Dreadnought Page 17

“Yes ma’am.” George saluted her out of habit or relief on his way out of the tent, thrilled to have been given a task.

The uniformed officer fretted in place, looming beside Jensen. He said, “There’s nothing to be done for him, is there?”

She said, “Maybe if I clean him up, I’ll get an idea of how bad it is.” But she meant, No.

“He’s going to die, isn’t he?”

Jensen clapped the other man in the side and said, “Don’t you put it like that! Don’t talk about him like that, he’s right here and he can hear you. He’s going to be all right. Just damn fine, is how he’s going to be.”

Mercy very seriously doubted that the colonel could hear anything, much less any studied critique of his likely survival. But when the requested items arrived, she dived into exploratory cleansing, peeling away the layers of clotted fabric and gore as gently as possible to get at the meat underneath. She soaked the rags and dabbed them against the colonel’s filthy skin, and he moaned.

It startled her. She’d honestly thought he was too far gone for pain or response.

Inside the doctor’s bag, she found some ether in a bottle, as well as needles and thread, some poorly marked vials, tweezers, scissors, syringes, and other things of varying usefulness, including another fat roll of bandages. She whipped these out and unrolled them, saying, “The first thing is, you’ve got to stop his bleeding. The rest of this . . . goddamn, boys. There’s not enough skin to stitch through here, or here—” She indicated the massive patches where his flesh had been blasted away. “You need to get him out of this field. Ship him up to Robertson, if you think you can get him that far. But right here, right now . . .”

She did not say that she did not think he’d ever survive long enough to make it to the nearest hospital, or that any further effort was damn near futile. She couldn’t say it. She couldn’t do that to them.

Instead she sighed, shook her head, and said, “Mr. Chase, I’m going to need you to hold this lantern for me. Hold it up so I can see.”

She retrieved the dead doctor’s tweezers.

“What are you going to do?”

“The poor bastard’s got so much scrap and shot in him, it’s probably added ten pounds. I’m going to pick out what I can, before he wakes up and objects. I need you to help me out with this water.”

“What do I do?”

“Take this rag with your free hand, here. Dunk it and get it good and wet. Now. Wherever I point, that’s where I want you to squeeze the water out to clear the blood away, so I can see. You understand?”

“I understand,” he said without sounding one bit happy about it.

Outside, somewhere beyond the small dark tent, two enormous things collided with a crash that outdid all the artillery. Mercy could picture them, two great automatons made for war, waging war against each other because nothing else on earth could stop either one of them.

She forced herself to focus on the shrapnel that came out of the colonel in shards, chunks, and flecks. There was no tin pan handy, so she dropped the bloody scraps down to the dirt beside her feet, directing George Chase to aim the light over here, please, or no—farther that way. Occasionally the colonel would whimper in his sleep, even as numb with unconsciousness as he was. Mercy had kept the ether bottle handy just in case, but he never awakened enough to require it. Still she tweezed, pricked, pulled, and tugged the metal from his neck and shoulder. Nothing short of a miracle held his major arteries intact.

An explosion shook the tent, illuminating it from outside, as if the sun were high instead of the moon. Mercy cringed and waited for the percussion to pass, waited for her ears to pop and her hands to stop shaking.

Down, then. Down his shoulder, to his chest and his ribs.

Never mind what’s happening outside, on the other side of a cotton tent that wouldn’t stop a good thunderstorm, much less a hail of bullets—and the bullets were raining sideways, from every direction. Men were yelling and orders were flying. Perhaps a quarter of a mile away, two monstrous machines grappled with each other for their lives, and for the lives of their nations. Mercy could hear it—and it was amazing, and horrifying, and a million other things that she could not process, not while she had this piece of bleeding meat soaking through his cot. Somehow over the din she detected a soft, rhythmic splashing, and realized that his blood had finally pooled straight through the spot where he slept, and it was dribbling down on her shoes.

She did not say, He’ll never make it. All of this is for show. He’ll be dead by morning. But the longer she kept herself from saying it, the less inclined she was to think it—and the more focused she became on the task at hand, and her borrowed tweezers, and the quivering raw steak beneath her fingers.

When she’d removed everything that could reasonably be removed (which probably left half as much again buried down in the muscles, somewhere), she dried him and wrapped him from head to torso in the doctor’s last clean bandages, and showed George Chase how to use the opium powders and tinctures that the good doctor had left behind.

