Dreadnought Page 20

“That’s what the walkers are for,” the boy chimed in.

“Yeah, well.” The man spit a gob of tobacco into the street. “They only got a handful of those, and after last night, they’re down one. We got half a dozen, and ours are pushed by Texas crude, not by old-​fashioned steam. It’s the way of the future!” he assured Mercy. “This city, right here. This is where the future puts its feet on the ground and starts kicking Yankee ass. Right here,” he emphasized, and waggled his rear end off the edge of the cart. He hit the ground with a whump, and reached for the last pile or two of papers. He pointed his finger back at her one more time and said, “But for now, I think ladies ought to find their way out of the city limits. Things might get worse before they line up again.”

Then he brought the gate up on the cart with a satisfied slam, tipped his hat in salutation, and took the reins of the mule who was hitched up to it, leading the whole setup away.

Mercy wandered back toward the St. George and thanked the man at the desk when he indicated that supper was well under way. She settled for what she found there, then returned to the safety of her room.

Once there, she took inventory of what she had left, stacking her money in discrete piles. “Lord Almighty,” she said aloud. “This is going to be one hell of a mess, Daddy.”

The word startled her. She’d never called her stepfather anything but “Father,” and she could hardly remember Jeremiah Granville Swakhammer, except from her mother’s disappointment. In the years since he’d left them both, she’d heard more about him than she’d ever personally experienced—and what she’d heard had run the gamut, depending on the speaker.

She knew he was a big man, and uncommonly strong, and not terribly well educated—but none too stupid, either. She knew he was funny sometimes. She remembered laughing. Vividly, it hijacked her. Just a flash, a tiny moment of being a child, and seeing something hilarious, coming from her father. The feeling of warmth, the knee-​high grass tickling her legs under her dress, and the primroses she’d tied together and stuck in her hair with a bobby pin. He was showing her something, and making a game of it.

But the game eluded her. The memory stayed sharp, but contained few details.

And it wasn’t enough to tell her why she was doing this. Not really.

It’d been a hard enough crawl already, just from Richmond to the bottommost side of Tennessee; and the trip had hardly begun. What on earth was she doing, crossing a whole world by herself to see a man she could barely recall?

“I don’t know,” she said to the small piles of money, and the new stockings and gloves and toiletries laid out across the bed, “I guess now that Phillip’s gone, I just don’t have anywhere to go. Or, at least,” she amended the sentiment with a catch in her throat, “I don’t have anywhere I’ve gotta be.”

She repacked everything, rolling the cloth items tightly and arranging the rest carefully, cramming it all into the medical satchel that she hadn’t let out of her sight since leaving the hospital. Then she went downstairs and left a note asking to be roused for breakfast, and settled down for a badly needed night of sleep.

She dreamed of Phillip’s corpse, friendly and waving a handkerchief from the train platform, seeing her off as she left him for parts unknown. And she awoke in the night with a sob, clutching her chest, her face covered in tears.


It had been dark when she first entered the Fort at Chattanooga, and she hadn’t noticed the gates. She knew she’d dozed, but she must’ve been damn near dead asleep to have missed them—or so she decided, as the train dragged her through them at a swift crawl, tugging the whole line of cars through a pair of vast steel portals. They rose so far up into the sky that if Mercy craned her neck to see out the window, she could just barely make out the tops of the things—and the guards who paced back and forth there—before the train had successfully threaded through them. Afterwards, the massive hydraulic hinges crushed the mechanical doors shut once more with a grinding of metal and hissing of steam that could be heard even over the engine and the clacking of the wheels being vigorously pumped along the rails.

The engine on Mercy’s new train was called Virginia Lightning. Its hand-​painted letters had caught her eye as she boarded the first car in the line, standing out in green and white against the matte black body of the engine. She’d be traveling in the first class compartment, for all that she hadn’t the money to afford it. But it was either that, the colored car, or nothing at all—or so she’d been informed at the ticket counter. It had been dumb luck that assigned her to the Pullman; a pair of ragged soldiers had tottered along, and one of them recognized her as the woman who’d done her best to save the colonel, who still clung to life somewhere, en route to either a proper hospital or a Christian burial. Between them, the two gray-​clad boys had rustled through their pockets and pulled out enough money to grant the nurse the upgrade, against her feeble protests.

So she was to ride in the fancy Pullman car, all the way to Memphis.

