Dreadnought Page 18

“You ever fire a gun before?”

“Course I have. I grew up on a farm. But these are awful nice.” She looked up at him, and back at the guns. “These must be worth a lot of money.”

Jensen ran a hand through his hair, shifted, and shrugged. “I reckon they probably are. He was a good doctor, and he’d made good money before joining us out in the fronts. But our colonel is a good man, too, and he’s worth more to us than these guns. The doc won’t be needing them anymore, anyway. George just thought . . . and I thought so, too . . . that you ought to take them.”

“You don’t have to do this.”

“You didn’t have to stop and pick all that iron out of poor Colonel Durant. So you take these, and we’ll call it even. So long as you take care of yourself, and have a safe trip to Fort Chattanooga.” He touched the front of his hat with a polite little bow and swung himself back up over his horse’s back. Still holding the reins of the one who’d toted Mercy, he gave his beast a tap with his heel and rode back over the tracks, back to the trees, and back to the front.

A large, nervous man in an engineer’s uniform and cap ushered everyone on board the train—a lean vehicle for all its size, identified by gold-​painted script that said Birmingham Belle. It towed only two cars. One was heaped with coal, and the other was a passenger car that had seen better days, and had clearly been scared up for the occasion at the very last moment.

“Everyone on board, please. Quickly—we need to leave the yards. Let’s get all of you to town before we’re closed off for good.”

Mercy didn’t know what he meant by that, so when she finally hauled herself up the steps—the very last of the passengers being evacuated—she asked. “What could close off the yard?”

“Ma’am, please move along,” he said stiffly.

But she didn’t move from the top step.

He looked her up and down, this woman covered with someone’s blood, smudged with gunpowder from hair to gore-​flecked boots, and thought it might be less trouble to tell her than to fight with her. So he said, “Ma’am, the rail junction was sewed up tight till the Dreadnought came through, carrying that mechanized walker up to the line. And they didn’t recall that miserable machine back to Washington—it’s still here, crawling the tracks. Prowling around, tearing up everything it meets. So we’ve got to get out of its way.”

“It’s coming here? Now? For us?”

“We don’t know!” He sounded almost frantic. “Please, ma’am. Just get aboard so we can fire up the engine and take you someplace safe.”

She allowed herself to be ushered into the car and down to a seat that was really just a bench bolted into the floor. Her head fell slowly against the window. She didn’t sleep, but she breathed deeply and crushed her eyes shut when someplace, far too close, a train whistle pierced the coming dawn.


The Birmingham Belle rolled into Fort Chattanooga as the sun rose over the green-​covered Appalachian ridges that welled up around the Tennessee River. The motion of the train must’ve lulled Mercy more than she’d imagined, because she didn’t remember much of the getting there—only the rollicking lurch of the vehicle’s progress, clipping along the rails.

There was a station there—a proper station, with rows of platforms and a café, and porters and patrons and clocks—out on the south side of the city, in the shadow of Lookout Mountain. Mercy lowered her window and leaned her head out to catch the morning air and refresh herself, inasmuch as possible. She smelled soot, and more diesel fuel. She whiffed coal dust, ash, and manure; and over the clatter of the arriving train, she heard the lowing of cattle and the natterings of goats, sheep, and the people who ushered them along.

The Birmingham Belle stopped with an exhausted sigh, seeming to settle on its rails. A few minutes later, the engineer himself drew out the passenger steps and opened the doors to release them.

All of them, from the Zephyr folks to the strangers who’d likewise required evacuation from Cleveland or the railyards, stumbled into the light and blinked against the steam that clouded the platform like battlefield smoke.

The Fort Chattanooga Metropolitan Transit Station looked unaccountably normal.

Laborers moved luggage, supplies, and coal in every direction—some carried right along the platforms, and some pumped by hand-​moved carts that clung to the rails, darting between the trains at every switch and junction. Scores of dark-​skinned men in red uniforms did most of the toting and directing, guiding the flow of everything that must come and go from a train, including people.

None of them were slaves anymore, and most hadn’t been for years. Like Virginia and North Carolina, Tennessee had ratified an amendment abolishing the practice back in the late 1860s, over the grumbles and general disapproval from the deeper Confederacy. But preaching states’ rights was only talk if a nation wouldn’t uphold its own principles, so these three upper states got their way. Over the next ten years, most of the others followed suit, and now only Mississippi and Alabama held out . . . though there were rumors that even these two bastions of the Peculiar Institution might crack within the next year or two. After all, even South Carolina had caved to English abolitionist pressure in 1872.

