumination to help. The light swung wildly back and forth from its wire handle, and the whole scene looked unreal, and hellish, and rattled. “He’s bleeding bad.”

“Not that bad . . . ,” he slurred, and his eyes rolled up in his head.

Black-​haired Mickey had lost a chunk of that pretty mane, exposing a slab of meat that Mercy prayed didn’t show any bone, but couldn’t get a stable enough look to see if it went as deep as that. His left ear was gone, and a terrible slash along his jawline showed the white, wet underpinning of his gums.

The Englishman said, “He must’ve gotten hit by a bit of that last tree.”

“Must’ve,” Mercy said. She pulled Mickey’s head into her lap and daubed the wound until it was mostly clean.

Ernie asked, “Can you help him?”

“Not much,” she confessed. “Here, help me get him comfortable.” She adjusted his body so that his oozing head rested against the older woman’s thigh. “Sorry,” she told her. “But I’ve got to get inside my bag. Give me a second.”

The woman might’ve given the nurse a second, but the line wouldn’t.

A cannonball shot across the road in front of them, blasting a straight and charred zone through the woods, across the two wheel ruts, and into the trees on the other side, where something was big enough to stop it. A second followed the first, then a third.

The horses screamed and reared, and Clinton wrestled with the reins, begging them with swears, threats, and promises to calm themselves and for God’s sake, keep pulling. One after another the horses found their feet and lunged, heaving the damaged cart forward again. But the axle was creaking dangerously, and Mickey wouldn’t stop bleeding, and in the empty spaces between the trees, gunfire was whizzing and plunking against trunks.

“We’re too heavy,” the copilot said, and withdrew to the farthest corner, away from the damaged axle. “The cart isn’t going to make it!”

“One more mile!” shouted Clinton. “We’re halfway to the rail lines; it only has to make it one more mile!”

“But it’s not gonna,” Mercy cried.

“Holy Jesus all fired in hell!” Clinton choked, just loudly enough for the nurse to hear him. She looked up to see where he was staring, and glimpsed something enormous moving alongside them, not quite keeping pace but ducking back and forth between the thick trunks of the trees that hid almost everything more than twenty yards away.

“What was that?” she asked loudly, forgetting her manners and her peril long enough to exclaim.

“They didn’t just bring the engine,” Clinton said to her, half over his shoulder while he tried to watch the road. “Those bastards brought a walker!”

“What’s a—?”

Another rock or a pothole sent the cart banging again, then the axle snapped, horrifying the horses and dragging the back end down to the ground, spilling out passengers and cargo alike. Mercy wrapped her torso around Mickey and her arm around the old woman who held him and stayed that way, clinging to a corner under the driver’s seat until the horses were persuaded to quit dragging the dead weight and let the thing haul to a stop.

Half off the road and half on it, the cart was splayed on its side much like the Zephyr had wound up, only open and even more helpless looking.

“Goddammit!” Clinton swore as he climbed down from the cart in a falling, scrambling motion. He then set to work unhitching the horses. A swift hail of bullets burst from the trees. One of the horses was struck in a flank, and when it howled, it sounded like some exotic thing—something from another planet. It flailed upward onto two legs again, injured, but not mortally.

Mercy set to work directing the old couple, who had remained in what was left of the broken cart; and with a grunt she hefted Mickey up and slung him over her shoulder like a sack of feed. He was bigger than her by thirty pounds or more, but she was scared, and mad, and she wasn’t going to leave him. He sagged against her, nothing but weight, and blood soaked down the back of her cloak where his earless scalp bounced against her shoulder blade.

She staggered beneath him and hoisted him out of the cart’s wreckage, where she found one of the students—Dennis—standing in shock, in the middle of the road. “Good God Almighty!” She shoved him with her shoulder. “Get out of the road! Get down, would you? Keep yourself low!”

“I can’t,” he said as if his brain were a thousand miles away from the words. “I can’t find Larsen. I don’t see him. I . . . I have to find him. . . .”

“Find him from the ditch,” she ordered, and shoved him into the trees.

The captain was missing, too, and the copilot was helping with the horses, who were reaching shrieking heights of inconsolability. Robert was on point; he went to the elderly folks and took the woman’s hand to guide them both into some cover, and Ernie popped up from around the cart—looking more battered than even ten minutes previously, but in one piece, for the most part.

Mercy said, “Ernie,” with a hint of a plea, and he joined her, helping to shoulder Mickey. Soon the private hung between them, one arm around each neck, his feet dragging fresh trails into the dirt as they took him off the road.

“Where’s . . . ,” she started to ask, but she wasn’t even sure whom she was asking after. It was dark, and the lanterns were gone—God knew where—so a head count was virtually impossible.

“Larsen!” Dennis hollered.

Mercy snapped out with her free hand and took him by the shoulder. She said, “I’m going to hand Mickey over to you and Ernie right now, and you’re going to help carry him back into the woods. Where’s Mr. Clinton? Mr. Clinton?” she called, using her best and most authoritative patient-​managing voice.

“Over here . . .”

He was, in fact, over there—still wrestling with the horses, guiding them off the road and doing his damnedest to assure them that things were all right, or that they were going to be all right, one of these days. “We can’t leave them,” he explained himself. “We can’t leave them here, and Bessie’s not hurt too bad—just winged. We can ride them. A couple of us, at least.”

“Fine,” Mercy told him. She also approved of assisting the horses, but she had bigger problems at the moment. “Which direction is the rail line?”

“West.” He pointed with a flap of his arm that meant barely more than nothing to Mercy.

“All right, west. Do the horses know the way back to the rails?”

“Do they . . . what now?”

“Mr. Clinton!” she hollered at him. “Do the horses know the way back to the rails, or to the front? If I slap one on the ass and tell it to run, will it run toward safety or back to some barn in Nashville?”

“Hell, I don’t know. To the rails, I suppose,” he said. “They’re draft horses, not cavalry. We rolled them in by train. If nothing else, they’ll run away from the line. They ain’t trained for this.”

“Mr. Clinton, you and Dennis here—you sling Mickey over the most able-​bodied horse and make a run for it. Mrs. . . . Ma’am”—she turned to the old woman—“I’m sorry to say it, but I never heard your name.”


“Mrs. Henderson. You and Mr. Henderson, then, on the other horse. You think she can carry them?” she asked Clinton.

He nodded and swung the horses around, threading them through the trees and back toward Mercy. “They ain’t got no saddles, though. They were rigged for pulling, not for riding. Ma’am, you and your fellow here, can you ride ’em like this?”

Mrs. Henderson arched an eyebrow and said, “I’ve ridden rougher. Gentlemen, if you could help us mount, I’d be most grateful.”

“Where’s Larsen?” Dennis all but wailed. “I’m supposed to look out for him! Larsen! Larsen, where’d you go?”

Mercy turned around to see Dennis there, standing at the edge of the road like an enormous invitation. She walked up to him, grabbed him by the throat, and pulled him back into the trees and down to a seated position. “You’re going to get yourself killed, you dumb boy!”

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