From her semi-​comfortable seat in the passenger car, Mercy had witnessed half a dozen tearful partings and one or two solemn good-​byes. They reminded her of a man she’d once lovingly seen off to war. She shuddered at the thought of her dream, and closed her eyes when it was too much, trying to remember other things, without much success.

It had been so long since she’d seen Phillip, and now she wouldn’t see him again. That ought to make his face, or the sound of his voice, more precious to her mind, but strangely, this wasn’t so. What was left in his absence was an empty, sorrowful discomfort. She wondered if it wouldn’t eventually grow dull or dim if she worried at it enough, or softened and more palatable. Easier to overlook. Forgotten, or at least smoothed into some pearl-​like blandness, if not a thing of beauty.

She looked around her car, which was laden with comfortably middle-​class women of many shapes and ages, plus a few surly children who’d had the seriousness of the occasion impressed upon them until they grudgingly held their tongues.

The first two hours on the track between Fort Chattanooga and Memphis passed dully, with all the passengers acting docile and blank, waiting for their destination, and counting on precious little entertainment in the interim. But in the third hour, Mercy was startled by a tap on her shoulder. When she turned around, she gazed up into the face of a mulatto woman, perhaps forty years old or a little more.

She was dressed in clothing nicer than anything Mercy had ever personally owned, and she smelled faintly of gardenias, or some perfume derived therefrom. Her hair had been braided up and back, and a hat was perched on it with such firmness that the nurse doubted she could’ve knocked it loose with a stick.

“Pardon me,” said the woman. “I don’t mean to bother you, but I was wondering if you were a nurse. I saw the cloak, and your bag, there.”

“Yes, I’m a nurse.”

“From the fields?”

“Not on purpose,” Mercy said. “But I been in the fields, just the other night.”

The train gave a shrug as it changed its velocity to climb a low grade. The woman shrugged with it and asked, “Could I sit here, just a moment?”

Mercy said, “I don’t see why not,” even though she was pretty sure that plenty of other people in the car could think of a few good reasons. Most of the other women in the car shifted or adjusted their luggage, and either pretended not to look, or made a point of looking. Still, Mercy gestured to the empty seat on the aisle.

But the woman kept standing, and said, “My name’s Agatha Hyde, and I’m on my way to Memphis to meet my brother. My son—he’s in the next car back—he was tomfooling around this morning as we were getting ready to leave, and I’m afraid he might have broken his foot falling down the stairs. We wrapped him up and headed out because we had a train to catch, same as everyone on board here; but he won’t stop crying about it, and it seems like it’s swelling up something awful. I was hoping, maybe, that I could ask you if you’d take a look at it.”

“Mrs. . . . Mrs. Hyde,” Mercy said, “I’m not a doctor or anything, and—”

“I can pay you,” she said quickly. “I can appreciate the position I’m putting you in, here like this, but my boy’s only a little thing, and I’d hate for him to grow up lame because I didn’t know how to fix his bones and we couldn’t find a colored doctor till Memphis.”

Mercy opened her mouth to say something about how it wasn’t about the money, but the money did in fact make it easier for her to say, “I suppose I could take a look. I can’t make you any promises, though.”

Someone to the rear of the car said, “Honestly,” under her breath, but no one else said a word as Mercy collected her bag and followed the older woman back into the next car.

The next car back was emptier than Mercy’s. Most of the people in it had skin in shades varying from toffee to ink, and there was a greater spread of passengers represented, from working class to leisure class. Again, she mostly saw women and children; but a few old men gathered at the back, playing chess on a board they balanced on the seat between them. Everyone gazed at her curiously. Mercy stiffened, but said, “Hello.”

Some of them said hello back, and some of them didn’t.

Mrs. Hyde led Mercy over to a corner row, where two brown children were wearing crisp Sunday clothes. One of them had his arms crossed over his chest, and dried tear-​trails marking his cheeks. His foot was wrapped up to such a size that he could’ve hidden a hatbox under the bandages.

Mercy took the bench across from him and said, “Hi, there, um . . .”

“His name’s Charles.”

“Charles, all right. Hi, there, Charles. I’m Nurse Mercy,” she told him, and gestured at his foot. “Your momma’s asked me to take a peek at your foot. Would that be fine with you?”

He ran his forearm under his nose to wipe it, and squinted at her. Charles was seven or eight, and he looked precisely as disgruntled as one might expect from a boy with his foot wrapped so extensively. But he nodded, and Mercy told him, “Good. That’s good.”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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