Like so many things, in the end it had come down not to a matter of principle, but a matter of practicality. The Union had more warm bodies to throw at a war, and the Confederacy needed to harness a few of its own or, at the very least, quit using them to police its vast legions of imported labor.

It was Florida that first got the idea to offer land grants as added incentive to settle or sign up and fight. Texas caught on shortly thereafter, inviting the former slave population to homestead for almost precisely the same reason as Florida—an enormous Spanish population that had never quite come to terms with its territory loss. Besides, Texas was its own republic, with plenty of farmland available, and its informal allies in the Confederacy had an army to feed. In 1869, the governor of Texas said to a local newspaper, “Looks like easy math to me: We need people to grow food, and we’ve got nothing but room to farm it, so bring in the free blacks and let them break their backs on their own land for a change.”

Florida was already sitting on a large free colored population, mostly courted from the Carolinas by the Catholic missions in the previous century; and besides, Texas was nursing a war on two fronts: against the Union to the northeast (though not, of course, officially) and with growing ranks of dissatisfied Mexican separatists from the south and west. These two states had the most to gain from claiming the ex-​slaves as their own, inviting them to make themselves comfortable, and calling them citizens. This was not to say that things were egalitarian and easy for the free blacks, but at least they were employees rather than property throughout much of the CSA these days.

There in Tennessee, a great number of freed slaves had found themselves welcoming their brethren from Alabama (only a few short miles to the south) to a place with few occupations that did not feed the wartime economy. Competition for employment was fierce, even when many jobs were available. So they worked at the train station, and in the factories; they worked on the river, in the shipping districts. There was even one school teaching young negro and mixed men to become mechanics and engineers. The school was rumored to be one of the best in the nation, and there were rumors that once in a blue moon, a white boy would try to sneak in.

One man, a tall colored porter with high cheeks and a crisp Pullman uniform, asked if he could take Mercy’s bag or direct her to a train. His words trailed off when she looked up at him; he saw her smudged skin, filthy hair, and blood-​covered clothes.

“I beg your pardon?” she said. Tired, and not even certain what she ought to ask him.

“Do you need any help? Assistance?”

She looked back at the train, a gesture that turned her shoulder and showed her bag.

He noted the cross, and in an effort to gently prompt her, he said, “Back from the front, are you?”

“As it turns out,” she muttered, meeting his eyes again. “I’m . . . I need to . . . I’m on my way to Memphis,” she finally spit out.

“Memphis,” he repeated. “Yes, there are trains going that way—one this evening, departing at seven fifteen, and one much later, at eleven twenty,” he said from memory. “And there’s another at ten seventeen tomorrow morning. If you don’t mind my saying so, I think you ought to consider the morning train.”

“I don’t mind you saying so,” she assured him. “I’ll just . . . I think that’s a good idea. I’ll go head inside, and ask about a room.”

“The transit hotel is all full up at the moment, ma’am. But the St. George Hotel is right across the street. Rooms are reasonable, and there’s board included. Supper and breakfast, at six thirty sharp, both a.m. and p.m.”

“Thank you. For your help,” she told him, though she said it as though she weren’t really awake, and wasn’t really thinking about it. She wandered away from him in the same dazed fashion. Mercy was so tired, she could hardly stand, but “across the street” didn’t sound far. She climbed up and down stairs that took her across platforms and around busy carts and porters and restless passengers. She ignored the stares of the well-​dressed folks waiting for their transport, if she even saw them gaping at her; but she tugged her cloak a little tighter, trusting the dark blue to hide more of the dried blood than the beige linen of the apron that covered her brown work dress. If the rest of her was distractingly dirty, then the world would just have to deal with it.

Immediately across the street, as promised, a gray brick building called itself the St. George Hotel. Mercy let herself inside and found a place that wasn’t beautiful, but was spacious—three stories and two wings, with a big lobby that had a bright lamp hanging overhead and a threadbare carpet leading straight up to the front desk. A man there was scribbling something down in a ledger, and he didn’t look up when she approached; he only said, “Need a room?” and tapped the tip of his pen against his tongue to moisten it.

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