As far as Mercy could tell, the colonel had stopped bleeding—either because he’d run out of blood, or because he was beginning to stabilize. Either way, there wasn’t much else she could do, and she told George so. Then she said, “Now, you’ve got to keep him clean and comfortable, and make him take as much water as he’ll swallow. He’s going to need all the water you can get inside him.”

George nodded intensely, with such earnest vigor that Mercy figured he’d be taking notes if he’d had a pencil present.

Finally, she said, “I wish him and you the very best, but I can’t stay here. I was on my way to Fort Chattanooga when my dirigible . . . well, it didn’t precisely crash.”

“How does a dirigible not precisely crash?” he asked.

“Let’s just say that it landed unwillingly, and well ahead of schedule.”

“Ah. Hmm.” He pulled his small wire-​rimmed glasses off his nose and wiped at them with the tail of his shirt, which probably didn’t clean them any. But when he replaced them, he said, “You’ll need to catch the rails, over in Cleveland. We’re not far. Probably not a mile.”

“Can you point me that way? I’ve got a pretty good sense of direction; I can walk a straight line, even in the middle of the night, if I can trouble you for one of your lanterns.”

George Case looked aghast. “Ma’am, we certainly can’t allow anything like that! I wish you could stay and lend us a hand, but we’ve already sent for another surgeon and he’ll be here within the night. I’ll call back Jensen, or somebody else. We’ll get you a horse, and a guard.”

“I don’t need a guard. I’m not entirely sure I need a horse.”

He waved his hand; it flapped like a bird’s wing as he rose and went to the tent’s panel, pushing it open. “We’ll see you to the rail yards, ma’am. We’ll send you there with our thanks for your time and ministrations.”

She was too tired to argue, so she just pushed her camp stool back away from the cot and cracked her fingers. “As you like,” she said.

As he liked, two horses were swiftly saddled. Jensen rode one while Mercy rode the other, away from the camp and into the trees once more, between the trunks, between the bullets that sometimes whipped loosely past, having flown too far to do much but plunk against the wood. The roar of battle was still loud, but fading into the background. She could see, in hints and flashes, the two giant monsters wrestling, falling, and swinging.

She drew her cloak up over her head and gripped the reins with hands that still had dried blood smeared into the creases. Her luggage was long gone—lost with the cart, and the people who were lost with it—and she could mourn for it later, but her professional bag with its crimson cross stitched boldly on the side banged against her rib cage, where it was firmly slung across her chest.

The rail yard was not the same as a station; there was no major interchange, but several smaller buildings planted amid the maze of tracks. One of them had a little platform, and on this platform huddled a dozen people, milling about together and tapping their feet.

Jensen led her over a walkway that crossed four rows of tracks and went around three giant engines with boilers clacking themselves cool. He paused to dismount at the platform’s edge. By the time he’d reached the reins of Mercy’s horse, she’d already climbed down without assistance.

Someone on the platform called her name, and she recognized Gordon Rand, who looked delighted to see her. The other known survivors of the Zephyr were there also, having waited the better part of the night for the train that presently pulled in with a raucous halt, spraying steam in all directions, covering the stragglers on the platform in a warm cloud of it. The horses stamped unhappily, but Jensen held their reins firmly and said to Mercy, “Ma’am. George said you were headed for Fort Chattanooga, and it looks like you’re traveling alone.” The horse took half a step forward and backward, shuffling to keep from stepping off the walkway and onto a narrow metal rail.

“Both of them things are true,” she admitted.

“You’re all by yourself, headed west from Richmond?”

“My husband died. In the war. I just learned a week ago, and now I’m going home to my daddy’s.” She did not add that her trip was going to take her another couple thousand miles west of Fort Chattanooga, because she had a feeling she knew where this conversation was going.

She wasn’t perfectly correct. Jensen—and whether that was his first name or last, she’d never asked and would never know—pulled a small cotton satchel off his chest and handed it to her. “George thought maybe you ought to take these with you. They belonged to the doctor, who was a Texan by birth, and he traveled like it.”

She took the satchel and peered inside. The light from the platform’s lamps cast a yellow white square down into the khaki bag, revealing a gunbelt loaded with a pair of six-​shooters, and several boxes of bullets. Mercy said, “I don’t know what to say.”

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